Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I am either an Optimist, a Fool or Both

One of the most influential moments of my life was sitting next to my dad in a theater (that is now a parking lot) watching Star Wars for the very first time. When Lucas re-released Star Wars, I had a very intense flash back, and almost asked my friend sitting next to me, "Dad, is that guy dead?" after the first rebel was shot down by a storm trooper in the first minutes of the film just as I did the first time I saw the movie.

As a result, I am a "Han shot first!" kinda guy; however, I have never been a partisan. I acknowledge that Star Wars was George Lucas's creation and that he has the right to do whatever he wants to with it.  However, no matter how much George Lucas mucks with it, he can never take away that moment of magic when I sat next to my dad and watched Star Wars for the first time.

Thus, I am not as shocked or disgusted as some are at the news that Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney and that they plan on making a new movie. Rather (once again) I acknowledge that Lucas can do whatever he pleases with his creation and am even a tad bit hopeful.

Before anyone calls me a fool, let me put this into context. The vast majority of fans agree that the prequels were, if not horrible, then disappointing. Further, I would argue that many of us think that Empire is the best movie of the bunch.

It is here that I would draw a parallel to the trajectory of Lucas and Star Wars with TSR and D&D. OD&D/Holmes are akin to the original Star Wars. Moldvay's Basic Edition is akin to Empire. The originals are awesome, but their sequels improve on that awesomeness. However, everything that follows is increasingly disappointing.

Yes, I enjoyed both Return of the Jedi and AD&D, but they weren't as good as what came before (I know AD&D came out at about the same time or, in the case of the MMI, before Moldvay, but the analogy still works in the trajectory of Basic comes before Advanced).

By the time TSR went under, the product being produced was a far cry from the original and, in a lot of cases, not worth the paper it was printed on — similar to how many of us feel about the Star Wars prequels. When TSR went under, WotC bought the rights to D&D, produced the OGL and ushered in the beginnings of the golden age that we are currently living in.

This is why I am a bit hopeful for the Star Wars brand. It took another company with a brand-new perspective to re-invigorate D&D. The same might very well be true of Star Wars. By the time the prequels came out, Lucas was too powerful for anyone to say no, and the story got lost in all the new toys that he had at his disposal, in the same way TSR was more interested in putting out product than in actually playing the game.

Maybe, just maybe, Disney will do for Star Wars what WotC did for D&D. Now I will grant that the best thing WotC did was to give the game to us via the OGL and Disney is not likely to follow suit with Star Wars so there is plenty of room for this whole endeavor to go disasterously wrong; however, I choose to hope.

Slave Pits: An Update

Back in July, I was experimenting with a layout design for trying to write up my version of the Slave Pits of the Undercity. My own personal goal at the time was to have something ready for the re-release of the AD&D core books by WotC. Unfortunately, life interfered in a major way, and my own internal deadline came and went. Thus, a lot of the motivation for working on the project faded, and I have only half-heartedly worked on it since.

As I noted in the posts about the layout experiment, I don’t really enjoy writing modules — I like making maps and notes, playing and improvising. So, despite the fact that I really like the work I have done, it is work. Recently, however, I have been grinding away at the project, because this is something that someone else requested and I promised myself I would finish.

Thus, the number of posts I have written has fallen because I have made a hard charge to get this thing done. There are still several things to do before I get a finished rough draft, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the things that I was interested in at the outset was how efficient this layout was going to be. It looks like this might come in around 70-73 pages, which includes the background information; encounter areas for the island, the village, the castle and the temple; three dungeon areas with a total of 140+ rooms; a new monster and new magic section; and all of the maps. For a comparison, Patrick Wetmore’s Anomalous Subsurface Environment which includes a campaign setting and a dungeon with 101 rooms comes in at 87 pages.

And here comes the crux of this post. I want to ask a question of the folks out there that have more experience at this than I: For the purpose of letting people get a hold of the .pdf of this project what are the easiest, safest and best ways to grant this access?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Nestor the Martyr

Today is the feast of St. Nestor the Martyr, which is really an extension of yesterday’s feast — St. Demetrius the Great Martyr of Thessaloniki. During the reign of Maximian and Galerius, Maximian appointed St. Demetrius as proconsul of Thessaloniki, ignorant of the fact that Demetrius had been raised Christian. Part of the saint’s duties was to “Put to death anyone who calls on the name of Christ.” This wording gave the saint enough room to proclaim and teach Christ, without having anyone “call on the name of Christ.”

When Maximian learned that he had not only appointed a Christian proconsul, but that St. Demetrius was converting Roman citizens to Christianity, he immediately marched on Thessaloniki and sent his soldiers to find and arrest the saint. In the meantime, Maximian amused himself with gladiatorial games, especially those involving his champion Lyaeos, a gifted wrestler of great renown.

It is at this point that today’s saint comes into the story. St. Nestor was a disciple of St. Demetrius. Angered at the arrogance of Lyaeos, who openly mocked Christians and blasphemed Christ, St. Nestor went to St. Demetrius (who by this time was imprisoned) to ask his blessing to enter the arena and fight the emperor’s champion. With the saint’s blessing, St. Nestor entered the arena bolding crying out, “O God of Demetrius, help me!” He then landed a punch of such power to the chest of Lyeaos, that the champion’s heart exploded.

St. Nestor was arrested and soldiers were sent to kill St. Demetrius (yesterday). St. Nestor was killed with his own sword (today). As an aside, this story was not widely known outside of Thessaloniki until around the seventh century when the relics of St. Demetrius started to exude myrrh (the oil-based burial spice that the women were carrying to anoint the body of Jesus when they found the empty tomb). The relics have been doing this ever since. I’ve been to Thessaloniki myself, and even with the relics encased in plexiglass, you can smell the sweetness of the myrrh.

It is here that I have to confess that one of my favorite parts of this hobby (both as a player and a DM/GM/LL/Ref) is the henchman. I mention this, because when seen through the lens of D&D, what is St. Nestor if not a loyal henchman?

I realize that there are parts of this corner of the internet that look down upon the lowly henchmen as bothersome, useless, worthy of abuse and as an XP sponge. I would counter that they are full of potential, and when handled correctly by both player and DM/GM/LL/Ref, they can be the source of great stories — like that of St. Nestor.

For example, my Lost Colonies campaign is literally littered with former henchman. Headwaters has a cheese factory (specializing in halfling-made camel cheese), a successful tavern owned by a one-legged thief, where the concierge is a goblin-turned-half-elf magic-user and the cook is a gourmet frogman. On the road to Trisagia is a fortified bridge guarded by a half-giant. Even the recently built cathedral in the Elflands is tended to by a cleric whose beginnings were as a henchman of the current party.

Speaking of the party, take a look at how many of them were either once henchmen within the party that have been promoted due to PC death or retirement or are justified as potential former henchmen of retired PCs:

  • Coleman the Torchbearer is now a 6th level fighter.
  • Grak the one-armed cave boy is now a 6th level monk.
  • Gillek the gnome is now a 6th level fighter.
  • Eldric the elf is now a 4th level cleric.

What makes all of these characters great PCs is the back-story each brings to the game due to the fact that everybody knows the 0-level place where they came from. Indeed, one of my favorite campaign ideas is to start off as a 0-level NPC and earn first level through adventure when no other adventurers are available. This idea has been around for years. Goodman Games used it back in the 3ed era with their modules Legends are Made, not Born and Halls of the Minotaur and has hardwired it into Dungeon Crawl Classics. I have been sorely tempted by all of these on more than one occasion.

Indeed, my own personal history with this hobby has been primarily spent playing lower level characters. I love seeing a PC take shape based upon what they manage to survive and how they manage to do it. Adding a good henchman into the mix just makes that journey even more special, because I get to see them develop as well.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Space Port Map

One of the entrances into B.R.7 is the space port. This is one area in which geomorphs are not going to be very helpful, so I decided to create a generic sci-fi space terminal that can be attached to any kind of hive city, space station or other variation of sci-fi goodness. I'd like to give a shout out to Paratime Design whose sci-fi maps have not only been used in my own campaigns, but inspired this:


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Artemius of Antioch

Today is the feast of St. Artemius of Antioch. During the reigns of St. Constantine the Great and his son Constantius, Artemius was a prominent military leader. When Constantius was emperor, Artemus was sent to Patras to retrieve the relics of the Apostle Andrew and to Thebes of Boetia to retrieve the relics of St. Luke. In return for these services, he was made viceroy of Egypt, where he spread and strengthened the faith.

Constantius was succeeded by Julian the Apostate (a regular character in these Saintly Saturday posts). The new emperor had rejected Christianity and wanted to restore paganism to the Empire. In his zeal, he had two bishops of Antioch tortured and killed for refusing to forsake Christ. While this persecution was taking place, Artemius arrived in Antioch and publicly denounced the emperor. This, of course, enraged the emperor and Artemius was subjected to heinous tortures and thrown into prison. Eventually, once Julian realized he was not going to change the saint's resolute mind, he had Artemius beheaded.

If seen through the lens of a D&D character career, the story of St. Artemius primarily takes place in the mid- and high levels. His quest to retrieve the relics of Sts. Andrew and Luke are akin to wilderness adventures. He had to cross the Aegean Sea in order to get to Thebes of Boetia (which is in Greece, not Egypt) and then trek across to the other side of Greece in order to get to Patras (and might even have had to cross the Gulf of Corinth). Having returned with these prizes to the emperor, his appointment as viceroy is the equivalent of building a stronghold. His conflict with Julian, then, is akin to the end game, where high level characters are dealing with larger political issues.

Though I do not spend any time on the boards, nor have I paid much attention to the play tests of Dwimmermount, I have caught wind of a level of disappointment with both the format of Mr. Maliszewski’s project and the dungeoncrawl in general.

I have to admit that I really don’t understand either of these sentiments. Dwimmermount was explicitly an experiment in doing a megadungeon cleaving as close to the rules of OD&D as possible. Due to the nature of that ruleset, this naturally requires far more creativity from the Referee and a much larger emphasis on exploration. Personally, these are exactly the two things I love about the game. As a player, some of the best sessions I have ever had involved nothing but exploring ancient ruins with nary a hint of combat. As a Ref, I love dropping hints of the backstory of why there is a megadungeon in the first place and seeing the light go on as these hints get pieced together into a greater understanding.

Of course, I have found that a successful campaign (in which I include Maliszewski’s original Dwimmermount) includes a wilderness exploration component, as looking at the life of St. Artemius through D&D glasses suggests. From personal experience, however, the key to making the megadungeon work (as opposed to a series of location-based adventures scattered across a wilderness) is to tie that wilderness exploration to the backstory of the megadungeon.

I’ll give two good examples. When Maliszewski ran Mr. Raggi’s excellent Death Frost Doom, he tied it to Dwimmermount by having the history Cyrus Maximus intertwine with the history of Dwimmermount. It added to the mystery and story of Dwimmermount. In my own Lost Colonies campaign, my players have ended up both on a spaceship and on an alien planet. The first had the Two Swords, which Dn. Goram was sent to retrieve and return to my megadungeon and the latter had a gate that led to the bowels of my megadungeon. Each of these adventures added to the mystery and backstory of my megadungeon.

In other words, the megadungeon (when used creatively) can be the backbone of every aspect of the typical D&D character's career — the initial dungeon delve, the wilderness exploration and the end game. Having personally seen this happen, it not only can make a campaign sing, but something that you want to go back to over and over again.

Friday, October 19, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Space Orks

One of the most prevalent group of creatures that inhabit B.R.7 are the orks left over from the failed invasion of Black Reach. Thus, I need to convert several of the ideas about WH40K orks into stats I can use at the table.

There are three things I have to note about the way I am going about this conversion:

  1. There are going to be discrepancies between my interpretation of certain types of oddboyz and WH40K canon for the purpose of having a working set of statistics.
  2. For the moment, I have no conversion for Madboyz. I have three possible ways to go: 1) Use the psionic rules of Stars Without Number and determine the number of disciplines and powers by the number of orks in the area 2) Use various Mental Mutations from Mutant Future placed in a table to determine which is available on a particular round and modified by the number of orks in the area 3) Use various psionic powers from Realms of Crawling Chaos, again using a random table modified by the number of orks in the area. The first is most likely to be the most effective, whereas the latter two are a bit more fun (with MF being more gonzo than RCC). I just haven’t made up my mind yet.
  3. I am going to use a modified S&W stat block. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, I have come to find that it is the easiest to both prepare and use and the table. It has just about everything I need to know about the monster. On most occasions, I would quibble with myself over this statement because normally I insist on things like % in lair and Hoard Class/Teasure Type. These two stats, however, are not going to be necessary. There is not going to be a whole lot of wilderness exploration where orks are involved and traditional D&D/LL treasure is not going to be a major part of the campaign. HD = Hit Dice; AC = Armor Class; Att = Attack & Damage; ST = Saving Throw; Sp = Special Abilities; MV = Movement; Al = Alignment; Mor = Morale

Space Orks

No one can control the wind and stop it from blowing, no one can control the day of death. From war there is no escape, no more can wickedness save the person who commits it. — Ecclesiastes 8:8

Space Orks are a genetically engineered race whose sole purpose is war. Who engineered them and for what purpose is lost to the mists of time. Presently, they are a plague upon imperial space. Mostly, they fight amongst themselves; however, warbosses of great prowess and power are able to organize large groups of orks into what is known as a WAAAGH! that conquer entire worlds, spreading destruction and chaos as they go.

One of the more interesting aspects of space orks is that their technology does not function for any other race. Indeed, their technological prowess is genetically engineered into them — they have no real knowledge of how or why it works. Rather, their is a latent psionic power that exists within groups of orks that through their belief that the technology will work, it does. Outside of this psychic field, it doesn’t.

One of the side-effects of this reality (besides the inability of adventuring parties of looting space orks for their technology) is that in within the remnant ork warbands inside of B.R.7, this psychic belief is waning and the technology starts to malfunction. A minimum of five space orks are required for their tech to work without a glitch. For every ork less than five, there is a 25% chance that their tech will malfunction when it is used. Thus, if there is only one ork, all the the tech ceases to function at all.

Space Orks

HD 2
AC 6
Att 1d8 (pistol) or 1d8 (sword/axe)
ST 16
Sp Burst Fire (+2 to hit w/pistol), Flank (+1 damage in HTH)
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 8
Also known as Orkboyz, these form the vast majority of any ork mob or WAAAGH! They are cruel creatures who have no word for diplomacy and solve every problem by fighting. They are normally armed with “Shootas” (the equivalent of a semi-auto pistol) and a “Choppa” (a sword or an axe). In missile combat, orks can use burst fire to get a +2 to hit. In HTH, if they are able to flank an opponent, they get +1 to all damage.


These are orks with special skills not found in the typical ork trooper. These include Mekboyz, Painboyz, Runtherdz, Gretchin, Wildboyz, Snotlings, Nobs and Madboyz.


HD 3
AC 2
Att 2d6 (thermal pistol) or 2d6 (power claw)
ST 15
Sp Life Support
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 9
Mekboyz are orks with the genetic encoding to create advanced technology. In combat, they wear powersuits that allow them to survive in hostile environments, to wield the otherwise dangerous to use thermal pistol and the strength to use a power claw.


HD 2
AC 6
Att 1d8 (pistol) or 3d6 (poison)
ST 16
Sp Cause Frenzy, Poison
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 8
Painboyz are what pass for field medics in ork mobs. In combat, they carry spiked gauntlets attached to canisters filled with what passes for ork medicine. When used against non-orks, it functions as a poison doing 3d6 damage (save for half). When used on an ork, it sends them into a frenzy. They gain +1 to hit and damage and are able to ignore death until they are at -10 hp.


HD 3
AC 5
Att 1d6 (whip) or Special (Snotling Gun)
ST 15
Sp Snotling Swarm, Raise Morale
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 9
Runtherdz are those orks that are capable of corralling and controlling the smaller members of the ork mobs — the Gretchin and the Snotlings. When Getchin and Snotlings are within 60’ of a Runtherdz, they use the morale of the Runtherdz rather than their own.

Runtherdz sometimes use a specialized weapon called the Snotling Gun. It fires up to three Snotling Swarms (see below).


HD 1
AC 7
Att 1d6 (pistol) or 1d6 (knife)
ST 17
Sp none
MV 120’
Al Chaotic
Mor 6
Gretchin are either space ork young, or a smaller variety of ork. They are generally used as cannon fodder and the driven into combat by Runtherdz.

Snotling Swarm

HD 8
AC 7
Att Swarm 1d6
ST 9
Sp Swarm
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 10
Snotlings are the smallest of the ork-kin, and are generally seen as the most useless. Individually they have little courage and little combat prowess; however, orks have found that when sent en masse through a warp tunnel from a Snotling Gun, they go temporarily insane and start biting and clawing anything they come in contact with. Such a swarm will automatically do 1d6 damage to anyone in a 10’ square.


HD 3
AC 7
Att 2d6 (great sword/axe)
ST 15
Sp Berserk Rage
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 10
Wildboyz are feral orks that have not yet exhibited the ability to build or maintain technology. In combat, they only wield primitive HTH weapons, but are able to induce in themselves a berserk rage which gives them a +1 to hit and damage in HTH and they are able to ignore death until they are at -10hp. If a wildboy is treated by a painboy, the effects are cumulative.


HD 6
AC 2
Att 2d6+2 (mag pistol) or 2d6 (great sword/axe)
ST 11
Sp Morale Boost
MV 90’
Al Chaotic
Mor 12
Nobs are the “nobility” of the ork mob. They are some of the biggest and strongest of their kind, able to inspire their fellow orks to greater feats of chaos and destruction. All orks involved in a battle where a Nob is present increase their morale by 2.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Zlata the New Martyr

Today is the Feast of the New Martyr Zlata (also known as St. Chryse). The title New Martyr refers to those who were martyred after the 4th century, when the first great period of persecution ended with St. Constantine issuing the Edict of Milan making Christianity legal within the Roman Empire. St. Zlata lived in the 18th century in the Bulgarian village of Slatena when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule.

I am going to be blunt about this, because this story really isn’t very pretty. St. Zlata was kidnapped by a Muslim man who wanted to force the saint to become his wife. When she refused, she was beaten and held captive for almost a year. They tore strips of flesh off her back. A hot poker was shoved into her ears. Through it all she never wavered in her faith in Christ and refused the demands of her captors. When it finally became clear that she was not going to relent, they tied her to a tree and carved her flesh up into little pieces with knives.

This brings up a difficult topic, especially considering what is going on in the Middle East these days. Political correctness demands that I be tolerant of what many consider to be one of the great religions of the world. Unfortunately, Orthodox Christians have been victims of this great religion for centuries, almost from its very beginnings. The synaxarion (list of saints) is littered with New Martyrs like St. Zlata who suffered a similarly cruel fate.

Theologically, Orthodox Christianity and Islam could not disagree more. Indeed, I would argue that the theology of Islam is dangerous. It holds that there is only one soul that humanity shares. This strips us of our individuality, our uniqueness, our value and our free will— it dehumanizes everyone, especially those who refuse to accept Islam. When we, as human beings, dehumanize entire groups of people bad things follow. A quick scan of U.S. history is proof positive of this fact, and we aren’t even close to being the worst offenders.

This is where I wax philosophical about art and how it allows society a safe place in which to wrestle with issues that would otherwise be less than desirable water cooler talk. It is also here that I place RPGs within that large umbrella known as art.

As I have proved via this blog, RPGs are an art form that allows us to wrestle with Christianity — a subject that was virtually taboo in this corner of the internet when I began blogging several years ago. RPGs became a safe place in which to explore, discuss and otherwise deal with the relationship our lives and this hobby has with Christianity.

There are plenty of other difficult issues that RPGs have allowed our community to struggle with. Feminism — via the way this hobby has used both language and illustrations — has been a hot topic several times since I started paying attention to our little corner. Rape (via the existence of Half-Orcs) has been grappled with. Certainly freedom and what that word means has been part and parcel of the whole old school vs. new school discussion.

In other words, RPGs are a marvelous vehicle for us to wrestle with difficult issues in a similar way that other art forms do. Sometimes this struggle might be too uncomfortable to make the whole experience very much fun (which is the primary purpose of this hobby), but we can always dial things back and return to what originally brought us to this hobby.

Therefore, I don’t particularly mind folks like Mr. Raggi pushing the envelope (though I won’t be sending much of my own gaming budget his way). He is using this hobby to wrestle with those issues. In turn, I have found that a lot of folks have grown to appreciate my own proclivities, especially when it comes to how I allow my faith to inform my game. I hope to see the day where we can wrestle honestly with the issue of Islam and what it means for the average joe on the street. Maybe a cautious use of RPGs can help us get there.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Meditating on 2000cp

For a reason that is beyond me, there seems to be a meme going around this corner of the internet that the existence in a dungeon of a treasure hoard of 2000cp signifies that the creator of said dungeon is lazy. I take umbrage at such a concept, not because I think a round number of nearly worthless coins is as or more realistic than either a odd number or a collection of mundane items worth 20gp, but rather the underlying assumption of the criticism: Using random tables is lazy (because a treasure of 2000cp in most likely a result of a random treasure table).

As I noted yesterday, random tables are one of my favorite tools when it comes to playing RPGs. When used correctly, they are an endless fount of fodder for unexpected creativity. Treasure tables are no less a source of creativity than any other table. All it takes is a little work.

To take the 2000cp hoard that seems to be at the center of this meme, I have learned from years of gaming that adventurers are not very likely to waste their limited resources to bother with two thousand coins that are only worth 20xp and won’t even buy a short bow. This is especially true when said copper is part of a larger hoard that contains more valuable coinage and/or gems and jewelry. Those valuable resources will be spent recovering the more valuable treasure and the copper will be left behind without a second thought of its existence.

Thus, a treasure hoard of 2000cp may very well have been something left over from a hoard already looted by another adventuring party. A quick perusal of Labyrinth Lords’s treasure tables indicates that the hoard class most likely to produce 2000cp as part of a larger hoard is XXI.

Here is a list of creatures in LL that have a hoard class of XXI:

  • Bugbear
  • Ghoul
  • Grey Worm
  • Halfling
  • Hydra
  • Berserker
  • Nixie

Therein are a plethora of stories about not only the hoard itself, but the dungeon in which it was found and the campaign world world in which the dungeon exists. Each of the these entries represent a former occupant of the dungeon that was defeated and looted. Thus, each should produce a series of questions that, when answered, lead to a much richer dungeon environment and a much richer campaign world.

For example: What was a group of halflings doing here? What adventuring group would kill and loot from halflings? Are they still around? Are there clues that could help the players hunt them down and demand justice?

Yet again, a whole bucket load of creativity from an innocuous result of a random table.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

More on Magic Swords

Yesterday, I mentioned that there were three steps within the process of making an Ulfberht Sword that invited elaboration. Given that I suggested a campaign world with no other magic weapons than swords, it got me thinking about how to take advantage of these elaborations in order to make each magical sword, if not unique, than one with a bit of a back-story.

Thus, I have endeavored to produce one of my favorite things — a series of random tables — in order to come up with the formula used to create a sword based on the aforementioned three steps (thus giving the sword the seeds of a backstory). These tables assume that a magic sword is automatically +1 and that various methods of forging the sword might result in additional powers. Note: all bonuses are cumulative.

Table 1.1 Carbon Source (d10)

  1. Animal Bones = Speak with Animals 3 x per day with the specific animal used
  2. Monster Bones = Bane +1 vs. monster type
  3. Humanoid Bones = Bane +1 vs. humanoid type
  4. Incense = Bane +1 vs. Chaotic/Evil creatures
  5. Dragon Bones = +1 plus Bane +1 vs. dragons
  6. - 10. Normal Charcoal = no extra powers

Table 1.2 Rune Etching (d20)

  1. Stone Rune = Damage Reduction of 1 while wielding the sword
  2. Serpent Rune = +1d6 damage; however, this damage is applied to both the victim and the wielder of the sword
  3. Ice Rune = Protection from Fire; glows in freezing temperatures.
  4. Torch Rune = Light with a 30’ radius
  5. Luck Rune = +1 to Saving Throws
  6. Tree Rune = The magic bonus of the sword can be used as either a combat bonus or an AC bonus
  7. Journey Rune = Dancing Sword
  8. Thorn Rune = The wielder can go into a berserker rage (+1 HD, +1 damage, + 1 to Hit -1 AC penalty)
  9. Hero Rune = Allows the wielder to increase both the number and morale of retainers one shift up on the Charisma table. If the Charisma is already 18, the number of retainers is 10 and the morale is 11 (based on B/X and LL).
  10. Cross = Protection from Evil 10’ radius if wielded by a Lawful (Good)/Christian character
  11. Chi Ro = +1 Bane vs. Chaotic/Evil creatures
  12. - 20. Animal Rune = no extra powers

Table 1.1 Quenching Liquid (d12)

  1. Oil = Flame Tongue; +1 vs. Cold/Ice- based Creatures
  2. Holy Oil = Flame Tongue; + 2 vs. Undead
  3. Holy Water = +1 Bane vs. Chaotic/Evil creatures
  4. Monster (less than 4 HD) Blood = +1 Bane vs. Monster Type
  5. Monster (4+ HD) Blood = +1 for every 4 HD (4-7 = +1; 8-11= +2; 12+ = +3)
  6. Humanoid Blood = +1 Bane vs. Humanoid Type
  7. Dragon Blood = +1 + Bane +1 vs. dragons
  8. Ice/Snow = Bane +1 vs. Fire-based creatures
  9. - 12. Water = no extra powers
For example: With the rolls 10, 7 and 2, the sword in question had normal charcoal, was inscribed with a Journey Rune and was quenched in Holy Oil. Thus it is a +1 Holy Sword of Dancing, +3 vs. Undead. Given this basic background, one could imagine it was forged in order to arm a crusader who was marching against the incursion of a necromancer's army, and could thus bear the name of a crusader saint.

These tables are, of course, only a rough draft and are certainly open to further revisions and additions. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meditating on Magic Swords

I just finished watching the most recent episode of Nova, entitled Secrets of the Viking Sword. It focuses on the science of medieval weapons, in particular the Ulfbehrt Sword wielded by pagan Vikings from about A.D. 800 to 1000.

Most weapons of that time were made of inferior steel with low carbon content and slag impurities that made them brittle and therefore prone to break in battle. This stemmed from the fact that European forges could not get hot enough for the slag to separate from the iron ore and the fact that metallurgists of the time relied on the ashes of the fire to add what little carbon the steel had.

Ulfberht Swords, however, were made of a high carbon steel with very little slag called crucible steel — an art form that would disappear from European metallurgy for several centuries after the last Ulfberht swords were made. Crucible steel made these swords both stronger and more flexible — qualities that made them devastating in the the close-quarter fighting of viking combat. Indeed, the show had a demonstration of how, compared to a roman-style sword, the Ulfberht design could cut through chain mail.

I, of course, watched this show not only through the lens of history and science, but of a fantasist who loves to use history and science to inform how I play FRPGs. I couldn’t help but think about how the vast majority of magic weapons in OD&D are swords. The process for making an Ulfberht blade is extremely time consuming and unforgiving. Thus, they were rare and often given names. In other words, the magic sword of OD&D is the analog of these viking blades.

Some of the steps involved in the making of the blade invite FRPG elaborations:

  • The carbon used to make steel from iron ore could come from bones — bones of ancestors, animals or (in a fantasy setting) monsters.
  • All Ulfberht Swords are etched with the symbols “+ULFBERH+T.” Intriguingly, the use of the cross seems to indicate some kind of power (an attempt at stealing the powers of their Christian adversaries?). Thus, here we have an origin for named and etched swords.
  • Once forged, the sword is hardened by dipping it into some form of liquid. This could be water, oil or even blood (again, of animals, humans or monsters).

The secret of creating crucible steel was most likely gained from the East, where they knew the secret of Damascus Steel, which differs only in the cooling process (which is much slower and results in its signature crystalline patterns). Thus, either the steel itself was imported via the Volga trade route or the secret of its creation was lost. This invokes the idea of mythical metals like mithril and adamantium.

All of this has me re-thinking the idea of magic weapons and weapon proficiencies in D&D. In context of a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, I could easily buy the argument that the only magic weapons available are swords. Crucible steel is not wasted on any other kind of weapon and therefore every other type of weapon is of inferior quality — non-magical.

In this scenario, I could also see the possibility of allowing every class to use any weapon with one major limitation — only fighters can wield those magical swords. This accomplishes several things at once:

  • The old saw about wizards using swords in source material is acknowledged.
  • There is a very serious tip of the hat to an historic reality.
  • It gives fighters a form of magic unique to their class — Magic-users = arcane; Cleric = divine; Fighter = sword.
  • Finally, it pays homage to the original rules set, where most magic weapons were swords.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Thomas

Today is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. Of the Twelve, St. Thomas may very well be my personal favorite. While he is most popularly known by the moniker “Doubting Thomas,” I believe this is a bit unfair. While he does declare that he would not believe in the resurrection before he put his hand in the mark of nails and in the Lord’s side, note his words upon seeing the resurrected Christ:
My Lord and my God! — John 20:28
This is not only a tremendous statement of faith, but St. Thomas is the only person in any of the four Gospel accounts to explicitly call Christ God.

This faith also led Thomas to go to similar extremes as St. Paul to preach the Gospel. According to tradition, he founded churches in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Ethiopia and India. It was in the latter where he was martyred in the city of Meliapur when he was pierced by five spears.

Today, there is still a Christian presence on the southwest coast of India in the state of Kerala. Therein is enough inspiration for an entire campaign far removed from a lot of our normal FRPG tropes.

The region of Kerala provides a fantastic geography, quite similar to that found in the classic Known World map of the Expert Edition. It is a plain surrounded by mountains with a couple valleys that connect it to the rest of the world. There is an ancient paleolithic culture that has left ruins. There is religious diversity — predominately Hindu with sizable Islamic and Christian minorities. With the hagiography of St. Thomas, there is also a tie-in for five major relics — the spears that martyred the saint.

Possibly the most attractive aspect of this camping setting, however, is the fact that Kerala is the home to Kalaripayattu — a native martial art style. It comes in a variety of flavors and there is even a version practiced by Christians. In other words, not only is there is a perfectly legitimate reason for monks and other martial artists to be a base character class, but entire factions within the campaign world can be built around a particular style.

Another intriguing aspect of this setting is the weapons associated with both Kalaripayattu and the region. Some are typical D&D weapons:

  • Val = Sword
  • Shareervadi = Staff
  • Kuntham = Spear
  • Gada = Mace
  • Churika = Short Sword
  • Kattari = Dagger

However, there are a couple of atypical weapons:

  • Maduvu = deer-horn dagger
  • Otta = curved stick
  • Kuruvadi = short stick
  • Urumi = flexible sword

It is this last that most intrigues me, and would beg for variable weapon damage so that it could do less damage than a normal sword, but be able to ignore shields.

Finally, it would give an excuse for using this alphabet:

It is called Malayalam for those who are interested. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Previewing Solomon Kane

Please note that I have yet to see the movie, though I hope to fit it into my schedule at some point in the near future. Please also note that I am not an REH connoisseur, nor have I ever read any of his tales about Solomon Kane. Therefore, I do not approach the recent release of the 2009 movie here in the U.S. from the perspective of whether or not it is representative of the source material. (Though, Maliszewski noted some relatively positive reaction from REH partisans back when the film was originally finished).

I do want to point out, however, that it is a huge departure from a majority of recent film making, particularly from the fantasy genre (the Narnia movies aside), where the good guy is ostensibly a Christian and that one of the key quotes from the trailer is “There is evil walking this earth and I will hunt it down and send it burning back to hell” — where that evil seems to be the devil and his minions.

Beyond that, I am struck by both the trailer for Solomon Kane and the 10 minute preview available via You Tube. I have never really seen a movie that evokes the kind of spiritual warfare and the feel that I strive for in my FRPG campaigns. Though these don’t necessarily look exactly as one of my campaigns might, this is the closest thing I have to point to when it comes to “this is what it is like to play in one of my campaigns.” Enjoy: