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?