Friday, December 31, 2010

From White Plume Mountain To Stonehell

I entered the RPG'ing hobby circa 1982, during the period James Maliszewski has dubbed the "Late Golden Age" or "Electrum Age," when TSR was beginning to transition D&D away from sandbox- and module-based play toward the more narratively driven campaign settings that characterize the "Silver Age" (1984-1989).  In some ways, I came onboard too late to really be aware of the game's 1970s "gonzo," swords-and-planets, sandboxy origins, even though I read ERB's Barsoom books obsessively in junior high school.  In terms of my taste in FRPG settings / adventures, I was more of a Tolkien-influenced high-fantasy guy, and felt, for example, that Gygax's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was a strange anomaly in the D&D product line that came way out of left field.  (I now happily understand the error of my ways on that score.)

I also never even heard of a megadungeon in those days, even though I was entranced by that awesome cross-section of Stone Mountain in the Holmes rulebook:

So my early training in how to play D&D was influenced most by TSR's early 1980's emphasis on releasing adventure modules that were published as one-offs and/or originally geared for tournament play, such as B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan, S1 Tomb of Horrors, and my all-around favorite in those days, S2 White Plume Mountain. Even when I started playing in and eventually running longer campaigns, those campaigns tended to be structured as chains of strung-together module-based adventures, with maybe a bit of town adventuring in between.  But again, not a megadungeon in sight.  (Though, to be fair, not much over-arching narrative either.)

This led (or at least contributed) to a style of play that (I now realize) was more acquisitive than exploratory.  Strangely -- especially given my extreme resistance to min-maxing and excessive game-ism nowadays -- my friends and I in those early days were all about the treasure, and the main (and possibly only) way we were interested in acquiring that treasure was by killing monsters.  That was it.  We wanted lots of monster encounters with lots of combat, then we wanted to find and loot big treasure hoards kept by the monsters we'd just slaughtered.  End of story.

Of course, slaughtering monsters and looting treasure hoards are excellent goals for D&D PCs to have, and I am not saying we shouldn't have been excited by those activities.  But I think some of the finer nuances of dungeon exploration were lost on us in the early years.  No, we entered White Plume Mountain, knew there were some badassed artifact weapons in there, and we made as much of a beeline as possible toward the locations with the boss monsters so we could get our greedy hands on Wave!  Relatively empty chamber with a bunch of mysterious floating globes?  Intricate murals on the wall depicting ancient battles?  Screw that, we want something to fight!

To be clear, this tendency of my junior high and high school years is absolutely NOT the fault of those excellent modules.  Even the relatively straightforward White Plume Mountain has a great number of interesting tricks up its sleeve (discs over lava pools, anyone?), to say nothing of even more open-ended modules such as D3 Vault of the Drow or Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits.  I have no idea what my group would have done with D3 in those early days -- probably started a minor civil war with the wrong Drow faction and gotten wiped out by Drow clerics long before finding the Fane of Lolth.

But thank goodness I have begun to learn the Old Ways!  I look at those early modules with such different eyes now, and -- thanks in large part to James M.'s Dwimmermount campaign reports, the wisdom of so many other OSR bloggers, and (most impactfully) Michael Curtis' AWESOME megadungeon, Stonehell -- I am (in my very late 30's) finally grokking what is so fulfilling about sandbox / megadungeon play.  The main thing is that it emphasizes exploration over (or at least in conjunction with) encounters.  Taking on a megadungeon the size of Stonehell does not allow a party to be as cavalier as my buddies and I were about traipsing into White Plume in the 1980s.  No, its sheer magnitude and its ever-evolving nature require much finer attention to detail, and encourage a certain degree of planning and preparation that one-off module-based play does not so strongly motivate.

For example, in recent sessions of my Arandish campaign, the PCs left Stonehell to rest and re-equip in a nearby town, only to find that when they returned to the megadungeon site a couple sessions later, the hobgoblin Occupational Army encamped atop the south ridge of the box canyon had increased its numbers and its patrol range.  Thus the PCs simply could not reenter the megadungeon the way they had gone before unless they wanted to fight their way past a legion of well-armed hobgoblins!

My players seem to understand that mapping is essential in megadungeon exploration.  My junior-high friends and I usually mapped in our early AD&D module-playing days, but I don't think we had quite the same sense of urgency about it as my PCs do now.  Given the size of Stonehell and the shifting territorial boundaries of the various monster factions within, mapping in Stonehell is a crucial survival technique.  I like that.

What I like most about megadungeon play -- and again, KUDOS to Michael Curtis for teaching me this through the excellent example of Stonehell -- is that it encourages, even requires, the party to slow down, check out each nook and cranny, and really soak in the atmosphere of the place.  As a DM, I love that part of the process: immersing the players and myself alike in the feel of the game-world.  (And here I must also mention the influence of James Raggi, who is arguably the Grand Master of setting a unique atmosphere in a dungeon.)  For me nowadays, that is where the real fun and feeling of escape in RPG'ing comes from.  Which is not mutually exclusive of kicking a bunch of monsters' asses and looting treasure with great abandon, but it is an added dimension of RPG'ing that I never knew I was missing in those early days in the Electrum and Silver Ages of the hobby.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Moby-Dick and Blintian Whalers

I just finished reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick for the second time.  Wow!  Reading Moby-Dick is quite an undertaking, for it is rather long (552 pgs.) and is full of digressive chapters that find the narrator, Ishmael, describing the nineteenth-century U.S. whaling industry and philosophizing about the "Honor and Glory of Whaling."  Note that I call these chapters "digressive" largely to acknowledge what detractors of the novel often complain about; I myself really love this book in all its baroque weirdness, and this time through it I found myself getting some great ideas relating to D&D.

First off, there is the overall dark tone of the novel.  The first chapter is entitled "Loomings" and it is an aptly named beginning to this grandiose tale of self-destructive obsession.  We learn early on that Ishmael is a moody sort, prone to morbid thoughts and dark depression, and that for him the antidote to "a damp, drizzly November in my soul" is to go to sea (p. 1).  Of course, against the warnings of a prophetic lunatic on the docks, Ishmael ships with Captain Ahab aboard the Pequod, and the rest is history.  Ahab's monomaniacal quest to wreak vengeance upon Moby-Dick, the infamous White Whale who tore off his leg the previous voyage, eventually leads to the utter destruction of the Pequod and all hands except Ishmael himself.
Like James Raggi's Death Frost Doom or Gygax's Tomb of Horrors, much of the pleasure in Moby-Dick comes from knowing that terrible, tragic things are inevitably going to occur.  Not just the reader, but the characters -- especially the Pequod's pious first mate, Starbuck -- know that Ahab's obsession with the White Whale is destructive and dangerous, and that it will very likely lead to his death.  The closer the crew gets to the southern feeding grounds where the White Whale is known to abide, the more the terrible portents and omens pile up, indicating that the Pequod's voyage is a doomed one.  They all know it, but since Ahab is the captain, and since all hands swore an oath to aid him in his quest for vengeance against Moby-Dick, no one can forestall the apocalyptic destiny that awaits them all in their hubristic confrontation with the whale.

 Patrick Stewart plays Ahab in the 1998 USA Network version of Moby-Dick.

Even more impressive than the content of the novel is the prose.  Melville is a master of the written word, and his poetic and at times sermonistic style in Moby-Dick only adds to the sense of fatalistic doom that hovers over the entire novel.  Ahab's speeches and internal monologues alone are well worth the price of admission; these passages will be familiar to fans of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as most of Khan's best lines in that movie are horked from Captain Ahab:

"Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now.  Aye, aye," he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; "Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!"  Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up.  And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out." (p. 156)


"He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."  (p. 157)

or, lastly, Ahab's final utterance, moments before his death:

"Oh, lonely death on lonely life!  Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.  Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death!  Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.  Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!" (p. 550)

Great stuff.

So how does this relate to D&D?  In a couple of ways:

1.  Ahab is an awesome model for a vengeance-seeking adventure party organizer.  Just as Ahab binds the Pequod's crew to his doomed enterprise via the promise of gold (he offers a gold doubloon to the first crewman to spot Moby-Dick) and via his absolute authority as ship's captain, so too could a nobleman or rich high-level adventurer hire a PC party to assist him or her on a doomed mission of vengeance.  The key would be to have the vengeance-seeker come across as relatively sane at first, then, once the group is well into the dungeon, the employer's obsession grows, endangering the party and its mission.  Ahab does just this: as the Pequod nears Moby-Dick's hunting grounds, the captain grows ever more hellbent and agitated, and begins making dumb mistakes like smashing his sextant etc.

Ahab offers a gold doubloon to the crew member who first sees Moby-Dick.

2.  Whaling. Why isn't whaling more often mentioned in D&D?  There are often ships, pirates, and seagoing adventures, but why not whaling?  As the wikipedia entry on the history of whaling states, humans have engaged in whaling since prehistoric times, and harpoon-and-line whaling may have been taking place as early as 6000 B.C.! To be fair, these early whaling practices took place from shore; whaling ships proper did not enter the picture until the early 1600s A.D.

In any case, never one to let historical fact stand in the way of a good time, it occurs to me that whaling surely could be a staple industry in seafaring Arandish kingdoms like Noffel, Blint, and Suhl.  As I was reading Moby-Dick this time around, I decided that this will indeed be so in Ara.  I further decided that Blint will be to Arandish whaling what Nantucket is to U.S. whaling in Melville's novel: its veritable capitol.  So Blint's largest seaport city, Blintsport, is hereby a center of the whaling industry in the Bay of Noffel.

 Ahab's lust for vengeance destroys himself, his ship, and his crew.

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye, -- though long parched by the dead drought of the earthly life, -- in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them.  Would to God these blessed calms would last.  But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof; calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.  There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: -- through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence's doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering repose of If.  But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.  Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?  In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?  Where is the foundling's father hidden?  Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.  (p. 473)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Crimson Blades of Ara Part 1: Introduction

This is part one of a five-part series in which I will briefly describe some of the major features of Crimson Blades of Ara, the FRPG that I co-created with Dave Miller starting in 1989.  Herein I will discuss (and provide a link to) the game's Introduction -- but first, a few general remarks about the system's creation, mechanics, and flavor.

The more I read in the OSR blogosphere about other (non-D&D) FRPG systems, the more I realize that Dave and I were likely re-inventing the wheel to some extent when we wrote CBoA.  To be clear, I personally never laid eyes on RuneQuest, HackMaster, RoleMaster, or any other FRPG except D&D, T&T, and once or twice -- and only very cursorily -- The Palladium RPG (which Dave owned).  So I was not consciously ripping off any other systems.  But Dave and I were both sick of some of the core mechanics of AD&D, so CBoA was mostly a reaction against those aspects of D&D that seemed too arbitrary, limiting, and/or tiresome to us.  To wit:

- AD&D had classes and levels; so CBoA was a skill-based game without classes.  Probably the thing we were most emphatically reacting against here were the specific limitations placed upon certain D&D classes, like Magic-Users being unable to use swords.  The character of Gandalf belied that interpretation, and so we had no truck with swordless wizards and the like.

- AD&D came off as human-o-centric and placed seemingly arbitrary limitations upon how high demi-humans could level up.  In our view, some kinds of demi-humans should in fact be MORE skilled and powerful than humans are (like Tolkien's elves were), so our system placed no such limitations on them. 

- We also strongly felt that our RPG system should not only have a ruleset that reflected our gaming preferences and philosophy, but that it should include a well fleshed-out campaign setting as well.  In fact, we decided that what would set CBoA apart from AD&D is that it would have a clearly delineated default game world (Ara), and that the history and characteristics of that game world would dictate the parameters of the rules mechanics.  This may not seem revelatory to anybody else (or even to me in hindsight), but at the time -- note that we were more or less ignorant of Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and the campaigns out of which D&D actually sprung -- we felt that AD&D was too "generic." We thought that in trying to be kind of a "catch-all fantasy setting emulator" AD&D (as we knew it from the Player's Handbook etc.) missed the chance to include the kind of juicy specificity and unique twists on "typical" fantasy settings that we planned to pack into the Lands of Ara. (Again, we were likely reinventing many more wheels than we needed to with this, but we were young and full of energy then.)

So, with those design goals in mind, we set out to put together a rules system and a campaign world that WE wanted to play in.  And that we did.  We began preliminary design discussions in the summer of 1988, and were actively hashing things out and writing things down in earnest by early 1989.  We then played Crimson Blades of Ara more or less exclusively from 1990-1998.

The first few issues we tackled in writing CBoA were the pre-history of our campaign world, the origins of the various races that inhabit it, and the origins and physics of magic in Ara.

The Introduction to the CBoA rulebook, subtitled "The Legend of Crimson Blades," is a chronicle of a key early event in Ara's history: the arch-sorceress Awra flees from the magic-fearing society of Noffel, and, due to unforeseen circumstances that trap her at sea, uses her power to create the Rodian race.  That Introduction is available in its entirety as a pdf download here and has been previously posted to this blog in two parts:

Voyage of the Tarandis Part 1
Voyage of the Tarandis Part 2

What I like best about this introductory tale is that it simultaneously introduces a couple unique features of the Arandish game world -- seafaring, magic-fearing Noffellians and a "lost" (or at least forgotten) civilization of ratlike humanoids -- and also lays the groundwork for a great set of adventure hooks: the Crimson Blades.  Where did those thirteen enchanted swords end up?  What powers do they have?  What exactly did Awra do to them?  Indeed, it was always our idea to keep the fate of most of those swords opaque so that individual referees could use them as adventure seeds for their own campaigns. 

(Those interested in Arandish history should also consider reading Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the "Pre-History of Noffel" and also could take a look at a few of the links in the "Player Resources" section of the right sidebar.)

Next up: the "Characters" chapter!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Marshall, Will, and Holly face off against a group of vicious Sleestak.

I am of the generation who grew up watching the various television productions of Sid and Marty Krofft: Far Out Space Nuts, The Bugaloos, The Lost Saucer, H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and, of course, my all-time favorite, the classic Land of the Lost.  Like many kids then and now, I LOVED dinosaurs, so of course that was a major part of the draw of LotL.  But personally I was always far more scared of and fascinated by the sleestak, those underground-dwelling, bug-eyed, lizard-looking humanoids that couldn't move very fast but had that eerie hiss than haunted my youthful nightmares.

So of course, as a grown-up (?) Labyrinth Lord, I could not resist statting up my beloved sleestak for potential dungeoneering use.  [A pdf version of the Sleestak description and stats is available here.]

# Encountered: 3d4 (8d8)
Alignment: chaotic
Move: 60’ (20’)
AC: 8
HD: 1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: per weapon
Save: 0-Level Human
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: XX
XP: 16

Sleestak are pale green humanoids with huge eyes that dwell exclusively underground.  Sleestak suffer extreme penalties (-3) to attack in full sunlight, and they are notoriously afraid of fire. Even a lantern or weakly burning torch is enough to drive them back; they attack groups of dungeon delvers by overwhelming them in numbers, using their unique group-based Mesmerizing Hiss (see Special Abilities below) to disable opponents, then knocking aside and extinguishing torches and other light sources. Sleestak use primitive spears, clubs, and daggers, but do not wear armor or use shields.

Sleestak see incredibly well in the dark -- they have Infravision to 90' and even have limited vision capabilities in magically generated darkness (see Special Abilities below). Sleestak are literally never encountered singly -- they always travel and hunt in groups of two or more. If a sleestak is encountered alone or is separated from its group by trickery or combat attrition, it will always flee.

Special Abilities:

Mesmerizing group hiss: When approaching enemies or entering combat, Sleestak continuously hiss. This hissing does not count as a separate attack action; Sleestak can hiss at will, and always do so when attacking or when threatened. Two or more sleestak hissing together will Stun all hearers within 100' for 3 rounds -- an initial saving throw vs. Spells is permitted to avoid this effect. Creatures Stunned by sleestak group hissing cannot attack or take other actions, and are themselves attacked at +4, with no DEX- or shield-based AC bonuses (see AEC p. 143). The undead and other creatures immune to charm effects are immune to the effects of the Sleestak group hiss. One sleestak hissing alone has no effect; in fact, sleestak rarely hiss when alone.

See in magical darkness: Sleestak can see up to 30' in magical darkness such as that generated by the 1st-Level spell or by certain magical items.

"Now which way did those pesky humans go?"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gamer Quiz Reveals I'm a Method Actor

Thanks to a link provided by Dr. Rotwang, last night I took the gamer quiz, with the following result:

You Scored as Method Actor
You think that gaming is a form of creative expression. You may view rules as, at best, a necessary evil, preferring sessions where the dice never come out of the bag. You enjoy situations that test or deepen your character's personality traits.

Method Actor
Power Gamer
Casual Gamer

No real surprise, but it is nice to know that my preferences (and self-perception) can be verified by SCIENCE!

Are others taking this quiz and posting the results?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dimetrodon for LL

As I have previously posted, I am a big fan of the "Valley of the Dinosaurs" motif, no doubt because I am a lifelong dinosaur fan.  Interestingly, one of my favorite "dinosaurs" is not technically a dinosaur at all, but a prehistoric synapsid (perhaps more closely related to mammals than to reptiles) called Dimetrodon.

Dimetrodon -- its "two-measure" teeth help it shear the flesh of its hapless victims.

And since I name-dropped this creature yet again in last post's Top Ten Monsters List, here is Dimetrodon, statted for Labyrinth Lord:

# Encountered: 1d4
Alignment: neutral
Move: 120’ (40’), Swim: 90' (30')
AC: 4
HD: 5
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 3d4 +3
Save: F5
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: none
XP: 200

This 9' long sail-backed reptile is fiercely territorial and can swim. It is a voracious meat-eater often found in mated pairs or small packs.

[Adapted from "Dimetrodon" in Monster Manual II p. 52.]

Monday, December 20, 2010

My 10 Favorite D&D Monsters

This post has been a long time in the making. Originally inspired by James M's posts on his favorite and least favorite classic D&D monsters, what follows is a list of my top-ten canonical D&D monsters of all time, in no particular order.

1. Giant Toad: The VERY first time I ever played AD&D, I was run through a solo adventure by my best friend Andy. I had no idea what I was doing, since all my experience playing D&D was based upon my own incomplete understanding of Holmes, which I mostly played with my younger brother and various babysitters who were kind enough to indulge me in this. (It was not until sixth grade, when I met an older kid named Michael Oshiro, that I learned how to play AD&D -- and to play T&T, and to use foul language -- properly. But I digress.) On the occasion of this first AD&D solo adventure, I was a first-level fighter in a dungeon, and one of the very first doors my character opened contained a Giant Toad! Combat ensued, and within a couple of rounds, my character was killed by the monster. While I now can look back and see that it is possible that Andy's puckish streak, which could occasionally veer into sadism, may have been at play here, nevertheless I came away from that experience -- a TPK! -- forever fearing Giant Toads in D&D.

2. Red Dragon: Although I have become fond of black dragons in recent years (perhaps because I have also become obsessed with swamps), for me, the red dragon will always be the most iconic and scariest of the evil dragons. This probably has a lot to do with the cover of the Holmes D&D set as well as this illustration of Smaug in my hardbound copy of The Hobbit:

3. Owlbear: Owlbears rule. They always have, they always will.

4. Orc: The gold standard of low-HD D&D monsters. You can have your kobolds, your gnolls, your goblins, your neanderthals, your trogs -- but for my money, the best 1-2 HD monster in the bunch is the good old dependable orc. Again, I confess a likely Tolkien influence here.

5. Beholder: Do I even need to explain this one?

6. Lich: Acererak is the key inspiration here, S1 Tomb of Horrors being the module that introduced me to the existence of liches in the first place. Now I love to use them myself. As my obsession with D&D vampires attests to, I am a big undead fan in general, and liches are like super-elite undead. What's not to love?

7. Hobgoblin: As I have previously posted, I have never had much truck with Goblins in D&D (though, thanks to James M, I am now coming to appreciate them as a PC race), but I frikkin' LOVE hobgoblins. I think this is again due to a Tolkien influence -- I have always pictured "goblins" and "hobgoblins" as something huge, strong, well-organized, and fearsome. To me, hobgoblins should be more badassed than orcs, and one of the toughest humanoid monsters regularly encountered in a low-level D&D campaign.

8. Otyugh and Neo-Otyugh:  I have always loved these things, sort of a cool "abomination" type creature with weird eyestalks and tentacles.  Like a mid-level, poor-man's beholder perhaps.  I especially like that regular Otyughs are described as scavengers who will not typically attack PCs directly, yet their more powerful Neo-Otyugh cousins are more bold and aggressive.  To me, this suggests an interesting familial relationship between the two types, wherein a single Neo-Otyugh (or perhaps a mated pair) will have a group of smaller Otyughs around to clean up the scraps after a hunt. 

9. The Undead: Okay, this may seem silly, since I already listed liches separately, but dammit, I LOVE the undead. Besides humans and hobgoblins, the undead are my most favorite of all monsters, and, when justifiable, the most frequently encountered foes in my campaigns. Deserving of special mention: skeletons, wraiths, and wights. Mummies are reserved for special occasions only.

10. Human: Like noisms at Monsters and Manuals, I am a big fan of human opponents and use them far more than I use any monster or monsters -- or at least I used to. Throughout the 1990s I probably pitted my adventure parties against human foes in roughly 60% of all encounters, maybe even 70%. In those days anyway, I liked to make non-human monsters more of a rarity, plus I LOVE insane and sadistic serial-killer human types, and have a lot of fun as a referee experimenting with their twisted mentalities and antisocial behavior. Yes, mine is a campaign world filled with psychologically unhinged people.  However, now that I am back playing old-school D&D (in the form of Labyrinth Lord), I notice I am using more and more non-human monsters these days, and so my "human foes used" percentage is way down.

Five More Monsters Also Deserving of Honorable Mention:

- Dinosaurs:  I omitted them from the Top Ten because despite my LOVE for dinos, I don't really consider them a "classic" D&D monster -- i.e., when I think of dinosaurs, D&D does not immediately leap to mind (The Lost World, Land of the Lost and Jurassic Park III do, though). I usually throw a "Valley of the Dinosaurs" into most of my adventure campaigns at some point or another.  For the record, my favorite dinos include Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, T-Rex, and (technically a non-dinosaur) Dimetrodon.

- Xorn:  I've never actually used one in play, but I love their weird look and their appealing name.

- Giant Scorpion: Harryhausen!

- Kuo-Toa: An old favorite ever since Module D2, and particularly cool as revamped for B/X by JB!

- Drow:  Used to be my total favorite (no doubt due to D1-2-3 and Q1), but now seem pretty blah actually.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Session 24: PC Death and Regional Politics

Our latest Arandish Labyrinth Lord session (played 12/13/10) was one of those that took a sudden twist quite early on, leading the party (minus Hazel, whose player was sick) into very different circumstances than I would have guessed they'd find themselves at the outset.

We left off last session with the group encamped at the bottom of a big cliff, nestled into the mouth of an as-yet-unexplored valley just south of the Stonehell box canyon.  It was a swampy area but the PCs -- Dak (Dwarf-4), Yor (Dwarf-4), Uncle Junkal (Bard-4), and Innominus (Clr.-5) -- found a patch of higher, dry ground upon which to camp, and set watches for the night.

The first watch went to Dak the Dwarf.  He hadn't been watching long when he heard the sound of a couple of very large humanoid beings approaching the camp from the west (from the mouth of the valley).  As they got closer, Dak identified them with his keen infravision: two Stone Giants.  He awakened his comrades.

It was swiftly decided in a whispered conference that Uncle Junkal should sneak out of the camp accompanied by the Stone Giant he had charmed during one of the prior session's encounters.  This he did, and upon meeting him the two intruding Stone Giants seemed quite happy to see their lost stone giant comrade.  Once Uncle Junkal conveyed via hand gestures that he intended to allow the charmed giant to return unmolested to his fellows, the two new giants indicated that all they required was a bribe of 600gp not to reveal the presence of the PC camp to the hobgoblin army on the ridge above.  The PCs paid and the three stone giants left in peace.

Nothing further occurred on Dak's watch shift, but not long into the second watch, which was Uncle Junkal's, a horrific slurping noise was heard approaching from the east, from deeper in the valley.  Soon Uncle Junkal spotted a bulky, grotesque creature sludging half-submerged through the swamp muck toward the camp, and he awakened the party.  Protruding from the water they saw this:

Fierce combat ensued.  The party's various bow users were unable to score a hit on the half-submerged abomination, then the next round the thing crawled up onto their mound and was upon them.  This was, of course, a dreaded Neo-Otyugh (called an "Advanced Otyugh" on AEC p. 133).  It won initiative and began attacking with two lashing, barbed tentacles and a monstrous bite.

Early in the melee, the foul beast killed NPC Rolfe the Mizarian with two lashes of its tentacles.  Dak, Innominus, Gorgo (Dwarf NPC) and Uncle Junkal's charmed rock troll repeatedly attacked the thing, to little avail, though Dak did score one key hit for which he rolled his nightly d30 for the damage, doing 20 points of damage in one courageous battle-axe attack.  Despite killing Rolfe and successfully biting Dak and Gorgo, the powerful Neo-Otyugh was slowly beaten down, though not before it scored a devastating critical hit against Innominus, killing the cleric instantly.  As if in retribution, the next round the rock troll dealt the Neo-Otyugh a death blow, and its foul, grotesque carcass oozed back into the swamp and was gone. 

The party instantly chose to saddle up their horses and wagon and, with NPC henchmen Gorgo, Darvey, Garvey, and Marko in tow, they hurried back east through the mountains to the Minochian town of Fortinbras.  They arrived the following afternoon.

Knowing from prior experience that none of the resident Brothers of Carcoon were high-level enough to be able to cast Raise Dead on Innominus, the PCs prepared to press on to the larger city of Farn Junction three days further to the north to obtain that service from the clerics there.  However, as soon as they arrived at the Drunken Yeti Inn in Fortinbras, they learned that the night before -- the same night Innominus died -- the ruler of Southern Minoch, Baron Kaminster, had mysteriously perished in his manor house just outside Fortinbras.  The Baron's body was found by his servants in his bed in the wee hours of the morning, completely exsanguinated.

This was a lucky break of sorts for the PCs, since the Baron's mysterious death was bringing the High Priest from Farn Junction, Father Ouzo, into Fortinbras to investigate.  This meant that for a price (2400gp) he would likely be able to cast raise dead on Innominus, which he did indeed do the next morning.

Now the PCs had two whole weeks to kill in Fortinbras, awaiting Innominus' full recovery.

Uncle Junkal busked in the streets to earn extra cash and spent his late nights in the Drunken Yeti, plying the locals for rumors and information.  He found out that the late Baron had two children: an older daughter who lives in the Free City of Kaladar, and a younger son whose whereabouts are completely unknown.  Neither child had ever shown much interest in Minochian government, and nobody expected the Baron to die so soon, having been barely fifty years old at the time of his exsanguination.  Many locals think that the current King of Minoch will take advantage of the power vacuum in Fortinbras to send his own appointed regional governor down to the area to take charge within the next few weeks.  Meanwhile, the local militia, under the command of Sheriff Rotwanger, is keeping order in the region and heading up the investigation into the identity of the Baron's killer.

Dak and Yor adjourned to the dwarven pub in town, the King Hargon Inn, to live it up with their own kind.  There they learned that the local dwarves have their own unique take on the death of the late Baron.  Given that Kaminster's heirs are out of the region and very likely uninterested in ruling Southern Minoch, why not sieze this opportuinity to put a dwarf (or dwarven coalition) in charge?  The Minochian dwarves have a long history in the area and have every bit as much right to govern as those queer Minochian humans!  Dak, knowing that Yor is from a respected dwarven mining family from Farn Junction, bought everybody in the King Hargon drinks and started an informal,  grassroots campaign to support Yor for such a position of leadership.  Meanwhile, after a few days in Fortinbras, Yor himself ventured north to see his family in Farn Junction and to learn if they had any powerful connections that could aid him in a bid for power in the region.

Notes and Comments on the Session

As Innominus' player emailed to me the next day, "Innominus will now hold a death grudge against that entire valley, and probably against everything that is a potential atrocity."

As I replied to that player, I couldn't believe my good die rolling that night either. I was of course eager to throw a little scare into the party, as they had been plowing through hobgoblins with relative ease over the previous few sessions, but a series of three rolls (of the type I had emphatically NOT been getting in recent sessions) made that valley especially dangerous to the party that night:

1. I rolled no less than THREE random encounters over the course of the one night. Yes, it's true, in addition to the Stone Giants and the Advanced Otyugh, if the PCs had stuck around any longer, there was going to be yet one more monster coming after them during the last watch shift of the night. (I never got around to rolling to find out which monster.)

2. The Neo-Otyugh's critical hit roll vs. Innominus, combined with. . . .

3. The Neo-Otyugh's rolling an "11" on 2d6 for the damage for said critical hit.

The rest, as they say, is history. A deadly valley indeed, worthy of Innominus' hatred!

Overall, as DM (excuse me, as Labyrinth Lord) I had a great deal of fun with this session, for while I hate to see a PC die, especially so swiftly and as a result of such an amazingly improbable couple of rolls, I do feel that the campaign was in need of a dangerous occurrence like this to remind the PCs of the preciousness (and precariousness) of their lives.  Furthermore, though I could not have planned it this way, I was secretly pleased to have the party back in Fortinbras so soon to get wind of all the sinister upheavals taking place there.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wizards of the Demon Sword

Thanks to Netflix Instant streaming video, earlier this week I revisited an old B-movie favorite, Troma's Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991) starring Lyle Waggoner as the evil wizard Khoura!

Lyle Waggoner (of "Wonder Woman" fame) plays the main wizard in Wizards of the Demon Sword.

Wizards of the Demon Sword is a craptacular mishmash of a fantasy movie -- "mishmash" mainly in the sense that the film cannot seem to decide whether or not it wants to take itself seriously.  Is its writing and dialogue unintentionally clunky?  Or intentionally parodic?  I always assumed the former, which actually increases the pleasure for me.  (Read this accurate review to see what I mean in more detail.)

But in addition to Wizards' abundant "so bad they're good" qualities (e.g., the AWESOME and very funny "Seer of Roebuck," depicted at the end of this post), there really are a couple of key ideas in the film that make it compelling:

(1) An evil artifact -- actually a dagger, NOT a sword as the film's title implies -- that is the key to awakening a slumbering, all-powerful demon.  The dagger, called the Blade of Aktar, is entrusted to a good wizard, Ulric, who pledges the life of his firstborn daughter to guarantee the blade will never be used to awaken the demon.  You see, awakening said demon requires one to first kill Ulric's daughter Melina with the Blade of Aktar.  I thought that concept, of a magical artifact that requires the sacrifice of one specific person in order to function, was compelling in a Carcosa-esque kind of way.

(2) A swaggering, narcissistic warrior character who ultimately saves the day.  I admit, ever since Willow's Madmartigan (or, in a more serious and tragic vein, Tolkien's Boromir) I have been a sucker for the swordsman with a too-high opinion of himself, the fighting man who believes in his own legend / capabilities / importance much more emphatically than does anyone else around him.  Enter Wizards of the Demon Sword's Thane, a swaggering idiot with a bastard sword and tons of charm.  The best part of the movie is when Thane gets outwitted by an evil henchman played by Michael Berryman, is tied up to stakes in the ground, and is subsequently discovered by an equally egotistical warrior named Damon.  Damon agrees to release Thane if he will fight him; Thane agrees, and after sharing wine from Thane's wineskin, the two swordsmen fight and wrestle each other while exchanging lots of taunting one-liners.  Of course, after awhile, they stop the fight because they realize they really like each other; Damon reveals that he has heard of Thane before and always wanted to test his own skills against those of the legendary Thane.

  After protracted duelling and taunting, Damon and Thane become buddies.

In my current RPG-focused mindframe, I couldn't help but wonder: how would this apply to a D&D campaign?  My own PCs are beginning to develop reputations in Southern Minoch, and so we enter a phase of the campaign where NPCs may come looking for them -- some to pay respect or bestow admiration, others to challenge the party's presumed greatness.  And what of this notion that some NPC originally coming to pick a fight might end up as a buddy, a henchman, or a loyal follower?  This sure puts a different spin on the typical narrative I see in my campaigns, wherein a new NPC or PC is hired out of a merc bar or is rescued from a dungeon.  Or worse, simply appears out of nowhere as in the first 30 seconds of this video (from The Gamers):

Does anybody else use interesting or unique ways to introduce new PCs or NPCs to the party?

While you think about that, also consider checking out Wizards of the Demon Sword -- it ain't no Dragonslayer (which gets my vote for best Fantasy Film of All Time), but it sure is a hoot, and who knows, it may spark all kinds of great RPG'ing ideas for you, too!

The Seer of Roebuck says: "Watch Wizards of the Demon Sword, and beware my ridiculous wig!"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blogosphere Synchronicity and Twilight: 2000

Last week on Open Friday, James at Grognardia asked everybody in the OSR Blogosphere to name the one RPG we had never played before that would we most like to play in the near future. (In true Grognard style, he offered Bonus Points if it was a game published before 1990.)

I chose the one game that has always haunted / intrigued me the most, GDW's Twilight: 2000.

Published in 1984 = Bonus points!

You see, like many of us grognards, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s; I vividly remember the Reagan years, the concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)," and watching The Day After on prime-time TV with my family. So post-apocalyptic futures did not seem so fantastical (or wacky) to me as they might to some; I genuinely feared the possibility of nuclear holocaust during my junior-high and high school years. So much as I loved Gamma World --and much as I totally enjoy playing Mutant Future today -- I guess I always saw the post-apocalypse as a pretty dark and grim place, a la movies like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and the highly militaristic RPG Twilight: 2000.

Then, lo and behold, Joe at Greyhawk Grognard called my attention to a pdf sale at Drive-Thru RPG on the Twilight 2013 Bundle!  For a mere $10 I could obtain pdfs of ALL the current Twilight: 2013 products released by 93 Games Studio!!  I could not resist.  Now, many joyous downloads later, I am one step closer to my Open Friday wish coming true. . .

(And while I was scouting Noble Knight for Twilight: 2000 box cover images, I noticed that they have the first edition of the game available for a very reasonable price too. . . . does it never end?)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crimson Blades of Ara

As I have mentioned before, The Lands of Ara campaign setting was originally co-created by myself and Dave Miller starting back in 1989 as part of a fantasy RPG we wrote together called Crimson Blades of Ara. My contributions to this blog represent my first major attempt to translate that setting into D&D terms; prior to last year, Ara existed only as a setting in which Crimson Blades of Ara (CBoA) was played.

Very recently, imredave of Forgotten Runes commented on my blog that he might be interested in looking over the CBoA rules.  Though it had not occurred to me until reading imredave's comment that anyone (including myself) would be interested in looking back at those rules, I am only too happy to oblige.  So what I plan to do is to make the completed sections of the CBoA Rulebook -- there is an unfinished Referee's section that is likely to remain unfinished -- available as pdfs here.

The CBoA Rulebook has four main completed chapters: an Introduction, a Characters chapter, an Actions and Combat chapter, and a Magic chapter.  They are all available now at the link above; but over the next few weeks I will post chapter-specific commentaries outlining the broad features of the game system and maybe even offering some present-day reflective commentary on CBoA.  I hope it is informative / enjoyable / inspiring to some or many of you.  Thanks for the interest, imredave!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ara Needs Elementalists!

I have wanted an Elementalist NPC class for my Lands of Ara campaign for some time, and have a few ideas brewing along this line, but have hit something of an impasse in the development stage.  The main source of that impasse is mostly my own laziness, but this post is intended as a partial corrective to that entropic tendency -- at least here I will start getting my ideas out in a public forum, and maybe some other folks will be able to help me fill in the gaps and get me inspired to complete this mini-project.

In terms of not totally re-inventing the wheel here, I am aware that EGG (or, more likely, Len Lakofka) developed a Pyrologist class, and I have access to the original publication in which that class appeared, Liaisons Dangereuses #74.  However, this class has two major limitations as far as my own intentions for Elementalists are concerned: (1) it seems to mainly consist of an alternative spell list grafted onto a standard Magic-User mechanic (though a clerical version is cryptically mentioned), and (2) it covers only the element of fire.  I admit that some of those new Pyromage spells are great, and I will surely hork them for my Arandish Fire Elementalists, but I want my Elementalists to be more like a combination spellcaster / summoner, and even more importantly, elementalists in Ara are Clerics, NOT Magic-Users.  So to make the kind of Elementalist class I envision, I will need:

(1)  More Elementalist-specific spells,

(2)  More types of elemental creatures for my Elementalists to summon -- a point that elf23 also makes in his tantalizing post over at The City of Iron on this topic -- and

(3)  The whole thing placed upon a Cleric-like or Druid-like chassis.   

So to begin with, does anyone know of more good resources for element-specific spells?  I have raided the Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets blog for relevant spells many times (and am thankful for this index provided by ChicagoWiz).  Any other resources or ideas that would help me here?

Also, thanks to elf23 for his recent post of a Labyrinth Lord general elementalist spell list.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Session 23: Sneaking Around South of Stonehell

This session (which took place 12/6/2010) found our intrepid party on a mountain road cut into the north wall of a deep canyon.  It was nighttime, and the party -- PCs Dak (Dwarf-4), Yor (Dwarf-4), Hazel (Ftr.-4 / M-U-3), Uncle Junkal (Bard-4), Innominus (Clr.-5), and NPCs Gorgo, Rolfe, Darvey, Garvey, and Marko -- had just slain a hobgoblin patrol and hucked the looted corpses off the side of the cliff.

Following Dak's lead from the end of last session, both Hazel and Yor tried ingesting some of the black oil: Hazel found it fairly repulsive, but Yor found that it tasted a bit like some of the stronger dwarven ales of his acquaintance, and quickly downed a whole vial of the sulfurous stuff.  His infravision instantly grew stronger and increased slightly in range (to 65'), and his hearing sharpened as well.

Next the party began searching around on the cliffside road, even retracing their steps a bit to investigate that portion of the road that lay just inside the tunnel from which they emerged last session.  Yor the Dwarf soon found a huge (8' high by 4' wide) inset slab of stone just outside the tunnel mouth that appeared to be covering an entrance into the uphill side of the cliff.  As he and the dwarven NPCs looked for ways to move or pry the stone slab loose, Hazel and Marko searched just inside the tunnel for hidden switches or buttons that might trigger the door.  It was during this turn of searching that Uncle Junkal heard the faint sound of a wagon approaching down the road from the northeast.  The PCs surmised that this might very likely be another one of the covered wagons bearing empty glass vials that they had encountered before -- twice -- outside Fortinbras and Farn Junction.  

The party quickly decided that in order to preserve the element of surprise, they had best hustle back up the northeast tunnel and remove the "Kobold Sodomizing a Hobgoblin" etching they had left in place of a Hobgoblinish warning sign along the side of that subterranean road.  So, since Hazel had already used up her invisibility spell last session, Dak borrowed Uncle Junkal's charmed rock troll's custom-made cloak of invisibility (purchased in Fortinbras in Session 21) and ran up the passage.  He made it just in time to switch the sign back and huddle invisibly against the north wall as the wagon -- drawn by two horses, driven by a burly hobgoblin, and accompanied on foot by four morlock slaves and a second hobgoblin-- pulled up abreast of his position.  The wagon and morlocks passed right on by, but the hobgoblin rear-guard smelled something in the air and paused, looking around.  But he failed to detect Dak, and, after relieving himself against the tunnel wall, hurried to catch up with the wagon.

Meanwhile, further downhill, the rock slab was pushed out of its place in the cliff face; out stepped a stone giant, who set the slab against the cliff wall as a troop of hobgoblin soldiers marched two-by-two out of the entrance thus created.  Uncle Junkal swiftly used his bardic powers to charm the stone giant, then Hazel used her wand of paralyzation to paralyze all 8 hobgoblins in the emerging patrol.  The rest of the party moved into the passageway in the northern cliff, dispatched the paralyzed hobgoblins, then successfully ambushed the wagon once it reached their position.  Stealing the wagon, they proceeded down the hill along the cliffside road, eventually reaching the entrance to a complex cave system embedded in the cliff wall.  The caves appeared to be a base of sorts for the hobgoblins, including a makeshift stable and a room with a well-like contraption that reeked of the black oil.

The party killed one hobgoblin stable-boy, kidnapped a second, and Dak threw a lit oil flask into the "oil well" chamber, to little effect besides killing two hobgoblin sentries stationed there.  [As Carl comments below, Dak also chucked a second lit oil flask down the well shaft, but did not stick around to see what the ultimate result of that deed might be.]  After that, the PCs decided to steal the hobgoblins' six horses, exit the caves, and head further down the hill to hole up somewhere for the night in order to recover lost HP and spells.  At the bottom of the hill, they found a swampy, wooded area that offered sufficient cover for them to make a suitable camp.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Exploding" Damage Rolls?

Inspired by fairly recent posts on this topic by my friend Carl and by Al at Beyond the Black Gate, I am really seriously pondering the use of an "exploding" damage system for my current Arandish Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Carl's version of the house rule -- which he calls "Let it Ride" or "Double or Nothing" and which differs from the usual "exploding" damage procedure as I've seen it iterated elsewhere -- goes like this:

Whenever a successful melee or ranged attack is made, the attacker can choose to let it ride - this involves throwing a second attack roll.  If this is also successful, the attack does double normal damage, but if it fails, the attack does no damage at all. This can be attempted a third time if the second roll is successful, for quadruple damage with a success but again, no damage at all with a failure.

I like the vibe of this but am not inclined to require additional attack rolls; rather, I would like to hinge the mechanic upon the damage dice rolled.  Al proposes using such a mechanic in place of "natural 20 critical hits" and describes the procedure thus:

When a damage result of "6" is rolled, the player gets to roll another d6 and add the result to the previous 6 points of damage. So a "critical hit" essentially means 1d6+6 points of damage, or 9.5 points of damage on average. And 1 in 6 hits is "critical" on average, a grisly figure that lines up better with my gritty pulp sensibilities than 1 in 20.

Like Al, I have been feeling a bit bored with "roll a natural 20 = double damage" critical hit system that I have been using -- well, forever.  I feel that the exploding damage system could indeed serve as a reasonable replacement for standard critical hits and, as Al points out, actually allows many more chances for higher damage infliction, a 1 in 6 chance vs. a 1 in 20 chance.  But this raises two corollary concerns:

(1)  What to do with natural 20 "to hit" rolls?


(2)  Since I use variable weapon damage (unlike Al, who uses d6's for everything), would this make "exploding" damage die rolls too potent?  In other words, by increasing the occurrence of increased damage, will this make things too bloody and/or deadly in my "variable weapon damage" based campaign?  And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

As I commented on Al's blog, my initial response to concern #1 is that if I go with "exploding" damage then the natural 20 "to hit" roll should automatically grant "exploded" damage, i.e., d6+6, d8+8, d10+10, etc.

My response to issue #2 is more complicated, and remains undecided.  Interestingly, Crimson Blades of Ara, the homebrewed RPG that spawned the Lands of Ara campaign setting in the first place, featured a more deadly combat system than most variants of D&D: on average, two solid hits with a long sword would kill virtually any PC, regardless of that PC's experience level (CBoA did not technically use "levels," but you get my point).  So I am certainly open in principle to a more deadly and bloody world of combat for my current campaign.  But would that be too drastic a move to make at this juncture of the game?  I recently posted about how wonderful it is to have a party of characters of experience levels 3 and up -- so would it be fun or fair to suddenly raise the stakes and increase the danger of combat damage in the campaign now that we've just reached the "sweet spot"?  Perhaps especially since two of my players are neophyte RPG'ers playing in their first-ever campaign?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Freaks and Geeks Part 2 - Carlos the Dwarf!

I got some nice comments in response to my prior post about Freaks and Geeks, a really GREAT and funny 1999 show about 1980s high school life.  I myself strongly identify with the boys in the younger "geek" crowd from this program -- I was probably something of a cross between Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) in my own high school days (1986-89).  So I thought I'd revisit those Freaks and Geeks memories again by posting a few pics featuring rising star and all-around Renaissance man James Franco, who played the "scoundrel with a heart of gold" Daniel Desario in F&G.  In the show's final episode, "Discos and Dragons," Daniel gets invited by Harris (the Dungeon Master) to participate in an AD&D session, and plays the memorable character "Carlos the Dwarf."  Given that their session ends with Carlos rescuing the princess, Daniel must be a natural RPG'er!

Daniel rolls up "Carlos the Dwarf."

Daniel gets into the spirit of the game.

"Greetings, princess.  It is I, Carlos the Dwarf.  The dragon has been slain and you are free to rule your kingdom."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More Pop-Cultural References

Inspired by recent posts by Jeff Rients and Michael Curtis, I offer my personal favorite pop-cultural D&D reference, from Freaks and Geeks:

The geeks at the game table.

Harris the Dungeon Master!

Monday, December 6, 2010

B/X Companion Ordered!

I just got some holiday $$$ in the mail from my folks today, and after dashing into town to deposit the $$$ and buy some much-needed groceries and gas, my next act of consumerism was to head over to JB's B/X Blackrazor blog and at long last order my copy of the B/X Companion!  Hopefully this will be merely the first sortie in a much larger holiday-related RPG accessories spending spree.  But for right now, I plan to relish my immediate victory and spend the afternoon reveling in the excitement of ordering -- and now anticipating the arrival of -- that B/X Companion!

THANKS Mom and Dad!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Magic Items For Sale - Cheap!

One of the qualities that distinguishes Ara from many other D&D campaign settings is that, due to the presence of a powerful Enchanters' Guild, magical items are actually available for sale in many areas of the continent.  This is especially true in the Free City of Kaladar and in Minoch, the latter being the region where my current PC adventuring party is exploring Stonehell.  Minoch is in fact home to the single largest Enchanters' Guild facility in all of Ara, so my players are well-placed to gain access to Magic Items for sale in Minochian towns like Fortinbras and Farn Junction.

What this means for me practically is that I have had to start pricing these magical items.  True to my nature, I have been largely making up gp figures on the fly for enchanted items the PCs seek, since the monetary system in Crimson Blades of Ara, the homebrewed RPG system from whence the Enchanters' Guild concept emerged, was based upon a silver standard and is not easily converted to the D&D item pricing scale.

Also true to my nature, I had more or less forgotten that the AD&D DMG has resale prices listed for magical items --  a fact I had to be reminded of by reading a recent post of JB's on the B/X xp system.  So for several sessions now, most notably those two recent sessions the PCs spent in Fortinbras, I have been making up magical item prices without any reference to the DMG.  However, once I remembered (thanks to JB's post) that the DMG lists magic item resale prices, I decided to check those lists out, compare them to what I have come up with so far, and see where this lands me in terms of "standardizing" magical item prices in the Arandish campaign setting.

That said, I should briefly disclaim that I think magical items shouldn't really have stable prices.  As I have previously posted, despite the presence of the Enchanters' Guild, magical items are somewhat uncommon in Ara, the availability of Dwarven Steel being a far more typical means by which adventurers acquire more-potent-than-standard weapons and equipment.  But, since Dwarven Steel cannot itself be enchanted, and therefore cannot take the place of, say, a ring of invisibility or a +3 Flame Tongue, I know there is demand for magical items in Ara.  But the Arandish Enchanters are notorious price-gougers, and so prices for these sparsely dispersed and highly sought-after items should vary a lot and should always be quite high, by my reckoning.

So let's take a look at those prices. What follows is a partial list of some representative items that the Arandish PCs have been buying and/or pricing, with my own "from the hip" prices listed first, and the DMG prices (taken from pp. 121-125) listed in square brackets.

potion of healing: 150gp  [400gp]
potion of extra-healing: 400gp  [800gp]
+1 Battle Axe: 300gp  [2,500gp]
+2 Battle Axe: 650gp
+1 Polearm: 450gp [2,000gp for a +1 Sword]
+2 heavy crossbow: 700gp [3,500gp for a +1 bow]
each +1 hvy. bolt = 50gp, 300-350gp for 10 [300gp for 2-20 +2 bolts]
+2 heavy flail: 800gp
Potion of Plant Control: 140gp [300gp]
Scroll of Ward against Magic: 100 gp [4,500gp for Protection from Magic]
Ring of Protection, 800gp per +1 = 1600gp for +2, 2500gp for +3 [10,000 - 20,000gp]
Decanter of Endless Water, 5000gp [3,000gp]
Staff of Striking: 1400gp [15,000gp]
wand of paralyzation: 500gp with ten charges [25,000gp]
Ring of Invisibility 3,000gp, on special 2,800gp [7,500gp]
Scarab of Protection : 650gp  [25,000gp]
Stone of Summon Earth Elemental: 5,000gp  [12,5000gp]
Eye of the Eagle monacle on a kestrel hood, 300gp  [18,000gp for two such Eyes]
Rope of Climbing: 1,000gp [10,000gp]
Girdle of Giant Strength: 2,000gp [2,500gp]

So, in general, I have been seriously lowballing most of these items' prices vis-a-vis their listed resale value in the AD&D DMG.  Yet for a few of these items -- e.g., the Girdle of Giant Strength and the various potions -- my prices have been pretty damn close to the DMG's, and in one or two cases (e.g., the Decanter of Endless Water, a fetish object of Hazel's), my price has even been higher.  Now part of that variance I attribute to the perceived rarity of such items, and since the Arandish campaign world features industrial-scale enchanters who offer their services openly, I would expect that certain items gauged to be extremely rare in AD&D might be more commonly available in Ara -- and hence a bit cheaper.

Yet all in all, I am inclined to raise my campaign's magic item prices to bring them more in line with the ranges given in the DMG for all but the most common magical items listed above.  By "common magical items" I refer to healing potions and +1 weapons.

I can justify this upward price adjustment without retroactively penalizing the PCs by claiming that on their previous town visit, the party was there during a major regional holiday with an accompanying "clearance sale" offered by the local Enchanters once every fifty years or so.  No harm, no foul!

But from now on I will be keeping that DMG list handy, and while I may still keep Arandish prices a bit lower than the DMG does in many cases, I will likely use the DMG tables as a starting point for magic item pricing in Minoch.  All such items would be even more expensive in regions north of Kaladar, where Dwarven Steel is more common and Enchanters far less numerous.

Lastly, just for reference, for the custom enchantment of a +1 crowbar a Fortinbras Enchanter charged Yor the cost of the implement (2gp) + 200gp and a 2-day wait.  In line with the above discussion, I think I will need to raise the price of custom enchantment jobs as well, though I think that that rate for a +1 crowbar (a fairly minor, if damned cool, item) is pretty reasonable in retrospect.  But maybe it would have cost more like 500gp or even higher on a non-festival, non-"clearance sale" day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Blood and Guts, Literally: Stonehell Sausage Making

After a couple of weeks of threatening to start contributing to the Lands of Ara blog, I'm finally on it, with this episode bringing you the adventures of Uncle Junkal (Bard) and Innominus (Cleric) in their real-world incarnations doing a (hopefully) recurring food segment for Lands of Ara.

Just so you know where I, thoust Spawn of Endra, stand: I think food is Old School. I've been eating food since 1973. I had my lunches in those Little Brown Bags through the 70s and 80s, and even when Hasbro bought out the license to food, I still ate the food I wanted to eat the way I wanted it cooked every day ... several times a day, in fact! Except when I was traveling: then it behooves one to accept the local fare. Anyway ....

So a Cleric and a Bard ... let's get the easy yuks out of the way. There'll be no "Innominus casts Cure Lite Ham", or "Uncle Junkal casts Charm Guests". When we play Lab Lord we skin dead humanoids (and wear the skins as disguises) and fire bomb their temples before you can say boo. When we get together to cook, it's going to be serious. The other day, we attempted to make what must be the staple of the Oldest of the Sausage-Making Schools: Blood Sausage.

I have experience with blood sausage (aka BLACK PUDDINGS! Don't try to test how Old School I am ... I ate the Monster Manual for breakfast in Europe when I was 5 years old!) since I was a little kid visiting family in Ireland. Uncle Junkal's player had some positive experiences with a Korean form of blood sausage, soondae. I never found a suitable recipe for making an Irish version, and we decided to move forward with the soondae following this recipe. And so we hunkered down for a session more than twice as long as our usual gaming session: 9 hours.

Here's the first cogent admonishment:

"We're goin' to Hell! You better know how to make blood sausage fool! It's all you're gonna get!"

And we're off! Most of the stuffing is sweet rice and sweet potato noodles, and of course blood. Here we see two little gelatinous blobs of congealed pig blood from a blood farm in Washington state:

The one on the bottom separated along a stratum of fat or plasma and one half fell on the floor. Luckily we could clean it, but this was only the beginning of the bloodshed. (Does Raggi have a module where there's a tool shed literally full of blood? Probably.) Uncle Junkal started to work the stuff with a +1 potato masher and eventually added Bigby's Squelching Hand.

Then of course we have the guts. Again we are using pig parts, obtained from a local butcher. These are called 'casings' in the lingo of the pros, not intestines or guts, if you need to impress somebody or pose as an international sausage expert (and after this experience, I don't recommend posing at this kind of thing; the truth will out). These are cheap, $1.79. Cheaper than an Old School pdf.

Here's some dialog that accompanies this screenshot from the video:

SOE: "That's something like 8 or 10 feet, the [butcher] lady thought, of guts shoved onto a ... industrial automotive funnel. And then we're going to squeeze into that -- with a dowel that we bought -- chopped with a machete ... fans of machetes will recognize that style of chopping (if I can get it into focus) ...

but we're going to use THIS end, obviously [the flat squared-off end].

UJ: "That'll be interesting, I'll film you doing that.

SOE: "Excellent!"

Of course it was all high hopes at that point. Crueler realities lay ahead. Once these were packed and made to look all sausagey (I mean those DO look like real sausages, right?):

and the boiling process began, what was meant by "don't pack the stuffing too tightly or the sausage may split open during cooking" became clear. You've got token quantities of blood, and you've got under-cooked rice and glass noodles as stuffing ... then you're going to boil them for 45 minutes. Any dipshit not entangled in this situation knows what will happen. As the boiling proceeded, Uncle Junkal and I start to see these sausages we packed burst open one after another and the contents boil away into a sorry sorry gruel:

I never read Oliver Twist, but I hope that little bastard wasn't pleading for this swirling bucket of junk. Bad scene. UJ correctly proposed puncturing the boiling sausages and I pulled some of them out to bake, neither of which prevented a massive loss of sausages ...

Was it a TSK? No. ONE god-damned Ishmael of a sausage survived the boiling, still tethered embryonically to his neighboring links; and four or five non-exploded baked sausages survived. But this image of one of the exploded remnants still connected to the links that were baked sums up the grotesquerie. It started out ~6" long (click to enlarge, seriously):

The first cat I had as a kid (she was named Greycloud by my sister) left something quite similar to this on our doorstep one night, which at first I took to be the guts of some rodent, or maybe an opposum, and then eventually realized had a fetus in it. Or maybe this is a phantasmagoria of misremembrance. Anyway, it looked a lot like this.

So, after all that we ate the ones (the sausages, I mean, not Greycloud's entrail-offerings) that survived with some bok choy that UJ stir-fried, and god damn it these are pretty bland sausages. Really no spices, no pepper ... if you're at the point where you're so desperate you're keeping blood for food, add some salt! The recipe itself I think is a crappy recipe. I can't imagine that soondae is normally this bland, given the general spiciness of Korean cuisine. Even the Irish, to whom spices outside of pepper are almost unknown, pack a lot of flavor into their blood puddings. Death to this recipe.

But, the idea was to learn some things about Old School sausage making. I imagine we made something on the par of what an adventurer might get as part of an average meal at a tavern in some medievaloid setting (3 cp). As my experiences elsewhere have shown, poor subsistence farmers and "tavern owners" in regions where subsistence is the main mode of food acquisition don't have the access to meat that folks in industrialized economies enjoy (i.e, they don't eat meat every day). The predominantly meat sausage (as opposed to a largely grain-based filler sausage) as a norm must be a relatively recent development; though probably of course this relates to industrialization and the ability to 'recover' or 'mechanically separate' meats and other edible bits like integument, shredded tendons and glands that can then be economized into sausages as 'meat'. Anyway, there are books written on this stuff, by people with knowledge, not me.

Onward to Stonehell!