Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Comes the Mountain - Adventure Locale PDF

Below is a short (4 Page) PDF of an idea that didn't quite fit as a one page dungeon.  It's likely better than the one page dungeon I did submit this year, but I just couldn't cram it down in size enough to work.

I'm not fully happy with the adventure, which is obviously some high level fare given that the enemies include a chamber of 35 specters.  However, I think a good 3rd or 4th level party might be able to survive the Mountain, as it's secrets don't require encountering any of the really dangerous creatures, and running the adventure as a stealth mission might be more fun then as a regular exploration type adventure.Though the stealth mission would likely be "Drop the kidnapped baby Prince/Princess into the volcano" so not really a feel-good romp.

The whole thing becomes fairly straight forward if the party has ways of becoming immune to fire, which I am unhappy with, but then it's not may favorite adventure, and a walking mountain as engine of destruction really deserves a larger dungeon.

Here's the PDF

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review - Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile

Why am I reviewing this tiny module, lacking in slick art and a name brand pedigree? 

I am reviewing it for a couple of reasons, the first is that I know and like the author, but more importantly, The Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile is the sort of hobby product that I have come to appreciate the most about DIY tabletop - it's produced out of a joy in playing tabletop games and with creativity and an esoteric view of the game rather then as part of a product line for sale and consumption.  Even the DIY products I like are often fairly expensive today, and I see egos growing behind the success of these more ambitious products, a success that seems to fuel greed and cattiness among other would be creators. RPGnow is filled with short, derivative and generally awful vanilla fantasy  blather that has the audacity to ask for money.  One of the key joys of tabletop has always been that it asks the consumer to create - from the empty 1/2 of B4 Lost City on the best tabletop RPG products have encouraged GMs and players to build their own fantasy worlds.  As such any published product will always be ancillary, and when a creator asks consumers to use their setting materials and modules they are asking them to do more then hand over a few dollars, they are asking to hand over a chunk of their creativity and imagination as well, which is not something one should do with arrogance.  Bloodsoaked Boudoir is not an arrogant product, it's small and can fit into another game with some ease, while still being interesting enough to give an evocative sense of it's authors sort of game and game world that is different enough from the standard 'orcs in a hole' fantasy adventure to provide interesting ideas, and leave a reader with the sense that maybe they wouldn't have thought of it themselves. With all these advantages the author is happy enough to simply publish his work as a pay what you want PDF, rather then promote it and clamber for your cash.

Manifesto done, on to the review.  I've played with Nick Whelan a bunch of times, and rather enjoyed his Dungeon Moon setting of which the Boudoir of Velkis was a part - Velkis was one of the two sub-deities that the Dungeon Moon party managed to eliminate during a year or so of games.  I will say it was a fun game when run by Nick, and would likely be a fun setting run by anyone. The party encountered Velkis (the titular villain) numerous times, and thought of him as an annoying random encounter that was far less dangerous than most. Only the warnings of a friendly kobald tribe revealed the true danger of Velkis and the adventurers decided to assassinate him - leading to one of the more psychedelic sessions of D&D that I have played.

The Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile is a ten page PDF using Lamentations of the Flame Princess stat lines (essentially any OSR/retro-clone system should work) published as a pay what you want adventure on RPGnow.  It's a small five area dungeon with a few functional pieces of art that fits well on a more gonzo random encounter table - drop in Velkis and place his extra-dimensional grave/lair somewhere nearby, and you've laid a potential one session adventure that's pretty good and plenty bizarre. 

Velkis is described as Cato the Elder ...
A short romp through a pocket dimension inhabited by a rather benign seeming lich/wizard named
Velkis.  Velkis is rather insane and utterly lacking in the skeletal majesty of most liches, passing himself as a doddering grandfatherly figure rather then a puissant undead immortal.  Yet, Velkis is dangerous and perverse despite his appearance - perverse in the manner of an 70's shlock horror movie, and this is what makes him fun. The module bills itself as "horror-comedy" and that's how I'd run it.

Velkis is a creep who lurks at the bottom of the random encounter table and has the power of persuasion.  He's a good villain because it's unlikely that he can kill or injure party members on the first encounter, he really seems pretty harmless - but he's effectively immortal and he's damn inconvenient.  He's also terrifying, effectively designed with powers that could be very, very dangerous but which are badly used. Velkis can steal away and murder a party member or two and if he's ignored and laughed at (exactly what he wants I think) he may become a real nemesis for the party.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Page Dungeon

Angels are utterly Terrifying to me, which may be a sign that one shouldn't read Rilke while on Mushrooms and at a tender age.  The line from Duino Elegy No. 2 "Every Angel is terror. And yet,
ah, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul ... Let the Archangel now, the dangerous one, from behind the stars, take a single step down and toward us: our own heart, beating on high would beat us down. What are you? Early successes, Creation’s favorite ones, mountain-chains, ridges reddened by dawns of all origin – pollen of flowering godhead, junctions of light, corridors, stairs, thrones, spaces of being, shields of bliss, tempests of storm filled, delighted feeling and, suddenly, solitary mirrors: gathering their own out-streamed beauty back into their faces again. For we, when we feel, evaporate: oh, we breathe ourselves out and away: from ember to ember, yielding us fainter fragrance." is terrifying and really angels aren't much better in the bible.

Of course in tabletop game term this offers another weird and terrible set of antagonists - let's cheapen human experience of the sublime! So here's a one-page about a Throne of Heaven crashed into earth and none too pleased about it. Note that all the angels/celestials described within are from Christian (as opposed to Zoroastrian - which has its own angelic hierarchies) myth - including the freaky "wheels within wheels" - the Ophanim.  I think these make damn good monsters, at least as good as devils, and really rather similar, except ready to do some smiting without the talk.

Here's a PDF of the damn thing - THE FALLEN THRONE

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Livid Fens - Color Maps

The Livid Fens, a land of trackless swamp, shifting channels and rotten mangroves filled with uncanny reddish and purple growth. The lands are firmly in the clutching hands of the Fen Witch and her coven of lesser witches who allow neither rival Wizards or worship of the orbital religion within her swamp domain.  The people of the fens are a tribal lot, generally peaceable, living in small villages, and paying a yearly tax of corpses to their necromancer god-queen.

Despite harsh conditions, wretched heat and the unnatural fecundity of the bruise hued alien flora, treasure seekers are drawn to the fens rich stores of unique furs, hides, drugs, spices and gems.  In addition to these prosaic sources of wealth the fens are dotted with ruins: fallen plantations, crumbled towers, shattered temples and strange underground fortifications from an ancient war.  In addition to these ruins, countless wrecks sink slowly into the pools and bogs of the fens – wrecked trade ships, side wheeled steamers and ancient warmachines of rust red and glassy black offer lost cargos and magical artifacts.

The Fens in Hideous Color

The Lichthrone – A twisted tower, also called the Tower of Flints, marks the gateway to the Livid Fens.  A few hours from the water, the tower was once the lair of a decadent wizard who tried to stand aloof from the Fen Witch.  Rivermen claim that his tortured screams can still be heard from atop the tower.

Rendermarche – A city of spice traders, froghemoth hunters, and the factory workers that convert the catch into oil, bone, meat and hide.  A detachment of the Unyielding Fist from Denethix and a larger force of elite tribal warriors loyal to the Witch Queen hold Rendermarche as a joint outpost of Denethix and the Queen.  The city is also protected by a small squadron of river leviathans (crude steam powered skiffs armored in riveted steel plate and armed with cannon or heavy machine guns).  Rendermarche serves as a base of operation for Northern Traders and is the first major port on the trade route between Denethix and Druid Hill deep in the Emerald Jungles further South.

Bone – The capitol of the Witch Queen, set amongst poppy fields and rice paddies in the most solid area of the fens.  Bone is a strange place, the huge corpse drums, each stretched with the skin of a hundred wizards boom out from atop the Queen’s great palace tower to give vigor to the myriad of undead who work the surrounding fields and man the walls. Marble temples to the Fen Witch cluster around her palace, and the rest of the city is only sparsely inhabited, with many of its grand old mansions falling into ruin and home to undead scavengers.

Grave Ancien – A deep crater around a bore that descends into the earth, surrounded by the melted and warped ruins of the Fall.  The bore itself seems to breath a miasma that reeks of death.  Even the warriors Fen Witch, used to the creatures of undeath and disease fear to enter the grave.

Wight Bog – The Wight Bog is an expanse of mudflats around a pair of odd stone spires.  The bog itself is a deep mire teaming with the restless dead below its surface.  While the Fen Witch’s servants can easily control these feral wights, and the locals travel on giant transparent shelled crustaceans whose long spindly legs fail to stir up the dead.  To facilitate travel the locals have also created paths of white tree trunks, sunk into the mud, but to discourage trespassers these routes are often trapped to drop into the mud, or lead into dead ends. Protected by the bog itself the sleepy blue and white town of Teacup winds up the side of one of the stone spires and is home to a community of skilled potters.  

The Fens Brown and Grey

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Livid Fens - Black & White Map

Anomalous Subsurface Environment is still a setting I think about and that I hope to run again some day.  In the last ASE campaign I ran the party ended up getting tired of Morlocks that screamed "Mheeeet!" at them constantly and had started setting traps and left behind the megadungeon in favor of the bruise colored marshes to the South - The Livid Fens.  This is an area directly South of Denethix that is mentioned in ASE 1 and included on the largest regional map within.  I've written a couple of small ASE adventures for the Livid Fens (Red Demon and Wreck of the Anubis) but until now haven't drawn a full map of the place in the style of the map I did for the area around Denethix and containing Mt. Rendon (home of the ASE itself).

The map here is a black and white version, hopefully in the next couple of days I will get it together to ad some contrast and even an acid orange version in the style of the 1st map.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Differentiating Weapons in Flat Damage Systems

One of the interesting things about the Little Brown Books of 1970's D&D is how weapon damage and Hit Dice were modeled with flat D6 damage.  The difference between weapons was non-existent until the game embraced it's "alternate combat rules" and added varied damage and varied hit bonuses against certain types of armor, corresponding directly to certain Armor Classes in 1975's Greyhawk - booklet number 4.  The now standard variable damage and Hit Dice a rather large change that has been adopted wholeheartedly by the game, while the more complex weapon vs. armor rules are largely abandoned.  

I enjoy the simplicity and low HP totals that D6 hit dice and weapon damage provide, as the low values make combat more risky for players and far quicker.  The system seems to hold together better into the mid-level game as well with flatter damage and lower HP, as any attack has a good chance of removing a full Hit Dice from a creature or character.  With variable HD and damage low-level characters are more fragile (many monster and fighter attacks do D8 damage vs. lower Hit Dice totals) while higher level creatures are far stronger with their larger hit-dice.  Additionally I have a suspicion that injury from dungeon perils was never adjusted to be in line with the variable damage and HD system, and that D&D has carried the ad hoc nature of this change ever since.  My only real evidence for this is the way falling damage remained set at a D6 per ten feet up to the game's second edition.  Whatever the game balance advantages (real or imagined) of flat D6 Damage and Hit Dice  the simplicity of it and the way it flattens power levels of both monsters and characters is very appealing.  

I want to make player weapon choice matter however, without the fiddly weapons v. armor table or the implied vanilla fantasy setting it creates with its armor types.  It's been popular in the OSR/DIY/old-school D&D blogging community to discuss how to do this, to maintain the spirit of the Greyhawk weapon v. armor table, while using more interesting and simpler rules for some time.  I endorse this idea, and have tried to work varied additional effects into play during my games with the goal of providing combat options and spaces for some tactical decision making in purely narrative (that is without game boards/combat maps or tokens) combat. 

Having played in my OD&D based version of HMS APOLLYON for some time now I have discovered that the weapon effects are often ignored by players (and the GM) in the excitement of the combat turn, and that certain rules are less convenient/intuative to use. I have made some changes to the weapon effects/classes (originally pulled from several sources and authors) below, and I intend to use these categories for monster attacks as well, so the pincers of a Crayhound (horrible 1/2 lobster 1/2 dog beasts) will be crushing while the tentacles of a Roper are certainly and entangling attack.  

All attacks aboard the Apollyon, like all Hit Die, are D6 based.  A dagger in the hands of a skilled user is just as deadly as an axe and both do exactly the same damage. Only two handed/heavy weapons do more damage, inflicting 2xD6 pick the highest (what some call the advantage mechanic).  However, to make weapon choice interesting I have created the following categories of weapon which each have a different combat effect.

Common Weapons Aboard the HMS Apollyon

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Fantasy Starting Village - Player Generated Campaign Setting


"The town of Gongberg is nestled amongst muddy green fields of rye and barley.  The seasons have been wet and the grain rust thick of late, and as always the waking dreams of ruin and fire haunt all those who depend on the tainted grain.  A lull in the interminable wars of the border lairds have filled the countryside with grim mercenaries, brigands and well armed madmen."

The 'fantasy starting village' is a cliched element of tabletop games, computer games and even fantasy fiction - some sort of homey place that defines the stepping off point for protagonists into the world of adventure.  While in video games and novels the fantasy village is a wretched and boring convention, it does offer a real advantage in tabletop games, where, unlike video games and novels, the world building must be a collaborative process as the players can both change things through their in game actions, the GM can leverage player creativity to make the world more interesting and an openness to player generated content can promote player buy in.  The Fantasy Starter Village is a great way to set the stage for this, and makes the GMs job easier.

Dragonfly Township will undoubtedly lead to Vanilla fantasy or perhaps something a bit more anime.
The Fantasy Starting Village is a great alternative to building out a setting, and while crafting elaborate setting material and background is a joy for many GMs it has certain disadvantages as it eats up time and encourages railroading (even good GMs want to show off the content they've created).  Worse there's nothing more disappointing then designing the basics of a full campaign setting and having players who only want to play a session or two before moving on.  For me the three sentences above about Gongberg would be almost sufficient to start a campaign. The party can find themselves in this starting village, collect a few rumors about what's going on in the countryside and go from there. 

I wouldn't want to start with less information though, unless I were to start with the other classic "You wake up naked in a cell" campaign starting point.  There are more flavorful variations on this hook as well - slave caravans heading to the temple of sacrifice, characters pulled from the freezing ocean onto a haunted miles long ship, shipwrecked on the shore of some foreign land, but all of these hooks take an extra step to both make the characters completely blank slates and explain why they have in in game world knowledge.  The Fantasy Starting Village  however provides a few clues, and better encourages the players to believe that characters have knowledge of the world around them.  A few evocative clues in the description are almost all one needs to help the players build a world and to constrain player world-building to a degree as well. Using the example of Gongberg above, one can extrapolate a few setting details, but they are hopefully vague enough to allow the players to take the information in a variety of directions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 One page Dungeon

The Walking Mountain
The One Page Dungeon Contest is upon us all again, and I've been thinking of some possibilities.  Below are the five ideas I've been toying with.  So far I'm leaning towards No. 1, but it might be far too big a concept for a single page...

1. The Crawling Mountain - A doom of cities out of strange Vheissu comes.  Encrusted with the Dolmen and temples of dead cities it the thunderous cracking and crash of it's coming drives civilization before it.  Can it be stopped? Can it be turned from it's path of destruction? Can the riches and secrets of the cities and towns it has crushed, scattered across the Mountain's snowy flanks be plundered?

2. The Fallen Throne - One of the celestial thrones has fallen, and lays cracked and tumbled in the meadow lands.  The edifice is cracked but sound and the celestials within a hive of furious wrath.  Winged babies and alabaster hounds roam the countryside defacing or stealing anything beautiful they discover, for the Angelic Thrones are jealous and declare that all grace, and all refinement are theirs alone.  Singers are made voiceless, the winsome faceless and the graceful lumpen. The Throne must crumble and the host within be banished or destroyed.

3. Collector of Ships - The Azure Ladon has always been a threat to shipping, but recently the petulant sea serpent has committed the most notorious outrage by crushing the funeral barge of the Basileus within his spined blue coils and dragging the dead ruler's body and treasures back to his floating palace of broken and lost ships. 

4. Down and Out in the Capitol - Within the Favelas of the lower city there are all manner of desperate goings on, depraved violence and nefarious ignominies for the proper people to ignore.  It's not you job to ignore them though, it's your job to go into the infamous maze of Panhass Alley and take part in the dirty deeds there.  Powerful forces are willing to pay for theft, rescue, assassination, arson within the crumbled tenements that cover the alley, but the local Vigilant Ant Set criminal organization is numerous, territorial and fond of brutal violence 

5.You get the Shaft - Crime you didn't commit? Crime you did commit?  It doesn't matter, the public loves to see strangers forced into "The Shaft" and hear their cries as they beg for forgiveness and succor. Stripped naked and loaded into the buckets of the ancient works, each turn of the capstan drops the condemned lower and lower, while the villagers above get drunker and drunker in the spring sunshine. While it's law that those who go down the shaft do so with nothing, tradition holds that there's nothing wrong with tossing useful items in after convicts who debase themselves for the crowd in amusing ways.  Can you survive the Shaft, find the tools you'll need in the darkness and foul miasmas and make your way back to the surface?    

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Strange Stars

Strange Stars
Trey of Sorcerer's Skull has put out another book, though not the long awaited follow-up to his pulp/fantasy 1920's Americana setting book Weird Adventures.  While Trey's most recent book is system agnostic, even more so than Weird Adventures, it is a sci-fi setting book, much larger in scope then Weird Adventures that offers a combination of pulp Buck Roger's style Space Opera and more contemporary post human sci-fi - something a bit like Glenn Cook's "Dragon Never Sleeps" or the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. There appear to be plans to release some likely free rules for Strange Stars using both FATE (written by John Till of FateSf) and Stars Without Numbers, which is my personal favorite OSR sci-fi ruleset (it's a B/X mod, and very excellent).

Alternate, unused Strange Stars covers
As a product Strange Stars maintains a very high quality, with a great deal of excellent art (so much that it sometimes overwhelms the writing), good design and a very polished appearance uncommon in small press or solo publications. The content within provides a sweeping view of a game universe that is a standard enough science fiction setting, with some interesting tweaks and changes.  Nothing as bold as Weird Adventures, but then the fictional ground of galaxy sprawling space opera is a lot more well-trodden then that of 20's fantasy pulp (which I think is limited to the Silver John stories by Wade-Wellman).  With this Constraint does a good job and is a fun read, though I wish it was a little less overarching and a little more narrowly focused on adventuring within the Strange Stars.  At the heart Strange Stars is a gazetteer, though not in a detail oriented manner that lists trade goods and populations.  The book lays out outlines for cultures scattered about in a mostly post-human space, provides a sense of history where the possibilities for adventure includes both ancient wreck hunting and space mafia schemes. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Luceat Lux Vestra - Making Light Management More Interesting in Old School Games.

In the dark gulfs beneath the earth, the ancient places where thick darkness wells up a hungry oil of ebon malice the greatest weapon of the brave explorer is not sword or axe, but light.  Each guttering torch and cheap tin lantern is a tiny fragment from the world above, a piece of the sun. Without light the soft creatures of the overworld have no hope; the sharpest blade cannot cut the horror it doesn't see, and the stealthiest pilferer cannot find the bright gold and jewels concealed in the gloom without a telltale glimmer.

Looking through the old 1974-79 edition of Dungeons and Dragons (Original D&D or The Little Brown Books) one finds an interesting passage about dungeon exploration on Underworld Adventures, page 9 about lighting and surprise. A pair of short paragraphs are the only mention of how light works as a rules mechanic in the Little Brown Books, though torches, lanterns and oil flasks are mentioned as items for purchase (though without a given encumbrance weight).

"In the underworld some light source or infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character." Underworld Adventures, Page 9, Gygax & Arneson (1979).

William Blake, 1794 - A standby for creepy game imagery
A second short paragraph reiterates the surprise rules a bit down the page.  These rules are interesting in that they assert a necessity of light sources for dungeon exploration, assume infravision is a spell (and so a limited resource) and radically change the way encounters run in the underworld, because the party cannot surprise its enemies unless they are opening a door, and monsters still have the 1/3 chance of surprising the party.  When getting the drop on explorers monsters will almost always attack under these rules so light sources balance out the relatively generous reaction roll table.

Yet these rules don't discuss visibility range, light source exhaustion or anything else beyond how light effects the denizens of the depths. However the rules in Underworld Adventures do remind the reader that light works as a two way interaction, the underworld can see well illuminated players long before the players can see the creatures of the depths.

I am not really that beholden to old school D&D, and there's plenty of good ideas about how to run tabletop games that have come along in the past forty years and expand on the sparse and clumsy beginnings.  One game that I don't especially love (though I've only played it once) was Torchbearer, my complaints were with the implicitly vanilla fantasy world that seemed baked into some of the rules, and the Storygame tendency to reduce player creativity and problem solving to simplistic min-maxing mechanics through a bonus stacking system.  Yet, Torchbearer has some neat rules about supply and resource exhaustion, with abstract turns that rapidly eat up light resources and clear status effects as a result of being lost in the darkness. 

Building off these ideas, some members of the online old school game community (principally Brendan over at Necropraxis) have come up with an expanded Random Encounter die that I like to call an Exploration Die, and that includes not only the chance to encounter wandering monsters or environmental hazards, but acts as a random check for resource exhaustion (light, hunger and long-term spell effects).  This has the advantage of removing time tracking as a burden on the GM, and I find it both useful and fun in a less heroic fantasy setting.
A strict encumbrance system based of significant items slots (number of items carried is equal to character strength) helps make the choice of what equipment to big into the dungeon meaningful, as taking one item usually requires leaving another behind.  This means that the decision to bring enough torches or lanterns is a meaningful one, and that there is a possibility of exhausting a party's light supply even in a short session.  Additionally, equipment will need to be abandoned to make room for treasures. These rules also have the advantage of being harder to misuse then a weight based system, and are much much simpler to track.