Monday, October 26, 2020

Revised Prison of the Hated Pretender Release

 A revised, updated, edited, illustrated and annotated version of my 2012 Prison of the Hated Pretender is now available for purchase and download at DriveThruRPG.  The adventure is introductory, and now includes copious notes on running classic style adventures as well as conversion details for 5th Edition D&D.

Published through the amazing Hydra Cooperative, and available here:

DriveThru Link

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Hinterlands of Empire

"Men make their own history, but not as they please, not out of the conditions he chooses, but under existing circumstances - transmitted from the past; the traditions of past generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living."

The Successor Empire is sadly reduced by secession, war, conquest, depopulation and decline. 

The Central Provinces of Empire, the only ones loyal to the Emperor, and not claimed by naval mutineers, rogue dux, plague cults, Resurgent Kings or the Solar Popes are top heavy with the accretion of the past.  Every foot of ground has been a field, a home, a barracks and a grave at least once, and almost every mile contains some ruined magnificence - tumbled blocks showing the forgotten master-work of a long dead sculptor lay in a field of alchemically altered flowers, poisonous, but in the perfect jeweled tones to celebrate some ancient Emperor's jubilee.

Even in their wounded grandeur, nibbled at the edges by betrayals and crusades, the Central Province alone is larger then most kingdoms, stretching from the polluted crater lands South and West of the Capital to the Blue Meadows in in the North.  Canals and imperishable high-roads radiate from the Capital to run ruler straight across the provinces, surrounded by tumbled stones and monumental arches of bonewhite that still gleam for past victories -  appreciated only by jack rabbits and sparrows for the shade they cast.  Even fertile regions such as Green Hive are beset by internal feuding among their noble magnates and invaders from without.  Pirate princes from the Province Maratime sail ever Northward, penetrating the rivers and canal networks in brazen plundering expeditions while local militias rob traders and each other.  Everyone know that The Empire is sick, collapsing from the decadent weight of its own glory, but the fall has been so long coming that even those who care put off hard choices for years or generations while the Empire dies in nearly geologic time.

Some regions of course are more vibrant than others, and some divisions, cantonments, wards, departments, demesnes or shires are even growing while the Imperial world fades. 
The Successor Empire and its Rivals

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Goodbye and Good Luck

Well some of you may have noticed this blog has been down, restricting access for some time.  For various reasons I've decided to step away from the OSR and the tabletop gaming web community - possibly permanently. Part my decision to withdraw is personal, I find myself with insufficient time and desire to write about games but I also have the sense that the 'OSR' scene this blog is devoted to has become a rather disgusting place where crass commercialization is strangling a formerly creative amateur community, and where destructive 'alt-right' views are becoming increasingly prevalent, even among some of the more significant publishers in the community.  This isn't to say that there aren't still wonderful creatives and writers within the OSR community, and that I don't consider many of those I've met there real friends.

My longtime favorite Dave Trampier piece from the 1st edition DMG
To put it another way - the OSR isn't fun for me anymore, and as such I will be officially shutting this blog down.  I've been asked to maintain the site as an archive for others to use, and will do so - though I'm shutting down the comments.  I still appreciate that the blog's many readers have enjoyed it over the years and I've enjoyed comment discussions, but don't wish to keep up with trimming the spam.

So Goodbye and Good Luck, thanks for reading.

- Gus L.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Balance, Challenge & Antagonism when Running Dungeons & Dragons

D&D Cartoon Dungeon Master - pretty friendly

The concept of Challenge Rating in D&D, a means of balancing encounters can detract from open world, location based, sandbox play - even if it is useful for tactical combat focused games.

The 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has a system I find strange coming from playing earlier editions almost exclusively - the Challenge Rating ("CR").

It may seem odd, but I've never run a game where I tried to determine numerically if a combat encounter would be too dangerous for my players - this isn't to say that adventure design shouldn't require some consideration of enemy strength compared to that of the party, but really it's not an issue that older editions obsess too much on, even if it is treated as an absolutely core system to newer editions of Dungeons & Dragons. I fear that the reliance on a mechanical system to assure "balance" and "fairness" both shows a corrosive distrust of the Game Master and encourages a less open more competitive style of play.

It appears Challenge Rating started as a concept somewhere in the mass of publications that was D&D's 3.5 edition, but in 4th edition it really became a key component of Encounter Design, which itself assumed a place of prominence rather then being a small subset of Adventure Design.  It's also easy to see why Challenge Rating in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and 3.5's offshoot Pathfinder, became such a profoundly important, and useful, element of running the game.  3.5 and 4th Edition are mechanically complex games where the locus of play (a term I use frequently to describe the type of play where the players are most engaged and which takes up the most time at the table) is tactical combat.  Combat encounter design becomes the focus for most GMs in these editions and games, as it is designed to be, and CR functions as a useful set of tools to provide the balance that the highly tuned, but straight-forward, combat mechanics require to make the combat encounters both challenging and potentially survivable.  4th Edition CR rules create "XP budgets" to build and modify encounters from a selected list of pre-designed (or built and modified via templates) foes, each with a combat role that adds complexity to combat encounters and defines their tactics to the GM. 

While it's popular among some who play older editions and styles of D&D to wring hands or complain about this style of play and the need for or usefulness of a CR based combat encounter construction system in 4E and Pathfinder, it's worth noting that these GM facing systems make sense for the game being played - a complex tactical combat system about direct grid based confrontation with fantastical creatures. While, no matter the system, a good GM or designer will always want to have some idea about how an encounter or string of encounters might deplete player resources, the more complex and mechanically defined those resources are, the more systems for checking if an encounter or adventure is properly challenging for players becomes useful - especially when the goal of a play session is combat, sidestepping other resource draining activities (puzzles, negotiation) as quickly as possible to assure adequate time for complex combats.  As the game itself puts it:

"[T]he D&D game is a series of encounters. Encounters are where the game happens—where the capabilities of the characters are put to the test and success or failure hang in the balance." 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide Deluxe. (2008, James Wyatt) pg 34.
It becomes clear that combat centered gameplay within the matrix of scene based adventure design can be a choice, and the designers of D&D's 3.5 and 4th editions chose to build a system whose mechanics supported this style of play.  Yet it's equally worth noting that in doing so they chose to remove or sideline other aspects of the game that made up a large amount of play in earlier editions.  This transformation of the game also has effects that go beyond mere mechanics and change the duties and conception of what a good Game Master should do and bring to the table - and they do so in a way that has the potential to be disastrous for games where the locus of play isn't tactical combat.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Fighting Goblins in a Creative Wasteland

D&D's Goblins Started Dull
Recently Cecelia D'Anastasio of the relatively mainstream web publication Kotaku published a long piece on the subject of Fighting Goblins in Dungeons & Dragons, and how it is "The Worst".  I don't disagree with her that the sort of tedious back and forth of melee attacks until the inevitable conclusion where the victorious party of adventurers stands atop a pile of dead goblins she describes is "The Worst" of tabletop gaming, and agree that the reasons she identifies describe the problem fairly well:
  • Annoyance at a mundane direct conflict and head to head combat where the opposition does not and can not bring complex tactics to the fight and where because of their perceptions about the enemy the players don't feel risk or excitment. 
  • Boredom and frustration created by a the lack of notable or intriguing elements about the monsters to make them wondrous, interesting, exciting or compelling. 
The problem D'Anastasio identifies is thus complex and two-fold (at least) both diegetic (relating to the story or narrative and how it's told) and mechanical (relating to how the gamified rules and procedures of combat function). In D'Anastasio's game, and many others I suspect, a goblin encounter is both boring and frustrating because there's nothing interesting to learn about goblins or the setting from the encounter and there is no risk or tension in the encounter.  This first problem is the one D'Anastasio provides a prescription to and her prescription, like her diagnosis is fundamentally right, but doesn't go very far.  D'Anastasio suggests that the GM "combine the cliched combat encounter with any of those other things [puzzle-solving or story development, discovery]".  This creative impulse is good, but might not get one very far as long as "goblins" remain two-dimensional known quantities that present no threat but can only be encountered in combat.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Map - but not the one you want

I jest, a reader asked for some maps related to my ongoing HMS APOLLYON
project - but I don't feel like publishing those, so here's a map of a twelve sided
folded unnatural space.

I am keying it up as a combination of the ruins of the folded city of an ancient
Carcosa imposed upon by the last bastion and hidden bunkers of the Iron King,
Hawberk I, who was deposed by its current Ragged King.

It's a bad place where refugees from Carcosa find themselves scavenging.

The project contains rooms like this:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Gold for Experience in 5th Edition D&D

Classic David Trampier from the 1e
The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is a odd book, much like the 1st Edition AD&D guide it is a scattered confluence of ideas, suggestions and game-able content.  Unlike some past guides it seems more interested in offering play options and setting variety to Game Masters, rather then creating the one true setting and manner of playing D&D. 

This is perhaps the strongest aspect of the 5th edition brand - that makes motions in the direction of creativity and setting variation which some earlier editions refused to.  Perhaps starting in the late 80's - early 90's as TSR released setting after setting, the idea embraced in the earliest editions of the game that each table of players and Dungeon Master should create their own world (I'd argue collaboratively), was abandoned and D&D products seemed to push an orthodoxy with settings defined and each setting deadened by reams of officious petty rules and mechanics. For example, the Spelljammer boxed set (a 1989 setting about fantasy space and space faring on magical sailing ships) spends little time offering up the sorts of strange and fantastical setting ideas it's core conceit promises, glossing over some great ideas in favor of complex rules about orbits and star types that seem more appropriate to a hard sci-fi game like Universe or Traveller.  5th Edition doesn't make this mistake, or at least it hasn't yet, and while I may critique its efforts at producing adventures for their devotion to the terminally bland Forgotten Realms setting and heroic fantasy, the Dungeon Masters Guide at least suggests Dungeon Masters design settings that vary greatly and offers some rules to aid in creating settings in 'mythic fantasy' (classical antiquity/mythology), 'epic fantasy' (even more high powered and magically focused),  'wuxia', 'dark fantasy' (Ravenloft effectively), 'mystery', 'intrigue' and 'swords and sorcery'.  Sometimes rules are even offered up by the Dungeon Master's Guide to suggest how to better run these different sorts of campaigns.

The last category of 5e settings, "swords and sorcery", is largely a description of how earlier editions of D&D played (or perhaps were intended to play) - at least in my experience.  Informed by the novels of Vance and other 30's - 60's pulp writers, this fantasy is a bit grim, and darkly humorous with heroes that are only slightly more impressive then normal men (or less in the case of Cudgel the Clever), who largely seek their own advancement and survive mostly by luck and their wits.  The world is dangerous and uncaring, and if these sorts of wandering heroes become involved in an epic quest it is only by their own decision, a curse or accident.

The Little Brown Books or "White Box" are the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons - presenting a simple and somewhat muddled set of rules that almost compels a 'swords and sorcery' style setting and game (at least as the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide defines swords and sorcery) because the combat mechanics are high lethality, power levels flat and the exploration rules encourage caution and the accumulation of treasure rather then seeking combat.

Monday, December 4, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK - HMS Apollyon - Painted Ship on a Painted Sea - Adversary Design

One of the three main potential adversaries/NPCs within the Duke Brimstone Yacht Club area is Murial Coranado a 'Revenant of Debauchery'  who is not especially hostile, but capable of life draining attacks and immune to non-magical weapons.  If treated with respect and caution she is likely to be a curiosity and if plied with liquor may even become something of an ally and source of information about the ship, its history and the region.

I'm not a fan of 'Boss' monsters, and try to design my regions more so they present a puzzle, mystery and story rather then a series of challenges leading to a climactic fight.  The other two potential adversaries (as opposed to simple monsters or random encounters like the Limpet Bears in the last post) are the angry spirit of a petty bureaucrat and a near unstoppable (but very stupid) giant sea slug.  The Bureaucrat will grow increasingly angry if his domain is disturbed, while the slug will hunt the party pushing them deeper into the hull.  All three are designed to present a variety of potential encounters and uses to the players, not only combat - though other then using the slug to dispose of other enemies, it's not really up for conversation.

AREA 16 - Main Bar (Illuminated) [Monster/Treasure] Light streams into this long room from observation windows of thick glass, blindingly to anyone emerging from the darker recesses of the hull.  ‘L’ shaped the longer arm an ornately decorated Bar (Area A16b) and the shorter a Lounge (Area A16a) filled with lushly stuffed leather furniture.

AREA 16a - Club Lounge - (illuminated) [Monster] Chairs and couches upholstered in cracked leather, weathered by the sun, are array around several tables of polished black wood.  Glassware and empty bottles are scattered about, but are especially thickly stacked on a table by the windows overlooking the Pool (Area A2), where a withered corpse [sidebar] in the tattered remains of an evening gown still leans in one of the chairs.
  • chairs and couches - Examination of the chairs will reveal that they appear to be made from a variety of shades of human skin, seemingly confirmed by the presence of a face here and there on the upholstery.
  • Withered corpse - (Murial Coranado, Revenant of Debauchery) [See Sidebar] HD 4 (HP 16), AC 13*, ATK** +5x2 (Claw/Claw)***, INT 0, MV sluggish (3)
    *Immune to normal weapons/explosions, damaged by fire, magic, silver, hexed and blessed weapons.
    ** Murial’s bony talons drain life from the victim on each strike, Save v. Paralysis or lose one level of experience/HD.  Reduction to -1 LVL or 0HD causes instant death without Save.
    *** As a Revenant of Debauchery Murial Coranado exudes reeking alcoholic fumes that will cause any creature in melee combat with her and capable of intoxication to become uselessly, reelingly drunk.  Each round close to Murial combatants must Save vs. Paralysis to act at all.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK PART II - Grave of Giants Sample Rooms


"The abyssal seas hold their secrets deep, and few living known more than a few of the terrible beasts that swim them, but the trawlers of the darkness know, they have seen and hunted the depths for flesh, bone and souls, dangling from their long thorny lines past light and into the crushing depths. They threaten to pull even the Leviathan to the surface with bony claws.  These are not the skulking feral dead of the lost spaces, these are the ghoul nobility of the sea, loyal to their fisher queen Moab whose dead pearl eyes have gazed on the ruins of stone cities beneath the waves and whose oracular mind holds unwanted secrets of the past and future."
  • From the confession of the Necromancer ‘Tenebrous’ on his treasonous dealings with the Ash Plague

Once a small cargo port for the transfer of incidental goods, the Whale Tomb is conveniently located near Spinal Rail and also provides access to the sea.  For undead of Queen Moab’s “Trawlers” it offered a perfect space to gather the materials for and conduct the rituals to raise a “kraken”, the reanimated corpse of a whale or other large sea creature which the Plague uses as a siege weapon. Upon discovery of a clean rail connection to the Whale Tomb from her domains deep in steerage, Queen Moab dispatched a research expedition of intelligent ‘Hollow Men’ defended by a few Gun Wights and led by the rather scholarly Fyke Trawler, a Greater Revenant of Duty.  Midway through the process of raising a Kraken the undead were stopped by the intrusion of a well armed gang of cultists from the Cult of the Ravenous, a cannibalistic swarm of demon worshipers loyal to the Hyena Headed Demon King of Slaughter (See Area C - The Roundhouse Tunnels for details).  The undead have abandoned many of their ritual spaces and fight a stolid defense against the raiding tactics and sniping of the cultists. Fyke Trawler is crafty and experienced, but he isn’t a fighter and his dead aren’t really warriors.  The Trawlers are in a desperate situation and uncharacteristically willing to ally with any third force they come across - even the living.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

SCENES FROM A SHIPWRECK - HMS Apollyon Painted Ship on A Painted Sea - Room Design

Below are some sample rooms from areas of the HMS Apollyon that I have been writing up over the last year or so. These are partial and scattered selections from a much larger work, but I am happy to share them, giving some preview of the project (which may or may not ever be completed).  I recently asked some people what ongoing project they'd like to see finished, so I will be working on this and perhaps posting additional updates and samples.

They also show my current approach to dungeon keying, which tries to both preserve the level of detail I find interesting and remain immediately useful to a Game Master during play.

HMS - cover processed faded.jpg

Duke Brimstone Yacht Club - Area A

“The HMS Apollyon is graced with a special chapter of the The Duke Brimstone Yacht Club, many of that storied order of light-hearted nautical diabolists having joined our great experiment! While the camaraderie shared aboard ship, even one as great as ours, has allowed the ‘Duke’s Men’ to accept non-members holding 1st Class, 2nd Class and Elite Cabin Class tickets (and up to two of their guests) for visits and enjoyment of its sinfully excellent bar, join club approved day charters, or view any member’s yachts currently in its whimsically decorated pool, the club offices, lounge and other areas are limited to members.

Members, and non-members alike may avail themselves of the Club’s generous yacht storage area and use its launching facilities, chandlery and naval architecture firm for a small fee.”
                    -HMS APOLLYON, Cabin Class Entertainment Guide.