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.