Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Strange and Wonderful Bleakness - Deep Carbon Observatory Review




deep caRbon observAtory

I have read Patrick of False Machine’s Deep Carbon Observatory, an adventure, or setting, or even campaign. The module compares favorably with other contemporary offerings, such as the better LOTFP modules, but has its own approach and unique feel.  The adventure focuses on a riverine expedition in a sort of point based sandbox, suddenly flooded by the collapse of an ancient dam.  Rumors of mountains of ancient gold beneath the recently collapsed dam’s (now drained) lake have presumably drawn the party, as they have other (horrible) NPC treasure hunters.  Beyond the dung-ages horror of a flooded and starving landscape is an upriver journey through a variety of creepy nautical monsters (crabs, cuttlefish, pike, frogs) all subtly warped and horrifically described.  The journey leads to the dam, its dying guardian golems and ultimately a lake bed of ancient and unnatural weirdness that hides the “Deep Carbon Observatory” itself.  The observatory is an entrance to the Underdark, and not Gygax’s glowing mushrooms and petulant Drow Underdark, but False Machine’s utterly alien, beautifully psychotic Underdark.

A Suitable Cover
Broken into four rough sections (A town, a point crawl, the dam/lake, and the observatory) Deep Carbon has plenty of room for adventure, and the only limit on this is the presumed success of a very nasty NPC party if the PCs don’t push onward at a furious pace.  I like the scale of the adventure, especially because so many of the individual vignettes presented are compelling enough that I think a group of players could enjoyably spend at least a session on many of them.  This makes me ambivalent about the NPC party, who while one of the best (ok one of many wonderful) elements in the adventure could act to force the players’ hands.  The NPC party and its place in Deep Carbon Observatory is also somewhat hard to pin down without some page flipping, but that's a minor concern, and their inclusion creates a powerful and compelling enemy for the party.

Ultimately Deep Carbon Observatory is a thought provoking and wonderful adventure, almost novelistic in its scope and strangeness.  The author drops magnificent ideas and imagery haphazardly on every page of a quality that many adventure designer would convert into an entire campaign. Additionally there are some novel approaches to town encounters in the first section of the adventure that are thought provoking as a means of creating tension, and cause and effect without minimizing player agency.  Sadly Deep Carbon Observatory suffers a bit from a slavishness to the DIY aesthetic and a lack of polish, but other than some aggravating page transitions this is easily ignored. Additionally, the module’s scope makes it feel fragmentary (perhaps unavoidable given its size) at times and it repeatedly includes the lamentable sin of confusing maps. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

5E Character Sheet

So Dungeons & Dragons just released it's 5th edition. I've read the PDF and tried to figure out what people have to say about it.  I have heard some things, people playing it, people being excited.  Mostly though this is drowned out by obnoxious whining about some personalities involved in 5th edition's production.  Blah, seriously this hobby is far far to small for that sort of juvenile stupidity.

So rather then say anymore on the profound amount of stupid I see of late - here's a character sheet that should work for 5e.  It lacks equipment, and the two additional pages, the spell page and the genre fiction about you character page.  Equipment lists can be useful, and I wish I could have fit it, same with a spell list - maybe those should be on a next page, but I don't need a page of background to run a character - characters develop their stories through play.

I've gone with the most non-5th edition style I could, I've tried to make this look sort of Games Workshop mid-80's.

Friday, July 4, 2014

HMS APOLLYON - New Campaign - Play Report II





BRINEY MEETS HIS END
In which Briney the netfighter, Mr. Groob the incendiary, Nelson the Academic, Von Lumpwig’s Son the Reanimator and the disgraced passenger Anzio venture again into the Fetid Pit, lay waste to its denizens and face tragic consequences in a brutal melee.

Again into the Humid Jungles of the Fetid Pit

An expedition of scratch scavengers down the great airshaft marking Sterntown’s Port border gave up fine treasure on the last expedition and success draws imitators.   A smaller band of scavengers, most now proudly wearing the green arm band of The Scavenger’s Union (Groob, Von Lumpwig and Briney), and having recruited a stilt walking scholar by the name of Nelson, A fallen passenger caste elementalist called Anzio resolve to seek more treasure deeper in the pit.

Groob manages to talk a punch-drunk pit fighter the party decides to name “Punchy” into joining them as an equipment bearer, the addled fighter believing that the pit will be an excellent place to “Find flowers for a pretty lady”.  Before they disembark Von Lumpwig reveals his true nature as a dabbler in the cursed necromantic arts, though only up to raising an animate mass of chicken skin and soup bones cunningly wired into the form of one of the red worms the party battled in their first expedition.  Von Lumpwig names the creature “Kissy Face” much to the disgust of Mr. Groob who’s face is still bruised and scabbed from encountering the actual red worms.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

HMS APPOLYON - Living Costs and Basic Equipment

Rustgate Living

As Part of my new campaign of HMS Apollyon exploration I've decided to modify my price lists and downtime actions.  Below are housing options and a list of equipment.  It is worth noting that each of the Factions in Sterntown can provide their adherents with better equipment at a lesser price, as well as specialty items.


Life is cheap in the Rustgates, both in the sense that there is little protection for those without patrons or money to buy protection, and in that an individual can survive relatively cheaply eating from the various food vendors and gin shops while buying space in one of the many flophouses.   This sort of lifestyle, revolving around substance abuse, bad food and the constant threat of casual violence is not especially healthy, but its worst elements can be mitigated by spending gold.  

Each Expense Below has two categories Residence/Dining a character may spend money on each category, in addition to an actual carousing. The categories are cumulative, thus a session where the character runs out of money and lives like a hobo during the downtime means that next session they will have -2 HP per Hit Die.  Conversely a week of the high life might cost 1,000 GP but it allows the character to reroll twice  in the next session.
Many factions provide their members with at least the basic level of sustenance during downtime.  For example, any member of the Scavenger’s Union may sleep in its barracks (a flophouse) for free between sessions, but their food expenses are not covered, while Vory members are often asked to pay a vig of 10%  - 25% of their earnings for housing and food up to the Boarding House level.


Downtime Expense
Cost
Effect
Sleeping Rough/Dumpster Diving
None
- 1 HP/per HD (minimum 1 HP)
Bar Floor/ Booze and Snacks
5 GP
None
Flophouse/Noodle Shops
15 GP
+ 1 HP
Boarding House/ Hearty Food
50 GP
+ 1 to Saving Throws
Private Room /Fine Dining
100 GP
+1 HP/per HD
Sybaritic Luxury/Strange Drugs
500 GP
+1 Reroll
 


Sunday, June 29, 2014

B11 - King's Festival - Review



KINGs FESTIVal
That's a Cool Cover with Solid 80's Beefcake
B11, Kings Festival is in many ways the opposite of B10-Night’s Dark Terror, rather than a sprawling journey with somewhat loosely connected parts and many side adventures, King’s Festival is narrowly focused and very tiny in scope. It is perhaps too tiny, and too simple to be remotely useful. This isn’t to say that King’s Festival is worthless, much of the adventure is a set of play aides and advice, and as these things go the advice and aides are both moderately useful. The module itself is nicely written and has a few good touches, with solid description and scene setting, unfortunately the descriptions and scene are also terribly boring in King’s Festival, and the module has this feeling of being risk adverse and washed out. This lack of setting and evocative detail (there is an excess of detail, it’s just not evocative) is so prevalent that B11 is a dull, clichéd fantasy adventure doomed to fail as a an introduction to table top roleplaying games because it manages drains every bit of the fantastical, weird and awesome out of the genre.

King’s Festival is firmly in the late period of TSR products, written in 1989 by Carl Sargent, and it is a far more polished product then any adventure preceding it in the ‘B’ Series. By 1989 it seems that TSR had abandoned the heroic story arc model of the Dragonlance Modules at least to a degree, as King’s Festival is not a merciless railroad. This may be because it is too small to be a railroad, consisting of a single location, but the GM advice in the first 10 pages doesn’t seem to encourage too much fidelity to a specific story. Instead B11 uses alignment and the call for a heroic struggle against chaos as it’s justification for expecting and encouraging specific player actions. There is something potentially interesting here, but again the blandness of the setting in Kings Festival remove any reason to contemplate or explore any potential here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

HMS APOLLYON PLAY REPORT - New Campaign, Session One



A RETURN TO THE FETID PIT

A new pack of scavengers, some still salt and sunburned from being pulled aboard the Apollyon and others with the hollow eyes of gaol habituates are escorted through the bustling central market of Sterntown, a neighborhood normally denied to them.  The destination of the armed and armored scavenger gang is the Steward ramparts above the “Fetid Pit”.  The revetments are sparsely manned, but bristle with flame sluices, spiked barricades, organ guns, arc lamps and volley darters all aimed down into the yawning air shaft that serves Sterntown as a sewer and chemical dump.
Never Trust a Slime Mold

Told that they must descend by climbing a great chain dangling above the pit to recover valuables the scavengers look down.  The ramparts are a tiny brightly lit and protected refuge in the wall of a vast shaft.  Gray light trickles from far above, cut by the slow progress of titanic fans and dappled by a veritable jungle of fungus, molds, lichens and plants reaching for the light.  Below the first hundred feet have been cleared to the oddly terrace hull metal, likely by the application of chemical and other industrial wastes, but beyond the vertical jungle begins again: pale spiny bromeliads the size of trees, dense tangles of black vines spouting tiny leaves, and a lurid variety of bright fungus.  The grey light fliters down only 200’ feet revealing some sort of installation near the descent chain, but beyond is only blackness and flashes of bioluminescence.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Underdark Musings - Company Game Trait Generator

At the very bottom of everything, the well stretching skyward, with the surface as distant as the radiant heavens of the Bother Gods, and for us equally unobtainable we took stock of who had survived slaughter by the maggot skinned beasts.  We sat around a meager fire making biscuits from the weevil rich flour  whose sacks had been torn in the combat.  Our only protection was a low roof of stone held by a myriad of pillars, an edifice much like a pier, but rising from the smooth dry stone of the cave.  As we sat, men and woman first tried to find those of their own country, or those who had made up the cliques and gangs in the camps above. 

The grim descent and the fight afterward had scattered and broken these chains of the past.  Amid the abattoir of our fellows, torn by the deep beasts, the past seemed less important then before, a rebirth from a womb of light and space into a place where darkness has twelve distinct varieties.  I found myself using the blade of the ax I had grabbed up in desperation to help the man next to me heat his doughy biscuits as well as my own. He was a lean and ageless man, and from his ragged robes I knew him to once have been a noble from the distant islands across the spotted sea.  From the scars of torture and the brands on his hands I also knew him to have been a sorcerer, who had somehow survived the special attentions of the Crusaders. He called me "Ax" from that day, and we became friends there. I for my part always called him as "Titter" from his strange laugh - in our own lands we would have clung to our proud traditions and he insisted on his title and honorifics while I demanded he respect the honors I once won in the City of Glass. 


-
Testimony of fallen redeemer No. 34 at the Inquisitional inquest regarding the White Fortress massacres.

I was thinking again about running a 'company style' game, where the player select from a large pool of potential characters, but do not each 'own' a specific character. Obviously generating PCs quickly is essential in such a game, and as mentioned in previous posts on the subject the goal is to have a varied party of 'adventurers' each session with a trade off between leaving the best company members in camp or using them as characters in a specific session.  While stat lines can be generated quickly, and equipment becomes more a function of company stores then individual record sheets, I wanted to add a bit more to character generation so that the company members, most who will be little more then replacements or NPCs could be a bit more memorable.

To this end, below is a table of 100 Nicknames and Traits, many of which also adjust statistics so that a player will have something to go on when starting with a new PC.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thouls! ... Owlbears!



Thouls and Owlbears oh my!
Inspired by Hereticwerk’s 6 Tigers and 6 Lions of Wyrmspittle here’s 10  Owlbears and 10  Thouls.  Owlbears and Thouls have a special place in mid -80’s D&D, showing up in a large number of the B-series modules that I have been reviewing.  I like both these monsters, they are D&D originals, the owlbear (like the bullette and rust monster) is one of those early D&D beasts based on a set of plastic ‘dinosaur’ toys, and the thoul is an absurd horror seemingly designed as a mechanically infuriating trick monster with several special abilities and very poor justification of them.  Owlbears are the embodiment of bestial fury for low level adventuring parties, a dumb brute capable of tearing apart anyone foolish enough to stand against it in melee combat.  The Thoul is more mysterious, some kind of goblin undead super-soldier or strange hybrid goblinoid. I think Thouls exist primarily as a means to trick parties who gleefully set about massacring humanoids, but there's a place for them as some kind of altered goblinoid: undead, enchanted, possessed, mechanically augmented - whatever goblins are into in a setting culminates in a Thoul.  Below are the stat blocks for both creatures along with the descriptions taken from the Moldvay Basic Rules. 

Thoul
Owl Bear
No. Appearing: 1-6(1-10)
Save As: Fighter: 3
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: C
Alignment: Chaotic
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 3**
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 2 claws
or 1 weapon
Damage: 1-3/1-3
or weapon
No. Appearing: 1-4 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter: 3
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: C
Alignment: Neutral
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 5
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 2 claws/
1 bite
Damage: 1-8 each
A thoul is a magical combination of a ghoul, a hobgoblin, and a troll (see D&D EXPERT rules). Except when very close, thouls look exactly like hobgoblins, and they are sometimes found as part of the bodyguard of a hobgoblin king. The touch of a thoul will paralyze (in the same way as that of a ghoul). If it is damaged, a thoul will regenerate 1 hit point per round as long as it is alive. (After a thoul is hit, the DM should add 1 hit point to its total at the beginning of each round of combat.)
An owl bear is a huge bear-like creature with the head of a giant owl. An owl bear stands 8' tall and weighs 1500 pounds (15,000 coins). Owl bears have nasty tempers and are usually hungry, preferring meat. If both paws of an owl bear hit the same opponent in one round, the owl bear will "hug" for an additional 2d8 points of damage. They are commonly found underground and in dense forests.




Owlbear Classic by Demos-Remos
 The above stat blocks don’t tell the reader much about the glory of the Owlbear or the Thoul and as creatures without a mythical basis, there’s really nothing else to go on.  One of the saddest things in a tabletop game is when monsters lose their terror and mystery and become simply stat block.  This is a problem with the late period TSR modules, and one that I personally find make me want to stop playing a game.  A monster should have a description and evoke wonder rather then simply be a set of mechanical challenges.  Below are ten new descriptions of Thouls and ten descriptions for Owlbears that don’t qualify as reskinning but are hopefully more flavorful then the ones above and allow the monsters to be use in a variety of settings.


 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hooks and Rumors

I've been working on a few projects here and there, adventures that I hope to put up as a PDFs eventually. Some are nearly done, some long overdo, some new and barely outlines, but one of the things I have been focusing on is improving design and usability.  My past adventures, especially early ones like Obelisk of Forgotten Memories have a lot of content, but they are a bit of a mess.  I've been trying to improve the layout and utility of what I write and I think I have made some improvements. 



 
Rumors, always found in fantasy bars

The description box, encapsulating smell, lighting, treasure and perils in a given location is a good edition I think, as it provides at a glance what a GM needs to know to run the room, or better to job a memory of the room description that the GM previously read.  With a personal solution to this basic location description in place I've been thinking more about the larger issue of scenario design, and the weaknesses I find when reading published adventures, specifically the B-series of modules, specifically the introductory hook and the rumor table.




Tuesday, June 10, 2014

An Abandoned Map

Here's a Map I won't be using for anything.  Have at it.


If it looks familiar perhaps it's because it's a version of the 'fill in' map by Matt Jackson (Lapis Calumni) for Tenkar's Tavern's OSR Superstar Contest.