Sunday, January 15, 2017

Uncommon Explorations of the Maze of the Blue Medusa

An exploration of the Maze of the Blue Medusa by four beginning characters played by two players using my "Uncommon" dungeon rpg hack.  

A friend was in town so three of us decided to play a quick pickup game.  I knew these guys would dig the surreal weirdness and social nature of this book.  I played an online game in the Maze once , right before it came out (game was run by Ken Baumann the publisher) and I've run one other session of the Maze using 5th edition D&D.  This time I suggested my DIY hack in order to focus attention more on the setting than the character sheet.  We used a couple of "before you were first level" rolls from the Dungeon Dozen book to jump start the scene.  It turned out the dramatis personae were a cleric recently converted from a den of iniquity, a rich wizard school graduate, a psychopathic fighter, and magpie-thief.  To which I responded thusly:

"You are all lying around on the veranda of your crumbling villa, looking out on a dead salted sea, above a decadent city, as the sun sets, still hung over from the aristo-wizard party from the night before.  It's blurry, but the thief vaguely remembers finding his way into a forgotten closet and lifting a framed painting because he liked the frame.  In any case, the day has been spent staring at the thing and making various comments.  The painting depicts a nude woman chained to a wall in a red room.  The sky darkens, the moon rises, and the woman in the painting turns beckons you hither..."
They gathered up their venturing packs and entered the painting.  The cleric was quick to from Ashen Chantrelle.  She claimed she could remember little, but had been chained a long time.  She said the "reparate" occasionally game to clean and maintain the lanterns, but otherwise she had had few visitors in the course of her uncounted days of imprisonment.  The cleric begged for the lady to be freed, and the thief obliged by picking the manacle locks.  Given a cloak and some food, Chantrelle spoke of the maze in vague platitudes and retreated through the moonlit painting.

The group broke down the door and encountered Lady Crucem Capelli, a demonic dragon lady who seemed a bit indecisive.  Learning that the thief was a bit of an art collector, she offered a deal.  They would collect histories of the creatures in the maze and she would pay them in coins.  The group accepted the deal and began exploring, peeking through all three doors before choosing to navigate the Escher Stairs.

Here I encountered a disconnect between text and map.  The map shows an archway to the Escher Stairs, but the description explains that the gravitational orientation of the stairs changes depending on which doors are open.  So I had to say, "Oh wait, there is a door there."

The group decided to secure a rope and rappelle down to the northern door.  The cleric failed and landed on the knot of stairs.  Just then a sneaking group on men in bird beak masks poked their heads trough the eastern door,  A handy Charm spell lowered the guard of the Oku, and they were soon lowered to their deaths.  

Beyond the stairs was a dark room.  A creature lurking within, some sort of upside down mollusk grabbed the fighter's bag of gold and attempted to flee.  It was angry when the commotion threatened to wake the baby.  Then the baby did wake.  The group all looked at each other, realizing they could regain their sanity if they killed each other.  Instead an arrow was sent through the screaming baby, and the mollusk hurled to its doom on the Escher Stairs.  

At that we were tired.  They sold the story of the Oku to Crucem Capelli, and I allowed the characters to leave.  In the meantime, Chantrelle had begun carousing in the decadent city.  The heroes joined in with the carousing.

Overall a fun session with a couple of very creative players.  I was really happy with the game system and with the dungeon.  I had not cracked the book in months before beginning play, and though I ad-libbed a bit, I was still able to play the characters quickly and run the dungeon easily.  

Would dungeon again.  I'd really like to get farther in to the dungeon next time.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

An Audience with the Wyrm of Kryptgarden

The latest session... I tried to get them into the cloud castle but they weren't having it. So they went on their first overland trek. I didn't use it because I haven't reviewed the rules but I want to try using the Adventures in Middles Earth journey rules. Anyone tried them?
In any case, after being super cautious about giants, the players decided to kiss off the ancient wyrm and nearly died for their troubles. I'm thinking Gnawbones is ok with giants rampaging around and will be amused if he can manipulate the players into slaying the one good aligned frost giant.

Traveling along the Sword Coast and the North. Ignoring the newly docked sky castle above Waterdeep, the pained roars of the creature above, the struggles of the Winged Pegasus Knights, and the golden request of well connected douchebag Danilo Thann, the party decided to hang out drinking cider and eating exotic sweatmeats from the Moonshae Isles on the street until the could consult with Chaz Yardhorn, renowned dragon expert extraordinaire, and cat lover. He told them of the ancient enmity between dragons and giants and suggested they seek help from one of the great wyrms of the North, Old Gnawbones the Green in Kryptgarden Forest. He was also very interested to make an etching of Althea's doom-y Black Dragon Mask, which he promised to research while she was traveling. He gave them potions of poison proofness with which to prove their mettle against the dragon they sought. 

 Thinking carefully, Althea returned to Bezel the Jeweler and re-bought the crown of Barovia as an offering for Old Gnawbones. Ghael the Barbarian selected a small herd of sturdy horses equipped with saddles, bags and tack (at a cost of 100gp each) and they set off, setting the shadow of the Sky Castle behind them, though Apollo's purse felt lighter of a sudden.

In the Inns along the way, the "Sleeping Dragon" and the "Singing Sword" of Red Larch, the talk was of Giants raiding food stores yes, but also of red haired giants excavating massive pits in the ground. No one knew why. Amidst all this chaos, the people of Red Larch were even more grim. They seemed to have been terrorized for some time by "maniacs" and "moon men". The elements themselves were an enemy in the Dessarin Valley.

Entering the tangled fastness of the Kryptgarden Forest, the first sighting was of a beautiful triad of dryads fleeing their bathing area, even leaving their towels and jewels. The source of their terror soon became apparent with the shaking of the earth and snarling of hellish hounds. The druid camouflaged her fellows and they ambushed the massive iron man tower, a veritable 20ft dreadnought of blackened steel smashing a wide swath through the forest. With spell and sword, wand and spear they laid low the armored foe. 

 Soon after the Old Gnawbone himself had accosted the party. With the corpse of man dangling out the side of it's cavernous jaws, dragon accepted the offering of the crown and demanded yet more treasure. Finally it offered a cryptic utterance, "Find Harshnag Greyhanded. This is all his fault. Slay him and your troubles will ease. The Wyrm of Kryptgarden cares note!"

"Fine you jerk!" said the haughty wizardess Althea. "We don't need you anyway." And she spit at the dragon as she and her fellows turned away. 

 There was a pregnant pause, a mighty inhalation that sucked all the oxygen from the forest air, then all was green, their lungs were burning and the heroes were stumbling running out of the forest, their horses, slain, themselves hardly more alive, they dragged themselves to the town of Triboar.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Heart of Doom in the Tower of the Stargazer

New D&D players like all D&D players

It came to pass that in this 21st century of D&D equanimity and seepage into the average world of leisure, my in-laws once removed had joined a D&D campaign, a young professional couple learning this new game for the first time.  At recent family gatherings I've heard such things as, "It's a long time to sit around so I get bored.  But my Dragonborn Monk does always win."  I couldn't let this ambivalence stand, and I offered to run a game for them.  So on a dark and stormy Friday night Lady J and I showed up at the door bearing dice and traveling DM briefcase.

I wanted to present a short dungeon with a twist, the kind of thing that could be fully explored in one session and offered a bit of closure, or "story", so I had read over and prepped the one-page dungeon Heart of the Minotaur.  I was gonna populate it with Boggles and Nilbogs from the new 5e monster book.  I set the print out on the table, no DM screen, began to narrate an opening scene: "You three are walking down a country lane -oh wait, introduce your characters."

So the players went around the table, ogled their handout characters and we all decided that since two of them had been having apocalyptic dreams of a tower and the third wizard elf knew about a tower, they were walking down the road looking for some tower.  "Great, back on track.  You encounter a wounded woodsman who begs you to save his wife with his last dying breath.  He says he hit the thing with his axe but it laughed."

The players were unimpressed.  "Sounds like a distraction," said Lady J, who has been playing regularly for two years, "Let's get to that wizard tower."

What's a DM to do? "Ok.  So you walk down the road apace and you come to a right in the road.  As you turn toward the tower you think you had been dreaming about, an axe handle comes flying out of the trees from the opposite direction.  It strikes the wizard for 1 point of damage.  You hear mocking laughter from that direction."

"A silly place.  Let's get to that tower."   They were dead set on ignoring the dungeon that was literally on the table!

But I am a DM with a deep well of dungeons.  I reached back into the traveling back and pulled out Tower of the Stargazer, printed out zine style, looked it over quickly and said, "After many hours of hiking through overgrown and untended trails you come upon a tall and ominous tower, over which looms a single storm cloud."

And lo, the adventurers did explore the tower of the wizard Calcidius, nearly choosing to free him, but ultimately ascending to the exploratorium at the top.  They followed the order of operations, lit the fuse and the barbarian looks through lens.

"You see the creatures dancing in a circle.  You are glowing red.  You feel a tugging sensation.  Do you resist this feeling or do you go with it."

"I go with it."

With that the barbarian traveled through time and space and I ceremoniously ripped up his character sheet.  The player was bemused, but it made for a nice punctuation on the evening.  A lovely time was had by all.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Storm King's Thunder Session #1 Banking in Waterdeep

First the egregious prose, then the DM's thoughts.

TL;DR Welcome to Waterdeep: Banking, strange fashion party lost money at trivia, narrowly avoided an anchor dropped by a flying castle. No fighting, much foreshadowing.

After a bit of relaxation in the farming commune of Goldenfields, the heroes hitched a ride on a grain barge heading downriver to the Sea of Swords.  Agammemnon returned to his elven kin beyond the water, but his place was taken by Grimnir, monastic sort curious about the Realms.  The riverboat journey was unevenful, 3 nights floating on broad slow waters.

Entering Waterdeep, the City of Splendors was a shock.  The City of Splendors—the most resplendent jewel in the Forgotten Realms, and a den of political intrigue and shady back-alley dealings. Never had they seen such an endless huddle of buildings, never had they seen so many peoples of any culture and species huddled together, commerce happening constantly, and cut purses to.  The fashions tended toward outlandish hats featuring small bird cages.

 The elf Althea soon tired of such mundane distractions, and the others were keen to transfer the crown jewels hard won in Barovia into local currency.  In the course of selling such a king’s ransom they became favorites of their jeweler, Bezel the Albino, who fed them vegan food and put them up in his townhouse for the night.  16,000gp was deposited with the  Iron Throne Trading Coster, available in any major city in the North.

The next day Apollo went to visit the House of Thann, who he knew since childhood.  The butler gave them the inheritance of the acolyte Zi Thann: A Robe of Eyes and a suit of Adamantine Platemail.  Furthermore, he invited them to the Garden Party at the palace of Laeral Silverhand, Open Lord of Waterdeep, that very evening.  

The Garden Party itself was a ridiculous affair.  The nobility strolled under starlight lamps, wearing bird bedecked hats and allowing themselves to be lead by their pet turtles.  Quite a stir was created when the Rainbow Knight arrived astride his flail snail.  

Lady Silverhand did not appear to be in attendance, here domicile was wondrous.  Here was a small lake, replete with a miniature island and full sized riverboat casino, catering the thrills of the the city’s leisure class.   Apollo, Althea and Otto boarded and encountered a slight but confident man wearing a rich robe of exotic silks.  He was Pow Ming and he would exchange 100gp for a Golden Goose token, used at the games table.  He had a small bag that held many things.   He said he and his employer Lord Drylund would be leaving the next day to begin the river journey north to the city of Yartar.

At the table Apollo found his old acquaintance Danilo Thann, who was eagerly awaiting the next question in the current game of Trivia, as intoned by an elderly squire: “Sages do sayeth that the race known for the flaying of minds did come as refugees from a far away star.  Little is known, yet even a schoolboy knows how many tentacles doth the illithid bear?”  All bet and answered silently.  “Four is correct.”   There were many cheers!

Next round: “Name three gods who died during the Time of Troubles and yet are now worshipped by zealous priests once again.”  “Bane, Mystra and Myrkul is correct!”  Groans.
“I lost 400 gold!”  moaned Apollo.  “Oh stop crying,” said Danilo Thann.  “Besides, you should know, thou soldier of god, eh?”

Image result for renaissance festival
The festivities continued, with light shows and dancings, but finally the newcomers found themselves politely ushered out onto the street of the Castle Ward, stumbling drunk and beginning to realize they had not procured an inn. “Didn’t Bezel the Jeweler have our belongings sent to the Yawning Portal?” said Grimnir.

“I’m not sure,” said Apollo, thinking hard, “Or was it the ---look out!”

Apollo looked up in time to see a massive hook of metal come careening down out of the sky.  He and his companions dove out of the way as a massive 20ft anchor tore into the cobbled street and hooked itself on the corner of a cathedral to a goddess of luck.  A massive chain ran from the anchor up into the clouds above, where dimly could be seen glowing lights and the imposing shape of a massive fortress floating in the sky above Mount Waterdeep.

This turned into a dice-less improvisational bad joke fest. We had a great time, but basically, I tried to play up the crazy fantasy city of Waterdeep. The players did some business, selling loot from Barovia, banking it and following up on a couple of quests. They kept asking for magic shops to buy potions and +1 things. I told them there were no magic shops and if they wanted to sell magic stuff they might as well go straight to the castle because the Lords' spies are everywhere and they frown upon a magic economy. I know it means there's not much use for gold, but I don't love the magic shop idea and they are already at a high enough level.

Otherwise I tried to keep things moving. I'm focusing on really bringing the Realms to life, referencing all the great place names of the Forgotten Realms, since they may actually go to any number of these places, so I'm seeding in as much foreshadowing lore as I can. I think I managed to get a fair amount in this session. I had a lady tell each one a fortune such as, "You will be scorned by three sisters!" and "You will find a cool hand in a burning sky!" "You will forget to look up". There were quite a few references to Gauntylgrm as well. It's always a bit awkward to have a session with no violence and few clearcut decisions for the players, but they enjoyed it and I made sure the anchor set up next session.

I awarded 1000xp each, based one having banked a huge amount of money. I don't think that was the right call. They are around 9th level, so it isn't much, but I think I should have based it on money spent, carousing table style. I should have given XP for money spent on gambling, wine and books, things like that. An arbitrary "Nice roleplayin tonight guys" doesn't really encourage any particular kind of play.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Barrowmaze, an Uncommonly Good Dungeon


Careful exploration, sudden traps, overwhelming foes, a ready shovel and sledgehammer.  Torchbearers running screaming into the darkness.   It's the Barrowmaze.  This dungeon has helped facilitate a classic "Old School" style of campaign unlike any other I've run.  It is perfect for short episodic sessions online using a traditional D&D ruleset.  Using the magic of Roll20 and Google Hangouts my friends and I are nine sessions or so into a nicely emerging campaign.

I mostly run Type V D&D because that's the game people know; it's the new and shiny, but I've been reading ORS gaming blogs for years, wondering if that sort of mythical "old school" dirtbag style of play would really work for me.  It requires a different set of assumptions than a more heroic high magic style game.

A few months back I picked up the 261page megadungeon Barrowmaze Complete via the Kickstarter for the forthcoming sequel.  I'd been thinking about it for years and the magic of Kickstarter hype got me to pull the trigger.  That and the epic cartoon trailer.

Barrowmaze makes a great set up for this style game, it's a complete campaign setting: Starting in a dirty little village on the edge of a backwater duchy, the dungeon delvers wake at dawn to make their way to Barrow Moore, where ancient barrow mounds hide entrances to a sprawling maze beneath.  The goal is to get in and out with a bit of treasure, get back to town and spend it on carousing!


One of the really nice design decisions of the Barrowmaze is that it is a single level, with multiple points of entry.  The bane of big dungeons is that the whole thing can get bogged down when the characters are trapped in the dungeon, unable to recover and unable to vary the play over multiple sessions.  The way Barrowmaze works out is that the players discover more entrances the further East they go, deeper into the surface map.  Some entrances are discovered from the surface.  Others have been discovered as an escape from below.  On the whole, it makes for a nice session, into the dungeon, back out, makes some carousing roles, count up XP.  There is a bit of a story to the Barrowmaze, but its secondary to the players' story.  That said, this dungeon can be defeated, and it would be pretty satisfying to do so!


Wandering monster rolls are crucial to this dungeon.  Loud noise triggers rolls.  And it creates a time pressure.  Should they break down that wall or move on?  Should they search through all the burial nooks?  Wandering monsters can add up quick as well, and players have fled from an encounter with Sapphire Skeletons or Coffer Corpses ("They just won't die!").  This is a dungeon that is enhanced by keeping track of time, torches, and rations.


The book is pretty self-contained.  Most of the monsters featured have descriptions and stats (for Labyrinth Lord which works fine for my rules) in the back of the book, as do magic items and key spells.  Tables for treasures, dungeon dressing, rival tomb robbers, and re-stocking are included as well.  Best of all, there is a large section of handout art to show players for particular rooms and encounters.  I've always really like these sort of additions.  Of course, the art is really good.


The writing and art direction are really great.  The visual theme on a whole makes me think of a cartoon version of death metal album.  The writing is brief, useful and friendly.  There's a bunch of sidebars telling stories of the author's games, which is amusing and serves to highlight the intended play style.  The illustrations are all black and white, heavily inked drawings.  It's mostly very useable, with illustrations of the things you want to be able to show players.


Overall, this is a book I was able to sit down and run multiple games with hardly any preparation, so the book is obviously organized well enough, but I have a couple of quibbles.  There's a few funny decisions on organization.  The special rules for things like barrow exploration and runic tablets are sort of buried in the book, just before the Barrow Mounds section.  It makes sense to read, but in play I wish is was collated in an appendix in the back.  The other quibble is with the dungeon entrances, or rather the exits.  The Barrow Mounds section clearly states where each stair down appears in the maze, but sometimes I have players discover an entrance from below, and the map has no indication of what mound # it goes up to.  So, the DM makes some notes.

The maps are simple and mostly clear.  I did run into a moment last session where the group unexpectedly made it to room 100, which which nicely spans the gutter of the book.  In the moment it was hard to figure that one out!  The map is a huge sprawling affair that spans six pages, but in the book it is divided into slightly themed sections, with limited travel from one to another.  The result of this is that each section could be taken out and used as it's own small dungeon complex in your own campaign world.  It also means you can wrap your head around a particular constellation of foes if you know where your players are heading next session.


There's been some criticism about the price of this product, but this book outplays the cost.  It is more expensive than most of the osr products out there, and indeed that held me back for a long time despite really liking what I saw in terms of style and design.  Through play I've found that I've used this book more than many rpg products I've bought, so I consider it well worth it in the end.  Any rpg book is worth it if you actually play it a lot!  I've been continually stoked on playing in this dungeon and hope to keep it up for awhile yet!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Uncommon Heartbreaker in the Barrowmaze

Lately I've been running a very "old school" style of campaign wherein each session the characters enter and return from the Barrowmaze, a mega dungeon written by David Gillespie.  I assembled the rules myself. 
In recent years D&D players have been posting their house rules on the internet.  Many have published their versions of D&D as “retro-clones”, games unto themselves.  Among the most popular are Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but there are now more than 300 various pdfs and books floating around, each offering some variation to taste of the d20 Dungeon's and Dragons experience.  At some point the obsessive D&D fan, like a connoisseur of fine wine, must mix and match and blend his own vintage.  Hence, Uncommon Dungeons.
My priorities with these rules were creating a very fast playing game that emphasizes exploration and emergent play over customization and tactical combat.
To minimize math at the table I decided to vary the type of dice rolled instead of applying modifiers (+’s and -’s).  This brings about the least standard element, which is the use of the Dice Chain, adding d3s, d5’s, d7’s, d14’s, d16s, d24s and d30s to the standard polyhedral set.  This can make for some searching at the table for the right die, and some searching the nets in order to purchase those dice in the first place, but weird dice are fun and they allow for the roll under mechanic.  As we have been playing online via Google Hangouts, my friends have been using dice rolling apps.
The combat rules also de-emphasize modifiers.  The strength score does not improve chances to hit in melee, while dexterity does not increase damage with ranged attacks.  The extreme danger of arrows and spears is modeled with an “exploding dice” mechanic. At the same time I have been enforcing stringent penalties for launching missiles into melee combat, the ease of which is a pet peeve of mine in D&D V.
Another priority is to make direct use of the 3-18 ability scores.  In most D&D games, scores are generated rolling a handful of d6s, those numbers are then converted to +/-4 modifiers and the scores themselves are hardly used again.  This has bothered me for well nigh 15 years.  When I played Basic D&D, long ago in the middle school days, “skill checks” were made by rolling under a score with a d20.  This made use of the score, but it created a situation where-in a high score ability would nearly always guarantee success and there was no room to grow.  Using d30s and d24s roll under mechanic for skills and saving throws makes success far less likely but allows a character to improve with time.  
Although simplification is a priority, I like spellcasters to have a bit of unpredictability and danger, so there are rules for spontaneous magic use and rules for risking themselves to perform additional and more powerful magic.  On the other hand, I have no interest in writing new spells, so the spell lists from from a variety of sources are available, from AD&D to LotfP.    
Finally, there are a number of niggly combat rules to encourage a quick and dangerous style of play based on choices rather than character options.  This begins with weapons and armor.  Shields were historically the most crucial armor, so the defense bonus is higher than is usual.  Conversely, two-handed weapons do quite a bit more damage, so the trade-off is a decision based on desired fighting style.  Similarly, ranged weapons can be very effective, but become much less reliable when hand to hand battle is joined.  
There is a balance between maintaining the possibility of serious consequences and over-doing it.  For example, a character that is poisoned makes a Constitution saving throw to avoid death, a terrible consequence mitigated a bit by time.  If players can find an antidote in time, the poison may be counter acted.  Similarly, the touch of many undead monsters is often a death sentence.  In these rules, the black touch is tied to fear and sanity as represented by the Wisdom Score.  Characters lose their grip on reality as they delve into the unknown.  This becomes another way to lose a character and makes the undead especially fearsome without level drain or extremely temporary hit point reduction.
In any case, I've been enjoying the home brew ruleset to go with the prefab dungeon module.

Design Questions:  

Are elves, dwarves etc too good?  I don’t want to add too much to humans to compensate.  I am thinking of an XP tax, perhaps +200xp/level.

Star Wars: Destiny of the Jedi

Last year I got really excited about the Force Awakens so I picked up FFG's Star Wars: Force and Destiny RPG. It's a story-ish system that uses custom non-numbered polyhedrons with a dice pool mechanic. A couple friends and I played through a mini-campaign book called "Chronicle of the Gatekeeper". It was great!
A couple of young college dropouts discovered they have force powers as they travel the galaxy following in the footsteps of a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars all the while exploring various crazy planets, negotiating with gangsters, escaping storm troopers and battling rancor beasts.
There are pluses and minuses to the system and the adventure. It's really dense and tends to fall back on stuff like, "In this section, do what seems most dramatic" which isn't super inspiring, but the thing is, it that what I tend to do anyways and it worked great. The module was a bit of a trip down Clone Wars history, which could only be so compelling in a truly shared world like Star Wars.
The best part was actually the final battle where it all came together in spectacular fashion. The battle was more role play than combat, with the players basically reflecting on the entire arc of the story in order to make their point to the villain. And it still came down to a final, improbable die roll!
Really good times. I don't think I'll be a full time Star Wars GM, but I'll definitely come back to this game.

Postscript: I wrote this post a year ago, and although I enjoyed Rogue One, it didn't inspire me to dedicate more time to this game. I have played in it as a player recently, and hope to do so more often.