December 20, 2008

Happy Holidays!

I'm taking a quick break from RPG posts for a holiday post. Forgive me.
Okay, in the spirit of the season, here are my top 10 favorite Christmas songs:

Bonus Track! 11. Happy X-Mas (War is Over)
In this song, John Lennon begs the world for peace … a valuable sentiment, in any season.

10. All I Want for Christmas is You
Ye gods, a Mariah song I like! It’s true. It’s rather cutsie, but I like it.

9. Please Come Home for Christmas
A blues standard. There’s actually a surprising amount of X-mas blues tunes out there, but this tops my list. The Eagles gave it a good effort, and Jon Bon Jovi does a shockingly good cover of this, but for the real McCoy get your hands on the Charles Brown (no, the blues singer) version

8. Santa Baby
Eartha Kitt first sung and recording this in 1953, and she said it was a favorite song of hers. Smoky, bluesy, with a touch of sultry greed … this one charms with its bald-faced honesty.

7. Holly Jolly Christmas
Johnny Marks wrote a number of good Christmas songs, this among them. Burl Ives wasn’t the first to record it, but his happy voice is probably the first folks think of when this song is mentioned.

6. Let it Snow
A great love song that never bothers to mention Christmas, this tune has been covered at least 30 times to my count. Great stuff.

5. Christmas Wrapping
In 1981 the New Wave band The Waitresses spun a great tale of love lost, and found, and lost, and found… Charming, humorous, and something that touches a common chord.

4. What Child is This?
My favorite version of this lovely song is the Vanessa Williams version, well sung and passionately rendered.

3. White Christmas
The film
Holiday Inn made this Irving Berlin tune immortal, and with good reason—no one does it like Bing Crosby.

2. The Christmas Song
This wonderful tune was written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells during a particularly hot streatcch of summer, when Wells jotted some wintery-sounding thoughts on paper to cool off (mentally at least). Nat King Cole recorded several versions, beginning in 1946. Others have made covers of the song, but to me Nat's buttery voice invokes hot rum cider sipped before a warm fire.

1. Jingle Bell Rock
A fast, spirited song that, to me, sums up everything cool about holiday music. It gets me in a good mood every time I hear it for the first time in the season, without fail. That’s enough to earn it first place!

There are many, many more songs I could have mentioned, but this list is good enough for this year!

Get the lyrics and hear many of the songs mentioned here.

I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and the very best going into 2009!

December 18, 2008

Last Chance

Goodman Games will stop selling 3.5e products on December 31st. This is the last call.

I suggest folks grab these excellent modules and products while the going is good (and at super-low prices to boot)—don't say I didn't warn you while there was still time.

Visit the Goodman Games online store here, where you can purchase all 3.5 product at 50% off.

For the rest of this December, you can also visit their PDF store here to purchase 3.5 PDF e-books at $2.

This is an ideal time to grab some Dungeon Crawl Classics. Some personal favorites:
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #5: Aerie of the Crow God
    (Andrew Hind)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #7: The Secret of Smuggler's Cove
    (Chris Doyle)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #17: Legacy of the Savage Kings
    (Harley Stroh)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #36: Talons of the Horned King
    (Michael Ferguson)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #44: Dreaming Caverns of the Duergar
    (Michael Ferguson)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics #51: Castle Whiterock
    (Chris Doyle and Adrian Pommier with Harley Stroh and Jeff LaSala)
And hey, don't forget to pick up something written by yours truly while you're at it (wink-wink-say no more).

Get 'em while they're hot. Remember, after December 31st, they're gone forever!

December 01, 2008

Bright Torchlight, Big City

As has been (very kindly I might add) touted on the websites of Mike Ferguson & Ken Hart, Dungeon Crawl Classics #60 Thrones of Punjar is coming to a store near you in the near future. A late Christmas present if you will. I'm pretty psyched, as this is my first full-length adventure since The Scaly God (which holds a dear place in my heart but feels pretty ancient to me now). I appreciate having the opportunity to hurl another adventure at the masses—this time 4th Edition! I love the cover work of Eric Lofgren too.

City Adventures used to scare the hell out of me. The idea of running a campaign in the big city—be it Greyhawk, Waterdeep, etc.—was pretty terrifying. I prefer straight corridors and known quantities (a la The Tomb of Horrors, natch) as opposed to wide open spaces where the PCs may run amuck. As a DM, you gotta be able to think on your feet with even the best written/created city adventure.

This said, the best regular campaign I ever ran took place in a small city, specifically Fax on the Greyhawk's Wild Coast. We met for play every 2 weeks like clockwork, which gave the campaign the ease of time (something I desperately lack these days) and NPCs actually had time to develop. The PCs were befriended by a trio of shadowy yet good NPCS: Lasturne, grey elf owner of a mysterious curio shop (think of the Friday the 13th TV series and mentally you're heading in the right direction), Sharill, thief-in-training and member of the local guild, and Darksot, reformed thief with a hidden past. Added to the mix was Mentorian, wizard at large, and the guard captain Duncan. On the darker side was guardsman Ceril (a wererat that betrayed the party eventually and earned their wrath), the "evil cleric" Selyular (the bag guy who always seemed to get away), and Darnek, a bandit underling of the dreaded Silver Dagger cult that eventually joined the PCs for a time until meeting his end at the business-end of a ballista bolt. Rounding out things were an endless supply of haggling merchants, jovial bartenders, and local pickpockets.

If reading the above NPC descriptions makes things sound fluid, they were. The city environment allowed the PCs to run into the same NPCs again and again, there to bargain with them, trick them, and even at times woo them for favors. The NPCs followed their own agendas and slowly gained levels when the PCs weren't around. Good guys turned to evil, and at least one bad guy turned to good. Nothing was black and white.

I soon came to love the city forrmat, because it allowed a depth of play unmatched elsewhere. The players began to "write their own adventures" simply by what they wished their PCs to do. Want to visit Mentorian for wizardly training? There was a little "errand" to run first ... oh, and never mind that bitter ex-apprentice that thirsts for revenge. Want to join the thieves guild? Prove your worth via a bit of daring burglary in the high quarter and they'll allow you to run their trap-filled maze and qualify for membership. I planted adventure seeds everywhere I could, layered subplots over subplots, and let the dice roll where they may. (I'm still sad they never discovered that dimensional portal called the Dragongate hidden in the curio shop.) My players were charitable when needed—they endured a lot of names made up on the spot (they joked me that names starting with a D were spur-of-moment names, which they usually were)—but they seemed to love it. It was a great campaign that went on for nearly three years.

I can't speak much about Thrones at this point, except to say that my intent was to capture a bit of that "adventure seeds" concept, while also making a big city like Punjar feel dark, dirty, and almost claustrophobic. I wanted to provide both safe havens and dangerous places that the PCs might wish to give more than one visit. Did I succeed? Time will tell. But the adventure was terribly fun to write and soon took a life of its own, which is always a good sign. Here's to the city!

November 11, 2008

A Halloween Treat

Whew, what a crazy October it was! If it seems like it's been a while since my last post (or longer than usual anyway), you're not imagining things. Several writing projects keep me busy, but a greater event has occurred ... the birth of my son!

Kai Desmond Ralph Maffei arrived at approx. 1:27 pm Halloween day, after a long labor stretch by his Mom. (Honorary medal of fortitude goes to my wife, as always!)

We are delighted with our new arrival, and he brings us much joy. Life this last week has been crazy (he came home from the hospital a week ago today) and we haven't gotten a whole lot of sleep*, but it's all good. Saturday I added to our burgeoning debt by purchasing a new Macbook laptop so I can work in the livingroom while "doing the night-shift" (watching the rascal while my wife gets some sleep). It's a new chapter in our lives. A good one.

*I made the mistake of thinking that since I'm usually up till 2 am working or watching bad horror movies, the lack of sleep wouldn't be an issue (I normally average 4 hrs of sleep per night). Well, as Ken can probably attest, watching a newborn in the wee hours ain't the same as watching cable tv!

September 27, 2008

Mad Mazing

I’ve been a computer geek from the beginning. By 5th grade I was screwing around with BASIC on computers that displayed eye-blinding green type (or sometimes orange) on tiny screens. I remember getting a TRS-80 color computer one Christmas and being thrilled—this baby ran programs off cassettes—yeah, audio cassettes!—and I upgraded it from 8k to 32k. That’s RAM. Not megabytes, but 32k!

Back in the early 1980s (probably 1983 or 1984) my family was selected as a test family for a service called Videotext. We were a perfect test family, I suppose: two boys and a girl, two parents, two grandparents, all in one house. For about 6 months we got the service free and we answered some questions and did survey interviews about it. We were told that about 200 families in New Jersey had the system.

Videotext was like a primitive Internet, for its day. We could send simple notes (pre- e-mail) to other users, get weather and news, and submit letters to online advice columns. Aside from checking the weather and news, which I did every day, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the system … until Madmaze came along.

Madmaze was a 3-D style maze game. You navigated a graphic maze, and every so often you came to a drawn location, such as a castle, that had an associated riddle. If you answered the riddle, you continued. The only riddle I remember is: “Name a Rodgers and Hammerstein play named after a state” (Oklahoma). My brother and I became addicted. Before long, we—via our screennames—were listed in the Top 10 players. We soon we moving through the maze so fast that we began running into unfinished sections, and we were invited via “e-mail” to help debug the game by provided reports of bugs and unfinished areas. Every evening at 7-o-clock I sat down and ran the gauntlet for about an hour. This was way before Wolfenstein 3D and the Atari system had only been out a few years; this was new, exciting stuff.

Eventually the test period of Videotext was growing to a close. My brother and I, enjoying the personal competition, strove to finish the maze before each other … and anyone else. The last week was a mad dash to the finish, as the hallways of the maze grew steadily weirder (they had begun as brick or clay and now had glowing electrodes in them). Then it was over. My brother finished first, another player called ElBandito finished second, and I finished third—mere points apart. Curse you ElBandito!

As his prize for coming in first, my brother won a poster-sized print of the screen location of his choice, signed by the digital artist. My brother, knowing I knew the locations better and wanting to share his prize, let me choose. It was easy; after briefly considering the Haunted House I chose the Castle (big surprise, eh?). We indeed received our print (which sadly is now long gone) and it adorned our bedroom wall for a time. Soon thereafter the system was removed from our house and we heard little more about it, though it seems the test helped lay the groundwork for the Prodigy online system.

Historical notes: Internet searches lead me to believe that Videotex (no t) was the name of our service, but I remember it being Videotext, dammit! Greg Costikyan (designer of the West End Games’ Paranoid RPG, among other things) developed a Madmaze game for Prodigy in 1989, but this is not the game we played. Some screenshots of this latter game are labeled Madmaze II, so I have to assume that we played an earlier or prototype version (call it Madmaze I or perhaps Zero).

So what’s the moral here? Not much, except to share memories of my first online dungeon. Later adventures in the computer realm would follow: Ultima III and IV, Wolfenstein, etc., but few captured that excitement of exploring Madmaze.

September 09, 2008

Back from the Con

I wanted to post this earlier, but alas, life has been busy! This month has found me happily writing the hours away, and both my personal and professional lives have gotten busier with various things—including a baby on the way!

A week before the Con, the same day I launched a new 4e campaign (more of an experiment I hope to expand with more players later), I took a bad fall and ended up badly tearing the ligaments in my foot (and possibly breaking bones as well, possible MRI to come). My foot promptly changed all shades of blue, and my orthopedic surgeon happily pronounced it the worst sprain he had seen in recent memory. I ditched the crutches a day before flying out, but still needed a cane for support (oh the humanity).

Our flight to Indy was Turbulence City and twice the plane dropped and shook -- after the second drop I turned to face my now dead-awake seat-mate who stared at me plate-eyed and said, "That was disconcerting!" So much for good beginnings! (They say bad things come in threes, and last week a neighbor backed out of her driveway right into my car. Crash. The car of course wouldn't have been there except I can't currently drive because of my foot ... sigh. So I figure foot–flight–crash makes three!)

The Con was hectic but fun. The Goodman Games/Troll Lords party was a hoot, replete with old RPG war stories told by veterans. I finally had the pleasure to meet the unique energy avatar that is Harley Stroh, and I totally failed my Fortitude save versus his infamous bear hug. The Slippery Noodle was my kind of place, replete with blues music (I jocked my own blues show for 5 years on public radio).

Friday night we stormed the ENnies, our toasting glasses filled with Whiterock soda at the ready. I was disappointed (to put it mildly) that we didn't get the gold, as I feel our entries were all incredibly deserving. Such is life. Castle Whiterock did take Silver for cartography (congrats Jeremy!) and that's no mean feat. Next year is ours, just wait...

Highlights of this trip included working the Goodman Games booth, which is one of the few times I actually have the pleasure of interacting with our customers. The Con also puts me into contact with some folks I don't get to see all that often, as well as my GG East regulars Ken Hart and Adrian Pommier. (Top marks to Blackdirge for still managing to stoke my interest in swordfighting mere minutes after hearing my broken thumb story. And no, I'm not dueling you next year, dude!) Amy & I spent part of an afternoon over at the Indiana Museum and got to see the Jack Kerouac scroll, which was very cool.

Friday I also got some shopping in, of course. My acquisitions included:

  • All the Goodman Games 4e modules

  • Dice I really don’t need

  • D&D figures I really don’t need

  • Some neat mini terrain pieces and crates made from used tires

  • Delta Green: Eyes Only (Chaosium)

  • Dragon magazines # 296, 297, & 298

  • FR2: Moonshae by Douglas Niles (TSR)

  • X8: Drums on Fire Mountain (TSR)

  • The latest issue of Kobold Quarterly

  • A dice bag decorated with a bow-wielding nymph

  • F3: Crystal Skull (Necromancer)

  • Some Cthulhu car stickers

Saturday night was the GG seminar "How to Write Adventures That Don't Suck" and it was a blast. Our esteemed panel included Joseph Goodman, Harley Stroh, Ken Hart, Jeff LaSala, Brendan LaSalle, Adrian Pommier, and Luke Johnson, talented folks all. We had a friendly, intelligent crowd and there were some good questions. As usual, I was shy until I opened my mouth, but the front row stayed awake and I got the sense the seminar was well received.

Sunday I walked a couple blocks down to catch the GG tournament-in-progress, to see if my Round Three creations were proving suitably deadly. Later I got to the GG booth just as the last of the trophies were being handed out (at this point my foot was pretty much shot, and my Speed was down to a 2-square rating). Congrats to the victors, the Blood Kings!

It was a good time. I talked with good people, was reminded that I work with an incredible group of guys and gals, and I held to my promise of getting my hands on some Indiana BBQ ribs (at both the Ram and Rock Bottom). Here's to next year!

August 10, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 8: Death to Acererak!

Back to our “Tomb tale”…

What follows is Spoiler City. Going to play in the Tomb of Horrors? Yes? Then scram! You’ll be happy you did later.

Our current player–character breakdown:

Adrian P. (covering for Mike F.)
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

As last we left things, our party had just triggered a switch that caused a small vault (a mere 10 feet square) to rise up. The vault was a mithril box of sorts, with a single door set with a pull ring.

Needless to say, the end of the adventure was clearly at hand. They, with some trepidation, pulled open the unlocked valve and strode into the vault. None of the characters would walk back out that door.

The vault held a small altar of sorts, surrounded by a scattering of items—several swords, a spear, scrolls, two rods, and potions, as well as several huge gems. At the end of the room on the low altar were what appeared to be the final, true remains of Acererak: a skull and a pile of bone dust.

As the party approached, a swirl of bone dust rose from the altar and assumed a man-like shape. The spectral thing moved toward the adventurers, clearly with dire intent! Forethal (or cleric) wasted no time in swinging at the shape with his staff of striking. The shape drew back slightly, and then resumed its course. Forethal swung his staff several more times, expending charges to intensify the weapon’s impact. The shape faltered several times, and finally disappated.

Our two thieves, Rath and Brandice, surged into the vault to assess the treasure. Ceralt the (lawful evil) fighter hung back, happy to let his companions take the brunt of any deathtraps that awaited before he entered to claim his portion of the treasure. Quint maintained a rear guard, trusty longbow at the ready.

The thieves took immediate notice of the skull; its eyes were set with valuable rubies of great size and its “teeth” were actually six marquis cut diamonds. Unable to resist, Brandice reached out and touched the skull.

The skull vibrated and immediately rose into the air of its own accord and Brandice stepped back a pace. Rath loaded his sling with the largest gem (a 100,000 gp black opal!) and slung it at the skull, but his shot missed at the gem shattered harmlessly against a far wall. Acererak’s skull turned, seemingly scanning the room and its occupants, before it stopped and leveled its gaze at Rath. In but an instant, Rath’s body crumpled and dissolved into putrescence and his soul was drawn into one of the ruby “eye” gems in Acererak’s skull!

At this horrid sight, Forethal stormed into the vault, his glowing staff at the ready. Brandice meanwhile cast identify on the items in the room in an attempt to find a strong bit of magic with which to fight this horror; he was convinced that something in the vault could be used against the lich. Brave Forethal charged his staff to full strength and bought it down on the skull … to no effect. The skull again rose, and this time Forethal let out a howl as his body rotted to nothingness and his soul streamed into the other ruby.

Quint ran into the room, drew his sword, and attacked as Brandice desperately searched the items on the floor. Brandice avoided a spear surrounded by evil magic but discovered a sword of great power and a staff of the magi. Soon the dauntless ranger crumbled to ash.

At this Ceralt screamed with rage and charged into the vault. Brandice threw him the sword and took up the staff himself. Ceralt swung the sword down on the bony plate with all his might and actually cracked the skull … but all too soon the skull rose again, its eye gems gleaming with tiny figures visible inside, panned the room, and leveled its gaze on the fighter. Cursing his last, Ceralt joined his companions in the gemstones.

Brandice rose in time with the skull, staff of the magi clutched tightly in this hands. The skull quickly settled its gaze on the drow mage-thief, and with but seconds remaining, Brandice did the only thing that came to mind … snapping the staff over his knee and creating a retributive strike within the 10-foot square mithril vault! The magical detonation whisked Brandice away to the Elemental Plane of Water and presumably destroyed the skull—but whether Acererak was truly destroyed or Brandice’s companions were spared is a tale for another time…

DM aside: I took some caveat in this last room, sparing them the dust ghost. The trick with this creature is that it’s harmless until struck, when it begins absorbing power from spells and hits. If it gains 50 hp “worth” of strikes and spell damage it becomes a full-fledged ghost! The creature was nearly formed but I decided the party had enough problems with the lich skull ahead and I spared them the ghost.

Brandice was also spared an unusually long time from the skull because the skull targets fighters over clerics, clerics over thieves, and thieves over magic-users (though it was a 50% toss who got soul-sucked between Rath and Brandice early on).

I greatly thank all my players—Adrian, Ken, Mike, Steve, and Willie—for a rip-roaring time. (My apologies if I got any details wrong in the retelling, its been a while!) First Edition AD&D proved to still have some life to it, and I was reminded that without Perception or Spot checks why those 10-foot poles came in so very handy!

To the next time!

August 04, 2008

Make Your Voice Heard

Alright folks, it's not too late to put your votes in. Click on the graphic below to vote:

I encourage my readers to place their vote in the ENnies, if they haven't already, and while you're at it why not place a well-deserved vote for DCC #51: Castle Whiterock in the categories of Best Cartography and Best Adventure? The good Mr. Pommier and Mr.Doyle knocked themselves out writing this mega-module and put their heart into it full-force, and it truly deserves to bring home the gold, so to speak.

And hey, kindly give Goodman Games your vote for favorite publisher while you're in the booth! We writers appreciate these things, and we thank you!

August 03, 2008

Sorry it's so slow around here

My apologies for the lack of posts, Gentle Reader. Yours truly has been very busy with many things, among them (happily) RPG writing projects. Expect several posts soon!

July 01, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 7: There Will Be Blood

Back to our “Tomb tale”…

What follows is Spoiler City. Going to play in the Tomb of Horrors? Yes? Then scat!
Our current player–character breakdown:

Adrian P. (covering for Mike F.)
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

The party marched into a fascinating foyer. Walls reflected the light from gleaming brass and beaten copper sheets. Ahead a short set of stairs climbed upwards, each stair constructed of a precious mineral. And at the top: a huge, vault-like door with a central depression and a tiny hole (a keyhole?) therein. A golden key, similar to the one found in the vat room, lay on a step. (Hereafter, we’ll call this the Second Key.)

Rath the dwarf mounted the stairs fearlessly, and proceeded to examine the door. Carelessly, he scratched the surface of one metal door. Almost immediately, the scratch showed red and soon began to drip blood—the blood of all those that died in the area of the Tomb! (This grim knowledge came to the characters, unbidden.) Before long the scarlet flow turned into a steady stream than ran down the stairs.

Forethal, scepter in hand, bravely inserted the scepter’s round, golden end into the door depression, and the great valve swung silently open. The party hastily ran through, but they realized the blood might flood the hall and still continue up… After a tense powwow, Forethal administered several healing spells to the nicked door and the flow finally ended.

The next chamber held many items, among them four fearsome iron statues bearing weapons, a ruined sarcophagus with bones, a smoking jug, and two chests. The thieves went right for the chests, Rath easily defeating his triple-locked chest (and gaining many gems) but Brandice failing his attempt to open his trunk. Meanwhile, the rest of the party inspected the area, including the sarcophagus (which they didn’t believe held the remains of Acererak, despite the named helpfully stenciled across the top in platinum), the statues, and the jug. Ceralt carefully deposited the jug back at the foyer for safekeeping.

A bit of true seeing by Forethal soon showed the true way—a secret trapdoor beneath one of the scary statues. Working together, the stronger party members shoved the statue aside and the group descended into the narrow crawlspace. The party, aware but confused by the “You’ve left and left and found my tomb” potion of the message walked past the actual secret door down a long corridor, but soon doubled back, found a tiny keyhole, and inserted the First Key. A section of wall rumbled away.

Beyond the sliding wall was a smallish area. The group filed in and a tiny hole was discovered in the floor. Another keyhole? Forethal inserted the First Key, and the resulting explosion blew him 5 feet upwards! Carefully, Rath inserted the Second Key, turning it once to the left (nothing) and once to the right, where a tiny click greeted his ears. The party waited … and nothing happened. Could the key have opened a door elsewhere?

Puzzled, they walked back down the corridor, where the hall eventually split. Some investigation led them to realize that the passages reconnected with the hallway leading to the siren’s grotto.

Brandice, assuming the way was clear (he had checked for pits earlier when coming the other way down the hall), waltzed through a door, plunged into a pit, and was stabbed by a poisoned spike. The pit was magical, and phased into the Tomb from another dimension when the door was entered from a certain direction! Climbing painfully out, Brandice joined his companions (who hastily inventoried their scroll collection for a neutralize poison spell).

The group walked back to the sarcophagus room, certain the answer was there! They surveyed the area, and Ceralt went back to the jug he had placed in the foyer, noted the puffs of smoke coming from its top, and popped the seal. Immediately streams of smoke and bright red light spilled forth, as well as an efreeti! The efreeti, pleased to be released after a long imprisonment, offered Ceralt three services. Ceralt choose to have three questions answered. The efreeti (truly happy at this simple arrangement) answered Ceralt’s questions about the Tomb in a truthful but cryptic way, but his last answer hinted that Rath had come the closest to finding the final resting place of the great Acererak.

After some brainstorming, the party walked back to the tiny floor depression and Rath again inserted his golden key into the keyhole. He turned the key, once, twice, three times, and suddenly the floor bulged, bent, and began to rise! Leaping away and avoiding being smashed to a pulp (my ominous DM countdown didn’t hurt), Rath watched in wonder as a huge mithril vault raised into the room. A humble pull-ring on a mithril door begged for use. The party walked forward, into the last room in the Tomb any would ever enter…

Stay tuned, gentle reader, for Part 8: Death to Acererak!

June 15, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 6: Balloons Away!

Back to our “Tomb tale”…

What follows is Spoiler City. You were warned.

Our current player–character breakdown:

Adrian P. (covering for Mike F.)
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

Our intrepid heroes turned their attention to the only unexplored passage, and headed north. They discovered the sneaky secret door hidden behind a false door, despite my attempts to lead them astray. Alas, they missed a second, important secret trapdoor immediately thereafter. A series of double doors led to a fateful passage—filled with potent sleep gas!

(This was my first lapse as DM, into “Old Softy.” I asked the players at the outset they wanted me to “go easy a bit” and they, valiant souls, would have none of it. They unanimously wanted to beat the Tomb on Gygax’s ground, and I respect them for that. I gave them a save not mentioned in the module … at –5 penalty. Back to our narrative.)

Forethal and Ceralt make their saves, barely, and stagger in place. The other PCs drop face forward, dead asleep. Elsewhere, a huge stone juggernaut comes rolling out of the room where until now it lay, quiescent. Rrrrrruble.

The rules: the PCs are asleep 2 to 8 rounds. Each round, if a 4 on a d4 is rolled, the juggernaut rolls 1d6 squares (10-60 feet). The closest characters are about 80 feet away! The PCs who save are extremely foggy, so I allow them 1d6 5-foot squares of movement … and Forethal rolls a 1. Ceralt does better and exits the corridor immediately, leaving his companions to their fate; did I mention he was Lawful Evil? Luckily, the remaining PCs, due to kind dice, only sleep two turns.

Turn one: I roll a 4, and the juggernaut rolls! The stone beast rolls 20 feet and stops. The cloest characters are a mere 30 feet away.
Turn two: The beast stays dormant.

The PCs flee back to the corridor.

At this point they doubled back a bit, confused. Which was the correct way? Many rolls for secret doors take place. Eventually, however, our heroes once again turn north and discover a secret hatch over a roughly dug tunnel that led to an adamantium door with three slots. Rath noted that the slots are the width of a sword blade. After some hand wringing, the PCs plunged three magic swords hilt-deep into the slots simultaneously, and the valve swung silently open, granting access to the pillared throne room. At this point the players, familiar with Acererak’s riddle, knew they were getting closer to their final objective.

Investigation of the pillared hall revealed many things: many burnt skeletons surrounding a glowing orange gem, an ornate throne chair atop which sat a scepter and crown, several glowing doors to the north, and two more stone devil faces high up on the northern wall. Every so often a strong breeze blew through the area.

The party investigated (visually at first) the throne, and then moved around the massive chamber counter-clockwise. Forethal detects a vague wish-related magic about the gem, but given the many burnt skeletons that littered that area none dared attempt a wish or to even touch the gem. The doors were inspected, but not opened. (Earlier harsh lessons obviously had an effect here and the PCs avoided touching most objects!) Eventually the PCs spread about the room and began looking for secret niches in the many pillars.

The characters touching the pillars—all but Ceralt, who maintained a guard position—suddenly found themselves floating weightlessly up to the ceiling, victims of some malign magic! Yet another breeze blew, pushing the floating PCs northward. They soon realized with some horror that they were being relentlessly pushed toward the two gaping demon mouths on the far northern wall!

Forethal and Brandice, the two PCs closest to the faces, tried desperately the push away from the stone idols with their 10-foot poles. Quint and Rath, sans poles, also were towed
helplessly northward. Ceralt surged toward Brandice, and dripping opposite ends of the 10-pole, they brought Brandice “down to earth” long enough to tie him to Ceralt. Rath meanwhile placed a foot on either side of the face that meant to consume him, pushing off and buying a few more seconds of survival.

Ceralt and Brandice hastened to assist the others, several of which were struggling at the very edge of being sucked into a mouth to an uncertain fate. Bracing with their legs and using iron bars, the remaining characters held off—barely—until help arrived. Shortly thereafter the effects of the magic on their persons wore off and they regained normal gravity.

None the worse for wear (except perhaps badly frightened) the party walked straight back to the ornate throne mentioned in the riddle to be both key and keyed. Forethal had earlier discovered a silver ornamentation at the base of the throne that matched the crown. He gripped the scepter and touched the silver tip to the silver rune. A moment later, the entire throne shook and lowered into the floor with a rumble, revealing a brightly glowing foyer beyond. The party stashed the crown and scepter and moved into thee opening toward the brightly glowing area ahead…

Stay tuned, gentle reader, for Part 7: There Will be Blood.

June 08, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 5: Slime All the Time

Recently I had the pleasure to DM the second half of an old-style, AD&D Tomb of Horrors session with friends (including two active members of the Goodman Games clan).

What follows is Spoiler City. Don’t read if you intend to enter the ToH as a player!

Our current player–character breakdown:

Adrian P. (covering for Mike F.)
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

Our brave PCs emerged from their battle with the “false Acererak” ready to continue their search for the real McCoy. A bit of backtracking (a dangerous thing in this place) led them back to the remains of the Chapel of Evil, there to bed down the night, rest, and recover spells. While there, they tested the archway of glowing orange mists in various ways, but didn’t tempt fate by stepping inside. Sound did not carry through the mist, nor did sight. (One character in the party, thinking evilly, animated the skeleton discovered earlier in the chapel and ordered it to step through the arch. He then ordered it to return, but it couldn’t hear his commands … presumably it stands there still.)

The party investigated the mummy preparation area, and Dendyr the cleric soon discovered the halves of the One Key hidden in the stone vats, and also the hidden ochre jelly! The jelly reared up and attacked, but was swiftly dispatched by Ceralt the fighter and Quint the ranger.

Next the party came to a long, open pit in the corridor. Many spikes dotted the floor. After some discussion, Brandice the drow mage-thief levitated across and affixed a rope to the far end. Each PC then would step down into the pit, walk across using the rope for balance, and climb up the other side. Simple! Dendyr crossed first, only to unleash a volley of spikes upwards as he stepped into the final third of the distance. Twenty-one points of damage later… time for a new plan!

A harsh turning point came for the group at the Jumbled Chamber (my term), a room of battered furniture, trunks, coffers, funerary items, and hideous greenish curtains depicting undersea life. Dendyr, Quint and Brandice busied themselves examining the walls behind the curtains, while Rath the dwarven thief-fighter checked out the (empty) chests.
Moments later the precariously balanced room responded to their movements, sending the characters flying. This happened several times. Finally, as the bruised characters were desiring to move on, Phelan decided to yank down one of the long curtains. Rrrrip! tearing the enchanted curtain reverted it to its natural state—an enormous quantity of green slime that fell in a sheet to cover a 10 by 20 foot area. In but a moment, Phelan and Dendyr were buried under mounds of green slime and destroyed, eliminating the group’s 14th-level cleric and 9th-level wizard in one fell swoop!

The band of adventurers trudged ahead, bypassing a spiked pit and then taking a spear to the gut (courtesy of a trapped door), and eventually made their way to a unusual grotto filled with brilliant streamers of gold and silver mist.

Rath inhaled the gas and shrugged off its effects, and he entered the cave solo while the others waited outside. Rath soon encountered a mysterious woman and engaged in conversation. She revealed little, evading questions about the tomb or her role therein and only hinting that she had been in her grotto a very long time. Rath, good thief that he was, noticed two sacks lying behind the woman and inquired about them. She sadly waved an arm toward them. The dwarf then touched the smaller of the two sacks and the other sack and siren immediately disappeared—spirited away to parts unknown (or oblivion) by Acererak’s magic. Investigation of the sack revealed four potions in metal, stoppered vials.

Rath related his experience to his companions as the shimmering mists in the cave behind him began to fade away. The group then forged ahead, moving to an area that would prove one of the most dangerous of the evening…

Stay tuned, gentle reader.

May 24, 2008

Monster Roles

Wizards recently posted an interesting Gamer-Zero video that does a good job of defining monster roles:

I may not be thrilled with all the implementation decisions made in the past few months, but 4e does look interesting. I very much like the idea of multiple variations of zombies and such. There can't be too many toys in the writer's toy box, in my humble opinion. Variety is the spice of life, they say. Time will tell.

May 09, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 4

As mentioned previously, in April I had the pleasure to DM an old-style Tomb of Horrors session with friends (including two active members of the Goodman Games clan).

What follows is Spoiler City. Don’t read if you intend to enter the ToH as a player!

Our current player–character breakdown:

Mike F.
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

Having triggered a bolt of lightning from the blue altar, Brandice and Quint were fortunate enough to make their respective saving throws and each took only(!) 20 hp damage. The altar now began to pulse with a strobing blue-red inner light. Dendyr marched over and cast dispel magic on the altar, dimming the light instantly.

Rath discovered a circular marking on one wall, beneath which was a carved slot. The group recalled a verse of the mocking riddle left by Acererak in the first grand corridor:

If shades of red stand for blood the wise need not sacrifice aught but a loop of magical metal – you’re well along your march.

The heroes inserted the ring they claimed from the chest room into the slot, and immediately a rumbling sound was heard. Meanwhile, behind them, the altar once again began glowing with a red, throbbing light, pulsing ever faster. A triangular slab of stone sank to the floor, revealing a passage beyond. Wasting little time, the party pushed one by one into the opening, the last character barely getting inside the corridor before a violent explosion sounded from the chapel behind them and sent a spray of burnt wood fragments into the tunnel!

The party walked down a flight on stairs into an average-looking corridor. Doors that appeared before them were opened cautiously, and Brandice triggered off several pits. At this point the players were carefully following the clues, and they were focused on the next line:

Two pits along the way will be found to lead to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall.

When a third pit was discovered Dendyr busied himself searching for secret doors around and inside the pit, but found nothing. The party turned a corner and came to a door secured with massive padlocks. Phelan cast a knock spell on the door – to no effect! With no other options, the stronger characters hacked away at the door and buckled it in half. From beyond came the sound of frightened people running away and was seen a distant red glow … torchlight?

The party emerged into a corridor with smooth alabaster walls and a floor of polished grey marble. As they walked toward the light, the floor suddenly shifted forward! As this point, I began a slow countdown… Every player immediately stated that their character was reversing at top speed, and the group managed the turn about and avoid a grim slide into molten lava! (On hindsight, I as DM should have had the players made some dexterity checks for slipping, running in place, and such, to put a bit of fear into the proceedings, but such is life…)

The PCs trudged back to the pits, confident that the answer had to lie there. A different hero discovered a secret door inside the third pit, and soon they were on their way. A short tunnel lead to another corridor with a flight of stairs, and the party also luckily discovered a secret door right at the top of the stairs. Walking down the stairs, they encountered masses of magical webbing barring their way, but a few swings from Brandice’s flaming sword soon took care of that obstacle. Near a door, Dendyr discovered a huge mace that glowed with a faint golden light.

Beyond the door lay a door containing a crypt room filled with ruined furnishings and a lich-like figure reclining on a couch of solid gold! A voice demanded to know who dared disturb the rest of Acererak!?

The lich soon saat up and began gesturing with his hands. Dendyr still clutched the mace, which now glowed brightly and the lich seemed afraid of the weapon. Pehlan triggered a round of magic missiles at the undead horror, but they were harmlessly absorbed by a glow that surrounded the lich-being. The fighters Ceralt and Quint joined dendyr in the front ranks and surrounded the figure, raining blows upon it.
The creature flailed out with its claws, tearing at Ceralt. Soon a mighty strike with the glowing mace sent the lich to the floor. The foul creature clutched at Dendyr’s leg and swiped at him, and he responded by swinging down the glowing mace in a vicious arc – rolling a natural 20! The mace struck the lich’s skull in twain, and the creature fell lifeless to the floor. Moments later the mace itself shattered harmlessly.

At this point we decided to break for the night. The players, aware of a secret door that leads deeper into the tomb, realize that their quest is not yet at an end….

May 06, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 3

As mentioned previously, a few weeks back I got to run a brave bunch of folks through the infamous Tomb of Horrors.

What follows is Spoiler City. Don’t read if you intend to enter the ToH as a player! I mean it!

Let’s jump right back into the action:

The party found themselves teleported from the arch and into a small, rectangular room occupied by a broken gargoyle statue. Dendyr’s divine magic revealed no traps. Brandice (M-U/Th 4/6), against the advice of his companions, dared pick up the statue’s sundered arm in an attempt to rejoin it to the statue.

They were about to leave, when Ceralt (F 14) lingered and discovered carved hollows in the gargoyle’s upturned palms. Ceralt placed three gems into the palms—the 100 gp ones fit perfectly!—and watched as the hands animated and the fine gems were ground to powder. That was enough! He told the party that any more gems wouldn’t come from his pouch, and the group soon exited, having come extremely close to finding a magical item that would help in the trials ahead…

Soon they crawled their way into a massive hallway, bedecked with ancient frescoes of creatures holding colored spheres, wooden doors, and another ominous mist-filled doorway. Hesitant to sample the archway, they turned their attention elsewhere, and soon the thieves sniffed out devious spear traps (nearly spearing a party member in the process). Dendyr marched the length of the hallway using his magic to seek out pits and such. Brandice did a bit of prodding and soon discovered that two painted spheres were illusionary and covered open spaces. After some debate, the party selected a sphere and crawled into the round opening, eventually emerging from a narrow tunnel into the Tomb’s “chest room.”

The two thieves approached the chests, Phelan (M-U 9) and Dendyr (C 14) close behind. Rath (F/Th 7/8) flung open one chest (staying carefully behind it as he did so), unleashing a spray of darts in all directions! Beyond the trap however sat an ornate ring that detected positive for protective magic.

Brandice, displaying his typical (read: near-mindless) daring moved on to the next chest, and unleashed 12 angry asps into the room. The venomous snakes milled about, striking at any PC that happened near. Rath stomped and struck at the vile serpents whilst Phelan beat a hasty retreat (something that often allows 1st-Edition magic-users to cast spells another day). Soon Brandice went down under multiple fang strikes, and shortly thereafter Dendyr too went down in agony, dying.A side note here: Old Softy that I am, I typically give poisoned PCs 1d6 rounds of non-combat life to reach magical aid before dying. Even the most poisonous serpents—I’m thinking the tiger snakes and sea snakes here, but I’m no snake expert—don’t kill you instantly, and in this case the snakes were “asps”—a rather general term that has typically been used in history to refer to African vipers and cobras—so a few rounds of life weren’t out of the question.

Second, odder side note: A long time ago, in a galaxy ... well, you get the idea .. when I was in high school, I had the snake chest image above made into a silk screen design and I colored it black, red, and green. That was a favorite t-shirt for a while! Now back to our program.

The characters retreated and soon Dendyr and Forethal (C 9) were able to magically eliminate the poison taint from our heroes, and the cleric and drow thief were saved from certain death. Deciding (wisely) that the remaining chest wasn’t worth the effort, the PCs returned to the remaining unexplored sphere and swiftly emerged into a grim chapel.

The horrid chapel held all manner of weird items. The heroes split up and explored the room, the thieves and Quint (Ran 12) heading up toward the weirdly glowing altar while Dendyr approached a skeleton in rusted chainmail. Nearby, orange mists surged from yet another clouded archway. Rath, while vaulting a railing next to the altar (something every PC was trying studiously to avoid touching) caught his trailing foot on the worm-eaten wood rail and very nearly fell face-down onto the altar. Brandice experimented with the newly found ring and the altar, whilst Ceralt and Rath moved to investigate the walls and pews.

Eventually (and predictably!) Brandice finally touched the altar … sending a 40-foot streak of lightning (base damage 40 points) shooting down the central isle! The blue bolt blasted through Brandice and Quint and ended just before reaching the startled (and extremely fortunate) Phelan.

Whew! See my next installment for the last part of my session report!

April 25, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 2

As mentioned previously, this past Sunday I had the pleasure to DM an old-style Tomb of Horrors session with friends (including two active members of the Goodman Games clan). The player–character breakdown:

Mike F.
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

What follows is Spoiler City. Don’t read if you intend to enter the ToH as a player!

Play began with the arrival of the party at the burial mound of Acererak, deep in the Vast Swamp.* The paladin quickly organized the party and they began a sweep of the mound, paying extra attention to the massive stones of blue-grey rock that made up the ‘face’ on the huge cairn mound. No sooner did they approach the stones when a sea of undead surged up from burrows beneath the stones and attacked, surrounding most of our heroes (save the cautious wizard)!

Ceralt and Valdamane charged forth and cut a swath through the foul juju zombies and risen zombie-bugbears, but the other PCs were less fortunate and were wounded by the zombies ragged claws. Phelan assisted from a distance, lobbing magic missiles from his trusty wand, as the undead moved to surround him. Before things got too dire, the clerics Dendyr and Forethal used their turning ability to reduce half the remaining undead to bone shards and the last of the undead were then dispatched in quick order.

The party soon circumnavigated the burial mound and began digging on the distressed northern side. Several hours of work later the party unearthed a tunnel entrance. The party marched into the corridor, Dendyr using his magic to detect for traps. The thieves approached a set of two doors at the end of the corridor, and each began an attempt to disarm the trapped doors. Brandice blew his attempt badly, and soon a 10-foot thick slab of stone was rumbling across the corridor, threatening to entomb the PCs!

I, as DM, began my first—but not last—ominous countdown of the evening. As soon as the count began, the party bolted for the entrance (thieves heading out last just as the lead-covered slab loudly sealed off the corridor behind them).

Undetered, the party resumed digging. They discovered two more entrance corridors, and to my delight as DM choose the second false entrance to try first. More cautious this time, Rath soon disarmed a devious trap at the southern false door that would have sent the ceiling raining down on their heads! They promptly departed for the last remaining tunnel.

The party spent a good deal of time examining the many gruesome drawings and features in the true entrance shaft. Dendyr discovered Acererak’s mocking, clue-filled message hidden in the floor runes, while Phelan discovered a concealed door sealed behind the illustrated wall mortar. The PCs paced out the corridor and soon discovered the huge demon face and misty archway at the tunnel end. Brandice meanwhile busied himself with a mysterious box that projected from a wall illustration … and landed in a 30’ pit with poisoned spikes for his trouble (he luckily missed the spikes)!

Dendyr the cleric and Valdamane the paladin approached the great face with its mouth of dead black. Wisely, Dendyr used an augury to seek his god’s counsel. The spell rules gave him a 84% chance to receive correct information, and he simply asked if the face bode weal or woe. I had Ken roll the dice over my screen … a 97. Uh oh. Weal, the DM stated with certainty. Demonstrating a paladin’s classic bravery, Valdamane crawled into the demon's mouth—and was promptly disintegrated by the fixed sphere of annihilation therein.

Dendyr and Phelan, working together, eventually found the means to dispel the archway mists. Ceralt strode confidently into the archway … and was teleported straight back to the other end of the entrance tunnel. The party then entered the archway, taking care to stay on the red tile path, and they found themselves transported away by stomach-churning magic to parts unknown…

*DMs using the Known Realms (I used Greyhawk in this instance to fit with the old-style theme) could easily locate the Tomb in the Great Swamp or the Gloom Marshes of Tashgar.

See my next installment for the 2nd half of our session report!

April 21, 2008

Running the Tomb

The Tomb of Horrors and I go way back.

My first roleplaying experience as a player, with an actual DM, was traveling through the dangerous underground halls of the Tomb of Horrors (ToH) … solo. Talk about avoiding the frying pan, missing the fire, and landing straight in the lava! (I don’t remember how far I got, but my PC—a fighter, I believe— made it at least as far as the evil chapel.)

Years ago I used to use the ToH as an introductory adventure for groups of new players. You heard that right. This was no deep desire to exterminate as many PCs as possible, rather I would tamp down the threat level of the Tomb, removing poison and dialing down damage as needed. It wasn’t all that hard actually; many of the ToH’s traps kill because of actions completely unrelated to level. A 1st-level character can survive a good third of the rooms if the player is very sharp (and very cautious); likewise a 15th-level PC can easily bite the dust if the player lets his guard down at the wrong moment.

In Dungeon # 116 a judging group of select RPG designers named the ToH one of the 30 best adventures ever, and the editors gave the adventure the cover shot. It’s a tough module, no doubt, and it’s often arbitrary and player-screwing attitude has led many to point to the module and cry foul, but I’ve run it enough to know that it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Players generally like dangerous situations and a touch of “Wait! Do I even dare touch that door?” I never ran a group though it that had a bad time when all was said and done.

Recently I had the chance to run the ToH for the first time in, what, 12 years? I don’t know, but it’s been a while. The passing of Gygax seemed to be an event worth honoring by DMing this granddaddy of modules, the first stand-alone adventure I ever purchased. I was able to collect a group of truly adventurous souls for the outing: Mike (Goodman Games author), Ken (GG editor/author), my friend Steve, and last but not least my old friend Willie. Equipped with two fairly powerful characters apiece, they embarked across the Vast Swamp for that most deadly of locations.

In my recent review/prep of the ToH—the original 1st Edition one, not the watered-down Realms of Horror, or Return, or 3.5e version (although I own them as well out of loyalty to the brand)—I found some problems, mainly with the list of pre-gens in the rear of the module.
At least one PC starts with +3 Plate, +3 Shield, and a Dexterity of at least 17. Oh my … that’s an AC of what, –7? Some of the creatures (the few there are) in the module have a mere 6 hit dice, and some are lower than that. Can they even hit the PC, barring a natural 20?
And here’s another pre-gen, a straight fighter. He cannot hurt the demi-lich with his given equipment, or his teammates equipment, and most anything found in the Tomb itself. What if he is the last standing member of his party (something quite possible herein)? What does he do if he finally makes it to Acererak’s final haunt, whistle dixie?

I put hand to keyboard and began to set things straight. Soon I had a reasonably powerful group of pre-gens that had a fighting chance against the terrors of the Tomb, and vice-versa. Time to, as they say, rock and roll.

But wait, you say. How did the recent group fare?

That is a tale for the next installment. Stay tuned, Gentle Reader.

March 25, 2008

Research, Research, Research

I’m a pretty big believer in research.

My favorite fiction writers—currently I’m into the scribblings of Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child—are usually good about doing their homework, and it shows in their work. Details and some healthy realism, even in fantasy, spin a web that can ensnare the unsuspecting reader … and once you’ve got them it’s too late.

My little source bookshelf is currently overburdened with reference material, and I’m adding more all the time. Some material has proved elusive, but there are many books about fantasy topics—medieval clothing, castles, etc. All grain for the mill. Most fantasy RPGs are set in a semi-medieval world, so one must pick and choose information, but there is still plenty to be had. Raiding the Barnes & Noble Sale Annex for large picture books on different cultures has become a regular pastime for me.

Often the little details aren’t individually noticeable, but I like to think that together they blend and make for a good final product. My Goodman Games adventure The Scaly God, for instance, incorporated a lot of weird research: research on lizards for the troglodytes, hours of research on caves and natural cavern formations, and castle research including Roman mountainside fortifications. I also studied Gygax’s Giant series (G2 and G3 specifically) in an attempt to give the third level cave layout an “old school” sense of flow.

Again, sometimes you must know when to “push the rules” a bit; real caves are often extremely tight and narrow to the point of claustrophobia—I choose the larger scale tunnels, but I did retain some natural formations and details.

Real life experiences, as I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, also shape my work heavily. I’ve walked through a good number of European medieval-age structures, and a summer spend studying abroad allowed me first-hand visits to Stonehenge and Warwick Castle. Later ramblings got me to Cardiff Castle in Wales and Urquhart Castle at Loch Ness. (And no, I didn’t see Nessie, but I was so knackered by the time I reached the loch that I was half-asleep on the boat! Sadly, Nessie would have had to bit my rump for me to take notice at that point.)
Whitefang Stronghold has a goodly share of those trips in it; I mentally threw several structures into the blender and liked what emerged. (None the Wiser, whose awesome and inspiring work I mention here, did note my lack of proper ceiling support or spiral stair construction in places—I guess engineering isn’t my strong suit! I did find his observation about having arrowslits on a staircase privately ironic—he is totally right, having them there really doesn’t make much sense, yet I put them there after, you guessed it, seeing similarly placed arrowloops in an Italian fortification!) One maze-like section of the third level caves was even inspired by a childhood memory of exploring Injun's Joe's Cave on Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island, of all places!

For me, part of doing the research is that it makes me believe in what I'm writing, and that in turn makes me more passionate about what I'm writing.

Does this research and resulting mental mishmash ultimately bleed into my final product enough to make a real difference? I like to think so.

So … ready to write? Try hitting the books first.

March 04, 2008

Thanks Gary

I am greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Gary Gygax (or EGG or Col_Pladoh, as I think of him). Gary was an icon, and in no small part he was responsible for something huge, more than a hobby and indeed a huge passion for so many of us. One of my longest running friendships began with a short posting on a D&D message board. More recently, a mutual love of the game has brought me into contact with some fellow Goodman Games writers, truly wonderful fellows all. I wouldn’t be on the RPG writing path I am without having read so many great adventures by the master. Sample a bit of Gygax prose from The Temple of Elemental Evil:
The ruins of the Temple’s outer works appear as dark and overgrown mounds of gray rubble and blackish weeds. Skulls and bones of humans and humanoids gleam white here and there amidst the weeds. A grove of some oddly stunted and unhealthy looking usk trees still grows along the northern end of the former Temple compound, and a stump of a tower juts up from the northeast corner of the shattered wall. The leprous gray Temple, however, stands intact, its arched buttresses somehow obscene with their growth of climbing vegetation.

Everything surrounding the place is disgusting. The myriad leering faces and twisting, contorted forms writhing and posturing on every face of the Temple seem to jape at the obscenities they depict. The growth in the compound is rank and noisome. Thorns clutch, burrs stick, and crushed stems either emit foul stench or raise angry weals on exposed flesh. Worst of all, however, is the pervading fear which seems to hang over the whole area—a smothering, clinging, almost tangible cloud of vileness and horror.
Or the Vault of the Drow:
The small “star” nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large “moon” of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermilions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewer’s attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more light mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.
Great, great work.

My only true meeting with Gary, and it was a brief one, took place at Gen Con 1998. I wanted to meet Gygax but was hesitant to approach him on the show floor. Later my friend Mark dragged me into the convention center bar where Gary was enjoying a cold one, and he was happy to sign our Player’s Handbooks. I took the opportunity to solve an old argument:
Me: “How do you pronounce the name of the dark elves, Gary?”

Gary: “Well, I’ve always said ‘drow’ (rhymes with cow) myself,” he saw my pained look and quickly added, “But whatever works for you!”
I lost the argument but was happy as a clam, just the same.

Gary was a gentleman, to coin his phrase, a Gentle Writer, and he will be missed. At the expense of sounding truly geeky, I hope every time those funny dice hit a table somewhere, Gary is smiling somewhere else. If one must have a claim to fame, giving a gift of imagination and enjoyment to millions via your creation and its offspring isn’t a bad one. Not at all.

January 26, 2008

The World After

Recent conversations with Mike (check out his blog—far better than mine—here) have gotten me thinking about the Gamma World game. I was always basically a “D&D player”; I experimented a bit with other systems—Mythus, TORG, etc.—and I own a few systems that seem cool but I’ve never actually played—Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and Vampire come to mind—but I always came back to the gold standard, flaws and all.

The one system that pulled me away for a time was Gamma World, the first edition with the grey book. True, the rules were basically D&D rules, and perhaps that made it more approachable, but it was also the subject matter. I’ve always found end of the world type scenarios fascinating, and GW had all the right elements: cool tables full of superhero power-like mutations, weird and malfunctioning robots and androids (Westworld is one of my favorite films of all time), secret societies with hidden agendas, and a campaign milieu that allowed for a broad variety of encounters.

My friends and I played eagerly, especially when we needed a break from wizards and dragons, and I still remember our adventures set around the starting city of Horn. We battled badders and arks (mutated, intelligent badger-men and dog-men), destroyed killer androids, puzzled over ancient artifacts, and lived in terror of the mighty Death Machine. It was great fun.

Last week I took advantage of a stop made at my folks house to raid my old closet. This meant laying on my belly in the dust, pushing up layers of boxes and reaching and straining for that most-buried box that still held some old modules. It took about 20 minutes of struggle and some scraped knuckles, but buried amid old Dragon magazines and convention brochures I hit pay dirt—the Gamma World motherlode. I unearthed the Gamma World second edition boxed set (I never played past the 3rd) and several modules … Famine in Far-go, The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand, The Mind Masters, and Alpha Factor.

Flipping through the old books was like a trip down memory lane, and it opened my mind to new possibilities. Slaying dragons is awesome (especially a young white my duskblade helped fell the other day), but mutants and androids are a cool chance of pace.

January 15, 2008


Recently I’ve thought a lot about RPG reboots. Perhaps it’s the New Year and all (and I wish a good 2008 to my readers—both of you!—by the way).

Occasionally it’s time for a RPG reboot, and often it can be a good thing. Many years ago I ran a regular campaign, almost certainly the best I’ve ever run as a DM. I had four players and we met every two weeks like clockwork. This went on for nearly three years. We were playing in the venerable World of Greyhawk and their PCs busily explored the Wild Coast in search of adventure. The PCs (a human fighter, half-elf thief, cleric, and drow mage/thief, if I recall correctly) used the town of Fax as home base, and they got involved in all manner of trouble. They worked their way through such famous modules as the entire Slavers series as well as many home-brewed adventures, all of which I stitched together into a giant tapestry of NPCs and subplots. They barely had finished an adventure when I laid down the clues for several more. Sometimes a previous bad guy would show up for revenge just when they were hot on the trail of the latest one.

It was a hell of a lot of fun.

Then one fateful day trouble struck. It was the dreaded TPK. No one did anything wrong, except they rolled really bad, and I rolled good (or high at least), and they just wouldn't quit, and one by one the PCs went down.

They were near the climax of a long-running adventure. The villain—truly the best sort, a minor cult cleric who escaped them once by dumb luck and then continually returned to cause them grief, returning ever-stronger each time—was before them, all his avenues of escape lost, and they vowed to “get him his time!” one way or the other. This fellow, one Selyular (but forever just known to this day as “the evil cleric”), had killed their key allies, eluded them several times (fairly), and once even threw them all, sans equipment, into a carrion crawler-infested cave system to die. It was their time now, and they weren’t going to pass it up. But as I said, fate intervened.

After the smoke cleared, we all discussed the situation. They had reached a hard-earned average of 4th or 5th level (this was the 2e era), and no one really wanted to roll up new characters. They wanted to “finish the story, dammit!

Given their rather thief-like outlook, strong guild affiliation, and general nature, I decided that Olidammara (laughing scoundrel that he was) took pity on these poor mortals and decided to raise them, en masse, for another shot at life. (In those days I didn’t think or worry about what the death god might have said about that…) This was deus ex machina at it’s worst no doubt, but the players ran with it. There were penalties, of course. They lost experience, magic, and returned with but 1 hp each. Worship of Olidammara (spell that backwards!) was near mandatory, and the party cleric immediately went from worshipping Pholtus to worshipping the Laughing Rogue, with an appropriate if hasty change in abilities and spheres.

In the end, they tracked the evil cleric back to the cult’s big hideout, sacked the place, and chased the cleric and his strongest henchman on horseback until in a field just south of Elredd they personally sent him to his maker. The reboot allowed them to play the adventure they wanted, with the characters they wanted, and it ended up increasing the challenge. It seemed a good alternative to simply letting a multi-sided piece of plastic flop the wrong way and ruin it all. Later many creative PC decisions flowed from the reboot as well. It worked.

Recently I’ve seen creative frictions hamper game play among my older co-players, and I’ve also happily had the chance to roll the dice with some new faces, and I’ve also considered the rebooting factor of new groups and fresh blood, and the welcome breath of fresh air they breathe through the hair of even the most jaded gamer.

Used sparingly, RPG reboots (of all kinds) aren’t always a bad thing.
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