Monday 8 December 2014

On DnD and Barsoom

So I just finished reading through "The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars",  a single volume containing the second and third of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. The book is illustrated beautifully by no less than Frank Frazetta himself, though the cover art is a bit faded with age.

There are, no doubt, a number of reasons the Barsoom books remind me so much of DnD, but one of them is serialization. Each of the books was first published in All-Story one chapter at a time. It also seems likely, from reading the books, that they were written in serial. There is little in the way of foreshadowing, and the overarching plot seems haphazard, at best. Rather, each chapter is a romp through action and adventure that picks up where the last one left-off, but ultimately forges it's own path.

One gets the impression that Burroughs just sat down to write with minimal preconception about where his pen and his imagination would take him. How similar this seems to how a good DM will pick-up where last session left off, but allow the players and their actions to dictate what happens, rather than some preordained plot. The downside is that many of Burroughs' conceptions come out a bit half-baked. That said, no well-crafted novel can compare to Burroughs' stories when it comes to capturing the spirit of seat-of-the-pants adventure. As a reader, you really never knowing what will happen next.

In this sense, Barsoom feels less like literature and more like real life. In life, there is no preplanned plot, no foreshadowing, no systematic wrapping-up of threads. Stories are what we tell ourselves after the fact to make sense of it all, to give a form to the chaos, but they don't capture the tension, the doubt, the exhilaration of forging ones own path through the wilderlands of existence.

Ultimately, Roleplaying should be like life, not like reading a book--an all engaging experience of living in another world, not just going through the motions of a made-for-TV narrative. Let us tell our stories afterwards, to to the eager children in front of the roaring fire, or over a hot mug of mulled wine to our fellows, but for now, let us LIVE!

Sunday 23 November 2014

Crawling with Rama

I'll let our DM summarize the party's current progress in his own words:

When the group got back to Greenest to return some found stolen items, they were told that the monk had come back to town and bought some horses for the heroes to take quickly to Elrethen (sp? or some city like that) to help with a problem much larger than just Greenest. With luck, they would be able to find a shortcut and cut off the bandits and find out where the loot was being taken two.
In Elerethen , the Monk and a paladin named Frume, offered the heroes to either Join the Harpers or the Gauntlets in a mission to save the world from the plots of the Dragon Cultists. By joining the organizations, the heroes would be able to find contacts to help them in their quest.
Most of the heroes joined either the Harpers or the Gauntlets but some refused. At this point, the monk offered a reward of 1,200 gp ruby from the harpers in Neverwinter.
The heroes were tasked with following the caravan out of Baldur’s gate to see where it was headed, who the loot was going to, and who was helping out the bandits and the cult of the dragon. However, Baldur’s gate does not allow wagons or animals into the city, and so they have to exchange their horses, and spy out Rezmir the half dragon who was in charge of the Dragon cult through the city and out of the north gate onto the trade road. During the spying mission they discovered 5 of the 12 wagons belonged to the cult, however 1 cultist guard was sent to defend each of the 12 wagons, so which wagons belong to normal merchants and which belong to the cultists, is hard to tell….

After lots of shopping, and being hired as guards, the group followed the caravan out of Baldur’s gate and for 4 days everything was fine, but on the 5th day they ran into a group of hobgoblins hurting a noble and some guards. After rescuing the noble, and healin the guards and one of their own fallen gaurds from the caravan, the hereoes continued onward, having a tough night’s rest.

So now we have 10 days in Balder's Gate. Sir Manly set to work trying to set up a base for worship of the Holy Turnip. The results:

  • 13 converts
  • 24 GP for shrine construction + 100GP of his own money. He'll put his converts in charge of this, with detailed instructions.
  • 16 GP for planting turnips for the poor 

In addition, following the death of Battle Mage, he has recruited a new party member:

One evening, relaxing in the tavern, Sir Manly comes across an impressive looking, serene-faced warrior. He feels strangely drawn to the soft-spoken man, with the foreign sounding accent. He confides in him about the party's mission to destroy the dragon cult. After a few moments contemplation, the warrior declares placidly "I will join you. You may call me Rama"

Rama is a warrior from Flal, a member of an elite warrior caste, dedicated to returning the world to it's perfect state of chaos through destruction. His reasons for appearing in Baldur's Gate are unclear or perhaps even inscrutable. In any case, he will happily join the party to ply his trade, seeing the slaying of Dragons as a spiritual ideal to be sought after.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Winter Rumors in Warren's Deep

So I got to thinking what adventure hooks I would give if I ran a sandbox game in Warren's Deep today.

For one thing, I would use some published modules. When I originally ran it via Play by Post, I used all original material(except for a few standard creatures from OSRIC). PBP is good at that--you have lots of time to plan the next step and just go with the flow. In a live game session, on the other hand, it's harder to give your dungeons the same depth when you're making it up as you go.

So now, I can think of four published modules to include in the sandbox, in addition to original content. I would, of course reskin them, to give them my own touch and to try and obfuscate them a bit in case any of the players have read/played them in the past.

So to begin the campaign I would probably tell the party it's the start of Winter and they are new arrivals in the area, having just arrived by boat in the city of Warren's Deep.They can root around town looking for work or adventure(perhaps in the "Sea Elf's Daughter"). Here are some of the rumors they might hear:

  1. They say the Mayor occasionally hires mercenaries for tasks he doesn't want associated with himself. They say he likes using outsiders like you. His agent is supposedly the Pawnbroker in the Alley of Felicious Delights, though it wasn't me who told you that.
  2. The Lord of Dappenshire and many of his knights were recently killed by blood ravens while rescuing his kidnapped son. Since then, his troops have been ineffective against the Orc raiders and his widow has put a bounty on each Orc head.
  3. Rumor has it that Lord Derivas, whose fiefdom lies just outside the city, is vying to raise his influence in the city and is seeking allies.
  4. Something is rotten in the village of Wankerly, in Kipperton Fiefdom.
  5. The Watch has put a bounty on the murderer of a watchman. The problem is, they don't know who he is. Also, people in the Capel Gwyn slums, the scene of the crime, don't like to cooperate with Watchmen.
  6. Some small-time local heroes made a name for themselves, and quite a bit of money, round here last summer. They were last seen going off into the forest last summer. They haven't been heard from since, but there must be something out there to interest them.
  7. In the swamps to the South, wrecks from some, long-ago magical war occasionally surface from under the muck. Brave souls occasionally return from there with ancient wonders, but more often they find nothing or don't return at all.
  8. A merchant ship working the coast is looking to hire some extra protection due to recent Pirate attacks.
  9. A crazed sailor claims to be the sole survivor of a fishing boat that was lost in a storm. He claims to have discovered an Island that has risen from the bottom of the sea and contains great treasures of the ancients. He'll take you there if you hire a boat and give him an equal share of the treasure. He gets a wistful, doomed look in his eye that you're not sure you like. 
  10. There is an old ruined fortress on a small island just off the coast of the seaside village of Smarmytown.  Rumor has it that a humongous pearl lies there, but that none who have sought it have ever returned.

Some of these are from my original campaign, some of them are new, and some actually refer to events that happened in that game. Rumor 6, for instance, sets this campaign as being a few months after that campaign. I realize this continuity doesn't interest anybody but myself, but that's the thing about world building--if you want to do it right, you should probably just embrace the fact that it's 90% for you and 10% for the players who only really get to spent a very short time in your world.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

High-End Fishing Gear for DnD

"The Sea Elf's Daughter" is a large, modern, well-lit tavern in Warren's Deep. The place is a popular haunt with local fishermen and if adventurers are looking to commission a boat, there are worse places for them to look. The proprietor, the bushy bearded, swaggering, Captain Odysseus Marinos, is reputed to have made his fortune at sea, though the details of how vary wildly from the fantastic to the improbable.

But those far-fetched rumors aren't the topic of this post. The topic of this post is Captain Marinos' assortment of specialty tackle, some of it publicly on display, some hidden away and only shown to potential buyers with an eye for the unusual and prodigious quantities of gold burning a hole in their pockets. At any one time, he'll have 2d3 of these items in stock. He restocks pretty irregularly.

Since players may use these in a a variety of ways, consider the mechanics below to be suggestions, with an invitation to DM's to improvise appropriate mechanics where needed. Also, note that 25% of the items will be forgeries, fakes, or duds with no special properties.


Barbed Net 50GP/10SqM- handmade net with wondrously formed barbs of some translucent material that don't tangle the net itself. Reputedly of the type made and used by the mysterious Sea Elves themselves. Whatever you're doing with it, you can generally give it a +3 bonus to catch/entangle/snag stuff, compared to a normal net. So, for instance, if you're throwing the net in combat as per the SRD, then give yourself +3 to the attack roll to see if you entangle your opponent. While entangled, victims take 1HP damage from the barbs every round they spend struggling to get out.

Net of Entanglement 3300GP- enchanted net that will entangle any creature that touches it once deployed. If laid as a trap, give the target a DC 20 Reflex/Str save to avoid/escape. If it's damaged badly enough, the enchantment fizzles away.


Iron Line 150GP/10m- 3mm thin and weaved from the filament of the giant sea spider, it is virtually unbreakable. Str test of 25 required to break it.

Fendrich's Invisible Filiment 100GP/10m- this line is made from an unknown material and is super-thin and transluscent. Spot checks at -4.

Fishing Rods

Masterwork Marsh Willow Rod 170GP- bends but doesn't break. Great for casting and hauling in those big fish(+2 to skill rolls against big fish).

Rod of Far Casting 4200GP- enchanted fishing rod. A skilled caster can cast light or heavy tackle up to 1000m, unaffected by wind. Tricks (like hitting a precise location) will require a skill check as appropriate(the enchantment on the rod conveys distance, not precision).


Harpoon of Kraken Slaying 2100GP- contains one colossal dose of potent neurotoxin, harvested from 1000's of Death's Head Cone Snails. The toxin is spring-injected when the harpoon penetrates a few inches into a fairly solid substance. DC 30 Constitution Save or death. Failed save does 6d8 damage, in addition to the harpoon's 1d6.

Masterwork Bloodcoral Harpoon 5000GP- A small, weirdly beautiful, handheld harpoon, made with coral, with strange, nautical carvings in it. The hunting weapon of a Sea Elf prince. Who knows where Captain Marinos got hold of it? Could prove very awkward if found in one's possession by any Sea Elves encountered. 1d6 damage. Modified attack roll of 15 or higher means a critical hit and it's stuck in. Well-formed barbs mean it can't be pulled out without inflicting another 2d6 damage.

Explosive Harpoons 500GP- black powder shaped-charge explosion triggered by penetration of a few inches into solid substance does 4d10 damage. Handle with care! If shaken/dropped/heated 50% chance it will be triggered, sending a cone of shrapnel in the direction of the point. Ruined if soaked in water for more than a few minutes.


Mermaid Bait 80GP- Mermaids and even some Mermen can't resist this bait. A bag of crumbly greenish-brown substance. Tastes a bit like very salty dark chocolate. If any Mer-people are in the water within 1km of where it's deployed, then they will come check it out within 1/2 hour's time. Any who fail a DC15 will save throw caution to the wind and swim at maximum speed until they reach the bait.


Leviathan Lure 60GP- a large wooden lure shaped like a mix between a harp seal and a sea sprite. It has "limbs" that flap realistically when trolled at high-speed through the water. It has a well-hidden triple-barbed cast-iron hook. Any large, carnivorous whales in the area must make a DC 15 Intelligence test or mistake the trolling lure for prey and give chase.

Lure of Attract Fish- Upon contacting water, Roll 1d6.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Battle Mage Dies at the End

And we finally got together for another session against the Dragon Cult! (actually I missed last session) This time 8 PC's faced-off against the fanatics and their unholy order:

Just your standard set of misfits and
  1. Abominous the Abjurer- a wizard joining via G+
  2. Drogo Carradine- 4th Level Half-Ogre Monk
  3. Pam- badass Dwarven Alchemist ported from WFRP 1e
  4. Wae Wae- the Drowess archer with a heart of gold
  5. Bilbo the Halflink Assasin- cute but deadly
  6. Roarrawrurmph- a Gold-colored dragonborn Paladin
  7. Sir Manly- my 4th level Holy Turnip worshiping Paladin
  8. Battle Mage, my 2nd level DCC Wizard extraordinaire

Crawling and Delving

The party found themselves exploring an underground temple complex. We fought some guards. We snuck around. The assassin even assassinated someone! (teach him to sleep on the job!)

Anyway, the end of the session found the party with many of their spells expended(Battle Mage rolled more modestly this time on his spell checks this session), as well as most of their healing abilities. And that's when we walked into a shrine to Tiamat's Black Dragon facet. And the Half Dragon Leader of the cultists that wiped the floor with Sir Manly previously was there. With tons of backup.

A Time to Die

We actually considered fleeing at this point, but decided to tough it out. Big mistake. This was easily the party's toughest battle. 

The fighters formed a line, the archers and magic users stood behind them. Battle Mage was running around casting shield on everyone he could when I got caught. Dumb mistake on my part. The Half-Dragon occasionally gets a nasty lightning breath attack and I left Sir Manly and BM lined up perfectly with him one round. Sir Manly was left unconscious for the rest of the battle, while Battle Mage was fried like a bug in a zapper. (Props to the DM for not softening the blow any.)

The party managed to tough out the rest of the battle with several characters at minimal hitpoints, and at least Battle Mage's Shield spell helped leave our Monk intact till the end.

A Note on Tone

Overall, it was a good session that ended in an intense battle. That said, the content of the module is a bit vanilla. Besides the Half-Dragon commander, there are no really big surprises or weird things. We started with a whole army of raiders and we've fought our way up through bigger and buffer raiders. There were no "OH MY GOSH!" surprises. It's all very "what you see is what you get".

The second thing is the "oh so serious tone" as everything is played completely straight. I find the more gonzo classic DnD tone to be more engaging. Or, if you have to, take it the other direction, and crank the serious up to 11. Then you hit the John Carter Prince of Mars territory, where everyone is so over the top sincere as that you hit full Pulp Novel levels of fun.

Hard-Earned Lessons

So I guess I left this session with a couple lessons learned:
  1. When your mage is out of gas, insist the party finds a place to rest!
  2. Play carefully with your low-level characters or they're toast!

Man, poor Battle Mage--I liked that guy. Gonna go weep now...

Tuesday 4 November 2014

The Mail-Troll Arrives...

...and he brought books! In particular, he brought me the copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics I ordered off of Amazon.

Wow, let me just say--this is a ridiculous book. For one, it's way too big(as one review on Amazon says "At almost 500 pages, the book is fat enough to club a kobold to death with."). Additionally, some of the rules are just way too extravagant, like the lengthy section of extravagantly long spell descriptions. Also the art takes excesses in both content and quantity.  And don't get me started on the annoying non-standard dice. No no, this is nothing like the clean, crisp Labyrinth Lord that I know and love.

And yet... the volume oooozes fun. And it drips with authorial love for Dungeons and Dragons. And the ridiculous Magic makes playing a spellcaster fun again. OK, so I'm actually quite pleased to be adding DCC RPG to my collection.

Speaking of which, I have a dirty little secret to tell you. When I add this to my shelf of gaming books, it will sit next to such modern classics as... the 1988 "Pool of Radiance Strategy Guide" and...that's it.

Ok, so I'm more of a PDF guy. I could blame the fact that shortly after emigrating from the US my parents split up and most of my old books got lost in the mix--but really there was only one RPG book there--"The Complete Book of Elves" published by TSR for 2nd edition AD&D in 1992--a surefire recipe for Mary Sue PC's if ever there was one, and not a big loss by my count...

Monday 3 November 2014

From the Lost Gazetteer to Warren's Deep

OK, here's some more material from Warren's Deep, my first sandbox. As I recall, I actually had a page for the players with a small blurb on each and every settlement that appears on the map. Unfortunately, those seem to have been lost to time(like tears in rain.)

Warren's deep had a sort of Lankhmaresque City-of-Thieves-and-Vagabonds thing going. Also, I remember that the fiefdoms of Dappenshire and Kipperton had a bit of a rivalry going on, as well as intentions to add Warren's Deep to their lands. Flal was a sort of Bazaar-city on the edge of the desert, where all of the Nomads would come to trade.

The point of the blurb below is to establish Warren's Deep(and it's surroundings as they appear on the map) as the semi-autonomous Western reaches of a larger, more established kingdom. Please ascribe any dumb people/place names below to my over-abundant youthful enthusiasm...

The Kingdom of Hillstonia

The rather small kingom of Hillstonia is a small, mostly-human kingdom.  It is ruled by the Human King Afexanda who rules from the capital city of Clogsford’s Pass, located on a well established trade-route, close to the neighboring lands of the Scrugavi Drarves.  A month’s travel West from there, the kingdom’s Western border is the great Sea of Diamonds.  The largest city there is Warren’s Deep, a major trading port.  A little further inland are the fiefdom’s of Ruford and Spinnywillet who swear fealty to the King.  Monsters are not unheard in the lands, but fairly few and far-between, and mostly in the less civilized areas.

Warren’s Deep
With a population of 50000, this is a major city and, in fact, a few generations ago, was politically independent.  Much of its prosperity is due to its geography making it fitting as a port.  Much of the city’s success is due to the trade that this brings.  This trade includes trade with the rare, nomadic, seafaring Elves of the Silent Light.

The city is ruled by its Mayor, Captain Marchisee, a long time resident and Sea Captain.  His hold on the city is not terribly strong.  The city watch is only partially effective at keeping order within the city.  The Mayor is loyal to he King, but due to city’s history of independence, the King does not keep a tight reign on things, other than the substantial tax revenues.
The streets are full of an assortment of seamen, shop owners, beggars, cutpurses, drunks, travelling merchants, travelers, etc.  At night, many neighborhoods are dangerous, and even some in the daytime.  The inhabitants are mostly human.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Oh, the Joys of Google Docs

So, cleaning up my Google Drive  I just stumbled over a dozen pages of material I wrote for Warren's Deep. This was the OSRIC sandbox Play-by-Post game that I ran for a couple years on 2010ish).

Wow, what great memories. This was actually my first experience DMing. I made plenty of mistakes but also did some stuff I'm really proud of, like the adventure inspired by "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". It was all heavily inspired from my readings of Grognardia and Monsters and Manuals.

In any case, here is the introduction page to the game, now preserved for prosperity...


A sandbox-style game for a group of adventurers using the OSRIC system(  Devilish knaves, weird monsters, adventures on the high-sea…

1 post per weekday required.

You are all newcomers to the large seaside city of Warren’s Deep.  You’ve come to the realization that if you work together, you’ll have a better chance of making your fortunes.  Each of you managed to root up a number of potential leads for work, so now you’re sitting around a table at “The Knobbly Dragon” having some drinks and trying to decide which path to pursue.

Character Creation
3d6 in-order abilities scores.
Random height and weight generation encouraged(see OSRIC optional rule).

House Rules
Weapon proficiencies and double proficiencies allowed as per optional OSRIC rules.

The rule for firing into a melee that the target is randomly determined can be avoided if the shooter has a clear line of fire and is firing from fairly close range.

Some Rumors
  1. A merchant ship working the coast is looking to hire some extra protection due to recent Pirate attacks.
  2. A merchant caravan wants to hire an escort going East(inland).
  3. The Mayor occasionally hires mercenaries for tasks he doesn’t want associated with himself.
  4. There are unconfirmed rumors of monsters spotted near the village of Old End a week’s travel to the east.
  5. The young son of Lord Carymire in the neighboring fiefdom of Dappershire has gone missing.  The lord has offered 100 gold for information leading to his rescue or 400 for his return.
  6. There is an old ruined fortress on a small island just off the coast of the seaside village of Smarmytown.  Rumor has it that a humongous pearl lies there, but that none who have sought it have ever returned.
  7. The Monks of Gorulund have put out a call for a group of adventurers to embark on a unknown task.
  8. City Watch, offering info to solve funny business on the docks.
  9. Rumor has it that Lord Derivas, whose fiefdom lies just outside the city, is vying to raise his influence in the city and is seeking allies.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: Mona Lisa Overdrive

It's been a couple weeks since I finished reading William Gibson's 1988 "Mona Lisa Overdrive" and I've admittedly had some trouble writing this latest post. Neuromancer and Count Zero were so much easier. I finished the books excited about them, so it was easy to write a post about them. "Mona" started out so good, but the ending left me with such a vague feeling of disappointment...

Ghost in the Shell

One of the problems(and this is a rather unfair criticism on my part) is that I've already seen 1995's "Ghost in the Shell". Mamoru Oshii took the wedding motif from "Mona" and did it, just, so much better. Nothing wrong with stealing an idea in art if you're going to refine it, but it made the climax of MLOD ring a bit hollow in my jaded mind.

Coming Full Circle

Another problem, in my humble opinion, is that "Mona" is so familiar. It's too involved in revisiting old characters to properly develop the new ones. Usually, Gibson's flawed narrators/characters are so interesting and so relatable. My feeling with "Mona" was he doesn't really focus on any of them long enough to develop them sufficiently, or at least, not in the eyes of the reader. Neuromancer had one narrator telling the story in a single thread, Count Zero had 3 narrators/threads, and Mona Lisa has 4. In addition, Mona Lisa keeps throwing in cameos by protagonists and major characters from previous books, which I found distracting. Instead of focusing on a pathetic protagonist taking on powers beyond his ability, we're left with a stew of characters we're rooting for and I found it just overwhelming. Admittedly, Tad Williams managed to pull off this sort of many-relatable narrators dynamic in "City of Golden Shadow", but it took him 900 pages and he still didn't manage to wrap up the plot in the end.

One other point about the ending reveal--it was too similar to Neuromancer's ending. Now, you could argue that this allows the series to conclude by "coming full circle", but I much prefer a mind-blowing ending, as with the previous two books, to this familiar one.

Gibson on Art

That said, the book is full of good stuff, and part of that is his exploration of Art. A good part of this takes place in the Slick Henry and Angela Mitchel plot lines.

There's something very true about Slick's reclusive artist, a slave to his compulsion to create Art and a slave to his creations. There's also something in the description of this character, or perhaps his speach, that reminds me of Gibson himself. I wonder if Gibson was writing himself into the work. If so, then perhaps Slick being freed at last from his slavery to his creations symbolizes the Author himself being freed from the Cyberpunk Genre with the completion of the Sprawl trilogy...

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Complete Midshipman Bolitho

So here's one that was sitting on my shelf for quite a long time before I finally picked it up. Then, midway through the first chapter I decided it wasn't for me. A Golden Age of the Sail novel with a focus on historical accuracy, "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" was much too dry for my tastes. I decided to give it a little bit longer to hook me before I put it down though. And boy did this book deliver! In short order, it pick up the pace with fast, gritty, technical naval combat at it's finest!

The Bolitho Novels are 30 or so books written by author Douglas Reeman(using the name Alexander Kent) written over the span of half a century from 1960's to present day. "The Complete Midshipman Bolitho" collects the first three of those stories(by story-chronology rather than publication date--in that sense, they are similar to the excellent Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser "Swords" collection.)

Stories of Loyalty

In addition to the great descriptions of the various naval actions Bolitho participates in, the stories have a strong moral component. In fact, all of the conflicts are described by Bolitho in moral terms. As such, pirates are reviled for their cruelty, wreckers for their betrayal of their fellow seamen, and Bolitho's rival officers for their indifference towards the men under their command.

In his book "The Righteous Mind", Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes 6 fundamental moral foundations that manifest themselves in various forms in every Human culture: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. With this model in mind, I would say that the Bolitho Novels are primarily an exploration of the trait of Loyalty. Bolitho is constantly concerned with what duty demands of him, towards his King, his Family, and his comrades in the Navy. At the same time, Bolitho's Loyalty is presented as balanced. His rival officers are oftentimes portrayed as over-valuing duty, forgetting compassion for the men under their command.

Invariably, Bolitho himself is the moral compass for the stories. This omniscience in moral quandaries together with his limitless bravery does make him a bit Mary Sue character, to my mind.

Read these stories if you want action-packed Naval Adventures from the Age of the Sail. These definitely made me want to run more Swashbucklers & Seamonsters!

Friday 19 September 2014

Crawling After the Dragon Cult

Sir Manly of the Holy Turnip: wonderfully flawed!
Well, it's been a few weeks OOC time since Sir Manly, Pam, Wae Wae, and Lego the Bastard took on the Dragon Cult in Greennest and much has changed. The party's forays in Greenest seem to have brought about a change in the Roster(as usual, PC names that I don't know will be made-up post-facto):

  • Abominous the Abjurer- a wizard joining via G+
  • Drogo Carradine- the Half-Ogre Monk stood in for Lego
  • Harry Potter- a shape-changing Druid played by one of our new players
  • Roarrawrurmph- a Gold-colored dragonborn(a dragonborn to fight the dragon cult--how ironic). He's a Paladin with actual fighting abilities--the novel things these kids think up!
  • and, of course, Battle Mage, coming to back-up Sir Manly of the Holy Turnip

This ragtag bunch of 8 adventurers decimated a group of cultists, which led them to a higher-ranking group of cultists, which led them to the cultists' secret base camp by the end of the session.

DCC & Magic

So, as I mentioned previously, this session was experimental for me in that I brought a DCC RPG character into a 5e game and also that I was playing a DCC Wizard for the first time.

Regarding the first point, we ran into exactly 0 compatibility issues during the session, which was a pleasant surprise. The two systems are similar enough it didn't really make a difference having a DCC PC in the mix, though there are potentially some cases where some thought might be required with regards to compatibility.

Regarding the second point, I'm not really sure I got a big enough sample to judge the system. Battle Mage was rolling his spell-checks exceptionally well. I think, from the 5 rolls of 1d20+3, the average roll was probably about 18, so all the spells succeeded, making him quite the powerhouse. I didn't even feel the need to use spellburn, saving it up for the real nasty baddies.

I will say that the rather complex DCC magic system does make for more interesting magic. Whenever you cast a spell, you don't know if the spell will succeed or to what degree.  For instance, Battle Mage cast two stinking clouds. The first one only effected the lead cultist, but the second one took something like 13 kobolds out of commission.

New Players

We also had two new players at the table, both in their early teens. I was impressed by how quickly they got into the spirit of things. It's nice having some young blood with a fresh perspective on things and tons of enthusiasm.

Tuesday 16 September 2014


So, I've been wanting to try playing a DCC RPG Wizard for a while now. I don't usually play magic-using characters, but the colorful, if somewhat byzantine, magic rules from DCC hold some unique appeal to me. Of course, when am I going to have the chance? No one in my gaming group is likely to run a game of DCC any time soon.

So, in the spirit of FLAILSNAILS, I managed to convince our current DM to let me bring in a second PC, a DCC Wizard type, into his 5E game. So here he is--meet Battle Mage!

He's a hedge wizard, apparently from the Greenest area. He still lives on his parents' farm, so that he doens't have to come up with rent while he concentrates on his magical studies. He insists on everyone calling him "Battle Mage" though his Mother still calls him Terrence and his father generally tries to avoid contact with his poor excuse for a son.

Well, Battle Mage, will no doubt join the party in order to earn his name fighting the invaders to this normally peaceful land. Rugby, the family goat, has followed him on his way and refuses to go home, so he's there too.

The DCC Magic System

So, apparently someone at DCC looked at DnD magic and said "Yes, it's Vancian, but it just doesn't capture the insanity of Rhialto the Marvelous". The Mercurial Magic Rule in particular, is, quite frankly, inspired. For instance, whenever Battle Mage casts Comprehend Languages, it rains frogs, thus making a dull spell infinitely more amusing/useful.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the DCC magic system works in actual play. My only worry is the amount of material I need to bring. I wrote quite a few notes on how the DCC magic rules work, plus I have to print out Battle Mage's spells(a page each), critical hits table, patron info, the misfire/corruption tables, and the list of spellburn actions. That's a lot more reference material than I like to have to bring to the table. In any case, it's probably time for me to add a hard copy of DCC RPG to my next Amazon order...

Sunday 14 September 2014

Tales of Blood and Glory: Count Zero

Wow, just read my way through the second sprawl novel, Count Zero. Another great story-- finished it far too quickly.

Well, if Neuromancer's theme is the uncomfortably intimate relationship between Man and Technology, then Count Zero is about Man's growing insignificance in the face of Technology.

The Novel begins with three protagonists, each of whom symbolically embodies the quote from the Novel's frontleaf(an implicit Chandlerism)
"On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero" 
Each of these "Zero's" will soon find themselves caught in the very center of a battle between three colossally powerful entities:

  1. The Zaibatsus: mega-corporations with near unlimited resources and a near endless supply of indentured employees
  2. The Mega-Rich: individuals whose wealth has allowed them to extend their power nearly without limits, thus allowing them to transcend Humanity
  3. The AI's: freed from the restrictions of the Turing Police as a result of events in Neuromancer, they are literally becoming Humanity's new gods

Just another day in Barrytown...

(Spoiler Warning)

Though the Zeroes ultimately triumph, surviving the ordeal and each carving out a new life for themselves, upon deeper reflection it is incredibly dark(I guess Gardner Dozois' Recidivist wasn't as great a tonal leap as I thought). Ultimately, Humanity's rise, both as individuals and collectives, will be checked by the already superior machines and Man will be relegated to being mere "Horses" that the AI's choose to ride. Bobby and Angie seem to come to terms with this or even embrace it, Turner flees into a rural existence, and Marly is left unaware of the full nature of what has happened.

Anyway, a great read, and I'm looking forward to "Mona Lisa Overdrive"!

Thursday 4 September 2014

Combat or Roleplaying?

Doc Bargle recently wrote a great little post pointing out the tension between good tactical combat and good roleplaying. I recommend that you read it in full, but here's an excerpt:
the good Dr. instructing a new player to his group
(source Google Image Search)

I play mostly with people who have not and will not read the rules. And so I am acutely aware that combat with lots of choices equals victory to those with system mastery. I find nothing more disheartening when I read roleplaying forums that are 'epic' accounts of encounters that concentrate on the 'synergies' that the players managed to set up between their powers or other clever exploitation of the system. In the games that I run, once combat is started I want the encounter settled quickly. I want it settled quickly because I want the consequences of that combat to result in further interesting choices for the PCs. Choices about the game world, not the game system.

I definitely agree with Doc's model of tactical combat vs. roleplaying. Just look at our 4e games--when every encounter take between 45 minutes and the entire session, there just isn't any time left for roleplaying!

At the same time, I disagree with Doc's conclusion, that the roleplaying should be at the center and the combat an afterthought. DnD grew out of Chainmail, a simple wargame, and wargames are all about interesting tactical combat.

The subtle joy of obscure polearms
Even when Gary and Dave discovered the joys of roleplaying, combat continued to be a major part of the game. Heck, the whole reason I got sucked into DnD to begin with was that I just couldn't put down the equipment list for Pool of Radiance--I just had to keep re-reading it and figure out what these strangely named weapons were(it was only a decade later that I figured out what the heck a Bec-De-Corbin was) and try them all out to see what worked best.

Bottom line, I enjoy the Roleplaying and I enjoy the Tactical Combat, and I want both in my game, dammit!

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Help! My Encounters are Too Easy

So here's a common question DM's face: "Encounters in the game I'm running are too easy and it's making for a dull game, combat-wise. What can I do?"

I've had this problem in at least two of the games I DMed and I've also heard 4 other DM's struggling with the issue at various times(I remember Nathan collecting suggestions for dealing with this problem in his Somewhere North campaign, but I can't find that post...). So, let's look at some possible solutions:

Give Me MOAR!

I ran into this problem at some point when I DMed my first game. My solution was simple:

  1. Develop a feeling for what the party can handle
  2. Adjust any encounters that seem too easy with more/tougher opponents

And it basically worked, though step 1 took some time for me to really get a feel for.

This also worked fairly well for one member of our group when he was running WFRP and our party was just steamrolling whatever he threw at us. His solution was simple yet effective: start throwing in some extra Chaos Warriors. (My solution was to throw in some poison and laser beams!)


The problem with just scaling-up the baddies mechanically is that, at higher levels, combat becomes this long battle of attrition, where each side tries to wear the other down first(also happened to us in WFRP 1e with heavily-armored adversaries).  So, you're back to dull combats, but of a different kind.

I remember reading this great blog post(which of course I can't find now) where the guy described a long-running campaign he played in. There were many nasty monsters, but the worse were...Kobolds!

No, the DM didn't use 10HD kobolds. Instead, the kobolds played smart and used tactics. They would ambush the party in a narrow corridor filled with arrow slits in the ceiling. They would lay nasty traps and then attack when the party triggered them. They would cut-off the magic user from the rest of the party and then pepper him with arrows. He described how, going back out of the dungeon, the party would take a huge detour to avoid the Kobold-infested areas. (UPDATE: thanks, Jay Rutley, for pointing me to Tucker's Kobolds from Dragon 127, pg. 3)

So it's not just monster mechanics that matter, but monster tactics. I once wrote a post on better monster tactics while dealing with too-easy combat in WFRP, so read that, if you want...

The Difficulty Roll

So we have mechanics and tactics, but there's another level--the psychological level. Until now, the DM has been trying to guess the perfect difficulty for a combat, but it's an imprecise process. Sometimes the players end up with too easy a fight, and sometimes it's too difficult. What I've found, is that I tend to try and err on the side of caution. No one wants to be the DM who accidentally TPKed the party because he overestimated them.

So instead, what I generally do when rolling-up a random encounter, is have a relative difficulty roll on 1d6:

  • 1-2 an Easy Encounter- the party shouldn't have too much trouble wiping the floor with these guys.
  • 3-4 an Evenly Matched Encounter- it's a toss-up who's going to win this one. The players better bring their best.
  • 5-6 a Difficult Encounter- the party had better flee or come-up with some really out-of-the-box trick if they want to come out of this one alive
This takes a lot of the pressure off of me as the DM to find a perfectly matched encounter for the party. For one, I only am trying to do that about 1/3 of the time and secondly, the players learn very quickly from the hard battles to choose their fights wisely. I think there's also better DM/Player communication since I've already determined ahead of time how sure I am that they will be able to handle the fight (very sure, somewhat sure, not at all sure). As such, I describe it differently and we end up with better DM/Player communication.

This approach worked quite well for me during our Polish Resistance campaign, where, after the first PC deaths(it was almost a TPK), the party was happy to skip encounters that sounded high-risk, unless the rewards were just too tempting.

On the Other Hand

On the other hand, one could argue against this whole approach. Aren't randomness and player choice the king and queen of DnD? I reject out of hand the idea that every combat should be perfectly balanced for the PC's. That takes away all the game's dynamism and much of the onus for players to think creatively. At the same time, lull periods of dull combat occur and my intention with this post is to, hopefully, give my fellow DMs tools to deal with this eventuality.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Quantum Combats and Holy Horticulture

Well, for the second session of "Hoard of the Dragon Queen", I actually tried to figure out who the other members of the party were, so here's the lineup(note, holes in the writer's knowledge may have been filled using some license, artistic or otherwise):

  • Sir Manly of the Holy Turnip(played by yours truly)- a Halfling paladin who is better at roleplaying than at... just about any game mechanic. His squire is a living vegetable with 4 HP and the chutzpa to keep showing him up in combat
  • Pam aka. Drugs- a badass WFRP Dwarf/Alchemist, ported-over from WFRP 1e in the spirit of FLAILSNAILS. Be nice to her and she'll let you touch her stash(mustache--it's funny cause Dwarven women have beards--but it's not funny cause I had to explain it...)
  • Drizzita the Drow- a deadly Drow Archer, recently arisen from the Underdark
  • Lego the Bastard- the Half-Elf Warlock! He likes to electrocute anything with more than 1HD, like Emperor Palpatine with a Taser...

The Prisoners Dilemma

Once safely inside the keep, the party was offered a number of possible missions. One was to fight the dragon assaulting the parapets(fat chance!) We settled on sneaking out of the keep and either rescuing imprisoned townspeople or capturing cultists for interrogation. We ended up doing both.

From there, we defended the keep a bit from a break in the wall and then went out to try and attack the Cultists' leader. Unfortunately, we were headed-off by their second in command and a small army of kobolds. He demanded a champion to face him in single combat. Since Sir Manly is the only thing remotely resembling a fighter in our party, and since he was honor-bound to accept the challenge, he stepped forward, despite considering it a suicide mission. The half-dragon commander beat him bloody but spared his life, in the end.

Game Design Bait & Switch

...and I'm starting to sense a trend here.  Previously, we played a session or two from Dead in Thay, and ran into a similar situation of "Combats That Aren't Combats". We got dropped into the middle of this epic battle with a bunch of NPC's far more powerful than us facing-off against each other and the clear implication of the impossible odds was that this wasn't a real battle.

Now comes Hoard of the Dragon Queen with it's no-stakes challenge fight. Also, we learned afterwards that, had we chosen to take-on the dragon in the parapets, it would have fled after having sustained minimal damage.

I'm sure that any of these encounters on it's own could be defended as being sort of interesting and original ideas, but the net result is that our party is only allowed to fight:

  1. Low-level combats against foes that pose no risk to them
  2. Big dramatic encounters that look scary but really pose no risk to them

Certainly the debate over how to handle campaign lethality in practice is alive and well. But, whatever approach you take, you need to find a balance somewhere between two conceptual extremes:
  1. if there is no reasonable possibility of lasting harm, then the risks PC's take are meaningless and Players will no longer be fooled into feeling tension
  2. if the campaign is too lethal then there is no possibility of PC development and Players will begin to only feel frustration

I can't help but feel that WotC's current game designers don't really understand point #1, although they're hardly alone.

Playing the Hell out of the Paladin

So, here's my dirty little secret--I've never played a Paladin or Cleric before. And here's my other dirty little secret--I'm having a blast!

After somewhat cooling my criticism of Adventure Bonds, I asked myself what Sir Manly really wants out of this visit to Greenest. The answer is obvious, he wants to spread his religion, of which he is currently the only adherent.

So, I role-played the heck out of this premise this past session. Sir Manly convinced the Town's leadership to switch their main crop to Turnips, he sought to convert his cultist enemies, and when confronted by a townswoman who remembered his rather sorry state during his last visit here, he convinced her that he had turned over a new leaf thanks to the redemptive power of the Holy Turnip.

dreaming of a world where turnips and radishes can live in harmony
And Sir Manly's mission has progressed even further thanks to some between-session roleplay(thanks, DM):

  • He used his now lofty status among the townsfolk to commission a shrine to be built to the Divine Turnip on the edge of town
  • His Sentient Vegetable friend will be named Prior Raddish and put in charge of the Shrine's upkeep
  • Sir Manly was inspired to pen the code of conduct for followers of the Divine Turnip on a plaque in the shrine:
    • You can't have pudding unless you eat your Turnips
    • Radishes are not to be trusted(unless they repent)
    • Bountiful Tithes should be given to the nearest Shrine of the Holy Turnip
    • We all hope and pray for the rebuilding of the Temple to the Holy Turnip

And with that, this player will, for now, end this account of his slow descent into madness...

Wednesday 27 August 2014

On 5e Bonds

OK, let's talk about the "Bonds" provided in "Hoard of the Dragon Queen". I complained previously that giving each party member a personal reason why they should take an interest in the adventure hook is a light-handed form of railroading. Here's the list provided by the module:

  1. Leosin Erlanthar, a wandering monk once saved your life.  He's sent an urgent summons for you to meet him in a small town called Greenest.  Looks like it's time to pay off that debt.
  2. When an orc raid drove your family from your home, the people of Greenest took you in.  Anyone who threatens Greenest is your sworn enemy.
  3. Every five nights, you have a strange sequence of apocalyptic dreams.  The world is destroyed by cold, choking fumes, lightning storms, waves of acid, and horrible fire.  Each time the dream ends with ten evil eyes glaring at your from the darkness.  You fell a strange compulsion to travel to Greenest.  Perhaps the answer to the riddle of your dreams awaits you there.
  4. Ontharr Frume, a crusading warrior and champion of good, is your friend and mentor.  He has asked you to travel to Greenest in search of rumors of increasing dragon activity.
  5. You have heard rumors that your close childhood friend, a half-elf named Talis, has been kidnapped by a strange group of dragon cultists.  Your investigations into the cult have led you to the town of Greenest.  You must save her!
  6. Being the grandchild of a renowned dragonslayer is usually a good way to impress people, but just last week a gang of ruffians attacked you.  You barely escaped with your life, but as you fled the ruffians told you that the Cult of the Dragon never forgets and always avenges.  You're hoping to lie low in a sleepy little town called Greenest, until this blows over.
  7. On his death bed, your father confessed that he had been involved in a group called the Cult of the Dragon.  They paid him to smuggle goods across the Sword Coast.  Wracked by guilt, he begged you to investigate the cult and undo the evil he may have helped foster.  He urged you to begin your search in a town called Greenest.
  8. The dragons destroyed everything you hold dear.  They killed your family and destroyed your home.  Now, with nothing but what you carry on your back and a horrid scar of the near fatal wounds you sustained in the attack, you seek revenge.
  9. You and your family were members of the Cult of the Dragon until your rivals in the cult arranged to wipe you out.  Though they slaughtered your kin, you survived, but they think you are dead.  Now is your chance for vengeance!  Your hit list consists of three names: a human cultist named Frulam Mondath, a half-orc named Bog Luck, and a half-dragon named Rezmir.  You have arrived in Greenest knowing it's next on the cult's list of targets.
  10. You have a secret.  You were once a gold dragon who served Bahamut.  You were too proud and vain, to the point where Bahamut decided to teach you a lesson.  You have been trapped in a weak, humanoid body, with your memories of your former life but a dim shadow.  You remember only one thing with clarity:  Bahamut's command to go into the world and prove your devotion to the cause of good.  If you prove worthy, on your death, you will return to his side in your true form.

Roleplaying & The Agency Paradox

While I think the point about railroading is true, I'd like to push that complaint to the side for the moment. Some DM's don't know how to or aren't interested in running a sandbox. They buy a module and read it and now they want to run it for their group. But they now have a roleplaying problem:

In a sandbox, the PC's enter a dungeon/scenario for their own reasons: to find treasure, to help someone, to impress a girl, because they are curious... As such, roleplaying in that dungeon emerges naturally. Questions of, when to forge on, when to flee, what to look for all follow naturally from the PC's original in-character intentions.

But when the DM just picks a module to run, the roleplaying can suffer. Without a clear in-character motive for entering the dungeon, the players will likely just treat the scenario as a railroad, following whatever seems like the next place the DM wants them to go to be polite. I felt this quite distinctly in our recent WFRP campaign where I just sort of went along with the clues the DM dropped, even though Seigwart and Sigyn really had no reason to be chasing this warpstone meteor across the empire.

Bonds are one solution to this problem. Let's artificially provide characters with the motivations they are missing by not playing in a sandbox. Now "paying back my debt to Leosin Erlanthar" is my motivation. I'm going to want to look for him first and foremost, and the results of that search are going to greatly effect how I roleplay the adventure.

This yields an interesting result. By railroading the PC's into the dungeon with these artificial motivations, you're actually giving them more agency within the dungeon, since the DM has given validation to their in-character motivations. Now, as a player, I can riff-off of those motivations and our play through the dungeon can be driven by the players rather than by DM railroading, as it should be.

So, while my preference is to play/run in a sandbox setting, I think that Bonds are a good thing when that isn't an option.

A More Natural Solution

That said, these Bonds come-off as being rather artificial.
"The dragons destroyed everything you hold dear.  They killed your family and destroyed your home."
"You have a secret.  You were once a gold dragon who served Bahamut."
Really!? We're just throwing some huge world-changing fact in order to justify the party's presence in the dungeon?  It just feels too forced to me.

I could see using this approach on brand-new PCs, but in an existing campaign the DM should use their own creativity and knowledge of the PC's to draw them in.

  1. Don't make-up an NPC that no-one has ever heard of. Instead use an NPC that the party grew close to in previous adventures.
  2. Leave a clue at the end of the previous adventure that leads to the next module you want to run. Like when "Against the Giants" had clues that the Drow were to blame
  3. Don't tell players that "just last week a gang of ruffians attacked you". Instead, set-up the attack previously, maybe several sessions previously. Telling the players "the attack happened" just seems like lazy DMing.

Sunday 24 August 2014

One Hell of a Gaming Night

The Game Map and a Very Angry Dragon
Well, Thursday night was one hell of a game night.

Kids' Stuff

We started out with a game of Advanced Doggies & Dragons which I ran for my daughter and her cousin. Last time Character sheets were introduced. This time I added a map. Basically, the idea was to have a board-game-sized map along the lines of Games Workshop's Hero Quest, with rooms drawn in as the PC's discover them. Everything was improvised on the spot, the rules, the size/contents of the next room, the dialog. And with kids, your DM dramatization can really shine. At one point my daughter told me "Daddy, this is really scary!"

They tricked a dragon, fought guardsmen, won a Rabbit for a friend, and eventually pulled him from the Dragon's belly before high-tailing it out of the castle with a box of treasure and tummies full of fresh vegetables.

At one point my daughter came up with an interesting way to find the statue referred to in one of the mysterious notes the party had found. While I was negotiating a combat round with her cousin, she grabbed my marker and drew-in a statue in an unexplored area of the map. Then after the combat she said "I'm going here and I find the statue!" Yes, that's right, my progeny takes meta-gaming to a new level!

The Only Gaming Aids You Need

A Game for the Big Boys

In any case, once the kids went to bed, our usual group arrived and it was time for the adult game. This is the DnD Next game that A. has been running recently. I played Sir Manly of the Divine Turnip, the little Halfling Paladin that could. He was joined by Pam the Dwarven Alchemist(ported from WFRP 1e, apparently), some sort of Half-Elf hiding his bastard heritage, and maybe some sort of Magic-User... someone from the group please correct me--my memory of the evening is a bit fuzzy for some strange reason...

Get out of my chair and back in
bed. Dammit--this is why
Daddy drinks!
The game was Hoard of the Dragon Queen and that mean PC's were instructed to choose a "Bond", some back-story element that binds them to the adventure location. Being a sandbox-snob, I wasn't about to go for this sort of back-handed railroading without having some fun. So Sir Manly's was that he had once gotten sick on some bad seafood in the town of Greentree and had dreamed...well let's just say some pretty disturbing stuff, but it included converting the naive locals to the way of the Holy Turnip, so there's that. There was much speculation over what the Paladin had really eaten given that Greenstump is a landlocked town...

In any case, upon approaching the town, the party saw it was on fire, and with a dragon breathing lightning bolts circling overhead. We approached by the brush along the riverside, then fought Kobolds & Cultists and eventually helped some refugees to the keep. Manly's new squire even helped out(his squire is some sort of living Turnip-like vegetable matter, booty from last session which was a rather improvisational puzzle-solving adventure, birthed from A's wonderfully twisted mind--but that's another story.)

So, in short, it was a fun, if somewhat brief session. At one point I even broke the DM's sanity with mere Turnip-related humor, such that he could only laugh epileptically for several minutes straight and nothing else. But I won't take all the credit since VSOP had already stabbed him in the Cerebellum earlier in the session.