Monday, December 21, 2009
Things have really been going well for me in the realm of D&D right now. My Skype game is continuing to meet weekly, and after a short holiday break will head into a section of my campaign world that is a huge re-write of one of my all time favorite classic modules. After a several month hiatus, my face to face group has met twice the last two weeks and finished one of my most challenging scenarios, setting up a bunch of unscripted (sandbox) stuff for the next few after holiday sessions. All in all, I do some work daily fleshing out both campaigns, and I love it. It's given my impetus to pull out some of my decade old campaign notes and go over them for themes I might work into my present adventures (which all take place on the same campaign world, Azura).
While researching some tidbits from my campaign world, I came across the game play notes to my first two campaigns set in the world of Azura, right after I had tentatively created it and fleshed out a small sandboxy section of islands to start out adventurers on. These 14 year old campaign notes show just how far my campaign world has come in the last decade and a half, and have re-ignited my imagination in my first adventuring area, a small island chain consisting of five large islands and dozens of smaller ones. The largest such island had a fairly large trading center and port, but the real action was on the smallest island in the chain, Tiranouq (all the islands in the chain were named after members of the original adventuring band that discovered and settled the chain about 100 years earlier). The small island had one village, Rotwood, and their main industry was gathering reeds and weaving baskets....seriously.
Of course, from this sort of setting, you would expect most adventurers to want to leave..immediately...and not spend a bit of time exploring their island. However, I had seeded about half a dozen possible adventuring sites there to give them experience and then head on to bigger and better things. The characters began this first ever campaign in my world as simple farmers, fishermen, and goatherds, but eventually left the island chain on a series of adventures that culminated a couple years later (real time) with them controlling a nearby island chain after wiping out the pirate lords that ruled there.
However, at the beginning, there was just a group of inexperienced kids who wanted to explore the old abandoned manor on the other side of the island (Cough---U1---Cough). They soon acquired a sponsor for their group, who was a retired mage of some power, who mentored the spell casters of the party by giving them spells and sundry one-shot magic items to assist them. Jaylen the mage was a respected elder and member of the town council, and the kind of guy who would let a young mage copy a spell out of his own spellbook for nothing.
Jaylen was also an evil demon worshipping lunatic....which leads to this confession.....
When I first created the island chain (called New Empyria) and Tiranouq, I did some work on a back story.....not that the characters would ever fully know the full ins and outs, but I wanted to create a place that was "real" to me and had a history I could use if the occasion arose. Part of this was very vague adventure hooks for all the islands, including Tiranouq. One hook was that an isle about a mile off the coast had a long abandoned mage's tower that no one on Tiranouq had ever investigated. It sat within an owlbear-infested forest. There was also rumored to be an evil druid there who guarded the tower from all intruders.
It was meant to be the kind of adventure hook that you mention to players who perhaps wait a few levels to follow up on (the presence of owlbears and an evil druid were the warnings they would have to gain some experience to find out the mysteries of the tower). Little did the characters know, but the seemingly jovial mage Jaylen was there on the small isle in the middle of nowhere specifically to get inside that tower....for the demonic knowledge involved. Long ago, he had learned of the existence of the tower, and the extensive library within, but his research also showed it had been protected by some ancient mage through traps and glyphs keyed to specific individuals...and Jaylen was one of these. His infamous reputation as a necromancer (forbidden in many societies) had led to several confrontations with minions of good. He was a well-known, feared and hunted mage throughout the empire, which caused him to maintain a low profile as a kindly old mage in this out of the way island, awaiting his chance to get inside the tower and increase his power.
After many thwarted attempts to get inside, he hit on a plan: take a group of young people, sponsor them, and have a homegrown adventuring group assault the tower, and since he was a trusted mentor and teacher, have them unwittingly retrieve the books he wanted that would lead to dangerous (for everyone else) knowledge of the summoning of demonic beings. The party was actually his second such attempt; in my history, I said an earlier group attempted it and was destroyed by the dangers of the island (and their bodies would have been found had the party ever gotten to the island).
However, players often take you in unexpected directions. For many reasons, this plotline was acknowledged but never followed up on as the party acquired a pirate ship early on, and decided to sail away to see the wide world (which was logical, since all they had ever known as characters was the boring life on Tiranouq). They never really made it back to the island, which (I said to myself off-screen) infuriated the mage Jaylen to no end.
After a couple of years, the original party was high enough level that we decided to begin another group with their henchmen and followers. The group was about half the original players and half newbies, so once again we started out in the comfy confines of the isle of Tiranouq and village of Rotwood, where the fledgling adventurers had been sent to be sponsored and mentored...by kindly old Kaylen the mage! (He'd changed his name, but was still the same old demon worshipping psycho)
Once again Kaylen attempted to put his plan into action, appearing the friendly old sage, but subtly pushing adventurers to investigate that abandoned tower on the isle full of owlbears. Once again, when the party reached a certain level (after I ran the excellent Citadel by the Sea from Dragon mag) they decided to investigate other islands in the chain, and follow up on knowledge they had gathered of a group of slavers operating the nearby seas....so once again Kaylen watched helplessly as another possible group of mercenary muscle slipped out of his grasp....!
Thus, Kaylen is really the oldest plot device in my campaign world....going back 14 years, and never a player realized it. Hell, they didn't even suspect it in the least....Kaylen's helpful demeanor took both groups of players in hook, line and sinker back in the day, and I have no doubt that had they been high enough level to eventually investigate the tower, Kaylen would have managed to acquire his books of power and become a major baddie in my campaign world. Whew...what a burden off my back, confessing this!
As for Kaylen, to fail once (the pre-campaign group that was killed) was annoying. To be thwarted twice in his gathering of patsies was very upsetting. To be turned down three times was maddening. If I was to play him again with another beginning group, I think I would make him just a bit more desperate and "hands on" trying to get the party to the island, merely because he has been waiting so long for his chance....
So, my confession, to anyone who gamed with me back in the years of 1996-2001 or so, was that the kindly old mage Kaylen who mentored you, gave you mage scrolls, and was always available to help out with potions of healing or just sage advice in general, was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Better you guys headed out into the wide world of adventure than be taken in by him and unknowingly fetch for him the ancient tomes of evil he would use to possibly destroy Rotwood, Tiranouq, and perhaps the world beyond.
That being said, maybe it's time to dust off the old campaign notes of Rotwood and the Isle of Tiranouq, and give poor old evil Kaylen yet another shot!!!
Monday, November 23, 2009
Holiday gaming took on an even bigger aspect in the 80s. In 1981 my brothers and mother moved 800 miles away, and when I went to college I only saw them during the holidays. Unfortunately the very small town my family moved to had a huge dearth of anyone interested in RPGs, so it was left to me and my visits during the holidays to bring gaming to my brothers and their friends. When I got into town for the Thanksgiving or Christmas season, we would literally game non-stop for days (ditto when my brothers came to visit me during those same periods). Often they had friends stop by to game with us, as I was a "REAL DM" from the big city, a fact I was inordinately proud of when one of my brothers would introduce me to the few eager fellows they had recruited to play. The gaming was mostly one-shot as we didn't have the means to do any campaign related stuff, so I still to this day recall weekend-long sessions running I2 Tomb of the Lizard King, the classic X4/X5 Expert "Desert Nomad" series, and the Call of Cthulhu campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. A couple times we squeezed in Top Secret sessions using the Orient Express adventure pack (Top Secret was a great one shot adventure game, especially for those not familiar with roleplaying, because everyone has seen a Bond movie or two and wants to be a superspy, and shoot someone in the head). Several times the entire neighborhood (which consisted of maybe 5 other kids) stayed the night at my mom's house during Christmas or Spring Break vacation so that I could run a group through Temple of Death with just a break or two to eat thanksgiving turkey leftovers or Christmas pies and cookies. A couple kids in the neighborhood either had no family or very indifferent families (one friend of my middle brother had parents that had disappeared on a fishing trip years earlier, feared drowned, and he practically lived at my mom's house most of the year). I think those kids looked forward to my holiday visits and promise of escape into fantasy worlds as much as my brothers did.
In an earlier post I talked about a great Call of Cthulhu game run during holiday sessions, and we often ran one shots from The Asylum or Cthulhu Companion adventure packs. If we paused to contemplate the irony of rushing through our family Thanksgiving dinner so we could hurry back to butcher slimy Deep Ones and be eaten alive by shoggoths or have brains blasted to goo by Things Not Meant To Be, I don't remember. The best session we ever had was one of the last ones...the first year my brothers and family had moved back here, we decided to run a one-shot of B1 In Search of the Unknown. I made my brothers roll three 6 sided dice in order, old school, with the results of one brother running a functioning idiot (Int and Wis together about 10 pts total) and the other with a 90 year old priest (he said he was 90 because his Str and Con were about 4 pts each). The first character was so stupid my brother had him roll for his equipment randomly, which led him to bringing a cat (stuffed in his pouch) along for the dungeon crawl, and using a hammer (not a lucern or war hammer, just a....hammer) as a weapon. High point of the crawl was a desperate battle with orcs, which led my brother to take out the cat and throw it in the face of a surprised orc...and with it's claw,claw, bite, promptly rip the unlucky humanoid's throat out and cause the rest of the orcs to check morale and retreat at the "magical demon" the fighter had unleashed! We were laughing and hollering so loud during the entire game, we were getting dirty looks from the rest of the family engaged in more "genteel" pursuits on Christmas Eve (the only time we got dirtier looks was when we watched Reservoir Dogs one Christmas Eve on the big TV in the living room, but that's another story.....)
Looking back on it, gaming was something we had enjoyed together before our parent's separation, and being together for the holidays gave us a chance to bond as brothers in a way we understood. Some families have touch football games, drinking bull sessions, card games or watching sports as a "bonding" activity during these times....we did the same except we bonded with a fighter and mage destroying an evil temple and rescuing a large amount of gold and jewelry. The most natural thing in the world!
As we got older and my family moved back into my hometown, we didn't game as much during the holidays as we once did. Since we could see each other much more often, the urgency to cram as much gaming into the holiday period as possible wasn't there. Particularly when wives and kids became part of the picture, the RPG sessions we had enjoyed have become family game sessions (Trivial Pursuit is my favorite because I never lose, Scene It and Cranium are popular, but the kids love Apples to Apples and it's become somewhat of a Christmas Eve tradition). I sure do miss the day, weekend, and sometimes week-long RPG sessions of the 80s holidays though, when we didn't have a care in the world except which game session and adventure to use next!
Friday, October 23, 2009
In my own campaign world, I do this all the time. I have dozens of types of skeletons and zombies; jungle stirges; arctic owlbears; a score of poisonous snakes (based on real life examples like the black mamba and fer de lance) each whose poison has differing effects; various varieties of iron cobras (some giant sized), spell-casting ogres, and much more. I know there is nothing "original" about this, but I have always disliked the player who memorized the Monster Manual to the point of a rabid zoologist and always knew the EXACT spell to counter any monster (which is the best time to mention that a blessed crossbow bolt does SQUAT to rakshasas in my world.....!) When I created my own campaign world, I gave certain monsters the "week off" (there are very few hobgoblins, bugbears and drow) and instead concentrated on more varied undead, climatical varieties of regular creatures (arctic owlbears and snakes, jungle stirges and ogres, desert spiders, swamp landsharks, etc), and intelligent spellcasting gargoyles, spectres and dopplegangers. I also allow monsters to pick up and use items like any other schlub. Why wouldn't a halfway intelligent creature pick up that glowing sword or shield instead of leaving it sitting on that sack of gold? The dead adventurer was wearing this pretty ring? I'm putting it on...hey, I'm invisible!
Confounding player's expectations is really doing them (and you) a favor. If a character in my campaign sees a giant of any type and assumes ANYTHING other than it looks mean, powerful, and could have something up it's sleeve this side of a vorpal blade, they have only themselves to blame when the "simple" hill giant begins beating the tar out of them using a girdle of Storm Giant strength...or begins casting a fireball at the party standing out of missile weapon range. Presuming to know the DM's world (or mind) without empirical evidence can get you dead really fast in my campaigns.
One of my favorite encounters was many years ago in some campaign or another I ran, as a band of adventurers was trudging across the wilderness and came across a kobold sitting on a fence post. He eyed the approaching group but did nothing to move or hide (a warning right there). In the middle of nowhere, the heavily scarred critter exuded toughness and had a gleaming sword hanging on a scabbard at it's side. Veterans of my campaigns knew something was up, so they gave the grizzled warrior a nod and wave and continued on. Newbies were looking at the vets with mouth agape..."It's a kobold, for crying out loud! Free XP! Let's get 'em!" as their characters rushed to what they thought would be easy pickens.
A few rounds later, the 10th level kobold warrior having viciously thrashed the sadder but wiser newbies (being careful not to kill them lest he raise the ire of the other adventurers), he paused to spit on the ground and pointed to the pile of groaning bodies. "These idiots belong to you?" he snarled. The unbeaten party members smiled, shrugged and nodded as he strolled on, his rest spoiled. The players learned a valuable lesson that served them well: appearances can be deceiving, and don't base your expectations on what is in-between the covers of the MM. They soon learned that while the MM provides a baseline description, in my campaign world, it pays to be cautious.
Here is a very heavily edited chart I sometimes use when I want to spring a little surprise using a iconic D&D critter. I usually just use it when I'm working on a unique encounter or trying to create a "boss" type with a little more "oomph". It's not the quality of a James Raggi Random Esoteric Creature Generator, but it does the job:
- Breathes Fire (3-18 pts, cone 10 feet long at base)
- Has Shocking Grasp (1-8 electrical damage per touch)
- Poisonous breath (cloud 10x10x10, sv vs poison or die, immune to own breath)
- Spellcaster (mage or priest of 1st-5th level)
- Touch causes disease (as 3rd level AD&D spell)
- Immune to attack form (Cold, Fire, Poison, En/Charm, etc)
- Uses a magic weapon in combat
- Uses missile weapons in combat
- Reflects magic on caster
- Smarter than the average bear
- Uses magic item (ring, potion, amulet, etc)
- Unusual alliance
For unusual powers like the above, I use the "touched by the gods" explanation in my campaign. In certain creatures, powers develop that mean that one is favored by the gods (may or may not be, it may be a mutation due to any reason) and they are often at the top of the food chain (natural leaders) of their group. Sometimes, however, their unusual powers make them outcasts and they will be found by themselves in a secluded lair, nursing their hatred at the world.
Breathes fire: self explanatory, can use once a round or turn;
Shocking grasp: can either turn it off or it is an continuous effect;
Poisonous breath: again, once a round or turn;
Spellcaster: Creature is particularly intelligent or wise (15-18) for it's kind, and has access to a spellbook and training or worships a god that answers it's call;
Touch causes disease: as the cleric spell, usually a worshipper of Bacaris (the god of Disease and Filth in my campaign, he often gives this boon to his worshippers hoping to spread plague)
Has a magic weapon: Got it from a foe defeated in battle or found it in a treasure horde;
Immune to a special attack form: choose randomly or use to confound expectations ( a troll immune to fire, for example, or a fire giant immune to cold);
Reflect magic: Only for "targeted" spells like Magic Missile or can expand to area spells;
Use Missile weapons: Many creatures would benefit from being able to fire a bow or even throw a spear or two before combat;
Smarter than the average bear: unlike most of it’s kind, the creature is a natural and cunning leader, of higher wisdom/intelligence, and is able to do some abstract thinking, use sophisticated battle tactics, and create devious traps/ambushes;
Uses a magic item: gathered from a defeated foe or found in a treasure horde;
Unusual alliance: has overcome it’s natural bestial hatred or hunger for others and entered into a mutually beneficial alliance with another creature.
Examples of each that could spice up your game and confound player expectations:
A Minotaur with fire breath
A Mummy with a shocking grasp
A Naga with poisonous breath (in addition to or in lieu of its poisonous bite)
A Medusa who is a 3rd level mage with Charm Person, Magic Missile, and Invisibility
A Carrion Crawler whose tentacles cause disease instead of/in addition to paralyzing
A Wolfwere with a +2 longsword
A Troll immune to non-magical weapons
A Spectre that reflects magic
A group of Gargoyles that uses longbows before they fly to attack
A Displacer Beast who is a genius of it’s kind….a leader of the pack extraodinaire, it has turned the other beasts into a well-trained fighting force; they use tactics like ganging up on one character to kill them before moving to another, bounding past fighters to attack spellcasters, and setting ambushes in the caves where they lair (aided by howls and barks of the genius Beast)
A Lamia with a ring of fire resistance and a potion of extra healing
A pair of Dopplegangers who have formed an alliance with a Deathkiss beholder. They wait in the wilderness and take on the appearance of a merchant and his mule being attacked by the deathkiss. As soon as the party engages the deathkiss and attempts to rescue the “merchant and beast”, the pair will attack by surprise.
It goes without saying that such unusual permutaions shouldn't be overused, lest your campaign become a "random monster" session and lose a lot of credibility. If every goblin, orc and werewolf is wielding a magic sword, wand of paralyzation and firing lasers from their frikken eyes, the campaign starts to resemble a particularly jokey version of Gamma World or Mutant Future. I also like to leave some sort of small clue that "not everything is quite kosher" to train your players to be more observant. Perhaps the bodies in the minotaur's lair are burned beyond recognition, or the one survivor of the medusa's fury says "she appeared out of nowhere, I swear!" while recovering at the local inn.
Remember to bump that XP reward, while you're at it!
Monday, October 19, 2009
Except for Gary Con (http://www.garycon.com/ ) there exists few conventions nowadays devoted exclusively to old school gaming. NTRPG Con was brainstormed up one fine day as a way for old-school gamers to get together and share the game they love without having to dodge Magic cards, LARPs, pirate-dressed wanna be actors, and the latest "Game Du Jour" put out by WOTC or whoever. All the guys running games (which last year included Black Blade Publishing's Jon Hershberger and Allan Grohe) know the score and sometimes the choice of playing in an event is downright nervewracking (Friday night, should I go through El Raja Key DM'd by Rob Kuntz? Tim Kask's newly written OD&D adventure Temple of the Weaver Queen? Or Frank Mentzer's adventure in his classic game world of Emphyria? Arrggggh!)
This year, we've expanded the action by a day to accommodate even more old school goodness, and have finalized our lineup of special guests for 2010. Joining Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz, Paul Jaquays, Dennis Sustarre and Jason Braun (artist extraordinaire) from last year are Steve Winter and Jim Ward. Jim's name is well known in old school circles as the creator of Metamorphosis Alpha and has had his presence in gaming since the beginning, his Tainted Lands setting has just been released by Troll Lords; Steve Winter worked at TSR for 20 years spanning the EGG era through the beginnings of 3rd edition D&D. Both gentlemen will be a great addition to the present lineup and we can't wait to meet both! (Due to other circumstances, Frank Mentzer won't be able to make the con this year, and we hope to have him back again for a con in the future).
For those not in the know, the guests at NTRPG Con are not required to run games (although most happily do); all we ask is that they be accessable to con members and mingle. Guests were often seen (when not running games) in the eating area of the hotel discussing many events (the epic several hour conversation between old friends Paul Jaquays and Dennis Sustarre was witnessed and participated in by many con members not gaming at the time; one of my personal high points of the con!!!) Having a bite to eat at the local Denny's with Tim and Frank late Saturday night (actually, early Sunday morning) was also a treat. Lots of stories and reminisces were shared and the entire activity becomes an incredible experience for anyone interested in the history of the hobby.
In addition to our guests we have had commitments by Sword & Wizardry's Matt Finch (http://www.swordsandwizardry.com/), Black Blade Publishing (http://black-blade-publishing.com/), Pacesetter Games (http://pacesettergames.com/), and Troll Lord (publishers of Castles & Crusades) to run games at NTRPG Con. We are also open to accepting other old school games and gamemasters as space opens up. I wish this was next week! I'm ready to go today!
Thursday, October 8, 2009
My philosophy on placing magic is probably not grognard tested (or approved), but generally, the weakest examples of magic items (+1 weapons, +1 rings of protection, +1 armor) are not uncommon. I figure some smart leader type centuries ago got a mage school to pump these out on a fairly regular basis to arm his minions; through the intervening period, these weapons have fallen into the hands of much "common" folk. Actually, that's pretty much what DID happen in my campaign world almost 2000 years ago when the Overlord's army threatened to over run the entire world; he literally had hundreds of mages (and priests, for that matter) loyal to his cult churning them out assembly line fashion to arm his followers. After the Cataclysm, these weapons have indeed found their way into various treasure hordes scattered across the planet. In my campaigns, it's fairly easy to determine you have come across a magical weapon or armor; they are the only ones in the treasure hordes that haven't aged and look new once they have been handled and polished off a little. Their individual powers might be a bit harder to figure out, although if grasped most magical items in my world will let the wielder know it's powers or purpose (kind of a bummer when the item is evil in intent, whoops).
It's not out of the question to figure every village or town across my world has one or two village elders with a magical weapon or device squirreled away for an emergency. The trick is to make the +2 and higher weapons much, much rarer in context. Not only are they a factor harder to find, but almost every weapon of +2 and above is a "unique" weapon with a special power or two (even if the special power is only to create Light '30 radius or speak a language). So, if you enter a good-sized town and notice all the guard commanders have at least a +1 sword, be assured that only the Leader of the Guard will have something as esoteric as a Flaming Longsword or talking sword that also detects magic and alignment. So, while everyone in one of my campaigns may possess at least one +1 weapon by 3rd level, getting anything better than that prior to 5th-7th level may be quite problematic (unless the characters happen to defeat a group of adventurers of higher level, or specifically hunt down a long-lost treasure horde rumored to contain a magic weapon or two of high quality).
It also must be noted at although I dearly love different types of variations on magic items, I don't favor "powerful" types of magic. I generally stick to items that have one or two intriguing functions that are not game changing, but that may affect the game in various ways. That, and the aforementioned "tweaking" an item to so something "standard" (i.e., invisibility) in a non-standard form. How the characters use an item that has probably never come up in their play before is one of the things that really interest me as a DM and as a student of the game. Everyone has been in a campaign with a +1 Cloak of Protection; how about a cloak that lets you assume the form of a stalagmite when the hood is put over your head? (one of the non-standard items in my campaign). I enjoy seeing what the clever player can bring to the table when give an item like that that takes them a bit out of the their "typical magic item" comfort zone.
Now, I don't cater to party expectations and sometimes the characters must adapt to the weapons or items they have found, or use something they are not proficient with in order to wield a magical weapon. For example right now one of my current adventuring parties (everyone 3-4 level) has everyone wielding at least one +1 weapon (well, except for a priest who is only proficient in the sling, club and mace and hasn't stumbled across anything), although the thief isn't proficient in the magical dagger she has found, and the druid just this level gained proficiency in a magical spear he was toting for an entire adventure. A few times in the past I specifically placed weapons for characters, and I felt "dirty" afterwards....as if I was injecting far too much of my own bias in the proceedings. Since then, I've let the chips (or magical items/weapons) fall as they may, and it's much more fun to watch the characters adapt to what they find rather than the other way around. Sometimes players slog through a dungeon only to be rewarded with several items they cannot use (say, Robes of Shadow or Rings of Bone, which are evil in purpose, or esoteric like a +3 Maul or halfling-sized +3 banded mail). Sometimes, however, that's where the fun begins as players must figure out how to make a profit off such items, either by finding someone to sell it or trade it to. My caution would be if you play in my campaigns don't expect to be fully outfitted in magical gee-gaws by 5th level (or at least, the magical goodies you EXPECT to find).
Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that to this day I add to my custom stock of magical items in my Core Rules CD rom program on a weekly basis, whenever I come across something in the four volume Encyclopedia Magica (fantastic resource for ANY edition) or while thumbing through an older Dragon, Polyhedron, or random fantasy oriented mag or rules system (like Rolemaster or Runequest). Some unique or interesting items may only rarely come up as part of a random treasure horde, while others might fit the personality or aims of a NPC character so perfectly they just belong with him or her. Whether or not the party can use the item is somewhat immaterial to me; I know in the past (particularly in the classic TSR "letter" series of modules in the late 70s and early 80s) magical items were placed with a purpose (Dungeon Design Tip #101, so to speak). For example, anyone hack and slashing through the classic G-series will, by the successful completion of G1, have not one but TWO flaming swords as well as a sword of Giant Slaying! (nice of Nosnra to keep that lying around.) I do enjoy the frisson that accompanies finding a not so standard item; sometimes players are flummoxed when they are confronted with an item that doesn't fit their preconceived notions of past dungeon play. So who gets the Bracers of Missile Protection? No previous paradigm exists for most of the oddball items that I toss into the campaign, so a lot of times it causes a new dynamic to emerge. Thieves, who are almost always presented with a Ring of Invisibility in a treasure horde, are often reluctant to instead take a pair of Boots of Invisibility (what if Boots of Elvenkind pop up later?). Mages presented with the aforementioned Bracers of Missile Protection will be in a quandary when Bracers of AC 4 are discovered; a fighter who wins a flaming longsword in battle might be loathe to give up his +1 weapon, since it also has the ability to detect invisibility '10 and can speak elvish, dwarvish and orcish. Even more so the truly non-standard items I introduce such as Pooky the Bear (detailed below) that anyone can use.
Anyway, I do so love the non-standard magic item, and today while flipping through a random mag while on the throne (Polyhedron #58 from 1991, the Magic Item Contest Winners column they used to run every year) I found a few more to add to my data base. Here they are below if you want to throw a curveball into your own campaigns!
Warstar of the Manticore: Several of these morning stars, +1, are believed to exist. However, scholars believe most owners of these weapons do not realize they have more than a melee weapon. Upon command, a Warstar of the Manticore releases 1d6 spikes at any one target. The spikes have a range of a light crossbow and instantly replace themselves. the wielder must make one "to hit" roll, adjusted for range, for the volley of spikes. The wielder gains the Warstar's +1 "to hit" bonus and any bonus he normally would be entitled to for high dexterity (the Warstar's enchantment negates dexterity penalties). The spikes can be released up to four times a day (thanks to Michael Madden)
Rock Robe: This average looking garment radiates a strong aura of alteration magic, if such is detected for. When first donned, nothing unusual happens, as the robe takes 24 hours to attune itself to its new owner. After that time its powers become known to the owner. The robe has two powers, each usable at will. The first allows the wearer to become a statue, similar to the 7th level wizard spell of the same name; no system shock roll is required, and the effect can be maintained indefinitely. The wearer can change back and forth between his flesh form and statue, with each change requiring one round. No other action scan be taken during the transformation.
The second power is immunity to petrification. Further, the robe can be used to return a petrified individual to flesh after it has attuned itself to that person for 24 hours. The robe only functions when worn, and it is useable by any character class (thanks to Gary Watkins)
Pooky the Bear: This protection device is unique and was created by a high level mage for his children. This huggable, lovable stuffed bear looks like a typical toy animal, However, when held somewhere on the body, Pooky acts like a +3 Ring of Protection. In addition, if held while slumbering, the owner is surrounded by a Protection From Enemies 3 foot radius. This protection ends as soon as the owner awakes. While sleeping, the owner is prevented from suffering bad dreams. Because of the restful nature of sleep while slumbering with the bear, hit points are restored at twice the normal rate.
(Pooky came from a oddball published module whose name I can't recall...I changed it up a bit and inserted it into an adventure I ran BITD. My brother's tough as nails high level dwarven fighter came into possession of it, and would wear it stuffed under his armor into battle. Despite a lot of ribbing he kept the item and was probably the only name level Dwarven fighter ever to run into battle screaming "For Pooky!" with a stuffed bear head peeking out over the top of his plate mail....!)
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The party is really coming together, and it's always a magical moment for the DM when the players seem to "click" and everyone realizes their roles in the party...the thief/mage started hiding behind the burly fighter types to cast spells and shoot arrows, the cleric held his holy symbol and turned all the undead in sight, the druid began exploring the uses of his many spells when underground and battling mostly undead instead of outdoors battling living creatures, and the fighters, well they did what they do best. A lot less of "Everyone grabs a weapn and rushes up to whack the enemy" we saw in the first few sessions. I'm having a blast and the players seem to be having fun also.
While simplistic, Gametable has done just fine with the basics online (graph paper, drawing walls, pogs for representations of characters, monsters, trees, etc, dice rolling macros). I wish it had a few more features but right now it's performed admirably. Now that I replaced my cable, I had my first "drop free" session which helped quite a bit with the flow of the game....and might have hurt the players a little, they are used to having extra time to discuss strategy when I dropped out every 10 minutes or so for sixty secords or more!
I do miss some aspects of fact to face gaming...the minis, drawing out the rooms on the battle board, using my Dwarven Forge walls, being able to see the player's faces and react to that when I spring something on them, being able to easily show them visual representations, etc. However, Skype still remains IMO the best vehicle for gaming when everyone is scattered across the world, and has allowed us to have a 3-4 hour session four weeks in a row. For comparison, we haven't gamed in my face to face campaign since May, and even though it's been going for almost three years, have only managed back to back weeks one time (we are lucky to get once a month in at the best of times!)
My favorite part of the recent campaign (set on a steamy tropical jungle isle, and very reminiscent of pulp "Lost civilization" type adventures) was the last session when the party, who had successfully managed to deal with undead shadows, ghouls, zombies; poisonous snakes (the druid reasoned with the giant bushmaster snake and got him to leave!), tigers, and bloodthirsty native warriors....were almost wasted by....giant rats!
After clearing a room out of a bunch of ghouls, the party forced open a door that led a to a previously unexplored area. After entering, hordes of rabid giant rats began pouring out of a small pit it in the room. Two blown throws of oil vials later, the rats were swarming the party as I rolled 19's and 20's and covered the characters with bite after bite from the menaces. Finally, someone was able to get a pool of oil lit in front of the door and cut off reinforcements, just in time for the "king rat" (I described him as a rat as big as a potbelly pig, shades of Stephen King's short story "Night Shift") to show up and squeak a challenge. Just as they finished him off, a pair of ghouls returned from behind (whoops) with a Ghast leader, and the ghast quickly downed the two party fighters with paralyzing bites!
Suddenly, with the party's two fighters down to paralyzation, and still wounded from the attacking giant rats, (not to mention a rat as big as a pig gnawing on them), it looked reeeealy touch and go for a few minutes. I was down to deciding which character the ghast would choose as a "snack" after everyone went down, when the three remaining party members managed to hold off the undead just long enough for the paralyzed fighters to recover and rejoin the combat. That was a hard won battle, and in some ways was closer to a TPK than the later battle with a Shadow Fiend in the heart of the temple. Every campaign it seems has a moment early on when things are touch and go but the party pulls it out, and this gives them confidence for what lies ahead; this was definitely that moment!
Anyone wanting to keep track of the Isle of Delos Skype campaign (be warned, there's not much dialogue and it's more a "Just the facts, ma'am" type blog), the link is below:
Friday, September 25, 2009
Just to update my purpose here, I wanted an easier, quicker adventure setting to run when my group couldn't get together, or I had random people populating my gaming table and didn't want to include them in my regular campaigning. Something quick but fun that I could pull out and run at a moment's notice, but enough "fiddly bits" that it would amuse me. I use 2E, with lots of fiddly bits, so I streamlined it down to a manageable set of rules, limited characters and races to mostly archetypes, and tried to get character creation quick and simple. While not as easy as running, say, Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, I was able (with help from friends who took on character creation to work out the kinks) to get it down to 5-15 min (5 min for a simple fighter, 15 min for a paladin which had more decisions to make that I thought for his creation). With some practice I think I can streamline it even more. I'll have more on my rules systems, character types, etc in later posts. I tried to use as many random charts and lists as I could for ease of character creation, while allowing some choice. I just didn't want to bog down the process too much, while still keeping some of the aspects I enjoy about my own campaign world and the home brew rules system I use.
For the first adventure, I was able to write up about 40 rooms in the SE corner of my megadungeon (which, btw, in my search for simplicity is taken entirely from the classic D&D Dungeon Geomorph tile sets!) with the use of random charts and my imagination, and decided to wing it if they went any farther (I wasn't too worried, they were all first level and wouldn't survive too deeply into the depths). I'll have to think of a catchy name for the dungeon; for right now, it's the "Dungeon in the Desert". Here's the reason why, plus the initial set up:
On the edge of town, in front of the watchtower of the church of Kazull, stands a gate that leads to an underground dungeon. The dungeon is apparently vast and ancient, and is in some other part of the world, as those who have made it to the surface speak of a vast desert area (unlike the sylvan wilderness where the village and environs are located). The dungeon is located underneath ancient ruins, in a desolate sand desert with temperatures 100 degrees or more. Nearby, on the surface, is a stronghold of the evil priesthood of Inari, but the priests curiously show little interest in adventurers or the ruins. There is a small oasis nearby, but nothing else for many miles except for rock, sand and waste. Explorers say that if you travel far enough you get to the tall and unscaleable walls of some massive cliffs, surrounding on all sides, indicating the entire location is in a rift.
The gate was found one day several years ago. It apparently appeared out of thin air, as it was visible one morning on the outskirts of town. Curiosity drove many to investigate, where they found it led to some underground cavern. However, the gate is two way and soon fell creatures began emerging to terrorize the townfolk. The local authorities appealed to their duke for help, and he sent several troops to deal with the menace. They realized they were over their head as the creatures kept emerging. Responding to entreaties for aid, soon the church of Kazull built a temple in front of the gate to deal with any emerging creatures. They were joined by the priesthoods of Nythiir and Vistna who also set up nearby temples. War with humanoids and evil barbarians took up much of the duke’s time and men the last decade, so little could be spent fortifying the gate area. However, the gate began to attract visitors in the form of adventurers, and they were able to keep the monster population controlled, along with the help of the various priesthoods.
The dungeon dates from pre cataclysmic days and is the source of much treasure. It also is the source of many creatures of evil temperament. Since the mysterious gate opened, many gems, rare art, and magic has been brought out. However, many adventurers have entered never to return. Others have emerged rich beyond belief. Your destiny awaits!
The three priesthoods mentioned, btw, are the three main branches of religion that can be followed by PCs, and each church has a few special abilities available to their priests (Kazull-Battle, Nythiir-Healing, Vistna-Knowledge). Anyway, I've always wanted a deserted, forlorn, isolated setting, and the Dungeon in the Desert does this, while leaving escape back to a cozy and comfortable tavern and village if they make it back to the gate in one piece. I haven't worked out a ton of the logistics, but I figure the gate is a hazy shimmering in the air about 12 feet high, roughly oval in shape, surrounded by a small constructed archway/entrance (so some poor farmer or sheep herd or drunk doesn't stumble through on their way out of town by accident). Probably a contingent of city guardsmen and a few random priests in hastily constructed stone or wooden buildings about 100 yds away in case something nasty happens to stumble through from the other side. A small "waiting" area where people can hang out (or camp out) while waiting for friends or companions that have entered, or where loners can mill about looking for a possible group who is short on members, or other single adventurers like themselves, to join up with and try their hand at finding treasure and adventure. Perhaps at one time vendors and salesmen set up makeshift tents nearby to sell food and supplies to adventurers, but I've decided they are no longer allowed due to several incidents (plus, the shopkeepers in town protested vigorously as they were losing business to these fly by nighters). City guardsmen gruffly enforce the "move along, nothing to see here" attitude by knocking down any structures put up and arresting anyone selling items outside the walls of the town.
The first approach goes something like this: the PCs approach the gate area from the village, walking slowly to the hill where the tower of the Kazullian priesthood stands like a lone sentinel against whatever might emerge from the shimmering gate. As they get closer, a couple of adventurer types, covered with sweat, blood and dirt, walk past them, too exhausted to raise a hand in greeting as they head for the village to spend whatever gold or gems they found in the depths on drink, healing, sleep and a bath, in that order. A hundred yards away from the gate the makeshift wooden and stone buildings show some activity as priests and off-duty guardsmen mill about, fixing something on a pot suspended over a fire. A small knot of city guardsmen near the gate throw dice and laugh at the results as the players file past them to the waiting area. A few unsavory looking thief types, and a hulking barbarian, are sitting on large rocks and bedrolls eying the party as they troop right past the waiting area to the gate itself. Framed by a crumbling stone "doorway" that arches over the area, the 12 x 12 area seems to shimmer and haze like a mirage...the countryside beyond can be seen through the gate, but it's as if through a gauzy veil...if the stone archway wasn't in place, and unwary traveler might just stumble inside by accident.
When the gate is entered, the party is in the entry room of the dungeon.
The atmosphere immediately changes, and you realize you are underground. A dank, musty, wet sand smell fills your nose. Someone has placed a large rock with a continual light spell in the ground about 15 feet in front of you, and it gives off it’s illumination against the dark.
Behind you is a solid wall of rubble dozens of feet high…the gate you came in from appears to lead into the rubble as if a tunnel, although you cannot see the place you just left (just as you couldn't see inside the cavern from the other side). In front of you and all around you are the remains of dozens (hundreds?) of battles, bones and broken weapons and pieces of equipment in the churned up sand that seems to be permanently stained with blood. Many battles have been fought in this area, some recently if the stench of death is any indication (joined by the stench of bat guano, a colony must reside on the ceiling here).
You get the impression of a large, high chamber, surrounded by blackness…the ceiling slopes upward at the edges to rise to a height of about 70 feet in the center. Behind the range of the light there you can see small shapes squirming on the ceiling…bats, many of them. Far above you can see a very faint sliver of light…..some sort of natural chimney must lead out to the surface. Outside the range of the artificial light, all is darkness except to your right (which you immediately label as East, despite any evidence for or against). About 90 feet away, you see several burning torches set behind what looks like a constructed stone wall about 6 feet high with a wooden door in the center. The wall extends for 100 feet or so and forms a semi-circle around a large stone wall. You can make out human shapes behind the wall at intervals, and they shout a warning at your arrival, giving the impression of alertness.
To the left, more ominous sounds, the rumble of humanoid voices and whispers from beyond the range of the light.
I had two players, one with an elven mage (he told me he had never run a mage before), the other with a Paladin of Nythiir, and the group was filled out with a dwarven fighter, a human thief, and a human priest of Kazull, God of Battle....more on their first foray later! Rolling up the mage was fast and simple, the paladin took much longer, most of that my fault, as I had not reckoned on someone wanting a paladin first up (like I said, my fault, but it was good practice and now I've streamlined the paladin creation). A party consisting of fighters, thieves and mages would be pretty quick to work up; clerics (and paladins by extension) take a bit more time to create due to religious considerations (each of the three priesthoods you can follow gives you special abilities). However, once someone is familiar with the three priesthoods, that won't take much time either. My goal is to be very Retro-cloneish or Simulacrum-like and have it down to five minutes or less (actually, you can have a fighter or mage up and running that quick or quicker already).
More on their first adventure, and some of my character types, later....
Monday, September 14, 2009
My first Skype campaign lasted for quite awhile and was truly a very important milestone in the way I now approach the game, and my hope for the future of old farts like myself that play OOP rule sets (we use a customized version of 2E). Below is a list of some of the reasons why I enjoy using Skype, and why I think it may be the future of old school gaming....
1. It allows gamers from all over the world to get together in one room.....and game.
My game now has a member from Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Canada, and Texas (myself). The odds are incredibly good that we five will NEVER be in the same room together at one time, much less the weekly meetings it would take to run a regular campaign. Gaming with someone stuck overseas (by chance or by choice) becomes a slight obstacle only in the area of different timezones making one player game at 8 pm and the other at noon.
2. It allows you to draw from a larger pool of old school gamers
All of us using OOP rules systems, particularly those of us in out-of-the-way or non-gaming areas, have experienced the pain of attempting to locate a group (more than two) of other gamers who not only play the GAME you want, but the EDITION you are interested in...all within the same area (say, an hour's drive) from where you live. While those of us who play in a large population center like the DFW area are better off, it still took awhile before I was able to locate enough gamers for a face to face group (a group that didn't play 3.5, basically). Using Skype, your pool increases quite a bit. It's especially a godsend for one of our current members (who is stuck in SE Missouri and has looked in vain for months after being relocated for a group to join).
3. It allows you to have a regular time and place to meet
I have a great face to face group, consisting of other old timers who love old school gaming...but due to commitments and distance that needs to be traveled (everyone involved must drive from 15-45 minutes to reach my place) we only meet once a month (if that). Skype allows you, from the comfort of your own home, to meet at a regular time every week because the travel time is nil. So far both of the games I've had using Skype met regularly once a week like clockwork. As a bonus, if the game runs over to say 2 am (as mine have) there are no inner monologues concerning how long it's going to take to drive home, or if you should have that last beer before driving, or if you can game any longer because you have work tomorrow...because as soon as the game ends, you shut off the computer and roll into bed. Less wasted travel time means more time to game....!
4. It allows minimal preparation time
No minis, no maps, no setup...You just turn on the computer, fire up Skype, connect everyone, and start gaming. I keep all my gaming info in a pile on my desk, although a lot of it is also on my computer. Rather than having to print out long descriptive passages, lists of treasure, character sheets, spell descriptions, etc...I can just cut and paste from my files or a pdf and email the player. For my recent game, I scanned in maps of the area and emailed them out to everyone. I also put together character sheets using the old 2E core rules and expansion cd roms, and email those also. For a gaming area we use Gametable, which has a graph paper grid, dice roller, and drop and draggable props like trees, monsters, etc.
While I dearly love using my collection of painted lead minis (some classics from the late 70s), my dwarven forge wall sets, my giant battleboards, piles of snacks and drinks, and my cool looking dice, it's fun to have my preparation time consist of turning on the computer and getting comfortable in my chair.
5. It will allow older gamers to participate no matter what their future lifestyle
My wife and I have toyed with the idea of "Living the RV lifestyle" on occasion, to the point of actually pricing and scoping out different "homes on wheels". I don't know if it's something we would do for a long time, but even a few years could be a crimp in my gaming schedule. Probably not a bunch of RV driving couples out there that have fond memories of their elven warriors tacking B2. Not with Skype...it would be as easy as finding a wireless connection (which are becoming more and more ubiquitous) to hook up and enjoy your gaming group. Not to mention, as we get older, physical barriers may prevent us from gaming more than we realize. Skype would also be a godsend to the handicapped, bedridden, disabled, and those of us that might retire to more inaccessible locales (say, the hill country or backwoods of Texas) where face to face gaming would be darn near impossible on a weekly basis.
6. Skype is easy to set up and use
I'm a total computer Luddite, and I was able to not only install Skype and us it but instruct others in it's use. all that is required is some sort of microphone (most modern computers have it built in; my older model has a very cheap plug in version that sounds fine) and to download Skype. We use a online gaming client called Gametable (there are may of these, of different types and complexity) which allows me to draw maps on graph paper or roll dice which everyone I'm talking to can see. There's absolutely nothing to it..it's totally intuitive and simple to use, even with a group. There are slight technical snafus every once in awhile, but none have ever proven anything but a minor nuisance.
7. Skype could become a successful way to demonstrate old systems or newer simulacrums
Maybe you meet a bunch of people in a chatroom online that always wanted to play 1E, or OD&D, or B/X D&D, but they have never met a DM with the rulebooks, or anyone else interested in using an OOP system. Maybe you want to run a Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry campaign, but none of your present group (or no one in the area) is even slightly interested. Skype allows you to go online, recruit a few volunteers, and be gaming in mere minutes. This works even better if you have a guilty thrill (say, Gamma world or Star Frontiers) that is really obscure and impossible to find anyone to play except that dude in Australia and the other in Seattle.
I don't know what Skype will look like in the future (or what it will be called), but it's given me a lot of hope for my gaming needs as I get older. I know that whatever happens, as long as I remain in touch with my gaming buddies from the past, or join an online forum like Dragonsfoot or The Acaeum where like minded people meet, I will be able to game online for as long as I can talk. Whether I end up on a ranch in the Panhandle, a nursing home on the coast, or driving across America in an RV, I'll be able to fire up the computer, get online, and game!
Anyone else successful in using Skype to game old school online?
Friday, September 11, 2009
Yet, when released in 1987, the original Forgotten Realms boxed set was firmly ensconced in the 1E game rules and mindset. It's my thesis that taken alone, with only the very few pre-2E products (the supplements FR1-6, plus module N5 and perhaps even the City System boxed set) is a pretty solid sandbox setting for old schoolers. Reading and using the above materials, I find it hard to believe that a lot of the complaints about the Forgotten Realms hold up. I know when first introduced, we started 1E campaigns based in the Moonshae isles with nothing but the boxed set, FR1 and FR2 to back us up, and it felt more like a sandbox setting than almost anything I've played since.
Complaint #1: It's second edition!
No, actually, the products above are all firmly 1st edition, and have a 1st edition feel and mindset. Ed Greenwood ran a 1E campaign, and most of the material presented in the first few supplements (and all of the boxed set) is from his original notes and campaign. Now, FR is not Greyhawk....it's more explicitly a FANTASY setting rather than the quasi-post war European/medieval setting of the WOG. Like Runequest, the FR posits a more fantasy milieu than the WOG's very much human-centric setting, not to mention WOG'sfirm boundaries between countries and regions, and "ghettoization" of the demi-humans into their own firmly established realms. FR is actually much more wide open, kitchen sink, dare I say, "SANDBOX" oriented than the firmly established pecking order of the WOG's setting.
That the FR setting was chosen as the "face" of the new AD&D 2E rules set has no effect on that which came before; the eventual examination, codification, and over-development of the setting in the wake of 2E was yet to come. As most old schoolers have read little that TSR released post-Gygax (more later), it's not surprising they would lump most of the FR setting into "Second Edition" and not realize the first couple of years were 1st edition material.
Complaint #2: It's too "Fluffy" and not grim and gritty enough
I would argue that as written, the FR is a pretty darn mirthless place. An entire country full of powerful evil wizards (Thay) seeking to subjugate their neighbors; an evil god roaming the Moonshae Isles; "The Savage North" well named because hordes of orcs and barbarians lurk around every mountain (with "Hellgate Keep", and entire city given over to demons and their ilk, as it's centerpiece); an entire evil organization (The Zhentarim) threatening to take over the Dalelands from it's center of evil, the city of Zhentil Keep; Elves, a powerful force for good, leaving the continent in droves to return to their homeland of Evermeet (leaving behind a gigantic ruined elven city full of nasties); a civil war ongoing in the country of Tethyr; an entire country run by a merchant council (this may be the most bonechilling of all!), and the supposedly placid Dalelands themselves just recovering from a nasty civil war (Lashan's Folly). Not to mention dangers only hinted at in the original boxed set. To me, this passage in FR5 The Savage North (written by the estimable Paul Jaquays) seems to put the lie to "fluffy" as a perspective to life in the North:
Though it has been centuries since the last orc invasion, there is still constant strife. Barbarians harass merchants,travelers, and towns; the seas are filled with Northmen pirates; the demon forces of Hellgate Keep assault the east; and two wars have marred the land in recent years. Luskan, now a fierce merchant city known to harbor (and support) pirates, wages war with the island realm of Ruathym over an actof piracy against a Luskan merchant ship; and to the far north, in Icewind Dale beyond the Spine of the World, the Ten Towns are slowly rebuilding after being nearly destroyed by the monstrous forces of Akar Kessell.
I would argue the "fluffiness" of the FR came later, after the Powers That Be decided to turn the FR into less a sandbox and more an "adventurer friendly" (or player centric as some have said). Heck, just compare the spare yet intriguing description of Waterdeep in FR1 compared to the bloated and over the top portrayal in 1994's remake Box set City of Splendors. Waterdeep turns from a somewhat sinister fantasy city with lots of dark alleys and dangerous inhabitants to the Disneyland of Faerun.
Complaint #3: The move from WOG to FR is a shift from a DM-centric to Player-centric model
I have no doubt this is what eventually happened, with the numerous and unending handbooks, supplements and compendiums. However, the original FR does NOT support this view. It can be seen as a really well written sandbox for both players and DMs, but initially, the DM is given a lot to work with. Remember, only a handful of products (Boxed set, FR1-6, N5, and City System) were put out to support the FR before 2E. Of these, one describes the setting in very bare terms, gives a couple of sample adventures, a smattering of campaign specific info (the gods of Faerun, the calendar, timelines, characters, etc), a paragraph or two about most countries...the barest of necessities to run a campaign there. FR1 deals with the city of Waterdeep (and is actually less meaty and detailed than, say, Midkemia's Jonril or Tulan, Runequest's Pavis, or Warhammer's Middenheim); FR2 the Celtic flavored Moonshae Isles; FR3 the odd triumvirate of Amn, Calimshan, and Tethyr south of the Northlands; FR5 the north, and FR6 The lands east of Thay and surrounding (FR4, The Magister, is an excellent sourcebook of new magic items, spells and tidbits).
Notice what is missing....no details about the Dalelands or Cormyr, seemingly too of the most advantageous locales for starting an adventuring party. That's because in the original boxed set, a page or two is spent on delivering some basic info about the Dalelands and Shadowdale, Cormyr, Myth Drannor and other interesting locations....because that was ENOUGH info to use for a campaign setting! Unlike later publications, you weren't beat over the head with detail after detail, and the development of these areas was left to the DMs (and Players) imagination. In the first few supplements, many possible settings for adventure (Waterdeep, The Moonshaes, the South, the North, Thay's neighbors) are developed to the slight extent that they can be expanded upon by a diligent DM
Complaint #4 : The Forgotten Realms was a slap in the face to Gary
What can you say? There are a LOT of old school guys that never again bought an item from TSR or WOTC after the way EGG was tossed out back in the 80s. I have to think Ed Greenwood and the Forgotten Realms were not remotely responsible, like any of us would turn down having our homebrew campaign world be the face of TSR at the time (and if you say otherwise, unless you were a personal friend of EGG like Frank Mentzer, take it somewhere else because you are a fucking liar). However, the FR did take on the "face" of the movement to toss Gary, and suffered among the old school because of this.
Like 2E hatred, dislike of the Forgotten Realms is rooted in deep-seated animosity that has nothing to do with the setting (or system). Sandy Peterson, Dave Hargraves, Paul Jaquays, Steve Marsh, and Steve Perrin could have gotten together and created the next setting and system of TSR, and it would have been spit on and derided by the same group of grogs. I find most FR-haters have no (or very little) working knowledge of the original setting except for the buzz word of "Elminster" (who started out a bit NPC character in the original setting) and aren't typically qualified to comment on whether or not it's any good; the circumstances of EGG's ouster are too ugly and painful for such to ever accept anything that came after. Suffice to say from someone who has all the FR releases (good and bad) from 1987 to the bitter end in 1999, 1E Forgotten Realms is an entirely different beast from that which came afterwards, and quite compatible with what any of us would want in a sandbox-type setting.
Complaint #5: Elminster!
...was barely a factor in the original release. He only became a nuisance later on; he's a shadowy and non-essential NPC figure in the original boxed set, and the narrator of the tour of the Moonshaes in FR2, But basically his character has little or no effect in gameplay. Mordenkainen and his bunch by comparison are scene-stealers of the highest order in the WOG setting.
Here's our original introduction to Elminster in the FR boxed set; would it have stayed so vague. Hell, he sounds like a powerful but harmless old coot you'd love to have a brew with:
Shadowdale and the Known Planes
26th level magic-user
The exact age of the sage Elminster is unknown and his year of birth unrecorded. It is suspected he learned his magical arts at the feet of Arkhon the Old, who died in Waterdeep over 500 years ago, and was in Myth Drannor near that magical realm's final days. The Sage currently makes his abode in the tiny farm community of Shadowdale, living in a two-story house overlooking a fishpond with his aide and scribe, Lhaeo. Elminster may be the most knowledgable and well-informed individual in the realms, though thismay be only his own opinion, it is often voiced in his discussions. His areas of specialization are the Realms and its people, ecology of various creatures, magical items and their histories, and the known planes of existence. Elminster no longer tutors nor works for hire, save in the most pressing cases.Many of his former students and allies include some of the most powerful good individuals in the realms, including the Lords of Waterdeep, the Simbul, ruler of Aglarond, the group known as the Harpers, and many powerful wizards and sorceresses.
Notice all the "mights", "maybes" and "suspecteds" strewn around there. Elminster as created could be as useful, or useless, as you wanted. Hell, he lives behind a fishpond and is called a "sage" instead of a wizard...the dude might just be a 7th level mage with a good publicist for all we know!
Likewise, the prominence of NPC's such as the Seven Sisters, Knights of Myth Drannor, Khelben Blackstaff and others is only hinted at. Using the broad guidelines of the original set, they are merely fascinating and possibly useful background characters instead of world-changing entities. Much more interesting, IMO, are the brief character sketches we are given in the NPC section of the FR boxed set. What kind of interesting scenarios does the below character conjure up just reading Greenwood's evocative description:
7th level thief
This dark-haired, nondescript young man now lives quietly in Selgaunt, where he arranges for certain people to be (willingly) hidden or transported to safety or (less willingly) kidnapped and held for ransom. Flame works with a small band of trusted aides, including at least magical powers (3rd-5th level).
Flame can be contacted through the Green Gauntlet inn on Selgaunt's eastern docks. Flame originally operated as an arsonist in Selgaunt, until a combined force of leading mages and clerics in the city convinced him of the error of his ways (via a series of flame strikes and similar mishaps). After a brief period of self-exile while this "heat" died down, Flame does a quieter business in town, and stays wary of both magicusers and clerics.
What I like about this description, which is true of a lot of the material in the boxed set and the first few supplements, is that Flame is shown as a mover and shaker baddie, yet he's only 7th level. The power inflation of characters evident in future releases is not part of the system yet....a 7th level thief can be seen as the head of a evil network and not be laughed out of the room.
Complaint #5: Waaaaauggggh!
Ok, just fill in the typical bitch and moan fest of any grognard who doesn't have a clue the Forgotten Realms started out at 1E, much less any useful information past 1984 or so dealing with AD&D. Most of the time the complaints don't make a lot of sense, once again because the person making them hasn't read the material. The Forgotten Realms, IMO, was never about the old-schoolers anyway; such a dramatic and different break from the stodginess of the WOG was intentional I believe. Yes, there are OLD old timers that moan and bitch about how EGG's WOG doesn't hold a candle to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor or Hargreave's Arduin, so in a way the cycle just continued through to Greenwood's Forgotten Realms.
It would be intriguing to have seen what would have happened had something like Dark Sun, Spelljammer, or Planescape (or even Keith Baker's Eberron) had ended up being the "face" of 2E in place of the Forgotten Realms. I doubt the animosity for the setting would be present had it stopped being published in 1990 (say, after the Forgotten Realms hardback) in lieu of some other "hot" gameworld. With only the products above to go on, I suspect the Forgotten Realms would be a rather quaint and quite well-thought of setting for 1E and beyond.
If I get time I'll go over all the 1E material for the FR....some real gems there!
Saturday, June 13, 2009
June 5-7 saw the first annual North Texas RPG Con come to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and it was a resounding success. Dedicated to old school gaming, this micro-con saw 55 attendees journey into original dungeon adventures by such classic DMs as Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask and Rob Kuntz, as well as “young guns” Matt Finch (creator of Swords & Wizardry), Jon Hershberger (Converter of Goodman’s DCC line to 1E versions), Mike Stewart (Castles & Crusades), Allan Grohe (Greyhawk scholar extraordinaire), and Al Silcock (crazy brit with the Tegel Manor fixation). With fourteen events over the course of the weekend, everyone had a great time experiencing OOP D&D gaming at it’s finest. The final tally was nine 1E games, two OD&D games, one Holmes basic, one S&W, and one 3.5 game (which actually was the longest run session at the con, taking place from 6 pm Friday night to 5 am Saturday morning!). Especially gratifying was seeing many of the 3.5 players engaging in 1E and other games the rest of the weekend, proving that most differences in editions are merely cosmetic and provide no real barrier to gaming enjoyment.
The two biggest thrills for me were the release of the NTRPG logo version of Goodman Games 4E 2009 con module C9 Tomb of the Blind God, and the debut of Black Blade Publishing’s initial 1E conversion of the DCC line, DCC #7 The Secret of Smuggler’s Cove (conversion by Jon Hershberger and Allan Grohe, and also with the NTRPG logo). Both sold briskly, and the possible conversion of every Dungeon Crawl Classic to 1st edition by BBP is pretty incredible news for the old school community. These guys have put it on the line by releasing genuine old school product, down to the classic blue ink maps (redone from the DCC originals), and anyone that says they support old school gaming that doesn’t throw a few bucks their way is a poser at best and a liar at worst. If this endeavor succeeds, it will signal a legitimate interest in adventures for OOP gaming systems by a 1st tier publisher. Everyone needs to purchase at least one just to give these guys props. www.black-blade-publishing.com
One thing that the NTRPG Con has proven to me is that the old school can support regional mini-cons if the time and effort is taken to promote the event as well as gather guys like Frank, Tim and Rob to run games. Honestly, we lost money on the thing (mostly due to the insistence of Doug Rhea to make as many events as possible free to promote the event) but the actual putting together of the event itself, including pining down special guests Frank, Tim, Rob, Jason Braun, Paul Jaquays and Dennis Sustare, took merely a few months. With an entire year to plan the next one, things are already getting bigger and better with a probably hotel with four times the gaming area!
I would love to see endeavors like the NTRPG Con be repeated across the US, in smaller venues that cannot support a full-fledged convention yet have nearby gamers who want to support systems and gaming styles other than the latest flavor from WOTC. We had attendees from the UK, Canada, California, Ohio, Illinois, Delaware, Missouri, Tennessee and elsewhere drive and fly to get here, which is pretty impressive for a con not boasting any major attractions except for guaranteed authentic old school gaming. We hope to double and triple our numbers next year as word gets around among the community…..and if you didn’t make it, check out the photos and video at the official NTRPG Con website: http://www.ntrpgcon.com/
Thursday, May 21, 2009
I’ve done my own tiny spin on this when I created my homebrew campaign world many years ago. My ideas aren’t as intriguing as Noisms, because they aren’t universals, but I think I did a pretty good job in some cases of going beyond the stereotypes to put a new perspective on certain demi-humans. Instead of a universal, I tried to either take a stereotype of the race and intensify it, or play against type and player expectations. At the time I came up with these, I was especially tired of the seemingly writ in stone way of playing certain demi-humans...everyone was playing their halfling like a Dragonlance Kender, or the 1000th incarnation of the gruff, axe wielding salt of the earth dwarven warrior. Today, I would probably hew closer to Noism's type of philosophy if I was give a do over, but these outlines served my purpose. Here are my demi-human “quirks”:
In my world, Halflings are basically “real world” gypsies, and perceived as such by all other races. They have no permanent homes (no “hobbitowns” in my world), tend to travel in large groups and settle on the outskirts of a community, then make themselves unwanted by stealing and grifting from the populace and then packing up one night and disappearing, leaving an unholy mess where their camp was...despoiling nature and civilized society both. They are distrusted by all other races (no one, for example, will swear an oath with or trust a promise from a halfling) and have adapted by becoming a race of glorious vagabonds (they are roughly based on Irish Travellers, look it up if you aren’t familiar with the group). Halflings are often sailors, because this allows them to travel and escape unfortunate situations quickly, and some of the most feared pirate captains in Azura are halfling rogues (with a large complement of bloodthirsty family members making up most of the crew).
The Elven race has been involved in a centuries long battle with the northern barbarians, and their race is dying out as the barbarians have been slowly winning this war by attrition (humans breed far faster than the elves). As a result, elves are resigned to extinction, and have a very depressing outlook on life (both theirs and others)…their observations and comments are fatalistic in the extreme. They are also extremely warlike, and very few elves live beyond middle age as it is considered their birthright to die in battle against barbarian hordes, taking as many of the hated humans as possible with them. All their great achievements are not in art, poetry, or music….but the art of war, and their blades, bows and especially warships are considered the best in the world. Their one advantage in the war, magic, has even taken this branch as they have developed many new combat spells for use in the battles. Art, music and poetry are looked at as frivolous and useless….unless it can be used in the war, all other abilities are considered superfluous. Every elf at sometime in his life is expected to serve in the elven military for at least one “season”; failure to answer the call of his “house” will cause a elf to become outcast…not only to be shunned by his people, but killed on sight if his status is known!
Unlike the elves, the Dwarven race of Azura is a flourishing one, as their future is full of hope. With only the race of Duergar and Derro to fight with for underground space and resources, in the last millennia their numbers have grown exponentially and their culture has entered a renaissance age of discovery and creation. Dwarven artisans are well known for the incredible statues and busts they create, and in the community being an artist is considered just as important as any other profession. While they dislike most other races except for gnomes (who they live with and share gods with), they are not gruff, rude or unruly towards either elves or man (they actually feel a bit sorry for elves, although they would never admit it, and have conceded the world above to humans as the best of several bad choices). They have other cultural quirks: there are no female dwarven leaders, adventurers or clerics (it is unheard of in their society for a dwarven female to leave the Clanhood; few dwarven females have ever been seen outside of a dwarven city). Dwarven females are housewives and mothers only, and rarely must deal with issues outside of home and hearth. Dwarves who leave the Clanhood to “adventure” are considered insane by “normal” dwarves and completely shunned, to the extent that they are not even allowed to worship Moradin and are “excommunicated” from the faith (since Moradin tells his children that above all they must serve clan, family and community). These outcasts have their own deity, the dwarven god of wanderers, and have been known to mock or ridicule any dwarves openly worshipping Moradin (leading to ugly scenes on many occasions in the surface world between exiles and representatives of one clanhold or another).
Gnomes are the ultimate adaptors; they co-exist with dwarves, and act as the scholars and teachers in dwarven communities. They also serve this purpose in large human communities on the surface, often serving as sages, historians, or librarians. Gnomes have an insatiable curiosity concerning the past, and will often join expeditions for the hope of learning a bit of historical knowledge (giving them great status in the gnomish community; the leaders are always the most intelligent and well-read, and they have no concept of a dynastic rulership by lineage). Gnomes are ever adaptable, worshipping dwarven, gnomish and human gods in equal measure, with no animosity between those of different religious beliefs. Gnomes seldom take gold or gems as payment for service: books, scrolls, and any sort of written history are considered payment far more valuable. Some of the most powerful mages in Azura are gnomes, and they excel in any field of magic equally. Gnomes are the only race to get along with both elves (the elves respect their knowledge of history, especially relating to warfare) and halflings (the little folk amuse the gnomes, who are usually serious in all other aspects).
Nothing earthshattering here, and certainly not as intriguing as taking a otherwise accepted universal and standing it on it’s head. But I find it does give an “experienced” roleplayer a welcome change from playing a grumpy dwarf, frivolous halfling or haughty elf. I also like it as it casts aside player expectations about how a race is "supposed" to act; woe onto the clueless PC who insults the "flighty" elf at the bar, or trusts the cute halfling lass serving drinks. The elf is probably a war veteran liable to beat the tar out of the PC with his bare hands for any insults to himself or his house; the halfling will take the PC for a ride when he realizes the "rescue mission" he was duped into taking to save the halfling's sister is instead a set up that lands him in a mansion with a (planted) bloody knife in his back pocket and a dead thieves' guild member on the floor in front of him, throat cut.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Since my last post on this subject, we've added Rob Kuntz to our guest lineup, the co-dm of Castle Greyhawk and the creator of Castle El Raja Key and the World of Kahlibrun. Rob has agreed to run two ERK delves but space is VERY limited! Rob joins old school luminaries Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask , and Paul Jaquays in our all star lineup. Needless to say the guests we were able to hook, plus the response, has gone beyond my wildest expectatons. Sign up for games will be at the end of the month, and I expect the spots to go VERY quickly!
There will be lots of old school gaming, some raffles, a BBQ, a tour of Reaper miniatures, and of course lots of fun and fellowship during the mini-con. Check out the site, and if you are in Texas the first weekend in June, come by and meet some of the Giants of the Game.
BTW thanks to James Maliszewski and his shout out for the NTRPG Con on his very excellent blog grognardia (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/)
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum....
I first thought I would give it a try because it's really hard to get my core group of five grown men (including myself) together more than once a month (if that) to game. And sometimes (the last three times, specifically) one has been missing due to obligations outside the game table. So, I thought, let's have a "backup" campaign that is easy and quick to run in case only two show up, or in the case I have unexpected guests want to join in at the table (my present 2E campaign is very plot and character oriented, and it's hard to shoehorn a "one week only" character into the ongoing plotline). Just roll a few dice, arm your character, and it's off to the local megadungeon to kill wandering monsters. It would be great, I could use an existing simulacrum rules set like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry to keep the simplicity, and roll up a bunch of random stuff and link it all together. Everyone would have fun for a few hours getting their characters killed by orcs.
Except, there weren't enough fiddly bits. I love the fiddly bits, the crunchy bits, what have you. Heck, I wanted to play AD&D before I was even through with my first game of Holmes D&D. The tiny spell lists given in basic D&D and the simulacrums weren't enough. 8 spells? How about I add a few....and then why are all the priests the same? I'll have a priesthood of Healing,one of Battle, one of Knowledge. Whoops, they all have to have unique powers, right? Ditto with the mage spell lists. Have to beef it up a bit there too. Of coures, gotta have the fighter and thief. Oh, yeh, and the bard, love bards. Oh, and Rangers and Paladins. What the heck , a Barbarian.
Then I started making the "random" dungeon. Cool, there is a priests stronghold in the first big room? What are they doing there? They are there to heal up and support delvers. Before I knew it, I had a five paragraph writeup of who the priests were, their motives, what they were doing there, their spells, their belongings, their treasure, arghhh!!! Ok, onto the next room down the hall . Goblins? How come they are not that faraway from the priests? Ok, they recently arrived and are engaged in a war of attrition with the priests. Pretty soon....another few paragraphs about the goblins, their leader, their goals, motivations, treasure, why the have bugbear with them...arghhh! This is taking far too long for a random dungeon. Let's skip a few rooms....a fountain? Cool! What does it do? Another few paragraphs...erk.
Ok, this is getting too complicated. Let's concentrate on the city/town nearby. Keep it simple, right? Just need a pre-fab like the city in L1, or...hey, what about Carse? I always wanted to use that. Dang, it's huge! Well, that would make sense, my dungeon backstory would support a large city nearby. But look at all the work involved, I just wanted a small village where the characters could buy equipment...but wouldn't it be more logical to have this city? All the gold coming out of the megadungeon, it would lead to this, right? So much for the easily dropped in Village of Hommlet-type setting....
And thus it came to pass, I realized I am the anti-sandbox DM.
I will say, I did give it a shot, in good faith. I used for my megadungeon the levels of the classic TSR Dungeon Geomorphs (fitted together to make one giant level), I figured that would be a fun inside joke for players if they happened to recognize it, and made my participation minimal (only having to roll for room contents). All the rest of it...not so much. I just couldn't jettison the homebrew rules I've lovingly crafted the last 25 years or so for someone elses system, no matter how brilliant. And as I said, I really love the fiddly bits. So, instead of a simple return to Holmes basic or Labyrinth Lord, I'm back to using my version of 2E. So much for simplicity.
Now, I will say, I am proud of myself for some of my innovations here. I did manage a few easy workabouts, and the rules system actually came together really quickly once I realized I am far too wedded to my own campaign worlds and house rules to jettison them for anything else. I can cut the rules down to but a few pages of essential bits, basically throwing out all the options and sticking to the basics (you swing, you hit or you miss, nothing fancy. Mages throw spells. Thieves do thiefly things. Clerics heal. That).
But I streamlined it down to an odd hybrid I'm going to call "2E/OD&D". Basically, the characters, spells, monsters, etc are all a stripped down form of the 2E game we play and loved for the last 15 years, completely btb. I halved the spells available, kept the class abilities to a bare minimum, and did a few other time saving features that will have character generation down to five minutes, tops. However, except for that, the DM figures everything else out and tells the players what happens. So, keep track of your character abilities, thief skills, spells, etc. Stuff like movement rates, initiative, surprise, encumbrance...not so much. The DM will let you know all that stuff, it won't need to be looked up, and when in doubt I'll just roll the dice to keep the game moving. My goal is to have completely rulebook-less sessions here, and I think it can be done if I pass out spellcards (how many sets of the Wizard and Priest spell card sets do I have floating around, half a dozen?) and print out short "cheat sheets" of character abilities. If a character wants to do something, I'll make a ruling, and we'll roll the dice, no page flipping required. I've been gaming for 30 years now, I trust myself to make on the fly decisions that won't break the game. We very seldom look at the books at this point in my regular game, anyway. As for the rest of it, well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve...I hope
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
One of the reasons so-called "hard news" (newspapers and television) is failing miserably lately (a record number of print publications are going under this year) is because of the immediacy offered in internet news and reporting. Bloggers exemplify this immediacy and their importance is seen daily by the amount of people that now rely on them for their news fix everyday in lieu of "traditional" news sources. Unfortunately, a total cock-up like this is what leads to lots of greybearded types knowingly nodding and saying things like "THATS why you can't trust blogs".
For quite a while the entire lure of blogging was "Anyone can blog" (which often leads to the thought, if you read enough of these, "No, NOT anyone can blog") and traditional media outlets contributed to their own downslide with stuff like the almost constant ridiculous scandals at the New York Times (where they make up more news than they report real news). However, the sort of outpouring of grief and sentiment today for Dave....to only be forcefully stopped as dozens of bloggers backtracked all over the place....is the kind of silly tent-show that makes one wonder how this blogging thing expects to ever be taken seriously.
Wacky opinions about Non Weapon Proficiencies, OD&D vs 1E vs 2E, how 3E became the end of D&D as we know it, and whether Monte Cook is a sell-out or not doesn't mean our types don't do serious commentary on serious subjects...I read insightful comments everyday and respect the hell out of many of the bloggers I read (and recommend anyone I have listed on "My Blog List" in that respect). However, these types of fiascos, while understandable, do nothing but undermine any sort of basic tenets we operate under and cheapen anything serious we have to say. Radio, TV and News 101 in high school teaches the first thing you do before running with a story is to get at least THREE confirmations of your story; Now, I took that class almost 30 years ago so I don't know what the procedure is now (one source that's not drunk, in politics, or named "Wikipedia?). But I'm talking about a solid line of bloggers restating something they read on Wikipedia (the most laughable source of information in the history of the internet) or on someone else's blog with ZERO confirmation...please.
Unfortunately the lure of being the "first" causes a lot of us (and a lot of professionals, mind you: Dewey beats Truman, anyone?) to run with a story before going through the proper channels. And despite what this looks like I'm not hammering the one or ones who originally ran the Arneson story (I'm honestly not 100% sure who it was, anyway); I'm actually a bit more annoyed at the legions of others who ran with the story based on this information or something flimsier. Next time someone in our family dies, or doesn't die, can we please make damn sure we know what we are talking about before running with it?