31 October 2014

In the hopper: The Horror Beneath Graywater Tower

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans." -- Woody Allen

I am about 40% complete working through a new full-length adventure for Labyrinth Lord, called The Horror Beneath Graywater Tower. I do not yet have an ETA on the delivery, but the core maps are done, about %30 of the dungeon is stocked. I hope to start contracting out for art assets before year's end.

To whet your appetite, here is the current blurb for the front of the adventure:

Swaying Oaks is a well known sanctuary for those seeking rest and recovery. The bucolic grounds offer quiet reflection to those of trouble mind. However, at the heart of Swaying Oaks lies a forbidden tarn called Graywater. Surrounded by queer stone statuary, the pond features a small skerry on which the ancient ruins of a squat tower molder. Something foul inhabits that broken keep. Can your party uncover what lies beneath?

With any luck, this adventure should be available on RPGNow.com in 2015.

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.