Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Play Report - the Isle of the Ape

  Every Halloween I run a classic module for the party/my family. Sometimes they are integrated into a campaign world (like the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), usually they aren't (like the Ghost Tower of Inverness).
  Since the party had done relatively well (is in, there were a few survivors) in the Tomb of Horrors I figured this time I would hit them with EGG's other 'killer module', Isle of the Ape.

  In my opinion, Isle of the Ape is a 'sister' to Tomb of Horrors; the Tomb will slaughter entire parties with traps, the Isle will slaughter entire parties with combat encounters.

Brief Aside: I have read in a few forums and blogs about people who think Isle of the Ape is a walk in the park. One guy said his party simply flew on a Carpet of Flying to the lair and they killed Oonga with a spell. If this is true, the DM who ran that session should be cast into the outer darkness. Isle of the Ape is lethal to any party.

  My family/party is savvy and made holograms (Lew Pulsipher's term for characters created at levels above 1st) and I told them a combination of:
  • How many XP each PC could have
  • Maximum levels for particular classes
  • How much gp value they could spend on magic items with a cap on cost of a single item 
  • Maximum number of henchmen per character (and the XP, etc. limits for henchmen)
  • I then sat with each spell caster and we determined their spell books
  • And I finally sat with each player and we created their list of 'high power' magic items.
  They made two complete parties of 5 PCs and about 12 henchmen/followers for each of the two 'teams'. They created a 'Team 1' that would land fiorst and 'Team 2' waited 'on a rocky islet near the Isle' to replace losses. Team 1 consisted of:
  Mom: A 22nd level Old School Bard
               -Art, 8th level cleric henchman
               -Bill, 10th level thief henchman
               -Joey, 9th level fighter henchman
  J: A 17th Level Magic-user
               -Amy, 8th level cleric
               -Betty, 8th level cleric
               -Cindy, 8th level magic-user
  A: A 17th level Fighter
               -Abe, an 8th level cleric
               -Bob, a 9th level magic-user
               -Clark, an 8th level paladin
  S: A 12th//16th level Magic-user//Thief dual class
               -Dwarf, an 8th level fighter
               -Elf, a 6th/6th Cleric/Magic-user
               -Frank, an 8th level cleric
  N: A 16th level Ranger
               -George, an 8th level cleric
               -Harry, a 9th level fighter
               -2 Pixie warrior followers
  Notice anything odd? Look again.
  The only clerics are henchmen!
  Of course, there are 6 henchmen clerics high enough level to build a cathedral, but it was very interesting.
  Now that we have met the party, let's get to the adventure!

Spoilers for Isle of the Ape Follow!

  Now that that is out of the way.

  The party get's briefed by Tender and then use their own Folding Boat and the one Tenser provides to go to either the rocky islet of the Isle itself. The party deployed into a sensible marching order with scouts out. The pixies were constantly relaying messages between the Isle and Team 2 to explain how follow on characters would know about the adventure.
  The party spotted the village and began their approach with caution - but not enough of it - they were ambushed by the entire tribe!

I ran Isle of the Ape about a dozen times in the late '80's. 6 entire parties were wiped out to the last man by a villager ambush.

  For those of you who haven't read Isle the villagers are, on average, 6th level Barbarians (UA style) with giant carnivorous apes for muscle and some truly high-level leaders, including spell casters. And there are hundreds of them and they are tactically savvy.

  The initial volley of arrows injured almost everyone and made a few henchmen concerned. The volleys continued as giant carnivorous apes were sent in and the elite squads of warriors began to close from the flanks. Mages and Clerics rushed to the middle of the party as the combat types prepared to be encircled. 

  Then the bard used her bardic music to Fascinate the closest combatants, allowing the party a precious full round of spell casting without being disrupted by arrows or 12' tall apes.

  A was able to slaughter the biggest ape and a lot more damage was done to the groups closest, but this was a drop in the bucket for the swarm of villagers. The bard planted a Suggestion that the villagers retreat to regroup and enough failed that the leaders ordered a retreat to avoid a rout. Units that were outside the range of the bard continued to harass and stalk the party for some time as they fell back, but the party disengaged and found refuge to heal. The best thing was the party spell casters had killed a majority of the village shamans and the overall leader had fallen in battle to A's fighter.

  Healed up, the party pressed on to the village but avoided it to close with the massive gate. They used mounts and spells to ferry the party over the wall, searched the clearing, finding the note from Zagyg and some treasure. The ranger found that the ape or apes came from a particular trail, so the party moved down that trail and then camped for the night. Magic items, spells, and henchmen served to keep the dinosaurs out of the camp, although effort was required.

  The days were pretty similar for the next two weeks - march for 8-10 hours, camp, deal with 2-4 dinosaur or other attacks each day. Some of the highlights were;
  -At a river crossing J used Wizard Eye and spotted some large, hungry mosasaurs waiting to snack on them
  -Each attempt to fly that lasted more than a handful or round attracted the attention of the flocks of gigantic, carnivorous pterosaurs always on the wing.
  -Their first encounter with one of the female gargantuan apes, which they realized must be fairly weak compared to Oonga - and they had to camp immediately to heal up.
  -The giant crevasse which had hordes of giant insects at the bottom and that was spanned by a single mighty tree. the party used a Wall of Force to cross and the fight against the giant lizards was a bit easier because of this. 

  One major encounter was when the party realized that a she ape was hiding artop an 80' cliff where she could watch the entrance to their camp. They did their utmost to ambush her, but she was still able to throw boulders to devastating effect before they killed her; then they immediately had to face another she ape drawn by the war cries of the first!
  [see the notes from players, below, for more details].

  The final battle with Oonga was fierce and if it had not been for quick thinking and some luck they would have all died, easily. I will leave the intricate details to the players to tell!

Notes from Players

  While preparing for the adventure, we actually prepared two parties. The one we brought consisted of a 17th level magic-user, a very high level dual-classed thief/magic-user, a 22nd level old-school bard, a very high level ranger, and a very high level fighter with a wide range of utility. The one we left behind contained the Grand Druid, a 15th level paladin, a replacement for the bard who was never actually finished, a straight thief of horrendous level, and a hilariously munchkined fighter unceremoniously dubbed, "Grabnok the Destroyer." 
  This last figure became a running gag of epic proportions, as we continuously lamented the decision not to bring him when we realized things like the fact that he would be technically always hit armor class -10 with every blow, or that his minimum damage was 24 points per blow with 3 attacks per round. "If only Grabnok the Destroyer were here, this battle would have been over already. I mean, he can kill Lolth in single round!" continues to be a buzz phrase with us.

  We had this exchange upon realizing that the bard had more hit points than some of the giant apes:
J: "Wow Mom, you're beefier than that giant she-ape!"
N: "I, uh, think that came out wrong."

  In a particularly memorable moment, we were ambushed by a giant ape hurling boulders at us from a ledge 80 feet in the air, but succeeded in turning her to stone before any significant damage could be done.
   In order to prevent any chance of her being returned to an animate state, we immediately set out to lever her off the ledge, which would cause her to crash and shatter beyond repair. Immediately after we started this, another ape of even larger size charged the contingent of the party that we had foolishly left on the valley below; however, by exactly tying three rolls in a row, we succeeded in dropping the stone ape onto the charging ape, killing them both.
  As we remarked at the time, this meant that we killed two apes with one stone.

  This also led to a Great Moment in Homeschooling when we briefly tried to learn the mass of granite by volume, then calculate the volume of a 50 foot tall female gorilla, then run it through the formula in the DMG for damage of dropped stones by weight to make sure that we had, in fact, legally killed the second ape. We did not complete this, however, because we gave up when we realized that one of us had just used the phrase, "roughly 7000d6 of damage."

  Upon reaching an area where the isle was split end to end by an immense rift whose distant floor was inhabited by swarms of giant insects and was crossed only by a single, massive (but narrow!) fallen tree, J's response was to throw up his hands and state, "Nope! We're done! The apes win! Where's the portal out of here?"

  When ambushed yet again by a giant ape and looking desperately through our equipment lists trying to find something that would give us an idea for a plan, we had this exchange:
Mom: "Uhh, I have a Staff of Withering. Would that be useful?"
(J, N, and S simultaneously turn their heads slowly away from their notes and towards Mom, and then shout, in near perfect unison): "You have a Staff of Withering!?"  Our continued disbelieving conversation after that consisted primarily of interjections such as, "How long have you had a Staff of Withering?" "Why do you have a Staff of Withering?" or, "When did you get a Staff of Withering", as well as highly detailed descriptions given to the previously-ignorant Mom of just what a Staff of Withering actually does.

  For some unknown and presumably unknowable reason, S saw fit to bring two Eversmoking Bottles to the adventure. (An Eversmoking Bottle is, for those who do not know, a magic item whose only effect is to produce 120,000 cubic feet of smoke when unstoppered). He proceeded to spend the entire adventure proposing the Eversmoking Bottles as a solution to nearly every problem, plan, ambush, or puzzle, regardless of the continuous complaints of the rest of the party.  

  When planning potential assaults on a native village, we came to the realization, oft revisited since, that DnD is so incomprehensibly awesome that sometimes the correct solution to the problem at hand is to create an artificial hill, unfold a full-size sailing ship at the top of it, and then use a bottle that produces infinite water to propel it down the hill and crash through the enemy gate, allowing you to launch a naval boarding action on a land-locked fortification.

  In one of S's greatest moments, during the initial ambush by the natives of the island, upon hearing the basic layout of their troop disposition, he immediately said, "Wait, these are classic Zulu battle tactics. Where's the flying reserve that's trying to flank us?", correctly preserving us from a flanking manuever.

  Our response upon passing an island that radiated good so intensely it nearly blinded the cleric, and was known to the bard as the Restful Reserve of Pik-Nik, a stable point in the planes where any may find rest? Travel around it, never go back, and do our best to not even cast spells towards it. After all, this is DnD.

  Upon realizing the sheer, ludicrous strength of the native islanders, we immediately began a running gag about the Magic Super Zulu. Forget Mind Flayers! Magic Super Zulu: scariest thing Gygax ever thought up.

  There were a tremendous number of henchmen on this adventure, leading to some interesting situations. For example, we were so short on name ideas that our henchman included Abe, Arthur, Bill, Ben, Charlie, and a dwarf known only as, "Dwarf." We also had one particular henchman fighter dubbed, "Joey," who quickly gained a justified reputation for bad luck. He was the only person hit during our first run in with a giant ape, was later swallowed whole by a giant lizard and only barely saved in time, and was actually attacked by the titular Ape himself. He did, however, also distinguish himself by doing more damage to the Ape in the final battle than some PCs, and somehow managed to survive the whole adventure. 

  Also of the note is the fact that J, deeply traumatized by a run-in with a Nereid in the Lost Shrine of Temoachan, was obsessed with bringing an all- or mostly-female complement of henchmen, causing him to be the target of many odd looks by the rest of the party.

  It really dawned on us just how powerful the party was when we realized that we just killed a tyrannosaurus rex in a single segment. (utilizing the disintegrate spell, for those in the audience who are curious).

During our second run in with a T.rex, we had this conversation:
J: "Don't worry, S, you'll survive the surprise segment. I mean, how many hitpoints do you have?"
S: "34."
J: "See? You'll be fine. N, how much damage does a T.rex do with its bite?"
N: (correctly quoting from memory) "8d6."
J: "Ohh, you're going to die, S."

  Early on in the adventure, N interrupted the rest of the party in the middle of a complex planning argument with the announcement, "Uh, guys, this might be important, but I've actually been riding a pegasus this whole time."

Gamemaster Observations
  Even high level magic users suck against armies of 200+ competent combatants.

  Creatures with 12+ HD usually make their saving throws.

  Almost every online discussion of the module seems to reveal that people son'tknow/forgot that Oonga has 100% magic resistance.

  1e bards are terrifying.

  I need more NPCs to have Wands of Enemy Detection.

Review: Star Wars VII

Beware! Some Spoilers!
I mean it!

  OK, to celebrate me not being dead the entire family went to see Episode VII last night. Here is a capsule review;

The Good
  1. Production values were excellent. It was a joy to look at and props seemed 'authentic'.
  2. Acting was solid, particularly from John Boyega.
  3. Cinematography and editing were great - I expect an editing Oscar to go to this one.
  4. Directing was solid, if workmanlike. Abrams sometimes struggles with direction, but he did well here.
The Bad
  1. While shout-outs were done well and 'fit' for the initial 2/3rds of the movie they overwhelmed the last 1/3rd.
  2. I get that they wanted to mirror the plot of Episode IV, but the ending seemed rushed and - like the early death of Darth Maul - like they wasted a great opportunity for recurring targets/foes.
  3. The background setting is a mess. Is the Second Republic big or small? Powerful or Weak? Is the First Order in charge of a lot or a little? Is there any Republican force/fleet or is it just the Resistance? Why is the Resistance base hidden/secret if they are approved by the actual government?

The Ugly
  1. Lazy writing of the worst sort. Why have Han and Leia break up? Why, to make it look like the beginning of Episode IV. Why is Luke missing? Why, to build a MacGuffin and make it look like Episode IV. Why did a family member turn to the Dark Side and start wearing a mask? Why, to make it look like.... You get the idea. The characters from Episodes IV-VI were effectively thrown under the bus to make this look a certain way and it was jarring to me and other old-school fans I spoke with
  2. Lazy writing of the most common sort. Ignoring established canon (it takes training to do anything serious with the Force except in times of high emotion) for the Rule of Cool is jarring and my willing suspension of disbelief rolled his eyes once or twice because of that.
Side Notes
   Showing a storm trooper whip out a melee weapon and fight Finn with it was a subtle way of pointing out Finn had received at least some formal training in the use of melee weapons, making his use of a light saber natural

   The implication that Kylo Ren is not fully trained was subtle. My fan theory is the Supreme Leader has trained him to be more than capable of dealing with 'normals' but woefully unprepared to deal with other Force users so he isn't a threat to the Supreme Leader
  This explains why a new, untrained user of the Force can face him - he's been setup to fail to keep him a mere weapon, not a threat.

  Poe Dameron. Ace Pilot and top agent appears, slips the MacGuffin to a stooge who gives it to an innocent, unsuspecting girl and then reveals his mission to a recruit who wants to escape and maybe do the right thing. He then vanishes, presumed dead, leaving the rookies to complete his mission.
  Sound familiar? It should - it is, essentially, the opening to the introductory adventure for WEG's Star Wars RPG (different NPC name, though)! Complete with Poe showing up at the end to congratulate the new players... uh, heroes, for a job well done.

My Conclusion
  Worth seeing, as it is a fun movie, but not on par with VI or V.

No, I am not dead

I do have a new job. And it doesn't look like we are going to lose the house or the cars. And I use a cane, now.
  But I am back!

The rest of the Atlas and other premium content will be sent to patron tonight!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Premium Content Out

I spent the last 2 weeks creating a map of an area the size of Belarus and detailing the civilized nations (just a bit larger than Bangladesh) and their cities, populations, etc. That is all out to my patrons today.

Next week is the full atlas and book of NPCs for the region, then unique magic items and spells the week after, then unique monsters; by the end of December my patrons will have a complete campaign setting that works with any FRPG from OD&D to Rolemaster Unified.

My way of saying thank you and apologizing for being out ill for so long!

Monday, November 9, 2015

No, I am not dead

1) I was very, very sick
2) My job is straight commission only so sick time = decreased income
3) October is always hellishly busy

My Patrons will be reimbursed all funds for last month, they will get extra content, full apologies, and free physical things, too!

More real posting to come

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sorry for Being Sick

  Sorry, all, but I was sick enough to miss work - and I work from home!

What Is Out There, In The Dark?

  All DMs have little quirks, little things they do that set them apart. Most that I know have a 'go-to' humanoid and a favorite monster to scare players.
  My go-to humanoid is hobgoblins; Lew Pulsihper calls them 'Rick's Nazis'.
  But the scary monster in my 1e game is - the bugbear.

  The word 'bugbear' is from the 16th Century and means, at heart, 'big, hairy monster that eats children'. A literal meaning of 'bugbear' is close to 'supernatural, man-eating creature covered in fur'.

  The description in the AD&D Monster Manual should be chilling; bugbears are within a hair as tough as a black bear or wild boar, have a good armor class, and are strong. Strong enough to open combat by hurling footman's maces 4"! Plus, they are stealthy and surprise foes half the time. And their description? 'Giant, fur-covered goblins with a shambling gait'.

  I picture (and describe) their movement as being similar to this:

  Odd, unnatural, uncanny valley monster movements.
  Bugbears also see very well in the dark. For players in my campaigns their first encounter with a bugbear is sometimes like this;

  The people of Seaward, especially the peasants, are terrified of bugbears because of their stealth and hunger. Bugbears are known to snatch children out of their beds at night without parents or dogs knowing until it is far too late. The villages in the rill valley sometimes call the Briars the Bugbear Woods to ensure their children stay away.

  What monster do you use to scare players?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Monks in First Edition:How Do They Do That?!

note: I still have a cold, so serious editing will come later.

  I have already written about 1e monks (here) and I am very fond of them. I have played 3 monks: Ti-Gun (who once solo-killed a t-rex with his +3 hand-axe) who is 13th level, Xing-chao, who is 5th, and Tamsen, who is still 3rd. I recently rolled up another (3d6 in order) so I will play him, too, someday.
  Now, monks are rare. If you roll 3d6 in order (as Gary intended) you get monk stats about 1 in every 2,500 rolls. Of course, that means 1 in 2.500 potential player characters. If you look at the 1e DMG you'll see that only 1 in 100 potential henchmen is a monk, implying that only 1 out of every 100,000 NPCs is an adventuring monk (which I also talk about, indirectly, here). I calculate that my main 1e setting (which has a monk's holding, which I will talk about later) has about 7-8 wandering NPC monks.
  But how can monks do the things they do? Get a better armor class, do a lot of damage with their bare hands, do more damage, eventually a LOT more damage, with weapons, etc?
  While the story goes that the monk was originally based of the main character in the Destroyer series I am sure we can all agree it has as much to do with the Hong Kong movie explosion of the 1970's.
  BTW, if you get a chance to read the Destroyer series, take it - they are hilarious.
  So let's look at some martial arts movies and see if we can figure out just the heck they are doing.

  The most often question I have heard over the years is - why does their armor class keep getting so much better? I mean, my thief is dodging attacks, too!.
  let's look at the first method - dodging. here is a scene from the Jackie Chan classic, Drunken Master;

 The monk/martial artist is doing a lot more than 'just dodging'; he is acting in unpredictable ways to confuse his foes. With simple props and more technique he can also face weapons, as seen in this glip for the Kid with the Golden Arm (skip to about 2:15):

Another great example of 'monk improved armor class vs. weapons' is in this clip from Iron Claws:

 Or the initial part of this scene from Executioner of Shaolin

  In these cases the monk is able to evade and defeat men using weapons.
  The second part of that clip from Executioners shows the other method monks have of improving their armor class - they just shrug off weapon attacks! An even better example is in this clip from Five Deadly Venoms;

  Right at about 1:00 the monk in yellow (using Toad style) simply ignores a sword strike - the blade does him no harm. In this scene from Crippled  avengers another master of the Iron Shirt (i.e., weapon-proof skin) demonstrates both the ability to shrug off attacks and the weaknesses:

  Back to Five Deadly Venoms we see that once the master of the toad style's vital point is hit he is no longer able to shrug off damage:

  A common trope in the films is a master of a style like toad, iron shirt, etc. who has vital points/vulnerable points where he can be hurt - this is an obvious 'hook' for explaining an improved armor class.

In creased movement is both one of the most underestimated abilities of a monk and one that seems to bother people who talk to me. There is the example from movies like House of Flying Daggers:

  And the ultimate expression is easily Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:

  But the master of 'realistic' moving very fast through heavy terrain and battles is Jackie Chan as you will see in the next few clips:

Perhaps a lot of the speed is simply overcoming/ignoring things that would stop or slow down others, plus pure speed, plus leaping. Lots of leaping:

Which also covers the 'falling from a height' ability, too!

  How about more damage from hand-to-hand attacks? Well, it could be just 'more force:

  Or it could be accuracy and hitting vital points:

And this also applies to the extra damage with virtually any weapons - a combination of accuracy:


  And accuracy/hitting vital points:

That last clip, where a monk uses a stick (club/jo stick) to defeat a sword master, is a ton of fun.

  The extra damage from hand-to-hand could be based on multiple hits (a 'flurry of blows') delivered as a single attack:

  And this works with weapon attacks, too:

In a future post I will be covering special abilities, surprise, etc.

  Of course, the question I get from people as often as 'how do monks do what they do' is 'why, why, are there Oriental monks in my European fantasy game?!'

  Let's talk about that.

  First, there are plenty of things tossed into the TFRPG that is 1e/the OSR; halflings are from a set of fantasy novels from the 20th Century, for example, so while they have ample connection to 'European-themed fantasy fiction' they have no connection at all to Medieval Europe.
  We also have to consider that even during the Medieval Period Europeans liked to be entertained about foreign lands: one of the characters in the tales of Charlemagne's Paladins is a Muslim convert to Catholicism who brings an exotic viewpoint to the tales.

  "They aren't historical" is something I read recently.
  You want to know what else isn't historical?
  Druids. Yes, druids.
  Walk with me a minute:
  Everything we know about the druids we have second hand through Greek and Roman sources with a smattering of other reports here and there. All we know is that they were a social class of people that included philosophers, legal scholars, and people that had something to do with religious practice. Druids are first mentioned about 500 B.C., first described about 50 B.C. and vanish from history by, oh, 300 A.D. The only ritual described is something we get from Pliny who heard it from... somebody, we aren't sure who... and who wrote it as a footnote when describing mistletoe.
  That's it. No written records, no confirmed artifacts, images, or anything. Nada. Zilch. Everything you "know" about druids is almost certainly derived from at best Medieval entertainment like The Cattle Raid of Cooley which is a bit of fiction from 1,000 years after the druids ended. The only other real sources of modern ideas of druids are from 18th Century eccentrics and the Order of Druids, which has nothing to do with history and a great deal to do with being an offshoot of a lodge of Freemasons.
  So - we have no idea what real druids were like and they all vanished long, long before the appearance of Charlemagne and the development of chansons, Romantic literature, etc. Slapping a druid into a vaguely 11th-16th Century Europe themed game is on par with dropping a Mercury space capsule into the same thing, temporally.

  But I am not aware of anyone dropping druids from their 1e game because they don't belong there.

  What druids do very well is act as 'something exotic' in the game; a peek into an older world. Monks, to me, are much the same. The world is big (trust me, it is bigger than you think) why not have an Oriental monk visit from a distant land?

  Another plaint is "they aren't realistic". No, they aren't. Neither is a guy casting Fireball nor a raid by orcs looking for halfling slaves.

  Lastly, the great thing about the over-the-top, unrealistic martial arts stuff is that its genre, now called wuxia, is both cool and old. Stories about wandering martial artists with damn-near superhero level skills fighting evil are as old and integral to China as knights in armor, etc., are to Europe. The movies I love so much are based on many years of books and novels in the same general vein, just like westerns and books like Ivanhoe. I love being able to tap into that and add it to my game.

  Next: Monk Super Senses and Abilities

Monday, September 7, 2015

Second Edition Character: Marko Ziga, Halfling Rogue

Two of my sons are Co-DMing an AD&D 2e Skills and Powers campaign so I am making three characters (we are going to jazz band adventure).
  My first is Marko Zigo, a halfling rogue.

Strength/stamina: 9  /muscle: 9
Dexterity/aim: 17  /balance: 17
Constitution/health: 12  /fitness 16
Intelligence/reason: 13  /knowledge: 17
Wisdom/intuition: 8  /willpower: 8
Charisma/leadership: 16  /appearance: 12

Racial Abilities
Stealth: When not wearing metal armors and alone or well in advance of a party he surprises as an elf.
Saving Throw Bonus: He gains a Constitution/health based bonus on all saves versus poison and magic.
Detect Secret Doors: He detects secret doors as an elf.
Mining Abilities: He detects direction underground in a 3 in 6 and he detects slopes/grades on a 3 in 4

Thief Skills (totals at 1st level)
Find and Remove Traps (40%)
Open Locks (35%)
Hide in Shadows (40%)
Move Silently (45%)
Pick Pockets (40%)
Climb Walls (55%)
Detect Noise (30%)

Other Class Abilities
Followers (at 9th level or above)
Weapons Specialization as a fighter (at 6th level and above)

Weapons Proficiencies
Short Sword

Non-Weapon Proficiencies (using my 2nd Edition Master List of Skills with inverted check numbers)
Tumbling 10+
Throwing 9+
Juggling 10+
Singing 15+
Prestidigitation 10+

  Marko was raised by humans from a clan of Travellers. His adoptive parents have told him all of his life about how he was found in a blackberry thicket not far from a burning wagon and how his halfling mother had hidden him from attacking bandits before she, herself, had died. The Ziga clan had taken him in and raised him as one of their very own.
  Marko enjoyed his childhood of travelling between various villages and towns, entertaining the locals for food, drink, and a few coins, then moving on. He became a skilled performer, himself, and he took to the other skills of the Zigas, such as opening locks and remaining unseen, with an innate talent. His keen sense were also well trained.
  After many years as a Ziga Marko was ready to join the clan as a full adult, gaining his own wagon and being given a bride by the clan elders. His adoptive sister, Jili, took him aside and told him truths that shook his understanding of the world. Jili, who had been 8 years old when he was found, told him that he had been stolen from his parents in retaliation for his father having a Ziga arrested for theft. The clan appreciated his skill but he would always be a Foreigner, an outsider, to them; he would never have his own wagon, he would never sit in council, and he would certainly never have a Traveller wife.
  Marko, who knew how much Jili loved his as a brother, accepted the truth immediately. He gathered his hidden wealth and departed immediately. Jili could not remember where his home village had been (she was very young) but she gave Marko an amulet that had been in his swaddling clothes.
  Now Marko, still in love with the footloose life, wanfers the lands searching for adventure and clues to his own family.

  Marko is a genuinely happy person, always ready to laugh, smile, make friends, sing a song, and drink an ale. While always smiling he is also always watching and listening, catching every fleeting expression and every crack in the wall.
  He is slow to trust others, but is trustworthy himself, almost to a fault. After learning his entire life was based on lie he refuses to lie. Having learned that his 'little tricks' were actually robberies of others he is now uses his skills to search for lost hoards, not to work a crowd.
  Because of his upbringing he has a very human outlook on life and tends to dress like a human (linen shirt, linsey-woolsey trousers with suspenders, a linsey-woolsey vest, leather boots, and a porkpie hat) rather than as a halfling.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Patron-Only Sneak Peek

  As I am preparing the various parts of my main campaign, Seaward, as a series of adventures and as a campaign book all maps, encounter charts,NPCs, etc. will be released to my patrons for free.

More blog entries tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Patrons-Only Content is Out for This Month

  With more to come! The dice bags are in process, links to a free book are going out later in the week, and I am working on the Tower of the Air adventure.

  Plus I think I might just make extra stuff for patrons because why not?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Patreon Milestone: No Ads on this Blog

  Thanks to my patrons this blog is now free of ads- no more AdSense, no more Tip Jar, and you have to go to the Products page to see links to my for-sale stuff.
  Thank you, patrons!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Splat Book Review: The Complete Wizard's Handbook

  This is the first in a series of reviews of the various splat books for AD&D 2nd Edition. This series was prompted by comments on my blog post about AD&D 2e found here.

Nuts and Bolts
  The first book was picked by careful thought and taking the one closest to the top of the 'my sons read it and think 'putting it close' is the same as 'putting it back'' pile.

  The Complete Wizard's Handbook has a 1990 copyright, contains 125 numbered pages, and is in trade paperback format. I have owned my copy for 25 years and it is still in excellent shape after a quarter century of routine use, so the print and binding quality is time tested. There is some yellowing of the pages, but no loss of readability, etc.

  Rick Swan has the 'designed by' credit. Mr. Swan did a fair bit of writing for TSR between about '89 and '94.

  The book is in 9 chapters which are, in order: Schools of Magic; Creating New Schools; Wizard Kits; Role-Playing; Combat and the Wizard; Casting Spells in Unusual Conditions; Advanced Procedures; New Spells; Wizardly Lists. The end also has maps and play aids.

Chapter 1: Schools of Magic
  This section starts with a solid discussion of the pros and cons of becoming a specialist mage that is aimed at new-ish players. Mr. Swan points out that specialization is of most benefit to magic-users with a lower intelligence score because of the boost specialists have in learning new spells, a point that a fair number of people seem to have missed, back in the day.
  The book then goes over each school of magic and reviews everything from a general description to the ability requirements. Each school description includes a list of 'most desirable spells' and 'ethos'.
  I found the Most Desirable Spells sections to be OK, although I disagreed with some of the selection (as one does). But the 'Ethos' sections struck me as a bit over the line transitioning from 'resource' to 'proselytizing'. For example, in the section on Abjuration the book states,
  "Because of their kind hearts and generous spirits, abjurers are held in high esteem...."
  Wait- is Mr. Swan telling us abjurors must be generous and kind? What of I want to have a socially-awkward, nervous wizard who is an abjuror because he is well-nigh paranoid and comes off as distant, cold, and aloof? 
  While Mr. Swan may have intended these sections to be suggestions, they are presented as statements and not only does that annoy me personally I have encountered more than one person who thought that the personality traits from this book were canonical.
  And that is a problem.
  The chapter ends with a discussion of how to abandon a school of magic and of minor schools of magic.

Opinion- The stuff on mechanics was solid, the discussion of 'ethos' should have been edited out or transformed into 2-3 suggested personality types per school. 

Chapter 2: Creating New Schools of Magic
  This chapter starts with a discussion of types of magic, contrasting mages and clerics, etc. The details of the suggested minimums and maximums for new schools of magic are good and the discussion of making new spells is a highlight and should be read more widely as good advice for the OSR and beyond on spell building. 
  And then... back to the 'Ethos' thing again where the book does everything but print in 18 point, bold font ''All specialist mages share a common personality so closely they even have similar preferences on where they live'. 

Opinion- Ignore the discussion on personalities and focus on mechanics and this is great stuff.

Chapter 3: Wizard Kits
  The chapter starts well by discussing kits as optional, culturally (i.e., campaign-) based, and reminding the DM that he has veto power, the ability to modify the kits, make his own, etc.  I appreciate that this was put here as a reminder that the DM has the power to modify or veto anything from a splatbook. In my opinion, this needs frequent repeating. The chapter continues to a very good reminder on how reaction modifiers actually work in 2e.

  On to the kits! 

Academician: A great kit to show what they are for, this one trades minor penalties in melee/missile combat for minor bonuses with scholarly skills. A great way to reflect the bookworm mage and a good launch for 'what are kits ?' discussions. I have always called kits like this the 'flavor text kits'. In my experience it is fairly popular.
Amazon Sorceress: An OK kit it trades a minor bonus against chauvinists with a minor penalty - with chauvinists. A good example of 'kits that reflect cultures'. 
Anagakok: Or 'Eskimo Wizard' this is another 'culture kit' with guidelines on how to change it to reflect different cultures with a connection (in this case, climate). They trade reaction penalties (they have an unusual experience) for abilities to find food and survive extreme weather.
Militant Wizard: One of the most discussed, the militant wizard trades spell power for the ability to use better weapons in combat. I have always seen this as 'fighter/magic-user for humans' but not as flexible as a real f/m-u. I have seen a few people try it and their common reaction is 'it is great until 3rd level, then you quickly become mediocre at combat and casting'. A friend of mine once discussed having a campaign with only human PCs where kits like this would replace multi-classing, but I have no idea if he ever did it.
Mystic: Another flavor text kit like the Academician, the mystic is less Absent Minded Professor and more Altered States. The mystic trades a requirement that he meditate a specific 2 hours every day and for it he gains the ability to Levitate, Feign Death, and send out a Ghost Form like Doctor Strange. I've never seen one played, but they are an interesting idea.
Patrician: Flavor text kit. He gets more money and respect but has to spend more money. I can't find any real reason to ever forbid this kit and it is a great shortcut for a nice backstory of "Dad is rich".
Peasant Hero: Like the mystic to the academician so is the peasant hero to the patrician. This flavor text kit is 'local farm kid done good' that trades off never being rich to get the love and support of the Common Man in return. Easy to modify to your campaign, in my opinion, and as fun and inoffensive as the patrician.
Savage Wizard: A culture kit. Great for a MayIncaTec, AmeriAborigini, or other 'primitive culture' 'witch doctor' type. The text suggests that the kit be played as a 'fish out of water' with the suggestion it be played "baffled and intimidated" by crossbows and oil lamps and such. When I read that I want to play an Unfrozen Caveman Savage Wizard style mage. 
  They get magic charms and voodoo dolls and has a reaction penalty. I think the benefits far outweigh the penalties unless the penalties are bad enough they can affect the party's ability to trade. I've never had anyone interested in this kit but I might, might, forbid it or get rid of the bonuses and replace them with an immunity to disease or something.
Witch: This is an interesting one. Almost a 'multiclass kit' like militant wizard, it is really a type of magic-user/cleric. The witch gets familiars, poisons, charms, and a curse ability. In return she has a reaction penalty, varying penalties as she 'struggles with extra-dimensional forces', and might attract a torches-and-pitchforks mob.
  The witch kit is a debacle and I have always banned it. The benefits are good but the fact is - the witch has willingly become the tool of a demon, devil, or other powerful extra-dimensional force. Why would any non-crazy PC even adventure with a witch? They have penalties to combat and saves at least part of the time. NPCs flat-out don't like them. It is an NPC only kit, IMO.
  And there is a section of the text that baffles me. On page 48 it says,
"...if the witch lingers in a superstitious or culturally unsophisticated community for more than a day, she runs the risk of facing a mob of hostile citizens..."
  OK. In a D&D campaign world the people who immediately attack a witch are called 'smart and sophisticated'. See, in Real Life the people who believe in witches are 'superstitious or culturally unsophisticated'. In a D&D campaign the people who believe in witches are absolutely correct! That section makes sense in, oh, Beyond the Supernatural or Call of Cthulhu. But in a typical AD&D campaign it makes no sense whatsoever.
Wu Jen: Cultural kit, in this case 'wizard from Japanland'. At mid-level and above he gets the ability to boost 1 spell a day to maximum effect and in return he has some taboo (can't eat eggs, must wear red, etc.). A fairly good example of 'from another land' style kits.

  The chapter ends with notes on modifying these kits or making new ones.

Opinion- A good chapter with some good examples of kits.

Chapter 4: Role-Playing
  This chapter covers personalities for wizards and has some samples like brooder and mystery man.  A section on backstory is next, followed by 'wizardly careers'. This is all good, basic stuff and great for new players to use to get a better grip on role-playing.
  Next is a section on suggested adventures for solo wizards or all-wizard groups; then a section about the level and type of magic in the campaign; then discussion of wizard-centric campaigns. Like the first part, this is more good stuff but for new DMs rather than new players.

Opinion- Simple, basic, and great for newbies.

Chapter 5: Combat and the Wizard
  This chapter is rather short and a high-level look at how some spells are offensive, others are defensive, and some are for reconnaissance, while others aren't any of these. It then talks about how wizards have limited access to weapons and a mix of spells is probably best.

Opinion- It feels almost like someone at HQ said 'there has to be a section on wizards and combat' and Mr. Swan said 'OK'. There is nothing wrong, bad, or upsetting here but there is nothing very interesting, either.

Chapter 6:Casting Spells in Unusual Conditions
  A nice shout-out to the 1e DMG this chapter catalogs how spells act differently underwater. It also covers casting on the inner and outer planes and has some interesting ideas about how the Chaos aligned planes might change certain types of spells. The last section covers wizards that are blind, deaf, etc. 

Opinion- Great chapter with good discussion of impairments, planes, etc. Useful for any edition and even other systems.

Chapter 7: Advanced Procedures
  This section starts with the perennial 'above 20th level/spells above 9th level' stuff. Thankfully, the book is totally reasonable about these topics!  Bravo!
  It goes on to a commentary on a lot of spells. This is broad if not exhaustive and a good primer for DMs thinking about the implications of other spells.
  There is then a section talking about adjudicating illusions that is also good, if not great.
  The chapter goes on to magical research. This is another good section and goes into detail on time and costs as well as detailing the require library value needed to research spells of a particular level, the needs of a laboratory, etc. Solid stuff that can be used to add to a campaign, a backstory, and various adventures.

Opinion- Good, solid stuff that can add to your game.

Chapter 8: New Spells
  I know a lot of guys that buy splatbooks for spells and items.
  for a number of reasons I have my own unique spells with names similar or identical to some in this book, so this can confuse my players.
  Some of these spells are good (I am personally fond of Choke) and there aren't any terrible ones.

Opinion- New spells are always welcome, especially when you enforce the odds of learning spells, etc. 

Chapter 9: Wizardly Lists
  This chapter has lists of: 25 familiars; new sources of spells; magic items that should be made; wizardly illnesses; a suggested code of conduct for a magic academy; and a lot more. There are even a few adventure locations and, of course, new magic items. 

Opinion- Magic items, locations, and just raw ideas are always welcome and useful. Good section.

Overall Opinion
  The Complete Wizard's Handbook is a good resource, especially for new players and DMs. It has plenty of things that can be fitted into any campaign and is well use buying, reading, and using.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Little Love for AD&D 2e

  Moved to write by a recent Best Reads post, I am going to take the time to talk about AD&D 2e and why it is a damn fine game.

  Like a lot of players I grabbed the 2e books as soon as they came out. The art was good, they layout improved  in a number of ways, and the books were well-made.
  As for the rules?
  - The concept of changing from attack charts to THAC0 so players 'get the math' was a good idea, IMO, and I always loved watching the light dawn as someone realized how it worked and all that this implied ('I hit with a 14 but not a 13? Boom! I know it's armor class!').
  - Cleaning up the classes and moving them around a bit was interesting and mostly good. I remember having a lot of talks about assassins in particular ['they are just hired killers. Anyone can be an assassin' vs 'it is a specific class']. While I love the monk I know why having monks in the game is An Issue. The addition of the Bard as a class was interesting and got rid of the meta-issues of the 1e bard. Removing the cavalier and barbarian of the UA was a a solid move.
  - Specialist mages was very popular at the time and allowed a lot of people to add a lot of color and depth to a lot of campaigns. The additions from the Complete book and especially the further specialties of the Spells & Magic book made AD&D magic much, much more varied and erased any idea that all spellcasters are somehow the same!
  - The addition of clerical spheres and then kits radically transformed how clerics were seen, especially by the sorts of people that needed to read this. Add in the options from Spells & Magic and clerics really became radically different and much more flexible.
  - The ability of thieves to customize the advancement of their thief abilities is a HUGE difference and a very welcome change! As a friend of mine previously complained,
  "Oh, you have a Halfling thief with a 16 dexterity and the backstory that he grew up in a rural community,learning stealth in the fields and meadows as he hunted rabbits with his sling? Cool! Another player has a Halfling thief with a 16 dexterity and the backstory that he grew up an orphan in the slums of a major city picking pockets to scrounge enough to eat? Cool! Guess what? They have the exact same chance to pick a pocket!"
  Second edition fixed that -  you could finally have thieves that focused on just stealth or just traps - it was great!
  - Non-Weapon Proficiencies (also known as Skills) were a great addition to AD&D. A lot of DMs I knew had added them from the Survival Guides or (most often) from Oriental Adventures but having them in the core books and better integrated into adventures and supplements was a great add-on to the game.
  It also alleviated some of the weirdness that many players went through of 'No! ONLY rangers can track. At all. Ever.' Or 'Do you know how to make a spellbook? Uh....... No?' Suddenly there were mechanics for what your characters could do not directly related to their class in the core rules.
  - Making the most common house rules/omissions 'legal': How many DMs that aren't me ever enforced material components? Making them optional was just accepting general play. So was upping demi-human level limits and increasing the possible multi-class options.

  Let's face it, while you can borrow back and forth, AD&D 2e is a different game than AD&D 1e; and that is OK. But far too often I think 2e gets lost in the shuffle or dismissed. The reality is this:

AD&D 2nd Edition is a fun, playable game that is a great part of the D&D family.

  Maybe it's best feature is you can have two characters that are the same race, same class, same level, even the exact same stats, and yet have them be very different in abilities and roles because of the use of non-weapon proficiencies and kits.
  That is a great feature, isn't it?

  That is one of the reasons that my second-longest running campaign (almost 8 years!) is AD&D 2e with all the Skills & Powers books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hugos, Edition Wars, Critically-Acclaimed Junk, Journalism, and Why I Don't Bother - a Rant

WARNING: This began as a google+ post and has not been edited and probably never will be edited.

  Well, the Hugos and I don't really have a lot in common. I love a good SF story, sure, and some past winners of the Hugo are great writers.
   But winning the Hugo didn't make them great. And a lot of great writers never won a Hugo and more were never nominated.
  More critically, a lot of the winners are, in my opinion, not very good. The classic example is "They'd Rather Be Right". Ever read it? It is DREADFUL. A terrible, terrible book that has been used as a 'what not to do' example in creative writing books for decades. It was, however, the winner of the second ever Hugo for Best Novel. That's right, the 2nd Hugo for best novel went to a written-to-order book so bad one reviewer commented [paraphrase] 'the fact that it won by vote throws the idea of universal franchise into doubt'.
  So why *did* such an awful book win?
  Langford (who has won 28 Hugos during his life. Yes, 28) thinks the book won because one of the co-authors was popular as a writer of short stories so many voters selected it based on his name. And let's face it - the annual stories about 'worst x to win a Hugo' are a tradition in SF fandom. This is because it is based on voting by a very small group.
  For years and years the highest number of votes was about 1,000 and it was typically about 500-700 for a loooooong time. That is NOT "SF fandom as a whole picking the very best x from this year" that IS "a narrow group of people expressing their opinions in a particular way".
  Which is fine.
  Why would I care?
   'This narrow group of people is working to keep out members/products they don't like'?
   'The award used to prestigious and now the actions of the people in the group have tarnished it'
  Ummmm. "They'd Rather Be Right" was the SECOND EVER Best Novel winner. The Hugos were never that prestigious.
   In a very real way I see the kerfuffle about the Hugos as very much like edition wars or 'story games vs.'.  Let me show you what I mean.
  I don't play 3e any more. I know that some people think PF/3e is the Best Game Ever and I am vaguely aware that some of those people think 1e/2e suck; and some of them think less of me for liking 1e/2e/OSR.
  I don't care.
  I am NOT going to argue that 1e/2e is 'better' than 3e not do I think less of them because they prefer 3e to other versions. Since this is true their own emotional investment has just as low an impact on me as their opinion.
  Think of it this way;  Some people like the Yankees, some people like the Mets. Just like I don't care if someone has an emotional response to me being a Braves fan I don't care if they have an emotional response to me playing AD&D 2e Skills & Powers.

  So there is a group of people somewhere that I don't know and don't typically interact with that think I can't be a "real" fan of SF if I am x or am not y?
  I don't care, any more than I care if someone somewhere thinks I am not a "real" TRPG player if I don't play system z in such-and-such a manner. Sorry, folks, I am too busy writing and running my games with family and friends to notice what someone I don't know thinks about people they don't know.

  "But, Rick!," you say, "Don't you care about quality? Promoting and supporting good games, good supplements, good books, and good other stuff?!"
  First, of course that isn't true. Second, they are unrelated.
  Yes, I think 1e/2e is better than 3e. But this isn't a life or death situation, it is a game and I know that my preferences in this case are largely subjective. Do I think a lot of SF that is critically acclaimed isn't very good? Yes, and I think that is much more objective than game preferences, too. If you want to see a real rant that will upset people, ask me for my list of 'SF books I think are over-rated'.
  See, when it comes to genre fiction I concur with Sturgeon's Revelation - 90% of all of it is junk. Sometimes junk is popular (Flowers in the Attic sold forty million copies. Forty. Million. Copies.) and sometimes junk is critically acclaimed (They'd Rather Be Right, The March, The Executioner's Song, etc.). Telling me 'a clique of insiders just gave an award to a junk book!' is like saying 'that group of journalists is promoting a narrative rather than objectively reporting the facts!'.
  Yeah, I know
  People have been breathlessly telling me,
  "Did you know that [really obscure person  whose only distinguishing traits are politics and membership in some obscure group] admitted on Twitter that they [voted/wrote/play/attacked someone] only because of politics and ideology?"
  Here is a good representation of what that looks like to me;

Of course they are - that is part of what they do. Heck, those are often large contributors to why people join committees or become journalists - to promote their own ideologies, politics, narratives, preferences, etc.

  What was that? 'What should be done about it?'
  Well, that is up to you. The Hugos seem to be a pretty typical response. Group A dominates a rather small pond, outsiders want change, there is a struggle.
  Gamer Gate is also pretty typical; Group X and Group Y learn they actually despise each other; name-calling commences and quickly escalates to attempts to shame and ostracize.

  Hmmm? 'What is Rick going to do about it?'
  Well, nothing different.

  In 1990-91 I interacted with the top award-winning journalists in the world when I was in military intelligence in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The best of the best; the cream of the crop.
  I haven't read a newspaper since I returned. I treat TV and radio journalism as low-rent reality shows. When a news story breaks I wait at least 2 weeks for the story to settle so it might be possible to find out what actually happened. I had no idea 'video game journalism' was a thing until tons of people told me about it.

  Fr the last I don't know how long I only buy fiction from writers I have enjoyed in the past or when I can get a free sample of their work (kindle/nook) or pick up a cheap copy at a remainder bin or something. I will put down a book and swear off a writer pretty quickly these days, too. I have very little leisure to read and refuse to waste it.
  I have never bought or read a book because it had won the Hugo, Nebula, etc. and, based on sales, I bet you haven't, either.

  Besides, there is something else at play here, too. I don't want to boost the signal of people who are trying to use me, especially if they don't like me.
  Here is something that I have seen far too often in the last few years,
  Someone on the internet: "Can you believe what person A said?"
  Me: "Who in the name of Jedidiah Buxton is person A?"
  Soti: "Oh! Well, they are involved in [really obscure/niche/whatever group] and they are really upsetting me by saying X"
  M: "Never heard of them."
  After a few days, though, lots of other people are talking about them, too, so I eventually look them up and...
  They are nobodies trying to leverage internet infamy into cash. They are saying and doing outrageous things to both win the support of fringe groups and to get notice from others.
  And it often works, letting people earn a living, even get rich, by doing nothing but saying loopy things on the internet.
  A loooong time ago I had a (now long gone) anonymous blog on the internet. One of the rules back then was 'when your blog gets to a decent size (which back then wasn't much) pick a fight with a more prominent blogger and hope for a feud to drive traffic to your site. Once you plateau from that, make peace and keep going.'
  There are a fair amount of people trying to do something similar today with the internet. Just like I didn't participate then I won't participate now.

  So, at the end of this long rant I urge you - relax.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

My Schedule as a Game Fanatic

  Folks, thank you all so much for your feedback on recent questions.
To keep myself focused, to update my patrons, and to stay organized, here is my rough schedule-

1) Weekly and monthly Patron-only content. This all starts on September 1st.
2) The Tower of the Air -  a Patron-only adventure, out by the end of September.
3) Turn level 1a of Skull Mountain into an actual publish-worthy state in anticipation of more patrons
4) Continue turning my main campaign, Seaward, into a publish-worthy state as a full campaign setting. This will take a long time. At last count the notes on Seaward run to 300 GB of text files and over 800 printed/typed/written pages - without overlap.
5) Begin organizing the Blackstone campaign to also be turned into a full setting.
6) Continue routine blogging

  I need to win the lottery so I can devote 16 hours a day to gaming!

The Tiny Kingdom: How Random Things End Up in the Campaign

  I want to tell you more about my really, really old campaign. Seaward. And I want to talk about a supplement/game that I want.
  But first, let's talk about ideas.
  By that I mean - how do little bits of inspiration, insight, confusion, and such lead to creative ideas?

  Let's talk about the Briars. This is a section of my main campaign world where a lot of adventures have happened over the years and I plan to have a great deal more happen as long as I am still alive.
  And I know exactly where the Briars came from.

  Growing up I was lucky enough to spend part of every Summer at my Uncle Don's farm in Indiana Amish country. We visited throughout the year, of course, and did everything from help with livestock to snowmobiling. And part of what we did was pick blackberries, dewberries, and cut back sweet briar. It was those outings that made the 'Lost in the Briars' picture in the 1e book so spooky to me; having gotten stuck in the briars when I fell into them at the age of 4 that seemed pretty horrible.
  But more critically I remember when the only real neighbor of my Uncle Don sold his place - Uncle Don bought all the farmland, but the neighbor sold the house to a guy that owned a carpet and tile store in town 20-30 miles away. The new owner immediately put in a pool, about 18 tacky garden statues (lions with gold paint; cupids; that sort of thing), bought a peacock, and stopped maintaining the hedges and thickets.
  That all happened the Summer I was 5. By the time I was 9 we needed an extra week every year to cut back briars along the property line. And briars are tough - the stems are long, very tough, and often covered in thorns. To get rid of the plants you have to trim them back, and then dig out the root. The new neighbor ignored my Uncle Don's questions, and his warnings, because he was only concerned about his 'main yard'.
  My Uncle told me how much that upset him. Briars can spread  fairly fast and can take over meadow and farm land making it useful only to rabbits and weasels. Without pruning and watching they can cover large areas and reduce the output of even uncultivated land. He said,
  "If we ever get many abandoned farms around here the briars could take over miles and miles of the countryside."

  That was the day after I drew the coasts and mountains of my setting. I added a large swatch of briars that night and they have been a fixture ever since.

  For the first few years the Briars were just a well-nigh-impassable area with an old, very old, road cutting through their center. I placed the entrance to my Big Dungeon, Skull Mountain, at the other end of that road, but for a few years it was just 4-5 days of custom random encounters on the way to the dungeon. Of course, I had secrets tucked away in its depths, like the druid's grove that only druid (with their ability to travel through undergrowth) could reach, a hidden wizard's domain surrounded by impassable thorn hedges and cloaked by illusion, etc. But I was still eager to flesh them out.
  I had been reading Tarzan and the Ant Men, a fun read. and then my kid sisters discovered the books about the Littles, tiny people who live in the walls of human houses. After a fair amount of wheedling I made some small houses and such and tucked them around the backyard so the two of them could play games about little humans, just 4" tall, visiting each other.
  That is when I saw an ad in Dragon Mag for miniatures of armored knights on gigantic bees. I immediately thought,
  "Why not little men on large bees? Heck, why not wee men on just bumblebees?"

  And the Tiny Kingdom was born.
  Deep in the Briars, surrounded by thorn hedges so thick only a druid could get through them, surrounded by harsh terrain and fierce monsters is the Tiny Kingdom. At the center is a walled city surrounded by tiny farms and villages, then a ring of forts - the Bee Men live here, called that because they have tamed bees. Their best warriors, the Knights, ride bumblebees to and from battle.
  Outside the forts are the wild places where the Mice Men, fierce barbarians, roam. Ruins of past nations litter the area with ruined towers and abandoned vaults scattered about the realm. It would take a Bee Man 20 days of walking to travel from the center of the city to the edge of the Briars that surround the realm, the vast distance of - five miles!
  I had sketched out rough maps, names, etc. when all sorts of Real Life things happened and I put it all aside. For the next 30+ years the Bee Knights and the Tiny Kingdom were flitting around, always on the edge of turning into something, hinted at in 100 things: pieces of loot; notes from sages; and tales from madmen; but never directly a part of my campaign.

  Until this weekend.

  Now that the Mice Men have been introduced my players have seized upon the idea with both hands.

  They love the idea of the Tiny Kingdom and we brainstormed late into the night about possibilities. Some of the ideas so far are;

  -The Tiny Kingdom as a full-bore OSR supplement/setting full of maps, NPCs, magic items, etc.

  -Switching to normal-size anthropomorphic animals and release a setting where good-guy mice battle bad-guy weasels and there might be some sort of religious building involved.
  -A complete, soup-to-nuts OSR game, with a number of tiny races and their foes.

  -Change things a bit and make the setting a vast, enchanted garden of a powerful wizard who is unaware of the empires and battles of wee people in his arbors, then release that as a supplement.

  -Combine the full game with the wizard's garden setting.

  What do you guys think?


Saturday, August 22, 2015

DM's Play Report: The Mice Men

  Son #3 has been asking for a quick solo adventure for some time so today we did it.

  The Good Guys:
  Godfrey, 4th level Human Scout (one of the classes from Far Realms)
    his henchman Karl, 2nd level Human Scout

  Margurlward the Magician, NPC that is paying for the mission

  The Bad Guys:
  24 Mice Men warriors
  6 Mice Men archers
  3 Mice Men thugs
  1 Mouse Man Witchdoctor
  The King of the Mice Men

  The Setup:
  I took the basic premise and setting of Ulo Leppik's great one page dungeon named Teeny Tiny Dungeon and modified it a great deal.  I took his idea for little humanoids, crossed it with some of the ideas of Tarzan and the Ant Men (a book I read 4 times as a young teen) and slapped it on the edge of the Briars.
  Margurlward has a sturdy stone cottage on the edge of a thorn spinney on the verge of the Briars. He had long noted that small objects went missing, especially if dropped on the floor. A year ago while preparing scroll ink he had spilled a pouch of gems (meant to be crushed for the ink) and most had vanished. Things escalated recently when he dropped a jewelry case, scattering a handful of magical rings and he saw a few of them dragged away by wee men who took it through a tiny door by his fireplace!
  Margurlward had done his best to block off the door and has brewed a set of Potions of Diminution and is looking for an intrepid band to recover his valuables.
  Unfortunately, everyone he speaks to think he has lost his mind!
  Luckily, he met Godfrey and Karl in a tavern in Esber, just a day from his cottage. The two men concluded that there was nothing to lose to investigate for themselves and went to the cottage.
  After arriving Margurlward removed his barriers to show the entrance, just 1 inch high. Godfrey removed a 5 g.p. gem from his pouch and tossed it near the tiny door and was amazed to see a band of tiny men rush out, grab it, and run back into the fireplace!
  The two scouts secured bandoleers of 4 diminution potions to their bodies and Godfrey drank one, telling Karl to remain behind, full size, while he scouted.
  Godfrey carefully entered the unsecured door and found a series of tunnels and caves (to him 5 inches looked like 30 feet!) within the river stone and mortar chimney and hearth. Some of the tunnels led to mouse tunnels (carefully sealed off and blocked with toothpick barricades and stout little doors). Others to a store room full of coils of stout rope (thread), mighty iron poles (fork tines), fist-sized chunks of iron (filings), etc. He also burst into a room with 8 of the creatures - they looked like broad-shouldered, muscular men dressed in mouse-hide boots, breechclouts, and cloaks armed with iron-tipped toothpick javelins and battle axes. While they appeared otherwise human their hair was more akin to mouse fur and their eyes were solid black.
  Godfrey surprised them, allowing him to slay two immediately with well-placed arrows. He killed another with arrows, but was wounded by javelins. He fled along the twisting corners, losing them long enough to set an ambush near an anti-mouse barricade.
  He was able to use his Scout ambush ability to kill 3 more of them with arrows and killed the rest in melee, but was very close to death and almost out of arrows. He dragged himself into a storeroom to catch his breath. He recognized a scent coming from a huge drum an, wrestling off the massive lid, found enough Keoghtom's Ointment for 2 doses ( in his present size). Healed up (and with a backpack full of the second dose) he left the fireplace warrens and had his henchman join him - bringing 80 more arrows!
  They re-entered the tiny tunnels and immediately faced a flurry of javelins (minor damage to both) before the band of warriors fled. They followed them very carefully, avoiding a second ambush and being ready for the mouse that was released into the tunnels behind them! After fierce fighting Godfrey and Karl used potions and continued exploring, finding a large room where another band of mice men were being rallied by a huge mouse man covered in tattoos and wearing a mouse skull helmet. There was a wizened, old mouse man leaning on a staff next to him and three doughty warriors with handlebar mustaches and whips guiding a warband at them!
  The two scouts used a bend in a tunnel to shield themselves from javelins and their bows made the cost of closing with them very high. Godfrey's broadsword held the tunnels while Karl fired at foes beyond. Over matched, the mice men fell back while Godfrey and Karl sought a place to catch their breath and use the last of their potions. Reinvigorated, they took up positions at anti-mouse barricades with good fields of fire and waited.
  Eventually the last of the mustachioed thugs led a strong band of warriors into the kill zone and, once again, the scouts achieved surprised, activating their Ambush abilities. The thugs went down in the first salvo and half the warriors lay dead before those still on their feet got into melee. Within a few rounds Karl was collecting arrows and Godfrey was using the last of the Keoghtom's to heal up.

  Penetrating deeper they encountered 4 archers firing from a platform with a gold rim - they were firing from inside a +1 Ring of Protection! As Godfrey and Karl killed the archers a group of warriors attacked them from behind and the old mouse man cast a spell that resulted in a ghostly rat biting Karl, injuring him badly. The two heros cut down the warriors as the old man fled, then began to roll the ring out of the tunnels. This led to the King of the Mice Men rushing them while their bows were away.
  The duel between the king and the heroes was hard fought and almost caused Godfrey's death, but they prevailed. Luckily the king had more salve in his possesion, so both could heal up.
  The few pitiable survivors surrendered soon after. Godfrey and Karl tied them up, then continued to explore. They found a portal to the fireplace that opened through a Ring of Fire Resistance; they found the magician's missing jewels, hidden within a Ring of Invisibility; the king's, throne was inside a large ring with a diamond; and the king's bed was within a Ring of Warmth.
  As they entered the king's bedchamber the mouse mage struck, casting a spell that caused spectral weasel jaws to snap shut on both Godrey and Karl; Karl was reduced to 1 hit point, Godfrey to 8! Godfrey leapt forward and was just able to kill the mouse mage before his next spell!
  The explorers spoke with their captives and founf they were exiles from a distant land where there were many men like them, mouse men who warred with the bee men. This land was deep in the Briars. Feeling pity, Godfrey made them swear an oath to never return and released them through a hidden door to the garden and watched them vanish into the spinney.

  The two removed all of the loot, grew to their normal size, and received their reward - 300 g.p., the rings, and the sole remaining Potion of Diminution. Marlgurlward negotiated and paid them 500 g.p. to also get back the diamond ring.

  33 said he had great fun!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Magic Item of the Week: Amulet of the Confused Mind

From my 12 year old son, another of his creations-

  This item appears as a small but incredibly valuable amulet, usually of platinum, mithril, or other very valuable metal with one flawless rare gem of great worth, that has strange engravings on it.
  When worn, it gives the effect of a Mind Blank spell at all times and the wearer always gets a saving throw against illusions (even if the character has no reason to believe the illusion is not real).   Furthermore If the creature wearing it is psionic, then all psionic strength points are increased 50%.

  However, this blessing comes with a curse: every dayat dawn the wearer must make saving throw vs. poison at a +2 or roll on the random insanity chart. If insanity is indicated, roll a d20; on 1-19 that is the number of days the character remains insane. If the result is a 20, roll again; a 1-19 on this second roll is how long the insanity lasts, but if the second roll is also a 20 the insanity is permanent.

  The character does not need to roll for insanity if he is currently insane.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Law, Chaos, the UK, America, Teutonic Knights, Orcs, and Just What the Heck is Going On With 9th Level Fighters?!

  This one is going to be weird, folks, so strap in.

  The sons and I were talking about gaming (like we do every day) and about some of our other shared passions; history, the Church, and books. We were also talking about my main campaign and how I was always surprised that the handful of guys that made it to 9th level did not get 'all fortressy' but rather angled to take over existing positions within the game
  What I mean is the few characters to hit name level who could then establish a demense all finagled with NPC rulers to take over existing fiefdoms rather than build from scratch.
  Which is, naturally, fine. My oldest speculated that he, himself, might never build beyond the border because there were so many interesting places on the map already; Dwarf Hill, Wyvern Keep, Skull Mountain, the Vanishing Manor, the Tower of the Air, etc. But then we began speculating;
  Why is the assumption that everyone from warriors to priests to mages will strike out into deep wilderness and hack out a corner for themselves?
  I mean, think about it; that is a tremendous amount of expense and risk. Why not do what people in my campaign did and just - get a promotion and retire rather than contend with plague, famine, and orc hordes?
  And why, oh why, would people flock to follow you if, and only if, you did that hugely risky thing?! And not just guys with levels! 0-level men, their wives, their kids! Pilgrims might come and just - settle. I mean, what is going on?

  For a while we speculated that the default D&D world is a lot like the America of the past - vast, largely unexplored, and daring people struck out to make their way.

  [We had the discussion Sunday, I started writing this Monday, and I saw this in my google+ feed Tuesday. Small world!]

  That might be part of it, sure, especially how followers appear and why random encounters sometimes stick around. But does the 'untouched wilderness' really apply to something so Dying Earth as D&D? As the great blog The Hill Cantons points out, based on the wilderness encounter charts the typical AD&D world is littered with ruins of past fortresses, cities, etc. all thrown down to ruin by war or time. And in a manner very similar to North America, D&D wilderness isn't 'untouched', it is full of intelligent being. Berzerkers, cavemen, orcs, hobgoblins, nomads, goblins, kobolds, etc., etc., etc. Heck, you leave patrolled demi-human areas and the 'wilds' are crawling with intelligent creatures. Sure, they're malevolent, but still!
  Plus the AD&D world isn't modeled after 2015 North America or even 1975 Europe, is it? No, the 'place in time' of the real world that seems closest to the default assumptions of AD&D is somewhere between 770 AD and 820 AD; yes, yes, this is speculation, but I can talk about that in another post. Sure,  there are anachronisms for that but that is my guess.
  Now,  modern Europe looks like this;

In 800 Europe looked like this;

Look at the differences! As I point out in my second most popular post ever, in the year 1000 AD the place that is now the Berlin Metropolitan Area, the 6th largest city in Europe, was uninhabited, howling wilderness. 780 AD is 400 years before the first Germans settled on the banks of the Spree!
  In other words, at the time that seems most like AD&D's assumed setting in history Europe was cheek-by-jowl with howling wilderness and hostile forces.
  This means that in the context of the setting and place well behind the curtain of AD&D (Charlemagne's Europe as described in the Matter of France) Europe looked a lot more like 1870's America than most people realize (Although Andy Bartlett did explicitly mention this in the article I linked above). In both places the average person who wanted a better life and who had the courage and resources (or just a lot of courage!) could, and did, set out into the wilderness and start a new life, Heck, that's where little towns like Leipzig and Berlin came from!

  There is also the very mildly controversial topic of the Northern Crusades. In a very high level gloss not meant to dive into the complex, nuanced issues associated with the Northern Crusades, but only to illustrate how it relates to the point at hand over a century of mutual conflict between pagan peoples in North/Northeastern Europe with the Catholic nations to their West and Orthodox nations of their East, where peaceful missionary and diplomatic activity failed, led to a call for a Crusade and a subdual of the pagans by force in the belief that decisive victory would cause the interminable wars to end.
  What followed was some pretty serious and organized expansion and battles from the West. Part of this was having some of the toughest fighters from the West build fortresses in the pagan areas, establish domains, and maintain the peace.
  Sound familiar?
  Heck, sometimes when there were no opportunities to set up in established areas tough, popular leaders would travel even beyond the pagan lands, set of a stronghold, 'subdue the wilderness', and attract people who wanted a better life who could count on the protection of this leader from bandits, etc.
  That had better sound familiar!
  So there is, interesting enough, at least one historical period where something vaguely like Name-level characters starting the 'domain game' did occur, which is pretty cool.

  But I think there is a bit more meta going on, here. In Three Hearts and Three Lions (as well as other books, like Operation Chaos) the author speaks of Law and Chaos as being opposed to each other in a sort of ongoing struggle. But this concept of Anderson's (that seems to have also influenced Dickson in The Dragon and the George) is a lot more complex and nuanced than the shallow, never actually quantified, Law vs. Chaos of Moorcock. Anderson's Law and Chaos (as well as Dickson's  Chance and History) are very much about Virtue/Civilization/Good (Law/History) against Amorality/Wilderness/Evil (Chaos/Chance).
  This was explicitly stated in Three Hearts and Three Lions;

"Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos."
  It is also essentially stated that the Church is Law while Chaos is a tool of the Devil. The faerie and their uncaring capriciousness? Chaos, because they could not be trusted.
Despite the desire of contemporary people to think of the faerie/sidhe as fun-loving hippies in folklore they're are much, much more like the Weeping Angels - inhuman, utterly other creatures that if you were lucky will only cast you decades through time away from all you know and love.

  This sort of 'axis' is pretty clear in OD&D where you are Lawful (good) or Chaotic (bad) and it was very much a fantastical experience of fey vs. man.

  But it is more complex and such in AD&D with both the Law/Chaos and Good/Evil axis and the Neutral section. But the core concept remains valid: when a party goes into the (wild, uncivilized) dungeon and destroys monsters the PCs are championing civilization against it's opposite, wildness; when a Lord goes into the wilderness, builds a stronghold, attracts followers, etc. he is championing civilization versus wildness, just on a different level.
  And no, I am avoiding the term 'barbarism' for a reason; woad-painted warriors, nomadic tribesman, etc., can be forces for Law or Chaos, it depends upon if they build or destroy, if they are trustworthy or capricious as a people.

  In my post on how I handle religion in my campaign I mention that the big divide between demi-humans and humanoids is if they are (in general) within the Church or outside of it. But the difference is also 'do those races build civilizations or destroy them?'. Sure, hobgoblins, orcs, etc. are organized, they have skills, etc. But they are wreckers, not creators. In my world they have no cities, they live in what they capture from demi-humans and humans; they have no trade, only plunder; they have slaves who often are worked to death; they have at best war chants but no music, enough writing to issue orders but no literature; etc. Where they go they push back civilization, scrubbing away cities and towns, fences and fields, and leaving behind only brambles, thickets, end desolate ruins.

  So a fighter, wizard, or cleric going into the wilds, building a strong place, attracting followers, and all the rest is, in a very real way, pushing back darkness, ignorance, savagery, and evil. Where there were brambles and thickets he puts fields and orchards; where there was a bare hill he puts a cozy home; where there was darkness there are the lights of a village; where there was isolation and fear he puts friendship and hope.
  No wonder those who want a better life follow.

  So why do 9th level fighters spend all that money and take all that risk? Because they are fighting evil an a new, more important, way.