Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Elf Queen's Hill-A 4th Level Maze (Sneak Preview Map)

The Labyrinthine Courts of the Elf Queen In the Mound Near Glastonbury  

Due to a recent operation I  find myself with a little extra time on my hands to prepare adventure material for our games. This is after a near 3 month game drought when I did not do any gaming at all. But this is my hobby, after all.

The projects I am working on are the Elf Queen's Hill, a brand new 4th-5th level adventure, and The Shrine of Poseidon's Daughter.

The Shrine is an adventure I ran several months back for an ill fated 2nd Age of Atlantis Campaign (1st edition AD&D) that I began but had to let go. The adventure was enjoyable, however and I am considering revising it for use with non-Atlantean settings...or I may it leave it as is and simply write a formal key to the dungeon. It consists of two levels for which I have completed the Maps and have only to write up, being as I ran it entirely from hastily scrawled notes the first time.

That must come after my current task, though, which is to complete the key for Anwyn, the Hill of the Elf Queen Gwynach.

This scenario is inspired in the main by Celtic myth and Arthurian related themes. I used the name of Glastonbury due to its connection to Arthurian myths and also legends about a faery mound near there ruled by a faery king and his court. 

It presents a picture of the elves that is in keeping with the oldest traditions on the subject, traditions which portray the faery races as capricious and somewhat inimical to Man. 

These are not Tolkien's elves, much as I love those tales. 

Realizing that this will not fit in with everyone's campaign milieu, I am including notes for conversion and alternative antagonists if one wishes to remain with the Tolkienish Elven race.

In keeping with the idea of the faery mound, and sacred circles, the Maze lies within a great grassy hillock in a clearing within a vast forest.

The largest oak tree the party will have ever seen crowns the summit of the hill, and in fact it's roots form the walls  and ceilings of the labyrinth,along with earth. 

The floor of the Maze is soft, packed earth, and it is lit throughout with faery lamps which bring the light of the sun into the Mound so that flowering vines hang from the walls of the rooms and passage ways of Anwyn and there are a few gardened areas.

Of course the hill can only be accessed by means of a magic door...but enter at peril of ever coming out again. And if you do come out...will 100 hundred years have passed for every day you live in the courts of the Elves?

I am still working out a few elements of the adventure and it is proving a task--creating a fun and challenging adventure in such a small and unique environment without players becoming frustrated is going to be hard!

The atmosphere will be much more in keeping with a"fairy tale" atmosphere (I hope) than the traditional, gritty stone dungeon model. I know I have players whose tastes run decidedly counter to this, but I will find a place and time to run this scenario nonetheless.

But I have completed most of the rough draft of the Maze Key and I believe it will be a fun adventure.

I will upload the key to the Elf Queen's Hill and Shrine of Poseidon's Daughter as soon as they are complete.

Hunchbacks, Hobbits and Necromancers;A Spontaneous Game Session

Let's Investigate Strange Lights in an Ancient Cemetery....

My son had a friend stay the night last night and the two of them and my daughter stayed up pretty late with me. They are ages 16-17. Growing bored with X-Box and Netflix, they were debating what to do and I nonchalantly suggested "How about a game of D&D?"

They agreed. Now my daughter has played the game maybe six times total and abandoned it long it ago as "not her thing." She has steadfastly resisted playing despite me occasionally begging her to join her brother and I for a game. So when she agreed quickly, I was under no illusions that she had a change of heart--she finds my son's friend "cute."

Hey, anything to get a player!

I have been working on several adventures but was saving them for this weekend when some friends and I have some serious gaming planned. So I decided to do what I used to do a lot as a kid playing D&D--wing it!

I keep copies of every character we ever roll up for our games and so I have a binder of characters of various levels. I let people rename them, change the sex if need be, and occasionally tweak them to fit a new game. My daughter picked a Halfling Thief ,Chinka Tumblefoot, my son ran his human Warrior Mage Eastwood, and his friend ran an Elf Fighter he had played in another game once long ago, one Verimoore.

We set the table up, put out the lights, and played by candle glow. And suddenly, we were in the mood to game!

I enjoy reading OSR blogs for many reasons, chief among them being I get a lot of inspiration, and other times I wouldn't call it inspired, I just plagiarize outright...for the gaming table only, of course.

While looking over Tombowning's Magician's Manse blog a day or so ago, I noticed a feature of his campaign environs called "The Tower of a Thousand Faces." It seized my imagination and so I had a vague idea for the adventure. From there I began to go off the cuff and with no prior planning whatsoever!

The party started off in a tavern in the great Northern city of Kravekos. They were drinking and smoking their pipes when in rushed a portly man, his clothes torn and dirty, his boots muddy with travel, and his face unshaven, sweaty, and terrified. Shaking, he walked to the bar and began to order one drink after another.

Our party approached him and asked him what was the matter. His name was Murgo, and he told them he had returned from a doomed expedition wherein three of his companions had died horribly. He was done with adventuring forever. Upon further prodding, he revealed that the object of their quest had been the Tower of a Thousand Faces, which lay in the Swamps of Ern. It was said that all the gold a man would ever want for lay beyond it's portal.

Two of Murgo's friends had perished in the swamps and the third had died inside the Tower to some horror in the dark, leaving Murgo to flee the swamps and somehow make it back alive. My daughter truly grew horrified at Murgo's description of a tower covered from top to bottom with crowded faces which were the visages of all of those who had perished within the Tower...

A table of Knights at meal overheard the convesration (don't ask me why Knights were eating in the tavern instead of the Castle...)and one Sir Allocon laughed at the tale, which he discounted as an old wives tale. Swamp fever was the only thing that Murgo had encountered....

Eastwood managed to convince Murgo to be their guide at least to the place where the Tower stood. The Knight was all too eager to take up a Quest, intending to prove the Tower a myth. So they agreed to meet in the morning outside the city gates and journey to the Swamps of Ern. After buying two horses and a pony, they were off.

They made camp that night on a lonely heath near an abandoned cemetery from ancient times. I decided an encounter was needed to enliven the journey!

On the Halfling's watch, she noted a strange green light in the direction of the cemetery. Rousing her companions, they debated their course of action. Sir Allocon refused to flee or shun to investigate this light, upon his knightly honor. Murgo, for his part, refused to leave camp.

Eastwood feared a trap of bandits, so he chose to wait with their horses and gear and Murgo while the other three checked it out and would promptly report back.

They shuttered the knight's lantern and he held onto Chinka's cloak since she and the Elf have Darksight. As they neared the ring of broken stones that had once been the cemetery walls, Chinka used her sneaking abilities to draw closer and from behind a tombstone she was able to discern that the green light was a magical orb which floated in the air from grave to grave, stopping over one area and hovering. She motioned to her companions, who joined her.

Verimoore and the Knight joined her and the elf, who had superior vision, was able to  make out two figures, one standing still while another dug in the earth. Verimoore told Chinka and Sr Allocon to wait while he approached to challenge these sacrilegious persons as to why they were disturbing the rest of the dead.

Turned out to be an old man dressed in wizard's robes and his hunchbacked servant who was busy digging up a corpse.

The elf startled them, but when they recovered, they answered his inquiry with a warning to leave them be. Pressed further, the Mage said something about getting a proper army assembled very soon and marching down there to show Kravekos a thing or two about what power really means. Yes, it was a tactical blunder on the mage's part, but it made for good theater!

Verimoore (played by a very green player, remember) resolutely advised the wizard and his crony to leave off their sacrilege and depart at once or there would be trouble.  Chinka meanwhile began to creep around to a place where her backstabbing ability would be of use...

But upon hearing of Kravekos, Sir Allocon could hide no more and boldly strode into the Wizard's green light, demanding he explain what he meant and assuring him he would first deal with Sir Allocon.

The Wizard was fine ith this. He raised his hands dramatically and cried..."To me, my servants...To me!" And from out of the darkness approached four animated skeletons and two ghouls!

Meanwhile, concerned that his friends had been away so long, Eastwood left the cowering Murgo and headed for the cemetery. He quickly saw the green light and made for it where he saw a terrible battle underway.

Now let me say, with a  touch of superstition, that no matter what game my daughter plays, dice love her. It is the most bizarre thing I have witnessed. She cannot but roll good. And so while I will spare you a blow by blow account of the battle, the battle lasted ten rounds and she missed only twice while Verimoore hit only twice! Yes, Austin rolled 6 misses and fumbled twice!

But I proceed to hastily. It began well enough when Eastwood cast his Sleep spell and aimed it at the Wizard. Kaboom! Wizard and hunchback both dropped, snoring soundly, but alas, so did Sir Allocon who was standing too close! But this left the Undead to deal with, and without a cleric around to try and turn them!

My son found out he doesn't like ghouls. Besides getting 3 attacks each, they have that nasty paralyzing business. So he rejoiced in getting a hit in on the ghoul he faced, but not when he was slashed by ghoul claws and teeth and not only took damage but had to save vs. poison or be paralyzed.

He failed. And mind you, in our last game, this same character was paralyzed in the first round of a battle with a  Carrion Crawler! He was not happy and his gaming mood quickly soured. Furthermore, the ghoul kept attacking him while he was down! To give him a chance, I made the rolls instead of letting the ghoul dispatch hi outright, reasoning that he was still resisting the poison and so was  rolling around as best he could as it overtook his limbs, dodging the ghoul's attacks.

Meanwhile, Chinka managed to get her +4 Sneak attack in and that with a magical sword, +2 again! So a whopping +6. She hit and did double damage and severed the ghoul's head.

For the remainder of the battle, she used her magic sword and then her bow to mop up on the enemy.

Verimoore couldn't hit the broad side of a barn! The only thing he had going for him was that he had a low Armor Class and that as an elf he was immune to the ghoul poison. Beyond that, he was dismal and believe it or not somehow managed to roll a 1 TWICE in this combat! A 1is a fumble in our game and you lose your next attack!

While all this is going on, Murgo comes charging into the melee, apparently not so base a coward that he would allow his friends to be wantonly butchered. He scored a hit on a ghoul, did very pathetic damage to it, and then got slashed with ghoul poison and failed his saving throw--down he went!! And the ghoul turned to attacking Murgo instead of Eastwood, who would be down to 3 Hit points at the end of this fracas.

The party finally triumphed thanks to Chinka and Verimoore...well, mostly Chinka. Verimoore killed one skeleton. While both Murgo and Eastwood did minimal damage to one ghoul, it was Chinka who dealt the deathblow to every enemy except Verimoore's one skeleton. So my daughter was feeling pretty triumphant, my son was being very sullen, and his buddy simply breathed a sigh of relief.

Tragically, they found that Murgo had died in his battle with the Ghoul! Alas, his dark premonitions had proved true and his earlier escape from fate was in vain!

They searched and bound the Wizard and his hireling, then waited for everyone who was either asleep or paralyzed to come to. When that was done, Eastwood angrily tried to snuff out the Wizard's life (he's Chaotic Neutral) but Sir Allocon disputed this on moral grounds (Allocon is lawful good). It was a moot point though--just as Eastwood was about to cast Charm Person on the Wizard, the evil fellow spoke some magic word and vanished, his ropes falling to the ground.

The hunchback, whose name turned out to be Urg, blubbered and pleaded for his life. I managed to get really into character with Urg and he was so pitiful that they could not but spare him, but upon finding out that he lived in a hut in the Swamps and only occasionally worked for the Wizard, the party insisted that he replace their dead guide. Sniveling, he agreed, though he feared the Necromancer, who "lives in a great tower somewhere in the Swamp."

It was an "Aha" moment to the players, admittedly cheap on my part since I had not planned it and since it made little sense plot wise but again, it was matinee stuff and the kids enjoyed it! They decided the Tower of a Thousand faces must be the Necromancer's tower! And so, of course, that is precisely what it is now...

And so the adventure ended for now (we didn't start until 2:00 am ) with the party anxious to reach the Tower of a Thousand Faces and very pleased with having found on the Wizard a Scroll with a spell of Protection from Petrification.

My son's friend really enjoyed it, my boy not as much cause he tends to get that way when he rolls badly, but I was happiest that my daughter got into it. She remarked that the game seemed much more fun when it was only 3 players and a DM. Hopefully this means she will play again, but who can tell? I certainly had a good time and it taught me that sometimes the open adventure is a lot of fun. I'm a devout Planner for my games but there was something refreshing in the spur of the moment, vaudevillian antics of an unplanned session.

I am looking forward to them reaching the Tower and the Swamps, and a big thank you to Ian/Tombownings for the adventure idea!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"You fail to find anything out of the Ordinary..." DM House Rules for Secret Doors and Traps

Have a Bottle of Wine...or a secret door to a hidden treasure room!

I am currently watching on Netflix Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose" (1981) starring Sean Connery as a Franciscan friar investigating murders in a Benedictine abbey.  

Aside from being an excellent medieval mystery  film (which I had no interest in as a boy because it wasn't swords and sorcery or a shoot em' up) , there is a sequence with a secret door which, aside from giving me a new idea for one of those devices, inspired me to write briefly on how I handle secret doors and traps in my dungeons or other adventures.

I do not use…at least by itself…the  mechanic given in the Holmes Basic Edition or the later Basic and AD&D editions where a die roll is used to see if characters are able to detect secret doors and traps. 

That seems a little simple  and does not allow for really challenging the players and allowing much  DM 
creativity in creating novel secret doors. 

So  here are my house rules on secret doors, which I acquaint every new player with, usually when they are about to enter a dungeon wherein I have placed secret doors.

The rules state that Dwarves can find traps one third of the time (2 in 6 chance). However, I restrict this bonus to investigations involving  engineered  stone works, as that is reasonably the domain of dwarves. In my mind, there is no reason why a Dwarf would be any more able than other character classes to detect more subtle mechanisms such as hidden bookcase latches, turning paintings, etc.

Thieves on the other hand, have a remove traps percentage chance ability as a character class benefit. I have never understood why "find traps" was not added to the table so that is house ruled in for my game as a trap must be found before it can be removed. Thieves are opposite of dwarves in this endeavor--they are of little use in searching for traps which involve engineered stone works and I do not allow them to search for such traps  (at least with a simple die roll). they are confined to searching for those traps of  a delicate mechanical nature (locks, latches, trip wires, etc.).

Elves have excellent chances for finding secret doors due to their vision--merely passing by one allows for a 2 in 6 chance. make that 4 in 6 when they are actively searching for one. However, I think it goes without saying that this is in well lit conditions and so that is a house rule. Infravision (or Darksight as I prefer to call it in my game--less technological sounding) is good for seeing room dimensions and living things but it does not bestow a clarity of the sort to see secret doors. So I only give this bonus to an elf character if there is a least torch light present.

With the aforementioned in mind, like most DM's, I make the rolls for secret door and trap detection behind my screen when a player announces they are using the ability or an elf passes by a secret door.

 If the roll fails, I simply say "You fail to find any secret door, trap, etc."

 If they do succeed, I tell them if a trap is present or a secret door and if one is not I will sometimes  give some assurance such as "You are very confident it's not there" but I do not always as sometimes this is a give away to them --if I don't give them assurance and yet say "You detected no traps" they may surmise immediately that they simply failed the roll and a trap is indeed present. So I mix that up a bit,  usually saving assurance for when they are endlessly handwringing about thinking they failed and that a trap is present when yet they succeeded and one is not!

That said, just because someone finds a secret door, elf or otherwise, it does not necessarily follow that they know how to open it. So secret doors come in two basic models  in my games: the conventional, traditional dungeon sort and the Saturday Night Special variety.

The first category are a matter of a mere die roll as is stated in the rules and I generally employ them as a means of rewarding prudent and careful adventurers who are being reasonably mindful of their environment. Also for added interest for players and especially newer players. Of course in moderating this die roll I observe all of my previously stated house rules. Sometimes I will make it a freebie that when the secret door is found, the way in is readily apparent, i.e. push on the panel, slide it, move the altar aside, etc.).

Other times, as a mixture between these two models of secret doors (or traps, at times) I will require players to discover the mechanism I have designed into the adventure.

This might be pulling down on a candelabra chandelier hanging down over the room, a magic password,  turning a statue, emptying water from a stone vessel by means of a spout, lighting a fire in a hearth which will boil away water in a  vessel behind the hearth which will in turn, when it is lightened, relieve the weight on the mechanism holding the door shut etc. The list is really as long as your imagination as a DM (or the imaginations of those you borrow from) can make it.

A S.N.S. is a more complex matter.

This is something of a  design that I took the time to construct in a fashion as to make it  (hopefully) original and to challenge my players.

I'm not giving this one up on a mere die roll, not even to a pesky elf who has a 4 in 6 chance or a dwarf with a 2 in 6 chance... not unless the construction of the door is such that it is warranted, ans sometimes, not even then!

 Instead, players aren't going beyond the S.N.S. until they find it and trigger it by interacting with the room description and actively doing things to find and/or trigger the secret door (or trap). 

The room description holds the clues--if the furniture or fixtures of the room are intriguing enough, this can be a clue in itself. 

Other times they enter the maze with some clue already that there is a secret door, such a s a hidden rune saying so, a town rumor, or a portion of map which shows features of the maze which don't fit anywhere on their existing map made through initial exploration.

 In such a case, the  furnishing s of the room holding the S.N.S. can be completely mundane and unremarkable, it matters not;  the players will seek it there eventually through sheer process of elimination.

Unless I have some very compelling reason for doing so (like trying to conclude a series of games whose time has come for wrapping that chapter up), my general rule is that if you don't find the S.N.S., you will get not one clue beyond what I have written into the adventure and it is lost to you otherwise. Whatever  was truly lying behind the S.N.S. will always remain a tantalizing mystery, if indeed it was ever real at all…only the DM knows! This can even be the basis of further adventures!

Using the above listed approaches to secret doors has created some very interesting moments in our games. 

Sometimes, I felt like a chump as a door or mechanism I had thought quite clever was unraveled in seconds by a deductive player.

 Other times, it made for some very interesting tension in the game and a great sense of reward and accomplishment to the deducing player when it was unlocked .

And there were sometimes periods of frustration when it could never be found and I asked myself if I had made it too hard or escoteric or if, and I devoutly hoped it so, I had simply outwitted them!

 I do of course want all my S.N.S.'s to be eventually found and opened, but I like matching wits with my players as well! They best me at that game often enough, a DM needs some dignity.

I'll conclude with an example of a S.N.S.

I created a favorite one which combined both magical and stone construction mechanisms .

 The party was exploring a sunken Temple of Poseidon, the sea god. They came to a chamber where there stood a ring of pillars with statues facing out from the room's center ,wherein the floor  was carven with a circle of magic runes inlaid with electrum. The statues of warriors, clutching giant steel scimitars,  had jeweled eyes .

The statues were intended by me as a red herring--first off, I wanted the party to wonder, "Will they come to life at some point, attacking us?". 

Secondly, I wanted them to be distracted by the swords--the simple fact is they were not magical at all and the hilts were so constructed as to be fastened to the stone hands and not removable without breaking them. This lured players away from thinking about secret doors at all! Finally, the jeweled eyes were there to tempt the party to pry them out (easy enough) and keep as loot.

However, they possessed a sure word from the person who had sent them on the quest that a hidden tomb lay within the Maze, one that had been searched for but never found. The tale had been told in such a way that little doubt  was left in the player's minds that it was the truth.

Thus they knew, after exploring the maze and not finding the tomb, there must be a secret door somewhere. 

The secret to the door was to turn the statutes inward towards the magic circle. When the last statue clicked into place, beams of light shot out from the jeweled eyes towards the runes, which began to glow. Then, magically, a hole appeared in the floor  in the size and shape of the magic circle. Steps led down to the hidden tomb, where the adventure's end and the treasure were both to be found!

In using this kind of a portal, I would not allow an elf or a dwarf any die roll to find it, though if they specifically declared searching for something I might make such a roll behind the screen to mislead them!

You say "How will they ever know?"

They know the die roll is not always the end of the matter because as I said I have thoroughly explained all of these rules on secret doors and traps to my players.

Some may object that this negates the elf and dwarf's special abilities ("The dwarf would see it!").

 I disagree, since I do make use of these abilities in Class 1, non- S.N.S. doors and traps, giving them ample opportunity to use their racial abilities normally.

But even allowing for those abilities, I don't think it unfeasible that some ancient civilizations or very clever architects could design mechanisms that would baffle even the trained  eyesight of the elf and the dwarf or the nimble fingers of the thief.

What do you think of these rules? Unfair? 

I disagree that it is unfair, but in any event if you go with a simple die roll you miss out on some awesome opportunities to give your dungeons a new depth, taking away the chance of both giving your players a great intellectual challenge (which to me is a major part of the dungeon adventure, not just monster bashing), and denying yourself some real fun in writing out your dungeon keys!

Comments are welcome. Now, back to the climax of my movie!

Update to Post: Excellent film! If you have not seen it you must. And if I had a party of players who had never seen it, I would not hesitate to lift the plot, events and characters whole cloth for an entire adventure of a vey different and refreshing genre. Aside from  being a great medieval story, it is stock full of great ideas from NPC's to traps, poison books, secret doors and abbey details.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Obscure Items on My Shelf Review: Martin Hackett's "Fantasy Gaming"

Author: Martin Hackett
Publisher: Sutton Press, 2007
Large Paperback, 266 Pages
No Longer in Print.

Fantasy Gaming as a Book

Fantasy Gaming is an intensely interesting read that combines fantasy role playing rules with miniatures war gaming mechanics, along with a very great beginner's guide to the hobby. There is even advice on painting miniatures and creating scenery.

A medium sized volume with a very durable cover and large print on glossy pages, the book is profusely illustrated with evocative photographs of painted miniatures and terrain. One of the best is a photograph of Hackett's model of the Battle of the Five Armies that is quite remarkable, with it's mock up of the gate of the Dwarf Kings in the Misty Mountain and the river that issues out of it and flows across the plains below with the armies standing around it. Truly awesome, as you can see:

The Armies Assemble Beneath the Misty Mountain (Click for larger View)

Here is a close up of the Five Armies, battling away.  Dwarves and Elves fight together against the vicious Wargs as goblins advance:

As you can see, Mr. Hackett is a talented model builder with a  great attention to detail.

The Rules

As for the rules themselves, I can't say much regarding the war gaming rules as I as a DM have yet to run a true "war game" on my table, other than skirmishes, and when I do, I will be using my copy of "Chainmail". Hackett's mechanics seem, upon my single reading of them, to be quite sufficient and logical if one wanted to use them and include complete Army Lists to get you started right away.

On to the fantasy role playing rules. If I were to summarize them in a nutshell I would say they are at about the complexity level of Moldvay/Cook Expert D&D Rules but with much closer attention paid to medieval social order and culture.

The rules fit a Tolkien-esque setting fused with real Dark Ages history and Hackett appears to use a setting based on feudal Europe...for example he has a village of Shrewsbury. The non human player character races are Halfling, Dwarf, and Elf. There are no character classes but rather it is skill based, with your skills being partly determined by education which is based on social order. Social status is the result of a random roll.

There are no detailed skill lists, rather simply broad headings such as Flora, Fauna, Craft, Fighting Ability, etc. One flaw of the rules is that no detailed guidelines are provided as to how players gain skills under these categories. The best I can make of it is that you attempt to do a thing in the course of the game, using the base chance that falls under the related skill heading, if you succeed you get better at it. So you would write action down under the appropriate Skill heading and keep track of it from then on.

The mechanics are percentile based only, except for weapon damage  and spell effect dice which use the other polyhedral dice.  You begin with a base percentage in a set of broad skill areas related to your natural physical and mental abilities and each time you successfully use them, you gain 1 action point. When you reach 50 A.P. in a given field, you go up 1% in your percentage chance. It is a relatively simple system.

Magic is based on a power points system with a list of some 300 spells and many of the spells, while very brief in their descriptions, are interesting variations of standard D&D spells. A very good number are specifically written as to be of use in large scale table top battles by means of the war gaming rules.

What I Don't Like About It

There is little more difference between playing a Dwarf, Elf or halfling character than there is in playing a human character, other than some adjustments to your attributes and skills. They have no listed racial abilities, such as Darksight or Infravision. It would be easy enough for a DM to house-rule these in, though.

If played precisely by the rules, Character Generation is totally random. You have no idea what you are going to be (which I suppose could be interesting but try getting players to go for it) and if you want a spell caster or thief type character, you must get lucky with the dice. Again, the DM could house-rule this part out and let you choose a spell caster, and Hackett even mentions this, but this would negate the use of the very elaborate social class tables which to me, are the most interesting part of the game.

What I Do Like About It

Aside from the rules, it is a beautiful book in it's own right and a great introduction to miniatures for people wanting to get into painting and modeling or just adding minis to their game if they've never done so.

As for the rules, the aforementioned social status tables are the most comprehensive I have ever seen and even if you did not use Hackett's percentage based system, any DM could make use of them in his campaign with any set of rules. There are a number of rolls that gradually narrow it down. It goes into detail with royal and court titles, administrative occupations, craftsmen, and religious, magical and military orders on down to, of course, serfs and criminal types.

This is another notable feature. If an Illegal type character has been determined, there is a fairly comprehensive list of interesting and felonious type skills and tricks. Aside from the usual pick pocketing and stealthy movement and hiding, there are skills like escaping bonds, throwing one's voice, disguise, conceal items on person, and feigning death. Neat stuff.

The magical orders are very interestingly detailed, and there are four such Orders: Natural (Druidic), Necromantic (Evil Wizard), Psychological (Good Wizard), and Religious (Clerical). Out of the very lengthy spell list, there are some spells which can be cast by any spell caster but a large number can be cast only by members  a certain Order. The PC is somewhat answerable to his Order to a dgeree to be determiend by the individual DM since this is not detailed and only implied. A non-spell caster can join a magical order but it is very difficult and costly and they will never be as powerful as spells casters who began the game as such.

Another great things about the rules is the exhaustive and minutely detailed equipment, weapons, and items lists, which would fit perfectly into any D&D campaign. Lists can include such things as herb types, gaming cards, mining pans, individuality clothing pieces, lodging and even equestrian gear in additon the usual weapons and armor listings. The monetary system is based on real medieval coinages such as florins, groats  pennies, shillings, Sovereigns, etc.

Another thing in the game's favor is that it is highly mutable and you could easily add material to it for customizing it to taste without seriously changing any core rules.

Finally, what I like best about Fantasy Gaming is that it is one stop shopping. You hold in your hands all the rules you will ever need for a campaign that can include ample war gaming if you so desire. The tables are neatly set up for ease of play and you are given a sample adventure (which is rather tepid in my opinion) to show how to construct a scenario. I think a beginning DM would find this set of rules rather easy to use once he digested them.


Overall Martin Hackett's "Fantasy Gaming" belongs on your shelf, if nothing else then for the good medieval source material. It would give you a lot of good ideas. I'm glad I have my two copies (one was bought for the players to consult), and they are still widely available online and very cheaply at that. I have read reviews of this game in the past where some people have disparaged the rules and Mr. Hackett and made all kinds of fun of the book, which I personally find unreasonable as they are very playable rules from a person who deeply loves the hobby and who seems to have a real desire to introduce new players. Think of it as a professionally produced "Hombrew" system. 

I have not ruled out running a game based on these rules. Four Stars!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The D&D Experience; A Documentary

Some months back while perusing Youtube, I came across this series of segments from a documentary film made about D&D some years back.

It is very informative about the game, and is certainly a fan effort, though the student film making is very good.

It only briefly addresses the anti-D&D sentiments that affected the hobby in the 1980's. It mainly interviews players, films some games, relates the history of the game, and showcases some truly amazing artistic creations by players.

If you want to know more about D&D and D&D players, it's a very good place to start.

Be advised, though, that the subjects of the film are some of the rarer sorts, that is, groups that go in for a very immersing style of play and involvement. Their honesty and transparency is refreshing, but the vast majority of gamers you might join at a table usually provide much lighter fare and do not speak in strange voices and play by candle light--much to the detriment of the hobby! Our gaming group here in my town only minimally resembles the film's participants, but we have still have a great time!

A Video of Our Friday Night Gandalara Game and Thoughts on " Free- Form" and "Rules Light" System

I made a short movie of one of my gaming group's Gandalara meet ups last year.

The Gandlara Campaign lasted about seventh months, had four different DMs, and had a fair numbers of players pass through it, some first timers to the role playing hobby.

It represented my experimenting with free form or rules light, off the cuff system. Overall, I loved it and we had some of the most memorable games I ever played.

Essentially, characterful creation was dice-less and guided by some very simple rules of common sense mutually agreed upon between player and GM. The only real game mechanic was a roll of the two ten sided dice generating a number from 1-100 ...the lower you rolled, the better off you were, while the higher rolls meant trouble.

I think the games produced some of the very best characters I have ever seen. Really, each one sticks in my memory like characters from novels or movies rather than gaming characters. They let player individuality come like I've seldom seen with rolled characters in standard game systems. And we had some very exciting and funny moments that will always stick out, like when my character Captain Hachar got his hand cut off by his ally Kanamack the Dwarf when Kanamack was turned insane by a magical rune on a gate. Lord Bast, a cat-man sorcerer, eventually granted the Captain his hand back through magic--but decided it best for him to have a Cat's Paw instead.

How Well Did Free Form Work?

While it was fun, it was also somewhat frustrated. Not having set rules made battle a little difficult to conduct, set challenge levels of encounters, and have a magic system that was balanced. If a gentleman's agreement not to Powergame is not strictly observed, the referee can quickly find his job a nightmare and some players can get bored. In the end, we left it, but I would like to play again sometime.

The video is decent enough, not Cannes film festival material though. You can see from the game that it was largely the realm of GM fiat and some of it made no sense by conventional D&D standards--a fire elemental that could be harmed by a non-magical steel sword? And you can see from our use of the miniatures that movement was largely a player whim. Still, we did have some great games, and I did not conclude my experiment with free form gaming a failure by any means but if you do I believe you must have some more detailed rules on magic use. The session was GM'ed by my good friend Fish, who prepared some of the most interesting source material for the game I have ever seen. he read it aloud to us and it was excellent writing.

We used a rotational referee system where you could run a game from 1-5 sessions and then you had to turn it over to the next GM. Players and GM's were allowed to create any source material they wanted providing it did not arbitrarily displace previous creations of their fellows and worked in concert with them.

I am unseen in the video but I am the player running  Captain Hachar. The first minute and a half  or so is a  a commentary on Gandalara showing of the characters--the character parts are a little illegible but they don't last very long. To explain some of what you hear, the setting we used--a mixture of home brew mishmash and a published one from a very excellent series of in a world without any horses or camel like animals. The closest thing Gandalara had to such an animal was the vlek, a wooly six legged pack animal about the size of a small deer, timid and stupid and given to running away at the slightest provocation--hence a popular farewell in Gandalara is "May Your Vlek Never Bolt"!

A Narrative of the Session Events

This was perhaps Fish's second or third attempt at ever having really DM'ed after many years of playing...and he did great. Our party was shipwrecked by a magical storm in a place called simply "the Land". We befriended an old shaman and his mistrustful apprentice at his hut in the rain forest and he constructed magical conch necklaces which collected our voices, and by means of an enchantment allowed us to then speak and understand the language of the Land. We then traveled to a mountain fastness where there was an academy for training both warriors and wizards. Meeting a local ruler we learned that the factions of humans, demi-humans and humanoids from Gandalara had had discovered the Land centuries past and sought to invade it and wrest it from each other. By some unknown power. the Land  had disappeared and reappeared in a magical sea where there was no way to get there but by means of the storms. How to get out was a mystery.

The local warlord told us that since that time, the Land had been a place of perpetual war between the factions, usually ending in bloody stalemate, but with each side attempting to gain a new edge to defeat the others. And yet with each tribe there was a collective memory of their lost ancestral home of Gandalara (whose name was now forgotten since continual war had created a survival and not scholastic oriented culture). And all hoped to return there someday. The Land was ruled by 3 demi-gods and one of them met us at the mountain stornghold and sent us on a quest to basically try and unite all of the tribes and when this would happen, ostensibly, a way home would be accomplished. Two of the demi-gods were willing to do business while a 3rd was capricious and quite content with the way everything was.

In order to get around my "no riding beasts" feature of the setting, Fish created these bridals made of  woven horsehair and had the demi-goddess give us each one. They were the remains of horse like creatures that had once lived in Gandlara in the ancient past and when you held a bridal and concentrated, you could summon a "spirit steed" which would materialize in a shimmering mist and although it was incorporeal, it could bear you about! Really creative stuff!

How different was Fish's adventure? Well, the Elves of the land were 7-9' tall, grassland dwelling and dressed in primitive animal furs and rode Manticores--real ones not spirit steeds. They worshiped Zhet, an elf demi-god who we met and found that he was more amused by us than threatened and had his fun by creating an illusion of us all being slain one by one which actually convinced some of our players that their characters had been killed!  The form he chose to meet us in first was a fire elemental in humanoid shape with a great black iron crown hovering over his fiery head. But he showed his ture form after his illusion trick. Then, because we had slain his Fire Elemental Guardian, he gave us a choice: all of us fight one by one against his best warriors, or, as a group, face one creature of his choosing in his Gladiator Pit. If we won we went free, since he liked our spirit! The creature we fought was the strangest I have ever heard of--an UNDEAD Fire Elemental--yea, the very one we had already slain brought back from Fire Elemental Valhalla. And now he was made of blue and white fire that was icy cold and he was unharmed by steel weapons!

You truly never know what to expect  in a role playing game!

Anyway, I think Fish is probably one of the most original DM's I know.

You can see my homely but serviceable battle map cnsisting of a painted piece of cardboard marked off in 1 inch squares and overlaid with plexi-glass from Lowes, as well as my two d20's that I converted into percentile dice with paint. One set of dice function as my d100, d20, and d10.

Please note that my glorification of Captain Hachar and overly dramatic exclamations were for humor and should in no manner imply that I am truly as geeky as this video suggests...I think.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Part Two of the Under City of Kravekos

Having learned of the Legend of the Gate of the Sorrows of Kravekos and the existnece of a Jennerak ruin beneath the old city, Chinka, Drakon and Eastwood made these things known to the Priest Synn and all agreed to enter the Maze if they could gain the king's permission. Straight away with the coming of dawn they went to Castle Kravekos and sought audience with King Garl and Queen Nemia. As soon as they made the cause of their pleas known to the Castle Guard, the astonished soldiers bustled them to the Great Hall where the sad an wizened old King heard them, attended by all his courtiers and nobles as well as his lovely Queen and a Bishop of the church of Illuvion. We now resume our tale where we left off in Part One, and from henceforth, the narrative will follow only the events of the actual game itself. While events are exact (even down to one of my players deciding to take dogs into the dungeon with them!), I have included player dialogue as best I can remember it, trying to leave none out, but in a few places adding some for the sake of clarity or interest.

Note: The game did not strictly follow a Holmes or AD&D rules format as it allowed multi-classed characters and m.c. humans at that! Eastwood is a human fighter-magic user played by my son Levi, Cardinal Synn is a human cleric played by my friend Juan, a school teacher, Drakon is a fighter-thief in training to become a bard, played by my friend Matt, another teacher, and Chinka was a Halfling fighter-thief played by laura, Matt's wife. I was the game referee this time around. The game lasted 3 sessions at about 10 or 11 hours total playing time and we had a lot of fun!

The Undercity of Kravekos
Part Two:
"Descent into Darkness"
by J.E. Becker

The entire assemblage within the Great hall of castle Kravekos fell silent as soon it was known to all what these strange outlanders desired of their liege. All ears and eyes were upon him and the four adventurers, amazement plainly showing upon the face of every courtier. Queen Nemia sat suddenly upon the very edge of her throne, forgetting her Queen's poise at the mention of the dreaded Under City. Her mind was filled suddenly with the faces and events of the distant past, and the vision of those sorrows cast their shadow upon her visage.

Perceptive courtiers saw a flicker of the same shadow upon the worn face of their beloved king, but only for the barest second, for he steeled himself against those emotions as quickly as they assailed him, leaving him with only a tired and weary countenance which seemed to express skepticism rather than hope at the heroes' words. Regarding this band of humans and the lone halfling with a jaded gaze, he rose slowly from his throne and descended a step towards them. Somehow, in spite of the years of sorrow, he still cut a kingly figure in the rays of the sun that fell upon him through the stained glass windows above.

"Am I to understand, then," he began, "That you four…persons…consider yourselves to be the conquerors foretold in the oracle's prophecy?"

"That remains to be seen, my Lord," said Drakon. "If we were to fulfill the words of his vision, then perhaps we are. If, however, we die in the attempt, then we were assuredly not the prophesied saviors."

"Quite logical," said Garl.

He looked over each of them again.

"But to my eyes, you seem an insufficient force. I sent a small troop into the pits twenty years ago, led by my best warrior and accompanied by a worthy court magician and a cleric of Illuvion… and they failed. And my own son, sole heir to my house, perished with them. Where so many of skill and noble blood failed, do you trust that you will overcome the evil?"

"My Lord," said Chinka respectfully, "We are willing to take the risks, and we could find out at last what really happened to your son. You would lose nothing in letting us go."

"You are a long way from the Shire, Little One," said Garl. "Don't you ever wish to see its fields and cottages again? I have sealed the evil up, set a gate and a watch it can never break through. All future Kings and Queens of Kravekos must take an oath to keep that watch faithfully. Why not let the demons sleep in their pits from now until the world ends?"

The Robber Mage Drakon nodded. "The demons sleep, my Lord," he said "But they may awaken. Would it not be better for us to find their lairs and send them to the darker pits of the Land of the Dead? Then the City could truly be free, and you would be celebrated for all time."

The King's face softened somewhat, as if something in the voices of the heroes had reached past his cynicism and disbelief and stirred forgotten memories of chivalry and valor.

"By Illuvion, I believe you mean it," Garl said, smiling. "Perhaps I underestimated you. If I were even a middle aged man again, I would willingly go with you."

"Your kingdom needs you here," said Eastwood. "Only grant us your leave to go, Excellency, and we will return with the answers you seek."

The King looked at his Queen. Some wordless communication passed between them, the kind engendered between lovers long bound together amid life's trials. He turned and fastened his eyes upon them.

"So be it," he said. "I, King Garl,  do grant you leave to pass beyond the Gate of Sorrows. But know this…when I built the Domed Gate, I commanded the old stair to be demolished, creating a shaft as deep as any of the Dwarves. And indeed, patrons of my court from Silver Hammer did, at my request, build a great chain and gears, the likes of which have never been seen. For twenty years, my men have oiled and maintained that chain and its levers. Inside the Dome is a cage. If you go down in it, we will raise it and lower it again  each day for seven days. On the seventh day, if you do not appear, we will count you among the dead and it will never go down again until some other takes the challenge. Knowing this, do you still wish to go?"

"Aye," said Drakon."We shall depart this very hour."

"Then it is done," said Garl. He turned to a chamberlain. "Bring me the Key to the Gate of Sorrows."

"Begging pardon, O great King," spake the  Priest Synn, gathering surprised looks from his companions. "If I may speak?"

"Say on," Garl said, looking at the cleric intently with all his court.

Synn bowed and smiled with the airs of a trained churchman.

"Be not wroth with my words, O King," he said, "But may I humbly inquire as to what reward might be bestowed upon those who hazard their lives on behalf of thy city? And what boons might we hope to receive at thy most gracious hands to take with us into the ruins of the Jennerak? We face perils undreamed of…what shall our profit be?"

Eastwood squirmed uncomfortably, and Drakon resigned himself to whatever reaction the old king might display, but Chinka smiled at the mention of reward and looked eagerly for the King's response.

Garl did not seem to take any offence whatsoever. He was a King who was wise in the ways of trade as much as statecraft and war, and he accepted that most men and women were motivated, to one degree or another, by such concerns.  

"Profit," he said. "That does lie at the bottom of most every endeavor does it not…even Kingdoms. Say no more, Son of Hextor. It goes without saying that you shall all be richly rewarded and honored if you return victoriously. As well, you may keep all treasure and magical devices you might find in the Maze…including the Sword of Lothia. As for boons, we have few to spare. What say you, Bishop?"

The white robed Bishop standing upon the dais regarded the rival priest coolly, but he called to a  nearby attendant and whispered something to him. The servant left.

"The Church sends you with its blessings," he said. "May Illuvion grant you speedy and safe return with abundant triumph. My initiate has gone to gather for you elixirs which were sent to the King from the High Seer of Avamere…they bring healing to those who are wounded. Likewise, a parchment with blessed runes which, when spoken by anyone with knowledge of the gods, will banish disease and plague from a body. These are all we can give you. Use them carefully and wisely."

Synn did not appear completely satisfied with the offerings, but he was wise enough to bow in acknowledgment of them and leave the matter.

"I have but one claim upon whatsoever comes out of the ruins," said Garl. "Any books or scrolls containing the writings of the Old Ones must be delivered to our sages, that the wisdom of the Jennerak may be known to men once more."

"It shall be done," said Eastwood.

"And now, let us sup and drink together," said Queen Nemia. "Come, and partake of these delights. You have a great journey before you." And she then began to serve the heroes herself, as though she were subject to them. So is the custom of the Northerners when they honor great warriors.

At her words and actions, a hopeful and optimistic spirit seemed to suddenly energize the crowd, and the adventurers found themselves  pressed upon as though heroes returning from a war. Somehow, in spite of great temptation, Chinka managed to refrain from collecting any purses or rings from the nobles who crowded her with well wishing.

Thus the party passed one last pleasant hour, and as they ate, the gifts of Illuvion's sect were brought to them, and the gilded, rune covered key which would open the way into the Underworld was entrusted by the King to his Captain, who would escort them. When this was done, the castle guards escorted them out of the palace and into the avenues of Kravekos.

To their astonishment, the streets were lined with citizens of every class and occupation, all looking at them with wonder, fear, and admiration. Word had crept out of the Castle into the city. As they strode through the streets toward the way to the Gate of Sorrows, people warmly saluted them, some even threw flowers, and they heard many amazing exclamations.

"They are the ones spoken of in the prophecy!"

"Look, three Men and a Shire dweller face the Ancient Evil alone!"

"See how fearless they are!"

The Guards firmly pushed aside anyone who got too close, but even they seemed elated that after two decades, someone was willing to brave curses and monsters to regain the honor of their city and to destroy, rather than contain, all that might threaten it from those obsidian depths.

Soon they had passed through the derelict section of Kravekos and come to the end of the plaza that contained the Domed Gate. Guards busied themselves with setting a wide perimeter between the citizens and the steps of the ramp. The heroes were about to pass through when a baying of dogs was heard.

Chinka, Drakon and Eastwood looked in wonder as a peasant woman called to Synn, leading behind her a pack of sleek, gray guard dogs. Synn waved at her and they met together. He took the leashes of four of the dogs and motioned to her to follow him towards the Gate.

"What meaneth this?" Drakon exclaimed.

Synn smiled at him. "Meet my Gray Company," said the priest. "I bought them yesterday in the markets. They cost me well but I deem it worthy. While we were feasting I sent word for them to be brought here."

"Whatever do you want with a pack of curs!?" Drakon said. "And at this moment, of all times?"

"To protect my person, of course" said Synn. "And to use their eyes and noses in the Under City."

Chinka laughed.

"You cannot bring them into the labyrinth," she said. "They will have every creature in those cellars upon us in an hour."

"Nay, Good Lady," said Synn. His tone implied that he did not consider her to be good or a lady. "These dogs have been trained by the finest handlers hereabouts. They will not betray us unless something or someone is near enough to be a threat, and then we will be desirous of a warning."

Drakon began to argue the point, then realized it was futile. He knew the churchman all too well.

He was rescued, however, by Elegot, the Captain of the Guard, who happened to be following closely.

"Master Synn," he said, "I regret to say that the cage cannot hold your party and these animals as well."

Impatience showed in the cleric's eyes.

"Then can you not lower the cage twice?" he asked.

"Nay," said Elegot. "It is great labor. I am afraid you can take only as many as will fit in the cage with you on the first descent."

Seeing there was no choice but to assent, the Priest of Hextor begrudgingly chose three dogs from out of the pack and made arrangements with Elegot for the keeping of the others.

"See that they come back to me, I charge you, Captain," said Synn.

Elegot nodded, scarcely able to conceal his own growing displeasure with the manners of the Priest. As he turned to a pair of soldiers at the perimeter's edge and bade them take the dogs, one of the men-at-arms  who had seen the display shook his head.

"What's with that one?" the man-at-arms asked Elegot.

"He worships Hextor, the God of War, Slaughter and Discord," replied the Captain. "Some say the high priests of that faith are assassins and poison makers, whatever their declarations of loyalty to Avamere. Mark me--behind his courtly gestures lie dark and selfish ends."


The archway that spanned the Domed Gate was ornately and intricately carved with reliefs of the likenesses of the men who had died beyond its threshold those many years ago. Chinka reached out and ran her fingers across the image of one handsome and youthful warrior--the detail was so great that his chain mail hauberk and the studs on the rim of his helm could be clearly discerned. So could the short beard he wore. Below his place in the arch was inscribed the name Evald and the title "Son of Garl."

"He was young," Chinka said. "And handsome. A pity."

"His soul is no doubt in the glad halls of the great warriors," said Eastwood. "It was very brave of him to have played his ruse."

"He would have made a fine king one day," said Drakon, but he was more intently studying the relief of another warrior, a towering Northman who clutched a great sword very prominently depicted and marked with the name "S'rd Voca un Lothia"…Old Common for the Talking Sword of Lothia.

The Gate itself consisted of the finest adamantine overlaid with electrum decorations. It was cut into two arched halves by an almost imperceptible seam and a single key slit in its exact center. The electrum gildings were runes and magical symbols which Eastwood, the only user of arcane arts in the party, immediately recognized as glyphs of warding whose enchanting had been the work of powerful wizards. He had not seen a notable presence of spell casters in Kravekos, even in the King's court. Perhaps the mages of Kravekos liked to be inconspicuous. He stored that thought carefully away.

"Even demons would be hard pressed to break beyond these glyphs," he said.

"Very true," said Elegot. He pulled the runic key from his surcoat. "None but the gods themselves can open the door without this key."

Chinka arched an eyebrow. "No door or lock made by men is fool proof, Captain," she said.

"Perhaps," Elegot replied. "Be it as you say, neither man nor demon has passed the door since it was set. But behold!"

Elegot set the key into the key slit. Suddenly, the key, the glyphs, and the seam began to glow with an eerie blue light. All stepped back in wonderment, but as quickly as it had appeared it was gone. There was a sound of rasping metal, and the doors moved slowly inward of their own accord.

Beyond them lay a circular domed chamber about eight feet in height and about fifteen feet in diameter. The sun plainly illumined its interior.

The walls were plain, smooth white stone, but from the ceiling by an adamantine chain there hung a large round cage, made of the same adamantine. It's top was bell shaped. The cage might admit seven to eight full sized men very closely positioned. The portion of the cage which faced the magic gate had no bars. Its bottom was woven more closely with bars than its sides to give sure footing.
Below the cage bottom and directly aligned with its edges was a smooth round hole which dropped away into impenetrable darkness. There was not even a hair's space between the bottom of the cage and the lip of the hole..the whole thing was a marvel of Dwarven craftsmanship. From up out of the pit there arose cold, dank air that smelled of stone and water and time.

The party entered with Elegot and the dogs, which, oddly enough, seemed merry, as if on a hunt.

Chinka's nostrils sniffed at the air.

"Odd," she said. "A lot of water down there somewhere, or I'm a goblin."

"Indeed," replied Elegot. "That much was learned when the shaft and cage were constructed. The Dwarves did go to the bottom several times. The lower entrances are natural caves, yet oddly have flagstone floors. They are of a make that dates them in the time of the Old Empires, so those folk knew of the Undercity. They inscribed the floors with warnings not to disturb the Old Places. The true threshold to the Jennerak ruin lies much farther in. The Dwarves were investigating only as far as the King's edict allowed for their work… they heard an underground river. But a strange spectral figure was seen in the distance, and it struck fear even into those dungeon delving folk. They finished their lower works and never did a soul from Kravekos set foot therein again. But that is all that is known of the labyrinth."

"It is enough," said Drakon. "The time has come."  

After the heroes made one final check on the soundness and security of their arms and amour and their supplies, they bid the Captain farewell and steeling their nerves against the shadows of the black pit, stepped over it into the cage. When they and the animals were situated, Elegot saluted them.

"Farewell, brave friends," he said. "The levers for the cage are operated from a room built onto the back side of the platform. I go now to command their release. After I close this door, may Illuvion bring you back in seven days time or this is our final meeting."

"We shall return, mark that," said Synn. "By the might of Hextor, though, and not of Illuvion."

"As you desire," said Elegot. Then, he stepped back, spoke a word of command that no one in the party recognized, and the Gate of the Sorrows of Kravekos swung to with the ringing of adamantine, plunging them a darkness as deep as that of death.

End of Part One