Sky of Crimson Flame

I posted a work in progress photo of this painting the other week. Here is the completed painting. This is for a book jacket for Owlknight publishing, an adventure called ‘Sky of Crimson Flame’ for DCC RPG. Read all about it on Thorin Thompson’s blog.

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What is in the pit?

City Life

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Utzum The Mad vs. Our Heroes

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Here is a color image for Adventuras en la Marca Del Este. It shows the heroes featured in the B&W work (a dwarf, female cleric, human fighter and wizard) confronting the villain, Utzum the Mad, his two mushroom men allies and a golem. The golem is supposed to be a ‘wax golem’ but it gives me a chuckle to think of it as a ‘butter golem’ since it is yellow. Perhaps Utzum is a foodie wizard who will sautee those mushroom men in melted butter golem.

Pedro Gil tells me that these new adventures will be eventually also released in the US.  Aventuras en la Marca del Este ( ) is a Spanish retro-clone RPG (also published in Italy and USA, They also work on Walküre ( , and other projects.

“Into the Demon Idol”

Jobe Bittman (also see Spellburn) was part of a one page dungeon contest a while back (see his really great map here — I love love love 3d cut-away illustrations)… and he turned that 1 page into a little book which apparently you can buy soon (I don’t have that info yet; will update when I do).

He asked me to do the cover/1st page illustration, which is pretty cool — see somebody’s autographed copy below. I’ve seen the front cover in a PDF version (I don’t have the real thing yet) and it is HELIOTROPE done up in the old circa 1978 TSR 2 color printing style — looks really cool.

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Will add more details when I get them!

This photo is from Rick Hull, someone on Google+ who owns this copy and was showing it off on google+.

UPDATE: Here is the cover in color. The lizard dude who is getting squished in the demon idol’s hands and has his eyeballs popping out cracks me up:

into the demon idol

Wizards does maps right!

My friend Jon C. just sent me links to these utterly fantastic narrative maps of Tomb of Horrors and White Plume Mountain made by an artist working for Wizards of the Coast. Its been decades since I adventured within these classics, but I was surprised at how much I remembered — White Plume Mountain, in particular, made a big impression… especially that room with the swinging chain platforms over the pit of boiling mud.

I don’t know if this sort of map would be practical for every purpose, but I love the 3d representation and the way you instantly understand the relationship between the different heights/depths on this kind of cut-away map. But I’ve always loved cut-away views of buildings, ships, etc. Witness my maps from Aldeboran that I posted in 2011. Not pretty or precise, but you get a sense of how the levels fit together (edit: I intended to say my maps from Tana Tak were not pretty — I think the Wizards maps below are plenty pretty).

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Horror on the Hill!

Look: It’s in Japanese!

Avast! Spoilers for “Horror on the Hill” lurk below!

I saw that Grognardia wrote about ‘Horror on the Hill’ theother day. I tried to comment there, but he uses some kind of funky comment thing called ‘Disqus’ that won’t let me comment unless I update my browser or something — I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out (“Disqus?” I think that’s what it is — it is supposed to look/sound like ‘discuss’ but it makes me thing of ‘disgust’). But I LIKE “Horror on the Hill” and wanted to say so, so I figured I would make my own comments on my own blog.

I didn’t own a copy of this back in the day. I don’t know when ‘Horror on the Hill’ was published, but I think by the time it came out I had probably thought of myself as having moved ‘beyond’ the basic set… or maybe I had stopped playing D&D altogether (as I did for a long while). I think I finally got a copy years later; the first and only time I ran it was in 2003.

You’ve probably already read James’ description, but, to re-iterate, Horror on the Hill is a low level ‘introductory’ adventure. James compares it to “Keep on the Borderlands.” I think it’s probably better than Gygax’s “Keep on the Borderlands” because it doesn’t feel so thrown together. The adventure starts with players arriving at a small town called “Guido’s Fort.” Here, the players hear rumors of an ancient, ruined monastery across the river at the top of a hill. If the players cross the river and climb the hill (possibly encountering Neanderthals, a hut with witches, etc., on the way), they can explore the monastery (which, as I recall, had some zombies, spiders, etc.). Underneath the monastery are tunnels with goblins and hobgoblins. Underneath THAT is a maze that the players can get trapped in before finally finding another exit( assuming they survive). As written, it is silly-difficult. There are loads of hobgoblins in the upper levels that will likely overwhelm the low level player characters it is intended for, especially if the goblins use any tactics like ambushing or encircling the characters… if they defeat the hobgoblins, they will probably then fall down a one-way pit trap into a maze of tunnels where they are likely to have their numbers further reduced by savage humans and other wandering monsters.  The players can’t go back up the way they fell in, so they need to find the other way out.  This includes navigating the maze and then fighting their way past a tribe of troglodytes  (or are they lizard men?  I don’t remember), and, if they survive THAT, then they need to fight their way past a red dragon to get to the exit. If fighting a red dragon were not hard enough when supplies (and probably hit points) are depleted, in order to get to the dragon they need to work their way down a narrow tunnel, single file, that is likely to become a player character incinerator if the dragon is alert and breathes fire at the right moment.

One of the things that is, in my opinion, ‘nice’ about this adventure is that once the players are in the tunnels below the hobgoblin hideout, they can’t leave back the way they came and they need to forge ahead to survive. A somewhat frustrating aspect of low level play in D&D is that it can, at times, take on a surreally slow pace of exploration where players are constantly running back to ‘civilization’ to rest, heal and regain spells every time they get scratched by a kobold’s spear or nipped by a giant rat.  So players will enter room 1 of the dungeon, defeat the monster, then run back to town to rest and heal for a week, return, and, assuming some new monster hasn’t occupied room 1, enter room 2, defeat the monster, run back to town to rest, etc., rinse and repeat.  At early levels, before access to healing spells, most adventuring parties rarely put in an 8 hour day’s worth of exploring since they are constantly dashing back to town to heal and buy more lamp oil. “Horror on the Hill” short circuits that process by dropping the players down into the maze so they can’t go back the way they got in and need to explore the rest of the place to get out. Although the trap that lands the players in hot water doesn’t make much logical sense (why would the ruler of the goblins want to drop players down into a pit AFTER they have killed him and left his throne room? Wouldn’t even the stupidest goblin king want to drop the players down the pit BEFORE they reach his throne room and slit his throat?), I think the overall effect (it forces the players to go forward) is worth it. The pit-trap makes the adventure into a “railroad” that forces the player characters along a single path with a series of obstacles to overcome, but there is enough logic to it, as well as a series of ‘mini-dungeons’ (the monastery ruins, the goblin caves, the maze, the troglodyte warrens, etc.), that seem to be incidentally hooked together to create a larger dungeon… so even though it IS a railroad, at least it doesn’t feel like one while you are in it (although the forced encounter with the dragon at the end is probably a bit much).

If I recall correctly, I made a few modifications before I ran this adventure.  I didn’t use ‘Guido’s Fort,’ but instead put the ruined monastery a few miles from a village in my campaign world.  This village was under increasing attacks by goblins (the rationale was that the monastery was a rest/resupply center for the goblins). I made the monastery into a ruined temple/monastery for an evil god and the goblins had some NPC cultists for allies. I replaced all of the hobgoblins with regular goblins. I added several NPCs as prisoners that could join as helpers/replacement characters (these were player characters that had previously been captured by the forces of evil). I got rid of the dragon. According to my notes, I ran this adventure about 9 (!) years ago, but from what I remember, we had a lot of fun… although some of my players tired of the ‘dungeon bashing’ aspect by the end.

PS: Shout out to Kevin S. who based a whole campaign on “Horror on the Hill,” with toilets!

For Gold and Glory!

Branzoll Castle in N. Italy; the ‘real life’ Castle Blackmoor

(map below courtesy of Zenopus Archives)

Way back in the 1970s, before Gary Gygax had written down the rules to what later became Dungeons & Dragons, there were, as I understand it, a bunch of guys in the Twin Cities who were friends with Dave Arneson and who played war games together.  I think they used to gather regularly in the Arneson family basement and used little lead soldiers or model ships to re-fight various historical battles.

Apparently, Arneson was a bit burned out on the whole Napoleonics/historical battles thing.  He wrote that he spent a few days reading Conan novels, eating popcorn and watching monster movies and came up with the idea of a fantasy campaign with wizards, fighters, etc., where everyone controlled just one guy rather than an army. This was apparently inspired by David Wesley’s famous ‘Braunstein’ game. I think they used Gygax & Keogh’s “Chainmail” rules as the basics and expanded from there.

Arneson told his players to pretend that they were all castle guards who had been ‘volunteered’ by their ruler to go into the dungeons of the castle and find a renegade wizard. Unfortunately for them, the dungeons were vast and unexplored, so they had to go carefully, with torches out and sword drawn, exploring as they went.  Arneson had various inventive methods of resolving different issues.  At one point, when wind blew out the guard’s torches while an enemy attacked from the cover of darkness, Arneson switched off the lights, told the players they were under attack and they should try to get into the position they wanted their character to be in and then switched back on the light to see who was standing where after they had all gotten done stumbling over one another in the dark.  By the end of the night the wizard and his pet demon had killed off most of the players with only one survivor who returned to sell the magic sword he had found to the king for the fabulous sum of 100 gold coins.  Arneson’s experiment was a success and the players clamored for more.

Assuming what I read in things like ‘The First Fantasy Campaign’ (Judges Guild) is accurate,  Arneson developed more and more of the rules as he went along. One player, inspired by the Dark Shadows TV show, wanted to play a vampire, so Arneson made up rules for vampires. Other players wanted to beat dragons into submission and force them to serve them; again, Arneson (or his fellow players) invented rules.  As they invented the rules, they wrote them down. Arneson claims that this eventually became the skeleton that was fleshed out to become Dungeons & Dragons; Gygax tells a different story.  Because of a court case and settlement, we may never know the truth (and I question if it matters).

One of Arneson’s original maps from the First Fantasy Campaign book.

Arneson and his friends also ran ‘fantasy’ game versions of the battles they had played in Napoleonics, substituting orcs, elves, dragons and wizards for artillery, cavalry and grenadiers. In this domain level game, the rules were expanded to include allowing players who raise armies and attack the castles of other players.  In order to build castles and hire armies, the players needed money.  One way of getting money was to ‘improve’ your kingdom. Arneson had guidelines that a road cost x number of gold per mile, and inn cost y, etc.  If you built roads and inns and canals and towns, you could attract traders and craftsmen and villagers who could be taxed and allow you (the player) to gather taxes and raise an army, build castles, etc. It was like a computer game like ‘Stronghold,’ but played exclusively with pencil, paper, maps, words, dice and minis rather than the computer. The in-game accumulation of gold, then, was a means of allowing players to move from being adventurers scrapping around in dungeons to being generals and conquerors (which may have led to the idea that ‘gold’ should equate experience points — in the FFC, Arneson says he gave XP for gold spent in various fashions rather than just accumulated; players could trade XP for gold by spending it on “wine, women and song,” or on expensive hobbies like collecting art or exotic animals).

None of what I am writing here is ‘news.’ People with even a passing familiarity with role playing games will know all this as a matter of course (and will probably be able to offer a lot of details and corrections). But I find the concept of the original Blackmoor game fascinating, especially since it involves players engaging in both the one player = one player character style of dungeon and wilderness exploration AND the larger scale campaign/resource management game; a duality of scale concept that I find fascinating.

Major David Weasley (on Braunstein): “The key thing was letting them (the players) do whatever they wanted to do and not worry about who won or lost the game.

I’ve wondered if this “Strangler of Castle Blackmoor” movie has anything to do with inspiration for Arneson’s original Castle Blackmoor game.

Twilight of the Grogs

Teenage boys and grognards want this…

Onan the Barbarian’s mighty boot knocked the temple’s door from its hinges and his sword cleaved the first baboon-man guard in twain.  Blood spattered as the dead creature hit the moss covered flagstones and the massed baboon men, who were gathered around something on the altar, turned and hissed in anger at the mighty barbarian.  “Come and die, you stinking sons of monkeys,” Onan roared. The gigantic gems in the eyes of the baboon god idol glittered in the torchlight. Those sapphires will leave here in my pouch when this butcher’s work is done, the mighty warrior thought as he turned and slashed at a baboon-man who snuck soundlessly from the shadows with a curved knife.  Blood flew through the air as the baboon assassin’s head rolled across the floor, cloven from it’s hairy body with one fell stroke…

Sometimes the D&D ‘grognards’ are unintentionally funny. Take this forum discussion where some of the grognards go off on the “Twilight” books (and/or movies), for example.  Dudes who roll dice while pretending to be elves and wizards fighting goblins and gelatinous cubes (mostly dudes, I guess — 99% dudes?) think it is silly that teenage girls and their moms like to fantasize about hot vampires that sparkle in the sunlight and werewolves that look like they belong in a boy band. I almost don’t know where to begin.

…the last of the baboon-men died with a groan, cut to ribbons by the Onan’s whirling blade. There, upon the altar, lay a woman bound with crude ropes of leather with only a scrap of silk to hide her loins. Her hair was as black as the night in far Khemnet where neither stars nor moon adorn the sky, and her heaving breasts were like piles of whipped cream topped with cherries most sweet. “Please, barbarian master,” she moaned, her virginal breast heaving with fear and desire, “I am yours to do with as you will.”

Teenage girls and cougars want this…

Look, I know my D&D love is some dorky-ass shit.  That’s part of what I love about it. But (and I’m being brutally honest here), Howard’s “Conan” books were never great literature to rank with the likes of Conrad, Austen or Twain, okay? I can enjoy Conan novels like I enjoy zombie movies (and Annie enjoys her occasional ‘chick flicks’). People used to call these things ‘guilty pleasures’ but I don’t feel a lot of guilt over it, so that doesn’t quite fit, but call it ‘eye and mind candy’ if you like.  I observe that some people watch NASCAR the way I play D&D.  Rolling dice and laughing with friends  seems as good a use of my time as watching cars covered in corporate logos drive around in circles at high speed, so I’m comfortable in my dorkery. I’ve never felt tempted by ‘Twilight’ (are those books really written by a Mormon woman? That’s pretty weird…), but I also understand that I am not in the target demographic. And I’m OK with that.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: reflections after 10 sessions

Last Wednesday (10.17.2012), we had out 10th session in my friend Jon C.’s ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics’ campaign*. Although I am not a  rules meister, I really like this game.  We are having fun with it despite players having some different play styles at the table.

The DM, Jon C. is running this as a fairly ‘let us play this straight up to figure out this game‘ type of a campaign. He introduced us to the game using ‘the funnel’ (a word about the funnel in a moment) and, since then, we have been agents of ‘The Adventurer’s Guild.’ Not a lot of time is spent on the how and why of the guild or why we would want to be members — they just organize adventurers and send us out on missions which consist of, “Please go to location X and do this and try not to get killed…” When someone’s character gets killed, the replacement shows up as soon as possible, with a “Hello, I am X and the guild sent me…” Some of the more method-actor roleplaying people might find this unsatisfying — but I like it simply because most of my fellow players have families with young children or jobs which entail all kinds of schedule conflicts… if there was some deeply interwoven plot between all of the characters like an episode of “Dallas,” then having major characters simply be missing one week and back the next would be jarring (plus, and I’m confessing my bias here, I don’t find the ‘what’s my motivation?’ type role playing games enjoyable — no judgement, just not my thing).

We are playing our way through a series of the DCC adventures published by Goodman that are not linked together (at least not as far as I can see — maybe Jon C. has something in mind — again, not a dealbreaker in my opinion).  We started off in a 0 level ‘funnel’ adventure that I don’t remember the name of (I think it’s the one in the back of the DCC book), then went to “Doom of the Savage Kings” (1st level) and now we are playing “Sailors on the Starless Sea.”

I actually like the campaign that is just a series of short term missions rather than proceeding along some massive story arc.  Perhaps because we spend about 1/2 of the time bullshitting, joking around, etc., I think it would be hard to keep up the momentum and enthusiasm for a “long game” story.  We seem to finish the published adventures that Jon C. is running every 3-4 sessions, which is neither too long nor too short. Then Jon just fastforwards through the downtime (“OK, you rest up a couple weeks, then you get a request from the guild to go to X…”) and we launch into the next adventure.

The Funnel: As an option, you can start off the DCC game using 0 level characters and ‘The Funnel.’  When you play ‘The Funnel,’ each player gets 3 or 4 randomly generated ordinary medieval people (blacksmith’s apprentice, grave digger, turnip farmer, etc) armed only with a few randomly determined possessions (pitchfork, hammer, rolling pin, apron, etc). You toss these unfortunates into the meatgrinder of their first adventure and the few who don’t become sausage graduate to 1st level.  Some people apparently find it irritating and stupid; I thought it was a hoot.

Tables: There are lots of random tables in this game.  Every time you cast a spell, you roll on a random table and modify your roll with various things (like you level, your inteligence, etc.).  If you roll badly, the spell might just misfire OR it might cause magical ‘corruption’ (which are usually bad side effects).  If you roll well, the spell might work better than expected. This adds a little bit of time to the game, but spells are less formulaic.  As an example, in the last game both my character and Kevin’s character cast the exact same spell (color spray) with radically different results.  My elf barely got the spell off and the target made his save so it had no effect. Kevin’s wizard rolled really well and his version of color spray blinded, paralyzed and knocked out all of the enemies in it’s path.
There are also tables for combat (fumbles and critical hits). Fumbles mean you can fall down, trip, drop your weapon, etc.  Critical hits mean you can blind, decapitate, knock over, etc., your opponent. Although critical hits and fumbles were never ‘official’ rules in old school D&D (Gygax hated them), I remember that we always used them because it was just cool to sometimes have that low level fighter decapitate an ogre with a single sword stroke. Of course, players were usually less enthusiastic when the ogre scored a critical and pounded their player character into jelly with one stroke, but I’ve always believed that if players get an advantage, monsters and NPCs should be allowed to use that same advantage.

Funny Dice: In addition to the ‘funny dice we already use (d20, d12, d10, d8, d6 and d4, most of which seemed pretty strange when we started playing back in the day), DCC also uses d16, d24, d5, etc. These ‘new dice’ seem to make some gamers on the forums really mad (but what doesn’t make someone on a forum somewhere really mad?). I bought a set of ‘Zocchi’ dice needed for the DCC game through the mail for less than $10.00 including shipping. Unfortunately, the numbers on them are not painted and they are nearly impossible to read in the dim light of my friend’s basement, so I usually just roll other dice and adjust (i.e.: for a d24, I roll a d12 and a d6; if the d6 comes up odd I add 0 to the d12 and if it comes up even I add 12 to the d12 for a range of 1-24).
Sometimes, if you gain an advantage or disadvantage, you can go up or down the dice chain (i.e.: if you normally roll 1d20, under some advantageous circumstances you may roll 1d24). Since the ‘criticals’  occur when you roll maximum on the dice, using a d24 may actually be disadvantageous since rolling a 20 on a d20 is a 1 in 20 chance, whereas rolling a 24 on a d24 is a 1 in 24 chance. The statistician in our group doesn’t like the funky dice; I have to confess that I seem to roll critical hits so rarely, I don’t really care (I have a d20 that seems to usually roll a 4 or less).

Luck: This is one of the parts of the game I don’t find myself that enthusiastic about.  Every character has a ‘luck’ score and a ‘lucky attribute.’ If your luck score is good, you get a bonus to your lucky attribute; if your luck score is bad you take a penalty. You can  ‘burn’ points of luck to affect dice rolls… so if I have a luck of 10 and I rolled a 12 on the dice, I can take 2 points from my luck (reducing it to 8) and add it to my roll for a total of 14. Some characters (like hobbits) can give luck away (so if you needed to roll a certain number to make your save and a friendly halfling is nearby, he can ‘give’ you luck points if the player wants to). Thieves and hobbits regenerate their luck every session; everyone else only gains it very slowly (if at all -I’m not clear on that).
The reason I don’t like luck that much is that it seems simply transactional. You roll a dice, you don’t like the result and then you just say, “Give me 5 points, Mister Hobbit.” Somehow, it feels like cheating to me. Maybe it would be better if the player had to add his luck bonus before he rolled the dice.

Spellburn and Spellduels: Spellcasters can temporarily sacrifice attribute points (like strength or fortitude) to improve their spellcasting rolls.  This can increase the power of your spell when you cast it, but potentially leaves you weaker afterwards.  It’s a nice touch because it allows you to increase the chance of having your opponent harmed by an attack spell but it’s not free — reducing your stamina will make you weaker, for example.
Spellduels haven’t come up much (yet).  When two spellcasters on opposite sides are casting spells, they have the option of entering a spellduel where they seek to overpower the other spellcaster.  We only did it once and I didn’t understand how it worked; if we did it correctly, one of the spellcasters in our party managed to force an enemy spellcaster to use up more magical resources than he wanted to.

*Full disclosure: I have done (and continue to do) artwork for Goodman Games, including the DCC line. I get paid a one time fee for each drawing I produce, so whether Goodman sells 1 or 100,000 of a given publication, I get the same pay, so I am not incentivized by money to see that Goodman sells more product.