Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Evocative +1 Sword Replacements

So I've complained in the past about the profoundly lame effect of "+X" magic weapons and armor on a game.  I don't take it back.  In the Vaults of Pahvelorn game my 7th level thief has a 'magic sword' made of elf metal - it is one of the few magic weapons in the party.  It doesn't do much except glow in moonlight and hurt certain undead that are immune to non-silver weapons.  That's enough though. 

Magical swords are a very D&D thing, everyone wants one, and why not - they're pretty cool.  The problem with weapons that give a bonus to attack and damage is that they become expected, and lack any kind of excitement, weirdness or mystery.  I don't want magical items to be commonplace and I don't want them to be dull, ready for replacement when the next level of 'plus' comes along.  I want my magic slightly terrifying.  Beyond not being flavorful 'plus' magical weapons simply create an arms race between player treasure recovery and monster armor class.  This is how many an MMO works.  It's not that being 80th level is better then being 60th, it's just that the dungeons you've raided give you equipment that cuts the necessary .5 more seconds of killing a creature of the same level. There's nothing wrong with this approach in a video game, especially if cool graphics back it up, but in a table top game combat mechanics are frequently boring.  I firmly think that player interest and excitement is held by the discovery of mysterious artifacts that do specific things and tell specific stories.  One needn't make magic items perfect for every player in a tabletop game, because as a GM one can tailor their odd powers can to the events at hand.

Below are 10 magical swords with powers that are somewhere in the range of +1 to +2 and should actually be interesting.  Some are vaguely unsettling, others very situational and others potentially annoying.  I think the list can be easily used to make even better swords (improved bonuses and no side effects) or cursed weapons (worse side effects).

Name & Description
Phantom Sword - Seemingly brittle and ancient, this blade is haunted by the spirits of its past wielders.  After the first round of combat (where it is useless) a shimmering spectral blade coalesces around the weapon’s blackened core of rotted iron.
Ignores up to 5 points of armor, but does not affect natural armor or magical warding.
Haunted by the souls of ambitious warriors, may push wielder into berserker rage. Save vs. Wisdom after 1D6 rounds of combat.
Searing Sword – a blunt blade of blackened steel, the magic of this weapon heats it to red hot as battle continues.  As it begins to glow and crackle, runes of power shine menacingly on the blade and pommel.
Each combat round after the first the searing sword gains a +1 cumulative damage bonus and may ignite flammable objects.
Each combat round after the first the weapon heats, burning the wielder for damage equal to its damage bonus. Heavy gauntlets reduce this by 1.
Necromancer’s Spine – A white metal weapon, usually a smallsword or rapier, with etchings of bones and mocking skeletons along its blade.  The weapon’s magic  is not strictly martial, but humanoids slain with it will quickly rise from death and battle on behalf  of the sword’s wielder.
Humanoids killed with the sword will return from death in 1D4 rounds to serve their killer as undead thralls.  Without necromantic training these undead will serve for 1D4 turns after rising.
Sometimes the dead raised by the Necromancer’s Spine will turn on the sword’s wielder after battle.  When no enemies are available to attack the sword’s thralls must check (1 in 6 chance) or turn on their master.
Glass Sword – clear, translucent or solid and smoky these swords of alchemical glass were once made in numbers to equip the legions of the ancients.  They are preternaturally sharp, and on a solid strike are capable of easily bisecting even an armored enemy.
Exploding damage - on a strike doing maximum damage the weapon will do an additional die of damage. This effect stacks, with every roll of maximum damage allowing an additional die.
On an attack roll of 1 (or if used to hack or pry at stone, metal or wood) even alchemical glass may shatter, destroying the weapon.  Roll a 1D6 and on a 1 the blade shatters.
Headsman’s Blade – A huge unwieldy two handed sword, engraved with at least one pithy maxim about the inevitability of death, and encrusted the decorative silverwork depicting skulls, scales and law scrolls this sword actively seeks to behead enemies.
On an attack roll of ‘20’ the huge sword will cleave the head of any enemy with HD of up to double the wielder’s.  This is usually fatal.
The Headsman’s Blade is difficult to use even for a trained warrior of great strength and it’s wielder will strike at a -1 to hit.
Living Blade– A paddle of wood, more club than sword, it is carved with a pattern of thorns and leaves.  The weapon is still alive and its magical thornwood edges bite and tear at enemies just as a steel blade would.  The Living Sword also possesses the ability to grasp and entangle opponents.
When an opponent rolls a ‘1’ to attack while facing the Living blade, their weapon has become entangled the Blade’s tendril to be snatched and cast 1D4x10’ away.
The weapon has a mind of its own and becomes frustrated when it fails to kill an enemy in combat.  At the end of any combat where it does not kill an opponent the blade will tear at it’s wielder’s wrist drinking 1D4 HP of blood.
Warded Blade – Well crafted from the finest steel, etched with righteous glyphs of power, these weapons are forged for holy warriors.  They revile and repel magic, offering great protection from the corruption of arcane magic.
All spells cast against the wearer of a Warded Blade require a Save vs. Spells by the Caster to invoke. This is in addition to any other save attempts against their effects.
All arcane spells cast by allies of the wielder require a Save vs. Spells by the caster to succeed.
Stone Cleaver – A heavy blade of gray stone cracked and reeking of elemental power this weapon is carved from the heart stone of a powerful earth spirit and inlaid with geometric sigils in black marble.
On a successful strike the wound will begin to petrify, slowing the victim and making them strike last in any subsequent round.
The petrifying power of the cleaver works on the wielder as well who will have a -2 to initiative (or always strike last in a round if using group initiative – though before the cleaver’s victims).
Cold Iron Sword  - resembling a bar mace, the cross section of this pitted iron weapon is cross shaped, and the whole item has a crude unfinished look. The Sword’s rough appearance derives from its manufacture.  Cold forged from raw meteoric iron, uncorrupted by the earth it is capable of banishing  devils, demons and other outsider entities.
When any creature of non-terrestrial origin is struck for maximum damage, it is instantly banished to its home plane.
Outsider creatures hate this weapon, and can sense it’s presence.  Regardless of their original intentions they will seek to destroy it, either demanding it be turned over to them or slaying its owner to seize it.
Blooddrinker Blade – Sinuous and red, with a hilt of tarnished brass and ten glyphs of diabolic power along its blade, the Blooddrinker feasts on the souls  those it slays and allows its wielder to regain his strength by devouring any scraps that remain.
After battle the owner of the blade may lick the blood off of it regaining 1 HP as long as it has struck an enemy.  For each enemy actually slain with the blade it will heal 1D4 HP.
Wielding a Blooddrinker blade takes its toll on the wielder as well as the weapon’s victims, and the sword will syphon 1HP per HD from any future HP rolls made by the wielder.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

B2 - Keep on the Borderlands - Review

In honor of D&D's 40th anniversary, I have read and reviewed the product that gave me my first exposure to D&D and fantasy in general - the module B2 - Keep on the Borderlands.

B2 - Rear Cover Art.
It came in the box with the 1st game of D&D I ever owned. It’s iconic and widely adored, the Ur module, written by Gary Gygax in 1980 (at least partially in a struggle to grab more royalties) and designed to introduce players and GMs to the game. B2- Keep on the Borderlands is likely the adventure that most home brewed adventures aspired to be in the 1980’s and certainly still informs many of the modules written today. I am not writing a comprehensive review, I’m not even going to bother declaring B2 good or bad. Instead I will do some lists – a list of key features, a list of problems, and a list of ways I’d personally run this module to make it interesting and fun.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Underdark Musings - Equipment Generation

“First the slow maneuvering of the supply pallet over the whistling maw, hot air buffeting its considerable bulk.  “Everything we redeemers will need” the Inquisitor Paladin laughed: old rusted armaments, recovered from battlefields or the depleted armories of crushed empires, sacks of weevil ravaged flour, tuns of sour wine, sides of rancid meat, cheap picks, battered shovels, innumerable casks of lamp oil and bundles of poorly tarred rush torches.  After the supplies descended on the end of the clanking iron chain, with a crew of several trustees and missionaries to mind them, Inquisitorial Guards wheeled a rickety bridge out. A prisoners' band played hymns to the Light on ill repaired instruments, and two by two we redeemers, thin from weeks of labor on poor rations, marched to the dangling chain where each secured him or herself to an arm thick link with a crude metal hook.  Those with foresight lashed themselves securely to the chain, and with the capstans above straining the chain continued its descent.  Vanishing into the earth’s hot throat one saw the final circle of the sky’s light vanishing slowly above the next man’s rotted boots.  The descent dragged slow and endless, hours down clutching the rocking chain, the heat from below growing.  After a few hours flaming bales of pitch soaked straw, heaved from above came down the shaft, comets designed to light our way at the bottom.  Thrown from the shaft’s lip, most passed roaring in the darkness, but one bounced from the walls and exploded against the chain, burning one man and sending three more redeemers screaming down the shaft.  They weren’t the first to go, as the hours holding to swaying took a toll.  Fingers crushed by a sudden movement, a woman screamed down into the blackness.  Weak arms or badly healed wounds betray and another man plummeted.  Some saw the sky vanish and the gloom welled up in them.  With a cheery wave I saw a former boy cadet from the young kingdoms step free from the chain, his tattered red uniform orange and then grey as he seemed to float down into the reaching dark.

When we finally saw the bottom of the shaft where the burning bundles shed a flickering light, and we had our first inkling of the real terrors that exile to the deeps entail.  Pale beasts, muscled like bears, with wrinkled heads, bone breaking jaws and thin translucent skin covered in scars were already among the fallen dead, gorging themselves.  They may have been startled by the light, but the bounty of meat we represented seemed to call more of the things from the dark by the minute.  Afterwards I only remember snatching a rusted axe from the hands of a dying redeemer who stumbled back with his belly torn open from a huge claw and fighting against the beasts.  I remember the man who’s death saved me was from the North, a scarred tattooed savage a with cleanly shaved head and filthy beard tied in a great knot.  In the end we killed two, and lost half of our number to the pale tigers, as they became known. The survivors camped in a hollow of an ancient stone structure, a square pier for trade from above and ate the tigers as a paltry revenge for our unknown fellows who had been dragged screaming into the darkness and devoured.”
– Testimony of fallen redeemers No. 34 at the Inquisitional inquest regarding the White Fortress massacres.

Supplies given to those “Redeemers” sent into the darkness of the underworld are poor.  Most armaments consist of plunder from the great crusade, though all markings and symbols have been crudely hammered off or replaced with symbols of the Light, sometimes damaging the equipment in the process.  Each player rolls below on the list and receives both a personal kit for the officer or specialist they play in the initial session and a selection of useful dungeoneering supplies and armaments.  If the number of players is less than the total number of officers in the ‘company’ the GM should consider additional rolls for those remaining unused. In addition to these items the company will have 2 resource points of supplies (a minimum of 4 sessions before exhaustion) and this includes such basic items as food, water, clothing, torches and sacks in amounts great enough to outfit many adventuring parties.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

B5 - Horror on the Hill - Review

Continuing my plodding course through adventure modules of the 80’s I’m going to take a second look at something from the mid 80’s TSR. A beloved basic module, that intentionally (and I think effectively) attempts to recreate B2 – Keep on the Borderlands. Yes, it’s the poorly,but at least not “Adjective Location of Strange Noun(s)”, named B5 Horror on the Hill (Ok it’s “Noun of Location” – but that’s something).

B5 was published in 1983 written by Douglas Niles and was apparently the first module to use TSRs slick new design and more professional (though oddly less appealing) art. It also has the reek of the beginnings of railroading and the bad kind of GM fiat that makes some people dislike ‘early D&D’. That said, while it has some of the ugly marks of later TSR offerings, it’s still basically a sandbox with some lovely touches and a feel of playability. Rather than do my normal rambling review I am going to try to get the negatives out of the way quick and then discuss how I, personally, would save this adventure.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wreck Hunting in the Vile Fens

So I've been thinking a little about the Livid Fens, and area well South of the Anomalous Subsurface Environment Megadungeon on the Land of 1,000 Tower's 'world' map.  The place is sketched in ASE 1 as a weird red swamp filled with dinosaurs and froghemoths, undoubtedly irradiated.  I've expanded it with hints as the home of human tribes people, a necromancer witch queen and the site of ancient battles. 

Map W-1 of a "Weird Wreck"
Indeed, the Livid Fens are filled with monumental rusted war machines from the wars after the fall of the ancients.  Strange cults, mad dictators and radiation mad battalions in clanking steel tanks of dungeon size all perished in a mutual orgy of nuclear, chemical, thaumaturgical and biological mass destruction.  The remnants (The Red Demon being a medium sized one) still provide interesting adventure locals and offer places for salvage. Below is a small wreckage map and a table of treasures for within.  Note: I have a separate table of perils, but since my ASE game may make it to the fens sooner or later I don't want to give too much away.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Tower of Flints - Map

Rising from a peculiar stretch of foothills, just North of the Livid Fens and only a mile from the River Effluent, the Tower of Flints takes it's name from the hills around it, where the turf has been cut down to the grey flint of the hills beneath.  The Tower itself is built of the same grey stone, though oddly decorated with crude lumpy statutes of with niches where their faces should be.  These niches at one time held white stones or skulls, but most are empty now.  The tower is universally shunned as the Witch Queen of the Livid fens has made it known that she will take a personal interest in any who attempts to take up residence within. The tower crumbles into ruins, and it's upper stories have fallen to the North of the base as if torn away by great forces.

The Tower of Flints is a deserted tower once home to one of the megalomaniac victims of super-science who call themselves 'Wizards' and haunt the Land of 1,000 Towers.  It marks the unofficial line between the marches of Denethix and the domain of tribes beholden to the Witch Queen of the Livid Fens.  In the South it is known as the Lichethrone rather then the Tower of Flints, though no explanation is given for this difference in convention.

Caw caw.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Qelong - Review

Published last year by Lamentations of the Flame Princess written by Kenneth Hite, it's Qelong - the South East Asian sandbox of magical corruption.  Now whatever one may say about the contents of some Lamentations products, the products themselves are very nicely put together.  I am only looking at the PDF but it’s an excellent PDF, tagged and indexed with fine design throughout.  Lamentations hires good artists to, and Qelong is very well illustrated with modern looking unique pen and ink drawing.  I want to also add that there isn’t anything in the art that is especially gruesome, at least by the standards of cable television, and I shouldn’t have to add this, but with Lamentations' reputation in some circles I think it’s worth adding to set aside any misconception.

Qelong is fantasy South East Asia, with a nod to Heart of Darkness by way of Apocolypse Now but without the more cloying fantasy Vietnam tropes, where the party usually represents members of the occupying Western force.  Qelong also owes a fair amount to Glenn Cook’s later Black Company Novels, in fact, I think the Vargarian mercenaries trying to get rich stealing magic from irradiated farmers’ livers and ready to fly off in their skywhale/lich gardura are a slightly more mercenary version of the Black Company. There is also a nice reference to the Japanese movie “Onibaba” – which makes for a great RPG scenario - so certainly Qelong has wide ranging and solid influences. 
Rich Longmore - Inside Cover of Qelong - great art in this
Looking at certain games (early Warhammer 40K..) one sometimes wonders if there is a strong streak in RPG history of trying to make sense of the Western military involvement in South East Asia. This is fine, and Qelong isn’t really part of it, Qelong is more akin to the colonial chapters in Journey to the End of Night, or James Ellroy’s take on Vietnam in the “Cold Six Thousand” – maybe even Graham Green’s “Quite American”, then it is “Platoon” or “Coming Home in a Body Bag”.  Qelong places the characters as a band of fortune hunters in a fantasy Cambodia/Burma, which is far less clichéd (and/or offensive) then the hobgoblin sappers coming through the wire one usually sees in fantasy Vietnam scenarios.  More importantly, Qelong’s scenario is open enough that it actually leads to a great and unique sandbox for open exploration play and faction conflict rather than any sort of railroad military mission scenarios. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dungeon of Signs Underdark Musings - Intital Area - Gloomlight Quay

“We are not the first here and I do not mean the previous expeditions.  Scouts did find some supplies from previous drafts of prisoners, and a few graves – some worryingly lacking the marks of the Light, but they also discovered a village of sorts.  Abandoned, twisting up the Northern wall of the shaft, we are encamped in the ruins of what may have been a mill or a factor at the foot of the long stairs that make the cliff hanging villages gates. The stairs are flanked by galleries for spear men and archers, and beyond a squat crenelated fortress looms.  The apostate are exploring the ruins, and while some vermin have been chased off or slain no real creatures of darkness rise up to redeem their souls. The pueblo is abandoned, and there are only vague signs.  The lowest reaches of the pueblo’s fortress, and the mill are cracked and scarred by fire, but beyond there is no sign of violence except bones, covered in rust colored moss and laying in drifts in low spots.  Despite these omens, the village is well protected, and the pale cougars which proved such a menace on are initial arrival are easy to keep at bay with the old fortresses’ narrow stairs and battered walls.  A broken arch, has been recently discovered, leading to a grand building barely visible in the gloom, tomorrow a group of prisoners seeks to cross with a rope apparatus, and I fear that we will learn secrets there that will bring many to the Light of redemption. ”   

-          3rd and last dispatch of Brother Martyr Benediction Truth from beneath fortress White Coulair

The Underdark will be split into nodes on a larger map, with geomorphs and randomly generated content to fill in the spaces between these nodes as necessary. This is an old method, the one used in the Descent series back in the 1970’s, but it seems functional for a strange ½ dungeon, ½ wilderness like the Underdark.  I both like and have some misgivings about procedurally generated Table Top adventure locales, but I think in an exploration game, with a basic map of key locations (mapped as dungeons or individual locales) and factions in place it’ll be effective.  Certainly HMS Apollyon has taught me the virtue of vague nodes scattered around a larger map with ‘highways’ between them.  One cannot map the whole of the Underdark, it is not a megadungeon.

The map above is for the initial Node, ‘The Dusklight Quay’.  The Dusklight Quay is a huge chimney that terminates thousands of feet above in with the monumental grate in Fortress White's courtyard.  Prisoners are lowered into The Dusklight Quay by means of long, rusted chains, either individually shackled to the chain or in rough cages of brittle wood.  Note that it contains several locales requiring small maps of their own.  These important areas are keyed.  With brief descriptions below.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Further Underdark Musings - Running a Company Style D&D Campaign

We are alone, a host of nations, but a few dozen men.  It is strange who has come to the fore, men and women that I would not have expected much of when I was a proud bravo of the House of Glass, 3rd in the hierarchy of the divided city.  Foreigners, barbarians, sorcerers, and even non-human fey from the high places.  Our leader is the Lady of Thorns, who claims she was once a younger sword wife of the high king of the Crags, a rude tribe of dirt clad Westerners that not even the most audacious of traders of the House of Glass would bother to sell trinkets to.  The Lady is fierce in battle, and in the first days was a pillar of steel to rally around so she rules.  Beside myself her principle supporters, the hard men who bully or cajole to spread the Lady’s decrees, are equally polygot and strange.  Nine of the Red Thirty, a warrior eunuch of the alabaster tomb, Madigan, once a gang boss of the Grey City and High Place of Light, a death haunted fey sword leaper.  Besides these captains there are others useful in battle or without. Tender the Green Skull, a necromancer nobleman scoured of magic by the adepts and maimed by the inquisitors, but still capable of mouthing a cantrip, the feared but humble Chaplain, Brother Thom of the Distant Light, Gom a Southern blacksmith, and Lazar, a skilled hunter from some nameless fen village. The rest are dispirited and broken men – soldiers, rebels, savages and criminals - men who were tough enough in the camps, and thought themselves above the gullible Paladins of the Light.  Before the vast, cruel shade here, below a mile of black stone, they are as children, begging for guidance, and I pity them, good and bad, for they have only us.

- Inscription on stone plinth at the bottom of White Coulair, believed carved by prisoners
Landsknechte - because this system might work for playing them to.
In the past I have discussed running a “Company Game”, with the Black Company from the books of Glenn Cook as a model. The idea here is to reienforce the idea of party over character, and do so in a way that epands party to include far more than simply a group of 4-10 adventurous wanderers. The players in my (yet unnamed) Underdark game would be members of a forced community of prisoners, volunteers and literal losers in the war against ‘good’, tossed together to struggle as a community or die as individuals going mad in the dark. The dark brings insanity and death, and without light and companionship humans trapped in the Underdark lack the psychological tools to survive for more then a few week, even if they have the luck to find a grove of edible mushroom trees,/a pool of cave fish and remain unnoticed by the numerous hungry predators.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

More Underdark Thoughts - Town Building Simplifications

“Our homes burned burned, our cities, our towns, and our tribes.  We fought do not doubt that, and all lost, professional armies, proud fyrds and the warbands of great heroes.  Light is supreme on the face of the World, the twins triumphant – Retribution and Beneficence, though for the defeated only the first.  We thought at first that the Light might have some measure of mercy for us, the earnest promises of the paladins, made to us wounded and defeated in the disease wracked death crawling prisoner camps seemed to offer life and maybe some shred of honor.  The Fortress at Coulair White taught a different lesson.  The Paladins left us to the Arbiters of the Inquisition.  We are chum upon the abyss, our lives of no value because we shall be reborn in the light, even as we suffer and perish in the black deeps.” – Archaic Inscription Carved on the rear of the altar screen of the Chapel of the Abyss/Prisoner’s Chapel at White Chasm Monastery

Another post about the idea of running an Underdark campaign – the keystones of which are scarcity and town building.