Sunday, February 28, 2010

Red Box - Session One: Feb 28, 2010

I had the great fortune to play “face-to-face” old-school, 1981 Basic Dungeons and Dragons with Pat (Ode To Black Dougal) and Roger (Stirges Suck) today.

We met in the after-hours room of The Sentry Box just after 11 am, and got the game rolling at 11:30. The session consisted of myself, my 11 year-old son DJ (who, after finding out D&D was in the offing, begged to come) and Roger, with Pat as the DM.

Roger had the misfortune of rolling up a Thief with a 3 Constitution, which he promptly named Sickly McGee. Prior to the game, DJ and I had rolled-up characters: DJ was playing a Fighter named Exeter the Brave, and I was playing Castor Brandlestix, the Wizard.

After poking around the local Inn (The Dancing Dragon) and engaging in a conversation with Frederic the Dwarf for rumors about a Dwarven Delve several days to the East, we decided to take our chances in the Caves Of Chaos, as it is nearer than the Dwarven Delve, and we found the Cave location scratched on a corner-table at the Inn, so we suspected that the Cave inhabitants had already been softened up. Besides, Frederic the Dwarf was vague about what we might find at the Dwarven Delve. Perhaps he will provide more information the next time we cross paths.

Before leaving, the party made a visit to the local Mercenary Guild. There, we chatted up Morgan, and she agreed to refer several local Mercenaries to us, for a small fee of 10 Gold (which we happily paid).

Brother Maynard, a traveling Priest, looking to battle the forces of Chaos, and his two bodyguards, Bors and Ironside, enthusiastically agreed to join us, in exchange for each receiving 10 Gold per week and a half-share of treasure. The extra muscle was welcomed, and off Exeter, Cas and Sickly McGee went, with our hirelings in tow.

During our first day on the road, we encountered several mounted men-at-arms of the Striped Mage, and they suggested we hire-on with their master, located in his tower several days south of the Gloomfens ... an offer we agreed to consider. The men-at-arms moved on, but despite having avoided any unpleasantness with them, we suffered our first casualty: DJ, who had been eating candy, had one of his loose teeth come out!

After a five-minute break, to deal with that tooth emergency, we camped for the night, then continued on for a second day, finally spotting a box canyon, with caves dotting the interior walls. This appeared to be the Caves of Chaos! As nightfall was closing in, we traveled another 30 minutes down the road, and camped overnight. We wanted to be rested and alert for our first foray into the caves.

The next morning, we made out way to the cave entrance, on the north canyon wall, closest to the entrance to the canyon. Approaching from above, Sickly McGee quickly scouted the entrance to that cave, but the interior was too dark to detect anything, although he did notice a well-worn path leading from the cave-mouth to the bottom of the Canyon.

Emboldened by the relative lack of activity within the canyon, we lit our lanterns, set our marching order, and crept into the cave. After being taken by surprise by 4 pig-faced humanoids, we regained our composure, quickly defeated them, took their spears and hid their bodies, extinguished our lanterns, and hunkered down in a dead-end guard-room. Five more pig-faced humanoids briefly appeared at the other end of the hallway, checking out the commotion, but they retreated deeper into the cave-complex without locating us.

We discussed our options, and agreed that we would continue our foray, deeper into the cave complex. A guard-post (which we failed to spot during our first pass) was discovered, disguised as several alcoves with decaying heads: one of the alcoves was a false one, used to spy (from the other side) on anyone entering the complex. Turning past this guard-post, we found a second guard-room, this one, empty (probably the lair of the 5 pig-faced humanoids who had investigated the noise from our first combat).

Further to the West, we could hear conversation, though the language was unfamiliar to us. Discovering what appeared to be a throne-room, Sickly McGee suggested that we create a diversion, by setting the wooden furniture alight. So Exeter and one of the hirelings tossed the furniture into a pile, and lit it up with several flasks of oil. After several minutes of unintelligible shouting by the inhabitants of the cave-complex, 5 well-armed pig-faces appeared at the far end of the throne-room. Four of our party threw spears, killing one and wounding two others. Then the other four pig-faces were upon us. We fought them for several rounds, and then another 8 pig-faces appeared at the far end of the throne-room: at that point, Cas the Wizard invoked his sleep spell, taking out all 8 pig-faces who had just entered, along with one of the original pig-faced combatants.

After dispatching the sleeping pig-faces (Maynard the Priest assured us this was quite honorable, as we were merely hurrying their journey to the afterlife, and the slim possibility of redemption) we grabbed up several more spears.

Crossing the throne-room, we spotted another, larger common-room, occupied by six more pig-faces, who were arguing amongst themselves, quite oblivious to our stealthy approach. Catching them unawares, we made good use of our spears, getting off two volleys before the pig-faces recovered their senses and engaged us. While fighting valiantly, Exeter was cut-down by a lucky stab from one of the humanoids, but Sickly McGee and Brother Maynard avenged Exeter's passing, smashing and stabbing the offender to death.

Having, by this time defeated a total of 23 pig-faces, with but a single casualty, caution got the better of me, and I suggested we retreat and regroup. We retreated back to our original campsite, there encountering a dozen merchants using the cold embers of our campfire as starter for their own. They agreed to share the site with us, happily buying some of our loot at bargain prices.

The next morning, we returned to the cave complex, only to find that the remaining inhabitants had abandoned the caves, taking the bulk of their treasure with them. We did recover some equipment from a storage room, and some of the pig-faces' treasure, hidden in a secret room and forgotten in their hasty retreat, which netted us 80 Gold each. In addition, we gained experience for the 23 pig-faces we eliminated.

We discovered a quiver of 20 arrows, two daggers and two swords that were resting within a chest, however, neither I nor any other the inhabitants of the Keep have the ability to detect magic. We will hold onto those items until we can have them appraised for magic dwoemer.

Overall, it was a great session (other than the loss of Exeter, and my letting whatever treasure the pig-faced creatures had slip through our fingers), but i'm sure that treasure is still waiting for us to we make our next foray into the Caves of Chaos!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Crunch And Fluff In Dungeons And Dragons

It should come as no surprise, to those of you who have been following my blog for some time, that I would dislike the terms “crunch” and “fluff”. Indeed, most will know that i’m also no fan of terms like verisimilitude and granularity, which means i’m either an intellectual lightweight, or trapped in my own pre-Forgian fantasy-land.

My defects aside, there are some very compelling reasons why the terms crunch and fluff need to be retired.

Over at This Way Lies Madness, Willow defines the terms crunch and fluff thusly:

When I’m talking about Crunch here, I’m talking about pretty much everything mechanical, rules-oriented, and systematic in a game.

When I’m talking about Fluff here, I’m talking about setting, story, background text, character motivations, and pretty much everything non-mechanical in a game.

Similarly, the RPG Pundit makes the following observations, regarding crunch and fluff:

"Fluff and crunch" are terms that came into fashion a few years ago, for relatively good reason.

You see, back in the late nineties, the emphasis in RPG products had gone to an extreme end of the spectrum: books with pages and pages of "setting description", sometimes good but often pointless and self-absorbed works by would-be novelists.

The advent of D20 brought a change in philosophy, a reaction to this endless ream of "fluffy" setting description and "flavour". The reaction was to move to making books with more mechanics, more system material, more tables and rules and solid material that gives you concrete game information as opposed to blurry setting information. More feats and prestige classes, less descriptions of "agriculture in the forgotten realms".

So basically, Fluff is setting and ambiance, Crunch is system material and concrete rules.

These days, certain systems (D&D in particular) may have moved too far to the other end of the spectrum, and be suffering from massive overdoses of Crunch. Indeed, the propensity in D&D books to have to have at least 50 new feats and 20 new prestige classes per book (not to mention more spells and magic items) means that there is now a MASSIVE "rules bloat" that makes D&D effectively unplayable if you use all the books.

That is a very serious problem. Whenever you get to the point that you must limit the book selection for the RPG to be something other than utterly broken, you're in trouble.

Both authors capture the commonly accepted meaning of the terms crunch and fluff. In the common parlance, “crunch” is equated to rules, while “fluff” is equated to setting. In fact, many will argue that the terms “crunch and fluff” and “rules and setting” are virtually interchangeable. However, unlike the phrase “rules and setting”, the phrase “crunch and fluff” is not value-neutral. Indeed, the continued use and promotion of those loaded terms is pernicious, as it distorts the relationship between rules and setting, in a role-playing game.

The use of the word crunch, by definition, identifies something that you can “sink your teeth into.” Crunch has substance. Crunch provides both a pleasurable experience and a related sound. Crunch is satisfying. Crunch is real.

The word fluff, on the other hand, describes something that is insubstantial, inconsequential and of little value. When used to describe a conversation, fluff refers to the discussion of trivialities. Fluff is light and airy. Fluff is blown away in the slightest breeze.

Thus, an author, in using the terms crunch and fluff to describe features of a role-playing game, imposes upon the reader specific value judgments, about those distinct features of the game. Since crunch refers to things that are substantial, those indentified game features are implicitly of greater consequence, and value, than those features of a role-playing game referred to as fluff, which, by definition, are trivial.

Here’s my problem with that characterization. It is my position that – in a role-playing game – rules are designed to serve the setting, and not the reverse. I emphasize the connection to role-playing games, when highlighting the supremacy of setting, because, by their very nature, role-playing games differ from strategy battle games.

Role-playing games are largely cooperative, rather than competitive. They allow for virtually unlimited player options, making it well-nigh impossible to create a rule for every situation. They give full rein to breath life into your alter-ego, through characterization, interaction and negotiation with the other participants.

Conversely, strategy battle games are more focused on the rules, because they typically model a very narrow version of reality. They provide only on superficial opportunities to breath life into your character, typically through some mechanical, rules-based advantages, rather than by imbuing your avatar with true personality through characterization.

Let me give you a couple of examples of the setting dictating the rules. If you are employing a Wild West setting, you will need rules for gun-fights, bar-fights, train-robberies, horses and stage-coach chases. If you are employing a far future setting, you will need rules for space-travel. If your setting requires characters to improve as the campaign progresses, you will need rules for skill, or level, acquisition. If your game is set in a medieval fantasy world, you will need melee rules.

Again, it is the setting that defines what rules are needed.

Role-playing games, being open-ended, require rules that are necessarily subordinate to the setting, and the setting is what drives the need for the related rules. Those who truly understand the history of D&D also understand why Rule 0 has existed since the very beginning: because you cannot predict all eventualities, the referee must have the flexibility to create, change or modify the rules, when the setting demands it.

But by characterizing the rules as “crunch” (important) and the setting as “fluff” (trivial), those that employ those terms elevate the importance of rules, and thus accidentally or intentionally pervert the proper relationship between the rules and setting of a role-playing game.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Red Box Dungeons And Dragons Session Feb 28

Only five more days until the first session of Dungeons and Dragons with the Red Box Calgary crew.

The inaugural game is set to commence at 11 am, on Sunday, February 28, 2010, at the Sentry Box.

I'm really looking forward to this!

If anyone else is interested in getting in on the ground floor with this campaign, go introduce yourself at Pat's Red Box Calgary site.

I will be bringing both my copy of the Basic D&D set from 1981, along with a copy of Labyrinth Lord.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Henchmen, Followers and Hirelings In Dungeons And Dragons

The distinction between hirelings, followers and henchmen always seemed frustratingly nebulous in Dungeons and Dragons.

It didn't help that original Dungeons and Dragons allowed you a certain number of hirelings, based on your Charisma, while AD&D changed the terms, provided you instead with a certain maximum number of henchmen. You could be excused, then, for conflating the two classes of non-player character, or at least finding the issue sufficiently confusing to dispense entirely with the process of retaining hangers-on.

Then there was this whole business of followers. Adding a third category of NPC to an already crowded field of fellow-travellers didn't help matters.

Thankfully, that much maligned 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule-set came to our rescue (or if you prefer, continued to chip away at the glorious obtuseness of the original D&D rules).

The 2nd Edition Players Handbook (pages 114-115), now and forever, put an end to any questions about the nature of those three types of NPC's.

Hireling: A hireling is a person who works for money. Hirelings are always employed for a stated term (length) of service or for the performance of a specific task. Hirelings do not serve a PC out of great loyalty.

We played it that you could retain as many hirelings as you liked, within the confines of how many you could afford, were available and willing to work for the party (particularly an issue if the players developed a reputation for returning from an adventure, sans hirelings).

Follower: More reliable than those who are motivated purely by money, followers are drawn into service by the reputation of the player character. Followers serve only those with significant power and reputation, thus the construction of a stronghold is necessary to attract followers.

We played it that you only attracted followers at "name" level, after you had built your castle, chapel, thieves' guild, and so on.

Henchmen: Henchmen are adventurers who serve out of loyalty. Although they expect their share of treasure, (ie. they get treasure and therefore xp) they do not usually join a player character for money. They are attracted to the PC because of his reputation ... therefore, henchmen cannot be expected to flock to the banner of a neophyte adventurer. A PC's Charisma determines the maximum number of henchmen he can have. This is a lifetime limit, not just a maximum possible at any given time.

And that's the way we approached the issue of Henchmen. If you were allowed a maximum of 5 henchmen, and all of them died, you could not attract any more. We were more lenient however if the henchman left your service, having reached the same level as the PC.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Final Character Sheet

At least for now.

This is a smaller, 4x6 card, which I use for henchmen. Yes, perhaps the size of this card is still a bit excessive, but we always played that you only got a certain number of henchmen, based on your charisma, and once you burned through those henchmen, you could not attract any more: you had developed a reputation as a poor steward! Thus, you tended to protect your henchmen more than your hirelings.

This blog may go fairly quiet over the next two weeks: six projects due between now and March 4. Should be back to my semi-normal schedule as of March 5. Will still be checking in, and may find time to blog occasionally.


Hirelings, Or, Why Bother With A Permanent Record Sheet?

If you're going to retain yourself some hirelings, you just know that there's no point in recording more than the bare necessities. Do you really think they are going to survive for more than one gaming session? Either they bolt at the first hint of danger, or they die from that centipede bite in the first room of the dungeon.

In either case, given the futility of actually recording them on your own character sheet, or, god forbid, using a whole sheet of paper (won't someone please think of the trees?!) to record the stats for your lantern bearer, porter, or trap-springer, why not use a small scrap of paper to keep track of them.

The above 2"x2" character card is perfect for keeping track of your hirelings. Roll up some quick stats, put a weapon in their hand and some armor on their back, and then head-off to the dungeon, and their certain demise. If they actually last long enough to also serve as your dungeon pack-animal, write down the stuff they are carrying for you on the back of the card. And if you, not they, are the first to perish, you've already got some stats rolled up for your replacement character. Just have them loot your dead body, and off we go for more adventure.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fighter Character Record Sheet

Here is the other 5x7 character record sheet, this time with the spells section replaced with sections for magic items, equipment and treasure.

Again, I print these on 5x7 index cards, so they are pretty handy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Old School Character Record Sheets

I confess that in my teenaged years, I succumbed to the same temptation as many others.

That temptation was to develop a multi-page character record sheet, that included every conceivable piece of miscellanea about a character, from her height, weight, and eye-color, to her turn-ons and pet peeves. In my defense, the development of my multi-page character record sheet was roughly co-incident with the roll-out and rise of 2nd Edition D&D, so I blame TSR for my folly. The character record in question was an 11x17 sheet, folded once, to create an 8x11, four-page character booklet. Oh, the humanity!

Flash forward several (cough) years. Having re-discovered the in-elegant simplicity of old-school gaming, my thoughts again turned to the character record sheet. But considering the fragility of low-level characters in old-school D&D, it just seemed so, well, decadent and presumptuous to use a full sheet of paper as your character record sheet. At a minimum, doing so would reveal your cockiness, brashness and over-confidence, thinking your first-level character would survive long enough to justify a full page. In fact, bringing a full-page character record to the table, and parading it before your old-school DM, would be like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull: you're just begging for an early exit from the game!

As it turned out, at the same time that I was thinking about this, there were several OS bloggers talking about simplifying and shrinking character record sheets. Some had gone so far as to post their own minimalist character sheets, many of which were quite well done. As I read their blogs, and reviewed their efforts, this got me to wondering, just how small could one make a character record sheet, and it still be useable?

My goal was to create a character record sheet that would fit on a 3x5 index card. In that effort, I failed. The best I ever managed was to produce a 4" x 5 1/2 " character record sheet that would fit, four to a page, on a regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. Any smaller, and there was not enough room to record all the information that seemed critical, at-a-glance.

The character record sheet, above, is NOT the 4" x 5 1/2" version. Instead, it is its slightly larger 5x7 cousin, that I print onto index cards. I like the above-pictured character record sheet, because it has the fist, signifying the area to record your preferred weapon, and the shield, a visual cue for recording your armor class. Both just scream 'old-school' to me. I was tempted to employ either a cross or band-aid to signify hit points, but neither seemed entirely appropriate. I actually designed two different 5x7 character record sheets: one, for magic-using characters, and another, for fighters. I will also post the fighter sheet: on that sheet, the section for spells is replaced with additional space for weapons, loot and equipment.

Character record sheets are a very personal thing: the layout that works for me might be completely un-intuitive to you. I don't think this is the be-all and end-all of character record sheets, but hopefully it will inspire you to develop your own minimalist character record sheet.

After all, the player with the largest character record sheet is also the one most likely to trigger that 30' deep pit-trap.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

B/X Dungeons And Dragons Character

So, several days ago I rolled up a character for P_Armstrong's face-to-face B/X Dungeons and Dragons campaign (Pat, I hope pre-rolling a character is okay!)!

The B/X campaign is scheduled to kick off on Sunday, February 28, at 11 a.m. at The Sentry Box, the largest and oldest FLGS in Calgary. On the Calgary Red Box site, several of us have been talking about exploring that most venerable and beloved old-school adventure site, B2, Keep On The Borderlands. There are currently four participants, but i'm sure Pat would be pleased to have even more players around the table: low-level D&D adventures are dangerous and fatal, and there is strength in numbers, both for combat, and in bluffing the monsters into giving you their treasure in exchange for their lives. Visit the Calgary Red Box site and/or visit Pat's blog, Ode To Black Dougal, if you want to get back into old-school gaming or are interested in seeing what all the fuss is about!

I rolled up a Magic-user, and called him Castor Brandlestix. Above is the character sheet that I used to record the information. Character creation took me about seven minutes, between rolling up his stats, buying his equipment, and picking his spell. Now i'm ready for adventure!

I am going to roll up three men-at-arms as well, and bring them to the game. That way, if my character falls in combat, I will have several replacement characters to choose from!

Edit - here is one of the three men-at-arms that I created: Brother Maynard, a Cleric. The other two, Bors and Ironside, are fighting-men.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Third Floor of Tamworth Castle

Here is the third floor of Tamworth Castle.

There is also a fourth floor, but I think it is merely the battlements of the tower and the portion of the keep on the left-hand side.

If you do a search of Tamworth Castle, you will find several photos, including some nice aerial pictures. I sometimes have a hard time visualizing old castles, without some photos to fall back on.

The nice thing about the Tamworth Castle site is that they have easily two dozen or more different photos, including many interior shots, to help you visualize the rooms. That helps when trying to describe them to your players.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Shrine Of Primordial Malevolence

Here is the second floor of the abandoned Keep, which guards the entrance to the Shrine Of Primordial Malevolence. No, i'm afraid that title just doesn't have the same ring as The Temple of Elemental Evil.

I was posting yesterday, regarding Tamworth Castle, which I found on the interwebs. The maps of that castle are on the above-linked website, and I found them suitable enough for my purposes that I copied them onto graph paper.

Here is the second floor of that Castle. As I mentioned previously, I like that there are several sets of stairs, leading to different areas of that castle: those stairs give players more choices as to where they want to explore. In addition, it allows me to populate the castle with several different monsters, all of whom have their own access to their lairs, without conflicting with the other denizens of the castle.

I will post the third floor tomorrow, as I am busy preparing for gaming night tonight.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Drawing You Own Monster-Infested Keep

There are probably more than my fair share of half-drawn dungeons and castles filling up space in the local landfill.

I am notorious for beginning to draw some adventure environment on graph paper, only to abandon it half-way through, on account of the map being visually uninteresting, or my losing interest in the adventure concept. That is why I like published adventures: I don't need to worry about drawing the dungeon, and there are lots of adventures that are adaptable to whatever type of campaign I am running.

My preference is to run adventures where the maps are both interesting and realistic. By interesting, I mean the following: there are lots of choices for the players to make; many of the environmental details are revealed on the map rather than in the related text; and the map is both functional and artistic. By realistic, I mean the map describes an environment that could exist from a structural perspective. I'm no engineer, but I hear rumor that certain construction principles must be adhered to, if you want a building or an underground tunnel to be structurally sound.

One of the problems I have faced with published adventures is that the buildings or dungeons don't make a lot of sense, from an engineering perspective. One of the worse offenders is Castle Ravenloft. While I love that adventure, much of the design of the castle didn't make sense to me. I kept asking myself if someone would have actually built that castle.

My point here is not to be critical of Castle Ravenloft. Rather, what i'm trying to say, in a round-about way, is that when it comes to drawing maps of castles and dungeons, I would rather crib from existing environments, particularly if those environments are also visually interesting.

Here is an example -- Castle Tamworth, in England. That is an actual castle, which was built and modified over several hundred years, and is both interesting and structurally sound. It has lots of staircases, (five, on my edited map, if you count the one I added that goes down into the dungeon -- that staircase is behind the secret door, and below the stairs that go up from the main banquet hall) that lead up and down to different areas of the castle. The castle also has several relatively self-contained areas, allowing different monsters to co-exist on the same level, with a minimum of interaction or conflict.

I suppose my title was a bit disingenuous. This post is not about drawing your own monster-infested keep, but about using examples of existing castles or dungeons as the basis for your own adventure. Clearly, those of you producing your own commercially-available materials cannot use existing maps, unless you have permission or the maps are in the public domain. But surely those of us that are creating home-brew adventures, for non-profit gaming, can do so?

So if you are planning to create a home-brew adventure, why not do a little digging in the library or on the internet, and find some interesting dungeon or castle maps, that you can use whole-cloth, or that you use as inspiration for the design of your next adventure.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Local Bloggers

I'm just curious, how many of the bloggers you are following are actually in your home city or region?

Calgary's a fairly large city, of about 1 million people, and there at least 5 Calgary blog-sites, including mine, that are talking about D&D. The other blog-sites are:

P_Armstrong at Ode To Black Dougal and The Sandpoint Campaign

Alexis at The Tao of D&D

Rognar, Obiri and Derobane-bane at Roll For Initiative

Roger at Stirges Suck

Is that a fairly typical number of bloggers, for the size of city you live in? Roughly one blogger for every 200,000 people?

Strangely, I have not come across any bloggers from Edmonton, although maybe i'm just not looking hard enough.

Edit: Another Calgarian, K-Slacker, is also occasionally blogging at Barrier Peaks RPG, From The Ashes and Tempora Mutantur. K-Slacker, stop being a slacker and give us more posts!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Knights Templar And The Source Of Wisdom

Several of us were giving Chevski a good-natured ribbing about his shameless misappropriation of The Templar Head, turning it into the Brazen Head of Terms Termax. Mostly, i'm just jealous that he thought of it before it occurred to me! I came up with my own Knights Templar knock-off, the Knights Imperious, but hadn't thought to mine some of the other myths.

Chevski's post on the Brazen Heads reminded me of that thoroughly discredited speculative non-fiction book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Well, perhaps i'm overstating the case, when I say thoroughly discredited. Still, it's well worth the read, as long as you remember that much of it is speculative, and any time you see any materials referenced, that are provided by Gerard de Sede, Pierre Plantard, or the other hoax co-conspirators, you should discard any conclusions that rely on their manufactured evidence. There is some intriguing stuff in Holy Blood, Holy Grail that would make for an exciting "imperial" background for your D&D game.

Here is an excerpt from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, that occurred to me after I read Chevski's post.

"In France the arrested Templars were tried and many subjected to torture. Strange confessions were extracted and even stranger accusations were made. Grim rumours began to circulate about the country. The Templars supposedly worshipped a devil called Baphomet. At their secret ceremonies they supposedly prostrated themselves before a bearded male head, which spoke to them and invested them with occult powers."

- page 72 & 73

Monday, February 8, 2010

Resource Cards: The Holy Grail

One of my ongoing projects is to develop a set of resource cards, for use as props in D&D games. The idea behind those is to pass out the resource cards to the players, when they purchase equipment, find treasure, obtain rumors and clues, and so on. They therefore will have some tangible representation of the item or information, rather than simply writing the item or information down on their character sheet. That project was inspired by several things: the Paizo Gamemastery cards, the resource cards from the Civilization boardgame, and of course my much-beloved Magic Realm treasure cards.

While the Paizo Gamemastery cards are beautifully illustrated, I find them a little too large for what I am attempting: the Paizo cards are the size of a traditional playing-card (roughly 2.5” x 3.5”) while I am looking for cards that have a smaller footprint, say 1” x 1.5”.

Lately, I have let my resource cards project languish, but it is not forgotten. Here’s an example of a treasure card from Magic Realm, side-by-side with one of my prototype D&D resource card props. As an exercize in developing some resource cards, I am trying to re-create the Magic Realm cards, but with the addition of some simple artwork. Clearly a work in progress, but you get the idea.

Don’t let the card selection of the Sacred Grail fool you: as I have said previously, I neither like the Paladin class in D&D, nor do I have any interest in playing one. In my estimation, the specialist classes like the Paladin, and the introduction of 4d6 character stat generation, took D&D down the wrong path.

The Sacred Grail treasure, in Magic Realm, is a real boon to that game’s White Knight, as it supplies him with WHITE magic, and thereby gives him the ability to cast spells, away from the sanctuary of the Chapel. Of course, it is tempting for the other players (like me when I am playing the Black Knight) to cheese off the White Knight and simply sell the Sacred Grail to the Order, and thereby gain the 12 gold, but more importantly, the 50 fame points.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hubris, Terror and Despair In Dungeons and Dragons

There are several terrific moments, throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, where the protagonists and antagonists are confronted by their own hubris, terror or despair. Barbossa's death in the first movie. Jack Sparrow's death in the second. In the third, the final confrontation with Lord Becket. In that scene, Becket's hubris finally betrays him, and, in his moment of realization, he somnolently descends the stairs from the ship's bridge, Don Giovanni-style, into hell, both literal and figurative.

I admit I can be as low-brow, crass and ribald as the next D&D player, but when I comes to "adult" themes for Dungeons and Dragons, concepts like hubris, terror and despair are the ones I find most interesting to explore. Those are the ones that truly get emotions running high at the gaming table, and the ones that are talked about for days and months following.

Being unable to save a dying character or watching them get dragged down into hell. Having the chickens come home to roost on an earlier decision of the party. The 'long defeat' in Lord of the Rings. Disasters wrought as a result of the inaction of the party. I find those to be far more interesting than themes revolving around the libidinous or avaricious.

The problem is how to arrive at the confluence of circumstances necessary to achieve that, without railroading the players? Several months ago, while DMing a D&D session, the party was overwhelmed by some Yuan-ti. One of the characters was poisoned, and none of the others reached him before he succumbed. Not just the player, but the whole party went into a funk. Several sessions later, players were still talking about it, chiding themselves for not having prepared sufficiently, or having failed to act sooner: there were (at least not to my knowledge) no suggestions that I had constructed the death. To my credit, the players were previously warned about the poison, and several characters had made earlier saving throws.

I think hubris, terror and despair are the sorts of themes that players enjoy exploring as well. Particularly if they are coupled with themes of heroism and redemption. One of the features that I intend on adding to any megadungeon I create is a "Well Of Souls", a pit into the very depths of hell, teeming with horrors to cause even the bravest to faint, a location where the party must go, and -- at great personal risk to themselves -- recover a lost party-member.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Megadungeon - That's So 2009!

I don't know about the rest of you, but the recent publication of Michael Curtis' Stonehell has resurrected my fascination with the megadungeon.

The Stonehell megadungeon was seemingly inspired by ruminations, almost a year ago, regarding the feasibility and advisability of attempting a commercial megadungeon. While some pounded their chests and rent their garments, lamenting the impossibility of the task, others (like Curtis, Joe Bloch and Chevski) took action, one producing Stonehell, the second creating Castle of the Mad Archmage, and the third setting up In addition, Chevski's recent efforts to create a Dwimmermount setting banner suggest the possibility of another megadungeon in the offing.

Mind you, other than the efforts of those three bloggers, what other old-schoolers have undertaken the task of creating and sharing their own megadungeons? It seems like most of us in the blogosphere have moved on to new affronts and fascinations, such as the red-box, d6 weapon damage, science fantasy and sword-and-planet. I include myself here. I hope that's not the case, that there is still room for enthusiasm regarding the creation and use of megadungeons amongst D&D players.

When polling old-schoolers, one of the oft-referenced, "definitive megadungeons" is The Mines of Khunmar. Created by Stefan Poag in 1980, and published in 2004, The Mines of Khunmar is subtitled "An Adventure Outline" rather than megadungeon. That 58-page, free download comprises 12 pages of cover and background materials, and 8 Dungeon levels and sub-levels, spread over 46 separate map-pages. The Mines of Khunmar is well worth checking out, to see why many old-schoolers suggest it is a good example of megadungeonery.

Considering that The Mines of Khunmar is some 46 map-pages, you might think that it is a far more substantial, adventuresome offering than, say, Curtis' 20 map-page Stonehell. Yes, Khunmar is adventuresome, but Curtis' Stonehell environment is far more dense and compact, so more rooms and encounters are packed into each level of Stonehell.

The Mines of Khunmar contains a cornucopia of underground dungeon tropes that are expected of a megadungeon adventure: underground rivers, lakes and pools, chutes, gently-sloped passages to lower dungeon levels, vaulted caverns, abandoned temples, undead-filled tombs, throne-rooms, warring monster tribes, labyrinths, deadly tricks and traps, magical gates, rivers of lava, abandoned gold mines, dragons, demons, bottomless chasms, and monsters a-plenty. It also lacks any over-arching story: there is no BBEG to defeat, no epic battle to wage in the last room of the last level; there is no plot-line to follow, and no hooks or sign-posts that need to be satisfied.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Advanced DnD Monster Manual: Trampier Harpy

The other day I posted a Harpy illustration from the 1977 DnD Monster and Treasure Assortment accessory. Chevski and Spielmeister noted that it appeared to be a David A. Trampier piece. Well, here's further evidence supporting that. The Harpy from the AD&D Monster Manual. It has the same feathered body, hair and shaded wings as the illustration from the M&TA, and is signed with "DAT".

I was visiting The Sentry Box several days ago, and happened upon an old Goodman Games "Dungeon Classics" module, that features Harpies. I will have to pick that up, to see if it is any good.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pathfinder RPG Red Dragon

I'm not a Pathfinder RPG player. It seems like an interesting role-playing system, for those who enjoyed D&D 3.5, but my own preferences lean towards the more rules-light, old-school versions of Dungeons and Dragons.

I can't help but be impressed, though, with the artwork being produced for this game, and the related miniatures Paizo is churning out. Case in point is this stunningly powerful and dynamic Red Dragon miniature, being released in April 2010.

This Dragon also appears on the front cover of the Pathfinder RPG, and will likely supplant my "Forge of Fury" Black Dragon as my new favorite dragon sculpt.

Yet another must-have miniature!

Monday, February 1, 2010

And Still More Harpies

I swear, i'm just trying to get Harpies out of my blood.

Here comes another Harpy, this time from the pages of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster & Treasure Assortment, Sets One-Three: Levels One-Nine, published in 1977.

Looking at the M&TA, I came across another Harpy illustration. Perhaps someone can tell me, who is the artist?

According to the tables in the M&TA, Harpies do not appear until Dungeon level 4. That gives players lots of time to find an antidote or protection from the charm ability of Harpies.

Edit: James Chevski and Spielmeister opine that this may be a David A. Trampier piece. I am inclined to agree, although the drooping fingers and the nail on the thumb of the free hand, the over-long arms, the elbows, the dagger hand with its awkward flexion, the wavy dagger ... they all contribute to an unsettling Erol Otus feel to the art.