Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Temple of Elemental Evil with FH&W

So, this past Saturday, continuing from last week, I decided to bring out the big guns - one of the awesomest dungeons of old school D&D.  Yes, The Temple of Elemental Evil!  A little history first...

The first time I played this, I really can't remember much - just bits and pieces.  I was probably in 6th or 7th grade and my favorite non-paper and pencil RPG was The Bard's Tale.  It was just the DM (who was more experienced with D&D than I was) and me over the course of a couple weekends (days and nights).  I was playing at least six PCs and my magic-user had some kind of demon familiar like a Quasit.  All the characters were high level and though there were dangers faced, I don't recall any TPK moments or even getting close to that.

The second time was about 15 years ago.  For some strange reason, the DM decided to soup everything up, beefing the encounters and generally making all the monsters nigh unkillable.  In exchange, he gave our characters a plethora of "resurrection moss" (patent is most definitely not pending).  This moss allowed our characters to pretty much get right back up after being slaughtered over and over again.

As I explained to Daniel before Saturday's session started, if your PC only died once per session in that game, you were doing something right.  After the 4th session or so in The Temple of Elemental Evil, all the players had had enough.  Eventually, we just started attacking each other because then at least we had a fighting chance of surviving the combat!  After the inter-party brawl, we all had a long talk.  The upshot: our DM got all butt-hurt because we wanted him to adopt a different style of running ToEE and the entire gaming group broke up.  What I remember most about that trip to the Temple was the archaic and grim descriptions at its start.  Reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft meets The House of Seven Gables or something equally 19th century in language.

I had never run ToEE myself and I knew that would have to change.  Especially since +Frank Mentzer signed my copy about this time last year at the first Game Hole Con in Madison, WI.

As I worked on getting the new player up to speed with his character, I asked each of last session's players (except for Ben, who was out enjoying one of the few really nice days in this accursed state) to come up with the following...

  • a motivation - basically, what's their reason for adventuring.
  • an allegiance - who or what do they care about or owe, specifically.
  • one unique thing about their character - something special about their PC that is theirs alone.
  • and a henchman, follower, apprentice, or some other traveling companion.

X'fritl wanted revenge on the witchlings who abandoned her to the monks.  She also wanted to find out about the magical event that caused her parents' disappearance.  She planned on a physically impressive bodyguard to protect her.  But X'fritl also wanted a magical bow that was not readily available in the town.  So, she made a bargain with the bowmaker, agreeing to take his son along so he could "learn the ropes".  

Sir Basil had been a knight for 5 years, a member of the Order of the Red Tower.  They recruit and promote knights based on skill rather than noble birth or money like most orders.  The Order of the Red Tower fights unnatural magicks, demons, and otherworldly creatures.

Sir Basil has had his squire for only a short time.  His name is Milo.  Milo served a knight that was killed in the line of duty and then Milo stole his dead master's coin purse before running away.  Sir Basil didn't want a squire because of the burden, the responsibility - he really didn't want Milo because of his dishonorable conduct.  However, Sir Basil was impressed with Milo's ability to elude capture for so long.

Verdilo is a cavern gnome with pale skin.  He's extremely handsome with a wild, unkempt black beard.  His motivation is pleasure... wine, women, and song.  He used to be a circus performer and his "henchman" is his baby's momma (Olive) along with her sister (Charlotte).  On the verge of ridiculous, but then that's Verdilo and his player, Harold, for you. 

The new player decided to play an elf eldritch-archer.  Probably not the best class considering the party was about to embark on the world's oldest mega-dungeon.  I told him to let me know if he wanted to swap the eldritch-archer for any one of the dozens of character classes in Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.

As Daniel's knight of the Red Tower was so strongly drawn, I used Sir Basil and his backstory as the adventuring hook.  He received a letter telling him about the possibility of evil growing anew within the Temple.  Also, the Order of the Red Tower sent one of their own, Lord Gregory, to guide the party.

As for the first session of ToEE, the boxed text did most of the work for me.  The leprous grey exterior, the croaking of unwholesome toads, vegetation looking either withered and lifeless or unnaturally bloated and grotesque, leering demonic faces, bas reliefs depicting vile acts... I just can't get enough of it.  Straight out of Lovecraft!

Anyways, they freed some human prisoners and fought off a bunch of undead.  Not much else happened besides wading through debris - debris that tells an awesome story all on its own!  I'm biding my time before cranking things up to 11.  This coming Saturday should be very interesting.  Haahahhaaahaaahaaa! I'm going to throw a few surprises their way.  Rather than waiting until a couple hours before, I'll dig deep early, allowing stray, mutant thoughts to coagulate and seep into my  fevered subconscious.  

When I suggested running an abridged version (just the hits) of ToEE, Daniel made it clear that I should do the whole thing.  No shortcuts!  So, there you have it.  More session reports of ToEE for weeks to come.


p.s.  A week from this Saturday, Nov. 8th, I'll be back at the Game Hole Con running The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.  On sale now, actually.  It'll be my first time running it since the book was published.  Can't wait!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Aryd's End revealed

Jeff Brown did an absolutely terrific job bringing the city of Aryd's End to life.

Aryd's End is one of the largest cities in Torth - a world that's still paying for the grave mistakes of its past... whilst anticipating the apocalypse yet to come; a treacherous realm of sword, sorcery, and darkness on the very precipice of wizard-fueled draconic domination!

Behold, your desert metropolis illuminated by the seven demon-moons of unspeakable pleasure and misery...


p.s.  Oh yeah, I was almost taken out by a falling tree Saturday afternoon.  Luckily, I made my saving throw!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zarono's Sorcerer of Torth

I'm privileged to know many creative individuals.  Working with and alongside great artists is definitely a perk of the job.

I was especially pleased to see Zarono incorporate my likeness into a piece for Revelry in Torth.  Here's a teaser from the adventure coming out this winter...

Akzath Ithraed was one of the original seven sorcerers who bathed Torth in nuclear fire.  He sleeps the fitful slumber that is a sorcerer's death, entombed but not forgotten.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Ultimate Purple Playtest Review

I would be remiss not mentioning The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence playtest review over at Nemo's Lounge.  My thanks to Joel for doggedly pursuing its essence.


p.s.  Also available on Amazon.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Home at Long Last

Yesterday afternoon marked the first of many (I hope) home games.  Finally, I was able to transition from one-off sessions at the public library with semi-strangers to a weekly campaign at my house with people I barely know (and one good friend I've known since college)!

Why did I stop running games at my house last spring?  A combination of wanting more family time and summer activities on weekends.  Mostly, my wife needed a break as she's the one watching the kids just like almost every week day I'm at the office.  Plus, the old home game group needed some shaking up... needed new blood.  And what better way to find new players than offer to run Meetup sessions?

Anyways, four players assembled at my place for pizza (one abstained), drinks (everyone had water except for me - I had a soda), and conversation (too random to pin down).  However, towards the end, I asked everyone if they had a preferred system.  This was to be Dungeons & Dragons, more or less, but I was hard-pressed to pick a favorite D&Dish RPG.

The adventure I "prepared" and showed them was A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords but that could be run with any of the following: Dungeon Crawl Classics, Basic D&D, AD&D, Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, plus I'm sure I have a few more in PDF form...

Melanie suggested 5th edition.  Daniel wanted "rules light", something easy to play without needing to learn a lot of special rules... I think everyone agreed with him.  Harold didn't have a preference but was intrigued by the "crazy character classes" he heard me talking about regarding Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.  Ben didn't have a strong opinion but had tried and liked FH&W a couple weeks ago.  Since it was fresh in my mind, an intuitive collection of previous editions of D&D, and just plain awesome... I was happy to run FH&W.

Prior to diving in, the FH&W veterans, Ben and Melanie, mentioned the "broken" tiefling sub-race or racial template that gave you three valuable demonic powers.  However, knowing that, everyone resisted the temptation to go down that familiar and tempting road.

Because there are so many race/class options and I have only one rulebook, everyone agreed it would be interesting and speedy to mention just the race and class names, have everyone choose, and then go into detail about what the benefits were for each of the chosen few.  This is what they ended up with...

  • Harold played Verdilo, a gnome trickster.
  • Daniel played Sir Basil Werner, a human paladin (though he did consider the anti-paladin).
  • Melanie played X'fritl (forgot to ask where the hell she came up with that one) the witchling scary monk (one of the things I appreciate about Melanie is that she's not afraid to pick something outside the box - especially if it sounds dark and weird).
  • Ben played Sechaveh, an exotic human (he's basically human but from another world, the food here is almost inedible to him and there's also something strangely pleasing about him - some recognize he's part of this new world's prophecy) assassin.

All were 3rd level, except Sir Basil who was 4th - the level at which the knight character class could transition into paladin.  Opting for a pure human (the most boring choice possible *), he was rewarded with extra experience points.

I also like how FH&W doesn't make you wait before characters can use their cool class abilities like death attack, unarmed attack, and believable lie.  In that regard, it's more like AD&D 2nd edition, 3rd edition D&D or even 5e.

Not having a ton of preparation time, I altered little bits of the module as I deemed fit. 

I allowed everyone a saving throw to see if they could resist the sleep gas.  Two did.  Sir Basil played possum while X'fritl hid in her cell, waiting until the guards came to take them away.  She managed to escape while Sir Basil bided his time (due to the 8 reptilian guards).  Eventually, they all ended up at section #1 of the map. 

I added the Grell from Fiend Folio.  After a failed assassination attempt, X'fritl smashed the top of a small barrel full of fish oil and doused the abomination before lighting it on fire.  She also dealt it a karate-chop death blow a couple of rounds later.  

Rather than make the will-o-wisp just another monster to fight, I presented it as a curious, alien-like thing to interact with rather than destroy.  X'fritl communicated with it, eventually making it a friend and ally.  True to my love for old school play, I opted to let her try a few things instead of having her simply roll a check to make contact and glean information.  Now, the party had a light source and a yes/no/maybe "magic 8 ball" they could ask for information.

By the time the session was almost over, the PCs acquired a decent amount of loot.  A sack of 2d30 gold pieces resulting in a ridiculous 3, so I changed it to 30 silver pieces.  They also had a magic short sword, long sword, cloak, and ring.  

The adventure's roper scored two critical hits, nearly killing two characters.  Thank the gods for the racial HD, as well as, character class HD!

Earthquakes shook the cave system, utterly collapsing just after the adventurers escaped to the open air.

One last thing, I like the idea of inspiration from 5e but didn't want to distract the players and constantly interrupt the game with awarding it each scene for appropriate roleplaying opportunities.  Instead, I gave everyone a point of inspiration, luck, action point, or whatever you want to call it (physically represented by a little yellow stone).  Spending it gave you a the chance to re-roll a d20.

Daniel and Ben made use of the point when their characters rolled a natural 1.  Hilariously, Daniel's re-roll was a 3 and Ben's was a 2.  At least they avoided the critical failure.  FH&W has a table for that, too!


*  After giving it some thought, at least one human in the adventuring party feels right... even natural.  Practically every fantasy/scifi TV show and film ever made has a human character (sometimes more than one) with which the audience can identify.  Doing away with this "realism anchor" could have a potentially negative impact on the overall campaign.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sigil Key

The last two kickstarters have featured wooden dice rolling boxes with symbols burned into them as upper-tier backer rewards.  One of my KS campaign promises was to release my key for the sigilized dice trays if Revelry in Torth successfully funded (it did).  Each symbol has a vague, nebulous meaning which can be manipulated and interpreted by the GM (or players who offer helpful suggestions). 

Basically, when a die rolled within the dice tray lands on a particular sigil, that concept (be it betrayal, sorcery, etc.) may come into play... somehow.  This doesn't have to be utilized every time dice are rolled, just as it can be ignored (for the present) if it's just not applicable in the current situation.  Maybe just once in awhile or with special dice or when a character is burning luck, fortune, advantage/disadvantage, action points, inspiration, etc.

Don't get stressed out about it.  Improvise at the rate your comfortable with.  The most important thing to remember is that these sigils are meant to add a bit of mysterious and weird fun to the game.  


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Roleplaying Games defined

Really?  Something else has to be defined - this time roleplaying games themselves!?!

So, why on earth would this need to be done now of all times?  40 years after the first was invented!  Well, there was this post by RPG designer John Wick.  And a lot has been said in its wake, such as this.

Well, mine's a lot shorter, more to the point.  Here goes...

When players engage in character creation and then use that character in some kind of adventure, scenario, or series of encounters, that counts as roleplaying.  Yes, even World of Warcraft.  Playing a role, assuming one or more aspects of a persona other than yourself is roleplaying.  If it's pursued in the name of fun, then it's a game.  Hence, roleplaying game.

I can't be the only person to have hit upon that revelation (at least, I call it such).  But, there are so many comments and rebuttals and forum posts all over the internet that I can't possibly read them all.  So, if I came up with something exactly like another individual... cheers!


p.s.  Yay!  Revelry in Torth has successfully funded.  Now, maybe that stretch goal of $3,000 isn't such a pipe-dream, after all.  Thanks, everyone!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Third Wave of Draconic Magazine

Alright, I think I've got enough articles to call this wave #3.  Let's see what I've got for you...      

  • Kodarr the barbarian speaking his mind in the weekly column Kodarr's Kommandments
  • A super-quick zero-level character generation method for 5th edition D&D
  • My review of Delving Deeper RPG
  • An article by Chris Bell on why Vampire: the Masquerade Storytellers should always make use of the prelude
  • My review of Fantastic Heroes & Witchery retro-RPG along with an interview with the author
  • Hidden benefits of a high charisma.  Go ahead, be a dick.
  • An article on GMing better, focusing on missed opportunities
  • Benoist Poire's rebuttal to John Wick's blog post regarding chess, RPGs, game balance, and other topics
  • Lastly, a brand new column by the fan-fiction crossover king: Edgar Phillips Reitman!

Please check it all out here.


p.s.  Only 3 days left to fund the Revelry in Torth kickstarter.  FYI, just added a $3,000 stretch goal and posted an update yesterday showing off another piece of artwork.  Please back this project if you're interested in old school sword & sorcery adventures in a strange desert world of endless darkness.  And share the link!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

OSR defined

The trouble with defining the OSR is that it's not one thing but three!  In fact, that's what gives it such power.

Behold, the trinity...

  1. OSR is a sign or badge of compatibility with early D&D.  From a marketing standpoint, products labeled OSR should be more or less usable with original/basic D&D, AD&D, 2nd edition, 5th, and possibly even 3rd and 4th if one doesn't mind a little conversion work, scaling things back, etc.
  2. OSR is a style of play that lends itself to guidelines not scripture, DIY, non-standardization, wild-eyed anything goes creativity, freewheeling spur-of-the-moment improvisation (I'll give it a 1 in 6 chance of happening), and player-character determined campaigns, while avoiding character optimization, rules bloat, and roll play vs. roleplay.  Additionally, death can come at any time.  While GMs shouldn't be "gunning" for PCs, save or die is not uncommon.
  3. OSR is an aesthetic.  The movement sprang from nostalgia of the 1970's and 80's: art, literature, sex, themes, attitudes, adventures, worlds... everything from an earlier period of tabletop gaming (when many of us were in or near adolescence).  That which is considered classic, vintage, retro, and old school is sometimes called OSR even though it bears little resemblance to D&D.  The Call of Cthulhu RPG, for example.  

So, it's little wonder that confusion crops up when someone talks about his version of OSR and that particular definition is at odds with another's conception.  Presumably, the more a thing (book, illustration, game mechanic, etc.) conforms to the aspects above, the more OSR it's believed to be.  Yet, that doesn't mean lesser OSR things (relatively speaking) are not OSR or part of the OSR movement, just that a smaller consensus of appreciation exists.

As always, feel free to agree, disagree, throw a brick through my virtual window, etc.  Comment, please!  I want to know what you think.


p.s.  Yes, I'm still trying to successfully fund my Revelry in Torth kickstarter.  Every little bit helps.  Thanks!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

No Reason Not to Play a Demon

As you can tell from reading my review, I'm into Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.  Rather than wait to use it or let it sit on my shelf, I decided to run yesterday's game with FH&W.  Because reading a rule book isn't the same as using it, this account should be just as valuable as my first impression.

The session was scheduled for 4.5 hours, plenty of time to make characters.  Especially since A) I didn't have any pre-made - I've fallen way behind since coming back from vacation, and B) character creation is one of the best parts of FH&W.  Here's what the players came up with...

  • A tiefling half-elf warlock named Zatar, steeped in black magic, in service to dark forces, and aligned with Chaos.  His goal was to seek out forbidden lore which would make him a more powerful warlock.  At the game's start he was a cult of one but desired to have followers.
  • A halfling rifleman named Otus, wearing full plate and carrying a laser pistol, as well as, an automatic pistol.  Could that character be anything except comic relief?  Time will tell...
  • A tainted human who had spent far too many hours peering into the void, where the Great Old Ones anxiously bided their time.  Always on the lookout for supernatural horror, Abigail became a savant (scientist and gadget/tinkerer).
  • Bakki was a tiefling dwarf, kicked out of his dwarven community on his 100th birthday for showing his demon blood, the Gothi (religious and political leaders) was determined to wipe out all dwarves in retribution for his excommunication.  
  • Last but not least was a winged folk thief named Shara, an outcast from her people.  

It probably would have taken two or more hours if I'd let each player pour over the book, reading each race and class entry.  So, I briefly went over the pros and cons of each.  Actually, there were very few cons - just different pros.  Some options had more pros than others.  

For instance, you got to roll three times on this table of special demonic powers if you picked a tiefling (half-demon template which can be added to any "parent" race).  Besides having a hell mark such as horns or a tail, there weren't any drawbacks I could see.  That's why the party had two tieflings.  And I'm a little surprised there weren't more.  

BTW, I think every single player availed themselves of the racial name suggestions provided in the appendix.  Nice touch!

Not only was my first experiment with FH&W, it was also the initial playtest of Revelry in Torth.  After a little backstory and tangential encounters, the PCs made their way to Aryd's End, arriving as their festival of masks was at its apex.  The masked festival was part drunken orgy, part Edgar Allen Poe / Thomas Ligotti excuse for esoteric villainy.  

Oh yeah, before we began, I created a short list of rumors and had each player roll to see what they'd heard about Torth or Aryd's End...

  1. The Great Vault of Torth is a repository of lost knowledge, scientific and technological, as well as, magical.
  2. Dragons return to the skies every seven years to feast upon the innocent souls of Torth.
  3. Sorcerers are bound by an unholy blood oath, their immortal souls consigned to the devils with which they traffic.
  4. The Festival of Masks is an old tradition dating back to the Age of Dragons.
  5. There's an insidious link between demon worshiping wizards and the scourge of the skies - dragons.
  6. A secret society lurks in the shadows of Torth, rising in power until capable of conquering the land.
  7. Once, all of Torth was ruled by a three-headed dragon.
  8. The super-science beneath Torth still lives and breathes.  

As you can see, there's a lot of dragon stuff going on.  Assuming the kickstarter funds, parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy will focus more on the draconic aspects of Torth.

True to its sandbox nature, Revelry in Torth became what the PCs made of it - a hunt for treasure... gold, specifically.

Weapon proficiencies, ability scores, and player-character flavor were the only distinguishing factors between combatants.  At 3rd level, I believe every single PC had a +1 attack bonus.  Probably would have been different if someone had chosen a fighter, but, really, how could they, when there are dozens of classes to choose from?

The rules themselves, went much like any modernized old school D&D game.  Most of the mechanics were relegated to the background. There was a welcome synergy of old school and latter edition ingenuity. 

Oh yeah, the spells... I know Dominique Crouzet, the author, had re-written pretty much all of them and then placed them in either a white, grey, or black domain, but I had no clue how strange, powerful, and dark they were.  I'm talking about black magic, specifically, since both spell casters had demon blood and loved Chaos.  There was demon summoning, some sort of death blossom, and a fiend conjured for the sole purpose of robbing either a rich man or 100 peasants within the city.  And we're just talking 1st and 2nd level spells.  Definitely added to the dark flavor of the game.  

Without giving too much away, the PCs saved the city (and their own skins). It was a good session and I was quite impressed with FH&W.  Asking for feedback at the end, the one comment echoed by multiple players was how unbalanced (meaning straight up awesome) tieflings were.  Balance isn't necessarily a great thing for an old school game, so that's up to the GM.  If, like me, a GM's more interested in taking his game to the dark side than standard medieval fare, there's no problem at all.


p.s.  That session inspired this article over at Draconic Magazine.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Old School... something or other

Funny, I was thinking of the topic for this blog post halfway through my vacation.  Then I get back and read Tenkar's Tavern and RPGPundit's blog to find out they're talking about something similar.  But let's not put the horse before the cart, guys.

For a few weeks (this was about three years ago), I was fuzzy on what it meant - not realizing that would be a hallmark of the OSR itself up until the present.  I believe I kept calling it Old School Revolution.  Then, a month or so later I guess someone clued me in to the word Renaissance.  Intervening years have brought up Revival, Rules, Roleplaying, and probably a half-dozen others.

Maybe it's me.  Yes, it could very easily just be me, but I can't get past the fact that we don't have a universally recognized name.  I mean... it's the name.  It's in the title, for godsakes!

Let's not even get into what the OSR movement means to an individual, let alone the world before we hammer down what the "R" refers to.

I assume there's at least a little bit of consensus out there in cyber-land.  Most of us have come to the OSR later than when it was forged.  At most, a small handful was there actively participating in its origin discussion.

I don't care if we go with their original intent or pick something else.  It would be nice to have something to say when people ask - without being "corrected" by the blogger down the street.  You know, an actual definition of what those letters represent.

On the other hand, it could simply remain a revolving door of "r" words.  Nothing set in stone, subjective, flexible, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.  But if that's the way it's going to be, I think it would be great to have a consensus on that direction.

Obviously, we're not going to get 100% on anything.  We're human, after all.  Nevertheless, I believe it's time to look that "r" square in the eye, deal with it, and move on to greener pastures.  Agree, disagree, just want to put in your two cents?  I want to read what you have to say, so comment!


p.s.  Yeah, I'm not sure why I chose that particular image to adorn this blog post.  It came up in a google image search for "Old School Renaissance".  The box is from 1981 and I remember owning it or a similar set with those little plastic figures.  Ah, good times...