Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tower of Death Playtest Report

I recently (on 7/18) ran a "beta" version of The Tower of Death, the home-brewed module I will run twice at OSRCon in a few weeks.  Of course, I cannot reveal any specific details of the module here, but I did want to jot down a few comments about how the playtest session with members of my home Labyrinth Lord group went a couple of Mondays ago.

- We had three players altogether, two of whom are regulars in my group, the third being the wife of one of our players, a charming lady with whom I have played Mutant Future before. In other words, a well-experienced group for the most part, though small enough that in order to increase play flexibility (as well as the chances of party survival) I asked two of the players to run two PCs each, for a total party size of five.

- The PCs were all generated using straight Labyrinth Lord rules, i.e., 3d6 in order for attribute rolls, but with some trading of values for prime requisites allowed as per "Choosing a Class" instructions on LL p. 7.  I did not require players to keep PCs whose initial attribute bonuses added up to less than zero.

- Since The Tower of Death assumes a party of third-level adventurers, all PCs were summarily leveled up to Level 3, and also given a choice of two magical items, one from each of the following two lists:

List A
+1 weapon
+1 ring of protection

List B
potion of healing
potion of climbing
potion of speed
scroll of ward against undead
scroll of ward against magic

I also hand-waved giving slightly better armor to PCs whose initial gp rolls wouldn't afford them at least chain mail.

- As Spawn of Endra has noted in his own comments on the session, there were some PC deaths early on, in large part because I forgot to remind the players at the outset that the "Shields Shall Be Splintered!" house-rule was in effect.  In theory, at least one of those early deaths could have been averted by invocation of this rule, had the key players been aware of it.  However, we improvised a new rule about reinforcements, saying that new PCs could be substituted in for dead ones, but that they had to come from the nearby village of Kerkymer Hill, thirty minutes distant. This system for reinforcements worked out well, and might be the way I'll go in future convention scenarios, perhaps in lieu of allowing Shields to be Splintered.

- All in all, I thing the group had a blast playing this scenario -- I know I certainly did.  The session was melee-heavy, but perhaps that is to be expected for a convention module.  I admit that The Tower of Death is densely stocked, but this is because there is a clearly defined goal (or, more accurately, a set of four interrelated goals) and a (real-world) time limit placed upon the PCs' ability to succeed.  Thus I wanted the scenario to feel deadly and bursting with danger and to be somewhat bloody and fast-paced.  Of course, there are some features that reward good dungeoneering and exploration skills, as my playtesters found in the second half of the session, once they discovered a key locale using such skills. 

- My playtesters had just under four hours of actual play time, and were able to achieve two of the four major objectives in the scenario.  I rate that as a successful performance.  It has been my aim as I designed The Tower of Death to make all four objectives achievable in that real-life four-hour window, but I do not know if I have accomplished that or not.  It is hard to gauge such things with precision.  My players achieved their successes with cunning, and did not waste any time, but they also were not quite as methodical or thorough as some parties might be, so it is hard for me to say what the "average" expectation for party success should be for the scenario.

- That said, I intend there to be a sliding scale of success for The Tower of Death.  For OSRCon play, I plan to reward standard xp bonuses for monsters defeated and treasure found, plus an additional +3000 xp bonus for each of the four main objectives achieved.  Rated according to this scoring system, my playtest team earned 16,165 xp + 6000 bonus xp = 22,165 points!  I guess that is now the gold standard to beat, so look out OSRCon players! 

- To conclude, I want to commend and thank my playtesters for their great game play at this fun session.  We got to explore multiple areas of the dungeon and I learned a lot about how the stocking density affects the pace and the deadliness of the adventure.  I also saw that the primary scenario goals are at least partially achievable during a four-hour time-frame.  Thanks!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oubliette #6 pdf Free Through August!

Click on the picture to download the Issue for free!

Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Oubliette Magazine -- see my previous reviews of the publication here and here.

Right now, for a limited time only ('till the end of August), Oubliette's Editor in Chief, Peter Regan, is making the latest issue of Oubliette, Issue #6, available for free as a downloadable pdf. So if I haven't convinced you already via my glowing reviews, take the time now to check out this awesome resource for Labyrinth Lord and other early-edition D&D games -- FOR FREE no less.

Rock on, Peter and all the fine staffers at Oubliette Magazine.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

d30 Table of Random Text Scraps

From the bowels of Hell, thine Spawn of Endra wails forth:

I'm packing up for a move to the east, and so I'm clearing out stuff, running across lost and forgotten items, and the usual. In one pile of papers I found my 2010 calendar that has random thoughts written throughout. Before I put this into the recycling, it looks like there's enough to make a d30 table that you might use for when there's a scrap of parchment in a room, or you need the title or subject of a book or a painting, response from an oracle, or you just want a random concept. Here you go:

D30 Table of Random Text Scraps
  1. The '00s --> The Actually Decade - as the last faint recognition of the routine loss of reality. (1/5)
  2. Yes, sex is destructive by nature. Leave it for your least elaborate castles made of sand. (1/8)
  3. ABP: Ambient Bovine Parliament. (1/15)
  4. Secretary of the Inferior. (1/19)
  5. Oh, the frequency of thine reprehensible repast. (1/26)
  6. By dreaming as deeply as we do of the West, we dispossess you of your land. (2/3)
  7. Earthcake. (2/4)
  8. Every person I met was less a person than those people. (2/7)
  9. Aspiring towards a more VAST archaeology. (2/10)
  10. Turn Corned Beef. (2/26)
  11. Hector Littlepants National Holiday. (2/27)
  12. Les McCann, Eddie Harris and Baudrillard: Tryin' to make it hyper-real compared to hyper-what? (3/2)
  13. Oh great. Another overbearing white male I'm not getting sex from. (3/5)
  14. How are you going to run the midget circus this year? (3/6)
  15. Austrian City Limits (3/13)
  16. Corned Beef Cured. (3/14)
  17. Jesus Priced! (3/25)
  18. You are leaning on the industrious class. Why? (4/2)
  19. Yes, I am in complete agreement with Cat Ideology. But there is no Cat State. (4/9)
  20. Sarmandira, an ancient princess. (7/6)
  21. Gleefully drawn into a world of aggression by an inadequate aggressor. (7/25)
  22. Hillbilly God, Uncle Norton's Camp. (8/7)
  23. A PhD in the Archaeology of Sexuality seems the obvious next step, but granting it to anyone under 50 years of age is insane. (8/14)
  24. Just because no one is listening to you doesn't make you a voice crying in the wilderness. You might just be a dipshit. (8/15)
  25. Long distance relationships are difficult. For me it's the distance between fantasy and reality. (10/16)
  26. A useful definition: Dysphoria is the opposite of Euphoria. (11/17)
  27. The Sweet Hubris of the Autodidact (11/21)
  28. Vulvateen Heterodyne. (11/22)
  29. I come from the land where folks complain about too many public works projects. (12/11)
  30. Oi fink it's tot-ullee de-fucking-skusting. (12/13)
Rock the d30!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Low-level B/X-LL Thieves are Ninja Hipsters

The Spawn of Endra sends out this important bulletin:

So we're here playtesting Carter's scenario for the OSRCON game he's running, The Tower of Death*, and I rolled up 2 3rd level PCs, a Thief and a Magic-user. I've been playing a cleric for the last year and a half that we've been gaming, so I took the opportunity to play some new classes that I haven't worked with for ages.

This may not be news to many of you, and forgive me for not having read your post about it from 2009 (but do send a link in the comments), but I found out that low-level thieves are the last folks you want searching for traps. Looking through the tables and randomly opening up the LL rules to "Traps and Trap Detection" (p. 45), I learned that a first level thief is actually worse at finding traps (14% success) than a non-thief (1 on d6; 16.666%), and WAY worse than a dwarf (1-2 on d6; 33.333%). Weird. I thought maybe this is one of those odd miscues in Lab Lord rules, but in fact my Moldvay Basic has it even worse: Thieves go 10%, 15%, 20% for the first three levels where everybody else is d6ing the night away. In Lab Lord the thief only gets as good (almost ... 0.333% short of being as good) as a generic dwarf at LEVEL 5!

As one of our players described the exchange after the thief fails to find the 8th trap in a row that the dwarves detected: "Yeah, well, I just always wanted to be thief growing up. I never said I was GOOD at it, it just seems really cool to be a thief. That's what I'm doing." So B/X essentially encodes into thieving the dynamic of hipster ninja-ism.

Yeah, you know all this lore about shuriken manufacture and funny slippers, and can quote every ninja film and manga, but you couldn't climb over a chain-link fence in real life if you really had to. The skinny jeans make it hard enough, but then how does the ninja hipster approach the fence while maintaining proper ironic distance? The ninja hipster finds itself trapped in a Zeno's Paradox of continually edging closer and closer to the fence, never quite reaching it ... and then the non-ironic Rottweiler bites into his/her ass, tears a chunk out, and irony must be put aside -- if only briefly.

[No, wait. On second thought, here's a ninja slippers referent worth considering: Chanclas de Ninja, by Brownout.]

At any rate, this mechanic deserves a closer look, but it may be another reason to favor Dyson's 2d6 Thievery mechanic (found in the delicious Dyson's Dodecahedron #1) over the percentile approach of B/X-LL. Either way, you've got to make the average thief always do better at detecting traps than other PCs, or at least as good as a dwarf to start off with. Otherwise, why bother with the Thief?

* It lived up to its name, by the way. 3 of 5 PCs were killed pretty quickly. No biggy. We re-rolled and regrouped in old school fashion. Some of this was owed to two players not knowing the "shields will be splintered rule" was in effect.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Session 39: Sleestak Caves and Valley of Danger

This session was played on Monday 7/11 and included four players with their PCs Innominus (Clr 6), Dak (Dwf 5), Yor (Dwf 5) and Vivuli (Assassin 5, now multi-classing as MU).

Before I get into this, I must call your attention to Spawn of Endra's excellent capsule session report written the day after (or the same night that?) the game transpired. I think Spawn's writeup captures the spirit of the session better than I could, so I will be skipping / glossing a few details throughout this, really just enhancing his report with some additional points of note.

The group began in the snow-dusted village of Wellspring in central Minoch [hex 1816] on Day 146 of their Arandish adventures. They took little interest in the village, however, and after a brief set of transactions with the proprietors of the General Store (one of whom did not like the group at all, referring to them as "trouble"), the party set off overland toward Stonehell. The dungeon was quite close by, 15 miles south of Wellspring, in the same hex [1816].

The group approached via the southwesterly road through the mountain tunnel that they originally found back in Session 22. Its previous residents -- a platoon of the hobgoblinish Skullface Occupational Army -- were apparently long gone, and the whole place was completely shrouded in an uncanny magical darkness that even dwarven infravision could not penetrate. Hoisting their sources of continual light -- whose range was halved due to the powerful, murky darkness of the place -- the party plunged in, and found that the whole network of bandit caves had now been taken over by a tribe of Sleestak, who advanced on the party en masse, hissing as they came. Dak, the group's point man, was mesmerized by the hissing and was unable to attack. As a result, the party retreated from the caves to seek a more thought-out strategy.

Once they were able to devise a way to protect themselves from the mesmerizing effect of the sleestak group hiss -- by melting candle wax and plugging their ears with it -- the party ventured back into the bandit caves. They first checked out the "well room" that Dak firebombed in Session 23 and that the PCs asked the Stone Giants to permanently monkey-wrench in Session 26. The Stone Giants had apparently done their job well, for the vertical shaft was completely sealed with piled boulders and stone slabs.

After leaving the well chamber, the party headed north, deeper into the caves, to find the remaining sleestak. They soon found them, and had no trouble burning, hacking and bludgeoning to death the twenty-plus green hissers that remained. However, the PC's earplugs prevented them from immediately catching some audible ruckus involving the horses and the War Wagon, which luckily Beastarr the Bobcat did hear and subsequently conveyed to Innominus.

So, no sooner had the PCs slain the last poor sleestak than they instantly rushed back to the caves' entrance chamber to see what was making their horses neigh. They saw the War Wagon in flames, and in the firelight a small, stooped, cloaked figure was leading their horses away! The party ran into the chamber and Dak threw his winter cloak over the middle of the War Wagon bed, hoping to save the ballista -- which, miraculously, he did. Meanwhile, the cloaked interloper dropped the horses' reins and dashed -- with supernatural rapidity -- out of the cave and off to the right (southwest) down the cliff-face road. Vivuli chased the perpetrator out onto the road, lined up a longbow shot, and, as Spawn of Endra breathtakingly related in his report, killed the cloaked horse thief in a single shot by using his nightly d30 roll to score a total of 19 damage, just enough to snuff the guy.

The assassin next used his x-ray vision ring to scope out the cloaked thief's corpse. Turns out the little fellow -- of indeterminable race, maybe a quasi-halfling or fey-humanoid hybrid -- had a small metal tube up his rectum, which contained two small rolled pieces of parchment, i.e.:

Parchment #1. A crude diagram of what looks like a sleestak's head, with strange instructions -- possibly a formula -- written in an arcane language below. And

Parchment #2. A brief letter written entirely in Demonic.

Vivuli pissed in the dead guy's face, and the party kept his body and one sleestak corpse, chucking them both into their bag of holding.

The War Wagon was damaged and charred, but still driveable, though one wheel had lost a few spokes and looked shaky. Dak's swift action (and some luck) saved the ballista from any harm in the fire.

Innominus used Speak With Animals to ask their horses about what had happened. They conveyed to him that the fire started quite suddenly, like a burst or explosion, and that next they knew this smelly little fellow (even the party noticed that the thief had probably never bathed, and smelled of offal and smoke) was leading them away from the flames. When questioned, the horses remembered that they had smelled that fellow sometime before, in these very caves, back when they were enslaved by the hobgoblin army prior to coming into the party's service.

After this, the party traveled southeast down the cliff road and then, at the lowest point, bore hard left into the southwest end of a vast valley. Despite the onset of evening, the temperature was subtly warmer down here than it had been up on the cliff face, and a damp mist hung in the air of the marshy place. As night fell, the bloodthirsty roars of huge predators and answering mortal shrieks of wounded prey echoed over the marshes and woods from time to time.

Thus the party encamped once again at one end of the warm, swampy valley I'll call the Valley of Danger.* They set watches and most of them slept.

During the second watch -- Yor's -- beating wings were heard in the air overhead. Yor awakened his colleagues in time to be attacked from above by a huge, featherless, birdlike creature with rows of sharp teeth lining its long, deadly beak. A vicious melee ensued, and though the foul bird-monster did get a bite or two in, Yor and Innominus hacked and bludgeoned it to pieces in a couple of rounds. The huge, winged thing's mashed, leathery carcass slumped to the earth, puking out pus-y vomit and blowing out putrid diarrhea from its other end. Upon examining that fallen corpse (and holding their noses) the party members realized that none of them had ever seen (or fought) a creature quite like it before, though it did vaguely remind some of them of the huge, birdlike menace called a roc, which they fought back in Session 9. However, Dak, a northerner who had seen rocs many times, declared that this foul thing was certainly not a roc.

Of course, Vivuli and Innominus immediately leaped into doing some field surgery on the cadaver, with Vivuli x-raying the thing, but to no avail: it hadn't eaten any unusual items or treasure lately, just squirrels, badgers, small raptors, and the like.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, and Day 147 of the party's Arandish adventures dawned. It was surprisingly temperate in the Valley of Danger for it being so late in the year. Innominus, having prayed to Endra as day broke, was now able to cast Speak With Dead upon the body of the cloaked, would-be horse-thief from yesterday's encounter at the bandit caves. Their exchange:

Innominus: What is the meaning of this evil letter written in demonic? What does it say?

Dead Guy: It is from my master. It contains instructions for what to do with the sleestak.

Innominus: What is the name of your master?

Dead Guy [in demonic]: Zuggmoth.

Having concluded that strange business, the party started traveling northeast, along the long axis of the valley. Dak had much earlier procured maps of the region (just prior to the Hobgoblin Camp Raid) that showed a pass leading out of the opposite (northeast) end of the valley, coming out near the trail back to Fortinbras [i.e., southeast edge of hex 1816 leading into hex 1916]. It would take them all day to traverse the length of the Valley of Danger.

A couple of hours along the way, the PCs were confronted by Innominus' old enemy, a swampy sludge monster that looked like this:

Innominus cast Bless as soon as he saw the thing charging them, and then he, Dak and Yor formed a front line to meet the beast's sickening onslaught. During the ensuing battle, Dak and Yor both scored critical hits (damage doubled) once in the same round. Soon, the party demolished the poor tentacled slimeball, who was just trying to defend its frikkin' home, after all.

Anyway, after heartlessly slaying Innominus' Bane, the party continued their northeasterly journey, but not before Innominus instructed Beastarr to track back along the slain creature's trail, hopefully leading the PCs to its nest or lair. This strategem proved successful, and about an hour later, after a bit of bushwhacking to the left of the main valley trail, they found themselves looking northwest across a murky pond at a cave entrance at water level on the cliff wall opposite. And as Spawn of Endra so brilliantly put it,

Dak tried out the demonic fire gems for the first time while we all hung over the Neo-Otyugh caves by ropes [. . .] and unleashed a 3-round firestorm that incinerated them all.

I really can't add to that meaningfully. There were two more three-legged slime-creatures in the damp cave across the pond, and Dak totally incinerated them in two rounds by detonating one of his demonic fire gems. Afterward, in a pool at the back of the neo-otyugh cave, the party found the creatures' treasure horde, which included lots of gold and gems, a golden ring, a few potions including Super-Heroism, a crystal ball in a nice case, and three scrolls in waterproof bamboo-like tubes.

Hauling their treasure away and getting back on the northeastward main trail, the party did have brief fracas with a couple of owlbears, which were easily dispatched after Innominus cast Hold Person on them.

Then, at sunset, at the conclusion of their trek across the valley, the party heard a terrible roar, and looked instinctively toward the sound, at the top of a hill directly ahead. There they beheld a T-Rex, roaring and gnashing its teeth atop a rise at the northeastern end of the valley. Dak instantly quaffed the Super-Heroism potion, but since I wasn't yet aware of Joesky's killer interpretation of the elixir, we followed standard LL rules and Dak simply got much stronger and gained many more hit points as a result of his temporary gain of 4 Levels. This allowed him to charge headlong into and survive the climactic battle with this awe-inspiring monster.

And I'll just let Spawn of Endra, the Kerouac of session reports, take it home:

during the T Rex attack stupid Dak said 'I hope I don't roll a 1 on this d30' and OF COURSE he rolls the most mocking fucking '1', rolling up one side of the rule book and back down again, and the T Rex wins initiative and bites him almost in half, but for Super Heroism, and he's got plenty of hit points and we're all throwing the d30s in the last minutes of the session and the T Rex is killed.

* This is a "name changed to protect campaign secrets" situation. I do not yet wish to reveal my private DM-only name for this locale.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Session 39 Menu: Little Whore and Spoiled Grandfather

Thine Spawn of Endra recaps the latest foodal offerings in the campaign:

That's one way to translate last session's dishes -- Pasta Puttanesca and Baba Ganooj. I've been meaning to post on what we eat on game night for a while. We have a multi-timezone game over Skype every other week, with me hosting the bulk of the crew at my place on the West Coast, and Hazel in the MidWest, and Carter DMing from New York state. Works pretty well, but since we start at 5pm Pacific I've mostly tried to come up with something substantial during the dinner hour, and everybody brings in some delightful treats of food and beverages. (The downside of this is that we get called scum and a bunch of rotten bastards by Carter and Hazel who have to watch us having a food orgy during the game.)

Part of the challenge for me is accommodating Yor's player, who's largely vegetarian, but does eat fish, so that helps. I have nothing against vegetarian cuisine per se, it's just that I don't cook it much and so my repertoire of top-of-the-head recipes is weak. I want my guests to feel taken care of, I don't like serving a dish to one person where I've merely removed the meat. Defeats the whole purpose of eating together since we're not eating the same food. And you know, when you've got a player that has such fun at the sessions and asks the mind-shattering question "Can I get my crowbar enchanted to become a +1 Crowbar?" that player deserves the best.

With summer finally here in the PNW I've been grilling and Baba Ganooj comes into my life. Typically you grill your food, and there are still coals in the grill for an hour or more, so I get one or two extra whole eggplants and put them on there to bake/smoke, turning them occasionally so they cook evenly-ish. This goes for an hour or more 'til they're well gushy. Takes no effort and makes use of the otherwise wasted heat.

Then you strip the charred skins off and scoop out the gooey innards and retain the juices. For one ~1lb eggplant mix it with:

2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 cup tahini
1 1/2 tsp cumin
3 cloves garlic pressed or minced

You can food-process this, but if you've really cooked those eggplant you should be able to mash it with a fork. Plus I like a certain amount of texture in this. Serve it with flat bread warmed in the oven. We had 4 folks eat through double this recipe with about 16 full pieces of bread. (I can't remember where I found this recipe; it's on a well-worn scrap of paper from about 10 years.)

Puttanesca. This version I modified from America's Test Kitchen ca. 2005. I didn't follow it precisely last session because I had the wrong pasta and the wrong tomatoes, but it still was really good. Cook 1lb of rotini (or similar short pasta; note that my favorite Italian brand DeCecco calls this fusilli) in plenty of well-salted water. Meanwhile, in a skillet/saute pan, heat olive oil to cover the bottom on medium to med high heat. Saute:

~6" anchovy paste or 4-5 minced fillets
1/2 tsp red chili flakes (or more to taste)
3-4 cloves pressed garlic

Saute these, but mind that you don't burn the garlic. That sucks. Don't be an asshole. Strain 28oz of diced tomatoes, reserving the liquid for later. Add the tomatoes and simmer while stirring for 5-7 min. The idea is to blend the flavors, but don't overcook the sauce and destroy the fresh tomato flavor. In the meantime:

Chop: (1) 14oz can of black olives
Mince: a handful of fresh Italian parsley
Sequester from their brine: 2-3 Tbsp of capers
(Yes, that's Tbsp folks. Tsp are a waste of time here.)

Finally, mix the drained pasta (al dente) in its pot with the cooked sauce, the olives, parsley and capers, AND the reserved uncooked tomato juice. The last adds another layer of freshness to the proceedings. Toss and serve immediately.

The four of us ate almost all of this minus perhaps one bowl of pasta. After a bit of a rest we ate through a Party Size Bag of Tom's Salt and Vinegar Chips, apparently adventuring party size. Overall, it's a pretty quick prep: if you're already grilling, you do the Baba Ganooj the night before; if you're doing the Puttanesca this takes 35 min once you're familiar with it. And this gives you good flavors and happy folks for not too much money. These are relatively inexpensive dishes to feed a bunch of folks, especially if they're expecting or used to Cheetos, chips, sour gummi worms, etc.

But it's definitely a morale boost to have food there if the session is cutting into normal feeding time, and sometimes folks worked the whole day, skipped lunch, and biked across town at top speed to get here, and are fucking ravenous. As a friend of mine in Belize often says, "A hungry man is an angry man." And as for angry people ... well, nothing more needs to be said on that score.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Having just played a game that is blogged about:

Also sprach Schpawn:

We just finished a session, and I'm currently in a mood of  "I want to post about how I'm having a good fucking time and really enjoying my fucking D&D game and how when my group got together this evening we ate really good food, drank good beer and wine, and all laughed our asses off and talked shit to each other, and killed tons of Sleestaks and three Neo-Otyughs and two Owlbears and a T Rex, while skirting past Stonehell and got a ton of loot which included a Potion of Super-Heroism that we immediately used in the T Rex fight, and almost had the War Wagon burnt to a crisp but we saved the ballista, and I used Speak with Animals to see what the horses knew and if they were okay, and Speak with Dead to interrogate the corpse of the guy that set the War Wagon on fire who me and Vivuli killed during a chase, while the rest of the party tried to put out the fire, and LATER Dak tried out the demonic fire gems for the first time while we all hung over the Neo-Otyugh caves by ropes after being ambushed, and unleashed a 3-round firestorm that incinerated them all, and then during the T Rex attack stupid Dak said 'I hope I don't roll a 1 on this d30' and OF COURSE he rolls the most mocking fucking '1', rolling up one side of the rule book and back down again, and the T Rex wins initiative and bites him almost in half, but for Super Heroism, and he's got plenty of hit points and we're all throwing the d30s in the last minutes of the session and the T Rex is killed.


That is why I blog about this game in this corner of the blogosphere. On the best days I'm having a hell of a good time. FUN FUN FUN.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reflections on my Top 5 TSR Modules List

Interestingly, the Top 5 list I posted yesterday clearly reveals the effect of the OSR blogosphere upon my thinking about published modules. Before starting this blog (and reading other folks' blogs) in September 2009, I would not consciously have known the difference between a "funhouse" dungeon like S2 and a "hexcrawl" type like D3. I would not have been able to see WHY Moldvay's B4 is possibly the most amazing module ever, even though I read it in my early days and was impressed (if a bit intimidated) by its account of how factions work in the Lost City of Cynidicea.  Now I do understand these things and I think my game is better for it.  These days I have a better grasp of the type of DM I am and the kinds of published materials that will work best for me.

I have posted before about how I came of age in the RPG hobby during TSR's "tournament module" publication phase in the early 1980s, and have admitted that therefore S2 White Plume Mountain was an early favorite module of mine. Yet my Top 5 list doesn't include White Plume, except as a possible runner-up to Tomb of Horrors for spot #5. Why?

Because despite the influence of nostalgia upon my Top 5 TSR Modules list -- e.g., B2 is the first module I ever played so has a special place at the table for me -- nevertheless it is not primarily a list about nostalgia, but a list about how I approach D&D now. And the OSR blogosphere has exerted quite an influence upon what I currently value, or perhaps has helped me to obtain better clarity about what I have valued all along.

What is clear here is that for me, it is all about the sandbox, which is probably why -- modules or no modules -- I have always been such a big fan of wilderness travel and wilderness adventures.  I prefer open-ended, location-based adventuring and, S1 and S2 aside, this has more or less been true all along.  In fact, despite early exposure to (and great love for) the "GDQ" series of modules, which could be seen by some as a kind of proto-"adventure path" (and therefore not very old-school), what stands out for me about that series are a few of its key locations: the Shrine of the Kuo-Toans, the Vault of the Drow, Lolth's Demon Ship, maybe the frost giants' Glacial Rift.  My taste in what makes those modules really cool (big, open-ended locales like the Vault) vs. less memorable (the dungeon-crawly G1 and G3) tells me a lot about my own burgeoning preferences as a DM, my own leanings toward skeletal "plot" structures, collaborative adventure creation, and spur of the moment in-game improvisation. 

As fellow 2nd Generation D&D'er James Maliszewski has written:

"What I advocate is that modules should be made more, well, modular and that means providing lots of options and alternatives that a referee can then use to make its contents his own rather than someone else's. [. . .] What modules gave me [as a young referee] was a structure -- map, room descriptions, game stats, etc. -- onto which could hang the story my friends and I created as I refereed their adventures. What I think has happened over the years is that, because "adventure module" has become so strongly associated with the notion of a pre-made adventure story, gamers now simply recoil at the notion of having to "make up the story yourself." They see it as too much of a chore, when, in point of fact, creating a plot/story is the easiest part of being a RPG referee, not the hardest."

Indeed! Like Maliszewski, I just need some basic structures -- a lawful Keep near some chaotic Caves, a big underground Vault with warring factions, a Lost City with the same -- and I can hang all manner of stories and plots and adventure hooks upon it. So my Top 5 module choices represent adventures with a lot of that quality of modularity and, well, the ability to be flexible enough to have things "hung" upon them. In fact it is this same impulse which led me to include Q1 on my list, because I view it a very useful old-school refereeing sourcebook, if not a spectacular module strictly as writ. But to an old-schooler, a few basic skeletal ideas that can be run with and variously modified are as (if not more) valuable than a tightly scripted, coherent, stand-alone adventure in many cases.

Allow me to close with another Maliszewski quote, this one taken from his review of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, a TSR module I am more or less completely ignorant about but that came up in yesterday's comments:

"Dwellers of the Forbidden City is only 28 pages long, so it's necessarily brief when it comes to describing its titular locale. Yet, that never bothered me. Indeed, I think it's probably one of the great strengths of the module and the reason I was able to use it so often: it was easy to make and remake the City to suit my present needs, whatever they were."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

5 Best TSR Modules Ever (For Now)

Here is my list of the five best TSR modules ever. I am deliberately doing this from the hip, not letting myself overthink it, just going with what feels right.

1. B2 Keep on the Borderlands
As James Maliszewki and Justin Alexander have pointed out, Gygax's B2 is a totally classic example of old-school module design, with the Caves of Chaos acting as a kind of introductory megadungeon (in a feat of "implied expansiveness" as Maliszewski puts it) set in a wilderness locale.  What is not to love about that?  This is an endlessly customizable and modifiable module, thus achieving very high re-playability value.  And it has the advantage of being the first module I ever played or DM'ed -- it came in my Holmes boxed set -- so it surely set the tone for EVERYTHING that followed in my RPG'ing career.    

[EDIT: Read this post (and also this comment) for a really sharp, spot-on deconstruction of the usual assumptions made about B2.]

2. B4 The Lost City
I am so hot to play this one that it will very likely be the first scenario I trot out for the upcoming public Labyrinth Lord Game at my FLBS in September.

3. D3 Vault of the Drow
This one has always haunted me, it describes such an evocative and adventure-pregnant place.  Vault of the Drow is essentially another sandboxy hexcrawl, with political intrigue, factions, and the like built in to the various locales in the setting. I submit that this module represents the true climax of the G1-3 and D1-3 series, and could easily be used as the central locale for an entire underground campaign.  Note that it was somewhat difficult for me to choose this one over D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, another personal favorite, but in the end it is the expansiveness of the Vault itself (and the spookiness of the Fane of Lolth) that gets me.

4. X1 The Isle of Dread
The coolest "lost island" hexcrawl. Badass dinosaur on cover. Lots of replay value since encounters can easily be modified or swapped out. What's not to love?

5. Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits
This last is a controversial choice because I am not really judging Q1 on its merits as a module alone, but more as a demonstration of what an extraplanar adventure can be. As I have discussed before, Q1 is not so much a module I want to run as a module I want to keep around as a reference and inspiration, to be read, pilfered from, and re-skinned in other guises -- more of an idea generator than a full-blown adventure. Looked at this way, even the map of the Demonweb alone is worth the price of admission! Maybe if we called this publication The Planar Travel Handbook and thought of it as more a sourcebook than a module, people would appreciate it more.

To be fair, if I were judging the Top 5 only in their functionality as playable adventure modules, I would toss out Q1 and give fifth place to S1 or S2, probably the former.

Image copyright 2009 Evil Brain Jono.

What I Have Learned
The above list tells me that I like sandboxy wilderness hexcrawls, and seem to prefer dungeons that either mimic such hexcrawls in an underworld environment (D3) or else directly provide them (X1, B2). It also shows my age, as I clearly prefer the "old classics" that I grew up with -- all my Top 5 modules were published before 1983

Please note that of my Top 5, I have only actually played one of them, i.e., The Keep on the Borderlands.  It is therefore possible -- perhaps even likely -- that some of my module choices here are based upon my desire to finally play them rather than a verified-by-real-game-play knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses.  Perhaps my next task will be to connive ways to run and/or play in all of these modules at some time or another in the near future -- or at least the first four.

The Limits of My Knowledge (and Sample Size)
To fully grasp the limited relevance of my current Top 5 list, one must know what a pitifully small "sample size" of TSR modules I chose from in making these selections.  I have actually owned, read, and/or played a relatively tiny fraction of all TSR's published modules -- to say nothing of other old-school third-party publishers like Judges' Guild, a company whose work I know hardly at all.

To remedy the small scope of my current "classic module" knowledge, one of my new projects is to slowly acquire some of the old, out-of-print classics and read them, maybe even play them. Along this line I recently ordered T1 The Village of Hommlet from Noble Knight, and I look forward to finally laying eyes on a module of which James Maliszewski and Joseph Bloch think so highly.

But as you will see below, my need to make up for knowledge gaps in this area is rather great -- as I said, the number of published TSR modules I have actually used or even read is woefully small. I guess that's what happens when you start world-building: you get lost in your own game-world and use published modules less frequently.


TSR Modules I've Played

TSR Modules I've Read but NOT Played
B3 (both versions)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Session 38: River Adventures and Black Dragon Mania

This session took place on Monday June 27 and involved three players with their PCs Innominus (Clr 6), Dak (Dwf 5) and Vivuli (Assassin 4). Gorgo (Dwf 4), NPC follower of Innominus, also participated in the evening's adventures.

The group started Day 130 of its Arandish doings on the estate of Sir Barton of Achelon [hex 1308] in Northern Achelon. Bidding immediate farewell to Sir Barton, Innominus, Dak, Vivuli, and Gorgo ventured into the nearby small town of Holtboro [hex 1407] in order to ask some questions of the matriarchal Church of Achelon, the dominant local clerical order. At the Church Temple, Innominus and Sister Fenway discussed the strange evil medallions he discovered in that graveyard on the party's way northward through Achelon last session.

The Sister recognized the objects immediately, calling them "necromantic talismans" most likely used by a Necromancer to extend its power -- that is, she said, the Talismans act as magical relays to geographically extend a Necromancer's evil influence and necromantic abilities. Sister Fenway claimed to have seen one other such medallion, found by a fighting man who came through Holtboro some months ago. The fighter said he found his Talisman in the Great Western Swamp after a wraith attacked him there, but Sister Fenway could not confirm this, nor did the warrior leave the evil coin in her keeping for any extended period. She now asked Innominus if he would leave one of his Necromantic coins with her, so she and her cohorts could examine it further, possibly discovering its owner and/or source. Innominus complied, asking the clerics of the Church to send a message to his house in Fortinbras if they discovered anything interesting or alarming.

At the docks on the east bank of the Endyn River in Holtboro, the party met with Captain Niles of the Queen's Pride, a good-sized riverboat gifted to the PCs by Sir Barton. The captain and his crew -- First Mate Bixby, Oarmaster Clive, and ten burly oarsmen -- expressed their readiness to depart at any time. The PCs wasted no time; they loaded two of their Mizarian draft horses onboard, disassembled the War Wagon enough to place some parts onboard and to tow the bed and chassis behind the boat on the way downriver, and set off southward, bound for Blintsport on the Bay of Noffel. Due to limited space on the boat, their remaining three horses were sent overland to the Free City of Kaladar, in the company of one of Sir Barton's trading caravans.

The PCs spent the first chilly southbound day on the river (Day 130, a few solid weeks into the northern Achelonian winter) mounting the war wagon's ballista onto the prow of the Queen's Pride.* However, there were no foes to shoot at for the next two peaceful days of riverboating, and the crew made good time, covering well over forty miles a day and arriving at the beautiful river-straddling town of Riverhold [hex 1312] mid-morning on day four.** The party floated on through Riverhold and was well into the countryside to the south when an unexpected attack occurred.

The PCs heard the familiar but terrible sound of dragonwings flapping in the air somewhere above them, and next they knew, a vicious black dragon was breathing acid on their boat! One oarsman instantly disintegrated and the boat's hull was damaged before the PCs could react to the airborne menace. Innominus offered a Prayer to Endra, and then various characters and NPCs (including First Mate Bixby, a longbowman) shot projectiles at the dragon as it hurtled past, but failing, in the first volley, to slay the creature. The fearsome dragon swooped back to deliver another searing blast of deadly acid, then moved in close to strike at the party with claws and bite. Despite its ferocity, within a couple of rounds, the party managed to cut the black dragon to pieces.

However, no sooner had they disposed of the first dragon than a second black dragon appeared in the sky overhead -- apparently the first one's mate. After circling once, the second black dragon made to dive at the Queen's Pride; Innominus loaded his "sling of madness" and let fly a deadly projectile attack -- an attack made much more deadly by Innominus' election to use his nightly d30 roll for the damage. He rolled a "29", nearly enough to kill the dragon. Another character picked the dragon off with a bow shot the same round. After it crashed onto the riverside, Innominus' familiar, Beastarr, ate one of its testicles.

Post-melee, Dak asked Captain Niles if black dragon attacks were common in this region. Niles answered that such attacks were not atypical of the immediate area, but that he was somewhat surprised to have encountered black dragons hunting this far north. The riverboat captain surmised that these particular dragons must have had particularly difficult hunting further south to be ranging this far north this late in the year.

After a brief interlude for boat repair, during which Vivuli and Innominus dissected one of the black dragon carcasses, taking rigorous notes and gathering a few specimens of black dragon acid, the Queen's Pride got underway again.

That night, the smell of dragon's blood in the water brought sea snakes around the boat, but Innominus was able to snake charm a couple, and Vivuli and Dak shot arrows at the third one until it left. Late the next afternoon, Day Five of their southward journey down the Endyn River, they passed south of the Frey Mountains and entered Blint proper [hex 1414], whereupon Captain Niles optimistically opined that they might make Blintsport two days hence.

Indeed, the riverboat crew did make remarkably good progress over the next two days, passing the village of Blorch [hex 1515] on the first day and drawing within a few miles of Blintsport [hex 1316, mislabeled "Marshton"] by the evening of the second day.

However, in a bizarre move, fate decreed that Captain Niles would not live to see Blintsport, and sent -- you guessed it -- a black dragon to descend upon the Queen's Pride that evening. The dragon's first move was to breathe acid upon the riverboat captain, instantly disintegrating him. Captain Niles R.I.P.

After the captain's death, a colorful battle ensued, wherein Dak attacked with a sling, Innominus his mace, and Vivuli threw chunks of the other dead black dragons at their new foe, surely weakening its morale (or perhaps simply enraging it). During this melee the dragon did take out yet another crewman, First Mate Bixby, whom it bit in half. Nevertheless, a few rounds later the third black dragon of the session lay dead.

Midmorning on Day Eight of their riverboat adventures, captianless and carrying aboard the partial carcasses of more than one black dragon, the PCs arrived at Blintsport, a key port city on the Bay of Noffel that lies at the confluence of the Endyn and Blintsflow Rivers.

Seeking a replacement captain for the journey eastward up the Blintsflow River, the PCs visited a local sailor's bar called the Salty Serpent. There they met Captain Snargler, a local riverboater happy to help them pilot the Queen's Pride up the Blintsflow to the River Farn [hex 1616] and onward into central Minoch.

The PCs also visited a local adventurer's pub, the Blintsport Inn, and impressed the clientele with tales of their three recent black dragon slayings. To verify their tale, Dak and Innominus handed out complimentary black dragon scales! After presenting themselves as fearless dragon hunters, it was not difficult to successfully negotiate the hire of Rodney, a Blintian polearm-wielder eager for mercenary adventuring work. Learning that Rodney was also a proficient archer but currently without longbow, Dak bought the retainer such a bow, hoping to impress the warrior with his generosity.

The next day, Day 139 of their Arandish exploits, the party left Blintsport, headed east toward the village of Wellspring in central Minoch. Of the Queen's Pride's original crew, only Chief Oarsman Clive and nine other oarsmen remained; Blintian Captain Snargler was now in command.

Aside from spotting (and avoiding) some giant piranhas and crashing into a couple of huge ice floes, the party arrived without incident in Wellspring [hex 1816] seven days later, on Day 146 of their Arandish adventures -- now approaching the dead of winter.

[UPDATE: I capitalized "War Wagon" and clarified why some of the party's horses were sent overland.]

* We statted our ballista using Module B2 Keep on the Borderlands pp. 6-7, which describes the ballista as "a huge, heavy crossbow manned by two men. It fires like a crossbow, but has a range of 480 feet, hits as if it were fired by a fighter of 1st-3rd level, and does 2 six-sided dice of damage plus two points (4-14 points of damage per hit). Each ballista has 12 missiles. They may only be fired once every four rounds (requiring 3 rounds to load and 1 to fire)."
** Riverhold straddles the Endyn River; as such it occupies space in hexes 1312 AND 1412. The party passed under portions of the western side of the city, in hex 1312.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It's a Wonderful Blog

If you missed yesterday-and-half's happenings, here's a Spawn of Endra recap. Fill in the blanks as needed, rearrange the panels as suits your own situation. This happens to every humane being, repeatedly.


And of course the lost ending to It's a Wonderful Blog.

As my dear friend Frank told me: "If you can still laugh, you know you're either sane or insane." Sometimes that's enough.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Beastarr the Bobcat: The Coolest Familiar in Ara

The Spawn of Endra lays down this profile of Innominus's familiar for quick reference:

As the avid readers of this blog know, Innominus the Follower of Endra recently cast one of Mr. Bat's great spells from his Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets blog, Conjure Familiar, while up on Greystone Mountain and thus Beastarr the Bobcat* joined the adventuring party as Innominus's familiar. It goes without saying that Beastarr is pretty cool, since he's a cat. Thanks to Bat's spell, Innominus can telepathically communicate with Beastarr, and see through his eyes for 100'. Carter has determined that even though a bobcat has better than human eyesight, he doesn't possess infravision per se. However, Beastarr has awesome sense of smell and can track over short distances if appropriate smell samples are provided (e.g., the hobgoblin general writes a note in his own feces saying "Fuck you , surface dwellers").

The other piece of awesomeness is that Innominus can cast "Animal Growth" on Beastarr, and he takes on Mountain Lion proportions for 2 hours (12 turns)! AAAAAGHHHH!!!! So COOoooollllllll!!!!1!1!1!!!!!  CLAW/CLAW/BITE Fools! It hurts!!

And for good measure:
And rest assured that a linear doubling in size equals a geometric increase in kicking ass. 

So the stats for Beastarr:
Bobcat form
AC: 5
HD: 1+2 (see Bat's spell desc.)
AT: Claw/claw/bite: 1d2 x3
HP: 7
SAV: F2  

Giant Bobcat form (as Mtn. Lion)
AC: 6
HD: 3+2
AT: Claw/claw/bite: 1d3/1d3/1d6
HP: 17
SAV: F2.

It has been ruled that Beastarr can't die from reverting back to the bobcat form, so that the loss of the 10 HP from enlarged to normal at worst reduces him to 1HP.

*Beastarr derives his name from the ever-charming I Hit it With My Axe alumna Bobbi Starr (image from Wikipedia).Yes, I'm in a box. I've already been told once, thanks.