Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dark Souls is Classic D&D in a modern video game

I'm talking about one of the coolest, most fun and most brutal video games out there: Dark Souls. I'm surprised I haven't seen too many RPG gamers talk about this one, as it is certainly old-school enough. Here are a few D&Dable things this game does that most other video games completely fail to do:


1 - The world is fucking dangerous / no hand-holding

Dying is a thing in DS that happens a LOT. Giant poison lakes, pit traps, basilisks, enemies that roll barrels down the stairs, blind corner ambushes, pitch dark levels and all kinds of other sneaky tricks await. Enemies are not rated for your level, or divided into discrete areas of a certain difficulty. Almost all the enemies are bigger, faster, stronger and scarier than you.

Instructions are minimal. What happens when I use a bonfire? What can I spend my souls on? How does parrying work? Which weapons are good? How do I use magic? Where should I go next?? All these questions and more await your own solutions. The game doesn't belabour the point with endless tutorials, a great big quest arrow floating overhead or anything else. Here's the world: go. See what's out there. Try stuff. Have fun. Make mistakes. Figure it out.

2 - Not everyone is hostile / things aren't as they seem

No big deal, it's the first boss!
Just like any campaign setting, you need a few NPCs to sell you things and dish up a few rumours. They're found in the most unlikely places in Dark Souls. Those gross infected egg carrier guys? Nice fellows mostly - too busy praying to attack you. The spider ladies? Well... one of them is nice. Meanwhile, the normal humans are some of the worst shits in the game, betraying at every opportunity, abandoning their comrades, dying in shame or kicking you into a pit.

3 - Fights are like puzzles / learn from your mistakes

Once you figure out how an enemy fights, how it "thinks," things get much easier. Boss fights especially are about trying new combinations, different weapons and spells until something works. Sometimes you need to move fast, just wear some short-shorts and run around real quick. Other times you need to gear up and stomp around in the heaviest armour you have. Maybe you can climb up a wall and jump down on a bosses head, or use a special weapon they are vulnerable to. D&D is the same - learning how the monsters fight and what the best strategies are takes place over the lives of multiple PCs, as your characters get wiped out by bigger and stronger enemies until you've gone toe-to-toe with the whole Monster Manual.

4 - The world fits together

On left, see the parapet where dude above is being chased.
There is a video here of a guy looking at the collision data for the ENTIRE map of the game. It all fits together as one piece. You can walk from one end of Lordran to the other and from top to bottom. If you're looking around and see an interesting area, you will be able to walk to it - that's the actual level you're looking at over there, not just a background picture! This is great because the world makes sense. By the time you get to Lost Izalith, you've been staring at it from a distance at several different points and can't wait to see what the fuck is inside.

I don't think this can be emphasized enough. It's key to how the game plays, especially as you unlock shortcuts to speed up your travel through the world. Backtracking happens a lot. Because enemies re-appear constantly, the world never stops being dangerous. Knowing how to get to your destination with a minimum of risk is important, and there are almost always multiple routes to take. In other words, the kingdom of Lordran is well Jacquayed. 

5 - Actions have consequences

Whoops! Did you kill one of the merchants by accident? Tough shit. The game autosaves, so you can't just go back to a previous save if you missed some of his gear. Did you let that psycho killer out of his jail cell? Or maybe you said the wrong thing to somebody, and now they hate you? The game might be harder, but it wasn't picking on you - it let you make that decision yourself.

6 - Choose your level of involvement, or: it's all about how ballsy you wanna play it

Did I mention this is the first level?
If you like, you can sit around and grind monsters for XP until your character is way over-leveled and has all the best stuff. Or you can beat the game at level 1 if you want the sense of accomplishment and the cred. It's easy to wander into areas much too tough for your level - and it's even possible to win through if you're good enough. This fact alone takes the game into the realm of good D&D thinking. The world is there, waiting for you - take it on however you want.

7 - Look under every rock & take anything not nailed down

Sometimes it's hard to figure out where you should go next. The entrances to some levels are hidden away, and the world is so big and open that it's easy to forget where you've been and where you planned to explore later. The blacksmiths who upgrade your equipment are easy to miss, the best treasure is always hidden somewhere, and even paths required to finish the game are off to the side where you might not think of looking. Sometimes you need to backtrack to places you thought were closed off, because they have since changed. There is no automapping feature.

That's the whole idea! You have to try everything, go everywhere and talk to everyone or you'll miss some key points. This is the kind of approach I want to see when I run D&D: players engaging with the game world and taking an interest because it's the best way to survive and thrive.
That's an iron golem all right.

8 - Challenge your assumptions

You will hear a lot of people (including me) say Dark Souls is tough as fuck, it's impossibly hard, it will break all your controllers and eat your kids. I am in no way a man of quick reflexes or much speed on the controller - I'm useless at Street Fighter-type games, and if you want to play Counterstrike I'll be hovering around 0 kills & 20 deaths, just fodder for guys with steady hands and decent eyesight. I have stuck to turn-based RPG and strategy games to avoid this humiliation.

Why are they all so BIG?
So why do I like Dark Souls? Although it is hard, it's not as bad as everyone makes it out to be - it just works differently than most games. Sort of like dropping a group of Type IV players into The Grinding Gear. Sure it might be trying to kill you, but your undoing is sealed by assuming things about the game and world that aren't true. Once you know what's out there, new strategies are adopted and you can begin to thrive. I mean, basically what I'm trying to say is this.

None of this even covers the setting, story, scenery, multiplayer (a whole article in itself) or NPCs and monsters you'll meet. The more I think about Dark Souls, the more I think about great megadungeon stuff that I want to play in.

PS: To have a few laughs with (and at the expense of) a guy playing the game for the first time, go here.

Nameless Cults III


I hated Morlocks until I remembered this movie.
OK: Everybody knows what Cthulhu's about, we've all read the books. You can buy a plush stuffed one. Nobody cares to read some purple prose about frolicking in the swamps and atavistic rites. I'll save us all the trouble.

So for me, These guys work a bit differently. Cthulhu's worshippers are not a special church unto themselves, just a gathering of demi-humans and beasts only held together by their common "religion," a strong leader and probably psychic domination or brainwashing. I use wild men, subhumans, goatmen, morlocks and any other grubby, dumb humanoids for my Cthulhu cultists. They can still be encountered in their own context and groups, but when a cult is called for I just roll up a pack of these guys as I normally would.

Then I add:

1 - A charismatic leader. As long as he is in action, the cultists have morale 12. If he is killed/KOd/captured, the remaining cultists' morale is reduced to 1 less than normal. He could be the same type of creature as the rest of the cult, or something different. Have fun with it!

2 - An ancient graven idol with mysterious properties. In Realms of Crawling Chaos, we have this:

"Through the idol, any worshipper with a PS of 14 or higher may concentrate and communicate with Cthulhu in the form of images and feelings. However, there is a 30% chance that Cthulhu lashes out with a psionic attack of the referee's choosing."

And these idols are described as being eight inches tall! That doesn't turn me on even a little bit.

I want to see morlocks hauling twenty-ton slabs of stone around the dungeon with legions of slaves straining under the whip, or some goatmen building a new one with moon-rocks they bought from the rugose cone monsters on level 8, who control the moon-teleporter. Here are some fun properties for BIG Cthulhu idols. All of these effects work on anyone within sight unless otherwise stated:

1 - Curse, Unhallow, Protection from Law, etc -  OK starting with an easy one. As the spell description, pick anything out of your own list. Stronger and more numerous cults will have better spells on their idols, and this one is great to combine with the other effects. Basically just an excuse to make the day a few percentage points tougher.

2 - Mind Control - This idol radiates the alien willpower of the Ancient Ones. Save vs. spell or join the cult and try to kill your friends. Get another save when the idol is out of sight. Every 24 hours spent near the idol gives you a cumulative -1 penalty to save, until eventually your mind is completely enslaved. Remove Curse should cure this, or at least give you another saving throw.

3 - Radioactive - Whatever that idol is carved from, it's not safe to be around. Lose 1 point of CON for every minute spent nearby. Could be just line-of-sight, or it might affect a whole dungeon level, with the rate of CON loss slower the farther away you get (how realistic do you want to be?). This damage cannot be healed by normal means: restoration or similar magic is needed. The cultists with an idol like this will all be emaciated near-zombies with glowing eyes. Brittle-boned and sick, but immune to fear and totally insane.

4 - Reanimator - Any sentient being (cultist, adventurer, bystander, really smart dog) that dies near the idol and remains there for 2d4 rounds will rise as a zombie and attack anyone not identified as a cult member. Remember zombies are stupid and can't ask questions, so the signifier has to be visually obvious. They have to die in the idol's presence though and remain there for the whole time - so gravedigging won't work.

5 - Non-Euclidean - Angles and directions go completely to shit in the presence of this idol. Aimed ranged attacks of any kind (spells, thrown weapons, arrows, etc) have a flat 50/50 chance to scatter in a random direction. DEX or WIS checks every few rounds or fall over from disorientation. The entrances and exits to the room all connect to different parts of the dungeon (this could be a quick way to get around, if you can get past all the cultists). Doors appear and disappear, or circulate between walls, floor and ceiling. Have fun with it. Of course the cultists are acclimatized.

6 - Ennui / Where is your God now? - This one stings! Clerics of any gods/entities other than the Ancient Ones cannot draw power from their deities near this idol. No spells, no turn undead, no special abilities. Lawful beings save vs. spell (with a penalty for high WIS, and a bonus for low) or feel the despair and meaninglessness of living in an amoral mechanistic universe, suffering -3 on attacks, saves and morale checks due to a feeling of "why bother?" Beings that don't understand religion or already have a philosophy like this might be exempted. Remember they don't have Existentialism, the scientific method or Nietzsche in D&D-land, although if your game does I'd love to hear about it.

7 - Cosmic Transmitter - The idol is a focus for contacting another planet or dimension: Carcosa, the moon, the Abyss, Yuggoth, fucking Krynn, whatever you like (heretofore referred to as the Place). It might be random every time the idol is used, or an idol might be fixed to one location. When something cool or powerful happens nearby (battles, sacrifices, cult rituals, spells that deal with conjuration or changing the fabric of reality probably) roll 1d20, and in 1d6 rounds something happens: 

Cosmic Transmitter (1d20):

1-14 - Nothing
15 - Contact Other Plane on being with highest INT or WIS.
16 - Contact Other Plane on being with lowest INT or WIS.
17 - Being with highest INT or WIS is granted a vision of the Place, and rendered catatonic for 1d6 rounds while their mind wanders the unfamiliar terrain. May learn something useful.
18 - Random being within sight of the Idol is mind-invaded by a resident of the Place - save vs. spells, or psychic combat ensues. If you don't have psionic rules, it's time for Invasion of the Body-snatchers.
19 - 1d8 beings from the Place appear: they know no master.
20 - 1d4 beings from the Place appear: they obey the closest Chaotic being with high INT or WIS.
21 - 1d4 beings closest to the idol are instantly transported to the Place.
22 - 1d4 random beings within sight are instantly transported to the Place.
23 - A Gate is opened. It stays open for 1d4 rounds, and anybody can pass through it either way during that time.
24+ - A Gate is opened. It stays open for 2d10 rounds, and anybody can pass through it either way during that time.


+0 - battle with up to 10 participants, 1st-4th level spell, 1-5 humanoid sacrifices, simple rituals,
+1 - 20 person battle, 5th level spell, 10 sacrifices
+2 - 30 person battle, 6th level spell, 20 sacrifices, elaborate rituals,
+3 - 40 person battle, 7th level spell, 30 sacrifices
+5 - 50 person battle, 8th level spell, 40 sacrifices, difficult or dangerous rituals
+7 - 60+ person battle, 9th level spell, 50+ sacrifices, rituals with very rare or expensive or dangerous components.

Or just wing it.

8 - Slime - Idol transforms living sacrifices, after the appropriate ritual, into slimes, oozes, jellies and the like. Pick whichever you want from your monster book, or roll randomly, these are the ones I use in my game (there is no point in having 10 different slime/ooze/jelly creatures - honestly even six is too much). Also, the idol is covered in a sticky, dripping snail-trail type coating which has the touch effects of one of these slimes. Re-rolling every time somebody touches it would be fun.

1 - gelatinous cube
2 - black pudding
3 - green slime
4 - corpse jelly
5 - ochre jelly*
6 - shoggoth

Hit Dice of the slime should be equal to those of the sacrificed creature, and if it has less than normal, damage dealt can be reduced in proportion. Sacrifices could be combined to make a bigger slime, possibly higher than the normal maximum in the book - this would be a fun way to surprise players who have seen it all, or as an awesome/terrible mistake made by a monomaniacal cultist: "I'll make the BIGGEST gelatinous cube in the world! Wait, don't eat me! Nooooo....!" You get the idea.

*I used to think ochre jellies were stupid, until I read the description and it says they are giant amoebas. How could I possibly NOT include that in my game? A massive single-cell monster with pseudopods, just blobbing around the dungeon for millions of years, since the origin of life. So I just crossed out "Ochre Jelly" and wrote "Giant Amoeba" in the book.

Now BLAST this track while looking at the kind of thing I'm talking about:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

20 questions + 20 questions = 40 questions

Here we go with the classic questions, the ones everybody needs an answer to! The setting is beginning to clarify after a bit of thought. I had prioritized character creation and the first level of a dungeon so I could start playing right away - now I'm starting to make sense of this mishmash dark ages Britain I'm coming up with. I need a good name for the setting and campaign though: probably I'll just call it "The Spoils of Annwn" after the poem, although I feel it's a waste not to use Albion. What a great name that is, Albion.

  1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion? - Christianity, Celtic, Norse, or Ancient Ones. Monotheism has not taken over Britain, everybody’s god has about the same social status. I like this so we can have talks like “Crom laughs at your four winds,” etc.
  2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment? - Here in Yarmouth they have a decent selection. Basic adventuring gear, booze, and a few spare horses if you’re lucky.
  3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? - The nearest large town would be Southampton, across the strait and up the river inland. It's big enough to support a blacksmith good enough to do custom work, and it’ll be expensive - 2 to 10 times standard plate prices.
  4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? - Merlin!
  5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land? - Uther Pendragon is well-known for his victories against the Saxons in the North, although he cannot hold back the tide by himself.
  6. Who is the richest person in the land? - Uther Pendragon. Other rich and powerful kings and lords include Lot of Lothian, Vortigern the Betrayer, Anguish of Ireland and more. Arthur is of course a broke, struggling young warlord right now.
  7. Where can we go to get some magical healing? - The church of the Christ has missions in most towns. In Saxon territory there are churches of Odin and Freya. Out in the wilderness are the Celtic pagan temples, but if you aren’t a member they are really hard to find. Thee Church ov Starry Wisdom in the dungeon.
  8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath? The Church of Christ can restore alignment change, level drain, curse, poison. Pagan churches can do poison, disease, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change. Thee Church ov Starry Wisdom can fix poison, disease, curse, polymorph, level drain. If you’re dead or undead? Sorry pal.
  9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? - No, wizards are still lone weirdos who don’t band together. There aren’t enough of them to get together and organize, plus they don’t trust each other. It’s a simple master-apprentice slave labour sort of equation.
  10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC? - Southampton, on the mainland is the first place to start, but you might have to go all the way to Londinium. Although there is that lighthouse on the west point of the island...
  11. Where can I hire mercenaries? - Either of Yarmouth’s taverns has an assortment of roughs-for-hire.
  12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law? - Wizards are weird and scary, so don’t be too obvious about it, but you won’t get arrested for walking around in a robe and pointy hat. Also, things are still very tough with the Saxons, in the north it's still open warfare, so Dwarves take heed.
  13. Which way to the nearest tavern? - The King’s Head and The Blue Crab are right here in the middle of town.
  14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous? - Sir Meliagaunce is one of the many knights in the up and coming maiden-kidnapping business. Wyverns fly down from the hills and devour livestock sometimes. Ogres prowl the forests and highways, catching and eating travellers - the most famous is Sawney Bean who makes life north of Hadrian’s Wall quite dangerous.
  15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? - Yes, Arthur is always fighting against new Saxon and Anglish warbands in the north, although some have settled on the isles peacefully. Uther Pendragon is jockeying with the other kings and lords for larger chunks of territory. Nobody controls the whole of Britain yet!
  16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes? - Deep in the dungeon, the decadent underworld inhabitants have all kinds of bizarre sports. Gladiatorial contests are just the beginning.
  17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight? - Oh sure. The Cthulhu cult, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, Iok-Sotot’s worshippers, The Temple of Satan, followers of Arawn, the Morrigan. Lots more.
  18. What is there to eat around here? - Boiled potatoes. Boiled parsnips. Boiled mutton. Boiled beef. Boiled rats.
  19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for? - Many kings of Atlantis were buried in Britain with the hoards they kept from the waves. The locations of these tombs are unknown at present, but it’s rumored there is one beneath the ruins on the Isle of Wight...
  20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure? - The giants that used to command Britain are nearly extinct, but some still survive in the high mountains. They are the richest monsters since dragons have not been seen in hundreds of years.

  1. Ability scores generation method? - 3D6 down the line. Don't worry, there are no class ability requirements. Play a dumb wizard or weak fighter, it'll be fun. I am honestly considering allowing players to pick 4d6 drop the lowest and arrange to taste, but mandating that their character's title must be "the pansy" or "the milquetoast" or something similar.
  2. How are death and dying handled? - Dead at HP=negative level, but shields shall be splintered! gives you a chance to save and take that fatal strike. Bleed out 1hp/round, so this doesn't help 1st level characters much, but gives the veterans a chance.
  3. What about raising the dead? - Once you’re gone baby, you’re gone. Unless maybe there is some epic quest to the underworld to retrieve your soul.
  4. How are replacement PCs handled? - If you have a hireling, you can promote him on the spot, roll stats and he is your new character! Or roll up a new one back in town, who can be your character’s heir (only once per character though) and obtain their money and one magic item, less a 10% tax.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? - I think we will try both. I’ve never rolled group initiative before and I'd like to see how it works.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? - Yes, critical hits automatically gives you double damage dice. Roll to confirm and to see if I can roll on a table for more cool stuff. Fumbles you just get the fumble table right away for things like drop weapon, hit self, weapon breaks, basic things.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? - Some of the critical hits apply to your head, so yeah a helmet will save your ass sometimes.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? - Ah there's nothing about it in the LL book, so for now, no. However there will be stiff to-hit penalties if you're right behind your friends trying to fire past them.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? - Oh yeah baby you’ll have to run away sometimes. I don’t set out to execute the PCs, but I will stat shit up and put it where I like, doesn’t mean you’re tough enough for it.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? - They’re quite rare but they exist (hint: stay away from those barrows at night).
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? - Fuck yes.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? - In a general way. I will be tracking light especially, because you can’t stay in the dungeon forever. Weight will be a factor because you can’t carry everything you find, and you might want to run away at some point.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? - No training. The only place to learn new wizard spells is from books you beg, borrow or steal. Clerics get their spells automatically as usual. You have to rest outside the dungeon to level up, but it can happen in the middle of the session.
  14. What do I get experience for? - Some from monsters, mostly from treasure. SPENDING your treasure on partying, babes, castles, tithes to the church, cool clothes, funerals for your buddies, etc.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? - Description. Traps will be easy to locate, there are lots of clues. Disarming the traps is another story.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? - Yes, go ahead and get retainers, I have those speed hireling rules. I will be using morale for enemies and NPC party members.
  17. How do I identify magic items? - Cast read magic or pay a wizard, sage or temple to identify it for you.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? - Potions and some minor magic items can be found from odd merchants in the dungeon, but they probably don't accept your surface world coins...
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how? - As a higher-level wizard, sure. Costly quests and rare components are essential. I’m more concerned with having item creation kick off further adventuring and be sufficiently difficult that magic items don’t proliferate.
  20. What about splitting the party? - Go ahead, but it’s dangerous and I don’t recommend it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Archaeology Megathread

I tripped over this link this morning:

"Archaeology on Steroids"

And this cover was just irresistible when I was 12.
I absolutely love this stuff. Maybe because I bought Palladium's Beyond the Supernatural in a used bookstore when I was twelve. Even back then I knew the system was way out of hand, but all the descriptions of British henges, burial mounds and stone circles were enthralling to my young brain. I wish I still had that book, it had so much detail on the old sites and blurbs about ley lines, what might happen on solstices and equinoxes, why they were built in the first place, cool ideas for why modern culty groups might be interested in them, and things like that.

In the mean time, some research:

Elfmaids and Octopi's awesome d100 megalith table

The Stonehenge hidden landscape project

National Trust Images - searchable, LOTS of content here. Typing in "wight" gave me 766 pictures.

English Heritage

Pictures from all over Britain

These - are all - just - Ireland

Stone circles of Scotland

Map of ancient sites in Britain - This one is a mixed bag, it also has ghosts and the paranormal and everything lumped together.

Megaliths across all of Great Britain - HUGE site

This site looks bloody huge and covers part of Western Europe too

Dolmens, mostly in Italy, with some very cool ideas

Dolmens all over Europe

History of Great Britain from Neolithic to Celtic

Newgrange Passage Tomb

Historic Cornwall

The actual National Trust's website is annoying to navigate, I can't quite find what I'm looking for. Any other links to British monuments, standing stones, barrows, etc. would be appreciated, and I'll stick them here for my own reference. There is already WAY more information than I could ever hope to read, but at least I'll have fun trying. I wonder if anyone has Beyond the Supernatural on eBay?

Now jam this band while staring at all these pics: