Thursday, July 22, 2021

Firehold Megadungeon

This might turn into yet another project I don't have time to write or run, but it's been on my mind lately, so I might as well put it here. (Long time readers might recall my plans for a Carcosan megadungeon; apart from a single session nested in my long-running D&D game, I haven't had a chance to initiate it. Although there is always the future.)

When the dwarves fled from bondage under the tyrannical rule of the giants, they settled across the Sorrowfell Plains, most of them settling into cities and towns that are now familiar to the folk of the world (such as Khuragzar or Sorgforge), but one group of now-forgotten clans settled beneath one of the mountains of the world. 

They called this place "Firehold."

Industrious and versed in runecraft, they made wonders unknown even to other dwarves. The secret of their success was the beating heart of the mountain itself: a uranium deposit beneath the mountain, creating a naturally-occurring fission reactor. When they initially found it, they realized only that it generated heat and made the miners sick. (Although their superior dwarven constitutions protected somewhat, many of them still died, but they were given heroes' burials for their sacrifice to the clan.) But the industrious dwarves soon learned how to harness this energy for their own purposes, building containment units and enriching centers and steam engines. They were the most advanced civilization on Khaldun.

But no one has ever heard of them.

When the lands of Men fell to corruption and devil-worship, the dwarves consulted their histories and feared what they saw coming: another cycle of darkness and subjugation beneath the whips and chains of another oppressor. So they did the most sensible thing they could consider: they withdrew. They secured their gardens and redoubled their mining efforts and ensured that they had supplies for centuries — millennia, even — and then they sealed their highways with rune-magic.

This was their folly.

The corruption of the surface empires did not last long before heroes rose to stop it, and before long it was washed away. But the lost dwarves did not know of the turning of ages; they merely waited for a sign, some manner of augury to return them to the surface.

They never received it.

Whether the gods did not speak to them or they merely misinterpreted the signs, the old priests refused to risk the safety of their clans, and so the dwarves stayed underground in their secure shelter.

But the deep dwarves were builders, not soldiers. One by one, monsters emerged from below, and one by one, districts of the city fell. The deep dwarves were forced to retreat, refugees in their own city, withdrawing to the safety of centralized, defensible locations. Now, the last of the dwimmer dwarves take refuge in the quays and the foreign quarter, praying for a sign to save their civilization.

And all the while, the danger grows beneath their feet, for no one has tended the reactor in generations. If the reactor burns hotter than the reservoir replenishes, or if some tunneling wurm or ambitious underdweller should damage it, it could cause a meltdown or an explosion, contaminating the ground water or spreading radioactive fallout across the Sorrowfell Plains.

In addition to references in ancient archives, there is one other hint as to the location of lost Firehold: the rocs that lair upon the mountaintop build their nest over the exhaust port, so that the steam keeps their eggs warm while they are in flight.

Rules Notes:

A player character who delves into the right archive or uses the right divination spell or asks the right questions might find and unlock Firehold as an adventuring location. A lost megadungeon of advanced dwarven technology, it has long since been overrun by monsters, but is a palace of wonders. (In addition to the standard treasure, the dwarves of Firehold potentially hold lost secrets of arcane, historical, and technological varieties.)

Anyone who finds lost Firehold also unlocks a new playable variety of dwarves: called dwimmer dwarves or bone dwarves in my notes, they have a facility with rune-crafting and artifact manufacture that most modern dwarves lack. (In old-school games, they would be able to craft magic items and undertake other sorts of spell research. In 5e-ish games, they have innate transmutation spells, and are best suited for the wizard or artificer classes.)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The World of Ysat'naf

 A bog-standard fantasy world for dungeon-y, dragon-y fantasy systems.

Use all the same fantasy assumptions those sorts of games bring to the table with one major exception: all alignments are inverted. (So chaotic becomes lawful, good becomes evil, and the like. Neutral alignments stay the same, as do unaligned alignments if you're using 4e or 5e.)

We'll keep it straightforward with two simple rules:

1) All extraplanar creatures summoned to Ysat'naf have their alignments inverted automatically. (Depending on how the Game Master interprets things, this may or may not change their core programming. It will at the very least change how they attempt to complete their goals and what sorts of behaviors they attempt to instill in the creatures they encounter.) Why this happens is not terribly clear, and finding the source of this phenomenon would obviously make a good goal for player characters to achieve. (I'm thinking it's some sort of curse upon the land, or maybe some kind of magical radiation that suffuses the atmosphere.)

2) All creatures native to the world also have their alignments inverted, although there is no supernatural force backing this up. (We can casually surmise that this inversion is due to the influence of extraplanar visitors who have had their alignments inverted and then proceeded to proselytize among the native populations.) As such, individual members of the various fantasy races can have any alignment and you might have the occasional "rogue" good elf or evil orc, but populations as a whole tend to stabilize to the opposite of their bestiary-listed alignments. They can retain their well-trod personalities and niches, now recast through the lens of their new alignments, so you get Lawful Evil elves in a strict hierarchy whose aesthetic predilections come across as Toreador antitribu-like displays of blood-daubed wicked decadence — like a whole race of Hannibal Lecters — while Lawful Good orcs now fulfill the Proud Warrior niche, a Klingon-like Golden Horde trying to throw elven imperialists off their land.

To fully embrace the potential Mirror Universe sensibility of such a place, it does not affect most Prime Material natives who might travel here by extradimensional gate or what have you. (So your characters are unaffected when they come through, although their familiars and summoned allies might behave very differently if they originate from another plane.)

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ours vs. Theirs

This isn't an important update, just something about which I've been ruminating lately. There's functionally no "conclusion" or gameable content to this post; I'm just putting wordcount into the aether so that it is out of me.

Years ago at a local convention, I bought a copy of Tome of Beasts and was busily showing everyone the ridiculous monsters inside when a friend asked the following question:

"Why did you buy that when you can make up any monster you want?"

(An odd question, particularly given that said friend is an author and no doubt realizes that you can write any story you want and yet choose to consume other stories anyway.)

It's a pervasive role-playing game argument that has people firmly entrenched on both sides. On the one hand, why buy material when you can make it up? On the other, why create material when professionals have done the hard work for you?

Surprising no one, I (and I suspect most RPG gamers who aren't Extremely Online™) fall somewhere in the vast middle. I like to use my own content because I create a vast amount of it and because I always make things I enjoy. I like to use others' content because I only have my perspective and using something someone else made gives an air of verisimilitude to any game I run. (I can come up with anything I conceive, but others might create something of which I did not conceive.)

Using others' content comes with two important disclaimers, though:
1) I usually select things I like, and I'm the guy running it, so it's going to sound at least a little like me anyway. (Nicole thought Scarlet Jax was my own creation for years until I offhandedly mentioned that I cribbed her from Dungeon #186.)
2) I do fall in the camp of finding prepping other people's work to be difficult, so the author either needs to make it easy or compelling. (For instance, I understand King for a Day* has a lot of good ideas in it, but the work I would need to do to keep all the details straight means that I am unlikely to use it and would be better served making my own adventure whose details I can keep in my head.)

Those concerns aside, I find the mix of styles to be engaging, and I don't think my players notice the seams terribly often.

What about the rest of you? Do you use published content, homebrew content, or a mix of both?

*A protip for authors: if I have to take more notes to prep your 300+ page adventure containing "nearly 200 NPCs and dozens of unique locations and stories" than I took for a graduate-level course, it's probably too much work.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Orc Problem, redux

 I wrote about The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ a little over a year ago, and like most of the things I write, you probably shouldn't read it.

However, vagabundork wrote a post on the same subject about seven months ago, and he said it far more eloquently than I. (To the point that it should probably be the last word on the subject, at least until the situation radically changes.)

Go read it:

Can racism be fixed? on Chaos Magick-User

Thursday, May 20, 2021


I provide occasional updates for my long-running D&D game on the blog, so here's this one:

Crux of Eternity turns ten-years-old today. (The blog itself doesn't turn ten until August 9.)

What started because one of Nicole's co-workers asked if she played Dungeons & Dragons (neither of us did at the time, but we were very aware of it) has since sprawled into something both wonderful and strange. The request hit at the perfect time: I had just picked up the fourth edition books and I had just discovered the OSR blogging scene. The game has since spiraled out into at least eight other games (across at least five separate rule systems!) with the eternal possibility of more in the future.

The game started with just a handful of prompts, including:
I think the experiment has been successful, although only the players can say for certain. We switched to fifth edition partway through the campaign, which helped streamline some things while making other things more complicated. (Most notably, 4e games are very linear, but 5e is a little more forgiving of sandboxes, so we've had more improvised and sandbox-y game stuff since the switch. Honestly, it's my preferred mode.)

Back on May 1, the players finally faced the ultimate evil of the campaign after almost a decade of play: the Esteemed and Omniscient Peacock Lord, the aforementioned beholder ultimate tyrant and mastermind of many of the miseries that have infected this particular campaign. (Ironically, due to COVID and social distancing, I never got to use the actual ultimate tyrant miniature; we ran the battle using digital tokens over Roll20. So it goes.)

(The campaign isn't quite over yet, though; I introduced content from Coliseum Morpheuon several sessions ago, and the PCs decided that they hate the Khan of Nightmares and want to kill him as a coda.)

As always, if you're into Actual Play and session writeups, you can read the whole shebang at Obsidian Portal.

While I expect I'll be dealing with this setting and the fallout from its many campaigns for years to come, I'm sure I'll move onto some other long-form obsessive campaign for the 2020s. If the 2000s were dominated by World of Darkness and the 2010s were dominated by D&D and OSR stuff, what do the 2020s hold? (Potential predictions: my long-running Unknown Armies game, Tip the World Over on Its Side, turned five-years-old on May 2, so the idea of running a sprawling, inter-connected series of Unknown Armies games is very much on the table. Additionally, I'm leaning towards using Forged in the Dark stuff for the official follow-up to Crux of Eternity.)

If you want to see what happens next, watch this space...

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Lost Prototypes

After many years of waiting, I finally had a chance to play Grim Fandango and subsequently played Broken Age. These, in turn, reminded me of playing adventure games when I was much younger, which subsequently reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years.

Starting in third grade, we used to play pretend at recess. That's not especially noteworthy on its own — lots of kids did that — but I made elaborate scenarios with continuity from one recess session to the next, and the plots ran for years. Individual sessions usually included puzzles to solve, enemies to battle, and friendly characters with whom to interact. (If I had known about randomizers like dice or any of the abstract LARP-style combat forms, this no doubt would have become even more elaborate.) By sixth grade, the damn things even had character sheets. (Just equipment lists, but still.) I think I even developed paper props once or twice.

It was only years later that I realized these were some manner of proto-LARP.

(Most of the characters were ripped from popular culture, but at some point, I should probably bring The King of All Trees into a game. Why I had some Green Man-style nature deity in my elementary school pretend games is probably a conversation for another time, although it probably has the same psychological root as my deep and abiding love of folk horror.)

The weird recess proto-LARP stuff I remember, and Nicole and I occasionally discuss it. (Lamentably, she always figured we were never interested in having additional players, and so never participated.) That's old news. The more recent memory from playing adventure games is this:

No doubt spurred both by this and by a diet of computer adventure games, at some point in sixth grade, I started writing analogue adventure games that we would run through at lunch. If you've played any of the command prompt or point-and-click adventure games popular in the eighties and nineties, you'll recognize the format: a map with a series of rooms, each of which usually features an NPC that requires some object or interaction (often from a previous room) to progress. These were all hand-drawn maps and characters, and while very linear (in the style of adventure games at the time), are recognizable as weird puzzle dungeons. I only remember one or two puzzles from them, but I now idly wonder if I could track any of those down...

(If I do happen to find any of them, and they're still legible, I'll no doubt have to scan them and upload them for general perusal. I wonder if I'll recall any of the puzzles from the time...)

I know at some point in seventh or eight grade, I started developing a scenario with percentages, but never sorted out the math and always assumed it would have to be some manner of video game. Again, had I known about d100s or random number generators, I would have been running and designing RPGs years before I "officially" started.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I suppose no one (least of all me) should be surprised that I started running role-playing games or messing with game design. The obsession started early, before I had the language or tools for it.

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