Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Monster Archaeology II - Nomads, Pirates, Cavemen & Mermen





MONSTERS & TREASURE
BEASTIARY AS SETTING “MEN” PArt II


In an earlier post I considered some the first half of the 1st and longest entry in the 1970’s Whitebox edition of Dungeons & Dragons from the perspective of bestiary as implied setting and with an emphasis on how I would model these foes in my own Fallen Empire setting.  Monsters & Treasure contains several other types of “Men” as adversaries, all in large numbers and all more or less fitting into two mechanical categories the “Bandit” model for an average combatant and the “Berserker” category for exceptionally dangerous types.  It’s noteworthy that the real deadliness of these “Berserkers” is far greater under the original Chainmail rules in that they receive a huge bonus (or extra dice – it’s unclear to me) when fighting normal soldiers.  A band of berserkers can tear through a normal Chainmail unit. This ability is less when facing adventurers, but the danger of a +2 bonus in Original Dungeons and Dragons is not to be underestimated.  There are also cavemen, but cavemen are strange, something distinctly outside the rest of the "men" entries.  Reading this list of human foes I also suspect that the miniatures available to Gygax were a major influence.


MEN (DERVISHES, NOMADS and the Rest)
Maybe this guy can lead those nomad raiders?

Nomads are an uninteresting addition to the list of monsters in Monsters & Treasure, and like Buccaneers and Pirates seem to be a way of placing bandits on different terrain encounter tables.  Nomads of course are horse focused bandits riding out of the desert or plains. Nothing especially interesting, just another element of Gygax’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge” (look it up) approach to monster taxonomy that focus on the weapon mixes of identical enemy units with a wargammer’s specificity. 

Though when thinking about the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons and their monster lists it’s worthwhile to remember that the game was envisioned as a variety of fantastical miniature battle and at the time of the White Box fantasy miniatures were hard to come by. Miniatures for Arabian riders, Mongols and bandit types were likely far easier to find, or already at hand.  This lack of fantasy miniatures is taken to its amusing peak in the December 1975 Strategic Review (issue 5) article “Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery” where Gygax provides a plan report and conversion rules for a game involving a WWII German patrol encountering the monstrous retinue of an evil wizard.  Nomads and the general focus on ‘men’ and humanoid monsters as enemies in the White Box are likely the result of this lack of monster models.


However, this isn’t to say that humans shouldn’t be a common enemy in contemporary games.  Most fantasy table top game settings present humanity as very common in the game world, with cities, empires and villages, while monsters skulk in ruins or crouch in the hinterlands.  With the number of humans in game worlds, and their evident power to keep their lands mostly free of monsters it makes sense that a large number of encounters in the wilderness will be with bands of armed men. I personally don’t find that making these encounters fit with stereotyped historical models is especially useful.  Just as not every mob of Berserkers needs to be Norse raider rip offs, not every Nomad has to mesh with Arab or Turkic/Mongol models.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making a Beast - Making Large Monsters More Effective



MAKING A BEAST
One of the things I’ve noticed in running and playing classic tabletop games for some time is how ineffective large dangerous ‘monsters’ are.  Fantastical beasts such as Owlbears and even Dragons are often less dangerous to adventurers under the older dungeons and Dragons rules then a pack of humanoids or bandits. 

HMS Apollyon Diabolic Abomination - A "Starfish" - Beast Candidate
I remember worrying one time about a ‘brown bear’ encounter being the first encounter by a new party in ASE.  There were four adventurers against a bear with 4 HD or so and a couple of dangerous attacks.  I figured it’d be a fairly tough fight.  It took two rounds before 20 odd HP of bear was being skinned and the choice cuts buried to take back to town. The party was smart, they peppered the innocent beast with arrows and bolts while it was standing near its lair and growling – displaying deadly claws (just as the ‘mildly hostile’ roll on the reaction die suggested it might), and then the adventurers charged in to surround the poor injured thing and cut it down before it could attack.  This sort of tactics and results might make sense for big mundane animals like a bear, it’s pretty much how are ancestors hunted the things after all (also with dogs, but that’s a murder hobo staple as well), but it seems awfully anti-climactic for mythical beasts of legend to go down in a couple of rounds, mobbed under by a pack of bec de corbin wielding hoodlums.

HOW SHOULD FIGHTING A BEAST FEEL?
The ravening power of an enraged mythological beast should be a near unstoppable torrent of violence and ferocity, and even with group tactics the creature should be dangerous, faster, stronger and more tenacious then any normal creature and especially the sentients that have invaded its territory.  It don’t want the giant dangerous creatures my players face to feel like stacks of HP to be whittled down, I want them to be frightening and worthy of respect, requiring cunning to overcome commensurate with the wealth in magical hides, teeth bones and meat that they provide.

Since a beast is something that is not especially intelligent, I would like to make out thinking these monsters the real trick.  Luring them into enclosed spaces and traps for example rather than simply slugging it out with them.  Slugging it out should be very dangerous.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thoughts on Fantasy Africa

SOUL & SORCERY - CHARLES R. SAUNDERS "IMARO"

A Current Cover of Saunders' Imaro - Pretty Swords & Sorcery
I recently had a chance to discuss 'bad fantasy novels' with a friend and he mentioned that he was interested in the Soul & Sorcery genre of fantasy, something I had no idea even existed.  Soul & Sorcery is a genre of Sword & Sorcery pulp fiction written by black authors starting in the late 1970's as an alternative to "Western" Fantasy with it's use of Celtic, Norse and Authurian mythology as world-building tools, and also as a way to counter some of the retrograde racial attitudes and depictions found in Sword's & Sorcery - like those in Conan (which was written mostly in the eugenics obsessed 1930's).  Soul & Sorcery, or at least the Imaro stories I read, doesn't really feel, or perhaps it shouldn't really feel like a genre of it's own, it's simply Sword & Sorcery tales set in a mythical Africa, rather then a mythical Europe. 

Soul & Sorcery is an interesting sub-genre of fantasy in that it is both very different from standard Sword & Sorcery and very much the same.  I picked up "Imaro" by Charles R. Saunders a collection of the first Imaro stories is available for kindle and fairly cheap, which seems to have been the birth of the genre, with the first Imaro story published in 1975.  Imaro the character and the stories involving him are very much a homage, reworking or retelling of Conan stories.  The title hero, Imaro, is in the Conan mold - "massively thewed" and a dangerous fighter with a somewhat gloomy outlook and tendency towards anger. Imaro battles sorcerers, their necromantic creations and dangerous animals, but the savannahs and jungles he wanders are very different then Conan's forests and icy plains.  Saunders has taken effort to make Imaro's world distinctly African, and this provides the interest in what would otherwise be fairly formulaic (though quite readable) Swords & Sorcery stories.  Imaro represents a "reskinning" (perhaps that's not the best term here) of Howard and his imitators that is pretty charming because it is different.  I also suspect Imaro is as light on historical/mythological fidelity to it's East African source material is as Conan is to it's Northern European, but that's likely for the best given that Imaro is a straightforward set of stories about triumphing over evil wizards.

Imaro is set entirely in a fictitious fantasy Africa, about as closely linked to the real world as Howard's fictionalized Fantasy Europe/Hyboria where the hero begins in a fictional Southern or Eastern African (seemingly a fictionalized fantasy Masai/Bantu/Zulu) and moves Northward though various African biomes and broadly sketched fantasy version of historical African cultures.  It is interesting to compare Saunders fantasy Africa to Burrough's fantasy Africa, and note how much more alive Saunders' feels.  Burroughs' Africa is a set-piece jungle and occasional set-piece savannah inhabited by cookie cutter 'savages' of the noble and good or cannibal and evil variety.  Ignoring how these stereotypical depictions are a mark of the era of Burroughs writing and how this aspect of the Tarzan stories might be off-putting to modern readers I think there's a useful lesson about world building here.  Saunders clearly had more knowledge about Africa the place, and historical African peoples then Burroughs did, and it shows to his advantage in depicting a fantastic version of the place (or part of it - part of Burroughs problem is imagining an 'Africa' that is a single jungle filled expanse rather then a huge continent).  Now I'm not suggesting that Imaro can be looked at for any historical facts, any more then Conan will tell you about the Celts, but having taken the time to look at the technology and culture of the ancient peoples he is modelling his fantasy on, Saunders can add context and details that makes sense - the savannah folks are nomadic hunters and herders who live in easy to transport hide domes and value cattle greatly while the jungle people live mostly by fishing and gardening along the riverbanks while residing in conical houses of clay and thatch.  These details, seemingly pulled from historical sources, make sense and so can be readily understood without having to remember a great deal of fantastic vocabulary or world specific oddness. They are also details, and so give the reader a better understanding of Saunders' world building then Burroughs endless villages of huts built around a giant cooking pot.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

REVIEW - DCC 67 - Sailors of the Starless Sea


CONFLICTED ABOUT ZIGGURATS

DCC has pretty sweet cover art.
I have a conflicted relationship with Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) ... I've never really played it, except for a couple funnel games that felt like B/X D&D, and trying to deal with its absurd magic system in a couple of Google+ games.  While DCC seems like a darling of the OSR community for good reasons, I did not have a pleasant experience with my exposure to it, at best it felt like a decent retro-clone that Morgan Ironwolf would be at home in, but at worst it seemed like it had too many finicky and overly complex magic rules and relied on some of my least favorite skill mechanics borrowed from 3e.  Now as regular readers of this blog know I myself am a purveyor of overly complex house rules, and perhaps because of that truism about always hating the things that remind one of one's worst self, I have stayed clear of DCC.  Yet I just keep hearing such good things about it, and really the art, the ideas and the feel of the products seems like it would fit with my personal ethos about table top game play.

In the likely case that I am wrong about being DCC shy I've decided to pick up one of the DCC adventures and read it.  Sailors of the Sunless Sea comes highly recommended, lets see if it makes me as cranky as taking fifteen minutes to figure out how some PC's magic missile works while they hold up the rest of the players flipping through some kind of tome of magic tables. I should mention that I've also played in a couple of games of Perils of the Purple Planet which seems fairly a straightforward Sword and Planet style romp tinged with Carcosa.  I've enjoyed these games, but they have so far been funnel games with little of DCC's complexity involved.

The adventure I purchased is a twenty page PDF that promises "100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you remember, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere."  Now I both like and hate this sentiment - a lack of long winded speeches and NPCs that aren't some kind of indestructible Dragonlance Mary-Sue GM pawn sound good, but "no weird settings ... with monsters you know, traps you remember" sounds a bit pedestrian.  The question then becomes, what part of this opening rhetoric is overblown if any?  Will this be an "Orcs in a Hole" pastiche of early D&D adventures for the sack of nostalgia?  Thankfully the answer to that question is no - despite feeling like an old school style dungeon crawl (Really it's short and linear) from ruined keep to underground temple (a small one) Sailors on the Starless Sea does take some effort to distinguish itself by having unique monsters and interesting content.

THE ADVENTURE
The local village has been losing citizens to nighttime abductions and correctly blames these tragedies on a nearby ancient and abandoned keep.  The keep is home to a cult of chaos aligned beastmen and vegetable zombie horrors.  Worse, beneath the keep is an underground lake with temple of chaos at the center, where the beast cult is reviving their ancient patron.

The keep itself is only  a few areas, most of which contain a deadly puzzle.  The design here is clearly in the vein of "the only way to win is not to play" as there are no rewards for negotiating the chaos sinkhole or messing with the chaos well.  The three entrance aspect of the ruined keep is an excellent effort to provide variety and enable player agency, though given the size of the keep these entrances represent about half the content.  The major enemy within the keep are beastmen - yes these are orcs, but they are well done and a table provides a great deal of varied disturbing appearances for the small number of beastmen within the ruined keep.

After rescuing some captives and recovering a small bit of treasure the adventurers - likely fewer and wiser. Can descend into the depths of the keep and quickly find themselves on the shores of a huge underground lake.  A boat floats offshore to cross, but the lake is haunted by some kind of terrible chaos squid with lovely evocative texture.  There are several ways to get to the boat, suborn the chaos leviathan or otherwise interact with the lake, but the adventure still only goes one way - across the lake, up a beast-man invested ziggurat and to a lava pit to fight a reborn chaos champion. The fight over the party gets some chaos armor and flees the collapsing cavern.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Monster Archaeology I - Bandits & Berserkers



MONSTERS & TREASURE
BEASTIARY AS SETTING “MEN”

There’s a tabletop RPG maxim that monsters determine setting, and while it can be taken too far there’s definitely a bit of truth to it.  The antagonists faced by players and their characters, especially in an emergent game (by which I mean one with a sandbox or where the player’s decisions and interests otherwise largely set the tone and nature of the game’s locales, enemies and intrigues) the players opinions and goals are likely to be at least partially formed by how they feel towards certain early encounters.  The death of a character in the first game to goblins can make the player angry enough to devote several sessions to being goblin eradicators for example.  In a game where the goblins are replaced with bandits, draconians or halflings there will be a very different tone to these subsequent adventures.

Of the original D&D booklets - tiny ugly things published in the mid 70's - the second is titled "Monsters & Treasure" and contains Dungeons & Dragons ur bestiary, with 68 or so monsters (or classes of monster, it's not always clear).  Reading through these I can't help but wonder what kind of implied setting this set of adversaries make for.  The monsters are not ordered in any real way in Monsters & Treasure, though the idea that they are listed from most common to rarest is a bit appealing, secondly the descriptions of these Monsters are heavy on practical details, such as the weapons mixes of human and humanoid enemies, but sparse on ecology, description or other evocative detail.  It seems interesting to me to take a look at a few of the monsters and to think about how to use, describe and elaborate on the various Monsters & Treasures enemies.  For this I have decided to tie my reskins (minimal I hope) to my Fallen Empire setting (the place where I play around with vanilla tabletop fantasy concepts).  I won’t be commenting on the statistics of these monsters except generally, because OD&D statistics are quite simple and really rather easy to imagine on the fly.


MEN (BANDITS, BERSERKERS AND BRIGANDS)

The first entry in Monsters & Treasure is either incredibly monstrous or terribly mundane – Men.  It is also the longest entry and comprises at least seven subcategories (for my purposes Cavemen and Mermen will be separate monsters, but they likely shouldn’t be).  The category of Men includes various dangerous types inclined towards robbery and violence: Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers & Pirates.

This is what Monsters & Treasure has to say about Bandits (I’ve removed excessive mechanical detail):
BANDITS: Although Bandits are normal men, they will have leaders who are supernormal fighters, magical types or clerical types. For every 30 bandits there will be one 4th level Fighting-Man; for every 50 bandits there will be in addition one 5th or 6th level fighter; for every 100 bandits there will be in addition one 8th or 9th level fighter.  If there are over 200 bandits there will be a 50% for a Magic-User [of 10th to 11th level!] and a 25% chance for a Cleric of the 8th level…

[Bandit leaders have a small chance of having magical equipment]

Composition of Force: Light Foot (Leather Armor & Shield) = 40%; Short Bow (Leather Armor) or Light Crossbow (same) = 25%; Light Horse  (Leather Armor & Shield) = 25%; Medium Horse (Chain & Shield, no horse barding) = 20%.  All super-normal individuals with the force will be riding Heavy, barded horses.
Alignment: Neutrality”

Not These Guys - from Dark Souls
Bandits then aren’t scruffy types one encounters here and there a handful at a time, they are legions of warriors, encountered in groups of 3D100 and led by powerful and special NPCs.  Bandits seem to have a degree of military organization and certainly military equipment, albeit not the best, and they aren’t necessarily evil.  My own mechanical inclination is to make the encounter number (for everything in Monsters & Treasure) the number of the monster type residing in a hex rather than a single encounter.  A bandit band of 200 presumably has infrastructure to guard (A camp at least) and not all of its force will be set in ambush (without good reason).  Instead smaller groups of bandits will watch the road, patrol their perimeter and generally act as random encounters, and will warn the camp/fort if they encounter anything dangerous.

What the numbers, organization and powerful leaders of bandits seem to imply is that they aren’t just robbers, highwaymen or thieves, but entire armies of misrule.  That they can roam the countryside (along with their less pleasant offshoots) without interference implies a lack of social order.  In Monsters & Treasure “Bandits” imply two possible things about the setting.  First that there is some sort of rather nasty and titanic war occurring (or perhaps just ended) in the game-world, leaving large bands, full military units up to size of a small battalion roaming the countryside and preying on travelers.  The Second, and perhaps less apocalyptic world building implication from the bandit entry is that the bandits aren’t really ‘bandits’ in the classic sense of highwaymen, but rather the local forces of order outside any sort of legal structure or control.  The local lords, barons, mayor, cult leaders and other leader types have large armed bands of militia or retainers and they tax whatever comes through their domains heavily.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What do you want to see on Dungeon of Signs?

This blog has been about for a while now and I'm curious about my reading public so there's a poll upon the side of the Dungeon of Signs main page about what sort of thing you enjoy reading.  I'm not saying it'll effect my writing, but I guess any response from readers is encouragement.

If you want something that isn't on the list let me know in the comments below.

Also above is a drawing of an Owlbear for the Fallen Empire adventure I am (very slowly) plugging away at.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fallen Empire - The Imperial Cult, New Class and Spell lists



PRIEST/PRIESTESS OF THE IMPERIAL CULT 

Below is a new sub-class of Cleric I have been preparing for my Fallen Empire setting, it's an evolution (perhaps the final one) of the 'casting die' based spell mechanics that started with animal shaman in the Pahvelorn campaign and which I currently use for some clerics in HMS Apollyon. I generally like this system for divine magic as it makes it unpredictible and strange without adding too many new rules.  It also allows player imagination to expand the spell list by inventing new patrons, which makes it potentially very fun for players who enjoy world building and setting immersion. A PDF of the class can be found HERE.


Within the Successor Empire there is only one religion of power, the Imperial cult stands alone and falsely claims a spiritual unification.  The Cult’s claim is disingenuous as it has birthed a thousand little schisms, divergent traditions, and is big or vacuous enough to contain almost any beliefs.  The Cult worships the Emperor, and while the qualities of the imbecilic Zeno the 14th, current and 754th Emperor (210th of the Successor dynasty), do not lend themselves to worship even his devotees receive mystical power from their belief.  There are hundreds of other Imperial Emperor Saints that also grant power, and many of them conceal the syncretic adaptations of other conquered religions, often worshiped under multiple names.

The spirits of individual emperors offer their devotees unique powers based on a special religious portfolio, and while most priests limit themselves to one or two preferred saints, a few of the most powerful, half saint themselves, can channel many different divine spirits.  However, even these greatest of holy men and women can only call upon one power at a time and must wear the correct panoply to do so.


Friday, May 15, 2015

REVIEW - Bonespur Glacier and Tomb of Bashyr


Looks Pretty Slick for a Charity Product
Erik Jensen is one of the first GM’s who I played with online and I have always enjoyed his games, set in Wampus Country, a tall tale version of the frontier, but only vaguely American.  He’s a great GM, who runs a very free form game, short on maps or metrics but long on NPCs and unique situations.  I don’t know Jason Paul McCartan except as a G+ poster and the author of the OSR today blog - a well designed blog aggregator and curation site.  Still, I was excited to see that the pair of them had produced a “double feature” set of adventure locals and were offering them as pay what you want on RPGnow with the proceeds going to charity (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital).

Bonespur Glacier & The Tomb of Bashyr

The product is a 23 page PDF but at least 5 or six pages are filled with art, content pages, an ad for a talented mapper and the OGL.  Nothing wrong here – the product is a fine example of independent game publishing and the art and layout is very professional and decently done, if often in the somewhat forgettable way of post 2000 WOTC product. The two maps are also rather exceptional, being the work of Monkeyblood Design (Glynn Seal) who is one of my favorite mappers working today.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dungeon Viddles - HMS Apollyon Player's Guide



Rations have been on the equipment list for D&D since it’s earliest incarnations In the first game I played (Keep of the Borderlands of Course) the GM insisted that each PC buy one Iron Ration (A term perhaps originating with the 1907 – 1922 US military individual ration, and including parched wheat and beef bullion cakes) but it was never heard from again.  Now rations have uses – specifically to throw to animal intelligence monsters to distract them, and theoretically the party eats them at some point, but they are largely not mechanically significant.  They should be in an exploration game however and below are my house rules for HMS APPOLYON regarding food and exhaustion.

Giuseppe Recco - Still Life 17th century
EXHAUSTION AND FOOD
The Dungeon is a strange place, filled with the physical challenges of climbing, fighting and forcing doors as well as the stress of intruding into a terrible, magically charged nightmare.  A lot of people deal with stress and strain by eating, and there is nothing like a quick bite to restore a person physically and mentally.
Exhaustion is modeled as a random effect on the “Exploration Die”, rolled every turn. When a ‘6’ results the party takes an exhaustion pip, and when three pips accrue the characters have become exhausted.  Exhaustion is a state of being overwhelmed physically and mentally by the rigors and horrors of the Apollyon, the stink of old death and rotten metal, the creaking of the tired hull and hissing whispers of the damned all take their toll, just as much as climbing slime encrusted chains or swinging a crowbar into the skull of another zombie.  When exhausted characters receive a -4 to all rolls, cumulative to any other negative effects for darkness, injury or encumbrance. 

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