Friday, April 2, 2021

REVIEW - On Downtime & Demesnes: just what I needed

I bought quite a few LARGE gaming books in the last year or so, but they take some time to read thoroughly. When this landed on my desk, it immediately moved to the top of the list - but it took me a while since I've been so busy actually playing lately!

*****

On Downtime & Demesnes (Basic D&D version)
by Courtney Campbell
Hack & Slash publishing
print and PDF here

Once in a rare while, an RPG supplement comes out that doesn't need doctoring around with, adaptation or fiddle-fucking - it just works. OD&D (hahaha I see what you did there) is one such product.

Courtney Campbell has proved his worth many times over, both on his blog Hack & Slash and his other products on DTRPG. Even if all he ever released was his classic treasure document (which I use constantly) he would still have made a huge contribution to my own gaming table. Before he gutted it, his blog was a tremendous resource for traps, tricks & DM techniques, along with controversial classics like the legendary "Quantum Ogre."

How many times has your player tried to do something and you thought "Huh... where are the rules for that?" What I often find I need in a gaming book are not more combat rules or magic items but guidelines, tables, sub-systems and procedures. The kind of things I usually have to write myself, ad-hoc when the situation calls for it. I have always had to range far and wide across blogs, published books, pdfs and my own customised rules to cover the situations dealt with in this book. Now Courtney gives us the total package at a single stroke! In a way, the book is like a best-of collection from one man's gaming blog all put together in a nice & usable package. It is accompanied by plenty of Courtney's hand-drawn black & white artwork, which brings a charming '80s 1st-edition feel to the whole thing.

With OD&D we get an extensive list of downtime activities, domain-management rules, options, tables, ideas and hooks. Want to build a castle? Clear a hex? Buy & sell trade goods? Learn a new skill? Find rumours? Whatever it is, Courtney has your back.

Carousing. Healing. Rumours. Bragging. Buying fancy clothes. Gambling. Buying influence! Building your own vehicles! Simple rules for magic item creation and spell research!! Even some good rules for ARENA FIGHTS by Jove, and a few sample arenas to have them in!!! In true B/X house-rule fashion, almost everything is handled with a 2d6 reaction-style roll. Usually on an 9+ something good happens, but this varies between sub-systems. 

I used this book in my home game the week I bought it. Vuk Thuul the oracle sacrificed an animal to his mysterious "divine patron" (a demon lord, hahaha). I had no idea what would happen, and then I cracked open OD&D and noticed there are rules for exactly that!

In addition to rules, guidelines and tables, great ready-to-use content is sprinkled throughout. Whenever Courtney gets specific, his imagination blasts off the page. Sections include "Example Mercenaries & Companies" (5 pages of juicy, weird NPCs I would run any day), "Strange Funeral Rites," "Dungeon Doors," "Strange Inheritances" (could easily kick off your next campaign), "Random Items for Sale at a Bazaar," "Strange Pet Stores" (OK, not sure when I'll use that) and several quirky, memorable sample villages.

I also like the lists of "100 obnoxious peasants" and "100 noble patrons," written by Chris Tamm of the legendary Elfmaids & Octopi blog. This section was cited in Melan's review and he didn't seem to like it much. They definitely bear the familiar feel of Tamm's work, but I don't mind that at all and will for sure use them. Just reading them sent me into fits of chuckling as I imagined the bizarre, dangerous and funny antics these NPCs might bring to my game. Would I use these tables every single time? No, but that ain't no crime.

Campbell draws from a wide range of wisdom here in developing these rules. Actually, I think he doesn't cite his sources enough. Would it be too much to ask for a mention of the 1st edition DMG(!!!), or maybe Jeff's Gameblog for the carousing rules[1]? Maybe a lot of this stuff is covered in ACKS, which he does list in the bibliography? (I haven't read it). Also, this book does duplicate some material you probably already have, especially in the AD&D dungeon master's guide - in fact, it could probably be thought of as a B/X DMG. I don't mind too much. Having almost every fucking thing I could want to run the "Greater D&D" in one book is more than worth it.

One other complaint I'd level at OD&D is that it covers such a tremendously wide range of material, sometimes it doesn't do so with the depth I'd like. The Influence rules could have been delved into more deeply, or maybe explained better. And the "carousing mishaps" table has 10 entries of familiar stuff - compare them to Ben's vivid table here. Ultimately this is a minor complaint, this book was clearly written so it can be used in anybody's game, and a DM who wants to expand these tables to suit his own setting obviously can.

I bought this in pdf and after paging through it once, I immediately ordered a hard copy. It's going right in between Realms of Crawling Chaos and Labyrinth Lord on my old-school gaming shelf, it is that good. If you want to run a sandbox game (and if you don't... what's the deal?) you will definitely make use of this. If you play just about any old-school game or retroclone, there is now one less reason to bring your 1st edition DMG along to game night anymore, just to reference the rules on sages for the twentieth time. Just as well, since mine is crumbling before my very eyes!


Don't waste your RPG lunch money. The marketplace is crammed with unimaginative dreck, impossible-to-run adventure path railroads, retro trade dress porn, kickstarter money grabs and pretentious glossy award-baiting. Buy something you can actually use at the table for once. Who the fuck says the OSR is dead? This is as OSR as it gets. 

9 eccentric henchmen out of 10. An almost flawless victory. 


*****

[1] - Jeff's "Party like it's 999" post is not the first time carousing is mentioned (Dragon magazine covered this in the old days), but it is the benchmark for the rules that OSRmen play with today. 

Courtney's new book Artifices, Deceptions & Dilemmas is out now I think, so watch for a review of that one too. In the meantime, get fucking hyped with this:



Saturday, March 13, 2021

REVIEW - Knock! #1: miss me with that nonsense


KNOCK! #1
Edited by Eric Nieudan
Layout by Oliver Revenu
Contributors: see below
Published by The Merry Mushmen
get the pdf here


Knock! is a new OSR zine I somehow discovered on Kickstarter last year. I hardly ever back anything, but the blurbs for this product were too compelling to resist:

"It has everything you’d want from an old school slash adventure gaming publication: articles about the history of Dungeons & Dragons, reflections about genre and gameplay, some clever rules, a bunch of maps, tons of random tables and lists, 7 new classes, 7 new monsters, and 3 complete adventures. If you’re reading this, some of the names below will ring a bell, or five: Emmy Allen, Benjamin Baugh, Joe Brogzin, Caleb Burks, Brooks Dailey, Nicolas Dessaux, Paolo Greco, James Holloway, Anthony Huso, Arnold K, Ethan Lefevre, Gabor Lux, Bryce Lynch, Fiona Maeve Geist, Chris McDowall, Ben Milton, Gavin Norman, Patrick Ollson, Graphite Prime, Stuart Robertson, Jack Shear, Jason Sholtis, Skullfungus, Sean Stone, Chris Tamm, Daniel Sell, and Vagabundork."

As is my wont, I sent KS the money and promptly forgot about it. A couple months ago it arrived in my mailbox and I excitedly packed it in my overnight bag for a work trip, not knowing what I was in for...

To start with, the book looks tremendous. Revenu needs to get some more work, right now. The print quality is high, the colours are so bold & vivid they fairly jump off the page. I don't think any of my other gaming books come close to being so brilliant. Even LotFP doesn't look this good. Each bloody article has individual fonts, colour schemes and a layout all its own. This must have been a huge undertaking, and I can't lavish enough praise on the zine's aesthetic. Even the damn dust jacket has a whole adventure on it (which Bryce reviewed here, saving me the time).

But how does it play? Well, I am no expert, but I cannot see how I would ever use 90% of this zine. In fact, Nieudan cops to this on the first page, where he writes

"This first issue is a bet: a bet on your interest in owning content you may have read before, collected in this dense volume for posterity and for prep sessions."

May have??
Dude, had I read half this zine before this Kickstarter was ever dreamed of.

All, and I do mean all of the content by the heavy-hitters, those who often singly but definitely combined made this an auto-buy for me (Arnold K, Gabor Lux, Daniel Sell, Anthony Huso, Graphite Prime, Chris Tamm, Jason Sholtis, Emmy Allen) turned out to be existing material from their blogs! I am not exaggerating. I don't need to pay some guy to give me a glossy, high-colour version of these articles. I had that shit bookmarked for years, my son.

Do you not already read these folks' blogs? Have you guys not heard of the OSR links to wisdom? You know that people have been updating that page for something like a decade now?

Furthermore, this book is simply not user-friendly - not during prep, nor at the table. This is where the Mushmen's obsession with cool layouts works against them (or would work against them, if I thought they had actually made this book to be used). The articles are more easily read on the blogs where they were originally posted, and the tables (except for a few very short ones) are fucking colossal, undifferentiated blocks of text! It comes across more as an art project than a tool or game document.

As I read through this zine recognizing article after article, a growing sense of indignation rose within me - I felt I'd been had. Like Don Draper trying to blend in with some hippies, Knock! throws out the "right" talking-points but none of them come together. Halfway through reading, it all I could think of was Geeks, MOPs and Sociopaths. It all comes across as if Nieudan woke up one day, read someone's "What is the OSR?" blog post, and decided to create a zine on that basis. The articles are all over the map, and while many of them are tremendous and useful CLASSICS individually, there is nothing connecting them together which might justify buying a bunch of shit I already have, no 'editorial voice,' no curation that might be considered a value-add.

I can't get over one question: who the fuck is this zine for

Where are the supply-demand curves for people who haven't read these articles already, but are willing to spend *checks notes* fifty Canadian dollars on a glossy OSR zine? What does that Venn diagram look like? Clearly, I am not the target audience. I suspect that most people who buy Knock! #1 will read through it, say "hey, nice" and put it on their gaming shelves where it shall rest, un-referenced, for many a year. Am I all alone in being displeased with that?

The answer of course was available from the beginning which, paradoxically, only adds to my feeling of being hoodwinked. As if the Mushmen were saying "hey man, you didn't read the fine print! Not our fault." 

Knock! is exactly what it says: a bric-a-brac of OSR material. 

According to dictionary.com, bric-a-brac is: "Miscellaneous small articles collected for their antiquarian, sentimental, decorative, or other interest." That description fits this zine precisely. An assortment of stuff, packaged in an attractive form and not especially useful. Meant to be put on the mantelpiece or sideboard, for kitschy display purposes.


4/10 well-read blog posts. Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining. 


*****

(Having said all the above, if the Knock! fellows want to use one of my blog posts in an upcoming issue, I will delete this review.)

Now, a little palate-cleanser:




Thursday, December 10, 2020

Play Report: Death Love Doom [LotFP]

I have been writing these play reports for my online Labyrinth Lord group, set around the City-State of the World Emperor. Since I spend so much time on them, I thought I'd share them here for everyone to peruse. This session actually took place last year, before we switched to online play a few months ago. This weekend we're also returning to Land's End - the fun never stops.

As one of my players said the other day: "your world has more shit to do than the real one right now!"

*****


2nd-12th Meadowlark, 4433


Characters

Aladar IX, M-U 1
"Sir Karavon" aka Tullius Jr, fighter 1
Lothos the Undesirable, elf 1
Eric Withakay, cleric 1
Meep, dwarf 1
Veigar Thricescarred, fighter 1


Leaving Drydale
(see last session)

After their torchlight exhumation, the gang re-interred the corpse of James Blake with a mocking note, taunting whoever might come searching afterwards for his journal and The Great Devourer.

"Meet on the 10th of Blackmoon in Viridistan. Under the Grand Red Statue, look for the man with twelve lit candles."



After recollecting their previous adventures, they decided to follow up a lead at the port of Targnol a few days travel away:

"The rich merchant Philotheos Sten hasn't been around lately. His large estate lies on the edge of town, and nobody has been seen coming or going for several days. Some fear the worst while others remark on the man's riches, accumulated through a lifetime of trading. A few thugs are going to case his place soon. You might be able to beat them to it and see what kind of loot is lying around!"

The port of Targnol was a sprawling mess of crumbling wooden buildings packed with Imperial sailors on leave, dockworkers, merchants, thieves and cutthroats. Notable buildings included a grand temple to Thoth and a mysterious black pyramid containing a sleeping sorceress within a glass coffin. The town offers a standing reward for anyone who can reawaken this mysterious ebony-skinned woman.

Not having an interest in that, the gang met with a local contact of Two-Faced Humphrey's (he had business back in Viridisan, and couldn't accompany them). The man was a sullen and scarred Viridian named Komang. He gave them some basics, and a few trips around town asking questions filled in the blanks:

- Philotheos and his family hadn't been seen in two weeks, but there had been no surge of activity suggesting they were moving house or taking an extended vacation. The current theory was sudden illness or foul play of some kind.
Old Graham's Gang, a strange and mysterious crew of all-child thieves from the capital about whom rumours have swirled for years, were casing the place. They planned to raid it for valuables the next night. Komang offered to put the party in touch with them, but this offer was declined.
- Philotheos kept no personal guards, for he lived on the edge of town in a rich area patrolled by (notoriously lazy) Imperial troops.

The party pooled their money and bought a wagon and two horses. On the way up to Philotheos' mansion, Eric and "Sir Karavon" drove while the rest hid under some straw in the back, hoping the "knight" and priest would discourage prying eyes or nosy guardsmen.

As night drew down they pulled into the driveway and approached the great mansion. Disdaining to explore the large grounds, "Sir Karavon" knocked on the door and getting no response, opened it. A distant weeping could be heard, but no foes presented themselves.


Charnel Mansion

The party entered the lightless home and progressed through a set of double-doors into a large parlor and dining-room. The place was trashed. Plates and vessels broken, splashes of blood everywhere, and the source of the weeping: a young Viridian girl strung up to the chandelier, her innards hanging out in a bloody mess!


In terrible shape as she was, the girl regained some lucidity after being released from the chandelier. She told them her name was Ariel, and related a strange story:

“One night after dinner, Father told everyone that he had a very special present for Mother. It was a very pretty necklace! But then a big monster and two smaller monsters came out of the necklace! And the big monster told the smaller monsters to get the lovers, and they jumped on Father and Nanny Alba! Then Mother and Grandma started yelling at Father, and everyone ran away! Then Grandma came to get me... and now I’m here.”

The child's injuries were quite severe and the party wasn't sure if they could help her. In the meantime, they explored the dining room and parlour, spotting an oil painting of a newlywed couple with a copper nameplate that read:

Philotheos Sten and Domitilla Sten. Married Sunstrong 17, 4423

Mounted on the wall above the painting were two fine-looking crossed falcatas that looked functional enough. The group took all these items and left Ariel for the moment to continue exploring.

The two other rooms on the main floor turned out to be Philotheos' office and a conservatory. The centrepiece in the conservatory was a grand harp, and three statuettes of dark blue & yellow marble rested on the mantelpiece: a dragon, eagle and nymph. The group took all of these and loaded them into their cart.

In Philotheos' office, Lothos rifled the great oak desk and found stacks of business papers - deeds, shipping manifests, etc. He pocketed a stack to peruse later, along with a fine stiletto in one of the drawers. The group was drawn to the large, shining silvery cube in the back corner which turned out to be an advanced combination safe! Three number-wheels ranged from 1 to 20. After giving it some thought, they fetched the painting of the Stens' wedding-day from their wagon. Guessing that 17 and 8 were important (Sunstrong is the 8th month of the year), they tried a few combinations until hitting upon 17 - 8 - 1. The shining door swung open and revealed Philotheos' hidden fortune!

It was at this time that Lothos thought to consult the mysterious ancient tome in Eric's possession. Pricking his finger, he wrote on the pages in blood, describing the party's situation and what they knew. Oddly, the book had a ready answer! This disaster was likely caused by the gift Philotheos gave his wife. The book identified it as The Necklace of the Sleepless Queen. It was created long ago by someone called the Dead King, to destroy all love in the world.

Perturbed by this news and not wanting to meet Ariel's sadistic grandmother or the "monsters" spawned by the necklace, the party elected to start the mansion ablaze and retreat safely with their wealth. Aladar IX used his Unseen Servant to carry a torch around inside the house while the others barred the door to prevent any aberrations from escaping. They waited until flames were visible from outside, then rode out of Targnol full-tilt, their wagon full of loot.




Return To the Immortal City

On the road home, Lothos consulted the strange blood-drinking tome again, learning its name: Pheldrazash. It claimed to know many other secrets, and was willing to teach him and Aladar IX a spell that would expand their knowledge for free: Call to Familiar Spirit.

Two days' travel from Viridistan, the party approached the Great Wall: a colossal structure a quarter-mile high and 200 feet thick, built by the ancients in the dawning days of the world for reasons unknown to men. Approaching the eastern entrance, called the Moon Gate, they met a farmer on the road who told them a strange tale:

"Not too far from here, a brand-new building has sprung up overnight! It's a great structure in a bizarre foreign style, red stone and dark wood with a peaked black roof and pointed square towers, set back from the road on the edge of the Elsenwood. Travellers say it simply appeared one day with no signs of construction, no work crews, and certainly no negotiations with the elves who make the woods dangerous for honest Imperial folk!"

After hearing that rumour, the gang pressed on towards the City of Spices, glad to be home after their bizarre and harrowing journeys. To move their ill-gotten loot, Lothos travelled to the Otherside district where many of his elven kinfolk live in ghettos, segregated from the larger city. His cousin Darius said he "knew a guy," and a meeting could be arranged at the Plaza of Dark Delights that night. The sullen, cloaked Viridian who met Darius & the party was eager to buy most of their loot - his eyes lit up with greed at the sight of the gold trade bars. He wasn't especially interested in the painting, but kicked in a bit of silver for it as part of the whole deal.


Thousands of silver richer than they had ever been before, the party cast about for something to spend their money on. Someone had heard of a pleasure palace for the rich in the exclusive Cliffside district, called The Sign of Olive & Lotus. Anything could be had there for the right price: fine liquor, exotic foods, high-stakes games of chance, tantalizing companions and strange drugs.

Once again installing "Sir Karavon" in the front of their humble wagon, the group rode up the gates of Cliffside, waving their stolen deeds in the guards' faces. Suitably cowed by the presence of a knight who owned such property, they opened the gates. Following the main Cliffsedge Road, the party espied a beacon in the night. A lone tout, signalling late-night revellers down to his place of business, which turned out to be the very establishment they sought!

The Sign of Olive & Lotus was built right into the side of the cliffs, accessible only by narrow, ancient stair carved into the living rock. The view of Trident Gulf during the day is said to be unparalleled. Checking in cost a princely sum of 200 silvers per person per night, for the cheapest suites and a berth for the horses and wagon! The group was led through sparkling marble hallways by a mute eunuch wearing only a sash of gold lamé. Over carpets made from the skins of striped tigers and snow-white northern wolves, past doorways trimmed in gold leaf with smiling silk-clad houris the party reached their rooms.

With a bit of privacy for the first time in a while, Lothos and Aladar IX ignited the special incenses and herbs they had previously brought and each cast the spell that would summon a spiritual helper to their side: Call to Familiar Spirit.

This done, the gang prepared to party as only those in the Immortal City can...




Enemies Defeated: 
none

Treasure:
3 blue & yellow marble statues
1900 copper coins
633 silver coins
10 gold trade bars
a mound of gold & silver jewellery - necklaces, rings, bracelets, etc
portrait of Philotheos and Domitilla Sten, in frame

Ornate grand harp (planned to sell later)
fine stiletto (Lothos)
2 decorative falcatas (Lothos and Meep)
stack of Philotheos' documents, deeds, etc (Lothos)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Land's End Town Map

Once a staging-point for Imperial military ventures in the region, the town has since shrunk to a fraction of its former population, only farmers and fishermen. Almost all current residents live north of the river in newer adobe buildings, leaving the decaying army barracks-blocks on the south side alone. These decaying buildings can be had for cheap by outlaws, adventurers, eccentrics, and others with a few coins who make it to the last station before the edge of the world.




 The guys have been based out of this town for the entire campaign. After scouring the internet for a small farming village with a river going through the middle (seemed like it would be an easy thing to find...) with no luck, I decided to draw one myself. Came out half-decently I think, thanks to some internet tutorials - enough to fool my players into thinking I downloaded it from somewhere.

You'll notice there is no 7 on the map for "Home." That's because my players haven't picked out which house is theirs yet. Gotta make em do that before we play next, but I'm still working on the next ultra nasty dungeon, which will be a bit complicated and is taking me a long while. In the mean time, enjoy my hand-cramping digital artwork.


*****



Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Play Report: No Salvation For Witches! [LotFP]

The kickoff to my (currently online) Labyrinth Lord game based around the City-State of the World Emperor was last Halloween, when I ran an ostensible one-shot for my regulars and some of their friends who had never gamed before. 

I wrote this report up for all of them to read, and may as well share it with you folks here. Now that we're making progress in this campaign, you can expect other fun material forthwith. 

I also included what I thought would be a fun campaign kickoff, combined with NSFW - the adventure idea at the back of Kelvin Green's Forgive Us, called "Death And Taxes." Mixing these adventures together went pretty well, and of course I had to add in some of my own ideas as well. Later play reports will show that the PCs, in classic fashion, have not pursued ANY of the leads discovered in this session.


*****

NO SALVATION FOR WITCHES


1st Meadowlark, 4433

Characters

Aladar IX, half-elf M-U 1
Tullius Jr, human fighter 1
Lothos the Undesirable, elf 1
Eric Withakay, human cleric 1
Avala, human elementalist 1
Two-Faced Humphrey, human spy 1


Funeral For a Friend

The characters met at the funeral of James Blake, an old army buddy who died under mysterious circumstances. They assembled to pay their respects on the way to Drydale Priory where longstanding rumours suggested heretical activities and/or valuable treasure.

A neighbouring farmer was the only other attendee. He was confused that Bishop Gray hadn't sent at least a junior priest to officiate and worried about Blake's missing 11-year old daughter Deotina. He also mentioned a group of tax collectors had been asking questions, and asked the group to find out anything they could. A search of Blake's home turned up little except his old Legion gear and a scrap of paper torn from his diary about the taxmen. There were signs someone had packed and left in a hurry.

At the caravanserai, the party found human bodies everywhere killed and mutilated in the most horrible ways. The only two people left alive were a terrified, useless traveler named Arrerand and the concussed woman Naniela, who was beyond his power to help. She mumbled and raved about "red lights in the sky... the dancing woman with skin of diamonds" and clutched her bleeding head wound. Eric healed her injury and she became more lucid. The two helpless travelers were interrogated about the tax collectors and recent events but didn't know much. The party sent them on their way.

The priory itself was unreachable, covered by an impassable dome of lambent red light. Leaving it for the moment, the group proceeded to Drydale for clues and found the citizens in the middle of a witch trial! Leading the event was a thin, intense man named Kynnakon. Four women had already been killed and a fifth cried upon the scaffold, pleading for mercy. At the back of the village, a strange glow similar to the red dome could be seen.

Thinking quickly, Eric stepped in and engaged the man in a discussion about witches and their verification. As a man of the cloth his words carried weight on these matters and he convinced the crowd to disperse. Without his mob, Kynnakon was less confident. He released the "witch" Mertysa to the party's care and told them a strange story: six women had passed through towards the priory a few days ago armed and armoured, dressed in strange clothes. Since then all their livestock had died and they blamed witchcraft.

Lothos circled around the village to investigate the red glow. A small red sphere floated at head height, softly glowing. While the townsfolk were distracted he took it in his cloak and rejoined the group, who departed before the crowd's temper could change again. Returning to the priory, the small red sphere crumbled into dust, sympathetically bringing down the giant glowing dome and allowing entry. Unluckily for the elf, the sphere destroyed a few of his possessions as it vanished from the world - including his spellbook!



Inside The Priory

The party entered the grounds, avoiding the church for now. Searching the outbuildings revealed a succession of horrors - women giving birth to mutated children, a man and woman fused together while still alive and a puddle of fast-moving scarlet bile.

Outside the baths, they were greeted by an imposing figure - Sir Karavon, a knight in gleaming white plate mail. He demanded to know their business and claimed to serve the cause of Mistress Orelia. After all his tough talk, battle was inevitable. Lothos sustained a terrible blow from Karavon's greatsword but the group felled him together and stripped the body.

The group had had enough of these horrors. They barricaded the infirmary full of aberrant children and set the roof on fire. While they were debating their next move, Kynnakon arrived on the scene leading a small torch-and-pitchfork mob. The group took up ambush positions, Tullius Jr slipped inside incognito as Sir Karavon while Eric addressed the mob, whipping them into a witch-hunting frenzy.

Inside the church was a whirl of activity: dozens of peasant women dancing in a mad frenzy guarded by five heavily armed foreign women, overseen by two robed & hooded men and an ice-pale Avalonian sorceress in a red sash. Orelia called out to "Sir Karavon," asking the knight for a report. Tullius Jr indicated the angry mob outside and mobilized the warrior-women to battle, remaining indoors at Orelia's side in case of emergency.

Battle was joined in front of the church! The Five Bishops (as they called themselves) guarded the door in a wedge formation, bravely meeting the mob's charge. What they weren't prepared for was the party's vicious ambush: Humphrey ran up behind one for a backstab while Aladar and Lothos peppered them from a safe distance. The Bishops couldn't withstand this assault for long and began a fighting retreat into the church. This turned out to be a mistake, as the mob charged in and held the door open! Things began to happen very quickly. Tullius Jr showed his true colours when he struck Orelia by surprise with his greatsword, nearly killing her in one strike. Retaliation with her magic wand did not have its intended effect. Two-Faced Humphrey ran around to the back and climbed up to a window for a surprise attack. Eric began smashing windows which allowed Lothos, Aladar and Avala to take up firing positions.

In a deft use of magic, Aladar used his Unseen Servant to snatch Orelia's magic wand right from her hand before she could use it again. Tullius' greatsword finished her off after that. With magical support from Avala's earth elementine, a diving attack by Humphrey and a magical grasping fist from Aladar, the two robed figures were destroyed and revealed to be only the flayed skins of men animated by Orelia's witchcraft.

With all opponents defeated, the mob began dragging the dancers off the platform and the party felt the beginnings of a tremor run through the building. Thinking quickly they fled the scene just in time for the church to come crashing down in a blaze of light and magic, killing or wounding all inside! The rubble began to burn, but Eric and Humphrey dragged over a tub of water from the baths, buying everyone time to sift the wreckage, rescue a few townsfolk and recover some valuables and the mysterious book they originally sought.


Exhumation

The smoky priory grounds were visited by a new group - the much-talked-about tax collectors! Their leader was a turbaned Viridian named Irmugar, sent by the Padishah to investigate rumours that Blake had stolen or unreported wealth. They seemed not to know he was dead. The party convinced the taxmen to take the peasant survivors back to Drydale - Irmugar indicated Tullius Jr and agreed the situation was well in hand with a "Knight of the Cockatrice" present. But something else he said got the group thinking...

The adventure ended where it began with the party exhuming James Blake by torchlight. Inside his coffin with his body was a locked oak box. Prying it open revealed a battered knife in an old scabbard, a locket containing a single golden hair, Blake's diary and a strange leatherbound book called The Great Devourer.

Eric meanwhile was perusing the blackened tome he had found in the rubble and touched its faded pages with his bloodstained hands. They blossomed into fresh crimson runes and symbols, while words formed in Imperial: "Greetings. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"


ENEMIES DEFEATED

Charles & Gwendolin
the scarlet bile
Sir Karavon
"The Five Bishops"
Orelia Woolcott
2 animated skin guardians


TREASURE

Sir Karavon's white plate mail & greatsword (Tullius Jr.)
Assorted armour, weapons and ammunition from the Bishops (various)
Orelia's ivory-tipped magic wand (Aladar IX) and red sash (Tullius Jr.)
A mysterious blackened tome (Eric)
Blake's diary (Aladar IX)
The Great Devourer (Lothos)
Locket with a golden hair (Eric)

Silver drinking horn, carved with runes and studded with garnets, slightly scuffed (640 sp)
A silver-gilt radiated brooch ringed with amethysts (1200 sp)
Solid-gold decorative phallus (800 sp)

Treasure value: 2640 sp
Each character gets 440 sp and 490 xp


*****

Don't worry - more Land's End material is in progress. Honestly the biggest obstacle to my blogging is that I'm gaming more often than I'm used to! It's a great problem to have, but one I was unfamiliar with before now.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

E6: Overleveling yourself for fun & profit

I haven't been blogging as much of late because I've spent all my time prepping for our online q-teen game in the City-State of the World Emperor. I have a big pool of players and it's a lot of fun, but we are playing more frequently than I'm used to! As the game develops I'll eventually have a backlog of material that I can share, but for now I am focusing on the most immediately useful stuff.

Here's a post I've been thinking about for a while, as I look to the future of the Land's End game:




What Happens After 6th Level?

Epic 6: The Game Inside The World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game.

Go read it, I'll wait.
Back?
Good.

This modification to the core of 3.x/d20 is the only way I will consent to playing damned Mathfinder. It allows me to chop, flog and edit the system to my heart's content without fretting overly about the rules not working consistently across all 20 levels. If it works with normal humans and 1st level characters, a modification will probably be fine at level 6.

The party just reached level four, and I have to start thinking about how to handle the PCs reaching level 6. More feats will be necessary, obviously. But I think the fun of E6 will be attempting epic-level stuff. Killing legendary monsters, stealing the golden fleece, things that heroes of legends do. When all you get is one fireball, you'd better make it count. How else can the players make the best use of their power in the game world?

First of all, the core tenets of E6 won't change:


Six Hit Dice
It doesn't matter how many cool abilities you have - falling off a cliff, being swallowed whole by a dragon or chopped up by a motivated mob of lowly orcs are all deadly. That doesn't mean you can't take feats like Toughness to get more hit points, of course.


BAB +6
Feats could give situational bonuses and modifiers, or allow fighters to chain up to feats that require a higher BAB. But the whole idea is that the best swordsmen in the world are only a certain degree above a normal human.

Look at it this way: a 0-level peasant with a +5 sword (a godlike weapon, impossible for normal humans to make) is almost even with a 6th-level master armed with his old campaigning sword. I love that symmetry.


No Generalized Power Increases
Bonuses after 6th should improve specific aspects of the character, not upgrade their overall power level. Anything that increases a character's power across multiple dimensions (like lycanthropy increasing hit points, attack bonus, armour class, etc) should come with stiff drawbacks or be only situationally useful.


Extraordinary Results Require Extraordinary Effort
Not a core tenet of E6, but it flows from what I'm thinking about. Taking your allotted feats after sixth level is the natural order of things. Spending a feat or two to take abilities from a prestige class or something takes extra XP, but no extra work.

PCs who want to go above and beyond need to go on quests, consult sages, spend money, peruse forgotten tomes, take risks, utilize lost treasures, risk sanity loss, etc. in addition to gaining the required XP. All the good player-directed adventuring sandbox stuff that I try to encourage!


A Dangerous World
It should be obvious, but things ramp up at this level. Not as dangerous as your standard level 1-20 world - after all, part of the E6 magic is that the ecology of the game world can be at least a bit fucking comprehensible. The world nevertheless needs dreadful monsters that can't be defeated readily in a straight-up fight. Why bother opening up the Necronomicon and risking mutation & madness on the off-chance your wizard can make all his rolls and learn Finger of Death - unless you really need it to kill the dreaded Sludge Dragon of the Drowned Lands and your solitary 3rd-level spell won't cut it?

Players that reach 6th and become "epic level" might think they have no need to take risks. Epic 6 should be more like finishing an apprenticeship: a license to take on bigger challenges, and a sign that your initial 'adventurer puberty' of rapid learning and growth is over. Development now takes hard work.

Epic Problems require Epic Solutions.

E6 POWER-UP METHODS

Finding The Weird Stuff
The most basic option. The epic-level dungeons in Land's End are plentiful: the Tomb of Abysthor, catacombs beneath the lost city, serpent-men ruins, other dimensions, crashed alien... well, I've said too much already. All of these ultra-dangerous dungeons are crammed with as much cool shit as I can fit, and none of it is available anywhere else in the setting. Balancing that out are brutal traps and hordes of tough foes. Most of these locales are optional, extremely hard to find/get into, or both.


Magic Item Creation
A classic of high-level play. In E6, level limits on feats still apply. Based on the feat requirements in the PF core rulebook, 6th-level casters can create scrolls, potions, wondrous items, wands, magic arms & armour. Rods, staves & rings are beyond mortal abilities completely (LotR anyone?).

Of course some items in each of these categories are beyond a 6th-level caster anyway. A +2 enhancement bonus and a handful of special properties (distance, merciful & thundering) are all the magic weapons a 6th-level enchanter can create. This is perfect for me - even aligned weapons (axiomatic, etc) are beyond the PCs' ability, as they're products of extraplanar energies.

If the PCs want even better magical gear, they need to pick up the various lost relics & demon-haunted weapons throughout the landscape, grappling with their personalities, properties & curses.

Of course the long & more fun way is available also. Through mighty deeds, the players may create weapons normally impossible for mortal 6th-level heroes, and these weapons will hopefully pass on into song & story after their adventuring careers are over, where a more straightforward sword +2 created by choosing a feat and spending money (yawn....) will not.


Covenants
You all know how much I love Dark Souls and Warhammer!

Entering into a pact with one of the ruinous powers usually helps out. For a while, anyway. None of the PCs are Lawful, so it seems pointless to even detail the benefits those entities would grant. Instead, I'll work up more chaos patron tables for Abraxas, Tsathoggua, Jubilex, maybe a few others as the setting demands. If the PCs want to sign on with the forces of darkness, that's fine with me (they aren't too far off as of now).

Meanwhile, some ancient beings survive from the times before mankind. If they could be bargained with, perhaps their secrets can be learned (this is a subset of Finding the Weird Stuff). For example, the sorcerous giant Nibolcus (see The Man From Before) knows magics long lost to the world. At what price would he take on a new student?



Mutations
I mentioned a giant mutation chart in an old post a while back. Very difficult to control, but maybe a "potion of beneficial mutation" (or an updated version) could be found or created that would limit the number of really harsh effects. Probably too risky for the fearful players in my game, but might come up as a desperate gambit or side-effect of something else. The Metamorphica will come in handy here.


Night Hag
Wouldn't give your witchy PC more levels, but upgrades your Hit Dice and give you more spells at the cost of stat & alignment change, some new vulnerabilities, being cast out of polite society and having to help your coven with various tasks. The process for this will be similar to lichdom - an esoteric ritual known only to few. There is a witch in the swamp attempting this right now, maybe she can be persuaded to give up her secrets? (also see Witchy Wednesday)


Lycanthropy
Easy to contract, hard to get rid of. We know the rules. The dread forvalaka roams the wilderness, so the changing disease could be contracted during the normal course of the game if the PCs aren't careful. The weakest form of transformation probably. It's hard to control and comes with serious drawbacks (I'll be using that chart in the AD&D DMG) but it could be narrowly useful for a fighter or barbarian who needs an edge from time to time.


Vampirism
So far there is one vampire in the setting, a hold-over from a bygone age. Trapped in a lead coffin, it has been waiting for centuries, hopelessly mad. Letting it out is probably a big mistake... but in a land covered in perpetual clouds, being a vampire might not be so bad? Increased stats, undead immunities and some great special abilities make this transformation a great move in a setting with very few high-level clerics. This option is open to PCs, but then we'll have to mess with templates and it will be a real fiddle-fuck. And of course the trapped vampire might just kill them all.



Lichdom
There are a few liches in the region. Mostly they are happy to kill anyone they see, but one of them can be negotiated with. Prying his secrets will be a serious challenge but it could happen. Certainly this would lead to some great immunities, better hit dice and perhaps some more spell slots - I'll have to give it some thought, and dig up PF's stupid rules for templates.

Vagelis Petikas

Other Undead
Servants of Orcus (see link above) might be turned into skeletons, zombies or ghouls up to 6th level, or perhaps wights if they have a great deal of experience beyond 6th. There are other undead in the wilderness that might strike the players and transform them - shadows, ghosts, etc. Still, this is more of a fail state than anything the players will likely aspire to. If they do get transformed, I will offer them the option of continuing play as an undead character with all the relevant drawbacks or relegating the unfortunate to NPC status (possibly a new villain).


Brainstormer/Fuse Meister
Sort of like special cases of lichdom. These two are much more difficult to make work as PCs, and perhaps I'll leave as antagonists, unless someone is really that crazy!


Destiny
As I said back in this post about the black pyramid:

"Ivory Tablets: One of the many long term sub-sub-subplots of the campaign. My attempt to fix the stupid Deck of Many Things into a powerful divination tool & force to rewrite one's destiny. Created by the high elves 5000 years ago. The individual "cards" must be assembled and brought to the shrine of Divine Providence deep beneath the Lost City where the Chthonic Elves dwell. I haven't decided what each card does yet, but I really dug myself in deep with this one. All the major arcana and 4 cards from each suit, for a total of 38!"

Well, luckily Mithril & Mages pointed me in the right direction. Dragon Magazine #77 has rules for an expanded Deck of Many Things based on all the tarot cards. Awesome! The powers aren't annoying things like "dead" or "gain 100,000 xp," rather stat changes (I'll rule that this can increase above normal maximums), strange events in one's life, saving throw modifiers, gaining tremendous wealth or losing all your money, getting pranked by magical creatures, etc. Very cool stuff and if the PCs ever assemble the deck (a tall order indeed, considering where a few of the cards are kept!) they can try their luck with it.


*****

[EDIT: I forgot about the cards! Getting back into a setting you haven't looked at in a few months can take a bit of work...]

As you can see there are plenty of options for the power-hungry player character. Whether they take any of these, well... that remains to be seen. My next move is to seed clues, hints & fragments pointing towards these options throughout the world. Off I go to do that, and write up some more big dungeons. Excelsior!


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Keying my Hexcrawl

In a comment on the last Land's End play report, GFC wrote:

[... I'd love to read more about these factions, and your process for prepping these richly detailed hexmaps. Looking forward to reading more play reports!]


*****

Thanks for the commentary, GFC!

My hex-stocking procedure is painfully slow and perhaps not worth emulating. After playing music for 20 years and D&D for closer to 25 (wow!), I have learned a little bit about my creative process. The best bloggers that I read seem to be able to create their own settings top-to-bottom (or nearly so), while I will always be using a lot of existing material, and perhaps stitching it together in an interesting way if I'm lucky.

When I do dream up something creative & interesting, it tends to come damnably slow. Nevertheless, I have fumbled along despite these handicaps and built Land's End in the following way. I hope it may provide some help in your own games.

My basic ideas are not too far from Blair's classic How I key a Hex Map.
There are tons of other guides on the basics of hexmapping out there for those who are new to it, so I'll just leave this starting point here for those who might be interested: Hexcrawl Resources at Ars Phantasia


Almost two years of exploration


Starting Out

I began with a mental picture of the campaign setting: a "lost world" cut off from civilization. The adventurers leaving known territory and mapping brand-new lands, scattered with the remains of former empires. I wanted an aesthetic of cavemen, lizardfolk, swamps and jungle ruins. That suggested locations, terrain & possible encounters to start with.

In two years of play, my group has travelled halfway across my 8.5"x11" paper map of six-mile hexes on the long axis, and three quarters of the way on the short axis. They have by no means seen everything within that area, either (as you can see on the map above). I usually only have 20-ish hexes stocked that they haven't been to yet. Just enough that I have my bases covered if they take a wrong turn. I come up with new locations quite slowly.

What helps is that travel in jungles & swamps is slow - the players can't get far in a day even at light encumbrance (they take pains to never get weighed down with too much stuff) so I only need a few extra hexes stocked in any direction. They often revisit the same adventure locations multiple times for various reasons (strategic chokepoints, stocking up on resources, landmarks and paths through the jungle, to say nothing of repeat dungeon delves). The region is small but has become dense with connections and history.

See: Shallow & Deep Wilderness Sandboxes


Grab From Everywhere

I have praised d4 Caltrops before on this blog. A huge number of my hex locations are from his "100 Wilderness Hexes" document. This thing is fantastic, so check it out. Many of the hexes interconnect with each other (especially the swamp hexes), which adds further layers of adventure possibility. I have taken many of these and spun them into a whole game session, or connected them to something across the map for my players to go check out.

See: 100 Wilderness Hexes

You might have a few modules gathering dust on your shelf that you'd like to include on your map. So far I have added the The Tomb of Abysthor, The Spire of Quetzel and a few two-pagers from the excellent Trilemma Adventures compendium.

Modules aren't just useful for saving time. Each one added to your setting can be spun off into new elements if you put a little effort in. Using The Tomb of Abysthor for example, I reworked the included wilderness locations into larger, more detailed locales. I created more NPCs for the cult of Orcus and the Tsathar, spread them around the hexmap, added them to the region's encounter tables and gave them new lairs, dungeons, motivations, things to do, equipment & treasure, etc. All of a sudden, a single dungeon module has added a new layer of texture & meaning to the world. Even if they never set foot inside, the players will get involved with the dungeon's factions and NPCs one way or another. Do this for three or four modules and you should have a whole campaign's worth of material in no time.


Random Generation

Sometimes you get stuck, and that's OK. Judges Guild is here to help: go get the Wilderness Hexplore Document. Compiled based on material from the Ready Ref Sheets and elsewhere, it amounts to a complete random wilderness stocking system. I don't use it that way exactly - I roll on it for ideas when I can't think of anything. It gives just enough detail to jog the mind into doing something new. You might also try the Tome of Adventure Design, some of the tables at the back of the DMG, or another of your favourites.


Example

I was stocking the Drowned Lands (the great swamp at the centre of the hexmap, where the lizardmen live) and after 20 or so hexes, I felt a bit gassed. I opened up the tables and this is what happened:

Rolling on the feature table on pg. 8 gives a result of 7 - Temples & Shrines. I roll for the temple's size & shape (an obelisk of metal), age, number of followers, type and number of leadership, treasury (very important for PCs), the type of shrine (a holy statue), defensive measures and traps, effects of defiling the shrine, the deity's sphere of influence and plenty of other things. Occasionally results need to be tweaked to fit the system (there are no 11th level clerics in Land's End!).

Rolling for the deity's appearance resulted in these traits: goddess; elf; alien; wasp wings. That sounded familiar, so I dug through the Book of the Damned (one of the few Pathfinder books I actually like). I found the Oni Daimyo pictured below, whose divine portfolio matched some of the random table results and gave me more useful details. Jumping back & forth between various books like this really works for me.





Putting it all together I get this basic hex info:


Hex 0612 -TEMPLE OF INMA - Obelisk of unknown metal, surrounded by 40’ walls adorned with tallow candles & reed torches. 23 chthonian elf worshippers inside, led by triumvirate of priests (Cle 2nd, 4th, 4th). Statue of goddess Inma, "The Empress of the World" has three eyes, four arms, alien features and wasp wings. An obscure demoness of blood who bestows wealth on worshippers when appropriate sacrifices are made. The temple is rich and fanatical.

Ceremonies: Regularly at dusk (all - public, lizardman blood), midnight (high priests - public, platinum) and dawn (high priests only, copper). Special ones - a month of fasting and prayer, the longest day of the year, goddess’ “day of death,” death of a high priest. 


This only leads to more questions. Who built this place? What is the obelisk actually made of? What do Inma's worshippers want with treasure, anyway? Where do they get the coinage for their sacrifices? Why risk death at the hands of lizardfolk? Are the clergy isolationist hermits, or will they deal with the outside world? How are relations with the lizardfolk who (at least nominally) control the whole swamp? Are they apostates from chthonic elf society, or does Inma have a place in their larger pantheon? How will they react to the PCs: as allies, enemies, potential sacrifices or something else?

Answering these might result in a dumb adventure location or something fun & memorable. The effects might spiral outwards and change any number of things in your game world. I don't have it all figured out yet. The important thing is that I now have something I wouldn't have made up myself, and I can flesh it out and see where things lead. The setting just got slightly more complex, more textured.

The Wilderness Hexplore Document is quite wide-ranging. It could just as easily have given me a ruined bridge; a sunken canoe guarded by giant frogs; or a castle with a samurai and his djinn servant (I have rolled all these before). Adapting & reskinning the results to my game world is always an enjoyable exercise that expands my thinking about the setting and fills in details that I otherwise would never have included.


Putting it All Together

This is where two DMs with the same raw material might run completely different games. Remember that aesthetic I mentioned earlier? I think of it as a filter. Everything I use from a module or blog, everything I roll on a random table - it all gets filtered through my own view of the setting, tweaked a little bit until it gels, and then set down.

There is no strict hierarchy or step-by-step procedure to follow. I like to bounce around between all these options as the mood strikes me. When I get stuck, I change my approach and continue. At a certain point you have to trust yourself to make the connections, to adjust elements to fit into a larger structure that only you can see.

See: The Dirt Cheap Sandbox

I hope these examples are useful. Read the links, because those guys usually say it better than I can. If I missed something, let me have it in the comments!


*****

It's funny to be writing about my wilderness hexcrawl while I'm neck-deep in keying a gigantic city sandbox for a different game with some new people. It's proving to be quite the unfamiliar challenge!

And now for a bit of classic '90s gaming music.