Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Scourge of the Demon Wolf

Rob Conley was nice enough to give me a review copy of his PDF and hardcover OD&D-compatible adventure/sourcebook Scourge of the Demon Wolf. I've given it what I consider a fair review, but if you consider reviews of comp'ed copies to be unfair/biased/otherwise not worth reading, feel free to skip this. But I'm reviewing it on what I consider its merits.



by Robert S Conley
76 pages (70 with content, 1 with the OGL, 5 blank)
Price: $15 (Lulu or RPGNow softcover) or $10 (RPGNow PDF)

Scourge of the Demon Wolf is a combination adventure and sourcebook. It's basically a beginning adventure for OD&D, plus a detailed writeup of the area if you want to stay there. It's more T1 The Village of Hommlet than B2 Keep On The Borderlands, though - more setting than actual adventure. That's not to say the adventure is thin, it's good enough to keep a group occupied, but the recurring part is the setting not the adventure.

The book is broken into two sections that operate independently. The first the the titular adventure. The second section is the gazetteer of the area. You really could use the adventure without reading the second half of the book, and vice-versa. They work well together but you don't need to.

The adventure itself is investigating a group of killer wolves attacking folks in the area. Naturally, it turns out they aren't just any old wolves (the "Demon Wolf" part should give that away). The adventure gives you a lot of different ways the PCs might get involved. Once they do, it's an interesting combination of a sandbox and a plotted adventure. Locations are basically triggers - go there, stuff happens, and that triggers other effects elsewhere. Eventually you'll find the demon wolf and fight the big fight, assuming you investigate well. This is all put together well, too, although it did occur to me that my players would immediately jump to "first thing, go search _____ and then question _____" and there isn't much to stop them from skipping a lot of investigation that I can see. Still, there is a lot to do and a group can handle things in very different ways and still get to deal with the story going on around them.

The book's layout is good - you rarely need to page-flip to run an encounter. However, it does occasionally explain concepts (viz, prices in d) after explaining how to substitute them out if you don't use the Majestic Wilderlands supplement. It just makes you look forward and then look back, which I hate to do in a book.

Another interesting bit is "Rob's Notes" - little pieces of boxed text telling you what he learned playtesting the adventure with multiple groups. Some are really helpful, some just feel like filler (do I care that groups fought well or which place they went first in the village?). Some bits in the actual text feel like these notes. But overall, it does give you a much better feel for how the adventure plays, so taken as a whole the notes are a positive addition to the book.

The second half of the book is a detailed gazetteer of the area. It's well written, it has visual snippets of the map next to the discussed locations, and it's got pictures of the important NPCs you can show to your players. It's well written and looks easy to use.

The only real niggle I have with the adventure is the culminating fight and its lead up. It isn't exactly clear to me why the bad guy's friends would shield BG from the adventurers, which they do at first. Or why the BG would go off an fight instead of trying to either slink away safely or just try to plead error and leave the PCs with the quandary of "how do we deal with this?" BG runs away and sets up for a big showdown fight because . . . ? The confronted villain drawing down on the PCs always seems like handing the usually murder-happy PCs in an RPG an easy out. Still, that's easily fixed by anyone else who feels the same way.
(Editing later: the author wrote designer's notes to explain this after seeing my review - these go a long way towards addressing this issue.)

There is a good amount of art, as well, with pictures you to show to the players. It's pretty good, although oddly, the old wizards in the area look just too young. I can't say why, but I felt like there were all pictures of kids dressed up as old wizards for Halloween rather than old wizards. So I'd be careful using them just to avoid making my players stop playing to goof on the "kid" wizards. The pictures of locations, critters, and props are great, though.

How is it for GURPS? For a DF game, wolves are an underpowered enemy - they'd be pretty easy to slaughter. Dire wolves, maybe, but animals tend to do about as well in GURPS as they'd do in the real world trying to bite armored adventurers. Even a demon-wolf. The other big bad in the adventure could be scaled up, of course. For non-DF fantasy, say 100 to upwards of 150 point PCs, this would be ideally powered. Not too tough, but risky fights, and easy to lose control of if you don't use your heads. Plus the adventure has lots of places to use non-combat skills and abilities, and even chances to negotiate, defuse tense situations, or role-play out interesting interactions. I think Rob Conley has said it was based on a GURPS adventure he ran before he wrote it for OD&D + Majestic Wilderlands, and it's totally believable that this is the case.

Rating:
Content: 5
out of 5. Complete, solid adventure, and all you need to use it.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Attractive artwork, but for some reason most of the character portraits didn't strike me as right for the NPC's descriptions. Spelling errors and some odd spacing after periods exist but don't detract significantly from the product.

Overall: If you need a starting location for a faux medieval fantasy game, with lots to do in the area and a basic adventure to get started (and establish some interactions with the NPCs), this is an excellent supplement. It's also good if you just need a village for such a setting and its surroundings. Very well put together, easy to use, and attractive. Good stuff.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A good party wipe every so often

One of the people I know who used to game apropos nothing asked me about my fantasy game yesterday. I told him what happened last session.

He said something to the effect of "You need a good total party wipe every so often. It gets boring playing the same characters all the time."

Could be.

So I should either be surprised it took 18 sessions, or surprised that it only took 18 sessions, to do something ridiculously risky. I'm not really sure which.

Maybe I should recruit him into the group.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Carousing and my DF Rumor Mill

I give out lots of rumors in my DF game. Here is how I do it.

First, I make up the rumors. I have a spiffy d30 with nothing else to use it for, so I use that for rumors. I write down 30 of them in a Word document, numbered. I use them to feed knowledge about the dungeon (depth, entrances and exits, inhabitants, etc.), warn of dangers, give out information about monsters, and especially to feed backstory that is tied to the current story (thus providing context and clues together). If I end up with more than 30, I just stick them at the end as replacements for next time.

Anyone who spends a week in town gets one rumor they pick up in the process, automatically. This means outdoorsy types who skimp out on upkeep by making Survival rolls and camping outside of town miss out. They save money (and have to make a relatively easy roll) but don't contribute to the knowledge base of the group.

Anyone staying in town can make a Carousing skill roll if they aren't occupied doing other things, like doing research, learning spells, or otherwise busy (taking a job for extra pay, say). Making the roll gets you one more rumor, and every two points you make it by gets you one more. If you've paid extra money over and above your normal upkeep for extra carousing, I give a plus to the roll. We've figured one normal carouse costs 15 sp (an extra 10%), so +15sp gets you a +1, +30 sp a +2, etc. up to +5 for +240 sp. (Vryce has upkeep of 150, plus 15 for Compulsive Carousing, and spends 200, so he gets a +2 to his Carousing rolls - more than 30, less than 60) The basic idea is, the better you are at being a garrulous and entertaining party-er and the more sober you can keep yourself in the process, the more you learn (and remember).

The players get to roll the d30 for their rumors. As they learn them I bold them in my document so I know they've been used.

After the session I go through the document and move the learned rumors to the bottom of the file under "Rumors heard" and then replace them as I think of good ones. I try to think of new rumors based on things they seem to care about - lots of gargoyle rumors came up after they started to spray money around on research on killing them and talked about fighting them, for example.

Notes:

- These have been a lot of fun, and people love to roll the d30. They also love to complain if they get anything below a 21, because they may as well have rolled a d20. You could easily do this on another die system, but I prefer one big polyhedral to smooth out the chances. I'd hate to bell curve these and need to decide what rumor is rare enough to be a 3 or uncommon enough to be a 7 or common enough to be a 10 or 11. Just throw them all in a list and roll straight up. Not very GURPS but I have all these skippy dice from my other games . . .

- I bought my d30 so I could roll on some of the tables in The Dungeon Alphabet (review). I rarely use it for that, but I use it for rumors every game session.

- I don't mark the rumors (F) for false like old Mike Carr or Gary Gygax modules. It doesn't help me to know. It doesn't matter if it's true or not, really. Some might be absolutely true. Some might be off-the-wall false. But what isn't true now might be later (when I stock more of the dungeon), or be partly true, or might become true through the actions of the players. Others might be totally false but spur the PCs to valuable measures that prove helpful.

- If a duplicate rumor comes up, I'll either allow a re-roll (if that seems appropriate) or just amplify the rumor with more details. For example, last session someone got a rumor about the Good God vs. underground monsters, and then Inquisitor Marco rolled the same one - I told him he could confirm it was one of the church's teachings, and let him re-roll. It seemed appropriate. Other times I say simply, "Raggi heard the same thing, but the crazy old guy who told him said . . . " and give some extra oomph to it, made up on the spot or cannibalized from another unheard but related rumor.

- It's interesting when rumors come up. The rumor about a renegade gnome with goblinoid servants in the dungeons was on the table for a few sessions, but it didn't get rolled until after the PCs met (and left unmolested) a gnome with norker servants. A whole bunch of related historical bits came up all together last session. I don't plan this, although I will sometimes pick a rumor deliberately instead of rolling if it's extremely closely related to research they've done, and say "The sage says (blah) but the bartender at the pub said (blah blah) instead" and then just cross it off as a freebie.

- I assume people don't forget the rumors they heard, so the PCs can refer back to rumors they heard. These are busy people in the real world, and I'm not going to punish them for forgetting what that rumor about the well entrance was all about. The rumors are vague enough.

- Backstory is boring. Backstory that comes up in play, about things the PCs are digging into, is very interesting. Blah blah Baron Sterick's army consisted of blah blah - boring. "Baron Sterick's paychest for his army was never found, and it's probably still down there" - whoa, cool, how big was his army? Let's go find out! Would they have cared otherwise? Would you? Now it's important.

- Really big news (a mage's tower appears overnight in town, there is a war on, Smaug ate the town's mascot) is a freebie for everyone in town.


And that's how I do rumors, and why my players spend extra money (and sometimes extra points) on Carousing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

DF Game, Session 18 - Total Party Teleport

November 25th, 2012

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (about 315 points)
Nakar, human wizard (about 300 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (about 290 points)
Red Raggi, human berserker (?? points, NPC)
Galen Longtread, human scout (about 270 points)
Borriz, dwarven knight (about 290 points)
Kullockh, human scout (about 260 points)

Reserve (player couldn't make it)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (283 points)

Nearly a full house! We would have had Dr. Honus, M.D., but his current rotation is pretty harsh so he couldn't stay for today's session.

Prep

We opened as usual in Stericksburg.

Last session, the PCs were forced to leave their hirelings behind thanks to a teleport room that sent them to the surface.

This session, they headed out with a few different goals in mind:

- explore level 2
- find their hirelings, or their remains
- investigate a rumor of an entrance to the dungeon in a well.

Before they headed out, though, they put down some money for a sage to tell them about killing gargoyles. They learned that gargoyles don't eat, breathe, or sleep - they're living stone. However, if you deal a final blow with them with a magical weapon (one with Puissance +1 or better on it), it will die. You must deliver the killing blow, so you can't just beat them down with non-magical weapons and then tap them all with a magic sword. Magical creatures are like that.

They also hit on a bunch of related rumors about Baron Sterick the Red - he had an adviser who claimed to be from another world, he went crazy after his adviser did something to him, he had a huge paychest that was never found, and his prisoners were never released and are still down there. Further, they heard rumors about hobgoblins originating in Felltower - they're goblins that drank from a magic fountain there. Finally, an old man told them that the further underground you go, the further you are from the eye of the Good God, so that's why evil critters lurk down there. Inq. Marco confirmed this was a teaching of the church. ("Aren't you familiar with Marco 15:2?")

Raggi also told them he'd heard from some gnomes that they were in town hunting down a renegade gnome who was consorting with goblin-kind, but they wouldn't tell him the name.

More interesting stuff happened, as well. The big news in town was that a tower, much like but also unlike the towers of the wealthy folks, suddenly appeared in town. As in, just showed up overnight. Not only that, but it didn't stay - some mornings it just wasn't there. Meanwhile, criers went out and announced that Jans the Black, Enchanter of the Dark Marches, was offering his services as a wizard and declaring his interest in buying "especial curiosities" with gold, gems, or "curios of the far south." Meanwhile, while invisible, Nakar was confronted with a "perfectly normal looking goblin, except for his third eye" who handed him a personal letter. It said much the same thing as the public announcement, but with an admonition not to bother Black Jans with trifles. It was signrd "The Kio, Servants of the Enchanter Jans the Black."

The PCs decided a) he wasn't going to come adventuring with them and b) it was best not to bother him yet.

Finally, they found out to un-Curse Nakar the Happy (from his Euphoric state) would cost 1000 sp. Too much! They left him happy for a couple weeks just for good fun, and then decided to fix him. They badgered Inquisitor Marco to pray for more power from the Good God (he's been saving points since something like session 3). He did so, getting another level of Power Investiture (now 5) and Remove Curse. And Curse, for good measure. He did it "free" for Nakar, but Nakar owes him one. "No, let me pay you!" "No, just owe me, it's fine."

The Expedition

The group hiked up the mountain, past the statue of Sterick, and to the ruins above. They had lunch, didn't get bothered, and then investigated the castle. Nakar checked the room they'd been teleported to - nothing special, no runes, no markings, no magic. Meanwhile the others found a dry hole in the ground that was once a shallow well. Kullockh climbed down and searched - no entrances on the sides, but they dug out the dirt and grass at the bottom and quickly found an old trapdoor (clearly the "well" was never a water source). They pried it up, looked down to make sure it was safe, and then proceeded down, leaving a rope tied up to an anchored grapnel on the surface.

The bottom was a circular chamber, and they quickly located a secret door out to a 10 x 10 hallway with another secret door on the other side. They exited that (again finding the push-stone easily) and found themselves in a hallway. Some scouting and searching around, plus some extra time spent lining up maps, and they realized they were right near the ogre's room/stairs to level too, the "obscure" water room from their very first trip into Felltower, and near the "big room" they kept fighting wandering monsters in.

They headed right down to the second level. They found no sign of the apes they'd fought except a simian oder, very faint. They moved past the arrow mark on the floor (carefully not touching it), past the shattered black hemisphere (some bits had been crushed and moved out of their original spot), and out into the hallwall they'd ended up in last time. "Ooh, shiny" applied. Instead of going to where they'd lost their hirelings, they went to the big corridor (20' wide, arched ceiling) and followed it down. It was long - they went well over 100 feet before running into some doors - single on the right, big doubles on the left, matching the ones they'd encountered last session, plus the corridor extended at least 100' more, and they could faintly see flickering torch-like light ahead.

They went for the first double doors, and got them open with a boot and moved in. Inside was a lot of old furniture - barracks room stuff, like from Vryce's army days. Moldy old cots, trunks for clothes (the cheap kind that don't lock or open quietly or close tightly) . . . and a hobgoblin crouching behind a trunk out of their vision range (but not out of Kullockh's magical Dark Vision). Kullockh shot him in the face with an arrow . . . and it broke in half.

Closer inspection showed this was a petrified hobgoblin, in a pose that screamed "I'll just peek over this trunk." Inq. Marco cast Stone to Flesh and restored him. Galen used his broken Goblinese to talk to him, and they found out he was Krug, he'd been looking for money on his own, and saw a snake-headed woman and that's the last thing he remembers. Also, up the corridor are "fire men" - that's all he knew about them.

Naturally, they recruited him. (I gave a scripted +5 to Loyalty if they rescued him and offered to hire him - Galen did, but only ended up with a mediocre 11 Loyalty - still good enough for now). No offer of loot except he could keep his money and gear, and they might give him more.

"Oooh, shiny!" take two - they headed back to where they'd left their hirelings. They found the spot - some bloodstains and broken quarrels with Grey McCape's grey paint rings on the wood. Nakar used Seeker to find Grey, and found a path to them. With Krug's help they navigated forward to the hobgoblin's area. They spotted two goblins standing careful watch - and invisible Kullockh shot them down (amusingly, he double-shot and missed them, but they looked to where these arrows went, and before they could react further he shot both down with a second double-shot). They cleared some caltrops tied to one another and to wooden noisemakers, and moved on.

Krug led them to where he said a troll lived. They found a big room with a door, and a hook with a sack of iron spikes hanging on it as high up off the floor as it could get. Huh. As they went to open the door, a troll did that for them from the other side and attacked. Vryce parried his claws and sliced him up a bit, and then Kullockh arrow'ed him a few times. Borriz rushed up into the doorway, and got attacked by "Rusty," the troll's pet rust monster. It flailed at him with its feelers and first rusted away his mail hauberk and then his left leg's mail. Krug didn't mention him - hey, they're using broken Goblinese and gesture, so stuff gets lost.

The troll went down seconds later with arrows, and then the rust monster got smashed in the head by Borriz with his crowbar (he wisely tossed him good mace far away first) and then shot with an arrow and killed. Inq. Marco lit up the troll with a Sunbolt and burned him to ashes.

They didn't search the troll's room, pausing only to grab an orichalcum small shield (sans straps) used as Rusty's feed bowl.

Again they moved forward, and found more stuff - a room Krug said was "goblin females and kids." They ignored it. A bricked-up hallway - he said a "stone bird" was there, along with "three hands" of dead hobgoblins. They coaxed out of him the bird is stone colored and it makes you die. They decided if the hobgoblins had bricked it up, they better go in! But by now even the party had decided enough "Oooh, shiny!" and moved on. A couple more goblin scouts went down, and the party found a 20' pile of mortared rubble . . . and somewhere past it were their hirelings. So they left Nakar their to slowly shape the stone aside, and went ahead. They basically found a bunch of hobgoblins waiting for them, with possible attack from the sides. So they set Galen and Krug to watch their rear, Kullockh and Inq. Marco to watch their flank, and sent Borriz and Raggi up the middle behind Vryce.

The fight was long, but not so dangerous. Vryce charged into the room, saw 15-20 hobgoblins, and ate like six quarrels over a few seconds (2 and 4, I think) but Inq. Marco healed him. They lit into the hobgoblins and killed over half of them in a few seconds. Their morale broke, just as more hobgoblins ran out of a side passage and into arrow fire from the two scouts. Borriz and then Vryce ran back to help, while Raggi chased down the broken hobgoblins. Then Raggi said "I see their priests!" and Vryce ran back to help. Amusingly, the priests had just called out and rallied the broken hobgoblins, and the second the turned to start fighting again Vryce ran back into the room. I rolled morale again and they routed utterly; so did the priests. Vryce killed two of them, Raggi another two, and then he head back again.

Meanwhile Nakar hasted himself and came running. Borriz, Marco, and the scouts (and Krug, cheerfully attacking his former friends) broke the other hobgoblins. Galen convinced on to surrender and then to join them if he wanted to live. He did.

Galen ate a strongly envonomed crossbow bolt (serves him right, all his arrows are poisoned too), and then a mob of norkers lead by some hobgoblins and a goblin charged them. They formed a line (Marco, Borriz, Krug backed by Lurg, the spear-hobgoblin) and started on the Norkers. They didn't do too poorly - they managed to wound Krug and hit Inq. Marco (only to be repelled by his light plate and Armor spell) - but in the end they died, fighting to the last without thought to surrender.

After this fight, they policed up the loot (not much, except the six-fingered relief amulets of the priests), found Raggi had butchered four goblin females in the priest's room, and found some assorted saleable stuff. They sent Galen and Krug and Lurg to recruit four cornered hobgoblins, and they did ("Join us or die." "Hail new chief!") and were put into a squad under Krug. They were given the pick of loot, so they each ended up with an axe, spear, sword, mail armor, and a crossbow. And their pick of the females to take with them (one each). They also found the big melee room had ladder rungs up to what were certainly the "pillboxes" on level one. Aha.

The group explored further, and found the chief's room. Vryce kicked down the door but the chief had fled - clearly, down the steep stairs leaving his room! The went down to the first landing and found a strange statue of a somewhat pointy-headed, lobeless-pointy-eared, six-fingered humanoid in robes in a side room. It was clearly a well-made statue, but not excessively so. No inscriptions, artist's marks, or magic. Another set of stairs went down around a corner, but they decided not to follow the chief. It was getting late, after all, and their guys were tired from a brutal combat or two.

They found a guard room - this one had doors barred from the inside, buckets of sand and water, a door with a watch-slit (beyond they could see a small barricade of loosely mortared stone and two goblins hiding), a door covered with an untanned deer hide freshly wet with water facing more (or the same?) "fire men," and a more normal (but barred) door. They chose that way, and found a room stinking of feces and urine (they didn't investigate), yet another barricade (lots of them - the hobgoblins clearly were walling off areas to create defensive chokepoints), and a junk room with their four battered hirelings still in it. They'd been held captive by the hobgoblins, and beat up occasionally, but otherwise alive. Inq. Marco healed them all with his Staff of Healing and they brought them back to their new hobgoblin hirelings. Their old hirelings recovered their stuff from a storeroom, and the PCs headed home.

Here is where, late on Sunday night, the fun began.

Nakar said they should use the Teleport room to get home. It was very close, and he was "positive" it would safely take all 23 of them (7 PCs, 4 hirelings, 6 hogoblins and 6 hobgoblin females) and their loot back to the surface. Borriz argued there were two other easy ways to the surface, why not use them instead of this? Nakar insisted, and carried the day with surprising ease.

They all piled into the room, getting ready to head to the surface. The door slammed shut as Nakar read the mix of nonsense symbols and real symbols on the wall, there was a wrenching twist . . .

. . .

. . . and the the whole group found themselves 3 yards in the air over a dark, dark body of water, and they fell. Their very brief impression was it was a dark, underground place, with a vaulted roof overhead, and then splash.

We ended right there.

***

First off, what a fun ending. I was shaking my head and just saying "Geez, you guys . . . " My players? They were laughing loud and long. They loved it. They knew it was risky and crazy and did it anyway, because . . . why is that again?

They were on the verge of a profitable trip - the orichalcum shield, the amulets of the priests, and some assorted coinage wasn't a huge haul but it was enough. They'd also recovered four hirelings (and braved personal danger to do so), which would tell well for them, and they'd recruited a half-dozen hobgoblins they'd planned to leave out camping with Galen and take with them as low-rent henchmen when they raided the dungeon. They'd suffered little in the way of injury (well, some, but not too much), and while Kullockh was almost out of arrows they were otherwise fine. They gutted the hobgoblin menace to a significant degree, and found out about "fire men" and "lizard men" foes of the hobgoblins and roughly where they were. They found what is probably a stairway down to level 3 at least, possibly deeper (they didn't check all the way). They even had updated and combined their maps to a degree.

Now they're going to have to make default Body Sense rolls to avoid disorientation, and then fall into unknown black waters underground, fully equipped. Only Galen, Kullockh, and Raggi can swim - thanks to their outdoorsy type PCs. The other 20? Nope. They will need to default it, and succeed in their rolls, to get their heads above water. Meanwhile, encumbrance penalties count double. Swimming is only one point, but no one learned it, because how often does it matter? Rarely . . . I doubt anyone gave it a thought except for the guys who had it on their template as a required purchase. At least one PC - Inquisitor Marco - is so heavily encumbered he doesn't even get a roll (net Swimming skill 2).

This can easily kill the entire party.

And that's just the possible effects of disorientation from the teleport and swimming. If their are hostile aquatic lifeforms (known in fantasy as "sea monsters"), they are in even more trouble.

Meanwhile, the maps will be toast (ink on parchment), and hirelings, etc. will dump their gear to try and swim, and their loose loot will just sink.

Nakar's player announced he'd throw Levitate and made the roll, but I realized after I'd left he can't, it's a one second spell and a 9' fall takes a fraction of a second. No chance, he's got to make a Swimming check first and then cast it (or try to concentrate while drowning - not happening.) Next session might be very brief, and more of a post-mortem followed by a chargen session (or at least double-checking new PCs with me). So no, next time we start with some very difficult rolls and see who survives.

I expect new PCs might know how to swim, for, oh, no particular reason. Just in case . . .

So how did the players take this setback?

Borriz's player said "If this is how we all die and the campaign ends, that would be the best ending ever." A few guys goofed on Nakar's player, Nakar's player moaning about the illogic of putting a teleport room in your castle that sends you to bad places ("Yeah, who would ever put that in their EVIL DUNGEON?" said Inq. Marco's character), and how they'd have done that eventually so now was better than later. A few guys bemoaned probably losing good PCs and good stuff. But seconds after it happened the laughing started and people started saying "I'll start making up my next guy" and "we have to have our new guys find this place and loot our old guys!" So I don't think - even if this becomes a TPK - this will derail our DF game. It just might mean I need to bust out another low-level dungeon for people to explore until they're up to the challenge of Felltower.

This move was inexplicably risky. A classic proof that there are old adventurers, bold adventurers, but no old, bold adventurers. There was a very easy way to the surface nearby, a slightly less easy way somewhat close buy, and a third way out though level 1. It was late, they didn't have full resources and weren't equipped for anything except the teleporter working exactly as it did the time before. Foolish and/or foolhardy. Maybe a teleporter that sends you dangerous places is a crazy, inexplicable thing to put in your castle. Maybe it's a trap, maybe it's a tool they just don't have the most remote idea of how to use except by accident. It's not clear. It was a game changing error.

But man, did they love it.

Which is the whole point. You "win" when you have fun, no matter what stupid crap happens to your poor, poor paper men.



Other notes:

As you can see, rumors can be fun. All were randomly rolled but most of the good "Sterick" ones all come up in a cluster. Spending on Carousing rolls really has paid off for the PCs in a wealth of knowledge, some of which is really true (the Well entrance, for example).

The wizard, well, I felt I needed a powerful wizard in town. So why retcon one when I can just have one whisk himself into town, tower and all? I partly stole this idea from Beedo, but also from Gygax's wizard in the tower, several of my own previous grumpy wizard types (Joachim Zavian from my 1st edition GURPS game and Jan Wroclaw the Enchanter from my last one), and a bit of the Ifrits of Yrth as well.

More fun quotes: "Trolls and rust monsters - natural friends? Oh wait, that actually makes sense . . . "

There was some amusing discussion about docking the hireling's pay for missing equipment and lost quarrels, but when they eventually realized the hirelings came with their own gear that wasn't going to fly. They probably wouldn't have done it anyway.

I played around with some variations on the morale check rules, and they work just fine, but obviously need more playtesting before I can churn them into a real set of workable rules.

Also, I really enjoyed Krug and recruiting more hobgoblins. I knew they'd recognize him as petrified and revivify him (or might, if Inq. Marco was along), so I was ready for "what is his name?" and "will he join us?" I wasn't sure they'd hire him, but I knew the chances were good so I'm glad I prepped for that. I'm happy they ran with it, even they didn't get to run very far.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lessons of Adversary Players

Here are some lessons I learned being, and using, Adversary Players.

These are all in my experience; I don't make any claims these are universally true or complete.


Being an adversary.

It can be a lot of fun doing this. You really get to make some decisions that affect a game you otherwise are only peripherally involved in. It's like being a player, without the worries about your guy skewing your decisions. Plus you get to drop in on a game where, thanks to be outside it and being friends with the GM, you have too much information to be a PC.

It can be a throwaway role. You can try things out you might not try otherwise, and treat your troops more like wargaming chits than as valuable and irreplaceable resources. This is especially helpful to the GM because the Evil Wizard isn't likely to treat his orcs any better than that.

Having an Adversary

They'll do stuff you never do. As a GM and a player, you'll have tendencies to do certain things. You'll have NPCs act in certain fashions, prefer certain outcomes, and react in certain ways. Some you just won't do. But an Adversary Player just might. The example I gave last time of the A.P. having the PC's boss reward them for backstabbing the ally he sent them to aid is a great example of this. I'd never have done that - it didn't even occur to me anyone would do that. But he did . . . and that's one of the good things about having an adversary.

Their decisions, no matter how unfair, seem more fair. If as the GM you give out unequal rewards, or unequal punishments, or make a decision that clearly favors some NPCs or the bad guys or whatever over the group, it can seem unfair. Even in a group of adult friends, it might seem like, "Okay, he didn't want me to do that" or "He's trying to reward her to bring up her weak PC" or other meta-game issues. But with an adversary, it always feels fair. That person is remote, operating on limited information, and is effectively neutral in any intra-group issues. So the decisions seem as far as a random die roll but are also more inherently interesting. There is no "What if I rolled a better reaction roll?" because it's that guy deciding how his NPC reacts without any dog in the fight, per se.

Some of the same benefits of having multiple player groups and multiple GMs. One aspect of very early sandbox games I wish I could get is players working together and facing off. They individually change the world and change it as a group. These changes bang off each other like billiard balls. It's also similar to having a second GM, but without the coordination issues ("Bob can't make it, so only one GM tonight" or "We can't play because Bob isn't here to help GM.") You get someone else stirring up the pot.

You also avoid the "one controlling personality" problem of a GM. You avoid the complications of a co-GM but benefit from it. You can veto or modify decisions of an Adversary, because you're in charge. But you get some of the benefits of having another person with some behind-the-screen insight (yet not all of it).



There are a few things to keep in mind:

Don't pretend they are party members. Or fellow PCs. If an adversary player is playing an NPC, make it clear this person is running an NPC for you, either in person or remotely. Nobody likes a ringer; if you present a face-to-face adversary player as another player with just another PC and it turns out he's running a secret bad guy, bad feelings can result.

People might groan if their friend shows up to guest star at a game by running the orc army against them, but they won't be annoyed by it. It's not bait-and-switch.

It seems to work better with not-too-major NPCs. In other words, the players run the protagonists, you run the antagonists. The Adversary Player runs an important but not game-breaking character. I've had them run the PC's patron, a wizard's former master (that'd he'd turn to for advice), and a potential background NPC ally or indirect foe. I ran the major bad guys and immediate threats, but I'd get advice on the movers-and-shakers who weren't on that direct line of conflict between the PCs and the Big Bad. In a plot-based game, this means don't hand someone the Big Bad to run. In a "pure" sandbox, this means don't give out those NPCs the PCs are likely to come into direct and enduring conflict with. It takes too much of the campaign direction out of your hands, IMO.

Ask for If/Then Advice. The best way I found to use the A.P. was to ask for advice on how their NPC would react. "If they win this battle, what does he do? If they lose, then what?" Have some reaction options on the table, so you're ready to pull out the reaction when the PCs do one of those things. You can have some general reactions, too - what if they ask for aid, what if they ask for money, what if they fail a mission, what if they get busted by the law, etc. These if/then discussions will help you improvise when the A.P. isn't available in a timely fashion.

Only give the A.P. the appropriate knowledge. Some GMs have, or at least claim to have, a nearly mystical ability to firewall their GM knowledge from the NPC's available knowledge. I try, but I'm sure I don't. I find it's more fun to just not know and make decisions based on that. So I'd only give my A.P.s the knowledge they really had. "Here is what the PCs told you, and what your spies told you, and what you knew before. What do you do?" I leave out the stuff they don't know and get a more "genuine" reaction. Part of the idea of outsourcing your NPC actions is to have them only using a more appropriate and limited set of information. Don't spoil it by telling them everything.

It's a negotiation, but it's your decision. If the A.P. suggests something you don't like, you don't have to run with it. You are the GM. But it's worth trying to find something you both agree would be interesting and fit your mutual vision of the NPC's personality and role. Don't ask for advice on an NPC and then ignore it, but remember you need to chisel it into exact shape to fit your campaign.


Those are some of the things I learned from running the NPCs and from a much larger pool of experience having my friends run NPCs for me remotely.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A tale of two Adversary Players

Have you ever been, or used, an adversary player?

I mean someone who is not the GM controlling an NPC or NPCs in your world, acting against the PCs? Either on a one-session basis ("Here, run these orcs!") or long term ("Here, run this major NPC for me.")

Here are two war stories of my experiences doing this.

I, Adversary

The one time I got to do it, my friend R~ needed some help with his Dark Ages-era Vampire game. His players had assembled a small army of militia, soldiers, and artillery plus some ghouls and their own vampire PCs and sent them down into the Balkans to do battle with an NPC's force.

He asked me to run said NPCs force in the big battle that would ensure. He wanted to pose a real challenge to them. One of the players was an old-school wargamer, and R~ is not (although he's a hell of a gamer in general).

So I took the force roster and the battlefield and set to work. I didn't really know much about the PC's powers - but neither did the NPC. I did know how to use what I had. Masked siege gun batteries set up to blow up any vampire foolish enough to take the bait of some exposed high ground, cavalry screens and reserves, veteran troops backing militia types forced into fight-or-die positions, etc. I set up the best defense I could with the forces I had.

When I arrived, the players were a bit dismayed that I was actually running the bad guys. So they gave it their all, and really pulled out the stops to win the fight. Knowing it was me running the clever bad guy helped - they suspected traps, deduced some of my likely tactics, and leveraged their powers against them. "My" forces fought hard, but they were over-matched and the PCs took them very seriously. It was a bloody rout but "my" guys did some damage they might not have otherwise.


The Email Adversary

In my previous fantasy game, I ran a "limited sandbox." The main campaign area was the map of the Known Worlds from the old D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread. I stocked it with major NPCs and plot threads to trip over and lots of things to do. My players went to it and set a lot of things rolling. So much so, that I had trouble deciding what some NPCs would do. It was too easy for the players to try to play me, and decide what I might do and plan off of that, and too hard for me to come up with really interesting twists.

Some people would create a table and roll dice in this situation.

I emailed my friends and asked them to play NPCs.

I asked a number of people to run NPCs for me. The old-school wargamer I mentioned above, a few online friends, one fellow freelancer, and one of my former gamers. I divided up the NPCs between them, one each. For each NPCs we did a quick back-and-forth email conversation to decide jointly on a personality for the NPC that matched my expectations as the GM and theirs based on what they knew of the NPC.

Then I'd occasionally email them for decisions about things based on the NPC.

I chose major NPCs in my game. Not the really mover-and-shaker bad guys, but rather NPCs who could be allies, patrons, or adversaries for the PCs. This way I could have both the over-arching plot (the PCs vs. the evil wizard they inadvertently aided in his nefarious goal) and have independent NPCs doing their own thing and reacting in surprising but consistent ways.

Some of these didn't work out - a few of the NPCs ended up being rather marginal. The PCs didn't choose to interact with them. So I never needed to call on these guys.

But for one, Prince Vladimir Morfailov, one of the immortal wizard-prince rulers of Glantri, it worked out amazingly.

Prince Morfailov was run by Chad Underkoffler, then a fellow SJG freelancer, now an independent game writer.

We worked out the NPCs mannerisms and traits, based on his brief, indirect interaction history with the PCs. We worked out some salient details of his domain, and his interactions with other princes. I ended up with a very interesting NPC who wasn't quite how I'd have made him. I had to shoot down some ideas as too different from the campaign's basis, but others fit in so well I can't now remember if they were my idea or his.

The Prince was first encountered, indirectly, when he visited a series of nasty curses on a Glantrian citizen - who hired the PCs to defend him from the Prince's punishments.

But then the PCs needed a job, and one of the people they contacted was that Prince. Hey, they knew he knew how good they were at their job.

He accepted and hired them.

While working for him, some interesting stuff happened. Once they were sent off to help on of the Prince's allies win a border war. They did, but they also spied on the NPC's secret experiments, and their thief-type clobbered their boss's ally's head demon-worshipping priest and stole a major artifact-level book from him. Basically, he robbed their boss's ally while the rest of the group was out winning the war.

I emailed Chad and, role-playing Morfailov's top henchmen in charge of the PCs, told him, wondering how Morfailov would take this. Me, I had no idea, but I figured he'd be pissed.

Instead, he was delighted. He brought them back, rewarded them for their actions, and chastised his ally for taking so long to "return" the book, "MY book," to him. Further, he promoted the PCs up in the ranks a bit faster and ordered their supervisor to hand down the rewards. This was really fun, because I ran their supervisor (Chief Thug Boris) as being fair but only mildly tolerant of their antics. Now he had to reward them. It was pretty easy to play a chagrined supervisor in that case. I can't believe he sent them to back his ally to the hilt and then rewarded them for backstabbing the guy's chief religious officer. Importantly, I would never have had the NPC do that. But he did.

It was a lot of fun for me and for my players, because we all knew that no one at the table could really predict Morfailov's actions. Maybe he'd be happy with their performance. Maybe not. He was extremely powerful, hideously rich, and somewhat capricious. He could be amused by their performance in a task and dump wealth upon them, or quixotically disappointed and give them punishment duty. He might hand out a powerful magical item as a reward or a silly trinket that addressed some real or imagined need for the PCs ("For you, here is a ring that will keep your clothes clean. And for you, a set of hideously powerful unique throwing spears to rain death upon your foes!") We never knew what it would be.

And if he happened to make decisions that helped or hurt the PCs fight the Main Bad Guy, well, it wasn't me tipping the scales either way - because they knew the Prince didn't have all of the inside knowledge that I did.

We kept this up for a long time, until after the PCs did a full game-year's duty working for him in return for some service in return. After that, I'd still email Chad occasionally when they interacted with Morfailov, up until towards the end of the campaign.


I haven't done this yet, this campaign. It's not that kind of game, but if it becomes so, I might do this again.



Next post, some lessons I think I learned from these experiences.

Monday, November 19, 2012

My megadungeon "best" practices - Part VII

More lessons from working on the old megadungeon.

The rest of the series is linked from here.

Quick Felltower/Grak Yorl Status Update
My own megadungeon has, as of now, 6 main levels and 3 or 4 sub-levels (depending on how you count) mapped out, and everything the players could possibly reach in any two sessions is stocked and ready. I've got notes and outsides on several more levels and sub levels, and I've been slowly expanding the areas I've done already but which haven't been explored. Until the PCs get there, it's still okay in my book to modify it.

The lessons I've learned recently:

The more paths around the dungeon, the better. While it's perfectly logical to minimize the build time of a big-ass underground fortress by minimizing the transit points, intersections, and travel routes and to maximize the chokepoints, it's also a bit less fun. You're doing a 10-level masterpiece, here, and "but the designers would chokepoint repeatedly to maximize their defenses" shouldn't be the dominating theme. It should come up, but it's less exciting and gives the players less meaningful and worrisome choices.

So trace some routes, and ensure there are multiple ways to get to most places. Certain areas should be deliberately bottlenecked, or show signs of "accidental" bottlenecking,

I gather this is all under the heading of "Jacquaying the dungeon" but that's a term I learned only recently. Jacquays didn't write for TSR, and most stores I frequented didn't carry much (if any) Judges Guild material. I learned to map dungeons the ol' fashion TSR tournament module way - one way in, one way out (maybe the same way, maybe not), and everything lined up with a few side encounters for the really thorough. It's a good way to approach it - make the path choices meaningful.

Here are some stocking tips:
Use Your Favorite Monsters Right Away. Every GM has favorite monsters - the really cool ones, the ones you loved as a kid, the scariest and toughest ones. It's tempting to hold onto them for a special occasion, and only bust them out when the situation is ju-u-u-u-st right.

Bad idea, in my experience.

By the time you use them, it's past due. It's too easy to hold them too long. This isn't a battle, where the last one to commit his reserves wins. It's a game, and you've got an endless supply of reserves. Bust out the "special" baddies right away; you can always use a bigger, better, badder version later if it goes well and they work as well as you'd hope. Plus, it avoids unconscious investment in that set-piece encounter later. It's not "the one time I get to use a beholder/the githyanki/a dragon/the black reaver" it's "one of the times." Break them out early.

Be judicious using "In Media Res." Well, not exactly "in media res" but close enough - don't spray in-the-middle-of-the-action encounters around. These kind of encounters are the ones where you walk into the middle of a fight . . . or find a fresh corpse . . . or find the orcs trapped behind a wall of flaming oil from a triggered trap . . . or arrive just in time to see the bridge collapse.

I find these strain believability if you use them too often.

The problem with these is the sandbox nature of the dungeon. You expect the players to keep coming back with their PCs, and expect changes to occur. They players expect this, too.

If the players know that last week they went left instead of right, and this week they go right and encounter a just-killed adventurer and the blood-dripping monster that killed him, they'll suspect he'd have been "just killed" last week instead had they turned right.

What I've done is put in a few of these, and if they aren't resolved that session, I resolve them and put the results down on the key. The bridge is down, the trap is empty and the floor scorched from the flames, the adventurer is dead, the fight is won or lost. Next, I go through and add one or two new ones for this session.

This keeps the dungeon "alive" for you, the GM, as well as the players. Plus, if they figure out that this happens, it eliminates that suspension-of-disbelief breaking "So, these orcs were trapped since we started adventuring?" feeling. I feel like doing this helps you sell the place as a living, evolving place - and lets you make the places that don't live, don't evolve, and stay oddly static seem as odd as they should (and thus a notable change, signifying something to the players that might hold a clue).

Case in point, I had some fresh corpses in the dungeon on my original key. That was months ago. They are now moldering skeletons, with bits dragged off by rats and worse, the best loot taken by nearby denizens (and added to their hordes).

When in doubt, give more treasure. I know the usual advice is "err on the side of stinginess." I disagree, now, having run my megadungeon for a bit. Err on the side of giving too much. Then just give the PCs more things to spend money on - more doo-dads, more ephemeral bonuses (buy a round for the house, get extra rumors, or spend the week in a classy hotel and heal faster), more hirelings, more one-shot magic items, more prestige pieces (houses, nice clothes, unique but marginal items). Taxes suck, so not more taxes - more willing expenditures. They should go from "I'm rich" to "Wait, I need to put some of these back" in no time.

Also, "too much treasure" means "more competition." If the dungeon is a tough grind for just enough treasure, why are other parties showing up? More people flock to a gold rush, or to a land grab, than to a bunch of barely-living-wage dangerous jobs. To more money the PCs pull out and then fritter away, the more equally foolish NPCs will show up and try their hand at it. That can drive the PCs ever deeper into the dungeon, pushing their luck ever harder, to stay ahead of the other guys raiding "their" dungeon.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Limiting Poisons

So I argued pretty strenuously against the excuses used to keep PCs from using poisons freely in a campaign.

But what if you want to allow poisons, but not make it free use for any and all, in all circumstances?

What are some limitations that won't break kayfabe, and reveal you're doing it just to avoid the headache of all those resistance rolls and arguments about poison coming off on a parry or why it doesn't wipe off your blade when you stab through cloth armor.

Speed of effect. Poisons aren't generally that fast. If you die in an hour from a real-world venom, it's a pretty potent one. Limiting immediate-effect poisons by increasing their cost (since they're riskier to gather, riskier to handle, and more potent) is fair. Save-or-die-instantly poisons should be costly and rare. The longer it takes to work on someone, the less costly it should be assuming it's a poison intended for combat.

Scope of effect. The more common, cheaper poisons should be less effective. Every game I know does this. But it's common to address poison as if it's the save-or-die level stuff. Make lesser versions available, make non-damage causing or even non-lethal (but not necessarily safe) forms available. A poison that causes shaking and twitching for an hour or so or causes excruciating pain for a short time might be handy, although again the cost will vary depending on the speed of effect and scope of effect.

Size of dose. Simply put, big monsters should need more poison to kill. A man-killing dose of cobra venom or grue snot might not be enough to really bother a 1,200 lb. owlbear, nevermind phase a multi-ton dragon. Too small of a dose should give improve resistance and/or reduced effect.

Combining the three above will help limit usage in fights to an extent - poison won't really help you take down your enemies more quickly. It's really there to ensure they die from a hit, not to ensure they die from a hit right now.

Some other things to consider:

Weapon limitations Some weapons just won't be able to carry much of an effective dose of a poison. Crushing weapons that lack penetrating spikes will need a contact venom and skin contact. It's not likely to work that quickly, either. Swords and other large weapons may require multiple doses (they do in GURPS, although DF handwaves that away), and might not "hold" poisons very well. Gummier/stickier substances might exist, but then you have the issue of cleaning them off of your weapon. Weapons may suffer from repeated use in this fashion - earlier rusting or pitting, longer cleaning times post-fight, issues with incomplete cleanings. Otherwise you might have to take your chances - wipe the blade with the giant scorpion venom just prior to combat, and wipe it off after, and hope you get some of it into the target during the fray.

Disposable missiles won't have so many of these issues - blowpipe darts might easily be poisoned and then just chucked out if you don't use them in a timely fashion. Arrows and quarrels with breakable poison vials behind the head don't need to be recovered (although you may want to lop off any distinguishing feathering, if you don't like letting people know who shot those arrows). I'm not sure it's feasible to hollow out a sling bullet in such a way it will still be hurl-able but also release venom ounce it penetrates. Thrown weapons suffer some of the same limitations as melee weapons.

So a potentially reasonable limitation is to make it harder, or more consequential to the user, to envenom some weapons.

Market Availability. Make them roll to see if there is any for sale. Pretty simple. It won't always be available. It won't always be plentiful, especially if it's very effective (someone will already want to use it).

License Required. You might need a specific license to use poisons, or carry them. It might be expensive, socially limited, or needlessly complicated to get one. It might expire and need renewal. You might need to explain to the local lord why you need 25 doses of Bladeblack and why he shouldn't be worried about you.

Limit antidotes. It's not like the apothecary has the specific antivenin you need at all times in all amounts. And a wise one will charge a lot for them, since you're likely to pay the gold instead of risking lingering death.

Acceptable Targets. Make it socially unacceptable to use poison against certain opponents. Pretty simple - and usually that'll mean other "people," however that gets defined. Provide appropriate social opprobrium for using it on the wrong target. "Black Mark isn't using his poisoned arrows just on orcs, you know. They say he shot down men with it too . . . "
Still, it's likely such ill-fame won't apply if you're restricting your use to clearly inhuman and unpleasant targets.

Limit the effective targets. No everything is vulnerable to poison; some might require a specific one to deal with. Perhaps werewolves can be slain with a suspension of powdered silver but not by any other normal venom. Maybe orcs are flat-out immune to most of available stuff. ("Grok hate arsenic! It too acidic on Grok's tongue. Grok like taste of cyanide.") Perhaps the issue with monster-hunting with poison isn't moral or practical, but rather just useless - they aren't bothered by the stuff. Resistant to Poison (+3) is only 5 points, (+8) 7 points, and immunity is 15 points, and they might get sprayed around a lot. Poison might be only a special-case issue, or you might need to find the specific bane for that species or just not bother.

Those are just some limitations I think are defensible, if you make them plain from the start of the campaign (or when they enter a new area). It's more the "no, and here are some over-the-top and vague reasons why you can't" reasons I find fail to convince me. You don't need to use all of them, but even a few can prevent poisons from becoming too useful of a tool, and keep them in their place and valuable edges but not the whole of your campaign's anti-monster efforts.

Oh, and obviously, monsters use poison right back. The goblinoids in my game world do, for instance, and every poison needle trap in the world must have been set by someone . . .


Editing later: Talysman posted a nice article about poisons on his blog. I posted some more ideas in the comments.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Poisoning the Monsters

If you're going into a hole in the ground full of monsters to kill them, why aren't you using poison?

Those paragons of us-against-the-world ruthlessness did it:

"Elmo, pick some good halbardier and crossbowmen. Quarrels to be poisoned."
- The Captain, in Glen Cook's The Black Company

That's just one example from those books - poisoned dart-shooters show up in Shadows Linger, too, and arrow poison in the Books of the South.

But what about in games?

I've heard a lot of arguments against it, some of which Jim Ward discusses here, while endorsing its use:

"Then there is the poison on the dagger trick, which every judge is always trying
to stop. I have been told that poisons evaporate, poisons exposed to the air lose
their effectiveness, or the most used of all, in your area there is no poison strong
enough to kill the things you want. I suggest to all you players and especially the
magic users that can use only daggers, that any amount of money and effort
spent in the procuring of a really effective poison is worth it. I spent over 90,000
gold and haven't regretted a copper piece of it."
- James M. Ward, "NOTES FROM A SEMI-SUCCESSFUL D&D PLAYER," The Dragon #13


My players seems to agree with him. One of the two scouts has every single one of his arrows poisoned. Venom has come up in discussions of tactics. The real death-dealers skip it, only because they mostly don't need it to kill the monsters they most often fight, making it less cost effective.

But old-school AD&D pretty much stomped on poison use, and presented those objections raised in Mr. Ward's piece.

Still more can be found in the 1st edition PHB, 1st edition DMG, and even later D&D books like the 3.0 DMG. While the 1st edition DMG is a bit more generous than the others - it says assassins use poison "just as any other character classes" - but it still limits it a lot. It's got a lot of the same limitations on poison.

These are notably absent in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1, which makes poison a straight-up option on the equipment list, and the only benefit from being skilled in Poisons skill is the ability to use poison more effectively. Otherwise, it's assumed it is ready (and fairly straightforward) to use. Rolemaster had plenty of nasty, nasty things you could use on weapons, although mostly people were too busy lopping off limbs to pay money for poisons in my games.

But what about the objections in the AD&D books?

Some I don't buy, or buy only partly:

The poison will dry up and/or lose its effectiveness. Sure, maybe it will. So why not store it in breakable containers? If you say there aren't easy to transport but also easy to break containers, well, flaming oil is right out, too, potentially. So are pots of green slime and other sneaky tactics. Or just put it on before you enter the dungeon and stab something pretty quickly.

You can also take a leaf from The Wild Geese, and put breakable containers of venom (cyanide, in the movie) behind arrowheads. There is some suggestion that's how venom-using hunters do it. Maybe Gary Gygax was right and it'll dry out and won't stick to blades . . . but mixing up a sticky version might help, or alternate delivery methods can be used.

People will attack you. Seriously? The whole "hue and cry for the watch and then attack" bit is pretty funny. Joe the Blacksmith will attack the hulking barbarian because he was a poisoned sword? Yeah . . . that seems pretty smart. Your hirelings will jump you in the dungeon? Why?

The assassins guild will attack you? Why again? Competition? They want people to know if you die from poisoned wounds, they did it? Again, I can see them limiting sales to members, assuming there is even an assassin's guild, but what about the alchemist's guild? They might have something you can use as poison. Even merely biological agents - things that will putrefy wounds - or agents that will poison food - are useful against monsters. Does anyone mind if you put out poison food to kill basilisks or wipe out giant rats?

People will besmirch your honor. You have me here. They will, and they should, if you're using it in fair fights. I bet people don't describe "exterminating orcs" as a fair fight issue, or killing umber hulks as an issue of honor. But maybe they do, and you're sensitive to that. Well, honor has costs as well as benefits. Being a murder hobo does sometimes have advantages. Even more so, I bet they'd have an issue with the way you surprise attacked the orcs with a rank of hirelings behind you, the way you call those hirelings "meatshields," or the way you throw flaming oil and fireballs into rooms full of bandits because it's better than facing them one-on-one, or slit throats of Sleep spell victims, or use magical chemical agents (cloudkill in D&D, stench in GURPS). Look, most adventurers don't fight fair in the first place, so poison isn't a fairness issue. It's a social acceptance issue. You might be limited in appropriate targets, but I bet no one will complain if you use poison on predatory monsters.

You might cut yourself with your own weapon. Does this happen a lot? I mean, are you normally assumed to be slicing yourself with your blade on a regular basis? I'm pretty clumsy and I slice myself with my kitchen knife about, oh, once or twice a year. But my Broadsword-18 warrior might poison himself? My 9th level lord is has a 5% chance of poisoning himself (that's the 3.0 rule)? I just have trouble with this. Sure, blow a roll badly enough and hit yourself and you have a poison weapon? Sucks to be you. But it shouldn't be more dangerous to use than, say, a flaming sword or a vorpal blade.

It's a dangerous substance, but so are a lot of substances. Plus an insinuative poison - one that needs an open wound - isn't likely to also be a contact agent, so it's not necessarily automatically unsafe to get a little on you (assuming you wipe it off). Contact venom is more dangerous, but also less likely for use - against furry or scaled monsters, or armored men, contact venom isn't so helpful. Gas or blood agents are more easily delivered, and while gas is tricky (too easy to expose yourself to it) blood agents should be a little safer to handle with the usual adventurer gear of heavy gloves and suits of armor.

You need to know how to use it. I buy this, partially. You do need to know how to use it effectively. If you're just putting it on yourself with no expertise, you're likely to either use too much (and waste it), too little (and waste it), or put it on incorrectly (minimizing the effectiveness of the dose). The more readily available pre-measured doses and simple delivery systems are, the less of an issue this needs to be. And if magical elixirs come in perfectly pre-measured doses, it's not unreasonable venoms wouldn't come that way, too.

It's not fun/it makes the game too easy/it takes away from assassins. Basically the meta-game issues. The not fun part I sort-of get. Shoot it, it's going to die from the ounces of cobra venom you just delivered, so close the door and slink off for an hour and come back. Not the most fun.

The others, no so much. Too easy? Sure, if you have a ready supply of cheap save-or-die venom. So don't do that. The best venom in the book in Dungeon Fantasy 1 that is close to "save-or-die," Bladeblack, costs $1000 a dose - that's the entire starting funds for a PC for one dose. You might get some and use it, but not without some thought. The weakest is $20 a dose, and it's not a bad deal except it does very little damage and it's easy to resist. Worth adding but it's no game breaker. The "it takes away from assassins" bit is a bit more fair - but DF deals with this by making assassins more effective with venom. They can use their Poisons skill to put multiple doses on a single weapon so they take effect all at once. That alone makes it worth more - $80 worth of "Monster Drool" can hurt even a tough monster with strong resistance - and gives the assassin an edge. Not only that, but a lack of instant save-or-die venoms plus stronger monsters (in other words the important targets) means that the ones you most want to poison (dragons, et al) are the hardest to dispatch with poison.

The argument for poisons is pretty simple:

Hunting monsters is dangerous, you need every edge you can get. Yes, it is, and you do. If it's possible to get poison, why not use it? If you can get an effective venom that will hurt monsters you fight and aid your chances of success, and your character doesn't have some limitation that prevents it (Code of Honor, a Vow, or say, being a Paladin), think about putting some money into poisons. Heck, Jim Ward did it. He's pretty old school, isn't he?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Random Thoughts VII

Just some musings in a brief break.

- This kind of thing is why I left D&D for Rolemaster and then GURPS (via Man-to-Man). Not that D&D is bad, it's a lot of fun and I loved it. But we could never deal with the issue of "how many swings" and "what does melee mean" and "why doesn't that mean I shoot lots of arrows?" and all of that and I sure don't miss the arguments. I ultimately went to a system that really did pare it down to one blow being one blow, an arrow shot is an arrow shot. It's not free from abstraction, of course. But the bottom-up design - it started life as one man, one blow, one second instead of a mass combat system - is for single person combat and it shows.

- I like stocking treasure randomly, but GURPS DF 8 sure requires a lot of rolls and page-flipping and calculating value. I'm hoping someone else automates it. Still, DF 8 does have some cool stuff in it, I just find myself rolling up valuable clothing for aquatic encounters and weapons for rust monsters, that kind of stuff, and needing to re-roll or just decide for myself.

- I've been drawing a few more levels of my megadungeon, and editing a bit on the ones not yet reached. I'll post another megadungeon lessons post once I'm sure I know what I've learned from it.

- I was reminded of Rolemaster recently several times. Especially the herbs. I think my DF game needs more off-the-shelf edibles like the Rolemaster herbs. So I'm starting to write some up.

- I really want to draw your attention to this cool news: the re-release of the Slaver Series!
I loved the A1-4 series. I ran the combo supermodule once in AD&D and once in GURPS, and ran the separate modules at least one other time in AD&D and was run through A1 solo once as well. A bit railroad-y, like most early (very linear) tournament modules, but full of cool stuff.

I'll get this, if I can, just to see the new adventure. I already have good copies of all four of A1-A4.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ancient Egyptian d20

If you haven't seen this already, a story about an ancient Egyptian d20.

Ancient d20 die emerges from the ashes of time

Here is look at the d20:



I tend to roll more d6s, but still, very cool.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

GMing Tactics: Stall, Deflect, Distract

I'm usually well prepared for my sessions these days. I have enough mapped out, and enough obstacles between the PCs and the unkeyed and unmapped areas that I don't need to worry they'll outrace my prep. I haven't had to use these yet in my game, because I'm far enough ahead.

This wasn't always the case - my previous game was a wide-open sandbox with a player-driven storyline, external events they couldn't control, and fairly easy access to travel magic. They could literally spin on a whim and go somewhere I'd hinted at but hadn't had time to write up. Or finish painting the minis for (hey, I custom paint minis for set-piece brawls sometimes)? Or go to question someone who really should provide them with a (well-thought out by you) answer, but you're rather push it off until next session so you can mull it over? Or they're about to attack that NPC party and you realize you left the damn NPC party's writeup at home? Basically . . .

What happens if your PCs head right to blank spot on the map?

Here are some tactics I use to stall them, deflect them, or distract them.

Stall: A classic. Just keep them busy, and amused, but don't let them into the blank spot.

Magic Door - That door just ahead of them? Well, it's not a normal door anymore. Now it's made of some bizarre material that resists normal forcing and magical bypassing. You can't get past it without a key - a key found elsewhere in the dungeon/campaign world/over in the next town a week's travel away.
This is a useful stall because it automatically makes this section of the dungeon more interesting.

Blue Ribbon - The area is blocked with a forcefield, a force of friendly critters who just won't let you by for security reasons, or another impenetrable force . . . that yields to a special seal or title given elsewhere. Where might be obvious ("Show the seal of the duke and you can go past us") or not so obvious (A cryptic hint). Show your mettle (or your money) elsewhere and suddenly the elevator starts working and you can go W*E*R*D*N*A hunting. This is basically a Quest - and it's a Deflect approach as much as a Stall.

Dave's not here, man - Want to talk to the NPC and you're not ready? Well, neither is the NPC. Tonight is the gala ball/his mother is in from out of town/he's at a secret society meeting/he's been summoned to another plane/he's sick in bed. He's out, he can't see you, but he's left a note/message/etc. pointing the PCs somewhere else for a partial clue or a clue to something else (that you, the GM, already have handy).

Wandering Monsters are a generic stall. They're also a time-use tax, but they can also be a good stall until next session. A big nasty coming down from the corridor that ends in "I'll finish this later . . . " or "under construction" can sap resources, soak up session time, and potentially deflect players by forcing them to flee. Plus let's face it, people like fighting stuff, so it's not even much of a punishment. It's not even unfair, unless you're one of those people who thinks putting down "10 ogres are in this hallway" is fair if done between sessions and unfair if done right when the players go down the hallway.

Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later is good for information requests. "I can find out, but it'll take some time. Hit me up next time you come back from the dungeon." In other words, ask next session. Hey, I'm online every day and you didn't email me, so if you ask right before the dungeon delve and I'm not ready with an answer, well, neither is Cedric the Sage.

It's a Trap!: The heaviest of hands, here - trap them. Drop walls ahead and behind, and make sure the behind is easier to break. Keep them busy for a while and make sure the "out" is back to mapped areas.

Deflect: Turn them away from the blank spot.

Wandering Monster - again, but this time use something scary. Literally (so they must flee) or just powerful (so they should flee). A bit heavy handed, and it might tempt a TPK-inducing fight, so be careful with this.

Magic - Teleport tricks, rotating rooms, elevator rooms that dump you back up a level, confusion spells that confuse direction-finding. All of these serve to effectively deflect the PCs away from an area until you've written it up.

Detour Ahead - Block the way physically, with a barrier they can't easily move. You can have it removed later - maybe an umber hulk digs through the rock wall, the rubble gets dug out, the collapsed hallway is repaired by the dungeon cleanup team, whatever.

Distract: My favorite. Give them something else to do.

Wandering Treasure: "You hear the unmistakable clink of coins." Or a thief with a jeweled necklace sprints by. Or a prisoner tells them where a (already mapped) treasure lays. Or they find a map showing an already explored area, with some spot they missed marked on it.

Strange Sounds: It works in sneak-type video games. Make a sound, the guards look. Works on PCs, too. "You hear a door slamming shut . . . behind you." Maybe they'll go look.

Help Me, Kind Strangers: Have an NPC come upon them, and ask for help elsewhere. Offer treasure if necessary.

I'm Calling In My Favor: Works in town. An NPC they owe asks them to pay back that debt, by dealing with some issue in an already-developed area. If it gets them more ready for that blank space in the process, so much the better . . .

Some of these are pretty heavy handed, but all of them at least keep you playing, and add to the fun of the dungeon, without you needing to put up an "under construction" sign or forcefield without explanation or to say "Guys, can you go there another time? I didn't write it up."

Keep these to a minimum - prep is always better, and just plain seat-of-your-pants making crap up is fine if you can do it. This is for when you can't, or when you're really going to have a better game next time if you can just avoid having to wing it this game.

If you also use these kinds of encounters in your game, it won't even seem so odd. "Another of those magic key doors? Damn, this Mad Wizard must have had a stake in the Locksmith's Guild." Some of them can be used in a very heavy handed way if the dungeon is ruled by an Adversary (Undermountain springs to mind). If the Mad Wizard is still down there, it's possible he could send up an illusionary image of himself and a D&D Wall of Force / GURPS Force Dome and say "Turn back, fools, this way is not for you . . . yet!"

I'm sure some well-prepared GMs never have this happen. Well, I'm moderately well prepared, but I don't have the time or resources to develop everything before I let my players loose. My game is an ongoing beta test in that way - sometimes, you can't do that yet even though I've promised you will be able to at some point. I don't apologize for this, because I have even less time for that.

Use these in good fun.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gary Gygax was right: If you build it, they really will come

So it's no secret that I stock my megadungeon ahead of my PCs. It's no secret I stock enough to cover a few sessions ahead of where they could possibly end up, but otherwise it's all a work in progress.

Recently, I dug out a bunch of Dragon magazines my brother-in-law passed on to me when he ran out of space to keep them. They included numbers 287-322, the ones in which Gary Gygax wrote some war stories.

One of them, in issue 296, described his player unerringly finding some hidden item he'd just placed right before the session, as if guided by some hidden knowledge.

Amusingly, I've found this to be true.

I realized at some point I didn't put enough entrances in the dungeon from the surface. So not long ago, only days before a session, I threw in a new entrance and a rumor of its location.

My players immediately rolled that rumor up on the table.

I put in a new area, realizing I had a little space to expand I hadn't used.

Like a laser, my players went right to it.

I made sure to put a back way into a dangerous area (the wight's crypts). My players stumbled into them in session 2 of the megadungeon, but didn't have their cleric with them. They were literally staring at an entrance to level 2 when the undead-hunting, True Faith with Turning-having cleric's player showed up (and thus, so did his character). They made an unknowing beeline straight for a Shape Stone-shaped wall into the wight's crypts, tore it down, and marched into a great slaughter of the undead.

It's odd how many times the players have utterly at random chosen exactly the area right for their group, or exactly the area I just filled out with details the week before.

Admittedly, this doesn't always happen. Some stuff I stuck in there and they stubbornly refuse to blunder into it. Other stuff I stick in last-minute and nothing comes of it. I know it's just coincidence. But man, it does feel like they're sniffing out the new stuff like I'm giving off clues that there is new stuff to find there.

Gary's column, when I re-read it, really struck me. I felt, okay, so it's not just me. This stuff has been going on since fantasy role-playing gaming was born . . .

Friday, November 9, 2012

All-Out Attack, Pinning, and ST rolls in GURPS

In a big thread over on the SJG Forums that was at least, originally, about fantasy party composition, discussion came up about taking down and pinning berserkers.

Long story short:

- someone with Berserk needs to take All-Out Attacks once berserking.

- a Pin (p. B370) is pretty final, and results in a helpless opponent

- per GURPS Martial Arts page 114, someone who All-Out Attacks doesn't get to roll to stop a pin.

- therefore, if you can grapple and takedown a berserker (not hard if they aren't defending), and stop them from breaking free (a little iffier, but not terribly hard), you can easily pin them on your next turn.

That's not actually realistic, and it's an unintended consequence of how we worded the rule. So I, and then Sean Punch, both opined on a change.

My post is here.

Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch's post is here.

Again, long story short, that's not what we were trying to do, the fix is to say MA114 is referring to DX-based rolls, not ST- or HT-based resistance-type rolls. Berserkers can indeed roll in their Regular Contest of ST to try to stop you from pinning them. Tackling crazy people isn't a solo job.

Also, Douglas Cole, author of the upcoming GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling posted next to discuss some changes that his book will offer for people who find the Basic Rules too basic.

I figured I'd post links here so the rule discussion didn't stay buried in a thread on a different subject.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rings of Regeneration & Pre-existing conditions

In 1st edition AD&D, a Ring of Regeneration will heal its wearer's wounds, even past death (bringing you back to life if you pass a System Shock roll). It doesn't matter when you suffer an injury.

By 3rd edition, though, it only healed you while you were alive. And, not only that, but:

" [ . . . ] only damage taken while wearing the ring is regenerated."
- D20 SRD

Clearly the Wizards Guild had become an HMO - no pre-existing conditions are affected by the ring!


Making one of these rings in GURPS is pretty simple, though.

Assuming you want it as a gadget (bought with character points, say for a GURPS Supers game), the old-school style is some level of Regeneration (usually Regular - 1 HP per hour, a little slower than the D&D one, possibly Fast - 1 HP per minute, much faster than the D&D one) plus Regrowth and Unkillable 1, all of which affect whoever has the ring. The new-school style drops Unkillable 1, and adds an Accessibility limitation to "Only wounds suffered while wearing the ring."

As a magic item, it's the same, just don't bother with the point cost unless you need to cost it out for sale or as a Power Item for DF. Personally, I'd just wing it.

And for no special reason, I'm going to link to my favorite OOTS reference to a Ring of Regeneration.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Miniatures painting stuff Sandy taught me.

Just some random stuff that I learned from losing power in the Hurricane:

- White glue won't set in a cold, moist location. Not for days, at least, sometimes not at all.

- Five-minute epoxy will still be damp and sticky 2-3 days after you set it, and weak for a while. I had an mini I expoxied to a GW plastic base snap off like it was lightly superglued long after I'd glued it - maybe 4 days?

- Automotive primer, however, will dry very quickly. But you need to really, really shake the can and ensure it warms up a little in your hand before using it or it won't spray evenly.

- Army Painter Quickshade will also dry quickly, although it's harder to use - it was thick as mud at 50 degrees F. I only did one mini once I realized this, but it still came out tabletop-quality.

- Craft paints will dry pretty quickly compared to the above, but not as much as at 60+ degrees F. Give it at least an hour for unthinned paints.

Based on the above, I didn't try doing any sealing with matte coats, because I figured it might ruin a finished mini.

I didn't expect to lose heat when we lost power - a mistake on my part, because I thought the heat system wasn't electrically ignited. Oh well. So I set up a number of paint jobs and just couldn't do them. I studied and wrote for game instead, which was probably better, but I was hoping to get in some painting, but the cold, damp weather nixed that. Still, I know what not to try next time.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Are You and Your Players Nostalgic for Different Things?

Okay, maybe it isn't nostalgia, although it is for me. But do you and your players want the same things?

Sometimes I read about awesome games, or awesome settings, and I wonder . . . does this guy really have the players for that? Is it just you that wants to run a gritty-realism Dark Ages game? Is it just the GM who thinks humans-only and limited level advancement is cool?

Maybe a low-tech, human-only, gritty post-apocalypse game would be fun, but your players want Thundarr?

Or take it the other way. What if you want Thundarr, and your players insist on playing out a gritty zombie movie. "You find a sword hilt that bursts into a flaming sword!" "Okay, we scrap it to power our anti-zombie searchlights."

If you're playing with folks who grew up with Diablo, Planescape, and all those monsters-as-main-characters games of the 90s, will they prefer more of a "freak show" party more than you?

This is all ideally worked out pre-game, either with "you guys do whatever, and I'll adapt" or "here is your list of options." But sometimes you end up needing to work it out in game. I love complicated monetary systems, detailed treasure, fast-and-loose combat, and ruthlessly fatality-filled games. But I know my players don't care as much about the complication, like tight combat rules, and prefer a bit less assured PC death. So I have to modulate what I include - it's not just my nostalgia I'm catering too on Sundays.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thoughts on the "Freak Show" adventuring party

So over on the GURPS forum the other day, we were talking Dungeon Fantasy party makeup.

It seems the usual situation is a "freak show." Pixie barbarians and half-ogre wizards and infernal scout-ninjas and catgirl swashbucklers with imbuements.
To me, it's doubling down on gonzo. The situation is pretty out there (you're plundering strange treasures from even stranger monsters.)
The characters? Way out there. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles out there.


But for me, that falls flat.

I personally don't think that gonzo + gonzo = double gonzo. Or zowie + zowier = more zowie.

I tend to thing that gonzo + normal = gonzo.

So if the party is a freak show, the situations need to be a bit normal. It's interesting to see what happens when the half-demon has to deal with normal stuff.
It's interesting to see the farm boy with his uncle's old bill from the wars plumb the depths of the dark dungeon and encounter strange critters.
It's less interesting to me to see the half-demon in the dungeon.

I totally understand this isn't normal. It's usually the half-dragon half-infernal ninja-assassin-wizard descending into the depths of the earth to fight the strange critters.Then I was scanning some older (3.0, 3.5 era) Dragon magazines and noticed the same "party of oddities" approach. So this is not new, or uncommon.

I'm fine with that. It's a totally fine way to play, if that's what you want. I don't think this is wrong or unfun. But to me, the clash between "I understand my character totally because he's so normal, but this situation is downright weird" is my favorite way to play.
Weird creature dealing with normal stuff is okay, too, but I'd rather play the human investigating Cthulhu than the Son of the Starspawn investigating Chtulhu.

To each his own, obviously, but I'm curious how common my approach - restricting the player options to "fairly normal" and exposing them to weirdness is, compared to opening up the whole raft of strangeness for PC and encounters alike.
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