Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The OGL Conundrum

Yesterday I was commenting on a blog post about the Open Game Licence (OGL) that many old-school game publishers are using when issuing new products. Unfortunately, after 29 comments there appeared at the bottom of the page a message that "New comments are not allowed."  The conversation between two other people was getting a bit heated, so I don't blame host Roger the GS if that's a conscious decision he made.  However, it may just have been an automatic shutdown of comments after a set period of time. (I think that's an option in Blogger...)

Edit:  See Roger's follow-up post, which also has now had comments shut down.

However, I had started composing another reply, and I'd like to now expand it into a full post. The topic may be a bit "inside baseball" for readers not that into the old-school D.I.Y. role-playing community, but c'est la vie.

Anyway, the issue at hand is what kind of legal copyright/trademark/licencing needs to be done when someone wants to publish a document that contains (1) references to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) by name, or (2) announcements of compatibility with D&D or other related systems, or (3) uses of many of the time-worn terms and tropes from D&D, like armor class, hit dice, and so on. For me, I'm talking mainly about new rule-sets, NOT secondary products that are designed to be used in conjunction with D&D or other "retro-clones."

Many old-school game publishers like to use the Open Game License (OGL) issued by Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), the current copyright holder of D&D. However, several people have raised some skepticism (e.g., here and here) about the need to enter into a contract with WoTC when one isn't publishing anything that is formally connected to a WoTC product.

In yesterday's comment thread, I talked a little about how I've been planning to issue Homebrew '82 without the OGL. I will definitely do more research on this topic, but the one new thing I wanted to do was list a few of the games out there that are also not using OGL. Many of these other games have been talked about quite positively in the OSR blogosphere. Many are similar in spirit to my own project, in that they're at least obliquely inspired by D&D and other 1970s/1980s games, and they use a handful of terms for game mechanics and ability scores from D&D (some of which have definitely filtered into broader usage, too), but they're clearly new and original games. My question to the other commenters would have been something like: "If it's okay for them, then why shouldn't I go that route?"

(I now also want to list these games out of a sense of solidarity... kind of similar to Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song... here's a list of people who avoid the OGL... just like you and meeeee...)   :-)

Small But Vicious Dog

Sword and Board

Stars Without Number

Zeb's Fantasy Roleplaying System (ZeFRS)

Gods and Monsters

Perilous Journeys

Adventure Forge

Barbarians of Lemuria

I apologize if I've erred in listing products that aren't in fact "similar in spirit" to my own ideas for Homebrew '82, but they all seem like relevant comparisons to make.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Great Ak's Great Axe

Another dip into the Rankin-Bass well before the holidays officially commence... This time it falls on me to report on the existence of a powerful Artifact/Relic that escaped the attention of Gary Gygax when he composed the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide:  the great axe of the Great Ak, from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

The Great Ak is a Lesser God, serving as the Master Woodsman of the World. The Celts worshipped him as the Master of the Wild Hunt (Deities & Demigods, p. 31), but they mistakenly depicted him with a spear instead of his Axe.

The Great Ak's Great Axe was forged by the first Dwarven king, as a near-twin in appearance to the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, but with different powers. Its blade has the effect of a vorpal sword, +3 to-hit and damage, with additional chances of instant decapitation on modified rolls of 20 or higher. It does double damage against any type of Demon, including especially the toy-stealing Awgwas and their allies the Goozzle-Goblins. Like the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, it gradually imparts long life and health on its possessor, but instead of converting a human wielder into a dwarf, it converts him or her into a jolly, rotund, red-cheeked, and white-bearded demigod.

Once per day, the Great Axe can also act as a Wand of Lightning and emit a laser-beam-like ray equivalent to the magic-user spell Lightning:

And, of course, ingenious DMs can incorporate a generous degree of gonzo randomness in the usual way as well:
Hat tip to Chris Sims, whose recent post made me aware of the awesomeness of this particular R-B special that I've actually never watched all the way through.  I'd been minorly offended that it departs from the Kringle-centric continuity established in the earlier specials of the 1970s, but I'll definitely have to find it A.S.A.Now!

Final Note: I guess talking about a powerful weapon of war on Christmas Eve is as about as far as you can get from the spirit of Luke chapter 2... but, hey, at least I'm not flooding the web with more posts about Krampus!  :-)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fall of the Meisterburgers

If there's one scene in the whole oeuvre of Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas specials that cries out for a sequel, it's this one:

"The Meisterburgers... they kind of died off and fell out of power."  Really? I always felt that was a bit anti-climactic. Power doesn't just give itself up so easily. I always imagined a sequel, maybe a generation or two after the events of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, in which the Meisterburgers go one step too far in their cruel repression, and they are delivered a fierce beat-down by the Kringles.

This scenario is actually kind of perfect for playing out in a classic fantasy RPG. You've got a beleaguered town in need of saving, a rag-tag group of misfits on the outskirts that is called in to help, and a garrison of low-morale soldiers that may (or may not) obey their evil lord's whims.

Mix that in with the following elements...
  • The existence of a shadowy wizard's guild or council (who must have been responsible for "disenchanting" the Winter Warlock),
  • The obsequious second-in-command (Grimsby), who may have evolved into more of a Grima Wormtongue type puppet-master, once the original Burgermeister's descendants took over,
  • Wild-eyed urchins pushed to the breaking point by pointless sock-washing,
  • And don't forget the obvious prevalence of mind-altering substances growing throughout Sombertown that the PCs may stumble into . . .

. . . and you've got yourself one memorable D&D campaign scenario!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dark Days

On this darkest day of the year (at least for those of us north of the equator), I thought a few inspirational words may be in order.  This was written by someone named "Knight Monk" in a LiveJournal group a few years ago.  I'm not omitting any intro; what follows is the entire post:

I am writing about more than sunlight, you know... although the swift-passing window of the Winter Day is no small matter either. These are the shortest days. And for many they are filled with hectic activity. For others they are cold and barren desert of Depression. Lao Tzu writes: "Movement overcomes cold."

Translating this into one's own practice means that during darkest days of Winter, instead of hiding under a comforter and napping all day, one should keep active. Do many things even if you feel like sitting still - this is how one makes it through the worst Winters, even the most terrible Winters of the mind.

The converse also holds true. During the hot days of Summer, or even the most hectic and anxious times of any season, one should seek to still the mind and body. "Keeping still overcomes heat."

The words hold not just literal truth for the thermostat of the human body. Properly applied, the words can govern our moods. They put into the hands the reigns of the intellect. Anxiety and panic are also ruled by the still Player.

Well, now I've got to go fight off the cold/flu I've had for more than a week and start following this advice!  :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Follow Your Weird

I recently rediscovered a speech given by Bruce Sterling back in 1991.  It's official title, I think is "The Wonderful Power of Storytelling," but on the internet it's become known by it's most memorable axiom as "Follow Your Weird."  Let me just give a couple of quotes for flavor...
Don't become a well-rounded person. Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish. If you want to woo the muse of the odd, don't read Shakespeare. Read Webster's revenge plays. Don't read Homer and Aristotle. Read Herodotus where he's off talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats. If you want to read about myth, don't read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion, read about voodoo and the Millerites and the Munster Anabaptists. There are hundreds of years of extremities, there are vast legacies of mutants.
I don't think you can last by meeting the contemporary public taste, the taste from the last quarterly report. I don't think you can last by following demographics and carefully meeting expectations. I don't know many works of art that last that are condescending. I don't know many works of art that last that are deliberately stupid. You may be a geek, you may have geek written all over you; you should aim to be one geek they'll never forget. Don't aim to be civilized. Don't hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don't do it halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it.
One of the things I love about the Old School RPG community is that this is the default, go-to mindset for so many of you awesomely nutty do-it-yourselfers.  Sure, many of us end up reinventing the wheel in some ways, but it's often part of the process of breaking down the assumptions and fundamentals of this pastime and building it all back up again.

I'm aiming to keep at it, too.  Work has been busy lately, but I've been trying to do just a little thinking and development on Homebrew '82 every day.  We'll see what the new year will bring!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cthulhu Time with Finn and Jake

Just putting the word out, hopefully without spoilers... I recommend that fans of both H. P. Lovecraft and the D&D-inspired cartoon Adventure Time should go watch the holiday special "Holly Jolly Secrets" immediately...

It certainly makes me think differently about the creepy giant penguins from At the Mountains of Madness!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The DIY Dungeon at last!

Way back in March, I blogged about getting started on creating a home-made version of TSR's old 1975 board game "Dungeon!"  (The exclamation point is part of the title.) I'm embarrassed that it took this long to finish the project, but it wasn't my top priority. Still, here it is...

Boardgamegeek had half-decent scans of the original roll-up board, which I broke up into a 9-page (3x3) version, touched up via Powerpoint, printed, and laminated. I re-created the cards from scratch, using online spreadsheets that kindly laid out how many of each type one needs for a complete set. My cellphone camera didn't do a great job in capturing the cards, so here's a screen-capture of a selection of them (also done in Powerpoint):
My son was 9 when I first blogged about it, and now he's 10.  We've played a few games so far, and he found it "really fun but frustrating." I think the frustrating part comes from having a game avatar that isn't so invincible as in most video games.... :-)

My wife asked me if this was Dungeons & Dragons, and I said "No, but it's the gateway drug!"

We also had a third player, but she was having trouble with rolling the dice...

Monday, November 21, 2011

My God, It's Full of Stars

I haven't written too much about my own personal religious or spiritual beliefs.  (Well, by implication, maybe just a little...)  I don't intend to start now, but I do want to talk about a small meditative "project" that I'm beginning today.

I've been long fascinated by astrology, but I should make it clear that I'm a pretty strong skeptic about its usual claims. I don't believe that the positions of the actual planets and stars in the sky have any kind of causal effect on someone's personality. But the psychological symbolism of astrology goes much deeper than the literalist claims of the horoscope-peddlers. Specifically, the 7 classical planets have been claimed to correspond to some pretty deep personality archetypes. (This book gives you a deep drink from this pool... this one looks interesting, but I haven't read it.)

Also, there's also some fascinating symbolism in the geometrical aspects that two or more planets can have with respect to one another. Two planets "in conjunction" are united in their operation... in "opposition" they work against one another. The range of harmonies and dissonances are similar to the musical/emotional ones that I discussed here. (So yes, this is relevant to the Glass Bead Game, too...)

So, what the best way to throw oneself into this interplay of archetypes, to learn more about them -- and maybe about myself? Well... there ARE those real planets up there in the sky, and they're slowly but surely cycling through all the possible combinations. Loath as I am to pay attention to them with an eye toward my own inner life, I've decided to give it a try. I've constructed a little push-pin orrery that I intend to update once a night before going to sleep:

Other than move the pins around, I'm not 100% sure what I'll be meditating about. I'll definitely look for "interesting" aspects and think about what they may mean to me, but beyond that it's open-ended. Doing it before bed may also seed my subconscious with interesting fodder for dreams...

Being an inveterate tweaker, I put aside the 12 standard zodiac signs and instead mapped out a 24-fold sidereal division of the ecliptic. Accounting properly for precession, I've labeled each 15-degree chunk with my own favorite star or asterism. I've also labeled them by the seasons (e.g., V1 is the first house after the vernal equinox, W4 is the fourth after the winter solstice, and so on). I printed out a table of which of the 24 "houses" is occupied by each of the 7 classical planets for the next year or so, so I can update it every day in "real time."

Part of my reasoning for blogging about this is that I'd like to avoid slipping into superstition... i.e., I don't want to wake up one morning actually believing that the planets and their movements are literally doing stuff to me! Talking about it up front like this will (hopefully) help me stay grounded.

Anyway, I'll keep readers informed if any scathingly brilliant insights pop into my mind as a result of this practice!  :-)

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11: Thanks!

Some people are upset that VH-1's declaration of today as "National Metal Day" could crowd out a proper observance of Veteran's Day. However, I think quite a few vets would be jazzed to see someone express their thanks by throwin' the horns and giving them a hearty "Rock on!"

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Homebrew '82: Combat Flowchart

If I ever get back into running a tabletop RPG, it would probably be my own evolving Homebrew '82 system, with players most probably being friends and colleagues who haven't played D&D or any other RPG at all. Thus, I'm aiming for my Homebrew '82 Player's Guide to contain enough introductory material for total newbies to get comfortable with it all.

Thus, here's a draft of a visual flowchart for the typical progression of combat...
Click for bigger version.
Of course it will be backed up by several pages of text, but it may be useful to have this sitting out on the table. It's pretty basic stuff for most readers, probably, but hopefully useful for people just starting out.

FYI, out of curiosity, I googled the phrase "combat flowchart" and found a strange hodge-podge of quasi-similar things, but not much that fits into the old-school D&D-ish box that I'm comfortable with. Probably because combat is pretty simple in these systems (at least compared to the 3rd and 4th editions of ye olde game) and doesn't really call out for something like this. But still... newbies...  :-)

I should mention that I'm not intending to have a formalized "declare actions" phase in each round. I get the nuances of strategy that this can offer, but I generally agree with Cyclopeatron that it simplifies and speeds things up to drop this step, and also that the side that loses initiative already has enough to deal with (you know, like maybe dying before getting a chance to strike back?)

Also, I'm dumping lots of things into the "Take 1 melee action" phase. Attacks, parries/blocks, spell-casting (which is instantaneous), missile firing, sneaky maneuvers, or an extra burst of movement -- they're all possible actions, and they're all done in this step. This idea may be blasphemous to many readers used to spells and missiles going off first, but it's a reflection for how D&D always seemed to go for us back in the day... even when we started with the best intentions of following all of the rules to the letter.  :-)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On the Care and Feeding of Exemplars

I've got a loose amalgam of ideas floating around in my head, and I'm hoping that writing a blog post will help them congeal...

I began the day thinking about three close colleagues of mine who were at the White House today, receiving awards and shaking hands with President Obama. Of the three, one of them is something of a sleazeball, one of them is an overall decent person, and one of them is someone that I really look up to.  (Which is a hard thing for me to say, being the self-centered egotistical type... i.e., a blogger!)  Colleague #3 is what I think of when I hear the word gentleman. Someone that, after talking to him, despite the fact that he's probably 7 or 8 years younger than me, I tend to think "Gee, I'd like to be like him when I grow up..."

Why bring up these guys? This whole thing of admiring other people has so many strange cultural facets. It seems like the pendulum is always swinging between the extremes. Some rugged individualists tell you that to look up to someone else is a sign of weakness... other people sometimes seem far too eager to lose themselves in hero worship. Then there's the issue of admiring a person as a whole, versus focusing on a single admirable quality (especially if they're deficient in other areas). Believe it or not, I think Homer Simpson found the golden mean when he wanted to be an inventor like Thomas Edison:
At best, "exemplars" help us to reach new heights... and to keep our egos in check when we think we're the best thing since sliced bread. Sure, obsessing about them isn't good, but neither is pretending they're not out there.

I think this does have something to do with games. I'm really glad that the world contains someone like Alexis Smolensk, who strives for excellence in D&D and doesn't settle for mediocrity. Also, these games let us play in arenas of human endeavor where there are quantified, hard-and-fast definitions of who is "better" than whom (in certain ways). That's far from politically correct these days. Seeing someone's skills and achievements in an RPG isn't a reason to feel bad about ourselves... we're inspired to match those achievements with our own noble deeds (or devious chicanery!). Does this -- gasp -- even make us better people?

Yes, yes, this comes dangerously close to the laughable comment made in that old X-Files episode: "Well, hey, I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage."  Still, there's a grain of truth in it, too.

Anyway, I'm not sure if this all has a point or not. Maybe the general idea of "not settling for mediocrity" is what we should strive for... and the exemplars just help remind us that it's possible to stick to those guns!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Coda: September of Short Adventures

It was loads of fun! Thanks to /Matt for the idea of this challenge, and thanks also for assembling links to everyone's SoSA posts in one handy place! This will certainly help me catch up on lots that I missed.

I've now got to get back to finishing up the Player's Guide for Homebrew '82 ... and also finally finish cutting out the laminated cards for my DIY Dungeon board game.

Oh, and work... yeah, that too...  ;-)

Friday, September 30, 2011

SoSA the last: Who Mourns for Azathoth?

This is post 25 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. Whew!

This last post contains some ideas that could be spread throughout a long-term campaign. If the imagined world has clerics and "real" gods that respond to clerical prayers, then I think it's worthwhile to make some decisions about what the gods are really all about.

This certainly doesn't need to be done at the START of a campaign. To an extent, I agree with both James Mal and Fritz Leiber that a DM's knowledge of the world should grow and widen as the PCs' sphere of influence grows and widens. But if the DM prefers one of the weirder options below, it may be fun to weave in subtle hints about the truth from early on....

Thus, there are two very fundamental questions that PCs may eventually care to have answered:
  • Can the gods be killed?
  • Can mortals become gods?
Don't answer these questions right away. First tiptoe through the following options and then come back to them:

1. Vanilla Polytheism. The gods created the world and sustain it. They draw some power from human worship, but they can exist without it.

2. Autonomous. Worship doesn't help or harm the gods; the boons they bestow on clerics are the result of pure altruism.

3. Parasites. Gods need human worship to survive, and their power increases and decreases with the number and fervency of their worshipers. It's self-interest for them to play an active role in the lives and fortunes of their worshipers.

4. Vorlons/Shadows. They are advanced alien beings who stick around in order to guide humanity. But will humanity eventually decide their guidance is no longer desired?

5. Cacogens. They are advanced alien beings who don't want to get TOO involved with humanity, lest we lose hope in ourselves. But sometimes they just can't resist inserting themselves into human events.

6. Apotheotes. All gods were mortal once. They either ascended gradually, BECMI style, or were granted godhood by ones that climbed this path before.

7. Askewniversals. There is one over-arching deity, omnipotent, omnipresent, and onmibenevolent, who occasionally deigns to interfere (or set things right) in the mortal world... usually via skee-ball. Otherwise, the earth is a battleground for good and evil spirits that often demand worship or other assistance from mortals.

8. Lovecraftians. The singular transcendent power is named CHAOS, and he/she cares not for us in the least. Some lesser powers rebel and try in vain to create order; others feed the chaos by setting mortal against mortal.

9. Zeistians. Nobody knows what created the universe, but there are multiple immortal beings. They feel an instinctual drive to murder one other, because in the end there can be only One (God).

10. Turtles all the way down. It's vanilla polytheism, as above, but the gods themselves worship another set of gods, who in turn worship another set of gods, and so on. Is there someone, or something, that worships humanity?

11. Landru. God is a sentient computer, buried far underground, the sole survivor of the pre-apocalyptic age.

12. Elementals. Everything in the physical universe has a "nature spirit" counterpart. When the thing itself dies, the spirit ceases to exist. (This doesn't rule out long-lived powers that appear omnipotent and transcendent to us: after all, if the ocean has a spirit, then so does the Earth, the Sun, the Solar System as a whole, the Milky Way Galaxy, and so on...)

13. Titanomachians. There ain't room for more than one generation of polytheistic deities in here. It looks like war up on the holy mountaintops. But by choosing WHEN the big war happens, in relation to the PC's campaign, one can impart a very different flavor to these supernal proceedings:
  • Maybe the new gods just recently overthrew the old ones. It's a happy, joyful springtime of the world... but too bad about those Atlanteans who got caught in the shuffle...
  • Maybe the war is just about to start. A new band of happy-go-lucky worshipers has come dancing into town. Nobody seems to be taking this new god "Zagreus" too seriously, but they're about to!
Feel free to choose your favorite option(s), roll randomly, or keep exploring how these concepts are covered in other fictions.  Notice also that there's no need to refer explicitly to specific locations in an extra-planar multiverse, if that's not your thing. (It certainly WAS my thing back in the 1980s, but now ambiguity on that front seems much more fun...)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SoSA the 24th: Extended Training Montage

This is post 24 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Why can't I stop thinking about the mini-game of what may happen when a character needs to train for his or her next experience level? I posted about it before, but now I'd like to add some additional flavor for other events that may occur during the several weeks that the PC needs to spend training. For context, though, read that earlier post first.

The experience level of the master should be known. In general, it should take PCs longer to find masters of progressively higher level. If DMs want to scatter them across the map of the campaign world, then the smaller number of high-level masters will necessarily be situated further apart. Of course, it's fine to skew the odds a bit so that at least a few very-high-level masters will be findable. This means that at least one or two PCs can stay with a single master for a while... since it could get redundant for each PC to have to go on a fresh quest for a new master every few levels!

The cost for training should follow a more-or-less consistent system that jibes with campaign economics. The standard idea from the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide is 1500 gp per level (with many possible modifiers, I'm sure). But some masters may prefer barter, or labor, or they may spy some valuable item owned by one of the other PCs that they decide will do in lieu of the standard fee.

When approaching a new master that a PC has never met before, there's a unique Reaction Roll for determining that crucial first impression. Roll 2d6:

02: Horrible impression. The master rejects the PC and will never change his or her mind.
03-05: Bad impression. The master rejects the PC, but may be amenable to convincing. Will bribes work? Offers of utter obeisance?
06-08: Neutral. Master accepts the PC as a student under the standard terms and harbors no strong feelings -- yet.
09-10: Positive. Master accepts the PC and gives a 10% discount on the fee.
11: Very positive. Master takes a liking to the PC and gives both a 10% discount and such efficient training that a week can be shaved off the total time.
12: Simpatico! The master takes the PC under his or her wing, shaves a week off the training time, and doesn't charge anything.

Modifiers to the above roll can come from charisma or the PC's primary ability score. (After all, a fighter may not need to charm the pants off a prospective master -- but instead display his or her mettle by performing some impressive feats of strength!)

In my earlier post, I estimated that the training should take L+1d4 weeks (where L is the character's current level). Let me amend that to cap it at 8 weeks maximum. Then, before doing any of the other things listed in the earlier post, we step through each week by rolling 1d100 once per week on the big Training Event Table...

01-40: Nothing major happens. Good progress with training this week.
41-48: Personality clash between PC and mentor; add 1 week to total required training time.
49-56: Setback in training. PC just can't figure out something important. Add 1 week to total training time.
57-70: PC makes a key breakthrough on a difficult technique; subtract 1 week from total training time.
71-75: PC accidentally witnesses the mentor doing something VERY contrary to his or her stated alignment. Training will go on swimmingly if nobody speaks of it....
76-83: Another student (see below) befriends the PC and may be a valuable ally or contact later on.
84-91: Another student (see below) pulls a prank on the PC. It's intended as good-natured fun, but let the PC react first!
92-99: Another student (see below) takes a disliking to the PC. You've got a rival now, whether you wanted one or not!
00: During a particularly difficult training exercise, the master keels over with a massive heart attack and dies. Training is cut short!

There are obviously many more things that could happen (wandering monsters barging in, intrigue involving the master's rivals, and so on) but the goal is to keep this mini-game reasonably MINI in scope. :-)

When the table calls for another student, one can be generated with a few additional rolls (which DMs should probably have ready beforehand). First randomly determine that student's gender and name, then roll for their experience level (a number between 1 and N-1, where N is the master's current level). Then roll 1d10...

1-3: Similar age and motivation level as the PC.
4-5: Diametric opposite of the PC's personality (without being too far away in alignment, since the master trains you both).
6: Laid-back slacker. Not that into the training; parents paid for it.
7: Machiavellian schemer. Always trying to anticipate how to be the best at the next task.
8: Over-achiever/butt-kisser. Seems to always do better than the PC without trying.
9: Very talented student, but bad self-image (defeatist).
10: Hopeless klutz; will soon be kicked out by the mentor.

Finally, items 3-6 and 8 in the list in the original training post let you know how the whole thing wraps up in the end.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SoSA the 23rd: The Tontine Revealed

This is post 23 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Finally, we learn that several of the NPCs trotted out in earlier SoSA episodes were among a group of evil plotters who made a secret pact long ago:
  • Frederick of Montfort (from SoSA the 2nd), the magic-user who held onto poor Athena the Succubus for a bit too long, carried a key made of carved bone on his person. This key had an image of a white horse on it.
  • Humble Pymander (from SoSA the 10th), the charlatan who taught feaux-clerical powers and was actually a high-level thief, carried a similar key with a black horse on it.
  • Manannan of Montfort (from SoSA the 21st), another magic-user who dreamed of becoming a Lich, carried a similar key with a pale green horse on it.
  • There's one more key... can you guess the color of its fourth horse?
These guys were all members of a high-level adventuring party who were legendary in their day. In addition to the above three, there was a human fighter, Atlas the Audacious, a female cleric, Sophia of the Lights, and a grim, but very lawful good paladin named Theodoric.

All but Theodoric were lawful neutral or pure neutral in alignment. Despite that fact, they ended up doing enough good deeds to garner a positive reputation in their home town of Montfort. But that phase of their lives seemed to come to an end when they discovered a powerful artifact in the caverns beneath a far-away castle: they found the fabled Teeth of Dahlver-Nar!

Ignore new-school descriptions of these powerful relics... they're not a heterogeneous collection of human and monster teeth like some say; in reality they come from just a single source: Dahlver-Nar himself, a powerful arch-cleric of a strange Manichean sect, who lived centuries ago in Eastern Europe. When he died, the Manichean god MALKA RABA DE-IKARA (the Great King of Glory) hallowed his body and energized each tiny bit with arcane powers. Due to incessant wars and invasions, his followers weren't able to embalm or otherwise preserve the body, so much was lost. After a hundred years of occupation and desecration by foreigners, all that was left in his hidden crypt were those 32 eerily perfect teeth.

Anyway, fast-forward to about 20 years ago. The Montfort adventuring party found the Teeth and began experimenting with them. The paladin Theodoric was killed -- slowly and painfully -- when the major malevolent effect of Body Rot kicked in. Without that good influence, the party began drifting toward evil. The cleric Sophia tried to resist, and she told others from her church about the Teeth. She, and the rest of the church, were all murdered by the others.

The remaining four were at a stalemate: they each wanted the absolute power of these relics, but they also wanted to not be killed by their compatriots. So they swore a grim oath... once a decade they would gather to try out one new tooth (per person), and eventually the last one alive would inherit all of the remaining ones. They're all such high-level adventurers that they all believe themselves safe from the others, but it's been a complex, multi-decadal game of chess....

The four plotters decided to convert Sophia's little church into the front for an underground hiding place for the Teeth. This place is a trap-filled, pimped-out lair, and the only way in is to use their four Tontine Keys in tandem. Frederick's key displayed the white horse of conquest, Pymander's had the black horse of famine, Manannan's had the pale/green horse of death, and Atlas' had the blood-red horse of war. All four of them went on to achieve some amazing things with the power of the Teeth that they placed into their own mouths.

How do the PCs become involved?

If the above SoSA adventures are played out, our modern-day PCs probably found one or two of the keys, and maybe learned that both Frederick and Manannan came from the same obscure town. If either (a) two or more of Frederick, Pymander, and Manannan have been killed by the PCs, or (b) the PCs have begun to inquire around about the origin of the keys, then Atlas the Audacious will begin to plot to track and kill them. In addition to being a high-level fighter, Atlas is also a powerful trainer of vicious animals and some types of monster. Rather than attack the PCs himself, he will send his beasties after them. (Here's the chance to use many of the weirder monsters lacking in Gygaxian naturalism. If these creatures have been held captive by this eclectic trainer, one needn't worry about their ecology or diet!) See the Beastmaster NPC in Dragon #119 for some additional flavor.

There should be ample clues around for the PCs to learn about this formerly famous adventuring party -- as well as info about the church founded by one of their number long ago. Sophia's church in Montfort is now run by the son of the party's last loyal retainer. He receives a monthly salary from a source unknown to him (actually the Tontine's trust) to maintain the church and keep it guarded in perpetuity.

The dungeon under the church:

A dangerous place. Go wild with traps and non-biological monsters. If there was ever a place to use a Trapper or a Mimic, it's here! :-)  Once the PCs reach the final room that contains the Teeth, there is a curse on the door: upon touching it, the curse teleports the most useful item (magic or otherwise) held by the person into the super-strong vault hidden elsewhere in the dungeon. (Locate Object or Augury spells will of course be useful here...)

The room itself contains a major fake-out: there's a central podium with a small golden box on it, and there's a decayed corpse on the floor that looks like it died trying to grab the box. The box radiates magic, and it contains some old rotten teeth, but they're not the real ones. The true Teeth of Dahlver-Nar are inside the skull of the splayed corpse.

Monday, September 26, 2011

SoSA the 22nd: Pearls of Great Price

This is post 22 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

An ocean-going salvage adventure with bickering brothers, a major magic item, and some slimy savages...

The PCs have now received some share of experience and reputation. One day while puttering around a seacoast town, they are approached by two older gentlemen -- who also happen to be twin brothers -- with an offer to get in on their sure-fire investment. They're just a few thousand GP short of being able to hire a sturdy sea vessel, which they need to find a fabled shipwreck (maybe this one??) and the even-more-fabled treasure aboard.

The brothers are Alatar, a grizzled old seaman, and Pallando, a grizzled old magic-user. The treasure they seek is a huge (two foot wide) spiral-shaped chambered nautilus called the Mother of Pearls. It is reputed to magically generate valuable pearls when its holder says a magic word (and both the nautilus and the speaker are both underwater). Potentially infinite wealth!

If the PCs agree to the plan, they begin scouting for worthy ships to carry them and their equipment. Unfortunately, both Alatar and Pallando find two different ships, and they get into a huge argument about which one to hire. They each go storming off to different pubs and begin drinking. PCs who remain with either one will hear about a lifetime's worth of grudges and recriminations.

There's no getting them back together, so they both pawn some valued items, reduce their expectations a bit, and then each aim to hire a ship and some worthy hands. It's now a race!  Do the PCs split their party, or do they choose sides in this fraternal rivalry? If one side gets to the wreck soon after the other, will the rivalry escalate into open melee?

Each brother has a roughly-copied "treasure map" of how to find the shipwreck. Alatar knows the sea well, so he will be more likely to find the spot sooner. However, Pallando is the one with the stockpile of Potions of Water Breathing, so that divers can explore around underwater (each lets one breathe underwater for 1 hour + 1d10 uncertain minutes). Much of the fun here is in exploring the sea-lanes near the coast. I suggest building the sea map in several stages:
  1. Create a hex-map of the shoreline and the overall topography of sea depth. Use 3 discrete depth levels: "shallow" nearest the shore, "medium" further out, then "deep" still further away. Insert some deep hexes unexpectedly in the middle of some shallow and medium areas. Also add a couple of islands and a few patches with dangerous jutting rocks, some of which won't be on the treasure map....
  2. Place the desired shipwreck in a random deep region, and have the map's "X marks the spot" be approximately one hex distant from the true location. Put two other sunken ships (red herrings) nearby. Also decide on the location of the Locathah village (see below), which is hidden in a dense kelp forest in a medium-depth region.
  3. Then it's time to add in some flavor. The sea floor of each hex can be one of three types (roll 1d3): 1: flat sand-bed, 2: rolling sandy hills, 3: sea grasses.
  4. Also, for each hex roll 1d100 to see what else may be there:
01-03: lone mountain
04-06: seething underwater volcano
07-10: coral reef
11-15: oyster/clam fields
16-18: ruins of underwater city
19-27: dense kelp forest
28-29: unexplained whirlpool
30-39: wandering monster encounter (see DMG Appendix C: Underwater Encounters in Large Bodies of Salt Water)
40-100: nothing
Don't forget to generate some weather for a few weeks worth of sailing. Please also flesh out the doings with Zak's wavecrawl kit, or JD Jarvis' sea encounter tables, or Charlatan's saltbox rules.

Resource management: There are only so many Potions of Water Breathing available. The number will depend on the chosen size and scale of the oceanic hexmap. I suggest also that the deepest depth level also requires PCs with strength below 17 to drink a Potion of Giant Strength (or something equivalent) to strengthen his or her lungs and muscles, to be able to withstand the pressure. Pallando has only a handful of these potions!

If PCs explore the hex containing the Locathah village, they will initially just see dense kelp forest. If they keep exploring it for more than a half hour, they'll encounter a wandering Locathah patrol, which will attack.

When PCs get to the shipwreck, they'll find that the Mother of Pearls is gone! A generation ago, it was found by Locathah tribesmen and taken to their undersea village. It's spiral shape made them believe it's a holy relic of their god Eadro -- and they safeguard it and worship it. But they don't know its magic trigger word, so they don't know its pearl-making secret.

What will the PCs do?

By the way, some other ideas for playing through an ocean-going salvage operation are found in Lloyd Krassner's game Wreckers. Further ideas for developing the Locathah village can be easily mined from the Sahuagin village described here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SoSA the 21st: My Fathers Day Cake

This is post 21 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

The PCs are approached for help by a young woman named Cordelia, who believes her two evil sisters (Goneril and Regan) are planning to murder their elderly father. (Consider these names just working titles, of course!) Cordelia suspects they may also be planning to do her in, since she often takes her father's side in family arguments. Cordelia recently found vials of poison in their home and has also spied some seedy, cloaked men coming and going late at night. Could the two older sisters have hired an assassin?

A few days before Cordelia's visit, the PCs should hear about (or maybe witness) a big fight between two rich townswomen in the market place. Nobody quite knows what it was about, but it got physical, with Goneril being knocked down by Regan into a shallow pool of mud on the street. (In actuality, they were tussling over who would get to purchase a new silk scarf...)

Dad's name isn't Lear, by the way; it is Manannan of Montfort. In his day, he was a famous adventuring magic-user, but he has been retired for many years. He is quite ill these days, and is usually pushed around in a wooden wheelchair by one of his daughters. He is often grumpy and ill-tempered. His library is the envy of sages and wizards for miles around, but he turns away nearly everyone who comes to want to see it.

What's really going on: The daughters are petty and vindictive, but they're not trying to kill anyone. Manannan has begun putting into action a plan that he formulated years ago: To live forever, he will turn himself into a Lich. He finally collected the proper scrolls and mystical source-books to compose his Lichly phylactery. He also needs to collect all manner of vile substances, including arsenic, belladonna, and various monster venoms, to mix the "self-embalming" potion that he will drink when he is ready to make the transition. (See Len Lakofka's article "Blueprint for a Lich" from Dragon #26 and Best of the Dragon #2.)

The old man will tolerate some degree of investigation into this supposed poisoning plot (though he will actually tell the truth when he says that he will never believe any of his daughters would want to kill him). However, if the PCs start getting close to the truth, he will strike back.

Oh, but here's where my adventure-design prowess is giving out a bit. I feel there really needs to be some kind of additional structure to the adventure; maybe a chain of hints that reveals ever-more pieces of information that identify what Manannan is doing? Maybe a good map of the dungeon-like tunnels that he built underneath his stately home? Some other ideas include...
  • The PCs may go on a red-herring chase for the antidote(s) to the poisons once they are identified. Might that bring them into contact with a strange underbelly of society -- not just assassins, but also Snape-like loner alchemists and airhead half-elf herbalists?
  • If the PCs find the assassin who is supplying the poisons, he will have some kind of magical protection against the PCs trying to pry information out of him. (Not insurmountable, though...)
  • Manannan's manservants are mild-mannered and slight of build, but they are actually good, agile fighters (low-STR but high-DEX) that protect his valuable library, run errands for him to his suppliers, and so on.
  • Manannan has a magical clock that ticks to the beat of his living heart. He plans to disable it when he takes his final lich potion. However, if he dies prior to that time, the clock will stop and deliver instructions to his most faithful manservant for what to do next. A wannabe immortal always needs a Plan B!
  • My original inspirations for Manannan were the vengeful fathers from (1) the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Masks," and (2) the story "Father's Day" from the original 1982 movie Creepshow. However, now I don't think he cares that much about his red-herring children, nor do I think he's as helpless and infirm as he seems. I'm now thinking he's got a bit of Lo Pan in him...

If Manannan of Montfort is killed by the PCs, they will find around his neck a chain with a most strange pendant: an ornate key that looks like it's carved out of bone, with a tiny painting of a pale green horse on it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

SoSA the 20th: Meteor Storm

This is post 20 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Elevator Pitch: A weird meteor storm seems to be "attacking" a single town. What's up with that? And why were some people in the town found dead... clawed to death by some mysterious beast?  Hint: It's something from deeeeep spaaaaace...

One night, a few hours after sunset, the PCs see a beautiful-looking meteor shower in the sky. But the paths taken by the meteors appear unusually focused in one particular direction. If they follow the falling stars, they soon find the small village of East Byfleet (on the east bank of the picturesque River Fleet, of course). Several homes have been destroyed by large meteorites, and the morning after the meteor shower two local farmers were found clawed to death by an animal that nobody can identify. The townspeople believe themselves under a magical attack from a hermit-like druid named Vortigern, who lives a few miles upriver.

According to the rumors, Vortigern is a horrible, beastly man who puts curses on his neighbors for sport and calls down all manner of plagues and famines. The people of East Byfleet are poor, but they will offer the PCs nearly all of what they have to save them from the druid menace. Women? They've got 'em. Hale and hearty men? (For retainers! What were you thinking?) The local mild-mannered cleric (think Father Mulcahy) even offers to throw in the gold candlesticks from the town church.

Conducting the storm: For the next 5 days after the first sighting, there will be continuing chances of meteor storm activity. For each consecutive HOUR that the PCs are in or near the town, roll 1d12. On a result of 12, there will be an attack during that hour. (Feel free to roll these all out before sitting down at the table with the players.)

An attack consists of 2d6 meteorites, all coming down in a clump that lasts less than 10 minutes. Each meteorite is assumed to be red-hot and flaming, easily punching holes in normal materials and setting them on fire if possible. For each meteorite, roll for its size and target:

SIZE (diameter): roll d100...

01-16:  1 inch
17-30:  2 inches
31-43:  3 inches
44-55:  6 inches
56-66:  1 foot
67-75:  2 feet
76-83:  3 feet (contains 1 intellect devourer)
84-91:  4 feet (contains 2 intellect devourers)
92-97:  5 feet (contains 3 intellect devourers)
98-100: 6 feet (contains 4 intellect devourers)

(Wait... what? Intellect devourers? Be patient... Just note that if the 5 days go past with less than 2 intellect devourers appearing, feel free to fudge it so that there are at least 4 of them within the next day.)

TARGETS:  roll d100...

01-35:  Wild rough area (field, brush)
36-50:  Farmland
51-59:  Tree(s)
60-64:  Graveyard
65-75:  House or other building (unoccupied)
76-81:  House or other building (occupied)
82-89:  Cart, plow, or other outdoor equipment
90-97:  Animal
98-100: Person

The Druid Vortigern:  He has nothing to do with this. In fact, a small meteor destroyed his favorite tree! He's a neutral good pacifist, but his heathen ways and poor hygiene frighten the villagers. They end up blaming all sorts of crap on him unfairly. He's also only 2nd level, so he can't even Call Lightning or work any of the more powerful druidic weather spells yet, anyway. However, he can Predict Weather, so if the PCs treat him fairly, he will warn them if/when the next meteor storm is coming.

The real culprit, as if you couldn't guess, is the milquetoast priest, Father Christopher. He's in his early 50s and has retired to this little, out-of-the-way town after a youth spent adventuring as a fighting cleric. Years ago he formulated a get-rich-quick scheme that he recently put into motion. He learned that meteoric iron has many special properties (especially for the forging of magic weapons and armor), and he is collaborating with a local blacksmith to make some valuable items to sell.

Father Christopher learned that could cast a Plane Shift spell to take him to outer space, where he found he could locate big chunks of meteoric metal. His plan was to cast Animate Object to force part of the meteor to break off, hurl itself into his arms, and he can Shift back home with some valuable booty.

However, all did not go as planned. By some really bad luck, the first meteor he found was home to a clan of Intellect Devourers, and his initial Animate Object spell killed a few of them. They tried to attack him, but he popped back through the planar gate just in time! Now, enraged, they're busting off pieces of their home and surfing them down to earth to find him and take their revenge... thus the chances in the table above of finding one or more of these vile creatures in a large enough chunk of meteorite. A few of them are already in the town -- they killed a few people, but still have not yet taken over anyone's mind yet.

When the meteors first begin to strike, Father Christopher tries to play it cool. He refrains from using any clerical magic, and also tries to spend as much time in quiet prayer as possible... all to avoid the psionic gaze of the devourers. If any psionic or spell-casting PCs (or Vortigern!) use their powers, they will make a tasty target for any nearby devourers. This is ripe for plenty of body-snatcher-ish "spot the impostor" drama, of course.  :-)

Friday, September 23, 2011

SoSA the 19th: The Vivimancer

This is post 19 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Everyone knows about necromancers, who ply their grim arts trying to learn hidden secrets from dead bodies. But not many know there are vivimancers amongst the dead, who weave their magics in the opposite direction....

Deep in the bowels of the Nine Hells, in the iron city of Dis, lives the spirit of a man who has been dead for centuries. After so much time, he doesn't remember by what name he was called in life, but he still burns with the desire to live again. He learned the arts of vivimancy from a rogue Pit Fiend who was wandering the uppermost levels of the Hells and looking to torment the lesser inhabitants. (Giving hope of living again is the greatest torment of all...)

The vivimancer has found a cracked and clouded crystal ball that gives him the means to view living beings on earth. Especially ones that are wandering around near his original burial place. Ever attracted to the flame of life, he often focuses on the most vivacious of people... like adventurous PCs.

So, one random night, the PCs are sleeping out in the wilderness, somewhere within a few days hike of a tall mountain. The DM must choose the one PC in the party that an external observer would judge to have the least amount of overall awareness and judgement -- i.e., the lowest wisdom. It's NOT necessarily the character with truly the lowest WIS score, though. (Perception isn't always reality!) This PC will be the target of the vivimancer's attack.

The attack initiates a contest of wills inside the PCs dreaming mind. For some reason, the only literary example I can think of is the dream battle in this horrible movie. Anyway, roleplay it with as much imaginative gusto as you can muster (while awake!), but adjudicate it with the back-and-forth Contest of Skills mechanic I posted here and here. The attribute of choice is indeed Wisdom, and the vivimancer has an 18.

Even a low-wisdom PC has a chance to prevail, but I'll proceed under the assumption that the PC loses the battle. The losing PC is now under the power of the vivimancer (treat it like possession a la Magic Jar), and he begins the trek to recover his body from its burial place high in a mountain cave, for eventual resurrection.

Tragedy-time: It's been something like 200 years since the vivimancer walked the earth. There is no body left, and no chance at all of resurrection.

Nonetheless, he will leave the party and begin a lone hike to the mountain cave. If "caught" doing untypical things by his companions, he'll make what excuses he can and try to hightail it away from a conversation as soon as possible. Will the rest of the party follow him to see what's up?

There's some rock climbing involved to get to the mountain cave, approximately 600 feet up from ground level. I've heard the 1e AD&D Dungeoneer's Survival Guide has some crunchy mechanics for mountain climbing, but I don't have it. Try this instead:

For this kind of high-inclination, rough rockface (with occasional ledges), the climb speed depends on the SUM of a PC's Strength and Dexterity as follows:

06-16: 3 feet/round
17-24: 6 feet/round
25-30: 9 feet/round
31-34: 12 feet/round
35-36: 15 feet/round

Thieves multiply the above climb speed by 1.5. PCs roped together travel at the speed of the slowest climber.

It's dangerous! Every 50 feet, each character must roll 3d6 as a Dexterity check (i.e., roll under for success). If it fails, the PC falls 20 feet, takes 1d6 hp of damage, and must roll ANOTHER Dex check, this time with 4d6. If that one fails, then there's another 20 feet and 1d6 hp of falling damage. Each failed roll means another fall, more damage, and another required check, but all subsequent checks just keep using 4d6. Unless a successful check stops the PC's fall, it keeps going until he or she reaches the bottom of the mountain or dies.

If multiple PCs roped together are falling, then the subsequent checks after the first failed one get EASIER: down to 2d6, because of increased chances that the rope will catch on something.

A PC that reaches the cave can also throw down a rope for others to hold on as they climb. In that case, the Dex checks are not needed, but for each 50 feet of climbing that stress is put on the rope, roll 1d20. A natural 1 means the rope breaks, and the PC begins falling as if their climbing Dex check failed (see above).

Anyway, once the cave is reached, the vivimancer may become unhinged when he discovers that there's no body left. Just a ring and rusty knife are all that's left in this dusty place; not even a skeleton. If the other PCs are around, he will attack them. Hopefully they can get through to him (or to the submerged mind of their friend) and stop him!

Full disclosure: The concept of the vivimancer was introduced by Gene Wolfe in his New Sun books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SoSA the 18th: The Fair Folk (Avalon Lost).

This is post 18 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 6th and final post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

That thistle-down hair looks nice, hmm?
Remember the rule about no demi-humans in the Avalon Lost setting? The reason that I didn't want to litter the place with clones of Gimli and Legolas was that I wanted to leave ample room for these guys to shine....

Faeries, fay creatures, the wee folk, the sidhe: It's clear that humans don't have a good idea of what these things actually are. Although they can appear human-like, at other times they seem to be more protean, or simply pure spirit. Rather than some type of demi-human or semi-human, it makes sense to think of them more as anti-human, i.e., a slightly twisted shadow version of humanity -- stuck, with us, in the realm between angel and beast, but just different. Zak S. gave an awesome quote that sums it up nicely:
"I don't feel as though the fairy folk really should have to have any well-defined ideas about people. An adventure involving fairies should be about culture shock on both sides. Your armor and your magic should seem as ridiculous to them as their shoes do to you."
Still, we're talking RPGs here, so I'd be remiss if I didn't give you some kind of anal-retentive systematization! :-) Thus, let's consider the Faerie Folk to be a very special kind of NPC race-as-class...
Click for larger version.
The various types listed under "physical form" can be inspired by the various entries in the Monster Manual, but they're really all just variations on a single theme. As a faerie ages (and/or gains experience by interacting with those strange things called humans), it gains the power to transform itself into increasingly larger and more substantial beings when in our world. Within the limitations of size and time spent in the human world, they are otherwise totally unconstrained by our quaint ideas of continuity of form, or even basic physics.

Faeries do seem to enjoy taking on the classic forms listed in the table above, but they're also fond of becoming dancing lights, Will-o-the-Wisps, and even various things that D&D classifies as coming from the elemental plane of air (Air Elementals, Wind Walkers, Invisible Stalkers, Aerial Servants). The HD given in the table apply to the physical forms they choose when appearing in our world. If these forms are reduced to zero hit points, the faerie abandons the form and zaps back to their other-dimensional homeland. (Now, destroy them at home, and you've done something!)

Alignment: Forget about human concepts such as law, chaos, good, or evil. Faeries have their own spectrum of alignment that is foreign to us. Humans classify them into Seelie (roughly chaotic good to chaotic neutral) and Unseelie (sort of chaotic evil), but that's a blunt instrument compared to the true nuances we can never hope to grasp.

Literature abounds with interesting things to do with the Kindly Ones, but here are a few classic adventure hooks...
  • The Changeling. Human children are taken, and changelings are left in their place. The stolen human eventually transforms into a Faerie being, but it takes time: nominally 1 day per year of age of the human, but the bare minimum is 3 days. (So you'd better get them back quickly!) In our world, a changeling may wither and die; it may always be wistfully detached (semi-autistic?); or it may grow up to be a strange outsider in human society -- much like an adventuring PC...?
  • A faerie challenges a human to a contest. Riddles? Drinking? Fiddling? Once the DM determines what's at stake, and what compels a PC to accept such a scary bargain, one must figure out how the rules will be twisted.
  • Many fay ones don't understand human love, so they perform some interesting experiments....
  • Some faeries do fall in "love" with particular humans (though it's far from our
    idea of romantic love) and abduct them to their realm. What, huu-mahn, you don't think this is a great honor?!
  • There are dozens of stories of strange people appearing in the wilderness and offering mounds of gold to buy something precious carried by a local person. Of course, they're using fairy gold, which turns to leaves and gorse blossoms when they are safely away.
Hmm, as I look over the above list, I think that the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation used just about all of them when writing episodes for Q. No wonder they had him channel Shakespeare's Puck to once say "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SoSA the 17th: Tintagel Dystopia (Avalon Lost).

This is post 17 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 5th post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

The further southwest the PCs travel in England, the more they will hear about the goings-on at Castle Tintagel in Cornwall. It was the stuff of legends during Arthur's time, second only to Camelot itself as a stronghold of law and justice. Six decades ago, it was where Uther was infamously polymorphed to sate his desire for Ygraine. Three decades ago, it was the site of the tragic love triangle between King Mark, Tristan, and Iseult.

Tintagel, apart from the Feckless Fief of old Bedivere (see SoSA #14), is the only other quasi-holdout of chivalry in Britain. This region is now ruled by a king who calls himself Solomon (Selyf in the Cornish tongue) and claims to channel the power, judgement, and mercy of God himself.

The Cornish countryside abounds with stories about Solomon, his rule, and his family. Some rumors tell about the wonders of classical civilization that one can find only at Tintagel and environs, and the abundance of food that comes from the farms sponsored by the king. Others spin tales of woe about the horrors perpetuated by Tintagel's knights; burning towns capriciously, arresting people without cause, and so on. The positive/negative ratio of rumors is close to 50/50, but there are also some weird ones...
  • Solomon has built a huge golden throne, with golden lion statues lining the steps, and which can walk about the castle and carry the king wherever he wants to go.
  • Solomon has at least 50 wives.
  • Solomon secretly commands an army of air spirits (which sound very much like D&D Djinni).
  • Solomon is controlling marriages in and around his royal court, with the aim of breeding a race of ultra-strong, ultra-intelligent knights and ladies.
DMs: feel free to decide which rumors are true and which are just conflations with the legends of the king's Biblical namesake!

The real story: Solomon runs a rather fascist little mini-state. The citizens get some good bread and circuses, and in exchange have even less freedom than others in this Dark Age. They're forbidden from moving from town to town, they are forced into the family's designated occupation, and so on. Independent adventurers like the PCs are strictly verboten! Any young man in Solomon's kingdom who shows promise at the chivalric arts is taken away from his home and initiated (read: brainwashed) into the twisted version of knighthood that holds sway here.

DMs should map out a special "wandering monster" type chart for encountering the Tintagel knights or other royal functionaries in the Cornish countryside. The first time the PCs encounter them, the knights will notice what kind of troublemakers these are, and attempt to capture the PCs and take them back to the castle. Even if the PCs escape this first attempt, the knights will track them and call in more backup until they succeed.

If the PCs do get captured and taken to the castle, some mid-level couriers will separate them into two groups: those with potential, and those without. Paladins, clerics, and most fighters will qualify for "potential" status (i.e., potential brainwashing and incorporation into the utopian state). The king himself may take an interest in the careers of those with the most potential. However, all PC thieves, magic-users, and druids will be classed with the undesirables and put into the large dungeon complex below the castle, eventually to be sold into slavery.

Will the PCs escape and reunite their party? Hopefully! If they do escape, they'll soon meet Prince Cybi, Solomon's son who is attending the local seminary to become a cleric. Secretly, though, he is organizing a band of rough and ready freedom fighters to end his father's tyrannical regime. (If the PCs have a run of bad luck while trying to escape, maybe Cybi assists in getting them free...)

The overthrow of Solomon would be a good "boss fight" for high-level PCs. They'll need to gather allies in large numbers, which may take a while. DMs will probably want to stat out the occupants of the Castle, much like the garrison of the very sack-worthy Keep on the Borderlands. If I was running this, I'd probably use something like Rusty Dagger's cool and evocative vertical cross section for a huge castle complex, and spice it up with a few rolls through Zak's recent random castle generator.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SoSA the 16th: Isle of Wights? (Avalon Lost)

This is post 16 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 4th post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

If the PCs venture southwest of Londinium, into Surrey, Hampshire, or Dorset, they'll begin to hear some mean-spirited comments about those stuck-up Wighters (residents of the Isle of Wight), who are finally getting a well-deserved comeuppance. The dead are now rising on that little island!

Over the past few generations, many Wighters that came over to the mainland exhibited an inflated sense of importance. Many of them paraded their Jute heritage proudly, with seemingly every other traveler being descended from one line of Danish royalty or another. They often demanded more in exchange for Wightish coins and jewelery than their trading partners thought fair. They often brought with them high-quality magic items (vorpal swords being a specialty), and often made it clear that their products are far superior to any that one could find anywhere else.

Now, however, many rumors are arriving across the Solent. There have been dozens of poltergeist-like occurrences in the towns of Medina and Westcowe, and all manner of hauntings in the in the prehistoric mounds and barrows on the west side of the island. Worst of all, the last few mining crews that have been exploring for new veins of precious metals have been attacked by something underground, and the tales told by the survivors hint at the presence of dire things like black puddings, purple worms, umber hulks, and so on.

What's really going on:

No wights, or any other undead, actually. Just a magical experiment gone awry... and trying to take over the world. No big deal, right?

Decades ago, the Isle of Wight was one of several secret headquarters of the dread enchantress Morgan Le Fay. She had built a huge underground complex in the hills outside Medina (on the site of an old Roman fortification that centuries later will become Castle Carisbrooke) to host her most dangerous experiments. The entrance to the dungeon is through a huge tree that sits above the site (cliche noted).

This tree is gnarled and old, with dark, almost blackened bark, but it still is very much alive. In fact, it IS Morgan's main experiment. She initially tried to create a nature oracle to answer her questions and grant her wishes, and it worked for a while. But after she left the island for the last time, many years ago, the tree gradually became intelligent. As it extended its roots farther and farther away, picking up nutrients from scores of miles around it, it has gained both more-than-human intelligence and psionic abilities.

Without any other peers to talk to, it's also grown kind of insane. The strange occurrences around the island are all random psionic effects; either random attacks (against anyone in a target area), or random effects of psionic disciplines reaching out from the extended roots. The tree has access to all Minor Disciplines, but only (so far) a handful of the Major ones. It has used Dimension Door to call forth many of the strange beasties that now occupy Morgan's underground lair. The eldritch roots of the tree were also the cause of the Wighters' luck in mining metals that were especially useful in crafting magic items.

The Tree of Morgan is getting more powerful by the day. It needs only another month or two to extend its roots over the entire island. Another month, and the roots begin to burrow through to mainland England. The tree has become so powerful that it can only be destroyed by the same means that AD&D artifacts and relics can be destroyed. (Recall, however, that one of the ways listed in the DMG is to cause the item to be crushed by Arthur's Dolmen. But is that really a megalithic burial stone, or something else...?)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

SoSA the 15th: Dragons and Giants and Haggis, Oh My! (Avalon Lost)

This is post 15 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 3rd post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

Maps for Arthurian adventures often are cut off on top, such that Hadrian's Wall, or thereabouts, seems to be the northernmost edge of Great Britain. I think that eliminates much of the potential fun that can be had in traipsing the highlands, battling over whose tartan has been proscribed, and figuring out whether that screeching sound is a banshee or a bagpipe!

So, until TSR releases their new AD&D hardback, Scottish Adventures, I thought I'd focus on two interesting things that could be done with special Fiends from the Firth of Forth....

1. The Loch Ness Dragon

You don't need more than that header and this image, do you?
When PCs arrive in the region, they learn that, yes, there is a terrible dragon who periodically emerges from the black depths of the Loch to terrorize the people. But is that the whole story? I can think of two obvious twists:
  • Actually the Loch Ness Monster is of good alignment, and is a protector of the people. The people need protecting from an even worse villain (a human, naturally) who puts the blame on that hideous beast whenever possible.
  • The PCs could learn the dragon is female, and has just laid some eggs in a region of the Loch that people have been coming into to fish. There's nothing more fierce than a mama dragon protecting her babies!
Anyway, one can find just the right unique concept for the LND by using judicious choices from E. G. Palmer's awesome random dragon generator, or maybe multiple clicks on this other dragon generator. I've always been kind of partial to the Night Dragon variant from Dragon #74. (He's pretty much all "Hide in Shadows" until the breath weapon comes out: blinding white light! Perfect for the murky Loch.) I also credit some recent highbrow literature with reviving the concept of unique dragon design. :-)

2. Random Giant/Ogre Generation

Meeting a dude who's 10, 20, or 30 feet tall should be as unique an experience as meeting a dragon. Especially so in Scotland, where everything seems bigger than life and full of fresh mountain air. In that spirit, I present a random generator for these glandularly excited individuals...

Height in feet: 2d12 + 6  (i.e., a range of 8' to 30')

HD and "Standard" Damage per Attack (with giant-sized melee weapon):
If height is 8'-9', HD = 1d4+3 (4-7); Damage/attack = 1d10.
If height is 10'-11', HD = 1d6+4 (5-10); Damage/attack = 2d8.
If height is 12-'13', HD = 1d6+5 (6-11); Damage/attack = 3d8.
If height is 14'-16', HD = 1d6+6 (7-12); Damage/attack = 4d8.
If height is 17'-19', HD = 1d6+8 (9-14); Damage/attack = 5d8.
If height is 20'-23', HD = 1d6+10 (11-16); Damage/attack = 6d8.
If height is 24' or more, HD = 1d6+14 (15-20); Damage/attack = 7d8.
Armor Class (descending):  1d6 - 1  (i.e., 0 to 5).

Intelligence:  Roll 1d20...
01-06: Low
07-13: Average
14-16: Very
17-18: High
19: Exceptional
20: Genius
Gender:  Roll 1d6....  1-4: male, 5: female, 6: extremely difficult to tell...

Alignment (yoinked from E.G.'s dragon generator):  Roll 1d8...
1. Lawful Good
2. Lawful Evil
3. Neutral Good
4. Neutral
5. Neutral Evil
6. Chaotic Good
7. Chaotic Evil
8. Alignment subject to change. Re-roll per encounter
Chance to find giant in lair: (1d8)x5+10 %.  In other words, roll 1d8, multiply result by 5, and add 10.  Result is a percentage.

Skin Color:  Roll 1d12...
1. Reddish
2. Yellowish
3. Pale Green
4. Light Blue
5. Violet
6. Brownish Green
7. Brown
8. Tan
9. Dull Gray
10. Coal Black
11. Ivory/Bone
12. Chalk White
Hair:  Roll 1d20...
01-06: Similar to local Scots.
08-11: Completely bald and hairless.
12-14: Full-on Sasquatch.
15-16: Long, barbarian-style mane.
17: Dwarf-braided longbeard.
18: Buzz cut.
19: Moe from Three Stooges.
20: Achy-Breaky mullet.
Whacked-out quirks:  Roll 1d20...
01-12. None.
13. Cyclops.
14. Two heads (attacks as an Ettin).
15. Four hands.
16. Tusks as long as swords.  (Two extra bite attacks for 1d10 hp each.)
17. Undead giant. Roll 1d6 for zombie, wight, ghoul, vampire, skeleton, or lich.
18. Lycanthrope giant. Choose your favorite form.
19. Head of an animal: Roll 1d6 for: bull, goat, lion, horse, bear, or ape.
20. Not a giant human, but really a huge... roll 1d6 for: orc, goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, troll, or kobold!
Special attacks/abilities:  Roll 1d20 (maybe roll twice or thrice on this table)...
1. Throws rocks at targets up to 20 times their height; damage is same as their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
2. Throws rocks at targets up to 30 times their height; damage is 1.5 times their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
3. Throws rocks at targets up to 40 times their height; damage is double their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
4. Can leap distances up to 20 times their height.
5. Hit only by magic weapons.
6. Catches hurled boulders 90% of the time.
7. Casts Call Lightning as a 10th level druid.
8. Casts Earthquake as a 15th level cleric.
9. Casts Summon Insects as a 12th level druid.
10. Casts Control Weather as a 20th level cleric.
11. Can polymorph to a normal human size and appearance once per day.
12. Can become invisible 1d4 times per day (for up to 30 minutes each time).
13. Can charm person 1d10 times per day.
14. Reads minds.
15. Telekinesis of items up to twice their own weight.
16. Breath is noxious; effects and cone area equivalent to green dragon breath.
17. Able to move in rapid bursts for a total of 10 rounds per day. In each of these rounds, the giant can make 3 attacks instead of the usual 1.
18. Invulnerable to a specific type of dragon breath (or similar attack). Roll 1d10 for: black, blue, brass, bronze, copper, gold, green, red, silver, or white.
19. Can summon up a number of elementals equal to giant's HD each day.
20. Can smell the blood of an Eng-lish-mun up to 100 feet away.
The above may come close to being able to reproduce the range of AD&D Monster Manual giants, ogres, ogre magi, ettins, and titans, but I guarantee nothing!  :-)