Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Dwimmer-Campaign Game 3

Third installment of the player's exploration of the legendary Dwimmermount.

Game 3 started with a few new drop-in players joining for the night as we played at a neighbor's house.  The players started at the Muntburg tavern, the Flask and Scroll, and discussed their next delve while peering at the map.  Mook 3 (who left their service at the end of last game) had been spreading horrible rumors about Dwimmermount in the intervening time - full of monstrous spiders, death, and beastmen - and word was starting to get out of Muntburg that the dungeon held dangers and treasures.  "I knew we should have knocked off that mook in the dungeon", complained Marthanes' player, as they considered options.  "By the way, new guys, what kind of characters are you, and what do you do?"

"I'm a paladin!" declared Priscus.  "Surely you were kidding about that last comment, murdering your poor ex-retainer?"  Marthanes' player, who nearly spit out his chips, glared across the table - "Seriously, you had to pick a paladin, dude?  So much for my reign of chaos - I guess we're  going to have to act "lawful" from now on".  Meanwhile, the other new player was Parquas, an elf nightblade (a magic user\thief).

The characters for this session:
Marthanes, an exotic sorcerer (mage) from the sultry south
Malgrim, a fighter
Priscus, a paladin
Parquas the Duelist, an elf nightblade
Plus two henchmen - Wolfengard, a dwarf fighter, and Father Tancrede, a priest of Typhon

The Great Porfirio, the finest alchemist of the majestic city of Adamas, had come to Muntberg with his entourage as soon as he heard the dungeon was open, to hire adventurers to retrieve rare reagents for him from the dungeon.  "Texts from the time of the Termaxians identify a 'moon pool' right on the first level of Dwimmermount where the mages of the old empire recovered 'True Water'", declared Porfirio.  "I will pay handsomely if you can discover the truth of whether such a pool exists, and even more if you're able to retrieve some True Water.  Of course, if you don't want the job, I can hire those other guys, the Five Delvers…"

I'll talk about this more during a formal review, but there's a neat tool called the Dwimmermount Dungeon Tracker over at RPGNow; each level has a table of 1d6 interesting quests on the tracker - exactly the type of thing I've done for my home brew megadungeons.  Porfirio is the embellished result of a quest... 

The players bought some empty flasks, but when they went to the bond-house to see if there were any mercenaries looking for work, they learned that all of them were recently hired away by a new party, the Five Delvers.  "That's it, we're going to find these guys and have a talk with them - we'll double the pay and hire the mooks away!"

The Five Delvers are a newly formed adventuring party preparing for their own first trip to the dungeon.  The recently hired mercenaries were outside the cottage laying out gear and sharpening weapons.  Priscus started making an offer to the mercenaries about coming to work for the Muntburg Broncos (the spontaneous name the players just picked for themselves) when Asceline, the lithe and attractive leader of the Delvers, burst out and declared that no one was hiring away her mercenaries.

After sizing up Priscus, she looped her arm in his and walked him down the street to 'work out an arrangement'.  She agreed to letting the party hire away a couple of mercenaries by doubling their pay (as long as she could pocket the difference) and all the while was trying to use her pick pockets skill to rifle through Priscus's belt pouch.  "What do you need the empty flasks for, did you find something like a pool?"  Priscus realized what she was doing and pushed her away.  "We're going to find that Moon Pool for the alchemist", he declared.  "Not if the Delvers find it first!" she retorted.  The players picked two of the mercenaries to change teams, and they headed back to the inn to get ready.

Despite an hour planning to find the moon pool, what they really did when they got to the dungeon was go to a vault with a locked iron door, to test out the "rod of opening".  The door creaked open and then slammed against the wall with a deafening clang.  The vault groaned with an inward rush of air, and a cold chill of undeath washed over the party.  A hollow voice called out, "This treasure is mine.  Mine!  You shall not have it…" and rising from the floor was the gruesome shape of a wight!  (The players didn't know it was a wight, but I described it in such scary detail that the two youngest kids were quaking in their very chairs!)

The party had loaded up on holy water last week, so they immediately started pulling out vials and tossing them at the undead horror, with its life-draining talons reaching for their necks.  Meanwhile, the elf nightblade, using acrobatics, stealth, and the skulking proficiency, had skirted around the vault to the backside of the treasure pile and was creeping up on the wight from behind.  Once he realized it was a nasty undead, he figured his regular sword wouldn't damage it, so he scanned his eyes over the treasure pile, figuring there was a fair chance for a magic item.  The hilt of a sword stuck out of the pile!  Hoping that it was magical, he withdrew the sword and attempted to backstab the wight once it moved forward to claw at the front rank of characters.  It was indeed an enchanted blade, and the thief ended up doing close to 20 damage on the backstab, splitting the wight's skull from the rear.

The mercenaries stood watch while the players sorted and catalogued the wight's large treasure pile, and packed it into sacks for transport.  It was so much that they aborted the rest of the delve to haul the loot back to Muntburg right away, heavily laden with bursting sacks and full backpacks.  There was no keeping a low profile now; word spread from the corporal of the watch that the adventurers had returned with a load of treasure, and the players were barraged with offers from merchants and people in town plying wares and services.  They spent the rest of the night negotiating the purchase of a stone cottage in the outer bailey to use as headquarters, and a bunch of large chests, locks, and some trained war dogs to help with security of their new headquarters.  They even talked to the captain of the guard about keeping a closer watch on their house.  Success has come quickly for the Muntburg Broncos!

My neighbor's wife came home early from shopping and declared it 'time for kids to hit the sack', so we packed up.  His kiddo seemed to enjoy D&D so we'll see if we can get them in another game in a week or so.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Dwimmermount as Axis Mundi

This is the second article where I look at the 400+ page megadungeon  Dwimmermount, created by James Maiszewski, and developed and published by Autarch.  Part I:  Dwimmermount as Old School Tribute.

The Axis Mundi is the center of the world, the connection point between the numinous realms and the world of man.  Many myth systems include these places in their cosmogonies; consider mythic locales like Mount Olympus, or the Norse Yggdrasil, as Axis Mundi.  What's interesting as I reflect on Dwimmermount is that the dungeon itself is the Axis Mundi for the entire campaign world!

Dwimmermount is the place the ancients came to earth from across space and time, and created their first empire deep beneath the mountain.  From that seminal moment, every major shift in the campaign setting can be tied back to actions that either started or ended with a change in rulership of the mountain, and corresponding changes to the geography and architecture of the dungeon.  Telluria, the world of Dwimmemount, has seen the ascent of the gods, invasions from other planets, the rise and fall of empires, and a fractured period where competing city-states vie for power - all originating or ending with the dungeon.  Secrets related to each of the major ages lie buried throughout.  A trip through Dwimmermount is an archaeological journey through the history of Telluria.

Dwimmermount is inexorably tied to quintessence, and a substance called "Azoth", liquid quintessence, which can be used as a powerful reagent and source of magic power.  When the dungeon reopens at the beginning of a Dwimmermount campaign, it immediately becomes the most important place on the planet, regardless of how quickly the local polities become involved. The nature of the secrets buried (and imprisoned) in Dwimmermount represent an existential threat to every nearby locale and city.  Whatever comes next, as history unfolds on your version of Telluria, will be inexorably tied to what happens with your players in the dungeon and the choices you make as DM regarding the powerful resources there.

Dwimmermount as Axis Mundi puts the dungeon in a much different posture than an archetypal lair or forgotten ruin, where treasure alone is the primary aim, and pillaging the dungeon isn't going to imbalance the campaign world or bring nations to war.  Mastery of the dungeon of Dwimmermount represents power over the campaign and knowledge of campaign-altering secrets and truths.  I've read quite a few megadungeons through the years, and very few of them take this extreme approach of making the dungeon the actual secret history of the world.  Of course, if you expect the major activity of the campaign to be exploring a sprawling "tent pole" dungeon, it makes sense that the dungeon should affect the rise and fall of empires and the historical ages of man.

However, this posture of Dwimmermount brings with it a corresponding set of problems.  The history of the dungeon is so intertwined with the history of the world of Telluria, there's definitely additional burdens placed on the referee who would retrofit Dwimmermount into another campaign world.  Portability is not a strength. Telluria has specific positions on weighty campaign questions such as alignment, the nature of the gods, the astral plane, the origins of elves and dwarves, and the sources of magic.  I happen to really like Dwimmermount's answers, but the campaign supports a particular flavor of pulp fantasy that incorporates elements of science fantasy as the campaign proceeds.

Perhaps a larger problem is that the wider world of Telluria doesn't exist… the referee is left to come up with his own interpretation.  The environs of Dwimmermount are described through an area hex map (a regional map) which covers a few nearby settlements and cities, but many of the principal non-player actors hail from far off empires and distant lands.  If the campaign stays laser focused on the dungeon and nearby city, there's probably enough there, but it's likely you'll need to take a broader view of the world and consider sketching a continent map that shows geographic and political relationships.  A Dwimmermount campaign could easily see armies on the move as the deepest levels of the dungeon get breached by players.

Folks have recommended Blackmarsh as a setting to retrofit for Dwimmermount, and I also saw someone place their version in Mystara.  I've grabbed a free copy of Blackmarsh from RPG Now to take a look.  The Wilderlands of High Fantasy (a 1970's setting from Judge's Guild) could be a good fit as well.

I've tried to stay light on specific spoilers here, assuming that both referees and players could be readers.  I'm greatly enjoying Dwimmermount (and have run 4 sessions already with my players) but did want to warn those who follow what to expect.  I'll probably end up sketching my own version of Telluria in the very near future.

Dwimmermount offers the chance for players to care about the ancient history of the campaign world, and rewards an approach that values knowledge - I think that's the next topic to discuss as we build towards a full review.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Dwimmer-Campaign Game 2

Second installment of my player's exploration of Dwimmermount.

The characters stayed in town a few weeks to give Grimson time to heal his grievous head injury from last game session.   Obsidian's player missed the game, so the other players hired a few mercenaries in Muntburg to round out the crew.  They promptly renamed the mercenaries mook 1, mook 2, and mook 3.  They tried to keep a low profile about their initial success in Dwimmermount, and also bought a bunch of new supplies - better armor for Malgrim, 6 vials of holy water, and a few silver daggers.  Marthanes used his proficiency (magical engineering) to identify that the rod from last session was a rod of opening, and the scarab was a deadly cursed item.  Since kids are chaotic by nature, they immediately started scheming how they might sell the scarab as a fake magic item and then retrieve it after it killed its new owner, so they could pass it on to another victim.  Luckily they got distracted by the dungeon before carrying out this particular plan…

The characters for this session:
Marthanes, an exotic sorcerer (mage) from the sultry south
Grimson, the world's first dreadlocked kilted barbarian
Plus two henchmen - Malgrim, an ex-legionnaire from Adamas, and Father Tancrede, a priest of Typhon, and 3 mercenaries

Back at the dungeon, the first thing they did was to replace the head of a god statue.  In one of the treasure rooms last week, the players recovered the head of a statue of Tyche, but were in too much of a rush getting out of the dungeon to mess with it last time.  They lugged it back to Muntburg, where it sat next to the bed for a week.  Now they hauled it back to the dungeon, and fitted it to Tyche's statue where it sealed itself to the torso -  and then the characters were filled with the blessing of Tyche, a divine boon.

They used their map of the level to find a library to loot, discovering various books and a manual of warfare.  They wandered off to another room where they parlayed with a handful of orcs; the war-masks from last session (which clip on to helmets like demon-faced samurai masks) improved the reaction rolls and they gained some intelligence on the nearby area from the rocs, learning about kobolds and a nearby 'kobold chieftain' in an area where the orcs wanted to expand.  The players just needed to hear "kobold lord" and it was clobberin' time - off to mug some kobolds.

The orc's directions led them beyond the finished dungeon into the cave network in the south of the level.  The kobold "chieftain" was actually a vile dwarf, sitting on a crude throne with a large spider minion perched on the back of the throne, with a gang of kobolds.  Devoid of tactics, the players charged in!

Grimson went first, roaring a challenge and leaping forward to attack the evil dwarf.  A massive swing took off half the leader's hit points.  Unfortunately, the giant crab spider went next, jumping onto Grimson, biting and poisoning him, and Grimson died (after writhing on the ground a while).

Marthanes had summoned his berserkers for this fight, and the combination of berserkers and mooks quickly sliced through the kobolds once the berserkers got into the fray.  The other characters finished off the dwarf and the spider, and tended to Grimson after the fight, but he was too far gone to save.

Knowing they had a little bit of time left with the summoned berserkers, the party quickly left the chieftain's room and looked for another fight.  They found a room full of spiders, and lost the remaining berserkers and two of the mooks dealing with the group of giant crab spiders.  There was a dank tunnel leading down out of the spider room, and they heard a faint telepathic voice calling out to them, "I'm down here mortals, tasty mortals, waiting in the dark for you.  Come to me…. Come to me… "  They quickly retreated.

The party doubled back to the chieftain's room, looted the dwarf and the kobold treasure (which consisted of 6,000 coppers and a few dwarven magic items) and headed out of the dungeon, sad to lose Grimson the barbarian.  Furthermore, despondent at seeing mook 1 and mook 2 die in the dungeon, mook 3 left the player's employment when they got back to Muntburg.

This ended the session, and began the list of casualties:

Dwimmermount Dead:
Grimson, the dreadlocked barbarian (killed by a giant crab spider)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Dwimmer-Campaign Starts - First Session

Here we go, game session 1 - Dwimmermount using ACKS.  I have a few basic goals for the campaign - I want to run a simple (old school) game, feature a flexible cast of players from the neighborhood, keep the sessions short so they can be scheduled ad hoc, and keep the amount of prep fairly low so I can still run it when work and school start up again in a few weeks.

We started with the players at the gates of Dwimmermount, standing before the large red doors into the dungeon, making last minute preparations, before trying to push the doors open to see if the rumors of the dungeon being unlocked are true.  We used a large sheaf of pre-made characters and handy background sheets on "what everyone knows about Dwimmermount" to accelerate the action.  I try to minimize exposition during table time, especially for a first session.  Players come to rumble, not to listen to long background monologues!

The characters:
Marthanes, an exotic sorcerer (mage) from the sultry south
Grimson, my world's first dreadlocked kilted barbarian
Obsidian, a thief
-Plus a few henchmen - Malgrim and Mulan, two ex-legionnaires from the city of Adamas, and Father Tancrede, a cleric of Typhon

They descended into the first room, inspected a few statues of the gods with mismatched heads, and Grimson knocked off the misplaced heads of Turms Termax before they moved out.  In one of the first rooms, they found a party of dead dwarfs (turned to stone) and pieced together that one of them had a leather case depicting a full map of dungeon level 1!  (The secret they used was to treat it like an etching or rubbing with some charcoal).  Armed with a full map of the level, the players have been very tactical about where they go looking for treasure.

They found one room with an illusionary demon, managed to hit it (and dispelled the illusion) and discovered their first treasure hoard.  This was followed by a mad minute of dancing in place and acting like they were doing the "make it rain money" mobile device game.  Kids!

The next stop was an iron door in the north east part of the dungeon (which the thief couldn't unlock) so they went to a nearby room instead where they were ambushed by a half dozen metallic bone constructs jumping down from ledges.  (They caught on that the skeletons weren't undead once their turn attempts failed).  Woefully unequipped with enough bashing weapons, the skeletal constructs proved difficult to defeat with blades, and Grimson was torn to pieces, dropping to zero hit points before the rest of the group defeated the "eldritch bones".  ACKS uses a mortal wounds table to determine the results when a guy is knocked out to determine whether he's dead, dying, or just really hurt.  In the case of Grimson, he was really hurt and one of his ears was practically ripped off.  They bandaged him, but he'd need a few weeks to recover back in town.

Meanwhile, the other characters discovered a nearby secret door and a second treasure hoard (along with a few magic items - a rod of opening and a scarab of death - which they packed for later).  On the way out of the dungeon, they stopped in a room with various Thulian war masks hanging on the walls.  Malgrim almost got poisoned taking one off the wall (since the masks were trapped with gas) and everyone else quickly backed away.  The commotion attracted more wandering monsters, and Marthanes used his single 1st level spell (Summon Berserker*) to materialize a squad of desert fanatics from the afterlife to fight off the beetles.

After the beetle fight, the players learned something super useful - the summoned berserkers last for 3 turns!  Marthanes' minions were quite willing to go retrieve some masks for him while the party stayed at a safe distance.  With masks in hand, the group limped out of Dwimmermount and back to town.  End of game 1!

*Summon Berserkers is a new spell in the ACKS Player Companion

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dwimmermount's Setting as Old School Tribute

As I continue to run a series of pick-up games in Dwimmermount, I'm going to explore aspects of the setting and dungeon and defend why it's a key OSR creation and model.

The elements that fixed my commitment to reading the voluminous Dwimmermount were the clear lines of inspiration between the setting, Appendix  N literature, and D&D's earliest settings.  Regarding Appendix N, I started this blog years ago with a journey through the list of Appendix N literature.  (If you're a younger gamer, Appendix N refers to a list of inspirational reading, 1979 and earlier, presented by Gary Gygax in the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide).  Fantasy shifted in the 1980's with the resurgence of Tolkien's popularity - the genre became dominated by multi-part epic quests, "The Sword of Shannara" effect, incarnated in series like Shannara, Thomas Covenant, Wheel of Time, and so on.  It wasn't until I started devouring earlier fantasy that I understood how the picaresque quality of D&D reflected earlier literary sentiments.

So while TSR and WOTC D&D moved on to principally focus on "adventure path" style gaming that mirrored the shifts in film and literature, the OSR movement developed retro clones and looked to the past, to recreate the energy and wonder that leaps off the page when you read old accounts of the hobby from the 1970's.  It's not all about nostalgia, however; the earlier approaches to running and presenting the game are stylistically different.  Dwimmermount is a modern attempt at recreating a 1970's style setting, dungeon, and play experience.

For now, we are focused on setting.  There are many elements that jump out as throw-back fantasy.  The planetary cosmology, with emphasis on space as a gaseous aether, and the access to nearby planetary realms, is a theme that flows through authors like Lovecraft, Dunsany, and Burroughs.  The green-skinned Amazonian women of Kythirea and red-skinned Eld of Aeron are reminiscent of Jon Carter, while the moon-beasts feature in Lovecraft and Dunsany.  (And of course, I can't help but think of that green-skinned woman from 1960's Stark Trek, you know the one).  The strong Law versus Chaos axis that echoes throughout the dungeon is heavily inspired by Moorcock and Poul Anderson, while the demon lords (particularly Arach-Nacha and the toad-like Tsath-Dagon) are direct homages to Clark Ashton Smith.

Although there were great empires in the past, the men of the present-day setting of Dwimmermount rule isolated City-States.  They hold exotic titles like Despot, or Exarchate, rather than Medieval Kings or Duke, immediately evoking a sense of the decadent and autocratic rulers in the Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, or the petty rulers that populate the background of Howard's Hyborian stories.  It's also a clear tribute to one of the earliest and beloved settings for D&D in the 1970's, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, which was ruled by various City-States and their Overlords, which in turn was hearkening back to earlier styles of fantasy.

Finally, the setting blends a significant amount of 'science fantasy' into the mix.  As characters plumb the depths of Dwimmermount, and unearth more and more of the setting's backstory at the same time, they are put into contact with machines and scientific wonders of the earlier ages (including the gods themselves).  Early D&D settings like the Wilderlands gladly mixed science fantasy into the D&D genre, drawing inspiration from the pulp fantasy authors of the 1930's that freely blended themes themselves.  The principal author I'm thinking of here is Abraham Merrit; the two pieces I've read are "The Face in the Abyss" and "The Moon Pool" (And for film analogs, check out some evocative 1930's movies like "She" or "Lost Horizon").  James calls out his appreciation for AE Merritt in the introduction, even putting a "moon pool" on the first level of Dwimmermount as a direct reference.  Merritt's themes involve people of the present time discovering more advanced lost races, either in forgotten ruins or a hidden society beneath the earth, and getting embroiled in an ages-old conflict.  Dwimmermount incorporates these themes flawlessly with the Terrim and the City of the Ancients deep beneath the dungeons.

I'm sure there are literary references I'm omitting or flat-out missed.  James was extremely well-read on the pulps and incorporated many of the themes into his work; it's hard not to admire the degree to which he emulates, borrows, steals, and recreates themes from early fantasy and the pulps in providing a backdrop for Dwimmermount - almost to the point of affectation!  If you view Dwimmermount as just a big dumb dungeon, you're missing out on it as a vehicle to transport you and your players to D&D's earliest settings, literary roots, and styles of play.

I loved the Wilderlands; my one wish for Dwimmermount's setting is that it included a larger sketch of the world, showing the homelands of the Thulians, the Volmarians, or the mysterious east and its Kingdom of the Priest-King.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Lairs & Encounters Kickstarter for ACKS

I'm taking a moment out of studying to post a kickstarter-related PSA:  Lairs & Encounters, by Autarch (the publishers of Adventurer, Conqueror, King).  The kickstarter has gone swimmingly well, funding in the first week and climbing up the bonus goals.  Alex, the Autarch himself, has declared a promotional challenge in honor of the solstice:  if the kickstarter gets another $500 or so by noon tomorrow, hitting the target goal of $18,500, then he'll unlock the next two bonus goals instead of just one.  If you're thinking about jumping in, this is a good time to do it.  Autarch has developed a cadence of timely releases and providing advance access to the draft manuscript once the kickstarter funds, minimizing the usual crowdfunding risks.

I like resource books full of pre-made content, whether it be something like the old AD&D Rogues Gallery or D&D's Shady Dragon Inn, or a book of ready-to-go monster hideouts like this Lairs & Encounters; they're handy to have any time the party is heading overland.  The book includes 135 monster lairs from the standard bestiary, 16 maps featuring more detailed lairs, some treasure maps, rules for creating and balancing your own monsters, and various sandbox-oriented systems.  Hitting the bonus goal adds 9 more lair maps, 5 more treasure maps, and a handful of new monsters.  On deck are various Viking themed monsters and desert themed monsters.  Naturally, I'm already a backer and would love to see a bunch of new monsters get added to the project!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Visiting Dwimmermount for Christmas

Arise from the dead, sleeping blog; we have things to do.   I have a couple of weeks break over the holidays, and I'm starting a new game.  I've finally taken the weighty, hardbound version of Dwimmermount off the shelf and plumbed it's storied depths to run at the table.

I consciously avoided Dwimmermount after its kickstarter; the affair descended into a messy drama, and when I got the book after an interminable period, I had mixed feelings about the process.  Quite a bit of time has since passed then, and curiosity got the better of me.  Now, after having read the book cover to cover, and kicking off an actual-play adventure there, I state that Dwimmermount is amazing.  Over the course of the next few blog posts, I'll take a deeper look at Dwimmermount and why it's one of the pivotal books in the OSR movement.

But I do need to step back and revisit some points about the publication's history to put my trepidations into context.  There's a deep irony in the publication of Dwimmermount. The source campaign was heavily featured on the blog Grognardia, which catalogued James Maliszewski's exploration of early Dungeons & Dragons and the roots of the RPG hobby.  His blog was a good read, and immensely popular.  James used Dwimmermount to explore the modes of play espoused by Gary Gygax and embodied in Gary's legendary mega dungeon, Castle Greyhawk.

Castle Greyhawk has never seen print.  It was a living, breathing dungeon created over many years and innumerable game sessions, a collection of scant notes, worn maps, and hazy recollections of the author.  As fans, we hounded Gary for decades to commit Castle Greyhawk to a publication.  There have been heroic fan versions, but for various reasons, Gary took the original with him to his grave.

After some years of running his popular Dwimmermount game (and reporting it on his blog), James launched one of the most successful OSR kickstarter campaigns I can recall, to fund a print version of Dwimmermount.  The gentlemen over at Autarch, publishers of Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS), had recently entered OSR publishing with their successful launch of ACKS, and they partnered with James to deliver it.

In a bizarre twist of history repeating itself, the project soon got into trouble.  The effort of turning scant notes, worn maps, and the author's hazy memories, into a fully realized, printed megadungeon, turned out to be just as daunting for James as it had for Gary Gygax.  James withdrew from the project, and Autarch, which had other considerations in play, such as their reputation as a new publisher, and a bevy of planned products, carried on with the commitment to the backers.  The final publication of Dimmermount is a blend of James' original campaign and the embellishments added by Autarch to build out the raw notes, remediate gaps, and reconcile inconsistencies.

The final product is a triumph.  But how do we assign credit and authorship?  I'm perplexed by the ambiguities related to the creative process and the finished work.  Is a creation diminished if the author fails to complete the piece and a second author, or even a third, comes along to see it through?  I'm sure many projects are collective efforts and we are none the wiser for having been spared the details on "how the sausage was made"; in the gaming space, this project stands out because of the public way we came to know the visionary creator withdrew, the sordid response by a minority of fans, and how the remaining team stalwartly carried on.  The mixed pedigree of the product has forced me to reflect on the permutations of collaborative art.  Actually, working the discussion out as I was writing this brought me to an epiphany: is it perhaps silly to get caught up on authorship concerns and pedigree on the eve of "Star Wars Day"?  I'm taking the family to see the new movie tomorrow.  It's not like we even considered looking askance at the work of Disney or JJ Abrams because George Lucas is out of the picture; in fact I'm thankful there will be no Jar Jar Binks.  (Don't let me down, JJ Abrams - I better not see Gungans).

This preamble to Dwimmermount is waxing long.  I'm very fond of the book, and as you check back over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing my reasons for praising it highly.  We'll look at the world of Dwimmermount, its role as Axis Mundi, how it embodies various old school ideals, and then take a look at the dungeons themselves.

To close this bit of blog necromancy, I'll offer a brief account on where I've been:  I started a demanding master's program this past year, a 16 month grind calculated to launch me on that next career arc.  Juggling family, 3 kids, a challenging corporate gig, and a master's program at an Ivy league school has put a serious crimp on creative output and gaming.  I've been keeping up with some blogs, I ran some 5E over the summer, but I've mainly shifted into a consumer of gaming content rather than developing stuff whole cloth for my home games.  That won't change for another year, but I do expect to write about gaming and keep up with the news in OSR-land.  Glad to see so many of you are soldiering on while this place has been dark.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

London Calling - LOTFP in the time of Shakespeare

Ah, Spring - when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of horror.

I started a new job in April (same company, bigger role) and it's put the hurt on gaming and writing.  I've played a little Magic here and there, since it's so easy to fit into small pockets of free time, but otherwise, I've been reading.  I had never read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, so I've become acquainted with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  As a seminal influence on early D&D, it's pretty interesting to see the focus on a city setting, the ever-present Thieves' Guild, and Fafhrd and the Mouser undertaking various D&D style jaunts and adventures.  It might not be great literature, but the stories are fine entertainment.

I've messed around with hex crawls, and any long time visitors know I suffer from extreme dungeon love - especially the mega dungeons!  I've never really tried to run a D&D game focused exclusively on a large city.  It's hard to read about Lankhmar and not consider the possibilities of an urban game.  The City-State of the Invincible Overlord looms over the early days of the hobby as a foundation work, yet no players of mine have ever walked the streets of that storied place.

Of course, whenever I spend too much time away from Call of Cthulhu and similar games, thoughts turn to horror, and I pine for adventures that challenge players with death and madness.  I see a way to combine both of these imperatives.  Consider this as the elevator pitch for a new setting:  adventures in the manner of Call of Cthulhu, set in Elizabethan London, with lightweight D&D style rules - Lamentations of the Flame Princess would work very well, for instance.

London in the time of Shakespeare is familiar and accessible to players through film and cinema, yet has enough of the rowdy elements to appeal to the "Wild West" style of games favored by D&D players.  The city south of the Thames is flush with thieves, cut-purses, entertainers, charlatans, and an ale house on every corner.  It's a time with little law and order (no police force) and every man carries a blade or weapon for defense or dueling.  It wouldn't take much to push this into a setting fine for hybrid D&D\horror adventures.

In fact, there was a Swords & Wizardry setting some time back, Backswords & Bucklers, that provided rules guidelines for adventures in Elizabethan England, but more to the point, it suggested using a local tavern as the home base and building all the adventures around street-level challenges in the neighborhood.  Now just take that a step further and make the adventures inspired by Lovecraft, or gothics like Bram Stoker's Dracula, and you can see where I'm heading.  I recently had the chance to see Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere TV series on DVD, and "London Below" (and similar tropes and ideas from urban fantasy) would provide inspiration as well.

Anyway, this has become the subject of my latest 'little black book', the brainstorming notebook I carry around on trips and daily sojourns.  I'm learning how to visit Shakespeare's London on 5 Groats a Day (via a faux travel book by the same name) and musing how classic stories and situations from Lovecraft's work could happen in the sordid back streets and alleys of London in the time of Dr Dee and the School of Night.

Suggested resources would include the aforementioned Backswords & Bucklers, the Vornheim city kit, various Call of Cthulhu supplements, LOTFP game rules, and Ken Hite's "The School of Night" (a setting sketch for Trail of Cthulhu). (Edit:  there was also a 2E era book, A Mighty Fortress, that featured rules for Europe in the 17th century that I'll consult as well,  )In the meantime, I'll see how things brew and ferment in the notebook and whether I see enough campaign potential there.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Attack on Titan on Taenarum

I just finished binge-watching the Attack on Titan anime series.  I know it's on one of the big streaming services - Hulu or Netflix.  It's a post-apocalyptic series where humanity huddles behind a giant series of concentric walled areas because the outside world has been overrun by "titans".  Titans are gigantic smiling idiots that shamble around the countryside and eat people.  It's a clever variant of the zombie apocalypse genre.  The main characters are a bunch of cadets who join the armed forces to fight the titans, and the extreme violence and presentation reminded me a bit of Starship Troopers.  It's both horrifying and comical watching titans eat people with those idiot smiles on their faces.

I don't think I'll ever look at D&D giants the same way.  Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an englishman!  But D&D giants are only 8 - 12 feet tall (or thereabouts) - not big enough to hold people dangling by their feet and swallow them whole like sardines.  We must go bigger!

In Greek Myth, there are all sorts of primordial beings.  There are the personified great forces of the universe, like Erebos, Nyx, Gaia, Chaos, and Uranus.  There are gods and titans, monsters, and giants.  Gods and titans are pretty much indistinguishable to me.  The Greek gods act like a bunch of petty teenagers with super powers with the titans as their super rivals.  Half the gods and heroes have titans for parents, so there's no dearth of cross-breeding.  I see them a bit like Zelazny's Courts of Amber and Chaos in The Chronicles of Amber - they're reflections of each other, and alignment is all relative.  The one thing the gods are good at is beating up on primordial monsters.

The Giants of Greek myth could be made scary.  They're born of Gaia, one of the primordial beings, and clamber up out of the earth.  They're dangerous enough to fight the gods.  They could be super giant!  In pursuit of that goal, the giants of D&D are herby demoted to "lesser giants", the descendants of those 60' tall primordial giants from the dawn of time.  There's even precedent in Greek myth, since there are the 3 primordial Cyclopes that serve as armorers for the gods, and then a lesser race of degenerate cyclops that live on islands and eat people, like Polyphemus in "The Odyssey".  Giants are now the same way.

One of the themes I'm striving towards in the Taenarum campaign is that all those origin stories in the Greek universe are true and relevant (to a point) in the current age.  The primordial beings are still out there, sleeping and sessile.  All of the titans and monsters trounced by the gods in Hesiod's Theogony, and imprisoned in Tartarus, are all there, guarded in small part by Hades, who acts a bit like hell's jailer.  The road to the underworld is a direct path to the realm of Hades, but it's also a path to Tartarus - and all sorts of malefactors that would like to see the Titans returned to power, or legendary monsters freed from Tartarus, scheme in the depths of the dungeon on how accomplish these ends.

That also means there are ways to awaken the Primordial Giants.  With Attack on Titan firmly in mind, how can I not unleash some 50-60' tall horrors that stride across the countryside like dumb smiling Kaiju and lift the roofs of buildings, scooping out the inhabitants like a child pulling dolls out of a doll house?  This is a thing that must happen in this campaign:

Anyway, back to Attack on Titan.  The anime was great, but there was only one season (25 episodes) so we're off to figure out the best way to keep up with the manga.  My wife would exile me to the couch if I dropped a few hundred dollars on manga back issues, so I'm hoping the library has them, or there's a streaming service to read them online.  Wikipedia mentions a potential live-action movie and the idea that maybe there's a second anime season in the works, so we'll see.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

13th Age and Taenarum

One thing I've been considering as Taenarum motors along is how to incorporate more effects of the gods (and their intrusions on the mortal world) into the campaign.  This is the time after the heroic age of mythic Greece; heroes and dungeons are the new spectator sport of the gods.  Once players have earned a few levels and started to experience some success, they should be on the radar, coming to the attention of otherworldly patrons and antagonists.

I never picked up the 13th Age game from Pelgrane, but I'm a fan of the publisher and follow its projects.  A thought flew into my brain - 13th Age had a system called "Icons", powerful background characters in the setting - and a way for either the player or DM to invoke them during the game session.  I'm not fully clear how the system worked, but it seems like an option to present various Greek deities and similar powerful characters in Taenarum.  Aid from an Icon, assuming that's something they do, could easily be represented via 5E's inspiration mechanic.

Does anyone have practical experience with 13th Age and can provide some pointers on how they used 13th Age style Icons in their game?  Does this seem like a good fit for various petty Greek gods?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

New Delve Maps for Taenarum - areas 1.2 and 1.3

Here are some maps from past two week's dungeon adventures.  I've been working in a "dungeon delve" format to keep things sized for a single night of play.  Here I've annotated the maps with the main encounter in each area.

Area 1.2, Vermin Caves, is the lair of a Mushroom Dryad - a winsome fey with mottled grey skin, a gossamer dress, and various abilities over mushrooms and beasts.  For instance, she cultivated fragrant mushrooms in area 2 to draw in rats, rodents, and small mammals to keep her giant snakes fed; she had enslaved beasts in her lair, covered in mushrooms and under spore-effected mind control.  The players didn't make it far enough into this delve to meet the mushroom dryad, but this isn't the only one in Taenarum; I see the generic "dryad" as a signature nymph for a Greek setting, and the mushroom dryad combines allure, toxicity, and rot, in a disturbing way.  Plus, they live in caves.

Area 1.3 is the lair of the first eidolon of Hades, the Lord of Bones.  The area has mustering rooms with dormant skeletal soldiers awaiting activation; a rendering site where corpses are stripped to the bones by flesh eating scarabs; it has the Arch of Greed, a trapped hall that compels adventurers to ignore their defenses and focus on a wealthy treasure; a final area is the boss fight with the Lord of Bones.

I've been enjoying a book called 5th Edition Foes (5EF) from the Frog Gods - it features a blend of Fiend Folio updates and new monsters, all in 5E terms.  I'm basing some of the exotic undead "lords" in Taenarum on monsters from that book.  I used the 5EF "bone collector" as the starting point for the Lord of Bones used here.  The Lord of Bones fight included a handful of misshapen skeletons, and some pit traps that drop victims into a small warren beneath the floor where the Lord of Bones can stalk a victim for flaying.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taenarum Game 3 - Cry Ref Cry

We had our full compliment of players last weekend, bringing the party size up to a lofty 7 players.  The two new players each decided to bring a warlock to the table.  Joining the party was a Drow Warlock named Seldron Subarashi, and a Tiefling Warlock named Flesh.  Seldron comes from the underworld beneath distant Asia and serves a mythic fiend he's calling Chu-Jung the Heavenly Executioner.  He's come to the Greek world to see if the rumors are true, that there is actually another underworld and a pretender deity.  I don't know too much about the Tiefling's background, other than it's a she, and she looks skeletal and gaunt beneath her warlock robes.   The players' insistence on playing mostly mutant non-Greek loners in my  "Mythic Greece" campaign continues unabated.  Long live "The Outlanders"!

Also, some of the previous characters leveled up.  Our cast of characters for this week appear like so:

Modred:  Dragonborn Bard, L2
Etor:  Spartan Fighter, L2
Gati:  Halfling Rogue, L2
Aldrian:  Wood Elf Druid, L2
Stompy the Angry Dwarf, Fighter, L1
Seldron, Drow Warlock, L1
Flesh, Tiefling Warlock, L1

One of my "house rules" about the Taenarum campaign and dungeon is that every adventure needs to start and end back in town, to support drop-in attendance.  The delves are small enough that the party should be able to completely finish one in a single night if they don’t mess around or draw too many wandering monsters.  (This makes the whole "short rest" question a little more challenging for the players, since a short rest refills my grip with punishing wandering monster dice checks.  Muhaha.)

Gaming resumed with the party at the Adventurers Guild Hall, meeting the new recruits and confirming their membership in The Outlanders.  The players learned this week what can happen if you don't finish a quest.  While they were discussing what delve to explore this week, there was a heartfelt reunion on the other side of the tavern; the Big Gold Hunters (BGH), one of the haughty rival adventuring parties on the Scoreboard, had rescued a Spartan soldier who was imprisoned by a cave dryad (and reunited him with a grateful wife, earning a fair reward).  This was a dungeon area the players started last week, clearing most of it but not finishing it.  The players could overhear BGH, "Yeah, it's like someone cleared out half the area, there were dead snakes everywhere - it was easy for us to "convince" the dryad to let Barasidas go."

Now, I get there could be differences of opinion on how I'm such a mean ref - the players clear half a lair, then some other group of knuckleheads comes along, finishes the job, and gets the treasure.  Let's be clear - the players are not precious snow flakes, they're part of the same compost heap as all the other adventuring groups trying to get ahead by looting Taenarum.  Or at least, that's how I want them to feel!  If they don't like the Big Gold Hunters jumping their claim, they can arrange an 'accident' to happen to the Big Gold Hunters.  You can be sure the NPC groups are going to be looking for chances to knock The Outlanders off the Scoreboard - permanently.  This also demonstrates the world isn't static, and things are going to continue happening while the players are out of the dungeon resting.  The ulterior motive is to make sure the players explore with a sense of purpose, avoid wandering monsters, and work hard at finishing the whole lair (or at least getting away with the treasure before they quit for the night).  If they leave a lair weakened and half explored, someone else may come along and finish the job.

With that sorry news, the players decided to follow up on their next lead - a dungeon deeper along the great road, where 'torches of ever burning green flame' denoted a "Hades dungeon".  They knew that these types of areas were considered 'challenging' but they'd have the chance to get a rare item from the vaults of Pluto.  Off they went.

I'm going to skip a lot of the play by play, as it makes dry reading.  The new members demonstrated their worth early and often, using various blast spells to get past a wandering monster problem (giant centipedes) and really carrying the day at one of the tougher fights.  The party was in a room where swarms of flesh-eating scarab beetles were stripping some corpses down to naked bone, while a couple of skeleton hoplites oversaw the process.  The battle ended up being the characters fighting the insect swarms, while the skeletons ran over to where there were huge clay amphorae along the wall (filled with more scarabs) and they knocked them over, creating more flesh-eating swarms.  All told, it was a fairly intense battle, with 5-6 flesh eating scarab swarms and a couple of loose skeletons.  Between multiple thunder waves, a burning hands spell, and lots of eldritch blasts, the new-look Outlanders handled the combat really well - swarms are dangerous.

Other encounters in the lair included a couple of "trick" rooms with lots of frozen skeletal hoplites, waiting for a trigger to spring into action (the players adroitly avoided triggering them).  They dealt with the Arch of Greed, a magical hazard that compelled its victims to wallow in a nearby treasure, while undergoing attacks from some nearby skeletons waiting in ambush.  But the capstone of the evening was the boss fight against the Lord of Bones, the skeletal eidolon and servant of Hades.  I have this whole mechanism (in my BRAIN) where there is a pecking order amongst the eidolons , a hierarchy;  if you kill enough adventurers, you get promoted to the next level up the chain, and mutate into a higher form of undead boss - from the Lord of Bones to the Zombie Lord to the Ghoul King and so on.  Meanwhile, when the Lord of Bones is destroyed, a new larva is spawned from the Underworld (extruded somewhere) and quickly forms into a new Lord of Bones.  These are the things I think about in between meetings and conference calls.

The Lord of Bones sat across a broad chamber on a throne surrounded by green fire braziers.  A handful of minions assembled themselves from discarded bone parts and shambled towards the party - misshapen skeletons with a blend of animal and monster parts - a bull's head or a cow skull, an ogre hand, and so forth.  Meanwhile, the front rank of players triggered a pit trap, dropping their tank-like dwarf fighter into a deep hole.  There were a few small side tunnels leading out of the pit, revealing a warren of tunnels beneath the room.

While the party surged around the pit to engage the Lord of Bones' misshapen minions, the eidolon itself opened a trap door next to the throne, and entered the warrens, stalking the dwarf!  The dwarf could hear it calling out to him in the dark tunnels, "I'm going to flay you and make you a skeleton!".  The dwarf backed up into the pit and went into 'defensive fighting mode' to keep from being flayed alive - the Lord of Bones had razor sharp claws and is capable of reducing a humanoid to a skeleton minion in minutes!

Despite this challenging set up, the new-look Outlanders handled the fight really well.  The dumped their remaining resources into defeating the Lord of Bones from above the pit (daily spells like Hexes and Witch Bolts) while keeping the dwarf on his feet with Healing Word(s) and second wind.  Tying down the boss with a hard-to-crack tank fighter, while peppering the boss with powerful ranged strikes, is a tried and true formula to success.  Outlanders win, flawless victory!  Finish him.

Before he died, the Eidolon relinquished his key, and then withered away to oblivion.  The players found the nearby Hades Mystery Box, a one-use chest that allows a random roll on the magic item table.  One of the players obliged with the 'Legend of Zelda' opening-a-chest music, and away we went.  Emerging from the glowing void was  a Wand of the War Mage +1, wahoo.  It was late - I need to get better at improvising setting appropriate names - maybe it's actually a Hyperborean Cylinder, an Atlantean Boom Stick, or one of Hecate's Scepters.  Dunno.

Anyway, that was Game 3.  Much fun, although in hindsight I could have upsized a few of the encounters even further than I did, to account for 7 players - I didn't fully account for the force multiplier of jumping from 4-5 players to 7 (which would increase the monster budget by about 25%, a pretty sizeable jump).  There are guidelines on encounter building in the 5E DMG (page 56 of the free rules) but you also need to account for the experience and tactical skill of the players.  Adding a tank and some blasters and some tactics has increased the party's threat capability a lot - much more than when they were a bunch of happy go lucky squishy guys that just ran headlong into combat.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I've only run about 5-6 sessions of 5E, but I'm beginning to get a sense on some adjustments to make to my encounter and dungeon designs going forward.  Here's what I'm figuring out.

Rest Versus Lethality
5E has very generous recovery rules.  Characters completely heal over night, and the party can recover a lot of their fighting capability after a short rest (defined as 1 hour, sitting put in the dungeon).  Once the party manages to survive a treacherous encounter, they can recover quite a bit back to normal and take on another difficult challenge without leaving the dungeon.

There's the rub - surviving the encounter.  Monsters hit hard, dice matter, and players frequently go to zero hit points, getting revived mid combat by healing.  My old school games featured a longer attrition based approach to whittling away resources, with cumulative small combats wearing the party down over time until they hit a breaking point and decided to leave the dungeon site entirely to recover overnight.

In 5E, you can push the players to that breaking point repeatedly in a single game session, because once they survive the first encounter, enough resources reset for the next encounter and the party can stay in the dungeon.  The angst filled discussions aren't "can we go one more room", they're more like "can we actually survive this room and get to a rest point?"

Delve Pacing
We try to play a 3-4 hour game session.  Depending on how long it takes everyone to catch up with the chit chat at the beginning of the game session, the group has been able to clear 3-4 combat encounters per night.  That means a one night delve or lair should be 2-3 planned encounters, plus the chance for a wandering monster or two.

This is important to realize:  In old school games, wandering monsters waste party resources.  In my current game, where I'd like the players to complete a mission by the end of the night, wandering monsters waste table time and threaten the party's ability to clear the delve.  Technically the wandering monsters waste resources, too, but I'm much more sensitive about the time, because resources refresh so much in between fights.

This is a self-inflicted problem.  I don't know which players are going to show up each week, so I want the games to always start and end back in town.  And because I'm a jerk, if the players leave a dungeon half-finished with a dangling plot hook and the treasure just hanging out, it's likely someone else (one of my asshat NPC parties of rival adventurers) is going to come along and finish the quest while the party is out of the dungeon.  Wandering monsters waste the player's time, not their resources, by preventing them from completing objectives.

Although they're not explicitly called out in MMORPG terms like tank, cannon/DPS, buffer / healer, etc., it's clear some of that philosophy is still present. An optimized party backed by good tactics will do much better in combat.  I saw a glimpse of the future last game session, where a tankish fighter tied down the enemy boss (and went into defense mode) while a group of heavy-damage striker types pummeled the boss at range - it was ugly for the bad guys and I wept bitter tears on the inside.  Luckily the tank player isn't an every week player, and the high-defense damage sponge is an unglamorous role.  Hopefully, the glory hounds of the group will continue to turn up their noses at playing "boring" sword-and-board fighters.  It's much more fun as referee when everyone's a squishy striker with low hit points, and the monsters get to wail on them.  Just saying.

The net-net - much like 3.x or 4E, a highly skilled party will be able to roll over poor encounters that don't present the players with tactical challenges, either through raw power or difficult terrain, environments, or deployments.  It's important to give some thought to challenging the players via sound tactics.  I'm off to read some Sun Tzu.

The complexity of running the game during the combat has shifted more towards the players, who have all the custom abilities and fiddly bits.  Monsters are very easy to run in 5E - it's so easy to run as referee, my heart is about to explode in my chest with joy at the ease of running 5E.  So yeah, the point is you should have brain power left over to think about tactics, because your brain isn't forced to keep bonuses, modifiers, and player facing rules in the frontal lobe during the game.  It's all been shifted to the player's side of the table.

Say Goodbye to Your Chestnuts
Our old school groups used to feature 8-10 characters; 5-6 players and the rest were meat shields, hirelings, and retainers.  Because the old school game is attrition based, the players needed those bags of hit points to rotate in and out of the front lines - sheer numbers mattered.  This isn't really an issue in 5E and the party hasn't had a need for any retainers or mercenaries.

There's no zero to hero arc.  Even first level characters can do amazing, every-round magical feats via cantrips.  5E is a high magic, high power style of adventure game.  It's great fun, but it's certainly not literary or amenable to magic realism or the historical fantasy I've favored in recent years.  My players say they don't miss the days of "pitchfork wielding peasants who learn how to fight monsters the hard way", but I love that style of campaign, so I'm still going to inflict some true old school games on them - probably next time I need to run a horror game  by Halloween or something.

I also loved old school reaction rolls and morale rules.  Random results force me to improvise - they're fun curve balls to navigate from the DM's side of the table.  They're not in 5E from what I can tell, so I'll probably have to house rule these things in there some way.

Good Luck With Those NPCs, Ref
Yeah, I don’t love building NPC parties in 5E.  My referee style fills the world with rival adventurers and dungeon factions - it's a roleplaying game, and the players need foils.  There are a handful of suggested NPC type "monsters" at the end of the Monster Manual, but otherwise, you have to build NPC monsters from scratch.  I don't love it.

Here's a sample issue.  XP value of a monster (and therefore challenge rating) is a function of attack, defense, hit points, special abilities.  Two different NPC magic users, each  representing a 5th level magic user, err… wizard, will have a wildly different XP values based solely on their spell choices.  The guy with Fireball, Flaming Sphere, and Heat Ray will have a damage output off the chart compared to the guy with utility spells, or Sleep and Hold Person.

In an old school game, each of these "monsters" would be 5 HD (with an asterisk or two to cover the special abilities) when calculating XP and difficulty level.  But it makes sense that the guy with Fireball is an order of magnitude more difficult to fight than the guy with a Fly spell - not only does he do a lot of damage, but it's an area effect that could nuke the whole party!  5E takes into account that degree of nuance, but it means each homebrew NPC requires assembly or calculation according to the monster rules and their specific abilities.  I'm still in the process of making my peace with this particular sub-system.  I'm not friends with it yet, having only created stats for a handful of NPC's so far (and choosing refuge in the expedient practice of reskinning stat blocks for many of the NPCs).  But your time is coming, awkward NPC rules!  I will conquer you and destroy you!

If you've made the switch from a rules light D&D clone to 5E, what kind of adjustments have you had to make to your style or expectations?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Secrets of the Mini Dungeon Revealed

Yesterday I posted a little mini dungeon with map and key.  The text is kind of bland, and it's only an entrance area, but it actually reveals a lot about my referee style and how I approach campaigns.  Here's a peek at the thought process!

Game Balance Doesn't Matter
Game balance for encounters is an interesting tool.  You can be very transparent about risk vs reward, and relative danger - or you can mostly disregard game balance (as long as combat isn't the only solution to the encounter).  For Taenarum, there's a broad rule that the deeper you go into the dungeon, the more dangerous it becomes, but I have no issues throwing difficult challenges at players with a range of outcomes.  Yesterday's dungeon only had the first 8 rooms of an entrance area, but still had some significant dangers:

Bandit Captain:  The bandit captain is CR 2 (meaning 1 captain is a challenge for a level 2 party).  Oops.  Ghost:  A ghost is CR 4, meaning a single ghost is a balanced encounter for a 4th level party.  Oops again.  Medusa:  the players can't actually fight the Medusa in the first dungeon, so it's more like a trap \ hazard.

In the actual game, the party fought the bandit captain, though he kept asking for them to surrender.  Still, the fight was close to a TPK, but they successfully defeated him; in actuality, if he defeated the whole party, he would have kept them alive to confront the Fates one at a time as prisoners - and then gone on to be a great recurring villain after screwing them over.  Instead, they carried his head back to town as proof of victory.

The ghost was in the room of the Fates.  They didn't get a chance to fight the ghost because it won initiative, and succeeded in possessing a party member.  Otherwise, it could have been rough.  The party hasn't figured out how their empty soul gem works (yet), but I did seed an alternate solution to the ghost right in the mini dungeon.  Taenarum is the Road to the Underworld - meaning all the dead souls walk the road to Hades.  They're all around you in the dungeon, you just can't see them - that prickling on the neck, the goose bumps on the forearm, whispers of the dead.  So there are also lots of ghosts in Taenarum - victims of violent and unfair deaths that malinger in the dungeon, plaguing the living instead of continuing on to the Underworld.

Random Effects
Old school referees love their random effects.  The whole 'Triad of the Fates' statue, with its random blessings and curses, is an example here.  There are strange things all over Taenarum.  Remember, the dungeon was built by the "mad god", Hades.  It's part West World, part Murderworld.  In fact, I'm sure I'll find a reason to put a Yul Brenner gunslinger in there, somewhere.  (If you're part of the younger generation that has never seen 1970's Westworld, you must correct this at once).

The perfect alignment between randomness and lack of game balance is embodied in my wandering monster table - it's got 100 entries on it, with encounters that would challenge everything from 1st level through 5th level parties.  Anything that can be encountered wandering between the entrance and the underground lake featuring the island of the Hagagora, is on the table.

Story Elements
Sandbox games have lots of story elements.  The difference between a sandbox and adventure path is that the story the players experience at the table follows their choices, and not a scripted plot the referee has made in advance.  But you can jam your sandbox full of story elements.

For instance, why is there a Big Stone Head in the first area of the dungeon?  It's a relic of the god's war at the beginning of time, when the gods overthrew the titans.  Many of the primordial monsters in Greek Myth are incarcerated in Tartarus, guarded by the minions of Hades.  The dungeon is full of factions; there are at least two powerful, villainous factions seeking to open Tartarus and release the monsters.  This is going to be more apparent over time as the players interact more with the environment and meet more people - it’s chock full of plot and story.  It's just that my story is not nearly as important as the story the players create with their antics through game play.  Who knows, maybe they'll join the iconoclasts that want to overthrow Mt Olympus and invert the natural order.  I'm not going to make that decision for the players.

Megadungeon Design
I like big highways in and out of the dungeon to make it easy to get into the depths.  Not only is Taenarum literally a big highway, but the first dungeon even includes a teleporter for high level parties to skip miles of passageways and quickly get into the depths.  I also believe that lots of characters and factions create interesting encounters - as you follow the campaign, you'll meet Amazons, Fanatics of Ares, Iconoclastic Satyrs, Skull Punks and Black Brothers (two factions within the Hades Cult), and the varied and dangerous cults of Hecate.  I'm up to about 15 factions so far.

At the end of the day, D&D is just a game and I always like to keep some humor front and center.  You've already encountered the Scoreboard, a literal 'highest score' rating like an old arcade video game, back in the Adventurer's Guild Hall.  This particular mini dungeon was littered with silly graffiti, including pop culture references.  You have to know the players are going to be cracking in-jokes and making out-of-game references the whole time.  The GM's world is 'straight man', but I'm glad to break the 4th wall for laughs, too, and reinforce that at the end of the day, it's only a game.

Does anyone remember the GM Merit Badges that used to be over at Strange Magic blog?  I couldn't find them - they'd be perfect to slap on here!

Chris in the comments pointed out where the GM badges were being hosted, so I went ahead and added some to reflect how I view my games:

  • Tactics Are Important
  • I Use Maps and Content
  • My Games Feature Gonzo Stuff
  • I Don't Fudge Dice
  • Character Death Happens
  • Be Prepared to Run

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Beedo's Workshop - The Entrance Area in Taenarum

Here are my game notes from the first mini dungeon - a glance behind the curtain into Beedo's workshop.  My approach to Taenarum 2.0 is to create a megadungeon assembled from little mini dungeons like this one.  There are a number of characteristics I'm targeting by assembling the dungeon from mini areas:  they're very modular; easy to sketch, map, and write; each one can fit into a single night of play (important!); each mini dungeon is themed to create a lot of variety from place to place.  There are story points, quests, and other connectors between mini dungeons, as well as quests and rumors in town pointing to them.

Since this is an entrance area, this one is sparse and mostly empty.  You can read the player's side of things in the first two game reports:

Game Report 1
Game Report 2

I took a few minutes to polish my notes to make them sensible for the blog - my play notes are usually just sentence fragments and jotted phrases.  It's a lot more work to make notes readable versus providing enough fragments and memory joggers to run the game!

Area 1.1

1.  Entrance
A blemish on the nearby wall on the main road belies the presence of a permanent magic mouth, with ghoulish black teeth.  A decorative arch identifies this area as a dungeon entrance.

When approached, the mouth triggers and speaks:

Eidelon and key rewards
with treasures from the death god's hoards;
In order to conclude the quests,
You'll need to find the seven chests.

Welcome to the Underworld.  May you find what you seek.  Muhahaha.

The laughter then echoes through the halls (good time for a wandering monster check).

2.  Graffiti Room
There's a trip wire set up in the passage right before the room - it's attached to bangles of metal in the room that chime and alert the bandits.  The smell of a cookfire drifts from the north passage.  The room holds rubble from smashed statues (wings and bones - winged deaths).  There is graffiti on the walls (mostly written in charcoal or chalk).

Diodoros sleeps with the fishes.
Spartans rule, Athenians drool.
Pythios pwns you.
For a good time, ask to dance with Melantha.
If you find my head, let me know.  --Orpheus.
Don't eat the pomegranates.

3.  Bandit Camp
A group of 5 bandits camp here - 1 is on watch and listens for the chimes.  There's a cookfire, basic supplies, some firewood.  They have incidental treasure.  If alerted, 2 flank the hallway with spears to ambush anyone entering the room, the rest retreat to the corners with bows to shoot at the entrance.

4.  Bandit Captain
Tobias, the Bandit Captain (use CR 2 bandit captain stats).  He's handsome, with silky hair, but he's terribly unlucky and curses the fates - he lost his love to the book of blessings and curses, and now forces captured adventurers to 'roll the dice'.  He's willing to spare spare anyone that takes on the Triad (room 7).

The room is lit from a pilfered soul gem (in the place of a torch).  He has a bed, trunk, gear, writing table, wine and cheese - some back story of his lost love is scrawled in a diary.  There's a potion of healing and 125gp in art objects in the room.

5.  Abandoned Camp
The room has the remains of an old campfire, some discarded gear, and another ruined death statue.  Old basket with a treasure map stuck in the side of a discarded basket (it shows areas 1.2.4 and the wall cache there).

More Graffiti:
She can see you.  Don't look.
I left my harp in Sam Clam's Disco.
The Lord of Bones guards the first box.
Cylons look like people, but only 7 are known.
These are not the droids druids you're looking for (added by the players)

6.  Big Stone Head
A monstrous stone head fills a ten foot space here.  Any time the head is disturbed, on a 1-2 out of 6 the nose exhales a Fear gas.  Carved into the forehead is a piece of text in the Olympian language of the gods and primordials, the word "Forsaken".  If anyone speaks Olympian in the presence of the head, it spits out an enchanted soul gem (empty) - once (see the notes on soul gems).

The head is covered in runes (arcana to decipher) - the writing is god script and implies the head came from the Titanomachy, the legendary war against the Titans.  It's a reminder that many of the Titans are imprisoned by Hades in Tartarus.

7.  Triad of Fates
There's a stone door embedded in a post and lintel with no obvious way to open.  Symbols and letters covering the whole alphabet are etched into the post as buttons.  Depressing the (worn) letters that spell FATE opens the door (it slides with a rumble into the wall).  Magic torch light flares into life along the walls of the room.

The room is dominated by a large statue depicting the three fates (Moirai).   Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable).  They carry book, staff, and scale.  A brazier near the base illuminates a stone table with the Book of Blessings and Curses - consisting of a series of bronze plates attached to the table like a book.

A lingering Ghost (an athletic looking female, with grey eyes) lingers in the corner.  She lost her life at the hands of the book and now lurks in the room with unfinished business.  If anyone doesn't try to read their fate in the book, the ghost attempts a possession.  She'll move on to her reward if her possessed victim takes on a curse and survives the Fates.

Anyone who attacks the statues or attempts to damage the book... Save vs Disintegration.

1 Take 2d8 points of damage.
2 All wealth carried vanishes.
3 Polymorphed into harmless animal.
4 Lose one level of experience.
5 Disadvantage for the next 24 hours.
6 Struck blind.

1 Healed of all damage.
2 Receive gem of random value.
3 Gain 300 xp.
4 Advantage for the next 24 hours.
5 May re-roll any one failed result.
6 +1 to a random ability score (one time gift only).

8.  Medusa Mural
The room has a few petrified remains of dead adventurers.  The south wall is a lifelike mural looking into the lair of the Medusa (the room beyond looks like a crumbling Greek temple in a cave).  She can see anyone in the room and petrify through the looking glass - there's a 1 in 6 chance the Medusa is nearby and moves to peer through the mural if there are lights in the room.  There are sigils along the mural border that identify the sequence to a teleportation circle, allowing fast egress to the level 8 Medusa Temple for high level parties.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Taenarum 2.0, Game Report 2.0

Our second game session started back in town again, with the party seated around a dimly lit table in the Adventurer's Guild Hall planning their next foray into Taenarum.  By making this campaign extremely episodic and supporting drop in play, we're getting back all of the regulars from past campaigns. They know it's not an every-week commitment, just show up and play when you can.  We'll have 1-2 more folks dropping in next week, too.

This week's new player brought along Stompy the Angry Dwarf, an axe-and-board style defensive fighter.  Here's the cast of characters this week:

Modred:  Dragonborn Bard, L1
Etor:  Spartan Fighter, L1
Gati:  Halfling Rogue, L1
Aldrian:  Wood Elf Druid, L1
Stompy the Angry Dwarf:  Dwarf Fighter, L1

The players had a few leads from last week's game session - they knew about the distraught wife who wanted someone to rescue her husband from a dungeon dryad, and they had killed the bandit captain who was marauding the dungeon entrance.  Nonetheless, they wanted to poke around town at the beginning of the session to see what else they could learn before heading into the dungeon.

This week's carousing brought them into contact with Lamachus the Lusty, a dangerous mage and erstwhile leader of the Nefarious Nine - one of the groups way up The Scoreboard.  Lamachus was at the town's "dive bar", the Moxie Nymph, sweet talking some ladies, when a few players tried to ply him with drinks and learn some insider knowledge about Taenarum.  They did pick up a few interesting nuggets:

  • There's a marketplace for the dark dwellers called the Hagagora
  • The Nefarious Nine use it as a launch pad for deeper delves
  • Look up Lamachus at Pig Skins, a cantina at Hagagora run by "the drunken satyr"
  • Keep your eyes open for dungeons of green flame
  • The minions of Hades frequently guard the best treasures in dungeons with green flame
  • If you find a stone box with the face of Hades on it, there'll be a wondrous object inside

Once the carousing was over, the players headed back to the dungeon.  They resumed exploration near the bandit's camp in the entrance dungeon, discovering a handful of strange things - a giant stone head, a mural that showed the way to a Medusa temple, and lots of silly dungeon graffiti because I am a goofball.  One of the players added his own graffiti:  These aren't the droids druids you're looking for…

They also discovered how to get past a secret door puzzle that blocked egress to the Shrine of the Fates -  featuring a giant statue of the Moirai - Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.  Before them lay the bronze-bound Book of Blessings and Curses, a chance for players to consult the fates for a divination (in other words, one of those beloved old school random things).  Etor was cursed with a night of bad luck, Gatti became lucky, Aldrian gained some wealth, and Modred was possessed by a vengeful ghost that made him consult the book against his will (via a missed saving throw) and then flitted off to her final reward.  Modred gained valuable experience in the exchange.  Only Stompy the Angry Dwarf managed to avoid the whole scene.

Out on the main road to the Underworld, the players found another dungeon a little deeper down the road, with a floral theme and the sound of tinkling feminine laughter from within - they were convinced this would lead to the dryads lair.  Inside was a mushroom filled cavern where they fought a quartet of giant poisonous snakes, and then up a large flight of stairs was the room of Summer and Winter - a domed affair depicting the constellations, celestial bodies, and a mechanism attached to a giant statue of Persephone.  Players being what they are, they tinkered with the mechanisms to learn that they could advance the setting of the heavens to different seasons.  They blasted themselves with death during winter and restored their drained life force by putting the room to summer.  (They should have seen that one coming).

This was a night when the bard and rogue couldn't do anything wrong.  At one point, wandering monsters approached, a patrol of skeletal hoplites.  The Dragonborn jumped in front of the patrol and blasted them with Thunderwave, causing a massive amount of damage.  The jumbled bones and rolling skulls of a half dozen skeletons were blasted down the hall.  Even I was a little impressed.

At another time, a trio of Duergar came to enslave the party, and he breathed all over them and roared in intimidation, killing an injured Duergar and convincing the survivors to seek softer prey.  I'm not saying he's OP, but bards in 5E are awesome, Dragonborn are cool, and yeah, I suppose the combo pretty good.  Meanwhile, the rogue profited from an unintentional exploit:  he was gifted by the Fates to have advantage for the remainder of the night (representing a night of extreme luck).  Rogues get to add their sneak attack to every attack when they have advantage, meaning it was a night of every-round sneak attack damage.  His lucky night I guess.

The players had a good time, and two sessions in, they're ready to move up to level 2… because, you know, 5th edition does it that way.  I'll post the completed first dungeon in a day or so you guys can follow along at home.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Relative and Absolute Armor Values

Modern gamers tend to take things like their damage rates fairly seriously - the rating even has an acronym, DPR.  It raises an interesting question for a game like Taenarum, set in Mythic Greece.  Do I assume that certain damage and AC ratings are absolute or relative?

For instance, D&D assumes a late medieval or early Renaissance technology level, where most heavy fighters aspire to full plate mail (AC 18 in 5E) as soon as possible.  The martial classes have access to hand weapons dealing 1d8.  So here's the interesting question - does the overall balance of the game, and the classes to each other, assume that fighters need access to the best armor and weapons to stay relevant?

If you answer yes - that getting to base AC 18 is important - you can assume the equipment values are relative, and regardless of the technology level of the campaign setting, the major armors and weapons should be mapped such that fighters can have a base AC 18 and 1d8 hand weapons in any setting.  In this way, their role as front line defenders and solid damage dispensers is preserved.

Alternatively, you can view AC 18 as absolute - the only way you can get AC 18 is with bona fide head-to-toe medieval plate armor.  When you play a campaign set in other times and places, fighters will have to make do with sub-optimal arms and armor or wait until they find some heavy duty magic items.

One side effect of treating the equipment values as absolutes is that you might force other adaptations - such as players making fighters with higher dexterity to make up for the lack of heavy armor, and choosing alternative hand weapons where the European broad or long sword is unavailable in the setting.

In Taenarum, I've chosen to treat armor and weapon as relative (for now) - meaning that the heaviest armor of a Hoplite, including breastplate, arm and leg greaves, and a full Corinthian helmet, are equivalent to AC 18 in the Greek world.  Since the spear is the premier weapon of the age, it's a d8 weapon.  I haven't decided on the Spartan short sword yet - or do I just assume there are larger variants?  Alternatively, maybe shields provide a higher defensive bonus in this type of setting?

I typically don't like these types of house rules - perhaps that's why I'm blogging about it - but I'm also loathe to upset any of the systems underlying assumptions, nor am I loathe to hurt the basic fighter.  I love fighters.

*The image is from a site on modelling - there are some cool Spartan and Hoplite models out there.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Campaign Treasure - OSR vs 5E

The rate of advancement in the latest edition is governed by encounters, so the first thing I tackled when developing my current campaign was to identify the expected number of encounters per level to get a sense on pacing and size (some of the raw numbers are here - the 5E lollipop).  Treasure has been a secondary consideration, but I still meant to look at - let's do it now, yes?

In older games, something like 75% to 80% of a party's experience came from treasure.  One gold piece equated to an experience point (1 gp = 1 xp).  Monsters and fighting weren't worth a lot of XP relative to how the new editions treat fighting.  The 5E fighter would need to defeat 3 orcs in single combat to earn level 2; the 1E fighter would need to defeat 200 of them.  Ideally, he'd figure out how to rob them instead of fighting them!

Of course, all of that dungeon gold causes other problems, because the players aggregate tremendous amounts of wealth - campaign warping amounts.  Here's a table I've used to gauge how much money the players would drain out of a gigantic, 10 level megadungeon - I used the OSR fighter as the blended average for XP requirements, and assumed 80% of that experience is coming from gold, to create a cumulative total for the gold that needs to come out of the dungeon.


The latest edition is a lot more nonchalant about gold and treasure in general, since it doesn't appear to do anything other than, you know, buy mundane stuff.  In 3.x and 4E, gold was critical to buy magic items, and those items were important for the players to stay on parity with the monsters they'd be facing.  That's no longer the case.

In 5E, the DM Guide has guidelines on creating treasure hordes and expectations on how many hordes the players would recover per tier of play.   I put the chart down below - here's how to interpret the columns - by level 2, the players should have recovered a single hoard, the base value of a 'heroic tier' hoard is 376 gp, and from there you can see how I got to the total treasure the players are expected to recover per level, and their cumulative treasure for their careers.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and since treasure is detached from the experience system or magic economy, there's really no harm in being above or below the curve. The suggestions in the 5E DMG are just guidelines.  I did the comparisons just to get my arms around how the systems vary in expectation - but also because I wanted some actual numbers to help me populate "The Scoreboard" for Taenarum 2.0.  (Yes - my dungeon actually has a scoreboard so the players can see how they're doing relative to rival adventurers - they track gold earned back in the Adventurer's Guild).

I don't love the hoard system, but it's certainly simple to implement, and it follows a theme of making things easy on the DM.  5E is easy on the DM all over the place - compared to other recent editions, it's rather delightful to run, very reminiscent of the beloved BX.  But we've lost some implied world building by abandoning all those baroque treasure tables from AD&D, in lieu of generic hoards by tier.

Anyway, I found the evaluation super interesting - the OSR party will accumulate several million gold pieces by the time they reach 10th level (the table above has that number near 3 million).  The 5E party will have gathered somewhere near 80-90,000 gold to get to 10th level.  A little different in scope, huh?


Friday, February 27, 2015

The Curious State of WOTC D&D

5th Edition is complete.  We have all the core books - a Player's Handbook, DM Guide, and Monster Manual.  An adventure path style campaign was released last fall (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat) with a second one on the way in April.  And that's about it as far as the official release schedule.  Are those crickets chirping at WOTC headquarters?

If we dig a little deeper, the picture gets even grayer.  There were layoffs with the D&D team in the past few months.  The campaign books are being developed by 3rd parties and printed under the WOTC label.  There is no sign of any online magazines, although a few quality articles are coming out per month on the WOTC D&D site.  Meanwhile, competing game lines like Pathfinder continue to flood the faithful with material.

What the heck is going on here?

This is fascinating for me to observe.  The combination of layoffs, outsourcing, and limited release schedule can be interpreted in multiple ways, but I'm reading into this a new approach towards sustainability.  The latest version of D&D is the most old school friendly of the recent iterations, with the easiest path to conversion of older materials to 5E.  Wizards continues to release their back catalog as PDF's on the D&D Classics site.  Why should they invest in rehashing existing materials like campaign settings or adventures, when they can direct players to 30+ years of materials in PDF for easy conversion.

The layoffs and re-tooling of the team in WOTC also appear to suggest aligning for the long haul.  The brand is still a valuable property for licensing, with continued interest in 3rd party computer games, movie rights, board games, and miniatures.  If you ran a company and decided that the table top RPG "glory days" were in the past, but you wanted to keep an evergreen roleplaying game product in the market and take advantage of your 30+ years of historical products, I bet your strategy would look quite a bit like WOTC's.  You could keep a smaller in-house crew, shift the labor of new adventure development to 3rd parties, and retool the internal team for long term support of the brand and licensing.

Chaosium has been successful keeping Call of Cthulhu alive as a property for 30+ years with a similar model.  They seem to run a skeleton crew, keep most of their back catalog available as PDF, and keep everything widely compatible with newer versions of the rules.  Many of the major new products are work-for-hire or independent contractors.

Anyway, that's how I'm reading into the lack of a market flood of 5E products coming out of Wizards.  Somewhere along the line, they made a conscious effort to get into 5E for the long haul while they try and leverage the D&D name in other venues, like the rumored movie rights.  Unfortunately, the modern crowd seems to equate 'market flood of products' with success, and so there are rumblings on the left that D&D 5E must be unsuccessful.  And WOTC hasn't done a fantastic job marketing the ability to convert older stuff to 5E or going after the old school demographic with 5E's friendliness to older style of play.  One of the recent positions they added was a communications manager, so perhaps we're going to see more fan outreach on the horizon.

I'm pretty happy with the current state of things.  I'd like to see a formal OGL or similar license for 3rd party publishers, although stalwarts like Frog God Games are still finding a way under some of their older agreements.  Maybe in a couple of years I'd like to see a 5E treatment for Oriental Adventures or wuxia friendly 5E, but no rush.