Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Archival Post

Porky makes my archival posts look stupid.  Read this.  At no charge, How to Succeed in RPGs or Die Trying can send professional mourners to weep for the rest of your lost day.

I only had time to glance at it, but I snatched up the Goblin Market pdf and the shoggoth PC race writeup.

Like I said.  Read it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: The Brinicle Ice-Finger of Death

Observe:


As noted in the comments (and in this article), this forms in very specific conditions.  Temperatures have to be just right so that a column of air pushes down brine and ice crystals.  The ice crystals follow the salt, creating a corridor that freezes as the salt falls downward.

Of course, magic makes the impossible possible, so it's not unlikely to find this sort of creeping, icy doom in the weird corners of the world.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Creed of the Broken Chain

The inscrutable cultists and terrorists of the Broken Chain have been known in the Sorrowfell Plains only since the Cackledread War, and yet their presence has been notable.  Their secrets remain, unyielding to scrutiny, as they typically die rather than surrender.

Still, exceptions do take place.  In an attack on the Citadel of Sorgforge a couple of years ago, one member of the Broken Chain was captured alive.  He refused to answer any questions, instead repeating the same creed over and over again.  He died in custody when he willfully inhaled his own water glass, silently drowning to death in his cell.

Still, the creed has been recorded, and is presumed to be a standard creed of the Broken Chain.

I am the dagger poised at the heart of the abyss
I am the key by which the prison is opened
I am the hammer by which the chains are broken
By my hand I do the deed
By my will the world is freed

Scholars do not know whether the creed refers to a metaphorical abyss or the Abyss proper.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Beer


I recently had the distinct pleasure of editing The Blasphemous Brewery of Pilz, now available at Digital Orc.  The crux of the adventure is a beer shortage, and the PCs are sent to handle the situation.  As I noted in my comments, there is a dearth of beer-themed modules for medieval fantasy settings, which is odd because beer is highly important historically.  Beer is one of the first instances of biotechnology, and many of the premises used in brewing formed the basis of modern biotechnology.  Really, if you want to make, say, human growth hormone, you no longer harvest it from humans, you culture it in a yeast or E. coli vector, grow it in a bioreactor, and harvest.  Those are the basic steps of beer production — throw some stuff in a bioreactor (maybe like a sealed barrel), let the yeast go to work, and obtain alcohol.

As has been noted elsewhere, beer was safer than water for most of human history, and the ancient Egyptians even used beer as a bargaining tool during a labor strike.  If this is your first time on planet Earth, we're humans and we like our beer.

Though the beer isn't emphasized, taverns are ubiquitous in fantasy fiction and roleplaying games, best exemplified by the fantasy trope of meeting in a tavern.  As noted in the link, this makes sense — the tavern hall is really the social heart of the town.  Community leaders who wish to be available might make themselves known there, though they will likely choose, say, Cheers over Chalmun's Cantina (however, note that both bars use the "meeting in a tavern" trope).

As such, it would make a lot of sense that beer would be an important aspect of life.  Merchant caravans and trading houses probably deal in the stuff, monasteries and dwarven brewmasters are probably major suppliers (though plenty of taverns probably brew a house beer), and any interruption in supply would be a major problem, requiring the intervention of government officials and adventuring parties.  Fantasy settings allow for odd varieties of beer (like the mushroom-based brews from the monastery of Pilz in Blasphemous Brewery, or even stranger blends with possible enchantments and other effects), and the ever-present guilds would probably get involved.  The idea of a trading guild based solely around beer is likely — Blasphemous Brewery's dilemma is a crisis for the Tavern Masters Union — and with all these supply lines and monopolies, trouble is probably inevitable.  The rise in crime and other aftereffects of the United States' Noble Experiment are well-documented, and that's before you get into the dangers of a medieval life where beer is likely a major form of recreation and cultural identity.  Riots and uprisings are likely — they certainly happened in Bavaria and Chicago.

For that matter, keeping with the revolutionary theme that has been mentioned on this blog, maybe a party of adventurers will break the Tavern Masters Union's hegemony...

When next you contemplate adventure seeds, maybe you should take a second look at beer.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Some Musings on D&D 4e

I've been playing D&D 4e for a few months now, so I can actually consider it, particularly in light of the complaints about it.

It's good.  It's not my favorite system, but it's grown on me.  It's not quite as crazy or gonzo as older editions, but it's still very much the weird fantasy mash-up suggested by older editions and personal anecdotes.  It still strikes the axis of "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."  I'm a tiger-man with a beat-stick and you're Tinkerbell with a magic wand.

That having been said, many of the complaints are valid.  Fights are fast in oD&D, but 4e fights are frequently at least an hour long.  Character progression is a little more compressed and things are a bit more linear.  The video game metaphor is apt.  There's not a whole lot of wiggle room — ten fights equals a level, and there's a certain budget of action in that level.

Another niggling detail: 4e PCs are high-powered. Previous editions featured people who learned a little magic or picked up swords and decided to make a living, but 4e PCs are destined for greatness. A first-level PC in 4e is more competent than one in any other edition — 3e and lower tended toward the murderhobo genre of guys who arm themselves simply to get gold. They engage in risky ventures, and will either die on the longest road or retire, likely with incredible wealth and power (both temporal and personal — the king probably isn't 20th level, but you are).

Of course, it's a game played by individuals.  This structure is not set in stone.  Despite the fact that I'm a fan of fast and deadly combat that runs in the background, the tactical setpiece battles of 4e have their own charm.  I'm used to running linear-ish plots, but there are always options — wander around in my plot, or go do your own thing.  I'm prepared for people to go off the rails, and then we'll start with random encounters and random dungeons and the exploratory grotesqueries that entails.

As for the lack of wiggle room — damn the wiggle room!  I use treasure parcels, but if it makes sense for more or less treasure to exist, then it happens.  The economy is static, but the PCs in my game buy and sell and haggle with abandon.  If you want to try to compete with the merchants, you can — but they've been doing this longer than you, and they know how to eke out a living doing it.  Can you compete?  Maybe.

The merchant, thing, by the way, is the real reason I wrote this — it's a rules thing (the economy is static so characters have a set, relatively predictable power progression), but it suggests certain things about 4e.  In the post-apocalyptic waste after the fall of Nerath, the merchants hold all the power.  Merchant caravans can travel the empty places between towns with near-impunity, because they have the resources necessary to defend themselves.  The merchant caravans and marketplaces hold a near-monopoly on everything, fixing prices at a certain rate.  If outsiders try to break into the market, they find it highly-difficult to compete — they'll be selling goods and services at little profit or even at a loss.  Many things that merchants sell are only really of utility to other adventurers; as such, adventurers breaking into the business have to find other adventuring parties to build a customer base.  Really, if you're not part of an established merchant house, your best bet is adventuring, which is just as risky as one would expect.  It almost seems like somebody should do something to break the merchants' stranglehold over the economy.

Anyway, 4e has grown on me, but I still find it a touch restrictive to run.  Playing doesn't really suffer from this problem, as I'm just following whatever adventure hooks are available.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blogroll Eggroll

Here's some neat stuff.

Over at Porky's Expanse, here's a post about plasma cosmology.  Ride the lightning!

Over at Book Scorpion's Lair, here's a post about how mirages aren't illusions; they're portals.

Over at D&D With Porn Stars, here's a post about mashing up Blue Rose and Small but Vicious Dog.  Here's another post about combining Metamorphosis Alpha with Castle Amber.

My copy of the Planescape box set is on the way, just in time for me to play Planescape: Torment twelve years behind the rest of humanity.  Time has obviously looped upon itself in some terrible Gordian Knot.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Persons of Interest: Saint Moses the Black

In Wednesday's post about the Yogi class at Dungeons & Digressions, I made reference to Milarepa, a Tibetan ascetic who began his life as an evil sorcerer.  After taking revenge on his aunt and uncle by leveling their house and village with hailstones, he repented and spent the next several years seeking enlightenment.

Of course, that story reminded me of the tale of Saint Moses the Black.

St. Moses the Black

Like Milarepa, Saint Moses is another historical figure with a checkered past.  As with Milarepa, I include him here because he's interesting, and because learning history and world culture is good for you.  Also, if you want an interesting backstory for your cleric, or an interesting possible future for your cutpurse or murderer, you could do worse than emulate Moses.

Or you could always go the St. Cuthbert route and actually have your character venerate St. Moses.  Whatever floats your boat.

First, the typical rundown of articles.  Saint Moses is all over the internet, but you can find some more detailed information on Wikipedia (always a good start), OrthodoxWiki, the Order of the Prémontré, and Badass of the Week.  Or just do a Google search; he's pretty well known.

Anyway, Moses the Black is an Eastern Orthodox saint (he was a Coptic monk himself), and according to Cracked.com, he was inspiration for Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction (scroll down to #5; you'll see it).  This is a completely reasonable claim.

Moses the Black was a slave of an Egyptian bureaucrat, and his master discharged him on suspicion of theft.  Moses then proceeded to organize a bandit gang and pillage the Egyptian countryside.

When hiding from the authorities, Moses sought sanctuary at a monastery in Skete.  He was so taken with the way of life there that he became a monk himself.  It was not a painless process — his old life as a brigand was still calling — but he managed.  One of the often-retold tales is that robbers crept into his room and attacked him; he managed to subdue each of them.  He bound them and brought them to the other monks, saying he supposed it would not be Christian of him to kill them.  The bandits were so overcome by this that they repented and joined the monastic community.

Moses was eventually ordained as a priest and became an abbot himself.

When word came that the Berbers were to attack his monastery, he forbade anyone to take up arms, instead telling them to flee.  All but seven did.  When the Berbers attacked, he stuck to his nonviolent path, having presumed long ago that he would die a violent death as he had inflicted on others.

All eight monks died martyrs.

So there you go; a little history lesson for today.  More fodder for the idea of nonviolent character classes, and possible inspiration for any multiclass fighter/clerics out there.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: The Root of All Evil

This could fuel a whole campaign.

Arms dealing is fairly ubiquitous in modern society — go look at that list on TV Tropes and you'll likely recognize something, from Lord of War to Iron Man to EarthBound.  The World of Darkness gets a treatment of the subject in Armory, Armory Reloaded, and Dogs of War.  Shadowrun is basically built on arms dealing — what mega-corporation isn't running guns on the side? — so modern and near-future settings have everything well in hand.

What about fantasy settings and settings taking place in the past?

This post over at Porky's Expanse discusses the prospect of funding warfare.  Furthermore, Porky also notes that most fantasy types tend to back one faction over another during warfare (typically for ideological reasons), but someone selling equipment to both sides is going to increase profits significantly.

That post also links to this post at Hill Cantons, where he talks about a youthful, ham-handed campaign prompting the player characters to back insurrections and overthrow the rulers throughout Oerth.

Likewise, one could combine the above concepts of arms dealing and class warfare with the topic of a previous post at Porky's Expanse, that of inflation.  It is a common observation that the influx of gold supplied by adventurers would unbalance economies and promote runaway inflation, eventually leading to some economic timult.

Combine all these things, and you have a full campaign.  The PCs are adventurers who, upon amassing some gold, decide to get into the lucrative world of arms dealing.  They spark some insurrections, finance some warfare, and make some money.  Meanwhile, these wars are tearing apart the countryside, and the excess gold dumped into local economy has devalued the currency to the point that a loaf of bread is ten gold.  This chaos promotes the rise of local warlords and cults of personality, either providing new opportunities for the PCs, or creating new antagonists to oppose their plans.

This cycle could continue endlessly — the PCs could aid in recovery efforts, or could simply spread to another area and repeat the process anew.  Characters with plane-hopping abilities might do this on a large scale — imagine engaging in war profiteering on Oerth, Mystara, Toril, Eberron, AthasAebrynis, and Krynn consecutively or concurrently.  Epic-level characters might even attempt this behavior in the domains of the gods themselves, likely overthrowing the gods and causing great cosmological upheaval by accident or design.

Consider this to be added to the list of campaigns I might someday wish to run.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Yogic Mysticism and Vile Sorcery

This post at Dungeons & Digressions discusses adding a homebrew Yogi class to Swords & Wizardry, and talks about the difficulty of adding a pacifist class to D&D.

Even if you're not into oD&D, you should still give it a read.

Despite my familiarity with Tibetan mysticism, I was unfamiliar with Milarepa, who is mentioned in the above blog post.  You should become familiar with him, because (1) learning is good for you, (2) stories are interesting, and (3) that guy is prime gaming material.  Milarepa studied sorcery, killed people and ruined crops with magically-controlled hailstorms, and then repented and sought enlightenment under the lama Marpa.

Sharpened Hooks: Tomb Cats, Revisited

Though many tombs are remote or have hidden entrances, any tombs that are open to the elements frequently attract tomb cats.

Though feral cats descended from our own domestic cats would hardly be considered a credible threat, tomb cats can be truly terrifying.  They are vicious, and years of hunting amid the detritus of ancient civilizations have exposed tomb cats to various pathogens, turning the usual diseases they carry into highly virulent strains.

Tomb cats may be found in the vicinity of tombs on hunting forays.  They may also hunt in the catacombs themselves.  It is believed that larger tomb cats may be found beneath the surface.

Tomb cats act as basic cats with whatever modifications seem appropriate.  They frequently carry diseases such as filth fever.  Down in the depths, tomb cats can increase in size, and also frequently mutate from the magical energies frequently left in dungeons.  Zombie cats, skeleton cats, ghost cats, dragon cats, phrenic cats, fiendish cats, and celestial cats have been reported, as have truly fearsome variants such as paragon cats and pseudonatural cats.

As with domestic cats and big cats, tomb cats are predators, though their placement in the food chain varies from dungeon to dungeon.  The smaller cats are rarely apex predators, though a family of, say, pseudonatural cats may be an exception.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Deadlands, Part VI

An awesome piece of news: I got my copy of Tales o' Terror: 1877 signed yesterday by one of the authors!  (He works at the local high school, oddly enough.)

When last we left our heroes, they had dinner at the house of one Mr. Carstock, railroad baron.  The elderly gentleman is wheelchair bound and seems to favor only his right hand, but he is fairly jovial.  His servants — all black, as fits the style of the time — are a queer lot, with protuberant eyes and slow manners.  The head serving woman in particular treated the ladies very badly.  But we ate and made merry, and then we went to bed and awakened with the unholy mess of Ruby O'Flahertie having eaten her own hand.

Damn.

So, Jake finally manages to convince Miss Hannity, Jeb, and David Hood to leave — largely by standing there until they finally decide to do something else.  Since they felt oddly full despite the delicious smell of breakfast, Jeb went back to Miss Hannity's room, David decided to lie down for a bit, and Miss Hannity decided to go downstairs if only to be polite.

Jeb, when we left him, was talking to a black boy in the mirror.  Said boy had his Bowie knife.  The boy disappears from the mirror, but a rocking and rumbling starts underneath the bed — Jeb decides to grab his rifle and shoot at it.  The rumbling continues and he shoots again.  A hand, clutching his knife, emerges from the hole and a third shot is fired.  The hand retracts and his knife is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannity goes downstairs.  Everyone is seated, though the guests and their servants look despondent.  Mr. Carstock and the servants ask whether the others will be joining the group for breakfast.  Not knowing why everyone is acting strangely, she says that they likely will not.  Mr. Carstock says that's unacceptable, and sends that head serving lady to fetch the others.  With the servant's demeanor still relatively venomous, Miss Hannity suggests that Mr. Carstock ought to see after the temperment of his staff — a comment which receives an almost immediate response in the form of the pungent, telltale smell of sepsis.  Initially suspecting that the question provoked Mr. Carstock to soil himself, she sniffs him to find that it is likely not he.  Strangely, however, he smells of alcohol and iodine — and the quantities involved are less reminiscent of wound dressings and more indicative of corpse preservation.  She further notes that one of the gentlemen guests soiled himself, apparently in response to her comment about the staff — the guests are evidently all on edge.  Wanting to get to the bottom of things, she dramatically uncovers one of the dishes on the table, revealing sausage.  She is contemplating her next move when gunshots sound upstairs.  None of the servants move to check on things, so she decides to investigate.

Meanwhile, Father Seward and Jake discuss what must be done with Ruby O'Flahertie.  They finally decide that they should just try to get her out of the house so that a doctor can see to her, and damn the possible protestations of their host.  Father Seward starts walking down the hall to dress and get his stuff.  He ignores the first gunshot, but starts moving toward Miss Hannity's room at the second and third shots.

Upon his arrival, he and Jeb speak through the door.  Jeb explains the ghostly boy who took his knife, and Father Seward offers to help.  He performs a cursory search for the boy or the knife, but only finds a partially demolished bed and holes in the floor looking into the ground level.  He says he will get dressed and return, and Jeb gives him an acorn and a blessing.  Father Seward thanks him, and puts the acorn in his breast pocket.

Father Seward starts shuffling back to his room.  He informs Jake and Ruby O'Flahertie — despite her catatonic state — of the state of affairs with Jeb.  He also informs David Hood of the same, as David was awakened by the gunshots and grabbed his own gun.  Miss Hannity encounters the group and says she's leaving.  David starts to pack, and Father Seward continues to his room to dress himself and grab his saddle bags.

This is where things get hazy, because events start to compound.  If I recall correctly, Miss Hannity finds Jeb, learns of his predicament, and they decide to leave.  They go to the front door, see the servants and Mr. Carstock sitting at the table, eating and talking amicably with the guests standing terrified in the back, where the servants previously were.  They head to the stables to find Jeb's stuff and another exit, find almost no horses save one malnourished and sickly horse with a distended belly and a distended anus — Jeb puts it out of its misery.  He climbs up to the loft to search for some supplies and raids some guns and such from the other guys' supplies.

Meanwhile, Father Seward returns to Ruby's room.  Jake goes to get his stuff.  Ruby needs to dress, so Father Seward decides to help her.  Since she only has a right hand, and since Father Seward's only good hand is his right (his left is still usable, but fine manipulation is right out), trying to dress is a comedy of errors.  Even moreso when Jake reenters the room.

Father Seward doesn't know this, but me as a player remembered it as soon as he appeared — Jake has the randy Hindrance, basically marking him as an atrocious lech.

So, Jake walks into the room to find a twig of an old priest and a half-naked, vulnerable girl missing her left hand.

He is...intrigued, but manages to suppress whatever dark mutterings run through his mind.  Ruby definitely notes the eyes on her, however.

Father, oblivious for the moment, asks for some assistance.  Jake obliges.  Father Seward notes the dynamic.

And then a girlish scream emerges from the room across the hall.

Father Seward asks if Jake can handle this while Father runs to check on David.  All is agreed upon.  Father Seward runs across the hall to find David Hood, grasping his face, with his bed torn apart.  The priest performs a quick search of the rooms, but finds no one.  David explains that a black boy started antagonizing him while packing, and then reached from the bed and bit him on the face.  Sure enough, David is missing a large chunk from the left side of his face.  He is bleeding heavily.  Father Seward attempts to lay on hands, but again, the Lord is not in this place.  Seward grabs some sheets to tear for bandages, and starts shooing David next door.

They arrive to join the awkward dressing party next door.  Jake has managed to restrain himself, but it's an atrocious scene.  Ruby is crying, utterly dispirited, while Jake is helping her dress.  She is heard to quietly utter, "I am a married woman" — which, actually, is news to all of us, and might be relevant to a future conversation.  Father Seward bandages David, and David helps finish her dressing, which neatly allows him to notice and learn about her missing hand.  Packing commences quickly.

By this time, Jeb and Miss Hannity have investigated the loft.  Hood, Jake, O'Flahertie, and Seward rejoin them.  Explanations are exchanged about the horses and Hood's bite.  Everybody climbs back down into the stables and goes to flee through the front gate.

As the group leaves the house, though, they start to feel increasingly nauseous.  Somebody — Jeb, I think — breaches what appears to be the limit and immediately starts vomiting.  As we approach this barrier of nausea, David and Father Seward note the presence of the well-dressed young man who appears to be ghostly.  To distract David Hood from the ghostly presence, she starts bandaging his facial wounds.  The ghostly man yells at Father Seward for ignoring his advice about leaving the grounds, and he wraps his fingers around the Father's neck, lifting him from the ground.  He says he would rather just let the old priest die, but that their fates are intertwined.  Choking, Seward pulls his pistol and fires a round into the spectre, but it does nothing other than make the creature laugh.  He drops the priest and makes reference to finding a moon jar — that Carstock is dead, and that the group is bound because they have eaten of his flesh, but a mortal agent is behind this.  Find that person and break the curse to leave.  The man also admonishes Seward to not get himself into these situations, that he must be at San Francisco.  Father Seward asks his name, and the man says that he has no name, that Father Seward took that from him.  He greets David Hood jovially when Hood notes him, and then the man leaves.

The group is about to return to the house when the serving lady emerges, stalking toward us.  Father Seward pulls his gun, Jake starts shuffling cards, and everyone is poised to strike when something weird happens.

Miss Hannity lifts her skirts to reveal bandoliers of dynamite strapped to her thighs.  She starts to grab one and get a match.  Jake's arm flares with black lightning and he throws it — which whips around the serving lady and instead flies upward, strikes the weather vane, and causes the house to flare with purple energy.  David Hood, Father Seward, and Ruby O'Flahertie all run at the sight of dynamite.

Hood, O'Flahertie, and Seward miss it as they run around the side of the house, but Jake, Jeb, and Miss Hannity witness a change as Jake falls upon the serving lady to strike with black lightning — the serving lady is briefly shown as a formless void, as though staring at her is as staring into the mouth of Hell.  A flash of panic, though Jake maintains his composure, and everything is back to normal.

Presumably, all we have to do is find the moon jar to release us, though we have few details.  Perhaps something is within, or perhaps we have to break it.  I'm sure we'll find out, though.  Meanwhile, he have hell-beasts and dynamite people to worry about.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rundown

Bandits vs. first-level PCs: arduous, but manageable.
Rats vs. first-level PCs: terrible, but terrible.

So I started playing in a new D&D game this past Friday.  The mercenary fight was tough at first, but hit that sweet spot where we learned each other's capabilities and started taking people out or making them run away.

My beast master ranger, however, is a ratcatcher, and asked the innkeeper if he had a rat problem.

Truly rats are the scourge of first-level adventurers.  A musty basement with two rat swarms and four huge rats.  The swarms, predictably, were the terrible part.

At least my Crux of Eternity group fared better than we did, although they're level four and know what's happening.

They got into some one-on-one sparring matches.  The loser is whomever is knocked unconscious or forced from the ring first; characters also lose if they take damage but don't deal damage in the same turn.

Most of the fights were pretty straightforward, but the ranger and mage got creative.  The ranger tried to charge his opponent and shove him from the ring; when he failed at that, he managed to get a swing on the guy and wreck his concentration, forcing him to miss (disruptive strike is a truly awesome ability).  The mage hit with a simple magic missile — augmented with a fear effect that sent the other guy screaming from the ring.  The ranger got into a second bout and managed to shove that guy from the ring.  Yokozuna!

The Ecological Succession of Ruins and Tomb Cats

So I somehow missed Life After People when it originally aired.  A documentary series on the History Channel, I managed to see the pilot episode from 2008 today.  You can find the pilot in nine segments on YouTube.

Basically, the pilot explains how ecological succession and chemical reactions would alter man's cities after his disappearance, positing what would happen in stages out to 100,000 years.

For the ecology of dungeons, though, the implications are obvious.  Wood would rot first, and wooden structures would be reduced to their components after about fifty years without upkeep.  Brick and concrete would last longer, but might fall after a century or so.  Stone would last even longer, but salts and erosion would eventually destroy it.

Flooding would fill subway tunnels and absurdly spacious sewers within a couple of days after the collapse of civilization; constant water action would cause the support columns to collapse, collapsing city streets into the subterranean canals within 150 years.

After a millenium, most modern cities would be unrecognizable.  After 10,000 years, it is possible that only the Great Wall of China, the pyramids at Giza, and the granite faces of Mount Rushmore would remain recognizable.

(Obviously, this ignores fantasy worlds and magic, but it's still interesting stuff.)

Anyway.  Apart from fantasy streets collapsed into flooded tunnels, they mentioned something I knew, but had forgotten: tomb cats.

The Coliseum's cats are among the most famous, but cats are known to reside in the upper levels of catacombs and tombs, using them as shelters.  They go out to hunt, and then return to their homes to rest.

But what about fantasy tomb cats?  D&D tombs have all sorts of weird magics and eldritch energies, not to mention self-sustaining ecologies, so it is entirely likely that tomb cat colonies in fantasy settings are wholly different animals.

In such a case, it is possible the cats don't hunt outside the tomb, but instead push further into the tomb to hunt.

There you go, you just got a free one-shot — rather than adventurers roaming a tomb, you're a destruction of tomb cats (or maybe your tomb cats are more civilized and you're a clowder of cats instead?).

Anyway, apart from the obvious ecological implications, what about tomb cat adaptations?  Some are likely to just be feral cats, but others might swarm and still others might be dire cats (so, you know, you can reskin all those rat swarms and dire rats — and don't forget that cat mouths and claws are filthy, so infection is still a danger).  Of course, others might be weirder: negative energy cats, shadowcats, and zombie cats.

You should add some tomb cats to your next dungeon, is all I'm saying.

Addendum: Interested parties who wish to add some tomb cats can find a brief discussion, and some D&D third edition system resource document links, in this post.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fortune Cards and Unpredictable Magic

Fortune Cards are a thing.

Go ahead and say that phrase in a tabletop roleplaying forum.  (Don't do it in a computer gaming forum, because they'll assume you play WoW.)  Jump in your foxhole and brace for impact.

Fortune Cards rile people up because Wizards of the Coast makes them for D&D 4e, and people have long suspected that Wizards was going to add a collectible card game aspect to make more money, because they understand how that structure works.

You say you don't understand the structure because you don't play Magic?  That's okay; go into an elementary school.  Ask a teacher is Pokémon cards are allowed.  The answer will probably be "no," because they're like crack to little kids.

Anyway, so Fortune Cards are a hot-button issue.

I bought some, because I've been playing D&D Encounters and they're legal there.  I'm not into character optimization, but having a random little trick up one's sleeve is always cool.  Plus, I figure I can use them as a DM.

They're fun, but not worth collecting.  Again, a random little widget is cool sometimes, a distraction at other times.

As an example: you have one card in your hand per round.  This card is randomly determined.  At the start of your turn, you can either keep the card in your hand (assuming you didn't use it last turn), or get a new one.  In practice, this means that you typically either get a card that isn't applicable — in which case you either hold onto it for future planning or discard it because you want to see if something really cool is coming up — or you completely switch your strategy, taking some outlandish risk or performing some weird tactic to make use of the new thing you have.  "Well, I wasn't going to charge him, but this card gives me a +2 to hit if I charge, so I'm doing that now."  Stuff like that.

All that rambling brings me to the conclusion of Lost Crown of Neverwinter, the most recent D&D Encounters season.  In it, a war is brewing between Lord Neverember, Lord Protector of Neverwinter, and the Lost Heir, part of a rebel faction that wishes to restore Neverwinter to its previous glory.  Or some such.  In the end, it turned out that the crown was cursed — our first mission was to retrieve it, but the Red Wizards of Thay got it first and cursed it to drive the wearer mad.  So, when the Lost Heir (actually our spellscarred employer in drag) acquired it, she started going nuts and throwing magical power all over the place.  This culminated in her awakening Chekhov's Dragon, whom she froze in stone at an early battle.

For playing in Encounters sessions, one obtains Fortune Cards for playing.  The previous session, I obtained one called Spellplague Surge, which causes all creatures within a radius of you (including yourself) to deal extra fire and psychic damage.  I placed this into my deck and swapped out another card.

We're about to fight the dragon.  My plan is to drop my biggest spells on it.  And then I draw Spellplague Surge.

The image of a wizard, poised to fight, who then starts blazing with arcane energies is just plain neat.  This wasn't a Fortune Card thing, but a story thing — the magic flares forth, and things get crazy.

Even though I understand why it's used from a rules perspective, and even a story perspective, it does leave the typical Vancian magic system of rigid, arcane formulae lacking.  Magic seems more dynamic, like a stream into which one dips one's hand and hopes to grab something before the current drags one away.

At the moment, I'm just musing.  For weird magic along these lines, I might suggest readers look for the old Tome of Magic for AD&D, and its rules for Wild Mages.  Wild Mages cast spells at a variable caster level, and sometimes spells have weird, additional effects which are the result of wild surges.

Magic in World of Darkness and Deadlands are also prone to weird, mysterious backlashes, and are probably similarly worth a look.

Peter Cushing Needs More Bitz

This post at Dungeons and Digressions links to this post at Mutants and Magic which displays a video of Peter Cushing painting minitatures and setting up armies for Little Wars, long considered the grandfather of modern roleplaying.

As noted in the above Dungeons and Digressions post, you can find Little Wars at archive.org and Project Gutenberg.  A companion piece, Floor Games, is also available.

Skirmisher Publishing also has a version for sale (with a foreward by Gary Gygax!), though it only appears to be available in ebook format.

Video after the jump.  If you have any knowledge of history, prepare to be as flabbergasted as I when they reference Napoleon's astounding feat of time travel (perhaps they just mean that he played wargames?).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Adventures in oD&D, Part 2: Escape from the Tomb of Theronna Onyxarm

Back on August 27, I ran a game of oD&D.  Go ahead and read that first, as it will tell you where we've been before.

On November 5, I ran the same module again, this time for a different group.  This group is about half new roleplayers — I'm the only person who's ever DMed for them, and they've only played in my Crux of Eternity game for 4e.  One other has been roleplaying with me for over ten years, and another used to play AD&D back in the day.

I made the changes I mentioned last time; I added tactical movement and used the turn structure a little more.

As before, there were eight pregenerated characters.  The four players (one of our usual players was absent, which is why we played this in the first place) crafted the other twelve, for a total of twenty characters (five per player).

Weird things started to happen — a lot of old school habits came out.  Rather than skill checks, people started relying on descriptions and asking for details of rooms.  Tests became commonplace.  The group encountered a green slime and dropped a silver piece into it.  They also dipped a found ring in it.

Likewise, the group started with five live chickens and a goat.  Those chickens became valuable — PCs would throw them at enemies as distractions, and each new room was first entered by opening the door a crack and throwing a chicken inside.  All five chickens are dead, but each chicken who died saved a PC's life.

The goat is still alive.

Another vagary of life in the old school: Paul is at the front of every door with 1 hit point and he's still alive.  Meanwhile, we have people with six hit points who are among the dead.

Overall, it was incredibly fun.  We're not finished yet; the players have no idea how close they are to escaping the dungeon, but I think we might be able to finish with no more than two sessions, although I suspect just one would be sufficient as character creation and the initial panicked stumblings ate some time.

Anyway, enough of the thoughts.  An adventure synopsis after the jump.

***************************
 
There were two throwaway lines in my D&D 4e game.  One was a remark about college students in D&D being similar to modern college students.  The second was the idea that Sorgforge is built over all sorts of old ruins.
 
Thus, my D&D tribute to B-horror movies was born.
 
Twenty college students from Morgrave University decide to sneak into the goblin slums to party; they are Alek Baul Dwin the male goblin, Ander Heinsoo the male halfling, Babycakes the male half-orc (and his goat Duddits), Bree Leomund the female human, Davril Tarmikos the male human, John Smith the male human, Krisdove Soulaxe the female dwarf, Krisiries Loyalar the female human, Lorac Arien the male half-elf, Otiven Pegason the male human, Paul O'Trieadies the male human, Penelope the female elf, Quionna Loreweaver the female elf, Sally Proudfoot the female halfling, Shahorn Wyvernjack the male human, Tulip the female half-orc, Varis Battlestrike the male dwarf, Wandadove Huntinghawk the female half-elf, William the male human, and Zantiln Stoneheart the male dwarf.
 
A tremor and a landslide later, the basement floor falls out from under them and they're in a dungeon, floating in a hot spring.  The chamber is at least fifty feet high, although nobody's a surveyor, so they don't have precise numbers.  A large statue of a dwarf looms over them, emerging from the wall; carved from the living rock itself, plunging a sword into the springs like one of the big, Gothic statues from Tim Burton's Gotham City.
 
They arrange themselves and swipe the two everburning torches from the walls.
 
Then they explore.  There's only one way out, so they start in that direction.  They enter the next room.
 
Twenty college students and one statue...should be easy, right?

This room is octagonal and bears bas-reliefs and frescoes praising Theronna Onyxarm.  There is a statue of a female dwarf in the middle of the room, presumably of the same person.  The statue bears a warhammer that is separate and is highly ornamented, likely magical.

A student makes a grab for it.

Before everyone manages to flee, two students have their skulls crushed by the animated statue.  All told, the students find rooms in each direction, and each is similar to the first — a room with a vaulted ceiling and a large, looming statue of a dwarf.  The room on the left depicts a dwarf with bellows, and a fissure in the ground blows hot wind from a deep crevasse.  The room on the right depicts a dwarf over a forge; the inside of the forge bubbles with lava.  The room straight ahead features a dwarf laboring over an anvil, and a path continues beyond, leading to stairs headed upward.

Three of the students try to flee and tangle with some animated suits of armor.

Okay. Plan B.

They manage to escape, and run forward into the hallway despite the fact that they lack torches.  The other fifteen students run up the stairs and hit a trapped doorway; eight students get hit with a confuse spell.  Interparty fighting starts.

PC on PC violence!

Some students die, but the fighting dies down.  The group decides to go in the same direction as the students who fled.  They cross the room, mostly avoiding the animate suits of armor — the group swipes some treasure (coins, magic arrows, and a ring), and use a chicken as a distraction (the chicken, by the way, manages to dodge the animate armor).

The trio who fled stagger through the dark.  One dies by stumbling into green slime, leaving only two.

The rest of the group follows.  They test the green slime a couple of times before somebody burns it with an actual torch.  It burns and they move on.

The bigger group meets with the two survivors.  The groups combine and continue.

A decision point: the group picks the second turn rather than the first.  They find a room.  The peek inside and throw a chicken inside.  The chicken is devoured by a swarm of kruthiks.  The group decides to go a different way.

After retracing their steps, they find another room with bas-reliefs and suits of armor.  They loop around, flip some switches to open a portcullis or two, and find their way back to the room with the suits of armor.  As there is no other option, they decide to race through it.

Run!

The group manages to run into a narrow hallway — only to be met by several large, segmented, chitinous, tentacled things.  The creatures are struck with baseballs and beer bottles as the party beats a hasty retreat to the last door they have not yet entered.

The group makes its way through the corridors until meeting one last door.  They peek open and throw in a chicken...only to have it devoured by dwarven zombies.

Zombies make players angry!

The characters decide on a course of action.  After deciding against sending the goat in as a distraction, or setting the goat on fire so that the zombies burn themselves as they try to eat it, they finally decide to set the bottle of Jepwine (a mage-brewed whiskey) on fire like a Molotov cocktail, and hopefully burn some zombies.

Sadly, the several minutes they spent at the door planning gives the zombies time to position themselves at the door in anticipation.  This delay also lets shadows from elsewhere in the dungeon approach from behind, cutting off retreat.

We're boned.

Despite overwhelming odds, the Molotov cocktail plan works.  Three zombies die, two are on fire, and three more are left — but enough of a path is clear for people to start fleeing.  Meanwhile, the shadows kill one person, and the last surviving chicken sees the shadows and immediately goes into a stress response (as I indicated, "It has seen Chicken Hell, and it is not coming back from there").  This allows the shadows to kill it as well, as a spectral chicken rises from its remains.  As people flee, the shadows close off the avenues of escape in the hallway, leaving those in the hallway trapped.  Bree Leomund gets one of the most awesome deaths, as she realizes the shadows are incorporeal and takes the risk to charge through one — her life-drained corpse falls through the other side, and a shadow rises from her remains.  In the mad dash to escape, all but one of the remaining zombies are killed.

The magic arrows see some use as people realize they can injure and kill shadows, but mostly everyone runs.  Krisiries Loyalar doubles back to collect the objects in the room, and finds that only the chicken shadow and a single dwarf zombie remain.  She manages to slay the shadow with an arrow, and she kills the zombie with her hammer.  She gathers the objects of the dead students, and finds another sack in the room, containing coin and a sword dedicated to the god Kord.  Also, the eight zombies all wear chainmail and hold bucklers, so the group manages to grab some armor.

Of the twenty students, only nine remain: Alek Baul Dwin, Babycakes (and his goat, Duddits), Davril Tarmikos, Krisiries Loyalar, Lorac Arien, Otiven Pegason, Paul O'Trieadies, Quionna Loreweaver, and Sally Proudfoot.  All chickens are dead.  However, the group is pretty much all armed with daggers, hammers, and one magic sword.  All but one of the group now wears chainmail (Alek is the odd man out), though Sally is having trouble fitting hers.  They also have a magic ring (they know it is magic because the acid didn't even tarnish it, let alone destroy it), although they do not know its function.

Hopefully, we shall complete this adventure anon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Typical Aggregation Schtick

Zak Smith talks about existentialism and the difference between story-based gamers and old schoolers.  Read it here.

After his discussion of existentialism (which is pretty good on its own), he talks about how some gamers want a roleplaying game for each type of situation ("What is this game about?") and some gamers want one roleplaying game with enough permutations that they can play it forever.  As with all things, the lines are artificial, but it's still a good read.

Predictably, like many people, I'm somewhere in the middle — I'm inclined to get a certain book off the shelf to run a certain type of game, but I firmly believe that you can run any game with any system, period.

Also, Nevermet Press put out a sampler of 108 character portraits.  They're free to use, and they're under a Creative Commons license.  Go use them.

Otherwise, the only notable thing is that I suspect I will soon make a second attempt at my oD&D dungeon crawl.  Expect a post if that comes to pass.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Things Role Playing Bloggers Tend Not To Write About

Noisms wrote a post about Things Role Playing Bloggers Tend Not To Write About, and since I do have an opinion about some of these things, I might as well answer the challenge.

Book Binding: I'm pretty careful when it comes to books, and hardcovers tend not to be as bad as softcovers.  That having been said, yes, it's annoying — a casual observer can determine the two World of Darkness books I've read the most, because they're falling apart (for those keeping score at home, those are Dark Reflections: Spectres and Ratkin).  And used books are frequently iffy.

Doing a Voice: Of course!  It's something that's only started in earnest since I've started running D&D (one of the players enjoys encountering goblins because she likes the goblin voice), but it's something I've always done.  Dr. Zirpoli, Charles Odderstol, and Archbishop Vladimir in The Imperial City all had recognizable voices, and all of my current PCs have distinct voices (Hida Musashi's cadence is distinctive enough that I can type in his voice and people will recognize it).  For those keeping score at home, my goblin voice is inspired by Zak Smith's goblin voice and Drew Cole's goblin voice.

Breaks: I'm used to a free-wheeling orgy of disorganization.  Breaks happen naturally, whenever someone is getting food, or using the bathroom, or smoking.  The latter is probably how I got into the habit — my smoking friends place natural demarcations in game sessions by wheedling for smoke breaks.

Description: I'm not sure how my descriptions rank.  I try to be quick most of the time, unless lavish description is necessary.  Lavish descriptions are funnier if they're about something threatening, though, because the players are immediately trying to talk over you and each other to explain their reactions, all before you're even done describing it.  It reaches maximum humor when the thing seems threatening, but actually isn't.  "You see a huge, hulking —" I ready my weapon; I start casting; I lunge at it "— statue of Emberdove Glorygold, the legendary gnomish jester."  Cue collective sigh of relief.

Balance: I err on the side of not being a dickhead — unless being a dickhead would be more entertaining to the whole group than any other option.  Sometimes it is.  Note that I've had friends who err more on the dickhead side of things, but we usually have fun anyway.

PC-on-PC violence: I never ban it, but it's not encouraged, either.  It's typically handled on a case-by-case basis.  With my group, though, this usually means a fight happens — I had a Sabbat pack violently self-destruct one time.  My NPCs were really just part of the trigger, like the zombies who set the humans at each others' throats while they're cooped in a small space.  Fun times.

Explaining RPGs to New Players: I'm still not sure how to explain it.  I usually go with improvisational acting, though analogues to video games and such may also be used.

Alcohol at the Table: I never mind it.  People are welcome to drink so long as it doesn't get too ridiculous.

Absent PCs: I try to be as hands-off as possible.  At the earliest opportunity, I will move the character out of the action.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Festooned with your Entrails

So I wanted a violent, psychopathic gangster for Crux of Eternity (that shameless plug comes with a twinkle smile, too!).  See, there's this big crime syndicate called the Menagerie of Peacocks, and after seeing Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, I knew I wanted someone with that level of brütal.  Well, Heroes of the Feywild is coming out, and I chanced to see the preview.

Large LeFarge was born.

If Bill the Butcher and Big Figure had a baby, it would be Large LeFarge.  A mob boss on the streets of Scandshar, Large LeFarge is among the most feared mob bosses in that fair city.  Not only is he canny enough to organize his coves, he is personally dangerous enough to stop fights before they start — his reputation as a dangerous melee combatant precedes him, and anyone who crosses him hopes to be waiting for a boat on Sorgforge's docks by the time he figures it out, because they'll never escape otherwise.

Did I mention he's maybe eight inches tall?

Large LeFarge is a pixie, but lacks the innocence to go with his childlike whimsy, instead manifesting as a needy, obsessive psychopath.  If Tinkerbell can only hold one thought in her head at a time, LeFarge's thought is always malicious, and probably directed toward whomever is in his field of vision.  He fights with the savagery of a child on the playground — except his knives and axes are quite sharp, and he knows how to use them.

However, for as much as he's a terror on the battlefield, those who know of him truly fear him due to his seeming lack of compassion when torturing people.  Mutilation is a common sign of LeFarge's disfavor, with the lacerations from multiple stab wounds and missing eyes being particular favorites.  His signature sign of true displeasure, however, is rough amputation of the hands of his victims — he figures they didn't believe in him, so they ought not to clap ever again.

LeFarge's mirth is as legendary as his violence.

LeFarge is also rumored to be quite handy with his pixie dust.  Supposedly, he can enchant foes to fly without the corresponding coordination, thus dooming them to flail helplessly in the air while he interrogates them, or causing the victim to float upward until the enchantment fails, sending said person plummeting back to earth at 9.8 meters per second per second.

Of course, few ever survive encounters with him to confirm or deny this claim.  Or any other claim about him, for that matter.

LeFarge flies fearlessly through his territory, though people tend to avoid troubling him more due to his own prowess than the near-constant presence of his thugs.  Despite his visibility, anyone seeking business with him is advised to look for him through the usual channels.  His office is equipped with a suit of knight's armor attached to ropes — these ropes allow him to control the armor like a marionette, while a series of acoustic tubes amplifies his voice so that he is better understood by tallfellows.

Edit: Further information is available at Obsidian Portal.  His death and statistics are included in this blog post.

Sacrifice

So I just read this post by Jeff Rients and I really like it.

For those who haven't read it, he merely suggests that character death ought to be an opportunity for canny players to barter — don't wheedle the Game Master, but see if there's anything you can turn to your advantage.

Quite frankly, I don't see anything wrong with that.  Then again, why should you, as Game Master, be some pitiless Sumerian greyface deity when you can be Nyarlathotep?

It's always enlightening to see how everyone's values change when mortality rears its ugly head.

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