Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding My Own Personal Proto-Game

Recently, I read the news that Frog God Games is releasing a new "complete" edition of Swords & Wizardry. Though I do not currently play any edition of S&W, part of me really wants to. So, in order to find out what this new "complete" edition was all about, I started searching around for reviews and ran across this lovely bit of fandom.

This got me thinking about my own recent experience with Ye Auld Game and my attempts at exploring the roots of this hobby. This has primarily involved running my Lost Colonies campaign, which began as an experiment on two fronts.

Firstly, I was interested to see what would happen if I introduced an older edition of D&D to a bunch of players who cut their teeth on 3.5. In this sense, the experiment has been wildly successful. The campaign has been going on for 18 months(!) and has outlasted three concurrent 3.5 campaigns played by the same group of players. In addition, several of these same players have started running their own older-edition games.

Secondly, I wanted to reach back beyond my own experience to try and find an edition and a way of playing the game as it was somewhere in the late 70s. In this sense, my experiment has had mixed results. The campaign started with just the three core classes, and a few wrinkles based on the Chainmail rules. Both of these have long since been jettisoned. Something interesting happens on the way to the gaming table from the intellectual exercises that try to imagine a "purer" version of the game. In short, everyone at my table is more interested in having fun than adhering to some kind of rigid definition of what is "D&D." In process, we all gravitated toward that wonderful space that exists somewhere between the LBBs, Holmes, AD&D and B/X.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. For a variety of practical and fiddly reasons, when I chose to begin this experiment, I opted for Labyrinth Lord as my ruleset. At the time, I saw it as a compromise with my players that I wasn't entirely happy with (mainly, because it didn't meet with the exacting parameters of my own intellectual exercise). This decision, however, has turned out to be a huge blessing.

If, as has happened over the course of our play, by either design or by accident one wants to find that proto-D&D one might have played somewhere between 1977 and 1983 that shamelessly borrowed from the LBBs, Holmes, AD&D and B/X, Labyrinth Lord is a fantastic vehicle to get there.

The genius of Dan Proctor's design is modularity. Taken together, Labyrinth Lord (LL), Original Edition Characters (OEC), Advanced Edition Companion (AEC), Mutant Future and even (hopefully soon) Starships & Spacemen offers a plethora of compatible options for a slew of different campaigns. It is a very easy matter to use the OEC Cleric with the AEC spell list as written. There is no need to convert anything, no need to house-rule this stuff — it is all there in black and white just ready for anyone to mix and match.

In other words, LL is very capable of re-creating whatever version of D&D we old grognards played as kids. I know this because it is this proto-version of the game that has emerged from playing LL with my Lost Colonies campaign. I had almost forgotten what this proto-version was over the course of all these years since my mom came home from Target with the Holmes edition. LL not only made this kind of game possible, but easy to find.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 29

This session dealt mainly with the aftermath of the battle with the vampire. The players discussed how they were going to deal with the body of the dead vampire and their fallen comrade Tykris (correctly suspecting that if they didn't do anything with him, Tykris might come back to haunt them later). Their solution was actually kinda clever (and was independently thought of by two different members of the party). They cast Resist Fire on the wooden stake that felled the vampire and then proceeded to burn the body. Interestingly, the party has decided to keep the stake and return it to Fr. Valinor as a holy relic.

Much time was spent restoring the chapel wherein they found the vampire. They replaced religious icons, tried to repair what damage had been done by their combat with the vampire and what damage had been done by the vampire himself. In process, they found three things of note:
  • A page from an otherwise destroyed and burnt book that evidently chronicled various events of the monks who once worshipped in the chapel. The three entries found on the page indicated that the lower levels of the dungeon where changing; that there were growing attacks from below by people in golden masks; that the monks had believed that they had destroyed something called the Well of Chaos with the Two Swords, though some were beginning to question the success of this endeavor; and that they were betrayed by one of their own who chose undeath.
  • Behind the altar of the chapel was an icon of a saint wielding two swords; however, instead of there being a mosaic of the swords, there were two indentations where actual sword could be placed. Whatever swords these indentations might have held were not found.
  • The doors of the chapel were sealed from the inside. When the party broke through, they found the remains of a battle between armed monks and people wearing golden masks. In turn, this battlefield was sealed off from the rest of the dungeon.
The rest of the session, the party spent trying to find a way out (having gotten to this level via a one-way trip down an underground river). In process, three significant events happened.
  • The party had a disastrous encounter with a golden-masked warrior who was leading a band of gnolls. On a tactical level, things broke down and spells were used in a manner that affected the party as much as they did the monsters. The worst affect was from a wand of fear, which caused the party to flee into three separate groups. While separated, I rolled a doppleganger for a wandering monster encounter. It went after the weakest group and managed to kill off Kavela the NPC magic-user before being killed itself.
  • The party found a golden statue of a man in excruciating pain. When Dn. Goram held up his holy symbol to the statue, it changed poses into a man in peaceful contemplation. When Dn. Goram then went to touch the statue, he was Quested to find the Two Swords.
  • They encountered a group of werewolves that they had encountered many sessions ago. In explaining that they had unknowingly re-entered territory they had promised to avoid, they found out some interesting information. It seems that the werewolves loyally serve a single faction of the gold mask wearers. Whereas they see their own cause as righteous, they find the other factions as fallen and corrupt. This cause seems to be the destruction of what they call The City of the People. These "People" once enslaved their masters. When questioned about attacks made on the monks who once lived in this section of the dungeon, the werewolves declared that they were merely "in the way."
The party, especially Dn. Goram, were torn about this new information. They had an interesting discussion about what to do about the werewolves. They appreciated their desire to fight for freedom from slavery — they even admitted that such a cause was righteous. However, they were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that lycanthropy (which the werewolves claimed was a gift from their masters) could be used in a righteous manner. In the end, they chose to deal with this issue at a later date and allowed themselves to be escorted to a familiar part of the dungeon, and then found their way back to Headwaters.

As a side note, we saw the appearance of one of our players who has not been able to play with us recently because of a schedule change at work. This spawned one of the most entertaining moments of the evening. When Ahkmed's player exhibited some of his elfishness, the party tried to explain what had happened in the weeks that the player had missed. It was here that Ahkmed earned a new monicker: the Dwelf. With the party still being obsessed with helping Ahkmed create his son, the discussion then went on to hypothesize what effect Ahkmed's Dwelfdom might have on his offspring.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saintly Saturday: Merry Christmas!

O my soul, magnify her who is greater in honor and in glory than the armies of heaven.
I see here a strange and paradoxical mystery. For, behold, the grotto is heaven; cherubic throne is the Virgin; the manger a grand space in which Christ our God the uncontainable reclined as a babe; Whom in ex- tolling do we magnify. — Ode IX of the First Canon of Christmas

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Sebastian

Today is the Feast of St. Sebastian and those who were martyred with him. Until I started looking into writing this post, I had no idea that I was already familiar with St. Sebastian. I wouldn't be surprised if most people were like me because St. Sebastian is the subject of dozens if not hundreds of paintings and homages. For example:

Yeah, he's that guy who was shot by arrows. Ironically, the arrows didn't kill him — those were healed by St. Irene. Eventually he was clubbed to death.

St. Sebastian is a military saint. He served as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian. When Diocletian realized he was a Christian, he had him bound to a stake and riddled with arrows. After being left for dead and healed by Irene, he went on to publicly berate the Emperor. He was rewarded for his effort with martyrdom.

Given my relationship with St. Sebastian through art, my own background as a graphic designer and Mr. Raggi's recent rant about art, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on what I feel is an essential part of the hobby: art.

The visual medium is extremely powerful. Note how the very early drawings of monsters have affected the way they have been perceived within our hobby for decades afterwards. In my own case, the Japanese/Asia flavored Hobgoblins in MMI had a profound influence on the way the I perceived the culture, behavior and background of these humanoids in my games.

This power can be both positive and negative. For example, take the painting of St. Sebastian above. As a child I found it grotesque and shocking (I still do — especially when compared to this). Instead of leading me toward God and His saints, it became a false friend that led me down a deep dark hole away from the Church.

This view-point stems from an Orthodox theology of beauty. We do not just pray and worship with our mouths and our minds. We worship with our whole being — including the eyes. Beauty becomes a means of prayer. This is why Orthodox Christianity has such a rich tradition of iconography — these beautiful paintings are part of our prayer life.

To put it in mundane terms, the purpose of art is to inspire, not to shock or titillate. Indeed, those things that do shock and titillate often act like a drug — what shocks and titillates today won't tomorrow or the next day. As time progresses, in order to shock or titillate we must seek out ever more grotesque and ever more depraved images. They lead us down dark and nasty holes.

To put it in context of RPGs, take a look at the comments for this question posed by James over at Grognardia. Note how overwhelmingly people point to such things as this when they think of D&D:

This, despite the plethora of grotesque and titillating images that have been with the hobby since its beginning.

Please note: I am not saying that Mr. Raggi (or anyone else, for that matter) shouldn't be allowed to illustrate their gaming material with the grotesque and risqué. Indeed, I would argue that we are capable of using anything for good — it just so happens that some things are much harder to use in this manner than others. I would much rather have an axe than a sword if I were building a house, for example.

I am saying that art that inspires (like all the covers people pointed to in response to James' post) will have a much longer lasting and positive affect upon our hobby and those who play it than the grotesque and risqué.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Daniel the Stylite

Today is the Feast of St. Daniel the Stylite. The title "Stylite" comes from an unusual form of monasticism. It is the ascetic practice of living on a pillar. St. Daniel was encouraged from a young age to the monastic lifestyle by his parents and he willingly was tonsured at the age of 12 after running away from home in order to join a monastery.

After many years living in a monastery and as an abbot, he met with St. Symeon the Stylite. Moved, he asked the monk's blessing to follow his way of life; however, it wasn't until he was forty-two that he was visited by Symeon in a dream, where he was commanded by the great stylite to imitate his struggle atop a pillar.

Known as a great healer, St. Daniel spent the rest of his thirty-three years atop one of three different pillars.

I find this image of the stylite to be wonderfully exotic. It is so alien, and yet historical. What a wonderful way to add strangeness to the RPG fantasy world (or any RPG world, for that matter) — important clerics, monks or other figures of authority live standing on pillars. To add further strangeness, they could, like Daniel, be atop any number of pillars in different parts of the world. No one knows exactly which one is currently occupied, and no one ever sees the stylite move from one to the other.

Such an encounter could very well end up being a series of wilderness adventures. Give the stylite a unique piece of information or a spell that the characters need. Then they have to travel to the one of the places where a pillar is, which may or may not be occupied. When the stylite is finally found, he could demand that the characters prove themselves worthy and send them off on another adventure. Then the whole process begins again.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fun with Geomorphs

For those of you who are interested in mapping with geomorphs, Dyson of A character for every game has released a .pdf of 100 of his hand drawn geomorphs that he has been producing over the last year or so. It can be found here.

In addition, Dave Millar has put together an awesome little tool to use these geomorphs and those of Stonewerks and Risus Monkey. Very good stuff. Many, many thanks.

I never used geopmorphs back in the day. I can't really explain why (other than maybe the technology was clunky). As I've been running my Lost Colonies campaign, however, I have found them to be an invaluable tool. Given my own background in graphic design, I am am now able to fully take advantage of the work done by folks like Dyson, et al. A big thanks to all their work. Here is an example of some the fruit of that work:

Kudos. This is great and very useful stuff.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 28

This session the party did something that completely caught me by surprise. Upon the party's triumphant return to Headwaters, they had a plethora of things that they could do. We spent the beginning of the session by placing all of these options on the table to see what the players were going to do next. These options included:
  1. The party is in possession of three treasure maps, one of which Ahkmed is particularly interested in because it is written in ancient dwarvish.
  2. Ahkmed also wants to travel to "the south" to find the Elves to discuss his increasingly strange and strong relationship with his sword Hornet.
  3. Hamlen wants to translate a book written in the same language that is used on his sword Liberator, in hopes that it will help them understand the growing threat of the Masks (the Yellow Lady, for example).
  4. Dn. Swibish received a letter of summons from his bishop in Redwraith.
  5. Dn. Goram wants to find a manual on golem building so that he can make one.
  6. The party still is interested in getting Ahkmed to build them a Gnome.
  7. Hamlen wants to rebuild "his" bridge over the Dark River on the road to Trisagia.
Despite all of these options, and despite a preference toward wilderness exploration, the party ended up going to the abandoned monastery to do some more exploration of the campaign's megadungeon.

For the first time in the entire campaign, they decided to forego their usual route in through the Lower Temple and began to map out the monastery proper. Upon finding a well in the courtyard, the party totally committed to going all in, despite the fact that the source of water was an underground river. The trip in nearly killed several NPCs and the party found themselves in a part of the dungeon they had never been to, with no easy way out.

This beginning was symptomatic of much of the evening, where several encounters with various types of vermin nearly killed off several members of the party. A combination of poor tactics, sloppy communication and just plain bad luck almost spelled disaster. So the party holed up in a room, spiked the door and regrouped, and just in time because they were about to find major trouble.

Ahkmed found a secret door that led into some kind of temple or church. Bodies littered the floor. Upon inspection, they were all exsanguinated monks who wore vestments suggesting they had all taken vows of extreme asceticism. Dn. Goram cast a Detect Evil, and then things got ugly.

They found a defiled reliquary with a stone sarcophagus, which Tykris and Hamlen tried to open. Suspecting a mummy, the party was shocked when Tykris was killed when a hand grabbed him and drained him of both his two levels. Kavella, the NPC magic-user, hit it with a Ray of Enfeeblement hoping that whatever it was wouldn't be able to remove the stone lid in order to get out. When the thing turned into a bat and flew out, every one realized just how dangerous a situation they were in.

Fortunately for the party, the player's sloppy play was replaced by their usual brilliant tactics under pressure. They pulled out some stones with Continual Light cast on them to throw at the vampire, while Dn. Goram kept it at bay with both holy symbol and icon — during the fight, he even managed to turn it.

When the dust settled (literally — they used black powder to blow up the sarcophagus in hopes of preventing the vampire from reforming if they forced it into a gaseous form), Hamlen had managed to shove a make-shift wooden stake through the thing's heart after only barely making his saving throw to avoid being charmed. They found the thing dressed in priest's vestments that had been defiled. As the session ended, Dn. Goram made a promise to himself and his brother that he would restore this place to its former glory.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the discussion I had with the players prior to play. As I've noted before, all but one of the guys I pay with learned the game via 3.5 (the one learned from 2nd edition). Despite this, two of them have started Labyrinth Lord/1st edition campaigns. In addition, the GM I swap time with has declared that when his current 3.5 campaign comes to an end, he wants to start up a 1st edition campaign. Though I know better (as I am an active advocate of the older rulesets), I am still amazed at how resilient this marvelous game is.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Barbara

Today is the Feast of St. Barbara the Great Martyr of Heliopolis. She was the daughter of a wealthy pagan named Dioscorus. While building a bath house, he was called away. Taking advantage of this absence, she instructed the workers to add a third window to the project (in order to honor the Trinity). She also traced a cross on one of the walls. Miraculously, the cross was deeply etched into the stone as if by an iron chisel. Later, the waters of the bathhouse were said to have healing properties. When her father found out what she had done and why, he beat her brutally, tried to starve her and finally turned her over to the prefect. When further beating failed to turn her away from Christ, Dioscorus beheaded his own daughter.

What interests me about this story is today's entry in the Synaxarion (meaning the gathering of the Saints):

On the fourth of this month we commemorate the contest of the holy Great Martyr Barbara and her fellow Martyr Juliana.

Juliana was a Christian so moved by St. Barbara's endurance in the face of torture that she started to berate those doing the beatings. She joined Barbara in her struggles and martyrdom.

As I go back over all the various games and campaigns I have played throughout the last several decades, I remember deaths of characters just as much, if not more, than successes. Just as in life, in RPGs there are such things as good deaths and memorable deaths. I've meditated on this before, but it is worth saying again: Character death is a vital part of the game. If we take it away (via any number of methods) we cheapen the whole experience. Let me give you an example:

When I was in high school, the group I usually gamed with started a summer D&D campaign that I look back on with great fondness. It was one of the few times I got to play a magic-user and their were 11 players consistently at the table — yes, eleven players. We slowly discovered that all the strange and deadly occurrences happening around our home base were actually the lead elements of a massive demonic army that was breaking down the planar barriers between our world and one of the levels of the Abyss. Along the way, we had a recurring nemesis that kept harassing us on our various quests — an anti-paladin. It was highly entertaining, because we knew we couldn't go toe-to-toe with him, but there were enough of us that if we used unorthodox strategies we could live to fight another day. These strategies inevitably would result in the anti-paladin losing his newly acquired magic sword — most of which ended up being destroyed one way or another.

When it came to the climactic battle as the party tried to close the portal that would allow the main force of the demonic army to step into our world, we met up with the anti-paladin for that last time. We didn't have time to fight the anti-paladin and close the portal. So, one of my friends decided to go toe-to-toe in order to allow the rest of the party enough time to close the portal. He did so expecting to die a glorious death and was thrilled when the blow that felled his character was a natural '20' with a vorpal blade. His death bought us enough time to deal with the portal and the anti-paladin. A good death indeed.

However, when the dust settled, the DM granted everyone a boon for succeeding in saving the world. My friend's character was raised and this actually upset him. It rendered his sacrifice meaningless. Shortly thereafter, the campaign died.

Personally, I think the most memorable character death I ever had (outside the hilarity of one-shot Paranoia games) was a guy who got enough powers-that-be angry with him (he was a revolutionary) that he got himself assassinated.

I'd like to hear some other stories of good character deaths. What's your favorite?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. James the Great Martyr of Persia

This saint was a noble from the city of Bythlaba in Persia. He was the beloved friend of Isdiger I, King of Persia (399-420). Though the King was hostile to Christianity, out of his desire to spare his friend, he lured James with gifts and flattery. The King was successful and James renounced Christ; however, the year that Isdiger died and his son Bahram V (421-438) came to power the rumor that James had become apostate reached the ears of his Christian mother and wife. They wrote him a scathing letter, declaring that if James had chosen temporal glory over the love of Christ then they wanted nothing to do with him. James was stunned and was brought to his senses. Tears of repentance poured from his eyes and he once again attached himself to Christ.

Upon hearing this news, King Bahram (who also considered James a friend), following the successful actions of his father, tried to lure the saint with gifts and flowery words. St. James, however, was better armed for the fight and refused renounce his true King. Angered, Bahram condemned St. James to a brutal death.

The Orthodox Church gives the title "Great Martyr" to those that suffered particularly nasty or prolonged deaths. St. James certainly qualifies. His body was dismembered one joint at a time. He survived having both his arms and legs cut off in this manner. Finally, he was beheaded in the year 421.

I'd like to make three observations: two historical and one RPG related. First the historical:
  • This reminds me that until the rise of Islam, Christian Rome's biggest rival was the Zoroastrian Persian Empire.
  • Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic (though dualist) religion. I won't belabor the point, but, contrary to the synchretistic and PC impulses of modern man to insist that all religions (especially monotheistic ones) all want to go to the same place, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are radically different.
Now to the RPG stuff. The story of St. James reminds me that the concept of the Patron is often neglected (especially in fantasy RPGs). This is, in part, due to the nature of the source material where most characters in pulp fantasy were Grey Mouser and Fafhrd types who were tied to no one. When used correctly, however, Patrons can be exceptionally useful tools.

Most obviously, they are a source for adventures. They can give characters "missions" that, if not over used, can serve as "palette cleansers" for normal dungeon and wilderness exploration. Patrons can also give life to the world beyond the characters. By representing their own agenda, they imply agendas that run counter to their own goals. Without much effort, this can lend depth to an otherwise sketchy world. Finally, this background noise can become a major campaign theme/conflict should the Patron disappear/die/get replaced.

In my own campaigns, I try to take advantage of both magic users and clerics in order to insert Patrons into the game. Clerics are more natural for this — bishops make great Patrons. With magic users, they have to get their spells from somewhere. The story of St. James reminds me that there will probably be a major change in store for my players in the near future...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Cuthbert

As you may have noticed, my output on this blog has been seriously lagging of late. Not that I am finding myself any less enthusiastic about this hobby or things that go on in the OSR. The time that I have had available for my hobby in the last couple of months has been short and I have simply chosen to use it for actual play rather than musing. It has been rather startling to discover how time consuming musing can be, especially when one doesn't have something rather specific to muse about.

To this end I've been thinking — there are a number of blogs out there that have regular features that keep me coming back. A really good example is Grognardia. James has three regular types of posts: Open Friday, Retrospectives and Pulp Fantasy Library. It should be no surprise, then, that James has given me the inspiration for a type of regular post, which Blood of Prokopius has thus far lacked.

Petty Gods has garnered a lot of attention and enthusiasm. Though not exactly my cup of tea, even I ventured to submit something (a saint rather than a god). It occurred to me that hagiographies could be a wealth of information for campaigns, character ideas and adventure ideas. Since Orthodoxy commemorates the dead on Saturdays, it seemed appropriate for the one day a week that I could challenge myself to write. For those of you out there that doubt my premise, I wish to begin with a saint that has long been embraced by our hobby:

St. Cuthbert

Personally, I first encountered St. Cuthbert in B1: In Search of the Unknown, where he is mentioned in passing in the list of potential characters at the back with the cleric Tassit, the Servant of St. Cuthbert. The saint is also mentioned in Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry via the artifact the Mace of Cuthbert as well as in T1: The Village of Hommlet via the local church which is dedicated to him. I personally find it very interesting that T1 actually portrays a reasonable facsimile of a fantasy Christian setting. Hommlet is a mixture of those who follow the new religion (Christianity) and those who still cling to the old religion (nature-based paganism). Both are threatened by demon-worshipping members of the Temple of Elemental Evil. In fact, this is one of the reasons it is one of my favorite modules to this day.

To my knowledge, St. Cuthbert does not make the transition to being a "lesser god" until around 1983 with the publication of the World of Greyhawk 2nd Edition. He is described there as:
a stout, red-faced man, with a drooping white mustache and flowing white hair. He wears magicked plate mail. Atop his helmet is a crumpled hat, and a starburst of rubies set in platinum hangs on his chest...[He] hates evil but his major interest is in law and order and the dual work of conversion and prevention of back-sliding by "true believers."
In reality, St. Cuthbert was a 7th century hermit and a monastic who eventually became the bishop of Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island. When he died, his relics remained incorrupt and were the source of countless miracles. He is known as the Wonderworker of Britain.

The aspect of St. Cuthbert that I find most useful for a fantasy RPG campaign is the context within which he lived. Lindesfarne historically functioned in much the same way as the Keep on the Borderland.

Britain was conquered by Rome in AD 41. Christianity followed shortly thereafter — it was so well established, in fact, that there were British bishops at the First Ecumenical Council in AD 325. Rome abandoned its British colonies around AD 410. Shortly thereafter, pagan Goths invaded and conquered much of the island. Lindesfarne was the beachhead of the second wave of Christianity, trying to reclaim lost territory for civilization (where civilization is understood as Christian Rome and its successors).

In other words, T1 need not be tied to Greyhawk, but could very well take place in a fantasy version of 8th century Britain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lost Colonies Sessions 26 & 27

These two sessions have been some of the most gratifying I have had as a Referee in a very long time. The campaign seems to have turned a corner — I feel like the world that my players and I have been playing with has come alive and into focus in a way that it hasn't before. And all of this because of a few rolls on some random tables (a wilderness encounter and available scrolls and potions).

After spending several days in Trisagia shopping and spending money on a variety of items that are unavailable in Headwaters and making arrangements with a traveling carnival to come and give the citizens of Headwaters a number of hard earned days of fun, the party headed back north to their home base. This journey requires crossing the very wide and deep Dark River. This was never much of an issue, because a sturdy stone bridge that has spanned the waterway since the first days of the colonies has always been part of the journey. However, this time, the party found the bridge destroyed by several large boulders. In the place of the bridge there now was a ferryman and his boat demanding a toll.

The characters also noticed that flying patrol above the bridge were some mounted giant eagles and that there was an unnatural cloud formation some distance away. Hamlen tried to insist that the ferryman was trespassing on his road, but found that conversation with it was limited to whether or not he was going to pay the toll. A quick Detect Evil spell suggested that the thing wasn't human. Reluctantly, the party chose to pay the toll rather than endangering the carnival caravan they had in tow.

Once well past the river, Hamlen personally payed the carnival to guarantee that they would stay an extra week (so that he could enjoy the festivities himself). The party then set off to rid "Hamlen's Road" of this new menace.

The subsequent battle was quite harrowing because it was the first time that party was subject to an organized mass charge by an opponent. Had it not been for Kavella (the NPC magic user) and her Wand of Fear, the battle might have gone much worse. The riders (as well as the ferryman) ended up being undead, similar to those employed by the Yellow Lady. This added a sense of urgency to find the source of these creatures.

Using their spyglass, they determined that the unnatural cloud formation was actually some kind of castle in the sky. Using one of their newly purchased potions, they flew up to the castle to investigate. What they found was the lair of a cloud giant in disrepair and neglect. Creatively using a variety of magic items, scrolls and spells they managed to figure out that the resident cloud giant had been possessed. After freeing him and his children, the party set off to hunt down the evil magic user responsible.

The battle itself was brief. Hamlen had in his possession an Arrow of Magic-User Slaying which he managed to hit the evil magic user with. She proceeded to explode, leaving nothing behind but her golden mask. This moment was the only downer of these two sessions for me — I felt guilty for not killing off Hamlen, believe it or not, and thus cheapening the victory. The initiative resulted in simultaneous actions and the magic-user had time to get off one last spell. I knew that she could fry Hamlen with a Lightning Bolt and most probably end his days (he was sitting with 15hp at that point in time); however, the party was spread out over two rooms (a nasty magical trap forced half the party to hold back, lest the trap kill them) and she couldn't target more than one character. Had she known she was going to die, she would have done so, but she didn't. Thus, her last gasp was merely a Web spell.

The players then proceeded to befriend the cloud giant who rewarded them with items from his treasury. He also gave them a ride back to Headwaters and the characters became the highlight of the carnival with a grand entrance on the back of giant eagles from a floating castle. The sessions ended on this high note.

The reason I was so gratified by these two sessions was for a number of reasons. The random cloud giant encounter became a catalyst for several seeds that I have randomly thrown about to come to fruition — a fruition that would not have happened without the party making something more out of what I had planted.

For example:
  • "Hamlen's Road": Hamlen's player has taken interest in making sure the trade route between Headeaters and Trisagia remain open and safe. He has lead to party to patrol the road on several occasions and has cleared to road of dangers more than once. This is the first time, however, that he has claimed this territory as his own. The end-game of D&D is coming into focus.
  • Hornet: What began as a simple +1 short sword has developed into an entire backstory that Ahkmed's player is now eager to clarify. In order to make the item unique, I gave it a bit of a curse — save vs. spells in order to refrain from killing goblins that happen to be within sight. Then Ahkmed "gave himself over to the sword" and suddenly the thing had a personality. Then Ahkmed failed to rid himself of the sword (a series of failed saving throws while in Trisagia), and the sword, sensing that if it didn't act, it would end up being merely a +1 sword again acted. Ahkmed has had visions of an elfin maid ("Hornet" in Elfish) who has offered to him help in his various quests. He now has limited access to elvish abilities and is done trying to get rid of the sword. We now have established that elvish swords somehow are imbued with the soul? spirit? essence? of an elf. More to come…
  • The Cloud Giant: His treasure trove had several elvish items (randomly determined), thus indicating some type of relationship with the elves, who "come from the south."
  • Golden Masks: After encountering a number of evil magic users wearing golden masks, the party is now determined to find out exactly who they are. One of the items they found hidden among the magic users stash was a book written in an ancient tongue, with more than a passing similarity to the tattoos that cover the magic user's bodies. Getting the thing translated is high on their priority list.
  • Fame and Fortune: With the grand entrance at the carnival, the party has solidified their status among the peoples of Headwaters. NPCs that have attached themselves to the party have been treated extraordinarily well (if they survive) and this has established the reason for the attraction of followers during the end game. Headwaters is becoming famous, a place to do trade and is prospering because of the direct action of the party.
  • Dwarven Reproduction: The party is still interested in "making a dwarf." Although inspired by James Maliszewski's Dwarves, Ahkmed's player has taken the concept in his own unique direction (Dwarves are neuters, for example). Again, more to come...
When I started this campaign, all I really had was a couple of maps and a sketchy idea as to what the world was like. The interactive creativity of our group has produced something I never would have come up with on my own — and certainly nothing this satisfying.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 25

The last time we saw our stalwart adventurers, they had just driven off the Yellow Lady after efficiently taking care of her ogre minions. Initially, the party were happy to see her go, feeling that they had secured an advantageous ground by occupying the Yellow Lady's sleeping quarters. After assessing how little damage and spells they used to fend off the ogres, they decided to pursue.

They found her in a giant, columned hallway at the end of which was a cauldron shaped like a gaping, demonic mouth. The whole room was filled with a low hum and living corpses were crawling out of the cauldron. The Yellow Lady lay before the cauldron in a pool of blood and a giant amber statue of a cyclops with blood dripping down its face stood between the party and their quarry.

The ensuing combat was brutal, but fun. Both Hamlen and Swibish were on death's door several times during the melee and had I not rolled a '1' for damage on the last hit I got in on them, Swibish would have breathed his last. This combat demonstrated to me that the Fighter in older editions is far more powerful and useful than is generally accepted. Hamlen was responsible for doing most of the damage and was able to absorb a lot of hits that would have otherwise killed other party members and their henchmen.

It turned out that the cyclopean statue was being controlled by the Yellow Lady. She had cut out her own eye and placed it in the statue's socket in order to do so. This was supposed to be a puzzle for the players; however, in her desperation to get her spell book back from the characters (though they didn't know they had it and she didn't know that they didn't know), she decided to use the cursed statue herself.

As they have done in the past, the players prayed, used a bless spell and their holy symbols in order to destroy the demonic cauldron. I know it sounds easy, but I do allow these things a saving throw, based upon what kind of effort the players put into such things.

There was one casualty in the whole affair — Tyrd the goblin cook. Ahkmed failed his saving throw, his sword Hornet took over and skewered the goblin just as he was rejoicing over the demise of his former master. Surprisingly, the whole party took Tyrd's death rather hard and immediately set about leaving the dungeon with their hoard to find a way to get the little guy raised — Hamlen argued that it was a matter of honor.

The rest of the session saw the party confer with Fr. Valinor (who showed great distress over Ahkmed's growing relationship with Hornet) and set off to Trisagia in hopes of getting Tyrd raised. Bishop Iova of Trisagia was more than happy to help, but offered an alternative in order to possibly avoid future episodes with Ahkmed and his sword — a reincarnation spell. Thus, we ended our session by rolling on a combination of tables and Tyrd woke up with a mixture of relief and chagrin as a half-elf magic user.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Weapon vs. AC (again)

Or . . . Why the Alternate Combat System became the Standard

I've been meditating on the Weapon Vs. AC system I proposed and used a while back. As much as I like the idea intellectually, it has done much to make me realize why the "alternate combat system" of 0e became the default in later editions. When using a static "to hit" chart and an increasing number of attacks per round per round as in the Chainmail rules, the result is a combat system that is quick and brutal. Hit points do not outstrip the ability to do damage as in the alternate combat system. A 4HD creature has the capability to kill 4HD worth of opponents per round. Initiative becomes exponentially more important than in the alternate system and finding a way for combat to be anything other than a brief and brutal bloodbath is difficult.

For example, imagine a party of 4th level characters. To make things simple, I'll say they are all fighters. This means that the party has the capability to kill 16HD worth of monsters per round. If we assume that fighters are all armed with swords and they are going up against orcs wearing chainmail, this means the fighters have a 30% chance to hit per attack, using the table I used when I playtested my own version of the Chainmail rules using a d20 system. Using d6 damage and assuming the fighters have a +1 to damage, this means on average the fighters will do 22 points of damage per round (16 attacks x .3 chance to hit x 3.5+1 average damage). Compare that to the alternate system (as per LL) the same group of fighters would only do an average of 7 points per round (4 attacks x .4 chance to hit x 3.5+1 average damage). In other words, between four and five orcs are going to die every round versus one or two with the alternate combat system.

In order to make combat last more than one or two rounds and thus have any kind of meaning or drama, the number of HD brought to bear needs to be of a value close to that of the fighters; however the closer the HD equal each other the more likely it is that the fighters will have a casualty, especially if they lose initiative. In the end, I don't know how fun this system would be, especially when compared to the excitement the alternative combat system can generate, especially at higher levels.

Thus, it is no surprise that the alternate combat system quickly became the default combat system.

Thus, I have come to the conclusion that the direction I have been taking on Weapon vs. AC is as practical as the tables found in the 1st ed PHB (meaning not practical at all). This has me trying to think outside the box. Which brings me to the concept of a dynamic AC system. This could get complicated and ugly quickly, so I've been thinking of a simple, abstract system that includes the normal Base AC that we are all familiar with. Then there would be two other Armor Classes, indicating armor vs. a weapon class. These would be a simple +/- 1 and could be abbreviated sAC (slashing), bAC (blunt) and pAC for piercing. For example

Leather: AC = 7; sAC = 8; bAC = 6
Chain: AC = 5; pAC = 6; sAC = 4
Plate: AC = 3; bAC = 4; pAC = 2

Otherwise, combat proceeds as normal.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 24

When we last left our stalwart adventurers, they were fighting their way through an orc fortress carved out of the rock wall of a fungal forest underneath an abandoned monastery. Having no luck finding their quarry (a golden-masked magic user now simply referred to as The Yellow Lady), the party continued to seek out prisoners that they could interrogate. Most of the evening's fun centered around dealing with the kitchen staff, made up entirely of witless goblins.

After an initial show of bravado, the goblins broke and started to run. This led to the party splitting up in order to prevent others from being informed of their position, and to try and get some information. Unfortunately, the latter proved difficult because of Ahkmed's sword Hornet. Magical in nature, it requires the dwarf to make a Save vs. Magic every time goblins are around. If he fails, the sword appears in his hands and he is compelled to attack until all said goblins are dead. Ahkmed failed is saving throw.

In addition, one of the goblins managed to hide himself quite well in a meat locker. After failing to find it, Ahkmed decided to surrender his own will to the sword in order to allow it to find the goblin. Hornet glowed blue, as did Ahkmed's eyes. He began shouting various things in Elvish and proceeded to hack everything in the meat locker to pieces until the goblin was found and skewered. After which, he proceeded to eviscerate the captive goblins, much to the horror and frustration of the rest of the party. Once dead, the blue glow faded and Ahkmed was forced to ask every one what just happened. He is now aware of a sleeping entity in the back of his mind that keeps whispering Elvish sweet nothings to his subconscious.

Fortunately, Hamlen forsaw the possible rampage by his dwarven companion and managed to secure a captive in another storage room while Ahkmed was busy on his killing spree. He managed to convince (scare) the goblin into taking a job at his bar in Headwaters. He then learned that the kitchen staff would deliver food to the orcs and ogres "downstairs through the secret door where the lady is." Having secured this valuable piece of information, Hamlen risked introducing "Tyrd" (not my doing, Hamlen insisted on re-naming the poor fellow after a "great warrior king") to the rest of the party. Ahkmed made his saving throw.

The rest of the session saw the party explore the level behind the secret door. They found several storage areas, which had items of much more interest to the party than the stuff they were finding in the levels above. Of particular interest were three barrels of what has been termed "alchemist fire" — a black powder that explodes when exposed to fire. There was a great deal of discussion as to what to do with it. Hamlen finally convinced the party to leave it alone — the idea of being hit with a fireball while in possession of three barrels of the stuff was enough to give everyone pause.

The party also found what appeared to be the sleeping quarters for the Yellow Lady. There was a tapestry depicting an alien city, a chest protected by a magical trap the party couldn't disarm and a desk that seemed to be built to have a drawer, but had no visible sign of one except for a circular indentation at the back. Rather than mess with these things, the party decided to set up an ambush, banking on the fact that if the Yellow Lady had a bed, she had to sleep. Therefore, eventually she would come to them. This seemed eminently better than they going to her.

The session ended with a battle. Indeed, the Yellow Lady showed up with a pair of ogres in tow, one of which was armed with a weapon that used the alchemist fire. Limited in her spell selection, lest she destroy her own possessions, the Yellow Lady primarily allowed the ogres to do her fighting. Unfortunately for her, the party had worked out a very good anti-ogre strategy that proved very effective. Rather than continue with her handicap the Yellow Lady fled and the group was very happy to stay put.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Thought Experiment

I mentioned yesterday that I've been busying myself with the thought experiment suggested by Scott at Huge Ruined Pile. I've decided to use Leigh Brackett's "The Black Amazon of Mars" as inspirational material (as suggested by Moldvay in his appendix). I'd like to share some of the results:


The hero, Eric John Stark agrees to take a powerful artifact — a talisman — back to a city in the north. The city, called Kushat, guards the Gates of Death but the inhabitants have long forgotten what lay beyond or why they keep vigil. After a barbarian horde sacks the city, Stark takes it upon himself to go through the Gates in order to prevent one of the distraught Kushatites from letting loose the great evil that lay beyond. This evil is an ancient civilization antithetical to humanity. Dependent on cold, its empire, if restored, would make the world uninhabitable for human kind. Stark learns the secret of the talisman, beats back (but does not destroy) the evil and returns to civilization to help the people of Kushat remember why it keeps vigil at the Gates of Death.


This story takes place in the polar regions, at the edge of civilization where bandits and barbarian tribes are constant dangers. There is a bit of a Keep on the Borderlands feel, with the city being an outpost of civilization in the wilderness; however, Kushat is a very key and powerful city state, because it controls the water on a dry planet. Thus, the city has significant strategic value for the rest of civilization.

In addition, the landscape is dotted with the ancient remains of the empire once ruled by the creatures beyond the Gate of Death. They are described as towers with multi-level cities beneath. In other words, there are dungeons aplenty to explore, all of which might hide relics of an ancient, evil civilization. A megadungeon may not be out of the question — at one point, Stark describes his descent into the main city beyond the Gate, calling each successive layer beneath the ice a "level." He goes as far as the "third level" with many more beneath that.


The evil creatures beyond the Gate of Death are described by Brackett:
They had no faces, but they watched. They were eyeless but not blind, earless, but not without hearing. The inquisitive tendrils that formed their sensory organs stirred and shifted like the petals of ungodly flowers, and the color of them was the white frost-fire that dances on the snow.
Their touch is so cold as to painfully numb the flesh it comes in contact with. They have devices that create cold waves that paralyze their victims, and a crystal that can encase its victims in ice dooming them to a slow, frozen death.

Keeping in mind that I am using Brackett as inspiration and not trying to duplicate her version of Mars exactly and that the goal of this exercise is to only use Moldvay's Basic D&D as is with minimal house rules, I am not going to stat these cold creatures up. Rather, I will substitute an existing Moldvay monster for them.

Given the tendrils and the ability to petrify and given that Scott has pointed out that they have their own language, civilization and culture in Moldvay, I will be using Medusae as my stand-in for Brackett's cold creatures. Though I am not going to change the mechanics of the Medusae, I will be fiddling with their special effects. As with Brackett's creatures, they will be frost-fire white and their petrification gaze will be by intense cold and ice rather than stone.

This opens a thematic door which has far-reaching implications for the special effects of various mechanics in Moldvay's D&D. Firstly, it equates Chaos with cold (and by association, darkness). Indeed, Stark was able to fight off these creatures with the intense heat of a device the talisman allowed him to use. Thus, Law is equated with warmth (and by association light). This suggests a cosmology of Light vs. Dark (nicely suiting my own religious proclivities) and that the special effect of Turning takes the form of producing waves of light and heat to keep the undead (those creatures totally allied with/produced from the cold and dark) at bay, and even destroy them if powerful enough.

It also suggests that there is an entire classification of creatures (of which undead are a part) that manifest as cold. Given the Medusae's petrification powers, and given that this is expressed as intense cold and ice, I am going to interpret all paralyzation/petrification powers as having the same kind of special effect. Thus, the following are all somehow spawns of the Medusae:
  • Carrion Crawler
  • Gelatinous Cube
  • Ghoul
  • Thoul
  • Other Undead
In addition, since "turned into stone" has shifted to "turned into ice" the following also are creations/spawns of Medusae:
  • Living Statues
  • Gargoyles
Given that Thouls are described as a magical combination of a Ghoul, a Hobgoblin and a Troll, it would seem that the humanoid population would be allied with and even interested in transforming themselves to become more like their Medusae masters. This also allows for a buffer zone between Civilization and the Medusae, which serves two purposes. Firstly, it creates a mystery as to the identity of the puppet masters and who is responsible for this ancient, evil civilization. Secondly, it allows for lower level characters to have something reasonable to go up against.

In addition, White Dragons are somehow connected to Medusae (are Medusae a larval stage of dragon reproduction?).

The barbarian tribes on Brackett's Mars did not ride horses, but rather giant reptiles. Since Moldvay specifically mentions "lost world" areas in some of the monster descriptions, I am going to use these giant reptiles as an excuse to have a kind of "lost world" theme to the wilderness around the edges of civilization. Thus, the following monsters can be found there:
  • White Ape
  • Giant Bats
  • Cave Bear
  • Berserker (Stark himself seems to be one)
  • Sabre Tooth Tiger
  • Giant Insects
  • Giant Lizards
  • Lizardmen
  • Neanderthals
  • Giant Snakes
  • Stirges
  • Troglodytes
These two categories (cold-allies and lost-worlders) make up the bulk of the monsters found in and around the adventure area.

Of the rest, the following are (with the exception of lycanthropes) not mentioned by Brackett in the story, but can be thematically categorized if Dopplegangers are understood to be the remnant of an ancient alien invasion that were defeated by the Medusae (and are thus their ancient foe). They are all somehow "stuck" in between shapes. Thus, they are either experiments by Dopplegangers or are Doppleganger descendants who got "frozen" in a particular form (probably from exposure to the Medusae and their allies):
  • Harpy
  • Lycanthropes
  • Minotaur
  • Owl Bear
  • Rust Monster (I could see these being related to Dopplegangers as Carrion Crawlers are related to Medusae).
Of what remains, all of the human "monsters" can obviously be found and there are several fungus/mold creatures that logically would inhabit abandoned dungeon areas. The rest are, shall we say, "thematically challenged":
  • Dragons (other than white)
  • Dwarves, Elves and Halflings (Brackett's world is definitely human-centric)
  • Gnomes
  • Pixies
  • Sprites
  • Shadows (though they fit nicely into "darkness" they are specifically not undead and are immune to turning)
It is quite amazing how easy (and fun!) this was — to create the foundation of an entire campaign, with a suggested history, a pair of implied mysteries, a cosmology and several thematically grouped monsters using only a novella and Moldvay's Basic D&D. I've been so excited about the smorgasbord of OSR/OGL material out there, that I had lost sight of the elegant simplicity and flexibility of this game.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 4

I've been under the weather this past weekend, and as I've demonstrated in the past, I tend to deal with such misery by doing thought experiments. Since a comment by Erin on my musings on Sci Fi RPGs brought my attention to this particular thought experiment, that is how I spent my weekend. Since Scott of Huge Ruined Pile has done much of the hard work with the rules themselves, I busied myself with the Inspirational Source Material at the end of Molday's Basic D&D. I felt entirely justified in doing this, because I vividly remember staking out literary territories that inspired and informed D&D worlds that my friends and I built and played in when we were first trying to feel our way through the game.

I did give myself a limitation, however. I only allowed authors and works that I had not read before. As I was ill, I was limited to free on line resources. One of the first authors that I had success with was Leigh Brackett and her fabulous tale "The Black Amazon of Mars," which was the original title and version of The People of the Talisman — one of the titles cited by Moldvay.

Please note, Leigh Brackett is a sci fi writer and "The Black Amazon" is a sci fi tale. Interstellar travel is a given. The story begins with the aftermath of a gun battle. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are all mentioned as places the hero Eric John Stark has been.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Having been completely drawn into Brackett's vision of Mars and her version of the solar system and inspired enough to put on paper some kind of D&D version of this vision, I have come to the conclusion that I think James' question makes an erroneous assumption. Despite the sci fi source material, D&D (especially Moldvay's edition) is a perfectly suitable game with which to create a world and universe inspired by Brackett's work. Thus, D&D is a science fiction RPG, and the most wildly successful one, at that.

We forget that the classification of sci fi and fantasy as two separate genres is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although James is very good at mining and giving homage to the past, his question fails to remember this reality. Which brings me to what I think is the real answer to his question. D&D has been as successful as it has because it so good at pastiche. It is perfectly capable of being high fantasy, dark fantasy, pulp, sci fi, horror, etc. It doesn't matter what you want to do, D&D is quite capable of handling it. In contrast, games like Traveller are too much tied to their niche within the sci fi/fantasy spectrum. In other words, you could do the Third Imperium with D&D, but you couldn't do Greyhawk with Traveller. That narrow focus necessarily limits their appeal and thus their audience.

So the real question isn't why these other games have failed, but rather why D&D succeeded. The answer is the wonderful goulash that sci fi used to be and the fact that D&D was not only was born out of it, but embraced it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 3

Given everything that I've said on this topic the last couple of days, here is what the OSR Sci Fi RPG I would write might look like:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 2

The only long term sci fi campaign I was ever involved with was a Star Wars (d6) campaign. I've played a lot of Traveller over the years, but my friends and I were more enamored with the mini-game that is character creation in CT than we were in the game itself. I've also played a lot of other sci fi games, none of which had the kind of pull that Star Wars did.

I must admit that one of the reasons that the campaign was so successful is the way it was run. The party had ties to the rebellion, and as a pseudo-military unit were sent on various missions. In the hands of a good Referee and willing players, this set-up can work very well; however, I also believe that the source material played large in the longevity of the campaign.

Firstly (and most importantly, in my opinion) religion is an integral and even central part of the Star Wars universe. As a Christian, I have some serious qualms about what George Lucas calls religion, but Star Wars cannot be Star Wars without the Force. This is a far cry from most science fiction (like Star Trek).

Secondly, Star Wars has more in common with fantasy literature than it does with sci fi. The characters are archetypes found in fantasy dressed up for space travel. The hero wields a sword and rescues a princess. We hear Obi Wan referred to as an old wizard. I could go on. In addition, just as fantasy normally does, Lucas borrowed heavily from mythology. He took very basic mythological and cultural themes, figures and tropes and recast them for a space opera. Thus, like fantasy, the Star Wars universe feels very comfortable.

Lastly, there is also one very important factor that I don't think many appreciate. Due to the geographic simplicity of the Star Wars universe, it lends itself to the fantasy sandbox style of play much more easily than Traveller or dozens of other sci fi games I've played over the years.

Let me explain. Tatooine is a desert planet. Yavin is a forest moon. Hoth is an ice planet, etc. These are akin to hexes on a hex map, where each hex indicates a different kind of terrain. When one needs to have a more detailed map of a particular section of said hex, it is easily done, but for the most part all one really needs to know is desert, forest, ice, etc. This might not seem very important, but I believe it is. Compared with the level of detail required of even the simple and abstract system used by Traveller to describe worlds, the scheme used by Star Wars makes universe creation no harder than creating a hex map for a fantasy campaign. In contrast, even in its relative simplicity, Traveller is rather quite intimidating. I firmly believe that one of the reasons my friends and I never got beyond an entertaining number of one-offs in Traveller is the fact that none of us had the confidence to pull a multi-world campaign off.

In other words, the more a science fiction RPG has in common with fantasy, the more playable it becomes.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 23

Last time we left our stalwart adventurers, they were preparing to assault a fortress occupied by orcs carved from a cavern wall in the Fungal Forest. I must preface this session with a bit of personal history. As a Referee, I never really ran that many modules produced by TSR, despite owning dozens and having a subscription to Dungeon Magazine. The reason is quite simple. The one campaign I tried to run using TSR modules wasn't any fun. The modules in question were A1-4. We never made it past A2. Reading through it, I could not imagine how I could run the module without it resulting in a TPK. My players were the kind that liked solving problems by hitting it with an axe (despite my repeated attempts to wean them of this method). Even when stealth is used, A2 seemed to invite a situation where one mistake would not end well. I was honest with my payers and they decided to go off on a different adventure.

With this in mind, I kept a very strict 2/3 empty room ratio in the fortress, curious to see if the ratio would produce a session full of tense combat, or something unrealistically empty. I was pleasantly surprised. Given that the orcs behaved in a reasonably intelligent manner, the fortress had just about the right feel. The combats were desperate and challenging, but once over allowed the party enough of a breather to honestly determine whether or not to continue. We even had a nice false climax.

My players have no qualms about taking prisoners and using various techniques to get information out of them. They even have a method (when the dragon is feeling cooperative) to dispose of the bodies. This may sound unChristian (and it is, for the most part), but I have to give my players props. They are quite honest about what they are trying to do, and live up to their agreements. Of course, calling a dragon in a bag of holding a "magic trick" is a bit misleading, but the prisoner did get what he asked for...

The flip side is that I have no qualms about playing up the Chaotic nature of captured monsters and I successfully lead the party on a merry goose chase. Their goal in this tower is to find the Golden Masked Magic User that they believe has set up shop in the fortress. They were then lead to believe that she was on the top level of the fortress. Instead of a magic user, they found a bunch of ogres. Though the party managed to survive, the battle left them battered and without spells. As such, they beat a hasty retreat to fight another day.

On their way out, I rolled a wondering monster encounter. Using my new table, they encountered an event rather than a monster. It had a nice chilling effect on the party. Knowing how much they quake when I say "everyone make a save vs. spell" this is how this encounter began. Those who saved, had an encounter with a robed man. When they tried to speak with him, they all failed their saving throws and he disappeared.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 1

Like James over at Grognardia, I have recently been meditating on science fiction, especially about the question James posed a couple weeks ago:
why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games? Is it something inherent to the subject matter or is it simply a matter of presentation? That is, has there been some flaw in previous SF RPGs that have limited their appeal, a flaw that could possibly be fixed?
For most of my life I have been a science fiction fan, not necessarily a fantasy fan. Whereas I couldn't stand reading Tolkien, I devoured Asimov. My best friend growing up came from a house-hold of trekkies. Star Wars plays very large in my development as a person. Whereas I never played out of the LBBs, I did play Traveller from those wonderful little black books. Finally, as I've mentioned before, I've been as much, if not more, of a war gamer than a role player and many of the war games I have played over the years found their inspiration in sci fi.

There is a big however here, though. As I've grown older, wiser and have come to accept my faith as central in my life, science fiction, as a whole, has become a place I no longer feel welcome. This is largely due to a prevailing assumption that Christianity somehow cannot survive or defend itself against the assault of a scientific world view. This a false premise. Science cannot and does not ask or answer the same kinds of questions that religion (especially Christianity) does. If you are asking those religious questions and trying to answer them with science, you have left science and entered into the pseudo-religion of scientism which is not science. Most current sci fi that I have tried to enjoy seem to go out of their way to go down this path. It reminds me of why I was never, or am ever going to follow in the footsteps of my childhood friend's trekkie family.

Take a look at the Prime Directive as defined in the Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses:
No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.
Please note how antithetical it is to the Great Commandment:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen. — Matthew 28:19-20
The underlying implication in the Prime Directive is that the basic assumption and world-view of Christianity is not only wrong, but destructive. Now, I realize that this is not necessarily something a lot of folks out there will have a problem with, but it does speak to the question at hand.

Fantasy works extremely well for the purposes of an RPG because it is a cultural pastiche. Regardless of how alien a setting might be, there is always something familiar that players can relate to. One of the most important realities of human history is religion. There hasn't ever been a human civilization that did not have religion as part of its make-up (though we did see the disastrous attempts of wiping religion out in the horror show that was the 20th century). Even D&D acknowledges this with the inclusion of the Cleric class (with a clear nod to Christianity in OD&D, no less.)

Star Trek rejects this reality, and is representative of a lot of science fiction today. In fact, Star Trek rejects most of human history — as can be seen over and over again by the embarrassment the shows have for the way we have behaved in the past (and even the outright rejection of its own history).

In other words, science fiction has a tendency to ignore, try to move beyond or outright reject the cultural pastiche that makes fantasy RPGs so accessible.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 22

One of the intriguing aspects of this campaign is the lack of interest in the tent pole megadungeon by my players. I've been wondering about this for much of this campaign — is it me, the players, the concept of the megadungeon, etc. When James over at Grognardia made the observation that too many monsters are not practical for encouraging exploration (a large part of the appeal for megadungeons) I decided to adhere closely to the 2/3 empty room model suggested by the LBBs and his experience. Having created an incentive to return to the megadungeon, I was looking forward to seeing if fewer monsters might encourage more forays into the megadungeon.

Interestingly, as a Referee, I felt that even this 2/3 empty room model coupled with Holmes' wandering monster pattern produced too many monsters. I felt as if the monsters were getting in the way of the exploration. It has made me reconsider my encounter tables. I plan on including more "events" in place of some monsters.

The players returned to the Lower Catacombs at the Abandoned Monastery and discovered a stairway that they had not found the last time they explored the area. This discovery highlights my players' creativity. Having found the utility of Speak with Animals while taking care of Pups the Dire Wolf, Dn. Goram has insisted on keeping it in his repertoire of spells. He used it to try and avoid a combat with some giant lizards, who now seem to be the main occupants of the caverns from which the catacombs were carved. He found out that there were "lizard killers" that lived "below" and that the entrance was guarded by a "sticky manylegger."

Having intuited that the location of what the party assumed to be a giant spider was in a passageway already passed over by the party (it was a partial cave-in where the party would have to forego weapons and packs in order to crawl over the top of the rubble), Dn. Goram volunteered to lead the way towards one of his greatest fears — spiders. He wrapped himself in oil-soaked rags, cast Resist Fire upon himself and then set himself on fire. When he came into contact with the inevitable web, he set about creating a deadly inferno. (I realize that real spider web does not burn, but allow this tactic because it is an accepted given in most of the games I've ever played). Despite the brilliance of the plan, Dn. Goram lost the initiative, got stung and had to save v. poison or die. Being a Cleric, his save was much better than most and he (barely) made the roll.

Once they cleared the area of webbing, they descended down some spiral stairs to find themselves in pit of Ochre Jelly. With a judicious use of Sanctuary, they minimized the damage prior to burning off the creature. The party hadn't got very far before they happened upon a wandering band of werewolves. They managed to kill two, capture one and drive the rest off. The interrogation revealed that there may be at least two antagonistic factions within the dungeon. Recognizing that an enemy of an enemy can be a friend (and the reality that there were twenty gnolls coming for them down that hallway) the party agreed to leave this particular level and redirect their exploration towards what the werewolf called the Fungal Forest.

After extracting themselves from the newly discovered level, they proceeded to go back down an underground river that they had previously explored when trying to retrieve Hamlen's beloved spiked club. They found their crude handholds reinforced and improved. When they came to the water fall, they found their rope used as the foundation for a rope ladder. Clearly someone had retraced their steps.

The cavern beyond was several thousand feet long and several hundred feet wide dominated by various kinds of fungal growth. On the left side of the cavern lay some kind of fortress. The last time the party ventured this way, they found the remains of a battle from the distant past. They also found the fortress largely unoccupied. After finding out that there is some kind of fey presence within the cavern, the session ended with the party's discovery that the battle remains had been cleared and the fortress was now occupied by orcs and possibly much worse.

Friday, August 27, 2010

OD&D Magic Champions Style Part 12

A Call for Comments

I realize that this particular project has not garnered a lot of comments; however, I am asking for feedback on this particular entry. As will become clear, this category requires a lot of interpretation. I don't know that I am happy with what amounts to a rough draft on this category, so I hope that those of you out there who bother to read this will help by chiming in below with your own point of view. Thanks.


This is the single most challenging spell category of any that I have found using the Oe rule set. Not only are the mechanics all over the place, but their descriptions are vague and deviate from what has come to be the norm in later editions. The spells:

Charm Person (1)
Affects humanoids. If successful, target is "completely under the influence" of caster until dispelled. Range = 12"

Sleep (1)Affects a variety of creatures depending upon HD. Max = 2d8 creatures of 1+1HD or less. Max HD affected = 4+1 HD (one creature). Range = 24"

Hold Person (3) [2]
Affects 1-4 persons (with a -2 to the save if targeting only 1 person) with a "greater effect" than Charm Person. Duration = 6 turns + spell caster. Range = 12" Cleric version has Duration = 9 turns & Range = 18"

Charm Monster (4)
Same as Charm Person, but affects monsters and charms 3d6 creatures of 3 or fewer HD.

Confusion (4)
Affects 2d6 +1 per caster level above 8th. Causes affected creatures to randomly determine their action during combat. Targets with 2 or fewer HD are automatically affected. Targets with more HD must save every turn for the duration of the spell or be confused. Duration = 12 turns. Range = 12"

Feeble Mind (5)
Affects only other Magic Users. Renders them "feeble-minded" until dispelled. -4 to the save. Range = 24"

Hold Monster (5)
Same as Hold Person, applicable to monsters.

Quest [5]
Similar to Geas, but the target will suffer a curse (determined by caster with Referee supervision) if the quest is ignored. Duration = until quest is complete. Range = ?

Geas (6)
Target must complete a given task. Ignoring the Geas ultimately causes weakness and death. Duration = until task is complete. Range = 3"


There are a few surprises here, which tend to add more confusion than clarify things. I find this descriptor of Hold Person absolutely fascinating, because as someone who came into the hobby via the Holmes edition and 1e, I have always understood it to be some variation of a paralyzing spell. Here, it seems to indicate a more effective version of Charm Person (though what is a "greater effect" than being "completely under the influence?"). This is a prospect that really excites me, because it opens up possibilities. This led to me to seeking out how other editions describe these spells, of which the 1e DMG notes on Charm Person are by far the most helpful:

Remember that a charmed creature’s or person’s priorities are changed as regards to the spell-caster, but the charmed one’s basic personality and alignment are not.

This allows for the possibility that though the victim may be "completely under the influence" it does not change the basic character of that victim. In turn, this allows for "greater effect" to mean changing aspects of that basic character (such as a survival instinct that would counteract freezing in the middle of a combat to allow an enemy to stick you in the gut with a sword).

As exciting as this revelation is, however, there is very little mechanically that is consistent within this spell category. Sleep, for example, is over all mechanically more powerful than Hold Person (greater number of targets, greater range and potentially a greater duration). In turn, Hold Person is mechanically potentially more powerful than Confusion ("greater than completely under the influence" is more powerful than causing random behavior). In addition — again mechanically — Quest and Geas are not that much more powerful than Charm Person. Although they grant some devastating consequences for not obeying, the enchantment comes to an end once one command is fulfilled. In addition, the targets are free to ignore the command (as long as they are willing to accept the consequence) and to go about the command in a disobedient manner. Charm Person is effective until it is dispelled.

In other words, no matter what progression I choose to use for a Champion-style version of this category, it will little resemble the original source material. With this in mind, I am simply going to proceed with mechanics stripped out of the source material to create a base spell and largely ignore trying to duplicate that source material because it is largely an impossible task.

  • Duration = until task is complete, 6 + caster level turns (12 turns), until dispelled
  • Range = 3", 12" (18"), 24"
  • Area Effect = 1 person/creature ≤ 4+1 HD, 1 person/creature of any HD, 2d6 + 1/per caster level above 8 creatures
  • Special = saving throw penalties/automatic success, curse or withering death if command not followed.
  • Target = humanoid, monster

Base Spell: Target must make a save or be compelled to carry out one command by the caster. Target is free to carry out this command in a manner that reflects their basic personality and alignment. Duration = until the task is complete. Area Effect = 1 person of 4+1 HD or less. Range = 3". Target = humanoid.

The following add 1 level:
  • Duration = 6 + caster turns (and thus possibly more than one command).
  • Range = 12"
  • Area effect = 1 person/creature of any HD
  • Save at penalty -2
  • No save for creatures with less than 1/3 of caster level (1/2HD at 2nd level, 1 HD at 4th level, 2 HD at 7th level, etc.)
  • Target = monster
  • Target's basic personality & alignment are subject to change at the will of the caster

The following add 2 levels:
  • Duration = until dispelled
  • Range = 24"
  • Area Effect = 2d6 creatures + 1 per level above 8
  • Save at penalty -4
  • Some kind of withering disease or curse affects the target when they do not fulfill the command(s) of the caster.

Example spell Feeble Mind
6th level spell. Target must make a save at -4 (+2 levels) or be compelled to carry out a single command of the caster. If the target refuses, their Int will be reduced to 3 (+2 levels). Magic Users will lose all memorized spells. Duration = until task is complete. Area Effect = 1 person of any HD (+1 level). Range = 3". Target = humanoid.

Again, please take the time to critique. I appreciate it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

OD&D Magic Champions Style Part 11


Apologies for not getting on with this project for a number of weeks. As I noted in my last post, things have been busy around here lately and the last few spell categories are not as easily dealt with as previous categories. To the spells:
Vertical movement (horizontal only possible by other means). Duration = 6 turns + caster level. Range = 2"/caster level. Move = 6"/turn
Both vertical and horizontal movement. Duration = 1d6 + caster level turns. Range = self Move = 12"/turn
Dimension Door (4)
Limited teleport. Duration = instant. Range = 1". Move = up to 36" with no chance of misjudging.
Instant transportation from place to place. Duration = instant. Move = any distance as long as the destination is known. Any uncertainty might result in death (teleport into a solid object). Range = self
Pass-Wall (5)
Opens a hole in solid rock. Duration = 3 turns. Range = 3"


There are two "types" of movement: axial (horizontal, vertical) which travels through various mediums (air, solid) and teleportation which instantly transports to a specific spot. This begs the question as to whether or not these should be two entirely different categories or the same category with two different base spells that share similar mechanics. Given that the latter allows for more mechanical variety (and thus more spell possibilities) I am going proceed with two different base spells.

Duration = 3 turns/6(1d6) turns + caster level or instantaneous
Speed = 6" per turn/12" per turn/36"/unlimited
Range = self/1"/3"/2" per caster level
Medium = Air/Liquid/Solid (not relevant for teleportation spells)
Axis = Vertical or Horizontal/ both Horizontal and Verticle (not relevant for teleportation spells)

Using these mechanical progressions works very well with teleportation spells, but runs into problems with axial spells. Given these progressions Fly is a 4th level spell and Levitate ends up being a 5th level spell. The primary culprits are range and the necessity to differentiate the vertical only movement of Levitate. If the base spell is 0 level and requires at least one level-up purchase, this gets Fly to 3rd level. In order to get Levitate back to a 2nd level spell, the ranges of 1" and 3" must be eliminated. This, however, puts Pass-Wall at a 4th level spell. Frankly, I don't mind so much, because it is essentially duplicating Dimension Door with a different special effect.

Base spell (teleportation): 1st level. Duration = instantaneous. Range = self. Teleport 6" with no chance of misjudging.

The following add one spell level:
Teleport 12" with no chance of misjudging
Range = 1"

The following add two spell levels:
Teleport 36" with no chance of misjudging
Range = 3"

The following add three spell levels:
Range = 2" per caster level

The following add four spell levels:
Teleport anywhere as long as destination is known. Any uncertainty might result in death.

Example spell Blink
2nd level spell. Duration = instantaneous. Range = 1" (+1 level). Teleport 6" with no chance of misjudging.

Base spell (axial): 0 level (must purchase at least one addition) Duration = 3 turns. Speed = 6". Range =self. Medium = Air. Axis = Vertical or Horizontal

The following add one spell level:
Duration = 1d6 + caster level turns
Speed = 12"
Range = 2" per caster level
Medium = Liquid
Axis = Both Horizontal and Vertical

The following add two spell levels:
Speed = 36"
Medium = Solid

Example spell Dolphin Steed
3rd level spell. Duration = 1d6 + caster level turns (+1 level). Speed = 12" (+1 level). Range = self. Medium = Liquid (+1 level). Axis = Horizontal

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 21

After a long and unplanned hiatus, I finally got back in the saddle and played some Labyrinth Lord this weekend. In some ways, the hiatus worked to my group's advantage, because Hamlen's player was very close to completing a task he has been planning for quite some time — getting Grak his prosthetic arm. The extra wait actually made him even more eager to get it done.

The party had to find its way back to Headwaters, which they did after negotiating with the giant spiders they encountered at the river in the jungle they had lost themselves in. Of note, giant spiders in my world are intelligent, can speak and have a weakness for elf flesh. This, the players took advantage of and quickly got information as to the location of the "stinking rotten paladins" at Headwaters and then proceeded to feed the spider to "The Bag" as it is now referred to by the party (other wise known as the Bag of Holding with a dragon-kin inside). After re-orienting themselves, in was quite easy to follow the river into Headwaters.

Unfortunately, the town was being attacked by an small undead army of skeletons, led by a wraith and a pair of tentacled undead the party had previously encountered underneath Trisagia's city of the dead. The undead split their forces and attacked the two main strongholds of the paladins — a keep and a watchtower. Dn. Goram also spotted a small group moving towards the Church. Suspecting that the main assault by the skeletons might be a ruse, the party split up. Dn. Goram and Hamlen went to help defend the tower and keep, and the rest of the party went to the Church in order to see what was going on there.

Hamlen and Dn. Goram were able to fairly easily gut the main assault. Dn. Goram paved the way through the skeletons, automatically disrupting several a round with the help of some magic items, in order to free up his brother who charged the higher HD undead with his sword Liberator.

In the meantime, the rest of the party (minus their two highest level members) found themselves face to face with a pair of ogres and a golden masked magic user interrogating Fr. Valinor, the local priest. Afraid that they did not have the ability to go toe to toe with these three foes, they set about doing a quick strike to free Fr. Valinor and then high tail it until bigger guns could be brought to bear (I was very pleased that "run away" had finally entered the vocabulary of our younger players).

At this point I must explain an interesting quirk about this group. They have developed a very good relationship with Alidar, the local alchemist. They not only frequently buy potions from him but will bring him all kinds of oddities from their adventures in order to see if Alidar can "weaponize" them, as my players like to say. One such oddity resulted in smoke grenades which were used to confuse the ogres and the masked mage long enough to grab Fr. Valinor and run away.

The party quickly found out that the true purpose of the attack was to get the Eye of St. Gabriel and the golden mask that (unknown to the assailants) had been stolen by Xerxes (and was now, as far as the party knew, inside The Bag). The party managed to trace the attackers back in the general direction of the abandoned monastery (and the megadungeon of my campaign). The party resolved to begin a serious expedition into its depths, as soon as they could re-equip themselves and take care of a few things left hanging from sessions past (like Grak's arm).

At this point, I must explain yet another quirk about this group. They very much like the idea of henchmen and followers; however, their idea of what makes a good follower is rather unusual. Instead of hiring out normal NPCs, they have taken to adopting various NPCs and monsters that they have encountered in their adventures:

  • Grak the formerly one-armed tribesman of chaotic crab-grafting humans from the Giant Insect Jungle (who is now officially a 1st level monk, using the AEC LL rules).
  • A peg legged prostitute that is now going to be the main bar tender at Hamlen's tavern.
  • Pups, the dire wolf who has given birth to three healthy pups.
  • A camel
  • The unwitting and unpredictable dragon-kin inside The Bag

Other henchman have come and gone (and died) but no emotional attachment forms, unlike the devotion the party has shown for those in the list above. Also of note, Dn. Goram wants to make a golem and has begun a search for a manual to do so and the party has taken considerable interest in helping Ahkmed in building his son.

When I began this campaign, I had not spent much time at all sketching out the Elves, Dwarves and Halflings of my world. Indeed, I left much of that work to be done by players who wished to play a demi-human. When my Dwarven player heard about James' Dwimmermount dwarves, he was really excited about the idea and ran with it. The fun part is that, although there are similarities, allowing my players freedom in creating the demi-human cultures has resulted in quite a few deviations from Dwimmermount dwarves — a big one being that Ahkmed has insisted that all dwarves are neuter and has played up his ignorance about how other races reproduce.

This past session I mentioned in passing to Ahkmed's player that I have some specific rules for how to go about creating his offspring (using a variation on the work James has done with his dwarves). The party went absolutely nuts — they especially wanted to know (ironically, given discussions on this very topic over at Grognardia) if they could specifically try to make a gnome. All of this amused Ahkmed, but he seems more focused on saving his gold for a foundation for his stronghold — a revelation that I must say was surprising. Understand, Ahkmed's player is the newest to the game (his introduction to the game was my campaign along with a 3.5 campaign that runs when mine isn't in session); however, having read the rules about dwarves, the concept of the end-game sunk in. According to the rules (his words), he is supposed to build a stronghold in order to attract dwarves "from far and wide." Thus, he is already playing for that end game — I couldn't be happier.

The session ended with a rather mundane, but productive re-exploration of the catacombs beneath the lower temple at the monastery. The party decided that they needed a much more detailed map if they were to do some serious exploring there. I was quite happy to oblige. The one significant piece of information they garnered from the new exploration is that all the bones that used to be inside these catacombs are now gone.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Poem

I was out of town again this week, during which time a priest friend of mine brought the poet Scott Cairns to my attention. I subsequently found a collection of his poems entitled Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. He writes poems inspired by the words of history's greatest Christian mystics. The following is inspired by one of my heroes, St. Irenaeus:

Capable Flesh

The tender flesh itself
will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—
to be quite capable of receiving,

and, yes, full
capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.

For even at its beginning
the humble clay received

God's art, whereby
one part became the eye,

another the ear, and yet
another this impetuous hand.

Therefore, the flesh
is not excluded

from the wisdom and the power
that now and ever animates

all things. His life-giving
agency is made perfect,

we are told, in weakness—
made perfect in the flesh.

I share this mainly because I find it to be so moving, but it does speak to the way I play RPGs in a round about way. This poem expresses my firm belief that all matter can be used to glorify God and be used in a positive and fulfilling way. Thus, the only way D&D and other RPGs are demonic and evil is if we allow them to be used in that way. I endeavor to give rise to a way of using and thinking about our hobby as an expression of my faith. Secondly, one of the more powerful memes found in this poem and in Irenaeus is the idea that God finds and creates strength in and through weakness. Is it any wonder that I love how the old-school style of play is so comfortable with player skill and character death? We test ourselves with randomness and the weaknesses that are derived from character generation systems that spit out "hopeless" characters. In these weaknesses we find our strengths as players and, personally, I find great pleasure in seeing a "hopeless" character grow strong and ultimately succeed.