What is ‘good RPG writing’?

As a part of my day job, I have been doing some very tedious but necessary technical writing.  Basically, I’m writing manuals with step by step instructions on such fascinating things as to how to fill out a purchase requisition based on a vendor quote.  In order to be useful, the ‘process documents’ I am writing need to be correct in the details and their order, clear and not subject to multiple interpretations, and as short as possible since the longer the boring document or memo, the less likely it will be read. The document that results could most kindly be described as ‘utilitarian.’

At the same time, I enjoy reading fiction that is filled with possible multiple interpretations and ambiguity (current favorite: Thomas Ligotti; my all-time favorite book is hard to choose, but might be either “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad or “The Crying of Lot 49” by Pynchon), which seems funny since I have to write stuff that (hopefully) can be understood only one way by the reader for my day job yet my favorite books are ones that seem to delight in leaving the reader more confused than when they started.  Providence is always giving us the finger — the guy who likes ambiguity and multiple meanings in writing has to write as precisely as he can to earn a buck.*

All of this is a long winded introduction to me wanting to think about ‘what makes good writing for an RPG product?’ And I am interested in how my opinion of ‘good’ will differ from the opinions of others. Here are a few things I like to see in an RPG adventure:

·         I prefer the author keep plot, motivation, etc., to a minimum. I’d rather have a location with some maps, encounters and a few ‘possibilities’ described rather than a clusterfuck of quests and subquests and whatnot.  I’d consider it perfectly acceptable to develop a great deal of this ‘plot’ stuff on the fly… i.e.: if random encounters in the wilderness keep giving you orcs, why not cook up an orc invasion?

·         Adventures that concentrate on being locations rather than ‘story driven series of encounters.’  To give concrete examples, I have much fonder memories of playing adventures like “Against the Giants” than “Egg of the Phoenix.”  In “Against the Giants,” I felt the players set their own agenda after being initially hamfisted into an adventure (“Find out who is sending the giants against us or else!”) versus the more story-based “Start at point A, get told to go to point B, etc.”  The “Egg of the Phoenix” is probably more involved, detailed and impressive, but there is less player agency in getting from point A to point B.

·         Simple, short encounter descriptions and not too much flowery language with everything you need in one place.  If I were to run a published adventure, I’d want to review it before play started, then be able to get ‘up to speed’ on what is going on in one location or another by glancing at the text during play.  I wouldn’t want to say, “Hold on!” to the players while I search the paragraphs of verbiage for the one bit of info I need (I’m looking at you, “Temple of Excessive Description,” er, I mean, “Elemental Evil.”).

·         I don’t know of any published adventure that offers this, but how about a small bit of whitespace after every entry where the DM can make notes?  I know a lot of people resent white space in a product they paid for (equating quantity of ink on the page with ‘quality’), but I’ve taken to seeing published adventures  as more utilitarian documents than literature… that is to say, they are there to be used to speed and enable play, not amuse the reader like a novel.

·         Interesting, quirky, suggestive stuff that the DM can use to run off on his own tangents or red herrings that can be expanded upon if the DM wishes or the players choose to pursue them.  Adventures like ‘Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor’ or ‘Rappan Athuk’ are great for this kind of stuff.
I hesitate to say that these things define ‘good,’ I’m just saying that they are what I like to see. Since, when I DM, I’ve decided like to create my own adventures anyway, I’m hoping
* I don’t consider myself a writer of talent.  I like to write things (like this blog) but don’t think my writing has any significance other than some possibly therapeutic value for me. It’s just a fun way for me to explore topics I am thinking about.

Episode 01: DCC RPG

Episode 1, Session 1: The Portal Beneath the Stars

Good Evening and welcome to Jon’s Dungeon Crawl Classics Campaign. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we will be entering ‘the funnel.’  The basic premise of ‘the funnel’ is that each player generates a handful of 0 level mooks and those that survive get to become actual characters.  We had a fullhouse; Dave M., Dave P., Mike C., Mike D., Reuben, Kevin S. and me (in addition to Jon C. as DM) and each player had 3 characters rolled up… so that means we were starting with 21 zero level characters! Needless to say, I don’t remember most of their names.

Some of the players(like Dave M.) had appropriate figures picked out to represent their mooks on the battle mat; others used small plastic tiles marked with cryptic hieroglyphics (Mike D had a beer stein, a pair of buttocks and what was eithersome pasta or waves drawn on his tiles) or initials and numbers for identification,so game 1 was a bit of a clusterfuck… but that was how it was supposed to be.  So goodnight, good bye and good luck — you will need it… (warning: long and chaotic story follows)

I can’t tell you much about anyone else, but I can tell you about my characters.  I started off with Slobodan the Beekeeper (yes, I rolled ‘beekeeper’ on a chart so it is officialand everything) who was armed with a jar of honey and a hammer, Gregor Samsa the Elven artisan who had a staff and a lump of clay and Marlowe the elven candlemaker who had 20 candles and a pair of scissors.  With our 18 assorted companions (who included peasants, a butcher, a wainwright, at least one noble, a tax collector, and an outlaw and who knows what else and were variously armed with a pushcart, a sheep, a chicken, pitchfortks, glass beads and other random things), we were attending the bedside of one of the stalwarts of the village who was drawing his last breaths.  From his deathbed, old man Roberts pointed a shaking finger out the window at the rarely seen ‘Emptystar’ in the sky and wheezed that many years ago, when he was just a young shaver, he had seen that fateful star in the sky in the vicinity of an old monument near the old stone mounds… a gate had opened up to another world — a gate that gave access to treasure and danger, but Roberts was too afraid to pass through… much to his regret, for he had to spend the next 50-60 years plowing the soil and shoveling pig shit just to barely get by… if he had taken the risk, perhaps he would have gotten rich. Now the star had reappeared but he was too old… gasp, choke, cough, mumble grumble…

We of course set off immediately for the old stone moundsand found the monument since we were familiar with the area.  The monument in question looked like a  stone arch without wall or door; it was an ancient thing and no one knew its purpose since it predated the village.However, today the gate looked different. Instead of being just a pile of stones with a hole in it big enough to walk through like a very modestly scaled and unornamented Arc de Triomphe, we could now see an extradimensional stone hallway through the old stone gate instead of the mounds and grass one normally might expect to see.  At the end of the hall was a door.  Eagerly, we butchers, bakers and candlemakers crowded in, elbowing each other out of the way in our eagerness to get rich.
The door did not budge to our gentle prodding but we did note a few small chips of gemstone embedded in the surface of the wood. One of the more well educated of our number noted that the gemstones were arranged in an order similar to the stars of the night sky… and, if one were patient, the stars ought to assume exactly this position in relation to ‘The Empty Star’later this very evening.  Not content with waiting, BigShitz the dwarf (I’m not sure that was really his name — it sounded something like that) and Lenny tried to force the door.  There was a flash of light and the smell of brimstone and one of them (I think it was Lenny the wainwright) fell dead on the floor; burned to death by some sort of fire trap. Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,” in a nasal voice.

But the door was open and we could see a room where 4 statues dressed in lacquered armor holding spears stood flanking a door. As we strolled through the doorway, statues began chucking spears and those who were not killed gained spears which were much superior weapons when compared to our butter churns or bedwarming pans or whatever else we were armed with.  Mooks named  Marcellus, Mallikar and Othellus get either knicked by or killed with spears… Markbar the glassblower gets impaled as well…Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,” in a nasal voice.  But all I remember is that my three mooks are in the back so by the time I get to the doorway, the statues are out of spears to throw.  Unfortunately for us, they are also out of spears to loot, but Slobodan, Gregor Samsa and Marlowe notice that the armor on the statues looks real… and we begin undoing straps and removing the armor to wear ourselves.  It’s a bit bulky and musty but it fits!
Meanwhile, the rest of the group has proceeded through the next door, driven forward by greed despite the death of 2 or 3 so far (this just means we will have to split the treasure fewer ways, right?). This is a large square room with a door in each wall and a tall statue of a barbarian with a broadsword and a grimoire standing in one corner.  The statue is of obvious ancient origin, and, although crude in execution, Gregor Samsa the artisan has to admit that it had a certain barbaric vitality and the sculpture was obviously quite old, but, at more than 30 feet in height, it is not portable enough to be considered treasure.  Ptath the apprentice went to investigate the sculpture and try to read the runes engraved upon the stone statue’s grimoire while Bigshitz sniffs around for gold or jewels.  A few scorched patches are observed on thefloor by Ptath but he chooses not to share this information.  Bigshitz then opens one of the doors other than the one we just came in from and the statue turns on its base and fires agout of flame  from its hand, burning the dwarf to death. “Alas poor Bigshitz; I knew him not at all,” Marlowe muttered as he appropriated the late dwarf’s pitchfork. Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,” in a nasalvoice.

After a few more doors are tried and a few more mooks are scorched, Tor and Vos (both noblemen) decide that the statue can’t point in two places at once and both try to open and jump through doors at the opposite ends of the room simultaneously. The statue spins quickly, both Tor and Vos make it through with only slight scorching. Slobodon the Beekeeper, who is standing to one side minding his own business, gets caught in a stray gout of flame and dies a horrible death, illustrating perfectly the noble-commoner relationship.  The nobles do whatever the fuck they want andthe commoners die because of it.  Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,” in a nasal voice.
Vos finds himself in a musty crypt with seven niches filledwith crumbling bones.  He notes withinterest that there are armor and weapons mounted on the walls and the bonesseem to be moving!  The bones are old andbrittle and don’t move very well, but start crawling towards him in a menacingmanner.  A skull bites him and Vosdecides he has had enough and retreats, somehow surviving the firetrap.  The bones do not follow. Lance said, “I couldhave told you that was going to happen,” in a nasal voice.

Another gout of flame kills Mosair the elven glassblower. KreglarPoagseeker scavenges a hammer from the corpse of the beekeeper and attempts topound a spike into the seam between the base of the statue and the floor in order to keep it from spinning.  This spike was previously the property of Lenny (I think?) but then appropriated by Gregor Samsa.  After a promising start,the Poagseeker manages to bend the spike beyond usefulness and returns it toSamsa with a shrug. Lance said, “I could have told you that was going tohappen,” in a nasal voice.

Tor, meanwhile, managed to get into a short hallway thatended in another door.  Eager for fameand treasure, the impetuous noble heads for the far door…

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Marlowe and GregorSamsa are done mourning the loss of Slobadan the beekeeper and agree that theywant to try to get some of the valuable weapons and armor in the tomb room thatVos just vacated.  They manage to getinto the room without getting burned and the piles of bones slither towardsthem.  Marlowe destroys one bone pilewith his pitchfork.  Gregor whiffs, getsbitten on the ankle and falls over, impaling himself to death on a shard ofbone.  Marlowe quickly does the math andsees six piles of bone coming after him and decides that discretion is thebetter part of valor and bugs out. Lance said, “I could have told you that wasgoing to happen,” in a nasal voice.

The gang’s only female, a somewhat addlepated tax collectorwith a name that sounds something like “Melanie Assneck,” runs through the doorthat Tor passed through backwards andit seems to work… the flames miss.  A sheepfarmer who may or may not have been The Poagseeker sends his sheep forward andsees it blasted into muttonchops by the fire. One of Reuben’s characters tries to shield himself with a handcart thatwas formerly the property of another dead party member.  Slightly singed, Tor and friends see achamber with clay tablets fastened all over the walls and a stone throne in themiddle of the room.  A giant snake with asingle horn on its head crawls forward, hissing, “I am Ssserangnag (orsomething like that) and you intrude upon my guardianship!”  Tor slams the door in the snake’s face andretreats back to the statue room, shouting “Snake! Snake!”

Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,”in a nasal voice.

One of Reuben’s mooks decides he wants Samsa’s armor andrigs a hook onto the end of a ten foot pole to drag the corpse out of the roomwithout activating the bone piles.  Bythis time the statue trap seems to be out of oil… it keeps turning andsputtering as doors are opened but we are safe for now. Just as Reuben dragsthe dead Gregor Samsa  from the room, Torruns up to him, waves his sword under his nose and says, “Bugger off!  The armor’s mine!”

Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,”in a nasal voice.
The snake is now trying to open the door while the rest ofus are trying to hold it shut.  Inspired,one of Reuben’s characters uses his 10 foot chain to attach the door handle tothe statue’s leg.  It holds until one ofthe other mooks opens the door in the north wall.  The statue turns to spray the door, pullingthe chain and ripping the door off of its hinges. The snake slithers into theroom. Lance said, “I could have told you that was going to happen,” in a nasalvoice.

One of Reuben’s characters throws a net over the snake andit shakes back and forth, trying to get the net off of its horn and head.  The one hitpoint wonder, Marlowe, stabs itwith his pitchfork and Vor slashes it with a sword.  Almuric the hobbit kills it with a slingbullet (lucky shot!) and the snake melts into ashes, leaving only the horn whichis snatched up by Kreglack and coveted by Ptath.
At this point, half of the party decides to explore the roomwith the throne and the other half decides to explore the newly opened door. Thetablets on the walls of the throne room appear to tell the story of an ancientalien intelligence from beyond the stars that visited our planet in eonspast.  With their aid, a barbariansorcerer king rose to power with his seven lieutenants.  We surmise that the lieutenants are buried inthe room with the alcoves.  Marlowe sitson the throne and discovers that he can see s window filled with stars abovethe doorway, but the stars look unfamiliar.

Meanwhile, Tor, Vor, Melanie Assneck, and Zordunir theoutlaw explore another room.  It is longand dark, with pillars and a pool in the center that appears to reflect starsfrom the night sky.  Glowing figures ofcrystal move slowly from the far end of the room.  Ina panic, Melanie Assneck jumps into the pool and discovers it is only 3feet deep.  Zordunir attacks one of thecrystal men, knocking a chunk out of it,  and it attacks him back.  They seem to be attracted to light, however,and Zordunir retreats as someone else throws a torch across to the far end ofthe room.  The crystal men shuffle offtowards the light.  Tor sees a door atthe far end of the room, and, eager as always, opens it and discovers a set ofstairs.  Drawing his sword, he descends the staircase.

I went to Greyhawk Ruins and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt!

I’m just riding on Grognerdia’s coat-tails here, but I’ve always liked “Greyhawk Ruins” even though the Greyhawkites probably mostly hate it… and the fact that I like it is probably an indictment of my low standards and questionable taste. I don’t really want an ‘official’ Castle Greyhawk but understand that many do. ‘Greyhawk Ruins’ probably disappoints the serious Gygax fan, but, since I don’t have a horse in that particular race, this represents no skin off of my nose. In my own case, if I were to use it (unlikely), I wouldn’t insist that players accept it as “the real deal.” Then again, I don’t want anything ‘canon’ or official anyway. I’d probably rename it something silly and derivative like ‘Blackhawk Castle’ or ‘Greymoor Castle’ and plop it right between ‘Verbosh’ and ‘Valley of the Umpa-Lumpas’ on my map.


Likes for me include that it is pretty damn big and probably qualifies as a ‘megadungeon’ with factions and little stories going on, NPCs for the players to interact with and some interesting challenges that include lots of traps, rooms where players may have to fight their way across boiling tar pits, volcanoes, flooded areas, etc. Dislikes include that some of it (well, quite a bit of it) seems more than a little monotonous (room after room filled with 10 ogres, 20 troglodytes, etc., just sitting around waiting for adventurers to show up).

The maps are pretty weird (no grid and a color coding system that is never really adequately explained — my assumption is that the different colors are in the order of the spectrum (Roy G. Biv) with ‘red’ areas above orange, orange above yellow, yellow above green, etc.)… but, for me, the shitty maps are not a deal breaker and I can live with them. The maps are also all rendered without a scale and at an angle so the top of the page is ‘northeast’ rather than dead north, as in most other TSR D&D dungeon maps. I cropped a random section of one of the maps at right to show you what I mean.

Information is some parts is a little sketchy, but I actually prefer too little info rather than too much simply because I don’t want to read long winded essays on the history of every stick of furniture nor do I need exact counts of how many dirty socks are in the footlocker of the bedroom of the bugbear chief on the 3rd level. Just give me the bare bones and I can flesh out the details if need be. If I were ever to use this thing at the table, I would like the shorter entries since I can scan them right there at the table and, in a moment, know what the players are up against without having to stop the game so I can review several paragraphs of dense text.

It was written for D&D 2nd edition. This makes some people unhappy but I don’t see that there is much about it that I couldn’t convert to another pre-3e form of D&D or other retroclone on the fly.

Interior art is from Thomas Baxa, Mark Nelson and Dave Simons; three artists I don’t know much about other than that they did a bit of work for TSR back in the 2e days. Most of the art looks like the art from the comic books I remember seeing as a kid from the late 1970s — sort of generic and wholesome-looking, which is a plus for me. The style of art makes me think that having Batman or Wonderwoman appear in the picture would not seem too out of place.

There is no ‘overriding’ story to the dungeon other than this: Long ago, Zagig the Wizard built a castle made of three towers where he collected his trophies, housed his guards and performed his experiments. Then he vanished and the castle began to fall apart. The dungeons beneath it are intact, however, and lots of adventurers go there. Some return with treasure; some never return at all. Of the castles/towers, little remains other than the ground floors.

The castle itself consists of three towers on mesa-like formations connected by bridges. Each ruined tower has it’s own basement, so technically I guess there are three ‘dungeons’ but they have a few inter-connections between them. The main tower is ‘Tower Zagig’ which is supposed to be the most dangerous. The left tower is ‘The Power Tower’ in which Zagig performed his many experiments. It’s front door is guarded by a group of elves. The right tower is ‘The Tower of War’ which is guarded by dwarves. If I remember correctly, the dwarves and elves demand visitors pay them a tribute for the privilege of using the doors to their respective towers.

Potentially, players can just go to the Ruins to bag XP and gold. There are also several factions (groups competing to control the dungeons, escaped slaves, a cabal of magic users who use a section of the dungeons for their experiments) that could be interacted with and the imaginative DM could figure out other quests and conflicts.

Sadly, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to use ‘Ruins of Greyhawk.’ My days of running players through dungeoncrawls are probably long behind me; I don’t like playing online and players in my area seem to prefer a different style of game. Lack of interest from the local pool of players is probably also keeping my own Megadungeon, Mines of Khunmar, as something I will get to finishing “someday.”* And, really, who cares? What is in ‘Mines of Khunmar’ that is any better than anything else a halfway creative person with a lot of time of their hands can make?

* “someday,” with each passing real day, becomes more and more like “never.”


Blackmoor: Return to the Origins

One of my art teachers used to like to say, “The essence of originality is a return to origins.” At the time, I think he was trying to tell us something like, “All ideas come from somewhere, so if you like the way a given artist uses leaf shapes or animal shapes, etc., then, instead of imitating that artist, go look at leaves or animals.”

It is in this spirit that I have dug out my old copy of the medieval miniatures game, “Chainmail” and my copy of Dave Arneson’s “First Fantasy Campaign.” I’ve been thinking about running a continuing campaign with fantasy armies battling for supremacy in a fantasy continent reminiscent of Tony Bath’s “Hyboria” campaign for a long time. A few years ago I tried to jump start interest in a D&D campaign that switched back and forth between players RPGing adventurers going on adventures and generals running armies with mixed success by surprising the players with a war game one night. I don’t think the players liked it that much.

Instead of trying to sell others on the idea, I have begun to think about just doing a ‘minis’ campaign for my own amusement, and fighting pitched battles where I can play the part of both generals and allow fate (or the dice) to decide the course of empire.

I already have a fairly substantial collection of minis, including lots of orcs, goblins, humans, etc. I have some scenery (including scratch built buildings) although the terrain in my photos (link above) is long gone. I originally wanted to do this with my own fantasy maps, but recently I came across my copy of “The First Fantasy Campaign” and think I will just use that.
The rules will be Chainmail, with certain modifications (I think Chainmail’s morale system is impossibly complex and want something simpler).

My basic idea is to set up the fantasy kingdom as it is described in “The First Fantasy Campaign” at the start and establish each kingdom (Blackmoor, Egg of Coot, Duchy of Tehn, etc.) with a baseline of resources, including armies, monsters, etc. Then I would like to write the general motivations for each kingdom/power. The Egg of Coot, for example, wants to conquer all others on the map and convert them to his/her/it’s territories. Then I need to come up with random event cards (there are about 50-60 already in the First Fantasy Campaign) which randomly indicate viking attacks, diesease or plagues, storms, invading orcs, etc.

Hopefully, when I am done, like a ‘low tech’ game of the “Civilization” computer game. I can set events in motion and see how they develop. If Egg of Coot conquers or destroys one of Blackmoor’s villages, then Blackmoor is less able to regenerate/replace troops or supplies.

Although given everything else on my plate, I need another project like a hole in my head… but I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and have always delayed because “the time was not right” or I couldn’t find others interested. Enough. I’ll try to keep the general public informed and maybe even set up a blog/site with battle reports once I get going.

The Giant’s Adventures: I love them

I love some of the earliest adventures published by TSR back in the day, but my absolute favorites are what I call “The Giant’s Trilogy” (includes “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief,” “Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl” and “Hall of the Fire Giant King,” (later the three were gathered into one adventure called “Against the Giants”)).

By the current industry standards of Wizards of the Coast or Paizo, these would probably considered pretty lame — the first two adventures average around 8 pages each, the last in the series is two or three times as long. There aren’t very many important NPCs other than lots of giants who need killing and a few NPCs who need rescue… no nuanced non player characters, or involved plot points or adventure hooks that modern players have come to expect from published adventures like “The Adventure Path” series from Paizo. But after really trying to like the ‘adventure path’ style of adventure (and failing), I’m wishing I could return to the gonzo blood-and-guts D&D of my youth where we killed things and took their stuff.

If you are accustomed to the modern “adventure path” style adventures, the first thing you will notice is how physically insubstantial the ‘Giants’ booklets seem in comparison. The older version comes in 3 skinny folders with maps printed in light blue on the inside (in the age of photo copiers, I think this color was chosen because 1970s era Xerox copiers had trouble reproducing it, thus TSR was probably attempting to prevent ‘analog age’ file sharing). There are no boxes of text to be read aloud to the players. Most creatures are not described with any more detail than their hitpoints (other details were to be found in the AD&D Monster Manual). The room descriptions mostly just tell you what (monster, treasure, furnishings) is in any labeled location and may include details like how they will react when player characters come strolling in or any traps or hazards that might be found in the area. Add a few wandering monster lists as well as some suggestions on tactics the giants will use as well as a ‘hook’ to get the players on to the next installment and that is it. The third in the series is a little more elaborate; it includes a couple of named NPCs who will be of interest (as well as introducing ‘The Drow’ to D&D players for the first time) and the suggestion that the adventure can be continued in the D-series of adventures.

The introduction to the first adventure, “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief,” consists of a pargaraph saying that giants have been raiding the lands of humans with greater frequency and unusual efficiency recently. The player characters have been ‘shanghaied’ into investigating; a greater plot is suspected and the player characters have been commanded to find out who is behind the attacks. If the players refuse, they are to be executed (how is that for motivation?). Any treasure the party can find is theirs to keep. The noble who gives the players this draconian assignment isn’t even named in the adventure. With that, players are led off to the nearby ‘Steading’ of the hill giants (kind of a stockade fort/cabin) and told to come back with answers.

If the players succeed in defeating the hill giants, they can move on to the icy caves of the frost giants. If the frost giants are defeated, then the players can proceed to the caverns of the fire giants. The giants have various pet monsters, traps and allies in their lairs, but the adventures consist of a lot of fighting.

So what’s to like about an adventure like this? I’ve heard fans of the 3e and later eras of Dungeons & Dragons dismiss this type of play as ‘hack and slash,’ and, if ‘hack and slash’ means killing monsters and taking their stuff, I suppose they are right. But other than being forced to deal with the giants, the players have complete freedom of action. From my limited experience, this is unlike the more modern ‘adventure path’ adventures where players usually have to first go to location A and talk to NPC B, then retrieve relic C and bring it back to NPC B, who will tell them that they then have to go to location D and defeat bad guy E… but bad guy E will escape, etc. The ‘adventure path’ reads more like a really long novel than what they thought of as an ‘adventure’ back in the mid to late 1970s. During that era, an ‘adventure’ was really just a location — and it was us to the players to provide the ‘inspiration.’

Monster of the Howling Hall

The Howling Hall is “haunted” by a creature that can drive anyone mad with sound and on dark nights the sounds of otherworldly music have been reported by passers by.

The “monster” of Howling Hall is actually a creation left behind by the former owner; a musician and wizard named Zann who apparently was obsessed with discovering the magical properties of sound. The “monster” is an Accordian Golem — made entirely of animate magical accordians and concertinas.

Accordion Golem (unique monster): Move 12″; AC 4; HD 6 (40 hitpoints); 2 attacks 1-6+1/1-6+1; Special abilities: 1/2 damage from blunt weapons, vulnerable to fire, regeneration, sound attack (see below).

Because the accordion golem is made up of leather and pliable wood, blunt weapons (like maces and hammers) do 1/2 damage. It can be struck by non magical weapons, but such damage regenerates at 3 hit points per round. If within the area of a silence spell, the golem cannot regenerate damage. Fire damage on the golem cannot be regenerated.

Every round, anyone within 30 feet of the creature must make a saving throw or suffer a randomly rolled effect (1d6):

  1. Cower in fear for 1d4 rounds. No actions possible.
  2. Dance uncontrollably for 1d4 rounds. Can move at 1/2 speed, AC and attacks are at -2; no spell casting possible.
  3. Deafened for 1d4 rounds. Is immune to the sound effect for that time, but cannot hear other players either.
  4. Confused: will attack random adjacent target for 1d4 rounds.
  5. Run away in fear at top speed for 1d4 rounds.
  6. Temporarily lose 1d6 points of wisdom (will regain 1 point per day of rest). If wisdom reaches 0, victim dies.

Various magical musical instruments are hidden within Zann’s Howling Halls, including a few of Zann’s “Beads of Silence.” These small fragile glass beads can be tossed up to 30 feet away, and, on impact, will create a 10′ diameter zone of absolute silence (as per the spell) that will last 2-5 rounds. There are also rumored to be various other items including a drum that can call down lightning from the heavens, a flute that can cast charm spells, a whistle that can summon a monstrous dog who will serve the whistle owner when blown and various song books and scrolls that contain the formulas for magical musical rites.

Zann had a pair of ear plugs which, if worn, made the wearer immune to aural attacks of all sorts (including the song of harpies, the sound effect of the accordion golem, etc.). However, the wearer will be 100% deaf while wearing the plugs (and spells with a verbal component are likely to fail (wisdom check on 1d20) since the caster is likely to unwitting mispronounce the formula).

The Howling Halls themselves were one of Mage Zann’s proudest achievements; he concieved the entire structure as a sort of musical instrument and aural environment. Flues are built into the walls to provide ventilation to the deepest cellars, but these flues were also designed to whistle, pipe and moan from the action of the wind, especially when certain doors are either left open or shut. It is thought that one may actually be able to ‘play’ the building like a musical instrument with different combinations of open and shut doors and that the tones produced will have different magical effects. In addition, various halls and chambers are designed to create echoes and sound effects to confuse and frighten intruders, and some of the sound effects are more than just illusions and may actually cause harm to the unwary.

Zann himself is rumored to have disappeared many years ago without explanation, although stories say that he was last known to have entered (and never returned from) an upstairs room with a curtained window which the mage would retreat to work on some of his more esoteric musical compositions for viola.

Many have tried to raid or explore the Howling Halls since Zann’s disappearance. Only one of these bold adventurers made it back. He died shortly after wandering back into town, incurably mad, raving about the ‘horrible sound of those pipes in the dark out there.’

Ye Gods!

In one of Fafhrd and Mouser’s later stories by Fritz Leiber (I think it was “The Knight and Knave of Swords“), Odin and Loki end up in Newhon because their last worshipers on their home world have died (presumably that was our earth, which Leiber made mention of before as a ‘different’ world than Newhon; although if it was another dimension or just another planet is not made clear if I recall correctly). Weakened by a lack of worshipers, Loki and Odin somehow wander to Newhon where they arrive, barely alive, and are adopted by Fafhrd, the Mouser and their friends. They build up the power of these gods and nurse them back to health because they hope these gods can help save Newhon in an upcoming battle, but after the battle Loki and Odin try to betray them for more power. Happily, the evil Norse gods are frustrated in the attempt (although Fafhrd makes a painful and unintended sacrifice of his left hand to Odin).

A similar conceit (where gods gain power from their followers) is introduced in L. Sprague DeCamp‘s Reluctant King books. Jorian, the main character, finds a small statue that he keeps… and every night the god represented by the statue appears in his dream since he is now that god’s only contact with the human world (all of the rest of his followers having died). What makes it funny is that the god is constantly whining about how long it has been since someone brought him flowers and seems more of a pain than he is worth. Finally when someone steals the statue and the god disappears, Jorian pretty much considers it good riddance.

Everyone keeps telling me I have to read ‘Small Gods.’ It’s on my list.

The idea that fantasy gods draw their power from their worshipers is one that appeals to me, and I enjoy the idea of a dynamic roster of gods whose power rises and falls with the fortunes of their churches in the material planes.

Welcome To Aldeboran

I have been calling my campaign world by several names over the past years — at one point it was ‘The Vales’ since there were different regions (Silver Vale, Red Vale, East Vale, etc.,). It has also been called ‘Hinterlands’ or ‘Northlands’ since most of the action took place is an area that was considered remote and removed from the more ‘civilized’ lands to the south and east. I also called/call it ‘Aldeboran’ (after the sun that the earth-like planet revolves around) or ‘Tellus’ (after the planet itself) but I go back and forth between wanting it to be a planet as an astronomer might define one… or just a ‘world’ which might just be a bubble in space, or moss on the back of a giant turtle… or a clump of dirt floating in space or whatever.

‘Aldeboran’ is an alternate spelling of ‘Aldebaran’ which is an actual orange giant star only 65 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Taurus. The name is arabic and apparently means ‘The Follower’ because when observed, it appears to follow The Pleiades. Lovecraft associated Aldebaran with Hastur, one of his ancient gods, so the name seemed apt.

Most of the action takes place on the large continent divided into several smaller kingdoms. Some of the places are Lenaria — an ancient empire to the east which once rules the Hinterlands where most of the action has taken place. Lenaria was 90% destroyed by meteors a few hundred years ago (or was it fire from the sky — or even some sort of stange curse or magic or weapon?) but the Lenarians still dabble in powerbrokering in the new world (they are a rip-off of the Melniboneans from Moorcock — powerful sorcerers with gigantic galleys, armies of slaves and dragon air cavalry, they worship the Dragon Goddess). The remaining islands of this once mighty empire share the names with German photographic lens formulas of the late 19th/early 20th century (Thambar, Xenar, Tessar, Summar, Summitar, Noctar, Elmar, etc.).

The big city on the continent is Eord, capital of a kingdom of the same name… which is also known as the City of Seven Walls… it stands at the entry of a strait which leads from the Inner Sea to the eastern Sea… from the inner sea you can sail north to the ice sea… from the eastern sea you can sail south to kingdoms down there or east to Lenaria.
South of Eord lie the Vales, including Red Vale and The Red Mountains… home of the dreaded red dwarves (who are cannibals who consider everyone else as potential food). North lies a forest kingdom of Elves (named, quite unimaginatively, Alfheim), and Aluria, a kingdom of Amazons as well as other various wastelands. There is also a large swampy land known as ‘The Sinking Lands’ which is ruled by a very powerful magic user… and to the west lies Thool (or Thule) which is ruled by a priesthood who have evolved (or devolved) into creatures with enormous brains and frail bodies. Of course, they maintain armies of lesser intellects to serve and protect them. There is also the ruined city of Tana Tak, which is said to be overrun by flesh eating ghouls, but great ancient secrets are said to be buried deep beneath the ground. There are various other kingdoms, some swamplands to the south (which are littered with gigantic stone statues rumored to be the petrified remnants of gods).

I used to take the ‘science’ of world creation quite seriously, but later just decided to have fun with it. Although I haven’t run adventures there for years, it started out as a middle earth/greyhawkish place and has since evolved/devolved into Flash Gordon land / Land of the Lost / Planet of the Apes… with occasional ruined rocket ships, flesh eating apes, mutants, death rays, wierd cults, etc.

After discarding the rather pompous and unoriginal pantheon of my highschool years, I just toss in any and every god of religion I can think of, with Cthulhu cults rubbing elbows with pagans of every stripe, authoritarian churches and cults modeled on worst case scenarios from the real world and a heaping teaspon of the Mythos of the Subgenius mostly for my own amusement. If a player wanted to worship some other deity, I would have no problem shoehorning at least a small chapel or shrine in somewhere — like in Ancient Rome, new gods are making themselves known all of the time…