Friday, July 31, 2009

Sigh of Relief

That's it. About an hour ago, I put the final touches on the preliminary draft of the dungeon notes for Stonehell and sent it off to my Three-Headed collaborators for review. The book is not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but getting the meat of the book written and assembled before the weekend had been my goal and it has been met.

As I mentioned to Sham and Chgowiz, I can't call Stonehell a One Page Dungeon anymore, not even with a wink, a nudge, and the gratuitous use of air quotes. I think I've discovered a new format called "The Abbreviated Dungeon." Despite this, I believe it remains true to the One Page Dungeon ideal and I hope you fine folks will too should you deign to peruse the final product.

To give you an idea of what I mean by abbreviated, here's an apples to oranges comparison. The Temple of Elemental Evil supermodule (T1-4) runs 128 pp. and has 483 keyed encounters/rooms if you add up Hommlet, Nulb, the Moathouse, and the Temple itself. The first half of Stonehell has 717 keyed rooms and I'm dedicated to bringing the book in at 120 pp. or less. It also has 42 new monsters (some familiar, some not so), 14 new magical items, and 3 new spells. It retains its brevity yet still presents a central framework to support the overall dungeon. I'm pleased with the result at the moment.

I've referred to the project in private as my D&D Master's thesis and only half-jokingly. It must be the largest single piece of writing I've ever done. The Dungeon Alphabet was a cakewalk compared to this. My primary concern with the manuscript is going to be seeing if I can draft someone to edit the beast. Art is a secondary concern at the moment, but I think I'm going to let everything be a secondary concern for a couple days as I reassemble my mind for the next phase - writing the intro chapters and starting review of the draft. But that can wait.

In the meantime, for no other reason than it was one of the many songs that served as the soundtrack for the writing process, here's The Quick performing "Pretty Please."

He Wants to Hold Your Hand, Hand, Hand, Hand…

One of the many reasons that the concept of using a dreamlands-like setting for a D&D campaign is attractive to me is that it allows both the referee and the players complete freedom to indulge in flights of fancy not normally allowed in a “straight” D&D game. As much as D&D (and all role-playing games) is a “game of the imagination,” the need to acquiesce to certain logical constraints is ever-present. The only time we can usually get away with doing something completely off-the-wall is in a comedic or silly game, which are usually of short-term durations.

Dreams are free from such logical constraints. From what I’ve been reading, when we sleep, the parts of our brain that normally control logical and rational thought are effectively shut down, which is why it seems perfectly reasonable in a dream to be taking a trip to Antarctica with the Oakland Raiders on a bus driven by your fourth-grade teacher. I’m looking to explore some similar terrain with Insomnity.

In theory, I’m just as free to present the illogical as fact and not think twice about the whys and wherefores of it all. In practice, getting potential players to indulge in the same sense of disbelief without turning the game into a farce is one of the biggest hurdles this idea faces. I’m not certain what best way to avoid this might be, but I suspect loose limits as to what is too bizarre might be better than none at all. Playing the NPCs as everyday citizens, no matter how strange, is probably another good idea.

Even with using these thoughts as a flexible governor as to what I can get away with, the possibilities are still much more than in your average fantasy world. If you add “race as class” and the Crabaugh Method to the mix, there’s a lot of mileage to be gotten from a world of dreams.

The other night, with “Customized Classes” from the May 1986 issue of Dragon in hand and a thought I mentioned in a previous post in mind, I came up with the following new class. This is the rough version, provided just to give you an idea of where my flights of fancy have been taking me as of late.


Hit Dice: 1d6
Requirements: DEX 9
Combat Progression: as Cleric
Save As: Cleric
Level Limit: 11th
Weapons allowed: Any
Armor allowed: Leather and shield

You are an octopus, but whether you’ve always been one or this is a recent development is incidental. The fact that you are of unusual size for an octopus (your head rises 4’ off of the ground and your tentacles, when splayed out, stretch to 10’ in diameter) and that you seem well-adapted to life outside of the ocean also fails to keep you up at night. Although you are perfectly at home in the water, you don’t require regular immersion to stay alive – but there is something to be said for a nice cool bath or the occaisonal spritz on a hot day.

Special Abilities

Multiple Attacks – Starting at 1st level, an octopus is allowed two attacks per round. These attacks must be of the same type (melee or missile) and be directed at a single target. If an octopus’ target is slain and it has one or more attacks remaining in that round, he may switch to the next available target and continue combat with them without penalty. At 5th level, an octopus gains a 3rd attack each round, and at 9th level, he may strike up to four times per combat round.

Camouflage – An octopus can naturally alter its coloration to blend in with its surrounding environment. When using the ability outdoors or in other natural surrounds, the octopus is 90% likely to be overlooked by observers. Underground or in artificially constructed surrounding, this ability is not as effective and the octopus is only unseen one-third (2 in 6 chance) of the time.

Climb Walls – Thanks to the suction pads that cover its tentacles, an octopus can Climb Walls as if it were a Thief of equal level.

Aquatic Affinity – Octopi have the ability to breathe underwater and can swim at a rate of 90’ (30’).


Mollusk – Although land-dwelling octopi are able to maintain more rigidity than their aquatic brethren, they lack an internal skeleton. Thus, octopi are limited to wearing specially-fitted leather armor at best, although they may employ shields. Octopi may also only carry half the normal weight capacity allowed for other races.

Magical Item Use – Octopi cannot use wearable magical items intended for humanoid-shaped races. This includes rings, bracers, gauntlets, girdles, boots, and cloaks. Helms and eyes are allowed, however. An octopus can use variant forms of these magical devices if they were crafted specifically for its species.

Experience Point Cost
1st Level: 0-1,899
2nd Level: 1,900-3,799
3rd Level: 3,800-7,599
4th Level: 7,600-15,199
5th Level: 15,200-33,299
6th Level: 33,300-66,599
7th Level: 66,600-129,999
8th Level: 130,000-259,999
9th Level: 260,000-427,499
10th Level: 427,500-569,999
11th Level: 570,000+

Thursday, July 30, 2009

An Open Apology to the Faithful

This has been weighing on me a little bit as of late, so I’d just like to offer my apologies whether anyone feels they’re required or not. I feel like I’ve been phoning in posts for the last two weeks and this is undoubtedly true to some extent. A wise man (Maimonides? Jeremy Bentham?) once wrote that it is hard to blog and write a book simultaneously. This is true. For the past two weeks, I’ve been pounding away at the Stonehell compilation, trying to get it to resemble something akin to a finished draft. My thoughts have been on the blog in a tertiary manner at best.

This aforementioned half-assery of the most recent of posts should not be misconstrued as a loss of interest in the blog or a deficit of creativity. We’re rapidly approaching the one year anniversary of this little endeavor of mine and, although my plate is much more overloaded than it was at the start of this venture, I’ve not lost any interest in continuing to chronicle my weird design projects and the half-baked philosophy that accompanies such efforts. I’m just simply trying to husband my energies and direct them to the most pressing of matters for the time being. The blog suffers the most for that rationing.

I’ve been remiss in making my rounds of my contemporaries’ blogs this past week. From the few that I’ve seen, it seems I’ve blissfully missed some recent cannonade across the Old School bow, but I can’t say I’m much inclined to find out what exactly that was. I don’t seem to have taken any damage in the latest exchange so I’ll assume nobody was aiming specifically in my direction.

The good news is that I’m very close to completing the lion’s share of the work needed on the Stonehell compilation. Fear is playing a few towns over from me on Monday and I’ve made a gentleman’s agreement with myself that I don’t get to see them perform unless the draft is completed to my satisfaction. This has been a most persuasive of arguments to keep me on track and to get things finished. I’m hoping to share the completed draft with my Three-Headed compadres in the next day or two to start the feedback machine running. A post regarding the state of Stonehell should be appearing on the THM Games blog in the near future.

I just wanted to keep my regular readers informed as to why things have been a bit subpar these past two weeks and why I’ve been woefully neglect in responding to comments about what has appeared. There will be a new post tomorrow as scheduled, but whether it’s more of the same or actually has something of value, I’ll let you be the judge of.

One Word Hint: “octopus.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Roots of Insomnity

When the idea for Insomnity first percolated into my mind, it had, like many true dreams, an aura of familiarity about it; the sense that I had come this way before. I initially assigned this feeling to the fact that I’m drawing from some much older and more established source material as I flesh the idea out. It then occurred to me that I’m actually touching on an aborted idea that I once had some years ago. As many of my older gaming commonplace books have either been lost or are in storage, I couldn’t confirm this suspicion. I finally realized that I had posted some of these surviving notes on an older (and now largely defunct) blog of mine. I’ve since been able to recover those notes and I’ve included them below in a slightly edited form.

Insomnity is going to be built on a foundation that I first laid out at least five years ago. That foundation was a little live-action experiment that I dubbed Stormrealm. It was a concept that occurred to me late one evening while I was entertaining an old college friend who had been down visiting me. After he had gone to bed, I remained awake and in a creative frame of mind (largely due to the large quantity of beer we had just consumed, which could also be the reason why Stormrealm never made it past its inaugural session). We had had a tremendous thunderstorm that evening and the tempest got me thinking about the great and unexpected changes that follow in their wake. While not the most unique of ideas, it occurred to me that explore the notion of a stranger in a strange land, one who had found himself waking in an unfamiliar world following a great physical and metaphysical storm. I typed up the following invitation, printed it out, and tacked it on the door of guest room where my friend (who’ll I’ll refer to a “J” for this post) was sleeping.

You are known by another name in Stormrealm (J would later add the name "Ignatius" here).

This is the grand invitation to a unique Live Action Role-Playing Game. It is not Mind's Eye Theatre. It is not the S.C.A. This is a game we will make up as we go along.

Care to play?
The first session of Stormrealm begins today. The previous night has been torn by wind and rain. With the morning sun, you find yourself in a bed in a small inn called "Brubeck's Rest".

Strange dreams haunt you as you rise. You half-remember nightmares with metal carriages and boxes of moving light.

But now you are back in Stormrealm. Where magic and monsters, poisons and potions, and danger and dragons dwell.

And you'll help make the rules...


J, being both a gentleman and open to most any of my harebrained, agreed to play along with my fairly undeveloped concept and received more notes regarding his personae.
You've awakened in Brubeck's Rest, an inn at the end of the Bog Road, situated on the edge of the Twisted Grove. Strange dreams and visions have lead you this far.

Your possessions are few: a pocket of silver, two scrolls which you bought from a pock-marked vendor at the Night Market, and a bag of magical tools.

You've heard tales of the Twisted Grove in your travels. The legends speak of strange and ancient magics that lay slumbering there. The tales also speak of the bizarre creatures that make their home within.

Most fierce are the Trolls. Strong and deadly, yet the touch of sunlight turns their forms to stone. Also, the Mongrelmen dwell within. Twisted creations formed of from alchemical experiments left over from the Pax Imperium, the Mongrelmen live a fierce and violent life, killing trespassers with glee.

Despite these dangers, you've determined that not only is the Twisted Grove an ideal place to establish a Threshold, it may harbor some of the ingredients you need to create the potions you've been working on.

You've been awoken this morning by Odd, the handyslave at Brubeck's Inn. He's gathered the tools you've requested: shovel, axe, etc. and is willing to accompany you to the edge of the Twisted Grove. After that, you're on your own...
After reading the above, J had fleshed out his personae and motivations on an index card that bore the following notes:
Through my life, I can remember being in places only describable as dreams. Now I feel things have flipped. I feel cursed with anger and seem to break weapons often upon killing beasts. Searching for control of myself, I have begun a pilgrimage. In the grove of the Twisted Root is an old marker for the head of the way. From the small village of Winter Stone.
To assist Ignatius on his pilgrimage, I provided him with a few scrolls containing various formulae for items and rites that might assist him in the future. In them was The Rite of the Threshold:
Rite of the Threshold
A Threshold is a magical nexus, which allows those who know the mystic invocation to travel from one place to another.

To construct a Threshold, one must first find a proper nexus point, where two or more ley lines meet. Once this is done, construction can begin.

First, a gate must be built. The gate must form a boundary to contain the Threshold's magic. A crude doorway, circle of standing stones, or a shallow pool, are all examples of gates built for a Threshold. A gate must be constructed by the one opening the Rite of the Threshold.

Once a gate is built, the caster must consecrate the gate with symbols of all four elements. Air must be invoked first, followed by Fire, Earth, and Water, If not done in this order, the gate will not work.

Next, the gate must be named. This will, in effect, become the Threshold's "address". Only those who know the Threshold's name will be able to employ it. A small token must be held in the caster's left hand and be given the Threshold's name. The token is then buried at the site.

Finally, to seal the magic within, the caster must circle the Threshold counter-clockwise three times. After that, the Threshold will be bound to the site and available for use.
I hoped that the construction of a Threshold in the Twisted Grove would allow us to utilize other real life locations as game fields without the hassle of explaining travel from diverse place to diverse place. Plus it’s always good to start with a defined goal, especially when engaging in such an off-the-cuff experimental idea like we were.

He also received the recipe for a Potion of Fire:

One Burnberry
Two sprigs of Ignatium Root
Water of the Flames
Bottle made of Gren Glass
As well as the instructions on crafting a Dowsing Rod:
Requires a proper dowsing wand onto which the following symbol must be carved:

(Here I drew a symbol that resembled a dual-headed arrow)

Then speak what you wish to find and follow the rod. If it is nearby, the rod will lead you to it. If it is not, the rod will lead you back to where you began.
At the time, a strip of woods stood behind the house I was living in. The passage of years and the occasional hurricane had transformed the woods into a thick maze of fallen trees, twisted vines, and dense undergrowth. It would serve as the Twisted Grove. Taking the role of Odd, the handyslave, I met J (now Ignatius) at the back of the house with the aforementioned tools and led the way to the entrance path of the woods.

At the time, a strip of woods stood behind the house I was living in. The passage of years and the occasional hurricane had transformed the woods into a thick maze of fallen trees, twisted vines, and dense undergrowth. It would serve as the Twisted Grove. Taking the role of Odd, the handyslave, I met J (now Ignatius) at the back of the house with the aforementioned tools and led the way to the entrance path of the woods.

Noticing a holly bush growing next to the entrance, Ignatius inquired if it might be a burnberry bush and gathered a selection of holly berries once informed that it was. He also had prepared a suitable stick for the dowsing rod, which he hoped would allow him to find the nexus for a Threshold. (I had previously placed an old green bottle in the woods in a not-unobtrusive place which, if found, would be identified as being made of gren glass.)

We entered the woods and I refereed Ignatius’ actions, playing the role of Odd when needed. Ignatius’ explorations were cut short before he could he begin construction of the Threshold, however, when the sounds of the Mongrelmen’s drums began to sound in the forest (I had a small wood and leather drum which I took great delight in pounding upon as Ignatius explored around). Choosing the better part of valor, Ignatius retreated to the safety of Brubeck’s Rest and we never returned to Stormrealm in either game or reality again.

Despite the fact that Stormrealm never went anywhere, it seems that I’ve held on to some of the concepts first presented in that single session. The dreamlike entrance into the world, the stranger in a strange land angle, and the overall sense of unreality mixing with the ordinary are all facets that I want to explore with Insomnity. They strike me as both being rich with possibilities and necessary for the atmosphere I hope the place invokes. The concept of characters being alternate versions of themselves is another theme I want to throw at the wall and see if it sticks.

I predict that Insomnity is going to diverge greatly from its Stormrealm roots, but I’m looking to go in a different direction with it so it’s not much of a concern. I’ve got an inkling of another idea for an alternate method of play as well – one that is not dependant on live action role-playing, to my considerable relief. But again, I’ll have to see if I can make that method fly.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Broken Bronze Bells and Tottering Towers

I’ve been dwelling on dreams these last few days (as opposed to dwelling in dreams, which is another tale to tell). The height of summer always places me in a melancholy frame of mind as I begin to long for the crisp nights, fading hues, and misted-haunted days of autumn. Such melancholies naturally attract thoughts of the ephemeral nature of our nightly sojourns. Or perhaps it’s solely that I’ve not gotten enough sleep this past week.

In some respects, this most recent of my mental bugaboos is unwelcome. As the gleaming light that is the Stonehell compilation’s end of the tunnel begins to grow, I was looking forward to respite from working on the creativity loom and at the Keyboard That Knows No Mercy. But Calliope is a wanton and I have difficulty saying “No” to a beautiful woman. (I’m assuming it is Calliope. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a specific Muse for role-playing games as far as I’m aware.)

I am not a gifted sleeping dreamer, although I do well as an awake one. I bear a great jealousy of those who dream deeply and have the talent for retrieving artifacts from their nocturnal journeys and bringing them back to the waking world. Like a great many people, all I manage to return with are gossamer fragments that quickly dissolve under the rays of the sun. What few relics I do manage to salvage from beyond the walls of sleep I treasure greatly. The opportunity to revel in dreams (even carefully crafted artificial ones) at the gaming table holds great appeal to me.

The idea that I’m turning over in my head bears little resemblance to the ones that have been keeping my company over the last year and a half. It has little in the way of dismal dungeon corridors, vicious traps, and animated decorations dooming adventurers to grisly demises. It draws from a much purer well of creative waters that burble up from assorted mental catch basins. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Leiber’s Lankhmar, King’s The Dark Tower, the sword and planet genre, and the desire to play with scores of random tables and fiddly bits have all leaked into that well. I want to use the B/X rule set as the bucket from which to draw from that cistern, seeing what leaks out and what remains once I pull it up.

Like many of my ideas, I’m uncertain if this one will grow to stand on legs of its own or die a crib death. Fittingly, the germ of this concept came to me in the night hours, but I’ve found that a great many grand schemes birthed during that time seem to lose their luster once the sun rises. I intend to husband this idea and protect it as best I can at first, waiting to see if it can stand the blast of the reality winds. If it begins to germinate, I may show little glimpses of it here once I deem them suitable. In all honesty, however, this is a vanity project – one that touches more on what I find interesting than what I think other might enjoy. I’ll understand if it’s not to everyone’s liking – a possible sober reality that could also impact getting people to join me as players in my little oasis of dreams.

As a beginning point, I’ve been thumbing through my copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. While there is not a lot in that book that I predict will ultimately be suitable from my little side project, there is very little else in my personal role-playing collection that could serve as creative fodder. I predict much of what is to come is going to be liberated from less game-centric sources or fashioned from my own not-quite-lucid dreams. I’m lacking a definitive name for the project at the moment (hardly surprising for me) so, for lack of better term, I’ll refer to it as “Insomnity.” Future posts regarding this project, should it begin to bloom, will bear that tag.

Although I could maintain that my primary motivation in spinning this idea on my creative potter’s wheel is to fabricate my own distinct contribution to the hobby in general and the OSR in specific, one that supports the argument that role-playing games can be much more than indulgent displays of wanton violence and the looting of the dead, this would not be the whole truth. Part of me really just wants to explore a world where an octopus could make a living as a bazaar merchant or a place where mystic-minded yetis are the central cabal behind a mummy smuggling ring. Encounter Critical comes close to the place I seek, but we diverge at certain places along the path. My trail wanders through some much darker thickets. You’re free to take my hand and come along on that walk, if you’re so inclined.

Until next, pleasant dreams.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Another Voice in the Wilderness

Tin Murder

Between scurrying after my six-month-old nephew and starting the preliminary layout of the Stonehell Dungeon compilation, I’m so mind-fried that I’m not seeing straight. The idea of me posting anything resembling something other than the ravings of an Oakdeene Sanitarium “restee” is laughable. So rather than subject you to such rantings of questionable quality, I’ll instead turn your attention to an ancient treatise on miniature warfare known as Little Wars.

"LITTLE WARS" is the game of kings--for players in an inferior social position. It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty--and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple—by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women.

Amongst the books that Project Gutenberg has assembled in its collection is H.G. Well’s Little Wars. Available in a plethora of file flavors, you can download a copy of this hoary set of miniature war gaming rules and get a glimpse at one of the tap roots of the role-playing game hobby for yourself. It’s an interesting read if you have any interest in seeing this pastime of ours evolve into the form we enjoy today.

After reading the text, your homework assignment for this weekend is to reenact the evolution of the hobby beginning with Little Wars and passing through Napoleonic miniature battles and medieval war games. After that, create your own rules for miniature warfare and then a fantasy supplement for those rules. Next develop those rules into a new form of war game and then publish those rules. Revise those rules through a minimum of five editions and then meet back here on Monday to compare notes.

On Monday, we’ll choose up sides and argue.

Have a great weekend, all.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Inspirational Passages: Putting the “Fun” Back in Fungi

Fungi creeps me out, which is why I find it hard to resist including it in my games. I even dedicated an entire entry to the stuff in The Dungeon Alphabet. If you’re looking for something truly alien here on Earth, fungi is your best bet for high weirdness and general creepiness.

Unfortunately, D&D craps out in the fungi department as far as I’m concerned. It’s got enough monsters built on a fungus base, but most of them fall short of the mark of truly unnerving. With myconoids, violent fungus, russet mold, ascomoids, and phycomids to choose from, you’d figure at least one would be enough to give you the shudders. Don’t get me started on shriekers, who make an appearance on my Top-10 List of Despised Monsters. Even making yellow mold psionic didn’t help. Zygoms get closest to what I picture a crafty referee should be doing with homebrewed fungi creatures.

When it comes down to it, I’m hanging with Lovecraft on the subject. Fungi should get under your skin (literally) and make you shun mushrooms on your pizza for at least a month after running into the stuff in a game. The best example of role-playing game use of fungi in my mind has to be in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich, one of the 1920’s sourcebooks for Call of Cthulhu. The mental picture of a haggard man opening his mouth to revel the pale white gills of a mushroom clogging his mouth and throat is the sort of image that I’m shooting for whenever I decide to play the fungi card in a game.
Here, far underground, the fungi were stranger even than those on the surface. It was if the House saved its most delicate and cherished outgrowths for this hidden realm. And it was obvious that they needed no light, for many of them glowed with an evil light of their own making.

A broad, dark pool, full of floating scum, had formed where the floor had actually sunk or collapsed near the east wall of the great cave. Water trickled steadily over and down a broad area of slimy rock, for this wall was unfinished, indeed hardly even smoothed down by the craftsmen of long ago. An underground spring must have burst forth in ages past and still flowed into the pool, leaving by some hidden outlet.

Around this sinister tarn, which was many yards in extent, there grew a forest of tall, gently tapering spires of soft, living matter. Several men’s height they were, colored with pallid and crepuscular shades, ugly, faded violets, insipid yellows, and debauched, bleached oranges. On top of some of them glowed round areas of foxfire and dim phosphorescence. This was the light, the priest realized, which he had glimpsed far off when they first entered the cavern.

- Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier

Monday, July 20, 2009

Inspirational Passages: Give Your Players Enough Rope

One of the things I’ve learned over the years, which is also one of the primary reasons that the old style of gaming has such an allure to me, is that I’m not a big fan of the huge, mega-plot, “we must save the world,” style of adventuring. I think it’s important that everyone gets to play one of these at least once just for the experience, but once was enough for me. I’m much more a fan of the “collection of short, unrelated events” method of rising in level and developing a character. I guess this is why the Adventure Path idea was lost on me.

I won’t begrudge you if you like that form of gaming. Adventure preference is a highly-subjective thing, after all. But for me, I prefer the “story” to be something that can only be determined in retrospect by collating the events of previous adventures and letting the ramifications of such endeavors lead to the next series of events in the campaign world. Although I’m sure it may be possible given the right referee and players, I have trouble picturing the following conversation (or something similar) occurring in a game where the characters weren't allowed to attempt to forge their own destinies and to suffer the consequences of being able to choose what they wanted to pursue each week.

“I see we're expected,” the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier.

“At over a bowshot distance how can you –“ the big man began. “I get it. Bashabeck’s orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up.”

“It’s not so much the dues,” the small man said. “It slipped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God’s temple.”

The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. “I sometimes wonder why I associate with a faithless rogue like you.”

The small man shrugged. “I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me.”

“Yes, I seem to recall he sucked the blood of your lookout man. You’ve got the diamonds to make the payoff now, of course?”

“My purse is as bulging as yours,” the small man asserted. “Which is exactly as much as a drunk’s wineskin the morning after. Unless you’re holding out on me, which I’ve long suspected. Incidentally, isn’t that grossly fat man – the one between the two big-shouldered bravos – the keeper of the Silver Eel tavern?”

The big man squinted, nodded, then rocked his head disgustedly. “To make such a to-do over a brandy tab.”

“Especially when it couldn’t have been much more than a yard long,” the small man agreed. “Of course there were those two full casks of brandy you smashed and set afire the last night you were brawling at the Eel.”

“When the odds are ten to one against you in a tavern fight, you have to win by whatever methods come easiest to hand,” the big man protested. “Which I’ll grant you are apt at times to be a bit bizarre.”

He squinted ahead again at the small crowd ranged around the square inside the open gate. After a while he said, “I also make out Rivis Rightby the swordsmith…and just about all the other creditors any two men could have in Lankhmar. And each with his hired thug or three.” He casually loosened in its scabbard his somewhat huge weapon, shaped like a rapier, but heavy almost as a broadsword. “Didn’t you settle any of our bills before we left Lankhmar the last time? I was dead broke, of course, but you must have had money from all those earlier jobs for the Thieves Guild.”

“I paid Nattick Nimblefingers in full for mending my cloak and for a new grey silk jerkin,” the small man answered at once. He frowned. “There must have been others I paid – oh, I’m sure there were, but I can’t recall them at the moment. By the by, isn’t that tall rangy wench – half behind the dainty man in black – one you were in trouble with? Her red hair stands out like a…like a bit of Hell. And those three other girls – each peering over her besworded pimp’s shoulder like the first – weren’t you in a bit of trouble with them also when we last left Lankhmar?”

“I don’t know what you mean by trouble,” the big man complained. “I rescued them from their protectors, who were abusing them dreadfully. Believe me, I trounced those protectors and the girls laughed. Thereafter I treated them like princesses.”

“You did indeed – and spent all your cash and jewels on them, which is why you were broke. But one thing you didn’t do for them: you didn’t become their protector in turn. So they had to go back to their former protectors, which has made them justifiably angry at you.”

“I should have become a pimp?” the big man objected. “Women!” Then, “I see a few of your girls in the crowd. Neglect to pay them off?”

“No, borrowed from them and forgot to return the money,” the small man explained. “Hi-ho, it certainly appears that the welcoming committee is out in force.”

“I told you we should have entered the city by the Grand Gate, where we’d have been lost in the numbers,” the big man grumbled. “But no, I listened to you and came to this godforsaken End Gate.”

“Wrong,” the other said. “At the Grand Gate we wouldn’t have been able to tell our foes from the bystanders. Here at least we know that everyone is against us, except for the Overlord’s gate watch, and I’m not too sure of them – at least they’ll have been bribed to take no notice of our slaying.”

“Why should they all be so hot to slay us?” the big man argued. “For all they know we may be coming home laden with rich treasures garnered from many a high adventure at the ends of the earth. Oh, I’ll admit that three or four of them may also have a private grudge, but –“

“They can see we haven’t a train of porters or heavily-laden mules,” the small man interrupted reasonably. “In any case they know that after slaying us, they can pay themselves off from any treasure we may have and split the remainder. It’s the rational procedure, which all civilized men follow.”

“Civilization!” the big man snorted. “I sometimes wonder –“

“- why you ever climbed south over the Trollstep Mountains and got your beard trimmed and discovered that there were girls without hair on their chests,” the small man finished for him. “Hey, I think our creditors and other haters have hired a third S besides swords and staves against us.”


- The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

The chance to have conversations like this in character is one of the reasons that I play, and love, this game of ours.

I'm entertaining family this week and plan to spend an awful amount of time playing "Uncle Mike" to my nephew who I don't get to see nearly as much as I'd like. Needless to say, when it comes down to either blogging or family, my family wins. I've got some posts similar to today's lined up, so there's fresh content prepared for the week. Just don't expect anything groundbreaking in house rules or design philosophy for the next few days.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shadebyrne: Lords, Inns, and Boardwalks

With the broad details of the settlement in place, it was time to flesh out who was in charge, where you could grab a pint and swap tall tales, and what the overall look of the town was. Deciding to start from the top and work my way down, I resolved to let the LBBs and the Cook/Marsh Expert rulebook guide the way.

After arbitrarily deciding that the local authority figure would be a “name level” fighter, I turned to p. 15 of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures book to determine the composition of the Lord’s guard, retainers, and other special followers. The dice determined that 60 troops serve under the lord, likely as stronghold guards and outriders to keep the surrounding lands safe. A second roll indicated that a 5th level magic-user also occupies the local stronghold. Sensing the possibilities for adventure seeds that clashing personalities would create, I decided that the Lord and his resident MU don’t always see eye to eye. Whether this is because of personal agendas or alignment, I haven’t yet decided, but I make a note to come back to this idea later. The final roll determines that the Lord has a single giant at his beck and call. Seeing the Lord as Lawful, I fill this role with a Stone Giant who owes the Lord for some past boon or service.

The giant’s presence gets me thinking about the wooden palisade around Shadebyrne. I decide that, with the giant’s help, the Lord is embarking on a series of community projects to better protect the town. At the moment, the giant and a group of hired workers are turning the lord’s stronghold from a wooden fort into a stone redoubt. After this is completed, the wooden palisade around the settlement is due for an upgrade. Such improvements seem indicate a change in regime from the former corrupt administration. Therefore, the new lord is a recent appointee to Shadebyrne, I decide. He seeks to remove the legacy of the former administrators’ corruption and make the settlement a better place. Whether his initial optimism will survive contact with harsh frontier life remains to be seen. An online random name generator gives me the name Rindper Cryt, and Lord Warden Cryt becomes the local authority figure.

With government out of the way, the town inn is our next stop. Luckily, I’ve got Fight On! # 2 in my library which features James Raggi’s excellent “Random Inn Generator” article. With that article’s help, I learn that the inn is run by a retired 3rd level Fighter, his wife, and their 13 year old son. The random name generator informs me these are Trato Sane, his wife, Dianarra, and their boy, Akry. Rolling on the random inn name generator from the article result in “The Dizzy Strumpet Inn.” Although I liked that, I decided to give a nod to the Dungeon Masters Guide and changed it to “The Brazen Strumpet Inn.”

That change got me thinking. No self-respecting goodwife is going to let her husband run an establishment named after some wanton harlot! Since Shadebyrne was once a garrison town on the kingdom’s border, not to mention a regular watering hole for the soldiers who kept an eye over Stonehell, it occurred to me to give the inn a more martial-sounding name: The Brass Trumpet. One night, however, some unknown vandal defaced the sign that hangs above the inn’s entrance; a splash of red paint turning the Brass Trumpet into the Brazen Strumpet. Although initially angered by this vandalism, old Trato noticed that business picked up in the inn almost immediately afterwards. Even his copper piece-pinching wife couldn’t argue that the name change was good for business. The vandalized sign still hangs out front, unchanged.

All that was left to do now was to make a rough map of the town and give it a little personality to distinguish it from other settlements. Since my concept of the home base is that of the last spot of civilization on the edge of the frontier, my natural inclination was to visit some Western themes. The wooden palisade already calls to mind the log forts common on the western frontier during America’s youth. It would be fitting therefore to steal another common feature from the Wild West for Shadebyrne: the raised, wooden boardwalks that front most businesses.

Not only did this make sense to serve as a barrier between the mud, muck, and manure that would accumulate on the earthen streets, but since the settlement is close to the river, seasonal flooding would be an issue. To compensate for these periodic deluges, I decided that the buildings in town are erected on 6’ tall berms of stone and earth. In turn, these berms are surrounded by a 3’ tall boardwalk with short sets of stairs that lead up to the front door of the buildings and down to ground level as well. These boardwalks will help establish the town’s identity, give thieves and other riff-raff a place to spring from ambush, and provide a place for the local halfling to hide beneath when the outlaws whip the sheriff to death in the middle of the street.

Using the map from Castle Book I as a guide, I break out some graph paper, my geometric shape stencils (perhaps the cheapest, yet most useful mapping tool I ever bought), and start drawing. In short order, I can see that the raised walkway is going to add a cool level of detail to the town; one that I hope will stick out in the minds of the players. Once the rough map’s finished, I scan it so as to have a central template that I can use again and again as the town grows and/or changes, and I’m ready to start placing businesses and other features.

Overall, I’m happy with the settlement. It’s certainly not as grandiose as Greyhawk and even smaller than Blackmoor, but it will serve its purpose for now. I can fill in the required details as they’re needed once the adventurers come to visit or when the urge strikes me.

The Stonehell Report

As some of you have no doubt guessed by now, the Stonehell compilation will be my first (and hopefully not last) book issued under the Three-Headed Monster Games imprint. Although the primary purpose of compiling the first half of the dungeon into one document was to provide a sense of continuity and to expand on some things I had glossed over in the .pdfs, the collaboration with Dave and Michael certainly help influence that decision. In light of the official THM Games announcement yesterday, this will be the last progress report regarding the Stonehell project to appear on this site. Further updates will be posted on the THM Games’ blog.

It has been a productive few weeks for the book. I was entering the dreaded mid-project doldrums – that time when the initial enthusiasm of starting a project has worn off and there remains too much more to do to get excited about finally completing it. I did what most writers do in this situation: lowered my head and plowed forward. Because of this single-minded determination, I’m mid-way through the revamp of the final quadrant. Twenty-two dungeon sections have been reformatted, reworked, and rewritten; only half of one remains.

Over the next two weeks I intend to go over all twenty-three sections to fill in any material I may have missed, make sure all the maps are completed and properly keyed, and ensure that the various tables and charts reflect the changes I’ve made. Once I’m satisfied that everything is jake, the dungeon itself will start the editing and proofreading phase.

While this is going on, I’ll be hashing out the introductory chapter to the dungeon that covers Stonehell’s history, nuts and bolts, general monster overview, and the obligatory “how to use this book.” Once completed, I can start doing a rough layout of the final manuscript.

I’m shooting to make the book available at the end of August, beginning of September. I’m fairly confident that the actual writing and layout of the book will be completed by then, but there are some miscellaneous factors that could take a bit longer to sort out. In any case, there will be an official Stonehell dungeon book available in the coming months, barring any meteor strikes, tsunamis, or the landing of little green men on the White House lawn. Unless they’re gamers, which could accelerate the process.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Birth of a Three-Headed Monster

Back in December of last year, I had the pleasure of beginning to collaborate with Dave “AKA Sham” Bowman and Michael “Chgowiz” Shorten on the idea of the One Page Dungeon. Although none of us knew it at the time, that creative partnership was destined to bear delicious fruit. As the success of the One Page Dungeon Contest has proved, this simple idea provides gamers with a rich, yet uncomplicated method to build their adventuring locales.

Our partnership on the One Page Dungeon idea turned out to be so successful that the three of us began bouncing ideas off of one another for other, individual projects. We found that each other’s suggestions, insights, and revisions helped improve our work, leaving us with a much better final result than we could have accomplished individually. In the wake of this, it wasn’t long before we began discussing the idea of creating a more formal venture between us.

From that idea came Three-Headed Monster Games. The concept behind THM Games was to form a fellowship of writers, designers, and artists that would assist one another in honing their craft, improving their work, and pooling their resources in order to produce the best materials possible with the tools and talent at hand. Each of us would maintain individual control of our ideas and retain any monies generated by their ultimate release, but each produced game product would bear the Three-Headed Monster Games logo as an acknowledgement of the communal effort that helped create it. Over time, we hope that this network of collaboration will expand to include additional members, and that it will help beginning writers, designers, and artists find a safe haven in which to trade ideas, improve their work, and increase their knowledge of the various processes that go into turning an idea into a complete project.

Today marks the official unveiling of Three-Headed Monster Games. We’re learning as we go and have chosen to start with a small web presence and a flagship offering. Over time, with the participation of other creative individuals, we plan to slowly expand this presence and release more gaming materials under the Three-Headed Monster Games imprint.

The first offering under the Three-Headed Monster Games banner is Chgowiz’s Swords & Wizardry Quick Start. Designed to give newcomers an easy-to-learn introduction to Swords & Wizardry, the Quick Start is an amazing book. I can think of no better praise to give than to say that, after reading the Quick Start, I immediately wanted to grab some people who’ve never played a role-playing game in their life and sit them down to show them what they’ve been missing. I can easily picture a new generation of gamers who, ten years from now, will reminisce fondly about the Dungeon of Akban the way other generations look back upon Zenopus’ dungeon, the Haunted Keep, or the Mentzer edition intro featuring Bargle and that damned rust monster. I have no doubt you’ll agree once you see the Quick Start for yourself.

There are more game materials planned for the future, but for now we’d like to invite you take a look at the Three-Headed Monster Games blog to get an idea of who we are and what we hope to do. Future posts detailing our progress and planned products will be added as we grow and as books get closer to their completion. In the meanwhile, please visit Chgowiz’s Lulu storefront and check out the Swords & Wizardry Quick Start for yourself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Roll To Hit the Dead Horse

This is the only time I will ever address the second-most popular dead horse to flog in gaming: Ascending vs. Descending Armor Class. It must be summer, because that topic has come around again.

It is my heartfelt belief that one person- and one person only- need concern themselves with armor class – the referee. Every player knows after their first five minutes of gaming that rolling high is a good thing, and that the higher they roll, the better chance they have of ultimately making the monster fall down dead. The referee will tell them if they rolled high enough on a case-by-case basis.

The referee should use whatever method works for them, whether it be Ascending, Descending, Letters, Astrological Symbols, kanji, ex-girlfriends’ phone numbers, etc. as long as they can give the result of an attack immediately after the die is rolled. No method is intrinsically superior to another so long as this sole stipulation is adhered to.

To quote Mr. Dave Arneson: "Don't ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!"

Shadebyrne: A Settlement on the Grow

Over the past several months, most of the preparations that I’ve made for the B/X and/or Labyrinth Lord game have revolved around the dungeon, as suggested by the LBBs. With five levels of Stonehell completed and a rough wilderness map prepared, I felt that I had assembled most of the needed material to run a game if the opportunity presented itself. The largest omission from this preparatory work was the characters’ home base.

Although I assumed that the one-short game from two weeks ago would revolve completely around the dungeon, I wanted to be prepared for the possibility that the party might retreat back to “civilization” to recoup before making another foray into the halls of Stonehell. It was past time to start thinking about the home base.

I had a few vague ideas for what I wanted to do with the local settlement based on how I perceived this area of the game world. The settlement would be a “last chance” town situated on the very edge of the kingdom’s territory. The river that ran along the edge of the settlement would represent the political border between the civilized lands of Men and the unsettled wilderness beyond. A trade road passed through the settlement and into the wilderness, where it would wind its way over mountains, through deep forests, and past murky swamps before connecting with one or two distant human lands. In the uncivilized realm that served as a bumper between these kingdoms, a handful of racial holdings and free city-states have been carved from the wilderness and serve as commercial stations along the trade road, but the land is more wild than settled - a perfect place for characters to later lay claim to land and form their own political demesnes.

I decided to begin the home base design process with a map. In my youth, I would have insisted that I create something from scratch, possibly after looking at diagrams or surviving maps of typical medieval settlements to get an idea. I’ve grown more open to using pre-created gaming supplements to cut down on design time since my return to the hobby, however, and decided to paw though some of the old Judges Guild supplements for ideas to steal or build upon. The maps in Village Book I left me a little cold, as most were too small for my needs. I did find something that sparked my imagination in Castle Book I though (p. 54 for those of you who own a copy). This “castle” (it’s more of a walled settlement) had enough buildings to give me a decent cross-section of residences and business, plus it featured a defensive enclosure around the settlement (something any border town would require).

As I didn’t have much predetermined in my mind and I believe that the mark of any good referee is the ability to interpret random dice rolls in a manner that creates a seamless tapestry of world building, I next broke out the dice and consulted the tables in Village Book I to learn more about the settlement. Thanks to the pioneers of at Judges Guild, I learned that the settlement was surrounded by a wooden palisade (5’ thick, 20’ high) that was defended by a catapult, taboo symbols, and watch creatures. The taboo symbols were an interesting result. I see the weather-beaten wood stockade covered with whorls of azure, green, yellow, and brown repainted each spring in arcane patterns. I’m uncertain at the moment of what these symbols mean. I’ve considered that they may be meaningless decoration used to deter the superstitious Goblinoid tribes who inhabit the wilderness across the river, but the possibility that they represent that fact that the town is under the aegis of protection of a nearby barbarian tribe (the Tribe of the Moose) is also tempting. Since it’s unimportant at this stage, I made a note of it and moved on. The watch creatures are another bit of miscellanea about the town that bears expanding on. Watch dogs are the most likely candidate at the moment, but I haven’t put aside the idea of animals of a more unusual nature completely. Perhaps it’s well-trained boars with serrated blade caps on their tusks and studded leather barding on their shoulders and heads that protect the town?

The fact that the town sports a wooden palisade and not one of stone led to me to consider another bit of background for the settlement. As the town is not a recent community and has existed on the border for centuries, why haven’t the walls been upgraded to more resilient stone? An ample supply of it exists in the mountains across the river after all. This led to ideas about bureaucratic corruption and I decided that the former administrators of the settlement were more interested in filling their own coffers than improving the place. The position of the town’s administrator was not a prestigious one. Being forced to govern a small town on the outskirts of the kingdom was either a punishment detail or one taken by officials at the end of their career who sought to extract as much of a retirement fund from the town tax coffers as possible. Thus, the wooden walls remain long after stone ones should have been erected.

A few more dice rolls informed me of the settlement’s population and commercial establishments. There are 310 residents in the town. I took this to mean that 310 people live and work with the walls of the community. Doubtless there are outlying farmers and agricultural workers who come into town for trade and there’s a sizeable transient population in the form of adventurers, traders, and other mobile professions that pass through the town on a regular basis.

The rolls for business created some interesting results. In total, the town supports a messenger service, a fighter’s school, a scribe, a tavern, a silversmith, a brewer, a leather armorer, and an undertaker. I couldn’t imagine better results for a border town situated next to a large dungeon. As the final settlement on the kingdom’s border, a messenger service would keep the town in the know about events and developments closer to the country’s heartlands. It’d also be used by trade caravans and other transients coming and going from the place. A fighter’s school would ensure that the town’s garrison is trained well enough to protect the community against hostile monsters and tribes, as well as provide a place for adventurers with loose coin pried from Stonehell to pick up a few pointers. The silversmith and leather armorer, although those being their primary professions, would serve as places to unload plundered treasure (the silversmith trades in jewelry and gems) and to upgrade and repair equipment (the leather armorer does some chain mail work on the side).

Although I had predetermined that an inn would exist in town, the tavern result gave me the idea that the inn serves mostly trade and adventuring clientele, while the tavern is a “townie” joint visited by locals only to escape from the braggadocio of would-be heroes. The brewer provides product to both the inn and tavern, as well as buying some of the local farmers’ annual yield. The existence of an undertaker was surprising. Thinking on it, however, one makes perfect sense in a town just outside of Stonehell. I’m sure he/she does brisk business when adventurers limp back to town laden with coin and corpses. An undertaker will also give me the opportunity to explore some of the bizarre funereal rites of the various races and religions of the world. Perhaps he has a supply of varnishes and shellacs to meet the needs of certain beliefs and tenets?

With most of the important facets of the settlement determined, all I lacked was a name for the community. The random tables in Village Book I failed me in this regard, the results being fine for places the adventurers might pass through, never to return again, but ill-suited for a home base. My reputation for being overly-strict on myself when developing names precedes me (as any long-time reader who remembers the Dungeon Not Yet Named™ incident can attest). Luckily, I was able to settle on one rather quick in this case.

Picturing the town built near the banks of a river and in the eaves of a large forest brought to mind a breezy, shaded place. Liking “shade” as a starting point, I cast around for a suitable suffix. In other communities in R’Nis, I’ve utilized a common suffix for cities (-var), which means “city or large town.” Thus, there’s Xultvar, the City Resilient (“city on the River Xult”) and the Tvar v Tvarax (“city of cities” – the old empire’s capital). Wanting to do something similar with smaller communities, the word “-byrne” came to mind. Although Gaelic for “raven,” it’s similar enough to “burg” (“castle or walled town”), which is a common enough town suffix even today. It has the additional benefit of being a homophone for “burn” and I like the dichotomy between “shade” (a cool, comfortable setting) and heat connotations which “burn” suggests. And thus, “Shadebyrne” was born.

Despite having a good idea about the newly-minted home base for future adventures, there still remained a few important blank spaces to fill in. I still needed more information on the inn, the identity of the local government official, and a custom map that took all these little bits of detail into consideration. As this post has grown to a much longer length than I original foresaw, I’ll tackle those topics in our next installment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Subterranean Apartment Building

Or “The Gnolls in 4G Just Won’t Stop Barking”

Some months ago, I finished Margaret St. Clair’s novel, Sign of the Labrys. The novel is one of the books mentioned in the famous Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide and I decided to give it a read in order to fulfill one of my twelve gaming resolutions for 2009. It is a short novel, running a mere 139 pages in length, and I finished it in three days of casual reading. It is a middling work, both in regards to plot and characters, but it is very easy to see why it made Gary’s list. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, pick yourself up a copy if the opportunity presents itself.

A quick synopsis of the plot is that in the wake of a plague that has killed 90% of humanity, the survivors take to living underground in a vast complex built originally to serve as a communal fallout shelter. In a relatively short amount of time, mankind becomes a very cloistered species, seeking to limit contact and interaction with each other to small doses and living in far-flung sections of a subterranean world built to contain a much larger population. Against this backdrop, an ordinary man named Sam Sewell gets drawn into a plot to track down a mysterious woman named Despoina, whom the authorities believe is the head of a cult or anarchist band dwelling on the lower levels of the complex. The usual revelations occur, authority is questioned, and the modern Wiccan tradition gets a nice plug.

Although the novel is no great shakes when viewed through the eyes of a fan of science-fiction, when read with a gaming mentality, it is quite easy to see why Sign of the Labrys is listed under recommended reading. The book is a great example of multiple beings forced to live in a dungeon-like environment. If you never read this book in its entirety, you should at least do yourself the favor of reading the following except:

It is important to understand what a level is. It is not much like a floor in an office building. A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers. Also, access to them is not uniform. The upper levels are simple and straightforward; one gets to and from them by stairs, escalators, or elevators. I dislike the elevators, myself, since if power should be interrupted, one would be stuck there indefinitely. But the upper levels are easy.

As one goes down, it gets difficult. Entrances and exits are usually concealed. The reason for this, I think, was partly to protect the VIP’s in the lower levels from unauthorized intrusion, partly to provide a redoubt in case the “enemy” was victorious, and partly because of the passion for secrecy that characterizes the military mind.
Sound like anything you know?

It was a bit disconcerting to see the above written in something other than a role-playing game supplement. While the idea of a giant underground habitat was hardly new ground in 1963, the year Labrys was published, it was startling to see it described in terms that exactly reflect the layout and purpose of the average megadungeon.

Just recently, I finished off Lean Times in Lankhmar, a collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales. Amongst the short stories in that collection was “The Lords of Quarmall.” I’m going to make the assumption that most of my readers are more familiar with Leiber’s (and Fischer’s) tale of subterranean residency, but just in case it’s an enigma to you, the story revolves around two potential heirs to the underground city of Quarmall. Consisting of multiple subterranean levels stacked upon one another, Quarmall is very similar to the Sign of the Labrys’ underground shelter. The two lords-to-be are locked in a Cold War with one another; their forces and followers limited to the areas of Quarmall under the control of each individual noble. When their father dies suddenly, the Cold War heats up and the two brothers go hammer and tongs at one another until the Twain manage to upset the heirs’ mushroom cart in their usual manner.

With both of these tales in my head, I had a sudden satori about the way the megadungeon has come to be viewed over the last 30+ years. It’s the fashion to now look on the old school megadungeon as a prime example of the illogical early days of the hobby. Concerns of dungeon ecology aside, most people will pshaw the notion of numerous creatures of diverse races living in close quarters without eating one another. I once had the same frame of mind, especially when I was a know-it-all teenager. But something happened that made me realize that this notion isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might imagine: I lived in an apartment building.

As most anyone whose experienced such a living situation will attest, there’s not a lot of interaction between the residents of such places (unless you’re living in some sort of collective or commune). You might have a nodding relationship with a handful of neighbors, forged from the occasional meetings in the lobby or the elevator, but for the most part the people who share your roof are strangers. Chances are you like it that way too. If you’re more outgoing, you might be friends with a few people on your floor, but that’s really the extent of apartment life interaction. Your notion of your neighbors is limited to the music they sometimes play too loud or the speculation at the size of their feet when they drop their shoes on the floor of the apartment above yours. I don't see why sentient monsters in a similar situation would react any differently. As long as there are ample resources to meet the needs of the residents, you really don’t have to have any dealings with the ogres down on Level Four or the orcs up on Level One. You might throw a few spears at the hobgoblins who live on the west side of your level if you happen to run into each other on the way to the drinking pool, but is it really worth the effort to trudge all the way over there just to pick a fight?

I recall reading in the 3.5 book, Dungeonscape, the concept of looking upon the dungeon as a city composed of several different neighborhoods: some dangerous, some industrial, some commercial. Although that mindset might work for some people, the idea of the dungeon as an apartment building works better for me. The more I turned this idea over in my head, the more I realized that this had been the unconscious notion steering Stonehell during its development. Rereading “The Lords of Quarmall” really dropped the penny for me because that story had to be my first exposure to this idea and I suddenly saw in print some of the thoughts that I had been having. I even suggested this notion more clearly in my post for the quadrant Monster Dorm.

The next time you’re delving into your own megadungeon, think about your own experience with apartment living (or dorm life or barracks dwelling) and see if you can’t apply some of your own memories of that situation to the dungeon. You might be surprised to see how well they fit.

And if you still balk at the idea of a bunch of blood-thirsty, violent, psychopaths living under one roof without slaughtering one another, I can only assume you’ve never lived in a New York City apartment complex…

Friday, July 10, 2009

Creating On My Feet

The Stonehell session gave me the opportunity to put into practice something I’ve written about but have never been able to field test until now: creating at the game table rather than at the desktop. I’ve been guilty of the crime of doing too much advance world-building and fluff-spinning, as well as creating minor campaign details and obscure house rules long before they’re needed in actual play. Like my attempts to devolve my dungeon notes down into something less than novella-length, this is a work in progress.

Getting back behind the screen two weeks ago made me put my gold pieces where my mouth was. I could no longer safely philosophize that this was the way to do things from the safety of my Daern’s instant soap box. I’d have to see if I could really allow house rules and world design to occur in an organic way. I’m pleased to report that I can and did do just that.

Although it was just a single game session, I did manage to take two things away from it. One has to do with the cult responsible for the Temple of Evil™ the PCs explored. In the notes for Stonehell, the cult behind the temple is left undefined, as is the deity venerated in that ancient place. The reason for this was to allow any referee to customize his or her version of Stonehell to their particular campaign and to cut down of the word count for the one-pager. Considering that I’m the guy who created the dungeon, you’d think that I would have some idea of who the temple was meant for, at least in my own campaign. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), I didn’t. I figured I’d make it up if it ever became important.

When the characters began exploring it in game, I still had no concrete notion as to the divinity behind the temple. But as the hilarity and the over-the-top evil décor of the place came out during play, I began to get a notion. After the game, I toyed around with that notion a bit more and - oh yes- now I know who was once worshipped in that fane. Without revealing too much, it’s a new deity for the campaign; one that draws heavily upon Baron Samedi and spiced with a dash of the Comedian from Watchmen. Evil with a profound sense of gallows humor. I think he/she/it and those devoted to this entity have a lot to offer my little fantastical world. Time to think of an adventure seed to sow somewhere…

The second result of creating on the fly was a new house rule involving doors. Since I was running B/X, an open doors check was required to bypass any closed portal found in the dungeon. This has always been one rule that I agree with in theory but am often disappointed with in practice. I see the purpose of it: the dungeon is a hostile environment (a Mythic Underworld if you will). The characters can never be assured that they can rush into a room and take their enemies by surprise. Perhaps the dungeon itself is out to get them or it might just be the general state of disrepair that thwarts them.

In actual play, however, what sometimes happens is this: the strongest or second-strongest fighter attempts to open the door. He fails his open doors check. The next strongest gives it a shot and he fails. This is followed by a third attempt and continues on down the line until the scrawny magic-user lucks out with a 1 and the door pops opens. Comments are made that the strongest guys “softened it up” for him. The party then enters the room and the game continues.

I was looking for a way to be true to the intent of the rules, yet keep things moving in the game. I landed upon a solution during the Stonehell session. Dimly remembering reading that up to three people may make an attempt to open a door, I’ve decided that adventurers get three chances at a portal. If all three attempts fail, the door remains sealed until either A) the party employs tools to bypass the door (crowbars, mauls, axes – anything that creates a god-awful amount of noise to summon wandering monsters to dinner), B) the party exits the dungeon and attempts to try the door at a later date (maybe those monsters who can open every door have used it in the meantime and it’s no longer as tightly sealed), or C) magic is used on the portal.

The “three person rule” does exist and it’s mentioned in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Of course, its intent in that tome is to address the fact that most doors are 8’ wide and only three characters can fit into that space to make the attempt. The rule as read is that up to three characters may attempt to open a door at a single time. I just prefer to read it as three attempts total.

I’m hoping that this house rule will keep the game moving and will goad the party to move on unless they really, really want to find out what’s behind Door #1. It gives them a reason to re-explore sections of the dungeon previously visited too. I used this ruling during the game session and there remain three crypt doors that have not been breached. Given the bounty discovered behind the rest of the doors, I’m certain the party will return with crowbars, jars of lard, or whatever else they might think would allow them access to whatever may wait beyond. It seems like a fair compromise between the dungeon and its explorers.

One last observation from the Stonehell session is this: I refereed on my feet much more than I ever did in the past. In my younger days, I’d often spend the entire evening with ass planted firmly in my chair when I ran a game. I even mastered the art of using the referee’s screen as a prop, leering at the players from over its top or peering around its edges to simulate ambushing foes. For my return, I wanted to try a change of pace and brought a landscape format screen to use during the session. I thought being more visible would engender more trust with the players.

To my surprise, after the initial intro to the dungeon, I don’t think I sat down again until I calculated experience points at the end of the night. I have a theory as to why this change occurred. Prior to my exodus from the hobby, my last gasp at refereeing was a long series of live action games, which by their very nature require the referee to be constantly moving around. I think I might be retaining that physical memory and my body now needs to be standing in order to adjudicate. My other thought is that we were using a dry-erase map grid during the game session and having to update the grid and move miniatures probably led to me spending most of the evening upright. It’s probably a little of both. Whatever the case, I must say that I enjoyed doing it that way and it certainly cut down on the amount of liquids I drank and the subsequent bathroom trips, which were much less than when I’m in the role of a player in a session.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Rust Comes Off

The Saturday before last, due to the whims of real life, my regular gaming group found itself down a few members. With the 4th of July approaching and the DM going on vacation the following week, it looked like we were in for a three week hiatus before we’d be meeting to roll the dice again. Rather than go so long without, I offered to fill the time with a one-shot delve into Stonehell. The offer was accepted and the following Saturday saw me behind the referee’s screen for the first time in years. I’d love to report that it was a stellar success and that I was carried aloft on the shoulders of the players at the end of the evening. Unfortunately, the session would only turn out to be a fair one.

The primary problem was that the rust of disuse had settled heavily over my referee skills due to inaction. I was very nervous at the start of the evening and muddled my way through the introduction and background of the dungeon. Words escaped me and I had to pause to collect my thoughts before continuing. The rust began to flake off as the hours passed and I started to find my groove again, but I still felt I was trying to patch up my spotty beginning throughout the night, and that I never managed to fully get back into stride after that false start.

The secondary problem was with the player base. One regular player arrived in a mood that could only be defined as “crotchety,” while another two of the players consisted of the group’s “second string.” I don’t intend that as an insult, but one is a regular who just goes with the flow of what everyone else is doing and the other is 15-year-old girl going through the post-adolescent “pod person” stage, so neither is an aggressive gamer. It wasn’t the best collection of players to be trying new things on short notice with. Luckily, the remaining two players were of the old school and helped keep things flowing. I’ll stress that I take most of the blame for the evening’s ultimate level of success. I mention problems with the players only because there was a certain toxicity to the atmosphere of the evening that originated from the other side of the screen. Perhaps it’s my fault for not addressing or attempting to dissipate that atmosphere before we got rolling, but I’m still getting back into the swing of things.

The last problem which contributed to the flawed night was that we were playing both a one-shot game and a stress test on Stonehell. In order to get us up and running as quickly as possible, I began things in medias res with the party assembled at the stairwell leading down into the dungeon. There was no tentative getting to know the world or the other characters, which served to distance the players from their characters and from the game itself. It was cardboard characters in a cardboard world; not the best situation with which to draw people into the game.

Despite the negatives, the evening did generate a few successes for me. If I had any lingering doubts about the feasibility of the One Page Dungeon template in actual play, they died completely before the night was half-finished. With the bare bones of the setting at my fingertips, I was able to flesh out any grey areas of the dungeon during play with ease and careful note jotting will ensure that those areas remain constant on repeated explorations. Even the lack of written stats in the notes for monsters wasn’t an issue. I’d made crib notes of the needed attributes beforehand in my DM’s log sheet and rolled for hit points only when a monster took damage for the first time. The lack of predetermined hit points had been a concern, but in play it was simple and even led to a few surprises for me, the referee, when I saw what I thought was going to be a rough fight crumble under the PCs’ onslaught due to some cruddy hit point rolls for their opponents.

The second and most important positive of the night was first-hand confirmation that B/X remains a rule set with intrinsic value. As much as I’ve waxed philosophically about it (and Labyrinth Lord) over the past several months, this was the first time I’ve used it under combat conditions. Over the course of the entire evening, I looked at the Basic rulebook but once and that was to confirm a zombie’s armor class. I knew that I knew the system due to long exposure but I was pleased to see how simple it was to recall even during my stumbling first-time-back attempt.

I threw three house rules into the mix: a modified “shields shall be splintered” (invoke this rule for a save vs. death roll. If successful, the shield’s toast and you take no damage), Dave Arneson’s “chop ‘til they drop” house rule for fighters, and “liquid courage” (once per session, characters can take a two turn break and quaff a pint of wine to recover 1d6 hit points). The night also allowed me to field test the NPC Hireling class from my “New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic Dungeons & Dragons” (the class works but I’m going to upgrade Hirelings to allow them to wear chain mail after I couldn’t really come up with an argument otherwise during play. Plate mail will remain unusable by the Hireling class), as well as the Elven Jack-of-a-Trades from that supplement. Unfortunately, the elf died before I could get a good bearing on the class’s suitability.

Speaking of dead elves, the actual dungeon crawl was typical of 1st level characters exploring an old school dungeon. A few treasure-less rooms where turned over, some fun was had with “a door…will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open” (although I prolonged the interval for dramatic effect), and the Wheel of Fortune was spun (resulting in a “heal all damage” effect for an uninjured PC and a “gain 500 xp” result for Gunter, a stalwart Hireling with “eyes unmarred by the gleam of intelligence”).

The only deaths of the evening were a result of the poisonous fountain. Two PCs failed their saves when the “fish that breathes air” spouted its toxic breath (the numerous rolls behind the screen to see if the trap was triggered wasn’t enough to deter the party from continued poking and prodding of the fountain). Tragedy might have been avoided if anyone had stated they were examining the fish or asked for more detail on the piscine adornment. Such investigations would have revealed that the fish depicted was a toxic archer: similar to the mundane archer fish, but using a gout of poisonous gas to incapacitate prey rather that a spurt of water. I’m partially to blame for this though. My imitation of a leaping fish caught in mid-jump was entertaining enough to call for an encore and that might have caused the players to discount the fish early on.

The party stumbled upon the Temple of Big Evil™ not long after their run in with the fountain (after replenishing their ranks with the clichéd “you encounter two adventurers exploring the halls” method. I defend this choice because it was a one-shot/stress test and time was of the essence. I’d never do this in an actual campaign). The thief’s Pick Locks roll was a 06, causing the massive iron portals to swing open (and surprising the hell out of me). Undead were battled along the hall, including a slugfest with a skeleton that lasted much longer than it should have simply because neither side could land a blow, and the central temple was reached.

Deciding that the cultists had come from the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” school of evil temple decoration, the part discovered an altar made of bones positioned before a 10’ tall, 5’ wide bas-relief of a skull. The walls were adorned with frescoes of cavorting skeletons interrupted by columns of robed skeletal figures supporting bone-shaped vaulted arches. Even the tiles were macabre: a small skull decorated each individual tile. Picturing the temple as a 14 year-old Goth girl’s dream bedroom and describing it as such elicited gales of laughter from both the players and myself, which is exactly what I was going for considering the altar’s strange protective enchantments to avoid desecration. (The result of the cleric’s failed attempt to identify the cult: “Probably death-related, but you’re uncertain,” which resulted in more gales of laughter.)

Over the course of the evening, the party had no opportunity to interact with any of the dungeon sentient residents (which was another reason for my general dissatisfaction with the session. There’s a lot to be learned about the dungeon and plenty of potential role-playing opportunities when the smart monsters are encountered, and I wasn’t able to tap into this). Their path of exploration led them straight into undead territory and the only wandering monsters encountered during the evening were some skeletons and zombies. They almost ran into one of Stonehell’s omnipresent kobold work crews, but the kobolds discovered the bodies of the dead adventurers and their abandoned equipment on the way to the party’s location. Knowing Stonehell’s kobolds the way I do, I ruled they engaged in their aggressive “recycling program” and carried off the bodies and equipment to be used in the dungeon’s economy, thus taking them in the opposite direction from the adventurers.

The decision was made to return to the surface just in time for our usual game session end time. This was a wise choice because, although I didn’t mention it, I had my copy of The Miscellaneum of Cinder stashed in my game notebook and was prepared to roll on Rient’s “Dungeon Escapes” table if there was any dilly-dallying. The evening adventures netted the adventurers a total of 1,265 xp (1,010 of it in treasure – they got really lucky tomb-robbing, although their characters aren’t aware of the value of the plundered jewelry).

I’ve purposely delayed in writing about the game session because I wanted time to reflect on the evening and identify what worked and what didn’t. I think I’ve correctly identified the problems as stated above and I know exactly what needs to be improved upon. I feel much better about the session now than I did immediately afterwards, which was very down in the mouth about the whole thing. Any referee is going to be looking for an enthusiastic response to his endeavors. I realize I need to get my chops back somewhat before this is going to happen.

Does this discourage me from running Stonehell or B/X again? Not at all. If anything, I’m more keen on doing it again and to get a regular game going. I just need a few more things to fall into place before I pursue that goal. In the meantime, I’m going to tweak a few things and play around with a few new ideas that occurred to me while on the “right” side of the screen again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Updated Update

The files are again available. While doing some research on the various file-hosting alternatives offered by you fine folks, I rediscovered that I had a Mediafire account stemming back from the time the Open Game Table was being assembled. Since it was still valid and several of you had suggested Mediafire as an alternative, I went with them. If there are no problems with the files hosted there for the next several months, I'll likely keep any future crazy, homebrewed files there.

I believe that I found all the dead links and updated them to reflect their new homes. It's conceivable that I may have missed one or two, so if you do stumble across a non-working link, please drop me an email or leave a comment here so that I can make the correction. A complete list of all the files currently available can be found at

I again thank you for your patience during the chaos and hope that it remains the exception around here and not the rule. My further thanks to everyone who made suggestions or offered temporary hosting services over the last two days.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Files in the Ether Update

Well it appears that unless I wish to pay Orbitfiles $60 a year to upgrade my account, I can't link to any of the files currently residing in my non-public "shared" folder. Considering that I don't make any money off of my crazy .pdfs posted here, that's an additional cost I can't justify in this economy.

Some alternative options have been suggested and I'll be exploring those in the next few days. In the meantime, all the links will remain non-functional. If you really, really need to get your hands on one of the .pdfs, drop me an email at the address listed to the right and I'll try to work something out. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Files in the Ether

I've been using to host most of my crazy-go-bananas homebrews for the last several months. Just recently, they changed their free plan features to no longer support a personal user page for hosted files. I've just become aware that this change means that all my former linked files are now coming up "file deleted."

The files are still stored on Orbitfiles but on a separate, non-public page and I'll need to go back and adjust the links to these files accordingly. I intend to start doing this later tonight and will make an announcement once the switch is completed. My apologies to anyone whose tried to access any of my supplemental material recently only to discover they appear to have been deleted. I'll be looking into other file hosting options in the near future to see what else is available for my needs.

You Speak What?!!!

One of the benefits of going through my old game notes from the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of Forgotten Realms Week was unearthing a few bits and pieces that must have been of dire importance at the time. Looking at them now, I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking. The purpose of trying to rework Johnny Cash’s “Dark as a Dungeon” into a dwarven work song for example is something I’ll likely never recall.

Another one of these Notes of Vital Importance (At the Time) that I discovered was my master language list. I wrote this up during my Forgotten Realms campaign and I remember quite clearly going through each entry of the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Monster Manual II, as well as the FR boxed set and whatever sourcebooks I owned at the time, seeking out each and every mention of creatures or races that spoke a distinctive language or dialect. Once my master list was composed, I organized them all by rarity and (I think) used this list during character creation to determine what languages a PC could begin the game with.

Looking at this list now, I remember why I disliked 3.5’s decision to condense all the known languages into a mere handful of tongues. Even though I can be rather cavalier about the need for realism and common sense to be an important part of the game, I found this reduction to rob the game of some of the fun that previous editions had with languages. Once upon a time, you had to choose which color of Dragon you spoke, and a poor or unlucky choice could land you in soup some years down the line. Now it seems everybody spoke boring old Draconic - even the kobolds.

I’ve reproduced that list below. If its missing anything, the fault is completely my own. I recall being rather thorough in my research, but it always possible that I skipped a tongue or two.

Languages and Dialects Common in Faerun

Commonly Known Languages
Barbarian Tribal Dialects*
Druid Tongue
Ruathlek (Illusionist Script)*
Thieves’ Cant
Thorass (Auld Common)*
Vassan Dialect*

Uncommon Languages
Alzhedo (Calimshan)*
Lizard Man
Small Burrowing Mammals

Rare Languages
Dragon, Black
Dragon, Blue
Dragon, Brass
Dragon, Bronze
Dragon, Brown
Dragon, Copper
Dragon, Faerie
Dragon, Gold
Dragon, Green
Dragon, Red
Dragon, Silver
Dragon, White
Giant, Cloud
Giant, Fire
Giant, Frost
Giant, Hill
Giant, Stone

Very Rare Languages
Dragon Common – Evil
Dragon Common – Good

*denotes a language from a Forgotten Realms supplement or boxed set.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick Makers

The next time you sit down to flesh out a major city in your campaign, consider this:

In the thirteenth century, Paris, with a population of roughly 50,000 residents, had the following number of establishments and practitioners listed on its tax list:

366 shoemakers
214 furriers
199 maidservants
197 tailors
152 barbers
131 jewelers
130 restaurateurs
121 old-clothes dealers
106 pastrycooks
104 masons
95 carpenters
86 weavers
71 chandlers
70 mercers
70 coopers
62 bakers
58 water carriers
58 scabbard makers
56 wine sellers
54 hatmakers
51 saddlers
51 chicken butchers
45 purse makers
43 laundresses
43 oil merchants
42 porters
42 meat butchers
41 fish merchants
37 beer sellers
36 buckle makers
36 plasterers
35 spice merchants
34 blacksmiths
33 painters
29 doctors
28 roofers
27 locksmiths
26 bathers
26 ropemakers
24 innkeepers
24 tanners
24 copyists
24 sculptors
24 rugmakers
24 harness makers
23 bleachers
22 hay merchants
22 cutlers
21 glovemakers
21 wood sellers
21 woodcarvers

Source: Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Giles, Harper Perennial, New York, NY, 1981

Friday, July 3, 2009

OPDC: The Also-Rans

A brief synopsis of the judging process for the One Page Dungeon Contest goes like this: The judges read and evaluated all 112 entries. From the 112, we each chose the ones that stood out amongst the masses and made a list of those. From there, we re-evaluated those entries to cull them down to a list of our personal Top 20 entries. These twenty were them submitted to the all the judges to compare and contrast, and the ultimate winners came from the final paring down of all our combined lists. (Alex Schroeder goes into more detail about the process on his blog here.)

For whatever reasons, some entries made it to final round but fell short of taking home a prize. Because I think that several of these authors display great talent and I’d like to see more from them in the future and would encourage them to participate in the One Page Dungeon Contest II (if such a thing ever comes to be), I’m going to say a few brief words about some of the entries that made it to my Top 20 list but didn’t survive until the end. When possible (OK, in the two cases possible), I’ve linked the entry to the dungeon they submitted (thanks to ChattyDM’s compiled list of entries). In cases where a dungeon isn’t available, you’ll have to wait until the Chatty and Chgowiz make the contest .pdfs available. So, in no particular order, here’s some of my Top 20 that didn’t survive to the end but were still a heck of a lot of fun.

“There Are No Tails in Zomboanga” by Buzz Burgess - I’m a sucker for jungle adventures and this one could be dropped into any “green hell” campaign with ease. It is a rich setting without being verbose, has ear seekers, and would be fun to run. It also poses a question right from the start, “Why are there no tails in Zomboanga?” You’ll have to read the entry to find out.

“Beneath the Towers of the Templars” by Carl Doubek – This one is a rock-solid dungeon crawl. It’s nice and clean, features bare bones game information, and would be perfect for a night when I’ve got nothing planned. One of the purposes of the One Page Dungeon, something that several contestants failed to grasp, is that it’s supposed to give the referee just the information they need to run the dungeon. If you can fit in more, fine, but brevity is the One Page Dungeon’s strong suit. This dungeon was a great example of dungeon brevity in action.

“Desert Dungeon” by David Kot – There were a few entries that were designed as completely random dungeons, intended to be generated as you went. While those seemed to defeat the whole purpose of the One Page Dungeon, to me anyway, David used the One Page Template to create an almost dungeon mini-game. Intended as in introductory scenario for Swords & Wizardry, “Desert Dungeon” is that type of thing that’d I break out and play solo on nights when the laundry’s finished and there are no good movies on TV.

“Nevermind the Wilderness” by James Hutchings – I can’t prove that James was attempting to sway Sham AKA Dave and myself with his entry (both of us known punk rock aficionados), but designing a dungeon based on the cover of “Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols” would be a smart way to go if he meant to influence our voting. As a dungeon, it’s pretty miserable for mass consumption. If you’re a Sex Pistols fan, the amount of in-jokes and Easter Eggs in the dungeon is dazzling. Unfortunately, much like in real life, the Sex Pistols were defeated by Pac-Man for the strangest dungeon entry.

The Summoner’s Cave” by Doc Holaday – This one was another example of simplicity’s allure. There’s a lot more implied by this dungeon than stated outright, and that’s always the better route to go as far as I’m concerned. It also had elements of both the Old and New Schools, and a richness combined with a fetching layout and a cool colored pencils map. Plus it’s got a “Thing That Really Shouldn’t Be” lurking around in it, which is always peachy keen. I’ll never look at beavers the same way again.