Monday, 24 November 2014

Meaningless Encounters

Imagine, if you would, an encounter occurring which has no relevance to the scenario in which it occurs. It adds no verisimilitude, adds no flavour to the game milieu, and has no impact or potential for impact on future events. Moreover, the encounter is neither fun nor challenging in and of itself. It is a complete waste of time.

Game systems can encourage elements of this kind of encounter. For instance, in games where resources are intended to “reset” after each encounter, it is easy enough to remove the potential for impact on future events. 

A hypothetical game system that takes two hours to resolve a chance glimpse of a deer in the woods would make what is otherwise five seconds of description a chore that removes all fun. If a system “balanced” encounters so that the PCs were expected to win, and turned encounters into formula combats that took hours to resolve, a chance encounter with an ogre (for example) could easily be removed of its potential fun and challenge.

An adventure writer can also encourage elements of this type of encounter. “No matter what the PCs do, X will occur….” and “If the PCs kill X, assume that an identical X takes its place….” certainly reduce the potential for impact, if the GM actually follows those suggestions.

Yet, few and far between are those encounters which are completely meaningless, unless the system or the GM makes a clear distinction between “relevant” and “irrelevant” encounters. If this is the case, yes, you can make any encounter irrelevant. Doing so does not improve game play IMHO and IME. Forcing the players to determine the relevance of encounters to their own goals – or allowing them to create that relevance themselves! – is, to me, an important aspect of game play.

Crappy encounters do exist. If we take the elements of verisimilitude, flavour, potential for impact, challenge, and intrinsic fun, we can see that the more of these elements an encounter has, the better an encounter it will be. Consequently, the fewer it has, the crappier it will be.

IMHO and IME, adhering to an encounter template or a “plot” to which all encounters must conform is the most common way to create crappy encounters. YMMY, and if it does, party on! Never throw away something that works for you because some jackhole on the internet has a different idea, or different experiences. “Even if that jackhole is you?” Friend, especially if that jackhole is me. What works for me might not work for you. And vice versa.

Here’s the second biggest source of crappy encounters (IMHO & IME): Lack of planning. In order to have meaning, an encounter must both have impact on the setting and be able to allow the players to have impact. That means that there has to be some structure to hang the encounter on, and that there has to be enough leeway in that structure that the PCs can change it through their actions.

So long as those conditions exist, no encounter is truly meaningless. And your chance of having a crappy encounter go down considerably.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Tao of Failing My Will Save

How odd that there are people still who seem to believe that I am preaching the 'one true way.'  Feel free to agree with me and expand on what I've written. Most every comment like this highlights the best parts of my post, adds things I never thought of, deliberates over the nuance of a particular ideal and straightens out my thinking.

Perhaps it is the title of the blog - the apparent insistence that I know the path the reader must tread, that I am demanding that the reader tread it and that if the reader refuses, the reader is an idiot or a fool.

Rumson, however, does not confirm the thesis.  He proposes an alternative thesis ... but he doesn't ask if Holbrook agrees.  He makes it clear: "This is so.  There is no room for argument."  That's because Rumson isn't proposing a thesis ... which is, after all, the entire point of Logan's play.  Rumson knows.  That's why, when Holbrook answers that he doesn't agree, Rumson doesn't care.  He gets to the root of it.  Holbrook doesn't agree because Holbrook doesn't understand.

[T]here IS a path. One that we are walking upon together, arguing, challenging one another, pointing out details along the route. 

Don't piggy-back on my blog and offer an alternative method for 'how you do it.' I am writing here about how I do it. Either address my method, or go write your idea on your blog.

I don't care that the reader agrees.  The response, "I agree with some of what Alexis writes, but not all of it," is pure Holbrook.  I am not Holbrook.  I am Rumson.  Rumson knows.

I don't care that the reader agrees. Feel free to agree with me and expand on what I've written. 

If you want to disagree with me, fine. Do so. I better see a source or a credibly prescient example from your personal experience, and that example better be specific, detailed and ungeneralized. It better be in the first three sentences, too.

[T]here IS a path. One that we are walking upon together, arguing, challenging one another, pointing out details along the route. It better be in the first three sentences.

I am Rumson.  Rumson knows.

How odd that there are people still who seem to believe that I am preaching the 'one true way.'  

Sources:;; - this last is the comments form for Alexis' [Rumson's] blog, which demands that you feel free to agree with him, or, if not, present a cogent, detailed, and well-referenced argument in three sentences. 

Rumson is right in Logan's play because the author deems that this is the case, and unless you assume that you have a special relationship with the "author" of reality, one should not assume that they are right simply on the basis of their pronouncements. Para 3, above, is almost the definition of "one true way", and the insistence of Alexis that he is Rumson (Rumson knows) should make things clear. There is a reason people believe Alexis is preaching "one true way". But it is not clear to Alexis.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Revisiting Old Predictions

We often make predictions, but how often do we go back to see how accurate they were? Alexis did me a solid this morning by reminding me of this blog post that I responded to way back in 2012. I am pretty sure that wasn’t Alexis’ intention, but let’s treat it as if it were.

My base prediction was:

It wasn’t the fault of fans that a toxic atmosphere was created, nor is it the fault of fans that 4e wasn’t well-received. Nor will the success or failure of D&D Next be due to anything other than the success or failure of WotC to put out a good product, market that product well, and undo to whatever extent they are able the ill-will their handling of the 4e release created.

And they have definitely taken some steps in the right direction, although I think that the NDAs for the beta playtest are a really bad idea (not required by most recent rpgs, including Pathfinder and Dungeon Crawl Classics, despite Mike Mearls’ claim to the contrary), and I don’t think 5e will fly without the OGL.

The systems that are doing well right now have the right combination of “good system + goodwill”, and I don’t think Hasbro is going to allow WotC the leeway needed to recreate the goodwill that was seen with the advent of 3e.

The rest of the discussion is actually, I think, worth reading. You will notice quite a bit of “IMHO” and “I think”, and this is largely because, as is obvious, no one can really be so sure what the future holds!

(1) The success or failure of D&D Next (now 5e) is the result of a combination of the product and of the goodwill WotC can generate.

If comments from Mike Mearls are anything to go by, 5e is a real success, and Hasbro is happy that target numbers have been reached. I doubt that anyone is going to claim that this is the result of “toxic fans” or a lack of good will towards WotC. In fact, between the time that I wrote my responses in the blog post and the release of 5e, WotC went out of its way to address the ill will generated with the 4e release strategy.

It is of interest to me that Mike Mearls continues to hedge in relation to the OGL, or what licensing 5e will eventually have. This suggests rather strongly that, despite 5e materials being created right now under the OGL, the system will have a different licensing arrangement. A return to the OGL would have been announced early, because it would generate interest and goodwill.  On the other hand, by deferring the question, WotC can hope to build up enough interest and goodwill related to the system itself that, whatever the eventual licensing, people will be too invested to quit.

And that was, AFAICT, the initial scheme:  Play it for a year, and then we’ll tell you the details about the licensing. Maybe.

(2) The NDA was a bone-headed move.

The NDA did was prevent prolific and prominent bloggers from discussing D&D Next explicitly. It was violated almost immediately, and anyone who wanted them could easily obtain the playtest materials.

But, in this case, perhaps that was the point. By making these materials appear hard to obtain (and that clandestinely), WotC may well have raised the interest in 5e in a way that an open playtest would not have.

(3) Hasbro will not allow the leeway needed to give 5e the goodwill seen with 3e’s release.

The jury’s still out on this. Certainly, that 5e is a better system than 3e or 4e has been touted regularly on various blogs and forums. Equally certainly, renewing access to early editions in PDF (and sometimes print) formats has generated a lot of goodwill. There is certainly a sense that WotC is listening.

As an obvious corollary, if 5e is wildly successful, that will be because of Wizards, not because of the fans. They will have produced and marketed a good product, and overcome the ill-will generated around the release of 4e. It will be an achievement.

Yes, I said that. So far, WotC does seem to have managed that achievement. In part, I suspect, by postponing the licensing announcements until player investment is heavy.

For 5e to be “D&D Next” it needs to feel like coming home…like a game that DM’s can take ownership of. It needs to not feel like a game you play only at the whims of WotC’s legal department.

I still hold this to be true. Whether or not DMs will feel that ownership once they discover the licensing terms is a whole ‘nother matter.

Well, I already know my opinions. Please “hijack” this blog by telling me what you think. I promise not to perma-ban anyone for not simply regurgitating my own thoughts!*

*And, yes, Alexis, that is me tweaking your nose. And no, I did not discover your blog post by searching from "searching for a name" on Google to stir up some controversy in order to maintain readership. Your blog is still on my reading list because, despite the many posts about how everyone else sucks, you do occasionally have very interesting things to say.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Creator and Final Arbiter

"It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain that the game is mastered by you and not by your are the creator and final arbiter." 

- Gary Gygax, Afterword from the 1st edition DMG

These words hold true for (nearly?) all role-playing games, not just Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Rest well, Gary. You are missed.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Have you seen Doctor Who`s season finale, Death in Heaven?

If not, skip this post. If so, highlight to read:

Don`t be so sure that Osgood is dead. Jump back to The Day of the Doctor, and you will note that Osgood frequently used an inhaler, and the lack of inhaler indicated her Zygon duplicate. Following the ratification of a treaty between humans and Zygons, why wouldn`t Osgood-Zygon be allowed to maintain a liaison post with U.N.I.T.?

No inhaler. Not Osgood.

Expect the character to return.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

All In

This could well be the adventuring party...
My youngest child, at 8 years old, is now dipping her feet into the icy waters of role-playing games. I have, therefore, had the delightful task of re-writing the rules to match her interests and willingness to undertake risk. In this game, character death is off the table. She’s just not ready for it yet, although in a few years I hope to be able to introduce her to “harder” games.

One of the fun things about writing material that will never be used outside your own home – no restrictions on what you can use! So hobbits are hobbits, instead of halflings. And – why not? – there are fraggles exploring “Outer Space” in this game ala Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock. And I get to use a bunch of creatures from Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk books. Fun stuff. Did I mention that she also watches Land of the Lost, and that Sleestaks will be encountered?

It’s nice working for publication, but it is also very cool working for your own enjoyment. In my home Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, I can easily use materials from MERP, Gamma World, and AD&D, but if I convert these materials, I cannot publish the results. I have also been statting out creatures, characters, items, patrons, and spells from Appendix N fiction (and have shared some of this work here), but the Appendix N Cyclopedia I am working on will, ultimately, be for my reference alone. Likewise the Doctor Who rpg I am working on – stealing the best bits from FASA, Time Lord, and Cubicle 7, but ultimately for in-house use only.

I do this stuff because I love it. It’s damn nice to be able to share with all of my children.

Good gaming!

Players' Map for the starting area of my youngest's adventures....

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Balanced Encounters

When people talk about “balanced encounters”, they may mean one of several things – anything from creating encounters that are generally appropriate for a dungeon level (as with early D&D) to ensuring that the PCs can win every fight with an “appropriate” risk and expenditure of resources (as with the base assumptions of 3e and 4e).

What underlies this, of course, is a simple question: If the PCs fail, who is responsible?

Look back through forums focused on 3e, and you will discover all sorts of complaints about the CR system.  I have not been an aficionado of 4e, but I imagine that similar observations related to that system’s encounter budgets also occurred. The books, essentially, offer a way for encounters to be “balanced”; if the PCs fail it is either because the books failed, or the DM didn’t follow the guidelines.

The first time I encountered this was in 2e, where the DM was encouraged to fudge in order to save the PCs. In 1e, there was certainly language that suggested that the DM was allowed to do so; in 2e the suggestion was that the DM should do so. 1e’s “balance” was focused around campaign-length play and mechanisms that allowed the players to estimate their risk. A prime example of this is that, in general, the deeper one delves, the greater the treasures and the risks. This, of course, was not absolute – PCs may encounter “Monster Level” 3 monsters on the 1st level of the dungeon.

Moreover, while these tools were available, reading the advice to players in the 1e Player’s Handbook, it is clear that players should expect the DM to try to trick them into undertaking more risk than expected. Long sloping passages that lead down to another level without being noticed, chutes that do the same (but obviously!), and traps that cut off retreat are to be expected.

In 1e, not only is managing risk the player’s job, but the DM is expected to make this difficult. Not impossibly so – the DM is not supposed to be a jerkwad – but difficult enough to push the players into upping their game.

The modern obsession with balanced encounters starts with the idea that it is the GM, not the players, who must find the balance point. In a game where the GM forces the players to dance to his tune (and thus forces encounters upon the players, ala 3e, 4e, or most “adventure paths”), it makes sense that the GM has an increased responsibility to make those encounters “fair”. Applied to all gaming, though, the idea is a nightmare. Every time you hear that the GM has “made a mistake” and has to “correct an encounter” as the reason for fudging, the idea that the GM should balance encounters is at its heart.

I do not like games where the book, or the GM, is supposed to balance the encounters. I like games in which the GM is supposed to allow enough context to exist (which does not, by the way, mean that the context simply appears without being sought out by the PCs) to allow the players to generally balance the encounters. And which allows the players to be wrong. 

Some players will "play it safe", while others will take great risks, courting disaster in order to have a chance for great rewards. That is, to me, part of the interest of the game.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Following Thing (DCC Halloween monster)

The Following Thing: Init +2; Atk bite +4 melee (1d3 plus DC 13 paralyzing venom); AC 15; HD 3d8+10; hp 30; MV 30’ or climb 30’; Act 1d20; SP venom, pursue, impossible to kill, one night only; SV Fort +4, Ref +4, Will +18; AL C.

It looks like a well-dressed man in a long black suit with tails, but its face is a stag skull with dead white eyes. It does not walk, but crawls on all surfaces with equal ease. Once it selects a victim, it will pursue that victim relentlessly, attempting to paralyze it with its venomous bite (Fort DC 13 or paralyzed 1d3 rounds) in order to remove and eat its victim’s eyes. It can remove and devour one eye each round from a helpless victim.

Once a victim is selected, the Following Thing can always follow it, appearing 1d6 x 10’ away in a random direction each time an insurmountable barrier is placed between it and its prey. (The judge may wait to have the Following Thing appear so as to build up tension.) If successfully Turned or slain, its body fades away with a high-pitched giggling noise, and it is forced to wait 3d6 turns (30 to 180 minutes) to reform and pursue. It is impossible to kill.

The Following Thing is only active against its selected victim for one night; once dawn arrives the victim is no longer followed. How it chooses its victims is unknown, but some have speculated that miscast spells or the gods’ great disapproval might draw it. In some tales, the Following Thing appears as a punishment, sent by forsworn patrons. Few people are ever selected by the Following Thing more than once, and the Wise believe that there is only one such monster in all the multiverse.

(The wise may, of course, be wrong.)

Throw this monster into your Halloween adventure!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Tough Love

Here is a little bit of GMing philosophy - when you play in my game, I am on your side. I really hope that you do well. I just won't do anything to ensure that you do well. Want to attempt something unusual? I will entertain what seem to be reasonable arguments. I will assign what seems like a fair chance, to me. The odds are good that, if I make a ruling, that ruling is skewed in the players' favour.

But the dice still fall where they may, and I will fudge neither rolls nor statistics nor monster behaviour to ensure either your success or your survival. I want you to succeed - I really do - but I want you to succeed in a meaningful way. That means giving your opponents the brains that they should have, and it means allowing bad things to happen as well as good. That means allowing a TPK to happen. And happen again. And happen again after that. Unless you do something to make it not happen.

When I brought this up on DragonsFoot, I was told that this was smoke and mirrors - the GM cannot both be on the players' side and act as an impartial referee. Let me rephrase that, because what I am saying is that the GM can be on the players' side and still understand the importance of refereeing impartially. Just as a player can advocate for his character fairly, without cheating. Hoping for a good outcome does not mean you screw the game in order to ensure it occurs.

If I was acting against the players, or even creating a completely impartial scenario, it would be all too easy to create situations where TPKs were inescapable. I would have a thick folder filled with the dead, and no players at the table, because, really, what would be the point? Even a "killer" dungeon like Death Frost Doom or The Tomb of Horrors is more player-friendly than a similar situation would "realistically" be.

And I play games with people I like. I feel for them when they lose a beloved character. I am happy for them when they succeed beyond hope.

I am on their side.

But I won't do anything to make them win. And the dice may not be.

And it is not always obvious to the players that I am on their side, either. It's fun when the going gets tough, and I am grinning like a hyena waiting for a wildebeest to fall. Even though I hope they find a way out, I relish the tight spot for what it is. 

These are not contradictory positions to take. Any player worth his salt relishes the dangerous moments as well. Although she might not be able to focus on her enjoyment of those moments at the time (being busy with trying to find a way to survive, or mourning the loss of a character), but those are the moments that are relived through gamer chatter days, months, and years later. 

A good GM is on the side of the players, and wants them to do well and have fun, but is not on the side of the characters. A good GM knows that pulling punches removes the value of choice from the players, just as a good GM ensures that context is available for choices, but doesn't force context on the players if they choose to ignore it/not look for it. A good GM allows the players to make choices, and allows the characters to live or die by the quality of those choices.

A GM who punishes characters when the players make good choices, or coddles the characters when the players make poor choices, is undesirable. Both remove the greatest value that the tabletop game offers over other forms of entertainment.

Some players may think they want easy victories, or even guaranteed victories, but handing crap like that out is not what someone on your side does.

Call it tough love.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front because I have been busy elsewhere. The earlier part of 2014 was slow going for me, and I suffered massively from writer’s block. It is tough to be prolific when you feel the words you are penning just don’t convey what you want them to. It isn’t that I got nothing done, but everything I managed to complete was a lot more difficult than it should have been.

The material I composed for Goodman GamesPeril on the Purple Planet kickstarter seems to have gotten that out of my system, and I am firing on all cylinders again. That stuff was just easy and fun to write, and it seems to have gotten me back into the groove. The end result is that I have a lot of projects piled up at the end of the year, which means you’ll be seeing more Daniel J. Bishop titles in 2015 than you did in 2014.

The initial text for FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid (Purple Duck Games) has been playtested, and was well received. I was a bit concerned about how easy the text would be to follow – I have run this sort of adventure before, where the PCs can literally change the whole course of the game by their decisions – but this is the first time I have tried to make sure that my notes were as useful to another GM as they would be to me.

In a typical dungeon, descriptions of what is where, and how it interacts, are adequate for play. In a town, you need to describe the players and the factions, the town itself, what events will occur if the PCs don’t change things, what events are likely, and supply a slew of material for when the game curves unexpectedly. You’ll be getting all of that and more with The Portsmouth Mermaid.

The next two CE Series campaign elements for Purple Duck Games are nearly complete. In addition, there is a nifty project Perry Fehr and I will be working on for Purple Duck.

I have some other work for Goodman Games (see the Gen Con program guide) and Purple Duck to get off my plate as the year closes, but everything is progressing smoothly there. Going into 2015, there are some secret projects in the works; I have been asked to help with something near and dear to my heart, and which I think the DCC community will be rightly excited about. It’ll be my first time writing for the company involved.

In my home game this Thursday, I expect more exploration of the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I am using with Dungeon Crawl Classics. The PCs have explored most of the Gatehouse, and have opened the way to the dungeon proper. They just began to explore the first level when the game ended last week. I cannot praise Patrick Wetmore’s work on ASE enough.

The Judge Js on Spellburn disagreed with me regarding The Wizardarium of Calabraxis, which I continue to rate as a Critical Hit and regard as the #1 “must own” adventure for DCC. YMMV.  But you should absolutely also pick up Prayers of the Forgotten and Stronghold of the Wood Giant Shaman, also recently reviewed on Spellburn. Very, very good stuff there.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

They Came to Umerica

Three weeks ago I picked up a new player via the Dungeon Crawl Classics World Tour 2014 program and running games at Fan Expo Toronto. Combines with some of my existing players expressing a wish to get their hands on firearms, or playing mutant characters, and the appearance of a funnel adventure in Crawling Under a Broken Moon #3, I embarked a new set of adventurers upon the path to glory, gold, and an untimely death.

Two weeks ago, I ran the first part of The Mall Maul from CUaBM#3, a bit of awesome sauce that, frankly, I mangled in the translation. This was due to a lack of prep on my part; although I read the adventure thoroughly, I should have prepared some flavour text ahead of time. Perhaps I should also have photocopied the map onto graph paper, and used coloured pencils to indicate main thoroughfares (mall walkways), service walkways, etc. I don’t spend enough time in malls to have done the setting justice.

For those of you not getting Crawling Under a Broken Moon, the setting is post-Apocalyptic Umerica – think Thundarr the Barbarian meets Mad Max meets Gamma World meets Dungeon Crawl Classics and you won’t be that far off. In the funnel adventure, the PCs are filling a tribute truck to buy off some raiders – when they hit 200 “tribute truck” points, they get 10 XP and level up.

There was some bitching about this from some quarters. I have been running the game where, when the 0-level PCs hit 10 XP, they level. This led to overly cautious play, where every item to PCs started with had to be considered as to whether or not it could count as tribute, and the players simply refused to explore the stranger areas of the mall until they were absolutely sure that there was nothing left in the mall proper. Each step of the way was handled with the sort of mind-numbing thoroughness that only comes with not having made driven home a time limit before the raiders arrive.

By the second week, for part 2 of The Maul Maul, I was a little better prepared. One thing that helped was a list of random items, effectively dungeon dressing for the mall. We had ended with the defeat of the main Malllock nest, and the tribute truck still not close to full. The second half of the mall is cooler than the first, but it is also harder to describe. Again, better prep in this area would have served me well. In any event, they hit the food court, filled the truck, levelled, and we ended it there.

Some notes:

  • If I was doing this over, I would prep descriptions better, and perhaps scour the Internet for applicable visuals.
  • Instead of dealing with TT values, I would simply have granted 1 XP per 20 TT found, and give the players a rough idea of how full the truck seemed to be.
  • I would have copied and coloured the map to give me visual cues as an aid in describing places.
  • A list of random junk on the first session, to aid in descriptions, would have helped.
  • I had to make calls about leveling using Crawling Under a Broken Moon. Are mutants a race class? Can they take another class? I ruled that they could use half-levels, or they could use race-as-class. There was some pretty vocal bitching about this. Tough. When options are added, if you don’t like them, don’t use them, but don’t drag the game into a bitching match about the options you would use if you were running the game, unless you are actually prepared to do so.

Part 3 got off to a better start, as the players determined that they had cleared out the mall. There was a lot of talk about them keeping the stuff they had gotten for the tribute truck, or just keeping the tribute truck, but in the end the fact that they liked the local priest of Kizz got them to take his advice and leave their Podunk little town and head east towards Denethix….the raiders work for the wizard Dundee the Crocodile Lord, and in this part of Umerica, known as the Land of One Thousand Towers, the best you can hope for from any wizard is that they ignore you.

Along the way to Denethix, they meet two caravan guards, and go to rescue a merchant in the lair of several sick lion-like humanoids known as Moktars. This leads them to a cave atop a nearby mountain, which promises the possibility of loot. They decide to go to the closest (very poor) village and get some help – a new batch of 0-levels for everyone. All have a group of 4 PCs (mixed 1st and 0-level), and head back up the mountain.

When last we left off, Suicidal Steve the 0-level Elf was hit in the head with a trap made of a swinging pipe. So far, no inhabitants of the newly-opened dungeon have reared their head, but the signs (literal signs on doors) indicate that there may be some useful technology around somewhere.

And that is where we pick up tonight……

(In case it is unclear, I am adapting Patrick Wetmore's excellent Anomalous Subsurface Environment to Dungeon Crawl Classics. This is a good fit, especially for the post-Apocalyptic environment of Crawling Under a Broken Moon. ASE also contains the means, via Michael Curtis, to connect the world of CUaBM with one's regular game, so that this new chapter is just the long way 'round to going "home" to where the regular PCs are. I think that's cool.)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

W is for Walrus.....A Hung Jury

I am going to use both versions of the scrimshaw rod from the "W is for Walrus" contest, and I am going to give both contestants a print and pdf of the adventure they will appear in (FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid).

Contest closed.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Review: Prayers of the Forgotten

Prayers of the Forgotten
Stormlord Publishing
By Carl Bussler and Eric Hoffman

Brief review: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and yet again, wonderful.

Longer review: Take a simple premise: forgotten gods and alien philosophies exist in the Appendix N, sword & Sorcery style worlds that Dungeon Crawl Classics emulates. Sometimes, those gods are not dead, but merely forgotten. Sometimes, they want to be worshiped again. Sometimes, bold adventurers encounter the remains of these cults. Now devise mechanics to reflect this.

That’s what Prayers of the Forgotten does – provides a simple framework to create unique mechanics for your forgotten gods, philosophies, arch-demons, and so on. The rest of the booklet is devoted to three specific examples of the same. These specific examples come with what are essentially mini-adventures that can be dropped in your campaign as desired. An added bonus: The mini-adventures are not only good, but they are diverse.

In addition to the obvious “treasure” of becoming the favoured soul of some forgotten god, this booklet sparked some interesting ideas for “Quest For It” adventures in my mind. If the last component for a spell can be found from the lips of a forgotten god, what might that god demand in exchange? What is something the PCs want – even something as mundane as a lost sword technique – can only be gained as a boon from a forgotten god?

Anything that makes the judge consider the supernatural world in which the PCs operate is a good thing. Anything that gives the judge extra tools to model the interaction of that supernatural world with the PCs is a great thing.

This is a great value for the money. A must have for the serious (or even the not-so-serious) DCC judge.

“There is no such thing as a dead god. Only dead followers.”

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Agony Columns

Following the failure of the FTL Communications Network and generally upheld interstellar law, it became possible to hire out jobs that had formerly been illegal under the Terrestrial Alliance.  The “Agony Columns” are similar to Classifieds in a newspaper, or a dating service – an individual pays to post a request, with a contact number that is provided by the local System Agency. 

System Agencies pay a nominal fee to spike drive ships to carry information from one system to another, thus providing updated Agony Column information across nearby systems.  The downside to this is that out-system listings may already be filled or closed by the time they reach a local System Agency, and it may be some time before the listing is updated.  Those responding to out-system listings are cautioned to use their own best judgement!

In some systems, the local System Agency may use viral transportation to encode packets onto outgoing ships without the knowledge or payment of the owners.  This is frowned on by GalSysCom, but is not illegal in most systems.  A ship that discovers a System Agency packet hidden in its computers may delete or sequester the packet without fear of prosecution.

(Sequestering a packet prevents it from uploading to local System Agencies, thus limiting access to the information contained least until such time as it is provided by another spike drive ship.  Parties possessing the packet may then decrypt it in order to “claim jump” any interesting tidbits they may find.)

The Agony Columns are used not only to offer clandestine employment, but also list potential job offers with various corporations and other places of employment, personal messages, birth notices, death notices, wedding notices, and anything else a user is willing to pay 1 credit per 10 characters to post.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dungeon of Crows 2: Avatar of Yog Sutekhis

Another Pay What You Want instalment of The Dungeon of Crows is available.

I've included a sample below, but the real treat is the Avatar of Yog Sutekhis.

43.  Crypt with Demon:  The passage goes 10 feet into another chamber, some 30 feet to a side, with an archway in the centre of the right wall.  The walls are composed of triangular burial niches, some filled with piles of bones separated by type – you can see niches that contain only jawbones, or shinbones, or ulnas, for example – but many seem empty.  The ceiling is about 10 feet high.

Two monkey demons hide within the niches, one behind several skulls in a niche on the east wall, and one in an otherwise empty niche on the north wall (which cannot be seen into from the doorway).  A 2 in 6 chance notices the first, but the second cannot be noticed until the room is entered (1 in 6 chance) and may well have a chance to act with surprise.  Monkey demons look like red-skinned black-furred monkeys with wizened, evil, almost-human faces. Anyone bit by a monkey demon must make a save vs. poison (Will DC 10) or permanently lose 1d4 points of Strength.

Monkey Demons (2): AL C, MV 90’ (30’), AC 3 (17), HD 1, hp 5, 8, #AT 1 (bite), DG 1d4 + Strength loss, SV T3 (Fort +2, Ref +5, Will +2), ML 8, XP 16.

There are 300 niches in this room, but only about a third contain bones.  Searching them takes a single character 30 minutes, and uncovers a leather bag containing 250 polished bone discs with crude faces scratched on one side of each disc.  These are “money” of the Boneknapper’s Guild on Level Three, and can be used to barter with any ghouls met in this dungeon.

Breckinridge Elkins

Robert E. Howard is well known for characters like Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, El Borak, Cormac Mac Art and Solomon Kane. He also wrote stories about many characters that are perhaps less well known these days – Sailor Steve Costigan, Professor John Kirowan, Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, and Dark Agnes – although no less worthy. Among those characters who have achieved less notoriety is Breckinridge Elkins, Howard’s brawny-but-not-brainy, tough-as-nails character whose humorous Western exploits take place in and around Bear Creek, Nevada.

I had read very few of the Breckinridge Elkins stories prior to going camping in Algonquin Park this August, but one of the books I brought with me was A Gent From Bear Creek*. Although more than half a continent lies between the Sierra Nevada of Bear Creek and the Appalachians of Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer tales, it seems to me that a “Breckinridge Elkins”-type character would fit in quite well with the Wellman-inspired Shudder Mountains of Michael CurtisThe Chained Coffin.

Without further ado, then, here is Breckinridge Elkins, statted out for the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg.

Breckinridge Elkins:  Init +0; Atk punch +5+1d10 melee (1d3+5+1d10) or hurl stone +5+1d10 ranged (1d8+5+1d10, range 100’) or firearm +1d10 ranged (1d6+1d10); AC 9; HD 8d10+32; hp 80; MV 30’; Act 2d20; SP DR 10, iron constitution, “get mad”, Mighty Deeds, incredible strength, impossible to kill; SV Fort +20, Ref +4, Will +4; AL N.

Breckinridge Elkins is a giant grizzly bear of a man, well over 6 feet tall. So iron is his constitution that he can drink jug after jug of moonshine without serious inebriation, and any damage he takes is reduced by 10 points. If any damage gets through this reduction, Elkins “gets mad”, gaining a +1d bonus on the dice chain to both Action Dice.

Breckinridge Elkins gains a Deed Die (1d10) as does a warrior or dwarf, and he criticals as though he were a giant. Although his attacks can be devastating, they are never lethal – an opponent reduced to 0 hp is knocked senseless, coming to after 1d6 rounds or minutes (judge’s choice) with a full Hit Die restored. The character does not lose a point of Strength, Agility, or Stamina as with the normal “Damage and Death” rules on page 93 of the core rulebook.

Likewise, Breckinridge typically uses his Mighty Deeds to comical effect – limiting opponent’s attacks, chawing on ears, dazing opponents, or placing them into unsavoury circumstances. The judge is encouraged to have Breckinridge use his Deeds to throw folks through windows, jam them into barrels, slide them down the bar counter, or whatever else seems over the top.

Breckinridge Elkins is incredibly strong; it is, in fact, impossible for a normal human being, unaided by magic, to beat him in a Strength check. Even against a superhuman character, such as Lin Carter’s Ganelon Silvermane, Elkins adds his Deed Die +5 to any Strength check. He has been known to break through solid timber walls, carry his mule, hurl a mountain lion into a cabin, and throw rocks with explosive force.

Although incredibly strong and tough, the gent from Bear Creek isn’t terribly smart, and is easily fooled. Discovering that he has been tricked is liable to make him mad, however, and an angry Breckinridge Elkins has been the end to many a villainous scheme.

Finally, if reduced to 0 hp, Breckinridge Elkins is merely stunned, and sits down, falls down, or wanders off as the judge deems appropriate. He recovers a full Hit Die in 1d6 minutes, or immediately upon being attacked. He regains another Hit Die each hour until his full Hit Dice are restored. Breckinridge Elkins may well be impossible to kill.

If the judge’s campaign includes firearms, Breckinridge usually has a primitive cap-and-ball pistol on his person.

Cap’n Kidd: Init +2; Atk hoof +8 melee (1d6+5) or bite +4 melee (1d4+5); AC 16; HD 8d8+32; hp 50; MV 90’; Act 1d20; SP DR 5, difficult to mount, buck and throw, impossible to kill; SV Fort +12, Ref +10, Will +15; AL N.

Cap’n Kidd is Breckinridge Elkin’s horse – the only horse strong enough to carry him. He allows only Breckinridge or Glory McGraw to ride him, and in Breckinridge’s case, Cap’n Kidd bucks or rolls a few times before he can be ridden. Anyone who attempts to ride Cap’n Kidd is targeted by a single hoof or bite attack as a free action, and must make a DC 20 Reflex save or Strength check to get on the horse’s back. Failure allows another try, but Cap’n Kidd gains another free attack. Once on the horse, the would-be rider must succeed in 3d7 Strength checks (DC 1d10+10) or be thrown from the horse for 2d6 damage (with any natural “6” indicating a broken bone).

Similarly to Breckinridge Elkins, Cap’n Kidd ignores the first 5 points of damage from any source, and if reduced to 0 hp is merely dazed, gaining a full Hit Die back in 1d6 minutes. If a PC reduces Cap’n Kidd to 0 hp through nonlethal combat, the horse should allow itself to be ridden by that PC, much to the amazement of all around (especially Elkins).

Glory McGraw: Init +3; Atk punch +1d5 melee (1d3+1d5) or firearm +3+1d5 ranged (1d6+1d5); AC 12; HD 4d8+8; hp 25; MV 30’; Act 1d20+1d14; SP Mighty Deeds, possibly impossible to kill; SV Fort +4, Ref +8, Will +8; AL L.

Glory McGraw is Breckinridge Elkin’s love interest. Although not as physically intimidating as the gent from Bear Creek, she also has a Deed Die (1d5), and probably cannot be killed. I leave this last to the judge’s discretion.

It is highly recommended that the judge read some of Howard’s original prose before running these characters. Further inspiration can be found here or especially here.

* It should be noted that the stories in A Gent From Bear Creek were not all originally Breckinridge Elkins stories. The collection reworks some stories from similar Howard characters into Elkins stories, in the same way that the Conan stories were padded out with edited stories originally attached to other Howard characters.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Fan Expo 2014

Photos courtesy of Toronto Area Gamers
As previously mentioned, I was scheduled to run three games at Fan Expo 2014, having been asked to volunteer by the wonderful folks in the Toronto Area Gamers.

On Friday, I was scheduled to run The Imperishable Sorceress, which had been published as a Free RPG Day adventure by Goodman Games in 2013. On Saturday, I was scheduled to run The Arwich Grinder, which appeared in Crawl #9. On Sunday, I was scheduled to run The Thing in the Chimney, which was initially available as a free adventure for Christmas 2012, and then made a part of Perils of the Cinder Claws, along with a sequel adventure, by Purple Duck Games for the 2013 holidays.

Friday went well, with a TPK occurring in the cold halls of Ivrian the Unkind. The players failed to listen to Ivrian’s instructions, and the cleric attempted to invoke divine power to deal with the first demon. And failed. They also failed to obtain almost all of the treasures that could have helped them with the adventure – being initially afraid even to touch the magic sword. With very little oomph left to the group, the survivors perished when they met the waspmires on the face of the Cleft Mountain. Still, it was fun.

Saturday, I started with five players, but one was taking care of a baby. One should not take care of a baby and play in The Arwich Grinder. He bowed out when they reached the attic. Of the remaining 16 0-level PCs entering the funnel, 14 were still alive when we were warned that the room was going to close about 45 minutes before the game was scheduled to end. They had just begun to examine “Hell on Earth”, so they might not have done as well if we had continued. Still, it was amazingly impressive, as the dice showed the game’s Judge no love, and player caution prevented them from doing anything truly stupid. And it was a lot of fun. Letting the dice fall where they may, if nothing else, ensured that the players knew how exceptionally lucky their 0-level PCs really were.

Sunday, I didn’t have enough sign-ups to run through The Thing in the Chimney, but last-minute players allowed me to run for a foursome. They burned through the adventure, avoiding most of the potential combats, but all dropped when a pair of hands came from the chimney. “You are drawn up into the chimney, one by one. There are some crunching sounds. Then your boots fall into the ashes.” Lovely. Especially in contrast to the humorous tone of the rest of the scenario.

Because there was so much time left, I ruled that the fruitcake helped them (because the halfling ate it all), giving each 2d6 hit points back, and allowed them to face the Cinder Claws himself. Yes, this was a fudge – but it was also a fudge in a one-shot game, where everyone knew it was a fudge (no lying about it!) and agreed to turn the clock back. They also knew what the “real” events had been.

In the ensuing battle, two PCs dropped again before the Cinder Claws was defeated. When rolled over, after being dragged through the portal, they were discovered to be dead. A fruitcake can only do so much.

But the players had burned through the adventure so quickly that I still had half the time left. And they were asking if I had another scenario on me. Having the core rules, I had them generate three 0-level PCs each and ran them through Joseph Goodman’s The Portal Under the Stars. It was well received. In the end, two new “heroes” emerged from the adventure site, and they were the two who ran.

One of the players then asked if he could join my weekly game. This was a young gentleman who had never played DCC before, but who really liked the pace of the game. A lot of things can happen, and you don’t always know what they are going to be!


I was recognized from having run other DCC promo events in the past, which was nice.

You can, apparently, be voted MVP by the other players if you do a good job role-playing being cursed with a desire to eat human flesh.

The big draw this year seemed to be 5E, but Pathfinder retains a strong hold on the Toronto crowd. I didn’t see anyone playing older edition games, which was a bit sad.

The Goodman Games swag program continues to surprise players. I was repeatedly forced to tell people that, really, they could have that mechanical pencil, that button, those bookmarks, that graph paper, etc., because the publisher provided it to me to give away to players.

It was very kind of the Toronto Area Gamers group to invite me to run games this year, and I would certainly be willing to do so in the future. Next time, though, I will be running all-new never-before-seen material, and players willing to chance their PCs’ fates on the dice and my gentle adventure designs may be able to gain playtest credits as a result!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

This Weekend!

This weekend at Fan Expo Toronto:

Friday 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm - DCC: The Imperishable Sorceress
Saturday 7:00 pm - 11:00 pm - DCC: The Arwich Grinder
Sunday 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm - DCC: The Thing in the Chimney

Come fill the table!

Monday, 11 August 2014

W is for Walrus

Licensed under Public domain via
Wikimedia Commons
Having foolishly messed up the obvious, and not used my post on the Wampler as my “W is for…” post, I give you the humble walrus.  These mammals, closely related to true seals, runs between 1,800 and 3,700 pounds for a male for a Pacific walrus, with occasionally larger one’s showing up.  

Wikipedia tells us that “In 1909, a walrus hide weighing 500 kg (1,100 lb) was collected from an enormous bull in Franz Josef Land, while in August 1910, Jack Woodson shot a 4.9 m (16 ft) long walrus, harvesting its 450 kg (1,000 lb) hide. Since a walrus's hide usually accounts for about 20% of its body weight, the total body mass of these two giants is estimated to have been at least 2,300 kg (5,000 lb).” 

Atlantic walruses are a bit smaller, the males clocking in at an average 2,000 pounds. That’s still plenty big.

One source claims walruses can reach 3,527 pounds!

Some walruses hunt seals, and there have been stories of walruses hunting humans as well, folklore from regions in which these mammals are common. A walrus can take down a fur seal far larger than the average human, and in the excellent BBC Planet Earth documentary series, you can see how a polar bear fares against a walrus colony.  

In the real world, people have hunted walruses for food, skins, oil, and ivory. In the fantasy world of Dungeon Crawl Classics, far more aggressive hunting walruses may exist, hunting the hunters in turn. The red walruses of the Blood Ice, for instance, are as much a menace as they are a resource. A spirit-driven walrus may hunt people because it is compelled by the evil that possesses it.

Walrus: Init +0; Atk Bite +3 melee (2d6+4) or flipper +0 melee (1d4+4) or crush +2 melee (1d8+4); AC 15; HD 5d8+5, HP 26; MV 15’ or swim 40’; Act 1d20; SP ignores first 10 points of cold damage from any source; SV Fort +8, Ref –3, Will +2; AL N.

Giant walrus: Init –2; Atk Bite +6 melee (2d12+4) or flipper +4 melee (2d8+4); AC 17; HD 15d8+15, HP 75; MV 30’ or swim 50’; Act 2d20; SP crush 5d12 damage to all in 10’ x 10’ area (Ref DC 8 avoids), immune to cold; SV Fort +16, Ref –4, Will +6; AL N.
CONTEST:  The Scrimshaw Rod

This is a rod made of walrus tusk ivory, carved with scrimshaw figures. Post a description, including what it does, in the Comments, below. Use the rules system of your choice; just indicate what it is. It needs to be your own work. 

By posting, you grant permission to treat your entry as Open Gaming Content with the copyright notice “Whatever you named the item, by whatever name appears in your comment, copyright © 2014”.  Example, “Scrimshaw rod, by Raven Crowking, copyright © 2014”.

Contest ends on 1 September 2014. At that time, two winners will be announced. One will be the item I pick as the (subjectively) “best” of those offered; the other will be random-rolled from the remainder. Each winner will receive a complimentary pdf of any Purple Duck Games or Mystic Bull product I have worked on, which I will provide.

In addition, I will work the “best” entry into FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid (converted to DCC, if necessary), properly credited, and I will send the author of that entry a free pdf and print copy of the module when it is released.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Dungeon of Crows

An experiment is live on RPG Now as of now.

And it is Pay What You Want, which means Free unless you feel like paying anything.

Welcome to the Dungeon of Crows, a megadungeon for Labyrinth Lord and other Old School Role-Playing Games!  I have included both ascending and descending AC, as well as additional saving throw information (Fort, Reflex, and Will, ala 3.x and similar games) to make conversion easy.

Within you will find what remains of the Skullheap Goblins, a few vermin known and surprising, a mysterious rhizomatic growth, and the blue and red goop PCs will surely interact with.

This product contains the first 28 encounter areas, as well as a map for the western half of Level 1.  (The eastern half requires navigating the underground lake, or coming up from below.)

If you liked my previous stuff, you might like this. Really.

Pay What You Want. If there is enough interest, I will continue.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Worth Reading

Playing in an RPG?  Read this!

Down Night-Haunted Halls

Rosters of players who may or may not make specific sessions due to the vagaries of work, school, and family commitments are a recurrent problem for the modern judge. Simply put, not everyone can make every game night, and sometimes you find yourself being asked to run two separate groups of players on different nights of the week.

Last week, with just two players available, I hauled out Barrowmaze and Barrowmaze II, and allowed the players to create new 0-level characters to go exploring.  They stayed as near to the surface as possible, exploring barrow mounds and having random encounters, until at last the survivors reached 1st level. Then they skedaddled back to Helix.

(As an interesting aside, they actually managed to start on the Barrowmaze II hexmap, thus ending up in more dangerous territory and discovering some nice treasures.)

Tonight, with the same two players being the only ones who could attend, and being asked to allow their characters to do something other than the Barrowmaze (which they frankly view as a death trap!) I offered them another dungeon - Stonehell - to the west toward the mountains, while the Barrowmaze was towards the east. I made each player roll 1d20 on both the Barrowmaze and the Stonehell rumour charts.  They decided to attempt Stonehell on the basis of the rumoured kobold market.

One session in, the PCs have largely explored only the upper ravine area, but they had a lot of fun. Coal is dead (nearly taking the warrior with him), one PC is hoping to raise a wolf cub (he is a halfling keeper of the hounds, and lost 9 teeth to critical hits during the battle with the older wolves!), and they still haven't dared to enter the dark archway that leads to Stonehell proper.

It amazes me to hear some folks say that Dungeon Crawl Classics doesn't mesh well with megadungeons - or vice versa. So long as the players have options, and so long as the area is interesting, my experience is that they work very well together. I have had a lot of fun with DCC and Barrowmaze, and tonight's fun with Stonehell is fresh in my mind as I write this. DCC characters are bad-asses compared to their Labyrinth Lord equivalent, but the unknown effects of die rolls can change a battle from a cakewalk to a nail-biter.

That Helix just became this unhappy village smack-dab between two of the most dangerous places in the world (at least, so far as these PCs know!) also helps bring the world alive for the players. What a place to call home!

Nice work on this adventure setting by Michael Curtis!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Mathom's Away!

If you posted a comment here, and got your email address to me, you should have one shiny new mathom in your Inbox. I hope you enjoy it.

If you commented, and sent your email, and for some reason find nothing in your Inbox, please email me directly so that I may rectify the situation.

Happy Monday!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Mathom Update

Related to this post, the 2014 mathom is completed, bookmarked, and ready to send on Monday.  

Contents include an adventure, some converted monsters, and a few items from Appendix N authors given stats for Dungeon Crawl Classics.

The deadline to qualify for the mathom is whenever I wake up Monday morning.  Once I send the email, that's it.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Thank You

Ennies voting is closed, and whoever has won has won. Winners to be announced on 15 August at Gen Con. I would like to thank everyone who voted (especially everyone who voted for Prince Charming, Reanimator!) and offer a hearty congratulations to all the winners, whoever they should turn out to be.

This community really is the best.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Fan Expo 2014 Schedule

I am currently on the schedule for the following games:

Game Name: DCC: The Imperishable Sorceress
Game SystemDungeon Crawl Classics
Description: As the adventurers pass through a mundane door, they are startled to find themselves unexpectedly in a frozen landscape. A distant woman’s voice whispers a welcome, and the characters are thrust into a tale of spirits and ancient secrets.
Players: 3-5
Times: Friday 2-6

Game Name: DCC: The Arwich Grinder
Game System Dungeon Crawl Classics
Description: The Curwen Family have lived up among the pine woods on the outskirts of Arwich Village for as long as the oldest village gaffers can remember. The beautiful Bessie Curwen's bonnet is found in a strange creature's grasp. The village owes much to her family, so someone must go up into the dark pine-clad hills to make sure that the Curwens are all right. After all, the Curwens saved the village from starvation two winters ago. If you do not go, who will?

The Arwich Grinder is a Lovecraftean 0-level funnel for the DCC RPG written by Daniel J. Bishop and published in Crawl #9.
Players: 3-5
Times: Saturday 7-11

Game Name: DCC: The Thing in the Chimney
Game System Dungeon Crawl Classics
Description: At the waning of every year, as the sun grows closer to the horizon, and spends less time in the sky, there comes a time of terrible cold and deep snow to the lands of the north. The world waits with hushed breath for this, the longest night of the year, to be over. Soon, the sun will begin to climb higher each day, and the days grow longer. Although long stretches of cold weather are yet to come, this is the night in which winter’s back is broken. After tonight, the world turns slowly back to warmth and light.

But that is after tonight.

A 1st level DCC adventure with a holiday theme, published by Purple Duck Games and run by its author.
Players: 3-5
Times: Sunday 1-5