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OSR Campaign Preparation Dragons & Divinities - The Rise of The Primordial Dragons

Swords & Stitchery - Tue, 01/15/2019 - 19:27
"A collection of powerful minions, monsters, and other entities. Divine servants to intercede between your PCs and their distant deities, mighty beasts to defy even your strongest party, or just a few fascinating creatures for your adventurers to glimpse and wonder about."Once upon a time I traveled fifty miles to one of my best friend's house to buy a copy of The Primal Order's book Pawns.Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Gygax Design IV

Hack & Slash - Tue, 01/15/2019 - 13:00
My thesis here is that something was misunderstood. The question I'm left with is how did that happen?

Let's take a look.

Cave IntroductionThe first page of the caves proper contains the flavor text we discussed in the last post. It's lurid, and therefore interesting.

If you're going to ask someone to listen to something, it better get a reaction.

Immediately Gygax takes one column line to outline all his overview notes for the adventure: 600 words. He describes how to read the cave contour map on the outside, describes the woods, underground, and interiors.
He then covers prisoner ransom ("Set the sums low — 10 to 100 gold pieces or a magic item. . . "), the specifics of the tribal relationships, how monsters should react and handle player actions, and what happens in empty areas.

It is a training module, but these sections only contain nine sentences containing specific  'newbie' or training advice. The rest of the information is all useful, reduces the need for repetitive text, and is easily found in the front of the appropriate section. This is the really interesting thing. Here's a room description
1. Guard Room: 6 kobold guards (AC 7, HD 1/2, hp 3 each, #AT 1, D 1-4, Save NM, ML 6). They will throw their spears the first round if they have initiative. Each carries d6 silver pieces. One will run to warn areas 4. and 6.. The guards will be altered by loud noises or lights.Is there a single unnecessary word in that description to craft an emergent encounter for the players?

What is an Adventure?All the rooms are like this.
"Number. Description: # creatures (one line stat block), Rules and tactical information, treasure."

Is there any boxed text? No. Each room only tells you what you need to know what's in it, and more importantly how they act. The text is there to create emergent play. Here are quotes.
"This huge kobold is so powerful that he fights with a battle axe. . . and a large gem on a great golden chain around his neck."
"Six goblin guards are alterly watching both passages for intruders of any sort"
"If there is a cry of "BREE-YARK" similar to "hey rube!" (ed: noted in the rumor section as goblin for "We Surrender"), 2 of these guards will rush to the secret door, toss a sack with 250 gold coins to the ogre and ask him to help him"

This is over and over again in the room encounters. Set-ups from earlier pay off. Encounters are dramatic scenes. We know from his own play descriptions that he used random encounters and avoiding keying many areas in Greyhawk for these reasons. Each one uses as few descriptive words as possible to give the Dungeon Master a hook to hang his hat (the encounter) on.
There's no ancient history text, no unknowable background information.

Mostly. I lied a little bit. Everyone had to get the wrong idea from somewhere, right? Even when there is some unknown history, it is referenced and due to non-player character actions is discoverable by players. e.g.
13. Forgotten Room. Only the two orc leaders (from this area and from B.) Know of this place. They secretly meet here on occasion to plan co-operative ventures or discuss tribal problems, for although separate tribes are not exactly friendly, both leaders are aware of the fact that there is strength in numbers. . . . Looking at this alone, it certainly looks like the usual dump of information to the Dungeon Master that is completely inaccessible to the players. Except, note the following sentences:
From 12. Orc Leader's Room: . . . If hard pressed, the leader will wiggle behind the tapestries on the south wall and attempt to work the catch on the secret door to the south and go to the rival tribe for help. . . 
From Dungeon Master notes: If the leader is slain, the survivors will seek safety in area B/C, taking everything of value (and even of no value with them)

So you know, it's part of a dynamic encounter.

Encounter DesignI've talked before about how room environments should consist of clearly interactable objects in Red Herring Agency. That article uses the example of play from the Dungeon Master's Guide, and it's pretty clear the same design aesthetic is in use here. In the forgotten room, it describes "A small table and two chairs", "a wooden chest", "Two shields hanging on the wall", and "Two pouches behind an old bucket." The chairs are normal, as are the shields. The chest is unlocked and contains some weapons. The pouches have treasure, but cover 2 centipedes.

It's explicit, direct. Here are the interactable objects. Each one has a different effect and clues are available in the environment.

There is a specific structure to the different pillars of play. This is what the exploration pillar means. It means there are specific presentable things—clickable objects— within play. It's these objects, their integration into the environment, their creativity, and the tactical infinity options they offer that is the gameplay of exploration.

Walls the players can knock over, doors that open into space, a ring that shrinks objects, a chained megatherium. Give the players simple things that allow interaction. Create a world where non-player characters take action in response to the players. The complexity and gameplay is emergent.

Every single piece of information is either immediately accessible to the players, or is necessary for the Dungeon Master to run the encounter.

Each room is an encounter designed, and it should be like a good scene in a movie. Interesting, helping create tension and set the pace. It shouldn't be simple, boring, dull, and buried in a thousand words of useless text. It requires both active actors and things to act upon, and it must be designed and not just generated. This doesn't require verbiage, it requires thought. You want my examples of this in use, check out Megadungeon (or any of the modules I have coming out soon!)

From RPG CartographyI'm not saying it's perfect. It's certainly raw—for example many rooms have information on how people act if they hear someone nearby. This could be on the map, along with other modern improvements due to better tools. Which way the doors open, what the light levels are. . .

When the goblins rush the players and yell BREE-YARK, if the players got the rumor that it means "We surrender", shenanigans ensue. This isn't the only setup. More than one character is lost when the chaotic evil priest that offers to come with them from the keep casts 'inflict wounds' on characters instead of cure wounds.

The prisoners have a variety of races and genders, as well as each providing some non-standard reward, trick, or trap. You may notice a theme. There are also slaves that can be freed and armed. Each of these things creates a specific experience for the players. He isn't just writing descriptions of rooms! He's creating a scene flowchart just like the one in the start of Deep Carbon Observatory, but using the dungeon as his flowchart paths.

I did find a sentence of flavor text, "The owl bear. . . sleeps in the most southerly part of its den, digesting a meal of gnoll it just caught at dawn." That's some information that's not accessible to the players. It's on page 19.

There's also quite a lot of humor within the module. Signs posted on doors say things like "You are
invited for dinner!" and "Safety, security and repose for all humanoids that enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)" The thing is, it's not just a joke for the reader. The players will also find this joke amusing, and although it's funny, like all Dungeons & Dragons, it's deadly serious. I ran Hackmaster for years, and a gummi bear golem seems really funny, until it crits your fighter in the head for 38 points and kills him in a shower of sticky blood.

All of the rooms contain setpieces—interesting reactions and organic events, but this is one of the best.
"[Bugbears] lounge on stools near a smoking brazier which has skewers of meat toasting over the coals. Each will ignore his great mace when intruders enter, reaching instead for the food. Through they do not speak common, they will grab and eat a chunk, then offer the skewers to the adventurers — and suddenly use them as swords to strike first blow (at +2 bonus to hit due to surprise!) unless the victims are very alert. . . I mean, that exclamation point though.

If you aren't creating scenes and experiences through activities for players (and not excess verbiage) please start, and point people to this series to get them to change.

You don't have to write a bunch of words about how encounters react to every last thing, you just have to write something interesting well, and from that the Dungeon Master will be able to know how it reacts.

Enter the Present.This is INFURIATING.

Why? I just downloaded the most recent Dungeons & Dragons pay what you want adventure to find a room description to compare. Each room description is literally a full page. In lieu of typing the whole page, I'm just going to quote some random sentences from this full page of text for a single room. A whole page. It's not even an A5 page! It's a full letter page.

"The bed is perfectly normal and has a warm, soft blanket stretched over it."
"The party is in the right place, but this isn't the chamber in which the wardrobe is kept."
"Unbeknownst to the players, a hidden passage lies beyond the bookcase"
The box text says "the chamber. . . is not quite what you imagined"

I will summarize the entire room description, as I think Gygax would have laid it out.
3. Wizard Bedroom. Locked Chest (Disable Device DC 15, Strength DC 20) contains pouch 32 gold, 13 silver pieces, 21 copper. Secret door behind bookcase filled with bird books. Note in book about secret door. Corridor beyond trapped, must flap like bird or say "[REDACTED]" 50 XP for door, 50 XP for ladder.You do not need 1,200 words! I am a Dungeon Master looking for useful tools!

The early examples were great and maintain their popularity and utility decades later, look at the sales of the poorly-reviewed Keep on the Borderlands 5e reprint. They had to hold a second pre-order since pre-orders exceeded their first print run.

This endless glut of poor adventure writing is someone emptying their uninteresting brain noise right in the middle of what I need as a person that runs a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. Is there a market for people who want to read an adventure and have no use for it during play?

Yeah. there is, and it's pretty big. That's the problem.

People keep trying to characterize "What the old school renaissance" is. This has never been a mystery.

It's just people trying to find something they can use in play!

People were playing Dungeons and Dragons until people who did not play, and instead just read and admired ran it into the ground and nearly caused it to cease to exist. You can clearly publish a game with no firm rules and just allow everyone to do what they want, but they aren't very successful are they?

I would think everything in this post is obvious, but due to my inability to use 90% of everything ever published it apparently is not. If you feel the same way, link it the next time someone doesn't know how to write a module. Or, if you're feeling generous, you can join our hierarchy over here, and support more posts like this on Patreon, where you can get special access to my discord

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

DM David - Tue, 01/15/2019 - 11:15

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

During the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley provided scientific explanations for fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.

Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I get it. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. For instance, I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming.

Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.

Perhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in the April 1983 issue of Dragon. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.

The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.

For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.

1. Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D head Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse. He tells how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”

2. Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot

Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?

3. Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.

When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.

In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”

D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

A Matter of Mayfair Games & Elves - More OSR Campaign Commentary

Swords & Stitchery - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 18:50
Way back in the mists of time in Nineteen Eighty Three Mayfair Games had the Role Aids line of products. They offered an inexpensive gap to help fill in some of the gap that was left in the mythology of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition at the time. Over the weekend I got together with some friends to discuss  Elves Book as a possible source for my upcoming OSR Castles & Crusades Needles
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Solar Trek: The Orion Syndicate

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:00
This is an expansion of this post.

The Orion Syndicate is transnational criminal organization involved cybercrime, money laundering, piracy, drug and weapons trafficking, and the slave trade. It originated in the Orion Colonies of the Belt (a loose association of libertarian ultra-capitalists of unclear origins), but the current center of its operations, to the extent such a diffuse organization has one, is believed to be in the Jovian Trojans.

The Syndicate are perhaps most infamous for their traffic in artificial humanoids. Their "Greens" (named for their green skin-tones) came to the attention of Federation authorities in 2250. Greens are promoted as having heightened sexual appetites and intoxicating pheromones. What is not mentioned by the Syndicate is that the conditions of their accelerated growth and training often lead to violent responses and animalistic behavior.

Despite the remoteness of their base of operation, operatives and associates of the Syndicate are involved in smuggling, hijacking, and hostage taking in the high traffic regions of Earth orbit. Syndicate associated hackers are all concentrated in this region.

While the Orion Colonies are officially neutral, the Syndicate's haven is likely protected by the Klingon Empire who may employ in them cyber-espionage against the Federation.

Treachery Isle

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 07:16

By Kingtycoon Methuselah
Game of the North
OSR (LotFP?)
Level 4-5?

Nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted on Cormorant Isle!  And yet you find that you must rely on dangerous strangers if you hope to leave the Isle alive.  Who are these tricksters and what is the secret that they will kill to keep hidden?

This 73 page adventure contains about ten adventure locales on an shipwreck island, each with about ten or so locations. Imaginative, this thing is VERY hard to decipher. Fonts, layout, rules, phrasing … I actually had a very real headache after the first two pages. I’m going to count this one as a ‘Failure to Review’ … I just don’t think I got it.

I usually review an electronic copy. This one I had to resort to printing out, which yields something a little easier on the eyes. As I noted, it gives me a headache. The format is three-column. The read-aloud font is a kind of dark magenta or brown, with a grey background, in italics.  There are weird section breaks that are not obvious. You’ll be reading a paragraph and the words will just stop mid-sentence. That’s your clue that the section below is a major new section break and you should continue reading from the top of the next column to finish the paragraph you are in … an invisible section break. Except when there actually IS a formatting error and the paragraph just ends WITHOUT it continuing in another column. “The heretic has “ … clearly is meant to convey something, but it just stops right there. The tables presented look like screenshots, with a font, background, color that over the line on readability. You CAN make it out, but for your eye health you should not.  This 24 pages of the adventure, proper, actually failed to print the first time I tried. There is something STRANGE going on, none of which lends a hand to comprehension … at the table or not.

The game system is … not mentioned? “OSR.” A scale walls test is mentioned as a “d6 scale walls test.” Like, that’s the check, as in game system, or you need to make d6 attempts at a check? Other sections reference Search result 1, search result 2, search result 3, and so on.  I have no idea. Things kind of LOOK like D&D. Each NPC and creature gets their own full page character sheet (with something called “Primary Mode” with a symbol in it?) and a “Phys/Men” trail score … but it also has HP, AC, HD, Mv, Init and so on. I just … I don’t know …

The writing is … abstracted? Obtuse? Both? Your ship needs provisions, there’s an island ahead. Through the spyglass you see a battle taking place on the beach. Three ships are burning. You see the last combatant drowning the second to last under the waves.

Huh? Battle between who? The people on the ship? There’s no detail, in the read-aloud or DM notes, of what the fuck just happened, or enough context to infer. This lack of context to infer what is going on is a major, major issue throughout the adventure.

This is in spite of a summary, which comes at the end of the keyed encounters on page 25 or so, that tells the referee what is going on. I note that reading that summary sheds VERY little light on the goings on.

Did I mention that there’s an Exquisite Corpse label on a Lulu product? My eyebrows are raised.

“But Bryce, you haven’t actually reviewed the adventure yet!” Correct. There’s a witch, riding a giant sword, over a beach throwing fireballs to set ships on fire. There’s an illusion of a bonfire. It’s also a teleporter to other, REAL fires. Uh, there are knights, and places, and some Lashan, and a witch and … I have no fucking clue what is going on in this adventure.

I fail. The weekend is coming. I’m going to try again.

Ok, weekend over. Tuesday now. I’ve been through the adventure three more times and feel that I now grasp it, although I’m not sure enough to run it.

Your ship needs provisions so you land on the island, seeing the end of a battle of knights, one drowning another in the surf. Landing, there’s recruitment attempt by the knight to his cause. His group (they have a camp farther in) is here to find and rescue a woman, kept by another group of knights. There’s a small castle that you and they can rush. (From this point out they serve as a kind of greek chorus, getting killed, etc as you explore the island.) You could, also, join up with the other group of knights or do something else … at least that’s what the text tells us, although its not exactly well supported. Somewhere in this the islands witch shows up and burns down your ship, trapping you. From the castle, ruined and full of bodies, you see a tower. Exploring the tower lets you see four other areas, each with some tie to an element. Getting through those MIGHT get off the island. Along the way is a kind of animalistic dragon with mimcry in a lava cave, some leshen, children in masks (another chous, or a sorts, maybe) the witch, and so on.

It’s got strong allegorical ties then most adventures (ie: >0) and some great language in it. Buried behind text that is THICK to get through. A highlighter won’t work in this one.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $7. The preview is six pages. The last four pages show the first encounter sections. I encourage you to TRY and read page three.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

5150 Bugs Outbreak - Part 3

Two Hour Wargames - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 21:08
Bugs AAR Part Two

The Bugs are out and about and that means that from now on, Civilians could be Bug Brained! These battered persons have a wild and crazed look. They are crazy and are unpredictable,
but will always behave aggressively. This could be a fierce charge into melee or  a stunning mental blast.

Part 4

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

OSR Commentary - The Luz Dossier - A Paler Shade & Echo of Greyhawk - Campaign Notes

Swords & Stitchery - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 19:02
"In the Yatil Mountains south of Perrenland there is rumored to be a magical hoard of unsurpassed value, a treasure of such fame that scores f adventurers have perished in search of it. Find the perilous Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and you may gain the hidden wealth of the long-dead arch-mage -- if you live!"There are certain modules that I've been obsessed with for years & S4 The Lost Caverns Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

What Ho!

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 15:00

You've waited for it, and now it has finally arrived in soft cover. The fourth publication set in the richly drawn, a little bit Slavic, a little bit Vancian, all old school D&D, Hill Cantons settings: What Ho, Frog Demons! Even if you have the pdf, you'll no doubt want this handsome volume on your shelf.

What Ho has two shorter adventure sites, an overview of Marlinko Canton where this and the other publications have take place, and supporting tools like random village and frog demon generators. It's written by Chris Kutalik (owner-operator of the Hill Cantons campaign) and features art by fan-favorite Luka "Witchburner" Rejec.

Reserve your copy today!

(5e) Crimson Harvest

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/12/2019 - 19:19
By Andy Tam Self Published 5e Level 4

… The agricultural exports that once brought it wealth and decadence has since all but withered to naught. A group of intrepid adventurers has taken on the task the escort a vital cache of grains to the ailing town, but what seem to be a simple run-of-the-mill escort job takes a sinister turn for the worse. Ultimately embroiling all involved into a spiral of decay and madness…

This 58 page adventure features a cult in a village and about sixty locations in the manor home/dungeon.There are hints of an adventure in this, but it’s written like a linear plot based thing rather than a normal adventure. The benefit of the doubt would seem to indicate a lack of understanding of how to design a non-linear adventure.

Digging around on DMGuild, I was struck that everything there is either A) not an adventure, B) Some AL nonsense, C) Connected to the latest book. I went out of my way to find something relatively independent and came to this. The baddie here is a Warlock, in service to her patron. Nice! Reminds me of the days when druids were baddies. There’s also a civil war going on, with the village in question being majorly impacted. Muddy fields, bodies face down in the dirt, spilled blood, starving and desperate people … that’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s just gonna be used as a throwaway once this adventure is over, but what if it weren’t? Nice campaign regional.

This thing also tries. It’s got an encounter on the way to the village with an old woman trader doing some profiteering, a source of information, who also steals from the party at night. And it tries to add atmosphere, mostly by having a section at the start called “Atmosphere” with some bullet point ideas. And the entire concept of a village, starving during a civil war making civil hands unclean, desperate people, bodies down in the mud, a good ol’ hanging tree ala Witcher 3 (who also tried and failed at wartime) … ah, warms my DM heart. As does a certain brevity in combat encounters; only a few sentences each, on average!

Oh, and then there’s this bit right up near the top of the adventure, one of the few few words …

“Crimson Harvest is a dark fantasy story presented in the form of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure …”

Ok, no, it’s not as bad as those words would imply. But, man, seeing that can cause your heart to shudder.

The hook has the baddies luring the party to town. Lure adventure suck. They are right up there with Challenge/Test adventures. Then the guy who hires you will commit suicide rather than be captured, if you attack him. This is not going well. Really? He kills himself? He’s bought in that deep? And still passes for normal, enough to put one over on the party? Just let the fucking party capture him, who cares? Besides, the hooks are all lame anyway. Hired or assigned a mission or Yet Another Missing Loved One. My next PC is going to home from an extended close-knit family of about 600 relatives, just to mock all these lame ass Loved One hooks.

The read aloud is extensive. Extensive read-aloud should never be included. Can I say that categorically? Are there exceptions? I don’t know. But it’s close enough to the truth to say it categorically. Plus, it waxes poetic and flowery and presumes to tell you your character’s actions and feelings. Find some vials? The read aloud tells you open them and sniff. Uh huh.

And that atmosphere that I mentioned had bullets? It’s mostly generalized and abstracted, giving you little concrete or inspiring to work with.

But that’s all minor nits compared to the major failures, on two key points. First, it fails utterly in some pretty basic design issues. Like it wants to split the party. This is a fucking disaster for DM’s, because it ALWAYS leaves a group of your players bored and disengaged. The only way this works is if have the ability to regroup almost immediately, and that don’t happen here. It also REALLY hates maps. Which is to say it loves them too much, in the wrong way. Clearly someone put some effort in to making battlemaps for everything, nice and colorful and detailed. But the main DM map is a zoomed out version, hard to read. And basic information like “how many villagers attack the party in the tavern?” are left unanswered because the information is not in the text OR on the map, as the adventure indicates it should be. So you can’t run it, by design, unless you use the battle maps which tell you the enemy count and location … and then the information isn’t on the maps? And, if it IS there, and I missed it, then it’s not clear enough. There’s this weird abstraction of detail, like in a tower with a boy. There’s no map, I think, but the locations are numbered like there is one. But they are weird, like #1 is  painting and #2 are the aforementioned glass vials and #3 is a chest, like there’s a map somewhere of a big room with numbers on it. Feel free to stretch your legs and try new things in design, but you should also make sure they work.

The second major issues is the entire adventure. Or, rather, how it designed. It’s clear that the designer is going for a kind of open ended sort of thing, something akin to a sandbox/independent location that the party find themselves in. But I don’t think they know how to do it.

There’s a strong bend to the writing that is linear and plot based. This then this and then this … not quite that but about as close and you can without having scenes. The militia, as cult members, are stationed outside the manor home to keep the party out. There’s a strong element of capturing the party or directing them to certain hidden entrances. If this adventure is The Wicker Man then everyone in the village is right on the edge of clubbing the party over the head. It doesn’t come off as much as a village with a problem but rather a kind of armed camp ready to assault the party, turning the adventure in to a hack fest almost immediately. The maps have a strong linear dungeon bend to them rather than presenting the place as a “normal” manor house. Look, I hate simulationist stuff as much as I hate linear stuff, but this is clearly close to the plot side of the spectrum, too much for its own good.

Getting out of the 5e echo chamber and seeing examples of good adventures would go a long way to helping the designers next effort. Pruning back the prescriptive writing elements and either returning to traditional map/key or putting more work in to the color battle maps actually helping the DM.

This is $3 at DMsguild. There’s no preview. Andy, go create a preview that shows a few encounters so people know what they are buying!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Umpleby's Net

Roles & Rules - Sat, 01/12/2019 - 18:11
A 2nd Edition Umpleby.Among the curious, little-used, and often-derided B-list of the AD&D Fiend Folio, there is a monster called the Umpleby that is tall, hairy, friendly up to a point, and can put a real hurting on you with ... static electricity from its shaggy pelt. It appeared in somewhat rough form in the source material, White Dwarf magazine's Fiend Factory (exhibit A below) and got a clearer set of rules and rulings in the Fiend Folio itself, including more detail given to its hair net weapon (exhibit B).

No relation.The Umpleby is one of the lesser known Fiend Folio contributions that poses a weird, specific challenge, like the Aleax, Meenlocks, and so forth. It has a little bit of the mess-with-you factor from grudge monsters like the Zorbo or Disenchanter. In the editions since then, it has sometimes gotten dragged out of the attic for sheer obscurity cachet, like the Flumph but more underground. A long time ago here, I dragged it out as an example of a bad monster.

And where on earth does that name come from? Is it just a coincidence that one Stuart Umpleby was the co-founder of an early communication network -- NET-work -- in the 1970's, that used an instructional computer system called PLATO? A network that eventually failed to join up with the Internet like like ARPANET did, and almost got canned by Nixon for hosting calls for his impeachment? Is it coincidence that PLATO's terminals glowed orange? If true, this has to be one of the most obscure current events references in all of D&D. If Stephen Wood's not around to comment, perhaps a mystery forevermore.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Future that was promised

Bat in the Attic - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 18:27
Look like we are going to get part of the future that science fiction said we would get. It not a rendering but an actual test article that will do VTOL tests in SpaceX's Texas launch facility.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Scrum Con Feb 2019

Zenopus Archives - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 15:44

If you'll be in the Washington DC or Baltimore area in mid-February I'll be running a game at Scrum Con, a new gameday/mini-con in College Park, Maryland on Feb 16. My game is the In Search of the Brazen Head of Zenopus (formerly known as Return to the Tower of Zenopus), the same scenario I ran at North Texas RPG Con last June and will also be running at Gary Con this March. My game is scheduled from 10-2 and there are currently 2 seats left out of 8.
As a reminder, here is the description for my game:Forty years ago adventurers first braved the dungeon under the ruined tower of the wizard Zenopus. Fearsome monsters were overcome and fabulous treasure was recovered, but eventually the stairway leading down to the dangerous passages was bricked over by order of Lady Lemunda, current ruler of prosperous Portown, and new buildings rose in the area. However, Murray the Magic-user has located a previously unknown means of entry to the old dungeons and has gathered you all in hopes of finding the legendary brazen head of Zenopus, a mask reputed to have the power of speech. Meet at the Green Dragon Inn and adventure as Boinger, Zereth, Murray, or another character from J. Eric Holmes' stories. This adventure from the Zenopus Archives celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Holmes Basic D&D set.
Registration for badges and events is open at Tabletop Events and the cost is only $8 for the day, which includes two game sessions from 10-2 and 3:30-7:30. The available games are an equal mix of RPGs and wargames. Other RPGs with seats still available include Call of Cthulhu, a Star Trek/Dead Space Mashup, and Stonehell. Special Guest Zeb Cook is running a Return to the Isle of Dread session, although the seats for that are full.
More details can be found on the Tabletop Events page for the con.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solar Trek: An Alternate Star Trek Setting

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 13:29

Bold proposal: Take the "stars" out of Star Trek. Make it a hard(ish) sci-fi alternate history setting taking place within our solar system. Yes, this would lose some of the mission statement of the voice over intro, but it would actually put it in line with Roddenberry's pitch noting similarities to Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower (spoiler: neither series featured journeys to other worlds.). In modern high concept terms we could think of it as The Expanse meets Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

So, there would have been genetic supermen in the 90s, leading to advances in spaceflight technology unencumbered by democratic concerns. The supermen dictators would have sent out space probes, maybe even began colonies. (One of these expeditions would start the terraforming of Mars. Their colony of genetically modified individuals would centuries later provide the famous half-Martian first officer, Spock.) As the post-Eugenics War chaos ushered in World War III, some would flee the Earth to set up settlements elsewhere.

In the 23rd Century, some of these farflung colonies and societies are only now being re-contacted. Some have grown strange in isolation. Other have grown into military powers in their own right, like the bellicose totalitarian state lurking around Jupiter's moons, the Klingons, or the mysterious Romulans of the cold depths of beyond Uranus.

The solar system could be updated to modern science, or it might conform to the state of knowledge in the late 60s when Star Trek debuted. I suppose one could push in back even to the 50s science of Asimov's Lucky Starr series, if you just needed Venus with an ocean. Science fiction's knack in the era for coming up with creative ways life could be almost everywhere might prove instructive.

On the Top Ten Sandbox Locations.

Hack & Slash - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 13:00
You're in a D&D sandbox, you look around and find:

10. A giant rock carved like a skull. Cultists are rumored to lair there, and at night, sometimes the eyes glow as if it is possessed (or more likely that torchlight is reflected). Perhaps there are many levels of this dark place below.
9. A wizard's tower where strange lights and sounds emanate from realms beyond. Not many people would risk their souls in a wizards tower.
8. Rumors of great treasure and a hidden artifact are said to lie under caverns in the nearby hills. None who have survived the search have been successful.
7. A chateau is the home of a quite dysfunctional royal family with such wealth and power!
6. An old house, upon a hill. It's said to be haunted, those are just childrens tales. Yet people have gone missing and there are sometimes mysterious comings and goings.
5. A castle, ran by a reclusive old man. Rumors swirl about demons and blood magic being performed, but who can tell these days?
4. The ancient and hidden tomb of a malign creature. Those who have found it and returned, speak of death and horrible traps and mysteries.
3. In the nearby foothills are large buildings, several of them, of primitive make. Sometimes, if you watch, you can see a large shadow of some creature. Trolls or giants perhaps, surely. You've heard of the raids nearby.
2. A ruined moathouse, falling apart. Be careful of the large toads and collapsed roofs.
1. A small keep, with good folk, an amusing village idiot, and a respectable brick wall. It's also possible their ale is both well-brewed and affordable. They also are rather fond of folks, who happen to be of a certain sort of miscreant or wanderer. There's surely a cleric around, but I wouldn't trust him.

This list, along with any of these three hexes from ChicagoWiz, and you got yourself a game, ready to run.

If you think I'm a good writer, reward me yeah? You get rewarded yourself! You don't only get the feeling of doing something nice, you get some neat stuff, like discord roles and high def art.

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

More OSR Drama, Compromise, & Commentary - The Apocalypse Agenda & The Dungeon Master's Hidden Campaign Agenda

Swords & Stitchery - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 04:46
I've been gone for the day with sewing machine repair work & I've had to put the upcoming campaign on hold. I've been talking with my Steve's players via email & things have been moving along with an upcoming Castles & Crusades rpg campaign. Things are moving but I've slowed down because I started going over my old AD&D/B/X campaign notes. I want to use those notes for my C&C campaign. Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Rick and Morty Trading Cards Season 2 - Sketch Card Previews, Part 6

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 21:56

Please enjoy the sixth preview of Sketch Cards from our artists. Rick and Morty Trading Cards Season 2 are coming soon! Links to contact the artists can be found below the images of their work.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Adventure Design: Robber’s Bridge (Part IV)

Torchbearer RPG - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 14:00
Robber’s Bridge Concept Map by D. Koch

Check out this amazing concept map from Mordite Press developer D. Koch! This is really starting to come together!

If you’re new to this series, we’re collaboratively developing a short Torchbearer adventure.

If you need to catch up:

In our last installment, we nailed down some details about our adventure location, what treasures might draw the PCs to the location, why that treasure hasn’t been plundered yet and who currently inhabits the adventure location. Check Part III for the details.

I also asked you to supply your thoughts on how the current inhabitants have altered the location and what traps or terrain features could give the PCs trouble. There were only a few responses, but they were great. We’re going to go over them next week. If you have additional ideas, there’s still time, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below.

The Scale of the Map

Before we get to that, though, I want to consider the map for a bit. Looking at the image of the bridge itself, a few things leap out to me.

First, I think I want the break in the bridge between the Gate House and the Middle Tower to be a bit larger — enough to make it clear that the break makes the bridge useless. It may be that we just need to give the reader a sense of scale. If that’s the case, we don’t need to change the image at all, we just need to add a scale to the key. What do you think?

Second, I’m thinking about the ruined Toll Gate in the south. D. Koch elected to make that tower ruins so we could focus on just one tower and keep the adventure area smaller. I’m 100 percent on board with the intent, but there are some kinks, setting history-wise, that we need to work out.

A Little Middarmark History

Just to get you oriented: Vanskrdal (now known as the Gottmark following the Gott conquest) is to the north2See Vanskrdal, Middarmark, page 23. It owes allegiance to Otkell, warchief of the Gotts3See Otkell, Warchief of the Gott Host, Middarmark, page 30. The Bjorning jarldom of Vargstrond4See Vargstrond, Middarmark, page 23 is to the south of the bridge. It is ruled by Jarl Una the Cat5See Una the Cat, Jarl of Vargstrond, Middarmark, page 23, who owes allegiance to the Bjorning High Queen Astrid6See Astrid Yngesdottir, High Queen of the Middarmark, Middarmark, page 13.

Otkell and the Bjornings are technically at war, but for the past 20 years or so it has been a quiet affair — mostly skirmishes and raids, not the clash of armies. This, by the way, is why the Bjorning raiders have occupied the tower at our adventure location. They’re harassing the Gotts and causing trouble.

Also, we should figure out how the Bjorning raiders are crossing to the northern side to conduct their raids. Do they have a boat or raft nearby? Have they created some sort of structure that allows them to cross the gap, but which could be easily destroyed? What do you think? How do the raiders navigate this problem?

Why Is the Southern Tollgate in Ruins?

Back to the southern Tollgate. So here’s the thing: The bridge was broken by dwarven mercenaries 20 years ago during the initial Gott invasion. They did it to prevent the Gott cavalry from flooding across the bridge into Vargstrond and continuing the invasion. It was one of the major factors in halting immediate hostilities.

It makes sense to me that the Gatehouse at the northern end of the bridge was ruined in the assault. However! The fighting wouldn’t have reached the Tollgate at the southern end of the bridge. That means the Tollgate couldn’t have been destroyed in that war.

That doesn’t mean the Tollgate can’t be in ruins! We’ve already established that the Bjornings don’t have the engineering knowledge required to repair a structure like this. So, the question becomes: What happened in the past that led to the destruction of the Tollgate? Why didn’t it affect the Middle Tower?

We can use this to establish something new in the setting that the players can discover while adventuring here. Maybe it was destroyed by Ofnir the Black Wyrm7See Ofnir’s Lair, Middarmark, page 32; one of the depredations that led Bjornar the Grim to confront the dragon8See The Death of Bjornar the Grim, Middarmark, page 7? Maybe another monster entirely? Or maybe it was the result of some conflict between the Sakki and the Grælings? Or between the Sakki and the Skyrnir? A natural disaster? What do you think it was and what cool thing might the players discover or learn here? What evidence and effects of the event would someone see? It could lead to another adventure entirely.

Also, did the Bjornings erect some sort of wooden structure there in its place? Is it still there? Has it rotted away? What does that mean for reaching the Middle Tower from the southern end of the bridge?

The Secret Bit

Finally, somewhere in the Middle Tower we need some sort of secret or hidden entrance that grants access to the lower part of the tower and the underwater passage to the Nykr’s prison. What does that look like? How is it hidden? How does it work?

Do you have any other thoughts on the map? Any changes or additions you would make? For instance, I think at the bridge level the tower needs a passageway with a portcullis on either side and a ceiling covered in murder holes. I think that also means we need a stairway on the outside of the southern side of the Middle Tower that provides access from the bridge to the first floor of the tower. Comment below!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On The Thursday Trick: Underground Hazards

Hack & Slash - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 13:00
Underground Hazards (Category: Restraints/Hazards)

Trigger: Mechanical: Proximity
Mechanical: Light Detection
Mechanical: Interaction

Effects: Multiple Targets

Save: VariesDuration:Varies

Resets: AutomaticBypass: None (Avoid)
Description: The Sub-world is not like the world above!

Dungeons aren't supermarkets and there are dangers that exist only beneath the world. What features can be used to create interesting organic underground spaces?

Accidents and falling. This is interesting, because this hazard must be applied and telegraphed before used. Environments underground are not always smooth and level. This is naturally taken into account in every version of Dungeons and Dragons by the movement rate. It is bad form to punish your players beyond that for the underground and cramped movement space.

But that doesn't mean you can't use uneven ground. You just have to clearly communicate to the players where it is and under what conditions it applies. You can say "This ground is uneven enough that if you wanted to cross it at full speed, you have to make a dexterity check." You can inform the players of unstable ledges that could cause them to fall if they walk along them unless a check is succeeded. It's not that the basic level of these checks should be difficult, but that emergent events in the hazardous environment creates tension, tactical puzzles, and entertainment.

Note how I'm just assuming you would never present any sort of space without a vertical element, right? We're in the future of Star Trek II, where three-dimensional thinking rules.

Another thing that must be considered underground is light. Without a light source, movement becomes more hazardous. Stating that any movement out of bright light requires a balance or dexterity check can create an environment that feels hostile, held back by the characters light. This is extremely compelling, because it psychologically mirrors the activities during the game. They are exploring the literal unknown dark, and straying from their light is dangerous.

Again, not in every environment, and not by surprise. Variety is the spice of life.

Rockfall. Man, rocks fall from space under the open sky. You can sure bet they fall underground. Have a talk with your miners and dwarves about the stability of the underground areas. Some might be very stable. Some might cause rockfall due to the use of some sonic or thunder damage. Some might be so unstable simply passing through the room is dangerous. This should be another factor in underground environments that reward characters for playing dwarves or taking the appropriate skills.

Dehydration and Exhaustion. When Dungeons and Dragons was a more focused game about exploring dungeons, there were explicit rules to handle these.
RESTING: After moving for 5 turns, the party must rest for 1 turn. One turn in 6 (one each hour of the adventure) must be spent resting. If the characters do not rest, they have a penalty of -1 on all "to hit" and damage rolls until they do rest. Pretty straightforward. Adventures are heady stuff.

Flooding. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single cave, in possession of adventures and near a large body of water, must be in want of a flood. They know it's coming before it happens. Water dripping from the ceiling, deep roaring noises, slick walls covered in algae. Often the best way for flooding to work, is to have it be a triggable factor in the environment. You're underground. The cave is multi level. Popping the pimple of the water will change that environment, depending on the situation, to the monsters advantage or yours.

Becoming lost is too large a topic to cover here. Disease is also a serious hazard, but is its own topic.

Detection/Disarming: Falling and balance hazards just must be full stop presented to the players. They literally function as hazardous zones. By their nature and how humans deal with movement, we can easily tell the stability of an area and our capacity to cross it. (As you would well know if you ever walked through the woods and crossed a stream). The thing is, even if we don't know how dangerous it is, we can almost always tell that it is some degree of dangerous. Of course you can make an argument that there might be some hidden danger, but we are playing a game and designing an encounter. Putting in a "F&%k you, you're prone/take x damage" isn't fun, or particularly game like. It's not a choice, it's a tax.

Rockfall. Anyone with the appropriate skill or background should absolutely be able to tell what's going on mechanically here. If they ask. When presenting rooms with rockfall, make sure you note what's on the floor. Dust, small stones, loose rocks, a boulder, spiderweb divots and cracks in the ground. If it is a rock fall area, then rocks fall. Before entering any area where it's stable unless shatters or fireballs start going off, dwarves and characters should have a  handwaved check to determine if that is the case. It's more interesting for the game if the know the consequences of using loud, damaging, area of effect spells.

Flooding. Players are going to shrug their shoulders and move ahead when you give them clues that the cavern will flood. They will say, "Well, I've got to go on the adventure!" They will often feel that they have no control over when you will flood the cave. So it's important to present it clearly to the player so they understand the dynamic. Is it a dangerous area with the risk of instant death, not only from crushing damage, but needing a way to breath water? Will it wash the characters away? Will it destroy the temple? If you're using as part of a load-bearing boss, then it really doesn't matter, right? To make it interesting in the game, the players have to understand the threat, and you should be able to communicate it to them, so they can make meaningful decisions.

This post might be more useful than the entire Dungeoneers Survival Guide. If you liked it, and you'd like to see more monthly posts, please consider joining our hierarchy on Patreon for special Discord roles!

The Tricks and Traps series examines original and classic traps discussing how to present the traps while maintaining the agency of the players. A complete list of sources and inspiration may be found here. The Tricks and Traps Index page contains a complete listing of all the tricks and traps on this site, or you may browse by tags.
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Weird Revisited: The Pulp Core of Trek

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:00
I was once again talking about how I might run a slightly alternate ST:TOS game with fellow fan, Jason Sholtis, the other day, which reminded me of this post from 2012...

While I've enjoyed all the Trek series (well, maybe not Voyager) to one degree or another, my favorite has always been the original. It's very much of it's era which gives it a cool design sense and adapts a lot of Golden Age and pulp science fiction elements. The "core canon" for my game would be the original series.

(As an aside, I'd say that a lot of later accretions on the Trek universe have served to downplay the old school science fiction feel. Genetic supermen and a interplanetary sleeper ship coming from the 1990s does not suggest the 20th century history of space travel in Trek played out like it did in our history, but rather more like the imaginings of Werner von Braun and Willy Ley.)

I mean, what would Trek be without Rigel II cabaret dancers?

I wouldn't leave it there, though. The now-noncanonical animated series adds the Kzinti (among other stuff) to the mix. Got to have these guys:

James Blish's novelizations of the original episodes give them a subtle sci-fi lit spin: I think Trek is better with a mysterious Vegan (VAY-gan, alright?) Tyranny in it's past than without it. Always early fan documents add a lot of stuff. The Starfleet Officer's Manual and Star Trek Maps are definitely in--as are parts of the totally out there on its on but well illustrated Spaceflight Chronology.


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