Monday, January 05, 2015

Blame it on the Keep, Part 2

I have been fairly inundated with DCC RPG writing, playtesting, and general gaming for a couple of years now. Recently, (mostly due to +Eric Hoffman ) I jumped back into running a B/X/Etc. game based around Keep on the Borderlands.

This campaign took off over the holidays. True to form, the PCs (in game) and deliveries (out of game) changed the trajectory of the campaign world.

I had been angling for a space that I could run a number of the old school modules, since (to be completely honest) I've never played nor run most of them. As you can see from the campaign map, I was going with the U1-3 series (Saltmarsh etc), Ghost Tower of Inverness, Assassin's Knot (at least some portion of it) and White Plume Mountain. The towns and sites up north were reserved for a high level set of adventures that I wrote up several years ago that never got played.

To start out, the PCs wrecked several plans within the Keep area -- drove off the evil priest that was lingering about the Keep, sent the kobolds on a mini-trail-of-tears, and then discovered a barrow in the swamp that links to several storylines in Barrowmaze. I was marking time, really, until Barrowmaze Complete showed up, because I wanted to send them through a modified Barrowmaze -- with just a handful of the barrows and a section of the maze. Then Barrowmaze Complete showed up on Christmas Eve... and the characters ran down their hooks to that area and, basically, refuse to leave.

So, now, the campaign map has changed...

I'm still putting the U1-3 stuff on the coast (in Bogtown, instead of Saltmarsh), and I changed from Greyhawk to Ironguard Motte (mostly because Greyhawk is just too damn big!) for a large settlement in the area.

So far, in the Barrowmaze area, the party has come to the attention of the forces of both Orcus and those dormant (no longer) forces of Nergal. I had planned to link KotBL and Barrowmaze through Nergal (the evil temple in KotBL is an attempt to rally Nergalite forces, due to rumors of artifacts and shrines in the area). The party has raised Varghoulis, a Death Knight dedicated to Nergal, who in turn raised an undead army. He has since marched off to the north to consolidate forces for an old fashion "god raising." In the meantime, the party managed to lob a grenade into the the forces of Orcus, by murdering one of their priests and stealing a bunch of books related to rituals and histories of Orcus and Nergal.

So now, not one but two major evil cults are aware of, and not very happy with, the PCs. This should get really fun, really fast.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Blame It On the Keep

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a lot to time to game at home and online. I blame +Eric Hoffman  for re-introducing me to an old obsession: Keep on the Borderlands. We managed to get one session in over the holidays, and he's promised a few more over the Christmas holidays. Immediately after the online session, I set up to run the module with my home group. We normally play DCC RPG, but I've been known to switch them back and forth between B/X/etc and DCC. Everyone has extant characters -- so it was fairly easy to move them to the little keep in the wilds and set them loose. Within one session, they had already rooted out a cult spy, made a few fast friends (henchmen), lost one of their fast friends (poor Crannich the dwarf...we hardly knew ye) and sent the kobolds off on their own mini-Trail of Tears (no -- they didn't kill the women and children).

This adventure module has always stood out to me as a model of how such content should be produced: Present the situation without embellishment and let the characters and the DM tell the stories. Of the old school modules that I have the most experience with, I think KotBL did it admirably well. It's also the best "first module" I've ever seen and should be used as a model for anyone producing OSR "beginner" modules.

The biggest challenge for me, as DM, is making the content fresh. I've played or run parts of this module (sometimes both) about 100 times. So, after experiencing the nuanced changes that +Eric Hoffman introduced, I set about working through my own.

In a struggle to find a nice player's map (black and white) for my players, I ran across this post over at Goblinoid Games. Black Wyvern modified the wilderness map for KotBL and spread out the various caves over the whole wilderness area. I really liked this concept and immediately adopted it...  (he also mapped the individual caves with mods for this tact). Unfortunately, now it was even harder to find a player's map... So, I took his map and made my own.

This folder over on Google Drive has two PNG files: DM and Player's map, and an SVG file so you can make your own changes.

So, rustle up some B/X/etc characters and get your ass to the border. There's trouble brewing out there that only the liberal application of magic and steel can solve.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Aga-Krul -- The Fearless Ally

Krul, huntsman and warrior of great prowess took up with the Nergalite dwarves, leading with him his clan of fierce warriors and acting as bodyguard to Agol Umberstone, the prophet of Nergal.
Together they traveled to the interior of Kharg Island and built a fine temple to the Winter Sun. From there, Krul and his clan traveled with the Nergalites to the mountains where the dwarves built a steading and shrine to Nergal.

When the Dissenter freed the serpent children of Qo and forced conversions upon the Nergalites, Krul stood with his master and the faithful few wielding his great bone spear against the vile children of the Destroyer of Worlds. It is said that Krul’s spear killed the Dissenter and allowed a small group of loyal Nergalites to escape from the dwarven steading while both Krul and the prophet were martyred.

Aga-Krul is a 10’ long spear with a bone shaft and a bronze head carved with dwarven runes glorifying the hunt and battle. Due to the many supernatural creatures killed by its original owner, the spear has taken on a strange intelligence and burns with a vengeful purpose. In the hands of any character, the combatant receives a +1 to attack and damage. If the bearer is fighting a “giant” sized creature, including humanoid giants or larger versions of otherwise normal creatures (such as giant spiders, mammoths, and the like) the spear inflicts an additional 1d3 damage. The spear itself communicates to the bearer with mental tugs, half-remembered dreams and, occasionally, more direct methods. These mental pushes allow the bearer to determine whether a given entity is of the Lawful alignment, and a potential ally.

Aga-Krul seeks to avenge its original bearer against the lingering spirit of the Dissenter. The first convert to worship of Qo among the Nergalites was slain by Krul, but its spirit was granted a new form which currently resides in the old temple to Nergal on the island in Wroten Lake. Should the bearer face this demon, Aga-Krul may be thrown with an unerring strike (+20 to the first attack) and deals 2d6 damage, plus the wielder’s Strength bonus. The spear immediately returns to the bearer’s hand. In addition, if the Dissenter is struck by Aga-Krul, one of its special abilities (randomly determined) is neutralized for 24 hours.

Aga-Krul -- The Fearless Ally (PDF)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Black Hole Cloak

In the distant future, Abadel Trank, the halfling nega-sorcerer, found his power waning. Either the universe itself was running out of fuel for magic or someone (or something) was preventing him from reaching the heights that he’d dreamed of since wandering away, half-drunk, from his stepmother’s hobbit hole at the scandalously young age of 34. Trank set upon a project that would consume his last years (literally). Believing that by moving back in time, he would solve both problems, the nega-sorcerer began constructing a portal using a piece of magical fabric he’d stolen from Urma, the Weaver, a minor goddess of home and hearth. His incantations complete, Trank stepped through the
portal, only to find himself tangled up in the fabric and falling through space and time. No one determined what actually happened to Trank, but his housekeeper found the strange black cloak with its shifting pattern of starlight hanging from a peg in Trank’s workshop with a note attached:

It was quite a glorious night of fun. You were very naughty to steal from me, however. Enjoy your trip!
- U

The Black Hole Cloak is a short cloak (regular sized for a halfling) composed of a silvery-black fabric that slides through the hands like water. Inspecting the fabric, one sees a pattern of shifting stars, as if the cloak itself were falling through space at a great speed. Upon occasion (1 in 20 each year), one may see the horrified face of a bald halfling man fly by.

READ MORE: The Black Hole Cloak

Friday, September 12, 2014

Working through the Ketsueki Empire, Part III -- Appeasing the Senmen Kami

It is said that the Suizei priesthood of the Ketsueki Empire has cataloged ten million spirits that are venerate, individually. From the brooding, god-like guardian dragons said to sleep under sea, earth, volcano and even Tsuki, the moon, to the capricious mononoke that spoils sake and hides your waragi, the senmen kami are considered holy such that even the least of them may have a shrine or portion of a temple dedicated to them.

The problem comes when a Suizei cleric faces a "monster" during the course of some adventure. The majority of the monsters in Ketsueki are actually physical manifestations of some venerated spirit. It may be a yokai of the dead, tortured by events during its life or a guardian spirit enraged by the theft of its charge. Regardless, the cleric ends up squaring off against, what is considered to the priesthood, a holy entity. This is not only a sin, but could get the cleric cut off from his or her source of power.

To add to the confusion, there are "unholy" spirits devoted to the goddess Zentai, a dragon goddess brought by Urgil invaders in the distant past and straight-up monsters sprung from the loins of the Beast with Ten Million Heads. Even the priests of outlander faiths are consider unholy.

So, instead of turning every encounter into a gamble between XP and deity disapproval, the cleric must be able to first identify what type of spirit/monster the party is facing, and then have some mitigation other than combat to resolve the situation should the "monster" prove to be some kami that the cleric venerates.

DCC RPG has done a great job in giving clerics a niche within the spirit world. Though wizards must treat with and appease otherworldly entities in order to gain power, clerics are so closely tied to their gods that any infraction results in disapproval, eventually. But, with that risk comes a powerful set of rituals that allows the cleric to further the aims of the deity by healing those that are closely aligned with the deity's aims and driving away or destroying creatures that are against those aims.

For the purposes of the Suizei priesthood, similar rituals can also serve to identify the nature of a creature and/or spirit and to either turn or calm that spirit or drive it away, depending on its nature and the cleric's power.

Identify Spirit
To identify a spirit, the cleric must be within 30' of the creature or possessed item, and must perform a ritual that takes one full round to execute. Mechanically, the cleric rolls a standard Spell Check adding his or her Luck bonus to the roll. The result of the spell check provides the cleric with the essential nature of the creature faced (based on the HD of the creature). Venerated spirits/creatures are those that originate from the Senmen Kami or the Guardian Dragons. Unholy spirits/creatures are those that originate from outlander gods, such as Zentai, the Nemelian pantheon, the Beast with Ten Million Heads and the like. Unaligned creatures are everything from the mundane (i.e. determining that a strange cat is just a strange cat and not a bakeneko) to various supernatural creatures that are not necessarily inhabited by the kami or spirits of outlander gods.

NOTE: If the ritual is successfully cast (i.e. the cleric's Spell Check is 12 or more), but the cleric did not roll high enough to determine the creature's nature, this is not considered a failure and does not incur deity disapproval or increase disapproval range).

Spell Check Venerated Unaligned Unholy
1-11 Failure Failure Failure
12-13 3 HD 2 HD 1 HD
14-19 5 HD 4 HD 3 HD
20-21 7 HD 6 HD 5 HD
22-23 9 HD 8 HD 7 HD
24-26 11 HD 10 HD 9 HD
27+ Any Any 11 HD

Appease Spirit
When a spirit is determined to either be a venerated kami or an unaligned supernatural creature, the cleric can attempt to drive the creature away, calm it, or even charm it. This ritual uses a modified version of the Turn Unholy mechanic. Spirits that are unholy may be turned using the standard Turn Unholy chart in the DCC RPG core rules.

Venerated Unaligned Range Charm 1-2 HD 2-3 HD 4-5 HD 6-7 HD 8-10 HD 10-12 HD
1-11 1-12 - - NE NE NE NE NE NE
12-13 13-14 30' - D1 NE NE NE NE NE
14-17 15-18 30' - D1d3+CL NE NE NE NE NE
18-19 19-22 30' - D1d4+CL D1 NE NE NE NE
20-23 23-25 60' - D1d6+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE NE NE
24-27 26-28 60' 1 D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE NE
28-29 29-30 60' 1d3 D2d6+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE
30-31 31-32 120' 1d4 B1d8+CL (no save) D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1
32+ 33+ 240' 1d6 B2d6+CL (no save) D2d6+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL

NE = No Effect

D = Driven Away. Creatures up to this HD are driven away in the quantity indicated. This may manifest as a possessing spirit going "dormant" or a creature being physically driven away from the area. The affected spirit(s) receive a Will saving throw (DC = Spell Check) or it must stay 30' away from the cleric and cannot attack any in his or her presence for 3d10 minutes. Such creatures may be treated with, though any such actions suffer a -4 to the Personality check.

C = Calmed. Creatures are driven away and are calmed. This is as driven away, but the cleric suffers no personality check when dealing with the creature. Calmed is a permanent state, unless other factors cause the creature to become hostile.

B = Banished. Creatures of the indicated hit dice and number are driven away from a locale, permanently. This can affect a space the size of a small castle. Banished creatures must permanently stay 120' from the cleric and/or the object or place once inhabited. Banished creatures are also calmed and may be treated with. The cleric can willingly allow the creature back to a banished locale or allow the creature to approach his or her person.

If a cleric achieves a "Charmed" effect, the number of creatures/spirits charmed indicated are of the lowest HD of a mixed group of spirits. Charmed spirits are affected as per the Charm Person spell at the 18-19 result (no save), however, the condition is not permanent. The spirit serves the cleric for 1d3+CL days. After this time, the spirit can decide whether to stay in the cleric's service or not. A cleric can have a number of spirits in his or her service equal to the cleric's caster level + personality modifier. Any spirits in excess of this number are considered Calmed and Banished.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Working Through the Ketsueki Empire, Part II.

By Amdominator on Deviant Art! 
I want to use the spell duel design more often in games (to date, they've only come up once in actual play), and I was struggling to find a way to represent the single combat conceit of the samurai of the Ketsueki Empire. In the period of Japanese history on which the Ketsueki Campaign is based, samurai fought battles essentially one-on-one. The most honorable/skilled samurai from each army would meet between two poised armies and duel it out until one or the other was dead. Then a group of samurai from each army would individually duel. Before long, there was a general melee of individuals dueling before it devolved into what you would understand was a "traditional" battle.

Several years ago, I wrote a sub-system for the Sengoku game that dealt with Go, the Japanese strategy board game. I had a scene in one adventure that required a character to beat a demon at go, and I didn't want the scene to be a simple skill versus skill check, because not only would that be anticlimactic, but it also wouldn't capture the nuances of go. Sengoku, even though it was a chanbara game, had a lot to do with the nuances of the Japanese culture in the 1500s. So, anyway, I developed a more complex system of advantage/disadvantage at various stages of a typical go match, that all resolved to bonus/penalties to the final skill roll.

So, anyway, I combined the wildness of the spell duel system with the design conceit of the Go simulator to get something that I hope you will like.

To play it, take any two DCC characters with a Deed die (samurai character is assumed) and pit them against each other.

And as always, tell me what you think!

Samural Duels! 

Stop Telling Stories or How to Design for the OSR

TLDR: Make a world. Put interesting stuff in it. Some stuff is really bad. Some stuff is really good. It’s hard to tell the difference until characters start messing with them. The DM and players tell the stories, not you.

Before I puff myself up as an authority and thus put myself out there for ridicule, let me start with the most controversial aspect of OSR adventure design.

It’s Not Your Game.
If you’re designing for the OSR, the first thing you have to realize is that the game does not belong to you. It belongs to the DM, the players and their characters. The DM is going to take your carefully crafted magical thing and hammer it to fit with an encounter from Against the Giants, and a random table from the d30 Sandbox Companion, a neighborhood generator from Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, an NPC based on Private Hudson from Aliens, and a thousand other things of the DM’s own design. And when the players guide their characters into Undersewers of the Mole Gods, they are going to take your perfectly balanced, story-relevant encounters, ball them up, shake out all the XP and gold, and pitch them over their shoulders. All that’s going to be left is the story that the players and the DM tell years later, swigging beers at the Ram Brewery after their last con game. You get part of that story, but you don’t get to tell it.

Have Lots of Things for the Murderhoboes to Mess With
The OSR adventure is not a pre-scripted adventure path with a natural story arc balancing every character role into session-digestible chunks. An OSR adventure is a collection of evocative structures thrown down on a map, some with connections, and others just hanging out there. Your job, as a designer (and I believe it’s your only job) is to build the structures that the characters and DM can pour their stories into. Some of these structures have solid foundations, like an NPC with a detailed backstory, concrete motivations and secret weaknesses. Some may be paper-thin props that when viewed from another angle are nothing more than a blanket fort. Designers use this all the time – an evocative sentence or two to describe a building in a town or a locale on an overland hexmap.

The point is, the characters need stuff to mess with (and typically to destroy). Can there be connections? Sure! There’s a spy in town investigating the cult that gathers at a nearby dolmen every dark-of-moon. Why is the spy there? Who does she work for? Where is her safe house? These questions help to build further structures, thin or solid, but they are not steps in a process for “solving the story.” All of these structures coalesce into a mini-world that may be as small as the town where the spy resides or as large as a galaxy.

Some of the Things are Horrifyingly Bad. Some of the Things Are Amazingly Good. It’s Impossible to Tell the Difference.

Players aren't interested unless their characters are simultaneously threatened with horrible death and unimaginable wealth and power. And they aren't going to stay interested if they can tell the difference.

The bad things need to appear to be horrifyingly bad. Do you throw up “Goblins (3); rusty short swords” or eyes that gleam in the darkness, faint gibbering and the scrape of metal on stone? What are we fighting? What’s its “power level?” Is there any benefit to pitting my beloved Ussa-La the Space Princess against this unknown danger? Do I take the shiny without checking for traps? Or do I risk taking the time to be careful with the constant threat of another horror coming around the corner and trying to eat me?

Piles of treasure, eldritch artifacts, a shiny new space ship, level up… All of these things drive players to put their characters into terribly dangerous situations. And, they’ll do the same thing just for a rumor of these things. A grizzled yazirian holding court in a dusty cantina swears that the UPF ditched a super-secret spy ship on the prison planet of Holeefuckdontcomehere 9S. Not only is it packed with amazingly cool gear, there’s a case with a million credits stowed in a weapons locker. The planet? Nah! I’m sure it’s mostly deserted.

As a designer, make every fight a trepidation. Make running away regretful. You are not in the business of balance. Rewards are not parceled out in commiserate-with-dangers-engaged precision. Uncertainty. Every threat need not be insurmountable, but the threat should appear to be significant. Uncertainty.
And some of the threats should be insurmountable, especially with the stats and things on the player’s character sheet. Some rewards should be wildly overpowering and “unbalancing” to the game. 

It is uncertainty that adds all the tension to the game. It is player ingenuity that leads to its greatest triumphs. And both of these keep the players coming back for more. There’s something amazing out there, and even though there may be horrifyingly bad things guarding it and even though the amazing thing may not be as awesome as rumored, I will go into this world and find out.

Your only job is to build that world.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Curse of Cragbridge: I Did an OSR Thing...


I released a Labyrinth Lord compatible adventure called The Curse of Cragbridge over at RPGNow and DriveThru RPG. Currently, the book is PDF only, and Pay What You Want. From proceeds, I plan to do a digest-sized print edition (if there's interest) with updated art and maps. Additionally, if interest is there, I plan to go level-by-level into the Sunken City of Xerichen and its Prisons of the Demigods. Stay tuned for conversion information for other game systems!

Here's the blurb:

Cursed Cragbridge!
Prison of Sprits Betrayed!
A Labyrinth Lord compatible Adventure for Characters level 1-3. 

For five hundred years, Cragbridge has stood abandoned and cursed. Within lurk the haunts and spirits of those that served Lord and Lady Etheril. Some of these ghosts inhabit the forms of strange insect creatures, while others guard tombs deep beneath the shattered bridge tower.

Recently, the good knight Sir Dougal Skavok disappeared in the ruins, and when the search party returned, they too were missing a few members. But, they carried strange treasures found there: coins marked with a double-headed raven, gemstones of great value, and other ornate and gilded items. They also spoke of the curses and haunts that lurk under the ruins of Cragbridge!

Featuring all original monsters, two unique magic items and a hell of a lot of fun.

This purchase includes three PDF versions: a standard pdf, a "two-up" pdf with two pages per printed page, and a booklet format pdf. 

So, if you like Labyrinth Lord and you like creepy haunted towers, and you LOVE Pay What You Want, trip on over to RPGNow or DriveThruRPG and pick them up.

While you're there, pick up +Daniel Bishop's PWYW Labyrinth Lord mega-dungeon starter (I swear we didn't plan this):  The Dungeon of Crows.

Conversion Series: UK5 The Eye of the Serpent

I ran across this module in a stack of stuff that a friend gave me, and though I had thumbed through it before, I never got to read or run it. Last week, I was hanging out with a nephew that I rarely get to see, and since this is a "one-on-one" adventure, I decided to run it for him. One of my sons jumped in and they were off.

For them, I ran it as B/X/AD&D, and I really liked it a lot. Great balance between wilderness survival-type encounters, and straight up fights. The characters have no real goal, other than getting off of the mountain after being deposited near the pinnacle by a couple of rocs (I used giant winged serpents, just to mix it up), and a kind of story develops as they fight the elements and sparse fauna while descending the mountain.

Tonight, we only had two folks for the home game, so I pulled it out again and converted it on the fly for DCC. The two characters were cavemen from +Michael Curtis's Frozen in Time. These two were left behind when the rest of the caveman group were transported...forward? Maybe sideways in time to Praeder Island and the City of the Baboon Men

Anyway... these two unfortunate souls had to traipse back to their village, almost empty handed. There the village elders asked them to deliver the Gift of Suss (which was why the intrepid 0-level group was sent out there in the first place). Young Wolf-Slaughterer refused to give up the Mona Lisa (spoilers), and the village elders had the two thrown in the village pit for various crimes. Late that night, friends of the two helped them out, gave them a bag of food and a couple of knives and sent them off in the night toward the closest village (Wet Stone, a fishing village on the coast where one of the friends had a sister).

On the way, the ubiquitous rocs (kept them for this one) swept down and flew them almost a day away far out over the ocean to a large, mountainous island, where the PCs were unceremoniously deposited in the roc's nest near the peak of an icy mountain. From this vantage, they could see a wide, mountain-bound valley stretching away for miles. A river, that began its life in an icy lake hundreds of feet below, coursed through the valley, and out onto the plains, snaking for miles to a wide lake and waterfall, down into a thick, primeval forest. In the center of this lake, like a snake's eye, sat an island.

Digressing from the module, I had a hungry baby roc for the characters to fight (no problem), and after gathering up some supplies left behind by previous roc meals, they were off.

I posted my conversion notes over here: UK5 Conversion Notes. If I have time, I'll keep this up through the whole module -- monsters and the hardships of the wilderness. What's not noted are the effects of cold (which I made minimal, but present in the upper part of the valley). Rather than having the egg (Area 6) hatch, I'm saving that for the end of the adventure -- possibly throw a dungeon under the island shrine they find there. Haven't decided yet.

Anyway -- I highly recommend this module, either in the original B/X/AD&D or DCC. With two first level DCC characters, they have been equal to all threats, though the unforgiving conditions are starting to take their toll.

Edit: You can pick up a PDF copy of UK5 Eye of the Serpent at RPGNow...