Friday, May 29, 2009

“Rabbits aren't your bag, Roy.”

It has been awhile since I looked through the pages of the Obscure Octavo and that’s been something I’ve been meaning to correct. A recent movie rental reminded me that it was time to see what other fiendish beasts lurk within those pages. Since it’s Friday and most of my responsibilities are done for the week, let us turn to a random page…

“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”

Terror Lepus (Leporidae giganti)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (2d6)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90’ (30’) Burrow: 30’ (10’)
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 3+3
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 1d8
Save: F2
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: None (but see below)

Terror Lepuses appear to be gigantic specimens of the common rabbit, often growing to the size of bears (or wolves, depending on how big the scale models in the background are.) Once long ago, the terror lepuses were the experimental test subjects of an alchemist who sought to create a potion of growth that also imbued the drinker with berserker rage. Some of these test rabbits escaped into the wild, creating a breeding population that still plagues the world to this day.

Terror Lepuses attack with their razor-sharp teeth, which inflict 1d8 points of damage. They may also attack by leaping upon a target and pinning them to the ground with their great bulk. A terror lepus can jump up to 30’ away in order to overbear a victim. If this attack is successful, the victim must make a save vs. petrify or be pinned beneath the rabbit. Having successfully pinned a subject, a terror lepus automatically hits its opponent on the following and all subsequent rounds. A character pinned by a terror lepus may make a STR check each round to escape from underneath this furry mass of death.

Due to the changes wrought by the potion, terror lepuses are both carnivorous and nocturnal, seeking shelter during the daylight hours in caves, abandoned mines, labyrinths, or in warrens they dug themselves. When food supplies run low in an area, terror lepuses migrate to new territory where prey is more plentiful, often forming migratory bands numbering up to 100 individuals. They devour everything unlucky enough to cross their paths, rivaling only the mythical tarrasque in fear and destruction.

The foot of a terror lepus is rumored to have protective properties. Any single terror lepus has a 5% chance of possessing one (and one only) such digit. If severed and carried, the foot of a terror lepus acts as a ring of protection +1. However, should the bearer of this lucky charm ever encounter terror lepuses again, he will be singled out by the beasts as a target and bear the brunt of their vengeance. In such cases, terror lepuses never need to check morale and will fight until either they or the bearer of the “lucky” foot is dead.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Keeping Up the Fight!

Allow me to join the cavalcade in case you've somehow missed it elsewhere: Fight On! #5 is now available for purchase.
The premiere fanzine of the old-school renaissance rolls into its second year of publication, battling harder than ever! Joining original Dragon Magazine editor Tim Kask in this issue are Jeff Rients, Lee Barber, Judd Karlman, Gabor Lux, Kelvin Green, Vincent Baker, David Bowman, Michael Curtis, Frank Farris, Baz Blatt, Kevin Mayle, Del Beaudry, Steve Zieser, Alex Schroeder, Akrasia, Settembrini, Chgowiz, Calithena, and dozens of others ready to give your game the potion of super-heroism it needs to take it to the next level! With adventures, maps, rules options, campaign settings, fiction, magic, monsters, and treasure, this issue has everything you need to unlock your imagination and keep fighting on!

Until the end of May only you can get 10% off Fight On! #5 and all your purchases by entering MAYCONTEST10 in the code line at checkout. Stock up on back issues of Fight On! or pick up whatever other lulu products appeal to you!

You can buy it here:

Table of Contents for Issue 5:
Background Professions (Akrasia)………………………3
The Scholar (Zachary Houghton)……………………….4
The Wuuky! (Moritz Mehlem and Frank Ditsche)………5
Distinctive Magic (Houghton, Dörfliger, & Calithena)…..7
The Deck O’ Stuff (Jeff Rients)…………………………9
The Tomb of Ixtandraz (Lee Barber)…………………..11
Delvers Delve: Extended Crawling (David Bowman)…..17
Tables for Fables (Age of Fable)………………………..20
Dungeon Motivations (Paul Vermeren)………………...21
Knights & Knaves (Del L. Beaudry)……………………23
Black Blood (Gabor Lux)………………………………25
Pentastadion (Gabor Lux)…………………………...…36
Creepies & Crawlies (Alex Schröder, Wayne Rossi, Jeff
Rients, Terje Nordin, and Geoffrey McKinney)………39
Tucker & Co. (M. “Chgowiz” Shorten)..………………44
Bad Hair Day (Peter Schmidt Jensen)……...…………...44
Fight On! (Jason Vasché)…...…………………………..45
Education of a Magic User (Douglas Cox)…………….45
A Few for the Road (Michael Curtis)…………………..47
A Giant Dilemma (Frank Farris)………………………50
Clarisseth (Tony Dowler)………………………………53
It Used to be a Hobbit Hole (Baz Blatt)…………….…54
The Barrow of Therex (Erin “Taichara” Bisson)………55
The Devil’s in the Details: Pygmy Folk (Baz Blatt)……..56
Seven Kings Mountains (Judd Karlman)……………….62
The Darkness Beneath, Level 2 (Calithena)…………….67
The Tower of Thalen Garh (John Hitchens)………...…78
Oceanian Legends (Del L. Beaudry)…………………....79
Guest Editorial (Timothy J. Kask)……………………..81
Merlin’s Mystical Mirror (Jeff Rients)………………….83
Artifacts, Adjuncts, & Oddments (Greg Backus,
Terje Nordin, Jeff Rients, and Calithena)……………87

Front Cover by Kevin Mayle ( Back Cover by Settembrini. Fight On! and Erol Otus logos by Jeff Rients. Tim Kask photo by Rich Franks. Knights & Knaves and Creepies & Crawlies logos by Lee Barber. Interior artwork and cartography by Andrew Reyes (4,19), Richard Scott/Otherworld Miniatures (5), Andy “Atom” Taylor (7), Jeff Rients (9), Lee Barber (ghosttower., 11,13,14,15,16,17,23,73), Age of Fable (20), Gabor Lux (25,27,30,32,33,36,37), Kelvin Green (26,43,45,52,87), Georges Roux (34), Alex Schröder (39,40,62), Peter Seckler (40), Jason Pierce (, 42), M. “Chgowiz” Shorten (44), Peter Schmidt Jensen (44,50), Douglas Cox (45), Frank Farris (51), Tony Dowler (53), Baz Blatt (54), Erin “Taichara” Bisson (55), Kesher (59,61), Carl Brodt/Tita’s House of Games (60), Vincent Baker (63,64,65,66), Robert S. Conley (67), Paul “Bliss Infinite” Fini (, 68 ), David Bowman (70), Anthony Stiller (72), Steve Zieser (74,81), Calithena (75,77), Patrick Farley (76), Kevin Vito (77), Pete Mullen (83), James G. Browning (84), and Dan Proctor (85).
As is standard Fight On! policy, the magazine is currently only available in print form but a .pdf version will be released within a few weeks.

Speaking of standard policy, here comes the part where I plug my own contribution. "A Few for the Road" will hopefully put an end to any rumors that all I can write about is the dungeon. "A Few for the Road" is a collection of off-beat road and road-side encounters for the referee to spring on the characters as they make the way overland. Originally intended as a single piece, space issues resulted in it becoming a two-parter, although that doesn't hinder the usefulness of the article by any means. The three encounters in Issue #5 are of the more mundane variety, while the second part features three run-ins with the mystical and monstrous. I'll be sure to plug that one when the time comes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Observations from the One Page Dungeon Contest

I'm in the process of picking my favorites from the more than one hundred entries that the One Page Dungeon Contest received. It's a slow but steady task, as I want to make sure that everyone gets equal consideration for their work.

I won't comment on individual entries or let slip which have been my favorites of those I've read, but I will share two things that have occurred to me during the judging so far. One is that I believe I can determine with 95% accuracy what a contestant's preferred version of D&D is by whether or not they included a description of "Lighting" for their dungeon. This must be something that came into vogue with 3rd edition or later, because it was always assumed in the earlier editions that dungeons were dark - pitch black even - and therefore any need to specify the lighting conditions was unnecessary. This observation has no impact on how I score a particular entry, but it crops up so regularly that I thought it was worth commenting on.

Secondly (and I'm not finished reading all the entries yet so I may still be surprised), since the contest has ended and I can say this, is that if someone had entered a dungeon that featured six asthmatic kobolds guarding the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords (like the dungeons I used to write when I was ten did), I would have lobbied hard for that dungeon to be named "Most Totally Radical Dungeon Ever!!!"

In all seriousness though, you folks had some amazing ideas and everyone who took the chance to enter their dungeons, knowing they'd be viewed by complete strangers, should be proud. That takes some chutzpah.

Mapping the Wilderness

Now that I’ve officially moved aboveground to finish the surface works of Stonehell, I’ve had to think about life outside of the dungeon. Back in February, I decided that I was going to keep to tradition and use the map from Outdoor Survival as the beginning wilderness setting for the aboveground portion of the game. I’ve since taken the time to examine that map more closely and I have settled on the most likely location to place the dungeon. I needed some rough terrain that could reasonably hold the box canyon that Stonehell is situated under, as well as requiring a swamp in close proximity to that location, since “canonically” there’s a tunnel which extends from Level Two of the dungeon to a nearby fen. Luckily, the Outdoor Survival map features a hex that qualifies for both of those two requirements.

I’ve done a rough draft of the wilderness map using Grim’s Blank Hex Sheet to get my thoughts in order. It’s a great sheet for plotting out the hex crawl portion of you game and I can’t recommend it enough. This beginning map was, in turn, adapted from Rob Conley’s Wilderlands treatment of the OS game board. So the evolution process looks something like this:

The orignal Outdoor Survival game board.

Rob Conley's Wilderlands treatment of the same area of wilderness.

My own rough map of the same area of wilderness.

Obviously, I’m the evolutionary throwback of the bunch. In my defense though, it looks much better in hardcopy and it’s still a work in progress.

My gut tells me I made the right choice in deciding to go with the Outdoor Survival map on this one. Looking the rough draft over, I can see that there is a variety of terrain types to play with and several of the little quirks of the map already suggest possibilities for adventures above and beyond that of Stonehell. If I had gone with my original intention to draw a wilderness map from scratch, I think I would have hamstrung my creative process too much as I attempted to pay lip service to real world geography and earth science. This way is much more liberating.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Old School Question Finally Answered

It seems that the topic of how to define "old school" gaming has arisen once again, much like the mighty Cthulhu rising from ancient R'lyeh to plague mankind with misfortune. I'm certainly surprised as to how much time and effort is wasted upon this debate when the answer to what is old school was settled once and for all back in 1979.

It probably slipped under most people's radars, but that year saw the publication of the Dragon Dudes Handguide for Advanced Dragons & Deep Pits (TPR Games). Within that tome, on p. 113, the subject of old school gaming and how to determine if your current campaign and/or ruleset qualifies as worthy of the old school label was addressed. Frankly, I'm shocked that James Maliszewski has overlooked this, as he's displayed much scholarly knowledge about the history of this game of ours. Perhaps the unknown, hideous, black oil of Dwimmermount hath mazed his mind. The fact that Jeff Rients hasn't beaten me to mentioning this book is also quite perplexing, since Jeff is usually the go-to guy for rpg miscellanea and weirdness. One too many folding chairs to the head in a steel cage match, Jeff?

Luckily, this humble author is here to take up the slack. I spent the morning going through my old books that had been packed away in storage. Due to my extensive training as an archivist, it only took me four and a half hours to find my copy of Dragon Dudes Handguide and to scan the relevant page. Seeing how TPR Games went out of business some years ago, I feel comfortable posting this scan here without the fear of legal ramifications.

Now that the method of determining whether or not your game is old school with 100% accuracy has been established, please go out and enjoy your summer. I know that I certainly intend to enjoy mine.

Friday, May 22, 2009

We Are Family

I finished Herodotus’ The Histories recently, thereby filling another gaping hole in my incomplete education. I had ventured down that path once before but the translation of the version I attempted to read was stilted and too archaic for me to grasp easily. Luckily, I discovered The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler, which I recommend to anyone who had grappled with Herodotus in the past only to be pinned to the mat by that ancient Greek. The Landmark Herodotus is heavily annotated and features a bevy of maps that come in very handy when one forgets where exactly Abydos lay or which Mediterranean island Kalymna was again.

After finishing The Histories, I can say that my answer to the “desert island role-playing game” question (what rpg would you take if you were stranded in a deserted island?) would definitely be B/X, provided that I was allowed a copy of The Histories to use as my campaign sourcebook. (Sorry, Boatbuilding: The Construction.) As one who enjoys blatantly ripping off strange real world historical anecdotes to pepper my campaign world, The Histories is a priceless trove of treasures.

Despite all the highly-purloin-able material found in The Histories, it was one of the appendices that lit the brightest fire. Appendix L of The Landmark Herodotus is “Aristocratic Families in Herodotus,” by Carolyn Higbie, Professor of Classics, SUNY Buffalo. Ms. Higbie briefly covers in six pages the political landscape of Greek world, where much of the temporal power was concentrated within certain families: not a completely alien concept even today. It is the origins of these families, however, which reminds the modern reader that we’re dealing with a much older time period, one where the lines between reality and myth where not so clearly defined. Higbie writes:
Particularly prominent families were those who could trace their origins back to a legendary founder, someone who had participated in any of the mythological adventures, such as the Trojan War, the adventures of Herakles, the Argonautica, or the stories of Thebes and Corinth…From the founder’s name would be formed a clan or family name, originally a patronymic, which then acquired a broader meaning and referred to all of the founder’s descendants…So important was family that even certain professions, such as seers, heralds, and epic poets, created themselves fictitious clan names and descent from a mythological figure, who came to be regarded essentially as the founder of a guild. The adoption of this sort of family name signaled one’s line of work or skills…A sixth- or fifth-century Greek could not typically trace all of the generations which came between himself and the legendary founder of his house; the important thing was to know the hero who established the family. He would be able to identify his father, his grandfather, and perhaps his great-grandfather, but then he would skip back in time to the founder.
While the idea of clans, houses, and bloodlines are nothing new to the role-playing canvas, there is something about this idea of the Greek family structure that inspires my creative mind. Families are always a tricky subject in role-playing games, usually being treated as something very important a character (such as the case of Oriental Adventures honor system) or becoming a roughshod method of generating replacement characters when one’s current adventurer dies horribly in the dungeon (“Exactly how many brothers did Grujack the Unbearable have, Bill?”) Even the traditional notion of clans, to me anyway, was always a little too, well “clannish,” when put into actual practice in game.

I may be misreading Higbie’s treatise on the Greek family but it seems to imply that there was a certain lack of rigidity to these family structures and that they had become much more watered down through the ages than the traditional clan or house structure. This expansive nature of the Greek family seems to indicate that a particular family could easily consist of both powerful nobles and simple farmers, each of whom claimed ancestral ties to the same great figure from the past. I can picture there being some members of the same family who would die (and kill) to preserve the family’s name and power, while there are others of the same line whose identification with the family name comes into play only when needed to identify them on tax rolls or when mustered for militia detail. There's a lot of leeway for creativity here.

I’m thinking of introducing this concept into my own campaign world. Perhaps each human character in the game is a member of one of the ten (or twelve or twenty) great families of the empire, as is every human resident. For each family, I’d write up a founder, three famous ancestors, one infamous relative, and maybe one detail to help bring each bloodline to life, such as the family is renowned for producing oracles or that the family is believed to be cursed in some manner. Then I could plug the families into a random table and let each player roll to see which family he or she is descended from. The player could do what he or she wished with this bit of quickie background since the family structure is loose enough to cover both proud relatives and descendants with a more cavalier attitude towards the family tree.

I like this concept because it’s loose enough to add something to the overall game world without forcing players to incorporate something into their character they may have little interest in dealing with. Of course, this doesn’t mean it can’t affect their characters in some manner. Perhaps the reason that the most skilled armorer in town doesn’t want to sell you that new suit of chain mail isn’t because you and your crappy Charisma blew a reaction roll but because some distant relative of your family once insulted some distant relative of his family. Or how much more interesting would that dismal ruin up in the mountains become when it was built by your great uncle many times removed? Now imagine that the laws of the land stipulate that, if said ruin was cleared, ownership of it could be claimed by any member of that family line no matter how distant? For those players who relish portraying valiant warriors with dreams of knighthood, bringing an end to the ancient curse which has dogged their family for centuries might become a personal quest – no railroad tracks required. Of course, things might get interesting if the ancient curse is lycanthropy and members of that family are looked upon with suspicion of being blood-thirsty monsters by the other families…

I think there’s a lot to work with here but I need to decide whether the aspect of such a family structure, no matter how loose, is something that will add too much extraneous information to the streamline simplicity I’ve grown to love about the older editions of the game. I think the deciding point will be what sort of interesting families I can write thumbnail sketches for.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stonehell Progress Report

It's been two weeks since I last spoke about the Stonehell compilation project, but these occasional reports keep me honest and on track with the job, and helps remind folks that this will see the light of day in the somewhat near future.

Level Five has been completed. I put the finishing touches on section 5D this week and I'm very happy with the end result. I managed to introduce a new race of monsters which will play a larger role in the second half of the dungeon. I hope this last quadrant reads the way I intended, which is to be something like the encounter with the Drow at the end of G3. One series of adventures has concluded and now a new threat waits to be overcome.

I about 95% certain that the surface level, which is the only piece of brand new material that needs to be done for the compilation, is going to be three sections. Not quite as populated or compact as the dungeon itself but still allowing for a little bit of exploration before descending into the dungeon proper. I might start in on the maps for this section over the weekend but, at the moment, I'm planning on relaxing over the long weekend as much as I can. The One Page Dungeon contest is officially over and the final deluge of entries is poised to land in my inbox. I want to put that to bed before I venture back into the stony hell.

I remain very excited about the dungeon. In looking over the completed maps, it's hard to believe that this all started with a single 300' x 300' section of dungeon way back at the beginning of the year. Stonehell has certainly developed a personality of its own as it's grown, which is primarily the reason that I'm going back and sanding off the overly rough edges. I can't even imagine what the whole dungeon is going to look like once levels six-ten are finished. I might have to revisit the dungeon in a decade and revise it yet again for the special 10th anniversary release. But let's ignite that span when we arrive at it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"It Was THIS Big!"

A recent thread over at the Original Dungeon & Dragons Discussion forum has had me reexamining my copy of Eldritch Wizardry. While perusing those pages, I rediscovered the following image:
I’m not sure why, but there’s something about the above picture that keeps making me think that it requires some sort of humorous, snarky, weird, or witty caption to accompany it*. And for the life of me, I just can’t come up with the right one.

*My apologies to the artist for openly mocking his/her work but this piece hits me in the goofy bone.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bang A Gong, Get It On

I was standing in line at the local bookstore a few days ago, patiently waiting for the one guy behind the counter to work his way through the long queue that had formed. I happened to be standing by the rotating display of shoddy impulse items and my eyes fell upon The Executive Desk Gong. Hmm, I thought to myself, there’s something that has a few gaming possibilities. When I reached the cashier, the desk gong had joined my collection of purchases.

Once at home, I opened my new gong and grabbed a few miniatures for a size comparison. Not quite to scale but very close. The gong itself looks like it’s about 10’ to 12’ in diameter and stands 15' to 20' high with its frame when compared to the D&D Miniatures. Here’s how it looks:

All I needed was a few gong-related ideas to go along with my new acquisition. A brief brainstorming session came up with the following:

1 – Gong of the Dead: Striking this gong causes 2d6 undead to arise from their places of interment. Coffin lids creak open, sarcophagi lids crash to the floor, and masonry crumbles from the walls to expose the niches which housed the undead. They advance upon the party menacingly, under the control of the creature who struck the gong.

2 – Gong of the Planes: When the gong is struck, the surface of the instrument begins to whirl and crackle with eldritch energies. All within 30’ except the wielder of the mallet must save vs. spells or be sucked into the gong’s vortex. Those who fail are cast into another plane of existence, one either chosen by the referee or determined at random.

3 – Gong of Inert Magic: Ringing this gong causes all magical items in a 30’ radius to be temporarily nullified of their power. This effect last for 1d10 rounds. Additionally, only spells that affect the caster may be invoked, as if the area was under the effects of an anti-magic shell.

4 – Gong of Summoning: If this gong is struck, an extraplanar creature is summoned to the gong’s location and serves whoever rung the gong for 1d6+4 rounds. The creature summoned is determined by the referee and may include elementals, demons, devils, devas, djinni, efreeti, etc. If the mallet is wrested from the controller’s hands, command of the summoned creature transfers to the new wielder.

5 – Gong of Deafening: Ringing this gong causes all within 30’ (except the gong’s striker) to save vs. spells or become permanently deaf. A heal spell will cure this disability.

6 – Gong of Confusion: If the gong is struck, all within 40’ (including the creature that rang the gong) must save vs. spells or be confused as the 4th level magic-user spell.

7 – Gong of Defense: This gong attracts all missile attacks targeted at anyone standing in front of it. Such attacks miss their intended target completely, striking the gong’s surface with no effect (diabolical referees might rule that attacks that strike the gong produce another effect from this list). For the purpose of the gong’s defensive properties, missile attacks include arrows, bolts, throw weapons, magic missiles, Melf’s acid arrow, Melf’s minute meteors, and any other magical spell that targets a single individual. Area of effect spells such as fireball, lightning bolt, ice storm, etc. are not affected by the gong’s power.

8 – Gong of Self-Destruct: A last ditch defense against intruders, this gong, when struck, causes the location in which it is housed to begin to collapse. Ceilings start to cave in, walls crumble, pyramids sink into the sands, floating castle plummet the ground etc. Once struck, all within the complex have 1d3 turns to reach minimum safe distance. The referee may call for saving throws and/or ability checks to avoid taking damage from falling debris, exploding machinery, and other harmful side effects of the location’s self-destruct sequence. Such gongs usually require a special mallet or striker to invoke the instrument’s power and these items are very well protected to prevent inadvertent destruction.

9 – Gong of Exploding: This magical trap explodes as a 10 die fireball if it is rung. This effect generally destroys the gong and anyone nearby. As above, this power usually (but not always) requires a special mallet which is often found close by to encourage foolish adventurers to hit it.

Finally, I couldn’t let a post on gongs end without slipping in a Gong Show gag:

10 – Gong of the Barris: Striking this gong with the accompanying padded mallet causes one of three effects to occur, which may be determined by random or chosen by the referee.

1-2: A enigmatic figure dressed in outlandish clothing and wearing a paper hood appears. This individual begins telling abominably bad jests and all within ear shot must save vs. spells each round this unknown comic remains in the area or suffer the effects of Tasha’s uncontrollable hideous laughter. This mysterious jester remains for 1d8 rounds before vanishing.

3-4: A dark-skinned, mustachioed man dressed in a green windbreaker jacket, bell-bottomed jeans, sneakers, a yellow polo shirt, and a black painter’s hat suddenly appears accompanied by unseen musicians. This oddly-clad figure begins to dance and all who witness his unique gyrations are affected as if by an Otto’s irresistible dance spell. The music ceases and he vanishes after 2-5 rounds.

5-6: Striking the gong summons The Barris, a 12th level assassin who works for a occult cabal known as the Sea Eye Eight. Unpredictable and deadly, The Barris’ intentions are inscrutable and left up to the referee to decide what plans he might have in regards to those who have summoned him from his home plane.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Shared World

Some years ago, I read an article in Pyramid that had a profound effect on the way that I world-build. Time has erased both the article’s title and the author, so if anyone knows the one about which I write I’d appreciate a memory refresh so I can give credit where credit is due. The article was one in a regular series of columns by a Pyramid author and in it he revealed one of his storyteller tricks that he uses in his WoD games.

The premise is simple enough. Since the game world is one shared by both the Storyteller and the players, allowances should be made for input by the players to help mold and flesh out the overall world. To this effect, in his games he allowed players to construct world canon on the fly during gaming sessions. If a player had a person, place or thing in mind, one that wasn’t already stated by the GM notes, the player could introduce that element into the game narrative. If the GM thought it added color or didn’t affect the overall game balance, he’d make a note of this contribution on a 3x5 card and it would officially become part of the game world.

After reading the article, I immediately took to this idea and started implementing it into the way that I build the campaign world. I’ve mentioned here that I used to suffer from the misconception that a referee needs to be the sole author of his game world and should have a deep and rich campaign, even if that meant going so far as to flesh out all the little minutia of his imaginary world. That attitude has changed over time and this article had a lot to do with the start of that changing mindset.

Obviously this method of opening the game world up to the players requires both a clear set of limitations as to what would be an acceptable player contribution and to be able to trust your players not to abuse this creative license. They should know that there’s a big difference between their characters saying, “I’ve heard there’s an old man who lives down by the river that can decipher old maps. His name starts with an ‘S.’ Sharad or something like that,” and “I heard that Crazy Marduk’s is having a sale on magical items. Staves of the Magi are 100 gold each this week.” Once the players are aware of what you’d find acceptable, however, it opens the playing field up to some truly unique creations. I still have NPCs, shops, taverns, adventure locales, and saints floating about in my campaign that spawned from the brows of my players. As a referee, you’ll also need to be comfortable gaming by the seat of your pants, since many of these player contributions are created on the fly and need to be implemented into the game world almost immediately.

This opening of the game world is something that tends to happen anyway, especially if you’re one of those referees who require your players to come up with detailed back stories for their characters. By officially recognizing player contributions, you’re making the fact that you allow players to do some of the heavy lifting of world building much more visible to them and it encourages the players to help with the process. This leads to them having a greater investment in the world you all share, which has its own rewards. It keeps them coming back to the game each week and it allows the referee to continue to be surprised by his own creation, and that keeps his interest high and benefits everyone.

I personally used the 3x5 card method, although I usually transcribe my hastily jotted notes about a player’s contributions onto the cards after the game has ended. Some folks would prefer another method to record these bits of world-building (message board, blog, campaign wiki, etc.) but as long as a permanent record is kept, the rewards of this method are much greater than the effort expended to create them.

I realize that not every referee would be comfortable with opening up his or her campaign to player input. Some actually prefer the challenge of keeping all of the world’s secrets and trivia hidden behind the screen and to maintain a rough illusion that they have all the answers. At one point, I might have fallen into this camp. But as part of my goal to break my bad habits that were formed in the past, I’m much more laissez-faire than I used to be with my world. I now readily invite visitors to it to leave their own marks behind. If you’re not completely comfortable allowing your players to share the reins on such a large scale, you can always start small. Ask one of them to describe the room they’re staying in at the local caravanserai or to explain what the chest they just discovered looks like and go from there. If the players seem to respond to the idea and you like the results, consider allowing them a little more leeway in what they’re allowed to contribute. Chances are you’ll start to warm to the idea. Just never make this idea of player contributions mandatory. We are playing games here and nobody likes assigned homework interfering with their recreation time.

Friday, May 15, 2009

“Dungeon Oddities” Evens Out

While I’m not one to bandy about accusations of sorcery, somehow James Maliszewski managed to get his hands on Knockspell #2 already and offers it up for review over at Grognardia. In that review, James has a few kind words for my contribution to this latest issue:

“Michael Curtis offers up an amazing article on "Dungeon Oddities" that has already inspired me as I continue to work on my Dwimmermount megadungeon.”

“Dungeon Oddities” also gets special mention by Matt Finch in the thread over at the Original D&D Discussion forum. Granted that both Matt and James had their own involvement with Knockspell #2 and this should be taken into account when weighing for any bias, it’s nice to see that the article seemed to stand out amongst the excellent contributions by many other authors.

“Dungeon Oddities” was a heck of a lot of fun to write and I was quite satisfied with the end result – an oddity in itself as many writers can attest. I cover a pretty broad spectrum of subterranean weirdness in that piece, going into detail about bizarre doors, rifts between worlds, stone wombs, magma rivers, tar pits, and a few other set pieces of strangeness to include down in the dungeon depths. I certainly hope the readers of this blog will buy a copy of Knockspell #2 and get some enjoyment and inspiration out of “Dungeon Oddities.”

One Page Dungeon Contest Saves vs. Death Ray

Apparently there was some misinterpretation regarding at what time the One Page Dungeon Contest officially ended, leaving some entries shut outside the inn’s doors while the judges rolled around in the giant pile of prizes, ate peeled dates, and languidly reclined under the wafting breeze of ostrich-plume fans within. To compensate for this, Chgowiz and ChattyDM have graciously extended the deadline of the contest until May 21st, 2009 at 8:00 AM E.S.T. If you missed the deadline or have had a sudden inspiration for a One Page Dungeon, you have another week to enter your creation. After that time, however, the judges are going back for our dates and ostrich-plume fans and that’s it. Move it or lose it, people.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Knockspell #2 Has Escaped!

Knockspell Magazine Issue #2 is now on sale at the Swords & Wizardry storefront, This issue contains dungeon design advice from both Allan Grohe and Philotomy Jurament, an adventure by Gabor Lux, and all kinds of other articles from jousting to monsters and all points in between! The art in this issue is phenomenal: artists include Jim Holloway, Liz Danforth, and others. The cover piece is "Dungeoneer," by Peter Fitzpatrick. Games covered include 0e, 1e, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and other retro-clones. 86 pages.

DURING MAY the prices of Knockspell #2, Spire of Iron and Crystal (module), The S&W/0e Monster Book, and Eldritch Weirdness Compilation Books Three to One are all reduced, because we're in the middle of another lulu sales competition.

Table of Contents:
3 Editor’s Note, Matt Finch
4 Art Director’s Note, Jeff Preston
4 From Kuroth’s Quill, Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
8 The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
14 The Trouble with Thieves, James Maliszewski
16 WhiteBox Thief (1): The Treasure Seeker, Rob Ragas
17 WhiteBox Thief (2): The “Standard” Thief, Salvatore Macri
18 Core Rules Thief (1): The Skillful Shadow, Salvatore Macri
20 Core Rules Thief (2), James Maliszewski
21 Thieves and Tasks, Akrasia
24 Isles on an Emerald Sea 2, Gabor Lux
31 Retro-Clones: Interviews with the Authors
36 Jousting (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
37 Dungeon Oddities, Michael Curtis
45 The Zocchi Experience, Matt Finch
46 The Claws of Ssur-Sparih, James Carl Boney
47 Random City Lair Generator, Sean Wills
48 Random Thieves Guild Generator, Robert Lionheart
51 The Fantasy Marketplace: Looking at Merchants Differently, Michael Shorten
55 Spell Complexity (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
57 Thoughts on Arnesonian Alchemy in the Original Dungeon Game, Jason Vasche
60 When is a Spell Book Much More than a Spell Book?, Brendan Falconer
62 Random Pits & Occupants, Mike Davison
63 Magic Swords & Treasure Maps, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
67 Leprechauns, David (“Sham”) Bowman
69 Why White Box?, Jim Adams
71 Surviving Old-School Dungeons, Sean Ahmed
72 Three Sorcerous Creations, James Carl Boney
77 Magic Items
78 Review: On the Road of Knives, Matt Finch
79 Masterminds & Minions, bat
82 The Bestiary
86 Classified Ads
Anyone lamenting about the slight May slow down of The Society is directed to p. 37 of Knockspell #2 where you'll find me waxing philosophically on strangeness under the earth to drop into your local megadungeon. It's 75% new content by yours truly, never before seen on this blog or elsewhere within the ken of Men. The rest of the issue looks to be another solid release from Matt Finch and company. Details on a .pdf version will be forthcoming.

A Touch of Fear

I wrote a little bit about fear and the role it plays in gaming sessions last week with the promise that I’d share a few of the tricks and methods I’ve used over the years to help instill that sense of fright into my players. Having had some time to review my past game experiences, I’ve come to the realization that, when it comes to scaring the players, I don’t have a set bag of tricks from which to pull from. Like many referees, I often rely on improvisation and the taking advantage of unplanned developments to serve as a launching pad from which to get under the players’ skins.

In all honesty, I can only think of two referee tricks that I’ve used in the same exact method more than once to try and frighten my players: one cheap and tawdry by refereeing standards and the other potentially clumsy but effective. I’ll quickly cover those two and then cover some of the improvisational methods that have had success.

The cheap and tawdry one is a hoary, old chestnut which doesn’t so much instill fright as it does induces a unconscious flinch of the nerves; the game master equivalent of hiding behind a door and jumping out to yell “Boo!” Anyone can do it and even if the players know it’s coming, it still works. It’s a simple matter of allowing your voice to slowly drop in volume as you describe the game environment. As the characters creep from room to room, you speak softer and softer - not quite whispering but with much less volume than you normally use. Then, when the monster strikes or the body falls out of the closet – BAM! –suddenly you raise your voice and perhaps slam your hands down on the tabletop; startling the players and hopefully making them jump. It’s the role-playing game version of the “spring-loaded cat” that haunts bad horror films. As I said, it’s cheap, tawdry, and perhaps beneath those who consider themselves exceptional referees but effective nonetheless.

The other trick, which for lack of a better term I’ll call “Ten Little Indians,” is dependent upon one’s usual method of game mastering. If you don’t do what I do, you might tip your hand to your players that something’s afoot by this perceived change in your game descriptions. When I’m running a game, I’ll usually confirm the players’ actions in the course of the descriptive narrative in one manner or another. For example, if the adventurers decide to investigate the wizard’s library, I’ll usually begin the description of the actions by saying, “The party enters the library to the west” or “Arthur, Beryl, Casper, and Dorian (the characters’ names) head into the library.” I use both the individual names of the characters and the collective term alternately in game sessions so my players don’t suspect anything when I use one rather than the other.

On two occasions, I’ve confirmed the characters’ actions in the narrative but left out one of the characters’ names, saying (to use the above example), “Arthur, Casper and Dorian head into the library.” On one instance, the party immediately noticed the missing name and alerted me to my “error.” I responded, “That’s strange. Beryl is nowhere in sight. You’re quite certain she was just here a moment ago,” and then smiled. On the other occasion, the players didn’t notice until several minutes into the exploration of the next room, which left the time of “Beryl’s” disappearance slightly more uncertain. In order for this trick to work, you either need an NPC which can be removed from the party’s ranks without the need to rely on a lot of secret dice rolling or make arrangements with one of your players who agrees to be the temporary (and perhaps permanent) sacrificial goat. Understandably, using an NPC for this trick is much easier.

That’s about the extent of rote trickery that I’ve used consistently. I have noticed that I tend to speak with a slightly lower timbre to my voice in “scary situations” and that I use much slower and shorter descriptive sentences when fear is lurking in an attempt to keep the players on the edge of their chairs until the hammer drops. I may be overlooking some other tendencies that I do unconsciously and anybody who reads this blog and has had me as a referee is free to comment if I’m missing something.

For the most part, however, it’s the improvised little things that suddenly leapt to mind during game sessions that have been the most memorable and the most effective. I can’t rightly call them tricks or offer them as suggestions other than by example.

I remember one case in which I was running a player through his prelude for a Vampire game. We were gaming down in a finished basement that had the lighting on several switches and a row of square columns covering the house supports. Since the location of the prelude took place at a carnival after dark and involved the character being slowly led into the forest surrounding the fun fair, as the prelude continued I began shutting off banks of lights as the character plunged deeper and deeper into the woods. The further in the character proceeded, the darker the room got until just a single set of lights remained to simulate the moon (and allow us all to see our notes). Additionally, the figure that was coaxing the character into the woods was only appearing at the edge of his vision and was using the trees for concealment. For this, I stood up away from the table and placed the room’s columns between myself and the player to replicate the fleeting glimpses he caught of his mysterious quarry. It was very effective but obviously not the sort of thing that could be easily applied to any gaming session. I certainly didn’t think of it until the prelude had begun and I became aware of the basement’s possibilities.

In other games, I’ve used the materials at hand to set the stage. A big handful of dice slowly rubbed together has served as the sounds of the clattering bones of skeletons and the chitonous legs of giant insects. I’ve riffled the pages of books against my thumb to create the sound of fluttering wings and made harsh scribbles with pencil and paper to simulate the scratching of a deranged lich’s pen. Use what’s around you to whatever ends you can.

This is by no means a comprehensive study on the topic of fear in rpgs, being merely an account of my own experiences. A few useful links have been provided by commentators in the previous two posts and game masters looking for a starting point should consider tracking those sources down for inspiration. It is a wonder, however, how much fear you can instill in your players with a just a little bit of effort and a modicum of creativity. Here’s hoping that your players are in for a few frights over the course of their game sessions to come.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In a Strictly Observational Capacity

I’m currently on sabbatical from my thrice-monthly gaming group in order to allow me to catch a break from the massive sword & sorcery atmosphere that I’ve been operating in for the last several months. Despite this respite, I’m still attending game sessions to take part in the camaraderie and the social aspects that accompany the hobby. Plus, it’s better to witness what the party is up to firsthand than to read about it in the post-game reports.

I’m uncertain as to how many of the readers out there have taken a similar approach when they needed to take a break from gaming. I know that, in my own case, I usually remove myself completely from the game sessions when I find I need to take a breather and I’m assuming that others may take a the same path. However, if my experiences of the last two weeks are any indication, I think that removing myself from the actual game but still attending sessions in an observational capacity is proving to be a much better choice than my complete absence.

By reducing my role to “audience member” rather than “performer,” I get to enjoy the entertainment value that these games provide without the additional responsibility of influencing the outcome of events. I made a conscious decision and a continued effort to accept my place as an outside observer so I keep my mouth shut as much as I can, even when I may think some well-timed advice could help the guys out. I dislike backseat driving when it comes to game sessions and I try not to be “that guy” during sessions, although I do occasionally slip up.

I’m of the opinion at the moment that my sabbatical may prove to be to the benefit of the rest of the players in the long run, as well as my own. My gaming group is composed of members with a varying level of game experience and many of the players are either fairly new to the hobby or have return to the game after a long absence and only limited previous experience. Not to sound like the “Old Man Grognard” at the table but there is a slight tendency to rely on my own store of experiences during a regular gaming session. It’s nice to watch the players flying without relying upon me to help them out. I think part of the reason that I was beginning to burn out in the game was that I was getting a little frustrated with having to haul a slightly larger workload when it came to game play. Hopefully, the rest of the group is going to learn a few things and become a bit more self-confident before I come back to the table.

Another advantage of being an observer and not a player at the moment is that the party has been in a rut for the past several months. After an initial several months of us feeling as if we were making progress in the game world, certain in game events and decisions made by the party brought things to a grinding halt. Some game sessions became akin to pulling teeth because of lack of direction within the party or because the environment kept us snowbound. Luckily, it seems that the group is beginning to get its focus back and the spring weather makes it possible to visit new locations in pursuit of our goals. I think over the course of the next few sessions the party will be chugging along again and hopefully will have set its sights on a new, pursuable goal. Since I’m away from the table as the party gets its act back in gear I’ll be able to jump back into the game and rejoin the party with a new direction without slogging through the dreary downtime.

The last benefit of observing and not playing is that it allows me to keep my toes in the shallow end of the sword & sorcery pool without getting in over my head and drowning in it. My biggest source of burn out was my constant exposure to it, either in game, on this blog, or writing articles and adventures. There was simply no place to escape it. While I’m at a game session, I’m still around that atmosphere without being overwhelmed by it. When it comes time to dive back it, it won’t be quite as difficult to get my head back in the game simply because I limited my exposure rather than eliminating it completely, which is what I’ve done in the past.I’m glad I’m having this time to relax from the game for a bit and watching instead of playing has kept me in touch with the hobby I enjoy so much. I’m gaining all the benefits of a break from gaming without any of the drawbacks of complete absenteeism. If you ever find yourself undergoing a similar case of game burn out, I’d recommend trying this method to recharge your batteries. So far, it’s exactly what I needed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Medieval Tapestry Generator

I have a sneaking suspicion that I've seen this on some other blog in the distant past but just in case that's my faulty memory at work, I'll risk repetition and mention it here.

For those of you looking for a neat prop generator for your pseudo-medieval, fantasy role-playing campaign, hie yourselves over to The Historic Tale Construction Kit and lose a an hour or two playing around with their Flash drag and drop application that allows you to create your own medieval story tapestries. It can be a little wonky so I'd recommend you doing a lot of screen captures as you go along just to be safe, but the end product turns out to be a lot of fun and makes a perfect prop to drop onto your game table for your players to "ooh" and "ahh" over.

I made this:

Doggerel of the most horrid variety (skieses?) but not bad for about a half-hour of monkey business on the web.

Last Call for One Page Dungeon Submissions

This is it, folks. The One Page Dungeon Contest officially draws to a close on May 14th at midnight EST. If you’ve been thinking about entering but keep putting it off, this is your final chance to break out the pencils and graph paper (or fire up your graphics program of choice) and get that entry in! Don’t let someone else walk away with the valuable prizes you so richly deserve.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mountains of the Moon

I’ve made mention on this blog in the past that I have a fondness for the historical era that stretches roughly from the end of the American Civil War to the end of World War I. I won’t repeat the details other than to say that I find it to be a period where the world was still very recognizable to the one we live in today but it was also a time when much of the world still remained a mystery to the West. I find that mix of the unknown and modern very captivating. Political correctness aside, there’s something about the explorations of this era that speaks to me and I enjoy delving into the accounts of the gentlemen explorers who placed so much of the world on Western maps.

It will come as no surprise then that when I heard about a film entitled Mountains of the Moon; I made it a priority to watch this movie at the first opportunity. Last night, I had that chance. Based on the novel, Burton and Speke by William Harrison, Mountains of the Moon depicts the 1857-58 expedition of Captain Richard Burton and Lt. John Speke to discover the headwaters of the Nile in central Africa. During that expedition, the men faced hardship in the form of disease, hostile tribes, the loss of equipment, flesh-eating beetles, and the desertion of their bearers. The expedition led to the discovery of Lake Tanganyika by the Western world and, although Burton was ill and unable to complete the final leg of the journey, the location of Lake Victoria, which we now know as the origin point of the Nile River.

Although the film takes considerable license with the historical events that it depicts, largely due to Harrison’s novel upon which it is based, it does provide a picture of a time when the West made icons and heroes of those men who faced the unknown to expand the field of scientific and geographical knowledge. It also shows the darker side of this elevation of explorers and the rivalries that often overshadowed their accomplishments in the field.

Like The Lost City of Z, Mountains of the Moon is an excellent resource for referees and players about to embark on a campaign centered on expeditions into the unknown corners of the world. Such easily overlooked challenges as hiring dependable bearers, negotiations with aggressive native tribes, the trials of prolonged journeys away from civilization, and the dangers of giving gifts of great power to the locals are all touched upon in the film. The more I read about and am exposed to it, I think that my own campaign world needs some sort of analogous Royal Geographical Society to serve as starting point for adventures and to provide the characters with a chance at some respectability in a career otherwise overrun with scoundrels and riffraff. The scene where David Livingstone and Burton meet for the first time could easily be an encounter between two longtime adventurers meeting in a tavern.

While the film is not quite as pertinent to a “green hell” campaign, as the journey through central Africa is mostly savannah and mountainous terrain, there are enough similar details to make the film worth watching for those of you running such a game. Likewise, although the film is a bit early for even a Cthulhu by Gaslight game, there’s plenty here for a Keeper to use. Even the general glimpse into the obsessions and manias that seem to grip explorers is useful as a lens in which to look upon adventurers of any ilk.

If you happen to come across the film, take the time to watch it. It provides just as much inspirational material as the usual sword & sorcery fare while providing a nice break from that genre.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

First Time Fright

I’m generally not inclined to post gaming war stories but I have been known to take requests. To gratify one such wish and to perhaps give you a clear idea of what I find frightful in a role-playing game, let me tell the tale of the first time that I can remember being unnerved by the events of a friendly game session.

Many years ago, I had a friend who lived in a house situated on a road that is about as close as one gets to rural in my neck of Long Island. That road is just over a quarter mile in length and is bordered by undeveloped woodlands to the east and has a total of five properties situated along its western side, most of which are set back some distance from the road. Those five homes are each separated by a distance of no less than a hundred feet and stands of thick woods are interspaced between each property. The first of the houses along that road had been abandoned for many years and the road, which resembles a tunnel overhung by tree limbs, has no street lights whatsoever. The road is also a single lane street; cars meeting abreast on the road must pull to the verge to allow each other passage.

One afternoon, I found my way over to the home of this friend, Steve, and there, accompanied by his older brother, Bill, and two other mutual acquaintances, ended the day with a session of free-form role-playing. It was a thrown together session, much of it improvised on the spot, and we were only vaguely using some D&D mechanics to run it. At the time, I had no exposure to Call of Cthulhu outside of seeing references to it and ads in Dragon magazine, but we were basically playing CoC in an unstructured form.

The setup for the game was very basic: Bill was running the game and the rest of use took the roles of four longtime friends who gathered weekly for a night of dinner and poker at each other’s homes. That evening, in the game, we’d gather at the home of Steve’s character, who lived in a house situated on a narrow, wood-lined road very similar to the one that ran just outside the window in real life. Steven’s character had a neighbor, an addled older gentleman, who lived in a home which exactly resembled the abandoned house that stood, in reality, some hundred yards away from where we were playing. That old man was considered mostly harmless by us four friends, although he did have the tendency of requesting our assistance in all manner of onerous chores (moving furniture, cleaning out his gutters, running his errands) from time to time.

As the game progressed, our dinner and poker night was interrupted by a phone call from this old gentleman. It seemed that he required our presence at his home to assist him in some unspecified matter. Since the call came in the middle of our poker game and we were certainly loathe to leave the poker table prematurely, Steve’s character assured him that’d we’d be down as soon as our evening’s entertainment was completed. A few hours past in game before we, grudgingly, decided to see what the old crackpot needed now.

A short walk down to the geezer’s home concluded with the four of us rapping upon his door several times without answer. Knowing that the old man was not inclined to lock his door, we ventured in to see if perhaps he had injured himself or otherwise was unable to answer our call. Our exploration of the home turned up nothing amiss. Even the old elephant gun the man kept on the mantelpiece of his hearth was untouched. The only oddity that we found was in the basement.

It seems that the old man had been doing some excavating in his cellar. A large section of the cement floor had been broken up and a dark pit, with a ladder thrust into its mouth, yawned before us. A camera, rigged with what appeared to be a homemade electric-eye shutter trigger, was aimed at the hole. A quick search of the house turned up a flashlight, which we shined down into the dark, thinking that perhaps the man had tumbled into his dig and injured himself at the bottom. The flashlight’s feeble beam revealed that the hole opened into what appeared to be a natural cave system, one that none of us had the slightest inkling of existing. We called to the old man, thinking that he had gone below for some bizarre purpose, but our cries remained unanswered.

After some deliberation, the four of us decided that since the hour was late, we had no reason to know for certain that the man had gone down into those caves (the man owned no car, travelling by taxi or offered rides, so we had no idea if he had gone out for the evening after he called us), and that none of us had any desire to become embroiled in yet another one of the old man’s troublesome “favors,” we’d depart the premises for the time being. We all agreed that we’d call upon the man in the morning to see if he was unharmed and to perform whatever task he needed. Thus, the four of our characters went our separate ways for the evening.

The next morning found us on the old man’s porch and, like the night previous, our knocking went unanswered. Venturing into the home again, we found a somewhat different scene before us. The elephant gun was no longer above the fireplace. Instead, it now lay on the carpet of the living room. The barrel of the gun had been twisted into almost a complete U-shape and an investigation of the weapon proved that it had been fired. There were no signs of this discharge in the walls and ceiling of the room, nor was there any blood to indicate the gun had found its target. In addition, a search of the home revealed that many items and pieces of furniture were askew, as if someone had made a mad dash through the home, knocking things aside in their flight.

Now very much concerned, we descended into the basement. There, we found a strange, viscous substance on the cement floor that seemed to originate from the mouth of the pit. Checking the camera and its automated shutter system, we found that several pictures has been taken sometime during the night. Again, our cursory examination of the pit and our cries of the old man’s name turned up nothing. It was obvious that something occurred in our absence and we promptly called the police.

Bill, the referee, invoked the classic horror movie cliché of the uncooperative authorities (there was no body and no blood at the scene, so the police ruled it a missing persons case and would take no action until the obligatory 48 hours had elapsed), leaving the four of us to solve the mystery on our own. Our first action was to get the film developed to see what clues the pictures might contain. Thanks to the one-hour Photo Hut, we soon had our answers. The pictures revealed the terrified old man emerging from the pit and running towards the stairs. The next image showed something rising from the hole. The picture was strange as the image of whatever it was that followed the old man was blurred, although the rest of the basement visible in the picture was crystal clear. We could only get the impression of huge, distorted, bulky form. The last picture showed the thing again, this time descending back into the hole with the old man’s inert body being dragged in its wake.

Since this was a horror game, we four of course decided to go in search of the old man, who was hopefully still alive somewhere in the caves beneath the house. Equipping ourselves at the local camping & sporting goods store, we returned to the house and climbed down the ladder into the unknown cave system. Luckily, one of the characters had some experience spelunking and my own character was an army veteran who had seen combat duty, so we thought ourselves not completely unprepared for the challenges that might await us.

Our exploration of the cave system revealed that it was much larger than we had expected. As we sojourned down its tunnels, we unearthed several relics that proved we were not the first to pass this way. Some items dated to the current day. Others seemed to be relics from the colonial period. Lastly, we found items that could only have been dated to the years before the European arrival in the Americas. Then, we found the door.

Carved from solid rock, this Cyclopean portal opened into the tunnel in which we had been traveling. The door stood ajar, although we would have been hard pressed to open it ourselves even with all four of our efforts combined. On the floor next to the door, we discovered a soft stone disk that bore the carving of a five-pointed star with some obscure glyph in its center. As I said, at the time of this game I was unacquainted with Lovecraft or Call of Cthulhu so I didn’t identify the stone as an Elder Sign, but I knew enough about horror that a five-pointed star always meant bad mojo was afoot.

As the four of us examined the stone and the massive portal, we detected a sudden drop in temperature around us. We could see our breath begin to fog in the gleam of our lanterns and, quite soon thereafter, the air began to reek with some horrid stench. Desperately, we scanned the darkness around us with rifles in hand and our flashlights picking through the gloom.

And that’s where we stopped the game.

We all agreed that it had been a great gaming session and planned to return to game to see what horrors awaited our characters in the caves. Unfortunately, time and schedules never allowed us to pick up that game again and, for all I know, my character is still down there in the dark, waiting to meet his fate. I said my goodbyes and started home - down that dark, wood-shrouded road. The one whose doppleganger had featured prominently in the game we just finished. The one which had an abandoned house in the exact same location as the old man’s home in the game. The one where a quarter moon had looked down up it and the shadows stretched across the decaying asphalt, much like the one on which I currently made my journey.

I’m not saying that I ran past that abandoned house on my trip home but I will admit to a light jog, at least until I reached the main road with its streetlights and homes whose glowing windows hinted at signs of human occupation. Sleep was a little dicey that night too, once I got home.

That game night was twenty years ago and, as you can no doubt tell from the clarity of my recollections of it, it made quite a deep impact on me. There are games from a month ago I can’t remember that well. Over the space of two decades and with more experiences with horror in role-playing games from both sides of the screen, I’ve pinpointed the three reasons why that game night was so effective.

One was the immediacy of the setting. There’s a good reason why most campfire stories begin with “In these very woods, on a night much like tonight…” It immediately drops the audience into a place they can quickly identify with and picture in their minds. Bill’s use of the very same spooky road that ran just outside the door was a masterstroke. There was no need to waste time with trying to paint a vivid picture when we were all familiar with where we were in the game and could imagine it from our own knowledge.

The second reason is the direct opposite of the first. Although the location was familiar, the events of the game were not. By this I mean that since I had no previous experience with Lovecraft or Call of Cthulhu, I was unable to place the events and occupants of the game session in delineated categories. What’s more frightening: “a faceless, black monstrosity with wings like that of a great bat” or “a nightgaunt”? One is all imagination; the other a recognizable thing with stats and associated literary baggage. This game wouldn’t be quite as terrifying to me now, but innocence is something we all lose with time and it’s difficult to go home again.

The final piece of the terror puzzle is the factor that I spoke about in an earlier post. It can be argued that “nothing happened” in that gaming session and that is true on some level. But, in my mind, there were terrifying events. Bill just left the heavy lifting of picturing those events up to my own internal horror machine. I could envision the frenzied flight of the old man as a horrible thing lurched after him. I could see the shapeless bulk and the nauseating form of the creature, even though my character and the camera couldn’t. I knew what was lumbering through those dark caves towards us. I scared myself that night and did quite a good job of it. That’s my preferred way of doing so and, if I can scare myself, I know I can use what frightens me to get under my players’ skin.

So there you have it. The somewhat overlong tale of my first scare in a role-playing game. I’ve learned a few tricks about how to create such an experience from the other side of the screen and I’ll touch on those is a later, hopefully much briefer, post. Until then, don’t go into the basement…

Monday, May 4, 2009

Stonehell Update

I thought it was time to fill you people in on the progress of the Stonehell compilation project as some time has passed since I mentioned the start of that endeavor.

As of tonight, the fourth level of the dungeon is 90% complete. All the maps are finished and all four quadrants have been stocked and keyed. There are a few niggling details that need to be finished up before I can check it off my “to do” list but I’m comfortably residing on the fifth level right now.

The fifth level has half of its map completed and the second half is in a rough draft in my head. I’ve completed the stocking and keying of the first quadrant of level five but, as with level four, there are still a few minor tweaks to do before I’d call it done. I had hoped to start on the second quadrant tonight but it’s getting late and it’s best to break away now rather than have to redo parts of it later. I know for certain what’s going to be lurking in that section, as well as who has taken up residence in the third quadrant, but the fourth part is still unformed as to residents, trickery, and general dungeon shenanigans. I’m optimistic, however, as some of my more funky sections have been birthed when I started putting pen to paper without any preconceived ideas and just started creatively interpreting the dice to form something memorable.

Once level five is in the can, I’ll be heading back up to the surface to detail what exactly sits atop Stonehell in the sunlit lands. My first impression is that the surface level is going to be smaller than the average dungeon level – maybe three sections tops and possibly only two, and will mix a few dungeon-esque encounters with some wilderness beasts. Maybe a last chance for adventurers to find a little friendly help before heading down into the dark. The emphasis is on the dungeon itself, however, so I don’t want the outside world to overshadow the corridors beneath it.

After the surface is finished, it’ll be time to go over the completed three levels with an editing pen, make some adjustments, and reformat those levels to jive with the lower two. A few pages of a general dungeons notes, an appendix consisting of some useful tables and other referee treats, and I think it will be ready to see the light of day.

I’ve already got some interesting plans for the second half of Stonehell but I anticipate taking a little breather in between the completion of the compilation and the start of level six. I’m going to try and get quadrants two and three of the fifth level close to completion before the deluge of One Page Dungeons arrives for judging, which I anticipate will put all work on Stonehell to a grinding halt until those have all been adjudicated.

To whet your appetites and keep you interested, some of the features of the lower levels include: humming stones, giant glow worms, a gold mine, ogre moonshine, a chasm to elsewhere, a ghost unlike any other, and the “Great Hunt.” I’ll be checking in with updates as they develop.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Quiet Fear

I’ve been thinking about fear as of late and what role that most primal of emotions plays in this hobby of ours. Part of this rumination has to do with me trying to explore new ideas in role-playing outside of the standard sword & sorcery genre. Another reason is because I’m currently working through a crop of movies and reading material of the horrific nature in order to try and switch the gears in my head to another setting. Maybe James Raggi’s post on D&D as a Horror Game fed the fires a bit too.

Let me preface these mental meandering by providing full disclosure. Up until the age of fifteen, I was a big baby when it came to horror. I remember having a slew of bad dreams from just catching a glimpse of the coming attractions for Friday the 13th whenever channel 11 would air it (the scene of zombie, hydrocephalic Jason Voorhees jumping out of the lake was the apex of terror for me). I made the mistake of reading a collection of Lovecraft’s revisions (revisions, mind you. Not even pure H.P.) while spending a week at a lakeside cabin in the wilds of Maine and that pretty much ruined that vacation. Even such clichéd claptrap as a darkened room and a camera in “murderer P.O.V.” was enough to make me change the channel, simply because I knew bad things were about to occur. What can I say? I was a sensitive child gifted with an abundance of imagination. Does that description sound like anyone else out there in this hobby?

As I grew older, I lost much of that fear and began to enjoy the occasional spooky movie or scary novel. I’m not what some would call a horror aficionado or a “gore geek” but I do like the emotional response and release that a well-done piece of high spookatude can produce. But the problem is that it has to be well-done and what I consider “well-done,” like most views on art in various mediums, is subject to some highly personal criteria.

Gore and viscera doesn’t throw my switches. I have a few friends who are fans of the splatter on the screen and I’ve picked up a little knowledge about how those effects are produced. Now, like seeing a magician after you know the tricks, all I see is foam latex and corn syrup when the gore splashes across the celluloid. Psycho killers, who usually appear in such gore extravaganzas, also do nothing for me. I remember someone once pointing out that, according to the FBI, there are roughly fifty active serial killers in America at any given time. With odds like that, one is more likely to die in the shower by slipping on a bar of soap and breaking one’s neck than by Norman Bates giving you the old butcher knife handshake (and that blood by the way: chocolate syrup. The movie is black and white after all). I did go through a period where zombies gave me the heebie jeebies but I got over that and with good timing. Zombies are apparently the new vampires in horror literature and films.

If you want to scare me nowadays, what you need to do is give me just enough information for me to do the job for you. I know for certain that I have a special effects shop inside my head that can crank out much more frightening images than Stan Winston, KNB or ILM ever could. Case in point: My favorite horror film is The Haunting (not the remake, the 1963 original). It’s easily one of the most frightening movies to ever have been made and it has one special effect. Everything else is either done with sound or the intimation that something truly and utterly wrong is taking place. The Blair Witch Project, once you get past the marketing hype and the “is this real?” factor, is another truly frightening piece of film. Many people were disappointed because “nothing happens.” Yes, that’s the point. Nothing happens that we witness directly. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks.

This is the same reason why role-playing games can be an excellent medium for telling scary stories. Not an ideal one, but an excellent one. The role-playing game isn’t that far removed from the campfire stories we heard and told as kids. Those stories, like the movies I mentioned above, generate their emotional response by purposely giving us just enough information to scare the crap out of us. Think about the campfire classics for a moment. How many of them actually feature a dead body? The only ones that come to mind is the one with the scratching on the car roof and the dead roommate in the “dog licks the hand” tale. In the other stories, it’s what the characters (and therefore you) didn’t directly witness that strikes a nerve.

When I’m behind the screen and there’s a need to start making the players (and their characters) unsettled, this is the same path that I follow. When it comes to fear around the gaming table, a little is often more effective than a lot. Give the players enough of a tease, even if it’s a clichéd one such as a tap upon the window pane, and make them do your job for you. It’s not always successful, as many factors can derail a good scare before it gets a chance to build of steam, but when it works, scaring the hell out of your players is one of the most rewarding things a referee can do.

James points out in his post that the players don’t get scared but they start worrying about their characters in a game if the referee is doing his job right. I see what he’s saying but I’m of a different state of mind. I think players can and should get scared if that’s what the referee is going for. Hell, getting players to worry about their characters is easy. Any level draining undead is going to get them a little worried, especially if they’ve been playing that PC from 1st level. I believe that a referee isn’t doing his job right unless he can scare the players without even bringing their characters into the equation. Any referee who gets a phone call the morning after a gaming session and has a player admit that he was spooked on the drive home or as he lay in bed that night has most certainly done his job correctly and can take pride in his skills.

The problem with this skill set, like a lot of referee skills, is that it can’t be easily taught. It must be learned through trial and error and by knowing what can get your players worked up. That’s pure on the job training, although some role-playing games (the Ravenloft boxed set, the White Wolf titles) do present some basics from which to start your experiments in horror. It’s a talent worth cultivating if you’re serious about this whole game master thing, though.