Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gamer ADD: Underneath the Haunted Keep

When creating a potential mega-dungeon, I like to not only come up with a history of the place, but a side-view in order to get a handle on what i can expect of the place. So here is a starting side-view of the Haunted Keep:

The Rotating Room is a trap of sorts that leads unwary parties into the False Tombs and likely to their doom. The Vault of the Dawnbringer used to be part of the Tomb of Queen Mabh, but was shifted over time. When the Tower was built, the vault was found and sealed with a secret entrance. I like the possibilities of weirdness due to the angle of the floor. The Tomb Of Queen Mabh has no physical entrance and can only be accessed via magic. The Underground River connects The Corrupted Roots, The Well, The Undercroft of Alberic and The Vault of the Dawnbringer.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Meditating on 5e: LBBs + LBBs

One of the things I really like about 5e is the whole concept of Backgrounds. It immediately adds flavor to a character and gives a good Referee hooks for adventures. In a way, it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite mini-games of all time: the character creation in Classic Traveller. There is an assumption that your character comes from somewhere and that background defines who you are and what you can do. It also implies the kinds of connections your character has and what influence those connections have.

Another reason I like the Background system of 5e is that it mitigates the need for the Rogue/Thief class. Since various backgrounds grant characters skills that normally are filled by the thief, the class has become redundant. This got me thinking about what other classes might be made redundant and I came to an interesting conclusion: it is possible to get rid of all of the classes except for the original three and express them all with Backgrounds.

This, of course, necessitates doing something with the 5e skill system, which I have said before is not something that is necessary to interpret as a pure skill system. I propose that these “skills” are actually broad Areas Of Expertise (AOE). Rather than telling players what their character can’t do (as I would argue a traditional skill system does, even the Thief skills from early editions of D&D), these suggest to players what their characters can do.

Here is the difference: a skill system defines what each skill is and then tells players when they can’t do something (when they fail a roll or fail to have the proper skill). An AOE, as I envision it, is a means for a player to argue that their character should succeed at a particular task.

For example: a character with Survival finds himself on a ship needing to lash down the sails in preparation for a storm. The player can then come up with some story from their character’s previous life that would justify saying Survival allows his character to succeed:
There was this time during a bad rainstorm that Bessie got caught in a gulley underneath a fallen tree branch. I’m gonna use the same knots that we used to pull that branch up to lash down the sails.
If the story or the reasoning is sound, no dice need to be rolled and yet another layer is added to the history of the character.

I am thinking of giving every character four AOEs: two based on their character class and two based on their backgrounds. This allows me to break up the skills of 5e into three categories: Class Skills, Non-Class Skills and Tool Skills.

Each class would have four skills that are not available to the other two classes:

  • Cleric: Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, Religion
  • Fighter: Athletics, Animal Handling, Intimidation, Perception
  • Magic-user: Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature

This leaves six skills and nine tool skills that are only available through a background. Thus, it would make sense to have nine backgrounds that would allow a character access to two Non-Class Skills and one Tool Skill as well as one extra Class Skill. I named these nine Backgrounds after various classes that have popped up in D&D throughout the years:

  • Assassin: Poison (Tool Skill), Deception & Stealth (Non-Class Skills), Investigation (Class Skill)
  • Barbarian: Gaming (Tool Skill), Performance & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Insight (Class Skill)
  • Bard: Instrument (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Performance (Non-Class Skills), History (Class Skill)
  • Druid: Herbalism (Tool Skill), Deception & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Animal Handling (Class Skill)
  • Illusionist: Forgery (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Deception (Non-Class Skills), Persuasion (Class Skill)
  • Monk: Navigation (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Athletics (Class Skill)
  • Paladin: Artisan (Tool Skill), Performance & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Religion (Class Skill)
  • Ranger: Disguise (Tool Skill), Stealth & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Nature (Class Skill)
  • Thief: Thieves’ Tools (Tool Skill), Stealth & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Intimidation (Class Skill)

Note: This leaves three skills that are class specific: Medicine (Cleric), Perception (Fighter) and Arcana (Magic-user).

Also note: All of these categories are intended to be very broad, and thus while some AOEs don’t seem to fit, they can easily be explained by moving slightly beyond the old D&D class title. For example: Deception and Sleight of Hand don’t seem to go with Druid very well; however, if you understand the Druid to be akin to a faith-healer, hedge-mage or veterinarian these things begin to make sense. Deception can be useful when someone who needs to hear good news in a time of disease and epidemic. Sleight of Hand can be used to describe a surgeon’s hands as well as a pick-pocket’s.

To round things off, each background would come with it a type of contact that a character could reach out to in times of need.

If one wanted to go full-on Classic Traveller, it would be a simple matter to create a table to randomize both the Background (a d10 where a ‘0’ represents Player/Referee choice) as well as the skills. A d6 can be used to determine two skills at once with the following pattern where A, B, C and D represent the four skills associated with a Class or a Background:
1: A + B
2: A + C
3: A + D
4: B + C
5: B + D
6: C + D
This would result in some really weird combinations that would force players to be creative, so I would love to use it myself, but I expect most players would prefer to just choose.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reconsidering a Holmesian Dungeon

As someone who regularly suffers from Gamer ADD, I am occasionally reminded about how many projects I have left fallow over the years. One such reminder came  yesterday when Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic Games posted a set of S&W compatible rules  as a prelude for a project he is working on. In contemplating all the various things I have not managed to finish, the one I am most disappointed with is my version of Averoigne and its megadungeon, the Chateau des Faussesflammes. One of the reasons for this was that I ran into a problem of how to stock and handle what I envisioned as a dynamic and constantly changing dungeon.

As I have mentioned many times before, historically, I am actually more of a war gamer than a role-player. Recently, I have spent more time at the gaming table playing board games than RPGs. As a consequence, I was inspired to look at my version of the Chateau as if it were a board game rather than an RPG dungeon. What I came up with is a rather intriguing idea and I wanted to see if it was scalable.

Here is my thinking: the mega-dungeon in Holmes strongly suggests the Mythic Underground that many bloggers over the years have described when re-reading older versions of D&D; however, as I mentioned in this post on Holmes on Traps, the biggest danger in this Holmesian Mythic Underground is wandering monsters. My conundrum for years has been how to marry the best ideas of classic dungeons that have factions with the Mythic Underground with the dynamism of a dungeon whose main threat is wandering monsters. My answer was to make all the monsters a kind of wandering monster by turning the dungeon into a kind of board game for the Referee.

Let's begin with a really big dungeon. This is from Dyson Logos and he calls it The Deep Halls:

I haven't counted carefully, but I estimate that this beauty has about 150 rooms. According to older iterations of the game, approximately one third of these rooms will have monster encounters or 50.

In order to make this work like a board game I need to have it look like a board game, so I added a hex-grid:

This grid provides almost 200 spaces. The idea here is to place tokens on this board that represent monster encounters. They exist on a grid so that they can move during the adventure from one hex to the next, with each hex being about 30 feet per side and thus easily moved through by just about every monster that might inhabit a dungeon. In order to give myself enough room to maneuver these tokens, I arbitrarily decided to place one token in about every four hexes:

This provides 45 monster encounters. This is close enough to the traditional 50 to leave it at that, or one could have five set-piece encounters that exist in specific rooms that never move. Now, here is where things get interesting. Forty-five divides nicely by 3 giving us the ability to divide the monster encounters into three different factions:

When stocking a dungeon this way, one really doesn't have to stock the dungeon at all. Sure, you have to make notes about room characteristics and various kinds of traps, but there really is no need to place any monsters at all (again, unless you are married to the idea of set-piece encounters and then you only have to do up to five). What you do need is three lists of 15 monster encounters representing the three factions and a wandering monster list.

So here is how it works:

Every time a wandering monster check is triggered (either by a loud noise like combat or simply time spent in the dungeon), roll your favorite type of die to check if a wander monster shows up. For the purposes of this example, let us use a d6:

  • On a '1' move one blue token one hex.
  • On a '2' move one red toke one hex.
  • On a '3' move one green token one hex.
  • On a '6' a wandering monster rolled up on the WMT appears in the hex the players are currently in.

Alternatively, a 1-3 indicates how many tokens to move one hex. Regardless, which token to move and where is entirely up to the whim of the Referee. For example, in the middle of the second row there are a blue and green token in the same room. I would most likely move those closer to each other at the first opportunity.

This leads us to one of the more interesting facets of this idea: when two tokens of different factions end up in the same hex, they get to fight. This leads to a noise encounter that the PCs get to investigate or ignore at their leisure. In the meantime, one your tokens comes off the board and you make a note about bodies being strewn about the floor.

Here is the part I personally like best: when the PCs enter a hex with a token or tokens, they get to have a monster encounter. At this point one of the 15 monster encounters can be randomly assigned to that token. In other words, every monster encounter is as much a surprise for you as it is for your players. If the players prevail, that encounter is marked off the list and the token is removed.

Once the players have wrecked havoc,  you have a very tangible and tactile way to restock the dungeon: place new tokens according to the way the dungeon currently looks. New factions can suddenly make their move to gain territory or one faction can bolster their territory as they have been left unscathed by the activity of your PCs. Or whatever.

While this may seem to be a bit of a headache at the table, I don't believe it to be overly complicated and it incentivizes wandering monster checks, something I know I am guilty of not doing enough (partly because nothing happens most of the time). Using this idea, something happens most of the time, even if the PCs are unawares.

What really attracts me to this idea, however, is the level of danger that gets placed on every wandering monster check. Not only could a monster get spawned from the WMT, but one of the regular monster encounters of the dungeon could come investigating the noise being made by the fighter trying to open that locked door.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Elves and Angels

In a post I made last week about the fey, a commenter mentioned a story about angels. According to the story, there are three types of angels:

  1. Normal angels whose job is to be a protector (exemplified my the Archangel Michael) and a messenger (exemplified by the Archangel Gabriel).
  2. Fallen angels who rebelled against God, also known as demons.
  3. Followers of Azazel who didn’t openly rebel against God, but stopped doing their job:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.' — Enoch 6:1-3
It is the last group that was of interest, because these angels could be a stand-in for all kinds of things in an FRPG. One of the more intriguing possibilities is that these “neutral” angels and their offspring become what we know as elves.
And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. — Enoch 7:1
Note, that this story comes from the Book of Enoch, a Jewish work from sometime around 300-100 B.C. which is not accepted as part of the Canon of Scripture by the vast majority of Jews and Christians. For my part, I think this largely has to do with the depiction of the angels, who have come to be understood as being bodiless powers. While the Nephilim are mentioned in passing a couple of times in the bible and seem to corroborate what is spoken of in detail in the Book of Enoch, the word “Nephilim” is not something that can either be easily translated or understood. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT from around 300 B.C.) translated the word as “giant” not angel or demon.

Since the angels are bodiless, they can’t really be going around having children; however, I haven’t been able to get the idea of elves-as-neutral-angels out of my head for the last several days. What would a bodiless power stripped of their powers look like?

And Enoch went and said: 'Azazel, thou shalt have no peace: a severe sentence has gone forth against thee to put thee in bonds: And thou shalt not have toleration nor request granted to thee, because of the unrighteousness which thou hast taught, and because of all the works of godlessness and unrighteousness and sin which thou hast shown to men.' Then I went and spoke to them all together, and they were all afraid, and fear and trembling seized them. And they besought me to draw up a petition for them that they might find forgiveness, and to read their petition in the presence of the Lord of heaven. For from thenceforward they could not speak (with Him) nor lift up their eyes to heaven for shame of their sins for which they had been condemned. — Enoch 13:1-6

In other words, they are cut off from heaven and cannot communicate with heaven, nor will any of their prayers be heard; however, they are condemned to be bound to earth until all their children kill each other, aka the Day of Judgment.

This leads to a very interesting proposition, especially given a world in which monsters are sin personified: what if the bodiless powers bound to earth (fallen and “neutral” angels) could enter into the bodies of those willing to house them? This would explain several very characteristic attributes of elves: the fact that they are long-lived, the fact that they seem not to really have much interest in the world of men, the fact that they are not affected by a ghoul’s touch and the fact that they were the only race in OD&D and Basic D&D that could “multi-class.”

In other words, all elves are dual personalities: the person who makes the deal with the “neutral” angel and the bodiless power themselves. This relationship cuts the person off from divine intervention but grants arcane power coupled with fighting prowess. Orcs could still be seen as twisted versions of elves, except that the person making the deal is likely cheated from having any say in how their body is being used.

This also puts a new spin on half-elves and half-orcs. These no longer need to be the children of a human and an elf/orc (and the strongly implied rape in the latter pairing). Rather, these are people from those communities that refuse to be possessed by a bodiless power.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Gamer ADD: A Map of the Haunted Keep

Haunted Keep Background

In the ancient days when the Shorsai Forest was part of great expanse of woods that made up the Forest Kingdoms, an elven queen of great renknown by the name of Mabh died a tragic death. With great pomp, she was entombed in a burial mound with some of her most prized possessions.

As the ages passed, the Great Forest receded and Shorsai Forest became part of the Wilderness. The legend of Queen Mabh passed into distant memory. With the coming of man came a desire to tame the Wilderness. The first settlers of the area built a keep upon a rise within a clearing in the middle of the Shorsai Forest. Little did they know that they were building on the burial mound of the long forgotten Queen Mabh.

For many years, the keep served its purpose well by keeping the forces of Chaos at bay. Save for strange dreams that sometimes haunted the inhabitants, the keep began to thrive. Things changed, however, when the keep was expanded. Rumors warned of a gathering army of humanoids to the north. Therefore, a tower was built to help protect the keep in case of a siege. Due to the movements of time and earth, one of the prized possessions of Queen Mabh had been displaced to the ground where the tower was built and the short sword Dawnbringer fell into the hands of men.

This greatly angered the spirit of Queen Mabh and she reached far and wide to find her brethren to take revenge on those who had stolen her prized sword. With dreams she pleaded with elven heroes to find the Siege Seed to destroy the keep’s walls and to kill every one inside.

Finally, an elf by the name of Ionhar answered the call and completed the task to find the Siege Seed. Raising an army he drove north out of the Forest Kingdoms and laid siege on the keep. While the bulk of Ionhar’s forces attacked the keep’s tower, a small force snuck behind to bury the Siege Seed at the base of the keep’s northwestern wall. A great tree sprang forth from the earth, tearing a huge hole the the keep’s defenses.

Before the elves could overrun the keep, however, the humans retreated to the tower, where they were able to seal its only entrance with a great stone. Unable to bypass the tower’s defenses, the elven offensive ground to a halt.

Enraged at the failure of the elven forces, the spirit of Queen Mabh turned to necromancy. She cast a spell that doomed her soul to undeath and enveloped the entire keep in a life-draining green flame. Elf and human alike were consumed. No-one has seen the Dawnbringer since that fateful day.

Since then, the keep lay in ruin and came to be known as the Haunted Keep due to the strange green glow that could sometimes be seen at night coming from the ruins. Whether the glow comes from Queen Mabh herself, the ghosts of the armies that once fought over the keep or if it is merely the trickery of the fey that have since come to make the Shorsai their home no one knows.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Gamer ADD: A Ghast at the Possibilities

As far as I am concerned, the mark of a really good monster folio are those little phrases that allow you to completely rethink another type of monster. As an example, the idea that hobgoblins hang out with carnivorous apes according to the MMI gives me permission to do this.

I took advantage of the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day sale by Frog God Games and picked up Tome of Horrors 4 because, as I said yesterday, Tome of Horrors Complete is one of my all time favorite collections of monsters. The fourth installment of the series is less immediately useful because it errs towards the high to really high level spectrum of adventuring (there are more creatures with a CL18 than either CL A to 1 or CL 2 and there are over 30 creatures with a CL of 20+) and I do not care for the fact that all the illustrations are in color, but it does qualify as a really good creature catalogue because of a little blurb under the listing of the Banshee Queen:
Any male slain by a banshee queen’s magic rises to become a ghast in 1d4 rounds.
I have to be honest, I have never really used ghasts in my adventures. Once you get beyond the point where ghouls get used as the go-to-undead, there are so many more evocative creatures in the catalogue of undead than a beefed up ghoul. Why dip into that well again?

Given the fact that fey are playing a large role in my most recent case of Gamer ADD, I was attracted to the idea of a queen banshee, given that it is an undead fey. When confronted with the idea that the source of ghasts may very well be a queen banshee, I had to take another hard look at the ghast:
Ghasts are highly intelligent ghouls. Their charnel stench is so powerful that anyone nearby (about 10ft) must make a saving throw or suffer a –2 penalty on attack rolls.
Note that phrase “highly intelligent.” This is no mindless zombie hanging out in grave yards digging around for scraps. A ghast has the potential to be a master-mind, a main villain, the mover and shaker behind the scenes that pulls the strings of an entire campaign. Given the fact that ghasts reek to the point that anyone in the immediate vicinity is going to be sick, they would have to use subordinates and agents to do their bidding.

This begs the question: what would a highly intelligent undead that couldn’t walk around civilized society want out of undeath? I could easily imagine an undead version of Hannibal Lecter waxing poetic about the various gastronomical possibilities of elves versus humans, but what if a paladin or a cleric found themselves trapped in their own stinking corpse plagued by an insatiable hunger for human flesh? That phrase “highly intelligent” does not translate immediately into “slave of the banshee queen” or even “willing servant of the banshee queen.”

Imagine, for a moment, a former paladin who seeks to use his new lot in un-life to do what good he can, given the fact that he is a rotting corpse who needs to eat people. The idea of a cloaked and masked avenger wandering the streets at night putting fear in hearts of the criminal element has never so haunting, because he would be literally eating them.

Or imagine a someone unwillingly turned into a ghast who then spends his entire un-death trying to take revenge on those he thinks responsible: elves.

Or imagine a ghast pouring over necromantic tomes in a desperate quest to move up the ranks of undeath, so to speak.

I think I am going to have to include ghasts far more often in my campaigns, because the possibilities are endless…

Monday, May 8, 2017

Gamer ADD: In Need of Some Fey

In the wake of receiving the Swords & Wizardry Legion Packet, I have been hit pretty hard with Gamer ADD, so much so that I have persisted in trying to put together campaign ideas for the map provided with the SWLP despite the fact that the last couple of weeks have been brutally busy for yours truly.

Besides the issue of scale, the first issue I had to deal with was choosing which part of the map to focus on to build a campaign around. In my experience, an area of 4x6 five to seven-mile hexes is plenty to run a goodly amount of a campaign with. I decided to focus in on the village of Darnagal because of its proximity to several different evocative features on the map:

  • Shorsai Forest (which just screams fey to me)
  • Isle of the Blessed Serpent (which is a mid-high level adventure waiting to happen)
  • The Haunted Keep (which sounds like a great excuse to make the top levels of a mega-dungeon)
  • The Sacred Glade (which just solidifies the idea that fey are going to play a big role in the campaign)

In addition, The Great Salt Marsh and the Ruins of Varagost, though outside the 4x6 hex area I will originally focus on are close enough to suggest a high-level adventure area for later in the campaign once players start to get the itch to explore far and wide.

When I start a campaign, I generally like to make a few rules for myself so that I keep things focused and by delineating limits on what I will allow myself to do, I tend to be more creative with what little I am left with. Since this is campaign is inspired by S&W and Frog God Games, I decided to limit myself to the Tome of Horrors Complete, one of my favorite monster collections of all time. In terms of sheer inspiration (there are many campaigns I would run out that book if I could) I rate second only to the Fiend Folio and that is primarily because the Tome converts and updates a lot of the material in the FF to the OGL.

Since the area I have chosen evokes the fey so strongly, I decided to go through the Tome and collect data on all the various creatures therein that could arguably be called fey. Two things struck me:

  • The vast majority of fey creatures are neutral.
  • There was a pattern of powers that was reasonably consistent.

This gives rise to two thoughts:

  • The fey are not going to be either the protagonists or the antagonists of this campaign. The main difference between seelie and unseelie fey is whether or not they are willing to cooperate with humans. Regardless, their main goal is to protect their own. If a party is killed off by fey, it is because they did something to threaten the fey domain; however, the party could potentially go through an entire campaign without one real whiff of a fey presence as long as the fey interest is protected.
  • I am not a big fan of the way D&D and its clones categorize and portray the fey. By having both brownies and buckawn (which are described as being related to brownies) there is a strong implication that these two populations are separate entities, even if they are related. When I think of fey, I think of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream where the fey kingdom is portrayed as being a hodgepodge of all kinds of fey creatures. Since all of the various fey in the Tome of Horrors are quite similar in power and scope, I decided to boil them all down to a single monster entry.

Arthur Rackham's The Meeting of Oberon and Titania

Shorsai Fey
HD 1d6
AC 3[16]
Attack Weapon (1d3)
Save 16
Move 12 (+special, see below)
CL/XP 2/30
Special: see below

Shorsai Fey come in a wide variety, but all have the following abilities:

  • Magic Resistance 25%
  • Invisibility (self) at will
  • Detect Good/Evil at will
  • Illusion Magic (choose one of the following: Confusion, Mirror Image or Phantasmal Force) once per day
  • Light/Darkness once per day
  • ESP once per day
  • Poison Use (Seelie use White Moonberry Poison which induces sleep on a failed save while Unseelie like to use purple Moonberry Poison which does 1d8 damage on a failed save)
  • Each individual Shorsai Fey will have a special move that they can do in their favored environment which allows them a Move of 24. For example, a water fey would have a move of 24 in a river while a wood fey would have a move of 24 in forested areas.

To reiterate: these fey are what I like to call background noise. They will react to events in the world and may prove boon or bane to a party depending upon whether or not their activities are seen as a threat.