Friday, April 30, 2010

A Secret is Revealed

The last month was a difficult one for this blog, at least on my end of things. Despite my best intentions, my inability to say “no” to any writing project that comes my way has resulted in a backlog of work that needs to be completed. I find myself spending more time than I’d like to hacking away at the intellectual underbrush in search of new and interesting artifacts of creativity for those projects. When I’m done doing that, doing more of the same for this blog—a theoretical place of mental escape and recreation—is hard to do. Especially since I’m essentially revisiting the same topics which I just got done wrestling with. It was starting to become such a chore that I seriously began toying with the notion of going on an extended and perhaps permanent hiatus.

However, this little piece of electronic fish wrap is responsible for me being offered some incredible opportunities and it’s given me a place to exchange ideas and intellectuals jabs with people I might not have otherwise met. To end such an endeavor simply because I was getting a little ragged around the edges seemed to be a drastic step. So rather than pull the plug, I cast about for new paths of escape and considered remedies for this affliction. Ultimately, some seemingly unconnected events provided me with a solution.

Back in March, I got to play Call of Cthulhu again, and that session turned out to be a godsend for me mentally. I got a temporary reprieve from the dungeon and its assorted denizens to play in the realm of historical horror for an all-too short time. That brief session reminded me of how much I enjoy that genre of both literature and gaming. I have an appreciation for the macabre and my love for real world history—especially that period between the post Civil War period and the end of World War I –combined with my career as an archivist makes historical horror a subject that I’d like to explore again. It’s been too long since I dipped my toes into that murky pool.

Not too long after this, I began volunteering my time at the local historical society. I’ve been out of touch with historical documents for a while and wanted to keep my hands (literally) in the game. Summer is always a busy period for small historical preservation groups and my community’s society is undertaking some large projects that could use an experienced archivist to help out on. It’s a win-win for both of us, and working in such a setting is conducive to both my sanity and to nurturing the historical horror seed which had been planted.

As the particular seed started to germinate in my head, we experienced storms that brought a near-Biblical deluge here on Long Island. As the water rose, I went to check in on a storage lock-up that I have simply to ensure that my belongings weren’t in danger of being swept out to sea. It’s a good thing that I did, for the fire wall that my unit abutted was beginning to seep, which resulted in me having to evacuate my possessions to a drier and more secure unit deeper in the bowels of the storage facility. Since I had to reorganize all the sundry boxes and cartons anyway, I took the time to reexamine some of their contents and to retrieve anything that I didn’t want to risk losing again. This included numerous writings of mine, many of which go back to my college years and before. Amongst them, I discovered my notes for a place I haven’t given much thought about in many years.

Once upon a time, I helped create a “spooky little town” setting for a live action Halloween game. Although the game was a one shot, the town itself lived on in other projects, including two movie scripts and a television series treatment. A large quantity of notes, background, research, and even photographs were assembled over the years in regards to that town—more than I ever remembered generating.

With the historical history bug already in place, the rediscovery of these notes seemed particularly synchronistic. Here was a new book just waiting to be written. It would give me a break from both the dungeon and the rule set which I’ve been eating and breathing for the last two years and allow me to walk down avenues previously unexplored. So, after getting the go ahead from my former writing partner, I decided that 2011 will see me writing a game supplement for use in a historical horror role-playing game.

I’ve slowly started laying the ground work for this project, but the most concrete result has been that I’ve created a second blog—one which I’ve up until now remained quiet about. This other blog is somewhat different than the Society. Here, I’m often aware of my readership and that sometime affects what I post. This secondary blog is fully a venue for my own enjoyment. That freedom has allowed me to compose posts that would not otherwise fit in amongst my usual role-playing game related writings here on the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. It’s become a pressure-release value and escape hatch for me. To offer an odd metaphor, if the Society is my Hollywood acting career, this other blog is my rock band or restaurant—that thing one does not to make money or advance a career, but just to have fun. And it’s precisely what I’ve needed.

Since I’ve started writing non-D&D related stuff (but still role-playing game related) content on the other blog, I’ve started to feel better about the Society again. You may have noticed that my posting here is on an upswing and that trend can be attributed to my other just-for-fun blog where I get to think about historical horror before I start on the new book next year.

I doubt that what I write there will be to the tastes of the Society’s entire readership, but I thought I’d invite you to stop by and check it out for yourself. I have no set schedule of postings and I haven’t even taken steps to keep tabs on the blog’s traffic. It’s merely a mental playground/open notebook for me to use as I research and prepare to write this future game supplement. I plan on having some fun along the way with it. Maybe you can join in too.

Pack your things, hope into your Packard, and head of down the turnpike for October Country. You’ve got some Secret Antiquities to examine.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Interview with Scott Aniolowski

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Call of Cthulhu game being run by the Miskatonic River Press guys. Joining in on that session was long-time Call of Cthulhu contributor, author, and editor, Scott Aniolowski, who rounded out the party with no less of an august persona than Professor Henry Armitage. During a break in the game, I discovered that Mr. Aniolowski would be running a CoC session set in Kingsport the following morning (a locale that I have much fondness for) and I made plans to join in. Unfortunately, due to the early start time and a lack of promotion by the convention, Mr. Aniolowski and I were the only two people who showed up the next morning. Although this development robbed me of the opportunity to visit Kingsport again, it did provide me with the chance to talk with Scott about his own career of writing for the role-playing game industry. Having just started my own journey down that path, it was both entertaining and informative to be able to pick his brain and hear some of his anecdotes about his years in the business.

I asked Scott if he’d be willing to participate in an email interview and publicly answer some of the questions I posed to him and more for this blog. With the majority of the OSR blogs out that concentrating on Dungeons & Dragons in its various earlier versions, classic old-school rpgs such as Call of Cthulhu simply don’t get the word count they deserve. And since the OSR includes both fans of earlier titles like CoC and aspiring writers and designers in its ranks, I thought others would be interested in what Mr. Aniolowski had to say about writing, the industry, and how he got started.

What was your introduction to role-playing games in general and Call of Cthulhu specifically? Were you familiar with Lovecraft’s work before you encountered CoC?

My initial introduction to RPGs was, like for so many others, AD&D. That would have been around 1980, I guess. A couple people I knew in high school were playing and asked me to join. Call of Cthulhu came along a few years later when we decided to try other games. My group tried out CoC, 007 James Bond, Champions, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Chill, Aftermath, Vampire The Masquerade, Star Trek, Ring World and all sorts of other RPGs. Only a few stuck – among them CoC – which eventually became our regular weekly game. I was vaguely familiar with Lovecraft when we began playing Call of Cthulhu, but had only read a story or two up until then. But that made the gaming experience that much more fun – discovering all these weird and unique creatures for the first time.

Your work has appeared in more than three dozen Call of Cthulhu supplements. How did you get your start writing gaming material? Did you have any previous writing experience or was role-playing material your first work as a writer?

Game writing was my first real writing. I’d done fiction writing in school, but nothing serious and nothing came of it. When we finished an adventure which Michael Szymanski had run called “The Temple of the Moon” I said something like “we could write this stuff”. So Mike and I collaborated on putting “The Temple of the Moon” on paper (and doing it on typewriters back then in the pre-PC era, I might add). When we finished Mike sent the manuscript off to Chaosium. Sandy Petersen read it and liked it and after three minor rewrites bought and published it. That’s how it all began – on a lark, really. Neither Mike nor I had any pre-conceived ideas of what Chaosium wanted nor if they would even read, let alone buy, our manuscript.

I imagine that one of the challenges for writing for Call of Cthulhu is that a majority of the game is set in the 1920s. How much research do you do when working on material set in the classic era?

Well, back in the early days we didn’t do a whole lot of research. You’d have to research the basics, of course, but we pretty much just glossed over most of the stuff. Today with the internet a lot more research and fact-checking goes into writing. It’s a lot easier for writers to find the information they need now – but that means it’s also a lot easier for the players to find the same information, and call you out when you are wrong.

You’re perhaps best known as the mind behind the Ye Book of Monsters series which became The Creature Companion and later the Malleus Monstrorum. These books collected just about every known monster, entity, and god that has appeared in either a gaming supplement or in mythos fiction. Did you propose this series and how intimidating was the task of trying to compile a master list of monsters from so many sources?

Ye Booke of Monstres came about at the time when Keith Herber left Chaosium. In the turbulent parting of the ways between Keith and Chaosium a lot of projects were scrapped. At the time I was working on the original manuscript for Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places and a collection of seven modern scenarios entitled The Seven Deadly Sins. Both projects were axed. I had recently done an article on new Mythos monsters for Keith’s first Keeper’s Companion, so I suggested to Lynn Willis that I take that and expand it into a stand-alone book. Thus Ye Booke of Monstres was born. At the time there really weren’t plans to do any more. I don’t really remember how or why the second volume came about. Then later, of course, Chaosium combined the two volumes of Ye Booke into The Creature Companion. The Germans then took that, translated it into German, and created their amazing and beautiful Malleus Monstrorum. By the time the German edition of the Malleus Monstrorum came out there were a lot of new Mythos monsters that had appeared in scenarios, or ones I’d found in obscure Mythos stories, so I suggested to Lynn Willis that we do one massive collection of every single monster we could find. We shamelessly stole the German title, had some of the original German text translated into English, added a whole bunch of stuff, and my version of The Malleus Monstrorum was born.

With such a large body of work to your name, do you have a favorite amongst them? One book or project that you’re most proud of? How about those written by someone other than yourself? Any favorites there or one that makes you say, “I wish I wrote that”?

My favorite scenarios of my own are “Fade to Gray” and “The Eyes of a Stranger”. I’m also very proud of The Malleus Monstrorum and suggest, humbly, that it is the best “monster book” for any RPG. And I certainly cannot take full credit for Malleus – I simply collected and “RPGized” the monstrous creations of a whole lot of very talented writers.

Could you describe what the process was like for writing Call of Cthulhu material for Chaosium? Who was your contact there and did you ever visit the offices in person?

I was fortunate enough to have worked with all the great CoC editors: Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis and Keith Herber. Each had his own style and ideas of what the Mythos should be and what a good scenario was, and each was different to work with. Sandy, for example, had me re-write my scenarios a few times before he bought them. Lynn and I would discuss scenarios in detail and I would just write it the way we agreed upon with maybe a few minor changes afterwards. Working with Keith was sort of a combination – we’d discuss things in great detail, I’d do it the way we agreed, but he’d sometimes ask for substantial re-writes.

And yes, actually I did visit the old Chaosium offices back in the 80's. Kevin Ross and I went with Chaosium back to Oakland after a GenCon one year and we spent several days in the office. It was an interesting experience.

When we spoke, you mentioned that you’ve had the opportunity to converse with writers who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, Robert Bloch being one of the names the jumps to mind. What was their opinion of the Call of Cthulhu game? Did they have a general understanding of what a role-playing game was?

I’ve been very fortunate: through Call of Cthulhu I’ve been able to meet and work with a lot of very remarkable authors and Lovecraft contemporaries. I’ve met, corresponded with and worked with Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch, among others. They have all been very respectful of the game, but none really had an understanding or interest in it or RPGs. The one exception was noted author and artist Gahan Wilson who has played CoC. When we met at NecronomiCon one year I was supposed to run a CoC game for him and Bob Bloch one night. Unfortunately, scheduling prevented the game from actually happening. Its too bad as it would have been truly an exciting experience to sit at a gaming table with two legends like Wilson and Bloch!

Who are your influences when it comes to writing game material? How about fiction?

Well, I read a lot and like the works of many people. I’m a fan of both classics and modern horror/weird fiction, from William Hope Hodgson, Poe, H.G. Wells, Washington Irving, Arthur Machen (do I even need to mention HPL and his gang?) to King, Campbell, Bloch, Ligotti, Klein and others. I don’t know who specifically influences my writing, although some friends suggest Ramsey Campbell as an obvious influence on my own style. AS far as gaming goes, I’m a huge fan of Kevin Ross and Keith Herber. Both have been incredible influences on my RPG work as well as mentors and friends.

In addition to writing, you’ve served as an editor on several fiction anthologies. How did that come about and what are your criteria for choosing a good Mythos tale? Of the numerous authors writing pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, who do you think is producing the most interesting and/or genuine material?

While I was working on Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places – a CoC book based on the Mythos works of Ramsey Campbell – I suggested to Lynn Willis at Chaosium that I assemble an anthology of new fiction set in Campbell’s Severn Valley and using his Mythos additions. It was great timing as Ramsey was to be the guest of honor at the upcoming NecronomiCon, so it gave us something to shoot for. I’d already been in contact with Ramsey through my work on the RPG, so getting him involved was easy. The other authors sort of fell into place – some were friends and others were authors I either admired or who were suggested to me. I’m extremely proud of Made in Goatswood, the resulting anthology. Ramsey was wonderful to work with and I was honored by having 9 of the book’s 18 stories make the “Suggested Reading” section of that year’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror!

My next anthology for Chaosium, Singers of Strange Songs, was a Brian Lumley tribute. Working with Brian was a lot different, but still very rewarding. Brian pulls no punches and tells you what he thinks, which makes him very intimidating at times, but I really enjoyed working with him. We mostly communicated over the phone instead of via the mail (this was back before the explosion of e-mail). In the case of his book, Brian made some suggestions as to who I should invite or what stories I should include. Again, it was released to correspond with his guest of honor appearance at NecronomiCon.

As far as authors presently producing the best Lovecraftian fiction, I would have to name Michael Shea and Thomas Ligotti as the top two. Their work is outstanding. T.E.D. Klein is also up there at the top, although sadly he isn’t very prolific these days.

This is strange to admit, perhaps, but for the most part I hate Mythos stories/pastiche. Most of them are crap. What most authors forget is the tone or atmosphere of the piece. Anyone can write a story about Cthulhu and toss is the Necronomicon and Arkham, but it takes a truly talented writer to put his or her own spin on that stuff and produce something wholly original. But most people just don’t get it. To me a good Cthulhu Mythos story is not about listing names of Old Ones and blasphemous tomes or about simply retreading HPL’s steps. You have to tell a good story first and foremost. And most Mythos pastiches simply don’t do that. Anyone who claims to only read Mythos stories and only write Mythos stories is most likely going to be rejected by me when I’m reading for an anthology. I want to see something new and fresh. I want to see a different take on something old. I want a good story. If you take out all the Mythos trappings is it still a good story? If the answer is yes then I’ll buy that story for my book.

What’s on the horizon for you now? Any new material in the works or something you’d like to plug?

Well, until recently I was “mostly retired” from CoC. But with Keith Herber’s untimely passing I’ve stepped in an worked with his business partner at his Miskatonic River Press. I’ve also been called up by old pal Kevin Ross to write a few things for him for projects he’s been working on. One of the things I’m most excited about is a Colonial era sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu that I helped Kevin write. That was a lot of fun and I think its going to be an amazing book. I’m supposed to write a classic era Goatswood sourcebook for MRP sometime in the next year or so. I’ve already talked to Ramsey Campbell about that one and he’s given me his blessing to return to his haunted Severn Valley. I’ve also been developing a Post Apocalyptic sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. And if something came along I’d gladly edit another fiction anthology. Yeah, so who knows? There’s an awful lot of stuff boiling away right now. We’ll have to wait and see what comes to fruition or in what order!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Watchfires & Thrones Session #6

Obsidian Portal isn’t working out for me so I’m going to be switching to another format in order to organize and preserve all my Watchfires & Thrones-related materials. In the meanwhile, I’m posting the recap of Sunday’s game here so that the absent player can catch up for next week.

Leaving the Temple of the Black Goat behind them for the nonce, the party trudged back to Rhuun to recruit and reequip, pausing in the journey only long enough to bury the earthly remains of Reddannon and Yodahlla under low cairns in the Hills of Scowling Bones. After an uneventful trip, the walled settlement soon appeared out of the desert haze, with the blue, red, and bronze of the town’s guardsmen visible in the late morning’s heat.

Even before they reached the gate, the party heard the sounds of music, laughter, and happy chatter floating through the air. One of the guardsmen halted them at the entrance and informed the adventurers that the Feast of Erion was underway in Rhuun and a therefore a feast tax and arms peace were in effect. After paying eight silver smerduks each to enter (plus five copper groats to cover Gladys the mule) and acquiescing to having their weapons bound, the party stepped through the gate and onto the crowded Street of Cobras.

Amongst the crowd of celebrants, snake charmers, dancing girls, acrobats, mummers, and the like were other itinerant adventurers, each of whom had recently arrived in Rhuun: the fighting brothers Xander and Lyrax Tonn, the novice sorcerer, Tigir, and Kallen Doomsong, another fighting man (and apparently, a gambler and thief).

Once within the town wall, the party wanted to head directly to Seno the Jeweler in order to see what the necklaces they recovered from the fungal dead were worth. Before they could attempt to push through the crowded streets, however, the cry of “The procession is coming!” rang through the air. The street before them cleared swiftly as the crowd moved to either side of the avenue.

From around the corner came an odd parade. Four men dressed solely in loincloths, sandals, and brazen, full-headed dog masks appeared carrying a litter. Atop this sedan rode a woman dressed in vibrant white, her features hidden by gauzy veils. Behind them came numerous other men and women, each dressed in white and wearing half-face masks that also depicted the face and muzzle of dogs. A pair of draft lizards, each adorned with ribbons and bells, and ridden by a pair of men brought up the rear.

The party was prepared to wait for the procession to pass before venturing forth to take care of pecuniary business, but they soon found themselves in the midst of a conflict. Two men stepped from the crowd and halted the procession in the middle of the street. These two men confronted the lead litter bearer and insults were exchanged between the men and the bearer. As the crowd went silent, the adventurers could overhear the names “Bashari” and “Sulaj” mixed amongst the insult. Insults turned to pushing and shoving, and the threat of physical blows loomed nigh. It might have spilled over into violence had not two more men, each wearing a red turban, emerged from the crowd to try and broker a peace. Their efforts were initially rebuffed by the two instigators with words that they needed no help from “an Etar when it comes to dealing with Bashari filth!” Bannath, a cleric of Yg and enemy of Tarim, (whose church Erion is associated with) stepped close to the confrontation and did his best to stir the pot, hoping to incite a riot in which he could strike a blow against the Tarimites. Xander Tonn, a charismatic soul, attempted to calm the situation before it grew out of hand.

With things teetering on the edge of a knife, a scream arose from near the rear of the procession. Looking in that direction, the adventurers (and everyone else) saw that one of the draft lizards was now riderless: his master and handler, a man in his early sixties, lay on the dusty street after having fallen from the saddle. Whether overcome by the heat, the excitement, or perhaps his aging heart, the man lay unmoving on the ground.

The now-uncontrolled draft lizard—a beast the size of a rhino and looking like a cross between that animal and a Komodo dragon—began grunting and bellowing, shifting about nervously as the crowd backed away. Then, with a bass rumble from deep in its throat, the normally placid lizard charged the crowd, tossing bodies about like drop-me-sticks. The crowd screamed and ran—with the exception of the adventuring types who held their ground against the rampaging beast. In the rush to clear the crowded street, the four litter bearers dropped their passenger to the ground.

Between a barrage of arrows, sling stones, spears, and magic missiles, the party was able to bring down the large lizard before too many were injured and killed. In the aftermath, they discovered that they had saved the life of Shasira Bashari, who was the woman in white that had been dropped in the rush. She is apparently the wife of some powerful individual and promised to seek out the party at Qytuul’s caravansary later to offer them a proper reward for their actions.

The party departed the scene (after learning that the lizard’s rider was indeed dead) and paid a visit to Seno. There, despite efforts to convince me otherwise, they learned that the necklaces were of minor value. Multiplied by twelve, however, and with the much more valuable torc thrown in, the party walked out with a lot of jingle in their coin pouches.

Which led to the predictable purchasing of oil and animals—the two great combat upgrades of low-level adventurers everywhere. A guard dog, a rat, and a Mhyrakian watch lizard were all purchased, as was a barrel of oil to pour down into a certain fungus-filled crypt. Some armor upgrades were done and the party hired their comrades-in-arms from the street fight to fill out their ranks. I was busy stating up the dog and lizard during the hiring phase, but let me say that the terms of employment sounded pretty lousy to me. Had I not chimed in, I’m thinking that the party would have taken 25% of the newcomers’ experience point rewards as well!

Now that they were restocked and replenished in numbers, the party, after finding it most difficult to get lodging for the night in the festival-jammed town, decided to head straight back to the Temple of the Goat. They left a note behind, which told their would-be benefactress to leave their reward with Anwar (who remained behind to crack the code of the Brazen Tablets of the Viscous Mother).

On the return trip to the Temple, they ran across the path of SOMETHING in the desert night, but wisely chose to keep their nose out of strange monsters’ business unless imperiled by it. By 4 PM the following day, they had returned to the complex and were ready to finally venture into the pyramid itself.

After a quick side trip to pour 55 gallons of oil down a certain well and set it alight, the party approached the portal that granted entrance into the walled courtyard which held the stepped pyramid. A grotesque face adorned the iron doors and no keyhole was visible. After a quick once-over, they produced the symbol of Ishnigarrab and waved it before the values—which swung open with a groan. Beyond them lay a bricked courtyard and a few smaller statues of the hermaphroditic god. After learning that the gates don’t stay open long, the whole party ventured into the courtyard. A door on the side of the pyramid faced the courtyard’s entrance, and two gargoyles looked down on them from the corners of the stepped temple’s second tier. A loosed arrow failed to spur the gargoyles into action so the party prepared to enter the vulva-shaped doorway before them

That when the dogs came creeping around the sides of the pyramid and a fight broke out.

Although they managed to overcome the Hounds of the Great Mother, the sorcerer Tigir was brought to the edge of death when he waded into combat—perhaps unwisely—and Xander Tonn was slain when one of the Hounds landed a particularly nasty critical hit on the young fighter (12 points of damage!). After taking a break to bandage their wounds, quaff some wine, and wake up Hicks—err, Tigir—the party looted their dead and headed into the temple…

Mad Props

It started simply enough. After the deaths of last week, the end of the game session saw the party wisely deciding to return to Rhuun to resupply and recruit new bodies. This was a move I wasn’t expecting. The town part of the campaign still remains a nebulous place as I try to create all the little nuances that a settlement needs before it can become a living, breathing place in the minds of the players. I’ve had a tendancy to gloss over town time in order to get back to the dungeon. However, this is one of the things in my “Needs to be improved on” category on my mental referee’s checklist. One way or another, I vowed, this trip to town would be different. But how?

On Wednesday, I took a trip down to the FLGS to see if they had anything in the used D&D section that might help jumpstart the creative process. In the box of old modules, I came across a complete copy of B6 – The Veiled Society by Dave Cook. By complete, I mean that all the paper models and cardstock miniatures were present. Remembering that the module was one of the first “city adventures” for D&D, I bought it on the off-chance that parts of it were adaptable/salvageable for my own campaign.

As much as I hate to say it (which is a lot considering the author was kind enough to write the foreword to my book), the module doesn’t age well and the mystery it contains is a little thin. This is not surprising since this was one of those “Basic D&D” modules aimed at a younger demographic from back when TSR really started focusing on the tween market. Since then, town-based adventures have come a long way and B6 unfortunately gets left in the dust.

However, there was an encounter in the module that introduces the basic premise of the adventure—rival families at one another’s throats as they contend for power—which served my purposes well and I decided to adapt it and put a little spin on it to make it my own. But it was the paper models that were included in the module that really got my mind going.

Like the module itself, paper and cardstock models, miniatures, and terrain have greatly improved since 1984. A sizeable portion of’s catalogue is dedicated to these products, and companies like Fat Dragon Games makes PDF versions of models that blow the doors off of the easily-destroyed cutout buildings of yesteryear. And since I live in an age where such things are easily downloadable, I decided to be true to the module’s original intentions—give the players some eye candy to gawk at—and include some cardstock buildings of my own.

When the players arrived on Sunday, the most commonly asked question was: “Are we playing a new game?” An understandable question, considering this is what they found waiting for them on our big blue table.

Pictured is the Street of the Cobra during the Festival of Erion. Those Scrabble tiles are celebrants, fire-eaters, dancing girls, acrobats, and musicians. It was a crowded festival—until the draft lizard went berserk and started to run amuck in the street! (I should mention I watched a Godzilla flick this week, which might have also had something to do with my decision to use model buildings and then sett a big lizard loose to run wild amongst them).

Would I do this every time the party goes to town? Absolutely not (sorry you missed it, Rob), but it was a fun way to reinforce the notion that, while I may not be the greatest referee to ever sit behind the screen, I have evolved my own ways of presenting the game world and entertaining my players—ones which I hope are appreciated by anyone who joins me at the table.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Elves" in the Watchfires & Thrones Campaign

So far my attempt to keep Watchfires & Thrones firmly rooted in its pulp sword & sorcery roots has been successful. I'm very pleased with my decision to limit the available classess to fighter, cleric, magic-user, dwarf, and "elf", as it has resulted in a largely human party of adventurers. We've had one dwarf and three "elves" (only one of the four demihumans still lives).

I've placed "elf" in quotes because nobody has actually played a true elf of Tolkien heritage. Instead, they've been playing Old Bloods, who are a race of beings loosely based on Moorcock's Melniboneans with veneer of Howardian slapped on for highlights. It's taken me a while to summarize the class, but I've finally done so. That summary appears below. Astute readers can play "Guess where Mike stole this bit from?" as they peruse the piece.

Although dwarves haven't been as popular, I think I'm going to give them a similar treatment in order to bring them closer to the same "human but not human" status the Arane Dhyn have.

The Arane Dhyn (The Old Blood)

For ten thousand years, the Arane Dhyn, that ancient race of men who are not men, ruled the great island nation of Bal-Sagoth, which lay at the center of the Weary Sea. In this land of white walled cities and sapphire towers arose potent sorceries and unimaginable sciences, each more impressive than the last. Compared to the wonders of Bal-Sagoth, the advances of true men were naught but the inelegant drawings of dimwitted children in the mud.

Over time, the haughtiness and pride of the Arane Dhyn grew along with their accomplishments and they began to see themselves as superior to the young nations of men, whom they deemed lesser beings. The Arane Dhyn, with their strange magics and high science, waged war upon the nations that abutted the Weary Sea. Most succumbed to the legions of Bal-Sagoth and became vassal states, owing fealty to the Supernal Empire and its Imperatrix. Each spring, the great moon galleys of the Arane Dhyn would embark to collect tribute from the lands of men, taking coin, trade goods, and slaves, as well as certain individuals who proved themselves worthy of learning at the feet of the great Arane Dhyn scholars and sorcerers, back to Bal-Sagoth.

For ten millennia, the Arane Dhyn subjugated the nations of men and grew debauched on their island of white-walled cities and sapphire towers. Then, without warning, the Arane Dhyn faced an opponent whose sorceries and science outstripped their own.

This threat came not from the sea that surrounded the Arane Dhyn’s homeland, but from the night sky above. Strange stars fell from the heavens, bringing with them the creatures known only as the Silent Daemons. With unknowable purpose, the Silent Daemons waged war upon Bal-Sagoth, toppling its sapphire towers and razing its alabaster walls. The land itself was torn asunder and the sea rushed in to fill these chasms.

The end of Bal-Sagoth came in fire, but whose hand lit the flames is unknown. Some tales say that the Silent Daemons unleashed horrific magics against the island nation. Conflicting stories claim that it was the strange sciences of the Arane Dhyn which caused the conflagration. In either case, the inferno known as the Flame Deluge shattered the great island nation of Bal-Sagoth, sinking it beneath the green waves of the Weary Sea. All that remained behind were the mangled scraps of silver filigree from brooch or breastplates that lay upon the ocean sands or the tatters of checkered silk which floated on the waves.

Some of the Arane Dhyn survived the cataclysm, fleeing their sinking land on moon galleys or taking flight on magical wings. But those survivors were few and they found no refuge was to be had in the former vassal states of Men. With their civilization in ruins and their former servants now free and bearing great grudges, the Arane Dhyn scattered, seeking sanctuary in whatever isolated places they could. In dense jungles, atop forbidding mountains, and in harsh deserts, the Arane Dhyn built colonies and citadels where they could dream of their former glory, undisturbed.

Two thousand years have passed since Bal-Sagoth sank and the Supernal Empire was cast in ruin. Most of the Arane Dhyn remain sequestered in their hidden sanctuaries, but a few seek to recapture the glory of their race once again. Although still shunned by men and considered a cursed breed, this vainglorious minority takes up sword and spells in order to carve out a place in the world befitting their people’s former greatness.

Twinborn Souls

Although the Arane Dhyn appear indistinguishable from Men, they are a separate, alien race. No aspect sets them apart from men more than their dual souls.

Each Arane Dhyn possess two souls which are engaged in a constant struggle for dominance of their physical form. Each daybreak, when the Arane Dhyn rises from slumber, his physical form might be under the control of either one of these twin souls. Although these twin souls are seldom evenly matched, each ultimately gains the upper hand in the struggle from time to time, eclipsing the skills of the other and causing various subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes to manifest. Most Arane Dhyn spend their entire lives attempting to unify their warring spirits into a single whole. This state is called Caat, and, while not an impossible goal, it is uncommon to encounter an Old Blood who was successfully reached spiritual equilibrium. Instead, most Arane Dhyn rely on meditation, sorcery, drugs, or other means to keep their internal struggle in a state they can cope with.

In game terms, this means is that each Old Blood character has essentially two classes whose abilities and progression are kept track of separately. An Old Blood PC is both a fighter and magic-user, but never at the same time. He has two character sheets: one for each of these classes.

The ability scores are the same for each class but hit points fluctuate depending on whether the Old Blood is currently adventuring as a fighter or a magic-user, and it is the subtle physiological changes that occur when each soul is in control that causes the character’s ability to survive bodily harm to change. Likewise, his ability to use spells and his acumen in battle are also dependent on which soul is currently in command.

When his martial soul is in power, the Arane Dhyn is a fighter with all that class’ abilities, saving throws, and weapon proficiencies. They do not, however, gain the ability to “Chop When They Drop” that pure fighters do.

When their mystical soul is at the forefront, the Arane Dhyn functions as a magic-user and has all that class’ saving throws, “to hit” probabilities, and spell-casting ability. They may not wear armor and cast spells, and they are limited to only two weapon proficiencies, which must be chosen from the four they possess in their fighter guise.


It is said that the Arane Dhyn race is the product of their ancient deity, Gol-goroth. Eons ago, long before history was recorded or Men walked upon the earth, Gol-goroth created twin daughters, A-ala and Dyru Ro, to delight him and to take as brides when they came of age. In almost every way, these two girls were opposites. Dyru Ro was dark and beautiful, while A-ala was pale and of fierce visage. A-ala was blessed with the gift of sorcery and Dyru Ro was a warrioress without equal. Rivals from the very first, each constantly strove to outdo the other in the eyes of Gol-goroth.

It was A-ala who brought about the tumultuous inner struggle that afflicts all Arane Dhyn. Having observed her twin’s practice of eating the hearts of slain foes to absorb their strength and prowess, A-ala set a snare of magic for Dyru Ro, then lured her into its jaws. Once imprisoned, A-ala consumed the soul of her twin with the intent of both assuming her martial prowess and permanently removing her rival.

When Gol-goroth next called his brides-to-be into his presence, he found only one answered his summons. He questioned A-ala, inquiring where her sister might be found, a query to which A-ala denied having any knowledge. But the spirit of Dyru Ro was not so easily consumed and Gol-goroth saw its fire burning behind the eyes of A-ala. The sorceress could not hide her crime from her creator and Gol-goroth banished her from his presence, sending her to live in the harsh lands to the west.

There, amongst the low creatures that would eventually become Men, A-ala found refuge and ultimately a mate. When the first of her children were born, A-ala discovered that Gol-goroth had punished her offspring for her crime. Each was born with two warring souls: one of sorcery inherited from their mother, the other martial and bearing the traits of their aunt. The Arane Dhyn race has suffered for their founder’s crime ever since.

Racial Traits

Because of their twin souls, Old Blood characters are extremely resistant to both charm and sleep magics, and avoid succumbing to these enchantments 90% of the time. They possess a keen sense of sight that allows them to detect the flame auras given off by all living creatures up to 60’ away (as infravision) and can notice the slight imperfections that indicate concealed doorways, hidden niches, secret doors, and the like 2 times out of 6.

Physical Appearance

Although the physical appearance of the Arane Dhyn is just as varied as that of Men, there does exist two general types. These two broad physical stereotypes usually indicate which of the two conflicting souls is dominant most often in a Arane Dhyn, but this is not always the case.

The following two examples are taken from Earth literature as they coincidentally resemble the two most common physical appearances of those of the Old Blood race. The first is an example of one whose martial soul is more dominant; the second, one whose sorcerous souls is most active. (Thanks to my regular player, Jack, for reminding me of the Kull description.)

“He was built much like the Vikings, at once massive and lithe—tigerish. But his features were not as theirs, and his square-cut, lion-like mane of hair was as black as Bran’s own. Under heavy brows glittered eyes gray as steel and cold as ice. His bronzed face, strong and inscrutable, was clean-shaven, and the broad forehead betokened a high intelligence, just as the firm jaw and thin lips showed will-power and courage.”
-Kings of the Night by Robert E. Howard

“They were old eyes in a fine featured, youthful face…He nodded condescendingly to the other four and walked with lithe grace towards the fire… [He] was tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and…affected the dress of a southern barbarian…His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company—that he was an outsider and an outcast.”
- The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Letter from Chgowiz

Michael "Chgowiz" Shorten contacted me last week and asked if I'd be willing to allow him to post a letter here to the Old School community in regards to his decision to take down his blog. I readily agreed. I think a general clearing of the air is best for the overall well-being of whatever it is we're trying to accomplish. Take it away, Chgowiz.

It's been a month since I yanked my blog and I've been feeling pretty damn conflicted about it.The whole deal was pretty fucked up. I'm not going to lie and say I had noble intentions - I didn't. I hit the end of my rope literally and figuratively and I was just done with it. The whole kit and kaboodle. Raggi hit the right notes, my #3 and #4 hit #1 and #2 and after the hard work and all the crap that happened, I was just done. But there's something I need to say.

Thank you.

There's a metric crapton of good memories and really cool things that I learned, shared and did with you all and I thank you for that. Thank you for your support and the kind things you did during the really fucked up 2009 that was. Dad dying, @thePrincessWife (Angie) getting diagnosed with lupus, almost losing my son, watching my finances go down the toilet - it was tough but I found some true blue friends and that's the best part of all this. Thank you to my buds at THM, my friends through the cons and OPDC. Thank you for the kind words and for buying my little game things and enjoying the stuff I handed out for free. Even those of you who royally pissed me off, you guys challenged me. One thing my Dad always taught me was to listen to both sides and come up with the best conclusion that I could match with my own sense of values. So I tried to do that.

By pulling back, I've taken a look at what is important to me in the gaming world and that is the games I'm running/playing and the local gaming scene. The on-again/off-again solo game with @thePrincessWife, the tabletop AD&D campaign and the online Google Wave game are all still chugging. I'm still playing in Alexis's online game. Once I'm through this really hectic April/May (which are always hectic with the volunteer and social groups I'm a part of outside of gaming) I'm hoping to get involved more in doing things locally related to Classic D&D. There are some cool events, like the 3 to 4 times a year Chicago GameDays, the meetup group and various deals there, and Winter War convention and GaryCon convention. After running a really fun B2 11 hour marathon, I know the interest in Classic D&D is there locally, so I'm going to continue doing what I can to put asses in chairs. I'm just going to do it more locally - where I can deal with people face to face and sit down and have a beer after and feel a good positive energy feedback for what I put into it.

It probably doesn't hurt that I've started increasing my volunteer activities towards the GLBT community and some other personal interests. I have friends and some family members who are GLBT and I've had friends who've died from AIDs and those are things that my fundraising can really help with. So I'm investing my energy there.

Oh yea, the new Harley kinda is distracting me too...

I don't know what I'm going to do in the future. I'm not really interested in blogging for/about the "OSR" anymore. It's been a month and the anger is still fresh. I have developed a serious distrust of people who I haven't met face to face. Blogging and being part of the incestuous Internet circle is not worth having shit tossed my way from some assholes sitting behind their keyboards. That anger/distrust is not going to go anyway anytime soon. The whole deal (blog/TARGA) got turned into something other than what it was by people with agendas or axes to grind. The fallout was just really awful to me on a personal level and I've just got no interest in repeating that. I've got too many other things that matter in life. I'm really glad that the whole deal has died down.

I know I pissed people off with yanking all my stuff, but it was a question of responsibility. If I have stuff out there, I have to support it, it's my responsibility and it's a constant reminder/danger of it all happening again. It's like being burned at the stove - I've got no real interest in feeling the pain again and the only way to avoid getting burned again was to back off completely. So I did. I don't know if I'll be interested in doing it again. Life goes on, the Internet has another 3 day cycle and my stuff wasn't all that unique - there's so much creativity going on right now.

I'm really glad that $350 will go to GaryCon 3 and that the One Page Dungeon Contest is still a positive thing. It tickles me to no end to hear of people getting their spouses into solo games. If nothing else, I can say that my goals of leaving the gaming world as enriched as I was from being there came true.

So thank you. And in the words of Rick Krebs, who really inspired me with his words, "Go have fun!"

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hounds of the Great Mother

No. Enc.: 1d4+1 (2d6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120’ (24’)
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 2+2
Attacks: 1 or 2 (bite)
Damage: 1d6 and 2d4
Save: F1
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: None
XP: 47

These dogs resemble lean Doberman Pinschers at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals that their hook-filled mouths open on four hinges and that they possess a lamprey-like secondary maw on their bellies which is ringed by dangling red cilia. Any Hound whose attack roll is 5 or more points higher than the total needed to hit or who rolls a “natural 20” has possibly knocked over its victim. The defender must make an STR check and, if is failed, the Hound overbears its target and automatically bites with its secondary mouth for 2d4 points of damage.

The party was wondering why there was dog crap inside the courtyard of the ancient pyramid today--the one which has been sealed for roughly a century...

These babies leaped to mind while I was watching In the Mouth of Madness the other week. There was a scene where Sutter Cane is standing by the door of the church with three Dobermans at his side and they struck me as looking particularly menacing in that shot. Give them a second set of jaws surrounded by crimson cilia and make their mouths hinged like the Predator and, voila, horrific hounds to chase you down in you nightmares.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Object Lessons and Dead PCs

You’ll notice it’s been a little slow here at the Society this week. Now that I have a regular game of my own to run, I find that I have more of a desire to write for that game than about it, which naturally leads to things quieting down here if I have to divide my time between activities. However, the happenings at last Sunday's session need commenting on and I’d like to get that done before the events of tomorrow’s game move to the forefront of my mind.

Time for a confession: I hate killing characters.

Truth be told, I get attached to the personas that explore my imaginary world and help to breathe life into what would otherwise be a lonely illusion. I root for them as they confront dangerous monsters or try to puzzle out a fiendish trap. After all, if they succeed, they earn experience, advance in level, and gain more power. That means I get to add even more neat stuff to my world and I get to play with new ideas and build more interesting sites for them to explore. Therefore, it’s in my best interests if the adventurers survive.

On the other hand, I’m not a big proponent of the “Everybody gets a trophy” school of thought either. Better minds than mine have argued that when everybody’s a winner, winning means nothing. That’s an attitude which I’m very much in agreement with. I’ve worked damn hard for the things I’m most proud of in life—which is the reason I’m so proud of them in the first place. Our recreational activities should be no different. There is really no point in playing if you’re assured victory because, for me at least, avoiding defeat is half the fun.

I’ve learned to balance these two facets of my personality by simply giving the players enough rope to hang themselves and then waiting to see what happens. This is exactly what happened last Sunday.

If you’ve read the recap, you’ll know that four members of the party died at the hands of fungal zombies when they delved into an undercroft beneath the temple complex. While I can’t say that I planned this, in the interest of full disclosure, I can’t say I’m surprised either. That room was purposely assembled as an object lesson and it did exactly what I hoped it would.

The primary purpose of that encounter was to serve as a litmus test to see how greedy and cocky the players and their characters could get. The answer was too much of both for their own good. Everyone seems to have forgotten the First Rule of Zombies: “They’re no sweat when there’s just a few, but if you let them overwhelm you, you’re screwed.”

The party had no trouble knocking them down when they were popping up in twos and threes. Before long, the entire chamber was crowded with zombie bodies. So many, in fact, that one of the players asked if I wanted him to start removing the knocked over miniatures from the grid map. He should have suspected something when I said, “No,” but that’s all part of getting comfortable with a new group: you have to learn what everyone’s capable of in their roles as players and referee. I bet the players will take notice in the future if I start leaving “dead” miniatures on the board.

When the zombies started springing back to “life”—first one half of them, then the other—the players started cracking jokes about staying down there and “grinding XP ‘til we hit 5th level.” That plan changed once the PC with an armor class of 1 got torn to pieces. Of course, by that time, the way to the single-file ladder that exited the chamber was blocked by a horde of toadstool-sprouting zombies. I hope that my second purpose for this set piece of an encounter was sinking in at that point: “Although boldness pays off in D&D, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re up in chips—even if it means possibly leaving a bigger pot behind.” More of the PCs could have escaped if they hadn’t been so determined to make sure all the loot had been found.

Although not intended, I think it will be some time before we start splitting up the party again, even if it’s just “We’ll be in the next room.” The fact that half the party was upstairs when the zombies sprang back to life was bad news to those guys still down in the hole. However, this development did teach me a bit about the players and their characters. I learned who was brave enough to risk death (and in one case, find it) by rushing in to help their comrades-in-arms when it would have been easy to stay upstairs where it was safe. I’m always on the lookout for such selflessness and usually reward it on a later date in some manner.

I usually place one or two of these object lessons/set pieces in any dungeon I construct at the start of a campaign. This is especially true when I don’t know the players all that well and would like to learn more about their individual play styles and such, as well as showing them what kind of game they can expect from me as a referee. The fungal zombie room was one such encounter and I hope the players learned something from it. I know I did and I intend to use that knowledge to customize the campaign so that both myself and the players get as much enjoyment out of it as we can. I think such a noble aim is worth a few dead PCs at the start of the campaign. Hopefully everyone else will too.

Despite what some people might think, you don’t need to be playing some "new school" role-playing game that features drama points, constructed narratives, flashbacks, cut scenes, dice pools, etc. to both instruct and learn about the players. Sometimes a big room of fungus-covered zombies and a fistful of twenty-siders works just as well.

Lulu's Free Shipping Deal

Before I forget about it completely, let me just remind you fine folks that Lulu is offering "free" (actually a $3.99 credit towards the cost of) shipping this month until May 1st. Take advantage of it by entering the code "FREEMAIL305" during checkout. The obligatory link to Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Body Count Grows

I'll probaby have more to say about this session in the near future, but the recounting of Sunday's events is now up on the wiki's adventure log. Six party members died over the course of the day's explorations: four at the hands of the aforementioned Wrecking Crew and two underneath the tender caresses of animated statues.

I am not a referee who gets any pleasure from the deaths of characters. I really am the players' biggest cheerleader, but unfortunately characters do die, hopefully leaving the survivors a bit wiser in the process.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Wrecking Crew

Fungal Dead
No. Enc.: 2d8 (3d10)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 60’ (20’)
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 1+2
Attacks: 1 (bony claws)
Damage: 1d6
Save: F1
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: See below
XP: 27

The fungal dead are human corpses whose bodies have been overtaken by a virulent strain of unwholesome fungus. These alien spores animate their non-living hosts into a nightmarish semblance of life and seek to spread the colony into new, recently-deceased corpses. Luckily, this horrid fungus is only known to grow in places steeped in the unwholesome radiance of that bizarre fertility deity, Ishnigarrab.

Fungal dead tear at their opponents with ragged hands, raking their victims with sharp, splintered fingers. If a fungal dead is struck by a weapon, its body emits a cloud of foul-smelling, psychotropic spores. Anyone in melee combat with a fungal dead when struck must save vs. poison or become afflicted by horrific but short-lived hallucinations. Such characters suffer a -1 penalty to all attacks and saving throws for 1d4 turns. A successful save indicates that the character is immune to further exposure by these spores during that encounter.

Although fungal undead can be “slain” by normal attacks, the fungus that powers them reanimates the host corpse after two turns with full hit points. Only by completely destroying the fungus that affects the corpse, usually by using fire, acid, or similar destructive means, can a fungal dead by permanently slain. As they are not true undead, fungal dead are unaffected by turning attempts or holy water.

On some occasions, fungal dead are born from sacrificial victims that have been exposed to colonies of the loathsome fungus as part of the veneration of Ishnigarrab. These sacrificial victims are adorned with symbolic, low grade jewelry prior to being cast into vile pits filled with the fungus and some may still bear these tokens when discovered. Each group of fungal dead has a 40% chance of wearing these decorations when encountered, with the jewelry on each corpse worth 2d10x10 gp.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Knockspell #4 Now Available

Knockspell Issue #4 contains a veritable cornucopia of gaming content for your retro-clone or out-of-print fantasy campaign! Here's a preview of the table of contents:

From Kuroth’s Quill Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
Beneath the Crossroads: an Adventure Joshua James Gervias
Artist Interview: Christopher Burdett
Megadungeon Adventuring Tactics Matt Finch
Isles on an Emerald Sea 3: An Adventure Gabor Lux
Random Tavern Generator Robert Lionheart
Artifact Type & Attributes Scot Hoover
Spell Interval System John Stater
Online Roleplaying: A Quick Overview Marcelo Frossard Paschoalin
Rats in the Walls: an Adventure by Jeffrey P. Talanian
Stealing the Histories Michael Curtis
Free-Form Rules as a Referee’s Toolbox Al Krombach
Rolling Along: Wheeled Magic Items James Bobb
Weird Weather and other Unexplanable Phenomena J Shoultis, J Larrey, J Hartleb
Review: The Dungeon Alphabet Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
Weapon Generator J.R. Cone
New Magic Items James Bobb

Knockspell #4 is now available in both print and pdf versions from Black Blade Publishing
My contibution to this issue is a primer on how to steal off-beat adventure ideas from Herodotus' The Histories. In other news, Allan "grodog" Grohe, Jr. offers up a review of The Dungeon Alphabet. I think he has nice things to say, but I've yet to read it myself.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

From Around the Watchfires: Session 4

We were down a player on Sunday when real life stepped in to intervene. As with the last recap, I had to write up an expanded version to make sure he's kept up to speed with the rest of the guys. Since I've been busy with spring and neglecting the blog, that recap will now follow so you loyal readers have something to peruse while I get the last bits of Spring Fever out of my system.

After a brief respite in the House of Altars and a hurried debate about whether to wait for more of their number to arrive from Rhuun or not, the party consisting of Bannath, Syl, Mars Markus, and Azerran returned to the slime- and moss-covered bunker-like building they had briefly reconnoitered, leaving Yodahlla and Gladys back at their newly-pitched camp. Not trusting the squat and slimy pile, Syl cautiously poked at its sandstone walls with his spear. His precaution was rewarded when a gray, viscous creature rose up from amongst the slimy moss and struck out like a desert asp. Its pseudopod was ill-aimed, however, and the party was easily able to enact a fighting withdrawal, peppering the gray ooze with missiles until it was slain.

Entering the building, the party discovered a simple room whose floor sloped slightly downwards towards a 10’ diameter shaft in the floor. A bas-relief carving of one of the temple’s ubiquitous tree-monsters adorned the wall behind the open shaft and a vine grew from out of that channel’s depths to wrap around one of the carving’s protruding tentacles. The party cautiously edged forward and quickly learned that the “vine” was actually a moss-encrusted and rusty chain. At the far end of the chain, 30’ down the shaft, a canvas-wrapped rectangular shape hung. Even in the dim torchlight, the party could discern that this item’s dimensions suggested it was a chest, perhaps one filled with booty!

A torch was dropped into the shaft and it briefly illuminated a ledge which ringed the shaft’s throat some forty or fifty feet down. As the torch flickered past, the party caught a glimpse of something lying atop the ledge, unmoving. After about 100’, the torch flickered out, but whether from hitting bottom, falling into water, or some other cause was unknown.

The party, although anxious to recover the supposed chest, grew uneasy with the setup and decided to take precautions against danger—which would have mixed results. After retrieving Gladys from the House of Altars, the party looped a coil of silk rope around the dangling chain and attached the other end to their trusty mule. Using Gladys as a—well, mule—they slowly started dragging the chain up from below, causing the wrapped chest to bang against the shaft’s unyielding stone sides as it rose. Unfortunately, the wet environment and age had weakened the wooden chest. A sharp crack was heard as the side of the box collided with the wall, followed quickly by the unmistakable sound of coins, lots of them, spilling out of the broken chest and into the void below. Despite their attempts to prevent the loss, the party watched in horror as a fountain of silver coins hemorrhaged from the ancient chest, gasping aloud when a glass bottle tumbled from the split chest and into the shaft as well. By the time the chest was safely in their hands, an estimated half of the chest’s contents had been lost.

Meanwhile, back at Rhuun, Reddannon and Mordakis had finished their duties at the shrine of Uun the Unknowable and returned to Qytuul’s caravanserai. There they encountered a bored Ravener, who was rethinking his decision to remain in town. He had made the acquaintance of an Old Blood warrior named Kliegeles and, as the two swapped tales in the caravanserai’s common room, grew antsy for adventure. After boldly suggesting that the Old Blood fighter accompany them on their expedition to the Temple of the Goat, Ravener, Reddannon, Mordakis, and now Kliegeles left town three hours behind the main group and headed north towards the Temple.

Speaking of the main party, they were determined to make the best of a bad situation and salvage as much wealth as they could. This meant someone had to go down into the shaft to investigate the ledge and what lay atop it. Mars Markus took this opportunity to sample from the effervescent puce-colored liquid that the bottle held and was pleased to discover a shaving nick he had incurred early in the day was suddenly healed. With the newly-found potion in his possession, Syl bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be lowered into the shaft. As Azerran covered him with a crossbow overhead, Syl slowly made his way down to the ledge below. After steadying himself, he discovered that the object they had briefly glimpsed as a rag-clad skeleton. A careful inspection of the corpse revealed an electrum ring of intricate geometric design, which Syl quickly acquired.

As the fighter was looting the dead, however, the air currents that had been whistling through the shaft suddenly increased. Throwing himself against the shaft’s wall to prevent being swept away should this breeze grow gale-like, Syl dropped his torch down into the shaft. As the rest of the party watched, they saw the flickering flames illuminate a writhing mass of albino tentacles rising quickly up the vertical tunnel. The torch suddenly vanished as a large parrot-like beak snapped it in half and consumed the burning morsel. Urged on by Syl’s commands to “get him out of here!”, Gladys and the rest of the party hauled up the warrior just ahead of the rising, alabaster-hued monstrosity. The party fled from the building as the mass of tentacles erupted from the pit, slamming the door behind them.

While the party ran screaming from the building, the smaller group of adventurers arrived at the edge of the foul lake that ringed the temple complex. In the bright moonlight, they could see a group of figures accompanied by a vaguely mule-shaped form exit one of the buildings. Rightfully guessing that this group was their comrades, the smaller party began making their way towards the building by walking the network of raised stone walkways that served as the complex’s “streets.”

Not far into the complex, the party found their way barred by three of the fanged and clawed frogs that had confronted the party previously. In the melee that erupted, Reddannon was almost slain and Mordakis and Kliegeles both took wounds before dispatching the beasts. Even the fortifying effects of wine and the binding of wounds were insufficient to restore the health of the adventurers, so, after rejoining their companions, the party decided to retire until daybreak.

The following day, the now-rested and recouped party decided to attempt to enter the large building they had previously tried to explore but were prevented from doing so by a seemingly-jammed door. Making their way around to the opposite side of the building, they first had to pass through a smaller L-shaped structure. Within that building, they discovered a single room which bore a large statue of a tree-monster and numerous obscene frescoes. Despite their efforts to uncover any of the building’s secrets, none were to be found.

Continuing onwards, they finally entered the largest of the outlying buildings. Inside, they discovered that the building was divided into three chambers. Each room told part of the temple’s history. In one room, they encountered painted bas-relief carvings that depicted the construction of the temple complex. Humans and tree-monsters worked side-by-side to raise massive stone blocks, overseen by a pair of red eyes which hovered in the sky overhead. Another room’s carvings showed the temple at its height of worship. Numerous humans intermixed with larger, less-defined forms knelt in obedience on the central plaza before the pyramid. The last room showed a scene that looked familiar to the party: The complex seemed abandoned, looking very much like it did at this time. Unsettling, however, a writhing mass of black-green tentacles were erupting from the entrance of the pyramid while Nihil, the Rotting Moon, hung in the night sky overhead, its face depicted in a skull-like visage. Grim portents, indeed.

Since nothing of monetary value had been unearthed, the party again debated the wisdom of venturing directly towards the pyramid and leaving the rest of the complex’s building for their anticipated exiting of the temple. Again, the majority argued that leaving unknown enemies at one’s back was ill planning, so the search of the outlying constructions continued.

As the party crossed the raised walkways towards the complex’s western end, they gasped as an enormous toad-like beast rose from the rank water’s near the stone path. Tentacles replaced the creature’s forelimbs and a sticky tongue wiggled in its gaping maw. It could only be a specimen of the legendary Toadhemoth! Despite their initial fears, the party quickly discovered that not all legends are true when a shower of missiles quickly slew the abomination before it got within striking distance (a mere 15 hit points was all the beast had, proving the Fates were again in the players’ favor).

The party pressed on and, despite being surprised by a sucker- and mouth-covered spider with a single baleful crimson eye in one of the complex’s ancillary buildings, they almost completed their survey of the complex. In one building, they discovered a floor that held four concentric rings which slowly turned in opposite directions to one another. Covered in alien sigils, the party could only suppose this device was perhaps a calendar, timer, or combination lock. Whatever it was, the wall carvings surrounding it depicted an otherworldly city being consumed by a thick, monster-filled mist, so the adventurers chose to leave the spinning rings alone for the moment.

At the very end of one section of pathway, the party entered a building whose walls bore images of slavering mouthed tree-monsters in the process of devouring helpless human meals. In the center of the single chamber was a capped well, its mouth covered by a simple stone plug with an iron pull-ring. Being adventurers, the party simply had to uncap it. Mordakis and Syl pulled the plug free and a vile, noxious odor pour out of the black pit below them. A series of hand holds were carved into the side of the well. A dropped torch revealed a bare stone floor some 30’ down and three ancient bones visible in the guttering flames. After tying a rope around himself and securing it to the plug’s iron ring, Mars Markus slowly made his way into the well…

Monday, April 12, 2010

Stonehell Dungeon: U.K. eBay Auction

If you're in the U.K. and are interested in getting your grubby mitts on a print copy of Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls but don't want to pay Lulu shipping costs, here's your opportunity.

A copy is currently up for auction on I know nothing about the seller or the quality of the copy, and I'm merely mentioning the auction as a public service. It should not be taken as an endorcement and the usual caveat emptor to all online auctions applies.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fortify Your Campaign With Vaedium

From “Dungeon Oddities” by Michael Curtis, Knockspell #2
Vaedium is a rare, naturally occurring mineral found in deposits deep within the earth. It appears as an extremely dense grey stone that possesses an iridescent sheen. Vaedium is a radioactive element, but not in the way understood by residents of 21st century Earth. Instead of the harmful radiation produced by such Earthly counterparts as uranium and radium, vaedium emits a more eldritch energy whose exact effects vary from deposit to deposit. Vaedium is prized by sages, sorcerers, and alchemists alike, each of whom will pay large sums of money to lay their hands on sample of this mineral. Due to its rarity and possible side-effects of prolonged exposure, however, the collection of vaedium for trade is an extremely uncommon occurrence.

While the effects of vaedium radiation vary, some of its different properties have been documented. Some subterranean races have been known to temper weapons of forged steel by bathing them in the mineral’s arcane energies. This process gives the weapons a temporary magical enchantment that persists as long as the weapons receive occasional exposure to the radiation. Stories abound of adventurers who, believing they’ve acquired a cache of magical weapons, have returned to the surface world only to discover these weapons quickly pit and decay once removed from regular vaedium exposure. Vaedium has been known to produce bizarre mutations in those who suffer regular exposure to it, giving rise to tales of two-head Goblinoid races and dragons of unusual colors. One extremely unbelievable account tells the tale of a race of clockwork men who seemed to use vaedium as food or fuel by placing chunks of the ore inside their hollow chest cavities.

For game purposes, vaedium serves as a support from which a GM can hang whatever odd or “unrealistic” events or creatures he wishes to introduce to his campaign. It’s a panacea for dealing with players who, despite the fact they’re playing a fantasy game, require a scientific or rational explanation for the oddities that exist in the dungeon depths. Vaedium may be pseudo-science but it functions in this role admirably.
Just in case it isn’t obvious by its name, “Vaedium” was a tribute to Dave Arneson, a man who passed away one year ago today. Dave was a referee who, by all accounts, wasn’t afraid to turn the Wahoo! dial up to 11 on his game, and I though it only fitting to name the element that allows a more timid referee to do so too after him.

I learned a lot from Dave indirectly on the Original Dungeons & Dragons Discussion forum and his passing last year struck me deeper than I could imagine. At that time, I wrote and released The Fane of St. Toad, a small dungeon inspired by both Dave and Clark Ashton Smith, which was my small way of honoring his memory. This year, I’ll do my best to honor him by running a campaign that’s not afraid to travel unusual paths to high adventure.

Thank you, Dave, for everything.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Meet Gladys and Friend

Astute readers of the Watchfires & Thrones adventure log will remember that the PCs pitched in to buy a mule for their exploration of the Temple of the Goat. During play, the mule, Gladys, was portrayed by an extra large six-sided die. But die she is no longer!

During the week, I searched online for a mule miniature to use for the aforementioned burro, which turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. There doesn't seem to be much call for dungeon mules nowadays: take that as you will as an indicator of the current play style. However, in the dim alleys of eBay, I discovered a pair of long-ago painted mules for sale. Since the price was right, I picked them up. They arrived this afternoon.

I'm considering leaving them with their current paint jobs rather than stripping them and redoing the coloring. They'd have more old school dungeon cred that way. Most likely, I'll ask the guys next game which mule they want to use for Gladys and repaint the one they don't pick. Best of both worlds.

I Believe the Word is “Hooky”

I’m going to let you folk in on something: I’m absolutely useless this time of year.

Every spring, as soon as the weather starts to change and the temperature begins to rise, I get hit with the irresistible urge to climb a mountain, hike through the woods, or take a canoe down a river. In short, anything other than sit indoors in front of the computer. As such, this blog is going to suffer a bit while I’m enjoying the rites of spring.

To compound matters, it seems that flowers aren’t the only things springing up around me these days. Writing projects and other creative opportunities are also arriving in droves and I’m busy trying to build a schedule for 2010 that won’t kill me or turn me all grumpy. I’ve even had to pencil in a few things for 2011. That’s a good thing, though, as I like knowing I have work lined up.

Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from a few people on one particular brainstorm that I recently had. If the answers come back the way I’m hoping they will, you may see something new going on around here (or close to here) in the near future. Let’s leave it at that for now.

I have some posts planned, but they’re going to have to wait a week or so while I shake off the cobwebs of winter and adequately immerse myself in spring enough to tolerate spending time in front of the computer again. I ask your patience while I thoroughly indulge myself in the fresh air, sunlight, and warming days.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ironically, This Would Have Increased Business

This was the graphic Lulu used to promote its April Fool's Day discount. Looking at it, my thought was that, had this been a real offer, Lulu might have seen a big spike in people buying OSR "limited edition" scroll versions of their favorite titles.

It's No Joke: 10% off Stonehell Dungeon Today Only

Today and today only, Lulu is taking 10% off any order. Just enter the code "APRILFOOLS" at checkout to get the discount. In case you were wondering, you can find Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls here. I think I'm going to use mine to pick up the latest copy of Fight On! over here.

While you're visiting Ignatius Umlaut's Lulu Storefront, be sure to pick up your free copy of Tell On?, the new fanzine dedicated to collaborative storytelling gaming which features articles by some of the best known (former) members of the OSR.