Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Magic Item of the Week - back! The Headsman's Axe

   This is for AD&D 2e S&P.

  We love AD&D 2e in the house, and we LOVE the Player's Options books.
  In Combat and Tactics they introduced weapon styles and my Blackstone campaign includes several unique styles, including the beloved (by my darling wife Jennifer 'BLOOD! BLOOD AND SKULLS!' Stump) Headsman's Style which can be used with the great axe, bardiche, and greatsword.

  To use the Headman's Style you must already have two levels in the Two-Handed Weapons style and be at least specialized in great axe/bardiche/greatsword. The first level in Headsman's Style gives you an additional +1 damage and the second gives you a +3 (total) to damage

  Which leads us to the magic item the Headsman's Axe.

 This great axe is normally +2 to hit and damage. If you have both levels in the Two-Weapon Style it is +2 to hit and +3 to damage. If you have one level in Headsman's Style it is +3 to hit and +4 to damage. And if you have both levels in Headsman's Style it is +5 to hit and +7 to damage (not including style bonuses!).

  Other style-related magical weapons exist, of course

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Reflections on 43 Years in the Hobby

   In less than six months it will be the 44th anniversary of the first time I played D&D and my lifelong obsess-, uh, hobby, began. And this very recent August the 41st anniversary of me starting my own homebrew campaign came and went. We were so busy playing we missed it, which is apropos.

  But it has also been pretty tough in some ways. One of my very first players, Dave, fought really, really hard but lost to cancer. George, another early player, lost all of his early gaming stuff (from first printings of AD&D books to his first 20 characters and notes and the first player-facing map of Seaward) to storm damage. So we've lost at least 5 of the players from the first 10 years of the campaign and a tremendous amount of the original notes, maps, and such.

  Tempus Fugit.

  But looking back there are a few things I learned (or at least came to believe to be true!). I'll try to condense them here.

The Roles within the Party

My theory of The Roles - the positions filled by character classes in D&D and its clones. The roles are:

-Physical Offense: pretty obvious - killing things with weapons.
-Physical Defense: being a 'meat shield' and keeping the physical offense of foes contained.
-Magical Offense: Killing things with magic.
-Magical Defense: Stopping enemy magic from harming the party.
-Scouting and Intelligence: Using information and skills to control the location and tempo of encounters.

The AD&D 1e classes fill these roles like this:
Fighter = Physical Offense
    Ranger = Physical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
    Paladin = Physical Offense + Magical Defense
Cleric = Physical Defense + Magical Defense
    Druid = Magical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
Magic-user = Magical Offense
    Illusionist = Magical Offense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Thief = Scouting & Intelligence
    Assassin = Scouting& Intelligence + Physical Offense
Monk = counter Magical Offense + counter Magical Defense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Bard = everything

  This framework allows me to get a better estimation of what the party is capable of doing and handling and how to oppose them with clever foes.

NPCs Matter, especially Henchmen

  Time after time I have seen henchmen truly matter in the game. Perhaps most recently and dramatically in the Assault on the Fortress of Lord Whitehill. The PCs were pinned and about to be wiped out when the henchmen, following orders, arrived in the nick of time and just barely pulled victory from the jaws of death.

  If nothing else, with henchmen an NPC or three can play the class no player wants for a PC.

Jazz Band Adventuring Matters

  Something I first tried to describe here Jazz Band play just means every players has multiple PCs in the campaign and the party composition varies by mission, which players are there, what PCs are available, etc. It makes it a LOT easier if a player can't make it or you want your PC to go learn a new spell and more importantly it shifts focus from "this party" to the campaign as a whle..

It Isn't About One Thing

  RPGs are about fun, so it can't be about the GM, or a single player, or even this particular party. What seems to me in my limited experience to matter is that people are emotionally and intellectually invested in the campaign. Less pressure, more fun, at least as far as I can see.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Playtest of my Mass Combat Rules - Report

   The sons and I broke out my new mass combat rules and playtested all weekend. We started with Orcs vs Elves (using the number for a max-sized group of each from the Monster Manual, tweaked so that we got even units) . A real slugfest and a ton of fun. The elven sword and bow bonus makes a difference on the field, and do the number of spell casters. We re-ran it several times to eliminate the 'I have no idea what I am doing' issue of new players and to test our assumptions and what we learned.

  I am very pleased. The changes I am writing in today are:
- Rules for cavalry mounts also fighting
- Missile Fire and Flanking
- Clarifying spell duration
- Modifying the damage inflicted by units on lone heroes
And that's it other than some spelling/grammar errors!

  This week and weekend we will test it with a replay of the Battle for Whitehill Castle from the campaign - the knights of the King of Seaward, the Starry Banner, and the Company of the Dark Moon on one side, the brigands and renegades of Lord Whitehill on the other

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Seaward Play Update: Fun in Foreign Lands

 The players have grown aware that Baron Samedhi's plans are many and wide-spread, so they sent thier highest level characters in their spelljammer to Yashima (Japanland) where they docked at an island just for spelljammers and took a boat to Norunga, the Foreign Trade Port allowed by the Shogun of Yashima.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Seaward, the other characters fought a week of bloody battles with the Bandit Lord they call Farquad eventually breaking the last remnant of Whitehill's army and last agents of Samedhi in the Bandit Realms. This opened overland trade between the Kingdom of Seaward and the High County of Banath for the first time ever. The players also found the Bandit's Brother, a powerful intelligent sword with a sage's knowledge of warfare. It had been the actual leader of the bandits!

  In Norunga the party established ties with local adventurers (read: their Oriental Adventures PCs met their Seaward are PCs), established trade between Yashima and Seaward (their cover), went on a very clandestine adventure for a local member of the Sea Folk nobility, and made initial contact with a 'good' clan of ninja. They learned that an admiral of Liung Diguo (Chinaland) was forming a great fleet ostensibly to conquer Goryeo (Korealand) but would actually attack Yashima and, with the help of armies of bandits led by Lady Snow, try to conquer the island and hand it to Samedhi.

  This session the party planned to negotiate with the Red Mountain ninjas to help provide them information about Lady Snow (half sister of Samedhi) and her bandit armies and perhaps interfere. The discussion was interrupted by an attack of other ninja. The two members of the party were a monk and a fighter that knows kung-fu (foreigners must be unarmed in the Foreign Quarter) so they triumphed quickly. They learned that the other ninja, the despicable Black Chrysanthemum Clan, were now backed by/led by someone calling herself 'Sister of the Oni King'. The PCs pieced together clues and realized that was Lady Snow. The Red Mountain ninja joined the alliance against Samedhi.

  Back at their rented house the party received a letter requesting a meeting. They agreed and soon a merchant from Qader (Arabialand) arrived with his retinue of bodyguards, servants, a seer, a sorceress, and a translator genie. After a meal (rought by the merchant, named Fazeel) Fazeel explained he was on a mission for his patron and lord, Prince Ali of Arrabess. There were three claimants to the empty throne of the Caliph - Ali, another prince named Bari, and a man who had quickly risen in prestige over the last decade, not of noble birth but with many willing to declare him Caliph, a man who called himself al-Samadi. There was only one was to be certain you became Caliph - present the Granite Blade, an enchanted scimitar of great power that was the ancient symbol of the Caliph. But it had been missing for centuries. Prince Ali had asked Fazeel to find it.

  Fazeel soon realized that for some reason magic could not find it so he had hired the cleverest sorceress in Qader and she had tracked down a powerful Seer and the two women had asked different questions, resulting in two visions.

  The first was to come to Norunga on this day of this year and speak to whomsoever was in the only red house.

  The second was to ask them "Where is Rupert?".

As a DM watching the players' reaction to this question [groans of horror and inevitability, mainly, with many a head slumped with a hand over the eyes] was epic.

   The party conferred among themselves and realized Samedhi was trying to seize the Caliphate at the same time he was angling to take over Yashima. Speaking with Fazeel they surmised he was also working on Rushk (Russialand). Concerned about these possibilities they told Fazeel that Skull Mountain cannot be scried into and that Rupert is a being of incredible power that "guards" parts of the mountain. According to the legends inside the mountain Rupert wields a weapon called the Granite Sword.

  ...and then the monk in the party realized what was bugging him. The Sorceress was using magic to 'broadcast' the meeting somewhere! He warned the others the sorceress was a spy.

  Cue the ninjas. It was a full-on brawl between the party (aided by Fazeel) against the sorceress, the seer, and a pack of ninja. Hans and Franz, the twin barbarian henchmen, were on a tear and the monk (Akira, Nick's character) was in fine form so the fight didn't last long. And they were glad they had poison antidote magic!

  After it was over Jennifer's character, Fiona, reluctantly used the Hoary Head of Hogarth to interrogate the dead sorceress. She had indeed been working for Samedhi and Samedhi himself had been listening in, so he now knows where to find the sword. 

  The party struck up a deal with Fazeel that the party will try to get the sword. In return Fazeel will slowly  and carefully inform others in Qader about the true nature of al-Samadi. Fazeel left until the morning and the PCs/Players started talking.

  They wondered why Samedhi was making so many plays for power all at once in so many areas. The logistics of organizing and controlling them all must be staggering. And why some nations and not others? Sure, Yashima was vast and wealthy, as was the Caliphate, but tiny, backwater Seaward? 

  About then Nick cracked a joke about 'while we're here we should look for a Skull Mountain substation'. There were a few chuckles that faded to a contemplative silence. Then Jack said,

  "The Wizard of the Tower uses his control of local substations to boost his magic."


  "What if... what if there are bigger stations, or even just substations, farther away? What could you do if you controlled 10 of them?"

  So the party asked local natives if they had ever heard tales of a room made of silver metal with flashing lights and that you needed a small back card to enter?

"Of course! The Black Metal Mirror is part of the Imperial Regalia of the Emperor. All of the other regalia is in the Room of Flashing Jewels. It is sister to the one in Liung Diguo, the Yellow Throne of the Dragon Emperor lies over the silver room in that nation."

  They confirmed from Fazeel in the morning that part of being Caliph was access to the Room of Silver Walls under the palace of the Caliph. Then the party realized - in Seaward there is the Royal Island, a heavily fortified island where on the royal family and their personal guard may ever go....

  Another sage pointed out that according to legend, legends that can only be told out of earshot of the Shogun's spies, that many years before the first Shogun had snuck into the Room of Flashing Jewels and used it to ask the Lord of aAll Evil to use something called 'Skull Mountain' to destroy the skyship ferrying the Crown Prince, allowing the first Shogun to sieze power!


"Samedhi is trying to control these 'national' stations. Now we know that if you know what to do you can use them to communicate. And the Wizard in the Tower proves you can use them to boost magic. Maybe the only way to get to the Contraption is to control enough national stations?"


"What if you control enough of them you don't need access in person? Maybe 6 or 7 of them IS remote access to the Contraption!"


"If he controls enough of them, maybe he can just make himself a demon prince, Or worse."

  The PCs resolved to thwart Samedhi everywhere they could

  The next morning Fazeel used his genie-powered galley to take the party to their spelljammer (Clarence, Sam's character, stayed behind for a series of solo adventures in Yashima).


One Hell of a day at the table!

Friday, August 14, 2020

A Star Wars Scenario and Campaign Setup

  This is based off an idea cooked up by a friend of mine, Keith, in 1993 but never fleshed out or used. I fleshed it out with specifics and a flow. Feel free to use as you like, it is just an extended sketch.

Setup: The PCs need a starship, preferably either a fast one or one that can blend in. Stock freighters are always best. Get it explained why the PCs are together before the session or roleplay out their meeting. It is important that no PC be already active as an agent of the Rebellion but that all at least dislike the Empire.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A Star Wars Game 30 Years in the Making

Back in 1990 I was in the barracks (I had just returned from 6 months of training and was shipping out to Germany in less than 90 days, so it made the most sense) when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was a Middle Eastern linguist with a ton of tactical experience and had been in the desert for a ton of my then-young career and I was just going, the end. So much for re-enlisting to get to Germany!
Even though I was going early, we had to get ready. So I had a week to ten to load up gear, settle accounts, etc. A guy I knew from a gaming group (Keith) called one Friday and said his fiancĂ© (Lisa) and her best friend (Jen) had driven down to see him before he deployed and since they were going to dinner he wanted to grab me, too, for a good meal before  we shipped out.

 I tried to skip out but to no avail. In the group room outside my barracks room I was introduced to his fiancĂ© and her bestie.
   That was 30 years ago. It was the day that I met my wife.

Monday, August 3, 2020

In the Grim Darkness of the Future There is a Lot of Roleplaying

The Lads and I play a lot of RPGs and we like to toss in side games in new, unusual, etc. systems to mix things up. At Christmastime my father-in-law picked up a set of books at a FLGS/used book store and we ended up with FFG's D% system Warhammer 40K core books and a few splats. Nice guy, my father-in-law.
  Sam started running Dark Heresy and immediately enjoyed the 'beer & pretzels' feel of the game and system. The setting is so loveably over the top, the mechanics that perfect combination os 'dead simple idea' combined with '40,000 weird options to complicate things', and the bodycount so freakin' high that all I could think of was playing a Call of Cthulhu setting with Paranoia rules. I adored the Void-born psyker with an hysterical paranoia about open doors and such deep hypno-conditioning that under stress he is forced to recite the Litany of Pressure Sealing Bulkheads I started with so much I almost felt bad when he finally rolled Perils and blew up, taking a room full of cultists with him. But I did laugh.
  After a few games of Dark Heresy Sam tossed in Black Crusade. If you ever wanted to play a villain so cartoonishly eeeee-viiiiil that a mocking laugh while he twirls his mustache is restrained, play Black Crusade: it does to Chaos Space Marines what Mel Brooks does to Nazis. 
  After about 7games over 5 months I decided to throw my hat in the ring and broke out Only War (or, as we call it, Purely Cannon Fodder) and run a regiment. Deciding that the Grim Derpness has been causing a lot of chuckles I made a Penal Battalion that has everything going for it you'd think: Light Infantry, perpetually understrength, and green. Really embracing the setting the lads made a bunch of gonzo characters with Promethium Bill, the religious fanatic who volunteered for the regiment in hopes of using his personally-purchashed flamer on heretics, pretty indicative of the level of seriousness.
  After just 2 sessions Jack has us rolling up guys for Rogue Trader because we figure that the 4th-5th characters in each setting will be part of a massive crossover fairly soon.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Dungeons and Dragons is the Best at What it Does

   The Fun Lads Four and I are prepping for what we call "The Season" - in late Summer and early Autumn we tend to play a lot of RPGs. We're also talking about the various systems we're using: AD&D 1e and 2e; HERO; 5e; Pathfinder; the various D% system books from FFG's Warhammer 40K line; and we are all knee deep in WEG's D6 Star Wars.
The second weekend of August in 1990 a friend from a gaming group introduced me to a brilliant, beautiful woman. On our first "real" date we played WEG's Star Wars. Next weekend our sons are hosting a WEG Star Wars game to celebrate 30 years of being in love.
We started discussing how D6 is an excellent universal system and it has a cinematic feel, making it perfect for recreating movie worlds (which makes sense as the D6 system grew out of making the Ghostbusters and Star Wars RPGs) and that HERO, another cinematic universal system, is likewise really good at "imitating" a setting from fiction.
But discussed the limitations of GURPS, HERO, and D6 to do "generic" fantasy smoothly. As Nick said,
  "Sure, you can make a HERO Fantasy setting, but it can't be 'Europeland in general'; it has to be distinct and frankly a little gonzo to really feel right. I think D6 is like that but more."
  And from Jack,
  "And none of them dungeon crawl well. In the end the best system for a good dungeon crawl is still AD&D with a scant handful like Rolemaster, T&T, and, yes, even Palladium right on its heels."

  Which is why I am writing this - it was my turn to opine. Later I will discuss Rolemaster as an under appreciated universal system.

  HERO is one of my favorite systems of all time because with just a bit of thought you can do anything. Want to be Green Lantern? I know 3 approaches in HERO. Want to duplicate Traveller? HERO can easily do that, too. Want to make a Kojak/Beretta/Starsky & Hutch crossover? Sure! It is amazingly flexible.
GURPS is likewise supremely flexible (and let's face it, we all know GURPS is a HERO clone). D6 is likewise capable of doing about anything and has a few great ways of adapting dice pools to reflect scale (HERO 6e Damage Reduction rules are probably derived from D6's scaling rules).
  But these games share a problem that you also encounter in D&D 3/3.5/5e, Pathfinder, and some others and to a lesser degree in some others - "breaking the system".
What I mean by this take a little lead in, so bear with me. In these you have to make sure that people have reasonable limits on their dice pools/point allocations/feats that are essentially the GM not just laying down guidelines but also vetting every character and adjusting the villains and even campaign to match specific character builds. Here's an example from HERO -  a character I made called Basement Dweller/Shadowman. Without getting into the mechanics his powers allowed him to stay in bed at home while beating up someone on the other side of the world. All strictly RAW, all properly configured, not even a high points guy. But Shadowman forces the GM to specifically make villains, scenarios, etc. just to counter him.
In a oversimplified shorthand, IMO in a system where you need to seriously discuss, limit, inspect, and react to "character builds" a large amount of (for lack of a better term) gameplay occurs away from the table. And I am when I say 'gameplay' I don't mean getting supplies, talking to an innkeeper, etc., I mean 'deciding the outcome of traps and fights and such or forcing the GM to build them for you'.

And there is nothing wrong with this. After all, if I thought this was "bad" why the heck have I been playing HERO for 35 years, right?

  But I think AD&D is best at dungeon crawls because that isn't the case in that system. Here's the contrast:
  1) I have an underground adventure I made for HERO back in 1986 that I have used maybe 12 times. Every time I run it I must adjust it for the specific characters that have been built and brought.
  2) I have a similar thing in my AD&D 1e campaign that I also made in 1986 (same weekend, in fact). I have run it about 10 times and I never need change anything.

  Yes, personal anecdote, but I hope it conveys a bit more of what I mean. To sort of boil it down a bit, here is my core conceit:
To a very real extent AD&D is much more dependent upon what you do during play at the table vs what you do in character design and out-of-play metagaming. This leads to more emotional buy-in and tension during a dungeon crawl. Consequently, AD&D is "better" at dungeoncrawling than other systems.
This is one of the reasons I prefer to not abstract things like ammo, lighting, encumbrance,  and such any more than they already are - those 'precision counts' elements, IMO, add to the emotional buy-in at the table.
  Another illustration. When the Fun Lads Four did their very first dungeoncrawl as a team in years gone by (man kids grow up fast) they got lost underground. They had to keep careful track of every bit of food and water. They limited their use of light sources and carefully tracked every turn of light left. They were getting negatives for hunger and were worried the puddle they drank from got them sick and had only 20 minutes of candle left when they ambushed kobolds and got - a ham! Tension and anxiety followed by rejoicing!
To my mind that immersed them into the game much more than,
  "Roll to see if you have more illumination"
  "A 4; we do."
  "OK, roll to check for supplies"
  "A 13, but Betty has allocated an extra encumbrance zone, so with her +2 we make it."
  etc. ever could.

  In the end this is one of the main reasons I like AD&D so much and still play it.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Feel of Different Games; an emotional post

  If you aren't aware, I run and play a variety of game systems. The list of current game systems I alone run is:
  AD&D 1e (with house rules)
  AD&D 2e Skills & Powers
  Champions 6e
  Rolemaster FRP
  (this week) Warhammer: Only War, etc.

The systems I play in currently are:
  D&D 5e
  Warhammer: Only War, etc.

We also have a casual 'Traveller, anyone?' game, a Starfleet Battles tournament, and an addiction to Dominion, Scythe, and Seven Wonders. I'd mention Catan, but my wife has an unbroken 21 game winning streak, so....

  Recently someone asked me,
  "Why so many different systems?"
  At the time I gave my usual reply,
  "Different systems excel at different things."

  I think I was wrong. Here's why.
  I played D&D 5e and had an epiphany.

  My oldest son is running a tight 5e game and we had a raucous session full of ambushes, raids, surprise, and fighting with a side of politics. Afterwards I said,
  "Reminds me of Jim Henson's game."
Note: Jim 'The Muppet Master' Henson was an army comrade of mine at Ft. Bragg in the 80's. No relation to the puppeteer.
  Thing is, Jimbo only ever ran one system. Palladium Fantasy.
Note: once when I was very sick I spent 3 months converting my AD&D 1e campaign (started in 1979) to Palladium FRP out of the boredom of being cooped up.
  That's when it hit me.
  5e is a lot like Palladium FRP: Odd, silly races; goofy, unbalanced spells; oddball classes; math that doesn't quite work; still a ton of fun.
  Mind you, I think this is a compliment!

  But many of us talk about the 'feel' of a particular system. I love HERO system for superheroes; I can make any hero I can imagine, the action feels superheroic, and the flexibility is unmatched. But no matter how many times I try I don't like HERO for fantasy.
Note: I also converted my AD&D 1e campaign to HERO once with the idea of only playing one system. Nah.
  I love Traveller, but have no interest in using it for anything else. D6? Amazingly flexible system and I love Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc. But....

  So I talked about it with the lads and we compared it to books. Writing is writing; English is English. But a crime novel is different from a caper book. James Bond is worlds apart from The Destroyer.
  It was when we compared it to movies, too, that is gelled.
  Want to emulate the old pulp fantasies or ERB?
  Want to emulate JRRT?
  CJ Cherryh?
  you get the idea.

  But then we talked about how much 5e emotionally "feels like" Palladium FRP and I got it.
  Palladium FRP and 5e are Beastmaster. Kinda' goofy, kinda' nonsense, but a rip-roaring good time.

  So pop some popcorn, get ready for monstervision, and play some Beastmaster.

Monday, April 20, 2020

What we owe the Western

Note: This was written by me in 2017 and was formerly on another site.

I am far from the first person to note that role-playing games, especially fantasy RPGs, do not bear a strong resemblance to the literary sources most often referred to, Epic Fantasy. While fantasy games may be filled with dwarves, orcs, elves, and goblins during play the characters do not act as if they were on a long, selfless quest for a single goal. Instead they are interested in a great deal of action, motivated by much more immediate rewards of gold and powerful items, and far prefer a series of relatively short excursions.
The rather stark differences between the works of Tolkien, etc. and actual play of fantasy games is clearly, and humorously, demonstrated by the web comic DM of the Rings – ‘the “players” in a game based on the famous books dislike the overly-complicated back story, the nature of “non-player characters”, the relatively slow pace, and also complain bitterly about the paucity of ‘loot’.
What fantasy RPG players are looking for is a much more episodic experience (with the possibility of overarching plots and goals, of course) that have a variety of goals, provide a great amount of action and a diversity of foes, and a ‘payoff’ or frequent rewards. What they are looking for doesn’t resemble a fantasy epic but does look like a pulp Western.
The structure and formula of the classic pulp Western is fairly standard and has remained essential the same from the penny dreadfuls of the 1880s to modern film: a hero arrives; the hero is obviously much more competent than the locals; a villain and his mooks are identified; the hero overcomes the mooks; the hero faces the main villain; the hero receives his reward; the hero leaves. This simple, straightforward structure has helped the Western not only survive it helped the Western dominate popular literature, radio, TV, and film for decades.
Such a simple structure has the advantages that it is easy to add elements and complexity while staying ‘true’ to the core concept. Variants include the revenge story (the motive for the protagonist), the outcast story (the protagonist is wrongfully accused and is working to clear his name), and more. Fantasy RPGs most resemble the Western variation that Dr. Wright of Colorado State University calls ‘the Professional plot’. In the Professional plot there is a group of heroes rather than an individual and the group’s goals may be more focused on rewards than virtue. Examples of this variation include some of Louis L’Amour’s books in the Sackett series as well as the films The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven.
This simple, resilient structure also allowed the Western genre to go through a number of ‘phases’ that can also be seen within the development of fantasy RPGs. The origins of fantasy RPGs strongly resembles the ‘classic Western’: good and evil are clear and obvious; non-‘civilized’ foes (Indians in Westerns, monsters in RPGs) are a looming threat yet are rarely shown in any detail other than as combatants; stories are very episodic. The “second wave” of fantasy RPGs resemble the second wave of Westerns: good and evil are more ambiguous, Natives and humanoids are presented in more complexity, etc.. Story-focused RPGs look a lot like the ‘auteur Westerns’ of the ’60’s and ’70’s with a much stronger emphasis on character development and story, a reduction in violence, and conflict arising primarily from personality and outlook rather than about resources. ‘Hack and Slash’ RPGs and the violent spaghetti Westerns like Django are cut from the same cloth, too.
But these similarities aren’t coincidence. At the turn of the 19th Century the Western was the most popular genre and this had a tremendous impact on popular literature, especially in the growth of science fiction in the 1930’s.
While Verne, Wells and their fellow writers of scientific romance obviously flourished in the 19th Century the scientific romances themselves were not as popular as we might think. Dime novels were everywhere, but were largely westerns, about exploring Africa or the Orient, etc. with science fiction not as popular. Also, a fair amount of the scientific romances, especially from Wells and his fellows, were as much a form of social commentary as entertainment. Wells was certainly not primarily a writer of science fiction (he produced a large volume of non-fiction) and in the early 1900’s he was writing primarily contemporary novels (The History of Mr. Polly), social satire (Kipps), and non-fiction. Verne likewise primarily wrote adventure and exploration fiction with science fiction being less popular at the time. With a number of European authors producing original Westerns in French and German and also enjoying high sales, if no critical recognition, from the 1880s until well into the 1970’s the Western was king.
But the Western was changing.
In 1912 a man with no previous experience as a writer changed everything with the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, which was soon re-titled A Princess of Mars. With this book Edgar Rice Burroughs created the entire Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance genre and changed how we think of science fiction forever. The tales of an Earthman on Mars and his adventures among exotic alien races led to generations of imitators and still exerts a tremendous influence on science fiction and fantasy.
But A Princess of Mars is obviously and directly derived from the dime novel Westerns. In fact, A Princess of Mars begins with the protagonist prospecting in the Southwest and his first foes are Apaches! The conventions of classic Westerns don’t end there, either. Here is an exercise for you – when you read A Princess of Mars follow these steps:
1) Imagine John Carter as a half-breed trying to find his place in the world.
2) Imagine the Green Men as various tribes of American Indians.
3) Imagine the Red Men as White settlers where Dejah Thoris is the daughter of one prominent rancher and Sab Than is the son of a rival family.
If you do you will quickly see that the parallels between Planetary Romance and Westerns didn’t end when John Carter traveled to Barsoom. The many authors imitating Burroughs followed suit, with Leigh Brackett and Lin Carter standing out as excellent examples of Planetary Romance as ‘Westerns in Space’.
The dead sea beds and abandoned cities of Barsoom echoed the deserts and ghost towns of the West, placing John Carter in territory familiar not just to the Western genre but to Burroughs, who had served in the cavalry in the Southwest. These stark landscapes placed in an otherworldly context and against the backdrop of ancient races were certainly an influence on the development of the Dying Earth genre and echoes of Barsoom can be found decades later in Vance’s Dying Earth stories.
The generation that followed A Princess of Mars contained a number of writers critically important to popular literature in general and to the development of RPGs in particular. Among them, Robert E. Howard stands out in importance.
Howard is famous for effectively inventing the sword and sorcery genre. He did this by taking the historical adventure (whether in a real or pseudo-historical setting) and combining it with supernatural elements like the undead, lost races, etc. The first of these stories,“The Phoenix on the Sword”, introduced us to this type of story and also to the character Conan of Cimmeria. This seminal story was published in December of 1932 and the impact of this mash-up is hard to over-state; Conan is as important a pop culture icon as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or James Bond and the tales of Conan are arguably the main literary source for how fantasy RPGs are played.
But the Conan stories are plotted very similarly to Westerns. Conan arrives, he is obviously more competent than the locals, a villain is identified, etc. The other classic elements of the Western, such as the tension between the individual and society, the importance of civilization contrasted with the weakness of the civilized, the special status of women, etc. are also critical to Conan stories. This is most obvious in the story “Beyond the Black River”, which concerns Conan saving a bunch of settlers on the frontier from raids by “savages”. With just a handful of minor edits “Beyond the Black River” makes an excellent Weird West story.
But the amazing thing was Howard had already created another genre in that same year!
Howard had previously written the story “The Horror from the Mound”, a Western story concerning a cowboy fighting a vampire. This tale incorporates a mix of European folktales, Conquistador legends, Native American imagery, and Western characters, showing that Howard had already succeeded in mixing horror with another genre a full seven months before “The Phoenix on the Sword” was published. “The Horror from the Mound” is considered the first Western Horror story and is the birth of the Weird West genre. The time lines are hard to pin down, but it appears that Howard had completed “The Horror from the Mound” immediately before he began transforming an older story into the first Conan tale.
Howard was also an accomplished writer of Westerns with his tales of Breckenridge Elkins, the mighty powerful but mighty dim boy from Bear Creek, standing out as not just great stories but very funny ones, too. Written at about the same time as the Conan tales the stories of Breckenridge seem to contain a few elements of self-parody with Breckenridge’s appearance and physical abilities oddly similar to a certain barbarian while his actions are aimless, destructive, and self-defeating, causing endless torment to those around him. The slapstick tales of Breckenridge are also similar in tone to the tales of Cugel the Clever from Vance’s Dying Earth, although Breckenridge is more clueless than amoral.
The Western peaked in popularity between about 1960 and 1975 when Louis L’Amour and Luke Short were at their most popular (L’Amour sold a total of over 200 million books!) but the genre has been in decline ever since. Many bookstores no longer have a section for Westerns and most, if not all, of the magazines devoted to them are gone. But during its heyday the Western brought us Planetary Romance, Swords and Sorcery, the Dying Earth, and the Weird West. Westerns have inspired writers like Burroughs, Howard, Carter, Vance, and Brackett, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Appendix N.
I urge fans of Burroughs, Carter, Vance, and the rest, people who play RPGs, and writers to open up a Western and see just why they were so popular. I recommend you start with the Robert E. Howard short stories which can easily be found as ebooks or in omnibus editions. I find that the best Westerns are fine examples of good, clear writing and plotting and they are also sources for adventures and characters for RPGs.
Happy trails!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

If Your Torches Burn for only One Hour your NPCs will be More Important

  In the Seaward campaign the PCs formed an adventuring company, got a charter from the King, bought an old inn as a home base and, most recently, built their own level in my superdungeon.
  None of them are above 7th level and most of this activity began when they were 3rd/4th level.
  The Company is about 10 PCs but they have about 45 henchmen, as well as about 100 hirelings, mercenaries, etc.

  When discussing my campaigns in blogs, forums (very rare), on my Discord, etc. a frequent question I get is 'how do you get your players so invested in the world? NPCs seem important, they use a lot of henchmen that develop their own personalities, and they start doing things we associate with being name-level very, very early. What's the secret?'.

  The really, really short answer is that in my campaigns torches burn for an hour and weigh 2 1/2 lbs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Sting of Death

A recent social media post triggered a cascade of ideas for me, all because of the partial description of one of the most horrifyingly dangerous monsters in AD&D 1e - the Intellect Devourer.

  These things are as hard as they come, a ferocious opponent that makes an anrgy dragon seem like a vacation.
  For those of you who don't know, the Death Spell is one of the most terrifying spells in AD&D.

That is one Hell of an opening description

  If you are within the HD/Level limit no save and you're dead and only a full Wish can bring you back!
  But an Intellect Devourer shrugs off a Death Spell 75% of the time.

  What doesn't this beastie ignore?
  Power Word Kill. It just slays it.

  The first implication is that Power Word Kill includes psionic power. But that isn't enough. You see, PWK is a Ninth Level Spell, on par with Wish. The real implication is that PWK is whatever it takes to kill you.
  Only vulnerable to acid? PWK is like that. Only harmed by silver? PWK is like that. Only killed by a blessed weapon wielded by a virgin brunette that got A's in Biology at Smith? PWK is like that. Enough like all those thing to kill whatever needs killing, at least.

  Spell descriptions - read them!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Seaward - the Company of the Dark Moon

In the Seaward Campaign the majority of the PCs are in the Company of the Dark Moon with a royal charter from the king himself. They are up to things!

  Seeker, the fighter/thief head of sneak for the Company is busy.

In the Air- Using his broom he flew the hippogriff eggs they found to the grove of the Great Druid in the Briars and parkeyed with them, getting advice on how to destroy the evil elemental altars in Skull Mountain. The Druids warned him that if he did too much good in the Mountain the Guardian of the Monster Pit would awaken and unleash an army of foul monsters to destroy him 'as befell every other adventurer who attempted to purge the Mountain.' He thanked them rested the night, and flew on.
  At the mountaintop fortress of Heruhoth. Heruhoth agreed to raise and train one of the hippogriffs for the company with the second as payment. Heruhoth told him the location of the tower of the Mad Mage and the limits of the range of the Dragons of the Greywalls.
  Seeker rested, then flew on.
  After days of flight he arrived in the dwarven fortress- city of Khuzdhun. After a few days of negotiating a band of dwarven craftsmen set off for Skull Mountain!
  Seeker rested, then flew on.
  Arriving back at Skull Mountain he used several charges from a Stone of Earth Elementals to have an earth elemental carve out a rough level of his own in the Mountain. As it finished the dwarves arrived (escorted by the Company, using the Egress and the Secret Trail). The dwarves finished the level and returned home.

Not shown - the secret tunnels to the Cavern of Herds and the Egress

 Perched on a shoulder of the Mountain he has a secret ground-level entrance, access to the Deep (juuuust below the range of the turrets), a long tunnel to a secret entrance to the Pilgrim's Hall, and another that leads to both the Cavern of Herds and the Egress. 

  Leader of the Company, Clint was busy staffing the fortress the King tasked them with running for him. After hiring a number of troops, repairing and rebuilding parts of the fortress, repairing the motte and bailey at the ford, establishing patrol schedules, he decided to make a real mark.
  He hired craftsmen from Seaward to come in a full  inn and tavern complex halfway between the fortress and the ford and brought in an innkeeper as half-owner. He then sent people through the kingdom and the surrounding lands letting them know that any man that came to the area would get 30 acres and if the by then od of two years the land had a home and crops he would get 5 silvers.

  The senior mage of the party (7th level) has set off on his flying carpet for the University, that fables hall of arcane knowledge outside of Robias, the City of One Hundred Towers. He is seeking a sage that can tell him of the Mad Mage, the Wizard of the Tower, the Witch of the Fens, and the other powerful evil mages that bedevil the area.

The Dungeon Master
  I am spending Sunday updating maps and re-writing encounter charts!

Friday, March 27, 2020

Seaward: Massive Update

  The players decided to do a focused scout inside Skull Mountain so set off through the Briars with a party heavy on thieves and light on fighters (although the ranger Starfalcon was there).
  After a long slog up the Old Road slowed down by massive Spring rains and high winds the party reached the Plateau just in time to see a group of human-shaped figures go down what they call the Hunter's Trail on the south slope. Some very careful scouting by familiars revealed a camp about 1 mile down filled with a hobgoblin warband of about 60.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Blackstone: Massive Update

  Time for a dump of all the adventuring done in Blackstone since Christmas!

The Fever Lands
  Two groups of PCs went to the Fever lands.

      In the East a tough team of PCs crept down the Viper River, passt the ruins of Tamoachan (where they saw the ancient city swarming with megalocentipedes), and scouted the foreboding Jade Tower.
  They were forced to be very careful because of the winged apes that hunt throughout this area, but eventually learned that the last surviving leaders of the Necromancer Cult were hidden in the Jade Tower, led by an Ogre Mage chieftain. A judicious  use of illusions and misdirection and they successfully ambushed the Ogre Mage. It was a fierce battle, but the badly-bloodied party prevailed.
  They threw down the tower and left.

      In the West a very different party went to the colony established by the King of Blackstone two decades before and right into the middle of political intrigue.
  The military governor was Baron Addan, formerly an independent nobleman whose domain was annihilated by a dragon (an adventure the players had in in 2009!). Forced to appeal to the King he has been the military governor of the colony for almost a decade. Under his leadership the sleepy village that cost money to own was turned into a bustling trade town making the King great wealthAddan's triplet son Arran, Bordann, and Eamonn, were great assets. The soldiers were 50/50 retainers of Addan (and fiercely loyal to him) and royal recruits (who worshiped the triplets).
  But the king had sent his cousin, Count Farnorr, to the town to become the new noble ruler. Farnorr had brought his own sizeable group of retainers. The triplets were openly bitter and Addan had focused on building a sturdy walled village 2 days South into the jungle and was openly manning it with those most loyal to himself.
  Count Farnorr met with the adventurers (who were there for the Inquisition) along with the local bishop and Farnorr's daughter, Faella. They discussed the search for cultists, the dangers of the Fever Lands, and more.
  Addan left for the remote village the next day. And 2 nights later the PCs were summoned in the middle of the night - the triplets had kidnapped Faella and fled South, taking some of Addan's most loyal with them! As the Count prepared an actual army he begged the party to pursue, and pursue they did.

  things got weird almost immediately. Just 3 miles outside of town they found one of Addan's men beheaded next to a lame horse. The ranger was able to piece together that one of the triplets had had his horse tumble and go lame and then seemed to kill his own soldier and take his horse. They later found the rest of the troops, all killed in melee. But no sign of the triplets or Faella.
  The party forged on with horses, slowly losing ground to the triplets who were switching between 4 horses each.Then the party saw smoke on the horizon.
  The arrived to the village in flames. The dead were Addan's own men and the royal soldiers with Addan himself dead at the door to the main keep. The palisade and keep were burning allowing the ranger to deduce that the soldiers loyal to the triplets had ambushed their father and his men, then the triplets had killed the survivors before setting off South on foot (no horses beyond the village). Faella was still with them.

  The party buried Addan, placed the other bodies in the fires, and briefly rested before continuing on foot.
  Faella was slowing down the triplets and the party hoped to catch them when they were suddenly ambushed by a tasloi warband, including tasloi on giant wasps dropping nets.
  The fight was very tough, especially one the chieftain showed up armed with a Ring of Blinking, a Potion of Invulnerability, Bracers of AC 4,and a poisoned spear. But after a very, very tough fight the party prevailed, killing the chief and shaman and scattering many survivors.
  Pressing onward they were approached by a pair of jungle elves. Impressed that the party had defeated the tasloi warband the elves exchanged information about the terrain and the tasloi village for some arrowheads. The jungle elves referred to the triplets as 'the ancient evil' and reluctantly told the party where to find them.

  The party is soon ambushed by another tasloi warband... and the chieftain?! The fight was rough and the chieftain was insanely tough. And when they killed the chief? He turned back into he normal form.
A doppleganger.

  The party was able to track down Where the warband came from and found "the chieftain" exhorting another warband! The pary ambushed the warband, for once, and when the doppelganger was killed the tasloi fled.

  Following the directions the jungle elves had given (finally!) the party found an ancient Jade Empire (Mayincatec) building. As they approached the 30' stone dwelling two Faella's emerged! There was a bit of a standoff trying to figure out which was which until the mage cast Sleep and they killed the one who was confused, THEN fell down (the mage has a Ring of Mind Shielding).

  Looting the building they learned a lot, including that the dopplegangers had been living there for at least 3,000 years. The found a map to the Flint Skies (the mythical capitol of the ancient Jade Empire). Now, there are 6-7 maps to the Flint Skies but they are all proven inaccurate. This one, though, was complete enough for them to figure out why all the maps are broken - the map gave directions based on the stars and the map was so old the stars have moved.
  The party stashed the accurate map (they can adjust!) and took Faella home.

  They met the Count at the village. He was very happy to see his daughter. Over the next few days the truth of Addan's loyalty, the evidence that his son's had been murdered and replaced a year previously, and his tragic death, believing he was betrayed by his own sons, had a profound effect on the Count.

  The party rested, re-equipped, and headed right back out. With scouting they located the tasloi village and staged an attack that killed a few, but fell back, planning guerilla tactics against the number humanoids.
  But then a massive green dragon landed. At first the tasloi greeted it warmly, saying they were under attack and asking 'their master' to kill the intruders.
  But the dragon grew angry. When he learned that the magic items he had loaned to them had been stolen he bellowed,
  "You have failed me! You are TOO WEAK to be my servants!"
  And he killed them all before flying away.

  The party left, fast, and warned the count of the dragon just 4 days away!.

Next entry - catching up on Seaward.