Sunday, September 28, 2014

M3 Twilight Calling - Review

I have been thinking about high level games, how bizarre and impossible they seem now, when I mostly want to play and run games where tragically human, limited and fragile characters face off against the mythic underworld or cunning and merciless over-world factions dependent less on the dice then on player wit.  Yet, high level play was a staple of my pre-teen D&D adventures, characters of 20th and 30th level fighting hordes of lichs riding red dragons, polymorph spells on every magic user's tongue, and a plus five holy avenger in every fighter’s fist.

TSR recognized this style of play, and produced product for it, specifically the ”black box” Master Set (levels 25 -35) of D&D in 1985, followed by the Immortal set in 1986 for characters that have ascended to demigod status.  These are still strange rulesets, especially the Immortal Set, which while a good idea, appears to have completely changed the rules of D&D and is complex and strange. The Master Set though struggles with the hard questions of terribly powerful characters and appears to fall back on the answer of limiting casting ability, but which I otherwise remember as having sound advice.  This anti-magic bent isn't a surprise, as I suppose the another method is to simply allow everyone/everything in the game to cast as a 35th level magic-user, making a game similar to the board game Nuclear War, where fights end as spheres of annihilation and disintegration rays leap from either side, pass in the air, and end the campaign.  I doubt there’s much need for high level play advice in the OSR circles I frequent (though Simon at … and the sky full of dust has just finished Session 127 of his Against the Giant’sCampaign and it looks like things are getting Spelljammer). Still the Master set poses interesting questions, and the Immortal Set is tempting -  I find myself drawn to see how these old TSR sets tried to handle the difficulties of high level games.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Orcs are a Disease, a look at the Little Brown Book Orc.


Disney's  to Blame/Thank for the Pig Nosed Orc
I was reading through the Little Brown Books, yesterday, specifically  from the 6th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons “White Box”, which still has the 1974 copyright (but came out later) and the strange combination of absurd detail, messy layout and bizarre inexplicable rules that mark it as an idiosyncratic hobby project, rather than something designed for a sophisticated market.  Specifically I was flipping through “Volume 2 of Three Booklets” (see idiosyncratic) – Monsters & Treasure, and came across the paragraphs about orcs.
It’s worth noting that many of the monster entries in Monsters & Treasure are minimal, i.e the 30 word entry for “cavemen”, the “Orcs” entry is not and takes up almost a full page (the longest entry is for “Dragons” and takes up almost two and a half pages).  Going with the idea that monster manuals are de-facto setting books, and that what inhabits a setting defines it, orcs seem clearly to matter in the world of the LBB’s, and are certainly one of the most iconic monsters of table-top fantasy games.  They’re also famously badly defined, even if popular culture currently understands them as some sort of WOW derived noble savage version of the Warhammer universe “Greenskin” (a fine bit of fantasy worldbuilding there both in Warhammer and Warhammer 40K)

Yet, what does Monsters & Treasure imply about setting with its specific Orcs, having been written at a time when really the only model for the creatures was J.R.R Tolkiens anti-elves, or perhaps (no not really) Blake’s Promethean spirit of creativity.  The LBB describes Orcs as follows:

HMS Apollyon Maps & Other Things

Some doodling that's gone on in the past few days.  First I got some nice new pens, a very good deal on 24 grey (though several of them tend towards sepia) first rate art markers and need to try them out.

This is an elevation map of the HMS Apollyon, my nautical mega dungeon.  Each square is about 350 feet, so the whole think is approximately 3 miles long.  Decks are broken into hundred foot sections, though there is plenty of space taken up by architectural elements and ship systems between those decks so it's not an exact thing.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why I Use the Classic Saving Throw System


Blackleaf didn't get a Saving Throw, and we know
how that ended
Saving Throws are an iconic element of table top  roleplaying games, that likely has its roots in the First Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, those Little Brown Books (well before that really) .  Saving Throws are still a part of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but frankly I think they’ve lost something.  Don’t get me wrong, I like 5th edition a lot, and have enjoyed the flexibility of the character generation, the careful balancing of armor class (a real problem area if one is trying to limit power creep) and how despite its heroic elements 5e has maintained much of the feeling of character peril one might get from Basic/Expert style D&D.

Yet 5e does something strange with Saving Throws, something I think is a holdover from newer editions of D&D, in that it links them to character statistics.  This is a huge departure from the LBB’s and the editions that followed them.  In early editions saving throws are static based on level (with a bonus for a high Wisdom in some editions).  I like this system; I also like the eclectic names of the classic saving throws “Death Ray or Poison, All Wands Including Polymorph and Paralization, Stone, Dragon Breath and Staves & Spells”.  I like the way Saving Throws are managed in the LBB’s (and similar systems) because they are related to class and level, without consideration for ability scores.  Likewise the variety of saving throws are bizarre, but clearly they all relate to terrible, likely deadly effects and seem so specific that they encourage adventure designers and GMs to expand their use into other areas/against other dangers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fallen Empire - Reviving the D&D Language System


The immolation of the Imperial Archives by disgruntled boxing
devotees in the 7th Century of the Successor Empire helped
limit learning to those with access to private libraries
One of the class abilities that both magic-users and nobles (dual classed F/MU with skills in scholarship and ancient knowledge) have is the ability to speak one or more esoteric languages.  In early editions of D&D language skills were handed out to characters with a decent Intelligence in huge bundles, and even more common amongst demi-humans.  These language skills had value as reaction rolls and morale rolls with intelligent monsters often allowed an opportunity for parley or surrender, providing a very fun roleplaying-rich way of avoiding combat encounters and entering into the ‘faction game’ amongst dungeon dwellers.  Just thinking about the set-up of the feuding humanoids in B2 – Keep on the Borderlands should offer an example of how useful speaking orc, goblin and kobald might be in an old Gygax adventure.  I have no desire to track the uses and relationships between fifty fantasy languages, however and while I greatly enjoy a tense parley as both a player and GM, for Fallen Empire I want to emphasize a largely human world and primarily use ‘common’ as a language available to all players.

Rather than create languages that are specific to races or types of monsters I have decided to create a set of languages that is useful in dealing with certain classes of society or broad groups of monsters.  A scholar need not worry if they speak hobgoblin or goblin, but should be able to talk to denizens of the underdark (yes there is an underdark in Fallen Empire – Deep Carbon Observatory made that certain) if they know the Underdark’s version of common – “Crawl”.  Another expected advantage with a smaller number of languages is that inscriptions and mysterious texts can be accessible (assuming you have a scholar in your party) while still being strange and mysterious.  I intend to have two tables of languages - Esoteric Languages and Living Languages, with the first only available in very limited numbers to Magic-Users and more easily to noble scholars, and the second open to anyone based on intelligence (likely only one or two extra per PC to keep the numbers down).

In addition I have made the parley game slightly more amusing for me by constructing language meta-games with mild mechanical effects.  Speaking Crawl works better if you talk like a cartoon cave man, and trying to overawe bureaucratic robbers or get information out of reluctant functionaries (really the most common kind of bandit in Fallen Empire) will work better if you can speak in Imperial Law and use a really long word or two. 

Below is another letter from the wandering and addled noble Imperial Noble "Pepinot Vex, Hereditary Peinkernes Extraordinary" regarding his continued efforts to reach his beloved cousin's country estate.  Apologies in advance for the bad fiction - it's just one of those weeks.  Feel free to skip to the table of Esoteric Languages at the bottom of the post.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

A short review of Slumbering Ursine Dunes draft.


Ursine Dunes Cover
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a gaming product currently being polished and kickstarted by Chris K. from the Hill Cantons blog. Through various machinations and jesuitical maneuverings I have managed to obtain an alpha copy of Ursine Dunes and the permission to review it.
I’ve always enjoyed Hill Cantons, and have repeatedly tried to play a session or two, but been repeatedly stymied by scheduling conflicts.  With the production of Ursine Dunes I will finally have a chance to glimpse what Hill Cantons looks like from the GM’s side of the table and to delve into the world more.  Now Chris K has provided a lot of free PDF content before, and it’s generally high quality, so I have high hopes for Ursine Dunes, and he appears to be working with some others in the OSR community whose work I appreciate, so I have even higher hopes about the product and from what I've seen it doesn't disappoint.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Upcoming Project

In the next few days or weeks, I'll be putting the final touches on a large adventure (around 40 pages or so) that is a follow up to The Prison of the Hated Pretender.  Not a direct sequel to the previous adventure, but something that references the same ancient despotism and events.  The Dread Machine will focus on the exploration of an ancient valley, containing a decaying machine of great power and evil.  Two keyed locations and several cites to explore, including the Machine itself.  It's designed for adventurer's 3rd-6th level and should offer some interesting challenges.  All new monsters, magic items and numerous traps, but with an effort to create something that can be dropped into an existing campaign world without deforming it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lone Colossus - A PDF Adventure Locale

Resolute and alone atop a limestone knob, the verdigris covered remains of an Imperial municipal siege unit, a bronze colossus, the ‘Akolouthos’, 3,200 years old and first operational in the service of the Imperial legions, surplused to the Styllus family until only three years ago.  The Colossi was the bastion of Styllus dominion over five hundred miles of prime Central Province vineyards and grain, but without it the family has been nearly run under by their neighbors, the Comizius clan. Largely intact, the Akolouthos may even be operational.  If the war machine can be repaired or salvaged, the Colossus’ value is immeasurable, and even if destroyed many valuable bits of its arcane workings a likely to be salvageable from the almost intact Colossus.

Like all destroyed Imperial war machines the bronze colossi exudes rotten magic, creating a sink around it of foul arcane corruption.  The sink is not as deep or as large as some, but the hillock that the Akolouthos stands atop is bare of life, and now the rock itself bleeds a bluish black and the birds in the area speak in the voices of sobbing children. The Clossi’s own radiation is compounded by the nature of its destruction, and the ancient arcane fluids corrupted by deep forest shadow magic. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine - Review

Last Gasps First Product

Recently Logan from Last Gasp published his first commercial (not aggressively so - it’s pay what you want, but if you decide to get it - pay the man something) product “Sleeping Place of theFeathered Swine”.  I grabbed it right away based on the enjoyment I get from Logan’s blog, and especially from his play reports (including one from Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine).  Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine is a simple location based adventure with 13 keyed rooms, and a huge amount of flavor.  The adventure has a few piece of great art by the author (monster illustrations) and includes a wonderful map, along with a novel approach to using the map at the table.  Size or details aren’t what matters here, what matters is the evocative environment and setting, both the contemporary sort of body horror weirdness, late 80’s Warhammer Fantasy grottiness, and a great deal of late 70’s OD&D deadly. It's not a big adventure, but it will get you through a 2-3 hour session with a lot of flavor.

The Worm Tumor, a primary antagonist

The party finds a failed adventurer, a wizard of some sort, in the wilderness.  He’s lost his Grimore and he’s not well. He tells of an easy commission to surgically take some sort of larva sacks from some kind of horrible beasts that are hibernating in a nearby cave.  His companions were all killed by disgusting mutants in the cave, and one was carrying the frazzled wizard's spellbook at the time.  He can give the party directions, and proper instructions and warnings regarding the removal and care of the worm cysts, but he's nicely pathetic otherwise. Some alchemist creep will pay good money for the cysts.

Inside the cave things are gross, fungus and piles of rotten feathers everywhere, but worse, the victims of the larva (from improper removal of the monster cysts) turn into horrors ready to spread their plague in disgusting ways.  A dying adventurer can be rescued from the now infected previous explorers and provides more warnings (and monster tranquilizers), monstrous freaks lurch from hidden recesses, and all the while a room full of horrible pig/bear/owl things hibernate waiting to be badly tranquilized and have their larval cysts plundered.  Everything can go wrong, and going wrong is deadly and disgusting.

There are simple treasures (broken equipment mostly) suitable for a very desperate low level game, a very strange pearl that creates cave crabs and the lost wizard’s grimore of horrible spells (plus the Feathered Swine cysts – assuming the party doesn’t infect themselves gathering them).