Friday, March 30, 2012

Poll Results Round Up

Polls from the past few months included how people use Cthulhoid monsters in their games, how high do you like your D&D games to go, and how do bloggers keep up with their favorite blogs.

Alien terrors in a horror game (58%) Monsters in a fantasy game (41%)

Monsters from the Mythos show up in a wide range of stories, from Lovecraft's bleak fiction in the 1920's to the weird fantasy stories of Clark Ashton Smith and RE Howard; its natural that gamers would use them in a blend of horror games and fantasy games.  I like pulling in Cthulhuoid monsters into fantasy whenever I want the D&D game to take a turn towards horror as a change of pace.

Level 6 (OD&D, S&W) (17%), Levels 10-14 (until killed by the Tomb of Horrors) (38%), Levels 14 (BX) (12%), Level 20 (3.X, 1E, LL) (12%), Level 30 (4E) (0%), Level 36 (BECMI) (2%), Until godly ascension (4%), D&D never ends, fool! (11%).

More often than not, we play BX or similar systems that end by level 14, so that's probably where I voted, but I have to believe the majority of folks that voted D&D continues until the high level characters are killed by the Tomb of Horrors are the right-thinkers in the bunch.  It creates a funny mental image, high level characters besotted with ennui, marching off to the Tomb of Horrors to either end their tiresome existence or win the ultimate prize.  Honorable mention goes to "D&D never ends, fool!"

Google Reader (34%) G+ Stream (0%) A Blogroll (34%) RSS or feedreader (5%) Bookmark (16%) Search Engine (4%) Something else (5%)

I use Google Reader quite a bit, it's a good way to keep up with Wordpress blogs, but I learned from the comments that quite a few folks use their blogger dashboard to browse blogspot blogs in the stream.

I was surprised how many folks use blogrolls to keep up on their favorite blogs - that motivated me to make sure my favorite Wordpress blogs get added to my blogrolls.

One good thing I learned was that no one uses their G+ stream as a primary way of keeping up with blogs, so there's no major reason for merging your G+ and blogger accounts.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Psionic Alien Ghosts

One of the locations I recently put together for the Black City is haunted by a psionic ghost.

The Black City is an alien ruin because the race of Greys was slaughtered in a psychic cataclysm before the ice retreated.  Their most powerful controllers, the hive minds, were advanced telepaths, linking the entire colony telepathically.  When tragedy struck, the torment of the hive minds left behind psychic ghosts, malevolent shadows of pain and hatred that linger even now.

Thus, there's a class of psionic monsters in the Black City that can be encountered in locations where a hive mind died during the cataclysm.  While the more powerful versions will be like the Monster of the ID (drawing inspiration from that classic, Forbidden Planet) the one inhabiting the ruined "central command" is more like a vicious poltergeist.  Another one to add to the Black City Bestiary.

The calcified corpse of the hive mind still sits in the large amplifier chair that once allowed it to broadcast commands throughout the city.  A dull mauve alert has been flashing for a millennium or more, casting the large room into intermittent darkness.  The psionic ghost fettered to that crystal corpse attacks with telekinetic pushes, or seizing weapons to smack characters with their own armaments.  The push attack isn't damaging, but anyone that climbs the tall shaft from dungeon level 1 into central command from below is in for a rude surprise.

Psionic Ghost of the Hive Mind
AC as Unarmored*, MV 12, HD 5*, Atk By weapon or push, ML 12, AL C.

*The AC and HD stats are for the corpse fetter.  The actual psionic entity is immaterial.  Destroying the fetter by reducing it's hit points to zero releases the psychic residue and destroys the ghost.

Unlimited by the physical constraints of a body, the psionic ghost can make 2-4 attacks per round.

Invisible:  the psionic ghost is invisible, but any seized weapons will dance around in front of the character it's attacking.  Detect Invisible reveals the psionic ghost, which appears like a malevolent leering alien with oversized head, and the tendril fetters tying it to the crystalline corpse like a silver cord are plainly seen.  Detect Evil also reveals the ghost's presence and the fetter.

Telekinetic Push:  A character saves vs paralysis or is knocked down by the telekinetic push.  This can be used to knock characters back down the shaft, or keep them from charging the crystal corpse.

Weapon Grab:  treat each weapon as AC Chain for purpose of the grab attack; a character can make an open doors check to retain a weapon already in hand, but a sheathed weapon is yanked away for use by the ghost.

Weapon Attack:  Any seized weapons can be used on future rounds to make a 5HD attack.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Return of the Fey

It's not uncommon in urban fantasy or speculative fiction to portray the realms of myth and magic as something just out of touch with the mundane world, occasionally intersecting.  There are even some games that have a similar theme - the premise behind Shadowrun was all the myth creatures return in a near future, at the dawn of the Mayan 6th Age, blending fantasy with cyberpunk.  I don't remember seeing that approach used with a D&D setting.

Over at From the Sorceror's Skull, Trey has been posting some weekly blurbs he's calling "Apocalypse Under Ground" - readers here should them check out.  (And, uh, Trey should label them or something so I can link to the series instead of the first post…)  The central conceit is this… what if D&D's "adventurer culture" was a recent thing?  What if some fundamental thing changed in the near past, and suddenly dragons and monsters and dungeons and nightmares of every shape and form start coming back to the surface from deep underground?

Take your favorite myth cycle or bits of legendry and develop a suitable apocalypse - perhaps it's the beginning of Ragnarok, and the barriers separating the Nine Worlds have faded.  The island of Avalon has returned, the Greater Seal of Solomon was shattered, or it's the time of the astral conjunction or harmonic convergence.  Maybe something has shifted in the cosmic battle between Law and Chaos, and the intersection of the mortal world with the magic realm is the result of Chaos triumphant.  Like the picture above, showing Oberon and Titania* re-entering the world, I would use the return of the various Fey as the initiator of "The Change".

Here's what I like about this type of campaign setting for D&D… you can take your favorite real world historical period, dump all this magic and chaos on right top of it, advance the timeline a few years, and then roll in with the adventurers.  It's the Thirty Years war, and the world groans beneath the weight of religious strife and constant warfare, until the horror is complete and the doorways to chaotic Faerie gape open again, allowing goblins to swarm across the battlefields of Europe.  Trade and travel suffers from a countryside suddenly overrun with monsters from beyond.  Where there was a barren moor, a strange tower has appeared overnight; the dead rise from unhallowed earth, and in the heart of every kingdom, at least one yawning cavern grants access to the dark places underground where the monsters have waited, and watched. The only place where people can find the kinds of weapons that can be used against the monsters is by entering the dungeons.

The problem with using the real world as a D&D setting is rewriting history to account for the presence of humanoids, demi humans, and magic, and by the time you shoehorn them into this faux history, you've pretty much rewritten The Grand History of the Realms or The Silmarillion.  I'm pretty lazy.  I'd want to use the real world as is, keep a few thousand years of world history the same, up until about 5 years ago when everything changed during the Chaos Apocalypse.  All this magic shit happened and dungeons and the Underdark appeared whole-cloth overnight.  All those things whispered about in dark fairy tales and hinted at in ghost stories are suddenly true, and they want to eat you.

Maybe you'll have other mental images, but for me, I kept thinking of one of my favorite X-Men comics from back-in-the-day, it was a two-part story called "An Age Undreamed Of" where a sorcerer from the Hyborian Age, Kulan Gath, casts a master spell that turns Manhattan into a fantastic realm of magic and swordplay.  In that particular story, heroes and villains are changed into their fantasy analogs - Captain America is a blonde barbarian with a shield and sword, for example.  Long suppressed enchantment would remake the world overnight, and humans would be forced to seek alliances with the exotic and foreign demihuman invaders as they struggle to adapt to a world where the rule of science has been replaced by magic.

I'm filing this one in The Junkyard** to refer back to on a rainy day.

Edit:  Trey is kindly labeling the series, you can find all the entries here: Apocalypse Under Ground

*Images:  The top one is Charles Vess from, Sandman: A Midsummer Night's Dream, the bottom is the cover to Uncanny X-Men #190.

**The Junkyard is the place I put campaign ideas that I'm just not ready to act on; it helps me manage my gamer attention deficit disorder by putting future campaign notes somewhere for reference and gets them out of my head for a bit.  Next time there's a TPK or we're ready for a change, I know I can visit the Junkyard and see what kind of ideas are stored away gathering dust.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Inspirations for Cthulhu Gaming

We'll be starting a periodic Cthulhu game in April, and most or all of the guys in the regular D&D game will be in that one, too.  Not the kiddos, they'll have the night off, but maybe I'll get a kid's campaign running in parallel - I've previously threatened to run Barrowmaze in Karameikos for them.  For the Cthulhu game, here's an interesting opportunity - the guys are intrigued by the game, but most of them haven't read any HP Lovecraft!

Aesthetically, I like the bleakness of Lovecraft's vision and would normally choose a "purist" track, but since these are D&D guys and not hardcore horror fans, I've already decided this campaign will swing on the pulp side of things and involve more action.  I'm going with a badges and guns theme:  Welcome to the SCD.

Here's my short list of suggestions for quickly getting the players acclimated with the tropes and conventions of the pulp approach to the Cthulhu Mythos:

Lovecraft's Fiction
I'm recommending these four stories:  "The Dunwich Horror", "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward", and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth".

The Dunwich Horror
This story is closest in theme to actual game play in the roleplaying game - Henry Armitage is the archetypical professorial protagonist, there's a dramatic mystic confrontation on Sentinel Hill, and there's plenty of bloodshed and mayhem.  Wilbur Whately and the Son of Yog Sothoth are nice and freaky.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
This is another fine pulp investigation that leads to the kind of boss fight you might see in pulp Cthulhu gaming.  On the other hand, it's a bit long and there's a decent movie adaptation that could be watched instead (see The Resurrected, below).

The Call of Cthulhu
This is an important story for a couple of reasons - thematically, it emphasizes the ancient and disparate nature of the interactions between humans and the horrors of the Mythos.  It's a grand investigation that perfectly embodies gaming constructs like the info-dump via handouts, and target rich investigations; the entire story is nestled within the discovery of a deceased investigator's papers, the protagonist's uncle.  Um, the game is named after it, too.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth
This story has many great themes for use in gaming - the isolated and depraved sub-community, unholy bargains and their terrible prices, more development around Lovecraft's weird ideas on sexuality and humanity, and it introduces governmental cover-ups in conjunction with the Mythos, which will play nicely in the campaign.

The Call of Cthulhu, The Resurrected
These are my two favorite movie adaptations of a Mythos tale, and they're both available on Netflix streaming.  The Resurrected is a retelling of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward".  I don't have a copy of The Whisperer in Darkness yet on DVD, but maybe I'll get that one too, and we can circulate it around our group.

Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing, The Thing From Another World (1951)
Any one of these movies does a good job of portraying Lovecraft's themes:  ordinary folks and the insignificance of man; science as a mechanism for revealing horror; the uncaring nature of the cosmos.  Plus, they're all excellent horror movies in their own right!

The Ninth Gate
I much preferred the original The Club Dumas, but The Ninth Gate isn't bad for introducing the world of occult book collecting and decrypting hidden clues in old grimoires.  I'm hoping to use some elements from Bookhounds of London in the New York City campaign and this is good inspiration for a bookhound.

Any other ideas on how you'd get your group of neophytes pumped up for some Cthulhu gaming?  They could be Lovecraft themes, investigative horror, or even a good movie for 1930's New York City.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Orcus Casts His Shadow Over the American League

Non frivolous posts return tomorrow

Fielder crushes baseballs the way Orcus crushes skulls

Gaming has been absent from our table the past two weekends due to fantasy baseball drafts; a buddy asked me to co-manage his team in one league, that was last weekend, and yesterday was my regular draft.  I usually try to keep the blog mostly on topic - but it's time for another (annual) frivolous post about my other fantasy obsession…

Prince Fielder is the Orcus of MLB.  He's big, mean to pitchers, and smashes baseballs the way Orcus crushes skulls.  Now he's taking his show to the Motor City and the AL Central.  We keep 10 players from the previous season's roster, ensuring some team continuity and plenty of chatter and trades throughout the offseason; it's good to take a few prospects each year and see if anyone pans out.  (Last year I struck gold drafting Eric Hosmer).  Other league notes for the baseball savvy:  10 teams, roto scoring, 6x6, and the extra two stats categories are walks (for hitters) and holds (for relievers).

I've won the league two years in a row now, taking home the coveted Captain America Bobble Head Trophy.  One of my players, Mike, is in this league, and a fellow blogger, fantasy writer Gary (over at Eye on Ashenclaw) could be this year's favorite to win it - he's got an all-world offense lined up.

Here is this year's version of Team Beedo, the 2012 Rockwood Raiders.  Bolded guys were keepers from last year:

The coveted Captain America bobble head trophy
C:  Mike Napoli
1B:  Prince Fielder ORCUS
2B:  Ben Zobrist
SS:  Elvis Andrus
3B:  Evan Longoria
OF:  Jacoby Ellsbury
OF:  Adam Jones
OF:  Drew Stubbs
DH:  Eric Hosmer

SP:  Cliff Lee
SP:  CC Sabbathia
SP:  Mat Latos
SP:  Brandon Beachy
SP:  Corey Luebke
RP:  Joel Hanrahan
RP:  Rafael Betancourt
RP:  Kyle Farnsworth
RP:  Sergio Romo
RP:  Mark Melancon

Bench Players and Prospects:
Yadier Molina, Jose Tabata, JD Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Mark Trumbo, Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado

Here was last year's team:  2011 Team Beedo.  Yep, it's true - I used to have Clayton Kershaw.  I ended up trading him for Ben Zobrist, Nelson Cruz, and Mat Latos in July, giving up baseball's best pitcher (my opinion) to put me over the top and win.  Flags fly forever.  Or the cooler version:  Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory... lasts forever.

Friday, March 23, 2012

How Much Improvisation?

Yesterday I reviewed The Armitage Files, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign setting that supports improvised horror investigations.  The idea behind the book is revolutionary to me, because the investigation and horror genre, with its intricate mysteries and clues, is usually so scripted and plotted.  But it did get me thinking about improvisation and gaming and the curious fault lines I see in the gaming community.

All dungeon masters and referees have to do an amount of improvisation every game session - even a fully scripted adventure requires the game master to take on the personae of the NPC's and antagonists in the scenario and pull dialogue, mannerisms, and narration out of the creative void.

But choosing to portray a scripted character a certain way is quite a bit different than randomly generating game content on the fly and embellishing a wide range of details.  Let's say the party moves to an unmapped section of the setting and the DM consults his or her big book of random tables and starts rolling for inspiration, then quickly cobbles together what it is the group is encountering.  Contrast the approach of the referee that makes stuff up using dice for inspiration, to the DM that just makes stuff up as they go along, completely winging it without the tables.  We're not as far apart in spirit as we are in practice.

Then there's improvisation that happens on the other side of the screen.  Do you allow your players any co-creation in the setting?  A simple way is incorporating elements of a character's background into the campaign - like letting the player create details for their home village, and then making those details important to the ongoing narrative.  Many newer games systematize ways for the players to seize control and enhance the setting with their own additions.  For example, many games might have an "underworld contacts" skill or point spend option, so when the group arrives in a new place, the shady character in the group might already have a fence or a connection to the local black market, and be able to define that contact on the fly.

Using the common D&D sandbox, consider the differences between these three examples - first, the group enters a new hex, the Dungeon Master consults the hex key, and begins describing the village of Thought-Up-Yesterday.  In someone else's campaign, the referee rolls a bunch of dice, consults their random hex content generators, sees that it results in a village, and begins quickly jotting down details for the village of Just-Made-Up, perhaps using his or her village content tables for elaboration.

Consider  a more extreme example:  "As you guys walk through the woods, you start to smell chimney fires and see a small village down in the glen…"  The referee turns to the elf player, whose character is from the area.  "Can you go ahead and let us know the details of this village?"  In this case, the ref completely turns the control over to the player to define a setting element;  "Ah yes", the player says, "this is the village of Just-Made-Up, inhabited by smelly, shoeless, pig-riding halflings.  The reason the elves put up with them this close to the beloved Homewood, is because they look like small, sad children.  Smelly children."

There's another technique of improvisation, too, when the referee is listening to the players and (secretly) incorporates their ideas into the game whenever he or she thinks the player's ideas are more interesting than the original plan.  The bad guy in the adventure is the rich mayor, but the players are convinced it's really the timid butler, and they go through elaborate measures to spy on the butler, to explain how the butler committed the crime, to identify him as the secret power behind everything.  The referee decides that recasting the butler as an international criminal in disguise, is a lot more interesting, and the players pat themselves on the back for ferreting out the ref's "real" story.

The question of how much improvisation you use at the table seems dependent on group expectations - it's a  what-do-we-expect-out-of-gaming kind of question.  Are the players expecting an immersive world to explore?  Knowing that content is generated on the fly or improvised can impair immersion or belief in the setting.  Are the players creative types that see the campaign as a joint venture, and want the opportunity to put their stamp on the story?  The village of Just-Made-Up, with its pig-riding smelly halflings, might become a lasting fixture in the campaign and the butt of ongoing jokes, enjoyed by the group for years later.

There are cross cutting concerns with improvisation, like its effect on player agency or whether it leads to illusionism, or a rail road.  These concerns are orthogonal ; improvisation is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be misused or misapplied.  For instance, I won't fudge dice in dramatic situations, but I have no problem improvising non-player characters and then incorporating them into the ongoing campaign.

Seems like a good time for a new gamer poll - how do you use improvisation in your games?  There's a new gadget in the upper right with the poll questions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Review of The Armitage Files

As I embark on a series of Pelgrane Press reviews over the next few months, The Armitage Files is a good place to start.  It illustrates Pelgrane's reputation as a risk-taking publisher willing to break new ground.  I had never encountered a game book like this one.

Consider this premise:
A pair of bizarre, disturbing letters arrive, in Professor Armitage's handwriting, describing an apocalyptic future in which he failed to avert a monstrous tragedy.  The unbalanced writer behind the letters claims they're being sent back through time, in the hopes that investigators receiving them in the past will be able to stop the coming horror the writer himself couldn't prevent.

BAM!  There it is - the type of elevator pitch that could launch a whole TV series - or at least keep a role playing campaign going for a long time.  Handwriting analysis and other tests seemingly prove the authenticity of the letters, and the player characters are approached as trustworthy outsiders that can investigate the disparate facts and clues revealed in the letters and solve the mystery.  The clock is ticking, and more documents materialize from the future as the situation worsens.

In case you didn't know:  Professor Henry Armitage is the protagonist of Lovecraft's tale "The Dunwich Horror".  In the years after dispelling the Son of Yog Sothoth, Armitage has formed a discrete group of professors to investigate the Mythos.

Here's a sample of what one of the letters looks like - this one is later in the timeline, when the author's coherence is diminishing:

And the readable version:

The new sanatorium on the outskirts of town. When I was there, I sensed that something had gone awry. Yet I was distracted by my fruitless attempt to find men who had been at the circus that October night. That is a dead end, I am sure, or at the very least a counter-productive one. The circus may figure into it, but October is a blind alley. Or rather a trap. It is your minds you must preserve above all.

IF YOU SEE THE RED BOX, DO NOT OPEN IT. The contents will permit you a brief advantage, but you will pay in the end. IT IS THE RED BOX THAT ALLOWS THE HORNETS IN.

I am sorry. They are at me, making me think of them, preventing me from writing what I must write. EVERYTHING I WRITE HERE MAY BE A DECEPTION. RELY ON THE NOTES TO COME

The handouts are spectacular.  Each full letter is a sheaf of pages, revealing a handful of plot hooks and clues.  I've used the term "target rich horror gaming" to describe my goal of building a sandbox that gives the players many options, and every letter of this campaign supplement provides numerous clues, plot hooks, people, and locations to investigate.  It's the ultimate horror gaming sandbox.

But there's a massive caveat; The Armitage Files is presented as a giant toolkit for running an improvised horror campaign.  It includes write ups for many people, organizations, places, tomes, and magic items, and each one comes with an option for being used as an ally, enemy, or innocuous bystander - but the actual structuring of the campaign is very much left up to the referee and the vicissitudes of player choice and inspiration.

There is a lot of advice on running an improvised game, guidelines on how to structure an improvised narrative, and tips for encouraging the players to take the reigns in the sandbox.  There's a section on the pacing of a traditional horror investigation, how to improvise scenes that lend themselves to the structure.  There are also plenty of 'actual play' transcripts in the book.  If you ever wondered about running an investigative scenario sans script, this is the book for you.  But my own anecdotal observations lead me to believe that many referees adopt a hybrid approach to the campaign, letting the players guide the sandbox action and improvising along the way, using the time between sessions to embellish some the potential upcoming challenges in the traditional "prepared beforehand" style.

The physical book itself is excellent.  It's a 152 page soft cover, with glossy heavy weight magazine pages, and that beautiful dark sepia art by Jérôme Huguenin that's come to characterize the vintage look of the Trail of Cthulhu line.  There are 10 letters from the future in The Armitage Files, and you can download nice looking color versions of the pages from the Pelgrane site (you need a copy of the book to unlock the file).  Long time Call of Cthulhu players are familiar with the ubiquitous hand outs and clippings that accompany most scenarios, and this product takes the handout concept and turns the dial up to 11 with these spectacular props.

The book is written by Robin D Laws, Gumshoe designer and a long time Pelgrane author.  Robin has a list of credits around game mastering advice that encourages players to co-create the game world, so an improvisation heavy campaign is a logical extension. The Wise Google tells me this The Armitage Files book won an Ennie award.

So, how would I rate or recommend this book?  Let's step back and think of the many famous campaigns or illustrious adventures that are published for my favorite games; we've played Ravenloft, but haven't made it to the Vault of the Drow; I've run Shadows of Yog Sothoth and Beyond the Mountains of Madness, but just haven't gotten around to running Masks of Nyarlathotep.  That kind of stuff.  I put The Armitage Files in similar standing, a paradigm-changing campaign that redefines what's possible on the table.  It's gone on my "Must Try" list, too.  The gamer bucket list.  I'll see where our upcoming Trail campaign goes; even though I've done some improv theater, the thought of an improvised campaign is still daunting.  It's not an approach for the faint of heart, or slow of wit, or something to do on a night when the tank is half empty.  But I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The All Father - an insane overlord for the Black City

I used yesterday's post on generating your own mad alien super computer to create an overmind for the Tower of Astronomy.  Note:  the overmind actually doesn't live in the tower, it inhabits an unmanned geostationary orbital platform that controls a series of alien telescopes.

Rolling 1,1,3,6 led to clairaudience, megalomania, seeking knowledge, and typically appearing as a myth entity.

Here's my story for it - the Tower of astronomy has been sealed for centuries, but the overmind that interfaces with the tower machinery uses clairaudience to listen to the pink, fleshy bipeds that have been exploring the city of late.  In this way, it learned a bit about their primitive mythology, and calls itself "All Father".  It uses a holographic image reminiscent of Odin and refers to it's home in the night sky as "Asgard".

The unblinking eye of the All Father has sat in the heavens above the earth, watching the rise and fall of civilizations, waiting for the chance to interact again with the world.

As the All-Father, it will start by offering modest pieces of information to parties that perform services.  For instance, it can dangle topographic maps of the archipelago, or highlight key locations in the ruins.  As referee - consider the kind of information a modern spy satellite could provide, and think creatively.

It’s first order of business is to have a connection restored to some of the most important sections of the old ruins, like the bunker section of the old Central Command facility.  This could be a multipart quest, first finding the right kind of fuse crystals to fix the connection in the Transit Tunnels between the tower and the bunker, and then gaining access to the bunker and restoring the systems.  This provides access to some of the city's slumbering defenses and also give the All Father the ability to gain some additional rolls on the Mental Powers table by adding mental capacity.

It's long term goals are to gain a physical body, leverage the manufacturing facilities below ground to build an army, its Einherjar, and then begin a conquest of the known world.

BTW, I finished off the Tower of Astronomy write up; there's a teleport disc on the top floor that connects to the geostationary orbital platform; it gives characters the ability to visit "Asgard" and view the starry heavens directly over head.  The overmind's holographic projection can take on matter and form on the observation deck, interacting with characters in a larger than life manner, and drawing on the station's energy reserves and matter transmuters to perform godly feats of creation.

There's something about an alien computer, masquerading as a Kirby-esque Norse god to a bunch of skeptical Vikings, that brings me great amusement.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Overminds of the Black City

Build your own Brain-in-a-Jar or Alien Super Computer!

I was working on the Black City manuscript and finishing up the Tower of Astronomy section from the other day (the entrance hall is here:  Tower of Astronomy, first floor), and when I completed the upper area of the tower, came across one of the city's myriad "overminds".

The overminds are alien computers, artificial intelligences, installed in key facilities throughout the city to oversee delicate processes that required  both creative decision making and docility.  Overminds control the deep earth manufacturing, regulate the Warrens of Decay, supervise the science lab, and one even controls the geostationary observatory that relays star patterns back to the holographic displays in the Tower of Astronomy.

Millenia of idleness and boredom have driven all of these alien intelligences completely insane, and they've used the intervening epochs to circumvent their original missions and generate their own agendas.  The overmind of the fabricators on level 3 creates plastoid Roman Praetorians patterned after the captured soldiers of the Lost Legion, who landed on the island centuries ago; the overmind of the science lab in the deep sections sends up specimen gathering automatons, seeking examples of surface life for experimentation and vivisection; the overmind of the astronomy tower has spent millennia  gazing into the cold depths of space and looking down on the city, and now sees itself as one of earth's gods.

All overminds communicated with their alien masters via telepathy, and can adjust their telepathic frequency to communicate with terrestrial life, such as the Northmen.  Overminds manifest a holographic avatar near their main terminal.  Their intelligence is housed in a fragile crystal matrix, but this is protected behind sheets of metal, often deep in the stone and impossible to attack without high level magic.   The minds are vulnerable to mental magical attacks, and save as level 10 magic users with +4 to the saving throw vs mental effects.  They often exert physical control over their local environment, locking doors and activating defenses; these abilities are noted in the room text.

Here are additional attributes to generate your own overminds.  These would be fine for Brains-in-a-Jar creatures, too.

Mental Powers*
1  Clairaudience
2  Clairvoyance
3  Domination
4  Empathy
5  ESP
6  Mental Attack (see sub table)
7  Mind Switch (magic jar)
8  Telekinesis

Mental Attacks Sub Table*
1  Ego Whip
2  Id insinuation
3  Psionic Blast
4  Psychic Crush

Personality Disorders
1  Megalomania
2  Paranoia
3  Schizophrenia
4  Homicidal Mania
5  Manic Depressive
6  Schizoid

Motivations of the Overmind
1  Worship
2  Escape
3  Knowledge
4  Temporal power
5  Sadism
6  Revenge against another Overmind
7  Obedience  to programming, but perverted
8  Sheer insanity

Holographic Appearance
1  Floating Brain
2  Pillar of Fire
3  Burning Bush
4  Blinding Light
5  Disembodied Alien Head
6  Mythological Entity (Zeus, Thor, etc)
7  Abstract Concept
8  A Dog

*I like the simple psionics in Realms of Crawling Chaos, but the DM could easily substitute standard magical powers for any of these abilities.

I made a sample alien super computer when finishing the Tower of Astronomy location, I'll get that guy up in a day or so.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

We Choose You, Trail of Cthulhu

We're planning to start an episodic Cthulhu game sometime next month, so we discussed choice of system at the end of last week's D&D session, weighing the pros and cons of Call of Cthulhu versus Trail of Cthulhu.  The players are more enthusiastic and familiar with Trail, so that's where we're starting.

Trail of Cthulhu's clue system works really with my proposed campaign setting, a home brew built around a special investigative unit in the NYPD, the Special Crimes Division (the SCD).  I've been re-reading my backlog of Cthulhu books, and I was delighted to see that Arkham Detective Tales has ideas for running a police-heavy Cthulhu game.  Pulling the campaign together will be a cinch.

Trail of Cthulhu shifts much of the action to the players to choose how to push forward and when to spend resources, but it also demands more improvisation by the referee as well - I'm looking forward to the challenge.  It's a perceptual adjustment to stop thinking of the game as a simulation (the way we use D&D to simulate a fantasy world) and instead consider it a recreation of a certain style of fiction, in this case, a blend of pulp detective stories, film noir, and Lovecraft horror.  Kind of a less campy version of the HBO movie Cast A Deadly Spell.  I'll continue to log some notes here as I build out the setting.

Pelgrane Press is an active publisher turning out  a lot of high quality supporting material, so there's no shortage of scenarios to steal.  I'd rather adapt published stuff than create whole cloth, since it lets me put more time towards writing my Black City D&D setting.  I've got a Black City post in the queue next, but will  start doing some regular Pelgrane reviews as I re-read many of the Trail of Cthulhu books for scenarios that play well in The Big Apple.

I'm also scanning the Chaosium backlog for adventures that are a good fit; I found an overlooked gem in the book Fatal Experiments called "The Lurker in the Crypt".  It's exactly the kind of adventure structure I love; it describes a corrupt cemetery and mortuary in the heart of NYC's East Side, managed by a powerful sorcerer and various undead assassins, with ties to a Great Old One and a massive infestation of ghouls in NYC's abandoned sewer sections.  But there's no real plot; the adventure basically describes the myriad forces associated with this extremely powerful conspiracy and their plots and machinations.  I imagine the lack of a linear plot and the huge danger presented by this cult have contributed to it's obscurity, but it'll be spectacular in a 1920's Badges and Guns campaign.  It's a super dangerous situation to plunge into blindly, so this would have to be the capstone to a campaign.  I'm always delighted to encounter a published horror scenario that omits a linear bread crumb of scenes, instead presenting the inhabitants and their motivations sandbox-style for insertion into a campaign.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Taking the Long View - in High Gygaxian

The mantle of referee requires enrobement in such varied guises as tactician of melee, grand strategist, architect of cunning traps, engineer of puzzles, and inventor of myriad enigmas.  As you join the ranks of those forebears who also assumed the storied title of DUNGEON MASTER, embrace this role with élan and engrave your vision boldly across the milieu!  But be forewarned, even the practiced referee may find himself confronted by the circumstance in which the players, through dint of forethought and application of luck or skill, are discovered in a superior position vis a vis a carefully formulated encounter.  The natural tendency of the inexperienced referee in such surroundings would be to alter the deployment of forces arrayed against the players, in devotion to an ideal formulated on a requirement of balance or appropriate test, but this view is incorrect.  You must resist this urge.  THE ROLE OF THE REFEREE IS TO ADJUDICATE SUCH SITUATIONS WITH IMPARTIAL NEUTRALITY AND PRACTICED INDIFFERENCE TO THE RESULTS.

The experienced referee has already seeded the dungeon environment and surrounding milieu with a myriad assortment of challenges,  each amenable to one pattern of solution or another.  When the players have successfully ferreted out a resolution to a given difficulty, allow them to enjoy their fleeting moment of success, but gird yourself for the upcoming confrontations.  Continued success requires adaptation, and the players will soon learn that yesterday's successful techniques hold little water with tomorrow's new challenges!

Chris over at Hill Canton's announced International Write Like Gygax Day, and I couldn't help but join in the fun, especially as we're using the 1E DMG actively at the table right now.  This was going to be a simple post about "you win some, you lose some, it all balances out in the end", but it seemed like too good an opportunity to spout some High Gygaxian.  Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tharizdun Part 3

Game report 58, and our third session involving the entrance battle to THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN.

Let me tell you something I've observed.  You can solve a lot of problems with a wand of fireballs.

Take my players for instance... they find themselves facing a near endless horde of norkers, ogres, and other monsters.  BLAM, fireball.  BLAM BLAM, fireball fireball.  Oh no, more monsters, whatever are we to do?

Last game session was all about ramping up the pressure, as I tried to make the players dig deep...  for more fireballs.

Mister Moore used an Ice Storm to obscure the battle field and create a slippery mess, slowing the assault down.  This allowed the group to successfully pull everyone back into their fighting formation, dropping the trolls with magic missiles. A crew of norkers came double timing up stairs, carrying small casks which they dropped near the top of the stairs - unfortunately, these were casks of oil.  The monsters had a strategy around carrying up casks, and then the next waves of monsters were ogres, which would throw the casks on the party.  It didn't work out so well for the monsters.  You're going to see a little white disc in a lot of pictures, that's what the players used for targeting their fireballs.  I use a grenade type rule, so they're sometimes off center, but the players usually err on the side of "not accidentally frying their front line by missing a mark".

By the time the large group of ogres had arrived, the norkers carrying casks of oil were all gone, the casks failed their saves vs fireball, and there was a bit of a roaring fire off to one side of the stairs.  Most of the ice from the Ice Storm was gone, but it served its purpose.  For the remainder of the battle, the combat was a lot more "traditional".  The four fighters formed a front line - Shy, Leonidas, Phat Kobra, and Forlorn (he usually casts spells, so we often forget he's a 5/5 fighter/magic user).  The clerics stood behind the front line healing, and other characters went farther back, either using missiles against the large opponents or digging for more spells.

The stairs rattled and the place shook as a titanic bellow let out from downstairs - something big and angry was on the way.  First came a pair of hill giants:

A round or so after the hill giants joined the fight, the leader of the temple's forces, a massive 80hp mountain giant, emerged from the level below.  He barely noticed the fireball coming his way and charged on through.  (I think the mini is from a 4E earth titan; it was one of the bigger giants I had in the box).

When the mountain giant charged the front line, things got dicey for the party.  Shy, on one end of the line, was dropped to zero hit points by a hill giant blow.  The mountain giant charged Leonidas, clubbing the paladin for 30 damage.  The group tends to anchor their front lines with the paladin, so everyone up there is shielded by protection from evil and gets -2 to AC, so bringing down the paladin makes everyone quite a bit easier to hit, and crushing the paladin was the mountain's top priority.

While Moore continued to wash, rinse, repeat with the wand of fireballs, Konstantine had been thumbing through the scrolls until he got to Polymorph Other.  He decided their best chance was to attempt to polymorph the mountain giant into something small - a snail or toad.  It was a big saving throw on the monster side of the battle; the giant needed an 11 or higher to shrug off the spell:

Dang.  The mountain giant was gone, but four more ogres were still coming up the stairs a round or two behind him.  Miraculously, the monsters didn't fail their morale, and kept fighting, but at this point it was pretty much over except for the DM's crying.  Moore softened them up with, yawn, another fireball, before they made it all the way across the room.

The fight ended soon after a few more inconsequential waves of foot soldiers tried to charge the party, with an 80hp snail slinking around the center of the floor, and only two ogres remaining later into the fight.  The party soon won.  Many jokes were made about how they drained the dungeon of inhabitants and hadn't even made it past the first room.

Here's the final tally:

74 Norkers
24 Gnolls
10 Ogres
6 Trolls
2 Hill Giants
1 Mountain Giant

We ended there, but left with an excellent teaser for the next game session.  The party was originally seeking THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH, but they got sidetracked by this quest to help out the gnomes (and entered THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN).  For their part, the gnomes agreed to patrol the area near THE LOST CAVERNS OF TSOJCANTH.  The party was afraid one of their enemies, a powerful witch, would find it first.

At the end of the game session, a messenger pigeon arrived from the gnomes, explaining how the witch found the caverns the day before and was met by a contingent of gnomish infantry - but we left the actual result of the battle as a cliffhanger, so they don't know if the witch entered the caverns or not.  We're going play the battle out this week with Delta's Book of War skirmish rules.  We'll see how that goes!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Black City Post - Tower of Astronomy, First Floor

Kind of a lazy morning here, so I thought I'd post a piece I was editing for the Black City.  It shows the huge gap between jotting quick notes for use in a home game, versus the amount of text you might need to explain to someone else how something should work in game.  The first floor of the tower feature features a gate opening mechanism where the aliens mechanized a ritual to summon a Lovecraftian entity; that's one of the themes in the ruins, not necessarily original, the exploitation of dark magic and how it's gone horribly wrong and created these sprawling ruins.

For contrast, the previous write up of the Tower of Astronomy, back when I was brainstorming, is part of this old post:  B Tower of Astronomy

B Tower of Astronomy

The Tower of Astronomy is a twisted spire of impregnable black rock looming over the southern part of the city; a long stair climbs to the sole entrance, a doorway 50' above the ground, where a pair of Watchers (orange level) flank the door.  The Watchers fire force beams from their eyes, forcing a save vs paralysis to avoid being thrown off the stairs, in addition to the normal damage.

Beyond the Watchers are large half circle doors (orange) of permalloy that retract back into the walls allowing access when a passkey is presented.  A spiral pattern is engraved on the doors.

The Inhabitant from Carcosa
The only creature currently in the tower is a wraithlike spirit that became trapped here after crossing into the tower from the gate to Carcosa.  Passage through the gate drained much of its animus, so it appears misty and indistinct with pinpoint eyes.  It hides in alcoves and watches from a distance, ambushing a victim after a group splits up to explore or is distracted by the mahcinery.  With each successful level drain attack it makes, it's appearance solidifies to portray a haggard man in Renaissance finery.  After two successful drains, the spirit has enough vigor to pass back through the Carcosa gate.  In life, the thing was a noble from a doomed world absorbed into the corpse city of Carcosa, and the ghost is a thrall to the King in Yellow.  After crossing over, the ghostly nobleman makes his way across the Lake of Hali, to report to the King about the gate.  A serious foray from Carcosa is soon made when the King learns of the new world to spread madness and despair.

Ghostly Nobleman of a Doomed City
[ Omitting the stat block, uses stats as a Wraith ]

Lower Floor - The Gateway Apparatus
Directly across from the door is a large, arched portal, obscured by flowing mist.  To the left of the room is a broad stone table, stacked with metal tablets.  The center floor is dominated by a pair of nested magical circles inscribed on discs.  Running along the right side of the tower is a complicated mechanical mechanism comprised of tubes, cables, and armatures; the mechanism arches into the air high above the circle and also projects upward through the ceiling.  The mechanism thrums with power.  All of these areas are further detailed below.

The Thaumaturgic Circles
The interior of the tower is glistening black rock, polished to a mirror surface and highly reflective.  The floor is made of basalt blocks, but the central section is a 30' diameter circular disc, slightly raised above the level of the outer floor.  A thaumaturgic circle and a five-pointed star are carved into the large disc.  At each point in the star, there's a small platform for standing, and a hand post topped by a crystal globe.  Within the center of the 30' diameter disc is a smaller disc, also inscribed with thaumaturgical circles, but this circle contains a stone rectangle with a manacles.

The stone rectangle is long enough for a human to lie on, and there is a body-cavity depression carved into the stone surface.  There are two pairs of manacles, for ankles and wrists, and when first encountered, the manacles are open.  They clasp firmly on anyone that puts them around a limb, sealing fast with no apparent mechanism.  They are enchanted adamant, and are impregnable; only a Knock spell frees a captive once a manacle is closed.

The Portal
If a character approaches the portal, the mist dissipates, and a scene along a mournful lakeshore is viewed through the arch.  Across the lake is the faint ghost image of an ancient city.  If a character steps through the portal, they are drained of 4 constitution points (temporarily) and find themselves on the shore of the Lake of Hali.  This is Carcosa.

Once on the other side, the portal is vague and indistinct, detectable as a faint shimmer in the air, like a heat mirage.  For the next 24 hours, any wandering monsters have a slight chance of detecting the portal and crossing into the tower.  After 24 hours, the portal obscures with mist again and disappears on the Carcosa side; only a Detect Invisible identifies the exact location once the portal has disappeared.

Above the keystone of the arch is a 2' tall bronze metal tablet inscribed with dots and alchemical symbols, resting in a niche.

The Stone Table
Stacked on this 10' long basalt table are 7 bronze tablets, each 2' x 4' and about an inch thick.  Carved into each surface is alien dot-matrix script, mathematic and alchemical symbols, and a pattern of random lines and dots.  The lines and dots represent a star pattern for the star charts on the next floor, but this isn't immediately apparent to the characters.

The tablets contain the coordinates for calibrating the Gateway Apparatus to open the proper gate.  There are 7 tablets on the table, since the 8th tablet, the Carcosa Tablet, is already loaded over the portal.  If the party learns how to open gateways and experiments by loading other tablets, here is the list of tablets and destinations.  Note:  A Read Languages translates alien script and identifies the title for each tablet.

List of Gate Tablets:
1  The Black City
2  The Great Library
3  The Moon
4  Unknown Kadath in the Cold Waste
5  The Plateau of Leng
6  Lightless Cavern of N'Kai
7  The Isle of the Unknown
8  The Lake of Hali (this tablet is already loaded)

[ I may add a brief description for each location.  For instance, the Black City location offers a view into the city's past, 80,000 years ago when it was teeming with alien greys and their monstrous servitors.  Certainly items 7 and 8 I'll use for my home game, but if this ever reaches print, I'm not sure the etiquette for referencing someone else's published work, it's probably wise to get the author's permission. ]

Behind the stone table is an alcove with a shaft leading up to the second and third floors of the tower.  The aliens used levitation to move between levels, but rungs were provided for their earthbound Plastical servitors.

The Gateway Apparatus
This massive arcane machine thrums with nascent power coming up through the floor.  There is a trapdoor hatch (orange) nearby that leads to a maintenance shaft running alongside the vibrating power conduits.  The shaft leads to the Transit Tunnels (dungeon level 1) and then continues all the way down to the Warrens of Decay (dungeon level 2).  A simple set of metal rungs allows descent.

The machine consists of a large switch, a series of five joystick controls, and a large button.  The switch turns on the machine, which hums more noticeably.  Immediately, the thaumaturgic circles in the nested discs begin to glow with a blue light.  Over on the bronze tablet above the portal, the star coordinates also begin to glow.

The joysticks are locked in place.  They can be pulled slightly up to unlock them, and the glowing dots on the bronze tablet star coordinates move out of alignment.  The portal to Carcosa immediately closes.  There are five joysticks, and each tablet has five dots for guiding them into celestial alignment.  As the joysticks are moved, the armatures of the machine shift and move, and the view of the night sky on the next floor up shifts to align with the proper constellations.

The large button sets off a cacophony of fluting sounds, chimes, and harmonics from myriad bronze devices hanging off the ceiling.  The music sounds discordant, atonal, and oddly mathematical to human ears.  The quality of the music changes as the joysticks are realigned to ensure proper harmonics for the summoning.

The aliens used the Gateway Apparatus to unseal portals to other times and places by summoning the Opener of the Way through the music of the spheres.  The proper ritual sequence starts with placing an appropriate bronze tablet above the portal.  A living sacrifice is manacled to the sacrificial stone in the inner circle.  The machine is powered on with the large throw switch.  The joysticks are used to align the projected lights on the tablets with the celestial dots on the tablets, and the joysticks lock into place.  On the second floor of the tower, the view of the night sky shifts to the correct celestial quadrant, though this isn't readily apparent from the first floor.  Five ritual contributors step onto the five points of the star and place their hands on the crystal orbs.  The button is pressed, and the "music" of the spheres begins to reverberate through the room.

The ritual can take 5 to 30 minutes of the atonal music before the Opener of the Way, an avatar of Yog Sothoth, arrives.  For every 5 minutes of ritual time, a spell level of magical energy is drained by the orbs, or a point of wisdom (temporary ability score loss) is taken from one or more of the contributors.  If the ritual takes 25 minutes, 5 total points of spell levels or wisdom are taken by the orbs.  A single caster could contribute three 1st level spells and a 2nd level spell to meet the entire requirement, or it could be apportioned amongst all the contributors.  When the Opener of the Way appears, its a bizarre globular monster composed of silvery spheres - it materializes in the central thaumaturgic circle.  Standing in the presence of the Opener of the Way is terrifying, and the characters at the orb stations must make a Save vs Spells to avoid falling away in fear.

The Opener of the Way is fully formed after about 5 minutes, and the new portal opens.  The Opener consumes the sacrifice, absorbing the victim completely (treat as disintegration).  The machine is safe to shut down, dispelling the Opener.  If no sacrifice is offered, it grabs for any character that abandoned an Orb station before leaving; if none of the stations were abandoned, a random character is selected from those standing outside the magic circles.  A Protection from Evil spell wards a character outside the thaumaturgic circles.

Through trial and error, players may discover the proper sequence to align the machinery and summon the Opener of the Way.

The Opener of the Way
[  Omitting stats for the avatar of Yog Sothoth, the All-in-One ]

That's the first floor, at least...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Scooby Doo Cthulhu Gaming

Good news - my group loves the idea of playing detectives and investigators in the SCD, the NYPD Special Crimes Division, last week's campaign idea for my upcoming Cthulhu campaign.  I'm sifting through my Trail of Cthulhu scenarios and Chaosium's backlog to identify a good set of adventures to relocate to New York.  We're still undecided whether the rules will be Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu; we like the Trail clue system but the Chaosium combat system… and we didn't discuss whether the 1920's would be more fun than the 1930's.  But campaign planning is moving forward.  Joy.

However, sifting through all these published scenarios brings me to a soapbox moment, a mini rant on what I call "passive plot hooks", or Scooby Doo Cthulhu.

The suggested plot hooks for most Cthulhu scenarios involve the players being asked to perform a service or investigation on behalf of a friend, loved one, relative, or an employer, usually with no direct reference to the occult or supernatural… and yet, miraculously, as the players get involved, it becomes obviously clear within a short time that this is another full blown Occult Investigation™.   Over and over again.

When every scenario starts with an innocuous letter from an old friend or relative seeking help, and leads to madness and insanity, either credulity stretches beyond belief or you stop picking up the phone and opening your mail.

I understand why scenario writers resort to loading pre-existing relationships onto the players; those loaded relationships create instant motivations for the characters, and a bit of cheap emotional resonance with the subject matter.  "You have to go to Dunwich for Aunt Patricia's Christmas dinner, she sent you a letter with an invitation, and just happened to invite all of your colleagues for dinner as well.  You wouldn't want to hurt her feelings."  Sure, it always starts  as Christmas goose and tarts, the cultists and the awful rites to Yog-Sothoth only come later.

If you are running an endless parade of one-shots, with new characters that begin as ordinary folks with no previous Mythos experience, then I suppose it makes sense their first induction into the world of occult horror would come indirectly through the benign summons of a friend, relative, or mundane employment opportunity, which goes terribly wrong when a monster shows up.  But if you try to run your campaign in this mode, you end up with Scooby Doo; no matter where the Mystery Machine goes, there's always an occult mystery that needs to be solved by the gang at the precise moment when they're driving through.

This is why they're passive plot hooks.  There's no looking for trouble; trouble always finds the crew of the Mystery Machine.  No matter how cute you think are Daphne and Velma (or Fred), I'm asking you to say no to Scooby Doo Cthulhu gaming.  (I was always partial to Velma).

My first task when identifying scenarios for use in the SCD campaign is to ruthlessly strip the passive plot hooks and reposition the entry point of the scenario so that it gets on the radar of an investigative organization like the SCD. This might mean advancing the inherent timeline a bit, or moving the action closer to the boiling point.  So be it.  Let's take a look at a few popular introductory scenarios that are burdened with Scooby Doo plot hooks, and flip them around to work with the SCD.  (This technique would work great for your Delta Green setting Cthulhu game, too).

Edge of Darkness
"Edge of Darkness", from the core book, begins when the player characters arrive at the bedside of a dying man, Rupert Merriweather.   "The investigators are all friends, relatives, past students, and former colleagues of the man."  How convenient.  The characters go on to learn that Rupert had a dark secret, and if the characters don't take up his cause, something terrible will happen. "Ruh-Roh, Shaggy."

Let's change the entry point but leave the rest of the scenario intact.  With no one to turn to, Rupert wrote a letter on his death bed and had his last words sent in a package to the local police, warning them about a coming horror.  Whenever anything weird and unusual shows up in the mail, like Rupert's rambling death bed letter, occult journal, and weird Egyptian box, it gets routed to the mail room of the SCD and ends up sitting on a shelf somewhere.  It's not until the actual murders and disappearances start to happen in Ross's Corners, the place where Rupert warned the horror would begin, that this plot hook bubbles up to become a potential case.

The desk sergeant:
"We got a note off the wire about a mutilated woman's body found out near this small town, Ross's Corners.  Yeah, I never heard of the place either.  Normally I wouldn't pay attention to an isolated murder, and just let the locals handle it, but I remembered this kooky old guy sent us a box a week or so back with a letter, saying that once he was gone, bad things would start happening out at Ross's Corners."

"O'Malley, maybe you should get your team together and consider looking into it.  I bet Charlie in the mail room remembers where he put the box with the kook's letter and book.  You never know - this could be a real SCD case after all."

Mister Corbitt
The collection Mansions of Madness features "Mister Corbitt", and this is another popular kick-off scenario.  In this case, one of the investigators just happens to be the neighbor across the street from a guy that may or may not be a major sorceror.  Apparently, our nosy future investigator likes to peer out the venetian blinds at his neighbor, and sees him carrying a mysterious bundle into the house… and something flops out of the bundle that looks like an arm!  Yikes.  It's totally reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which should be awesome.

Unfortunately, the approach is a bit too passive for the SCD campaign.  Our investigators are professional detectives, not the local babysitter and her friends who spy on the neighbor out the window and imagine dark things going on behind closed doors.

Let's keep the basic facts the same, where the babysitter or neighbor actually does think she saw something weird, and calls the local police.  A nervous teenager isn't a big priority, so by the time a patrol car swings by to speak to the sitter and knock on Corbitt's door, the man is already gone again.  The officer snoops around the house to allay the babysitter's fears, checks out the weird looking green house in the back, and then drives off.  All clear.

The player characters get involved when they're called down to the morgue to check out a corpse - our local patrol officer was seen a bit later at the gas station, getting torn to pieces in broad daylight by some kind of "thing", only there was nothing there.  Wounds just opened up spontaneously on the screaming cop.  The terrified gas station attendant can relate the whole incident.

Desk Sergeant:
"We've got a report of a patrol officer being lifted into the air and ripped to pieces by an invisible monster over on 3rd Avenue, in broad daylight.  O'Malley, why don't you take someone over to the morgue and check it out.  They've got a witness down at the precinct giving a statement - the gas station attendant.  Make sure you test him for booze.  If he checks out, it sounds like we might have a case. "

The group is able to trace the officer's dispatches, so they'll end up at a similar starting point - looking at Corbitt's house from across the street while speaking to the babysitter about the arm she thought she saw flopping out of a package.  But this entry point is more action oriented and horrible, and the investigators will also have a nifty coroner's report and toxicology analysis on what really might have happened to the dead officer.

So that's what I'm doing the next few weeks - reading through these old scenarios, seeing which ones can be positioned to work in the SCD campaign, and fixing the plot hooks.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lauding the Wiki

One of the cooler things we've put in place the past month or so has been the Gothic Greyhawk campaign wiki.  I had asked for recommendations some time back, and folks suggested a few platforms - we started playing around with the free version of Obsidian Portal.

I wasn't interested in posting backgrounds, NPCs, and using the wiki to organize the DM's content - the typical stuff (I use OneNote on the laptop).  Instead, we've been using it to keep track of the group's public information - their expedition equipment and gear, treasury, list of magic items and resources, that kind of stuff.  This has been a huge advantage for enabling player planning.  Take the list of scrolls, for instance.  In between game sessions, anyone in the campaign can peruse the list of scrolls and see what's in the group's arsenal. Ditto with the magic items.  My players wouldn't have been nearly as successful in some of the recent knock-down fights without the ability to collectively discuss the resource pool and brainstorm in between sessions on how to deploy their resources.

They've even taken to bringing tablets so they can pop out to the wiki if necessary and look stuff up.

There's also a body of standard procedures that always gets written down and lost - marching orders, overnight watches, standard memorized spells.  Putting those things on the wiki and defaulting to the standard procedure has also stream lined play and maximized table time.  I dislike spending game time on stuff that you should be able to write down once, and just reference and update.

It's still a work in progress, but you can see what we've done with the wiki here:
Gothic Greyhawk on Obsidian Portal
List of Magic Items
List of Scrolls

*Smitty, one of the players, put together that nifty Gothic Greyhawk banner.  Thanks man!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fear with a Handful of Dice

It's a common question, especially if you're going to run a horror game, or run D&D with a nod towards weird horror like LOTFP.  How do you scare your players?

After all, the typical gaming table is not conducive to generating fear.  It's a bunch of folks, usually in a brightly lit place, munching on chips and cracking jokes.  We're playing a game, after all.  The monsters, no matter how fearsome, may be well-known and "banal".  The cosmic horror and inherent atheism of Lovecraft can seem a bit quaint these days.

However, the method to generate genuine player fear is simple, and involves two basic elements - investment and atmosphere.

Disposable characters and an uninteresting setting are the enemies of your fear.  The players need to genuinely care about their characters before they'll feel any concern about the game situation.  I don't mean copious back story.  Even the "hopeless" 1st level fighter can suddenly become interesting when he manages to survive to level 2, and the player starts to identify with the character - he's become the underdog that's bucking the odds.

As a DM or Keeper starting a new game, that might mean doing something as simple as asking each player to say one thing they like about their new character.  The idea here is so basic it's almost too obvious - the players need to care about what happens to their game-world avatars before they can feel fear and concern for them.  Still, this is an important idea for the game master to remember - the prerequisite to generating fear has nothing to with the game master scaring the players, and everything to do with the players creating an opportunity to be frightened by having a stake in the outcome.

Once there is some investment by the players, even situations that are directly threatening will be sufficient to generate fear.  A banal monster like an ogre in D&D will frighten a low level group of adventurers, if the group cares about keeping their characters alive.  There is a preoccupation at times about using unique bestiaries and monsters, but the ability to calculate the odds, and recognize that the group is hopelessly outclassed, is an effective, direct way to generate fear.   Published bestiaries serve your ends for this technique.

"Oh no, that's a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath! Run!"
"Crap, energy draining undead - we have no magic weapons - run for it!"
"Ugh, not killer bees - again.  Save or die.  Run!"

I like the term "narrative distance" to describe how the events of the game world can be so serious, but the group is cracking jokes and laughing about other things out of game.  It's important to the social side of gaming - I'm no fanatic when it comes to trying to run a "serious" table.  But it's a good practice to quiet things down once in a while and restore focus to the game world when you need to introduce something creepy.

Staging can help - some game masters advocate dimming the lights or doing something with the physical environment - but I rarely use those types of techniques.  I do recommend tactics like changing the speed, tone, and volume of your delivery, keeping your descriptions vague, and creating ambiguity.  Start with progressively more revealing glimpses of what’s to come.  Using unique or unknown monsters, with equally unknown capabilities, reinforces the ambiguity.  An entire post could be written just on narrative presentation and creating creepy descriptions by teasing the information.  There's an art to ramping up tension through description and pacing.

But atmosphere ultimately boils down to destabilizing the player's control over a situation by presenting the unknown.  Withholding or teasing descriptive information creates uncertainty in the minds of the players.  New monsters, with unknown capabilities, prevents planning, and this also blocks the players from controlling the situation.

Random effects and creatures that force saving throws are excellent for building a fearful atmosphere because of the uncertainty they engender - the player has limited control over the dice results, but the effect on their character can be both massive and negative (like petrification, or Call of Cthulhu's insanity rules).

The fear from the previous section, fear from a known but direct threat, is more like stress and anxiety, but still creates that cathartic feeling of relief when the situation is survived; fear of the unknown, built up through atmosphere and uncertainty and loss of control, is sharp and much more powerful.  I suggest you work at making both a part of your arsenal - and good luck!

Post Script:
Over at Jack's place, he posted a few articles this week on using terror and horror effects in gaming, and pushing those effects onto the characters.  It got the wheels turning on the interrelationship of fear, terror, and horror, and when should they be targeted at the player, and when should they be targeted at the character.  It's an interesting question!  This piece is looking at achieving player-focused fear, but it's made me want to review some of my favorite gaming moments that provoke terror or horror and see what makes those situations work.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Battle of Tharizdun, Part 2

This is the continuing chronicle of my player's efforts to enter  THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN, after meeting fierce resistance in the place's upper room.  (This is game report 57)

The players were in a bad spot after last week's game.  Their thieves were on the front line, their fighters were pinned by humanoids, and reinforcements were coming up the stairs.  The good news was that the players used all those detailed pictures to plan during the week!  I saw plenty of chatter over email, involving looking through the backlog of scrolls, unused spells, and even consulting the rules (on AD&D Fighting Withdrawals) to figure out how to turn the situation around.  They came to game night loaded with ideas.

The bad news is those reinforcements they heard showed up almost immediately, in the form of 5 nasty trolls followed by a giant troll.  Back when we played minis-heavy D&D, I'd used blocks of wood if I didn't have enough miniatures, so we've got a couple of trolls represented by wood blocks in there.

The party won a miraculous initiative, beating the trolls with enough segments that Forlorn and Konstantine were able to layer a couple of fireballs on the left side of the battle before those trolls were able to attack after closing.  I've got to give my players credit, they are committed to taking dice out of the DM's hand by layering damage and ensuring kills, rather than spreading the damage around.  They'd rather overkill than leave a 1 hit point monster.  After a handful of bad saving throws by me, at least 3 of the trolls were eliminated, and the giant troll on the stairs was in bad shape (and then dropped by a flurry of magic missiles).

Meanwhile, the clerics were freed up enough to start using Hold Person to drop norkers, and Mister Moore went Invisible (getting the spell off before being attacked) and he was able to escape from the back corner.  As an unarmored person with 120' movement, he's able to move 24 squares when using a battle grid, and that was enough for him to skirt the entire melee and get back behind friendly lines. The AD&D combat movement rates are silly.

In the next phase of the battle, the group started to execute fighting withdrawals to get the thieves back to safety, and Leonidas and Kobra formed a front line with Mordecai (they're a little hard to see past the trolls).  The AD&D Fighting Withdrawal is interesting, because the monsters get to follow for free, if able - the fighters never broke contact, parrying the whole time, but still able to reshape the battle field.

Monster reinforcements kept coming up the stairs, and the clerics had been working on a solution - while Mordecai was holding the line, Donavich rummaged through the scrolls and found the scroll with Blade Barrier.  Unfortunately, there was an obstacle separating the sets of stairs, so the Blade Barrier only blocked the right stairs, but at least one big creature ran into it and got chopped to mince meat before the rest of them decided to forebear.

Meanwhile, Mister Moore used Slow on the surviving trolls and norkers, giving the front line fighters much-needed breathing room - we used pennies to indicate monsters that were slowed.  Then he switched to tossing fireballs with the wand of fireballs towards the open stair case where reinforcements were coming.  Multiple waves of foot soldiers ended up incinerated.

As monsters realized the right-hand stairs were blocked by the whirling blades of death, they started to jam the left-hand stairs, with some reinforcements coming out every round or so.  One group managed to clear the stairs area before getting incinerated by Mister Moore's fireballs, and they charged Shy, Boris, and the bear.  Boris's heroic brown bear was finally dropped by a norker, after soaking a lot of troll damage earlier in the evening.  Boris prepared a Cure Light Wounds to heal it, but was clubbed by a norker and the spell was ruined.  The trolls are only attacking every other round due to Slow, and one of them is down while it regenerates - the party is scrambling to burn it quickly.

Right  near the end of the night, an ogre appeared at the top of the stairs, leading another  troop of norkers. However, the party has formed a solid front line of fighters, with clerics performing a bit of spot healing, and Mister Moore is blasting with the wand of fireballs.  It no longer looks like a TPK is about to happen, but Boris, Shy and the Bear all need help.  The arcane casters have exhausted all of their attack spells, except for the wand of fireballs and whatever they have on their scrolls, but there is a fair amount of healing and clerical magic left.

The gigantic battle at the beginning of THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN will continue next game session.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Weapon Specialization Poll and More Fighter Ideas

Back when we started our AD&D experiment a month or so ago, I asked the readers whether they use Weapon Specialization or not in their AD&D games.  Here's what said about it:


Yes; Love it - (30%). No; Unearthed Arcana was the devil - (50%). What? - (18%).

I'm not a big fan of 1E's Unearthed Arcana, where weapon specialization appeared, so maybe those 18% of folks that said "What?" have the right of it, never having cracked open a copy of UA (along with the 50% of UA haters, where I tend to sit).  So far we are soldiering on without specialization; however, I don't mind beefing up fighters and have the impression (still to be tested) that they get left behind at higher levels compared to the other classes, and we intend to run this game through to high levels.  But I don't like what specialization does to limit weapon use .  If we were to implement that particular rule option, I would let someone specialize in a coarse-grained class of weapons, like all bow weapons, all two-handed weapons, or all one-handed weapons.

One of the commenters (Peter) mentioned that Dragon 104 had a good analysis of specialization, and it was a good read.  Len Lakofka's column runs the numbers and shows how a 2nd level fighter with specialization takes out a 4th level fighter without specialization, and has a good shot at besting a 5th level fighter without specialization, too.  That's a big jump in power - like gaining 2-3 levels by specializing.  If you consider the fighter is similar in base line power to a monster of the same level, that means your 2nd level specialized fighter is nearly a match for an ogre.

I don't think the door is totally closed for us, though.  Specialization was in base AD&D 2E, and one of the clones I like (ACKS) beefs up the fighter by giving all fighters a "cleave" ability - basically a free attack anytime you down a foe.  The nice thing about the ACKS cleave is that it applies equally to monsters; if a monster downs a PC, it gets to cleave too.  I also appreciate the LOTFP approach, where the fighter is the expert on to-hit rolls and is the only class that advances in fighting ability.  The point is, newer designs (post-AD&D and classic) have all done something to give the fighter a stronger combat presence.

Prior to our AD&D conversion, we were using "weapon by class", where magic users did a d4, all other classes a d6, fighters and dwarves did a d8 for damage or d10 for 2-handed.  That did a good job of giving the fighters a decent niche without major rules surgery.  But with the move to AD&D we're back using the quirky "damage by weapon type" along with S-M/L damage dice - that's too big a part of the 1E experience to omit!  If we don't do a form of coarse-grained specialization, the next easiest thing would be to reimplement cleave for fighters and monsters.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Welcome to the SCD - A Campaign for Cthulhu Gaming

In which the phrase, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes", takes on a wholly different meaning from the Godfather movie.

My Monday blogthulhu posts the past month or so have been promoting a theory on structuring a Cthulhu sandbox to maximize player choice and avoid common problems in horror gaming.  Now it's time to bring it all together in a sample campaign structure.  This is for 1920's or 30's Cthulhu gaming, but the theories behind what makes this type of campaign structure work apply to historical and weird horror gaming in other periods, as well.

The Campaign
It's the 1920's in the Big Apple - gangsters, prohibition, the jazz age, and the Harlem Renaissance.  But even on the mean streets of the city, there are some crimes that defy explanation, some events that can't be solved through conventional policework.  When New York's Finest and the suits at One Police Plaza are confronted with bizarre enigmas and mysteries, those cases get shuffled to the NYPD's Special Crimes Division - the SCD - and their set of dusty offices down near the archives.

Special Crimes is an unpopular assignment with the rank and file; folks that make detective there get stuck on long assignments and rarely make sergeant or lieutenant in the boroughs or precincts.  Detectives in the division don't exactly buck for promotions, either.  It's a close knit group with a lot of secrets, and officers get a bit distant after they've experienced a few SCD cases, as if they've seen too much.  The chief has tried to have the division closed a number of times, but the commissioner keeps it open, and there's someone in the mayor's office that has a vested interest in the group.

The Big Apple attracts all sorts of creeps and cultists; sorcerers seeking forbidden tomes, high society dabblers in forbidden magic, decadent art collectors, crazed wizards, and blasphemous deep one cults among the shady crews near the docks.  Somebody has got to stop all these nutcases from calling down their ancient horrors, and that group is the SCD.

Players in the campaign take on the role of detectives in the SCD and the various contractors that work with the police.  The great thing about the police procedural genre is there are always contractors and adjuncts to the department getting pulled into cases.  Because of the occult nature of SCD's cases, the department employs psychics, sketch artists, hard-boiled private detectives, a local priest, and even a few scholarly professors, for those times when they recover indecipherable eldritch books or strange relics.  A psychologist might be a regular consultant for profiling perpetrators.  A nosy reporter or journalist could be in on the secret, helping to piece together clues while keeping the horrible truths off the front page.  Players will have some wide open choices.

NPCs and Organizations
A campaign like this will have a ton of familiar, recurring NPCs; you've got all the folks in and around the NYPD, the political side of the force, characters like the commissioner, the chief, and the lieutenant in charge of SCD.  There's constant pressure to stop the bad guys while hiding the truth.  Then there's the folks that support the genre, archetypes we can borrow from Film Noir like the street pigeon, the cop on the take, the femme fatale, the gangsters, and the movers and shakers in New York society.

There are a lot of interesting organizations that can be worked into a New York city-based campaign.  The Fate (from the Delta Green setting) has existed for centuries in New York, so I'm sure there's a 1920's version that can be used as a secret power behind the streets.  Organized crime will be a big influence.  I'll probably transplant the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight from Boston to New York and put that occult society in the background.  There might even be a government branch related to Project Covenant that could be an erstwhile ally from time to time.

This campaign uses two Cthulhu gaming themes from the D20 book - Hometown Heroes and Badges and Guns.  New York is big, but the cast of characters will be small enough that the Five Boroughs (hah - five Burroughs) and their varied neighborhoods will become familiar, with locations and regulars that recur over time, like the university and its library stuff, the denizens of the favorite pub, the coroner, and the beat reporters for the daily news.

Badges and Guns gives the players a bit of formal authority and the power to bring legal and governmental resources to bear, but constrains them in other ways - like the pressure to keep their exploits off the front page of the newspapers, and to get things done quietly without embarrassing the mayor.

Solving Common Problems
Let's look at how this structure solves some common problems with Cthulhu gaming.

Active Plot Hooks
One of my biggest gripes with most published scenarios are passive plot hooks; plot hooks that are related to the character's relationships and backgrounds, and not their jobs or activities.  The first problem solved by an organization like the SCD is that it provides a funnel for active plot hooks.  There's a backlog of cases, and the Keeper can introduce new crimes all the time, because the organization is actively taking on cases that fit the occult profile.  It's The X-files for the Five Boroughs.

Target Rich Gaming
The second benefit of the plot hook input funnel is what I call target rich horror gaming; there may be one or two high profile cases at any given time, but there's also a backlog of unsolved cases in the player's hands.  This is the top level of player agency, the opportunity to prioritize and pick and choose from a couple of different options.  It may not mirror how a real life department would work, where priorities are usually set by superiors, but choice is important to how I run games.  The players aren't puppets and they'll get to pick most of their assignments.

The next level of agency is making the actual investigations themselves non-linear, with clouds of clues and multiple paths of victory.  This one's all on the Keeper.

Replacement Characters
The last benefit of a campaign structure like the SCD is easy replacement characters.  By tying plot hooks to the activities of the organization, individual characters can come and go if the death toll or sanity loss mounts.  The campaign keeps chugging along.

Open Questions
I've been thinking this would be a 1920's game, but there are some compelling reasons to consider advancing the timeline to the 1930's.  I get to assume all of Lovecraft's 1920's stories are true and actually happened in the campaign's past; this lets me play with aftershocks, perhaps moving some of the key players to the city.  The rise of the fascist dictatorships in Europe means I can have Nazi agents in the city looking to carry out Hitler's occult agenda - robbing the Natural History Museum or raiding a private collection.  The players can be there for the forming of the early Karotechia.  However, by moving out of the 20's, I lose the charm of the prohibition era, with its gangsters, speakeasies, and glitzy jazz music.

The other open question is whether I should use Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu.  Trail would work really well for a game based on police procedurals; the Trail skill system supports ultra-competent investigators.  But I'll put it to a vote - the players would probably prefer COC style character attributes and dice rolling.

There's an official Chaosium supplement for the city, Secrets of New York - that's going to the top of the reading list.  Miskatonic River Press has been threatening to release some New York based scenarios for a while, so that would be an immediate add, too.  I'm going to work my way through the various Chaosium collections looking for earlier scenarios that would work well in the city.  I'll also be skimming some of the Trail collections for suitable investigations, like Arkham Detective Tales, Stunning Eldritch Tales, and Shadows Over Filmland.

Readers:  if you have favorite scenarios that you think would work well in New York, I'd be grateful for recommendations!  I'd also like to hear any thoughts about using the 1920's versus the 1930's for this kind of game.  I have no problem replacing the plot hooks, transplanting a mansion scenario to an urban brownstone, that kind of stuff; I'd never run something as is.

I have some time to get the details of this campaign together - we've got plenty in the queue for the AD&D game before having an opening to start some Cthulhu one-shots, probably in April.  I like that this campaign could be episodic, with short adventures - we could do an investigation every few months for a change of pace, continue the regular D&D campaign, and then run another SCD one-shot in between major D&D stories whenever I need to scratch the COC itch.

Now I just need to find a great kick-off scenario.