Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Dadas, Gabeddas and Kazdoa

Today is the feast of the martyr saints Dadas, Gabeddas and Kazdoa. Daddas was a noble in the Persian Empire assigned as governor of one of the Persian districts. When it was discovered that he was a Christian, he was stripped of all of his honors and condemned to be burned to death. When he was approaching the pyre, however,  the fire was put out when the saint made the Sign of the Cross.

Gabeddas was the Persian king’s son, and seeing this miracle he was stunned and in that moment decided that he, too, would believe in Christ. He was arrested and tortured; however, an angel would appear and heal all of his wounds. Many prisoners witnessing his trials were convinced to become Christians.

Kazdoa, the sister of Gabeddas, would secretly visit her brother to give him water. Seeing the miraculous ways that he endured, she, too, was convinced to become Christian. Predictably, her father had her arrested and beaten.

All were eventually martyred during the reign of Shapur II (A.D. 310-379).

Before I go any further, check out the line of kings during the Sassanid dynasty here. Note how many are deposed or killed by their own aristocracy. 

One of the most (negatively) formative campaigns I ever took part in had (at least for me) tremendous untapped potential. My character was a half-orc fighter/thief who was an escaped slave. The campaign took place on the frontier of what used to be territory held by the empire my character escaped from. One of the first adventures our party undertook was the recovery of a lost library. One of the books that our party eventually found (after getting into a tit-for-tat rivalry with a local thieves guild) was a history of the royal family of the empire my character escaped from.

I straightaway saw the incredible value of this book for both my character and the campaign. I immediately started lobbying our party to find a pretender to the throne, using our newly found treasure as proof of his or her legitimacy in order to throw the empire into civil war. My character wasn’t particularly interested in winning the war, rather he was interested in revenge; however, I was secretly hoping to find a pretender I could actually believe in.

Unfortunately, this was the 2e era, and our DM was under the influence of the modules of the time and we got railroaded into fighting demons in the frozen north (what he wanted his campaign to be about). Therefore, my desire to play kingmaker never bore fruit.

The story of Sts. Dadas, Gabeddas and Kazdoa reminds me of the untapped potential of that campaign. The Sassanid dynasty is one of assassination and aristocratic conspiracy and the fact that Gabeddas and Kazdoa are members of the royal family who convert to Christianity screams for a campaign based on the idea of finding, rescuing and then elevating a pretender to the throne.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily something one could expect to do in a sandbox type of campaign. I am not arguing that it isn’t possible, it just isn’t something that can be planned, because it requires the desire and choice of the players. One can certainly put all the pieces in place for the characters to pick up and follow (like a book of succession), but, unlike my DM of old, I wouldn’t ever want to force my players in that kind of direction. Someday, maybe, I’ll get to play in a campaign where either my players or my character get to play political conspirators...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Meditating on Electrum

Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House is musing out loud today about how the various versions of D&D interact with each other within the nebulous confines of old school play. He starts with the observation that ACKS borrows many concepts from 3e+ and/or has a 3e+ design feel to it. I myself have on more than one occasion admitted that the idea of 3e+ D&D is quite a gorgeous thing. Putting into practice is the problem.

Personally, I find it very interesting what has bled into my own gaming play from the 3e+ era. They often surprise me, because rather than being big design ideas they are minutia that actually makes interacting with my world a little easier for my players. Languages were one of the first that I noticed.

Another is the non-use of electrum. Despite the fact that it is a naturally occurring metal (with a mixture of silver, gold and a variety of other ores) that was used in coinage in several parts of the ancient world, it messes up the wonderfully easy to understand decimal system of 3e+ coinage. So, despite the fact it exists in both older versions of D&D and its clones, and despite the fact that Gygax had it exactly correct that electrum is half-way between silver and gold, my players have rejected it out of hand as part of their game play.

My problem is that I have always had a soft spot for the metal. It is possibly more historically accurate as a type of coin than either gold or platinum. It conducts electricity. Its name sounds really cool. Yet, my players are absolutely correct that it is just a pain to include it in the game as half a gold piece.

I mention all of this because I ran across this hymn today while chasing down something I was researching:
Beholding the orders of the Angels in manifold form, Ezekiel proclaimed them in his history long ago; among them stood the six-winged Seraphim, and the many-eyed Cherubim compassing round about; and with them he saw the Archangels shining like electrum and glorifying Christ unto all the ages. [my emphasis]
This got me thinking that I could re-introduce the metal into my game as a magical metal. Whereas adamantium and mithral are arcane metals, electrum could be a metal used to create/channel divine magic.

Unlike adamantium and mithral (which are ostensibly forged by a class that cannot use them in most applications), electrum could be fully taken advantage of by the spell casters who forge them — clerics.

Herein is another way that 3e+ design can sneak in to my game at a more fundamental level: rather than tying metamagic feats to players, I could tie them to various applications of electrum.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meditating on Realism

So I noticed a couple of sorties in what Talysman has dubbed The Realism War. It began with Noism trying to make the claim that it is absurd to try and be realistic in a fantasy game:
Fantasy gaming rests on a fiction: that you could have a society like England in 1200 AD which also has supernatural beings, magic, and active deities. That fiction, in turn, rests on the understanding that nobody thinks about it too hard.
Talysman countered:
it's not the attempt to inject realism into a game that is absurd, but the fetishism of realism and application of a scientific world-view to a fantasy game.
To a certain extent, both are correct. Fantasy worlds are just fantasy and applying our scientific world view upon a world where magic exists can be absurd. I would argue, however, that they both miss a greater point and a magnificent opportunity.

To me the fun of it all isn’t trying to explain how radically different AD 1200 England would look if dragons went around eating cattle by adjusting historic cattle/people ratios or cultural norms. For me, the fun is trying to explain how AD 1200 England and dragons can coexist without having to do all that obsessive number crunching.

Herein, our scientific world view can actually be a boon rather than a bane. What if, for example, dragons were an silicon based alien life form trapped here on earth when an ancient space ship crash landed? Their diet would not consist of carbon based life forms. They would rather be interested in crystals, minerals, gems and precious metals (thus the need for giant treasure hordes). It would also explain the whole breath weapon thing. The byproduct of breathing oxygen would be silicon dioxide — a solid. In order to easily expunge this byproduct, the dragon simply heats it up and expels it in liquid form as a breath weapon.

There, now you have an entirely plausible, entertaining and geektastic explanation for how dragons could exist in context of an otherwise historically accurate AD 1200 England without having to crunch one number. All you have to do is dash on a little science to get your fantasy even farther out of the box.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meditating on Established Settings

Dice Monkey is hosting the September Blog Carnival and the topic is Established Settings. He asks:
Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

Let me say from the outset, that I have a love/hate relationship with established settings. In terms of my hobby dollar, I am more likely to spend money on an established setting than I am on just about anything other than a map (especially if the setting comes with a cool map); however, as a Referee/GM/DM/Labyrinth Lord etc. I have only ever used one of these settings — Judges Guild’s Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

Even then, I would guess that most who have read my Lost Colonies posts over the years would be hard pressed to recognize it as a JG Wilderlands-based campaign. Indeed, the only reason it is a Wilderlands-based campaign is because I knew not whether it would last very long (I was introducing a bunch of 3.5 players to LL) and I didn’t want to waste a lot of prep time on a sand box that would last only a few sessions.

I chose the Wilderlands specifically because it was primarily a map with a bunch of adventure seeds littered all over it. I was free to fiddle as much as I wanted with little concern for campaign world canon, history or all the other stuff modern gamers can expect from an established campaign world. Thus, it became MY campaign world despite the fact that I didn’t draw the map.

Indeed, this is how I would characterize the best established settings: there should be enough information to spur on the imagination, to encourage players to do what they want and to allow a world to develop into its own unique entity at every table that it is played at. Besides The Wilderlands, there are several established settings that emulate this style:

This is not to say that I don’t own established settings that have far more detail and canon (admittedly, I have a huge Traveller collection). My problem with all of these settings is that, due to that level of detail and canon, I never feel as if the campaign world can ever truly be my own. I will always be beholden to the whims of future publications and players who know the canon better than I.

This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about them (I do) or that I don’t liberally lift ideas from them (I do). This latter is probably why I think that established settings are always a wonderful curiosity — we get to see how other creative people do what they do in this beloved hobby of ours.

I will note, however, my experience of established settings as a player is much different. I’ve adventured in the Wilderlands, Kalamar, Golarion, the Star Wars universe and a few others whose names escape me. I enjoyed all of these experiences, but only because I was able to play the kind of character I wanted to play due the guys that were at my table. I felt that (at least at the level of my PC) I could mark out a tiny territory that was truly mine. If I were asked to completely adhere to the reality as written, however, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. (For those interested, my characters generally would understand various gods as angels, saints or avatars to the Most High God or some variation there of).

Of course, there was also understanding on my part, as well. Many of the games that I took part in as a player used 3.5/Pathfinder rules. As I have stated before, I have zero interest in running a game using those rules. For those that do, I do not begrudge them using an established setting and modules written for them. It makes running the game possible for those of us who do not have the time necessary to run the kind of game we like to play (wide open and driven by player choice, in the case of my table).

Indeed, if I ever was forced to run a 3.5/Pathfinder game (someone’s life would probably have to be at stake) I would fall back on several of my Goodman games modules and Goodman's established setting the Known Realms wherein all the modules could be set in order to make the whole endeavor even remotely possible. Even then, though, I would fiddle with the pantheon to more closely adhere to a psuedo-Christian medieval church structure.

At the end of the day, however, I find that established settings are best utilized and enjoyed as source material for my own campaigns, rather than as something to use for the basis of a campaign.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Phocas of Sinope

Today is the feast of St. Phocas who was bishop of Sinope (modern day Sinop in north-central Turkey on the Black Sea coast). He was martyred in A.D. 102 during the reign of emperor Trajan. He was burned to death in a bath house.

The most interesting part of his story, however, was almost three hundred years after his death when his relics were transferred to the imperial city of Constantinople. This past week James Maliszewski posted about some relics that were recently re-interned at St. Martin of Tours in Kentucky. I found it interesting how inspiring the accompanying photo was in that it invoked a classic S&S feel, with a solid nod toward CAS.

The city of Constantinople, being the city built by St. Constantine (the first Christian emperor), had very little in the way of a history of martyrs. Since the cult of the saints — particularly martyr saints — was so strong within Christianity, there was a perceived need to transfer the relics of martyrs to the the imperial city.

St. Phocas was one of these martyr saints. He was transferred from Pontus around A.D. 400 to the imperial city with great pomp and circumstance. There was a procession through the city streets and its water ways that lasted two days. The relics were accompanied by a flotilla of lamp bearing ships under the gaze of the emperor and the empress. There is an extant homily of St. John Chrysostom, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople at the time, commemorating the event:
Yesterday our city was magnificent, magnificent and renowned not because it has columns, but because a martyr was in our midst, ceremoniously conveyed to us from Pontus. He observed your hospitality and filled you with his blessing. He praised your enthusiasm and blessed the people present. He blessed those who gathered and shared his sweet smell…
Three things to note:

  • St. John talks about the saint in the present tense. The relics of the saints are an integral part of the person of the saint. Their presence indicates the active presence of the saint himself. Miracles are worked through them. My wife, while sitting in the presence of a saint’s relics, felt the saint’s hand on a wound that would not heal. When she got up to leave, the wound was gone.
  • Many relics have a sweet smell — the sweetness of the Kingdom of Heaven. This sweetness is unlike anything I have ever smelled. It is sweeter than honey, flowers, basil or any other fragrance I can think of.
  • These are textural details of a real culture that formed the foundation of everything we know today in the West, and yet it feels entirely foreign, fantastic and worthy of an S&S story by CAS or even REH.

All of this is a reminder that not only is truth often stranger than fiction, but if we want to breathe the fantastic into our campaigns, we need not look much further than the history section of a library.

Friday, September 21, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Mapping B.R.7 Part 3

As I have admitted before, one of my least favorite parts of this hobby is actually keying a dungeon or adventure. When it comes to actually being at the table, I much prefer working off of simple notes and a bunch of random tables. It helps me be creative and it makes my time at the table far more enjoyable — I get to be surprised by my own creation.

As such, the most challenging aspect of mapping B.R.7 is going to be keying this potentially massive megadungeon. One of the ways that I improvise at the table is coming up with themes for various sections of a dungeon — based upon either the architecture, inhabitants or both. In thinking in terms of a hive city, one basic theme will be city zoning.

I took a brief look at the zoning laws of New York City this week and determined that they have three basic zones: Residential, Commercial and Industrial. Each of these has three subcategories based on population. This can be extrapolated into nine zones:
  • Poor Residential (high population)
  • Middle-Class Residential (medium population)
  • Upper-Class Residential (low population)
  • Warehouse/Storage-Commercial (low population)
  • Office Space Commercial (medium population)
  • Retail Commercial (high population)
  • Heavy Industry (low population)
  • Medium Industry (medium Population)
  • Light Industry (high population)
To this list I would also include Military (since there is such a huge emphasis on war in the WH40K universe). Thus, for every section of map I make, I can roll on a table to determine the basic zoning (and thus the theme) of the area:

01-03   Poor Residential (PR)
04-05   Heavy Industry (HI)
06-08   Warehouse/Storage (WS)
09-10   Medium Industry (MI)
11-12   Light Industry (LI)
13-13   Military (M)
14-15   Middle-Class Residential (MR)
16-17   Retail (R)
18-19   Offices (O)
20- 20  High-Class Residential (HR)

This roll can be modified in the following ways:

  • Apply a -2 when a neighboring zone is either PR or HI.
  • Apply a -1 when a neighboring zone is either WS or MI.
  • Apply a +1 when a neighboring zone is either MR or R.
  • Apply a +2 when a neighboring zone is either O or HR.
From there, I intend to pull out the yellow pages, in order to make several tables to determine what each room in a zone actually contains. For example, a table for an R zone might include:

  • Restaurant
  • Clothing
  • Electronics
  • Grocer
  • Office Supply
  • Luxury Items

Then I can roll to see what condition the room is in:
1    Heavily Damaged (nothing of value)
2-3 Lightly Damaged (some items of value)
4-5 Looted (in good condition but no items of value)
6    Untouched
This will give me a lot of information to improvise with. From there, it is only a matter of putting together several wandering monster tables to reflect territories held by various factions.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Mapping B.R.7 Part 2

As much as I love geomorphs, I must admit that due to the limitations of the form, maps made from them can be a bit blocky. One of the most popular posts in the entire history of this blog took a bunch of Dyson Logos maps drawn on 3x5 cards and stitched them together. The result was a beautifully organic looking dungeon.

In turn, I started to produce some 3x5 “geomorphs” which resulted in some more beautifully organic dungeons — the kind that we might expect (and do) find in the real world. Though (to my knowledge) my challenge to other artists out there to produce a library of 3x5 geomorphs has yet to be answered, it did power my own (ongoing) attempt to create my own version of the Slave Pits of the Undercity.

However, as Kobold of Waystar Highport points out:
I would imagine that many parts, or subsections, of a Hive would be duplicated or of "standard" design. So, one could map a couple of floors of a residential block in some detail and then decide that the design repeats, both horizontally and vertically over the extent of the Residential subsection.
Indeed, there are many aspects of any modern city that are standardized.

In other words, a megadungeon based on a WH40K hive city is a perfect application for the good, old-fashioned geomorphic map with its blocky, standardized feel. Indeed, if one wanted to limit oneself to a set of a dozen or more for an entire section of the city, not only would it not feel wrong, but would become a realistic feature.

Thus, one aspect of mapping B.R.7 is going to be a very heavy dose of geomorphic madness. In part, this is why I have happily supported Dave Millar’s recent fundraising drive — to give myself a number of geomorphs that have the feel I am looking for in a hive city. The beauty of Dave’s Mapper is that it makes maps very quickly, and given my own experience with graphic design, I can pound out a bunch of maps in short order to accommodate play.

If and when players push off a map, I can always do my own version of the “Greyhawk Construction Company” in the form of a collapsed hallway. How and why are these passageways cleared later? All part of the adventure…

Here is a quick example of what kind of maps I can produce in a short period of time using Dave’s Mapper:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

IBD Update

As I mentioned the other day, Dave Millar of Dave's Mapper is running a little fund drive for a good cause (the info can be found here). Since I've had a window of opportunity to stay ahead of the game, I've been doing my part and creating geomorphs in anticipation of having to make a bunch in support of the drive. Indeed, early response has me responsible for 22 in the coming days. Unfortunately, I am well on my way to being finished with all of them.

As a bit of encouragement, I am posting some of my favorites in hopes that it will inspire some folks to increase my workload:

Monday, September 17, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Mapping B.R.7 Part 1

B.R.7 is the working name of the hive city-as-megadungeon for my WH40K campaign. Last night I started to do an intellectual exercise with some math, which demonstrates why having a hive city as a megadungeon is both an unending source of adventure as well as a mapping nightmare.

I have been using Manhattan as a reference in this intellectual exercise because it is both a finite space — an island about the size I might imagine a floating city — and it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world (about 70,000 people per sq. mile) — which suits the image of “hive city” very nicely.

The island is approximately 23 sq. miles and has a population around 1.5 million people (probably a little low, I know, but for easy math purposes 1.5 is a lot easier to deal with than 1.602). In order to fulfill the notion of a hive city, there needs to be, at minimum, 1 billion people. Thus, at least seven seven hundred Manhattans have to be stacked on top of each other in order to approximate a hive city environment. Ignoring for a moment that the island is covered in towering skyscrapers and multi-level apartment buildings, seven seven hundred Manhattans would have around 161 16,100 sq. miles.

Herein is the beauty and the horror of the hive city megadungeon. If one considers that (as far as I can tell) AEG’s World’s Largest Dungeon covers about one third of one square mile, mapping a hive city would require at minimum 483 48,300 world’s largest dungeons. This, of course ignores the fact that Manhattan has an average story height that might approach 20-30.

As much as I love maps and making maps, the idea of mapping 5000+ 500,000+ different versions the World’s Largest Dungeon is not something I want to do (or can do). This means that I must severely reduce access to the hive city itself. This way, I can reduce the amount of actual mapping that needs to be done and allow for expansion as I need or want it. In order to do this, I have in mind the cover of GDW’s Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society #15:

The giant skyscrapers represent the mega-cities of the high population world Azun in my favorite part of Third Imperium space: The Solomani Rim. (Since I am having a hard time finding my copy of this, I am having to go on memory) Azun is xenophobic. Each of the cities is self-contained and even communication between mega-cities is limited. Thus, access to each mega-city is extremely limited.

While this scenario works, Black Reach is not xenophobic; however, it does have a Thick Atmosphere and an Immiscible Biosphere. Thus, each hive city can have a controlled environment that seals itself off from the environment outside. This set-up would allow for a limited number of access points into the city and make my job much easier from the outset.

Here is a (tentative) list of possible access points:

  • Exhaust Port — while controlled, the city’s environment is still dependent upon the extant atmosphere. An exhaust port would lead into an air filtration system. These, in turn, would lead to air ducts and maintenance hatches. One or more may have survived the crash.
  • Space Port — each hive city would need a means to import and export resources. While probably badly damaged from the ork invasion, this still should result in some kind of access into the city.
  • Engines — damaged from the fighting (and the cause of the city’s descent), these would almost certainly grant access; however, this may be the most dangerous because it would also be the main access point for native life forms.
  • The Gardens — the upper most level of the city is dedicated to agriculture. Some if the plexiglass-like roof has been damaged, allowing access.
  • The Frigate — during the battle that resulted in the city’s descent resulted in a frigate crashing into the side of the city. It is still there and has damage to its exterior, allowing access to the frigate itself, and possibly to the city beyond.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dave Millar's IBD Tile Drive

Just a note that Dave of Dave's Mapper (one of the very cool tools that this community has pooled their talents to produce) is having a fund drive for a charity that is near and dear to him. You can get more information about it here.

The long and short: he contacted me to help him encourage folks with this drive and I agreed. Thus, for every $5 given from September 14 - 25, I (along with several others) will be doing another geomorph to add to Dave's Mapper. So, if you have the inclination to support a good cause and to keep me busy for a while, please take the time to donate. Thanks.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Nicetas the Great Martyr

Today is the feast of St. Nicetas the Great Martyr. He was a Gothic Christian who was captured, tortured and thrown into fire by the pagan usurper Athanaric in A.D. 372.

Normally, I would now go into more details about St. Nicetas’ life, however, yesterday I was struck by one of the hymns the Orthodox Church sang during the feast of The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross, which we are still celebrating today:
O Cross of Christ, the hope of Christians, the guide of the wayward, the haven of the storm-tossed, the victory in wartime, the security of the civilized world, for the sick a physician, for the dead resurrection, have mercy on us. [emphasis mine]
The feast commemorates St. Helen (mother of St. Constantine the first Christian Roman emperor) finding the True Cross in Jerusalem after the Edict of Milan, when Christianity was officially tolerated within the empire. When she had found three crosses lying next to each beneath a pagan temple, the bishop, St. Macarius, had a woman who was greatly ill touch the crosses. When she drew near the True Cross, she was healed.

Thus, the hymnody of the feast tacitly equates Civilization with Christian civilization. This, of course, is one of the assumptions that I make with my own use of the three-tier alignment system in D&D and its derivatives: Law = (Christian) Civilization.

The life of St. Nicetus, therefore, takes place in context of the expanding influence of Civilization in the form of the Christian Roman Empire. It also mirrors many tropes of the classic D&D sandbox campaign:

  • His life took place in the lands of the Goths — at the edge of civilization. He spent it spreading the Gospel. His analog is a PC adventuring in the Wilderness, where Chaos = paganism.
  • St. Nicetas was baptized by the Gothic Bishop Theophilus, who participated in the First Ecumenical Council. His analog is the former PC who has set up a stronghold and attracted followers, which then go on to be the next generation of PC adventurers.
  • The area in which Nicetas operated was liberated by Fritigern, who led an army against the pagan Athanaric. Fritigern’s analog would be a fellow party member with Theophilus.
  • The successor to Theophilus is the Arian Bishop Ulfilas. His analog is the NPC complication at the home base creating difficult choices for the PCs. While technically on the PCs side and able to help and supply them, this help comes with a price.
  • Finally, the usurper Athanaric (who captures, tortures and martyrs St. Nicetus) has an analog in the lurking Chaos that the former party beat back, but failed to completely destroy. It is this threat that the current PC party must investigate and defeat.

For those interested, these tropes can be found in Gygax’s classic T1: The Village of Hommlet. Additionally, take a gander at Erin Smale’s The Bastard’s Blade. He doesn’t post there very often, but what he does have fits the life of St. Nicetas very nicely (and maybe some extra traffic will inspire him to write more often…)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lost Colonies Session 57

Personally, one of the philosophies that I accept when it comes to running a successful campaign (from both the perspectives of someone who runs a campaign and one who regularly plays in a campaign) is allowing the players the opportunity to earn what they want out of the campaign. This requires the ability to listen to the players and to integrate what they want into the fabric of the campaign.

I preface this post with this statement, because my players were all really excited, pleased, thrilled and any other positive adjective you can think of at the end of our last session specifically because I listened and allowed my players that opportunity.

The last time we left our stalwart adventurers, the party had gone back to Redwraith in good faith, taking the bodies of the slaad that they had hunted down as they had promised. When faced with several possible choices as to what to do next, the party could not ignore the fact that they had found two keys of a set of four that would open a massive door inside the Black Tower. They had to know what lay beyond.

The majority of the session, therefore, involved a systematic exploration of the rest of the Black Tower, in search of the other two keys. The newest member to join the group was killed midway through the session (that’s three characters in two sessions for the poor guy) as he decided to venture too close to a pool that everyone knew was home to a gigantic, mutant octopus. The irony of it is that the party had decided to mess with the pool rather than try to deal with a section of the dungeon entirely submerged in water — which is exactly where the final key lay hidden.

The battle for the final key proved to be the most exciting because I misread a monster description and Dn. Swibish managed to roll a successful Turn check. The party managed to attract the attention of the key’s guardian, a type of underwater mummy that would kiss its victims and send sea water rushing into their lungs. I rolled damage every round, when the players should have gotten saving throws; however, I also figured that once the creature was killed, the drowning would stop (which, according to the saving throw version wouldn’t happen). So, it all balanced out in the end; however, it also meant that the party had to gang-tackle the mummy in order to prevent it from escaping so that they could kill it before party members drowned (if it had not been for a couple of well-timed CLW spells, two party members would have died).

Having successfully procured all four keys, the party then prepared itself for a massive battle with whatever foul evil lay behind the door. Unfortunately for them, they did not bother reading all of the script inside the pyramid which would have told them exactly what was behind the door — a direct connection to the Negative Plane which was the final step in transforming oneself into a lich.

After describing what lay beyond the door and the fact that there were a pair of very loud bangs that followed, I started counting. I got to about ‘5’ when the confusion wore of my players faces and they all screamed “RUN!” At this point, I instructed the party to show me where they were gong to run. Had they taken the most direct route out of the dungeon, I would have allowed them a chance to escape; however, this is not what happened.

Rather, they got to witness first hand the destruction that they wrought. Due to the fact that there was a rip in space and time that was sitting right on top of the dungeon of the Black Tower, opening a gate directly to the Negative Plane was catastrophic for the immediate area. The two were attracted to each other like a pair of magnets and their collision wiped clean a great evil that had stood for over a thousand years.

The party got caught in the shock wave and was hurtled through time and space. At this point, I drew up a quick table of various places in my repertoire that they could end up in. A couple of our players have been asking about running a sci-fi campaign (something no one seems interested in actually running). Since I have already introduced the idea of space ships to my campaign, there were some sci-fi options on the table, one of which was the result of the players' roll.

Thus, the session ended with the party waking up to find themselves inside a metal room in an entirely alien environment, to the great delight of the table.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Abhumans

When I conceived of this WH40K campaign, I mentioned that I would allow abhumans (ogryns and beastmen, for example) as characters. The mechanism by which this could happen is the replicant class from Section 9 of Mutant Future. To that end, I need to define exactly what “mutations” various abhumans have. In addition to the standard ogryn and beastmen, I have also included an abhuman type of my own making to give the Black Reach Sector its own bit of abhuman flavor.

The following table will be used for all abhuman advancement:
Lvl 1: HD 1d8; XP 0; AB 1
Lvl 2: HD 2d8; XP 3,000; AB 1
Lvl 3: HD 3d8; XP 6,000; AB 1
Lvl 4: HD 4d8; XP 12,000; AB 3
Lvl 5: HD 5d8; XP 24,000; AB 3
Lvl 6: HD 6d8; XP 48,000; AB 3
Lvl 7: HD 7d8; XP 96,000; AB 5
Lvl 8: HD 8d8; XP 192,000; AB 5
Lvl 9: HD 9d8; XP 492,000; AB 5
Lvl 10: HD 9d8+2; XP 892,000; AB 7
All abhumans save as warriors of the same level.


Ogryns are described as big, brutish, physically powerful and tough. They are often used by the Imperial Guard as close quarter and shock troops.


Gigantism: Ogryns stall about 3 meters tall. As a result they gain a +1 on damage in HTH combat.
Increased Physical Attribute: Roll (or choose):
1-3 Strength: starting at 3rd level, the ogryn can summon great bursts of strength. Once a day, the ogryn does an additional 3d6 damage in HTH combat. The number of times per day goes up one for every additional 2 levels (thus, at 7th level it can be done 3 times per day).
4-6 Constitution: The ogryn receives an additional hit point per level and a +2 to all saves vs. poison.


These abhumans combine features of both human and animal. Despite their bestial nature, however, they do conform to the genetic standard of what qualifies as an abhuman. In the past, they were used as assault troops by the Imperial Guard, but this practice has been quietly abandoned over fears that beastmen are more prone to fall prey to the temptations of Chaos (despite little evidence that normal humans are any less so).


Aberrant Form: Beastmen normally have horns, which they can use in HTH combat doing 1d6 damage.
Natural Armor: Beastmen are also covered in hide, which give them a natural AC bonus of +3.


These near albino abhumans hail from the feral planet Night in the Black Reach Sector. Once a mining colony, the surface of the planet along with its atmosphere was blasted to ruin in a conflict long forgotten by its inhabitants. The isolated remnant population has managed to adapt and survive far beneath the surface of the planet in honeycombed cave complexes with a society largely based on war. Locally, the Imperial Guard in the Black Reach Sector have recruited Darkmen as special forces.


Ecolocation: Often living in pitch dark, Darkmen have adapted echolocation as means to see. Though they cannot make out fine details, they can make out shapes even incomplete darkness. This adaptation can also be used to increase combat prowess — Darkmen who are able to use their echolocation gain a +2 to hit in combat.
Combat Empathy: This is a low-grade psychic power that allows Darkmen to see what their opponents are about to do in combat before they do it. As a result they gain +1 to hit and +1 to damage in combat. This damage bonus increases by 1 at both 3rd and 5th level.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today is the first Great Feast of the Orthodox Christian ecclesiastical year — The Nativity of the Theotokos. This event, of course, is not found within the NT, because that is not what the NT is about — the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The story of Mary’s birth is found in a book called the Protoevangelium of James.

Many people (including the good folks of Early Christian Writings to which I linked above) label the Protoevanglium to be apocryphal. From an Orthodox Christian point of view this is a misnomer. The word apocryphal means spurious; however, this writing was popular among early Christians and understood to be good for reading. Indeed, details from the Protoevangelium of James are found within the Mariological feasts of the Orthodox Church.

This, in turn, reminds us that the canon of the Bible as we know it today was not set in stone until the 4th century (by St. Athanasius the Great, for those who are curious). Prior to this there were various books that are not in the canon that were popular with early Christians, that were seen as good and holy works by early Christians (including St. Athanasius) and that were even read during services by early Christians. In fact, Hebrews and Revelation almost did not make it into the canon. Hebrews, while popular in the East, was rejected by many Western Christians because they did not believe it was written by St. Paul. Revelation, while popular in the West, was not well received in the East because of the interpretive difficulties that it poses (indeed, it is never read as part of any service in the Orthodox Church to this day).

A few examples of books that, though popular, did not make it into the canon:

There are, of course, a plethora of books that were completely rejected by the early Church — the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas just to name two. (BTW, the “re-discovery” of the latter a few years ago did not create much of a buzz among Orthodox Christianity because we already knew of its existence via St. Iraneus, who rejected it).

There is also the Book of Enoch. Though not recognized by most Christians (it is seen as canonical by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches), it is quoted in the Epistle of Jude (14-15).

I bring all this up because, despite my efforts to the contrary, there are those who are uncomfortable using the Bible as source material for a FRPG. This list of books, therefore, can be used as an alternative set of source material for someone who wants to run a campaign with a pseudo-Christian church or mythology. As anyone who has gone back and read some of the prophets, there are plenty of ways to utilize these books.

For example, here are a few themes that can be mined from the Protoevangelium of James:

  • Birth by a woman far beyond her child bearing years and/or barren is far more common within salvation history than the unique virgin birth of Christ. Anna, Mary’s mother, follows in this scriptural tradition — she is elderly and barren when she becomes pregnant. This theme could be exploited as part of the backstory of an adventure or campaign.
  • Mary is taken to the Temple by her parents to become of one the Temple Virgins. This highlights the power and status that virginity had in the ancient world. Indeed, there are plenty of examples both within Scripture and without that tie virginity with the ability to prophesy. This is great for backstory, campaign flavor and/or as a seed for all kinds of shenanigans within a campaign.
  • Mary was given food by angels while she lived inside the Temple. Angels, therefore, can play an active role in a campaign. Indeed, they can be avatars for God in a campaign world, playing the role from whence their name comes — messenger.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

WH40K Campaign: Black Reach

As folks who have read this blog for awhile know, I am a big fan of random tables. When used correctly, they can be a catalyst for some seriously cool creativity. Thus, I am very pleased with the way Stars Without Number handles system and planet creation.

A system consists of a 8x10 hex map on which are randomly placed 20+1d10 worlds (well, mostly random — the rules stipulate that you can choose where to place the last 10 or so in order to make sure worlds have access to other worlds in a way that you want). Each world has several characteristics reminiscent of Traveller: Atmosphere, Temperature, Biosphere, Population, Tech Level and Tags. There are two big differences, however. Biosphere refers to how the native life relates to humanity and Tags are a plethora of descriptors that give depth and flavor to the world itself. The rules suggest two for each planet. Further, the descriptions of these Tags come with what are called Complications — what amount to campaign and adventure seeds.

Thus, I gleefully filled out a hex sheet with planets in order to flesh out the Black Reach Sector. The results were challenging — just the way I like them. The dice came up with three hive worlds which could be a stand-in for my version of the sector capital. However, one had a low tech level and another had the tag Xenophiles — hardly appropriate for a world that had just been decimated by an alien (ork) invasion.

This left me with only one candidate: Thick Atmosphere, Warm Temperature, Immiscible Biosphere, Population in the Billions (of course), a TL of 4 (which is Imperial normal), and has the Tags Floating Cities and Tomb World.

This implies that when colonists first arrived at Black Reach, they found an environment that was completely hostile to human beings — the atmosphere was too thick and the local flora and fauna were too toxic for human consumption. Their answer was to build a floating colony suspended in the upper (and therefore thinner) atmosphere where they could create their own (separate) ecosystem. This solution proved to be so wildly successful that the original floating colony grew to be one of many hive cities flying above a planet surface no human would think to set foot upon. As a result, no one realizes that Black Reach is actually a tomb world, where Necrons patiently await for a food source to awaken them from their slumber (and in turn, the Necrons have failed to awaken because the potential smorgasbord of all those hive cities are miles beyond their reach).

All of this also strongly suggests the reason why adventurers are needed on Black Reach. During the fighting of the ork invasion, the mechanism that kept one of the hive cities afloat was heavily damaged. As a result, the city descended onto the surface of the planet somewhat in tact.

Various factions from around the sector have become aware of one of several things that were in the hive city when it crashed to the surface. They are now in great need of expendable resources to descend onto the surface to recover these valuables (can anyone say tent pole megadungeon?)

The upside of this setup is manifold:

  • I can justify a remnant ork population holed up in the hive city.
  • Native flora and fauna can not only be found throughout, but be as wild, alien, surprising and toxic as I want them to be.
  • Resource management becomes critical. The only food available is the food you bring in — even eating foodstuff found inside the city can run the risk of contamination. Filter masks are necessary to avoid having the air become toxic over time. Making sure the ride back home is secure becomes a real concern.
  • The thick atmosphere justifies a constant fog of war — literally. Regardless of light source, line of sight is going to be severely limited.
  • Has the hive city landed near a Necron tomb? Is there enough food that some have arisen from their slumber? If so, will an adventuring party inadvertently give them access to a transport to the billions who live above?
  • Regardless of whether or not an adventuring party ever takes advantage of the Letter of Marque to go world hopping around the sector, this hive city, its denizens and the riches it holds will always be there to fall back on when a party wants a good, creepy and possibly rewarding adventure.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lost Colonies Session 56

As life has been less demanding of late, I have had more time to get together with my regular group and play. Unexpectedly, they wanted to run a session of Lost Colonies this week and I got to improv an entire session off the top of my head and had an absolute blast.

The last time we had a session (back in June), the party had gotten distracted from its pursuit of the slaad and his frogmen cavalry and lost two characters as a result. They did, however, survive a couple of combats within the bowels of the Black Tower they had no business getting into in the first place.

It is here that I have to admit something about the Black Tower. I have never mapped nor keyed this dungeon. Given the proclivities of my group, the Black Tower was never much of a priority until my players suddenly made it so (“Oh, crap — they are actually going to go in!?”).

I armed myself with three things:

  1. A purpose for the tower itself — therein is the ability to transform oneself into a lich.
  2. A really cool map.
  3. An inspiring collection of monsters (The Tomb of Horrors Complete [THC]).

One of the things that I adore about the THC is that there are a whole slew of “themed” monsters — blood, sand, cold, clockwork, fire, etc. I was thus able to immediately determine that each “level” of the dungeon had a theme — each related to the concept of death and necromancy. I settled on sand, blood, cold and water.

Since the map itself suggested that there were four keys scattered about in order to open up the sphere at the center of the dungeon, I figured that these keys were necessary to get to the same location — where one could choose to become a lich. The instructions would be on the sand level inside the pyramid. Thus, the slaad was looking to take advantage of the location and secure himself some serious undead power before moving on to conquering bigger and better things.

What was left was riffing off the themes in order to make memorable-looking rooms that the players could interact with. I used a combination of fiat and die roll to determine where monsters and treasure were (sometimes the geography suggested an antechamber with a guardian in front of a treasure horde). When it was time to have a monster show up, I simply leafed through the pages to find whatever themed monster suited my fancy at the time and ran with it.

All-in-all it was a tremendous amount of fun for all. I got to be pleasantly surprised by the dungeon — I had no idea going in what was there until my players got there. My players got to experience a combination of a cool map, cool monsters and the creativity they inspired in me. I heard on more than one occasion “That’s so cool!” and “I’m stealing that for one of my dungeons!” (which I heartily endorse).

Some highlights:

  • The blood level was coated in a layer of blood except for one particular area which appeared clean and dry. At the center of this area was a ginormous blood suckle bush (tree, really) to which I gave max hit points and double the number of attacks. My players don’t know this, but they really dodged a bullet here. My die rolls were really bad.
  • In the cold level was a room half encased by ice. Inside the ice was a warrior guarding a treasure chest. I really enjoyed this for two reasons. First, it was really inspiring to my players. They got really creative about how to get to the treasure. Secondly, a die roll entirely transformed the room. The players cast Detect Magic, so I had to roll to see if the treasure horde had any. It did. The resultant two items changed the warrior from a passive guardian to an active one that (due to surprise) put some serious hurt on the party. The other item is a bane weapon.
  • The first key that the party found was encased in a column of ice. What they didn’t realize was that the interior was hollow and full of flammable gas.
  • One of the guys in our group has really earned himself a reputation for having his characters die on him (he is on character number eight in our AD&D campaign). Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that he is a newbie. Increasingly, however, the dice just seem to hate him. He lost two characters this session. Both times, he died because of residual damage (other players set off an area effect trap/spell) that on average should have been survivable. Both times, however, he failed a saving throw and my damage dice were just absolutely nasty. Fortunately, he has developed a really good sense of humor about the whole thing. He doesn’t even name his characters until they actually survive an entire session.
  • The players found the slaad and the resulting combat was a lot of fun. The reaction I got from my players was truly precious when my first two actions were to use Power Word Stun and Gate in another slaad. But, as happens, the dice favored the bold and (while seriously hurt) the party managed to fell the two beasts without any casualties.
The party exited the dungeon with the bodies of the slaad to take back to Redwraith in order to help the city’s morale and demonstrate their good faith (having told the city that they would kill the slaad). The session ended with the realization that the party is currently being pulled in several directions at once (just the way I like it):

  • The gate that now stands open over the Black Tower is incrementally getting bigger.
  • There are still heinous things crawling around inside the Black Tower itself.
  • The only means that the party has to control the gate is on the petrified figure of Ahkmed.
  • Dn. Goram has urgent need of the party in the Elflands.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saintly Saturday: Happy New Year

In the Orthodox Church, today marks the beginning of the Ecclesiastical New Year. Personally, what I find significant about this reality are the first and last Great Feasts of the Church Calendar — The Nativity of the Theotokos and the Dormition of the Theotokos. For those who are not familiar with this nomenclature, the year begins with the birth of the Virgin Mary and ends with the death of the Virgin Mary.

This places all of the more Christo-centric Feasts (Christmas, Epiphany, the Presentation, Palm Sunday, Pascha (Easter), Ascension, Pentecost and Transfiguration) in context of a single human life. It demonstrates that everything Christ accomplished with His incarnation was accomplished for the express purpose of transforming the cycle of a human’s life from that of being finite and doomed to death to being full of the potential of divine grace and eternal life.

To put it more simply: God intends for each of us to fulfill our potential. This potential is granted in that we are capable of becoming like God because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, our potential is limited only by our own choice to accept or reject Christ’s transformational grace.

One of the reasons I have always loved RPGs is because they provide an arena for exploring the transformation of character and world through the mechanics of playing the game. For example, every edition of D&D, even at its most basic mechanical level, is about character transformation — characters gain XP through various means in order to advance in level and gain a variety of skills, powers and other game benefits.

I embrace the old ways (or new ways depending upon what side of the "OSR is dead" meme of the past couple of weeks) because they allow more freedom in terms of what this transformation looks like. I must admit, that there is something very compelling about all the various mechanical builds one can accomplish using 3.5 or Pathfinder; however, because they are so mechanics-driven they do not provide the kind of flexibility that older editions of the game do.

As a recent example, what little gaming I’ve done over the last several months has been as a player (our group decided to start a 1ed campaign with the Caverns of Thracia being the megadungeon of choice knowing that my availability this summer was going to be spotty). Since I am familiar with the module, the GM and I brainstormed a couple of ways to get around my meta-knowledge. He made some substantive changes, incorporated info in the 3.5 re-release of the module that I am unfamiliar with and warmed to the idea of me playing one of the denizens of the dungeon.

During the various adventures that I was able to take part in, my character witnessed a miracle performed by St. Cuthbert, someone my character had no idea existed. Because this was such a major event in my character’s life, I wanted him to be changed by the experience. So, I got to explore those changes. If I am honest, these changes would have been very possible in later editions of the game; however, they wouldn’t necessarily have been as easy or mechanically satisfying.

In the end, I have come to really appreciate the character because of this transformation, the way this change has affected the world in which he lives, the people he interacts with and the ability to see these transformations come to fruition.

This, in my mind, is one of the reasons D&D (whatever edition) has the staying power that it does — it plugs into that God-given desire for transformation exemplified by the life of the Virgin Mary.