Friday, September 30, 2011

More Level Titles: Magic Users

Please keep in mind that the following are heavily influenced by the way magic users are presented and illustrated in the Holmes Basic Edition…

  1. Apprentice — Apprentice magic users are granted access to all first level spells and are granted the right to own a spell book (wherein are copied all first spells known by the apprentice) and to wear a magic user's robe (where coloration may indicate the identity of the apprentice's master, guild or school).
  2. Scribe — Scribes are granted the right to wear the symbol of a golden feather upon their robe (normally in the form of a broach or other kind of jewelry). This symbol grants to its bearer the right to use their guild's library and to purchase those materials necessary to create spell scrolls.
  3. Astrologer — During this final apprenticeship level, magic users are trained in the sciences — particularly in how the movement of the stars affect magical energies. They are granted the right to wear the symbol of a star upon their robe.
  4. Thaumaturge — At this point, all magic users must make a choice. Either they make formal ties with the Church (either individually or through a guild) or they become renegade. Those who choose the former are granted the right to wear a magic user's hat (a tall pointed hat with either a wide brim or no brim at all depending upon the region or guild). Those who choose the latter normally find themselves hunted down and imprisoned or killed.
  5. Magician — Magicians are granted the right to wear the symbol of the star on their hat. This grants them the right to request access to the library of any magic user's guild.
  6. Sorcerer — Sorcerers are granted the right to wear the symbol of the crescent moon upon their robes and hat. They can expect hospitality from any guild.
  7. Magus — Magus are granted the right to openly carry a staff. It grants the bearer the right to hear cases before civil and ecclesial courts.
  8. Wizard — Wizards are granted the right to carry ornate staffs. They cannot be denied access to any library without scandal (and most probably a visit by one or more inquisitors).
  9. Archmage — where arch means over. These magic users have the right to start their own guild or school and to take on apprentices.

Obviously, these level titles indicate a very robust guild structure that (based on some of the comments from my last post) will rub some players the wrong way. Understandably, this guild structure is not for everybody nor for every table. This is one of the reasons I think level titles should be tailored to each campaign world (taking into consideration the temperament and desire for each gaming group).

This particular list is based upon the implied culture found in Holmes. Arcane magic is something extremely dangerous that needs to be heavily monitored. This is why there is so much cross-pollination and self-regulation implied in the rights granted to various levels. Although magic users working outside this structure run the real risk of being constantly hounded by authorities, it must be understood that players always have that option. While they might be able to find more freedom when it comes to the kinds of research they want to do, their resources will be severely limited — primarily to that which they find while adventuring.

Personally, I like these robust structures because they encourage player choice and creativity because it helps make their choices matter.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Level Titles

Love them or hate them, level titles are definitely part of both Holmes and Cook. Therefore, for the purposes of my thought experiment, I need to deal with them. Frankly, this is not something I mind because, personally, I am very fond of the idea of level titles.

There is something inspiring about reading old session reports where a dwarven character is not referred to as Noto the 5th-level dwarf, but rather as Noto the Dwarven Swashbuckler. It seems to me, therefore, that level names had more meaning in the early years of the hobby. Take, for example, the 2nd Level Wandering Monster Table in Holmes. He does not use class names (fighting-man, cleric, magic-user, thief) but, rather, level titles: Swordsmen, Conjurers, Priests, and Robbers. At some point in our hobby, saying Conjurer translated to 3rd level magic user. Personally, I think that is really cool.

Nevertheless, there is a big however in my thinking — for those of you who think level titles are stupid, I agree with you. They read more like a thesaurus entry rather than a progression of rank. While Swashbuckler and Myrmidon sound cool, they have no real meaning — how are they different and what makes a Myrmidon better than a Swashbuckler? As is, level titles have no real sense of rank.

In medieval Europe, there were guilds that operated on the apprenticeship system. One would get apprenticed to a craftsman, who would train you while you worked for room and board for a period of around seven years. At that time, you would become a journeyman. This word comes from the French journée, meaning one day. This refers to the right to charge a fee for one days work. The journeyman had the right to work for any craftsman, live in their own home and be paid a wage. They could not hire anyone themselves, however. This was the privilege of the craftsman. Historically, each trade and each level within a trade had its own distinctive dress. For example, in Germany a journeyman carpenter wore a wide-brimmed black hat and black bell-bottomed pants and carried a curled hiking pole.

A similar arrangement is hinted at in the D&D class-system. The first three levels are akin to an apprenticeship, for example. It follows that the next three are akin to the journeyman and the next three (up to the name level) are similar to being a craftsman. Even in a sandbox-type of game, lower-level characters can benefit greatly by having some kind of patron. By the time they reach 4th level, they have attained enough treasure and skills to go off exploring unknown lands. Higher levels, in turn, represent the clearing out of those discovered lands, the building of a stronghold and attracting what amount to a bunch of apprentices.

Name levels, therefore, ought to reflect in some way this basic structure. This can be done by various implications in the names themselves. In doing a little extra work — coming up with the names, their meaning and the subsequent behavior/costume/right that comes with the name — can add a lot of depth to a campaign world.

Take the title Swordsman, for example. If one is not allowed to purchase or carry a sword until one becomes a 4th level fighter, seeing someone carrying a sword tells you a lot about that character and about the world they live in. This, therefore, is the key to making name levels truly sing — make them specific to a campaign world.

Here, then, is an example of what can be done with name levels in a world where being a cleric means being a Christian:

  1. Crucifer — meaning cross-bearer. Wearing a Crucifer's cross indicates the beginning of the path of being a cleric.
  2. Acolyte — meaning follower. In following the cleric's path, an acolyte learns how to cast divine magic.
  3. Ostiarius — meaning gate-keeper. This is the level just prior to ordination (they stand at the gate).
  4. Exorcist — this is the lowest order of clergy. They gain the right to wear vestments. It also speaks to the growing ability of the cleric to Turn undead.
  5. Auditor — meaning hearer. The cleric gains the authority to hear cases in the ecclesiastical court. They may wear an auditor's cowl.
  6. Subdeacon — This is highest of the minor orders of clergy. The subdeacon may wear an Orarion — a thin strip of decorative cloth that is wrapped around the shoulders and waste in various patterns that indicate rank.
  7. Deacon — meaning servant. Liturgically, this major order of clergy is responsible for the preparation and distribution of the gifts, reading the Gospel and leading the people in praying the litanies. For the purposes of D&D, it is the only major order (the others being priests and bishops) that could potentially have the freedom to be an adventurer.
  8. Vicar — meaning representative or ambassador. This is a deacon who has received the seal of a bishop, granting the power to speak for and negotiate in the name of the bishop.
  9. Archdeacon — where arch means over. The archdeacon has the right and responsibility to oversee and train lower level clerics.

Please note: this is an adventurer's path. Bishops and priests follow a different path. Therefore, every archbishop or archpriest is not necessarily a 9th level cleric. Depending upon how magic-heavy or readily available you want spells like Raise Dead to be, priests and bishops could all simply be the equivalent of 1st or 2nd level clerics.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saintly Saturday: Synaxis of All Alaskan Saints

Today is the Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska (where Synaxis means gathering). On this day in 1794, Russian missionaries first set foot in Alaska. Today specifically remembers the two protomartyrs of America: St. Peter the Aleut (the first American martyr) and St. Juvenal (the first martyr on American soil). Those of you who have read this blog in the past may remember that I wrote about St. Juvenal a couple of months ago.

At that time, Gamer ADD caused me to start contemplating an FRPG setting based upon 18th century Alaska, where the colonial powers of Ruthenia and Albion vied for control over Alakshaq and the various native peoples. Here is another tremendously cool map for inspiration:

My preferred ruleset for this Gamer ADD-fueled endeavor is B/X (effectively emulated via LL). There is one major problem with this, however. While armor was still in limited use on 18th century battlefields (cavalry units still donned breast plates, for example), it was largely absent. The reason for this absence was the effectiveness of the most common weapon on 18th century battlefields — the gun.

For better or worse, D&D has never been very good at emulating the impact of the gun on combat. Even as armor technology has endeavored to literally stop bullets, soldiers on contemporary battlefields choose to go sans armor because the advantages in mobility and maneuverability outweigh the advantages of wearing armor.

As written, in D&D there are two basic mechanisms that can be used to try and emulate the effectiveness of guns: the "to hit" roll and the damage roll. In my opinion, neither works.
  • If guns have a bonus to hit, it incentivizes heavy armor — the opposite of what happened historically.
  • If guns get a bonus to damage it unrealistically inflates the damage done by guns. Question: which would you rather take a direct hit from, a flintlock gun or a sword? I am guessing that the vast majority of us would choose the gun over the sword because we would have a much better chance of surviving.
This means that if I want to use my preferred ruleset, I'd have to do some serious house rules. One possibility is to experiment with this idea, where armor = damage reduction. This way, guns could ignore certain amounts of that damage reduction. Thus, it can function as all other weapons do — the same "to hit" and same damage — while doing what guns historically did — render armor on the battlefield meaningless.

I'll end with a pair of questions:
  • What is your favorite attempt at introducing guns to D&D?
  • What is your favorite ruleset (preferably FRPG) for emulating guns?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Experience

If I were doing a Holmes and Cook amalgam according to the advice given in Cook, figuring experience would be straight forward and simple — follow Cook. I am not doing that, however. In order to give Holmes precedence over Cook (while heavily relying on Cook for higher levels) some math needs to be done.

Holmes states:
all halflings and dwarves are members of the fighter class, unless they opt to be thieves.
Elves progress in level as both fighting men and magic-users, but since each game nets them experience in both categories equally, they progress more slowly than other characters.
The only one of these that Cook follows is halfling fighters. Cook's dwarves require 10% more experience per level than normal fighters; Cook's elves progress as their own class that requires 500 less experience at 2nd level than if they were combining fighter and magic user requirements; and Cook (of course) has no rules for halfling or dwarven thieves.

I have to admit that I agree with Cook when it comes to dwarves. In a game where 14th level is the highest level covered, being limited to 12th level isn't much of a disadvantage compared with all of the extra abilities that a dwarf has. Therefore, there is little incentive not to be a dwarven fighter or a dwarven thief. An extra 10% experience per level makes some sense.

Halflings, on the other hand, are only limited to 8th level and only get d6 hp per level as fighters. Therefore advancing them as normal fighters makes sense. However, they would have significant advantages over human thieves without the reduction in hit dice. Therefore I would apply Cook's 10% experience increase for halfling thieves.

When it comes to Elves, I understand Cook's reasoning (4500 xp to get to 2nd does seem a bit steep), but I agree with Holmes — they should need an experience requirement of both a fighter and a magic-user. Doing some math, I think I can do this without requiring such an onerous amount.

Cook does not follow any kind of consistent pattern when it comes to assigning experience; however, there is a suggestion of one. Roughly speaking, each class doubles their experience requirement from 2nd to 3rd level and every level beyond until they reach 8th level. At this point the total requirement at 8th represents the amount of experience needed for each subsequent level.

For example: Fighters need 2000 xp to reach 2nd level. This is doubled to 4000 xp for third etc. A fighter needs 120,000 xp to reach 8th level. For each subsequent level of experience, a fighter needs another 120,000 xp — 240,000 for 9th level, 360,000 for 10th, etc. This math isn't exact (64,000 xp at 7th level is not exactly doubled to get to 120,000 xp), but it is close enough.

The magic number at 8th level for clerics is 100,000; for fighters is 120,000 and magic-users is 150,000. The math breaks down a little bit for thieves, because they also have 120,000 like fighters, but their initial experience requirement at 2nd level skews everything. In fact, there is an anomaly in the Thief progression I do not like — more experience is required to get from 9th level to 10th level (140,000) than 10th level to 11th level (120,000).

In order to fix this anomaly, to help make elf progression a little less onerous and to make the math more clean, I am going to start with those magic numbers at 8th level and work backwards. If one divides by two at every level one arrives at these experience requirements for the three core classes at 2nd level:

  • Cleric = 1563
  • Fighter = 1875
  • Magic-user = 2350

Thus, elves would need 4225 xp for 2nd — reasonably close to Cook's 4000 while still adhering to Holmes' description as progressing "in level as both fighting men and magic-users."

In Cook, the thief 2nd level requirement (1200 xp) is roughly half of the magic-user requirement (2500 xp). If this pattern is adhered to more exactly, Thieves would require 1175 xp. Therefore, they would need 150,000 at 9th level at which point they would need 120,000 xp for every subsequent level. This gets rid of that anomaly in Cook where 9th to 10th level requires more experience than 10th to 11th.

At this point, it is simple to add an extra 10% per level for Dwarven fighters and thieves as well as Halfling thieves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More Evidence that D&D is Post-Apocalyptic

It has been hypothesized that D&D is by nature a post-apocalyptic game. The basic premise — adventurers exploring ruins for treasure — screams lost civilization. What is not as clear is that the basic assumed setting — a fantasy emulation of medieval Europe — is also post-apocalyptic.

Although I haven't posted much recently about either, I am still quietly working on both my version of the Chateau des Fausesflammes and Holmes & Cook. It largely amounts to research about something that I am not as fluent in as I would like to be — southern France circa A.D. 1200. What is striking is how important the Roman Empire is to medieval Europe — it is THE lost civilization. Charlemagne was called the Holy Roman Emperor, for example.

I found a profoundly beautiful example of this loss while trying to find musical inspiration for the Chateau. While searching around for examples of early medieval music, I ran across this beautiful example of Ambrosian Chant from the 7th century:

When I played this for my wife (who has a doctorate in music) without revealing what it really was, she rattled off such regions of origin as Greece, Albania, Georgia and the Middle East. This is because it bears a striking resemblance to the music from those regions. Take for example this 7th century hymn from Constantinople (still sung today in the Orthodox Church):

This is a poignant reminder that despite the distances, the different languages and the different local customs we used to have one Church.

Let me finish with one other interesting way medieval Europe tried to hold on to the past. Originally, clergy wore the same clothes as everybody else; however, as fashion changed in the laity, the clergy continued to wear the style of clothing worn by generations before them. Thus, the robes worn by priests in the middle ages (and in some places even today) were normal, everyday clothes in the fashion of 4th century Rome.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saintly Saturday on a Monday: Holy Cross

The first cold brought home from school by the kids is always tough (being sick while also being a primary caregiver is never easy), but this year it kicked my butt. I was in bed most of the weekend with a splitting sinus headache, barely able to see straight, let alone write anything coherent. Therefore, this week I'm having Saintly Saturday on a Monday.

In the Orthodox Church, September 14 is major feast called the Elevation of the Holy Cross. This celebration lasts a whole week. This past Saturday and Sunday are officially called the Saturday and Sunday after the Holy Cross.

About the year A.D. 325, St. Helen (mother of the first Christian Emperor St. Constantine) went to the holy land and did a bunch of groundwork to figure out where various events recorded in the Gospel actually happened. She discovered that the Emperor Hadrian had erected a pagan temple over Golgotha. She had the temple razed and beneath discovered three crosses. She was convinced that one must be the True Cross, but was at a loss as to which one it might be.

At the urging of St. Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, a woman who was deathly ill was brought to touch the three crosses. As soon as she came near the True Cross she was completely healed. Therefore, Marcarius lifted up the True Cross in the church for all to see as they all cried out "Lord have mercy!" This event is commemorated every year at this time.

One of the things I never tire of emphasizing is the irony of the Cross. It has gone from being seen as an instrument of one of the most heinous, tortuous, humiliating and awful ways to die to having this said about it:

Let us venerate the holy resurrection of Christ. For behold, through the cross joy has come to all the world. Blessing the Lord always, let us praise His resurrection. For enduring the cross for us, He destroyed death by death.

This is one of the reasons I have never given much credence to conventional wisdom, because it (as St. Paul implies) sees the Cross as foolishness. It is also one of the reasons that I get such a kick out of the OSR. It tends to turn gaming conventional wisdom on its ear.

For example, newer is not always better — otherwise why would so many of us get such a kick out of playing with rules from circa 1974-1981 (whether in their original form or an emulation) and largely turn our back upon the latest and supposedly greatest version of our favorite FRPG?

The OSR is chuck full of things like this. JB over at B/X Blackrazor recently reminded us that the simple d6-per-side initiative is not only easier to run, but it speeds up combat and can make the game more fun to play. For myself, I am a firm believer that the "limitations" of rolling on random tables or of rolling character stats in order are actually liberating because they allow us to think outside the box and therefore be more creative than living with no limitations at all.

This, of course, is not to say that the OSR is never wrong, that older is always better, that you can never have any fun playing with individual initiative or that it is impossible to be creative with a point-buy character creation system. All I am saying is that (like me this weekend) conventional wisdom needs a good kick in the butt every now then and the OSR is very good at doing that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An Example of a Story Emerging from Play Part 4

As I mentioned in my last session report, I have been meditating upon the McGuffin that the party managed to get off of the Death Cult's altar — how is it going to help the Winter King? When pressed as to what it looked like, the first thing that came to mind was the Hand of Vecna. Therefore, it looks like a hand carved from ebony or some other black material. Since the McGuffin is a hand, I began to wonder what would happen if the Winter King amputated his own hand and replaced with the McGuffin?

My answer is largely based upon Christian anthropology (something that, unfortunately, I find many are shockingly ignorant of). Therefore, some preamble is necessary. Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). Subsequently, it has been revealed that God is a Trinitarian being (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The technical theological formula to describe the Trinity is three hypostasis (roughly translated as persons) in one ousia (which can be translated as nature or essence). Therefore, we — humanity — are a plethora of hypostasis in one ousia.

The implication of this reality is that what happens to an individual hypostasis (person), affects humanity as a whole through our shared ousia (nature/essense). This is why Christ's salvific work on earth is so effective — when He took on our nature by uniting his person to our humanity, His crucifixion and resurrection affects all of us. Our very nature and relationship with God was radically altered.

Since the Winter King knew of and had in his possession this Black Hand McGuffin centuries ago (as a member/leader of the Death Cult), there has to be a reason he did not take advantage of its magical properties when he could have all those years ago. The answer is based on the idea of ousia and is also the reason that the Winter King is willing to use the Black Hand McGuffin now. If and when he replaces his own hand with the Black Hand, his very nature will be irrevocably altered — he will cease being an elf.

Herein, though, is the way he intends so save the rest of the elves. By radically altering his ousia, his particular hypostasis will cease to affect the ousia of the rest of elven-kind.

I must admit that I know virtually nothing about the Eberron setting (I had left the hobby by the time it became the latest and greatest D&D setting); however, I cannot escape the art that accompanied it. One concept represented in these images that I find extremely intriguing is that of the Warforged — a magical elemental/construct as a character race.

I am considering the possibility of transforming the Winter King into something akin to this basic concept. There are several intriguing possibilities and consequences of this choice:

  • While the source of the contagion may be neutralized, there are still members of the Winter Court in various states of infection. The Winter King (with the help of the PCs?) might have to hunt them down and offer them a choice: death or lose their "elfness" and become a sentient construct like him.
  • Once the WInter King learns how to transform elves into sentient constructs, he may very well have a means by which to finally free the Winter Queen. She would likely insist that every elf who chose to have their souls bound to a bane weapon be given the choice to become a sentient construct (including and possibly starting with Hornet).
  • As a result of all of this, the Winter Court will be heavily depleted and without a king for the first time in eons if not in all of history. There are very likely to be widespread political implications (will the PCs care/get involved?)
  • There will be a new PC race-as-class available for players, the abilities of which I am still trying to hammer out. My rough draft includes a base AC7 (equivalent of +2 AC for you AAC junkies), the inability to be healed by divine magic, but the ability to burn equivalent arcane spell levels for healing (2 spell levels for every CLW equivalent?). This last as well as the arcane nature and knowledge of the original sentient constructs suggests that there will be at least a limited amount of arcane spell casting ability.
  • Some working names (all of which will likely be used): Banes, Living Swords and Melltithians.

All that remains to see is whether or nor the PCs manage to get the Black Hand back to the Winter King...

Lost Colonies Session 41

After deciding that they were going to help the Winter King, our stalwart adventurers reported their findings to the Summer King. There were many misgivings about where the party planned to go. The Summer King explained that the valley and cave in question were places tainted by the great evils committed there and that no elf had willingly gone there for at least a millennia. The party insisted, and after they explained that not only could such an endeavor stop the undead incursions, but might be vital to saving all elves, the Summer King reluctantly agreed to help. The party was flown to the edge of the corrupted valley, where it had begun to snow.

At this point, I began to use a slightly modified version of Mr. Raggi's module Death Frost Doom. For those of you who don't want any spoilers, I suggest you stop reading. For the rest of you, what follows assumes a certain level of knowledge of the module, but hopefully not so much that it can't be enjoyed by those who as of yet are unfamiliar with it.

Personally, I had a lot of fun with the NPC Zeke Duncaster. Since I had changed the timeline of the adventure (the death cult was something that happened in the distant past) I was sorely tempted to get rid of this encounter; however, I am glad I kept him in for several reasons.

I recast him as a Fool for Christ-type of hermit — someone who seems crazy, but is really someone who sees past convention and false fronts and is interested in exposing truth. A such, I had a lot of fun role playing him. I especially enjoyed the fact that he assumed the party were all dead since their goal was to find the death cult's lair. This, in retrospect, was essential for setting the tone of the adventure. While it was darkly funny, it also set the player's teeth on edge.

This paid immediate dividends when the party got to the field of tomb stones. When they noted that the wooden grave markers carved by Zeke were now stone their paranoia was immediately palpable — they quickly started scouring their equipment lists for mirrors (none were to be found).

The biggest change to the module I made was necessitated by geography. There is only one (small) mountain range in the region and that is already occupied by another of Mr. Raggi's dungeons (as well as the main Dwarven colony). There is, however, a huge cliff wall that might be better described as a giant mesa. I placed the entrance to the dungeon in a cave carved into the side of this cliff wall. This choice is important, because it had major consequences for the outcome of the adventure.

Once inside, the party didn't pay much attention to the cabin/now cave. Though they did take the mirror from the main room. After they found the trap door down, nothing much else seemed to matter. However, once they descended into the pit, they went into all-out exploration mode. They used the mirror to look around corners, they checked for traps and outlined a routine for going room to room.

This meticulousness paid huge dividends. The party managed to avoid (with a little luck) all of the death traps as well as most of the curses. Once they found the tombs where the cultists were interned, they spent a lot of time and resources trying to bless as many as they could with holy water and then burning the corpses. Thus, I was willing to rule a significant number of the warriors neutralized.

Once the party found the altar guarded by the plant creature, they hypothesized that once they removed any one of the items from the altar (one of which was the McGuffin that justified this whole adventure) all of the bodies that they found would rise as an undead army. Thus, they carefully went through the entire dungeon locking doors, vandalizing locks, placing obstacles, burning and defacing anything that might prove useful to said army and otherwise doing anything they could think of to expedite their escape/last stand.

The irony is, that had the party gone with their first instinct — use the two potions of Gaseous Form they had to bypass the plant — all of their preparation would have been for nought; however, they feared what might be guarding the altar and decided that they wanted to be able to bring the entire party to the potential fight. Therefore, all that preparation proved necessary as they hacked their way through the plant.

Since their goal was the McGuffin on the altar, Dn. Goram ran in, grabbed all the items (to make sure they actually got the real McGuffin) and then the party hightailed it out of the dungeon. Their caution gave them plenty of time to escape unscathed. They then used a scroll of protection from undead to allow them enough time to set a package of various explosive materials the party has collected over the course of the campaign (they have a particular love of setting things on fire and making them go boom). This package was hung halfway down the entrance pit under the trap door. Once detonated, it effectively buried the coming undead army under several tons of rock (given that I had placed the dungeon in a cave rather than under a cottage as the module does).

We ended the session as the party was exiting the cave to the sight of ghouls breaking through the frozen earth. At this point, I do have a thematic criticism of Mr. Raggi's module. I understand from a practical point of view why all of the bodies inside the dungeon become zombies (it makes the module survivable even for low-level parties as long as they bring a cleric along); however, it doesn't make sense thematically. Why would the cult elite (warriors and priests) only come back as zombies while their victims come back as ghouls? It doesn't make much sense.

Thus, I am left with three conundrums:

  1. How long will it take the undead army to dig its way out?
  2. When they do get out, what variety of undead should they be?
  3. How is the McGuffin going to help save the Winter King and therefore the elves?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An Example of a Story Emerging from Play Part 3

When Hamlen died and the party wanted to investigate ways of getting him raised, the party demonstrated a considerable amount of anti-elf prejudice. This afforded me an opportunity to explore the ways of the elves (what they think about bane weapons, etc.) and thus scratch an itch for Ahkmed's player. One way I intended to do this was have the Winter Queen bound to a bane weapon and the Winter King obsessed with finding a way to get her out.

When this campaign began, it was an experiment. I had no idea if a bunch of 3.5 players would be at all interested in playing the game in an old school style using a retrocloned ruleset. I therefore was not particularly interested in spending a lot of time creating a sandbox. I therefore placed Lost Colonies on one of the maps from the Wilderlands by Judges Guild. It has served me very well — it is sketchy enough to allow me to make the world my own but filled with enough detail to fire the imagination.

One of the few places where elves are dominant on the map I chose to use had a little blurb about the locals being very interested in finding out why undead were coming out of the ocean. I figured that the Winter King's obsession had gotten so bad that his own experiments were the reason for the undead incursion against his own kind.

About this time I had also picked up Frog God Games' Hex Crawl Chronicles: Valley of the Hawks. I have to admit, I have been hesitant to pick up anything they've done because I was never much impressed by any Necromancer Games product other than some of their Judges Guild conversions. Since the Hex Crawl Chronicles seemed to ape those conversions, however, I decided to pick this up (well worth the money, by the way).

Therein, the elves of the valley were divided between Summer and Winter courts. What inspired me, however, was that all of the Winter Elves were wights. This got me thinking about the life-cycle of the elf.

If one assumes that an elf's lifespan is measured in centuries and that they have something akin to a vegan diet (where fruits, leaves, saps etc. can be harvested without killing the source) than death would be virtually unknown culturally and mythically. Since it would be such a rare occurrence (as opposed to its daily presence in human life), there wold be no real need to explain it or incorporate it into the cultural/mythic landscape.

Elves are mortal, however. This mortality manifests as an inability to extract nutrients from food commonly consumed by elves. Thus, as the elf grows older, their diet becomes more and more exotic (possibly giving rise to the elven adventurer). When the diet of an elf results in the death of another creature (as in meat), they become a member of the Winter Court. Thus, the Summer Court is almost entirely made up of younger elves and the Winter Court is almost entirely made up of older elves.

Eventually, the elven system can no longer gain sustenance from food. This would be the natural end of the life cycle; however, since elves do not intimately know or understand death (outside of battle) they tend to fear it. Thus, they have spent centuries figuring out ways to cheat it. For example, many in the Winter Court have willingly become wights — they feed on the very life essence of other beings.

More importantly, the Bane weapons were one of these ways to cheat death. Elves of a certain age willingly had their souls tied to these weapons in an attempt to bring peace to the races in a kind of magical detente. Unfortunately, separated from their bodies, the elves went into a kind of torpor. The only way to wake was to find someone willing to give up their own will and allow the elf to act in and through the wielder of the weapon (as Ahkmed has done). In addition, the dwarves abused the bane weapons and brought corruption and death to the races instead of peace.

The Winter King is the oldest living elf. He has cheated death over and over again in a myriad of ways — including some that are truly heinous. He has made and broken deals with demons. He has killed innocents by the thousands. He is unwilling to die until he frees the Winter Queen from her torpor.

As a result of my players' interpretation of events, his latest cheat has had the unintended consequence of infecting others in the Winter court. While he is somewhat content to live as a half-shadow, he fears that once the Winter Court succumbs, it will affect elven kind as a whole. Currently, he is racing against time to find a way to work around this affliction. He has yet to find a cure.

An Example of a Story Emerging from Play Part 2

When I began my campaign, I had not strictly defined what any of the demi-human races were like (and had no real interest in doing so). Thus, when the first player to create a dwarf asked me what dwarves in my world were like, I told him to tell me. Because he balked at the idea, I started brainstorming ideas. The one he was most interested in was James' Dwimmermount dwarf. Though this was the genesis of dwarves in my campaign, Lost Colony dwarves differ from Dwimmermount dwarves in significant ways (they are neuters, for example) — not through my doing, but rather for things said and done by dwarf players in the campaign.

When my party found out that dwarf reproduction involved building a dwarf with the possibility of coming out with a gnome, they were intensely interested in getting a gnome for the group. They even planned to fund Ahkmed in the creation of said gnome — keep shelling out 10,000gp until a gnome came out. It was then decided that it was traditional for Dwarves only to have one son.

I reasoned that any son created after the first would have a very high chance of being a Knocker (a Chaotic Dwarf). I also reasoned that it had not always been that way. This tragic story was suggested by Mr. Raggi's module The Hammers of the God. It also suggested an origin for elfin maids bound to magical weapons.

One of the hammers of The Hammers of the God is a bane weapon — it is designed to be better against a specific kind of creature. There were also murals within the module that suggested that all of the various races of the earth had cooperated in making bane weapons in order to assure peace. This peace was destroyed by the dwarves (thus, giving a nice reason for there to be antipathy between the two races).

I figured that the dwarves (under the leadership of Mär-Rune from Raggi's module) started stealing all of the bane weapons in order to make war on all of the other races. The war that ensued so tainted the dwarven race, that they can no longer make more than one son without having that taint becoming manifest in their offspring. This war also sowed the seeds for the creation of the Sons of Cyn — but that is for another day.

Unfortunately, my players decided not to pursue the clues I had laid for them to find The Hammers — but the dungeon and all of this information has been placed into my campaign and awaits exploration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Example of a Story Emerging from Play Part I

This series of posts has its genesis in selfishness, I must admit. I am approaching a major story point in my Lost Colonies campaign that has the potential of world-changing consequences. This story point, however, is not entirely my own — it is something that has emerged from play rather than something I had planned or even imagined. Therefore, I want to put down in writing my thoughts about it in order to help me hammer out some details and see whether or not I have something workable and comprehensible; however, I also think that it might be useful for others interested to see how (at least for me) small things that come up in play develop into story-lines that affect entire campaigns and campaign worlds.

As with many things that I do when I run a game, this whole thing started with a roll on a random table — specifically, the presence of a simple (boring) short sword +1. In order to give it more character, I told the party that it had the word "Hornet" engraved on the blade in Elvish (with Sting from The Hobbit strongly in mind).

Given that the goblins in The Hobbit did not much care for the Elvish blades used by the protagonists of Tolkien's tale, I figured they wouldn't much care for Hornet either. I reasoned that goblins were particularly hated by the sword itself, which would force its wielder to attack goblins within 30' or so unless a save vs. spells was made.

This came up a couple of times during play. When Ahkmed the Dwarf (the wielder of Hornet) tried to use any weapon but Hornet, I added another twist — the sword was getting jealous and would appear in Ahkmed's hand unless he made a save vs. spells.

Ahkmed's player was new to the world of RPGs, with mine being only his second ever campaign. The veteran players had a lot of fun at his expense, as this was his first experience with a "cursed" item. Interestingly, it was really only those veteran players who wanted to get rid of the sword — Ahkmed's player was having fun being Hornet's wielder.

This was all pretty much copacetic until, after "giving his will" to Hornet in order to find a goblin in hiding, Ahkmed killed a goblin the party had worked very hard to capture (and thus interrogate). At this point, the sword was seen as more of a hindrance than a help.

Given that the sword now had some kind of entity to which someone could give their will to (and given the history of special swords from older editions of the game), Hornet definitely would not want to be parted from Ahkmed. Therefore, I reasoned that she (because Hornet was now a she in my mind) would need to offer something to Ahkmed in order to keep her around.

What resulted was the idea of a female elf somehow bound to the sword had been awakened by Ahkmed when he gave his will to the sword. As a result, she was now able to offer him help by acting in and through him. Thus, Ahkmed could gain certain elf-like abilities as long as he remained tied to the sword. Ahkmed gleefully agreed and Hornet became a quiet NPC in the party.

At this point, however, I had no idea how or why there was an elfin maid bound to a magical sword or what that meant for other magical swords/weapons — something Ahkmed's player was definitely interested in finding out more about. In the meantime, he busied himself collecting as many elfin accouterments as possible.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 40

After procuring the aid of some elves and a boat, our stalwart adventurers quickly found a ruined underwater city. After a short reconnaissance, they discerned three distinct sections of the ruins. The southern section was the most dilapidated. The north, while in ruins, still looked formidable with a wall and various towers still standing. The central section was what caught the party's attention, because it was covered by an opaque dome.

Readying themselves with various magical means of breathing water, they all made a bee-line for the dome, which rang out in a low tone when the first of the party landed on its top. This attracted the attention of a group of fishmen swimming from the north armed with tridents and nets. As party members struggled to move and fight in an alien environment, it quickly became clear that their attackers were interested in capturing them, not killing them. Dn. Goram tried to communicate to the group that he wanted to willingly go with the fishmen, but neither the fishmen nor the rest of party could understand him.

As a result, the party was split between those who were captured and those who figured out how best to fight underwater. This latter group was approached by what they guessed were a different tribe of fishmen. These seemed friendly, so they willingly followed in hopes of gaining allies to rescue their companions.

What followed was two separate conversations where the leaders of two different factions attempted to recruit the players to their cause. Those who willingly went with the second group of fishmen, found themselves in audience with a water naga who insisted that the domed section of the city had been stolen from her. Ahkmed and Gilek were taken aback that their would-be ally turned out to be something they perceived as evil (despite the fact that she had a neutral alignment — was it the way I role-played her?). Therefore, they busied themselves with trying to milk as much information and material goods out of the naga as they could before they could get away and figure out how best to eradicate her.

Those who were captured were surprised to find that the dome was filled with breathable air and contained what might have been a bustling, well maintained city if it weren't for the lack of inhabitants. As they entered what looked to be an ancient pagan temple at the center of town, they found themselves in the presence of the Winter King.

After it was established that Dn. Goram was there at the behest of the Summer King, the Winter King warmed up to the party and was quite blunt about his presence in the undersea city. He explained that he was afflicted with some kind of curse (his immediate appearance as an elf was an illusion — he was actually some kind of shadow version of an elf) and he had driven out the naga in order to be able to conduct a series of experiments in an attempt to reverse his condition.

When pressed, he admitted that he had made an "unfortunate" ally with what he referred to as "deep ones" and that they were responsible for the kidnappings and that the undead incursions were an unintended consequence of his experiments. However, he insisted that as vile as the kidnapping might be and as regrettable the undead attacks were, it was all necessary because his own condition was going to inflict all of elven kind if he did not act. Unfortunately, he had yet to find his answer.

The party (despite the openly evil things that the Winter King was doing) asked if there was anything they could do to help. Dn. Goram later explained that all of elven-kind was in danger. Helping the Winter King find a cure helped the whole, therefore his present evil was outweighed by a greater good. He also detected a sense of regret in the WInter King, as well as desire for redemption (even if the elf thought his own soul was beyond saving).

The party was informed that there was a distant cave wherein the Winter King did some unspeakable things in his youth. Therein they would find an altar. Upon that alter would be something that might be able to help. Unfortunately, the Winter King himself did not think it worth risking so much time to fetch himself. He would continue in his constant experiments while the party travelled south and west.

Each half of the party was then escorted out from their respective audiences and ran into each other. Much confusion ensued, especially when Gilek decided to turn on his own escorts.

The rest of the session was spent on sorting out everyone's story and deciding whose side to actually take (Gilek and Ahkmed were again taken aback when they discovered that the naga had told the truth about being ousted from her city). But it was decided that the naga was an evil that needed to be eradicated immediately. Thus, the session ended with an attack upon the naga's lair-in-exile in which Gilek almost died and Ahkmed found himself briefly polymorphed into a rust monster prior to the naga's demise.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


O God of spirits and of all flesh, You have trampled upon death and have abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the souls of Your departed servants in a place of light, in a place of green pastures, in a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, no sorrow, and no suffering. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin they have committed in thought, word or deed, for there is no one who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your word is truth.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Nicholas

I am going to deviate from my usual fair today, because tomorrow so many of us will be remembering the tenth anniversary of one of the most tragic events in U.S. history — certainly of my lifetime. Rather than remembering a saint, today I'd like to remember a building dedicated to a saint as well as the men and women who lost their lives in its vicinity.

While many of the talks we will hear and make tomorrow will be about the Twin Towers, there were three buildings destroyed that day in New York. Standing in the shadows of the Twin Towers was a little church called St. Nicholas.

Forgive me while I do a little comparison. Gary Gygax died on March 4, 2008. I only knew Gary through his writing and the game he created with Dave Arneson. So I, like many who have found joy in playing that game in one or more of its many iterations, went back and read those words in order to hold on to what we had lost. What resulted from that memorial is what I have called a golden age in our hobby. We have gone back, rediscovered the magic of 1974, 1979, 1981, etc., made it our own and created all kinds of wonderful. In other words, every time we sit down at a table to play, we honor Gary, Dave, Dr. Holmes and all of those who labored to give us this game we love so much.

In contrast, when New York gathers to remember the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the destruction wrought by hate and the lives that hate destroyed, the very men and women who risked their lives to save people from the attack, the fire and the rubble will not be welcome (they were "honored" on the eighth). In addition, ground zero has been declared a clergy-free zone — on sacred ground where a house of worship once stood. You will excuse me if I think this an abomination.

I ask that all of us take time tomorrow to honor the dead, honor those they left behind and honor those who risk their lives on a daily basis so that we may be free and safe to play the games we play. I also ask that we consider that maybe one of the reasons that a hole still scars the city New York ten years after two planes were deliberately flown into the Twin Towers is that we have not only turned away clergy, but God Himself.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 39

The last time I did one of these reports, a group of elves representing the Summer King had arrived in Headwaters seeking an audience with Dn. Goram. A story had reached the Summer Court of a hero who had single-handedly (for all intents and purposes) defeated an undead army. The locals had confirmed that Dn. Goram played a vital role in the defense of Headwaters against a large number of skeletons. As a result, these elves were eager to get the deacon's help with their own undead problem.

Dn. Goram interpreted this request as the test he was to take in order to get his brother raised from the dead, so he agreed to come. Ahkmed the Dwarf with his follower Kavella the Elf, Kyron the Illusionist, Dn. Swibish with his follower Ardek the Dwarf, and Gilek the Gnome all agreed to accompany them. In addition, the two giant eagles that had attached themselves to the party insisted on coming along so that they could visit with their old master and their family, since both lived in proximity to the Summer Court.

Thus, the party flew south aboard a flying galleon the elves had hidden from view west of Headwaters. Hidden in the clouds, the journey was rather uneventful and they were soon escorted into the illusory and mysterious Summer Court — disguised as a hill in the middle of a quaint town specializing in raising horses.

The Summer King informed the party that they had been plagued by incursions of undead coming from the sea. Elves were particularly vulnerable because they had no clerics to Turn them. These incursions coincided with the disappearance of the Winter King and his court as well as a rash of kidnapping all along the coast. Given his prowess in defeating the undead, the Summer King was hoping Dn. Goram would be able to help. The party agreed to investigate.

To begin, they set up a watch in the area where the undead had most frequently attacked the elves. The resultant battle was a very near thing for the party. A large group of undead consisting of skeletons, zombies, ghouls, ghasts and a wight emerged from the sea and proved far more challenging than the players expected. While the clerics were able to easily destroy the skeletons and zombies with their Turning ability, they had to burn through all of the lower order undead before they could affect the ghouls, etc. Thus, Dn. Goram, Dn. Swibish and Ahkmed were all paralyzed before any of the ghouls or ghasts had been Turned.

Two things then turned (no pun intended) the battle to the players' favor. First, Kavella's elvish immunity to the ghoul's paralysis allowed her to dive into the fray with a healing potion to free Dn. Goram from his paralysis. Secondly, Gilek earned the moniker "Lucky" because he single-handedly held off the wight without ever being hit.

After nearly seeing the decimation of the whole party, everyone determined that their best course of action was to find the source of these attacks rather than standing on the beach waiting for another attack (and another opportunity to be overwhelmed). They quickly learned that the elves were aware of several city ruins that had been buried beneath the sea in a previous era. Procuring several ways to breath underwater, the party set off to find the nearest of these ruins.

Note to those who think Turning is too powerful: this session is an object lesson in how to get around it. When everyone who plays in my group shows up at the table, the party has three clerics. This makes most encounters with undead a walk in the park — unless I pair more powerful undead types with a large group of skeleton and zombie fodder. Since low HD undead are affected by Turning before higher HD undead, all those ineffectual skeletons and zombies render ghouls, etc. far more dangerous than they normally would be against a group of even mid-to-high-level clerics.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost Colonies Returns

If you've read this blog in the past, you may have noticed that I have not posted any session reports on my Lost Colonies campaign for a couple of months. The reason for this is that this summer was an absolute disaster for the purposes of scheduling game time. Several of the folks I play with were out of town, on vacation, etc. and gaming fell by the way side. On the few nights we did get together, we often suffered very bad cases of Gamer ADD and opted for Villains & Vigilantes. [An interesting by-product of this experience: as much a I love V&V, I am at a point in my life where I am no longer much interested in using what time I have for RPGs on anything other than FRPGs, specifically D&D and those retroclones that emulate it.]

Now that summer is coming to close and every one is back in town, we decided to get back to playing the Lost Colonies campaign. Before I post any actual session reports, however, I thought I'd write a post about some of the larger issues that I found interesting about re-starting a campaign and what might be called a cultural conundrum.

The first big problem we all had was just remembering where everybody was, why everybody was doing what they were doing and what everyone was going to do next. We tackled the situation by taking turns telling our own versions of what was going on and asking questions of each other. I didn't try to do this on purpose (though I might the next time I run into a similar situation), it happened organically. Since there were details others remembered that I forgot, I was encouraged to allow as much collaborative remembering as seemed necessary. This went on for close to thirty to forty minutes. I consider it time well spent, in this case.

By the time play began, everyone was getting back into character and things progressed, if not smoothly, then forward far enough to get back into some kind of rhythm. One thing that helped was that we did two sessions in quick succession — less than a week apart. I accidentally created a sense of urgency by ending the first session on a cliffhanger — thus, everybody was eager to get back to it.

When I first started running this campaign, I did so as an experiment — what would happen if you introduced earlier versions of D&D to a bunch of 3.5 players? For the most part, they have all settled on the idea that B/X and its retroclone LL are as much as one needs in order to have a lot of fun sans all the prep time necessary with 3.5 (even if there are aspects of 3.5 that some miss).

I mention this because in running Lost Colonies, there have only been a couple of times that I was aware of a clash of culture between 3.5 play and old-school play. These sessions were one of them. As the two evenings progressed, I came to realize that there was a definite new-school vibe with what I was doing as a Referee.

Super-hero RPGs do not lend themselves to a sand-box style of play. By necessity, they are more plot driven. Even so, they can be run in a mystery/information gathering kind of way. When I ran V&V, I decided to have an overall campaign secret that would be revealed piecemeal over several sessions. Different pieces of the puzzle were available from different NPCs and their lairs. As the players encountered various villains, the information gathered could lead players in a couple of different directions to find another piece of the puzzle. I did this in an attempt to allow players to drive the plot more than my choices as a Referee.

I structured the current adventure for Lost Colonies in a similar manner. I had several different encounter areas that could yield a plethora of information about what was really going on. Depending upon where the players chose to go, how they reacted to these NPCs and how much they trusted the information there were all kinds of different possibilities. At least that was the theory.

In the middle of what I considered to be an interesting, tough but winnable combat, half the party went into what I might describe as a "new school-" or "3.5" mentality. A couple of players hypothesized that they were supposed to be captured — the assumption that this is the action that would further the intended plot. As a result, half of the party gave up trying to win the fight and allowed themselves to be captured. Only two players (the newest D&D player and the one player who came into the hobby with with 2ed) fought to the end. They proved my own assumption about the encounter and were rewarded with freedom.

The adventure had two factions in conflict with each other. One side was definitely evil. The other was alien, but neutral. The evil faction was interested in using the PCs to further their own agenda. The neutral faction was interested in allying with the PCs to eradicate the evil faction.

As each part of the party encountered one of the factions something really surprising happened (and one that I might blame on the "new school" mentality). When everyone managed to get together again, everyone decided that the evil faction was, if not exactly good, trying to accomplish a greater good and the neutral faction was evil and therefore was eliminated.

While wildly entertaining from my perspective, it does leave me in a bit of a conundrum. How much of the "new school" mentality lead to the players accepting the evil faction at their word? How much of that is my own fault? Further, the players have started to craft their own narrative about what they are trying to accomplish by helping the evil faction that radically differs from my own original plans. I happen to like their version quite a bit…and am quite happy to alter my plans to adhere to their expectations with a few of my own twists. The question is: should I?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Anthimos

Today is the feast of St. Anthimos, Bishop of Nicomedea. During the reign of the Emperor Maximian at the beginning of the 4th century, thousands of Christians were rounded up in Nicomedia to be put to trial and martyred. St. Anthimos managed to evade imperial troops and went into hiding along with what remained of his flock.

When the emperor learned that the bishop was still at large, he called for a manhunt. When soldiers found the saint, they did not recognize their quarry when the bishop promised to show them where Anthimos was. The saint brought them into his home, fed them and treated them as guests. After the meal, he revealed himself. Amazed by the bishop's kindness, they wished to help hide the saint; however, in order to protect the soldiers, Anthimos willingly went with them. On the way, he converted and baptized the soldiers who arrested him. He was tortured and beheaded in AD 303 or 304.


The Skull of St. Florian

This artifact appears to be a normal human skull, save for the ornate cross carved into its forehead. It will be revealed as magical should a Detect Magic be cast upon it. Once per week, the skull may be asked to provide sustenance. The skull will then cast Create Food and Water as a ninth level cleric; however, the real power of the skull is only revealed when a Lawful creature uses the skull's bounty to feed and care for Chaotic creatures. Such creatures will be subject to the same effects as a Helm of Opposite Alignment.