Wednesday, November 30, 2011

DF Game - Rumors

Here are the news and rumors my players have just picked up in my DF on the Borderlands game. I won't vouch for the accuracy of this stuff, it's just what the PCs heard.

Big news - a merchant and his guards got massacred just west of the Keep! They were bringing a load of assorted goods from the keep to Arras. The merchant, Jovan, and his son Tada and two mercenary guards were found torn to shreds, with some of their organs taken from their corpses, and their pack mule was missing. Their money, the goods the mule was carrying, and a few weapons were missing. As a result the Castellan is offering an unspecified "generous reward" to those who can bring in the still-living transgressors (or their heads, if necessary) and sufficient proof of their involvement. What that proof is, is unspecified.

You hear a bit about the swamp to the south. It's call the Cold Mire, because a) it gets cold up here
[and the snow is starting soon - pretty much as soon as we get it in the real world, you'll get it in game] and b) it's a mire. It's considered a very, very bad place. It is known to have sharp-toothed flesh-eating frogs, big crocs, giant frogs, eight-legged lizards, and lizard men viciously hostile to men. From high points on the road travelers have spotted some kind of flying tentacled monstrosity hovering over the mire. But local legend also claims that there is a frog-like "swamp oracle" who can accurately any one question you have, once in your life, in return for a certain weight of gold . . . or some of your blood. And further legends say that the lizard men in the swamp have a long-standing feud with the elves of the southlands, who drove them out of the warmth into the cold, cold north.

Finally, Honus asked about furs - there are a few exotic creatures in the wilderness. These include the ravenous owlbear, for one, and the farrier at the Keep has a buyer who'd love to get his hands on an owlbear fur-and-feather cape . . .

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cool traps link

Talysman over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms has a nice little series of blog posts on traps.

If you ever wondered what a pressure plate could look like, mechanically, or how a tripwire might work, this is a good place to look. The posts have gaming-oriented discussion, ideas about construction, and nice pictures if (like I am) you're more visual than text-oriented when it comes to visualizing.

The posts are aimed at AD&D/OSR style gaming, where pretty much nobody has skills and many referees seem to follow the "describe how your searching and I'll tell you what you see" approach. I use a skill-based system, so I don't need quite so much information about how to detect and disarm the traps. I get to just have people roll. But it's entertaining and useful information nonetheless, because:

a) I do hand out bonuses for describing what you're doing. Disarming a -0 trap takes a flat skill roll. Disarming it after you carefully describe how you're doing it nets you at least a +1, usually higher, because describing how you do things makes the game more awesome.*

b) I have to describe how the damn thing worked when you disarm it, or cast a spell to let you see through the walls and spot the mechanism, and other such fun.

I once got a whole book on outdoor survival just for its nice section on trapping animals, and used those descriptions of deadfalls, trip lines, and foot snares to describe my horde pygmy traps in my previous long-running GURPS game. I'm a big fan of traps, and how they work - the more description I have for them, the better, because my players are pretty meticulous about avoiding them (and so very few have any Traps skill, so they really tend to work hard to get those bonuses).

Speaking of traps resources, I own both Grimtooth's Traps books, too (and FWIW, the first GT book is back in "print" now). But I don't have much beyond that. If anyone has recommendations . . . put them in the comments please!

* See "the rule of awesome" for why that's important. Having good stuff happen in return for doing cool stuff and for getting your head into the scene is also awesome, IMO.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

DF Game, Session 4, part 2 - Caves of Chaos

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (265 points)
     Koric, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
     Orrie, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (255 points)
Borriz, dwarf knight (260 points)
Nakar, human wizard (250 points)
Red Raggi, berserker barbarian (NPC co-adventurer) (unknown points)

After a week off to recharge and refresh, the group decided to head back to the caves. They still wanted to raid the orcs before taking a shot at the shrine. They rounded up Red Raggi (who was in jail, and the guards said they'd waive bail and charges if they'd take him to the caves). They also met Nakar, who was looking to raid the caves. So they headed up to the right-most cave, climbed up and headed in. They had all the stealth of a pack of stampeding elephants running over a brass band. Deliberately, really - they didn't care if they had surprise or not.

They entered the cave and found themselves facing a wall of skulls and decomposing heads. They gave them little more than a glance and then turned left and marched ahead, keeping an eye behind. They found a big room with a soft glow of a charcoal fire - and charged in. As they did, a wave of orcs charged back from the other side! The fight was on in a huge banquet hall full of tables and chairs.

At the same time, orcs they'd bypassed charged in from behind. Something like 12 orcs from the front, 8 from behind. Red Raggi and Vryce were in the lead, and Borriz turned and ran back to the rear guard, Korric and Orrie, who Vryce ordered to stand and All-Out Defend. Nakar started casting Great Haste and Inquisitor Marco lit up his mace with Flaming Weapon.

The fight turned messy but never went badly, really. Korric and Orrie tried to defend but they just don't have the defenses to stand against massed orcs, and got stabbed repeatedly. Red Raggi charged into the fray with his axe, and started hewing down orcs even as they stabbed and chopped him badly. Vryce maneuvered carefully and killed orcs in singles and pairs. Borriz, forgetting he had his stubby throwing hatchet instead of his mace, ran right into melee and attacked the orcs in the rear. More orcs came in - the chief and his two mates, one of whom was a fire shaman and started tossing fireballs. Borriz got Great Hasted and used his doubled turns to just tear orcs apart. He does a mere 2d+5 cut with that hatchet but a few skull shots helped, as did lots of very high damage rolls (like 10-12 on 2d repeatedly). In one especially brutal second he took his pair of turns and cut down 5 orcs, dropping 4 for the count and leaving one badly injured, stunned, and prone. Next turn he chopped that guy down, spun 180, and threw his hatchet back into the fight he'd left behind and hit a fleeing orc in the back, killing him. THAT is Dungeon Fantasy, right there.

Red Raggi, meanwhile, cut down like 4 orcs and then the chieftan ran up and smacked him one. Raggi made his death check and unconsciousness checks, and then critically hit the chief for a lot of damage and dropped him. Red Raggi now can claim the final blow on the Lord of the Maze and an orc chief. After he fell, along with 6 or 7 other orcs in that same turn, the remainder broke and ran. They didn't make it, although the shaman escaped. One orc female took a sunbolt in the back and caught on fire. She fled off and the PCs didn't find her again. Red Raggi finally fell after this, having taken like 50-60 damage.

Fun fight - a big knock-down brawl with all the orc minis I had (with appropriate WYSIWYG equipment). The second it ended, Nakar got off a Seeker spell on the shaman, found her despite a boatload of penalties (-8 or -9, I think) and then Traced her. They could find her relative location with ease, now. They set to looting, barricading the room, and looting. Oh, and killed orcs. Vryce refused to cut throats and decapitate them - these aren't animals. He stabbed them instead. Borriz did some throat cutting.

After an hour (!) in the room, the PCs headed out. They felt pretty safe resting, what with 20+ dead orcs in the room including the chief, and a trace telling them the shaman had fled somewhere and stayed there. They were right - they'd killed all but her out of the tribe's adult combatants. After looting they headed on and found the chief's room. They searched it, found his treasure niche, and pried out a boulder they thought concealed the shaman's escape nook. Nope. Just some treasure. They kept looking and eventually found a secret door. They figured out the tricky catch and in they went to a dank secret room. The shaman was waiting and tossed a fireball at Vryce, hitting him squarely and setting his clothing on fire. He ignored that and charged and chopped him, dropping her. He saw a bucket of dank liquid, and splashed a little on himself as he burned - water. He splashed more and put the flames out. Nice caution - yeah, it could have been lamp oil or something and he'd need a new PC not some extra healing magic.

They searched this room too, and found another secret door. And pressed on, hoping for more money. They went down a long corridor with a door on the right side. Borriz opened that with his hatchet in hand and met the oncoming axe of a lurking orc guard. The guard got initiative and got in 2-3 good swings before Borriz could respond and cut him down. Vryce advanced down the hallway and Borriz went for his crowbar to wedge the door shut. But too slow! Arrows came out the darkness and one hit Inq. Marco and injured him. A female orc, as big as a male and wearing mail, pushed the door open and swung her axe. It didn't help - Borriz brained her with his crowbar and broke her skull into pieces (Weapon Master - All one-handed axe/mace weapons - does include crowbars). Vryce ran past the door and told Borriz to hold it. The chief came behind her and attacked, throwing a hatchet into Vryce's back and injuring him. Vryce ignored it and stood his ground, waiting for the orcs. They came and died. Chop, chop, chop. One also took an arrow in the back from a miss-aimed friendly attack, and fell to his hands and knees. Vryce ignored him. Inq. Marco and Nakar teamed up with a sunbolt and a stone missile and burned and crushed another orc. Borriz turned on the chief, drew his mace, and killed him, breaking his skull through a pot helm and mail coif. The remaining orcs fled, and a few dropped weapons as they did. The chief, his mate, his guard, and four of their best warriors died horribly in seconds. A bad morale check and gone, run away!

Just at this moment Inq. Marco (run for the moment by Nakar's player, because the real player has a long trip home) decided to heal himself. That's heavily penalized in GURPS, and he rolled a 17 - critical failure. BAM. My (brutal) house rule is you take 2x the damage you tried to heal as damage. This dropped him negative and he had to make a death check. 12 or less . . . clatter, clatter . . . 11. He lived.

But now with everyone damaged and a late hour, they decided to hightail it out of there. They grabbed a few things off the chief and his mate, took his gem-pommeled broadsword, and quickly looted the orcs. Borriz killed the crawler and finished the dead off. They grabbed some stuff, headed back, looted the orc chief's room (which they may have done first), and then headed back to civilization.

I was nice because of the late hour and didn't ding them with wandering monsters. They got back to the keep and that's where we ended.


Some notes.

Borriz got the +1 bonus XP for this session, as voted by the players, because of his awesomeness. Voting for himself helped tip the balance though.

- I'm using the Partial Surprise rules/Initiative rules, which I hadn't before. I like the effect but I doubt my players like occasionally going after slower critters that jump them. Oh well.

- Genre rule: fodder fail all HT rolls automatically. Who isn't fodder and gets to make them normally is my decision. Editing later: I mean "fail all HT rolls for consciousness and death checks automatically." They still get HT rolls against poison, disease, spells, etc. I just don't care what happens to them after their HP go to 0 or lower.

- 62 point guys with halberds shouldn't All-Out Defend. And they can't stand up to multiple attacks from multiple orcs. It's not that they suck, it's that 4-1 odds isn't something they can handle against equally powerful foes.

I need tighter game notes, and spreadsheeted NPCs not a document of stats. That's fine for writing them up but too annoying in play. My "how to manage a fast game with lots of enemies in multiple fights" skills are improving. My old game was "slower game with one single big-ass incredibly nasty fight per session or three" which didn't require so much page flipping. That said Foxit Reader + all of my DF and GURPS PDFs open at once + word docs of the adventure = very easy to run game and look stuff up for rulings fast.

Here is my setup for game.

Red Raggi has SM+1 and 19 HP. This means spells are 2x cost on him. At 20 HP, healing spell effects are doubled. So he's just shy of the sweet spot and he's freaking hard to heal. Bad design on my part, he needs to get one more HP with his XP!

Worth noting that Vryce is SM+0 and 20 HP, Honus is SM+1 and 22 HP, and Borriz is SM+0 (dwarves are short but broad, and SM isn't just height) with (now) 18 HP, closing in on 20 HP. That doubled effect is very useful.

Borriz's player remarked that the fact that the group is totally profit-motivated makes it fun. They always push too far trying to get a little more treasure, and risk too much trying to get extra loot home to sell. The only answer to any question is, "Will it get us more loot? Then yes."

The group is really afraid of the wights they heard about, and want to find magical weaponry before they go for them. Magical weapons are pretty high-value treasure, though, so they aren't exactly common.

I need more orc minis, just because I have too many with swords and not enough with spears. And wide-stance minis with widely-held weapons are freaking annoying on the battlemap.

Part 1 is Here

DF Game, Session 4, part 1 - Caves of Chaos

Saturday November 26th, 4th DF session.

Split session. We had to finish up from last time, where the PCs were lost in windy tunnels and had just finished a fight with the rampaging minotaur known as the Lord of the Maze.

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (260 points)
     Koric, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
     Orrie, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
Volos, human wizard (260 points)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (260 points) (run temporarily by Volos's player since Honus's player had work)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (255 points)
Borriz, dwarf knight (255 points)

     plus Mikal (Status Unknown) and Aelfred, rescued drovers
     Red Raggi, rescued berserker barbarian (unknown points)

We last left with Red Raggi standing screaming on top of the fallen Lord of the Maze. The party commenced dealing with the aftermath - Inq. Marco started in on first aid and healing after check Mikal and Volos (dead and dead). Borriz kept watch after retrieving his hatchet, while Vryce did the same but also called out repeatedly for Aelfred (there was some confusion about who died). They also took a trophy - Red Raggi hacked off a bit of horn and the group claimed the LotM's spear - which turned out to be fine (+1 damage) and balanced (+1 skill).

The group decided that although they wanted to keep tracking the gnoll chief, they were really hurt. They also wanted to find the minotaur's treasure (they are certain he must have some) but again, too hurt. Vryce announced no one would be left behind, although they didn't mention Mikal's corpse on their "to take" list . . .

In any case they dumped the random weapons and junk they'd accumulated on the litter and used that for Volos's corpse instead. Honus and others smashed the minotaur's skull into little pieces.

The group re-traced its steps back to the secret door into the gnoll cave thanks to markings and drippings from dead glow beetles. However the secret door back was closed. It was easy enough to find, but there was no latch or trigger to release it. Borriz tried to pry it open with his crowbar and failed, and critically failed (18!) on his second try. Crank. He bent the crowbar and it sunk in to the stone deep enough to wedge the door shut. Oops. Back the other way!

They trudged back into the caves, keeping left. They heard a lot more of the hooting and flapping noises they heard last time, and as they came into a larger chamber, a swarm of stirges attacked them. Borriz nailed one with his thrown hatchet and then he and Raggi got swarmed. Borriz ended up with three on his face, sucking blood, and Raggi with four on his body. Borriz had to carefully smash them off his face with his mace, pulling his damage from 2d+8 to something a little more likely to drop an 18# bird-thing but not potentially break his own face. Raggi tore them up with his hands. Vryce killed a couple, Inq. Marco scorched one to death with a sunbolt, and Honus helped Raggi and Borriz with theirs. He'd grab a strix, yank it out (ouch!) and then smash it. It worked and in the end, they finished them off. They lost a lot of HP, though. Stirges are f-ing nasty in GURPS, and they can hit the eyes in a pinch so even a greathelm isn't certain safety against them.

The group decided to rest, but realized that a) there was big thunderstorm coming (thanks to Honus's nose and Weather Sense skill, he knew what that rumbling was, even distorted by the tunnels) and b) they were close to the exist. They debated resting in the caves until Borriz said, "Seriously, we're more afraid of rain than of monsters?"

They looked at each other and left the cave. The moved to the gnoll cave and set up shop there, eating rations and then adding some ale and wine from the gnoll's stores. Vryce kept checking on the storm, and once when he did he came around a corner and smack into two hunting gnolls! They attacked at once, which was a split second too late - Vryce killed both of them with a Rapid Strike. He looted them, and found they'd been carrying a trussed-up-for-cooking human hunter's corpse. He looted him, too, after determining they didn't know the guy.

Long story short after this - storm cleared up, the PCs headed home, and successfully avoided any wandering encounters (they've been extremely lucky on the rolls, and Honus's good Survival rolls have helped there too).

They went back to the keep, Vryce warned the guards that Raggi is trouble, and they sold their loot. The farrier said he's in the market for any furs and exotic monster furs, which got Honus interested.

They also found a plot of land outside and designated it as a cemetary. They dug a nice grave for Volos, and put him there sans equipment. Each in turn said something about Volos, giving him a brief eulogy. Vryce just shook his head, but the others all had a colorful bit to say about him - his magically created food, his Dehydrate spells, and so on. Even Raggi said a few words - "He died in battle." It was nice, actually. They also cast Final Rest on him to keep him from coming back to haunt them (literally)

Honus headed for the hills, and the group took a week off to recover from injury and so on. Raggi headed to the bars and said he'd come with them again if they wanted.

Part 2 will come a little later - same session but some different PCs.


Some things that got my players wondering:

Who the hell built all these secret doors? The caves are riddled with them. I guess Gary built them. But is there an in-game reason besides the wahoo effect of rolling to detect secret doors?

If there are only a few dozen orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, etc. in each cave, where is this big army of goblinoids they heard about? My answer was simple - I never told them they heard about an army. Huh, I guess that's how rumors get started.

Other stuff:

Funerals are fun. Seriously, having everyone say a few words about the departed is amusing, especially when the departed's player is sitting there listening to the eulogy.

Everyone thinks litters are made of "stuff lying around" and stuff on them weighs nothing. Er, no, limestone caves don't have "stuff" lying around to make a litter out of. Stuff on it is full weight, but GURPS says it's half-weight on smooth surfaces for determining what you can pull around.

Better character sheets - I need to bash around the Phoenix GCA sheets a bit so they have less of the info no one actually looks at and more of the stuff we end up needing ("How much do I weigh with all my stuff, now that I'm unconscious?")

Part 2 is here

Saturday, November 26, 2011

So You Want to Write RPGs

One version of the joke is, what's the best way to get $1,000,000 and a Porche by writing game books?

Start with $2,000,000 and a Ferrari.

It's not exactly a high-profit business. But it can pay, mostly as a hobby.

ZakS makes a great case for just doing it yourself.

My usual employer, SJG, pays pretty well even for new authors, especially if you write for Pyramid (currently $0.04/word) or e23 (currently 25% royalties).

But what is the trick? Like with most things, the general feeling is you only need a kick-ass idea and a creative writing style and some total gaming awesomeness.

The truth is you need an idea. But execution is what gets that idea published by you or by anyone else.

Here are the three keys to being a successful freelancer, in my experience.

Most important thing: Meet your deadlines. Seriously, if you want to know why I keep getting paid writing gigs, it's because I meet my deadlines. If there is even a possibility of missing one by a single minute, as soon as I know I will contact my editor(s) and explain the situation and see what we can do. To date I've always made my original deadline or a revised deadline based on shifting company production schedules. Don't be late to work. It's your hobby but it's your publisher's livelihood.

My advice is to ask for a deadline you know you can meet, and then add 1-2 weeks to that just in case. Hand it in early if you want (I just handed something in a few days early myself). But don't be late.

Second: Write what you agreed to write. It's a contract and it's work. Treat it like that - if you agreed to do A, B, and C it's going to mess folks up when you say B didn't turn out to be so fun to write so you wrote A, C, and X instead. Not to say you can't change the approach during writing, but you can't do it without getting agreement from your publisher.

This is where your clever idea comes in. You'll need an idea with some meat on its bones to reach a reasonable pagecount. You'd be surprised how often a great idea that seems like a 32-page book turns out to be a 4-page pamphlet. So aim high. Better to reach for a big-but-doable project and have to cut chunks off to save for later than to come up short. I wrote 15 monsters for DFM1, and I have a file with 5 more that didn't make the cut. That's a lot better than 10 monsters and, uhm, about those other 5, Mr. Editor . . .

Third: Know the Rules. The game rules and the publishing rules. Know the formats. Learn the writing style of your publisher. If you're doing it yourself, have a writing style of your own and know the formats of your publishing software. If you write for GURPS and they have a standard set of formats (they do), know GURPS and know the formats. If you write for a white-box D&D clone you better know the white-box D&D rules and how you want the product to look. Know the SRD if you're writing stuff using bits of it. Understand copyright and crediting people, and know that "I didn't charge for it" doesn't mean it's not a copyright violation.

My ability to do those is probably the most important reason I get to write what I write. People at SJG know that I'll fulfill the contract, the material will fit the rules, I'm fairly well conversant with the formats, and it'll be in on time. I'm not a risk. Don't be a risk, be a known asset!

Finally, accept that this isn't going to get you glamor, fame, and fortune. You can be a big fish in the small pond of RPGs, sure, but if it's not fun, don't do it. It's not a sure-fire path to riches. You get to know that your house rules are now an influence on other people's play styles. But you also get to know that gee, not that many people buy RPGs. And you get that "friend" who shows up with a pirated copy of your book to game with and says "I got this off a torrent site!" without a trace of shame. And people who tell you that your book sucks and they'd have done it a different way. But I won't lie to you, it's fun and if you like to write, converting your game stuff into published stuff is enjoyable. It's just real work, and not very well paying work. Know that and be realistic in your expectations.

I hope that helps somebody.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Return to original owner

Today, just before Thanksgiving dinner, I gave my uncle his original copy of the AD&D Player's Handbook back.

I ended up with it in a roundabout way, from a cousin who'd gotten it from my uncle. But my uncle's name was in it. When I moved and consolidated down to one copy of everything, I found that in my PHB stack. So I brought it to him and gave it back to him. He was pretty surprised and happy.

I doubt he'll use it, but it's nice to get to put it back in the hands of the person whose copies of "The Lord of the Rings" and D&D got me interested in gaming in the first place.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Give back to the ones who got you into gaming.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dread Empire

When we last left Bragi Ragnarson, he was under a big pile of corpses on a battlefield. Finally we'll get to find out what happens next (no thanks to the person who swiped the original manuscript years back).

A Path to Coldness of Heart (Dread Empire 3) is up for pre-order on

I shamelessly stole from the Dread Empire series for my last fantasy game, and I'm really looking forward to these. I'll add the DE books to my re-read pile. It's been too long . . .

Monday, November 21, 2011

Response to "one monster per dungeon."

Paul over at posted this about a one-monster dungeon, like Theseus vs. the Minotaur or most pulp stories. You know, how Conan isn't hacking down hordes of orcs, he's fighting the one big lizard or ancient god or whatever in the place.

I posted a response on his blog but I realized I didn't want to lose that comment in the ether of "Where did I write that?" So here it is again, slightly annotated and hyperlinked.

Said I, considering a dungeon with one big bad monster:

"If it's possible to explore the dungeon, find the Big Treasure, and sneak back out with getting whacked by the big monster, sure, tension. It adds a whole new dimension. As long as the monster is scary enough that avoiding it would be better, and there is a non-monster-slaying goal involved (escape the dungeon, find the treasure, get through the maze into the secret lair of whomever, etc.) So the monster is the worst thing that could happen, and it's not something that helps you with your goal.

Theseus is a bad example of that, though. The minotaur is the quest item (find him, kill him) and escaping the maze is the tough bit. The maze is the monster there, if you follow me. A better example might be the sea maze in front of Imrryr, where sea raiders hope to hell they get through the dungeon to the prize (sack the dreaming city!) without encountering the monster – the golden battle barges. Smaug's lair, too – Bilbo wants to find the treasure, not really find the dragon. Getting rid of the dragon is fine but everyone would rather not be the one to fight it.

But it's just a big maze I have to explore and hope I find the monster I want to kill . . . eh, that doesn't sound too fun."

That's pretty much it - if the monster is the goal, an empty maze to navigate to find it doesn't sound fun. Not that it wouldn't be a cool story (I like the Theseus story myself) but it's not as interesting to spend 3-5 gaming hours at the table hoping you finally find the bloody minotaur. It's way more interesting to spend 3-5 hours thinking please-please-please-please-don't-let-this-room-have-the-minotaur-I-just-want-to-find-magic-amulet-and-go-home.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Random thoughts

Just some random stuff:

- I'm jealous of the folks in Jeff Rients's Caves of Myrddin game. I'd love to throw my hat in but he runs game during my work hours (yeah I'm at work at 5 am until mid-morning, as well as most nights and on weekends - welcome to working in the 2000s). It's a bit sillier than how I prefer to run my own games, but it's pickup D&D early in the morning, so silly+coffee seems ideal. One of these day a Constantcon game I can regularly make will show up and I'm totally going for it.

- Captcha is a great source of fantasy game names. It's a creative whack, really - next captcha code you need to plug in, jot it down and try to make it into something in your fantasy game.

- I miss painting minis, but I'm busy and I can't remember where I packed my pin drills and files for minis prep. So I dropped by my FLGS (actually not so L, but very F), Timewarp Comics & Games, grabbed some of Reaper's pre-painted plastics. Nice, I wish they had more. Other pre-painted non-random fantasy plastic would be cool, too if anyone has recommendations.
I've got enough lead and pewter, unpainted, to last a lifetime . . .

- When writing adventures, a punchy, one-sentence description of a room, item, or monster is better than a long, dripping description. A few sentences is fine if there is a lot to say. And in any description, it's unacceptable to say "You see blah, blah, blah, blah. And three orcs are running at you." Yeah, I'm going to notice blah, blah, blah, and blah, and then the orcs? Keep situational blindness in mind, but don't get silly - fighters do notice obstacles and surroundings. But the first thing we notice is the other guy.

- If you're going system agnostic, "This should be hard to do" is better than "roll X at -Y." Don't make me learn a system to use your non-system-based tool. If you've got a system, keep it descriptive. "Eric is the best swordsman in the city" is better than "Eric is a level 7 swordsman" and make me look up your 7-level descriptive rankings.

Just some random stuff that's been on my mind over the past few days as I read, shopping, stared at my boxes and boxes and boxes of unpainted minis, and did some writing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Challenge of the Frog Idol

Since this is a free product, I'm not doing an extensive review on it. You can just go pick it up and read it. I'm going to tell you why you might want to, and why you might not.

Challenge of the Frog Idol
Price: Free.
23 pages (21 counting the cover but not the OGL license pages)

What is it? It's a basic hex-crawl, sandbox adventure for just about any old-school D&D clone. What does that mean? You have a base of operations and a mapped-out area to explore. The adventure is non-linear, so you pretty much can explore the swamp as you will. It's a location with lots of sub locations instead of an "adventure" or "dungeon" per se.

How does it work? Pretty well.

The town is sparsely detailed but it's enough to use it as a base of operations. It's got enough issues and conflicts to affect adventures and provide springboards to more conflict (aka adventures).

The swamp is much more detailed, with encounter areas well set up to push or pull adventurers in the direction of still-more encounters. The random encounters are interesting, the monsters appropriate, and the set-piece locations are pretty cool. They have enough detail to run them off the top of your head, but not so much that'll you need to flip around finding out the "right" way to run them.

Why might I not like this? If you hate swamps, you love railroad or linear adventures, or you want very detailed (instead of sparsely detailed but evocative) locations, you might not like this so much. You could stick the adventure on rails, but it's not designed to be so.

How does this work for GURPS? You'll need to convert stuff, if you want to run it straight-up. But with some lizard men, giant frogs, and plain-old swarms, you'll be fine running it just porting over critters as needed. You could easily change any given D&Dish Monster X into GURPS Monster Y without a problem.

Content: 5 out of 5. Excellent quality and it includes everything you need to run it.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Attractive and easy to use.

Overall: If you need to fill in that as-yet-undetailed-swamp in your game, grab this and drop it in. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I for one miss Nostalgia

I'm not trying to speak for anyone here but myself. But part of why I play the games I do, and the way I do, is out of nostalgia. I'm nostalgic.

Nostalgia, 2: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia

I'm running The Keep on the Borderlands partly out of nostalgia. I chose to run GURPS Dungeon Fantasy partly out of nostalgia - a return to a simple dungeon-bashing game instead of the bigger, wide-area and (largely player-driven) plot-and-problem-centric games we used to play. I have all my old gaming stuff (well, almost all) partly out of nostalgia. I can look back on this stuff, even stuff I won't use, and remember why I got it, how exciting it all was, etc. It inspires some nostalgia; it's natsukashii (懐かしい), even, for you fellow Japanese speakers.

I say "partly" because while nostalgia helps drive my choices, it's not driving my games. I could have chosen B1 In Search of the Unknown (which was my second dungeon ever) or B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (either the first or second module I ran). I considered B3 but decided it was more work and less fun than B2, but I considered it. I'm playing the 4th edition of a 2nd or 3rd generation RPG, depending on how you count generations, not going back to the systems that were my introduction to gaming. I'm using old modules but not ones my players have been through before, and I'm using a new-to-me megadungeon, something I never tried to do before.

If we weren't generating new fun with this old stuff, we wouldn't keep doing it. My games are a mix of old stuff I miss, new stuff I wanted to try out, and old stuff I never did get to try out. I would keep playing if it wasn't adding new value to my life, but it's not like I went back to my old D&D stuff from when I was 9 because of a purely forward-looking outlook. I went back because I miss that sense of wonder and that simplicity of play, amongst other things. My gamers show up and play partly out of that too, I expect, but again, if it wasn't new fun who would keep showing up? I'm creating new entertainment out of a mix of old and new.

I think it's fair to say that nostalgia can be a positive, if it's what brings you back to something old that you used to enjoy and can enjoy again. Pure nostalgia - nothing new at all, enjoyed purely as remembering previous fun - doesn't seem so useful. Doing bad stuff or boring stuff or sucky stuff because that's the way you used to do it - eh, I can't do that. I don't miss a lot about my old D&D days. I like a lot of the changes in RPGs, and what drew me to GURPS from AD&D and Rolemaster. But the bits I miss, well, they helped keep me in fantasy gaming all this time and helped me decide to go back to an even more simple campaign than I'd been running. I got a little tired of a big sandbox with an over-arching plot (a plot jointly generated by my actions and those of the PCs) and realistic consequences for violence. I wanted a little sandbox of a dungeon with PCs returning to a tavern and selling off the armor and weapons of their fallen foes.

Like I said, this is just me. Other folks may play old systems and old style games for other reasons. I'm playing new systems with old style dungeons for a lot of reasons. These aren't even all of mine. It's just the occasional negative tossed at nostalgia that made me think about my own relationship with that feeling.

I think I play partly out of it, and I don't think that's a problem.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Limited Sandbox

Brad over at Skull Crushing for Great Justice has summed up my "limited sandbox" game nicely.

He says:
Essentially, my ideal environment is nothing more than a dungeon and a town; everything else is irrelevant. To me, at least, this seems to be the essence of Old School rpgs. A massive board without fixed squares, but still confined to a specific space the pieces cannot leave. Is there any real need for a whole world in which to put this board? What justification is necessary beyond "the place exists to facilitate adventuring"? Sandbox gaming now assumes the PCs can go wherever they want, the DM responsible for a world for them to explore at their whim. Sandbox gaming when I was younger was just what I described: you have this dungeon and that's it. Clean it out and go to town to sell your crap.

That's my game. There isn't any need for my PCs to go anywhere else, because all you'd be doing is changing the window dressing on the dungeon. The adventure is right here in this little play area. A keep on the borderlands (THE keep, in fact), a big damn dungeon with some surrounding smaller dungeons, and a city close enough for shopping trips but too far for convenience. Within those limits, go for it. As Brad said, “Clean it out and go to town to sell your crap.” That’s what I do once or twice a month with my buddies these days. I've done a bigger sandbox, but I just don't need that right now.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Old AD&D house rule

Not that I play AD&D anymore, and haven't since the late 80s, but here's an old rule that came up in discussions at my last GURPS game. Comes from playing GURPS with a guy who played AD&D with me in junior high school.

Spellcasters can only memorize one of any given spell each day. If you have three first level spells, for example, you can't take Sleep x 3 or Magic Missile x 2 and Charm Person. You've got to take three different spells. So Sleep, Magic Missile, and Charm Person is fair, but you can't double and triple up.

IIRC we made an exception for clerics and druids, so they could take extra healing spells if they wanted, but otherwise, they were included too - no Heat Metal x 4 for the Ranger/Druid or Flame Strike x 3 for my cousin's cleric, but Cure Light Wounds x 2 was just fine.

The goal was to force some versatility and expand the spells used in game. Otherwise everyone just maxed out their Fireballs or Lightning Bolts, Melf's Acid Arrows and Magic Missiles, and Heat Metal and Warp Wood spells. Borrrr-ing.

I won't claim to have originated this idea - If you notice the AD&D Conan modules did this to all the spell casters, and I'm sure I read it at least one other place, too.

It worked okay in play, too, because people did choose some interesting spells.

So, submitted for your amusement and interest. Maybe you'll like it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

DF Game, Session 3 - Caves of Chaos vs. 250 pointers

Warning: this summary got wordy but I'm keeping it. It has Keep on the Borderlands spoilers.

Sunday November 6th, 3rd DF session.

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (260 points)
     Koric, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
     Orrie, human guardsman (NPC hireling) (62 points)
Volos, human wizard (260 points)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (260 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (255 points)
Borriz, dwarf knight (255 points)

We left off last time at Falcon's Keep (aka The Keep on the Borderlands), as detailed here.

The group finished spending their cash, learning a few new things (in other words, spending XP), and then officially taking on the two hirelings, Koric and Orrie. Vryce is their official employer, so they have one boss to ultimately obey if they get conflicting orders. The group debated hitting the evil shrine, but they decided they didn't have the weaponry to take on the wights Goldleaf had mentioned in session 1 and decided to raid orcs instead.

The group headed out to the Caves, taking two days instead of the usual one and a half, allowing them to camp nearby and listen to the night traffic unseen (thanks to Honus's wilderness skills), and to cast a few extra daylight-brightness Continual Light spells. The next day near dawn they headed to the hobgoblin cave they'd raided last time.

The knocked on the door - the idea was to ask them some questions and possibly recruit them to help raid the orcs. No answer, and no sounds within, either. So they climbed up the hills and worked their way around. Near one cave that the hobgoblins said was part of the shrine they found 13 strangely bloated and warped trees, with half-dead leaves. Honus popped an arrow into one and it passed almost all the way through with a rotten "thunk." They also smelled rotten meat near the cave mouth but they didn't approach too closely. They avoided that one and continued on, passing yet another cave, which the hobs had also said was a shrine entrance.

This next cave had some scattered copper coins in it and a burned out torch on the floor, and was a bit damp smelling, and had hooting, flapping, and cheeping noises emanating from it. They avoided it as well. They found a third cave, previously not spotted due to trees. It had a few wooden signs up in various languages including Common, saying that goblinoids were welcome and there was food and rest within. They entered and in short order they found a trio of gnolls toasting meat over a fire. In even shorter order they trashed the gnolls and left them dead on the floor, killing one a split second before he could hit a warning gong. The fight featured some impressive (max or near max damage) hits by Inquisitor Marco using his Flaming Weapon-imbued mace and a slam by Honus. They looted the bodies and checked the room. Some of the meat turned out to be human flesh, and the rest turned out to be roast rat. Honus ate some of the rat-onna-stick and the group continued on.

They quickly found the chief's room, pried the door open with a crowbar, and rushed in. The chief and his mate fought back bravely, and a gnoll shaman Winged Knife'd Honus in the face with a large knife, but it didn't help much. Honus shrugged off the blade shot and he and Vryce pounded the chief and his mate down, Volos used magic to disrupt the chief's defenses (Tanglefoot and Mental Stun, I think), while Inquisitor Marco and Borriz and then Honus moved in the shaman and finished him. Honus naturally body checked the shaman down to get that rolling, and Inquisitor Marco hit him a few times with his flaming mace. Once they were down Honus throat-slit the shaman and Vryce stabbed the chief's mate a few times, but everyone overlooked doing a coup-de-grace on the chief . . .

They then looted the room, finding a key and some piddling change and jewelry. Not much else, even after they tore down all the tapestries, flipped the tables and chairs, and pounded a few walls with a morningstar. Inquisitor Marco prayed and cast See Secrets, his newest prayer. Sadly he critically failed (he rushed the words and messed them up a bit) and apparently greatly annoyed the Good God. Far from seeing hidden things his vision went cross-eyed and will remain that way for a while (-5 Per and -2 to combat skills for 1d days - he rolled a 2).

They then found the nearby storage room for the gnolls, and swiped a big jug of alchemist's fire (flaming oil, the self-igniting kind) and some leather hides. They put the jug in a sack, padded it with cloth from the chief's room, and gave it to Koric (I think). They then went back to exploring. They found a set of stairs down and headed that way, and a hail of arrows and spears met them. One arrow critically hit Borriz and knocked him down despite minimal damage, and that left Honus and Vryce to charge . . . into 15 gnolls. They immediately went to work. The spellcasters chucked Sunbolts and Mental Stun spells into the fray, Borriz got back up and moved in, and the Koric and Orrie guarded the rear. The gnolls fought hard, but eventually they all got put down. Borriz brained a few, Vryce stabbed and chopped more, and Honus beat a few down with broken legs and ribs. They got a few glaive stabs in return, though, and Honus needed healing to keep him ready for front-rank combat.

The group slit throats, looted corpses, and found a couple of keys. They explored a bit more and found a room with 10 goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins roped to the walls, and another with three humans. They left the goblinoids after discovering none spoke Common, and freed the humans. The humans were Mikal and Aelfred, drovers for the merchant they'd rescued weeks ago, and Red Raggi, a barbarian raider who'd raided those self-same merchants just prior to them getting hit by hobgoblins. They had no love lost between them. Raggi was not impressed - he was proud to call himself a raider and a tribal renegade. The group debated not freeing Red Raggi but they were all on one chain . . . so they let them all go and armed Raggi with a couple axes (well, he armed himself off the dead gnolls) and the drovers grabbed spears but quickly found the PCs wanted them to pack-mule some weapons on a stretcher. The PCs also found some bloody footprints about this point, where three young gnolls had come and checked on the dead females and then fled. They followed the footprints to a door. They had Raggi chop it down, and then he rushed in.

By the time they got in the room, he'd pounced on the three young gnolls inside, screaming a warcry. Inquisitor Marco pointed out they were kids so Raggi finished the wounded one he was standing on with a blow to the head. The others were already slain. This got the group muttering. Heh. They looted the room (again, not much, although Honus found some ale to drink).

They decided the gnolls had to have more treasure, so they rested briefly and then headed back to the chief's room. He was missing! No bloody footprints, either. So they blocked and locked themselves in the room, cast See Secrets, and spotted a secret door. They quickly opened it and found a piece of tapestry the chief had used to sop up his falling blood and avoid leaving a trail. They followed on, found another secret door, and decided the wights must be nearby. The sequence of events was eerily like Goldleaf's story! So they left the NPCs behind in the room, blockading the door with the table and chairs from the chief's room.

They advanced into the caves and got rushed by a trio of yard-long giant glow beetles (basically AD&D fire beetles, GURPSified and modified). Borriz killed one with a thrown hatchet, Volos missed one (thanks to their tricksy Dodging) with an Ice Sphere, and Vryce killed one with his sword, slicing it in half. Someone - maybe Honus - accounted for the last one. Honus also carved out a glow-gland, and found they could be handled like heatless lights or pierced and drained of their glowing juice.

They advanced along, and followed their usual "keep left" approach. They entered living caves, limestone coated, dripping, stalactites and stalagmites, etc. - the usual stuff. Volos kept an eye on the ceiling. Piercer paranoia, perhaps? But nothing bothered them from above. They heard more hooting, more flapping, more skee skee noises, but didn't see anyway. They decided to turn back, but despite their careful "left only" strategy they managed to get turned around a end up in places they didn't recognize. Lucky for them they stumbled into daylight - the way out!

They went out, circled around, and back to where they left the NPCs. They knocked on the door and Koric let them in, saying they'd closed the secret door and barricaded it because something - a big man ("Not no gnoll!") tried to get in, and it wasn't any of the group. So they slammed the secret door shut and blocked it. The PCs cheerfully opened it back up and went in, this time with the NPCs. Left in a clear and obvious trail down the passage were five silver pieces. Bait? A breadcrumb trail? Vryce announced that of course they were going to follow it. My gamers can be careful sometimes but they aren't going to shy from obvious encounters, plus it's in character for Vryce.

They went back to the scene of the beetle fight and found some drops of glow beetle glow-sack slime left like a trail. They followed it, again winding around the caves. But now they here a lowing, groaning noise. Like a moose, or a bull. "OR A MINOTAUR!" as Borriz put it. "What kind of cow lurks in caves?"

As they passed one opening, out of the darkness lunged a mail-wearing minotaur with a spear. The party wasn't surprised but their PCs near the back got caught. Aelfred the drover got gored and Koric took a spear in the side, and dropped from the wounds inflicted. He also dropped the flask of self-igniting oil! Vryce's player dropped a d6 - on a 1-3, it would burst and ignite. On a 4-6, it would land gently enough thanks to their best-effort packing job. Clatter, clatter - a 4. Safe, from fire anyway. Since they had 10 flasks worth of alchemist's fire in that jug, this would have been really bad.

The group reacted. Red Raggi turned and charged back. Borriz aimed his hatchet into the melee. Vryce turned and put two hard chops into the minotaur's left leg, opening it up and spraying blood but not crippling it. Inquisitor Marco put Might on Vryce to boost his strength. And Volos did something, but now I can't remember what.

Then Volos got gored with the Lord of the Maze's horns and by his spear. He tried to block the horns and Fumble the spear. Both failed, and he was run through the stomach by the spear and gored through both of his pectorals by the mighty horns; he failed his HT roll from the massive damage and died.*

The group really opened up on the Lord of the Maze. It wasn't defending itself, so they hit the minotaur at will. Vryce sliced its leg twice more, shattering its thighbone for sure but he didn't fall. Borriz put his throwing hatchet into its skull and did enough damage to knock a piece off and expose some brain and carry a bit away, but it didn't seem to bother it much. And Orrie chopped the minotaur in the neck with his shortened halberd (thanks to Telegraphic Attack, which I added to the GURPS canon years back, heh), slicing through some mail. Red Raggi ran up and two-handed it in the chest with the captured gnoll axe. And still it came on, trying to gore and spear Vryce but failing. Vryce hit it again, this time in the body for tremendous damage. And then Red Raggi whacked it and dropped it to the ground.

Silence reigned for a second or two.

Then Red Raggi screamed his victory cry and thudded his axe into the mail-clad minotaur at his feet.

Amusingly, Vryce's last pair of blows had put the critter to 1 HP above automatic death (-5xHP), and then Raggi hit it and finished it.

We left the game there, right after the minotaur fell. It was late, late, late for us workers and family folks - I had to be awake for work in less than 7 hours and others had to pick up kids, get home to their kids, etc. So we literally dropped it there and decided to pick it up next time.

* For non-GURPS players, this is something I consider a feature of the game. All combat is dangerous, regardless of who or what is involved.

Some of out of game notes:

- the players have been told repeatedly the game setting was "lethal" and that PCs could and probably would die. Also, that more powerful critters than they'd encountered so far were around. They took this seriously and played with care and brutal ruthlessness in combat. Even so, they found one of those more powerful critters in unfavorable circumstances, and lost a PC despite their best efforts. But they didn't panic or get demoralized. They pretty much shrugged off the losses and then beat the Lord of the Maze down.

- My usual rule for DF is that we end a session when people have to leave, but you also have to get yourselves out of the dungeon and back to safety. So we tend to make decisions based on "I have to leave in 45 minutes, so you had better start looking for a way out."
This allows for rotating in and out of players and PCs, and lets me pass time between sessions using the actual calender. But even though we had an obvious stop point, we didn't stop . . . because the players wanted to go on a bit more, and I really liked to see people follow the temptation to do just . . . one . . . more . . . room and then find out it was a room too far. That's fun and worth the headache of not stopping 30 minutes or so before.

- I gave Volos a really gory ending to make his death fun, but it didn't help anyone's enjoyment at the table that I can tell. Oh well. What I might do is allow some kind of dying action, or dying speech, or other bit of fun for the player of the now-dead PC. My only concern is dying actions that undo the death of the PC ("I'm dead, eh? My dying action is to use this Ring of Great Wish . . . ") or make killing a PC instantly fatal ("I failed my HT roll. Crud. Okay, for my dying action, I smash my necklace of fireballs into the jug of alchemist's fire I'm carrying . . . ") But we'll see.

Volos's player is a bit disappointed he died, but he's already got ideas for his next wizard and we'll see what he ends up with. This is good because a trip to the nearby city and funds to donate to the church to get Volos Resurrected would almost certainly bankrupt them. And it'll cost them more than just cash, because I want to make Resurrection a big, big deal.

- I guess that session a while back where Inquisitor Marco's player showed up with a six-pack and it was all we had in the way of snacks and drinks for 4 people hit home. We had more snacks and beer than we needed, which is how it should be.

- My rule is, the music is on, what you say is in character. A few painful slips out of character might come back to haunt them - they openly discussed turning Red Raggi into the authorities when they returned to civilization. In front of Red Raggi, and in front of NPCs who strongly dislike Red Raggi. That might not bite them on the ass but it could.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: Castle Arcania

Right about now, you are either saying "Oh yeah, I remember those!" or "What the hell is Castle Arcania? Wasn't that for SuperNES?" But it's one of my favorite pieces of gaming material, from a real oddity of a series, and oddly influential on me.

Back when I played one-on-one with my cousin (gaming had become uncool compared to Motley Crue and sports for my other players), I ran a wizard names Neves. Got him up to level 11 or 12, IIRC, and then we decided to just bump ourselves up to the high teens so we could try out the really cool high-level stuff. Yeah, yeah, GM PC, playing alongside, yadda yadda yadda. We had fun, my cousin with his two PCs (one a cleric, the other . . . I forget, a fighter I think) and me with Neves. I kept using Neves as an NPC in my later games, too.

(Also see for a description of this product.)

Castle Arcania is from the short-lived "1on1 Adventure Gamebooks" series, which also had some book about a robot and a space hero. It's kind of a mashup between Choose Your Own Adventure books, D&D, and a head-to-head boardgame.

There are two books - one each for Neves, "An Ancient and Powerful Wizard," and for Eric Sunsword, "Legendary Knight of the Northern Marches." Neves is a Neutral wizard, Eric is a Lawful Good fighter. The story is as follows - Neves wants to marry the beautiful princess Mara, so he can have eternal happiness (and eternal youth, all the better). Eric and Mara love each other, so you can see how this doesn't fit into their plans. So Neves busts into the castle, tosses some spells around, kidnaps her, and flees with his allies to the ruins of Castle Arcania, a handy castle-and-dungeon. Eric gives chase.

Low on spells after the big dustup at the castle, Neves's goal is to find enough magical items and allies in the dungeon to trash Eric in a heads-up fight, or get Eric killed by its inhabitants. Either way, with Eric out of the way he can Charm his princess and marry her. Yay, evil! (Er, neutral!) Eric's goal is to rescue her.

Both Neves and Eric have a posse of allies, each with their own special abilities, magic items, spells, and so on. Neves gets a gladiator bodyguard, a dark elf (not a drow), a female thief, and a kobold chief mercenary. Eric gets an amazon warrior and a reformed gentleman thief, each more powerful than any of Neves's allies. You can find more allies in the book (some monsters will fight you, others will join you if you play it correctly) and acquire more magic items. Some monsters will automatically ally with Neves and attack Eric, and vice-versa. In repeated play, you'll know which ones . . . so you can seek out allies or hunt down potential allies for your opponent. The whole time you need to avoid death at the hands of monsters, traps, and special encounters.

You play the game by alternating turns, reading an entry and following the text to know what to do - gain an ally, fight a monster, get a special result. You go back and forth, until eventually you end up face to face with your opponent and fight one another.

James M. Ward put in some nice touches. Eric's book tells you Castle Arcania was ruined in the past. Neves's book tells you that you helped trash Castle Arcania in the past. Heh. Some of your allies and your opponents allies have a nasty history, too, and preferentially attack each other even when you want them to all gang up on the name character. He also managed to make Eric Sunsword not-lame, which is tough for a LG goodie-goodie rescuing his chaste bride-to-be. He's tough and driven, and fun to play in his own right, and not just a foil for "I get to be a bad guy for once!" Neves.

How combat works is that the attacker (whoever goes first, and the text just tells you that) calls out a number 1-20, and the other player calls out one from 1-20, and you compare the results on a table. In actual play, you'd have enough combats that people would know which numbers you needed to make the other player's choice suck. So we almost immediately switched to using opposed D20 rolls, which made the game immediately more awesome. Anyway, you cross-reference numbers and get a result - hit, miss, double-damage hit, or a special result that depends on the character who gets that result. The specials can do cool stuff for you or bad stuff to you. Otherwise your weapons do a flat amount of damage, and monster attacks do the same, and you mark off HP as you take damage. You run the monsters when your opponent fights. When you eventually meet for the showdown, you just follow the same rules to kill each other head to head. They work fine in actual play both against monsters and PvP.

The game can get a little unbalanced, though. I distinctly remember playing one side (I think I was Neves), hoarding up a bunch of killed one-shot items, tracking down Eric, and wasting him in short order. Eric's player (my cousin) had suffered fairly badly in the dungeon and wasn't fully up to a fight and I was lavishly equipped. That was annoying, and I could understand my cousin's frustration with the results. Similarly, you can play Eric and load up. The game does reward you for holding onto the good stuff until the climactic battle, but then again so do most games.

So what can I do with these books?

You can play them straight up - which is wicked fun. Or you can steal the living hell out of Jim Ward's unique monsters, odd magic items, and fun traps. Some of these items are pretty bland ("wand of lightning bolts"), some are lame ("Heart Throb" is not a good name for a bow, sorry), and some are very cool indeed (I liked the mace "Armor Ruin" and its odd light-eating drawback), and just beg to be converted into your favorite game system and used. For D&D and retroclones, this is easy, because the books are basically D&D without slavish following of the rulebooks.

If you don't play a D&D clone . . . I've said this before, you better know how to convert from it or just steal ideas.

Content: 5 out of 5. A complete game in two little books. Replay value is pretty high, because fights can turn out differently, you can switch up the sides, you can easily modify the resolution system with dice, etc.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Aside from a need to flip around to your character sheets, the books are very easy to use. The illustrations range from acceptable to excellent and always match the text. The books are easy to read and pretty durable, too.

Overall: These books are a lot of fun, and there seem to be some reasonably priced copies on and eBay. I'd play them again, anytime, and I thought they were very cleverly done. Plenty of (illustrated) monsters to steal, too! Check them out if you can! Recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

DF: Cashing in Empties

In GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, armor isn't cheap. That's true with the armor from Basic Set and especially true for the advanced armor options available in a historical game using Low-Tech or the unusual armors in Dungeon Fantasy 1.

Swords aren't cheap, either. A two handed sword can run you $900, out of starting wealth of $1000, while an axe is a mere $40-50. A knife is worth as much as an axe. Blades are valuable.

So like folks in a lot of video games, my players have found that formerly occupied armor and used swords are great loot when fighting goblinoid foes. I'm fine with this, but I remember spending way too much time in Betrayal at Krondor stashing enemy armor in chests so I could come back, repair it, and sell it. I don't want to run that kind of game, nor have PCs stocking up on wheelbarrows and wagons and NPC laborers to carry empty armor back to town to sell. It's fine that they loot it but not derail the game maximizing it. So I do this:

Old/Combat Used Armor: [100% - (1d6 x 10%)] x Base Value

Since Average wealth characters only get 40% of list . . . this means a steel corselet ($1300) with 20% battle damage (1300 - 20% = 1040) sells for around 416 (1040 x 40%). That's a good deal, but pound for pound it's not great. (Depending on the roll, it'll be worth between 1170 and 520, and sell for between 468 and 208 for those same characters.)

Old/Combat Used Weapons: [100% - (1d6-3 x 10%) x Base Value), minimum 0% (so half the time it goes for full value).

That greatsword? List 900, used it's between 560 (badly used) and 900 (like new), and sells for between 224 and 360 to Average wealth characters.

That's just if I don't already have a value in mind - a rusted out sword is valueless except maybe as scrap (say 5%, if that?), armor with 50 holes in it might be equally useless.

Makes for an easy ruling, I don't need to track anything, and armor/weapons are valuable loot but not so much that you want to stop the expedition and head home the second you whack an orc leader.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Stonehell Dungeon

I've instantly become a Michael Curtis fan. I initially grabbed his Dungeon Alphabet book on the strength of "$10 is cheap for new Erol Otus artwork" as I'm a big EO fan. After seeing his free previews of Stonehell, I knew I'd have to get it eventually.

For a more OSR/old-school D&D/historical perspective on this book, check out this review over at Grognardia. James does an excellent job outlining its strengths and weaknesses for that sort of use. Naturally, my concern is different - how useful is this if you play GURPS?

This review has mild spoilers for playing Stonehell so if you're adventuring in it, don't read it and aggravate your GM/DM/LL/etc.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
By Michael Curtis
Released in 2009
134 pages
$13 (paperback from Lulu)

Stonehell Dungeon is a book detailing the first five levels of a megadungeon for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone rule set. It is written as a fully-realized, ready-to-go dungeon. It's not a kit or a design guide, although you can't help but pick up a few ideas from it.

Stonehell, so the story goes, was a prison on the outskirts of the local ruler's territory. Long story short, lots of prisoners were forced in to dig out their own prison, nobody was let out, and as time went on the dungeons got deeper, critters moved in, and Hideous Things Were Unearthed. Since then the ruler is gone, the dungeon has been occupied, partly cleared, re-occupied, raided, etc. for a good long time. It's the classic Mt. Everest of dungeons - it's there, and although people have gone before, the challenge remains and you can go test your mettle there whenever you like. It's active, so the dungeon will change and its contents will change as its occupants react to your incursions and to each other.

Each level is laid out in a grid pattern, which is both good and bad. The good is it allows mini theme areas and allows for one-page presentation (so you have almost zero page flipping if you stay on one level). The bad is that each level sort of feels like a grid, since areas rarely overlap from one sector to another. You end up really needing to flip around in what feels like a non-intuitive way to find out "where next?" when players drop down a pit, exit a section, or otherwise move around. Some of it is limitations of the medium, and it's at least easy to use the small grid-like levels instead of the poster-sized maps I moaned about in my review of Undermountain. The grid-like layout means you don't get any freaking-huge caverns, bizarre mismatched sublevels, and confusing layers. It's a layer cake. Again, that makes it much simpler for the publisher and pretty easy for the GM. I'm not sure how you square the circle of "crazed and idiosyncratic layout" and "easy to use" however; I'm just pointing out the problem.

If you want to see Stonehell, three of the five levels are available for free, so if you want to see what you're in for when you buy it, check these first. I did and bought it as a result, which just goes to show the power of the free preview.

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3

Overall the dungeon is pretty cool. It has a very "the deeper the more dangerous" approach, so you aren't likely to be ambused by a dozen beholders on level 1 because of a bad wandering monsters result. That's a negative to me because I like the risk of totally unbalanced encounters . . . but it's fair enough in a class-and-level game. The dungeon also shows the power of an elevator pitch theme. Stonehell is a former prison where the prisoners Dug Too Deep, and it shows. Everything does kind of tie into that; there isn't anything that says "Now why the hell is this in a prison?" and the oddities are tied in well. The dungeon has a few cool features to either tempt you into going too deep, and to let you bypass easy levels once you get stronger. Once you find the Secret Way to Level Whatever, you can use it instead of fighting freaking kobolds every session.

There are some oddities, though. For example, although tracking encumbrance is optional in LL, it's still strange to have entries with corpses of previous adventures wearing heavy armor and carrying hundreds of pounds of coins (since coins are 10 to the pound). It's also clear that many of the wandering monsters are either singular or come from a limited pool of replacements, but they aren't clearly marked that way. Named unique NPCs are easy to track, but "Spectre (from #7)" or "Kobolds (3d6) (70 total)" would have been nice. In other cases it's clear that you need Magic Item X to beat Monster Y, so naturally Magic Item X is nearby; it's rare for such items to cross sectors. It's even more rare for monsters to hoard, guard, and/or otherwise trap such items. Maybe it's an issue of appropriate challenge but it's just a bit odd and it would likely get remarked on by players. Some are easy explained (maybe the critter doesn't know, or can't leave its room, or whatever), but the adventure doesn't do it.

How is it for GURPS?

My experience converting non-GURPS fantasy dungeons to GURPS is that it takes a lot of work to do. You end up needing to change a lot to account for system differences and different underlying assumptions. Stonehell, because of its sheer amount of monsters, treasures, new spells, and magical effects, would require a lot of conversion time. It's probably better to spend that time either re-populating the maps with the text as a guideline or just looting it for ideas. There are a lot of ideas, though, and many well worth stealing shamelessly!

Content: 5 out of 5. The dungeon is complete, all the information you need to run it for Labyrinth Lord is there, as far as I can tell. It's also got more than enough information for conversions, too. All without giving you so much you can't make it your own.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Very attractive. A few typos detract from the presentation, and rather unavoidably you have to flip back and forth from map to details. You can run one section at a time without (much) flipping, though, but the little flips I needed to do were annoying enough. Text is easily readable and pictures (there are few) add to the text rather than just filling layout space.

Overall: If you need a thematically tight, well-written and ready-to-go Labyrinth Lord dungeon for your campaign, you won't go wrong with this one. It's also a good example of a well-done dungeon. It's got a central theme, cool new monsters and treasures, features that harkened back to my Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord days (die W*E*R*D*N*A, die!), and a lot of sheer coolness packaged in it. If you need a one-book megadungeon for a D&D clone, this will do - although it'll probably take less work to write a new dungeon than convert this to GURPS. Still if you can't steal ideas, maps, and critters from it for game, you just aren't trying very hard. Recommended.
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