Monday, November 6, 2023

Play Report: Skull Mountain

   At the end of the last Skull Mountain session the PCs had retreated to safety at Owen's redoubt, met with visiting elves, and recovered from injuries for some time. A lot happened away from table with them and with many other PCs slowing their return. But yesterday they returned, the same players and so on

Monday, October 2, 2023

Personal Update and Play Report

 I prefer not to talk about my current personal life because this blog is about gaming, pop culture, etc., not a journal. But I have been light on blogging for the last three years because of multiple personal medical emergencies ranging from emergency abdominal surgery to save my life to a pulmonary embolism that should have been lethal (I do not recommend them). Very many of the last 18 months have been bedrest, recuperation, physical therapy, and so on. I am facing at least one additional surgery over the next few months so I will not be back to full strength and productivity for about another 2-3 years

  This has slowed down a number of projects I was working on ranging from my own fantasy table top RPG to my mass combat rules to a magazine. I apologize for these delays, but all are still moving forwards. I am deeply grateful for the prayers and support I have gotten from the larger community of gaming fans and especially the guys and gals on my Discord. Thanks you.

    This last weekend saw a major foray into Skull Mountain by 5 players. Skull Mountain is the megadungeon in my 44+ year old AD&D campaign called Seaward.

    The players and their characters:

Jennifer played Ingrid 8th level Human fighter
Jack played Seeker 9th/10th Elven Mage/Thief
Alex played Starfalcon 7th level Half-Elf Ranger
Sam played Clint 9th level Paladin
Nick played Owen 10th level Human Mage

  There were 15 henchmen along, notably the 7th level half-ogre fighter Octavius with his sword Horsekiller and the 7th level human fighter Baldric. This is glossing over a group of henchmen of great skill and power with multiple 5th-7th level clerics/religious brothers.

The goal was to return to the Eastern Tunnels and both follow what they call the Extension Cord and deal with the overly-large Greater Sewage Beast in the Middens.

   The party met at Seeker's home, which is the level he added to the megadungeon. After getting equipment and confirming load outs, encumbrance, etc. they used the Hidden Ways to get to the Cavern of Herds. There they ran into the (NPC) Beginner of the Third Way, a powerful but mysterious monk that lives in the Briars. he often travels to Skull Mountain to fight powerful creatures in his quest to master the martial arts. Together with the Beginner, who they all know, they went to the Snard Village at the edge of the Cavern of Hers where they found the entrepreneurial snards (think 'subterranean humanoids the size of brownies that tend toward Good) are now making and selling cheese. 

  The party checked in with the mayor of the snards and learned that things had been quiet, although the cave bison had been avoiding the southern edge of the vast cavern. Investigating the ranger Starfalcon noticed new 'game trails' coming from the caverns where the Trog Tribes had formerly lived. Scouting they realized the sprawling Trog Tunnels were infested with ulsios (eight-legged rats the size of terriers)! But Seeker had a bad feeling, so he turned stealthy (Ring of Inaudibility and Invisibility and a Sachet of Sentlessness) and used his broom to inspect the ceiling...
  ....and almost bumped into a Stalactite Terror (18' tall 'living stalactite' with multiple very long tentacles)! The horrible creature attacks, its barbed tentacles easily reaching the 50' to attack the main party on the ground. Seeker, already airborne, was joined by   with a Fly spell from a henchman and in just 4 rounds the creature was destroyed. Mage henchmen led by   used Fireballs to wipe out the ulsios.

  Pivoting back to the main mission, they paused to ask the snard mayor to keep them updated and then went down the Eastern Tunnel. Going a bit over a mile they approached the Three Caves of the Space Bugs. The Asteroid Snail was, luckily, at the far end of the central cave and they were able to approach it and parley. The monks and druids were able to convince it that the party meant it no harm and were not food. Attempts to parley with the Galaxy Snail failed, as usual, but they realized that it only fired its plasma spheres at things approaching it or the large pool at the end of its cave. They party fell back and Seeker cast Clairvoyance to look into the pool.

  He learned that the 'algae' on top is really death slime that would dissolve anyone attempting to jump into the pool. Against the far wall about 20' underwater in a recess is a bronze door covered in warning runes as well as a glyph particularly attuned to ward away Baba Yaga (!!). Seeker made notes, told the party, and they continued down the Eastern Tunnel.

  Carefully skirting the edge of the Cave of Falling Stalactites and dealing with horror beetles roaming for food the party passed the five entrances to the Monster Maze but detoured just before the tunnel to the Middens to scout the Star Tombs again. Getting closer they decided to send in only Seeker, who is of the same sub-race of elf as the space elves were. The two Swordmaiden Guardian Statues at the entrance allowed him to pass, as did the Type III Golem, but the second set of Swordmaiden Guardian Statues flanking the far door barred his advance.

  Suddenly Clint had an epiphany: when meeting the King of Tirgalen 2 years previously he had noted that an unusual old-elvish word was used to greet the king's guards. He had written it down as very odd and decided to try it as a password to avoid the 5 guardians of the Star Tomb.
    It worked

DM Note: The player, Sam, had indeed made a note when the same PC was in the Court of the King of Tirgalen about the odd word used as a greeting to the king's guards in an adventure in, I believe, 2021. It is, yes, a memory of the old protocols for this base. Good notes!

  Beyond they found a junction that led to 4 other caverns. As they entered five Fiery Tentacle Beasts erupted from above each tunnel and began to attack! Several party members were burned, bashed, cut, and stabbed, but after about 8 rounds the vicious creatures were slain and the injured patched up. Seeker's new short sword, Deathknell, proved its worth that battle.

  One tunnel off the junction held an elven village of about 15 home as if they had been snatched from a sylvan forest somewhere. Long deserted. The next tunnel led to a massive circular cavern where a broad, flat ledge ringed a huge, deep pool of pure water. the ceiling was an iris door over 600 yards across. The third led far around the cavern with a pool and was a highly advanced Control Station, far superior to anything seen so far! They found the far end of the Extension Cord here and disconnected it. They then accidentally contacted Admiral Finnan Laclaer, commander of the Silver Fleet's Fifth Squadron on the Starbase. 

  What followed was a great deal of good news for the essentially stranded and incommunicado Fifth Squadron. With an exchange of information the Admiral agreed to send a ship to the drydock atop Skull Mountain so that some of his people could take over Level Zero. Clint hopes to negotiate a trade agreement between Starbase and his own, new, domain. 

  They also learned that the sometimes-visitors to that part of Skull Mountain were not the Space Elves but rather the Githyar from Planet Iau. They were honor-bound to maintain the guardians of the Tomb. What tomb? The tomb Seeker had seen earlier! It is called the Tomb of the Vampire Sorceress Natasha, Baba Yaga's Favorite Daughter.

  The party agreed to scout the last tunnel before turning back to prepare to meet the space elves in 5 more days. Along that tunnel they entered a large cavern, dimly lit, that held a manufacturing area. A female elf was wandering around the middle of the cavern repeatedly inventorying the materials on the benches. Very wary, the party slipped closer and observed that every 2-3 minutes she would 'flicker' and distort.  About every 3rd flicker she would pause and stare at her own hands mumbling.

  "Am I real? I'm not real! But I have to be real! What is happening?!"

  Or something similar. Then she would go back to her job. When the party was about 60' away they called out to her. She began to slicker and pixelate more. The sights of this forced teh party save vs magic (fear). About half the part failed and they were paralyzed in terror. Then she talked her voice getting louder and and louder,

  "Yes! The evacuation order! I had to evacuate! But the teleporter... the teleporter! The teleporter was damaged! I had to try! THERE WAS NO OTHER WAY! I HAD TO USE THE TELEPORTER!"

  And she screamed. The scream sounded like a terrified woman and a dial up modem combined and it was so loud it knocked items over 90' away.

  The party was more than 30' away from the Digital Banshee, but less than 90' so the save vs death was normal. SIXTEEN OF THE TWENTY PARTY MEMBERS FAILED THE SAVE! At that range everyone who failed lost 50% of their maximum hit points.

  Then the Digital Banshee charged.

  Luckily there were enough people to meet her charge and one of the not-paralyzed henchmen clerics had the spell Remove Fear to free Clint. Clint closed with his holy sword, the Purifier, and the Digital Banshee was disrupted. Once the party was free of paralysis effects (just 2 more rounds until it wore off) a scroll of Dispel Evil was used so the tormented creature would never reform.

  At this point the party carefully retreated the way they had come back toward safety, only needing to fight two more horror beetles on the way. They went to the Salon and Spa on the Deep to recuperate in the healing waters there.

Player quotes:
Sam: 'So just a half-mile from the Eldritch Horror from Beyond Space that had a save or die attack there was a Tormented Soul Trapped Between Life and Death that had  different save or die attack? I'm really not looking forward to whatever is down the Eastern Tunnels beyond here."

Jennifer: "So both times we face these creatures Ingrid dies or almost-dies? She's not coming back down her! Nothing but overland adventures for a while!"

Jack: "One the one hand, why do so many people use Skull Mountain to hide things? On the other, I live in Skull Mountain to hide from things."

Nick: "Remember, every 500 yards down these tunnels I tack up another advertisement for my Salon and Spa in the Deep. I left extra in the control room."

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Cauldron of Creativity, or the Early Days of RPGs: The Movies and Television

   The crew on my Discord have been asking me to talk about the culture of the early days of the RPG hobby. While I started relatively late (only began playing in '77 and didn't start DMing until '79) I am very much part of that First Wave and, as a Gen Xer, was definitely in the culture.

  This is going to be bounding around a little bit between TV, movies, movies on TV, the dawn of the VCR age, etc. but I will try to focus on '75 - '84.

  TV was rather different then and I find it hard to explain to my own children who grew up with cable and on-demand and are now in the age of streaming services. In general unless you had access to an independent station you got what everyone else got - I Love Lucy, Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Saturday morning cartoons, and so on. I was lucky enough to live within range of Channel 4 out of Indianapolis and had access to their indie shows like Science Fiction Theater, Horror Theater, and (of course) Sammy Terry! So before I got to RPGs I had seen all the classic Universal horror films, all the Godzilla movies of the day, and a ton of Hammer horror, to boot. This background stuff is more important than you think. For example, the description of a vampire's abilities obviously draws on Hammer horror films at least a little.

  The theater movies that were current or coming to TV at the time were certainly something that influenced the games I was part of or knew about. A memory that came to me as I was writing this was how I visualized the very first dungeon I went into as being like the ship in The Poseidon Adventure after it capsized; strange, threatening, and full of things that could kill you. The Omen and The Exorcist were certainly influential and I remember one of the first cleric PCs I saw, run by an adult, was named Father Karras.

  But the big names in the room of movies in that era were the blockbusters and the cult films. 1975 was the year Jaws came out, and that film is a horror film that taught a lot of young dungeon masters that less was more - keep that monster in the shadows, behind the trees, around that next corner, and let the players' own imaginations terrify them. 1975 was also The Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult film that starts as horror but turns out to be science fiction, shredding genre limits (and being goofy fun).1976 had King Kong, a big monster film and inspiration for at least one module, of course. But it also had In Search of Noah's Ark

  Yes, In Search of Noah's Ark. Never heard of it? It is based on a book theorizing about where Noah's Ark came to rest (no, really!) and, brace yourselves - It out earned The Missouri Breaks, Midway. Marathon Man, and Carrie. But stuff like that, Chariots of the Gods, films about Nostradamus, documentaries on Bigfoot, UFOs - they were all very popular so secret histories, conspiracy theories, alien invaders, and so on were certainly part of general culture and the bleed over into gaming was massive. 

    1977 was a big year with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both being incredibly popular all over the world. But you also had Planet of the Dinosaurs, Damnation Alley, Island of Dr Moreau, The People that Time Forgot, and Wizards, all that same year! A ton of science fiction, and that really impacted gaming, especially since Traveller came out that year, too, perfectly timed to be the science fiction RPG of the old school. That was also the year of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, a great D&D movie if there ever was one.

  So you can see, just as the Monster Manual was hitting shelves and ushering in AD&D 1e the overall culture was neck-deep in science fiction, fantasy, and gonzo films and TV.  As AD&D was released slowly from 1977 through 1986 [yes - really] the initial RPG explosion that gave us everything from Traveller to Rolemaster to WEG Star Wars and so on we also had the VCR explosion that was essentially ubiquitous by 1982.

  Then the golden age of VCR films really began. Flash Gordon, Hawk the Slayer, the Archer, Dragon Slayer, Excalibur, Time Bandits, Ator the Fighting Eagle, Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, the Dark Crystal, and the Sword and the Sorceror, all top-shelf cheesy fantasy films, all part and parcel of the RPG mentality, were all released within 32 months of 1980 and 1982! The incredible volume of fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, and "what the Hell did I just watch?!" movies from 1977-1985 is probably beyond the ability of Man to count. and with VCRs all over and the glorious mom & pop video stores willing to put Italian Giallo movies on the shelf if soldiers, college kids, and band nerds were willing to rent them they were everywhere.

  The two movies I want to single out today will probably surprise you. Everyone who knows me know I am constantly promoting Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Deathstalker II as not just wonderfully entertaining but D&D adjacent, but! I think the best movies to illustrate the Old School RPG Attitude are - 

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China. Both of them use genre as a descriptor, not a confinement. Both have a ton of details and throw information at the vuewer left and right.

  Look at the opening of Buckaroo Banzai: the movie cuts back and forth between a military test range and an operating room letting us know Buckaroo has been called in to assist as a neurosurgeon then (after recruiting a new member of his team) arrives to drive a rocket car. At about 8:30 into the movie it is casually mentioned that his jet car has broken the sound barrier and that's not the most interesting thing he does in the jet car before 10:30. 

  In BTiLC the motivations for the villain is casually mentioned in a bunch of fast-paced patter and the existence and powers of the Three Storms are just - there. Why are there rival martial arts gangs like a Shaw Brothers film and dueling wizards in contemporary San Francisco? The real question is "why not?" because they certainly never spell it out slowly for the viewer

  And let's pause to discuss the big fight in BTiLC: The leader (Wang Chi) and his pal Jack Burton get a wizard and a bunch of martial artists together then sneak through monster-haunted dungeons to break into the fortress of an evil wizard to save the prince-, uh, fiancĂ© and reporter. BTiLC is part western, part Wuxia, part heist film, and ALL Dungeons & Dragons. To old school RPGers the massive martial arts fight/wizard duel in a neon-lit room with an escalator was pure gold.

  As mentioned, both use genre as a reason to expand, not contract, and both let us know they have a solid, consistent internal logic that is shown on the screen not explained to the audience. They involve groups of people with various talents teaming up to defeat evil with a broad ensemble of skills and abilities.

  But most importantly both assume that the audience is intelligent. Each film is packed with references to the reality that exists within the cinematic universe of the particular film that imply a huge, sprawling world where you just know is full of other stories just as entertaining, fun, and excisting as the one you are watching.

  This attitude, where your AD&D 1e campaign could have a villain with a three-bladed rocket-propelled sword, you might run into a very odd mechanical monster deep under Mount Thunder, and everyone knew what a certain chant meant (bad news) was common in an explosively creative time for RPGs and unique, personal campaigns flourished. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't 'every campaign used everything from everywhere'! I firmly disallowed three-bladed swords, but did not have a problem with steam-powered 'muskets', for example. But the 'pop culture is a buffet for RPGs' was just an assumption for the majority of us. But, again, the most important element was that the RPGs also assumed that the gamemasters and players were intelligent - and creative. There was 'space' inside the best games for you to make it what you want, add and subtract what worked for your table.

  For as many times Gygax wrote 'there is ONE WAY to play AD&D!' in the DMG there are three things listed as 'optional, like six-guns, power armor, and dynamite. The artifacts and relics in the DMG include the computer from Altair IV, the steam organ of the Gods, and a giant mecha. This multi-genre, make it awesome but stay internally consistent ethos was the core of actual old school attitudes toward play.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Massive Session Report: from West to East

       Hello, folks, it is time for a massive update! There were two sessions recently, both played on a weekend. In the first one we had

      Hans Shrek, World's Strongest Halfling and his henchmen

      Ingrid, Fighter and her henchmen

      Thorin, Fighter/Thief and his henchmen

      Starkiller, Cleric/Fighter/Magic-user, and his henchmen

     Graystar, Magic-user, and his henchman

Monday, September 5, 2022

Session Report: War in the Stone Hills!

   The most recent sessions took place in the Stone Hills west of Seaward.

The heroes were:

Carlton - 6th level paladin. The Hero of the Battle of Eagle Valley. Famed as a master of the lance.

Fiona - 4th/4th Fighter/Magic-user. Elf. Known as a tactician and for her keen senses.

The Sparrow - 8th level Thief. Through magic and cunning fights with a two-handed sword. One handed. Senior thief in the Company.

Akira - 7th level monk. The Man with the Eldritch Fists. 

Conrad - 6th/5th Fighter/Cleric. Dwarf. Champion of the Innocent, Defender of the Downtrodden, hammer of Foes.

Henchmen brought the party to a total of 11 members with levels. The Hills are rugged and empty so they brought a dozen mules loaded with provisions and gear, 2 drovers, a cook, and a camp guard to hep the henchmen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Time After Time

   I am currently running about 12 players in my AD&D 1e campaign in roughly 3 three groups.. This means that I must keep STRICT TIME RECORDS as gary mentions.

  But why?

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Common Elements of Epic Adventures: Familiar Faces

   For those that don't know I had a serious health crisis early in the year. I didn't cheat Death, but I did win on the long odds. Three times. So blogging was light.

  Returning to my discussion of Epic Adventures let me address the first element I think they have in common: the characters are neither low nor very high level. 

  This doesn't mean 'start the PCs at 5th level so they can be epic!!'. This means that the PCs have to grow into their own as well as into the campaign. Among the concepts of my gaming philosophy [Psychotronic Gaming] is the ideas that PCs drive action and that status quo is the enemy. Combined with the rest this means that as PCs start, level up, grow, and develop they inevitably change the campaign and grow to be a part of it. Verisimilitude and resource management effectively forces the PCs to have their own individual, unique relationships with multiple NPCs ranging from hirelings and henchmen to mayors and sages. In the end after 2-4 Real World years of gaming the PCs are integrally part of the campaign such that what their actions and fates matter to the campaign as a whole.

  There are no shortcuts to this. This is something that is organic to the "process" of RPG campaigns. Like true inside jokes. in-group jargon, etc. it can only healthily develop and 'set' over time and with familiarity. Just making a mid-level character and slapping them into a contrived huge battle to save the world is going to have the elements of an epic adventure but won't be one.

  Many bad movies have the elements of a good movie: established, well-known actors; famous writers; famous directors; etc.; yet miss the mark and are, well - junk. Do people watch it? Sure. Might it be a cult film? Yes. But that is NOT because it is epic.

  Just like a lot of creative endeavors/art quality and expertise takes lots of time and practice and that includes with individual characters within an RPG campaign. Relationships between PCs and between PCs and NPCs alone take a lot of time! 

  This means the build up to a truly epic adventure is going to take years of Real World time. The good news is, those years will be full of great fun with friends.

Next time: why you can never plan an Epic Adventure.