16 October 2014

An October Idyll

I was born amongst ghoul-haunted forests and mouldering cemeteries. In midnight skies, the echoes of witches' cries are carried on moon-limned clouds. Crumbling piles of bespotted rock tell where old Puritan homesteads once stood.

My home is the place where H. P. Lovecraft and Nathaniel Hawthorne found both inspiration and horror. It is the place Edgar Allen Poe called home until family quarrels drove him southward. It is where Native American tribes lived and warred for centuries before European interlopers proved to be the more perilous threat.

Mine is also the place where starry-eyed utopians, Transcendentalist, Quakers and Shakers tried to fulfil their dreams, but failed. It is the first place in the New World where educators choose to found a college. It is where revolutionaries plotted to overthrow a king.

I have always been proud to be a native of this peculiar Commonwealth, Massachusetts. Although its history has not always been pleasant, kind or noble, it has always been fascinating.

Was there really any doubt that I and my friends would find fantasy and fantasy role playing irresistible?

02 January 2014

The value proposition of low-level heroes

A lonely outpost on the edge of civilization is being harassed by rabble of unruly goblinoids. The forces at the outpost turn to your party of novice heroes to save them.

Sound familiar?

It is the premise of many first level fantasy RPG adventures. As a plot mechanic, it works well to get players quickly into an adventure and be in a position to look like heroes. As a module writer, I am supremely thankful for this canard. However, even a cursory review of combat tables in D&D and retro-clones will show you that first level heroes have a mere %5 to hit advantage over non-adventurer humans. What is worse is that when looking at the stats for Men in the Monsters section of Labyrinth Lord or B/X D&D, even merchants have 1 hit die. This seems to reduce the premium of novice heroes quite a bit. When you look at more "trained" class like thieves, clerics and magic-users, the hit die situation worsens.

Why doesn't the town/outpost/keep just round up 10 or so of their own people to slay the kobolds/rats/vampire roses?

Player Characters as mercenaries offer their clients a few advantages:

  • The locals do not risk their own necks
  • When there are not enough "spare" locals of fighting age to solve the problem, outsourcing to remote heroes is necessary
  • When the quest giver cannot trust anyone local, out of town heroes are desirable
  • When the quest giver is looking to feed an unspeakable evil, out of town heroes are particularly desirable
  • Heroes bring specialized skills that locals will not have (i.e. magic, thieving, detecting secret doors, etc.)
  • If the heroes succeed, they will become stronger and possibly famous. Locals can bask in the reflected glory of being a past client

Low-level adventures have a bit of a stigma in that they are necessarily used to introduce players new to RPG to adventuring. However, low-level adventures are also where experienced players start with new heroes. In the world of Old School RPG, there are many well-seasoned players. We should be crafting low level adventures expecting expert players.

With some obvious modifications, it should be possible to scale down even the classic Tomb of Horrors to something first level characters could survive (at least survive at the same rate as high level characters do when running through the original adventure).

This is the sort of challenge I am looking to overcome when I release my own adventures. There is another issue of the hero career path, but that is a longer post.

30 December 2013

Agenda 2014

My RPG activity is picking up again. Here's what is in the hopper for 2014.
  • I have changed to a PWYW model for taskboy games on RPGNow
  • I am looking to do a print version of Manse on Murder Hill with some expanded content and additional graphics
  • I am doing more reviews for Brave the Labyrinth and will continue to do that until Pete Spahn stop returning my emails
  • I have some additional module ideas I would like to expand on for RPGNow (amazing how a little money motivates me)
As I have enough other outlets for my hobby, I suspect that this blog will continue to suffer. However, if I could predict the future, I would be a whole lot richer.

03 December 2013

Brave the Labyrinth

If you would like to read more of my reviews, please have a look at the excellent Labyrinth Lord fanzine, Brave the Labyrinth. I am in issue #2 and I will have a review in #3. I hope to continue doing these for the foreseeable future. Whee!

05 May 2013

Review: Atarin's Delve.

Small Niche Games is fast becoming one of my favorite indie RPG publishers of tight, coherent adventures for Labyrinth Lord. Atarin's Delve provides a great example of its output.

This short fifteen room dungeon crawl written by Peter Spahn is designed for a smallish party (5 or so player characters) of experience levels 1-3. Normally, these low-level adventures are designed to hand-hold players new to RPGs. That does not describe this adventure. Spahn clearly feels that there is plenty of fun in to be had at these novice levels for experienced players and so do I.

The non-spoilerific adventure background is simply that a sage named Atarin is investigating subterranean ruins in a small town and has been getting veiled threats implying that his attentions are unwelcomed. The PCs are part of an Adventure Guild that sends them to assist Atarin. When the PCs arrive, the Atarin expedition has not been heard from in several days. An alternate adventure hook is suggested that the PCs merely stumble upon the abandoned campsite, which seems more mysterious and evocative to me.

Delve comprises many classic RPG tropes: a depraved cult; a hapless sage that awakens an ancient evil; a xenophobic alien species that just wants to be left alone. The heavies of this adventure are the Caltha, an amphibious intelligent species that, though in decline, can still cause trouble to those that interfere with them. I would love to see the Caltha appear in a higher-level adventure. Spahn gives just enough details about them to arouse the imagination, not unlike the Kuo-toa of Gygax or the Deep Ones of Lovecraft.

The meat of the adventure comes from the conflict inherent in the three well-detailed groups interacting in this adventure. Not only has Atarin's expedition angered some local humans, he has loosed a group of grumpy fishmen. The opportunities for role-play abound here.

The random encounters here are more detailed and varied than is typical in the classic TSR modules. Ten encounters are detailed with a setup that provides the game master with a sensible context for the events. Spahn has also been careful to refer to existing LL rules (like those covering blindness and opening doors) rather than recreate them. In one notable place, he relies on an ability check to provide the PCs with more plot information. I am a big fan of ability checks and wish that the classic run of TSR modules had used them more.

The production of this short adventure excellent. Great maps by Dyson Logos, a consistent layout and tight prose make this content easily digestible. All told, this product provides excellent value for the consumer and a yard stick for other publishers.

08 April 2013

Review of The Stealer of Children

Small Niche Games has just released a short but excellent Labyrinth Lord adventure for novice characters called The Stealer of Children, written by Peter Spahn. The plot is inspired by grim fairy tales: a nightmare creature is kidnapping the youngsters of Leandras Row, a small vaguely European village. The PCs are to confront and end the menace causing the trouble, but to do so will take some small bit of investigation.

There are three main areas of exploration: the village proper, a ruined manor house and enchanted Tanglewood. Tanglewood is a particularly interesting location as it can easily support additional material from the DM. That Tanglewood is also the name of a real-life music venue is strictly a problem for my fellow Massholes.

Spahn provides plenty of support for novice DMs with suggestions on how to handle the plot when the players go "off book." The advice helps bring the players and plot together for a satisfying conclusion without ham-fisted railroading.

The production is excellent: great maps, effective illustrations, a classy layout and professional writing. The first time reader can be forgiven for thinking there is a staff of editors managing this manuscript. It reads like a TSR product. This is in no small part due to Spahn's work in Dungeon magazine.

I am a bit jealous and irked at this high quality as this raise the bar for my own work.

I would expect about 4 gaming sessions to be had from the stock adventure. This is not a megadungeon. As I mentioned, Leandras Row can, as fleshed out as it is, can host many other adventures.

This sort of product is exactly why I find the Old School Roleplaying movement so enjoyable. Spahn captures the spirit of the great TSR modules of yore.

07 April 2013

Review: D1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth

At the end of G1-2-3: Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax had left clues about a shadowy force that was using the giants as cat's paws to further its own plans for domination. There was also a passageway to a deeper, darker place that the players could optionally follow. The details of that descent can be found in the D series of modules, the first two of which are collected in 1981's D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth (although the inside cover says the title is "Descent to the Depths of the Earth", which suggests some of the sloppiness found throughout the text). This module presents a high-level dungeon hack that should challenge even experienced players.

But hold on, I thought that the land of Greyhawk (on which these events take place) was located on a planet of Oerth? Gary was making the world up as he went along. Who among us can throw stones?

There are a lot of caves, caverns and underground seas available for exploration in these modules, as you might expect from the title. This all suggests the wonderful "hollow earth" canard that would be explicitly explored in the Mystara gazetteers published in the following years. However, hollow "Oerths" fit wonderfully with the original pulp fiction roots of D&D, especially here.

Each of the component modules (Descent into the Depths of the Earth and Shrine of the Kuo-Toa) is very short. There is one major encounter in each supported by a few minor ones. A good deal of fun in these adventures comes from complex random encounter tables and the inherent dangers of spelunking. Gygax insists that each DM flesh out the bones of the module with original content. While it is generally module design to encourage new material from the DM, this module omnibus could have benefited from additional supporting material and better organization.

The PCs not given a clear mandate to explore these warrens. No railroading here, thank you. The exploration of these caves is purely driven by either the inquisitive nature of the players or by some genocidal yen to exterminate the evil black elves. Is genocidal too strong a word? Let me quote from the prolog:

«While it is voluntary, there is also possible co-operation from avenging elves eager to wipe out the Drow.»

My inclination is to discourage wholesale slaughter of fictional creatures even at the gaming table. I will note the obvious racial overtones of the Drow and let you, reader, draw your own conclusions.

Since both modules are dungeon crawls, you would expect some carefully articulated cave maps and perhaps a host of tables describing random events that might befall the PCs. There is a hex map that presents more than 1500 square miles of underground caves. Unfortunately, this hexmap is, by far, the most poorly designed information system I can recall seeing from TSR. There is no compass rosette (in itself, a forgivable omission). Each encounter hex is unlabeled. The starting location of the PCs is neither called out on the map nor explicitly named in the text of the module! It can be puzzled out by carefully reading the clues of the text and by understanding how hexes are numbered. This highlights the worst aspect of this map: the coordinate system for naming hexes is outré at best. Let me explain.

The vertical axis is labeled with letters starting at the bottom with A and incrementing to B3 at the top. The very first row is unlabeled. That is, the alphabet is restarted three times. As a programer, this does not particularly phase me. But I cannot believe that a 13 year old would easily accept this. Worse than the vertical axis is the horizontal, which is numbered, starting with 000. That's right, 000. And that column appears on the right-hand margin. For an English speaker, this map is labeled upside and backwards. But there is more.

Recall that this is a hex map. Each vertical hex column is slightly offset from its neighbor. You might, coming from square Cartesian-style maps, be tempted to read each column as being perpendicular to the vertical axis. You (and I) would be wrong to do so. With the help of kind folks on Google+, I was informed that the "columns" are read on a diagonal starting at the bottom of the map and read toward the northeast -- the way no other map I have ever seen anywhere works.

Even this weird map (which many folks I talk to now say that they never understood as kids) could have been useful to readers if only Gygax had explained his serial clown madness in the text. How to read this hex map is explained in none of the D series modules.

I guess Lake Geneva in the 70s was just bursting with cartographers.

Even without understanding how to read the map, it is possible, with effort, to puzzle out where the encounter hexes are since there are so few of them. Each module contains one detailed map of an encounter area, which looks like what you would expect from a module. However, there a serious of "reusable" cave maps the DM is encouraged to use when random encounters occur between these detailed sections. I cannot decide if this is a clever mechanic or a lazy hack to get out of providing some explicit maps. You will have to judge for yourself.

While I do not wish to be spoilerific here, I will note that I like the content in both modules. The lich, in particular, is intriguing as is the ghoul migration. I could have used a little more meat on the mind flayer encounter. The Shrine of the Kuo-Tua actually made me care about these inbred religious fish zealots and their priest-prince in a way I had not expected.

Still, the connection with the Drow in these modules is thin. Yes, the Drow are all over the place, but what are they doing? If they cannot dominate their immediate neighbors, how can the menace the surface world? It seems like the Drow are in a great defensive position. They do not seem to have the resources to launch any kind of serious military action. But that's the stuff for a different post. What I wanted to see in these modules was a little more Drow menace or politicking so that the PCs might care enough to investigate further. As it is, I can see the PCs becoming very interested in the lich or the mind flayers or the Kuo-Toa, all of which seem like more promising and rewarding adventures than pursuing the moody dark elves to their goth hangout "that's totally underground, dude."

One thing that this module does get right is its handling of the Kuo-Toa goddess. It is possible for the PCs to met Princess Bloopy Doop (whatevs), but no stats are given for her. Gygax isn't even going to entertain god-slaying PCs and frankly neither should you.

I cannot let this long post end without mentioning the excellent art assets contributed by my dream team of illustrators: Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, Bill Willingham, Jeff Dee and Timony Truman. Both Willingham and Truman went on to comic book fame. You see great stuff from all of them in this work.

D1-2 has some great ideas for an adventure, but requires a lot of elbow grease from the DM before hustling PCs through. It is worth a $5 download from dndclassics if you want to see what a high-level dungeon crawl might look like.