Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dungeon Module D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth

This post really needs to be subtitled "A Megadungeon Template."  I say that because the Drow module series is the best example I can find of a TSR-published adventure that provides the sort of megadungeon I would want to run.  

The D-series of modules are comprised of D1, D2 (Shrine of the Kuo-toa) and D3 (Vault of the Drow). That series of modules provides a variety of location-based adventures, while simultaneously giving the Dungeon Master a wealth of un-developed locations for future use.

Each hex of the above map represents one mile, and only the dark grey sliver, extending from the top-left to the bottom-right of the map, is developed in the D-series.  The rest of the map, including the sunless sea in the top-right corner, is left for the Dungeon Master to develop.

The D-series starts where the G-series (Against the Giants) left off.  Having defeated the Hill, Frost and Fire Giants, the players discover that all three giant races are being manipulated by the Drow, a race of evil subterranean elves. 

The characters come into possession of a map, and using a rope-bridge and crane, the party crosses a river of lava in search of the lost city of the dark elves.  As they make their descent towards the dark elf stronghold they encounter giant slugs and other enormous subterranean creatures.

There are three major encounter areas in D1, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth.  The first is a Drow checkpoint, staffed by two separate Drow patrols.

The second encounter is a Mind Flayer outpost, representing an incursion into the realm of the Drow.

Finally, the party reaches a massive underground cavern, populated by Bugbears, Troglodytes, and Trolls, along with Drow, Purple Worms, a Lich, Gargoyles, and sundry other potential adversaries and allies.

Other than the first Drow outpost, there is no absolute requirement that the characters must participate in any of the encounters in this module.  Nor must they defeat the Drow or any of the other denizens.  In fact, there is an opportunity to win the trust of the dark elves by eliminating the Mind Flayer outpost.  The players will likely encounter at least one drow caravan while plumbing the depths, and those encounters also provide opportunities for role-playing and negotiation.

Even the Lich, who occupies a side cavern within the major encounter site of this module, can be easily avoided:  don't enter his lair to begin with.

I really like the form of adventure that the D-series represents.  While it provides a destination-based adventure path, there is no particular requirement that the players pursue a specific goal as they seek that destination, nor does the module presume that every denizen encountered must be defeated.  In addition, the module offers side passages that the DM can flesh out, to create a completely novel adventure.  And then there is that tantalizing sunless sea, lurking up in the top-right corner of the map.

I like that there is a boundedness to the D-series of modules, while offering significant agency to the DM and the players.  That, to me, is the hallmark of a good adventure product.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Talisman Of The Inner Chamber

He realized he still gripped something in his left hand, and lifted it to the flickering light of a nearby fire.  It was a length of gold chain, one of its massy links twisted and broken.  From it depended a curious plaque of beaten gold, somewhat larger than a silver dollar, but oval rather than round.  There was no ornament, only a boldly carven inscription which O'Donnell, with all his easterly lore, could not decipher.

"Your pardon, Lord! She clasped her hands. "I did not know that you carried the token!"

"You babble as bees hum!" He scowled, dangling the pendant before her eyes.  "You know not the meaning of this thing."

"Nay, but I do!" she protested. "It is the symbol of the Guardian of the Treasure!"

-- Robert E. Howard, The Swords Of Shahrazar

The bold, even reckless pursuit of treasure is a regular feature of swords and sorcery tales.  That is no less true of those stories contained in Robert E. Howard's Swords Of Shahrazar collection.  Kirby O'Donnell, the false Kurd, and hero of these tales, invades the Shining Palace of forbidden Shahrazar, intent upon looting the fabled treasure of Khuwarezm.

How O'Donnell comes into the possession of a talisman of the Inner Chamber, and his resulting suberfuge in eluding the guardians of the treasure, is best revealed through your own reading of this tale.

The inspiration derived from these old sword and sorcery tales can take you in all sorts of directions.  For example, 13 Talismans of the Inner Chamber exist, one hidden on each dungeon level beneath the Shining Palace.  The players may mistakenly sell the first couple of talismans, considering them to be mere jewelry to be cashed in, until they discover the secret of the talismans: they permit access to the fabled treasure-room of Khuwarezm, and safe passage past the guardians of the treasure.  How the talismans accomplish that, and who or what the guardians are, is up to you.

I leave you with a brief glimpse of the treasure of Khuwarezm.

O'Donnell pulled open the door -- a wide block of marble revolving on a pivot -- and halted short, a low cry escaping his lips.  He had come upon the treasure of Khuwarezm, and the sight stunned him!

Upon a round slab of pure jade gleamed tokens of wealth beyond the dreams of madness.  Blocks of virgin gold, and rising in a pinnacle of blazing splendor, ingots of silver, ornaments of golden enamel, wedges of jade, pearls of incredible perfection, inlaid ivory, diamonds that dazzled the sight, rubies like clotted blood, emeralds like drops of green fire, pulsing sapphires -- O'Donnell's senses refused to accept the wonder of what he saw.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

More Pathfinder Minis

Over at the Paizo blog, Erik Mona has posted more pictures of the pre-painted miniatures that will be included in the Rise of the Runelords miniatures set.  Here are the four most recent figures.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Appendix N: The Space Merchants

"Our representative government is now more representative than ever before. Not necessarily representative per capita, but most surely ad velorem.

If you like philosophical problems, here is one for you.  Should each human being's vote register alike, as the law books pretend and some say the founders of our nation desired? Or should a vote be weighed according to the wisdom, power, influence, and money of the voter? 

That is a philosophical problem for you, you understand; not for me. I am a pragmatist, and pragmatist, moreover, on the payroll of Fowler Schocken."

- Mitch Courtenay, The Space Merchants, Page 15

The Space Merchants, written by Frederik Pohl, was published in 1952.

It posits a dystopian future in which corporations and the wealthy control American politics; advertisers and the media manipulate public opinion to serve the interests of the wealthy; and environmentalists are loathed and discredited. A more ridiculous and unlikely future could not be imagined.

Our protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, Copysmith Star Class for the powerful advertising firm of Fowler Schocken, has been given a new assignment: create an advertising campaign encouraging Americans to settle Venus.

His problem?  Rivals within his own firm, murderous competing advertising agencies, fanatical environmentalists, and an errant wife ... one, some or all of whom want him dead.

"He found what he was looking for on the front page of the New York Times ... and he really wished he hadn't. Mitch Courtenay, head of the Venus section of Fowler Schocken, found his obituary in the first column.  Seems he'd been found frozen to death on Starrzelius Glacier. He'd evidently been tampering with his own power pack, and it failed. Somebody wanted him dead, and wanted it now."

Mitch wakes up to find himself far from home and imprinted with a new, working-class identity. He struggles to escape the contract, wage and debt slavery of working-class life, unravel the parties behind his abduction, and expose their connection to the Venus project.

Like many other Appendix N novels, The Space Merchants is a slim volume, in this case a mere 215 pages.  I have to admit, when picking up this novel, I expected a jaunty, space-opera tale of Han Solo-esque ruffians.  So I was surprised, and not unpleasantly, that it was instead a satire of politics, advertising, marriage and corporate ladder-climbing.

If you enjoy the satirical, dystopian future genre, or the film Bladerunner, you might want to pick up this old gem.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ken Kelly's Conan

As I read through my Appendix N collection, I can't help but note the fabulous covers on the Berkley Robert E. Howard collection. 

Ken Kelly, the cover illustrator for that series, has a style reminiscent of Franzetta.  I'm drawn to his covers for another reason though.  All of his illustrations are wrap-around covers, thus explaining the positioning of the hero, and the action, in the bottom right corner.  These wrap-around cover remind me of another one, that being the David Trampier wrap-around cover for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook.

Not all of these Ken Kelly covers are of Conan, of course.  Black Vulmea, El Borak, Almuric and several others are represented as well.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Canadiana: Ordinary People by The Box

In the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.

We are ordinary people; lead ordinary lives
We use some simple ways to get simple happiness
We have ordinary problems; ordinary fears
We're just taking care of business, life goes on; nothing changes

We don't understand much 'bout those big-shot politicians
Whose got most of them firecrackers to blow up in our faces
I'd bet my shirt that way back there in the U.S.S.R.
People think like you and me, life goes on; nothing changes

We ... are ... ordinary people
Our star bears no color, red or white

We  ... are ... ordinary people
No matter what we stand for, all in all
We're all the same; it don't matter

In the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.

I wonder what the Soviet Rambo looks like in their pictures
I'm sure as hell he's just as "sweet" as ours
There's got to be some Russian Sting who sings about his people
Their strongest will to live in peace, life goes on; nothing changes

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Fatigue In The Magic Realm

August 23, 2009 is a date significant to me only because it was the day this blog was established. 

At that time, the stated purpose of this blog was to discuss several game systems:  Thomas Denmark's Dungeoneer; Metagaming's The Fantasy Trip; Dragon Warriors RPG; Dungeons and Dragons; and Avalon Hill's Magic Realm.

While I have ranged somewhat further afield, I don't think I have wholly neglected Magic Realm, particularly over the last several months.

Magic Realm has an innovative combat system that includes a system of recording combat fatigue. 

In Magic Realm, each character has 12 cardboard counters (called chits) that operate in many ways like DnD`s hit points.  For example, the above 12 chits are for the Black Knight (one of 16 available Magic Realm characters). 

Imagine that each of those carboard chits represent 1 hit point (more properly, a wound point, since each successful attack inflicted on a character results in a single wound).  So each character has 12 hit points. In addition to representing a hit point, each chit also has an ability attached to it, either a move, fight, spell or special ability.

The top row of Black Knight chits represent various moves that the Black Knight can make.  I have republished that first row of chits, below.

In the first row of Black Knight chits there is a medium move, with a speed of 4, which is somewhat fatiguing (a single effort-star).  The next chit is a medium move, with a speed of 5, which is easy, as it includes no effort-stars.  The third chit is a heavy move, with a speed of 4, which is very fatiguing (two effort-stars).

To use a DnD 4E analogy, think of those character chits as follows:  two effort-star chits represent daily powers; one effort-star chits represent encounter powers; and no effort-star chits represent at-will or utility powers.

Further consider that each round of Magic Realm combat is equivalent to a DnD 4E encounter. That means you can play a maximum of one effort-star per combat round (one encounter power) without penalty. 

However, if you want to play two effort-stars (a daily power, to continue the 4E analogy) you must set aside one of your single effort-star chits in payment for the fatigue you suffer in performing that fatiguing maneuver.

For example, the Black Knight may play the following combination of chits during the first Magic Realm combat round:

In this instance, the Black Knight has played a move chit with two effort-stars, thus suffering some fatigue.  However, the Black Knight still wants his Move H4** chit to be available for future combat rounds, so he sets aside another one of his single effort-star chits, in this case the one below:

As a result of the sacrifice of the Move M4* chit, the Black Knight now has 11, rather than 12 hit points remaining.  However, he still has access to the Move H4** chit (the Magic Realm equivalent of a DnD 4E daily power) for later re-use, as the Black Knight sacrificed an analogous encounter power chit to play the daily power chit.

During the second combat round, the Black Knight again decides to play two effort stars, this time in the form of two, single effort-star chits (the equivalent of two DnD 4E encounter powers):

Again, because the Black Knight plays two effort-stars, he must set aside another single effort-star chit to pay for the fatigue he has suffered.  Since he has two Fight M4* chits, he chooses to set one of those two aside to pay for the fatigue.  He does not need to use that particular chit, any chit with a single effort-star will do, to pay for the fatigue:

The Black Knight is now reduced to 10 hit points.  During the third combat round, the Black Knight decides to play only a single effort-star, as follows:

Since the Black Knight is allowed to play a single effort-star (single encounter power) each combat round without penalty, he suffers no fatigue this round.  Thus, the remaining 10 hit points continue to be available in the fourth combat round, during which he can again choose whether to suffer fatigue in exchange for playing a powerful Fight or Move chit.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Some Final Thoughts On Fatigue In DnD

I'm sensing more than a little exasperation from certain quarters regarding my plea for fatigue to be a recognized component of DnD combat.

For those "in the know", it will be plain that I'm no game designer.  I don't have the critical mind for it.  Nor the patience for endless stress-testing, to ensure a game component or system is sound.

I leave it the rest of you in the OSR community (the ones who possess real creativity and intelligence) to come up with novel solutions.

As mentioned earlier, hit points were re-purposed by Gygax to encapsulate many disparate elements of combat effectiveness, not to simply represent the capacity to absorb wounds.  Luck, fate, skill, endurance, willpower, concentration, and stamina are just a few elements encapsulated by the hit point pool, in addition to physical damage.  Despite that, very few, if any DnD, players utilize the hit point pool to its full potential.

In traditional DnD combat, the only way that your hit point pool can be diminished is if you absorb an attack from an opponent.  But it is acknowledged that this pool represents skill, endurance, concentration and strength of will, in addition to fate, luck (the avoidance of otherwise damaging blows) and capacity to absorb damage. 

If the hit point point pool represents skill and endurance, why can a player not exhaust some of that hit point pool to inflict additional damage on an opponent?  Effectively, the player would be expending some of their skill, and/or accepting some combat fatigue, in exchange for inflicting additional damage.

This sort of approach would not require any additional book-keeping, other than the book-keeping that every player already accepts, ie. tracking their remaining hit points.  It would also not contribute to that nay-sayer phantom, called "the death spiral," since the expenditure of the hit points would not affect the character's combat effectiveness, merely reduce her endurance (hit point) pool.

I leave it to brighter minds than mine to come up with a way to implement this, although off the top of my head, here is one approach.

During every round of combat, each player can declare, after a successful roll to hit, whether they wish to expend points from their hit point pool (become fatigued) in order to inflict additional damage.  The amount the player can expend from the character's hit point pool, in any round, is tied to the character's level and class. 

For example, Magic-users can expend a maximum of 1d4 hit points, per level, from their hit point pool.  So a 5th level Magic-user could expend a maximum of 5d4 hit points from her hit point pool.  In exchange for the assumption of that fatigue, she can inflict double the number of dice of extra damage. 

So if a 5th level Magic-User accepted 5d4 of hit points of fatigue from her hit point pool, she would inflict 10d4 of additional damage on her opponent.

Similarly, Thieves would use a d6, Clerics, a d8, and Fighters a d10.  In every instance, whatever number of dice was chosen (to a maximum of that character's level) for the assumption of fatigue to their hit point pool, twice that could be inflicted on one's opponent.

It should be obvious the potential effects of such a rule.  First, character heroics: that a character can "go down fighting" by selecting an assumption of fatigue damage that would take them to 0 hit points or below.  For example, a 5th level fighter, with only 8 hit points remaining, might select 5d10 of additional fatigue, in order to do 10d10 damage to her opponent, knowing that, while she might take out the monster, she will likely die in the attempt.

Second, there is a possibility that the number of hit points lost to fatigue will be greater than the damage inflicted.  That's the risk the player takes, in choosing to make this fatiguing attack.

Third, in order to make this sort of rule palatable to the players, the recovery of hit points needs to be increased.  I like the idea mentioned elsewhere of 1 hit point per round or per hour, rather than day, with, say higher recovery rates for sleeping, eating and drinking strong drinks.

That is a amateur's stab at the idea of combat fatigue.  I'm sure others have better approaches to this problem.  The point is, there is a way to recognize and account for combat fatigue, without adding significant complexity to DnD battles.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Combat Fatigue and the Failure of Gygax

Travolta:  That's how Ali took the title from Foreman.  He beat him with a rope-a-dope.  Don't you remember?
Slater:  I don't remember what day of the week it is.
Travolta:  Everybody thought Ali's arms had run out.  That he's running on empty.  But he's just setting Foreman up.  He's letting Foreman burn himself out.  And then, in the eighth round, here comes Ali; and poor George has nothing left.

-- Broken Arrow, 1996

Dungeons and Dragons does a lousy job of emulating combat fatigue.  And i'm not just talking about fourth edition.  We're talking every single edition. 

It would be tempting to blame Dave Arneson for the failure of DnD to emulate the effects of combat fatigue.  After all, he is the author of the hit point concept.

Arneson's hit point concept eventually became DnD's aggregated measure of luck, skill, stamina, concentration, life-blood and endurance.  In fact, after all these years, it is still argued that only the last few character or monster hit points actually represent the life-blood of the combatant.  For the most part, inflicting hit point damage represents the whittling away of your opponent's stamina, the sapping of his will and skill, and the gradual theft of his luck.  In a word: fatigue.

But nowhere in DnD's combat system do the effects of fatigue reveal themselves.  A character's combat abilities do not wane as his hit points decrease.  A figher's speed and combat prowess are undiminished, despite having suffered a 50%, 75%, or even 90% hit point reduction.  And in a perverse twist, 4E actually provides combat bonuses when some players and monsters become "bloodied".  If you can imagine, as one becomes "bloodied" (fatigued), combat ability actually improves.

While it is true that Arneson first implemented the concept of hit points in his pre-DnD games, it took Gary Gygax to unthinkingly promulgate their hybrid use, as a combined luck, skill, stamina and endurance measure, when publishing the earliest versions of DnD.  And to this day, hit points in all versons of DnD, including 4E, continue to function just as they did in 1974, as a rather ghoulish goulash of combat capability measures.

Gygax should have known better.  As an avid reader of pulp fantasy literature, he had myriad sources available to confirm that pulp fantasy role-playing games absolutely require some sort of combat fatigue emulator. 

Even something as simple as the loss of a single hit point during each combat round due to exertion would have provided some reminder to the players that fatigue is a serious matter in battle.

My clucking and finger-wagging at Gygax applies equally to those DnD game designers who came after.

You need look no further to see that continued failure, than to study one of the so-called "marvellous innovations" of 4E, the AEDU system.  The 4E AEDU system gives each character at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers, and is a rather uninspired effort at combat fatigue emulation. 

It posits that there are certain daily and encounter powers that are so exceptional, and fatiguing, that they can only be attempted once per day or encounter.  That AEDU system has been roundly and justifiably derided, as riven by disassociated mechanics.  Most importantly, it eliminates an important component of player choice, since it prevents players from re-attempting a daily power, accompanied by some equally significant sacrifice elsewhere.

There's really no justification for the absence of combat fatigue emulation as a feature of DnD combat.  That few, if any, have recognized and rued its absence is the real tragedy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jim Roslof And The DSG

I was recently pointed to the blog of Bruce Heard, which got me to thinking about the 1986 ADnD Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the art of Jim Roslof.

Jim Roslof illustrated about a quarter of the 33-odd illustrations in the DSG.  In my mind, his art offerings provided the real snap to this late 1st Edition ADnD guidebook.

It's not surprising that the Drow should make an appearance in the illustrations of the DSG, considering that they are most famous of the underdark menaces.

The risk of becoming lost while dungeon-delving was an important feature of old-school DnD.  Mapping is one of those activities that is eschewed by players of recent versions of DnD, as it is not "fun."

I'm ambivalent towards the inclusion of skills in DnD.  I understand the benefits, as it regularizes and legitimizes certain in-game activites.  My issue with climbing, blacksmithing and other skills is that it resulted in dice taking the place of description.  Once skills had associated proficiency levels, players picked up the dice rather than engaging in dialogue with the DM.

There are a lot of later DnD players that grew up with the art of Elmore, Easley and Parkinson.  Those three artists introduced a more posed and heroic style to the art of DnD.  The early DnD artists, like Roslof, seemed to understand the sensibilities and gaming styles of the first generation of gamers.  In particular, that the game was about the mundane activities, like lowering the party into the dungeon.  Roslof and others were still able to include a feeling of risk and danger in those illustrations.

Roslof was not the only artist involved in the DSG.  Jeff Easley, Doug Chaffee, Greg Harper and David Sutherland also provided illustrations. 

While I really like Easley's black and white art, when did DnD become about hot, scantily clad wenches? 

Doug Chafee's artwork in the DSG, like the mushroom infested cavern, above, focussed equally on the adventurer's and the underworld environments.

Greg Harper displays a much heavier hand when it comes to his illustrations.  I do like this piece, above, of a party fleeing from some demon-spawn.  Still, the adventurers are more heroic than the ones we see in the artwork of old-school artists like Trampier, Otus or Holloway.

This uncredited David Sutherland piece is reminiscent of the aventuring tableaus found in the ADnD Dungeon Masters Guide appendices.  It seems by 1986, DCS had been relegated to cartography and diagrams, and was no longer the go-to guy for depicting adventurers in historical armor.