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.

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.

Session 10 (Jon’s DCC Game)

Session 10  10.17.12

 (P)tarth: wizard and portal master(Kevin), accompanied by his french Familiar (Imp named Ganbon)
Abattoir: hobbit and luck-providing bobble head(mike C.) (Ok, abattoir is not really his name – It’s ‘Abathon’ or something like that).
Kreglar: Priest of Cthulhu (or something like that) (Dave M.)
Soltar the Evangelist: Priest of Arestimus (Dave P.)
Marlowe: Elf (stef)
Almuric: thief and masked avenger (Reuben)

We had gathered in Kevin’s cellar for the usual dice and bullshitting. Beers were opened and Reuben ate what looked like a pot pie of some kind. Mike D. was absent so there were no peanut M&Ms or Twizzlers. Dave P., however, had returned, no longer a bachelor.  Unfortunately, Jon. C. left half his notes at home (including Dave P.’s “Zordinar” character sheet, so Dave P. rolled up a new guy). Jon C. left to return home and retrieve his missing items, but the traffic was unrelenting and the weather was bad so he soon came back.
At the end of last session we had managed to open the portcullis, chased away a beastial figure of some sort, dropped another into the moat with a sleep spell and Kreglar had obtained a black banner with a skull. Pablo Von Ott (Mike D.s PC) felt ill and returned to the village for some Immodium while Sotar (Dave P.’s new PC) wandered in through the gate and announced that he was here to help.  “You look like a trustworthy fellow,” we replied.  “Take your place in the ranks!”

We reviewed our rumors as (P)tarth climbed up onto the roof of the gatehouse via a ladder to inspect the portcullis. We recalled that there were rumors telling us that a fantastic treasure could be found under the tower, stay away from the well, the keep was originally built by a pair of brothers who were chaos lords, etc.  As we did this, (P)tarth lowered the portcullis and cast ‘ward portal’ on it.  He was upset with us for having retreated ‘too early’ last time when we were sprayed with pumpkin seeds and plant zombie spoo.

Having had our egress cut off, we advanced a bit into the soggy courtyard.  The west wall of the castle had collapsed and the gatehouse was somewhat ruined.  There appeared to be some ruined buildings on the north side of the castle and a large building to the east that was decorated with toad-like gargoyles.  There was a pit in the northeast corner that appeared to be filled with mist, a well in the center of the courtyard and a tower in the southeast corner. Last session one of the monstrous sentries had run into the tower in the southeast corner via a small door that gave access to the parapet on the walls.

Almuric and Kreglar decided to look at the well even though they had specifically been warned to stay away from it.  As they walked towards it, it appeared to be further and further away — WTF? Crediting this problem to someone having fucked with evil bad chaos magic at some point in the past, we decided not to mess with it for now.

We decided to start with the southeast tower, instead.  Kreglar and Marlowe approached the door, as the rest hung back and (P)tarth remained on the roof of the gatehouse. Marlowe tried the door, couldn’t open it so he and Kreglar decided to return to the gatehouse, climb the ladder and attempt to open the door that led from the parapet on the wall into the upper story of the tower. As we were walking back to the gatehouse, the hobbit tried the door again and this time it opened!  Putting it down to his luck, the hobbit and Sotar the cleric fired up a couple of torches and began to enter… Sotar reported hearing a moaning, whimpering sound.

Suddenly, an axe hacked down from above and clanged off Sotar’s shield which he raised just in the nick of time — clang!  Some of the hobbit’s luck must be rubbing off.  There were several bestial creatures with bloody spears and bits of ragged armor marked with chaos runes gamboling around inside the tower’s darkness.  The hobbit and the cleric tried to form up a shield wall to keep the monsters in the tower where they could not use their greater number to advantage as Almuric hunkered down by the keep, loading his crossbow, Marlowe and Kreglar raced back to support their companions and (P)tarth strolled casually along the battlements, chatting to his French imp. “Zere zeems to be a battle over zere, no?” said the imp, adjusting his beret and twirling his wee mostache while puffing away on a cigarette.

The beast men appeared to be a mix of birds, beasts, etc., and were all disgusting and stinky.  Each had one big bloodshot eye and bad hygiene. The door on the battlements flew open and a cow headed man stomped out, followed by an owl headed man.  Down below, vulture and salamander headed-men were forcing their way past the cleric and the Halfling.  Almuric fired his crossbow, critically wounding one, then fumbled in a comical manner (that’s what the table said).  Kreglar cast a ‘bless spell’ and power oozed through his body — suddenly even Marlowe (who was standing next to him) got a +5 on all of his rolls.  Surging with confidence, Marlowe tried to blast the bull-headed beast man on the parapet with ‘Color Spray,’ but rolled so badly that only a few colorful sparks dribbled out of his fingers and bounced off the beastman without effect.

Over at the door we began to fight in earnest, killing and maiming beastmen and getting only a few wounds in turn.  Although scary looking, they were not very good at combat.  (P)tarth cast the ultimate color spray where surging rainbows of power whooshed out of his hands and enveloped the two beastmen who were advancing upon him on the parapet.  Meanwhile, down in the courtyard, despite some comical fumbles and underwhelming criticals, we managed to kill the rest of these stink beast-creatures.

The inside of the tower was a foul charnel house — blood, guts and skins scattered everywhere.  The floor of the place was covered in rotting flesh, guts and bones.  A stairway led down underground, a spiral staircase would up to the battlements and there were three peasants suspended by chains, beaten, bloodied and barely alive.

Up on the battlements, Almuric and (P)tarth slit the throats of the incapacitated beastmen. (P)tarth found a fancy torc decorated with skull medallions and chaos runes; after a whispered conference with Almuric, (P)tarth allowed Almuric to try it on despite the objections of his French Imp.  “But mon Frere, ze Torc she is obviously magical, no?  Must keep it for yourself, eh?” Meanwhile, Padre Sotar was tending to the peasants, who were mostly unconscious, trying to heal them, as Marlowe searched the bodies of the beast men, looking for a key to the manacles. Kreglar was digging through the offal on the floor.  A squealing, disgusting leech-like worm tried to attach itself to his skin and Kreglar batted it across the room with his spear.  It hit the wall and the hobbit burned it with a torch, killing it.

Up on the battlements, Almuric tried to put on the torc and, like trying to force two magnets together, it flew out of his hands and landed in the ditch.  Gondan retrieved it from the ditch, shouting, “Zoot alors!” and gave it back to (P)tarth ,

After being unlocked from their chains, given sips of water, a bite to eat and some healing, the prisoners were basically ambulatory and wanted to leave immediately.  Since the gate was sealed by a portal spell (!), we lowered the peasants from the battlements with ropes and they made their way back to town on their own power.  Sotar went with them when he saw (P)tarth commanding his imp to follow them and caught up just in time to see Gondan swoop down at the heads of the peasants as they cowered, screaming.  Sotar chased the imp off and escorted the poor unfortunates as far as the main road, where a passing trader promised to help them get back to Hamlet (…or maybe the trader clapped them into irons as soon as the cleric’s back was turned and sold them as slaves; we shall probably never know). Having balmed his conscience with providing for the less fortunate, Sotar returned to the keep to rejoin the group where a nasty surprise awaited him later…

Kreglar had been paying attention when the rumors were being presented in the village of Hamlet and continued to sweep aside the offal and guts that covered the floor because he had heard that there was a ‘great treasure’ hidden under the tower.  Under the rotting mess, he found a wooden trap door which he pried up with his spear, revealing a small hole filled with treasure.  There was a quantity of coins, a fine elven cloak (probably ‘elven’ with a small ‘e’ since Kreglar did not disappear when he put it on) and a jeweled shortsword.  “Mine!” screamed the hobbit and he grabbed the sword. Since he had been fighting with a dagger up until this point, we were glad to see him better armed. (P)tarththen gave the skull torc to Kreglar in exchange for the fine elven cloak.  Rather than wearing it, Kreglar stowed it in his pouch.

We then argued over whether or not we were going to press on or wait for Sotar the cleric. The vote was 6 to 1 against waiting (Marlowe wanted to wait because Sotar appeared to actually be able to heal people, a feat that the other cleric, Kreglar, had only accomplished once). We then proceeded down the steps to the north that led to deep under the castle, Marlowe the elf and the hobbit going ahead (with infravision) and the rest a distance behind with torches. (P)tarth declared that if anyone surprised him, he would, without hesitation, blast them with a color spray.
“Did you miss me?” shouted Sator the cleric, as he came clumping down the steps.

“TRIGGER EVENT!” shouted (P)Tarth, as he blasted the helpless cleric of law with color spray.  The cleric rolled down the steps, blind, paralyzed and regretful.

“Shhhhhh!” said the hobbit. He and the elf had seen some gold coins on the steps below and suspected a trap.  Who leaves gold coins on the stairs?  Almuric used his thiefly skills to investigate.  The coins were real and normal, but there was a rough passage to the left and a secret door to the right.  The steps continued down into darkness.  Almuric opened the door and found a small chamber with three obviously looted chests in it and a sprinkling of coins on the floor among some beast-man like tracks.  One of the chests had a false bottom that contained a silk tabard adorned with a symbol of chaos (which Almuric put on), a steel vial of some sort of liquid …”and two, no, excuse me, one silver ring…” said the wily thief. We split up the coin on the spot.  Overcome by curiosity, Marlowe tried the potion and felt stronger and more powerful (a potion of cocaine!).

When Sotar was sufficiently recovered, he told Almuric, “Take that thing off,” pointing at the chaos tabard.  The thief refused.  We then followed the winding passage, which led upwards and was obviously natural.  Suddenly it led to a small room with a sarcophagus in the center and an exit at the far end.

Session ended here.

Hordes of Hoards

The other day, Joe the Lawyer went off on Dwimmermount in particular (and probably mega-dungeoneering in general) in a humorous and scathing fashion. One of the targets of his ire was the pile of ‘exactly 2,000 copper pieces’ found in a rats nest. How did these rats come to possess such an exact number of coins? Not 1999 coppers, not 2001 coppers but exactly 2,000 coppers? What are the odds?

Back in the day, when megadungeons were not yet considered something ‘nostalgic,’ most treasure hordes were generated randomly.  Sometimes the book would tell you that each bandit might have 1-8 silver pieces (so if you slaughtered or robbed 5 bandits, you could expect to gather 5-40 silver for your trouble). But in many cases, you were given a treasure type that may or may not have involved , for example, a 50% chance of 1,000-10,000 copper, a 25% chance of 1,000-8,000 silver, a 10% chance of 1,000 to 4,000 gold and a 25% chance of 3 miscellaneous magic items + 1 scroll. Of course, rolling up the treasure the way Gygax (or Dr. Eric J. Holmes) told you to meant you ended up with huge numbers, usually multiples of 100 or 1000, of the same type of coin. Obviously unrealistic. AFAIK, in medieval and ancient times there were no places where a ‘single standard currency’ was in use (assuming what I have read on the subject is true).  Roman and Greek coins continued to be used by all nations long after the Romans and Greeks had fallen from power. Merchants used scales to count coins; since they were handling so many different denominations, you didn’t want to convert cistercii and drachmas and silver marks and god knows what else into a single value, you would have just thrown a bunch of silver coins on the scale and made a judgement as to how much was ‘enough’ by the weight. So, if ancient times are our model, a pile of 764 copper pieces, 357 silver pieces and 35 gold pieces (plus the odd pair of elven boots or whatnot) is still unrealistic because it assumes that all the coins of a given metal are all the same value (as well as the same size and weight).

Where can our pursuit of greater realism in treasure hordes end? I see several options. Option 1 is to make hoards more complicated, with coins of different nations, weights, etc., and then extrapolating some ‘central universal value’ from that. Option 2 is to stick with the copper pieces, silver pieces, gold pieces, etc., and avoid big, fat, round & exact numbers (the players don’t find a heap of 2,000 copper pieces, perhaps they find a mix of different coppers, silver and gold that add up to somewhere around 2,000 copper pieces in value) or option 3: “You find 2,000 copper coins.” Call me crazy, but when I look at the options, number 3 doesn’t seem to bad anymore.

In addition, in all the games I have been involved in, I don’t remember players taking the time to say they counted the coins. We have made jokes about how we could glance at a chest and see that there were 4,000 gold coins in it even though I have no idea how many pennies are in the change jar on my dresser that I walk past at least twice a day, but that was always just a part of the fun.  If one needs to rationalize, maybe the “2,000 cps” is just a simplified value for the hoard to make book keeping easier.

If I remember right, back in the day, no self-respecting dungeoneer bothered to pick up copper coins anyway. The weight-to-value ratio meant picking up used orc spears and goblin daggers was usually more profitable than picking up copper coins.  By the time we had a level or two under our belts, we weren’t bothering with silver coins any more either.  We left the silver and copper for the linkboys and henchmen to squabble over and went straight for the magic items first, the gems and jewelry next, the platinum third and the gold last.  The rest of the coins were worth less than the iron rations the adventurer would have to throw away in order to fit them in his backpack.

Schroedinger’s Room and fuck-a-diddles

If memory serves, this is level 1a from Khunmar.

Yesterday I posted about megadungeons, then I read the Mule Abides “Defense of the Megadungeon” and followed that up with Bliss Infinite’s post about “empty rooms” and all of this makes me want to get into the game of talking about empty rooms on my blog, too. I can neither confirm nor deny Joe the Lawyer’s negative experience with dungeoneering in Dwimmermount; I haven’t read or played it. I’m looking forward to reading it because I like a lot of the things that James writes on Grognardia; based on what he has already written about D&D, I want to read Dwimmermount.

In my own megadungeon, Mines of Khunmar, (which people are probably sick of hearing me go on about), there are a lot of empty rooms (I’ll get to those later). There are also a lot of the ‘fuck-a-diddle’ type rooms that are probably the equivalent of the room with the ghost chess players in Dwimmermount that Joe the Lawyer didn’t like.  For clarification, in my lexicon, a ‘fuck-a-diddle’ room/encounter is one in which the author says, “Here is an X,” but probably doesn’t provide enough or any explanation for that thing being there (whether it be a ghost, a mysterious magical effect, an illusion, a pile of old shoes, etc.). If you like ‘fuck-a-diddles’ you can see it as an opportunity to improvise or even just toss a red herring in the mix and see if the players chase it. If you hate ‘fuck-a-diddles,’ you will roll your eyes in annoyance and shout “LAME!”

One example of a fuck-a-diddle: I remember there is a room in Khunmar where the ghosts of dwarves drink beer and sing songs on level 4 or 5 — if I recall my intentions correctly, I thought that if the players sat down and drank beer they would eventually fade away and become ghosts themselves. No one ever entered that room, so I can’t say that I ever had the chance to ‘test drive’ it. One of my favorite published ‘megadungeons’ (Tegel Manor by Judge’s Guild) is pretty much one fuck-a-diddle after another. I’d love to play that thing. There used to be a few pages on the site where one of the authors from the book division talked about using Tegel Manor to teach a group of non gamers how to play D&D on their lunch break, and, as I recall, the campaign sounded like a hoot (edit: still there…link). It’s been years since I poked my nose inside my copy of Tegel, but as I recall, the descriptions were pretty short on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of all of the different weirdo and unexplained encounters in the manor. I don’t know if that would irritate people who don’t like vague descriptions or hate the ‘feel free to improvise here’ style of dungeon keying.

Speaking of empty rooms, I always hated the whole ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ thing.  I know I’m probably missing the point because it is the equivalent of the physics student’s Zen koan to declare that the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead because we don’t know, but I always get stuck on thinking, “What kind of sick fucker puts a cat in a box with poison?” Free associating from Schroedinger’s cat to trees falling in the woods to whether or not empty rooms can truly be empty if there are a bunch of adventurers walking through them, I have to declare that I don’t find empty rooms a ‘dealbreaker.’ I suppose that an adventure buyer/reader might think he was getting more value for money if the author and publisher used a lot of words and ink to describe each and every room whether or not anything of any substance was in it, but I’d probably be just as happy at this point in my life with less to read when and if I ever actually use the adventure behind the GM screen.  One of the things I liked about Barrowmaze and Stonehell (2 different published megadungeons) is that the descriptions were not overly long and adjective filled. My feeling is that if I want a novel, I’ll read one. My own ideal is that a dungeon location description be pretty short so I can scan and find the info that I need at a glance rather than hunting through massive paragraphs of prose to find out whether the kobold chief wearing the headress made of human ears has seven or eight hit points. Similarly, I’d be prefectly happy if a dungeon author said a chest contained ‘clothes’ instead of detailing exactly how many socks or shirts or jockstraps are in there. If I need specifics, I’m confident that I can invent them on the spot (and I would actually prefer that). Another big dungeon I liked, Rappan Athuk, has a lot of empty rooms with tables to let you decide if there were bones, rusted chains, discarded torch stumps, etc., in the room.  And I thought that was fine.

I suppose the other alternative is just not to have any empty rooms — each and every chamber can be jam packed with monsters, monsters, monsters, but that makes even the vaguest sort of dungeon ecology seem improbable.  Assuming the ‘dungeon’ is a series of tunnels, rooms, etc., that are the former lair of a mad wizard or whatever which has been abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin and then various groups of bandits, kobolds, orcs, etc., have moved in, then a certain amount of ‘buffer zone’ between different factions makes some sense. One of the more interesting levels of Khunmar has a harpies and gargoyles fighting over the territory… one end of the level is claimed by the harpies, the other part is claimed by the gargoyles and in between are some empty caves and tunnels (some with dead harpies and gargoyles).

An alternative is to have your dungeon ‘not be abandoned,’ but that makes it less likely that the players will get anywhere since if it were MY castle, I’d have guards and traps and pits full of poisoned spikes at every fucking entrance and archers and trained maticores and boiling oil and hobgoblins with AK47s… need I go on?

I won’t assume that everyone should love megadungeons — that’s as unreasonable as automatically hating them. Sometimes, though, I think some of the people complaining about them miss the point. Reading about the NYC megadungeon campaign in ‘The Mule Abides,’ (see link above) makes me envious, however. I wish I could live in NYC for at least some of the week so I could take part (and get decent pizza).


Is that ‘Webberan of the North’ checking out the pit?

“In Search of the Unknown” was probably the first ‘published’ adventure I ever played in. Before that, we used “Monster & Treasures Assortment” and “Dungeon Geomorphs” or, more usually, we just made our own dungeons — usually frantically drawing level 4 right after the session where the players almost finished exploring level 3, etc. There were hordes of creatures living in 10×10 rooms that shouldn’t have been able to fit it 10×10 rooms and levels full of a hodgepodge of creatures without a toilet or any food and water in evidence (well, no food other player characters I guess), traps that were probably as much or more of a hazard to the dungeon residents than the adventurers and gelatinous cubes sweeping the hallways clean after every expedition.  And, right or wrong, that was how we did it. I’m inclined to say it was the right way, because we kept on playing.

We explored “In Search of the Unknown” with Bob W. as our DM (as opposed to my friend Bob C., who was the guy who asked me, “Have you ever heard of ‘Dungeons & Dragons?’ and probably ruined any chance I ever had of living a normal life).  Bob W. had bought his own D&D set, and, instead of the geomorphs and treasure assortment, he had a copy of a newfangled thing called a ‘module*.’  We rolled up characters and in we went. Compared to what is available today, it was probably pretty tame stuff, but I remember thinking it was cool because there was a certain logic to the dungeon… here was a kitchen, there was a food storage room, etc. There were also things that you could interact with; I remember the ‘room of pools’ that had perhaps a dozen different wells, each of which contained a mysterious liquid that might heal or harm your character, so there were things to do other than just fight monsters and take their stuff.  I began to incorporate that ‘logic’ and inspiration into my own dungeon designs. And, naturally, the temptation was to think that if a two level dungeon like Mike Carr presented in ‘In Search of the Unknown’ was good, an eight or ten level dungeon had to be better (OK, my logic was flawed, but, in my defense, I was a kid).

After a brief period of recently being ‘in vogue’ among the cognicenti of the OSR community, it seems as though the ‘megadungeon’ may be once again falling out of favor.  This is the impression I get when I kibitz in online forums or read the usual blogs and what not.  A few years ago people were raving about 100 room dungeons, now they are patting back their yawns and saying, “That is so 1975!  And not in a good way…”

Part of the problem seems to be that when the online community talks ‘dungeons,’ mostly they talk about things to buy (i.e.: a book or a pdf with descriptions and maps).  And the biggest complaint from ‘adventure buyers’ is whether or not an andventure was ‘worth the money.’ (This leads me to another thought: maybe the complainers should consider building their own rather than buying, but that is probably the subject for another post). There has also been, I suspect, a ‘lifestyle’ shift. When I was a pimply dork and first put pencil to graph paper to draw a dungeon, video games were in their infancy. Today, the idea of pretending to kill orcs, find treasure and gain XP (and thereby go ‘up’ in level so you can kill bigger orcs, etc.,) are concepts that most people know through video games or online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The idea of exploring a dungeon by drawing it out on graph paper seems as ludicrous as rolling a hoop down the street for ‘fun.’ The people I currently play with are completely uninterested in the idea of having ‘the dungeon’ be the campaign. They tell me it just sounds boring. It does not fit with their current life style.  Unlike my 15 year old self, these people have families and jobs and kids to take to dance practice or soccer camp. Playing D&D is a twice-per-month extravagence (if they are lucky).  They can play World of Warcraft or a similar game after they put the kids to bed; whent they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about. Then two weeks will pass before we can gather again and what happened last session might not be particularly fresh in their minds. Perhaps, rather than a map with 100 discrete encounters and dozens of different tunnels that need to be methodically explored, they want a ‘D&D’ session that plays out more like an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ or a similar TV show.  The player characters will have a goal in mind, they pursue that goal, bad shit happens, dice are rolled, you try to prevail and bring as many player characters through the session as you can and then you end the session. Next session will probably start with another short term goal, perhaps new player characters to replace whomever they lost and off we go for another few hours of escapist entertainment and wisecracking. I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that.  Even adventures from the ‘golden years’ of Gary Gygax at the helm of TSR are going to fail to please people who have so few hours to devote to a very time intensive hobby.  Something like the ‘Slaver’s Series’ (from the late 70s or early 80s, where the players had to figure out who was kidnapping citizens to sell as slaves) is probably too ‘complicated’ and long for the modern player. The hobby is changing because, maybe, the people in it are changing. I’m not saying that is a good or bad thing; but I think it may just be the truth.

So where does this leave the designer of megadungeons?  I’m not sure. I don’t pretend to understand the market for anything, especially not for ‘hobby’ stuff that we are supposedly doing for our own pleasure. A few nights ago, however, I took out the maps and handwritten descriptions of one of my original megadungeons. I turned the pages and looked at the maps and remembered some of the encounters we had played out there in the old days and how much fun I had putting it together. I don’t think I can logically (or economically) justify any part of my hobby — if I wanted to make money, there are easier ways of doing it, but I have a hard time logically or economically justifying the things that bring me pleasure — and my own megadungeon has certainly been a lot of fun.  I enjoyed playing it back in the day.  I enjoyed designing it.  And I still enjoy reading over the notes. If ever I manage to get it to the point where it will be ‘shareable,’ (a lot of work would need to be done), I’ll be interested to see what kind of reaction it gets.  I can’t rationalize it as either a ‘waste of time’ or ‘time well spent’ because I think that kind of thinking misses the point.  And maybe megadungeons are going to go the way of dancing the Charleston or the Lindy Hop — become something that people ‘used to do.’  I don’t know.  I don’t think I care, either.

Also, check out this article on ‘Top 10 D&D Modules’ (yes, he uses that word) from `2 years ago on

*The term ‘module’ always made me think of ‘nodule’ (one of those tumors under the skin), which is not a good association.

Baedeker’s Guide To The Northlands: Eord

Note: Travellers in Aldeboran are advised that while the authors have made every effort to provide the most accurate and up to date information within this guide, the Northlands region of the continent is subject to periodic political, cultural and genocidal upheavals. Although this constant state of flux makes Aldeboran in general and The Northlands in particular a very diverting place to visit, risk to life and limb on the part of travellers to this fascinating region should be assumed as a given, not just a possibility. Protection in the form of magical wards, armed guards and escape spells are not to be considered ‘optional’ by the traveller who wishes to survive the trip.

EORD (variant spellings: ORD, ORRD), City of: Called ‘The Jewel of the North’ by her admirers, this ancient city is currently ruled by Lord Mandras Delayn. Lord Mandras assumed the throne under a bit of a cloud following the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, Lord Glarion.  The majority of Glarion’s heirs and relatives (with the exception of his cousin, Mandras) either found reason to be elsewhere when the succession was announced or vanished to such a great degree that neither well trained bloodhounds nor divination magics could locate them. Perhaps it goes without saying that the writers of this guide think that Mandras is a wonderful, magnificent monarch and Eord is lucky to have him… and our writing that has nothing to do with the relative talent of the king’s inquisitors nor the dampness of his dungeons.

The history of this ancient city predate the Lenaran conquest and subsequent dissolution of the famed and feared Dragon Empire. During the years of Lenaran rule, a city and garrison was established by the Imperials. Following the great Lenaran Catastrophe and the Hinterlandian revolt, the city and garrison became the seat of Alberc, now called ‘the First King’ (even though he really wasn’t — like many of the ‘young race’ residents of the Hinterlands, the Eordians consider history as having “started” when the Lenaran Catastrophe occured). Before the arrival of the Lenarans, a trading center is known to have stood on the site and, based on archaeological evidence, seems to have traded hands (or paws or claws) several times over the eons. Portions of previous fortifications which have been incorporated into the city’s current defenses and might be described by the architectural enthusiast as ‘cyclopean’ are probably a “must see” for the serious tourist who wants to understand the city’s origins.

The City of Eord is also the focal point of the defense of the Eordian kingdom against swampy Mystik and The Sinking Lands, their near neighbors to the north-west, and is strategically situated to offer a ready port to the Strait of Belaring, the Inner Sea and the Dunsany Sea. As a result, the ports and docks of Eord will be filled with the vessels of many nations, giving the city an appealingly multicultural aspect.

The City Proper: Avoid the slums and slaughter yards to the south. Although beds, beer and board might be cheaper than within the city proper, the ‘inns’ you are likely to find here will usually consist of places where watered beer and stale bread is served and the beds (if availible) will be flea-infested mattresses with soiled sheets.  Historically, the periodic attacks upon the city usually result in the destruction of the dwellings outside the walls, so structures in this area will be of wood or wattle and bear no historical or aesthetic interest.

Eord City proper consists of a series of ringed walls, and the general rule seems to be the further you penetrate the encircling walls, the more magnificent the structures.  The innermost ring contains the palace, also known as Castle Eord. Outside of that, one finds the noble quarter.  The noble quarter, in turn, is surrounded by ‘The Merchant’s Quarter (also known as “The Old City”).  The outermost ring is known as ‘The Commons’ and is generally considered to include the seafronts and docks.

Castle Eord: The palace (well, a ‘palace’ by Eordian standards; proper Lenaran nobility would turn up their finely chiseled noses at the idea of this structure being termed a palace) which currently stands upon a promontory known as ‘King’s Hill’ in the center of the city is much expanded from the structure that King Alberc re purposed from the previous Lenaran governor. Frequent mention is made of layers and tunnels beneath the palace which predate even the Lenaran occupation and, perhaps may even predate the arrival of humans in the Hinterlands but the veracity of these claims cannot be verified, especially since the palace in general (and the dungeons in particular) are not open to visitors.  Most ‘tours’ of the dungeons tend to be a last stop for the unwilling ‘tourists,’ and, despite the fascinating history to be found there, investigation of the palace or dungeons is strongly discouraged. Although portions of the palace might catch the interest as particularly well preserved examples of pre-catastrophe Lenaran territorial architecture, they are best admired from a distance. The structures are picturesque, but artists who have attempted to capture their glory on canvas or in a sketchbook have also brought unwelcome attention upon themselves from the inquisitors; the artistically inclined are strongly encouraged to choose other views.

Temple Quarter: Any visitor to Eord should plan on devoting at least a day or two to exploration of ‘The Temple Quarter.’ Found in the eastern part of ‘The Old City,’ this quarter is dominated by ‘The Street of The Gods’ which stretches from Old City’s East Gate to the Noble’s quarter.  Many of the structures are among the oldest in the city and may even predate the Lenaran occupation, although temples tend to change hands fairly often so establishing the exact provenance of one structure or another may be difficult. A description of a few of the more popular temples and their worshippers follow:

  • Temple of The Rat: Tourists are advised to tour this temple in the day; at night, the increased presence of vermin can be somewhat off-putting.  Located on the north side of the street near the Eastern Gates, the Temple of the Rat has a long history. It can easily be spotted since the structure itself is adorned with thousands of carved representations of rats. Crowds assemble almost daily for sanctioned sacrifices which usually involve the tossing a live goat into the rat-filled sacrificial pit; persistent rumors tell of invitation only events where less prosaic sacrifices are offered, but one shouldn’t credit everything you hear. Sources disagree as to weather the large rubies used as eyes in the statue of the Rat God are real or fake.
  • Temple of Yth: Now closed due to the execution of the priests by Lord Glarion more than twelve years ago, the Temple of Yth still presents an imposing edifice. The front of the temple is of pale green stone rumored to have been imported at fabulous cost from old Lenara and the cast bronze doors are a work of art (although the subject matter, which involves the Serpent God devouring sacrifices, may be considered a ‘bit strong’ for some audiences). Note the gilding (now, sadly peeling) on the domes. Rumors persist of fantastic mosaics within the temple, but, given that the practice of Ythianism has been outlawed locally, no arrangement to tour the interior is currently available. Despite being located on a prime bit of real estate, the temple still stands empty.
  • The Followers of The Bleeding Head: The followers of The Bleeding Head can be easily recognized within the temple quarter since many of them practice frequent devotional blows to the forehead with a mallet and/or the wearing of thorns as a crown. The cognoscenti consider this ‘cult’ an annoyance, but one cannot deny that their followers are the model of dedication. Their temple is a fairly modest structure of little interest to the student of architecture, but the followers of the Bleeding head do most of their worshipping/proselytizing and forehead malleting in the street itself.
  • Temple of the Allfather: One of the most powerful new religions in Eord and surrounding countries, the Allfatherians are also noted for their lack of tolerance towards elves, dwarves and other ‘demi-humans.’  Although Eordian law does not permit persecution of demi-humans, the Allfatherians are not shy about making their displeasure with ‘unclean’ races known. Elven, dwarven, gnomish and even halfling visitors are advised to avoid the main temple (decorated with a red cross on a white banner) or any large gathering of Allfatherinas (usually bearing banners with the red cross on white or wearing tabards of a similar pattern).
  • Temple of Umma: Although Umma (the She-He or Sister-Brother) has slipped in popularity in recent decades, Her/His followers still maintain a respectable temple in the district and Her/His hermaphroditic preists are still a common sight in the Temple District.  Worshippers of Umma are not to be confused with worshippers of Ammu (the He-She or Brother-Sister), which was outlawed by official decree following the Lenaran Catastrophe. The red stone temple of Umma is a good source for love potions, aphrodisiacs and relationship advice.

Session 09

Session 09 (10.3.2012)
Kreglar (priest): Dave M.

Marlowe (elf): Stef
Abothon(sp?)(hobbit): Mike C.
(P)tarth (wizard): Kevin
Zordinaire (wizard): Dave P. (absent)
Almuric (thief): Reuben (absent)
Pablo Van Ott (Wizard): Mike D. (absent)

To start with, we had to name our group, so, given the dysfunctional nature of our group and our decided lack of heroism, calling ourselves “The Stormblades” or “The Heroes of Hirot” or a similar high falutin’ name seemed a stretch. We finally settled on the name, “Kharma’s Bitch” for all of the wrong reasons, but we are a company of men (and elves and a hobbit) who seem to live in the moment and all the shit we pull is bound to catch up to us eventually, so…

Having settled that matter, Ptarth (the P is silent!) began to bitch bitch bitch about the lack of treasure. Kreglar snuck off to the city to ‘see a friend’ with a mysterious bundle and came back with his pockets jingling with coin… certain treasures once seen in the Jarl’s hall and promised to the group as a reward are missing… finally, Marlowe suggested we load all of the wagon wheels, clay pots, sheepskins, jars of gooseberry jelly and other miscellaneous items we had been given by the inbred villagers for saving their miserable hides and we hauled it all off to the city in one of the former Jarl’s oxcarts and sold it.  After paying the teamster rates for hauling all this shit, we realized the princely sum of 5 gps each. Yeah, our group name fits.

We were also all interviewed by the adventurer’s guild.  I don’t know what others said, but Marlowe gave his guild representative a pointed earful on the woeful margins that adventurers were expected to work on these days.  Lives lost, wear and tear on equipment, stamina points permanently removed from injury, risk of corruption from spell casting, fumbling and being subjected to critical hits and zombification… all for 5 gold? That’s not like adventuring in my grandfather’s day, when one could expect fistfuls of gold for killing kobolds and giant rats.  And five gold doesn’t even begin to cover our expendables (rope, spikes, torches and arrows).  And now our hobbit has only one ear!?! It is outrageous I tell you — I’m ready to chuck it all and go into the chicken and egg business…” The guild representative yawned and shuffled his papers and thanked Marlowe for coming in.

Ptarth cast ‘Find Familiar’ and proudly shows off his new friend, an imp named Ganebon. In exchange for serving, Ganebon gets to keep Ptarth’s soul when Ptarth dies. I’m not sure Ptarth has a soul, so Ganebon is probably getting the worst of that deal.

Kreglar moved into the now vacant chapel of Justicia and hung a large “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT” banner above the door but hasn’t quite decided to best approach for PR in selling an ancient uncaring tentacled god who drives his followers insane to a bunch of dirt farmers. Seeing how shitty their lives were when they worshipped the ‘Goddess of Justice,’ I’m thinking that a temple of Cthulhu in Hirot is so crazy it just might work. In addition to meditating and counting his gold like Scrooge McDuck, Kreglar spends time considering recruitment arguments like, “Justicia claimed to care and did nothing when the hound attacked your village. Cthulhu won’t care what happens to you, so he is the more honest alternative…”

Marlowe (me) cast ‘Patron Bond’ and came up with the result, “Useful Pawn.” If I understand correctly, this is the most mediocre result I could have gotten — better than corruption, I guess. My patron, Elrond Hubbard, Elven God of Self Actualization, considers me a tool, nothing more.  At least I can cast Invoke Patron now, although, given my mediocre result, my patron is likely to resent me bothering him.  Also, since I gained a level, I gained a new spell.  Rolling randomly gave me “chill touch.”

Wedding bells were also in the air. Dressing in his hobbit best and putting his hat at a rakish tilt to disguise the fact that he was missing an ear, Abothon went to the old hag Emay’s house to fulfill his promise to marry her. She appeared at the door, looking sixty years younger and fresh as a daisy, her arms around a vaguely man-shaped cloud of dark energy with flashes of fire where its eyes should have been.  She kissed Abathon on the forehead and then she and her ‘thunder-man’ vanished into the ether, leaving the hobbit’s heart broken and his cherry unplucked. Under his shirt, however, Abothon found a magnificent coat of lightweight magical chainmail — a parting gift from his two-timing fiancé. Inconsolable, he retreated to the inn where he blubbered into his beer on the stool next to the Lore the bard.

Kreglar has a shield that will allow him to intimidate enemies. Marlowe has a helmet that will allow him to intimidate enemies.  They agree to have an intimidation contest which Marlowe wins.

Finally it’s time for us to go on our next adventure.  I don’t remember what it is or why, but we travel to another shitty little one-horse town named ‘Hamlet’ where they apparently have rumors of trouble with ‘beast men.’  And it’s no wonder, because they always build their shitty little towns right next to a long abandoned castle where evil people once plotted and planned.  Of all the places in the world to build a town, why do they always pick ‘right next to the ancient haunted ruins’?  Darwinism means these villagers should have been wiped out eons ago; perhaps by saving them, we are just enabling them.  Is that what we are?  Enablers? While grilling the villagers, we discover:

·         Look for treasure in the keep’s remaining tower.

·         The keep was once ruled by a pair of Chaos Lords who were brothers.

·         A great treasure vault can be found beneath the keep!

·         Beware of the well!

·         Nothing good can come of disturbing the ruins; you will release the horror under the hill!

·         One of the villagers was doing the dishes late one night after her husband had said he was getting ready to go to bed.  She heard a noise and went to the bedroom to check on him.  He was missing and the curtains were open, so she ran to the window.  She saw someone who looked like he was dressed in her husband’s clothes running away, but when she called out to him, he turned and she saw what looked like the face of a tiger instead of her husband’s face.

Finally, after gathering our supplies (Lamp oil? Lamp oil! Ten foot pole? Ten foot pole! A dozen spikes? A dozen spikes!), we are ready. We march up the hill towards the stinking, decrepit keep and can see the broken stone walls covered in vines, brambles and rubble, a dry moat with a broken bridge, a half raised portcullis, etc.  A black flag marked with a red skull flaps from the battlements. The whole place smells like mildew.

Nearing the ruin, we see three human bodies bound to stakes by vines. As we draw closer, they start to thrash around and we can see that the vines are growing into and out of their eyes, ears and other orifices… this looks distinctly unhealthy and uncomfortable and Marlowe declares that if vines were growing into and out of MY body, I would want someone to put me out of my misery. After the zombie-ghouls with the snake surprise inside, we decide to take care of this problem from a distance. Fwip fwap fwap go some arrows and one of the plant-people is mostly skewered.  We shoot him once more and he explodes, spraying seeds and a mucus like slime all over the place.  Yuck.

There are two of the vine-zombies coming at us, moaning and shuddering.  A sleep spell has no effect, so Zordinar attepts to enlarge Marlowe, but blows the spell and, as a side effect, rats scurry out of his sleeve. Marlowe manages to spear one, but she rips her way free  and slaps him to zero hit points with her vine encrusted hands. Kreglar uses some sort of spell to hold the zombies in place for a moment and the rest of the party manages to hack them down and save Marlowe’s life, but half the party are covered in ‘pumpkin guts,’ some of us are all hacked up and some of us are out of spells, so, over the objections of Ptarth, we returned to town for a night’s rest, baths, a wash-up and some healing.

The next morning we were back at the ancient keep. The drawbridge has just a few rotted planks remaining.  Looking at the battlements, the hobbit claims that he sees something peeking at us from behind a merlon up there.  Zordinaire tossed a sleep spell up onto the battlements and suddenly this creature, snoring, tumbles over the battlements and falls through the bridge, taking ½ of the planks away, and then lands snoring in the ditch.  It is asleep under some vines and broken boards so we can’t get a very good look at it, but our general impression is that it looks like a mongrel-person of some sort.  Almost immediately we hear a yelp and a snarl from upon the battlements, a ringing bell and there is a mechanical noise and the portcullis slams down.  Then a creature lopes along the parapet towards the tower.  With the expending of some luck and by some face-planting into the site of the ditch by Zordinar later, we are across what remains of the drawbridge.  Kreglar strains to lift the portcullis but cannot, so Ptarth sends his familiar, Ganebon, flapping up to the battlements with instructions to raise the portcullis if he can do so without risk to himself.  Ganeborn returns and says that there is a crank wheel of some sort up there, but he is too small to turn it.

Having cast spider climb upon himself to cross the bridge, Pablo Von Ott scuttles up onto the battlements, cranks the wheel to raise the grate and then tears down the black flag with a skull and tosses it to Kreglar.

We are past the gate and we have taken the flag — what next?

The ‘Dominion’ Level Game

I’ve always had this fantasy of running a D&D campaign (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) with player characters having their own little dramas AND a continental level wargame with country A, B and C going to war with each other, being invaded, plagues wiping out half the population and other mishaps. To the players on the player level game, these incidents might or might not have an effect on the player’s lives (much like news and current events in the real world), but, unlike the relatively static fantasy world that most RPGs take place in (or the world where all world events are orchestrated by the DM), there would always be something going on in the wider world… and even the DM (or referee) might not necessarily know what the map would like like later in the campaign. When/if player characters manage to take control of armies or perform deeds of derring do that grab national or international attention, the players may become ‘active forces’ in the world game rather than just players on an individual level. So what happens on a ‘national’ level isn’t just decided by GM fiat — it could be played out as a wargame.

Part of the inspiration for this idea comes from the original ‘Chainmail’ by Gary Gygax and Tom Keogh.  (NOTE: If you are reading this blog, it is 90% likely you can skip the rest of this paragraph…) ‘Chainmail’ is probably pretty familiar to blog readers; it’s a book of rules for ‘miniature war games’ published by Gary Gygax back in the 1970s.  Gygax and Tom Keogh were original ‘sand table’ gamers who would set up miniature armies of Crusaders & Saracens or refighting the battle of Agincourt or similar medieval period conflicts and ‘Chainmail’ was their rule set for deciding who won the battle. Later editions of ‘Chainmail’ included a ‘Fantasy Supplement’ that included rules for goblins, dragons, etc. According to grognard lore, Arneson was inspired by ‘Chainmail’ and some other games being run and talked about in the wargamer circles at the time (check out “Braunstein“) to run some games where each player controlled a single guy instead of an army. From these ideas, so the story goes, Dungeons & Dragons was born.

(NOTE: If you are a ‘grognard’ who is not an actual veteran of the wars of Napoleon, it is 75% likely that you can skip this next paragraph)The First Fantasy Campaign” was published in the 1970s by Judge’s Guild. It’s a collection of Dave Arneson’s notes and some maps, incomplete in many areas and full of typos. The rough presentation, however, does not stop me from considering it a very interesting booklet.  In it, Arneson describes the ‘Blackmoor’ campaign that he ran for years when he was living in Minnesota and it was this book that made me want to consider the idea of a micro/macro campaign where play might switch back and forth between ‘campaign level’ play (where armies clash on the battlefield and borders get re-drawn) and ‘player level play’ (where each player might control just one character). Back in Armeson’s day, if I am understanding the book correctly, the players often took control of the different forces and battled it out. Blackmoor Castle itself apparently changed hands sveral times. The First Fantasy Campaign also had very vaguely stated rules for allowing players to build roads in their kingdoms, build inns and canals, etc. Plus it has one of the most kick-ass maps of a fantasy campaign that I think has ever been published.

My Campaign Map, circa 1980 something

Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, I’ve never gotten the critical mass of interested players involved… and the huge time issue to carry out such a campaign probably makes it a pipe-dream in any case. I’ve played a few ‘skirmishes’ on the tabletop, but not every player enjoys the miniature-war-game-combat aspect and then there is the fact that my regualr gaming group suffers from what I think could politely be called ‘Attention Deficit Disorder.’ Everyone is always thinking the grass would be greener if only we were playing a slightly different (or much different) game — getting them to commit to such an endeavor would be like trying to herd 100 cats through a thunderstorm. Never gonna happen.

I think I like it ‘Dead Simple’

Maybe I’m just a simple minded person.  Maybe I’m just lost in nostalgic meanderings which are just the first signs of senility.  Maybe I just am not that clever.  But I think I like what I would call ‘dead simple’ in D and D or similar campaigns/games.  Not too much overarching plot.  Not too many conspiracies or complicated, interwoven relationships between factions that toss the players back and forth whre they cannot keep track of one faction versus another. 

“Game of Thrones” and similar might be entertaining to watch as TV drama, but I wouldn’t want to be a player in ‘A Game of Thrones’ game simply because the characters themselves are so frequently battered around by circumstances — the dwarf nobleman (I’m terrible with names; played by the actor from “The Station Agent”) is the only one in the show who seems to have even the slightest degree of choice in what he does for the first half of season 1, but even he is manipulated by events beyond his control.  Byzantine dramas don’t give the individual players much agency (and, although I’m no lit scholar, that is probably how it should be in such works — we watch them to see these different characters push against each other). And I like having agency… even if its just little things, like “Which way do we go?”

A few years ago, I tried to run ‘The Shackled City‘ campaign (I think that was what it was called).  This was a monster of an ‘adventure path’ from Paizo that was supposed to take the players from level 1 to level 15 or 20 or something.  A few of my players were really hyped up about it; I had my doubts (especially because of the size of the book), but I wanted to be a good sport and ‘see what the new adventure path thing’ was all about. I wanted to play the new D&D the way that I thought most of the rest of the world played it.  And ‘chapter 1’ was a lot of fun. 

There was a ruined gnome city under the city where the players were staying… and evil ‘skulks’ were kidnapping citizens from the city to sell as slaves in the underground economy.  The players made friends in the city, researched some missing kids at the local orphanage, found the entrance to the secret ruined gnome city, uncovered and eventually smashed the slaver base under the city (at great loss to themselves — only 2 made it out alive). Despite difficulty with the rules (I just can’t handle the big stat block), the players were having fun and so was I.  But as I read forward in the book, I realized it got more and more and more complicated.  One of the people who had been kidnapped, a teen age child, was ‘special’ in some way and was going to be a special ingredient in some world-shaking catastrophic series of events and plots. I just couldn’t keep track of it all.  So I dumped Paizo’s big book. I made up a ‘new’ adventure, sometimes drawing the maps and making up the encounters I needed the night before, and I had MORE fun than I would have if I had followed the ‘Adventure Path.’  The players seemed to like it, too.  I ran it for at least two years, then a player in the campaign took over DMing duties and took it off into new and unexpected directions. And I guess that’s kind of my ideal campaign.