Saturday, June 29, 2013

SciFi Gothic

I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid.  Obviously, I'm not the only one.  It's not the quantity of television shows and movies I'm about to discuss but the quality.  The programming that influenced me during those formative years is worth re-examining.

In the last decade, I've been able to revisit practically all the stuff I watched as a tender scifi/fantasy loving youth.  However, there was one film missing (doubtless, there are a few more out there that I still don't recall)... The Black Hole.  The first PG rated Disney motion picture.

All I remembered of the film, before watching it again last night (and for the first time in 25 years) was a swirling black (blue, actually) hole and a dark red robot with fan blades for hands.  That's it.  So, it's no wonder that it took me so long to seek it out.  I couldn't remember the twisted root, only a couple brightly colored branches!  In fact, I probably would have let even more time elapse if it wasn't for a recent amazon search for Disney movies.  My daughter Briella is two.

Well, seeing it again was like a nostalgia enema.  My initial impression: parallels between The Black Hole and Event Horizon - another fantastic film in the scifi gothic vein.  A long lost ship, thought destroyed, suddenly reappears unharmed but somehow haunted.  I love Event Horizon, so didn't mind the similar set-up.

Gothic to the 9th degree.  Ok, here's how to do scifi gothic:  amidst all the space ships, robots, laser fire, and  assorted cosmic phenomena, characters should talk about at least some of the following: God, heaven, hell, biblical stories, dreams/nightmares, prophecy, destiny/fate, ambition, the unknown, life and death, as well as, what lies beyond.  The atmosphere must be dark and forbidding, too.  Just for good measure, at least one terrible secret must be revealed by the end.

The trick is to juxtapose the new with the old.  The more quantum slingshot calculations referenced, the more an audience must see "medieval" black shrouded androids.  When a character does any spaceship exploration, the decor must be weird and oppressive... as if reflecting the warped mind who built it.  There's a frequent interplay between intellect and emotion, the future and the past, man's optimism and his base realities.

Along with being a scifi nut all these years, I occasionally relate to the megalomaniac diagnosis.  Nothing says scifi gothic like a madman on a mission to godhood.  That's the essence of megalomania, and Dr. Reinhardt has all the classic symptoms.  Just did some google searching for quotes, and couldn't find exactly what I was looking for.  Sure, he talks about the word "impossible" being in the dictionary of fools, going where no man has dared to go before, etc. but where are all the demented, juicy lines which put him on that razor's edge between genius and insanity?  A lot of other characters talk about Dr. Reinhardt when he's not around.  Or maybe the shadows of my mind are playing tricks on me?

I watched it alongside a friend, joking to him that Dr. Reinhardt reminded me of "the most interesting man in the world" from those Dos Equis commercials.  He couldn't help but agree.  There's something fascinating about the character which Maximilian Schell brought to the role.  Those eyes!  Those eyes have seen too far, we cannot follow his gaze.

Additionally, I thought it was interesting how Anthony Perkins' character seemed to gravitate towards the good doctor, almost become infatuated with him without coming right out and declaring their BFF status.  Did that work so well and so subtly because Anthony Perkins was gay?  I merely speculate.  The dinner scene is probably the simplest and most effective of the movie and, ironically, the least science fiction.

So, The Black Hole is another piece of the puzzle to my adult psyche.  I watched it so many times that its distorted themes embedded themselves into my subconscious.  But how much did it shape me as opposed to the idea that humans come pre-shaped or predisposed to certain concepts and aesthetics by the time they stumble upon and connect with something that resonates with them?  Good question.  I don't have an answer.  Perhaps both.

To those who have never seen The Black Hole or haven't seen it in decades, you could do a lot worse.


p.s.  Oh yeah, and Dr. Reinhardt is rewarded for his iron will and presumptuous risk-taking with a suitably satanic compensation.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Unexpected Encounters #4

It's been awhile since I've done one of these... an unexpected encounter, I mean.  DMs can't have too many strange interludes.

The visual came to me first and then I turned it over and over in my mind for a few weeks until I was up against the wall with little to nothing prepared an hour before the game.  Putting fingers to keyboard, I just started typing what I saw in my mind, filtered by campaign appropriateness.

The adventurers enter a room containing the giant stone head of a demon.  It looks as if it was attached to a statue at one point.  Judging from scale, the statue would have stood about 50' tall.  The demon's eyes are unbelievably large, exquisite gemstones worth about 30,000 gold pieces each.  The right a clear blue sapphire, the left a blood sapphire containing a crimson nebula.

Prying out the humongous jewels showed eye-socket holes large enough for a Halfling to fit through.  Within, curious adventurers see a scroll nestled around several thorny black vines.

It's not clear how the statue head got there, where it came from, or any other detail - other than what the DM desires.  The scroll contains the spell Ensoul which allows a magic-user to put the life force or soul of a sentient being into a gemstone.  The vines are monstrous and protect the scroll as if it were their child.  There's a 33% chance per demon eye that a soul has been magically placed inside.

When the scroll is touched by an adventurer, seven Skeleton Warriors are instantly summoned.  They attack the PCs on sight.  For an added element of danger, if any party member is prone or unconscious during combat, the Skeletons pounce upon that victim, tearing the flesh from his bones in a mindless frenzy.  This is an automatic hit for 15 points of damage.

Yeah, this little encounter got a PC killed when a vine (thorns and all) wrapped itself around his face, Hellraiser style, causing him to fall to the floor just before the undead appeared.

Hope you enjoy.  Be sure to add your own little details here and there for that personal touch.  If you use this in your game, please let me know the results.  Thanks!


Monday, June 17, 2013

Modules wanted!

I just read an article / blog post / skyscraper-elevator-pitch for yet another OSR roleplaying game.  Now is the age of power, darkness, sword and sorcery... of fantasy heartbreakers and option overload.  We have almost too many choices out there.  To name but a few...

Dungeon Crawl Classics, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Monsters & Magic, Castles & Crusades, Microlite74, Adventures Dark & Deep, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyborea, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, OSRIC, Dungeon World, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, etc.  Believe me, I could've gone on and on.

Suffice it to say that DMs and players have a plethora of RPGs to explore.  What sets these apart?  Why play one over the other?  I'm not going to get into that here and now.  Perhaps that's a blog post for another time.  This little piece is about something else...

What does each and every OSR RPG mentioned above need?  Great adventures!  Sure, a talented DM could write his own, week after week, campaign after campaign, gaming group after gaming group.  But that DM could also just make up his own RPG.  Most guys running the game are going to want an interesting module to either riff off, follow religiously, or something in-between.

I say that an old school renaissance war is already upon us, though we realize it not.  Too many games for such a small niche hobby - the OSR community is really a niche within a niche.  Yeah, a microcosm of fantasy roleplaying.  That means (to my way of thinking) that strong scenarios are needed now more than ever.  And, to go even further, the best modules will allow certain games to flourish as others fall by the wayside.

Yes, module-smiths are the new kingmakers!  OSR RPG companies can either create their own adventures, hire people to do it for them, or simply do nothing and allow scenario writers to do their thing with all the open content and copyright-free goings on.  It seems like a symbiotic relationship is forming between the companies creating games and those individuals who are creating adventures.

At the moment, t'were me, I'd much rather be an indie module publisher than a brand new OSR RPG publisher.  But I'm sure that not everyone would agree.  After all, it's still early days.  Let the war rage on!


p.s.  Apparently, there are hundreds of OSR modules out there in cyber-land, and the number keeps growing.  But so does the amount of game systems.  I was giving it some thought last night.  Maybe modules are like songs and RPGs are like record labels.  If one of the two just stopped multiplying, which would we notice?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Beneath the Ruins

This past Saturday was the second night of Beneath the Ruins, an old school minimalist pamphlet by Alex Fotinakes and published by Geoffrey McKinney's Psychedelic Fantasies series (although, an expanded version of Beneath the Ruins is spread out through issues of Alex's Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols zine.

While I preferred the second Psychedelic Fantasies adventure, Within the Radiant Dome, to this one, I still think Beneath the Ruins was a good, solid, OSR mini-module for the kind of Dungeon Master who loves taking the existing bones and building his own skeletal creature - the meat is added whilst playing.  At least, that's how I took it.

Beneath the Ruins has a few cool concepts, but each are explained in a sentence or three.  Any kind of detailed elaboration falls upon the DM.  I'm sure this can either be an exciting thrill-ride or treacherous nightmare, depending on the guy running the game.  For myself, I enjoy the challenge.  And not only that, I enjoy tinkering, adjusting, and adding a whole other dimension (sometimes literally) to the adventure.

Such was the case last session.  An old friend visit the PCs again to ask a favor in return for a uber-powerful magical weapon.  Unfortunately, only one player at the table that night had previously encountered said "old friend".  No matter, since he was the one whose help was required.

For months, I had wanted to set up a kind of wizard's duel.  Now was the time, this was the session!  I didn't have a lot of time to coordinate the logistics of how such a match would be resolved, so I winged it with what seemed appropriate.  The duel was to be a simple as it was deadly.  Both wizards were of equal power, so they made a straight d20 roll to see who came out on top (this round).  The villain won.  Harold's Elf had to make a saving throw vs. death magic.  He did.  Round two saw Terrinel (I never know how to spell his Elf's name) the victor.  Now, it was the antagonist's turn to save vs. death magic.  He failed; the villain turned to ash.  That's old school.

Looking back, I wish I would have illustrated the duel between sorcerers with some vividly purple prose.  But I didn't.  Oh well.  Next time.

Moving on, one of the great battles of that night was against a tentacled beast living beneath a cavern pool with night lotuses floating on top.  A tentacle had to be severed or else it would get an automatic hit the next round.  Then, when all tentacles had been chopped to bits, the creature bit a PC to unconsciousness.  I did, however, go into detail regarding how much could be seen beneath the pond's surface - the water now filled with slime and blood.  It was a cool fight.

After the beast was defeated, Terrinel and the others assumed there was some kind of treasure down at the bottom of the pool.  They waded in, searching for anything discoverable.  I made my usual 33% roll to see if a small magic item - like a ring - was down there.  I rolled too high, meaning that there was nothing.  However, I decided to exercise my DM prerogative and go against my own ruling... mitigated by the fact that the magic ring found was cursed!  Scanning the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, I happened upon a ring of weakness (or something like that).  That description became the core of their newly acquired cursed ring.

Even though Beneath the Ruins lacks those kinds of surprises, it has some great bones.  I recommend both that and Within the Radiant Dome even though there's no art and no real depth - being only the size of a pamphlet.

How much module do you like to start a session with?  How much do you alter before the game and during?  How spontaneous are you as a DM?  Does that ever get you in trouble?  Of course, some elements depend on PC actions... but can the entire adventure turn on a dime?  Should it?


Monday, June 3, 2013

Make their lives Hell

For starters, let me just say that I still can't get last night's Game of Thrones end scene out of my head.  It pervaded my dreams.  Not sure what made it so disturbing.  After all, I've seen most of Quentin Tarantino's films.  And yet, I have to admit I lost sleep over it - and the sleep I didn't lose kind of freaked me out a little bit.  I don't want to spoil anything, so that's the end of that, but God damn!  Ok, now I'm done.

Last Saturday, I cautioned the players that before reaching 5th level, they would each have to pay 4,000 in gold, services, trade, etc.  As expected, protests were voiced.  "What about all the monster killing we do in the dungeons?"  And, "How come we've never had to pay a mentor for training before?"  To the former, I answered, "Even several minutes a day embroiled in combat doesn't allow one to learn new martial disciplines."  And to the latter, I said, "Because at 5th level your characters are reaching a new tier or power and capabilities.  You've plateaued.  Now, it's time for your characters to break that plateau by paying for expert training.  (I'm probably writing it better than I explained it, actually.)

Well, even though they still had a little ways to go before reaching 5th level, they didn't have the gold.  I patiently, silently waited for their bellyaching to end before explaining the treasure-laded hook for that evening's adventure.  Finally, things settled down and the business of exploring began.

This Saturday (just a few days ago), we had a new guy play.  Before going on my vacation I was asked and agreed to teach an Intro to Roleplaying workshop for the local Geek Meetup group.  Long story short, it went well.  I got a chance to further playtest Liberation of the Demon Slayer, and even got a new player out of the two night workshop.

Being a noob, the new guy (who played a warrior) didn't have any preconceived nonsense or bullshit sense of entitlement.  Sadly, towards the session's conclusion, his character was dismembered by a spell.  An arm and both legs magically cut off and sent flying across the room.  Still alive, he clutched his sword +1 of regeneration.

After the battle, the limbs were gathered up, and thoughts turned towards healing.  Unfortunately, the cleric didn't have the spiritual juice to restore the warrior.  The Elf tried to use a mend spell, but ended up critically failing and causing his own leg to be severed.  Appealing to his deity, the lawful cleric asked for guidance.  "You must sacrifice your hand."  P'tah, the pseudo-Egyptian God of Order replied.

Well, the cleric, Orron, didn't like that answer.  In the meantime, the party's Elf, Tirrynel asked the Dungeon Crawl Classics version of T'sathoggua for help.  T'sathoggua spoke to the Elf, telling him to sacrifice the cleric to him.  Being chaotic (and without both his legs), Tirrynel, decided the Toad God was making sense.  He whispered a quick plan of attack, "Sacrifice the cleric."  to his Dwarf character (everyone but the new guy was running two characters), and some inter-party aggression began.

For whatever reason, I couldn't suppress my laughter.  This is the first time in however many sessions (20 or so?) that PCs came to blows.  It all seemed inevitable while, at the same time, being eminently avoidable.  Regardless of whether it was warranted, laugh I did.  Infectious laughter, and Tirrynel's player joined in - or perhaps I had joined in with his infectious laughter.

Orron was driven out, running rather than fighting or doing anything to stop the presumed ass-kicking-to-come.  He still did not accept that giving up his hand in exchange for re-attaching 4 limbs (3 for the warrior and 1 for the Elf) was a fair trade.  Nearly getting impregnated by a burrowing worm's pre-fertilized eggs, the cleric managed to find his way out of the dungeon.

That's all we had time for.  Normally, we stop between 11:30pm - midnight.  That session didn't end until 12:30am because of the heightened dramatic tension which we all wanted resolved.  Plus, this was new territory - we were curious to see what would happen next.

As of now, I don't know the cleric's future.  I haven't received anything from the player, and just sent a text asking him about what he wants to do.  The cleric might decide to go off on his own, come crawling back to the party, or seek revenge.  Time will tell.

Incidentally, this was the first or possibly second time the adventurers came up against an enemy with anti-magic.  That, a dismembering wizard, and a few 2 HD humans running around with laser pistols really gave the party a run for its money.  I'll talk about the old school module "Beneath the Ruins" I ran after next Saturday; not sure if it will conclude by then, but we'll be real close if not finished.

So, what do you think?  After he tries and fails, should a cleric be expected to sacrifice a valuable magic item, body part, or considerable amount of gold in order to work miracles?  How about the magic-user?  How do you handle in-party fighting?  What would you plan for next time regarding the current situation - anything specific... would you wait to hear from the cleric's player?  What about stepping in to arbitrate or negotiate things even though no one has asked you to?

The title of this blog post is, "Make their lives Hell" for a reason.  I feel it's the Dungeon Master's job to provide challenges - that means coming up with and unleashing tricky situations, formidable opponents, and mysterious encounters upon the PCs every week.  Some of which has unexpected consequences.  Things occasionally get crazy.  That's part of the old school renaissance, the non-standardization of gaming which allows, in one game, individuals doused in giant pink psionic snail slime to repel magical fire; while, in another game, giant pink psionic snails don't exist!

Also, I should note, that it's not all hellish.  DMs have two faces (or is it three?), the one doling out awesome loot and making the adventurers look all heroic by narrating the bloody defeat of their long-suffering enemies.

Comments welcome!