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I Guess It's a Thing

The Splintered Realm - Tue, 04/07/2020 - 03:32
Here is the cover design for the deluxe edition of Tales of the Splintered Realm.

This is the black and white version. The color version will be forthcoming... all that time I spent looking at Mike Mignola art tonight is starting to pay off.

AD&D Session 2: The Thing in the Sewers

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Tue, 04/07/2020 - 02:15

The party this time was much tougher– a fighter, a paladin, and then a magic-user with charm person, hold portal, message, and read magic in his spell book. These new characters had just awakened from horrible nightmares as they saw in their minds eye a group of hapless adventurers torn apart by horrible demonic entities.

Back in town, the party arrives at the table and sees Zanzel Melancthones face-palm in despair as he puts away one shot after another. On the other side of the tavern a roguish gentleman wins a game of craps as another man complains bitterly that he must be cheating somehow. The players go investigate the dice and they seem to be fair. They don’t start anything. The rogue greedily collects his winnings while a cheap trollop brings another round of drinks to his table.

They talk to Zanzel and he complains about how hard it is to find good help these days. Two parties had failed to come back just this month! At this rate there’ll soon be no adventurers left at all, and then who would go on quests for him? Terrible! The party asks about how the other group died and he says they went down into the sewers and never came back. Meanwhile, a brazen strumpet was disemboweled right in the city streets just last Tuesday. People are staying home in fear now, they’re spending less, businesses are doing poorly– if this keeps on, this is going to be hell on his stock portfolio. If only there was someone to help him!

The players volunteer their services and he offers them 100 gp apiece to take care of this mess. He calls over two purple sash wearing extras from the city watch to help pad out the party: Gilbert and Sullivan. The players sally forth. They head down Electrum Street, turn left on Slum Avenue, take a right on Jewel Lane, and then head straight into Harlot Central. They find a round metal plate about two feet in diameter and maybe an inch thick that they pry up. The climb down a ladder and head into the sewer.

Inside about half a block north they find some loose bricks in the wall. They one out and drop it on the dry edge of the sewer tunnel. It makes a loud, booming, resonating sound. They take more of the bricks out and head down a tunnel. They come to a round room 30′ in diameter. To the north is an east-west passage. They go east and find the remains of several people. The number of bodies matches up with the missing adventuring party minus one.

The players go back to the round room and decide to wait for the monster to come back to its den. Before long they hear the booming sound of a brick falling to the ground. Then another and another. The paladin leads the way back down the passage to the entrance to the side tunnel and there is a foul thing leering at them through the hole in the bricks. When the paladin gets up into its face it recoils in horror and attempts to flee. The party takes advantage of their free combat throws to wail away at it, but their weapons glance off it uselessly. Even flaming oil seems to have no effect. The players chase the thing through the sewers until they realize they won’t catch it. Then turn back when they hear howling sounds.

They go back to Zanzel to report in and he is glad to help out. He tells them he has extremely competitive rates for his sage advice and that it’s nothing between him and them. He kindly offers to deduct the fees from what he pays them later. The players ask if they can rent some kind of magic weapon and his eyes light up. As he starts to break down various high interest loan programs he could connect them to, the fighter suggests that his paladin friend check in with the local church to see if they can help out. They go to the cathedral and the priest there explains that he’d get in a tremendous amount of trouble with the hierarchy if anything went wrong. The paladin pleads with him, though, so he goes and retrieves a sword that belonged to St. Thomas and begs him to bring it right back.

The party heads back to the sewers and goes back to the monster den and… [DM rolls dice, looks shocked] it turns out to be right there! The paladin leads the way scoring a couple of quick hits. Then he misses a couple of times and takes enough damage to be nearly dead. Then the players have the idea of passing the sword around through the group. The fighter takes a turn until he is knocked down to one hit point. Then Gilbert takes a turn. Then Sullivan… who gets knocked unconscious. The party debates a moment, then realizes that the paladin really can “lay hands on himself.” He goes back to the breach once more, noticing that the creature has largely healed up from his earlier wounds. Somehow he scores two more hits and the thing is killed even though for many turns victory seemed almost impossible.

The party collected their wounded and made haste for the exit without bothering to search the room. In the sewer tunnels, they heard howls coming from the north and threw flaming oil at the monsters. The splash damage lit their fur on fire and they stop dropped and rolled, giving the players enough time to make their escape.

The players escaped the dungeon with 66 experience points to split five ways. That’s 11 each!

Very difficult to run this game without lapsing into what’s essentially “Basic D&D… but with AD&D monsters, magic, and classes.” Not real clear on how the paladin’s protection from evil should work, either. Not too worried about it, though. We’ll sort it out if he lives long enough!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Holmes Portrait by David Crawford

Zenopus Archives - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 19:22

A fantastic portrait of Dr. Holmes in an imagined study drawn by fan David Crawford! 

David posted it to the Holmes Basic Facebook group last week and gave me permission to share it here. He wrote: "A little sketch in tribute to J. Eric Holmes, depicted here as a wizard (Zenopus himself?!?) in study."

Holmes studies a tome on his desk, while before him "is the ruined tower of ZENOPUS in the crystal ball". Behind him, a skull sits on one shelf of a large bookcase filled with books.

It really captures his likeness, and the black ink line art is reminiscent of David Sutherland's work in the late '70s. I can imagine this piece appearing with Holmes bio in the Basic rulebook.

Thank you, David, for making this.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Actions Per Round

The Splintered Realm - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 18:21
One of the key changes to combat between the other iterations of the current game engine (The TSR engine is my nomenclature) and the Army Ants variation is the number of attacks per round. I decided that ants and other insects act often but don't do much damage; an ant can attack a number of times per round equal to his level; a level 5 ant gets off 5 shots per round, or can run, shoot, throw a grenade, run, and shoot some more. Or any combination like that.

I really, really like this. It makes gameplay fast, but also makes winning initiative at higher levels tremendously important. Your fighter 6 is swinging that sword 6 times per round. This means that damage probably needs to get scaled back to offset this.

  • Small weapons deal 1d4 damage
  • Medium weapons deal 1d6 damage (1d8 when two-handed)
  • Large weapons deal 1d8 damage (1d10 when two-handed)

A level 6 fighter with STR 18 (+6) and a good magic sword is attacking at 1s/+12/1d10+12. Against a foe with AC 16, he is hitting 5 out of 6 times, dealing an average total of 85 points of damage. Yeah. That's a LOT. But he's an endgame character with max abilities and gear. I might need to figure out how to mitigate this some.

In Army Ants, the difference between bugs and predators is that huge predators only attack once per round, but their damage is much higher. So, I was thinking of a variation on this that creates more strategy and variety to combat, but which might require more paperwork. Here it is...

  • You have a number of attack segments each round equal to your level. The default is that you make one attack/take one action with each segment.
  • Huge weapons (like a ballista) require more than one segment. A level 2 character can fire a ballista once per round, but a level 4 can fire it twice a round. 
  • Spells take a number of segments equal to their tier. A tier 1 spell requires 1 segment; a tier 6 spell requires 6 segments. So, a wizard 6 could cast one tier 6 spell on his action, two tier 3 spells, or a tier 2 spell, a tier 3 spell, and fire his sling. You have strategic options every round, and every spell 'feels' different in terms of how long it takes to cast.
  • A quick weapon grants +4 to initiative. Small weapons are quick. (or d4 damage?)
  • A slow weapon imposes -4 to initiative. Any weapon wielded 2-handed is slow. (or d12 damage?)
  • Monster attacks would be tiered in a similar way; a bear 4 might have a bite that has a rating of S2, while its claws have S1. It could bite twice in a round, attack with 4 claws, or do a classic claw/claw/bite. A huge dragon 6 could have a bite S4 and claws S1. Breath weapons work the same way; every die the creature uses is S1. A dragon 4 might have a breath weapon pool of 9d10, but can only use up to 4d10 at a time. If it uses a 1d10 breath weapon, it takes 1 sequence, but if it uses the full 4d10, it uses all 4 of its segments that round. 
  • Ghouls are level 2, but their claw attack is only S1, so they get to claw twice a round. The creature is coded so that its rate of attack and options are hard-wired into the system, and don't have to be explained.  
EDIT: I just thought of a permutation that solves a lot of problems. Your initiative is the order in which you act, but you only get one action per rotation, regardless of how many of your segments you use. So, a wizard 4 gets 4 segments per round. If on his first segment he casts a tier 1 spell, he still has 3 segments left, but has to wait until a full rotation (everyone else gets to act once) before acting again. This means you can layer in other options easily. You can always use a segment to defend, increasing your AC by +1 for the rest of the round, or to ready attacks, taking +1 to all remaining attacks the rest of the round. There are so many strategic options! If you have battle cry (for instance), you use 1 segment to activate your battle cry, but then all enemies within range suffer a penalty for the rest of the round. Nifty stuff. This means that level 1 sucks because you only get 1 action per round, so drinking a potion or moving a short distance is a killer, especially against a foe of higher level that gets multiple actions.

Innovation in RPG-Land (Part 1?)

The Disoriented Ranger - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:38
Alright, let's talk games. I've been carrying this post with me for some time now. However, it's a difficult one to tackle (as you would assume, reading the headline), and it took me a while to get to the point where I could sit down and write this. As always, this is very situational, or momentary, as I'll explore where I stand on the topic as I write this, so it is what it is right now ... Here we go:

This is how it starts, people. For real. [source]Origin Story (of a post)
DISCLAIMER: I will critique some thoughts I heard on a podcast. I know we are talking opinion here. To a degree. I think they address some intreresting questions in that talk and I like Mark a lot. Doesn't mean I can't disagree and put my argument forward as best as possible. No hard feelings. Keep on fighting the good fight, as they say. Thought I'd put that up front. So I saw this talk about value with Cavin DeJordy, Mark Abrams and Cameron Corniuk. It's an interesting talk about how to provide value in the hobby, so feel free to see or listen to the whole thing (here). At one point, though, they segue into the question why we just can't reduce all our efforts to ONE game (or at least the established) and be done with that part to create content about that with a unified gamer base to address (Mark starts the topic here).

And I get it. If you only have one game or a couple of games, you have a broad base of consumers to address and the pie is big enough for everyone to get a piece (in theory). However, I had to pause right there and stare at the monitor for a bit. To be entirely fair, Mark brushes on what kind of games should still be written, and he is quite clear about what games shouldn't be written any more, but it doesn't take long for them to agree that anything imaginable is already done, and we don't need the redundancy produced by all those designers out there. I definitely do not agree with that.

For one, they seem to say that system doesn't matter. You can play a game about pirates with D&D just as easily as with 7th Sea is the argument they are making. It completely misses the point that we would be talking about two VERY DIFFERENT playing experiences, and that is no trivial distinction. Honestly, I get frustrated by stuff like this*.

I also get frustrated by people saying they always play the same game, even with different sets of rules, because it only proofs one thing: they didn't care to learn the intricacies of the games to begin with (not saying it is the case in this talk, but it reminded me of that bullshit as well).

[source]Okay, okay, I'll chill. I'll focus. Again, it's a segue in an otherwise enjoyable talk, and if nothing else, it made me think and share my thoughts, so there you go: more value. We also have to consider who we see talking here. It's a performer, a content producer and a guy with a marketing background, and they argue that they need something to riff off of. Fair enough.

It is not their place, however, to state that what already exists, is enough. Them saying that it's already enough disqualifies them right there. If thinking like that would prevail, we would have no progress at all and we'd have a fight in some cave somewhere in the wilderness right now ...

They also neglect that the only way to learn this craft (analogue game design), is by actually doing it and learning from opinions out there ... Well, a bit more than that. There's some crossover with theatre, media and language theory, for instance, and computer game design did some of the work. However, we are a far stretch from getting something like a widely acknowledged university treatment. So, what else are people going to do if they aim to learn writing games? It also needs saturation to allow innovation ... but more on that further down below.

Long story short, what's missing in that discussion is an innovator, someone who explores the outer rims of what is conceivable and pushes that boundary everyone else is comfortable with. You know those people. It's the ones that will tell you what kind of fringe topic they are dedicated to and what they are working towards. 'Artist' might be another good term for that.

I barely fit that bill most days, but I dare to think that I have an idea or two what innovation is and where it comes from and where our hobby is at in that regard. Or rather, I'm willing to give it a shot to talk about all that.

There you have it, an origin story. Just took me a couple of weeks to finally sit down and write that damn post (might end up making that a series, actually ... as usual, there's a lot to talk about).

Innovation, wtf's that supposed to be?

Definition-time. I'd say innovation is the process of pushing the boundaries of the accepted towards something conceivably better. Depending on your approach to the topic, you'll find different definitions and foci. It'll touch on subjects like ingenuity, inventions, creativity, art, chaos and design and the different philosophical, economical and psychological interpretations of said subjects.

Innovation be like ... [source]Doing just some preliminary research will show you quite fast that this is a bottomless barrel, so I need to set some borders in this regard. A special focus, if you will. Since we are talking games here, it's a good idea to take a close look at design philosophies like this one, for instance.

Language is another strong contender, or rather, how we tell stories effectively. The design of roleplaying games always aims to manipulate language with rules and behavioural patterns to achieve specific psychological effects, so I'd like to add a psychological perspective to this. Several, actually. To give you an idea where I see a connection , I'd point your attention towards the Big Five personality traits model, and especially the implications of the trait 'Openness to Experience'.

There also is a spiritual aspect to this (which the psychological touches on, for instance via Jung's idea of the Collective Unconscious). Since I did some reading into Daoism and Zen, I'd focus on that for now. I have talked about how DMing (for me at least) has a lot to do with the principles of wu wei (to name but one example), but there's also a lot to say about how mastering a craft will open a person up to the possibilities of a craft (like you'd learn in all Zen disciplines). In that sense, I'd argue that if a craft is adjacent to innovation, following said principles would lead to innovative results on the way to enlightenment ...

The Collective Unconscious and the mind. [source]In summary I'd say, that innovation in rpg land has a craft aspect (the game design), a personality aspect (the creativity, intelligence and ingenuity the designer can muster) and a spiritual aspect (the goal to permeate a craft towards mastery and enlightenment). The further down you are those roads, the more you'll be perceived as a designer, as an artist even (if someone cares enough to take a look).

There's one last dimension to this that I believe to be absolutely crucial: attempts on innovation will fail more often than succeed. It is a process or thrust of not one but all individuals of the social sphere that makes a hobby (or the part you interact with) and all of it is trial and error.

The exchange of ideas, and even getting it wrong, helps creating the necessary surroundings to create. Innovation isn't possible without it, and although we clever monkeys are able to do some of that by playing with ourselves, it's all the little impulses we can get that really help innovation along. It's the saturation I was talking about above.

The true measure of innovation, however, is undeniably success. It's just important to stress the elements that are necessary to not only innovate, but innovate successfully. There's lots of other factors that play into it and they all are necessary to form the basis for allowing an innovative process.

[source]Other than that rpg designers aren't really restricted by the/a market, as there isn't much of a market to begin with. The few attempts of "manufactured" or "guided" innovation we see the Wizards of that Coast and the like trying their hands on, are weak at best (I'd consider them failures ... maybe I can get into that a bit later on).

This medium (rpg) being as new as it is, it is still a bit wild west out there and while we can already see some waves of innovation in the last decades, the next big wave seems to take its time. But more on that in the next chapter. For now, that's what we are working with.

The Innovation of Roleplaying Games (short history)

The best example for successful innovation is that first game that started it all and how it came to be. D&D was such a huge success, it made its creators figures of history, if not rich (although there was plenty of that). The only reason (I'd wager) that TSR wasn't a success story, is maybe found in the idea that innovators are great at creating, but not so great at conserving and keeping a business afloat. It's different mind sets, and nothing you switch between easily**. Most Start Ups will fail because of that.

Funny story, partly true ... [source]Anyway, they kicked something off, and while TSR wasn't necessarily a success as a business, the idea of the game they created went, for lack of a better word, viral in the war gaming community. People all over the place took the ball and started writing their own games. A couple of the big ones (like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu) are still around, others had a huge impact on that SECOND WAVE OF INNOVATION (mainly Prince Valiant and Over the Edge, there sure are others).

What's the second wave, you ask? I'd say it was Vampire: the Masquerade, for the simple reason that it hit a nerve in the Zeitgeist of the 90s and switched what roleplaying was about from an outer exploration to a more intimate form of exploration (Vampires, the monster in us, that kind of jazz). That little change of perspective fueled by some actually innovative approach to the game design (storyteller driven, a more literary approach) open the hobby up to a whole lot of new people and games. 

The third wave, while we are at it, was more a technological innovation: it was the rise of desktop publishing and internet communities. It allowed for a whole different kind of saturation, with impulses coming from all over the place: The Forge, to name an early one, D&D forums went strong and started the retroclone movement, the OSR should be named here as well, in it's early phase a number of highly prolific bloggers. To an extent, it gave the hobby back to the public, which, again, led to some growth.

Arguably, this spawned a fourth wave, as a very strong scene evolved around one specific (and innovative) approach to game design. It's something that originated in the Forge, as far as I'm aware, and has it's strongest contender with the Powered by the Apocalypse games. The goal of those games is not so much immersion through exploration as it is about projection. Players are encouraged to bring their experiences to the table and share them with the other players while the games themselves step back and provide just background noise (I talked about the difference in a post, please go here for an in-depth exploration of that difference).

It is debatable if we experience a new wave right now (or the beginning of it?), as WotC enforces and encourages restricted innovative growth through commercialisation of all aspects of the hobby to achieve higher customer dependancy. It spawns a somewhat money-driven sub-culture to the hobby that consists of entertainers playing for an audience, DMs for hire and a heavily restricted  scene that publishes third party material. It goes hand in hand with the assimilation of the NERD into mainstream culture.

The whole fucking problem in one picture ... [source]
 I'd argue that we don't see an actual wave here, but it puts the pressure of commercialisation on the established and that might lead to some SUCCESSFUL innovative responses (we are not there yet, though). If I where to make a guess, it'll go away from rules-light and makes games complex again, just to make entry and participation a little bit more difficult. It seems like the natural response to protect the hobby at it's core (but that might be wishful thinking).

And that's it for Part 1?

This is a new one: I'm actually not sure if I said it all, or if there's more to say about this topic. I could go into that definition a little bit more, I could take a closer look at the difference between achieving saturation and producing innovation and having success with innovation. I could even take a stab at how to handle successful innovation? Not sure.

What I definitely haven't done yet is giving an assessment of where we are at in our hobby. At least not in detail.

For now, however, I'd leave it at what is written here. Spoiler alert: I don't think that we are done exploring in this new form of media. Not by a long shot. The difficulty is in growing it all into an innovative direction. It needs to be accepted as an art form on so many levels, maybe it needs to a sport, too. It also needs to be distinguished from other forms of entertainment, it needs a proper academical treatment, also on so many levels (studying game design, doing research on the benefits of gaming ... there is some, but the list goes on).

We'll see if I can come up with another part and make this a series. To a degree I'll let this depend on the feedback I'll get on this post. So what do you guys think? Did I miss something? Is my assessment in aspects wrong? Please share your thoughts.

Also, you can now read on with Part 2 ...

* ... and, just as an aside, there is only one way to add value to an endeavour: know your craft, share your knowledge and grow. Anyway, I digress.

** So, incidentally, running a business will restrict innovation, unless you find a place for it, which makes Hasbro (or Disney, or ... end of list) no good environment for the growth of our hobby, as the growth they'd like to innovate in is customer dependancy (which actually contradicts the original spirit of D&D quite a bit and keeps harming the hobby, although more and more people seem to flock towards it).
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Stolen Child

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:06
By Dave Tackett QuasarDragon Games OSR Levels 7-9

The pleasant town of Sligo has its tranquility shattered when a young boy vanishes in the middle of the night. Investigating the disappearance, the characters discover lost ruins and an ancient plot for revenge and a long forgotten enemy of humanity. Will the characters be able to rescue the stolen child or will a cruel, wronged race be able to wreak vengeance on all humanity?

This 39 page adventure details a two level guardhouse with forty rooms on a demiplane full of evil elves. It’s trying to build a fairy/fey theme, since it’s based on a yeats poem. RA is in the characters perspective and the ancient evil elves have no order of battle. Treasure is quite light and rooms have backstory. This seems like an adventure out of the early days of the OSR when the excitement of rediscovery of D&D trumped meaningful design.

So Mr. Levels 7 through 9, you’ve stopped in a small village and a child goes missing. Your do-gooder heart goes off to find it. You wander through a forest, find an island, and teleport to a demi-plane of evil elves. Because, I guess, it was in the poem. There you fight a bunch of elves who never leave their assigned rooms, until you find the kid, or don’t, and come back. End.

There’s an opportunity lost here, I think, to orient this towards domain play, where the village BELONGS to the party. The bosses can torment the village to get their taxes, solve the problem themselves, or assign troops, etc. That would have been an interesting idea.

A middling effort in every way, it starts out with describing three buildings in town. Fine, you don’t need to do an entire town, just the important bits. But the blacksmith and general store still has to go in to t detail on item availability and markups, with nothing else interesting, and the inn takes a column of text to tell us it was once called the Dagon’s End, with a pic of a dragon mooning someone. This is not the tight, terse, evocative writing style that I think makes an adventure both easy and interesting to run.

You’re supposed to go in to the nearby forest and look around for the missing child. There’s no scale on the hex map though, so who knows how long it takes. The town lays out in four hexes long by 2 hexes wide, and the forest is about 8-12 hexes away, so, I guess it’s a minute walk? And the lake with the important island is inside of two hexes of trees, so I guess you can see it from the edge of the wood? Or maybe not? The wilderness text implies this is supposed to be a long search. I don’t know.  In fact, I’m not sure why the players even go to the forest, other than “it’s there.” There’s not really any information that leads the party to it. Oh, a couple of rumors on the inn table mention it, but, ultimately, it’s the DM leading the party by the nose with no support from the adventure. 

A focus on going through the motions of adventure design format, instead of concentrating on what’s important for the adventure, is revealed by this. “Pretending to be grown up” is what I call this at work. People using big words and doing things because that’s what they think grown up business people do. A kabuki. But there’s no understanding of WHY something is done, ot when, and thus it’s generally just a time waster that doesn’t lead to anything worthwhile. 

Read-aloud is atrocious. It’s full of character perspective. “As you walk by” and “At first you are uncertain “ and “Someone walks up behind you” and “As you walk along …” This is quite a weak writing style, putting things in this voice. It’s far far better to describe just a scene, the environment, then it is to try and insert the party in to it. There’s little to no benefit to inserting the routinely, except perhaps  in special circumstances, It comes off as amateurish, pedantic, and removes the agency that a 7-9 party might have. And no, “the DM can just summarize it” is not an appropriate response. If that were the case then why put it in like this as all? Why not put it in a format that’s easy for the DM to scan and summarize? “Why, because that’s a spurious argument bryce.” Indeed.

So you make it to the island in a pond/lake in the woods and on it find some evil elves guarding it. That’s all you get, so work with that. In the middle of the island is a fairy circle of mushrooms. You stand in the middle and say “Shiek” and go to the fairy demi-place. How do you learn the code-word? Or even that there is a command word? Fuck if I know. Why is there even a demi-plane? Probably as a callback to the Yeats poem, which I refuse to read out of ennui. The lockdown impacts us all in different ways.

So, you teleport through and see a fairy castle in the distance. And then a bunch of elf knights ride out and attack you straight away. I guess they say you teleport in? From the distance that’s implied is far away? Whatever. It’s a guardhouse, the text tels us. But the elves riding out will be the last interactive things the elves do. They all just wait in their rooms to die, no order of battle. 

The rooms inside are just boring old things stuffed full of, usually, elves. Lots of backstory. Lots of history. An unfocused writing style. Treasure is quite light for levels 7-9. GOLD=XP! GOLD=XP! GOLD=XP! Jesus, I wish people would learn that.

The kitchen tells us “There is little here to interest the characters” Indeed. No truer words.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The whole thing could be a preview since it’s PWYW, but the real preview is nineteen pages long. That’s a good preview and gives you a good idea of the writing style for the adventure, both the town, wilderness, and guardroom/dungeon rooms. It shows you exactly what you’re getting, so, very good preview, and also happy to see PWYW.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Tower & the Shadow

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:00
Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the party pressing on toward the shadowy ruined tower (and forgetting their captive in the process). They made their way to the wall surrounding the tower's courtyard. It was made of an alien stone black as vantablack. As the party was peering over it to get a glimpse of structures on the other side, a monstrous black wolf whose breath was icy cold.

They found fire effective in combating the beast, but it seemed to be able to pass through other dimensions to move from place to place. It appeared behind the party and blasted them with its frigid, slaughterhouse-stinking breath. Most of the party went down under the assault; only Shade, Dagmar, and Erekose withstood it. Waylon had chanced to jump over to the other side of the wall, and so was unharmed. Dagmar did a mass healing, and the party dispatched the beast with fire based spells.

They moved into the courtyard and where drawn to a sinister looking stone shed. Waylon saw a treasure chest inside and was undeterred by the corpse of another of the wolf-things in front of it. He manages to pick the lock and get the platinum coins and opals inside, but then is trapped in the shed by a descending wall of shadow. He fills his life being drained away. He can't get through the door! He blasts it with an energy rifle and the shadow seems to weaken but doesn't give.

Dagmar uses a Sacred Flame against it, and again it weakens, but doesn't give. The rest of the part decides the evidence of radiant attacks damaging it isn't quite sufficient, and tries a series of other attack forms, as Waylon's life ebbs away. Eventually, they all switch to radiant attacks and the door is open and Waylon is freed.

The party moved on to the ruined tower and found several of the gloom elves waiting more them. They have a couple of captive members of the deer-centaur tribes folk caged with them, and then there's a door of purest shadow that writhes like a flame.  A Gloom elf huntress steps forward to parley. She suggests the party and the elves call a truce and go their own ways without further blood shed.

Shade demands the captives be returned. The elves are reluctant to do so; the captives "life energy" feeds the shadow and strengthens the connection to the Anti-Sun. The wish to extend the dark country of Noxia into this region. Shade holds firm and the Huntress agrees to consult their master. She walks to the door of shadow and calls out in a language the party doesn't understand.

The shadow of a man comes forth. It seems somehow familiar to them, but none of the party can place it. The shadow consults with the Huntress who bends her knee to it. She reports her Master agrees to their terms, but also wishes to speak with them. The party is wary, but agrees.

The shadow man writes upon a piece of the black stone of the ruined tower with his finger. The result are letters, black but now reflective and so visible. It reads: "You don't even know who your enemy is."

The shadow man leaves through the doorway.

The elves free the captives. The party also attempts to extract another promise that they won't disturb the villagers again. The elves reluctantly agree.

The party returns to the village for a rest with the grateful centaur-folk.

The Key Difference Between Old School and New School D&D

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Mon, 04/06/2020 - 01:33

The thing the really differentiates the old school from the new school in role playing games is where player choice manifests itself.

New school games typically give the players latitude to play whatever type of character they want. This ranges from GURPS where classes and levels are dispensed with and every conceivable character ability is broken down into point values all the way up to recent editions of D&D where there are a bewildering range of races, classes, feats, and so on. The newest of new school games emphasize elaborate player character backstories that the Dungeon Master is expected to somehow tap into in his campaign story.

But notice where all this choice for the players manifests itself. It resides almost entirely in the pre-game area. Players can be the exact type of character that they want to play, but in game they end up pretending to play a more or less linear set of situations that are already charted out.

Old school games in contrast give the players very little choice in character creation. You roll your attributes, pick a race and/or class, roll your hit points, buy equipment and you’re done. There is, for example, only about a 1-in-9 chance of someone qualifying for the paladin class. There is no guarantee that there will be one in a party and if there is one, there is no telling which player will be the one that gets to try it out! Playing an old school character is thus more about looking at what the dice give you and then making something out of it. Someone in the group is liable to be stuck with a “hopeless character” while someone else gets to play the best character they’ve ever rolled up. It happens! Dice are like that.

While choice is quite limited in an old school character generation, everything changes when play actually begins. In an old school game, the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything. They can freely take actions that aren’t even covered by the rules, set their own campaign objectives, pass over the Dungeon Master’s scenario hooks and set off to find a place that an improvised non-player character mentioned in an offhand and ad-libbed comment. Rpgs are like that.

One more factor exacerbates these two difference and that is of course the frequency of player character death. New school players can be expected to play their character effectively forever, so they require a lot of choice (and balance) in character generation because this one choice will pretty well be set in stone. Old school players are playing a game. If their pawn is “killed” they have a chance to come back with a better character or perhaps one that is more suitable to the current strategic situation. Balance between each player’s characters can emerge over time due to the law of averages, but only if death is allowed to level the playing field and cull the herd.

In general, the inevitable result of player choice is to create unused system and/or unused scenario preparation. A dungeon master that has created an elaborate dungeon will start the game at its entrance and limit the campaign to its exploration. Give the players a choice and all that prep is liable to be in vain!

Similarly, in the Moldvay Basic D&D rules, magic users get their choice of starting spells for their magic users. This one choice typically induces analysis paralysis in new players as gameplay stops while they attempt to assimilate the implications of a dozen cryptic spell descriptions in a game they are unfamiliar with. Old hands will typically just go with the most powerful combat spell and ignore the rest. Some groups are so sure about which spell is the most essential to optimal play, the choice of which spell a magic-user takes is liable to cease to be a choice at all!

I’m not familiar with the Wizards of the Coast strains of D&D, but I’m told that choice of which feat must be chosen is pretty well set by the “community” of players that surround the game. People that refuse to go along with this out of a desire to explore something different are looked at askance; their idiosyncrasies come at the expense of the party’s ultimate effectiveness.

With the Adventurer Conqueror King System I saw the same thing happen with its proficiency system. Given free rein, players will typically spend every free slot on some sort of healing-related skill. The entire effect of this elaborate system could be dropped altogether and replaced with AD&D style bonus spells for first level clerics and the end result would be maintained with far less friction. Player choice ruins that system just as assuredly as impetuous players laughing your “old man with an adventure hook” out of the tavern spoils the adventure you had planed.

How do you get it back? With randomness. The ACKS Players Companion contains tables with a variety of templates for each character class, each one embellished with a few deft proficiency choices and equipment selection. This allows not only for the proficiency system to be used as it was designed, but it also makes each new cleric or fighter rolled up significantly different than the one before. Which obviates the need for a great many house rules and variant classes as well.

Meanwhile, further back in time we see Gary Gygax utilizing a similar technique with regards to spell selection in the AD&D game. All the way back to Greyhawk magic-users were required to make their “chance to know” roll in order to be able to use a given spell. Gygax went even further, however, and made the four spells that magic-users start with something that is left entirely to the dice. The effect on the game is immediate. Instead of players collectively limiting the magic-user to just one or two spells from the list, suddenly almost all of the first level spell list is brought into play.

This depth and range and color is only possible because the sort of choice that new school players take for granted was ceded entirely to the dice.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

New THW You Tube Videos

Two Hour Wargames - Sun, 04/05/2020 - 17:44
What's in the printed Board Games?

Board Game Components

How does the Reaction Test work?

The Reaction Test
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs


The Splintered Realm - Sun, 04/05/2020 - 16:19
I working through my solo play for Tales of the Splintered Realm, I found the need to develop rules for chants. These are something that I've wanted to layer in for some time, but I think I finally have a system in place that makes sense. I also realized that these were perfect for Potato Bugs in the Army Ants game; these are subtle magical effects that don't have the wow factor of arcane magic, but which can provide exceptional team support. This allows for a number of new classes as well, because this can be an add-on to warriors (the skald), thieves (the bard) and even fighter/clerics (the paladin).

Chants are musical effects that you emit, and that you stack as you become more powerful. While at level 1 your chant only does one thing, by level 6 it is doing several things simultaneously. You must have at least 2 lesser chants before you may take a greater chant; you must have the lesser version of a chant before you may take the greater version. You must be able to move and make noise to use a chant; you cannot sneak while chanting, and when your chant ends, all benefits from it end as well. You can start and end chants as a free action.
Sample Chants
  • Lesser Chant of Regeneration. Each ally within 30’ recovers 1 hit point every other round.
  • Greater Chant of Regeneration. Each ally within within 30’ recovers 1 hit point per round.
  • Lesser Chant of Armor. Each ally within 30’ takes +1 to AC.
  • Greater Chant of Armor. Each ally within 30’ takes +2 to AC.
  • Lesser Chant of Striking. Each ally within 30’ takes +1 to attack rolls.
  • Greater Chant of Striking. Each ally within 30’ takes +2 to attack rolls.
  • Lesser Chant of Acuity. Each ally within 30’ receives +1 to Feats
  • Greater Chant of Acuity. Each ally within 30’ receives +2 to Feats. 

Eternian History Revealed

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 04/05/2020 - 14:00

Eternian historians tend to agree that aspects of the Masters of the Universe myth and literary cycle are rooted in fact, though the historicity of any given aspect of the corpus is likely to be a matter of debate. There several recognized strata of textual sources forming the cycle, each paralleling a series of popular entertainments on Earth. Earth scholars have been slow to treat the Masters of the Universe mythology as an area of serious study, in part due to the bowdlerized form of its transmission, but also to the fanciful, even frivolous translations, done to serve the needs of a toyline.

The name of central figure of the mythos, for example, is risibly rendered as "He-Man." While this is not a wholly inaccurate, literal translation of his title[1] in the earliest texts (which could be read as something like "Supreme Man" or "Male Exemplar"), it seems to have been understood as something more like "Powerful Hero" or "Mighty Person" at the time those texts were written. Such carelessness is rife in widely available translations.

The most widely known version of the mythology, forms what is essentially the "Matter of Eternos," particularly focusing on King Randor and his court. The term "Masters of the Universe" arises from this era and refers to the elite warriors, comparable to the Knights of the Round Table, whose exploits are primary focus of the various epics and romances. He-Man is central to these stories, as the secret, heroic identity of Randor's son Adam, who is otherwise portrayed as callow or even foppish. He-Man's inclusion is unhistorical, but the Randorian Renaissance is a matter of historical record, and some of this Masters of the Universe are likewise attested.

The historical He-Man is believed to belong to the oldest strata of tales. These stories are simpler and portray a more primitive world still suffering the effects of the Great Wars, far removed from the technological rediscovery and courtly sophistication of Randor's time. This He-Man is a folk hero, who leaves his tribe to began taming or reclaiming the wilderness. He contends with monsters and personifications of cultural competitors.

One of the key events in these early myths is He-Man's encounter with a green-skinned Sorceress who gifts him with ancient weapons and armor from a cache hidden in a cave. In some myths of this strata, she is referred to as a goddess. The confusion regarding her identity likely later editing of the stories to preserve the importance of the Sorceress of Grayskull or her cult.

The earliest depictions of the Sorceress/Goddess show her in a cobra headdress. Many scholars believe this to be an important and revealing historical detail, reflecting the continued influenced of the Serpent centered religion of the conquering Snake Men. In contrast, by Randor's time, the Sorceress is clad in feathers and associated with the Eternian falcon, the Snake Men and their cultural having been thoroughly demonized.


1. Initially the title was thought to have been the character's actual name, but it appears in other records of that era clearly not referring to the hero. Perhaps the Eternian chroniclers were unaware of his original name among his tribe. This lack of identification is consider significant by those who doubt a single He-Man existed historically, instead viewing him as at least a composite of several real individuals, if not completely mythological. Some have seen Wun-Dar of Tundaria as the original of the He-Man character, noting the similar stories told about them, but it seems more likely some of He-Man's exploits were attributed by the Tundarians to their local hero.

Long Rifle AAR with the Counters and Battle Board

Two Hour Wargames - Sat, 04/04/2020 - 21:03
Yes! It can be played with minis as well but sometimes I just don't have the time or space. In this AAR I'm leading a Band of 4 British Irregulars on a Scouting adventure and resolve the 1st PEF as French Allied Indians. Rolling for the number of them and there are five.

Long Rifle now on sale.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Board Games now on Sale - Save Money!

Two Hour Wargames - Sat, 04/04/2020 - 19:12

The first print of the THW board games should be ready to go later this month. As the 1st print will give us the best price I've opened it up to all gamers.

Here's a sample of the game components.

$30 per game includes the PDF. After the games are ready to ship the printer will send an invoice for the actual combined postage so buy more and save money.

After the first print, games will be $35 each.

Board Games
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[NEWS] Castle Xyntillan in PDF & What Comes Next

Beyond Fomalhaut - Sat, 04/04/2020 - 14:25
Castle Xyntillan
I am pleased to announce the publication of the PDF version for Castle Xyntillan. A 136-page adventure module for 1st to 6th level characters, this is a a funhouse megadungeon for the Swords&Wizardry game (and broadly compatible with other old-school systems). The module describes the three massive levels of the eponymous haunted castle inhabited by the remnants of a reclusive and eccentric family, from the soaring tower of the Donjon to the inky depths of the Oubliette (and beyond). Hidden rooms, secret passageways and long-forgotten sub-sections complete a collection of the dangerous and macabre from the gothic imagination – providing ample opportunities for exploration, confrontation, and subterfuge.
Castle Xyntillan has been designed to be versatile, open-ended, complex, and accessible. It is above all, a fantastic place – built on surrealism and dream logic, yet a place which makes a certain amount of sense if you look at it sideways. It should be entertaining, fascinating, and always a bit mysterious. Whether you would like a dungeon for one-off expeditions and convention play, or repeated forays and full campaigns, Castle Xyntillan should suit the demands and particulars of your campaign!
This electronic edition includes the following:
  • The PDF version of the module, with cartography by Rob Conley, and illustrations by Peter Mullen, Denis McCarthy, and Stefan Poag.
  • GM and player maps of the module, as well as a set of virtual tabletop maps, with helpful setup instructions by cartographer Rob Conley for Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds.
  • A GM’s Worksheet, used to track time and characters as the company explores the depths of Xyntillan. Adapted from Dungeons and Companies, a Hungarian retro-clone, and designed by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Andras Szabo, this is a highly useful play aid for dungeon scenarios.

RELEASE NOTE: At this moment, the main document is still a plain PDF, the release expedited to let people under lockdown enjoy the module. An update with improved cross-refefences and functionality shall be released at a hopefully close date.
As always, this electronic edition is provided free of charge to people who have purchased the print issue. (Available again as soon as conditions normalise a little, and international shipping once again becomes feasible.)
* * *Goings-on
It should come as no surprise that the Bat Plague has put a spoke in everyone’s wheel. Since I had doubts about the reliability of international shipping during global disruption, and did not want to make periodic visits to the post while a quarantine is on (for reasons part safety-based and part ethical), I also closed down my print store for a while. This is not an essential business, and we can wait.
Homage to Catalonia, 1697This is a time for relaxation, self-reflection, gaming, and background work. We halted our face-to-face campaigns, and started two interim ones online over a combination of Google Hangouts and Roll20. I am a player in Quarantine in San Escobar, a historical fantasy campaign using the Helvéczia rules, and set in a fantastic Catalonia in the Spring of 1697. As it is the way with Helvéczia, there are a few creative liberties involved – historians do not recall the province to have been ruled by a “Prince Franco”, nor have records of the black plague visiting San Escobar, a city close to the Rio Negro (which you might not find on all maps). But surely, the foreboding Moorish dungeons hidden under the dilapidated mansion of the extinct Macabre family; the scandal around the diabolical theft of the staff of Saint John the Reverent (a relic liberated by a mad Basque, who was said to have worked for the Devil himself); the duel where the French bravo Antoine de Castelmorte received a fatal wound; the downfall of the libertine Society of Smoking Poets (whose tower hideout collapsed in a grenade-induced explosion); the machinations of the Italian Auditore Banking House and its sinister enforcer Signor Enzio Conti (whose clandestine activities left a trail of bodies in pursuit of a cache of stolen gemstones); or the altercations at the Golden Ass Tavern (where a Castilian witch was thwarted with the judicious application of Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell, and her lackeys driven away by a pack of shadowy hounds nobody had seen clearly), all of these are tales which would haunt the popular imagination. José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera is afoot, and he is now a 3rd level Student!
The City of ThisiumI have also started a B/X mini-sandbox campaign of my own: in The Four Dooms of Thisium, the Wise Owl, the oracle of the eponymous coastal city-state, has delivered a dire warning of the city’s impeding destruction by the angered gods; and four dooms: one from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the sea, and one from beneath the city. As the Owl would explain, the gods had also prohibited the citizens to try and prevent this fate, or hire or encourage outsiders with present or future rewards – only those who would come to help on their own free will could escape divine wrath, and avert the four dooms in the remaining 90 days. Alas, it would only be on day 45 that a suitable company of adventurers would arrive – and that’s where the players came in. So far, 10 player characters have ventured into and outside Thisium, of whom 5 have met their demise in various ways:
  • Solon, Cleric 3, active
  • +Snorri, Dwarf 1, dragged off by ghouls in a dark street
  • Giacomo, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Thyrsos, Elf 1, ambushed and murdered in the mausoleum of the Vercato family by giant shrews
  • +Ignatius, drained by shadows in the lower crypts
  • Hawk, Thief 1
  • Krandor, Fighting Man 3, active
  • +Codilius the Sneaky, Magic-User 1; strangled to death by living roots while trying to clean a forest altar
  • +Alonso the Humble, Fighting Man 2; promoted from a lucky footman who had drunk from a font that gave him experience in exchange for increased age, he defeated the chosen champion of the Merchant Lord Mornalt Tamburello in single combat, bedded his daughter Hestia, and – sadly – ended his career in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso, where he was burnt to a crisp by the flaming breath of the idol of PORCULUS, an orcish beast-god.
  • Khamir the Enchanter, Magic-User 2

The list of followers is also growing, foreigners recruited from the Pickled Carp Tavern and elsewhere: of the 15 who had joined the party, 5 have died and one retired:
  • +Adalberto, light footman (Giacomo), burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • +Bonaventura, light foot (Codilius), killed by the rest of the party under an evil enchantment
  • +Sisyphus, servant (Solon), simpleminded but loyal, died to an orcish throwing axe in the summer villa of Raniero Galasso
  • Lorenzo, light footman (Giacomo), suspicious hacking cough but a good rear guard
  • +Socrates, light footman (Solon), suspicious hacking cough, burnt to a crisp by the idol of PORCULUS
  • Septimus, crossbowman (Solon), a dandy
  • [Oriflan, heavy horseman] (Krandor), a capable ally, until he was charmed by a rival Elf, and left the party in disgust when they killed his “old friend”
  • Ario, crossbowman (Alonso)
  • Philippos, light footman (Hawk)
  • Theseus, light footman (Hawk), who had his own retainer…
  • +Alcino, servant (Theseus), a lock-picker with a set of false keys, he was drained by shadows on the second expedition to the lower crypts
  • Adriano Amico, Fighting Man 2, hired from a friendly adventuring party, and capable of holding his own
  • Malek, light footman (Khamir)
  • Khamid, light footman (Khamir)
  • Hector, heavy footman (Giacomo), a dandy & current rear guard

The CoastlandsThe company has also made progress: they have stolen a golden harp from the Tomb of Badalamenti; explored the Sacred Grove where the Wise Owl holds council; extracted a great treasure (including a +2 war hammer) from beneath the ruined tower of the mage Harpang with nothing but a few food rations; defeated a rival adventuring company laired in the abandoned countryside villa of the Elerius family; thrown a grand fete where they hosted all of the city-state on a night-long celebration that ended in family tragedy; purchased the wine cellars of the wine merchant Fladevole, and established permanent access to the Thisium Underworld; gained entrance to the Summer Villa of Raniero Galasso (but had to retreat under heavy losses); and converted a band of brigands to the cause of Law, while also looting their considerable treasures. Tomorrow, the adventures continue – the discovery of an underground garden, and other leads offer great treasures and formidable dangers beneath the doomed city!
I hope to publish Thisium when it is finished – I have lately been thinking about the lack of good beginner-level sandbox modules, and how disappointing and limited these offerings tend to be. Thisium aims to be complex, broad, and a combination of dungeoneering, city intrigue, wilderness pointcrawls, and sea adventures – that is, a little bit of everything. It also does not pull punches, whether it comes to grave danger or fabulous treasures – glory and death await in equal measure in The Four Dooms of Thisium!
* * *
Publication Plans
With the ongoing quarantine, I have decided to go ahead and prepare for the post-Bat Plague period. While the consequences are still hard to fathom, and there will be obvious deep changes in the world economy and other areas – some quite long-lasting – I would like to believe gaming will continue to have a place there, and people will continue to have an interest in self-publishing, including my stuff. Accordingly, I have commissioned the reprint of Castle Xyntillan. I was running fairly low on stocks when shipping came to a halt, with 70 out of 500 copies remaining, and based on sale projections, a restock was in order. I decided on this in early February, and while I have closed things down for now, I am putting my money where my mouth is. The print and binding job will be business for my printer (a fellow gamer), a binder’s shop, and later the Post who will ship the printed copies – not their only business, but every little bit helps. I never did my printing in China to do it on the cheap, and I will never do it in China – as long as it is feasible, I will keep it close and friendly, and if it isn’t, I will consider POD options as a last resort. But that would, from my perspective, take away a lot of the magic that makes me love this thing.
In the Shadow of the City-God
(Hungarian edition)So we will work ahead, and print things as they become ready, to prepare for a reopening. Echoes From Fomalhaut #07 will be the first release after Xyntillan. It is done, proofed (a good idea, as I was mortified to find that one of the adventures was somehow missing a handful of keyed areas), ready for launch except for the cover illustration. Echoes #07 will include a module set in a glacier setting I am really proud of; a two-page mini-scenario involving a forgotten tomb under a cellar; one of the main dungeons from the City of Vultures, which had seen a lot of play over the years; and the description of a secret society, including a smattering of adventure locales you can use in context, or on a piece-by-piece basis. I am also working on the translation of In the Shadow of the City-God, a sinister city adventure by Istvan Boldog-Bernad. This scenario amazed me when I first played it, with its effortless combination of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, bloody cloak-and-dagger stories from Renaissance short stories, and D&Desque dungeoneering; and when I read the manuscript, with its no-nonsense, effective writing style. This is going to be a lot of stuff in only 32 pages.
After these two, the order of things is still hazy. Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes will be my next large project (and as the main city of the Isle of Erillion, something that could not comfortably fit a single zine issue), but in the meantime, there are two manuscripts that are close to done, and in need of illustrations.
Fight On!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Two Interludes (Because Backstory)

The Splintered Realm - Sat, 04/04/2020 - 13:34
Interlude One

I returned to the bustle of Stalwart Keep. The Recondite Society had heard rumor of my investigations surrounding the Burial Mounds, sending one of their lackeys, a thin, cagey, fifty-something thief named Juniper, to try and get information from me. He used his dagger to pick his teeth. It was, frankly, quite unsanitary. [Makes CHA check]. I explained that I was simply looking for one item of relatively little monetary value, but I would (of course) cut the Society in on 25% of anything I found. This didn’t mean I was a member, but it meant that I could be considered at some point for membership, and they wouldn’t hunt me down and kill me immediately, so that was progress. I would have offered him 25% of my current take, but that amounted to a handful of rat teeth, so he took the IOU and went on his way. I was eating a bowl of pheasant stew at the time, so my poverty needed no further proof. I did ask if he knew anything of the missing Rod piece that I had been searching for, but he seemed confused at the question. Never mind.
[From the first mound, Mimsby had earned 17 XP but no cash. Meh.]
I decided to peruse some of the books at the bookshop, seeing if I could discern anything about the secret door, the construction of the mounds, or anything else. [Makes Lore check easily; I will learn 2 things]
I learned first about the presence of a secret door in the tomb I had just explored. I was simultaneously humbled and heartened. Smart Mimsby for doing research! Stupid Mimsby for missing it the first time.  
I also learn that the next mound was made for the spy to the High Seneschal. These mounds were built at the end of the Kindreds War (really a series of skirmishes and back-alley brawls, if we’re being honest) after Lord Vontu died unexpectedly with no heir (rumors abounded regarding him and livestock. I digress.). Four noble houses vied for his title. In that time, the High Seneschal declared marshal law and took over the army until one of the four families could emerge to replace Lord Vontu. Eventually, House Whitebridle claimed authority, the Seneschal stepped down, granted a burial mound for his entire family. Seeing as he had no family (and no livestock were harmed, I presume), that was out - but he did have eight loyal lieutenants who had served him well in the tense eighteen months he ruled over the region around Stalwart Keep. Each Lieutenant received an individual mound, and he hired a team of dwarfs of questionable heritage (Clan Thunderkiller? Really? Nobody actually believed that, I hope) to complete the work. I was able to find some of the original designs, although the maps were crude, not to scale, and covered in scrawlings that included an improvised game of find the blugger and recipe possibilities for a type of mead derived from rat droppings. Again, Thunderkiller seems an overstatement. However (fun fact), the Seneschal was in possession of a family heirloom, a Rod of 9 Parts, which he divided (nicely) among his and his lieutenant’s tombs. It may have been cursed, and dividing it in this way may have cursed each of the tombs, and the remains may actually be unrestful in afterlife, and I probably shouldn’t be looking for this item now that I think about it.
Eh. I’m sure I will figure out the curse thing eventually.
I was going to peruse some lore regarding curses, but then the owner of the bookshop started to get sarcastic in his tone, suggesting something about paying customers and the differences between honest businesses and those whorish libraries, and since I could no longer concentrate with his blathering filling up my ears, I decided to set off and return to the first tomb. There was a secret door to explore!  
[This is becoming a novel in my head. SO much fun writing this.]
Interlude Two: Of Stalwart Keep
I have made passing mention of my home, but thought it was due something of a descriptor. Stalwart Keep is, to put it plainly, ten weight of dung in a five-weight satchel. It was originally intended as a mid-journey layover between North Brisford to the north (obviously) and Elsingston to the south. However, North Brisford fell into the hands of the northern ork tribes (we get it – they are north; stop putting it in the title already) and was rechristened Blood Haven (because ‘ork city’ would have been too on the nose, one presumes), and Elsingston suffered something of a setback when it was set upon by a dragon and large numbers of folk decided that living in an unwalled city in dragon territory was not the best long-term decision. In short order, a keep designed to comfortably quarter one thousand had been turned into the abode for either 5,220 or 3,897, depending upon to whom the question was posed. According to the official census, the tally was 3,897 – which the Whitebridle family brandished routinely to justify an ever more ponderous policy of taxation. “You want to live like a keep with 5,000, but we have fewer than 4,000 – someone has to pay for all of this!” However, 5,220 was the official population writ upon the application to the Alliance of Cities of State, which requires a minimum population of 5,000 to meet the threshold for city statehood.   
Whichever number was honest, the truth was such: there were too many damned folk. Zoning laws had changed to allow alleys to shrink to 3’ wide and ‘streets’ to 6 (curious, considering the average carriage is 5’ wide); building permits were issued to allow two-story structures to grow to five stories, and suddenly the family that had been living on the first floor (and was NOT about to move) was dwelling beneath a stable that had been erected on the second level, with an awkward ramp system to allow horses to travel to and fro. And above that was an apothecary, which was only accessed by a rope ladder, because that was all the room we had and you had best make use of what you could and stop complaining so much Elwick, you should be happy you got to open your stupid shop at all.
But Stalwart Keep was on a good mound, and it had a good wall, and there was arable farmland about, and trade came in from many directions, so the minor inconvenience of being routinely squeezed by your neighbors in all directions was considered a necessity for modern life. But the fact is that we were all packed in like so many sardines in a tin.
Therefore, any opportunity to stretch one's legs was welcome, even if (or especially, to be honest) that meant descending into the tombs of the dead to plunder their riches.

Mimsby’s Journal: A Solo Play for Tales of the Splintered Realm

The Splintered Realm - Fri, 04/03/2020 - 17:06

Inspired by this post by Dyson Logos, I decided to create a solo character (Mimsby, a gnome trickster) and use the Solitaire Framework and Tales of the Splintered Realm to do some old-fashioned tomb raiding. Away we go…. I keyed the map as I adventured.
Part the First
Having learned of a Rod of 9 Parts hidden among the Funeral Mounds of the Sullen Marches, I set out to recover them. I first entered the Mound of Remembrance, the rumored rest of a skeletal soldier of some repute.
I was able to pick the lock to the door of the mound, sneaking within quietly. I was met with thick cobwebs and ancient dust. I failed to notice the trapped stair just beyond the door, and I set off the spear that fired upon me from the opposite wall. I deftly evaded this, and it wedged itself into the door. I vowed to move forward more carefully.
Entering a main hall, I was attacked by some form of minor dust elemental that arose from the thick grime. I timed my defense perfectly, cutting through it in two quick strikes of my blades. It dissipated immediately. The tombs nearby had been prepared but never used.
(Note: Mimsby failed to find a loose stone in one of the alcoves that contained something of interest).
I continued northward and watched as rats scurried away from me. I entered what appeared to be a mundane storage area. Many of the less valuable possessions of the dead soldier were placed here, but they have long-since rotted and decayed. I found nothing of value. However, I found a fabric covering a strange shape, and removed it to find the carefully-preserved corpse of a war dog. It came to life and attacked me.  I was able to evade its bite, but I struggled to prepare my blades to counter-attack. I dodged its second bite, and my swords found their mark. I gave it its final rest. Another check of the chamber gleaned nothing of value.
(Note: There is nothing of value to find)
As I was leaving, I realized that something had attracted a small pack of rats that set upon me. 4 of them attacked. I still had my swords at the ready, and I was able to bring the fight to them. I killed one immediately, but then the other three were upon me. I managed to beat one away, but two delivered cruel bites to my arm and leg. (Mimsby suffers 5 hp damage). I managed to deliver a grievous wound to one and decapitated another. Only one remained. He hesitated a moment, but decided his hunger was greater than the threat I posed. As he leapt at me, I stabbed him through the heart. I rested for several minutes to recover my strength, drinking some of the thin wine and eating a piece of the flatbread I had brought along. I hoped that I would find something soon that would afford me a better meal.
I made my way to the tomb towards the east. The door was locked and trapped. I discovered the poison needle in the door, but set it off while trying to disarm it, much to my chagrin. The poison turned my arm blue, but I managed to tie off the arm below the shoulder and cut myself to bleed out enough of the poison to survive. It made me violently ill, however. I was worried the sounds of my screaming and the smell of blood would bring on scavengers, but I was lucky to avoid that fate. I rested again.
Once I had my wits about me, I entered the door and descended into the resting place of the old soldier. It was a casket surrounded by valuables – crates of coins, a variety of jewelry, a handful of weapons. As I perused it, I quickly noticed the forgeries. At best, the entirely of the chamber was worth a handful of copper coins. It was all fakery of the lowest quality, easily detected by even a mediocre fence. As I prepared to wedge open the casket, I was attacked by a huge spider that had been slowly descending upon me as I examined the chamber. I cursed myself for my foolishness in not looking up before entering this hall.
I felt the presence of the spider just before it bit at my neck, and managed to leap forward of its snapping mandibles. I swung at it twice, but my strikes met only air. It fell to the ground and charged at me, snapping viciously. It bit the ground at my feet, kicking up a cloud of dust. I decided to press my luck no further, whispering an incantation that loosed an arcane dart, which burst directly into the mouth of creature, causing it to combust. I could see its web 30’ overhead. I could see something bundled up there, and decided I must investigate. I first opened the casket to find a skeleton inside; this instantly came to life and attacked. I was not surprised in the least, and I drove my sword through its eye socket as it sprung to life, destroying it quickly. I searched the chamber twice, but I was unable to find anything of value. I was frustrated beyond measure; either the rumors I had paid for were wrong, or I was missing something. Either possibility was unnerving. I returned to Stalwart Keep no richer, but perhaps a bit wiser than I had been at the start of this fool’s errand.
(Note: He failed to find the secret door! Ugh)

Don Turnbull on the Sample Dungeon as "Coherent" dungeon design

Zenopus Archives - Fri, 04/03/2020 - 15:26

THE PHOENIX (later just PHOENIX) was "A British Board Wargamers Magazine" published by SimPubs, a UK affiliate of the company SPI, from 1976 until 1982 (36 issues total, which are available here on As Dungeons & Dragons ramped up popularity during the era of Holmes Basic, Don Turnbull wrote a semi-regular column for this magazine called "D&D: Notes from the Underworld" (likely a play on Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground). It started in issue #15 and ran for eight installments, with the last in issue #26 July/August 1980. An editor's note at the top of his first column indicates that his column will serve to introduce D&D to wargamers:
"I am pleased to welcome Don to these pages. Without much fear of contradiction I can say that he is one of the small band that first really brought boardgaming to our shores in the far off halcyon days of Poultron Press [an early name for SPI  Z]. His deep experience of the hobby is reflected in anything that he turns his hands to - D & D is no exception. It his hoped that his regular articles on this and other games of a similar nature will enable us all to appreciate what some amongst use are wont to call 'unreal wargames'! Note his comments on feedback — we are waiting!"Don Turnbull (1937-2003) started his career in gaming by publishing a Diplomacy zine, Albion. He was an early D&D enthusiast in the UK, running an OD&D megadungeon named the Greenlands (after the street where he lived), a few sections of which were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines. He rose to prominence in RPG circles working for White Dwarf, writing reviews and editing the Fiend Factory column compiling new monsters by various contributors, which he later turned into the Fiend Folio (1981). He went on to run TSR UK, publishing Imagine, the UK analog of Dragon magazine, to which also contributed a regular column. During this period he co-wrote TSR's classic U1-3 series of modules with Dave J. Browne and oversaw the UK module series. He next worked with Gary Gygax in his ill-fated post-TSR company New Infinities Productions. He continued to run D&D games - set in Greyhawk's County of Urnst - for his friends until he passed away in 2003 at the age of 66.

A photo of Don at Games Day III (17 Dec 1977) with the new UK printing of the Holmes Basic set appeared in White Dwarf #5 (Feb/March '78): 

"Dubious characters handling dubious material! From left to right, Bill Howard, Don Turnbull, Tony Ball and Rob Thomasson". However, based on the below photo, I think Don is actually the one wearing the plaid tie.
In 2016, Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop posted on Twitter a photo of Gary Gygax, Turnbull, himself and Steve Jackson (the UK one) in 1979:

The second installment of his column for the Phoenix (in issue #16, Nov/Dec 1978), is devoted to dungeon design, including distinguishing what he describes as "incoherent" and "coherent" designs, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. As an example of "coherent" design he cites a certain dungeon very familiar to us:
"The coherent design requires much more initial work. First the DM must invent a rationale for the design — give the dungeon a history and provide reasons why it should be more or less as it is. The new edition of the TSR rules [the Holmes Basic set  Z] contains a good example — the cellars and tunnels beneath a sorceror's tower which, since the mysterious death of its architect, are rumored to contain fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters. Such a rationale might be made available to the players, int he form of local legend perhaps, before their characters can penetrate the dungeon; or it might simply serve as the DM's private source of design ideas. Of course, the coherent style is far from convergent: there will almost certainly be elements of incoherence within it. In the TSR example, the sorceror's tower will have some areas of random or near-random occupancy — who can tell what monsters have made their lairs in its myriad passages and rooms? Was the death of the sorceror caused by an invading party of monsters in the first place? There is plenty of room for flexibility here. Once the 'history' has been devised, the design flows from it, and in my limited experience designing comes somewhat easier at this stage than in the incoherent style. In the TSR example, the sorceror would have had sleeping quarters, a study and/or laboratory, a trophy room perhaps, a library, some servants' quarters, a dungeon in which he used to incarcerate potential victims of his experiments etc. Some of his personal possessions (scrolls, magic books, artifacts) might have survived if they were carefully hidden. His faithful manservant may even still be doddering around wondering what has happened to his master but determined to keep the place tidy in readiness for his master's return. The trouble with coherent designs is that they tend to be limited in the physical sense. Even if the sorceror had created a large 'lair' it won't take long for a visiting party to ransack the place. If a designer is to create a setting large enough to keep his players occupied for a long series of adventures, he must thing bigger than this. Nor, in the end, will he be able to get by with a sorceror's tower here, an Orc stronghold there, a Dragon's nest in the interior of the hill, and Undead area below the local burial ground and the like. Sooner or later, in connecting all these parts to form a whole, he will come to the point at which the coherence drifts away — he may even come to a point at which his imagination refuses to conjure up another rationale."
There are interesting ideas here for expanding the Sample Dungeon, some of which I've touched on myself over the years:

-Invading monsters, still in the dungeon, presumably on a lower level "where Zenopus met his doom". Possibilities that come to my mind include Holmes' Dagonites (analogs of the Deep Ones), Ancient Builders, Lovecraft's Mi-Go (which I call Whisperers), D&D's Troglodytes, or some kind of Green Flame manifestation, which I used in the d12 Hauntings of the Zenopus Dungeon.

-Living quarters for Zenopus such as a bedroom, study, laboratory, trophy room (B1 In Search of the Unknown has one of these), library, servants' quarters, and/or prisoner dungeon. Some of these would more likely have been in his destroyed tower, but it does give some possible ideas for filling in some of the empty areas in the basement, or for a modified adventure set closer to the disappearance of Zenopus when the tower was still intact.

-A hidden cache of wizardly possessions. Along this line, when I've run the original I've placed an old "Storage Room" in the empty room south of Room J (the Spider's Lair), which I've been meaning to write up here for quite a while.

-A former servant of Zenopus still wandering about, waiting for his return; I especially like this one, although it is more logical with an adventure set closer to the disappearance of Zenopus before the tower was destroyed by the town. The intro to the dungeon mentions that some of his servants escaped the immolation of the tower and I used one as a source of a rumor in Portown rumors. I also placed a former creation of Zenopus as one of the wandering monsters in my 5e adaptation of the dungeon, and have former familiars (the "goblin figures") in the aforementioned d12 Hauntings.

Turnbull's later U series of adventures is  a logical extension of his idea of coherent dungeon design. And the haunted house in the first module, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh certainly has some similarities with Holmes' Sample Dungeon, such as a missing "wizard" and an underground connection to sea caves harboring smugglers. Thus, the development of the U-series appears to have been influenced by Turnbull's earlier encounter with the Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Basic set and his view of it as a strong example of "Coherent" dungeon design.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Weird Revisited: The Ahistorical Historical Setting

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 04/03/2020 - 11:00
This post first appeared in 2017...

Historically accurate Aristotle?A social media thread about bad history in historical costume drama caused me to recall an idea I had years ago upon a re-read of Aaron Allston's wonderful Mythic Greece: Age of Heroes. At the time, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was still in syndication, and while not particularly good, it did suggest the using of Greek Myth and geographic as a backdrop for a fantasy setting that might not otherwise have a lot of the trappings of Greek myth. For the most part, Hercules stuck to the big names, but there's no reason you couldn't get as detailed as Allston's book, but give it a wholly un-Mythic Greece feel.

The changes can be big. Reign: The Conqueror (based on the novel Arekusandā Senki by Hiroshi Aramata) re-imagines the life of Alexander the Great as a sort of science fantasy thing with giant Persian war machines and Pythagorean ninjas. Or, they can be subtle, like Black Sails weaving historical pirates with a sort of prequel to Treasure Island. (The difference I see between this last one and a standard historical setting which would generally tend to insert fictional characters, i.e. the PCs, into history, is the "high concept" of the literary/historical mashup.)

A lesson on Greek myth every week?So I say go ahead and run a Kirby-esque space opera based on the book of Exodus. Recontextualize the War of Roses to have it take place in something like Warring States Japan. Or take the history presented in the Book of Mormon and turn it into a hexcrawl as Jeff Reints did.

Let history be your guide, not your boss.

The Hole in the Sky

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Fri, 04/03/2020 - 01:30

Well I don’t think I have ever run AD&D before unless you count that one disastrous attempt to run “Roarwater Caves” from Dungeon Magazine issue #15 a long, long time ago. Times have changed! With many years spent studying the ancient texts and an all star crew of players on hand, now was a great time to seize hold of gaming dreams from another time.

My first encounter with AD&D or any kind of role playing game at all was with a strange kid at a YMCA summer camp that was willing to run a couple of elementary school students. It was a weird and very brief experience. The guy let us use someone’s continuing characters that were carefully recorded on this parchment-like paper. The kid that was playing with me wanted to crawl into the mouth of the green devil face, which would famously annihilate anything that was placed inside it. The dungeon master was mortified as his elaborate character sheet became invalid for continuing play.

But that’s D&D for you.

I open up with the players in the tavern. A farmer is complaining loudly that he is sure that the dragon has woken up early from his hibernation– much of his cattle have disappeared in the night. A ranger speaks very seriously about increased activity among the wild men to the south. Many of the signal fires can be seen as they communicate over great distances. Finally… there is Zanzel Melancthones drinking himself to a stupor at the bar.

The players ask who Melancthones is and I say the local high level magic-user. They ask me to describe him and I say he’s the sort of guy that’s liable to have to have 1d6 scrolls on him. The assassin walks straight up to him and buys him a drink. Alas, he gets a 01 on his reaction roll. Melancthones erupts from his chair, shoves the assassin to the floor, and beings pummeling the poor adventurer with his fists.

The rest of the party restrains the old wizard as he laments bitterly that no one believes him. With the other party actively distracting him, the assassin attempts to pick pocket him. The chances were slim due to the assassin not getting his thief skills until level three, but the roll was a 20 on percentile dice and I declared that he managed to pilfer two scrolls off the old guy! The casting of a read magic spell would later determine that the scrolls contained lightning bolt and protection from magic. Kind of a nutso haul right out of the gate, but okay!

The wizard takes them to his tower and shows the party this amazing device he created– it’s a long tube with glass on each end. He claims it can allow you to see far away places as if they were nearby. A player magic-user then takes the device and sure enough views the northern jungles, the western hills, and the southern sea as if they were just across the street. But then in this other direction which he can only describe as “yonder”… well, the player magic-user can’t seem to find it. But the second player magic-user can. There it is… the hole in the sky!

The players are hired to go check it out. 50 gold pieces now and 500 when they come back with news of the place. Also they manage to borrow a patented Melancthones’s Magic Farseeing Tube and gratefully accept his offer to pay for their horse rental. They set off into the yonder. After a days ride they encounter a pack of some kind of howling dogs. They confront them, kill one, injure another and send them packing. As they travel on they hear in the distance the dim sound of horns which are off key, followed by screams.

The players reach the ends of the earth. The see that there really is a hole in the sky. The edge of the world slopes upward gradually. A magic-user strikes it to no effect and then laments not having any iron spikes to hammer into it. The party takes stock and realizes they only have half as much rope to reach the hole. The assassin runs back to the farmsteads and takes another 50′ of rope from a barn. Meanwhile the rest of the characters throw rocks into the hole. They hear the strange horns coming from the hole and hear screams there, so they throw a rock with light cast on it up into the hole. Even with Melancthones’s Magic Farseeing Tube they cannot see what is happening inside.

The party is stumped about how to reach the hole in the sky until he recalls that he can cast Spider Climb. He takes out a vial with three live spiders inside and eats one of them. Then he consults the players handbook and calculates that he will only make it half way up! The thief elects to climb the celestial dome up to the hole in the sky and makes it up there, then calls down, “you ate a spider for nothing!” The 80′ x 100′ room he is in is filled with dried old vines covering everything. He ties the rope to them and the party makes it inside.

They note that the floor, walls, and ceiling are perfectly flat, perhaps made from some sort of metal. There is a lever next to the hole in the sky which the assassin impulsively pulls. The hole snaps shut as flat metal plates spiral into place. The rope is unfortunately cut in the process. The players are left with about an eight foot length.

With a bulls-eye lantern to light the way, the party elects to explore one of four strange passages leading from the room.  These passages are neither man-made looking nor like natural caves. The angles of everything are in all directions, not quite crystalline. After a while the party experiences a moment of vertigo, wondering if there is something non-Euclidean about the shapes of the passageways.

The passage begins to slope downward and then gradually begins to widen. The party comes to a stream formed from a foul, oily liquid oozing out of cracks in the walls. The assassin attempts to set it on fire with his flint and steel, but nothing happens. When the party jumps over the stream, they hear the blaring sound of the out of tune trumpets… and then screams. In the pulse of a sort of strobe light they see humanoid forms coming towards them.

The players discuss various options including something involving flaming oil, but then decide to hold their position and wait for these things to arrive. I rule that weapon length determines who goes first. The players manage to take out two of the seven humanoid things. When killed, they disappear in a puff of greasy vapor. The monsters manage to drop a magic-user and knock the thief down to one hit point. Looks like trouble! The players discuss their options, maybe fleeing or even just jumping back across the stream. The cleric offers to cover everyone’s escape, but then the thief points out that he is the only hope to save the mage. The mage who has run a very faithful AD&D campaign points out that the rules for retreats are not favorable. The players may as well stand and fight!

In the next round, the players lose initiative and the monsters take down everyone but the cleric. The cleric had previously told everyone not to worry, he has a back up deity. In this dire moment before his final act of the game, he holds aloft a very beautiful hard back book about everybody’s favorite game. The cleric says he appeals to the creator of this tome for divine assistance. I regretfully inform him that it has no effect. He rolls his attack and it comes out to a natural 1. He then falls in the mass of screaming, howling creatures that claw and bite him to pieces. His last conscious thought being to wonder if such things are capable of consuming his very soul.

Rest in peace:

  • James King, Human Cleric, 5 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Azirian, Human Magic-User, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Zordak, Human Assassin, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Verrod, Human Thief, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Tundar Neverflim, 3 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.

Killed by screaming, humanoid monsters in the hole in the sky.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

MTDAA Twilight Issue 2 Now Posted

The Splintered Realm - Thu, 04/02/2020 - 16:04
The second issue of MTDAA: Twilight is now posted. 

I like how this turned out... the termites are nice and crazy, just as I wanted them.

It's PWYW, and uses the Solitaire Framework.

It has solo rules, so you can play today - even if you are stuck under a quarantine.

So that's something!

And urmugurd, I just realized this is my 700th posting! Go me.


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