Thursday, February 14, 2013

So I Got Level Drained Tonight

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

and I'm over it.

Since I'm usually the one running games, and have been since I was a kid, this has actually never happened to me, before. (I've had it happen in my games maybe a handful of times, and only one time that I can think of where it didn't just end up killing the character in question.) The bitch of it is, I saw it coming. We (the Fear Böners) are up in the eastern mountains, having somehow (against high odds of getting seriously squished) negotiated an alliance with the frost giants, but the whole thing hinges on our clearing out a cave system full of ghostly insubstantial nasties (the giants being too big to fit into the cave, you see). We were riding high on luck and smooth talk, having already survived a scrap with a roc besides the giant armistice, and honestly it was going to have turn sooner or later.

We fought a couple of relatively manageable beasties ("breath stealers", which do what it says on the tin, killing by suffocation), but when we entered the cavern with the ghostly-form-superimposed-on-skeleton sitting on the throne, I kinda knew it was time to pay the piper. The (mid-level) party cleric called to Kurdan and attempted to turn, no dice - and while my character just knew enough to be freaked out, the DM in me is already mentally rolling up a new guy. The apparition screeched and charged, taking a single spear hit from my fighter (Ordrick of the Hill People) before falling on him and SUCKING OUT HIS DAMN SOUL. Oof. Two levels, from 3 on the cusp of 4 to HELLO FIRST LEVEL FREDDY. (Unconscious, to boot.) Luckily, the next round our dwarven badass hit with a 20 for full damage, banishing the spirit, and we avoided a fate far worse than death (NO NOT THAT, c'mon, don't be gross).

Again, the DM in me knew it was a spectre, and that we got off EASY. It actually missed its first attack, and didn't get a chance to make a third. Beyond that, we were rolling well enough. (Although our thief sent one of his dogs to attack the thing, which had predictably tragic results for the animal lovers in the house (and probably tragic for us, later, since the words "spectral dog" were tossed around).) And, let's do the math: While being back at level 1 stings (SHIT FUCK GODDAMMIT), with the XP I'll net from treasure in the last couple encounters (and for surviving the encounter), I'll be back at 2nd the next time we can train, and at the level we're punching at as a party, 3rd a session or so after. Even until then, I'm sure as hell not equipped like a first level character. I've got plate mail and two well-trained (well-armored) war dogs. We netted a nice haul from the spectre, still to be sorted, and I've voice my *ahem* strong suggestion *cough cough* that I be first in line on that, namely on any spears or armor that come out of it.

Still - damn, that shit stings.

But fuck it. Some stuff is supposed to be SCARY, even to the players. And now my PC's got distinguished salt-and-pepper temples. Reed Richards gets all the girls, right? Besides, it was a great game moment - especially 'cause I was the only player at the table actually experienced enough to know that was a thing that could happen. The general intake of air when Matty dropped the 2-level bomb was priceless. The other players were genuinely taken aback (and you could see a general nervous shuffling of character sheets as everybody reevaluated their place in the game universe and considered exit strategies). And I got to experience one of old-school gaming's more "special" experiences. [Wonder Years narrator voice]In some small way, I think we all grew up a little bit that day.[/WYnv]

- DYA

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In Search of Adventure (Young Lord Steakfist Goes Forth)

Well, hell, that was fun.

Wednesday's been kind of a big deal, lately - Wednesday is the night I actually get to PLAY D&D. Like, as a player. Most of the time, I'm the one running the games. (Sure most of you know how that is.) However, over the last 6 months or so, I've gotten to try out Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, gotten into a good handful of Labyrinth Lord sessions, and even banged out a session of our buddy's mythic Greece AD&D campaign. It's cool to get some time on the other side of the screen. (Heavy is the head that wears the Viking Hat, after all...)

This week, though, a slot opened in our Wednesday night rotation, so I kicked off a new Classic D&D campaign of non-specific vintage. I'm using the Rules Cyclopedia as my reference, but the players are all using '81 Moldvay Basic books. Beyond telling the guys that thieves can't use two-handed weapons, it's close enough for government work - if anybody gets to Companion level, we'll address the differences. We're using GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, B1-9 In Search of Adventure, and my modest pile of B Series modules for background and adventure material. Compared to our usual Monday Forgotten Realms game (where my... well-stocked Realms library can be a double-edged sword, sometimes), this is a nice slim set of sources to work with, and of course Basic is just a whole other order of simple compared to drink-from-the-firehose-style AD&D. It's liberating.

Now, I know it's base heresy, but I am enjoying the added minute or so the GAZ1 background tables add to B/X character creation. (For human characters, it amounts to 3 rolls, less for demihumans.) We get to find out a human PC's social standing, ethnic background (native Traladaran, Thyatian, or mixed), and their hometown. I'm firmly in the "character is what you do, not what you write down" school, and I like to see players develop their PCs in play. Two-page backgrounds are not encouraged in our games, much less a requirement. But with just 3 pieces of information, the guys were spinning off all kinds of speculation about their characters' place in the world, their family structures, and their relationships to each other. Great signal-to-noise ratio - once these guys are at Expert level, and their adventures expand in scale a bit, we'll have plenty of grist for the mill. We already have the illustrious dynasty of Lord Steakfist (and their ancestral home, "Castle Planet Fitness") contrasted with the ill-fated and penniless Brownwater clan of Black Eagle Barony (poor Dunder escaped that blighted land concealed in a pig cart, got killed in the face by a giant shrew in the first encounter, and was in short order replaced by his brother Slipsun). Great stuff.

Let's talk about the source material a bit. In particular B1-9. I've seen this collection get a lot of bad press from completist Mystara folks, and on one level, I can see why. The premise is that it's a collection of the first 9 B Series adventures (I'm with you, so far), and that they're threaded together in a loose campaign - not a lead-you-by-the-nose "adventure path", but a branching web of adventure hooks that allows the players the lead in navigating (a great idea, and - even if you don't use the adventures presented - it shows how this can be done, which is an important lesson for new DMs using published material). Unfortunately, several of the adventures presented are chopped for space, and I have to question the decisions made on what got in and what didn't.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands is included, but the Keep itself (one of the most iconic base towns in the hobby) is reduced to a paragraph describing the castellan brushing off the PCs. B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (the green, published version, not the extra-spicy orange version) is included, although the "programmed adventure" Chooose-Your-Own-Adventure content is skipped. (I don't miss it - as a matter of fact, this version is in some places better-presented than the original.) B4 The Lost City is here, but only the top levels of the complex are provided - the unkeyed lower levels are missing. (This kinda sucks - for play value vs. page count, a few more pages with the lower level maps would give a DM running this a lot more potential mileage.) B5 Horror on the Hill has its mini-wilderness area amputated - while I haven't run this one, a friend is running the original for two groups right now, and he tells me this is an unfortunate omission. Tracy and Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia is here, both sections in their entirety. (With the original Daystar West Media printings, publication as RPGA1 and RPGA2, and subsequent compilation as B7, this is the fourth incarnation of these adventures!) B8 Journey to the Rock (a tournament adventure) is presented, slightly slimmed down. B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond (itself a loosely linked collection of scenarios) gets 4 of its 5 mini-adventures seeded into the larger work, and the 5th is dropped. Finally, B6 The Veiled Society is the thread that ties the whole thing together - all roads lead to Specularum, and any of In Search of Adventure's three main threads will bring the PCs there to deal with the machinations of the Veiled Society. It is presented with the map from GAZ1 (as opposed to B6's earlier Specularum cartography), and sans cutouts or stand-ups, but is otherwise unexpurgated.

And poor, poor B1 - the original Basic Set module, the one that started it all, gets reduced to two half-page maps, unkeyed, and a single rumor. Not a line of the text makes it in. I can see, if I squint, where the "key your own dungeon" aspect would make it easy to lay this one on the chopping block, but I think it's a glaring omission - beyond the historical significance, these are some of the most iconicly weird room descriptions around, and exploring Quasqueton's baffling labyrinth is one of the hobby's major shared experiences. Devoting less than two pages sorely underutilizes Mike Carr's work on this foundational text.

So I can see where this collection gets its tawdry reputation from. Beyond the missing material (and make no mistake, this still clocks in with the AD&D megamodules on pagecount), the links between scenarios are tenuous - that they're not on hard rails is a feature, not a bug, but it will require a self-motivating party to navigate from one scenario to another. (The hook for B7 Rahasia, in particular, is... barely there - it amounts to, "Hey, there's this guy, an elf I guess, he wants you to play FedEx, and there's no reward offered - do you do it?") That said, there's a great campaign here if you're willing to fill in the holes. It presents Threshold (as detailed in the Mentzer Expert Set, and expanded upon in GAZ1) as the "base town" where the PCs meet, equip, fish for rumors, and return to should they ignore the scenario links presented in the "interlude" sections of B1-9. It provides some basic wilderness movement rules (nice if you're running this without access to the Expert Set and you want to handle such things in play). And the overall structure of modules is solid - a smorgasbord of Basic-style dungeons, culminating in a first foray into city adventuring. The whole thing would lead seamlessly into either the proto-Expert Set play of B10 Night's Dark Terror*, or the hardcore hexcrawl of X1 Isle of Dread. It just takes a DM willing to shore up the superstructure.

Looking at the table after tonight's game, I'm especially struck by what a complete game one could run with the Rules Cyclopedia, GAZ1, and B1-9. That's a lot of stuff in 3 books. As it happens, I have copies of B1 through B4 on hand, so I'm using the originals in tandem with the compilation material to bulk things out a bit. But you could do without.

So, I'm using my super-scientific review process and slapping a B minus on B1-9. It's just a ton of material, flaws notwithstanding. And it's worth pointing out that, of all the modules ever released, B1 and B2 are far and away the most common (and the ones that are most sorely missed here). If you're running B1-9 In Search of Adventure, spend five bucks tracking down B1 and B2, and you'll have upgraded this megamodule to a solid "A".

- DYA


* Formerly available on eBay for the price of 10 talents of gold and an orphan's heart, this classic - the last thing the TSR UK team would do before defecting to GW and creating the legendary Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - is now available in PDF format on www.dndclassics.com for a paltry sum. It's a great time to be a gamer.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hex Crawling in Style

Haven't posted in a long time, but I had to recognize this.  Our Monday AD&D group finished their long-term mission last week, and this session was slated to be the "intermission" episode, so to speak.  I've been selling the guys on the whole hex crawl thing for months, now, and tonight was the night I had to put my money where my mouth was.  I had whipped up a quick player version of my local hex map (just masked out all the color for black and white printing, and all the areas the guys haven't gotten to, yet) and - since I didn't have any ink for the damned laser printer - fired off a copy via email to one of the guys to print at work.

I was expecting to get back 4 black and white laser printed sheets from a desktop printer.  Instead my roommate goes to the print lab at the school he does IT work for, and comes back with this monster hi-res poster map.  Looks AWESOME (and, man am I glad I sent him the vectored PNG rather than a rasterized JPG).  It really drove home the hex crawl concept, and the guys have already started making it their own with penciled-in notes and symbols for the crazy ruins and relics they've happened across (not to mention a big "LAND SHARK HERE" mark - yeah, they fought a bulette, lost a conveniently tasty halfling and a warhorse to it).  Without further ado, my awesome players' awesome player map (click for full-sized image):


Can't wait to run'em through this sucker some more, next week.

   - DYA

Monday, April 9, 2012

Vaguely-Remembered Realms (coming home)


21 years ago, I broke the shrinkwrap on a slim (but wiry) campaign box set from TSR (The Game Wizards, don'cha know), and dived head-first into the Forgotten Realms for the first time. And was completely absorbed in a way that other, arguably more useful pursuits (say, schoolwork) never quite managed. Greenwood and Grubb painted a hell of a picture with that first effort - the majority of the location entries were (at most) a single column, spare on game rules, absolutely dripping with flavor. Broad strokes, but what a set of lines to paint between.

Thing is, I never really felt like I could do it justice. Lotta reasons - first of which being, I was friggin' 12, and I just didn't have the knowledge of pseudo-medieval living, the depth of pulp sword and sorcery reading, or the organizational skills to make it stick. I'll be honest, starting off with 2nd edition AD&D didn't help - as a budding DM, all the handwringing and finger-wagging in the PHB and DMG made me afraid to flex my muscles, and Dragon in the early 90s only reinforced that. I had one regular player, a little brother who'd make it through half a session at best, and a revolving door of confused try-onces - and that doth not a campaign make. A series of abortive attempts and false starts was all I could manage until several years on down the road.

At 16 or so, I managed to hook up with a few folks who had some idea what was going on, and we strung a few games in a row here and there - but we'd usually only make it through half the session before the ambient level of booze and other assorted brainfoods reached critical mass and things would either drift gently apart, or (just as often) simply explode. Again, not really conducive to campaign play, and pretty soon bands and girls began to look like more attractive wastes of my time. (This was due, in no small part, to the rise of Vampire: The Masquerade, which began to fill the game stores with the same kind of people my punk rock friends and I would run out of Harvard Square on the regular - but, really, this was just another nail in the coffin.)

So, somewhere around 22, 23, I start getting the itch again, only now there's a new ruleset out? I'll admit: For a returning player, d20 looked pretty good. A lot of what WotC was doing, I had been doing anyway, when I hung up the screen (spontaneous casting, full hp at first, etc - common enough homebrew solutions for small parties and new players). The rest looked good on paper - and, hey, there's a new Forgotten Realms campaign set, too! Keep in mind, I lost, oh, every damn thing I owned, around age 19 (long story - sleazy, ex-cop slum-mongering landlord, no money and less sense, got every last thing sold out from under me, and too far into the bottle to do anything about it - nice to know I can survive something like that, but I wouldn't recommend it), so with my old collection gone, new books were more than welcome.

I ran two yearlong Realms campaigns under the yoke of d20, and - besides learning the hard way how d20 D&D collapses under its own weight past 5th level - I was just drowning in canon. 15 years of actual game material floating around, metric tons of novel plots shoved into the corebook with no structural support, and it was just a goddamn nightmare. But there's this thing that happens to Realms fans - you start to buy the "one Realms" line, start worrying about how your game looks to people who suck down every last drop of game fiction (note that these people were never really AT my table), and next thing you know, you're paralyzed. I eventually closed the book on the campaign, the ruleset, and the world, and dove feetfirst into Garweeze Wurld and HackMaster. (This quickly led to Greyhawk and several years of exploring puritanical, by-the-book Gygaxian AD&D - tip of the hat to many, many tireless Dragonsfoot posters. You guys argue about this shit so I don't have to.)

Of late, things had slowed down a bit, gaming-wise, what with me being in school and everything. Happens. Then last week, I actually got a chance to sit down and PLAY. Like, as a player. (That shit never happens.) Had a blast, survived the session with a 1hp magic-user, good times. And at the end, I tried something I don't usually do - pitched a game, with nothing prepped to run. Just, "what do YOU guys want to play?" And, what do you know, the answer came back "Forgotten Realms." Well, shit, twist my arm, why don'cha?

So I've come full circle - and it's like opening the old Grey Box all over again. I'm paring things right to the bone, and then going from there. First edition rules, with liberal doses of 2e spice. (Specialty priests, expanded spell lists, customize-able thief skills, and a single-class bard.) The world as it's presented in the original boxed set, with the first handful of 1e supplements for color - no novel plots shoehorned in, no 90s-style moralizing, no shiny happy mages holding hands. No having my hands tied by two decades of canon - and, lets face it, there's only a handful of stuff past '93 or so that was worth a shit, anyway. A couple late AD&D FR designers "got it", but that's the exception rather than the rule. The most usable of the late 90s FR stuff amounted to a copy-paste of the original material with the wordcount padded out, bigger print, margin art sprinkled about, and (as near as I can tell), rolling d6 to add levels to every NPC. Not really worth my time, thanks.

So it's back to the Grey Box ("FR0"), FR1 Waterdeep and the North, FR5 The Savage Frontier, and The Ruins of Undermountain. Heady stuff. I'm running the guys through N5 Under Illefarn (the first - sort of, depending on how you score it - FR module, by Steve Perrin, who also contributed the excellent FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards), which'll get'em just to the point where they can start dipping their toes into Undermountain. (The Big One, at least for the Realms - been waiting a good couple decades to get some real use outta that beast.) I've got the City System maps of Waterdeep (10, count'em, 10 poster-sized maps, with the Jewel of the North zoomed in to the building-and-street-name level), and I've been shamelessly marking them up, making the 'Deep my own. Same for Undermountain - I'll admit, a little piece of my inner collector died when I first took pencil to that pristine map, but I quickly warmed to the task, and it's shaping up nicely. (They're not gonna know what hit'em.)

A few newer bits got in, I'll admit - mainly the deity books. Faiths & Avatars, Demihuman Deities, and Powers & Pantheons - great stuff, head and shoulders above most late 2e material. (Eric Boyd gets it.) And I've been picking through the later dungeon modules set in The North for usable material - although, they did have an unfortunate tendency to give you the location stuff as it is once somebody cooler has already come along and done everything. (Finally detailing the dungeon under Hellgate Keep - AFTER THEY BLEW IT UP. Really, guys?) And I wouldn't do without Brian James' Grand History of the Realms - entirely more useful than any WotC Realms product has any right to be. (Gotta ignore a few things in there, like the kobold=dragon nonsense and entirely too much Shade stuff, but Brian did a hell of a job with this. So much so that, rather than C&Ding the web version out of existence, Wizards bought it from him.) Having a coherent timeline handy (especially for a region so drenched in eldritch prehistory as The North) can't be beat.

And we kicked it off tonight. 4 PCs, 4 0-level schlubs in tow, and they made it through their first Daggerford militia assignment with only a single redshirt casualty. The guys had a blast, and they're even enduring the whole "militia" schtick with some patience (playing soldier might be a bit confining, but if it gets'em action and loot, they'll sit still for it). They've already got their sights set on Undermountain, though - honestly, from my guys, I wouldn't expect any less.

Feels good, man.

- DYA

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Update On Not Having Any Updates


Hey, folks. If you're wondering why there's been so much gaping nothingness here, lately, it's because I'm in the home stretch to finish school. (Associate in C.S. with a concentration in Game Development and Simulation, as it happens.) After this next few weeks, things should pick up again to my usual half-assed posting schedule.


For the time being, here's some crap to hold you over: The first is some line art that I did for an Intro to Drawing class - it's a work in progress, the image here is presented before shading.





The second is a work in progress shot of the map for my Saltmarsh/southern Keoland sandbox game (a campaign we're just now getting off the ground, in the mode of Ben Robbins' West Marches campaign - basically a revolving cast/open door idea, which fits the schedules of my player base, most of whom are either in touring bands, or have crazy work schedules). It's composited together from several different sources, with my additions mostly coming out of (or based on results from) Kellri's (completely fucking essential) CDD#4 Old School Encounters
netbook.


You'll note I'm gradually overlaying my stuff on top of the underlying regional map - the end product should look an AWFUL lot like the Wilderlands of High Fantasy maps, thanks in part to the hyper-useful screentone scans found at John Cooper's website. These are a perfect match for the old-school cartography style - very inspiring. (My players, kindly stay out.)






See ya all once I'm out of this here tunnel - I can just see the light, now. ;)

- DYA

Friday, January 20, 2012

Diamond in the Rough: Murderhobo with a Plotgun


Once every year or so, amongst the millions of lines of special snowflaking and moral safe placeitude, rpg.net manages to produce a line or two of actual content. Here's this year's contribution, coming in early and thus putting a lid on the forum's relevance until at least January 2013:

"The great part about being a murderhobo is that not only can you fight city hall, it turns out that it's usually extremely flammable."

It goes on to elaborate that

Likewise, the terrible part about trying to enslave a murderhobo is that they don't fear death or pain, can't be bargained with for better living conditions, have no loved ones or friends to threaten, and also are very murderous on top of that.


Words to live by.

- DYA

Back in Black (and white): Not sure if want...


Huh. Wow. Honestly don't know how to feel about this:

Wizards Is Reprinting the AD&D Core Books! (via wired.com)

(Old news, I know.)

On the one hand, you're supporting AD&D, and the Gary memorial as well. On the other hand, I was pretty ok with never giving WotC any money ever again, ever. And the irony is, they're not reprinting Unearthed Arcana (the one AD&D core book that REALLY needed a reprint, sans shitty bindings).

I mean, I want new (NEW) AD&D manuals. Don't get me wrong. And I like throwing in for support of the Gary statue (as long as it has gem eyes and is sufficiently trapped to discourage vandals). Honestly weighing the value of preordering and making sure I get some of these, and waiting and seeing in case the binding /printing sucks. They're at least leaving the contents alone, all original art & text in glorious black and white. (Hoping they're not all glossy stock, though.) And then there's the "attractive new cover design". *rolleyes* We'll see how THAT turns out (with WotC's track record, predicting lots of piercings and tribal tattoos, possibly a halfblind feycursed gelatinous cube weremonk fighting robots and bondage elves). 'Course, I could always sell'em if they're lame.

- DYA