Thursday, April 17, 2014

B8 - Journey to the Rock - Review

Initial thoughts

Cover art, I like this party
the majesty of "The Rock" s lacking
Firmly entrenched in the mid 80’s, and TSR’s trends towards higher fantasy adventures with clearly delineated good and evil, Journey to the Rock is still an exception after the unsettling (and often unnecessary) railroading of B5-B7 that seems to mark the beginning of a move away from sandbox play.  Written by Michael Malone in 1985 doesn’t have the popularity or notoriety of much of the B series, I’m not really sure why this is, as there is much to use in Journey to the Rock, perhaps it came out at a time when D&D was trending away from the sort of vanilla world exploration fantasy that it represents towards the epic scripted adventures of Dragonlance, perhaps B8’s solid structure is lost underneath a coat of dullness that still makes it a bit of a slog to read.   B8 doesn’t just return to the more open world popular in the early B series, it returns to the practice of giving tidbits of GMing advice, which is welcome.   There’s advice on character death that focuses on wandering adventurers rather than henchmen as replacements.  It’s an interesting choice when compared to the advice in B2, and which I read as a move in mid-80’s D&D towards a party of individual heroes vs. party as a band of desperate treasure hunters or wandering pack of mercenaries.  The rather decent pre-generated characters show this as well, with typical fantasy backstories and quite good statistics, but without being overly long and complex.  None of this is bad or especially good, just noteworthy as a signpost of the direction D&D was taking in the mid 80’s.  Another example of the mid 80’s railroad/heroic adventure thinking in Journey to the Rock is the inclusion of optional encounters that are to be avoided if they might destroy the party.  It’s a shame as the vast majority of these individual encounters are quite good, and beyond time pressure or avoiding hammering a wounded and foolish party of adventurers there’s no reason to avoid them.

B8 is supposedly novel because it is primarily a wilderness adventure, but this is only partially true.  B8 is an adventure that occurs in the wilderness, but it provides three ‘paths’ to the target location rather than a hex crawl to explore, though one could easily  explore the empty hexes (squares actually) striking out across the map.  There are simple, and seemingly solid wilderness travel and encounter rules, and some nice concepts embodied in the day and night encounter lists.  The encounters themselves have tiny bits of character to them that go a long way to making them feel naturalistic (Forest ogre wears deer skull helmet, goblins send out raiding parties if the party kills their hunters) and while this isn’t much it’s better than a lot of modules - B series or contemporary.  One issue is that the map represents maybe three days of travel at the rates provided (which seem high), making this a rather short wilderness adventure, though the density of the path’s inhabitants may slow a party down.  Another positive and noteworthy element of Journey to the Rock is that many of the monsters are unique, and many are not outright hostile.  This is a huge departure from B7, B6 or B5 where good and evil are drawn sharply and creatures are either friendly or instantly aggressive.  

The dullness of Journey to the Rock begins with the plot, despite containing some classic swords and sorcery elements such as the ancient city phased out of time and seeking to return.  What’s surprising here is that the core ideas are fun, but they are presented in a blunt, rules heavy manner, and worse the interesting bits aren’t expanded upon while the minutia is.  The party is accosted by a merchant in the wilds who wants to offer one of them a job from a local wizard and noble.  The party travels to a manor where they are given a job to trek to a distant glowing massif and recover an ancient amulet to allow the wizard to bring his lost city back to the world.  This is presented as an absolute good, which is a bit strange, and the hook itself is “go get the wizard something for money” is so trite and miserable.  Weirdly the module writer thinks this hook deserves several pages to set up.  After accepting the quest the adventurers wander off into the wilderness, presumably along one of the three trails on the map they receive.  The North trail goes through some mountains and the abandoned ruins of the phased city.  The Western trail wanders through forest and the Southern barrens or a desert. All three paths lead to an interesting set encounter and a puzzle involving the nature of the rock itself.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

HMS APOLLYON - Player's Manual - sample layout

Below is a sample from the Player's Manual I've been preparing for the HMS APOLLYON.  It's not just a look at font and format, but the topic itself may be useful both to players and as a worldbuilding idea.  I think it is helpful for both GM and players to have some idea of what's valuable in a setting, especially as one moves farther away from the fantasy norm.  Players have a tendency to steal anything that isn't laid down, and try to sell it.  For example, in the last game of Wampus I played the party didn't find much treasure amongst the amusingly re-skinned retired adventurer fortress that is Search for the Unknown, but we made up for the lack of portable wealth by smashing up some marble thrones and selling the larger chunks.  This sort of behavior is baked into the Apollyon, and giving both player and GM an idea about what's worth dragging back to the gates of Sterntown is important to the setting.

ALSO AVAILABLE AS PDF: PDF of Player's Guide Sample

Friday, April 11, 2014

OSR Superstar contest - Round 1 entry

Tenkar's Tavern is having a tiered contest dubbed "OSR Superstar".  Now given that the concept of the OSR is a maze of delusions without a distinct meaning I don't really know what it means, but the Tavern managed to get 330 entries for the first round, winnowed down to 50 in the second.  My own entry in the first round was one of those picked by two of the three judges, which surprised me.  The next round fast approaches and I am hard at work on my monster, but in the meantime I figured I would share my last entry. Tenkar has already posted the raw text of the entry, but here's the actual item as submitted.

Coward's Heart PDF

Thursday, April 3, 2014

ASE Map - The Denethix Area

Sure ASE 1 by Patrick Wetmore has some nice maps in it, but I went and decided to draw the area map around Denethix (ASE's 'point of light') in my own overland style.  Use it how you will - player map immediately comes to mind.  It's only vaguely to scale, but that's part of the fun.

Use them however you like.

Black and White
A Psychedelic Sepia Sort of Version

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stone Ships - A two Page Dungeon PDF

Sort of a space filler that I did up for this.
I've been working on a One Page Dungeon for the Contest of the same name, and yet being a verbose person, despite my best efforts, I couldn't cram this concept into anything less then two page.  It's almost a dungeon generator of sorts - kind of like what I've been doing for the wreck hunting in my current ASE campaign.  Anyhow since it was 90% done before I gave up on fitting it onto a page, I give it to the public as two!  I sort of envision it in the same world as Brittlestone Parapets or The Prison of the Hated Pretender - a post-apocalypse of a purely magical variety.


Maps are what really takes up space
Take a look at the PDF and download yourself a way to generate dying earth style abandoned vessels that might make an astute player think of the German High Seas Fleet, and it's scuttling at Scapa Flow.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Isometric maps - So pretty, So annoying

So I've been trying to draw cool maps again.  Trying is the operative word.  Let's just say these are for something I want to look cool, so I figured I'd draw the coolest maps I could think of.  Now I really love an isometric map, so I figured that's the way to go, but isometric maps are a problem.  Sure a well drawn isometric map can look amazing, but they are ultimately very simple.  That is to say, one can draw an isometric map of a single flattish level or maybe some levels separated by a some very long stairways.  Maps with huge vertical also spaces work pretty good, but there are several problem, and the question becomes: is dealing with the limited amount of topographical information and complete lack of verticality worth it?  Personally I don't find isometric maps especially useful, obvious isometric maps have a place, for example when drawing small tunnel networks with a limited number of levels.  Now an isometric map looks pretty cool, but I find it next to impossible to maintain any kind of naturalistic map design while trying to fit a lower or higher level into the areas with minimal overlap.  In their defense isometric maps really do have more space for neat little bits of art (no only because things look better for 3/4 view) because they offer a lot more space if the incredibly annoying grid lines don't make it impossible to draw stuff out.

That said, isometric maps look pretty cool - so here's my solution.

edifice 1 - full map

It's a little small, but that's the format and it's all part of my plan is to use it in something with limited space.

Yeah it's an isometric exterior for looks with an interior of map for sense.  Sure it won't work too well on a map of a subterranean environment, but those are easier to use actual isometric maps for.   Here's a few more exteriors for the same project.  I'm starting to enjoy this thing - a means of filing several maps with a few tables.

Edifices 1 and 2
Edifices 3 -5

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

One Page Dungeon Ideas

Walking Mountains may be too big for 1 page...
The time to enter the One Page dungeon contest approaches, and it promises to be better then ever before.  Many thanks to Random Wizard who is doing an amazing job of runnign the contest this year, but I still don't have an entry! My entry last year 'Brittlestone Parapets' gave a good showing, but I'd like to do better this year, and just haven't gotten around to doing the work involved yet.  Below are four one page dungeon ideas with thier introductory paragraph?  Which do you find most interesting?

Monday, March 17, 2014

B7 - Rahasia - Review

Rahasia is a story focused module written in 1984 by Tracy and Laura Hickman, the folks behind Dragonlance. Rahasia is written for an extremely Tolkienesque fantasy world, perhaps the Basic D&D fantasy world that later became standard for TSR. Not sure why the story and setting are so aggravating to me – it may be descriptions like: “an elven maid, whose veiled grace and beauty outshines all others present as the sun outshines the stars-she is Rahasia.” The entire set up and world is so revoltingly encrusted with high fantasy bathos that it’s almost painful to read. Still, it's more than the descriptions that make me dislike B7, it's the way that Rahasia enforces the world it creates with GM-side rules that not only force the players to accept the adventure but penalize characters for not acting in a noble manner. All this is unfortunate because there are some good set pieces in the haunted temple itself. The maps are solid, the traps often well designed, numerous puzzles included, the encounters mostly sensible with several unique monsters, and there’s even some treasure that isn’t completely boring.  Rahasia still suffers from lesser problems beyond the absurd bombastic descriptions and mawkishness railroading. Treasure placement is somewhat non-standard, with a few large caches rather then a constant dribble of valuables. The magic items are not so great, but they are less common then in most early TSR modules and the authors have included a couple of interesting unique items. The most serious problem, linked to the railroading impulse of the module, is a lack of factions in Rahasia.  While several of the best encounters are with ‘good’ temple guardians or otherwise upend vanilla fantasy assumptions about when to fight or who to rescue, there’s no room in Rahasia for manipulation and gray morality.
decent art and execrable verse

The art and layout are fine, though for such a socially driven module I could have used a bit more about the village, especially if I am trying to get my players excited about saving it.  Some sense of the goals and potential outcomes of the module beyond - free the elf damsels, do good, adventure would also be nice. The box text isn't even especially bad, it's mostly short and fairly functional.  All of the poetry is terrible, and the wine jokes are bad, but I suppose one can spin that either as a function of poor translation or elven lameness.  I rather like the ink drawings in Rahasia more then B5 or B6, though they are similar.

I also doubt a bit if the encounters are sufficient to give the recommended party size and level much of a challenge, for example the witches who are the adventure’s main villains are first level magic users, with 5HP and two spells. Now one spell is sleep and they have panther’s protecting them, but when your adventure’s great adversaries are a pair of 4HD encounters vs. 10 – 24HD of party (without henchmen) there may be a lack of challenge. This might sound like a minor complaint, fixable by adding a few more hit dice or monsters here and there, but it’s not so simple, the weak enemies are a function of the structure of these modules and the way they insist (often through railroad tactics) players approach them. The second wave of ‘B’ modules suffers from pitiful enemies generally, because in keeping with their stringent lawful/chaotic morality the players are expected to fight and defeat the monsters. Where it’s clearly obvious that a party which tries to carve its way though the Caves with violence will fail if the humanoids are run with a modicum of thought, the opposition in Rahasia will fall to an aggressive party, and it must, because there are no other approaches considered by the authors.

Monday, March 10, 2014

MAP - Cloud Castle or at least Cloud Manor.

So I drew up the map below because I was thinking about cloud castles, and I think it turned out to be an interesting lair style dungeon.  I figure it's a strange sight spotted floating about the wilderness sometimes, a dark permanently storming cloud, with a pair of gleaming white towers visible perched atop and within it.  Rumormongers might know that in ancient times (or only a few years ago - doesn't matter) it was used by a powerful wizardly overlord as a traveling feast hall, with which he would circle his domains, bringing rain and accepting tribute from his floating palace.  More like a pleasure barge then a home, it was known as "Thunderhead Manse" and richly furnished to impress yokels and other visitors.

I can think of a couple things that could make it an adventure area.  The first scenario involves a renegade gang of the (now vanished) wizard's flying monkey guard, who float around at random, ransacking towns, demanding tribute and turning the Manse's lighting cannon on those who resist.  The monkeys are armed with Arcquebus' - odd mechano-arcane weapons that fling arcs of electricity at their enemies, but otherwise they're basically a band of flying buccaneers putting on airs. Led by a monkey captain claiming the name "The Storm King" this might make a pretty funny (or extremely deadly - because 20 - 30 2nd level flying humanoids that have some military discipline and strategy can be pretty tough) adventure.

Otherwise the place would make a good lair for a dragon.  I'd go with a blue dragon, or better phantasmagoric wyrm.  A long ribbon of magic and madness, coiled in the library atop the manse and served by the phantoms of the cloud castle's former servants and guards.  the whole place could be infected with the dragon's madness, with dream beasts materializing out of the cloud to strike an threaten.

Air elementals or a young cloud giant dandy see like possibilities as well, but less exciting. The map itself would need some processing before being useful - a key of course, with the levels named, and all the excess grid removed.  I've presented the raw version here because I haven't decided what to do with this (if anything yet). I think for any PDF, I'd also break up the map into sections for the tower, cellars and manse, all tied back into the elevation.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dungeon of Signs Plays Torchbearer - A Play Report

So a largely OSR GM (who is likely the best minimalist rule-cruncher I know) and a mixed selection of OSR(LBB, B/X), 4E, Pathfinder and Story Game players attempted to play Torchbearer using a pack of pregens and some sort of introductory module.  I was both baffled and enjoyed myself – now this might just be because the fellow players and GM were cool folks, but the system was interesting in many ways.

The pregens were boring. I’m sorry, I like a gonzo game or at least something that feels a little different from Tolkeinesque Beardy Scotch Dwaves and Whimsy Elves. Torchbearer is a consciously ironic nostalgia based game where the fantasy archetypes aren't just strong, they seem necessary to the game. Now this isn’t to say the game is snidely ironic, it’s clearly a homage to old school games trying to capture the gritty feeling of nebbishes crawling about in a miserable underworld. The problem for our game is that Torchbearer is a complex and convoluted system that appears mechanics focused - and we weren’t prepared for it. Not that we didn’t try to prepare, I mean the GM and some of the other players had clearly poured over the rules. Due diligence was preformed, and yet this session was very limited and a lot of time was spent flipping about through the rules.

Yeah - this was the party ... yawn