Monday, May 22, 2017

Weighty Problems

Prompted by a question from James Eck that boiled down to 'why do your players keep going back to Skull Mountain rather than setting up camp and staying there?'.

Here is the player-facing map of the Briars:
1 hex = 1 mile

\It is about 30 miles from the nearest town, Esber. The light yellow is the Lower Briars, the gray the High Briars, then badlands, then the plateau, then Skull Mountain. The line is the Old Road, a paved Roman-style road from the Old Times. On horseback with good weather a party can push from Esber to Skull Mountain in four and a half days.. The road is old, unmaintained, and in some placed washed out and turned to tracks (the biggest breaks are marked with yellow). The first break is called the Patrol Camp because it is the furthest any patrol will go. A wagon could potentially make it to the Patrol Camp in 3-4 days but past that nothing larger than a 2 wheel cart can go. In good weather a two-wheel cart could make it to Skull Mountain in 9 days.
BTW, in typical weather it takes six days and 20 days, respectively. In bad weather (snow on the ground and storms in Winter, say) it can take a month+.
Off the Old Road? No one has ever tried....

When parties set out to adventure in Skull Mountain they have to have enough supplies with them for the trip to and from plus 'loiter time', i.e., time in the dungeon. Sure, you could hunt along the way, but game animals shy away from the road and Skull Mountain and its massive flock of stirges has very few game animals within a 4 hour trip. This means 2 weeks of food per person and mount, minimum. For a real dungeon crawl you'll need a month of food per. With a person needing about a pound of preserved food a day, that is 30 lbs of provisions per person. Since forage along the route is effectively zero horses will need grain and some hay - about 5 lbs a day (minimum) or 150 lbs so a horse and rider really should carry 200 lbs of just food to Skull Mountain. This means the horses are moving slowly, so that gives you about 10 days in the mountain.
If you take a cart or two you can bring more, but extra travel time! Again, this leaves you 10, maybe 12, days of dungeon crawling. You can bring pack mules, for example, but they need their own food and if you have more than 1 or 2 you need teamsters and such.
In short, getting to Skull Mountain to adventure requires a supply chain.

The party has done this in the past. Almost every adventure to Skull Mountain has taken a few in-game days. Especially when they went to the Second Level they spent 10 days inside the mountain and left enough hidden provisions that the mapping expedition only needed to bring half of their estimated provisions, so it can be done. But until some way of providing food locally is found you will need to maintain routine pack trains along the Old Road at least 4 times a year at great expense just to have enough food.
As a result parties tend to plan ahead, arrive for a particular reason, spend 3-10 days inside the dungeon, and then retreat to civilization.

Guess what else is needed?
Light sources. The mapping expedition took an entire cart of just candles and lamp oil. That horse needed provisions, by the way.

This is why Skull Mountain has to be cleared out from time to time.
But that could be changing; the mapping expedition's base camp will stay at the mountain for at least 6 months and could remain as long as 2 years. The cost of the provisions is so high that any stay of more than a year means the expedition will be forced to rely upon treasure found while exploring to break even!

The players are wondering how Skull Mountain was ever permanently inhabited to begin with!

DM Report - Back to Skull Mountain. Again.

  I have been running the Seaward campaign since I was a pre-teen and Skull Mountain has been part of it since Funkytown was on the Billboard Top 40, but the players always surprise me.

The current crew is still traumatized by level two of Skull Mountain and want to wait a bit before going to level 3. But the need to return because of their self-imposed mission to map the Briars.
I had never thought anyone would map the area, but they are determined to do so. The Briars range from rolling hills to almost badlands and are generally covered in briars, brambles, thorns, pincushion bushes, needle trees, and more. The party is planning to thoroughly hexcrawl all 500+ square miles of the Briars, carefully map it, and then sell the results to the King.

The Briars are home to Ol' Knobby (said to be a massive ogre), Ol' One Fang (a mighty hill giant), the Red Maiden (what appears to be a beautiful woman who rides a giant owl and bestows curses on wanderers), and at least one tribe of goblins. These are just the 'big names'; it is also home to kobolds, lions, giant spiders, and a lot more.
The party decided to do a ton of preparation over the weekend in preparation for a marathon session over Memorial Day weekend.

First was a three way swap of money and potions so Clarence, the not-quite-evil assassin could take Starfalcon's wand of fireballs to Skull Mountain alone. Taking the secret stairs he dumped Fireballs into the caverns containing the huge flocks of stirges, quickly killing them all. It also burned away the wooden screens (painted to resemble stone) at the back of the stirge caverns. Clarence reported to the main party, returned the wand, and then left.
The main group had hired some mercenaries, a cook, and two cartographers. They had also purchased supplies and hired a cart (to go with the carts they own) and transported their NPCs to Skull Mountain where they set up a base camp. The hirelings would remain there under command of some henchmen, while one cartographer observed the party from the various viewing points in the mountain and checked their location with the spyglasses on the peak at regular intervals. The PCs would take their other henchmen and the cartographer with them as they methodically sweep through the Briars dealing with what they find and mapping.

The players have been preparing for this for years. They have sought out and even traded magic items for other items with NPCs to make sure they have what they think they need. The expedition's magic gear:
- a pair of Elven Helms (allow communication with line of sight) - one in Skull Mountain, one with the party so reports can be sent back and forth.
- Boots of Levitation to make sure the wearer of the helm is above the Briars to communicate.
-  A Murlynd's Spoon to reduce the need to carry rations.
- an Everful Flask to provide water.
- A Broom of Flying for emergencies.

The party made their way to Skull Mountain, got the base camp setup and the cartographers to work using the spy glass to make a rough map then - climbed into the left eye cavern. Inside they found 14' tunnel sloping up that ended in an iron door with at least 4 Glyphs on it along with a rune they recognize that indicates that it was sealed by a priest to keep danger in. They left it alone.
Next they strike out West to begin the mapping!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Block Review: Iron Fist episodes 1, 2, and 3

After the slog of reviewing Stranger Things an episode at a time (which I eventually just abandoned) I want to look at Iron Fist, which I have hopes for.
Daredevil season 1 was very good (I will eventually review that since I think people missed a lot) and the first half of season 2 is good so far. Jessica Jones was a snoozefest. I am watching Iron Fist before Luke Cage mainly because I am terrified Luke will be as boring as Jessica.
My Background: I was never a huge fan of Heroes for Hire. Sure, it had its moments, but it was one of those early '70's comics a lot of comics nerds don't like to talk about in public - pop-culture comics.
Enter the Dragon was released in 1973 started a massive pop-culture focus on martial arts. Marvel made Master of Kung-fu by the end of '73 and Iron Fist within a few months. While Shang-Chi was associated with a license to make Fu Manchu comics, Iron Fist was off to the side, being all topical and relevant, so they teamed him up with Power Man who was...
...another pop-culture comic character. In this case, blaxploitation. Luke Cage's dialog was peppered with 'jive turkey', 'sweet Christmas', etc. for the first few years. By combining the two characters they survived the short shelf lives of their pop-culture origins until '86 when their combined comic was cancelled with a real shocker of an ending.
Crew: Scott Buck is showrunner and head writer. he has experience and has been on some fairly successful shows. He's joined by Dwain Worrell (who hadn't done much prior) and Quenton Peoples (more experience than Worrell). The directors for these were John Dahl, who has a fair amount of TV experience, and Tom Shankland (also a decent TV resume). In all three the cinematographer was Manuel Billeter, who was solid if not exemplary. Good use of lighting, his day scenes were as interesting as his night, and he captures fights well for a Western cinematographer. I'd like to see more camera motion, though. Editors were (in no real order) Jonathan Chibnall, Miklos Wright, and Michael Knue. Editing was decent, although Chibnall was a little 'heavy-handed' without detracting from the quality.
Main Cast: Finn Jones is the male lead. He is obviously a skilled actor with range. Jessica Henwick is the (so-far) lead female protagonist. So far she is pretty one-note with 'irritated and dismissive' her only mood. Tom Pelphrey is the primary male antagonist and he is doing very well with little and is slipping a little pathos into his character (and is the only one that seems to notice how ridiculous some things are). Jessica Stroup is the (sofar) female antagonist. As an actor, she's pretty enough, I guess. David Wenham is the hidden male antagonist. A talented actor, he's virtually wasted here so far. I hope he gets a chance to do more later. So far the best scenes are Ward and Harold in the penthouse because Wenham and Pelphrey together are wonderful.
Acting: I am breaking up the flow I usually do to get this out of the way. The real problem in the first three episodes is the actors and the acting. I separate them for one reason - Finn Jones. He's a competent actor: you can see it on the screen. He is just horribly miscast. For being 6' tall in real life, Jones comes across as a loveable hobbit onscreen - all I want to do is tousle his hair and give him a cookie. Again, he is obviously competent, he just isn't the guy to play one of the deadliest kung-fu masters on the entire planet filled with smoldering anger over his past losses. Wenham and Pelphrey are good and are great together, but they don't get to do enough in the first few. But the real problem are the female leads. Henwick is giving a master class on how to play every scene as 'mildly irritated' and Stroup might as well be the boom mic for all the emotion she projects. When Carrie-Ann Moss shows up in a minor role and actually, you know, acts, it is a painful reminder of how the female 'leads' aren't.
Plot and Writing: The origin story is a solid one and the writing is better than I expected. It is certainly better than it appears. The lousy acting from Stroup and Wenham is effectively erasing the emotional content from 2/3rds of the story. The miscasting of Jones is watering down almost all the rest until Iron Fist is almost just people on-screen talking and who cares?
That is a shame because there are some really interesting bits in the story. For example;
-Danny Rand does his best to always tell the truth which virtually always lands him in trouble. This is rather pointed commentary in the contemporary world!
-A couple of characters believe that anyone can be bought and are surprised when this isn't true. Another interesting critique of contemporary outlooks.
-Plenty of people know, for a fact, that Danny really is Danny, but they need specific physical evidence for this to be official. Nice examination of objective truth versus official truth that could be really interesting.
There is more, of course, but plenty to be done.
I do see some weaknesses, however. My main one is how Danny's emotional instability. Yes, I get it - he's back. But wouldn't a kung-fu master with 15 years experience in deep meditation be able to get a grip?
When Colleen Wing defeated a much larger man in the ring there should have been more discussion along the lines of 'that's impossible!', etc. After all - she's a superhero! That was her origin story. It should stand out that she was only able to do it because she is Special.
But it is early, so I hope these concerns will be addressed.
So far the action is pretty good, even though we need a lot more.
Bottom Line: I enjoy it enough to keep watching. If you aren't a huge fan of Marvel, don't seek it out. But don't avoid it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, either.

Monday, May 15, 2017

DM Report and DM Tips: Lighthouses, Swords, and Derailing Campaigns

Ran a quick session on Saturday, just 3 hours of gaming (we only expected 90 minutes but Son #5 fell asleep on the couch!). WE played in my AD&D 2e campaign, called Blackstone, and the lower level guys went to stop some bad guys from getting intelligence from a ruined abbey.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Magic Item of the Week: The Hoary Head of Hogarth

Found in the treasure hoard of a Jann alchemist, this creepy item has been seen in the town of Oldbridge. According to rumor Hogarth was an evil man who repented late in life and answering questions after death is part of the expiation of his sins.


 Appearance: The head of a bog mummy. A human head with the skin tanned from long immersion in bog water. The eyes are closed and the neck still has the strangling cord knotted around it. The dark brown skin is smooth and the eyes are closed. The hair is still intact and dyed a dark auburn from the tannins in the water. Because of the process of preservation it weighs only a few pounds. When its powers activate the eyelids open, revealing bright blue eyes that move about as if the head were dreaming. The mouth moves and the head gives the answers in a whisper. The Head will always speak the language of the person holding it.
 Powers: Only magic-users can use the Head’s powers. All powers are at 12th level of ability.
 Augury once per day
 Comprehend Languages once per week
 Identify once a month (a 100 g.p. pearl must be placed in the Head’s mouth. The pearl is destroyed) 
Speak with Dead once per month
Legend Lore once per year

 When first found the Head can whisper one spell to its new owner (level and particular spell randomly determined as if a scroll, but of a level the owner can cast). The mage can automatically learn this spell, even if it would normally exceed the maximum spells knowable by level. If in the possession of a magic-user who gains a level the Head will whisper a spell of the highest level the mage can cast. The magic-user has a +15% chance to learn these spells.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Earth as Space Australia, Part III

"John, I hope you will forgive the intrusion."
"Gar-tu-B~luk! Come in!"
"Thank you. I wanted to discuss something with you. The ship log indicates that you did a manual override of the air-quality and fire alarms for your cabin and then that the air quality here, in your room, was at dangerously poor levels last night. Is everything acceptable?"
"Oh, sure! I just had the other 5 Earthers over for poker night?"
"Is this a holiday of some sort?"
"No, Gar, it is just when Earthers gather together to play a game of chance. It is more of an informal social bonding ritual, you would say."
"Does this game of chance involve burning furniture?"
"What?! Oh! The air quality. No, gar. Poker night was special because my father was able to send me some gifts from Earth. Here."
"What is this?"
"Brandy!"
"Hold on, John, I have added an Earth Information Module to mt personal device sine we spoke of dogs and cats. Yes, let me see. Ah. 'Brandy is where earthers use distillation to concentrate the ethanol byproducts of fruit contaminated with yeast.' That makes sense; you used ethanol as a sterilizing agent to ritually clean your room and the toxic fumes must have..."
 "No, Gar. Brandy is a special treat. We drank it."
"You drank it. It does contain ethanol, yes?"
"Certainly."
"And ethanol is a sterilizing agent and solvent on Earth?"
"Among other things."
"Is this 'brandy' what allows you to consume 'hot sauce' without dying?"
"No. Enjoy the taste of brandy. I overdid it a little, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Our bodies produce toxins as a by product of consuming ethanol. If we consume enough ethanol in one setting the toxins, plus the depletion of essential nutrients, cause us to feel discomfort, even pain, the next day. We call this a 'hangover'."
'Then why in the universe would you drink it?"
"Ethanol has a psychoactive effect on our nervous system which produces a feeling of mild euphoria. It unfortunately also inhibits judgement in larger doses so..."
"The more you have the more likely you are to have too much? That seems risky, John."
"We learn to manage our intake. Well, most of us. Some humans become alcoholics."
"One moment. Let me read this.... So you are saying that this solvent that you drink is also addictive to your species?"
"If you aren't careful, sure. It takes a lot to create a dependency, though. Well, for some people it doesn't. Anyway - we like drinking it from time to time."
"So as you drank the brandy you and the other earthers emitted toxic fumes that set off the... Why are you laughing? Doesn't that mean you are amused?"
"Gar, the air issue was from the other gift. I have a few left. They are called cigars."
"My database beckons. 'Cigar - a tightly rolled tube made of the fermented and dried leaves of the tobacco plant'. You ate these and then the...."
"Gar, please. We don't eat cigars. We smoke them."
"Ahhhhh! Now I see! Like the incense at the religious festivals!"
"No. We light one end and then draw the smoke into our mouths through the tube."
"Really?"
"Yes."
"The smoke? Into your mouths? For how long?"
"Oh, a few seconds at a time, and we repeat that until the cigar is consumed."
"John, I ask you to forgive me, but - why?"
"Remember how we use capsaicin, a natural pesticide, to enhance the flavor of foods?"
"Yes."
"Certain plants developed an anti-herbivore defense called 'nicotine'. It is an alkaloid and powerful toxin that has a strong stimulant effect on most earth creatures, especially mammals."
"Please continue."
"Tobacco contains a fair amount of nicotine so we dry the leaves, form them, and then burn them and inhale the smoke so we may absorb nicotine through our mucous membranes."
"To what end?"
"To enjoy the sensation given by the nicotine on our metabolism."
"Do all earthers enjoy this?"
"No. Some dislike the effects, others dislike the taste of the smoke. Some are concerned about addiction."
"Let me hazard a guess - nicotine is mildly addictive?"
"Goodness, no! It is highly addictive. I prefer cigars to other forms of smoking because it has a lower incidence of addiction."
"But not zero?"
"No."
"So 'poker night' involves you and other earth people gathering together to drink an addictive solvent while inhaling the highly addictive smoke of a plant so you may metabolise a powerful toxin. And this is an informal ritual that builds strong social bonds?"
"Yes! Lifelong friendships can form from regular poker nights."
"John, your species terrifies me. What do you do to convicted criminals to make them regret their crimes?"
"Oddly enough? We don't allow them to have ethanol. Access to nicotine is a right, however."
"I am NEVER going to earth!"

Monday, May 1, 2017

I Love the 'Earth as Space Australia' Trope Part II

Part I is here:
"The wife and I got a dog for our son this weekend."
"A... 'dog'?"
"Member of the canine family. Pack oriented chase predators."
"Wait. You got a chase predator for your son? Why?"
"So our son can learn responsibility from feeding and training it."
"How would you train an animal in a cage?"
"Huh? No! Rover is going to be part of the family! He'll sleep with our son in his bed, play with him outside, and our son will train rover so they can cooperatively hunt for wild game."
"So you want your immature son to be subordinate to a chase predator?"
"Goodness, no! Our son will teach rover to be subordinate to him! Rover will keep our son safe while they are off together, hunting alone."
"So your plan is to bring an apex chase predator into your home and make your immature son responsible for its care, grooming, and training as it runs free inside your domicile so that your son can not only make it a subordinate hunting assistant but so that the canine will protect your son?"
"Absolutely, This is a human tradition older than writing. I'm just glad rover gets along with our daughter's cat."
"I know I am going to regret this, but - a 'cat'?"
"A small feline, a pounce predator."
"Is your daughter to subordinate this pounce predator for assistance in hunting?"
"Oh, T'l'k'K'geb, you are so funny! No, our daughter just thinks cats are cute."
"Cute?
"Adorable? Aesthetically appealing in a manner reminiscent of helpless things?"
"Your daughter thinks a pounce predator is aesthetically pleasing?"
"All humans tend to, yes. And we find the cat useful, as well. It predates any rodents or large arthropods that enter the home that we do not like."
"Really? I had assumed that these 'cats' would have to be completely harmless in order to be viewed as 'cute'"
"Far from it! Cats have caused dozens of earth species to go extinct and the version of felines humans prefer most slaughter over 100 billion avians and mammals a year on earth."
"What is the name of the rings! You mean you not only accept one of the most lethal predators on earth as 'cute' you purposefully put them into your homes?!"
"Well, they are useful in making sure that mice don't scare the wife. I'm just glad rover likes kitty."
"Because 'kitty' would add rover to the list of dead mammals?"
"Nooooo! Don't be ridiculous. Dogs kill cats all the time; you have to train them to get along, usually."
"So these 'cats' with their massive amount of dead creatures are NOT earth's apex predator?"
"No even close! They're adorable little furballs that humans love to stroke, pet, and play with because they are so harmless."
"I am never going to Earth!"