Monday, October 31, 2011

DF Game: First taste of the megadungeon

I sent this out to my players, prior to the upcoming session. This is their first in-game information about the megadungeon they can eventually go and explore:

You also hear a few rumors about the ruins to the north. There is a
"lone" mountain (actually a peak plus a few surrounding big hills) to
the NE of here, with a ruined fortress on top and legends of extensive
caves and dungeons underneath. Locals call it "the Ruins" (for obvious
reasons) and "Felltower" (for reasons that aren't clear), but it's
also known by other names. The orcs apparently call it Grak Yorl,
which locals say means either "the Black Fortress" or "the Boneyards"
depending on who you ask. The ruins are cursed (again, according to
rumor) and what's underneath is anyone's guess. It's officially
off-limits to go there, FWIW.

I've told them before, out of game, that there is a megadungeon to the north, and that it's essentially there to explore. I've also told them flat out it wasn't ready yet, and to concentrate (for now) on rooting out the evil shrine in one of the caves of the Caves of Chaos. Once that's done they can keep raiding the caves, investigate the odd and wicked swamp to the southeast, or head into the dungeon.

I'm basically giving them a limited sandbox. Basically saying something like "The adventures are in this area for now. Within these bounds, do whatever. I'll expand the bounds later." I'm just starting to give out the rumors about the megadungeon, to prep the grounds for play.

I'm excited, because although I've played RPGs (starting with red box Basic D&D) since 1981, I never actually ran a megadungeon. Or played in one.

(And thanks to Doug Cole for suggesting the name Felltower. I won't explain here why it fit so well.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bone Churches

Your usual black churches and creepy shrines of chaos are pretty cool, but I find actual creepy churches even cooler.

My friend passed this along on a mailing list:

6 Creepy Churches Made of Bones

I've seen lots of pictures of the Sedlec Ossuary but a couple others are new to me.

This is pretty fun stuff for a dungeon temple . . .

Friday, October 28, 2011

Killer kobolds are bleh

Kobolds seem to be a pretty popular choice of opponents for low-level/starting adventurers to face. These days, they seem to be pretty nasty. They are still physically weak, but highly organized masters of unconventional warfare and special weaponry.

Looking back at my old D&D and AD&D stuff, I really don't see much implication that kobolds are nasty, guerrilla fighters with an expertise in traps, bushwacking, and hideous treachery. By D&D 3.0, they are fortifying their lairs with traps, dumping flaming oil on people, tossing vermin at you, etc., etc.

I blame Tucker's Kobolds.

That editorial in Dragon was the first mention I can remember where kobolds equaled more than "something the fighter can kill at one per level per round."

I liked the idea of fodder-level opponents who used trickery and nastiness to attack people. I went ahead and used that idea so viciously in my GURPS 1e campaign that mentioning the name of the critters I used automatically invokes comments about their sneaky tactics. But I didn't use kobolds, I used derro. The derro from S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth already were pictured as using numbers and sneakiness to fight stronger foes. So I used them. It was fun, and it was even more fun watching the players turn the tide eventually with even more sneaky and ruthless tactics. As recently as my last GURPS campaign I used bushwacking cannibal pygmies (now immortalized as Horde Pygmies in DFM1), but they were more harassers than a real threat, and they weren't meant to do much more than whittle at the edges of the PCs . . . the vampire wizard and her tiger pet were the real challenge in that session.

Using kobolds still seemed a bit lame. They're just cruel egg-laying reptile-dog humanoids with wimpy damage and little combat power. I just can't get excited about them.

When I see them now, they're always using traps, poison, flamethrowers, unleashed hideous beasts, pits full of pungi stakes and grey ooze, whatever. They're always so freaking nasty you can't wait to be done with them. Just like Tucker's Kobolds. And my reaction is like what I imagined a lot of people's would have been - man, I get it, you can make fodder tough. Now can I go have fun fighting powerful monsters instead of sucking flaming oil every Saturday?

But to me, that was still a later development. So they still just seem . . . bleh. Boring. Lame. As fodder for 1st level old-school RPG games, they seem okay. But as commando killers, it's too derivative for me, and it feels forced. I'd rather make a somewhat more formidable race of evil trapmakers than feel compelled to make pure fodder into a tool for "GM Proving His Cleverness" games. Why not do it with more powerful foes - why aren't mind flayers and duergar and orcs and imps like this? They should be setting traps and being nasty commandos, not fighting you straight-up if you're tougher.

I don't seem to be in the majority. For example, the excellent Dungeon Alphabet made the "K" entry into Kobolds.

I don't want to rag on people who like this, I'm just saying . . . Killer Kobolds don't do it for me. I like nasty tactics, but I find sticking them on kobolds derivative and lame, because kobolds are boring and weak. Is it just me?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Differences between retro-clones? A request!

I haven't really sat down to do a long comparison, so this might be obvious stuff to those who have. But what are the essential differences between these retro-clones?

From what I understand:

Labyrinth Lord is Moldvay (or perhaps Holmes) B/X, with AEC as a bolt-on for AD&D-like additions. That's pretty clear to me, and from reading LL adventures it's very clear I need to keep my red box Basic Set hat on to follow it.

But these throw me a bit: White Box is the LBBs. So what exactly is Swords & Wizardry? LBBs plus all of the supplements, or just part of them? Looking at it, it seems very close to both Basic Set and the LBBs. It's hard for me to pick out the real differences between them.

I'm also not really sure how OSRIC fits in here, either.

I'm asking mostly because I use supplements for them for inspiration for my own GURPS 4e game. And because it's easier for me to understand the material if I know which rules assumptions underlay them.

I'm sure I'm embarrassing myself in front of all the OSR folks just by asking these questions. But I think I really have all this stuff already - I have a (battered and colored-with-marker) copy of the Holmes Basic Set. I have both the Moldvay and Mentzger Basic Sets (and most of the follow-on books). I have the actual white box D&D with the LBBs, and Supplements I, II, and III. I have all my 1st edition AD&D stuff. And I downloaded the free copies. It's just hard to read through all four of them in PDF and then track the differences, so I need a better handle on them. I'd like to know what each of them represents, in sort of a Venn diagram of coverage. Maybe I need to sit down and read one or more of them, or maybe I'm good with just grabbing my original stuff off the shelf if I get stuck.

Any pointers to comparisons, explanations, or reviews would be helpful.


(Editing 10/29/11 - I saw this great post on Troll and Flame with a picture reference of system equivalency: Publishers & Products)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

DF: Stuff I learned from my PCs

I'm basically letting my player's improv determine campaign world elements whenever possible. Unless I've already defined something, if they come up with something good, it's true.

Here are things I learned from my PCs in our two sessions so far:

1) My Catholic-based church doesn't assume a vow of chastity. Inquisitor Marco cheerfully announced his priest had returned from the Caves of Chaos and was going to partake of the keep's food, drink, and women. I said "Women?" "I don't see a vow of chastity on my character sheet." No, he didn't, so I guess the church doesn't concern itself with that.

2) Goblinoid kids may grow up really fast. Lots of "goblin kids become goblin adults in a week" jokes have made me think that maybe it's true. Maybe they do mature in extremely short periods of time. A week seems short, but months, perhaps . . . they may live in dog-years.

3) You need a hunting permit. It's 20sp for a hunting permit, and then you can pretty much camp around Falcon's Keep and kill and eat whatever you want.

4) Mountain Killer Frogs are big, not like the little squirts you find in the swamps. And Honus's neighbor's tribe raises them.

I'm sure I'll learn more, but it's a lot of fun letting everyone fill in details, even goofy ones, instead of telling them the game world. Don't explore it, make it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Vornheim


By Zak S.
64 pages plus dustjacket (but dustjacket is filled with charts from the book, the inside covers are printed, and the front and back cover are game tools)
6” x 8.5”
Published 2011, by Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Vornheim is a supplement on city adventures written for class and level, old-school roleplaying games. It’s roughly half supplement on the city of Vornheim, central city in author Zak S.'s D&D game, and half city building kit. The intro and back cover claim "you can use it to build your own city, even in the middle of a game." Let's see how it measures up.

The Setting

Vornheim is an ancient city of high and twisty towers and alleys and bridges and tunnels. It’s sitting on a cube-shaped world made of petrified demon flesh riddled through with dungeon tunnels. Snakes are books, and people can learn to read snakes to learn their knowledge. Nearby cities are ruled by strange governments with even more bizarre rulers.

The setting is very Dying Earth-like. This is a compliment, because that’s hard to pull off. The decadent, ancient cultures, decaying atmosphere, and bizarre oddities (pet snails, exotic creatures, misanthropic monster schemers, arcane and strange laws and superstitions) make it a perfect Dying Earth city. It feels like what if Mega City One was filled with folks from the Empire of the Petal Throne and then dropped into the Dying Earth. Cugel would get in a lot trouble here but he wouldn’t stand out. If you aren’t running a city of Vancian decay, well . . . it’s going to stand out a lot. This isn’t meant as criticism, just commentary. I may plunder Vornheim for its systems and tables and a setting bit or two, but I’ll probably save the entire setting itself for a more DERPG-like world than my current one.

The book does detail out some major locations in the city, both for more high level interest (the big library, for example) and more prosaic concerns (the home of a nasty NPC you can rob or otherwise molest). These figured examples can be dropped in anywhere.

The Kit

The book’s claim is that it’s a kit for city adventures. It sure is. You can sum up the process in the phrase “drop some dice on the book.” The PCs want to find a specific location in the city? Drop some dice on the book - one die represents where the PCs are, the other where the location is. A quick system for generating streets and hazards lays out the path there. Random encounter tables (complete with connections between encounters) give you stuff to have happen on the way. You go from “Hey can we go to a fur trader’s shop?” to how to get there and what happens on the way in under a minute. An even quicker system lets you price out goods without looking them up. An even faster system lets you lay out the floorplan of buildings, both crazy Vornheim-style tall towers and more bland generic fantasy ones alike. The book promises to “show [GMs] how to make 30 floorplans in 30 seconds” and it delivers. It’s a toolkit that comes with a figured example in the form of Vornheim instead of a city book with some tables.

One interesting idea is that you can roll on the book cover for combat results or to generate levels, HP, and Armor Class for NPCs. This means you can grab a handful of dice (one per NPC, or one per attack) and drop them on the book. You do an up-down-left-right lookup to numbers and hit locations written on the edge and there you go, that’s how the attacks go. Or what level the NPC is and how many HP per level he’s got. And so on.

I have no idea how it would work in play but the idea looks great. Certainly the other tables/pages are clearly awesome and a few test runs made me right at home with them. I especially liked the pages for filling a neighborhood with businesses with a dropped handful of dice, the floorplan shortcuts, and the table of aristocrats and their distinguishing traits (Including things as varied as “Always tells to truth” to “Fears to touch the ground” and even weirder/cooler results I won’t spoil). Even the NPC tables feed into each other: each NPC has a direct relationship with the next NPC down, so you never generate someone in a vacuum.

So can you generate this stuff in play, without slowing things down? I think so, yes. It’s fast and easy, and gives you enough to go on to put adventure in the PC’s paths without writing yourself into a corner.

There is a nice little section with player’s notes, so you get feedback on what you’ve seen in the book from the women who played in the campaign. That’s the first one of these I’ve seen in an RPG book. It’s as if those “how the PCs fared” sections from Gary Gygax’s adventures were written by the players instead, in daily speech instead of swords and sorcery style war story writeups.

Further advice on city adventurers in general is scattered about the book. One piece I especially liked was that adventures in town generally mean breaking the law, so the law has to further the adventure not bring the game to a screeching halt. Another reminds you that the PCs can just leave a city if the risk-to-reward ration skews against them, so it’s important to make the city worth staying in, even in the face of those laws and difficulties.

How is it for GURPS?

Since that’s what I play, let’s talk about how this supplement is for GURPS 4e Dungeon Fantasy.

It works pretty well, actually. You can’t use the neat roll-on-the-book feature for combat for GURPS, or at least not easily. It would probably take less effort to just design a new one for GURPS than to retrofit. Additionally, many of the suggested systems need a d4, and many tables need d20s and percentile dice (two d10s in my day) in addition to the usual d6s you’ll use for GURPS.

Most of the creatures, spells, and NPCs have no stats, just descriptions, so they are pretty easy to generate in GURPS. It’s not like having full DnD style stats would help much, and the lack doesn’t hurt it.

The systems for running city adventures, making up prices, and generating random encounters and NPCs will work without any need to convert them. The advice is all systemless, so it holds up no matter what. PC is a 4th level ranger? Great. PC is a 275 point DF wizard specializing in attack spells? That works too. City adventures are city adventures.

Content: 5 out of 5. If there is something missing from this book that you need to run city adventures, I don’t know what it is.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Cool art, easy to read text, awesome ideas about using all available space down to the page edges as gaming tools.

Overall:The book is a bit costly at $17.50, but it’s really worth the price if you can scrape up the money. It’s a great tool for urban adventures, and I can see using it for any fantasy, science-fantasy, or even dark science-fiction game’s cities.

FWIW I got my copy from IPR. They were excellent, especially when I needed customer service after Paypal decided to be stupid. Solution: Keep buying from IPR, but not using Paypal.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

DF Game, Session 2 - Caves of Chaos vs. 250 pointers

Sunday October 16th was our second DF session (for our first, check this recap).

Vryce, human knight
Volos, human wizard
Honus Honusson, human barbarian
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric

Borriz, dwarf knight (player couldn't make it)

This session open up in the keep, in October, with the cold weather just beginning to come in. Inquisitor Marco, delayed on his trip to the keep, made it in to the keep. His mission from the Holy Inquisition of the Church* is to find the shine of evil in the so-called Caves of Chaos and destroy it utterly. Records of where exactly it was located in those caves has been lost.

The group wasted little time in organizing. Inq. Marco checked in with Father Luke at the church, and then found the group. Borriz was laid up with a case of dwarven sprue, so they headed out without him, leaving him the care of Julius the Innkeeper. They had some discussions about how to combat wights. They are very concerned with how to defeat them and put them down. I let Inq. Marco roll Hidden Lore (Undead) and gave him a clue about wights for every point he succeeded by. Seemed a fair way to determine how much he knows about them going in, since he wasn't specifically briefed on them.

The group made the two-day hike out to the caves, and waited until mid-morning to head into a cave. They debated going back into the cave they first entered and re-clearing it and finding new areas, but Inq. Marco (I think) suggested they try a new one since they already knew that cave wasn't the shrine. They picked a nearby cave that was lined with skulls and had a door marked up in the local human language as well as two others they didn't recognize; it said "Come in, we want to eat you!"

The group made semi-short work of the barred door, taking a few bashes at it to break it down. They heard yelling, bashing of weapons on shields, and echoing alarms. They entered and (again thanks to Inq. Marco) set an ambush of sorts by the door. Their Continual Light spell on rocks on strings (why not on the strong itself? Search me.) made hiding impossible but they did stay out of direct line-of-sight to prevent missile fire and force the approaching forces to come close.

Basically they got jumped by nine hobgoblins. They made shortish work of them, although Honus did get a little overconfident and run past an active hobgoblin to slam his buddy. He took a halberd slice in the back for his trouble, but then Vryce killed the bastard with a few sword stabs (he does 1d+7 impale, so this isn't difficult). Vryce got stabbed too, by a hobgoblin with a shortened halberd (maybe the some guy, actually), so it wasn't a clean slaughter. Finally Inq. Marco lit one hanger-back on fire with a nice Sunbolt spell roll. They looted the bodies and then tossed some gear out the door for later.

The group proceeded left, as usual, and found they connected back up with areas they'd hit before. So they reversed their path and searched some new areas. They found a feasthall with some cowering females (armed) and young (unarmed). They merely kept an eye on them while they grabbed some obvious valuables and looked around, then left.

They finally headed in to where they hobgoblins had charged from, and found an empty guardroom and an armoury. They killed four more hobgoblin guards in the armoury and then started to systematically loot the place. During this Inq. Marco found a hidden cache in the floor and flipped up the stone. Honus put on an extra glove and grabbed a purse sitting there. Good thing because a couple of foot-long centipedes bit at him, and one got his glove. He swung it around a few times and bashed it into the wall, then stamped on it when it let go. Squish.

They took some money from the purse, and then Honus found a secret door. They opened that, then another one, and found themselves facing a big pile of hobgoblins (maybe 9-10?) with the hobgoblin chief. Vryce got ready to stab them when the chief said in rough common - "Let's talk!"

Inquisitor Marco told Vryce to answer him. Amusingly, Vryce's player thought for a few seconds, then cocked his dice hand back to roll. Just then Inc. Marco stepped up and spoke to the chief and Vryce's player didn't roll. Heh.

They spoke and the chief questioned them about coming there. "Who send you? Was it orcs? It was orcs!" Marco said they were looking for an evil shrine, and the hobgoblin said he knew it - walking dead, evil men. He'd tell them how to get there if they would leave and not attack the hobgoblins or his goblin "slaves." Inq. Marco agreed - "I won't." The chief told them where there were gnolls and orcs, and two places they could enter the shrine - the front door and a twisty tunnel with a back way in. They said they'd come back and kill them all if he steered them wrong.

They left the way they came, blocked the secret door, and then torched everything in the armoury (using Create Fire) that they couldn't drag or carry with them.

The group forced marched away from the caves as fast as they could, and then headed back to the keep.

On the night before they got back, though, they camped a little too close to the river that borders the swamps. A blown hearing roll meant Honus detected a bunch of yard-long killer frogs only when a couple of them sprang out of the darkness and bit him. This ended up in an Ash-like fight as he bear-hugged the one gnawing on his arm, kicked one, punched the one on his arm, got bit on the foot and then crounched down to punch that one, etc. and then finally shooting one point blank with his massive ST 19 longbow. Another frog knawed on Volos, who nailed with a 4d and then a 6d dehydrate spell, rolling utterly awful damage each time. 10d-10 to barely kill a frog! Heh.

They killed the ones attack them, and then Honus busted out a "3" on his Survival roll to try and prepare one as food. So it turns out Honus is quite the master of roadkill cuisine, and the group had fresh killer frog legs for breakfast.

Now everyone is back at the keep, with a little bit of cash but a metric assload of mail armor, helmets, swords, and so on taken from the hobgoblin armoury. Lucky for them the keep can in fact use a lot of that stuff, so there is a market for it (although not nearly the amount of cash they'd hope for). They may need to barter it for upgraded gear or adventuring stuff or room and board, but they made a nice haul.

All in all a great session. Combat moved along well, the session was well-paced, people stayed in character, and hobgoblins died hard. They also passed up a chance for mindless combat and the good loot(tm) from the hobgoblin chief in return for something more useful - information. They didn't get to try to take his stuff, although they would have succeeded for sure, but had they butchered them they wouldn't have learned where the shrine entrances are.

Amusingly to me the players knew this - they might have gotten hurt in the fight, but Vryce alone probably could have killed them all if he had to barring a great critical hit by one or more of them. But they wanted information and no risk, and it worked out well for them.

Volos's player has been a trooper, too, because my hobgoblins are strongly magic-resistant. So he hasn't successfully nailed one with a spell. But he stood guard, helped search, watched the back, and tossed spells here and there when he thought he had nothing better to do.

Damn, I did forget to assess fatigue costs for fights. Next time. I may assign that job to a player so it gets done.

The players are already planning their next excursion - if Inq. Marco's player can make it, it's the shrine. If not, they'll raid the orcs or gnolls. Nice. Like a mini sandbox.

* I went pseudo-Catholic for my game. No God of War, God of Crops, Goddess of Wanton Sex Practices, etc. Just "God" and plenty of brotherhoods, knighthoods, orders, and so on that worship him. Maybe a splinter religion to the south based on prophets and such. Naturally there is an Inquisition, too.**

** The Inquisition is aimed at destroying demon worshipers, demons, and undead. Cultists and allies of those forces, well, God will know his own when they get there, so there isn't much cause to examine their consciences and see if they'll repent. The Inquisition is quite small, but influential, which explains why a) they sent one priest alone out to the caves and b) why people cooperate with him anyway.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I just finished about 5 1/2 hours of GMing, more-or-less straight through.

My PCs hit the Caves of Chaos again, again with 4 PCs but this time without Borriz the Dwarf (the player's daughter was sick) but with Father Marco aka Inquisitor Marco.

Fun session. I'll do a longer post tomorrow but we had:

- our first negotiations (and they went well).

- our first secret door detections!

- our first real "treasure room" - a room full of armor.

- real caution and care on the part of the PCs, coupled with real zeal for getting on with killing and looting. Nice combo.

- some good "how to get around corners and bash doors and loot safely" practice, so we're getting towards a real division of labor done automatically. Saves me as a GM and speeds play.

- a giant frog getting bear hugged and punched, and others getting kicked, in a fight reminiscent of every fight Ash every had.

- giant frogs killed and eaten, which let me playtest some rules I've been working on.

Fun session, and it went smoothly. The "everything you say is in character" bit is hard for some players, but everyone likes not looking things up in play* a lot. I did flub rolling damage in front of the players sometimes, and rolled behind the screen. Generally I either re-rolled (who cares?) or just kept it. It wasn't a big deal.

* We made one exception, for GURPS Magic for the cleric's player, since he hasn't run a GURPS spellcaster in a long, long time. Even then we chose quickie PDF lookups and memory over anything else, so next time we won't even bother with that exemption.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Annoying My Players II

Another thing I do that annoys my players (distinct from annoying their characters, which is basically my goal), is:

3) Changing the rules This one comes from my tinker tendencies. I like to play around with rules. I find a new house rule, a cool adaptation of another rule, a "better" way to do something, a new supplement . . . and I want to incorporate this. I like to fix errors and oddities, and change a one-off house rule into a constant "let's do this from now on" and then need to fix that, later.

This one, I think, isn't really worth it most of the time. Not for small changes, anyway. It annoys the players and it's inconsistent. If spending points now is worse than spending them later, you'll spend them now. Etc. Generally, if a rule isn't grossly broken, I think it's better to leave it alone. I have gotten much better about this, and I tend to leave a ruleset in place for as long as possible unless my players tell me we need to change it.

Still, sometimes you just find a rule is freaking broken and makes for bad play, and it annoys players who feel you are nerfing their cool attack that unbalances the whole games. But in that case, it may have to be done. Maybe you house ruled something on the fly and then the players prove it's a repeatable and unbeatable tactic - then you need to fix things. But too often you end up Belkaring the PCs and no one likes that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Annoying My Players I

Some things annoy my players. Not their characters, but the players. Two of them are theft and fear spells.

1) Theft. Nobody likes getting stolen from. Especially because, if it worked, they "didn't get to try and stop it." Nevermind that you rolled their per rolls for them, the Stealth roll for the thief, and the Pickpocketing or Filch roll all fair-and-square. Or that they want to roll Pickpocketing while browsing in the marketplace and pick up a half-pound of gold coins without worrying about guards spotting them. It was an unfair shot.

Obviously, though, having a thief try his Stealth or Shadowing roll to get close to you, and then rolling Pickpocketing and succeeding in both cases against your Perception is fair. Contested rolls and all of that. I'm open to suggestions on how to make this feel more fair, without just exposing all of the rolls and asking the players to roleplay not noticing the theft until it's actually appropriate.

2) Fear spells. Jeff Rients mentioned this and I commented on his blog about it - although he and I are playing wildly different game systems. It doesn't matter. Nothing seems to piss off players more than telling them how their character feels. No matter how reasonable. "Great Cthulhu uses his unique, Cosmic Terror power on you. Roll to resist." "I roll a 15." "Oh, too high, you have to flee at maximum speed from him." "Oh, great, my fearless fighter runs from him? This is stupid." Gah. Nevermind you had a chance to resist, or that the alternative was I give him a power that makes you go babbling insane in one go and leaves you helpless. Most players I know would prefer that to "run away." The very act of saying "Your guy is scared and has to run" is a recipe for ripping the fun out of a game session. Which is too damn bad, because it's a cool power, it doesn't kill you, it leads to more fun ("Where the hell did we run to?"), and it doesn't have lasting or permanent effects like D&D-style level drain, Rolemaster-style attribute drains, or even GURPS-style dismemberment.

In fact, the first question one of my GURPS DF players asked me, upon receiving his GM-made PC*, was "How easy am I to scare?" He still remembers a badly-botched roll against a fear spell early in his previous PC's life . . . and he missed that roll back in 1999.

I still intend to keep fear-type spells, but I recognize they are especially loathed and annoying. Because of that I've made it very easy to add resistance to them to a PC in play, in case someone isn't satisfied with their resistance to these attacks.

* He asked me to make one based on a short description. He's busy, I know the system, I know the player, so it was fine. Later we'll tweak the PC to match his actual play style for this PC.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hrad Spein

I'm re-reading Alexy Pehov's novel Shadow Prowler and you should probably read it too.


The dungeon of Hrad Spein.

"'Hrad Spein' is an ogric name. Translated into the language of men it means "Palaces of Bone." But the dark elves say that the human tongue is incapable of expressing the universal horror that the ogres invested in those two words."

"No one knows who created Hrad Spein, and in which age, whose thought and strength it was that bit so deep into the bones of the earth, creating those immense caves and caverns that were later transformed into the architectural wonders of the northern world and, later still, into a world of darkness and horror . . .

. . . Deep, deep, under the ground the ogres came across gigantic halls and caves. They started using Hrad Spein as their graveyard, leaving their dead and placing terrible curses on the burial sites. Later . . . it was the bones of orcs and elves that found their resting place in Hrad Spein. . . Neither side intruded on the lower levels of the ogres . . .

. . . Both of them started installing traps in their own territory to catch their enemies. The underground halls crackled with dark shamanic energy and were drowned in blood. In the end, neither orcs nor elves could feel safe in those places any longer. The Palaces of Bone were abandoned and subsequently the secret knowledge of the locations of traps and labyrinths in the lower levels was lost.

Hrad Spein became like a gigantic underground layer cake tens of leagues deep and wide. The levels of the ogres, the levels and the orcs and the elves. Halls, corridors, and caves. Burial sites, treasure chambers, and magical rooms. . . .

That's before the humans came, and then something woke up the "evil of the ogres' bones" and "rous[ed] the dead."

And the main character is going there.

That is why you should read this book (and it's sequel). The protagonist doesn't traipse right into the dungeon, but needs to undergo harrowing adventures just to get information on the dungeon, and get to it.

It's a wealth of dungeon-delving fantasy without being a trashy D&D novel. It actually has most of the tropes and names of D&Dish things. Dwarves, gnomes, ogres, thieves' guilds, one-shot scroll magic, etc. - but most of it seems as if the author had a list of names but didn't know which description went with what. So it's oddly jumbled but cool - fanged elves, ancient orcs, powerful ogric magic, etc. Check it out, it's inspirational even beyond the dungeon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Megadungeons I need to read

So, being that I intend to stick a megadungeon in my game, what megadungeons do I need to look into?

I've read all of James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount posts.

I've read the gathered snippets of Greyhawk Castle over at Greyhawk Online.

I've checked out the free preview of Stonehell, and I'm planning to snag the full version soon.

I've downloaded (but not yet read) the PDF of Castle of the Mad Archmage.

I have also queued up the Megadungeon Resources at Beyond the Black Gate.

And I'm still reading the assorted Undermountain boxed sets and Dragon articles about it.

Any others I missed that I shouldn't have?

I'm not trying to be completist or a buy them all, I just want to know what directions people took the megadungeon concept before I settle on my own approach.

Editing later: I've also got a copy of the World's Largest Dungeon to look at. It's not ideal (the maps are a bit too . . . sectional) but I've got it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: The Ruins of Undermountain

The Ruins of Undermountain

In my quest to plunk a big tent-post megadungeon in my GURPS DF game, I have been looking at the (relatively few) pre-generated megadungeons out there. I see no reason to spend my afternoons mapping if I don't have to, and I figure I can steal ideas from dungeons even if I don't use them outright. My quest for a pretty good map I can just steal and use started by digging into my old AD&D stuff and finding something my buddy Ryan gave to me years back - Undermountain.

This post is totally riddled with spoilers, so if you have any intention to play in this dungeon, DO NOT READ THIS. But it's an out-of-print supplement for a not-much-beloved AD&D edition (as far as I can tell), so it's not likely you'll encounter it without dumping wads of cash on it. Is it worth those wads? Let's take a look and see.

Undermountain is the giant megadungeon underneath Waterdeep in Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms setting. It's apparently where his pre-Shadowdale adventurers made their mark back in his 70s GMing days, if I have my history right.

The module comes in a boxed set with maps of the first three levels of the nine-level dungeon. It also comes with a booklet - mine was slit down the side and three-hole punched by the previous owner - and some cards detailing magical doors, traps, and random dungeon sounds and encounters.

It's an interesting look at a living dungeon. That is to say, it has active gates pulling in monsters and legends of its creator still being active down below. It is also living in the sense that it is directly below a large, sprawling city and it equally sprawls sideways and down. So there are both reasons and opportunities for active groups to use the dungeons as a base, shortcut around the city, storage dump, place for nefarious activities, and so on. This is great if, as a GM, you want to tightly tie the dungeon to the city above.

The dungeon also has connections below, to the inevitable Underdark of Faerun, populated by monsters cooler than you. So you get random extraplanar beings and critters from the realms dumped into the maze, Underdark beings coming up from below, invaders and Bad Guys (tm) coming from above, and the original creator(s) sticking opposition all over the place. The is great from a GM perspective. You can always restock, have an excuse for weird traps or strange monsters, and can always fit whatever you need to add in somewhere. No "How did those half-drow samurai bandits get here, anyway?" questions because they'll figure out about the gates and wizards and go right to "Why are those half-drow samurai bandits here?" Good stuff.

I also like that the dungeon's first level isn't some rinky-dink hideout for goblins and giant rats. Random encounters with powerful critters are possible, and the traps and dangers are real even for solidly strong PCs (like, say, 250+ point starting DF characters). So you don't need to plunge down to level 3+ before you encounter something that isn't 2d6 orcs with 1d6 copper pieces each and a 5% chance of a leader-type. It's a challenge right from the start.

It's tied to the Realms pretty tightly. This means you can't really just plunk the dungeon in a generic campaign, unless that campaign has a giant city ruled by faceless lords with a dungeon underneath it. You damn well better like beholders and beholder variants and magic items that break the rules in a way that says "My players didn't like some of these game effects so here is a free way out" and Secret Organizations of Better than You, er I mean, Of Good - aka The Harpers, the Lords of Waterdeep, etc. You can't use too much of the detail without accepting those Faerunisms.

The setting also has a fair amount of . . . "why are the PCs doing all this stuff in the dungeons?" Waterdeep has Force Gray, a small pile of level 20+ good aligned mages (including former adventurers), high-level former adventurers who run the taverns that have dungeon entrances in them, and so on. The PCs are always the small fish . . . so you get an impression of Undermountain as a convenient playground for the PCs but only because the NPCs aren't bothering to clear it out. Heaven help PCs who mess around in town, though - they'll get squashed. But mind flayers and drow underfoot get ignored if they don't mess with the city. Yet it's okay for players to go mess with them and potentially rile up a big reaction against the surface. It's a big elephant in the room you have to ignore - again, it's a common theme to published Realms material. The world is full of very powerful NPCs who let you adventure, but you aren't expected to really shake the world like they did. A credit to this module is that it does a lot less of this than usual for a Realms publication. But still, AD&D rules and customized magic spells make permanently killing off bad guys and altering the balance of power difficult.

The layout of the module is pretty good. You get separate sections on history, magic items, spells, monsters, NPCs, etc. Each level's entrances and egresses and gates are explained in one section, as well as repeated in the appropriate encounter area. You don't need to dig to find the details you need.

The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up. The rest is left to the GM, with plenty of hooks to tie them into. These major level features are enough to hand your own material onto, though, and they are reasonably complete. Realms-specific random encounter tables (on the maps, by level) round out the useful material, and come with separate tables for wandering monsters and monsters you attract by being too damn noisy. Nice! So the material appears very easy to actually use. Even better, much of it is easy to steal if you want to use it elsewhere.

One big downside to actual usage is the poster-sized maps. They are very attractive and easy to write on (the guy I got this set from did just that). But . . . poster sized. How the hell do you use a poster-sized map in actual play? How do you keep it concealed from the players and yet be able to see and read it clearly? If you just fold the sucker up, they'll know it's a big level by the sound of you flipping and folding and unfolding. With a poster-sized city map you could drop it down and say "Here is Waterdeep" or "Here is the parks district" or whatever and it helps play. With a dungeon that is an epic fail. This isn't some particular flaw of Undermountain itself but it's a flaw of poster-sized maps and Undermountain provides nothing but. It's not clear to me how to overcome this short of a jpg or gif or other image file you could annotate and zoom in on with a laptop. Good luck scanning them yourself, too.

The book is also well-written and easy to understand. It does have the annoying tendency to remind GMs that the dungeon (and it's master) change things just to mess with PCs who "read too much." Yeah, we all know we can change stuff if the players read the module. You can just say that once at the beginning and save us all a lot of patronizing.

One bit related to this are the magic traps and magic doors of the dungeon. The dungeon is actively being used and changed, and the book tells you flat-out that if you forget what kind of magic door it was, or if it was magical, or whatever, just decide over again. It's now non-magic/a different magic door/there is no door, etc. Leave the mystery up to the PCs, and know there is an explanation (the active elements in the dungeon) to explain it.

The adventure contents are good, too. They do suffer from a big flaw I find in gaming - I giveth and then I taketh it right away. The original owner stomped but good on transport magic, so you can't go Teleporking around or into and out of the dungeon. You can't burrow through the walls (but monsters can), you can't summon extraplanar help (but monsters can), you can't ask the gods for assistance, and you can only summon monsters if they are in the dungeon - although plenty of exceptions are available. Oh, and the NPCs (good and evil alike) often have magic items which exempt them from this stuff. Personally, I hate this. Mordenkainen and his buddies teleported around Greyhawk, but you can't leave Undermountain except by rope and ladder or gate. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy takes away spells like Teleport and gate magic and specifically makes it hard to tunnel out of dungeons. But I think that's more fair - take the ability away in the first place, don't allow it but then nerf the hell out of it because you don't like it. Better that you could teleport but you don't have the ability than giving you the ability and then saying "but it doesn't work here." A lot of wordage - more than I just spent here - is wasted explaining the restrictions and repeating them wherever it seems like the players might just try to clever up a way to allow it.

I actually like the Forgotten Realms a lot, and I ran a long 1st edition GURPS campaing there. But only after I nerfed a lot of the NPCs and tossed things that made the PCs a bunch of second fiddles who couldn't change anything. So I hope this review doesn't sound like a Faerun Hater. It's just it's bad tendency to be a static realm you can't change comes through, and that's not something an OD&Der or GURPS GM is probably going to think of as a positive.

Content: 4 out of 5. Poster map utility aside, this was a heck of a product, and it's well put together. I could see running this straight out of the box in a FR game in 2nd edition AD&D.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Okay, okay, blue text on an off-white background with watermark-like edging looks cool, but it's hard to read after a while. Otherwise well put together.

Overall: If you run the FR and want a megadungeon, or want a megadungeon under a big city and like the FR, this is worth finding. Maybe not worth collector's prices, but it's a nice find if you can snag one. Good stuff even if you just like to mine ideas.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Problems but not Solutions

So, Beedo had a nice post about plot hooks in a "sandbox" style campaign, and over at The Tao of D&D the author wrote a great post about providing opportunities but not solutions.

This leads me to something I tell my players all the time - that my job as a GM is to present problems.

Their job is to solve them. When I make them I don't always even know if there is a solution.

I think the main danger of railroading is not "you have to deal with this, you have no choice" but rather "you have to deal with this, and figure out the solution I like or you get punished."

One is an adventure, the other is a test right out of high school. Does a lack of choice of adventures really matter so much if you can choose how to solve them? And conversely, does a plethora of adventure choices matter if the GM has a firm idea of the way you "should" solve them?

Now, all problems should potentially have some kind of solution. A Death Star trash compactor with no way to communicate out and no shutoff switch isn't fun, it's meanness straight out of (the best of?) the Grimtooth's Traps series. But you don't have to decide how they'd escape.

In a game with a repeating location - such as a megadungeon - you can leave that problem around until they are powerful and versatile enough to make a solution that works.

This is doubly true if you're defining things as you go. If the trap is a trash compactor type and a player says "We swim out the way the critter ducked out!" than, well, why not allow them to try? It's a cool solution. But don't cut off a solution that you pre-planned. If you provided an escape hatch, don't put bars across it that weren't there when you wrote it just to make the trap last longer. Don't have the Baron say no to their cunning plan just because you liked another cunning plan they discussed (out of his earshot, or even out of character) and then rejected.

The danger, to me, is planning the solution ahead of time. Then you get all pissed off when Alexander comes along with his sword and says "Here is what I think of making skill rolls to untie that big-ass Gordian Knot" and rolls against Shortsword instead.

Your job is to present problems that can potentially be solved. The PCs are the ones who need to solve them.

If you keep that division of labor, and let everyone know that's how it works, I predict much rejoicing.
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