Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More Gamer ADD: Re-skinning The Caverns of Thracia

At present, I am rather badly afflicted by Gamer ADD. I’ve spent time meditating on a couple different campaign ideas in my last couple of posts; my Lost Colonies campaign just had a rather climactic event (of which I will write later) and my players are looking for a little break from the fantasy genre over the summer; and my eldest daughter has been bugging me about letting her and her brother play.

The latter occurred after she found an old FRPG accessory I bought back in the late eighties. After Gygax was booted from TSR, he had an imprint called Gary Gygax Presents: Fantasy Master. To my knowledge it only produced a few accessories, of which I own Aesheba: Greek Africa by Robert J. Blake, Frank Mentzer and Jeff O’Hare.

Though I think it a very good product, in the long run it is something that will never be anything other than an accessory to steal ideas from, because I am not much interested in playing in a fantasy world primarily influenced by Greek paganism. I would, however, be interested in playing in a world influenced by a fantasy version of the Byzantine Empire. Since virtually all of my extent campaigns (especially Averoigne and Lost Colonies) have a heavy dose of horror that I feel is inappropriate for my kids at their age, Aesheba is a great jumping off point for a campaign for my kids.

Aesheba posits a version of Africa that is isolated from Europe and Mesopotamia, giving the authors plenty of room to fiddle with history and add fantasy elements. This suits me just fine, not only because of the leeway, it also affords me the opportunity to add two things that I feel obligated to include in such a campaign for my kids: dinosaurs and pyramids.

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, my two oldest will answer paleontologist and egyptologist. In order to accommodate these interests in the campaign, I am going to grab the assistance of Paul Jaquays and re-skin his very excellent classic The Caverns of Thracia.

For those that are not aware, The Caverns of Thracia is a module published by Judges Guild in 1979 and has one of the best conceived maps for a published module of all time. It has multiple ways into and out of various levels. There are secret sub-levels. There are teleportation devices. There is an underground forest and mansion. It is stunning and inspirational. It is, however, something that I would only run as written with a much older and experienced group.

Therefore, I am going to re-skin it. Originally, the history of the Caverns has three basic stages:

  1. An ancient pre-human reptilian race that eventually devolves into lizard men.
  2. A Mycenaen/Cretan human civilization that (in part) is dedicated to Thanatos, the god of death.
  3. Beast men who had been enslaved by the humans and had risen up to destroy and drive out their former masters.

My re-skinned version will assume the following:

  1. The ancient reptilians will be one of the many serpent-like people available in various monster catalogues throughout the hobby. Three things of import: 1) theirs is a world where dinosaurs still exist and which some have been domesticated; 2) when humans show up, the serpent people enslave them; 3) either as a means to control the humans or as part of their native culture, they serve Set.
  2. At some point the humans rise up in rebellion against their reptilian masters. This rebellion is fueled by a new religion — Atenism. Personally, the pharaoh in whom I am most interested in is Amenhotep IV, aka Akhenaten. He led a failed religious revolution that did not survive him. This religion had trappings of monotheism focused on Aten — originally an aspect of the sun god Ra. One of the things I find fascinating is how it parallels early Judaism. Indeed, there are scholars who find a great deal of similarity between the Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104.
  3. After the rebellion, the serpent people retreated, but not without some of their human slaves. In order to make them more pliable and to ensure that they would not again rebel, the serpent people started to do magical experiments on their remaining human slaves in order to create various beast men (kobolds as dog men, gnolls as hyena men, lizard men, etc.). These will be primarily based upon the various anthropomorphic Egyptian gods. Once enough of these had been bred, they sent an army of beast men to crush the Atenist rebellion. The beast men are now in control of the dungeon.

This campaign will also necessitate two other significant changes from a traditional D&D campaign:

Firstly, the Byzantines did not think well of wizards and sorcery. Thus, magic-users as written would not exist; however, there was a sci-fi/fantasy book I read a couple decades ago that postulated a version of the Greek/Roman Mediterranean where all the laws of ancient science worked instead of the laws of modern science. It had a very cool pseudo-magic/science feel. Thus, the magic-user will be replaced by the philosopher — a class that studies the sciences to create machines and devices with the same effects as magic-user spells.

Secondly, elves, dwarves and halflings all really have their origins in northern european mythology rather than Greek/Mediterranean/African mythology. Thus, they are getting re-skinned as something that resonates with the feel of the campaign:

  • Elves will be substituted with Kemites — humans in the serpent peoples’ sphere of influence. They are akin to OD&D elves — able to adventure as either a fighter or a philosopher.
  • Dwarves will be substituted with white apes — an intelligent ape race.
  • Halflings will be substituted with pygmies — short humans that are really good with missile weapons.


  1. Gotta love white apes . . .

    Incredibly strong and “hairless except for an enormous shock of bristly hair upon its head . . . The thing which more resembled our earthly men than it did the (green) Martians I had seen, held me pinioned to the ground with one foot, while it jabbered and gesticulated at some answering creature behind me. The other, which was evidently its mate, soon came toward us, bearing a mighty stone cudgel with which it evidently intended to brain me. . .
    The creatures were about ten to fifteen feet tall, standing erect, and had like the green Martian, an intermediary set of arms or legs, midway between the upper and lower limbs. Their eyes were close together and non-protruding; their ears were high set, but more laterally located than those of the Martians, while their snouts and teeth were striking like those of our African gorilla.” (PM, VI-VII)

    White apes are accomplished hunters that are skilled at climbing and infiltration. Stalking the sun-bleached ancient cities of the dead sea bottoms, by day or night, they are encountered alone or in pairs. They are the only monster upon Barsoom that can arouse fear in the hearts of the green Martian. White ape herds are also found in the forests of the Valley Dor. They are cunning adversaries and will retreat if an opponent is too well armed or too numerous.

    Daring performers have used these beasts to entertain audiences, but white apes are incapable of full domestication and are always dangerous.

    White apes are a primitive species that neither build shelters nor make fires, but they do have a rudimentary language. They use crude tools, but are incapable of using most weapons and armor ; however, there are rare tribes of apes that have reached TL I (spears, hide armor, fire and canoes)

  2. I love these re-skinning exercises.