Sunday, January 30, 2011

In Praise of Tunnels and Trolls

In my prior post on Tunnels and Trolls I mentioned that T&T was one of the earliest RPGs I ever played, second only to the Holmes + AD&D hybrid I started off playing in 5th grade. Now, revisiting the T&T rules via my newly-acquired Version 5.5 rulebook, I must say that I am forever indebted to Michael Oshiro for introducing me to this terrific game.

Unlike James Maliszewski, I never had anybody turn me against T&T in my early days. Sure, I was well aware of those early Golden Age "edition wars" James discusses, and I certainly had no truck with systems like Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, or Rolemaster in my formative years. But thanks to Mike O., I knew about T&T firsthand, and although I did not stick with the game after Mike and I drifted apart in junior high school -- I reverted to AD&D, which is what the majority of my friends played anyway -- I am forever grateful to have had T&T as part of my early RPG'ing experiences. For looking back now, I see that elements of T&T make up a palpable strand of my own "gamer DNA."

Perhaps this should not be surprising to me, since, as far as geekiness and game preferences go, I am more amenable to the "gonzo" side of the spectrum than the "rigorously simulationist" one. I have the brains and patience to learn complex wargames, and have played a few Avalon Hill games (like Blitzkrieg and Civilization) that certainly trend in the latter direction. But overall, I vastly prefer a rules-lite approach, because for me it is the creativity and role-playing of the people at the table that provides the real kick in the pants, NOT consulting rulebooks and memorizing figures and doing complex math. (This preference explains why I play Labyrinth Lord as opposed to Pathfinder.)

Furthermore, in general I love comedy and therefore am not averse to having some levity introduced into my FRPG experience. So T&T never really struck me as being horribly outside the pale. I knew, even as a 6th grader, that its tone was different from that of AD&D, but this did not strike me as a deficiency, just a difference. Paired with its very different (and vastly simpler) rules mechanics, the lighter tone of T&T's written rules and assumed game-world seemed par for the course.

To be clear, for the most part I am not a fan of 100%, no-holds-barred silliness in RPG's, and I do identify to a great extent with the sentiment James M. expresses in his excellent retrospective on T&T, for I came of age in the same cultural moment:

Whimsy and humor were antithetical to "serious roleplaying" and so games that evinced either were seen as unfit for play by discerning gamers. Ludicrous though this position is, it's one against which I nevertheless have to fight even now and, while, I've been largely successful in keeping it in check, it still pops up every now and again, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

I knew lots of gamers like this and even played in their campaigns. And I would say that I generally favor seriousness at the game table, at least insofar as major aspects of the game-world are concerned.  I do not want humor or levity to derail the possibilities for danger, fear, and suspense.  Yet, like James says,

Older and wiser now, I no longer see silliness as necessarily antithetical to seriousness. Indeed, I often think it's an important complement to it. My games nowadays are filled with whimsical asides and comedic moments, in addition to grim and perilous encounters and philosophical musings. This isn't an either/or situation, at least not in the way I used to think it had to be.

I agree with this wise assessment, and, in contradistinction to Maliszewski, I always loved (and still love) T&T's spell names.  "Take That You Fiend" would surely win any spell naming contest of which I was the judge -- pure brilliance! (Of course, I am the same guy who brought you "Scumbrella," so factor that in here). "TTYF" (as we used to shorthand it) tells you exactly what the spell does (delivers a mental energy blast) and yet it is also (IMO) quite funny. In my imagination, the wizard has to speak the phrase "Take That, You Fiend!" when casting the spell -- even better!

As for T&T's rules mechanics, I am now (as I re-read the rules 20+ years after my initial exposure to them) frankly amazed at the simplicity and effectiveness of the T&T combat system. No AC to keep track of, no combat matrices needed: just add up the dice + adds totals on both sides of the conflict, and deduct the difference from the losing side. Brilliant! Not to mention T&T's using CON as hp, a very efficient rules choice that makes great intuitive sense to me. In fact, would it be going too far to say that T&T solved the so-called D&D "dump stat" problem through its more active deployment of Attributes in the game? It feels a little that way, reading it now.

My final piece of praise must focus upon Ken St. Andre's writerly "voice" in the T&T rulebook. Such a friendly, down-home, concise writer! Everything makes sense without needing over-extensive description or wordiness (I'm looking at you, EGG!). As James M. puts it so well,

T&T is a very cleverly designed game: complete, simple, and flexible, yet easily expandable. [. . .] Both editions I own are paragons of verbal economy -- there's barely a wasted word in either and their page count is well within my limited tolerance.

I couldn't say this better. And I wonder: should I invest in the T&T 7.5 rulebook for the sake of comparison / contrast / completeness?  Tempting.

In sum, I am immensely happy to have refamiliarized myself with this old, long-lost friend. Now all I need to do is play T&T again. Solo adventures, here I come. . .

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories

I recently finished reading the Penguin Classics H.P. Lovecraft anthology The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, edited by S.T Joshi.  I am now totally HOOKED on Lovecraft!  Not only are his stories every bit as creepy and horrifying as I always hoped they would be, but HPL's command of written English is nothing short of dazzling.  His prose manages to be just rich enough to paint a convincing picture of (creepy) set and (uncanny) setting without stepping over the line into overwrought "purple prose" a la many of Tolkien's descriptive passages or even our own beloved EGG.  In short, I find HPL's language to be as evocative as Tolkien's but, at the same time, vastly more concise.  This tendency not to waste words probably goes hand-in-hand with Lovecraft's adherence to and mastery of the short story form.

This particular HPL collection includes the following stories, all rigorously annotated by Joshi:

The Statement of Randolph Carter
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
The Picture in the House
The Outsider
Herbert West - Reanimator
The Hound
The Rats in the Walls
The Festival
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
The Colour Out of Space
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Haunter of the Dark

All this plus a historical / critical introduction by Joshi.

I won't address every included story, but will merely highlight some of my favorites.

By far my top pick is "The Colour Out of Space" -- even now, a few weeks after finishing the anthology, it is the image of that lonely Gardner farmhouse (and what lurked in its well, and what it did to those family members) that I remember most vividly. While one might expect that the titular story, "The Call of Cthulhu," might be the standout or most representative tale herein, I actually found "Cthulhu" a bit too diffuse to be as effective as some of the others: there were a couple memorable episodes, like the ritual in the New Orleans swamp and the final harrowing boat confrontation with the awakened god, but "Cthulhu" did not stick with me in the same way that "The Color Out of Space" did. I would even nominate "Innsmouth," "Herbert West," "Arthur Jermyn," and "The Haunter of the Dark" as being more impactful (for me) than the title story.

But HPL stories are like sex or pizza -- even when they're not the greatest, they're still pretty damn good. There is not a story in this collection that didn't leave a lasting strange image or dark emotion impressed upon me in its wake, except perhaps the somewhat obscure "Nylarthotep."

After "The Colour Out of Space," the next most memorable story for me was "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and here I must acknowledge the intelligent editorial work of S.T. Joshi. Joshi's story selections here synergize well with each other. For example, "Innsmouth" could be seen as a logical extension / elaboration of the fish-god / fish-race concept from "Dagon," and similarly there is a resonance between, say, "He" and "The Haunter of the Dark" (both of which feature city-bound flaneurs who find more than they bargain for) or "Randolph Carter" and "Rats in the Walls" (both of which describe misguided and doomed crypt delves).

Speaking of crypts, allow me to single out those stories that speak to the DM in me: "Randolph Carter," "The Outsider," "The Rats in the Walls," and "The Festival." The first three all involve underground crypts of some kind, "The Outsider" being the most dynamic, weird, and unexpected of these. And "The Festival," besides resonating nicely with my general dislike of modern-day Xmas celebrations, features one of the spookiest underground caves I've ever read about. Great fodder for scary megadungeon levels!

Lastly, I must mention my third-favorite story in the bunch, "The Picture in the House." I am a big fan of cannibalism motifs in cinema and fiction, and my immediate thought after I read that story was: "Wow! H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Picture in the House' = the Leatherface Family in 1921!" Great stuff.

(Okay, for you list-o-holics, my fourth-place pick is "Haunter in the Dark," followed closely by "Herbert West" in fifth place. Also high up there are "Cool Air" and "Dagon." I LOVED the first three-quarters of "The Whisperer in Darkness" -- seemingly a nice companion piece to "Colour" -- but thought that it kind of fizzled at the end.)

All in all, then, this collection is a GREAT value at only $10.29 (brand new) on Joshi's introduction, which mostly charted HPL's biography but also offered a few non-spoilerish critical comments about the stories, was immensely helpful to me as a first-time HPL reader.  I appreciated many of Joshi's annotations as well -- though beware, his endnotes contain spoilers!

As a result of this highly positive first foray into the darkly wonderful world of Lovecraft, just this week I've started into the next Joshi-edited HPL collection from Penguin Classics, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories. I will be sure to let you know how that turns out in a future review.

Friday, January 28, 2011

T&T Arrived Today!

I just picked up my mail to find that my new copy of Tunnels and Trolls (Edition 5.5) has arrived from Flying Buffalo!  I can hardly wait to open up the box and start traveling back in time through some of my earliest RPG'ing memories.

As I've explained before, I started out with Holmes Basic D&D in 4th or 5th grade, and swiftly became aware of AD&D, grafting stuff from the Players Handbook and Monster Manual onto a Holmesian style D&D.  But in 6th grade I met Michael Oshiro, a highly intelligent, articulate, and humorous fellow who insisted that D&D was for pretentious idiots and that T&T was THE TRUE WAY.  (I think Mike O. actually played both games, but he was a forceful rhetorician and wanted to drive home to me the point that D&D wasn't the only game in town.)

So I played many sessions of T&T with Mike and some other classmates -- in the school library at recess, as I recall -- and I really enjoyed it.  The lighter tone of the game suited Mike's terrific, dark sense of humor (and spoke to my own Pythonesque leanings), and we shared many great hours playing T&T in the library conference room at Wellington Elementary School.  I think T&T's relative simplicity (particularly in chargen) made it an easier game to set up and play quickly at recess-times, and we players did not get quite so attached to / wrapped up in our characters as we did when playing D&D --  a good thing since Mike was a "killer DM" who took great sadistic pleasure in killing PCs and parties.  A harsh (if hilarious) taskmaster was Michael Oshiro.

In short, I can't wait to refresh my memories of this great game by perusing the rules this coming weekend -- and I hope I get the opportunity to play it soon as well, either with Tenkar or via some other scheme of my own devising.

Take That, You Fiend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Session 1, One Year Later: A Labyrinth Lord's Reflections

Our current Labyrinth Lord campaign began just over one year ago, on January 18, 2010. In honor of this auspicious one-year anniversary for our campaign, Spawn of Endra and I have been writing a series of posts reflecting upon the exploits, tendencies, experiences, and house rules of our group during its first year of gaming together. As part of that series, I hereby offer this retrospective on the very first session we ever played, one year ago last week.

I just re-read the Session Report from our very first session, and was surprised by a number of things I had more or less forgotten about in the wake of the group's more recent adventures in southern Minoch. Such as:

1. The Arandish campaign started in Swampsedge, in The Western Lands. I must have had some idea for ongoing adventures centered in the largely unsettled Western Lands, though I cannot now remember what those adventure seeds might have been. For it did not take long before the party moved southward to more civilized regions, first to the Free City of Kaladar (sessions 7-8), then onward to Minoch, where they have been adventuring nonstop since session 9.

2. Our group started with two bards, a fact I had completely forgotten:

The party consists of two bards, a PC class I had not even considered allowing until these two players started describing their character concepts to me over the past weekend. I am no great fan of bards in general -- like James M., I find them a bit nebulous and unfocused -- but it became clear that the bard would be the best class to use for these two players who wanted to play jack-of-all-trades type characters, so I swiftly ordered and downloaded Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper: Bard and used that class as the basis for Uncle Junkal the Juggler and Hazel the negotiator / charmer / mountebank.

Of course I knew that Uncle Junkal, the rodian bard/jongleur extraordinaire, had so classed, but I did not recall until I read my own session report that Hazel started out as a bard! She has since switched to fighter (session 2), and is now (as of session 16, when her previously suppressed arcane abilities began to re-manifest) multi-classing as a Fighter / Magic-User.

I think this occurred because Hazel's player is new to D&D and to FRPG's in general, although she has extensive experience as an improvisational stage and screen actor. So this meant that while she brought to the table many great ideas for Hazel's back story and personality, it took us a couple of tries to wed Hazel's character concept to the most appropriate game mechanics (especially character class). This mostly evolved as Hazel's player got more familiar with the game system over our first session.

3. Our group has had three PC deaths, only one of which was "permanent." Seeing Barbarella Bootay's name mentioned in the comments reminded me that she is no more. She was Carl's first PC; after she died during session 6, he rolled up Dak the Younger, the Dwarf he plays to this day.

Uncle Junkal and Innominus have both died as well, but both were subsequently raised from the dead. My guess is that no such action was taken in Barbarella's case because the party was lower-level then and/or because Carl actually wanted to try his hand at playing a different character.

4. Our group still thinks outside the box. As I said then,

I am excited by the ideas I hear this group bandying about as they strategize: at one point, one of the players (Hazel's I think) brought up the idea of negotiating with the raiding orcs to get them to stop attacking Vedik and its environs. Of course, orcs are not known for their willingness to parley with humans and their allies, so this suggestion may not be actualized, but the mere fact that such an idea got raised bodes very well for this party and its ability to "think outside the box" and not necessarily rush into every situation with weapons swinging.

The PC's most recent activities in dealing with the Stonehell Stone Giants and the Fortinbras natives indicates that this group is indeed living up to its potential in this regard.

5. I still I wish the "Encounters and Combat" and "Labyrinth Lord Lore" sections were closer together in the Labyrinth Lord core rulebook since those are still the main sections I refer to during sessions. A DM's screen with all those key tables consolidated together could also do the trick.

The main thing I take away from this look back is that it has been a great year of gaming! The party and I are having as much (if not more) fun than we were when we started, and the creative synergy between us shows no signs of diminishing.

Fight On!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Command: Spaz Attack! [New Cleric Spell Variant]

Thine Spawn woke Monday a.m. too early with a rolling mind,
and before I could begin my useful incantations to stop the brain from rambling, I was half way into this post. The cleric spell Command came to mind: the caster says one word that makes sense as a command (jump, sleep, talk, bake, etc), and this affects one creature for one round. There's no d30 fanciness to apply and it's only one round and then the target's back to normal. If you say “die” the target just passes out for one round. So if you can't really think of something deadly to do with it (like make someone “plummet” off a cliff), then what could you do?

Early this morning, my addled brain thought, well if you could command a hobgoblin to "Spaz-out!" or just "Spaz!" what would that look like? Hmm. That’s pretty wide open, covering a wide range of literal and figurative spasms.

Almost immediately this random table materialized (I want to give the d12 some real game time). I figure you Command "Spaz!" and roll d12 twice, and the following effects occur, which are cumulative:

1. Arms flail wildly

2. Legs dance and kick wildly

3. Total appendage flail with headbanging

4. Grotesque contorting convulsions in place

5. Loss of bowel control, violent defecation

6. Loss of bladder control, wets him/herself

7. Projectile vomiting 20' range

8. Screaming nonsense babble at top of lungs

9-10. Spaz with berserker rage directed at foes , +2 to hit and damage

11-12. Spaz with berserker rage directed at allies, +2 to hit and damage

All effects last one round total. All results occur immediately after the spell is cast, no initiative is rolled, no other actions can be taken outside of the normal Save vs. Spells. Generally, results occur simultaneously. If you have a 9 and a 12, the target will attack twice -- once against foes, once against allies – before any other actions can occur. When in doubt, the GM can fall back on each effect takes half a round. Convulsions in place may occupy the first half round, followed by Projectile Vomiting, and so on. But, when not in obvious contradiction, effects are cumulative: two 11s equals 1 strike at +4 to hit and damage, not two strikes at +2.

This seems good for creating diversions, or just adding some zaniness to the average combat encounter. And it has the potential for negative outcomes for the caster, so it's not just a gimme.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Session 26: Stone Giant Negotiations and More

This session was played 1/17/11 with me [Carter the Labyrinth Lord] participating IN PERSON in Eugene, Oregon.  Hazel's player had to miss the session due to prior travel plans.

Before this session even got underway -- in fact, last session -- Innominus used a new spell, Conjure Familiar (from Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets) to call forth a dangerous bobcat from the mountains to act as his familiar.  This dangerous bobcat, named Beastarr, finally saw some action during Session 26, a point I will return to shortly.

The session opened with the PCs standing atop a mountain south of the Stonehell box canyon, having just routed the vast majority of the Hobgoblin forces previously encamped there.  Uncle Junkal charmed the captured hobgoblin general, and, pretending to be his friend and liberator, asked him a few questions about the "Black Oil" operation and the location of the hobgoblin's nearest allies.  The wily rodian bard  learned that the Black Oil is harvested from Level Four of Stonehell, then teleported by two wizards-for-hire up to the second level, where the Hobgoblins have a well-defended base.  He also learned that there is an alternate entrance to the dungeon via the bandit caves to the south -- the same caves the PCs tentatively scoped out during Session 23.  When asked who he was working for and delivering the black oil to, the General mentioned "the Baron," whose full name he apparently did not know.

Meanwhile, Dak searched about for any buried loot in the General's command tent, and it did not take him long to locate and unearth a coffer filled with 765 gold pieces and a couple of potions, Plant Control and Super-Heroism.

Near the end of the interrogation and tent looting, the PCs were approached by three Stone Giants, whose temporary home base sat atop the same hill to the east of the Hobgoblin encampment.  The Stone Giant leader, Eegah, was able to speak with the PCs in hobgoblinish, with NPC Marko acting as translator.  Eegah told the group he was happy they had killed the hobgoblins, as their black oil operation was polluting the hills with vile smoke, lots of noise, etc. He and his stone giant minions had been helping the hobgoblins for a cut of the black oil profits, but were now tired of the operation and ready to get rid of the intruders.  So he offered his assistance in routing the remaining hobgoblins out of the bandit caves and plugging that entrance to the dungeon for good.   The PCs heartily agreed.  Eegah himself remained up top while the PCs and two other stone giants descended the hill to the south and marched down the canyonside road toward the bandit cave entrance.

As the party entered the bandit caves, Innominus cast Animal Growth on Beastarr, transforming the bobcat familiar into a fearsome big cat predator.  With Beastarr's help, and thanks to critical hits scored by Beastarr and uncle Junkal, the group made quick work of the remaining hobgoblins in the caves, most of whom fled down the well just before the stone giants came in and sealed it up with rocks torn loose from the cave walls and the well itself. 

The party did some cursory searching of the other areas of the caves, but shied away from a section that was immersed in an uncanny darkness that neither infravision nor Innominus' Continual Light spell could penetrate.  The PCs also searched a cave piled with seemingly useless junk and found a treasure map depicting an island lying approximately one week's sail southwest of the central Blintian Coast.

Before leaving the caves for good, Innominus scrawled a message on the cave wall -- "Ugluk sucks!" -- in regurgitated offal.  [This is a running joke started way back in the orc gully adventure that kicked off the campaign in Session 2.  My notes do not indicate where the regurgitated offal came from.]

Then the PCs gave the Stone Giants a parting gift of 200 gp and a few gems, then headed back up and over the mountain to their war wagon, with recently rescued dungeoneers Gark and Korak in tow.  The war wagon had been vandalized in the PCs' absence, camouflage coverings stripped and the words "Fuck you! - signed, Ugluk" written in feces on the side.

The PCs returned to Fortinbras without significant incident, to find newly arrived troops dressed in saffron and red liveries standing guard on nearly every street corner.  These soldiers, who served Prince Arkus of northern Minoch, had arrived in town three days earlier, paving the way for the arrival of the Prince himself within the week.

Sending ahead the party's dwarves, Yor and Dak, to spread the news of the triumphant rescue of beloved local hero Gark, the PCs rode into town, displaying the captured Hobgoblin General in their (cleaned up) war wagon.  They were met in the town square by Gareth Rotwanger, Sheriff of Rogaland, the chief law enforcement official in the entire region.  The sheriff demanded that the hobgoblin general be turned over to him in the name of Prince Arkus, who had assumed provisional rule over Fortinbras since the death of Baron Kaminster over a week ago.  The PCs, unwilling to have credit for their deeds usurped by the power-hungry prince, killed the captive general on the spot and branded him with Yor the Dwarf's family rune.  Then they turned him over to the sheriff, who was officially displeased but personally admired their guts. 

Much revelry followed that night at the King Hargon Inn, the local dwarf hangout.  Gark's family, the Steelsnouts, presented the party with a reward of 800 platinum pieces for the safe return of their favorite son.  Much dwarven ale was drunk, the PCs partied all night, and Yor ended the session by suggesting that the next day he would go see the sheriff to discuss the recent political developments. . . .

Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Hour Dungeon

Well, I caught the "One Hour Dungeon" bug and finally had time yesterday to sit down and map one out.  I am a somewhat slow mapper even in the best of times, so in actuality my "One Hour" map is really a one hour and forty three minute map -- the exact duration of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, to be exact.  Part of this slowness factor is that I frequently shade in unused areas as a I go, in order to keep my own head straight.

Anyway, here it is (or as pdf here):

It is as yet un-keyed but I have a couple features -- one fountain and two teleporter pads -- delineated.  Also note that the area on the left side of the map with rooms and passages inscribed in dotted lines is submerged underwater.  I was inspired to add the water (presumably an underground lake or some kind of excessive seepage) once I got close to the one-hour mark and thought I wouldn't have time to fill in that corner of the map at all.  Then I decided "Screw it!" and gave myself the nearly-two-hours I needed to complete the 8.5 x 11" page and to fill in the submerged sections.

Also note that not all the non-usable areas that should be shaded in are shaded yet -- just the ones I filled in as I drew.  There are still a few of those left to shadow in, as well as a couple more "special features" to add -- for which I almost always turn to Al's Random Area Name Generator for inspiration.  


[And see also David's "Nexus" of One-Hour Dungeons here.]

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Review of Our d30 House-Rule, One Year Later

And on that subject one Spawn did say:

As Carter* mentioned our Ara Campaign just passed its first anniversary, and we’re looking back on some game features and goings-on to see what we’ve been through, what has worked or hasn’t (or wasn’t used), and generally reflecting on things. One of the more powerful and interesting house-rules that Carter devised for this campaign is the “d30 rule”:

Once per session each player may opt to roll the referee’s d30 in lieu of whatever die or dice the situation normally calls for. The choice to roll the d30 must be made before any actual rolling has occurred. The d30 cannot be rolled for generating character statistics or hit points.

Pretty cool. Also pretty generous. I wonder how many DMs out there would give this to their players? I did note the other day that Michael Curtis posted cards that he rewards good players with that allow them to replace a d20 (to hit or save) roll with a d30. Clearly this makes some nearly impossible attacks possible (say, if you need an 18 to hit, the chance of success goes from 15% to 40%). But replacing any roll is way more potent, and as we will see our party has gotten pretty savvy with the d30.

Before getting to the data, let me note that: ROLLING A D30 IS FUN. As PCs we spend the whole 4-hour session with that roll in the back of our minds, usually trying to save it for when it’s really needed, and this (I think anyway) raises awareness both tactically and strategically, which is good for game play. It also makes us think of new ways to use it, which fosters closer readings of the rules and better understanding of game mechanics, even if it’s just to get an edge. But ultimately, d30 dice feel good to roll. They’re big, they roll well, are indecisive as they come to a stop, and to quote Mr. Goldfinger, they have a Divine Heaviness! Bitchin’.

Results: So with Carter in town last weekend we gathered what data we had on the use of the d30 for the last year, which is tabulated below by session.This data is not complete, but is probably fairly representative of d30 use over the last year. (I also had grandiose fantasies about plotting this out in Tufte-esque clarity, but I, like several of you, have a f#%$ing dissertation to write.) The most striking feature is that while the first 8 uses are to replace damage rolls, after Uncle Junkal’s first use of it to charm an Ogre the play becomes more dynamic. As Bard-1 (using Brave Halfling's Bard), UJ turned a ~1 in 4 chance of success into a 2 in 3 chance of success. Unfortunately the ogre was immediately killed by a needle trap in a doorknob, but it indicated the potential for the d30. I believe UJ’s player had been studying this very closely, waiting for the opportunity to pull this off. It has been used several time since, so that now the party has a “sonofabitching Rock Troll” (to quote Carter) as a deadly and reliable member (from Session 11).

Inspired by that, I (in the form of Innominus the Follower of Endra, a Cleric) then replaced the d30 to roll for Turning Undead, and a few sessions later applied it to the damage roll for Cause Light Wounds. That means Cleric-1 can grab a fool and without rolling to hit deliver some serious wrath of their deity. This helped against a Roc and some other undocumented wilderness random encounter. After that, more Turning Undead, notably 2 Wraiths that were after UJ for a Death Frost Doom artifact who got critically turned on a natural 30 in Session 17 (my notes say “Super-turned like a cheap trick! It hurts!”).

A few saves were also made in Stonehell by Hazel and UJ, and when losing the roll may have meant death, the d30 calls to you. But the d30 tour de force was pulled off by Hazel casting Sleep and Innominus casting Hold Person under an invisibility cloak with d30 for HD and number affected, respectively, in the midst of a hobgoblin encampment. 19 of about 40 enemies were knocked out before blood was shed. We accomplished our mission with panache and were flipping the bird at foes like the gesture was going out of style.

Analysis: It could be that rolls for d30 weapon damage were recorded less often as time went on, and are under-represented in the table, but I don’t think that explains the shift (generally) away from using the d30 for weapon damage after about Session 6. For low-level PCs that have other abilities (spells, charming, etc) or that need help with saving throws, the d30 roll is where, essentially, miracles can happen. When Innominus grabs the Roc that shredded yet another NPC to bits and delivers 25 HP of Cause Light Wounds wrath, that’s divine intervention. The Saves vs. Poison or Paralysis are the same thing. We don’t talk about it that way, but the idea is there’s something or someone looking out for you, giving you a break. Do with that what you will as far as campaign cosmology and world view.

The other thing of note, going back to Mr. Curtis’ reward cards, is that we have no record of anyone choosing to use the d30 to hit. I recall in the early session we debated whether to use the d30 to hit or for damage, and the greater upside for more damage prevailed (e.g., you could hit with a 29 and still end up doing 1HP damage on a crappy roll ... better to not waste the d30 on that, because you’re always going to have another chance to hit in most combats). I would guess that most of Mr. Curtis' chits have been turned in for saving throws.

And finally, I’ll point out that there are many sessions where PCs don’t use their d30 roll, sometimes because we’re in town, but in dungeons often PCs hold it back so long that there’s never an opportunity to use it. Carter himself probably went for 2-3 months forgetting to roll his d30.

Conclusion: I love the d30. I’ve always wanted it to be one of the active, central dice of D&D. I stole one of the first d30s I ever saw from a store in a mall back in the day in 1983 or 1984. I probably could have bought it, but I didn’t. It was too awesome for me to leave and go back home to get the money for it. I wanted it at that moment. And so it became mine. Now I eschew petty theft, but my passion for the d30 remains. I really like this house-rule, personally, because it has many unintended consequences and their results elucidate game mechanics. The punishing (or austere) DM won’t want this, or will start throwing deadlier foes at the PCs (Carter’s approach recently). But the DM that likes to give out some FUN with the potential for total failure might get ready to roll with the d30.

*Many thanks to Carter Soles himself for getting me these screen-caps. He is the real Bond expert here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Crimson Blades of Ara Part 3: Actions and Combat

This is part three of a five-part series in which I describe and discuss the major features of Crimson Blades of Ara, the FRPG that I co-created with Dave Miller in the 1990s. The previous installments were on the game's Introduction and Character Generation chapters; this post will cover Chapter Two, Actions and Combat -- pdf available here.

The CBoA combat system, unlike D&D, uses a "one roll = one swing" concept, yet, interestingly, our combat rounds last 6 seconds (see p. 57). That seems a bit long for just one attack or defensive maneuver by each combatant; looking back now I see that Dave and I clearly did not grasp the "abstract" nature of the D&D combat system. No, like so many young players of that classic game, we assumed that each "to hit" roll referred to a single attack. Hell, even today in my current Labyrinth Lord campaign that is how we tend to talk about combat: each "to hit" roll is a single strike. I now understand that D&D combat is more abstract than that, yet this is how we tend to describe and conceive of things in game play.

At any rate, in CBoA it takes 3 seconds to make a single attack or defensive maneuver -- each round consists of one complete exchange of blows between attacker and defender, each participant attacking for 3 seconds and then defending for 3 seconds. Combat is resolved via contested rolls: the attacker and defender each roll their attack roll (d%, like most game mechanics in CBoA), add their relevant combat skill to the roll, and the higher roller prevails. The defender (the combatant who loses initiative -- see pp. 71-73) may either parry, dodge, or counterstrike. The latter option means that both combatant's blows land and therefore both the attacker and defender take damage for that exchange (see pp. 71-71 and 75-82). So in theory, if neither combatant chooses to defend, both participants could end up taking two attacks worth of damage every single combat round.  I told you CBoA combat was deadly!

Armor, rather than preventing hits as in D&D, absorbs damage (see pp. 94-96). There is a small chance that a given attack will bypass one's armor completely -- this is called "coverage" and is determined by how complete the suit of armor is (see p. 94). A full suit only fails to cover on a 1 in 6, and a half-suit (chainmail shirts and the like) fails to cover on a 2 in 6.

One of my favorite combat-related mechanics in CBoA is our concept of Life Force. In addition to a PC's Body Toughness (= hit points), s/he has an attribute called Life Force, derived from the Courage Primary Trait (see Characters Chapter pp. 29-30). Once a PC's Body Toughness (BT) is reduced to zero, s/he is considered unconscious; below zero, and s/he is unconscious and bleeding to death, i.e., his or her Life Force is draining away at a rate of 1 point per round. Once one's Life Force (LF) is brought to zero, s/he is actually dead (see p. 97).

An additional twist: in the Characters Chapter I mentioned Power Pools, which are pools of points tied to specific primary traits (in CBoA the five primary traits are Strength, Courage, Agility, Dexterity, and Craft -- see "Characters" pp. 13-14). In combat situations, one may use one's Courage Power Pool to keep oneself conscious (and fighting) by investing points to replenish lost LF points and to keep one's BT at 1 (see pp. 97-98). In early iterations of CBoA, we had rules for decreased prowess at extreme wound levels, but (as is mentioned on p. 97) we did away with that set of cumbersome complications as the game system evolved.

Lastly, I'd like to mention healing potions. In the Lands of Ara under the CBoA rules, healing potions were fairly cheap and abundant, because (a) there was no equivalent to a Cleric class who could heal PCs in the field, and (b) there were NPC "Healers" who were non-adventurers and remained in towns, offering their services for a fee. So healing elixirs were about the only way PCs could heal wounds while in dungeons. They came in two types, an "instant-heal" type that restored lost BT or LF instantly, and a second type one quaffed before resting to increase one's overnight healing rate. CBoA technically used a silver standard, but converting to gp rates, our game's healing potions cost approximately 50-100 gp each (see pp. 100-101), as opposed to the 400 gp and 800 gp rates for potions of healing and extra-healing given in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (p. 121). Needless to say, in my current Arandish Labyrinth Lord campaign, I now defer to the higher DMG rates for such potions.

Next: the final chapter, "Magic"!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Amended House Rule: Alignment

[Note: Our Labyrinth Lord group is celebrating its one-year anniversary; our campaign launched with its first session on January 18, 2010. In celebration of this milestone, Spawn of Endra and I are going to do a series of posts over the next week or so reflecting upon the exploits, tendencies, experiences, and house rules of our group during its first year of gaming together. Enjoy!]

Amended House Rule: Alignment
Despite my previous assertion that the Arandish Labyrinth Lord Campaign would use James Maliszewski's six-point Dwimmermount alignment System, I have come to realize that for all practical purposes, we are actually using the three-point Labyrinth Lord default alignment system, consisting of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.

I think my initial attraction to Maliszewski's system had everything to do with his "Neutral" subcategories, i.e., True Neutral and Neutral (Balance). According to Maliszewski, the former is "apathetic and/or unconcerned with the battle between cosmic forces" and the latter believes "that a balance between Chaos and Law is necessary for the well-being of the cosmos." I like this distinction, but find that it has little impact upon actual game play, at least in our campaign.

So, since our campaign as played has had little use for these finer distinctions, I hereby declare that the Arandish Campaign is reverting to the three-point alignment system as delineated on Labyrinth Lord Revised p. 14. I will still allow individual players of Neutrally aligned PCs to specify that their PCs are philosophically inclined toward Neutral (Balance) if they wish, but for general game purposes, they will all be considered "Neutral."

What does that leave us? Law vs. Chaos, succinctly described by Ripper X as simply:

how well the character plays with others. Lawful characters are weak individually, but work together to solve problems. They are a team, and can act as a unit with precision. Chaotic characters, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite: they prefer fighting alone and are incapable of following orders. They are strong individuals who lack the discipline of their lawful counter-parts. Neutrally aligned characters can do both well. That is all it means! It is that simple!


Chaotic: Inimical to civilization and social organization. Incapable of following orders and unlikely to put the needs of others (especially groups / nations) ahead of their own. Chaotic is the alignment of demons, Faerie, many mages, and all serial killers.

Lawful: The philosophical stance that civilization, regardless of how it is organized, is preferable to other alternatives. Will always privilege group processes and consensual decision making over rogue action. Lawful is the alignment of unicorns, devils, army personnel, most clerics, and all social workers.

Neutral: Neither fully committed to Law nor to Chaos; pragmatic. Many inflections are possible here: the Neutral character may be apathetic, invested in balance, leaning toward lawfulness, leaning toward chaos, or none of the above.

Neutral characters with lawful tendencies work well in groups,and will typically follow the orders of Lawful characters or characters whose ideas seem reasonably certain to benefit the group. Neutral characters who prefer Chaos have very little discipline, and only trust their own authority They can work cooperatively but often undermine outside authority and resist falling in line with group decisions too easily.

Neutral is the alignment of the vast majority of dungeon delvers and adventurers.

Provocative endnote for further thought: Spawn of Endra recently brought this alternative "morality" system to my attention. I wonder if this set of alignment-esque distinctions -- adherence, consensus, and efficiency -- and the seven-point allotment system described by Greg would solve many D&D gamers' woes about the ambiguity of the D&D alignment scheme? Even without his "morality" categories, I wonder if such a point allotment system could be overlaid onto the three-point LL alignment system? Too complicated? This may be fuel for a future post. . .

[UPDATE: More thoughts on the role of alignment in the Arandish Campaign -- which may be assumed to supersede anything written above -- are found here.]

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Oubliette #1-4 Print Compilation

As promised, starting now I [Carter] am going to periodically review certain OSR products, as the mood strikes me. I had initially thought to inaugurate my foray into the world of product reviewership by doing a tour de Raggi, reviewing all the Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules that I own. That day will come (and soon!), but I recently received an item in the mail that, through the strong favorable impression it has made on me, demands to be reviewed first: Peter Regan's Oubliette Issues 1-4 Compilation.

One of the things we hear a lot in response to those "Where is the next Carcosa?"-type blogosphere discussions is that the best RPG products usually emerge from the pen (or word processor) of someone who really cares about the adventure / ruleset / publication being created. Those old-schoolers who express anti-D&D IV sentiments often do so based upon the assumption that post-1e iterations of D&D have tended to be produced largely as a result corporate or economic imperatives rather than out of sheer love for the game itself. Of course I'm grossly over-simplifying -- 1e AD&D also had commercial considerations factor into its design, and clearly there are folks at WotC who care deeply about 3.5 and 4e -- but bear with me here.

As an unrepentant old-school gaming partisan, I am particularly taken by the idiosyncratic, the baroque, the unusual, and the odd. I love low-budget, , offbeat, and "independent" films / games / books because, as James Maliszewski puts it so eloquently, I too like to see the "rough edges" in works of creativity and art. Stuff without rough edges bores me. I will take a John Waters film or a Swords and Wizardry White Box over a Christopher Nolan blockbuster or a D&D 4e product any day of the week.

So Oubliette Magazine is in many ways my dream OSR periodical. Which is not to say that it has "rough edges" in its physical presentation -- it is well laid-out and comes across very nicely in its print version -- but merely to say that it is clearly an intrinsically motivated labor of love on the part of its primary creator, Peter Regan. As Regan states in his editor's introduction to Issue #1, his intent with Oubliette is to capture "the spirit of those early issues [of White Dwarf], whilst embracing the Old School Renaissance movement," and in this, Regan has admirably succeeded. Not so glossy nor quite as varied in tone as Fight On!, Oubliette feels like a cross between White Dwarf (of which I too am a fan and former subscriber) and an informal campaign log from Regan & Co.'s home gaming table. And I like that; I like it a lot. Whereas the typical issue of Fight On! feels like a hodgepodge of LOTS of different people's ideas about what constitutes good gaming, Oubliette is more focused, and more personal: it has (so far) about three regular contributors, with Regan himself penning the majority of the articles. This relative consistency of point of view gives Oubliette a down-home, friendly, organic feel that FO!, for all its general excellence, does not so noticeably provide.

There is a surprisingly abundant amount of game-applicable material to be found in Oubliette's pages.  In fact, most of the non-review articles contain nuts-and-bolts gaming suggestions and content.  By contrast, while I typically find three or four truly useful pieces in the average issue of FO! (as well as a few others that blow my mind but that I will probably never use), Oubliette has a much higher "use-value" for me, in part because Regan and his cohorts are playing Labyrinth Lord in (what appears to be) a fairly "classic" Gygaxian mode, as I am.  Yet there is also a general emphasis in Oubliette on providing practical, modular, usable content, which, as a major stealer / horker of other people's gaming ideas, I appreciate.

Oubliette's straightforward focus on Labyrinth Lord-style gaming could be seen as a strength or as a limitation of the mag, depending upon your point of view. Regan and Co.'s approach is of particular value to those of us who play old-school D&D-type games in a classic "dungeon-crawl" and/or "sandbox" style, and (as I will highlight in some of my individual article comments below) would hold especial interest for neophyte to intermediate RPG'ers just getting their feet wet in the hobby. Whereas FO! frequently includes a lot of "high-end," detail-rich stuff relating to Tekumel, Arduin, advanced sandbox / megadungeon design, etc., Oubliette hews a little more closely to the basics: variant monsters, simple tricks and traps, low- to mid-level adventure scenarios, and articles with practical advice for referees and players. This is a very good thing, and this kind of material can be every bit as inspirational to we seasoned D&D pros as any of the weirder, more esoteric or setting-specific stuff regularly featured in other old-school periodicals.

[Note: This is not to say that other OSR periodicals like Fight On! don't also include good nuts-and-bolts stuff; they do. I own every issue of FO! and Knockspell and will continue to buy those great mags so long as they exist. The above comments are meant to provide contrast to the content Oubliette, NOT necessarily as evaluative statements in their own right.]

Now, a few remarks about some of the specific stuff included in the Oubliette #1-4 print compilation, to give you a flavor for what you actually get:

+ Artwork: Oubliette's art, by The Marg, is one of the great strengths of the magazine. The Marg is the sole visual artist contributing to Oubliette so far, and her artwork sets the tone for the mag perfectly. Particular favorites of mine include the thief on p. 19 of Issue #2, the barbarian tableau on p. 4 of Issue #3, the front cover of Issue #4, the back covers of all the issues (see below), and the Orcish Heavy Pistol on p. 16 of Issue #4.

+ Monster Club: a regular feature, and one of the consistently best in the mag. Particularly strong are the charts for monster skeletons (Issue #2) and monster zombies (Issue #4).  However, the "Best Monster Club Ever" award goes to the eminently useful "Monster Scaling" article (Monster Club #7) in Issue 4 -- I often need to generate less powerful or more powerful versions of monsters in my campaign, so Peter's comments and chart here will be indispensable to me.

+ Adventures: "Halfling-Proof Fence" (Issue #1), while cleverly named, is a bit too tournament-y or board-gamey for my taste, but I suppose this type of scenario is standard fare for RPG periodicals, and I do like its black humor and general ethos. Even more to my liking is the low- to mid-level town adventure "Hornet Hill" and the shorter adventure / room scenarios presented in "Monster Club" #'s 1 and 2. One of the strongest features of the mag in general is its tendency to provide modules that tie into the other gaming content provided in the same issue. For example, Issue #3 has an article delineating a Barbarian class, then it provides an adventure, "The Sacred Heart," intended for a party of Barbarians. Or, as the culmination of the "Firearms for Labyrinth Lord" series (Issues 2-4), Issue #4 presents "Weapons Test, a Labyrinth Lord Adventure with Guns." This format seems especially valuable for gamers attempting to incorporate new ideas like these into their campaigns for the first time.

+ "Inheritance" campaign setting by Christian Kitchener (Issues 1-2).  This ongoing chronicle of the particulars of developing a campaign world for Labyrinth Lord is well-written and reminds me a little bit of the kind of thing I'm up to with my own Lands of Ara blog.  I like world-building articles (especially getting to read the "under-the-hood" stuff like this) so I am enjoying seeing this series unfold -- I hope there is more to come.

+ "Developing House Rules for Labyrinth Lord" (Issue #1): This is one of the best articles I've seen in Oubliette. Consisting of basic guidelines for concocting effective house rules, this is GREAT advice for inexperienced DM's, the type of introductory article we veterans should probably produce more of of we want to expand the hobby to new players.

+ "Improvised Traps" (Issue #1): Another great article that is both useful for the novice and inspirational for the veteran. Certain of my players seem to thrive upon coming up with MacGyver-esque stuff like this; but it is nice to see a comprehensive list of simple, straightforward, yet imminently useful suggestions of this kind.

+ "The Rentalist" (Issue #1): If I had to choose a single article that best exemplifies what's great about Oubliette, "The Rentalist" would be it. An innovative idea that is easily slipped into practically anybody's campaign, "The Rentalist" -- which describes a particularly difficult-to-reach magic-item rental shop -- is immensely useful as a game feature, makes a lot of economic sense when you think about it, and is quite entertainingly presented. I suppose anything with a funny name AND a lot of use-value always wins me over.

+ RPG Product Reviews: Tend to be short, succinct, and very helpful.  I like that Regan reviews older, out of print RPG products as well.  Also made me aware of a few products I hadn't otherwise heard about, like the Labyrinth Lord Turntracker.

+ Television and movie reviews: These provide a nice change of pace, and again, their inclusion makes Oubliette feel more personal than other OSR periodicals: the TV reviews give me a sense where the magazine's editor is coming from in terms of his influences and preferences. I like that. These pieces obviously have less "use-value" in strictly gaming terms, but are essential to the organic, down-home feel of the mag.

+ Comics: I like the "Tales From Hell" ones better than the "Mouse Patrol" ones, but more importantly, I want to generally praise the inclusion of these comic strips in Oubliette. The comics section of Dragon was always a favorite of mine, and I think comics should be featured in old-school periodicals whenever possible. Keep it up!

+ The Back Covers: So funny!

 Back Cover of Issue #2, Copyright 2010 The Marg

In sum, what strikes me most favorably about Oubliette, besides its inviting, enthusiastic tone, is the sheer number of ideas you get for the cover price. Regan is working hard here. Each issue is approximately 34 pages long, PLUS it includes a bunch of downloadable "supplemental material" accompanying each issue, usually game aids relating to the included adventures.  Regan claims to want to put out a new issue of Oubliette monthly. This is a lot of old-school content for the dollar, and as I've said, if you are (1) a relatively new player / gamemaster, (2) a gamer who likes a 'zine where you can feel the personal stamp of the editor, and/or (3) somebody who plays any old-school D&D-esque FRPG in a "high fantasy" mode, you can hardly afford NOT to pick up this compilation, or to at least download the $2 pdf of a select issue or two.

The Oubliette #1-4 compilation is available at for the low low price of $12.07. Individual issues are $4.52 for print (lulu), or $2.00 for pdf (RPGNow). See also the Oubliette Magazine blog.

Creativity and inspiration-value: 5 out of 5, Peter Regan may be one of the hardest working guys in the OSR business, and his enthusiasm and competence shows in almost every article.
Use-value to DM's: 3 out of 5 to 5 out of 5, depending upon the type of campaign you are running. For a Gygaxian naturalist like myself, there is a lot to use here (5 out of 5). For more weird fantasy or sci-fi inflected campaigns, less so (3 out of 5).
Playability: Not yet tested, though given the "nuts and bolts" nature of most of the ideas here, and their having been playtested by Peter's own Labyrinth Lord group, I assume that most of this stuff would run very well. There is certainly one adventure scenario (I can't reveal which!) that I definitely plan on transplanting with little modification into my own campaign. (So players in my campaign, please do not read the adventures herein!)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Where’s Our ELP? An Outline for a Destined-to-be-Classic Campaign Setting...

... inspired by (or derived from) the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

The Spawn of Endra says: I shit you not.

I read ChicagoWiz’s post of last week and at first was stumped: “Our EPT”? ... Emerson Palmer and ...? Emerson .... “Oh, Empire of the Petal Throne,” I realized. “There’s something I know fuck-all about.” And so I immediately posted several grumbly-assed comments here and there about liking the derivative game I play (with which I still abide).

But before that a few posts got me thinking (unintentionally) about Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, to wit those mentioning Baba Yaga’s Hut as a 1e magic item, and Baba Yaga herself, e.g., where Mandy and Zak were talking about Baba Yaga as an NPC in her game. That got me thinking about making borscht for our game group (folks liked it; if you use this recipe you should add 2-3 cloves garlic, and probably puree before serving). For me, Baba Yaga brings up Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (in the form of “The House on Fowl’s Legs”) and of course ELP’s live album of the same name from 1972. So then I thought, could I make up a campaign setting in the Lands of Ara (but probably on a different continent than Ara, or on a different planet in the Ara universe) using material from ELP? I’ve never done world-building before, maybe I’ll see what happens. And either way, I have a feeling that ELP is not a source that I’m going to be fighting over with anybody else, so I don’t envision any intellectual property theft happening here.

So in a series of posts, I’ll go through their albums up to Brain Salad Surgery and see what I can pull out of them in terms of settings, monsters, magic items, etc., for a mostly Lab Lord campaign, though I can already tell there will be some Mutant Future overlap (maybe even Boot Hill! Egads!).

An biographical aside: I had a weird fascination with ELP since late high school, when I found their third studio LP Trilogy in a bin at a thrift store, heard snippits of “Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression)” on newly spawned classic rock radio in Fresno, and of course was beaten over the head with “Lucky Man”. Well, there was something in ELP’s music that intrigued me, and so, after getting some of their re-released boxed stuff in early college, when Rhino re-released their albums in CD form in the 2000s I started acquiring them in hopes of unearthing something really epic and grandiose. That is, a hugeness of vision that had been suggested by the bits I had heard. Ultimately, after lots of listenings to ELP (but only up to Brain Salad Surgery, I’ll add), I now know empirically it simply is not there. So don’t bother telling me how disgustingly rotten they are. I know better than most precisely how and why they are as bad as they are, because I gave them some hard dedicated listening, with every benefit of the doubt I could muster hoping for a miracle. Not many people can say that (or will admit it if they have).

Anyway, we’ll start with their eponymous first album. The cover gives us some DIY art that should give a segment of the OSR a boner just because it’s not particularly well-executed. A visible-brained man apparently meditating or sleeping, and a dove emerging from his mind.

The entire continent or planet is or may be the product of a dreaming god/beast/madman and the PCs don’t know this but may begin to deduce it as they work their way through the world. Um, derivative. Could be Lovecraft, Hinduism, Gnosticism, or all the P.K. Dick I’ve been reading. Sorry, I suck. Let’s say: He actually does exist in Ara held in a magical coma. He has no skull because a demon he summoned told him it needed to be removed so his mind-powers could directly affect the universe. He’s in a tower in some remote part of the continent. My entire ELP setting is his first serious messing-with-the-fabric-of-realities cosmic experiment.

Track 1: The Barbarian. Here Emerson tacks some plodding not-that-ominous-sounding stuff on to the front and back of a Bartok piano piece (Allegro Barbaro). I like a barbarian, maybe one that hangs around a mountain pass fighting people from all directions. Since he’s been up there for a really long time the two valleys below have been out of contact with each other for centuries. He’s a long-lived barbarian, we’ll say. I don’t have any stats, but luckily Talysman posted this yesterday, and I’ll go for the stronger version. His name is Throwgrak.

Track 2: Take a Pebble. At 12:27 long, it’s surprising there’s not much to work with here. Dreary stuff ... maybe this is a very stupid idea for a series of posts. Well, the main image is throwing a pebble into the sea, “disturbing the waters of our lives”. Something about memories not being real. Photographs scattered on your fields. Ugh! Too much incomplete and disjointed imagery in this “song”. I give up. There’s a short hillbilly jam in the middle. Maybe there’s a race of hillbillies in this world (please Talysman, do a post statting up a hillbilly race for me [Update: Ask and ye shall receive!]... or Carter you must have this covered already somewhere?).

Track 3: Knife-Edge. Okay, this song seems to lay out a scenario for a city viewed from some high tower by a king (or by kings flying on silver wings), full of madness, a road through an abbess (or abyss? trying to rhyme with madness), spectres on the city streets, “patient queues for the gallows sing the praises of the hallowed / our machines feed the furnace, if they take us they will burn us!” (not bad lyrics for Lake, honestly). Then throw in a Janacek organ piece for no reason. “When the flames have their season, will you hold to your reason? Can you still keep your balance. Can you live on a knife-edge?” Wow this post is long. More on Knife-Edge City in another post, but I think it’s a pretty messed up undead-filled human sacrifice place! Yay ELP!

Track 4: The Three Fates. A classic Emerson ultra-repetitive keyboard showpiece in three parts: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. I’m partial to the Norns, myself, or even some MacBeth-ish three witches from Polanski’s film version. Maybe I’ll plunk them out on some barren moors in this world. Derivative, yes, but I’m new at this, cut me some slack. They do witchy things, and I’d like to make them an important source of info and power for PCs on quests. Maybe something like Ningauble and Sheelba in the Lankhmar stories. Or if I had a totally pointless and tedious tricks-and-traps dungeon that both bored players to death and killed their characters, this is the background music I’d be playing.

Track 5: Tank. Carl Palmer’s obligatory drum solo track. I’m a drummer, and I used to study such classic solos as Toad, Moby Dick, and so on (leaving Buddy Rich’s Hawaiian War Chant completely out of this) and I can say, Tank is a dud. I guess Palmer’s a fast drummer, that’s how he was trying to distinguish himself (his one interesting idiosyncrasy is damping crash cymbals after long fills, to his credit). But he’s mostly incapable of creating any real color. Anyway, okay, Tank. It’s the card I dealt myself.

In the lowest sub-level in a megadungeon there’s a huge copper tank. All the excretions of all the humanoid monsters in the dungeon are channeled through conduits passing through every level and end up in this tank. In it they ferment and generate methane gas that the BOSS of the megadungeon or somebody (or everybody) uses to drive steam-powered mechanisms, lamps, flamethrowers, what-have-you. Also, there are special sewage tank creatures that have evolved in the tank through the interventions of some twisted magic-user in the dungeon. If the megadungeon is somewhat past its glory days, the tank will be corroded and weakened in ways not obvious to PCs. Attempts to manipulate valves, hatches, climb its ladder, etc., will cause it to fail catastrophically, deluging all PCs in the tankroom in sewage. Then the sewage creatures swarm on to them (more on them in a later post). Not bad. Probably the best we’ll get out of Carl Palmer until Brain Salad Surgery.

Track 6: Lucky Man. Oh that masterstroke of irony and poetic justice in the form of an innocuous rock ballad! If you go with it straight-ahead, it’s a boring story about a rich prince getting killed in a war, and boy, by the end of it: You see how he really wasn’t so lucky after all! Zing! Ouch! You got me Greg Lake! You’re so heavy that I need to take more bong rips so I can take in all the implications! What actually appeals to me about this song is the guitar solo that sounds like bagpipes (oh hell, I see the next series of posts: D&D inspired by Tubular Bells!) and the weird Moog solo on the fade-out, because when I first heard that I thought “Hell, if these guys are brave enough to just put that crazy-sounding stuff on their first single, then they must have some really crazy stuff on the albums”. And partly yes, partly no. In fact, they just had no taste ... they probably couldn’t tell what they were doing, and so it’s unclear if this was bravery or not. Sometimes no taste breaks towards the interesting (John Waters) and sometimes it breaks towards the lame (here’s a cheap-shot: FATAL).

Anyway bagpipes = highlanders and Moog = spaceships so I’ll say there once was a war in another set of mountains (not near Throwgrak’s Pass) where a bunch of Celtic-oid, but not really Celtic-oid, tribes fought a musical deathmatch with an alien advance team. This is the opposite of the outcome of Close Encounters. The Celtoids quickly learned that their bagpipes produced vibrations at harmonic frequencies that disintegrated the brain-sacs of the alien invaders, and were able to destroy them all and commandeer their ship. Through what little of the technology they could comprehend, their civilization advanced in the mountains unbeknownst to anyone else. As the technology advanced, so did their sonic aptitude, so that Celtoids could all produce multiple pitches simultaneously through throat-singing, and a select group of monks eventually mastered a vocal sonic attack that tears apart humanoid organs when focused on an opponent. There’s a Hawkwind/Michael Moorcock reference in that, as well. Guess I’ll need to figure out who the Celtoids really are now.

Damn, that was work! I listened to that album twice to write that. Next up is the dreaded sub-concept album Tarkus. Break out your Gamma World / Mutant Future books, friends: cyborg armadillos, cyborg pterodactyls, and a manticore. Sorry detractors, but ELP is Old School, and I don’t care how much it hurts to admit that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arandish Monster Roundup

Inspired by Al's excellent organizational scheme for cataloging his Megadungeon Resources posts, and by my own game-masterly need for such a thing, I have decided to consolidate the information relating to all the Ara-specific monsters here in one place.  So what follows are links to all the information and stat blocks pertaining to Ara's unique monster denizens.

The Trolls of Ara

Monsters of the Great Western Swamp, including the frog-like Blaag and the dreaded Swamp Tiger.

Arandish Vampires

Three Badass Dragons

Arandish Goblins and Hobgoblins

Horned Cyclops

Dark Orcs

Four Demons

Deep Gnomes and Deep Hobbits

Four Dimetrodons



Tree Wilden (Sloth of Death)

Undead Stirge

Undead Yeti

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Old School Marginalia

Once spoked Ein Spawne:
In an earlier post concerning the recovery of some Old School goods, I promised a post about the scrawlings found in my Moldvay/Cook B/X rulebooks, as well as my 1e DMG and PHB, or whatever was worth mentioning. It seems traditional to do this on Old School blogs, and occasionally yields some important insights (e.g., who found that Basic boxset of character sheets with Mr. T as a PC a while back?). And sometimes it does not. Well, we’re all dice-throwers by nature, so we’ll take our chances on this post, right?

There’s probably more to say about the desperate condition of these books than what was scrawled in them. But either way, I find no marginal inscriptions in the Moldvay Basic book. Cook Expert is a different story, with some notes made by the previous 5th grade owner of these books (who has since gone on to become a successful surgeon, not that I endorse that sort of thing). We’ll call him El, to protect his identity.

p. X6: The Jeff Dee pic of a human saying some words to a male halfling and his shocked female companion ... there’s an implied dialog line, never realized. Please feel free to supply your own one-liner in the comments!

p. X9: Cost of Weapons and Equipment: Apparently El enumerated every item in that page (minus Water Transport) from 1 to 61. That is, Equipment and Land Transport is 1-33: ‘Backpack’ through ‘Wagon (4 wheels)’, and then ‘Weapons’ and ‘Armor’ cover 34-61. Strangely it seems that Chain Mail and Leather Armor are left off. But El added ‘Helmets’ sometime later as #62, which would give -1 AC against ‘head attacks’, and cost 10 gp.

To this list I added “Stars” (shuriken), for 3gp each, and “Nunchuka”, (rather than ‘nunchaku’), which sold for 15gp in my Expert world. I also added an asterisk to show they could be used by Clerics.

On p. X25 on the table of Variable Weapon Damage, El changed Lance from 1d6 to 1d12. This is a nice touch, both because a Willingham jousting image appears on the opposing column, and because 25 years later we’re still griping about what the hell the d12 is for.

The last set of marginalia were placed on my 1e DMG, probably during a high-school revisit. It looks like I tried to cover over the captive woman’s hair to make it more modern or something (this doesn’t come out so well on the photo).

I have a pretty keen eye for my own fetishes, and the motivation for this escapes me. Maybe a reference to Bridgett Nielsen in Rocky IV? Note also I blanked out the useless knife. Further inspection tells us that the Sutherland cover “shows an encounter between three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire.” (DMG, p.2). Was the female adventurer wearing that Princess-Leia-in-the-thrall-of-Jabba-the-Hutt get-up when the session started or are we missing part of the story? All told, with an unarmed and unarmored magic user (casting Light apparently) and a frightened fighter in tow, this party has clearly stepped into the Elemental Plane of Whoop-Ass. But we’re still rooting for them, am I wrong?

And finally, I see that my high-school era self had made a sarcastic, but oddly insightful, evaluation of the DMG after years away from it. Added to the list in “Herein you will find:” are “Funky Pictures”, “Big Words (necessitate)”, “And stuff you’ll never use ... Converting AD&D to Boot Hill!”.

That may be a bit harsh, and if you had awesome inter-dimensional campaigns between Greyhawk and Deadwood back in the day, jolly good for you. I never saw the appeal of Boot Hill, personally. But it’s interesting to me that as a teenager I was able to pick up on and be critical of Gygax’s verbosity (some folks ascribe this to the influence of Jack Vance, I’ve read?). And the art is mostly very good; I’m not sure what I meant by “funky”, but images that seem sub-par to me now include the panels of the adventure-in-progress from p.170-173, and back-slapping carouser with Thunderbirds-puppet body proportions on p.101. I might have meant Will McLean’s cartoony asides, but now I think that without them there to take the piss out of Gygax and D&D in general, the DMG would totally collapse under it’s own immense ponderositude (as EGG might have put it).

Anyway, the sentiment expressed on the back cover does reinforce what I mentioned in a previous post, that even though we thought we were playing AD&D, we mostly were just playing B/X with PHB classes, hit dice and spells. We rarely actually used the DMG itself because it was so dense, and despite saying in the first sentence of the intro that “The format of this book is simple and straightforward” it still doesn’t seem so to me. But, it IS full of awesomeness. Just not easily gotten awesomeness. Just the other day we used it find out how much a ballista costs so we could outfit our new War Wagon! Rock on.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Most Anticipated OSR Products of 2011

There has been much recent OSR blogosphere talk about our abundance of retro-clone game systems, and some concern expressed about the originality or freshness of the kinds of products we're creating and buying. Michael Shorten kicked off the latter trend by asking:

Where's our EPT? Where's our Blackmoor?

Where is the truly different and unusual that will have people really rolling? The only one that really pushed boundaries, so far, has been Carcosa. No matter what you think of the subject matter, the point is that Geoffrey took D&D/OD&D and went somewhere very different with it. I loved it. I've used a lot of it as stuff to prod my games along. That's why I love the crazy and wacky from Fight On magazine. That's why I have orcs with guns, fallen shiny spheres, crazy creepy dolls and a whole bunch of other stuff that my players might never see, but it's there because I'm inspired to put it there. [. . .]

Look, I love the style of play that the original editions give us, but I also hope to see inspiration and movement to something that explores the places we haven't gone. OK, I may be derivative myself, but at least with Ultima RPG, Modern OD&D, I was trying for something new. That's why Tombs of Hultep Koa remain hidden. It's retread shit and I don't want that.

A number of bloggers responded to ChicagoWiz's post, either in the comments or on their own blogs. I recommend in particular Dan Proctor's and Johnathan Bingham's thoughts on the subject, but here I want to quote directly from James Raggi, who responded in a way I really identify with:

Fuck originality.

Give me interesting and well-done things that I can use for my existing campaign.

We're not making fine art here, we're making game-play aids. Too much originality reduces general usability. The imagination should be sparked more on the consumer's end than on the producer's end, really. It's why you make adventures with no definite "end encounter" or victory conditions, why you make rules without strict expectations of the progress of play.

As the content of The Lands of Ara should make clear, I am more or less in the same camp as Raggi, or even ChicagoWiz himself, who admits to having "derivative" tendencies in his own creative work. I know for a fact that I am derivative as hell. I am a collaborative creator. I need a genre framework or a set of rules within which to work. I don't even know how "creative" (let alone "original") I am within those frameworks, you'll have to ask my players.

And that last comment is revealing, isn't it? I simply want stuff that works well for me and my players at the game table. In the end, it is not my goal to be creative or original per se (thank the gods!), only to have a great time playing my game of choice once every couple of weeks.

That said, I am in awe of minds like Geoffrey McKinney's and am happy to own a copy of Carcosa. Do I use it much at the game table? No. Do I read it for inspiration? Absolutely. Same with many of Raggi's products -- I may or may not play them as writ, but I totally rely on them to get my own creative juices flowing.

So with all that in mind, I want to expand upon the comment I made on Grognardia a couple weeks ago, listing which products I was most hoping for in 2011. You see, I depend upon OSR publications -- derivative or no -- to read, riff upon, and hork concepts from. Furthermore, I am a bibliophile who loves to collect books -- printed books. So this will be my list of most-anticipated OSR products for the coming year, and as you will see, it runs the gamut between the tried-and-true and the new and weird. These are listed here more or less in descending order of my excitement about them.

1. Goblinoid Games' Realms of Crawling Chaos. Very recently unveiled here and here, this Labyrinth Lord Expansion now tops my list of anticipated products. Not only does its release coincide with my own first-ever reading of the works of HPL, it is designed by two of my favorite OSR authors, Proctor and Curtis. What's not to love?

2. Lamentations of the Flame Princess' Grindhouse Edition of LotFPWFRPG. The only reason I didn't buy the first print run of the LotFPWFRPG box set was a lack of funds. But how fortunate I am in retrospect for that temporary cash flow problem, for now I get to wait for the "adults-only" Grindhouse Edition! Until the recent announcement of that Crawling Chaos book, James Raggi's game system was at the top of my list for anticipated products.

3. Michael Curtis' Stonehell Dungeon Vol. 2. I am running my PCs through Stonehell Vol. 1 now, and even if they grow tired of the dungeon and move on to other areas of the Lands of Ara, I still greatly look forward to obtaining Vol. 2 (due out by the end of 2011) and reading it for my own edification and inspiration.

4. James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount. As James announced in November, his megadungeon, Dwimmermount, is slated for release in "the first quarter of 2011." I can't wait! I would in fact say that this product is tied with Stonehell Vol. 2 in terms of my anticipation of it, especially since I am just now beginning the process of constructing my own megadungeon. I welcome published examples from the masters!

5. Geoffrey McKinney's Isle of the Unknown, due for release (by LotFP no less!) this spring. The setting has been described by its author as "an island hex-crawl that can be plopped into any D&D campaign" -- a kind of Isle of Dread-meets-Carcosa type thing, I suspect. Sounds awesome to me! See McKinney's official announcement of the setting here.

6. Michael Curtis' "Dragonlance"-inspired old-school project, if it's still in the works. Michael mentioned it back in November, describing the concept thus:

My design goal is, stated loosely, “What if Dragonlance was done more as a sandbox for starting characters instead of a railroad that led to the Big World-Ending Evil?" I’ve got some ideas I think are nifty to bolt onto the Basic D&D/Labyrinth Lord framework without turning it completely into another beast [. . .]

I never owned or ran the original Dragonlance modules nor did I read the accompanying novels -- all that stuff came out just as I was drifting away from D&D and TSR -- but I am intrigued by the sound of Michael's idea, and would definitely buy it if it comes to fruition.

7. Goblinoid Games' updated, Labyrinth Lord-compatible version of Starships and Spacemen. I love Traveller and other Star Trekkish sci-fi settings, but have rarely played Traveller or any other sci-fi game. Having a "hard sci-fi" game like S&S Revised that is 100% LL-compatible might sweeten the deal for me, and would at least allow me to easily incorporate robots etc. into my current LL game.

8. Frog God Games, Swords & Wizardry Complete (Hardbound). I don't know if I will ever literally play S&W, since I am perfectly happy with Labyrinth Lord, but I own the Brave Halfling S&W White Box and would very much like to acquire a nice, hardbound edition of S&W Complete, once they're available.