Monday, March 12, 2018

Three Cheers for Ted

One of the (many) gratifying parts about running my weekly after school games club for middle schoolers is when kids from former years return to say, "hi" or even to run a game or two for their younger peers.

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Recently, the player of "Ted the Goblin" (that most malodorous trickster and expert tunnel-maker from a fifth edition Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign a few years back) appeared and showed me a new header that he had knocked together for the blog!  

He knew how much I loved the art of Gustav Dore, especially his work on Orlando Furioso ... and he included the piece that actually inspired me to write my own homebrew RPG (also titled "Olde School Wizardry").

So, in the end, though Ted was a scoundrel (who lurked under the outhouses of Phandalin to give the Redbrand briggands a real reason to fear the night), it turns out that he had a heart of gold all along.

Thanks, Ted!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Redeeming Castle Greyhawk

My youngest found herself in need of an army.  

Her party had been driven out of Castle Adlerweg by  hobgoblins, and though they'd pacified the giant who had allied with the bellicose creatures by returning his daughter, there were just too many of the fell folk to best in battle--a hasty retreat was by far the best option.

Now, however, she had to turn her mind to how she could recapture the fortress ... ideally before Baron Kelvin learned of the debacle ... and it wouldn't be easy.  Adlerweg was built high in a pass, straddling the overland route connecting her homeland with the Duchy of Rhoona and the steep valley of Barovia.

Image result for D&D palace of the silver princess argenta

She'd need some stalwart allies; preferably an army of them ... though, she considered, a dragon might do in a pinch. 

Of course she still had that enchanted ring given her by Princess Argenta when the party had traveled by magic to Haven to liberate the silver lady's palace from its curse.  They had parted ways on quite good terms, and Argenta's champion rode a silver dragon; a friendly enough chap too!

The ring had to be "charged" with magic to bear its wearer and her companions back to Haven, and even then nothing was ever guaranteed where such otherworldly magic was concerned ... but how many scrolls should she expend in the effort?

It turns out that "one" was definitely not the right answer.

Now the party is ... elsewhere.  Where exactly?  A city in some strange crossroads world where distances seem to wrap in on themselves and all sorts of strange creatures rub elbows.  This place seems full of magic and routes to other worlds, but which doorway is the right one?  And how can a person get the proper key?  

Now many of the odd and shady denizens of this city-between-worlds have taken an interest in the newcomers.  It seems that there's plenty of help to be had in these parts ... for a price.


Here's where one of TSR's most-maligned products comes in ... 

This city of strange magical gateways is, I decided on a whim, a fine location to plug in chunks of TSR's 1988 Castle Greyhawk!

Yes.  Greyhawk is a series of short "comedy" adventures ... many of them more weird than funny.  Many are parodies of TSR products ... D&D getting roasted via a D&D publication.

Yes.  Despite the name, you don't get to see any of Gary's original mega-dungeon.

Yes.  Some of the writers go out of their way to mock Gygax (and the players).

... but for all of that ... there's something there.  

Setting aside some of the blatant nonsense of "Drider-man," "Captain Kork," and "Elfin John," there are some compelling and strange elements scattered among the eleven adventures and 128 pages.

Consider the through-the-looking-glass tumble of "There's No Place Like Up" by Paul Jaquays, where north is replaced by "up" and the party must struggle to escape a pocket dimension where gravity is their implacable enemy.  

Rick Swan's "It's My Party and I'll Die if I Want to" is a funny, but quite reasonable take on the standard bunch of humanoid badies trying to get noticed and recruited by their dark overlord of choice.  Rather than just attacking the party, the critters assume the explorers are VIPs, giving them a chance to unravel the plot as long as they can keep up the charade.

Even "Against the Little Guys" by Steven Gilbert, featuring a magician-huckster who tries to exploit his discovery of a magic gate in an ill-advised plan to make a quick buck, has a very solid concept and requires only modest polishing to make a workable non-parody adventure.

Finally, I've got to say that, as a DM, running crummy or fixer-upper adventurers can be pretty liberating.  The flaws are obvious and clamor to be fixed, but also there's very little pressure to "do it right" in some quixotic quest to "do justice" to the source material.  

Running Maze of the Blue Medusa could be really intimidating when you want to help the players experience the awesome ... but the bar is considerably lower when DMing Castle Greyhawk's "The Temple of the Really Bad Dead Things."

What fixer-upper adventures have you gotten the most miles out of? 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Six Against Savage Quen!

Here's a quick photo from my after-school club--six set out at low tide to wrest the fabled black pearl from the sunken tower ... but the four elves and their two lion companions will have to outsmart the notorious pirate Savage Quen if they are to win the prize!

DCC79-5Taking a break from a couple months of 5th edition, we've turned back to a much simpler house-ruled Basic D&D, retaining ascending AC and Death Checks for fallen explorers.  Dungeon Crawl Classics, though often a bit verbose and mechanically crunchy for my taste, is easy to adapt on the fly.

Though DCC scenarios are generally pretty short in terms of encounters (if not word-count), we've already played two full sessions in the tower and, given 6th grader focus, we probably go two more until they either achieve victory or taste bitter defeat.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Review: A Fabled City of Brass

We've seen unique and strange (Maze of the Blue Medusa) and unique and trippy (Misty Isles of the Eld), unique and grotesque (various offerings for Lamentations of the Flame Princess), but A Fabled City of Brass, by Anthony Huso, offers something new: it is unique and beautiful.

A Fabled City of BrassFrom the gorgeous cover, through each (appropriately) glossy page, the book stays on theme without sacrificing function.  The DM never needs to flip a page: the necessary map is always right there and the color artwork (Jeremy Deveraturda's work hits all the right notes!) helps the DM get her mind into the feel of the location--and feelings matter here in a place that is a ghost-town paradise. 

The text descriptions of each location, marked "Players" and clearly intended to be read aloud (boxed text without the boxes), are evocative of the city's beauty, without being verbose or bloated--it's no surprise that Huso is a novelist.  Words, atmosphere, and a sense of place are so important here, that it causes Huso to misstep: he commits the sin of telling the players what their characters feel.

"Though you do not vocalize it, the obsidian wall terrifies you ..."

"This pattern ... lends a hysterical terror to the mundane jumble of dry, web-strewn baskets."

"Like an ice palace rising from flowered vines, a mansion of alabaster awes you on the avenue of glass."

"The building is covered in plaited carvings of primordial, vaguely geometric shapes that make you anxious."

"Oh really?" the veteran player rejoins, "My paladin has squared off against demon lords before, and now I've got the heebie-jeebies over a sinister looking tower?  Do you have any idea how many sinister-looking towers I've seen?"

"My barbarian kicked Vecna in his nethers, and now a pile of baskets fill me with hysterical terror?  Please."

By crossing that last boundary of agency, it breaks the spell of beautiful words that makes the setting so evocative and unique.  Now we are thinking about mechanics ... "My character has +4 to save vs illusion, and is immune to magical fear effects, did you include that?"   

Now the DM can assert, "Well it's a psychic effect of the city's curse," but this still ignores the fact that this is AD&D, not poetry.  "Save vs narration?"

Another way around this might be an out-of-character discussion with players prior to entering the city, to let them know that here alone, not only their perceptions, but their character's reactions to those perceptions will be subject to the haze that cloaks the city ... not an entirely satisfying work-around and a shame that it needs to be addressed in what is otherwise such an excellent product.

Speaking of psychic effects, A Fabled City of Brass makes extensive use of psionics, which I personally dislike both in concept and in execution in AD&D, and they are integral to many of the fierce challenges found therein.

DM's of the same taste can simply buff the spells and spell-like abilities of the creatures and traps encountered to approximate their psionic equivalents, but with high level characters in the mix, I'm not certain that this will be easy to pull off while maintaining the difficulty of the obstacles Huso had in mind.  AD&D Psionic saves are stat-based rather than level-based with fixed modifiers for class, race, and other factors, and results of Enrage, Panic, and Feeblemind are among the most common.

You can run A Fabled City of Brass without access to the full line of AD&D hardbacks, but it does make some use of Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio, and even refers to The Manual of the Planes at one point--something I don't recall from other 1st ed. AD&D products!

Huso is very direct from the outset about the fact that he is writing to a niche of a niche and I really appreciate that.  A Fabled City of Brass is stronger overall for being exactly what it is, a high level AD&D adventure, rather than trying to operate as system-agnostic (which would probably be a mistake for anything written for characters above level 10 or so).   

Huso's, back-cover challenge: "If the high-level heroes in your campaign are bored, promise them more treasure than they can long as they are willing to risk their souls." is spot-on.  This is no sadistic, Isle of the Ape or Tomb of Horrors meat grinder designed to wear characters down and Huso resists the urge to extensively nerf PC abilities, as 2nd edition Ravenloft products did, or even to apply all the watering-down of items and spells offered by Grubb in Manual of the Planes--Huso doesn't mistake mere mechanical penalties for actual challenge.

Title notwithstanding, A Fabled City of Brass doesn't present either a functional city (its bazaar is silent, its rulers and folk mysteriously absent), nor an entire city -- we get to visit a handful of small walled districts, adjoining a Palace of the Painted Dawn.

While I favor a loose approach to time tracking and movement, not all torches in my campaigns burn for the same duration and not all 50-foot corridors require the same amount of time to traverse, that won't do in the City of Brass!  Time keeping is essential here and time is certainly a resource to be carefully spent alongside scrolls and hit points.  Fortunately, Huso provides a simple time-tracker to assist the DM with this.

A suggestion to readers:

Except for the three pages on City of Brass Rules & Systems (Appendix E), read through the entire main city guidebook prior to opening City of Brass Appendices.  Don't go chase down the details of the unique NPCs, artifacts, and dead races that you'll discover until after you have finished your journey through the city.

That way, the secrets of the history and its curse will unfold for you a bit at a time as you explore each district--the same way that it will happen for your players.  You won't get the whole picture of course, and neither will they, but the depth is there.  In fact, the curse of the city all but ensures that the PCs won't ever get to the bottom of the mystery of why a place of such perfection and beauty stands largely empty, but the answers are there to be found.

Huso has accomplished in less than 100 pages what other ventures sprawl far longer to try and reach: a place that adventurers will long to return to, but whose streets, with a sigh and a shake of the head, they will refuse to ever tread again.


Your players have seen it all and are ready for something completely different or if you simply enjoy reading well-written adventure modules.


You are at all daunted by adapting 1st ed. AD&D to your system of choice or if you are so attached to the player characters of your campaign that you won't want to see them forever changed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

OSW: Escape from the Moon!

Trapped in a lunar dream-broadcasting station with frigid cold outside and an incarnated nightmare stalking the station's halls, the cadre of wizards in our long-running Olde School Wizardry game were in desperate need of a plan!

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How to cross the hundred yard or so of icy, barren terrain, surviving the thin, bitter air long enough to reach the inactive portal generator, somehow power it up, and escape the moon while carrying the ancient sedan chair that they had come here to recover?

My players came up with The Amazing Thirteen Step Plan of Maximum Excellence:

1. Magically restore vision to Dwitemore Vart, the moderately deranged Fog wizard who was recently struck blind by drinking "soul-juice" and being exposed to psychic emanations from the moon.  None of the wizards actually have the proper magical Formula for restoring sight ... but they figure that if they keep wildcasting the Restore Rune, they'll eventually fix something.

2. Create food.  Food has been in short supply on the moon, and their wicked elven foes only consume protein-paste in small quantities, so this is beginning to become a serious problem.  Fortunately, one of the wizards has Flesh Science, so magically creating enough to sustain them shouldn't be too much of an issue as long as no one gets squeamish.

Image result for xenomorph3. Barricade the tube-halls inside the dream station so that the nightmare doesn't catch them.  Okay, this just seems like a bad idea.  As Midmir the Pale pointed out to his fellow wizards, "Building a barricade virtually ensures that the nightmare will either break through or that we'll find out that it was actually in here with us the whole time--that's what happens in nightmares!"  Still, this step made the list.

4. Magically create a pocket of breathable air inside the bubble cart docked on the far side of the dream station.

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5. Send Xo the Mutant, a wicked, psychic elf who has betrayed his own kind and thrown in with the wizards (for now), out onto the lunar surface to board the bubble cart, patch the crack in its bubble with his magical poncho, chop up the vat giant corpse that is obstructing the controls with his vibro epee, and pilot the bubble cart around to the near side of the station.  Everyone feels confident that if Xo could reactivate the portal generator himself, he would abandon the wizards at this point, so they are counting on his incompetence to some degree ... a fact he knows quite well ... because he's psychic.

Image result for brain pinky6. Apply the (forbidden) "leechmark" formula to the "neurodent," a super-smart ganglia-festooned mouse, magically created in an early episode.  Mooreshank Whine hopes that, if he can mark the little beast, he will be able to draw considerable quintessence from it to power his spells.  The fact that the neurodent appears to be smarter than he is, and probably sees this move coming, has not dissuaded him in the least.

7. Get clothing.  Owing their recent adventures, half of the party of wizards is now clad in rags and loincloths rather than proper robes or anything else warm enough to help them survive the moon's surface.  Nobody knows cloth science, so this could be tricky.

8. Xo the Mutant cuts open the metallic wall of the dream station using his vibro epee so that the ancient, land-whale scrimshaw sedan chair can be removed (it won't fit through the station's exterior hatch).  Once he cuts the wall open, the warm, pressurized air will start rushing out of course, so they'll need to move quickly after this point.

9. Use dream-transmission cables to lash the sedan chair to the bubble cart so it can be dragged to the portal generator.  This step seems strangely practical and doesn't involve casting a spell, so it seems likely to be stricken from the list at some point.

10. Magically create a metal dome or tubeway to trap additional breathable air on the lunar surface. This step felt a bit vague.  Sure, Quistram Ulp knows metal science, but the strain of generating enough to form some kind of dome would probably blow the left side of his brain all over the nearest wall.

11. Magically create additional time to get the portal generator reprogrammed more rapidly, before the wizards can freeze.  One of the wizards knows a little Chronomancy ... just enough to get into trouble with.

Image result for bubble car12. Use orgone energy from the bubble cart, combined with the wizards' own quintessence to reactivate the inert portal generator.  This operation is strictly hypothetical ... they've never done anything like it and don't even know if it is possible.  Fortunately Mooreshank Whine's primary area of expertise is in "luck science," so he just fumbles his way through this type of operation routinely.

13. Escape the Moon!

What could possibly go wrong?

Olde School Wizardry is written to encourage exactly this kind of madcap, swingy, creativity that plays out a bit like a British comic-caper (the word "fiasco" comes to mind), and the rules-lite format encourage it. 

I wonder, do other folks enjoy this style of play, or does my group just have fairly unique tastes among role-players?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

OSW: Flight from Dream Station Six

Image result for misty isles of eldThough I seldom post about it here, my homebrew, all-wizard RPG, "Olde School Wizardry" is coming up on session #115 this week.

I've found very few things more satisfying than managing a roleplaying campaign that has its own legs and momentum.

Following a few sessions spent with Chris Kutalik's amazing Misty Isles of the Eld by Hydra Cooperative, which integrated with disturbing ease into our existing campaign (basically all I did was move it to the moon), I sent my players the following teaser:

Luminous, lunar mist lends a persistent, chalky haze to the surface of the moon, but about every 700 hours the mists "fall," leaving the lunar surface clothed in frigid, naked darkness. 

Since the moonquake marking the release of Luna, the moon's captive elemental spirit, from the cruel clutches of Zifthhpf the Usurper, most sources of shelter near Monument Five, her stark, floating prison, have collapsed. 

Now as the icy shadows of lunar mistfall grip the moon's surface, the wizards must flee, or the moon will become their icy tomb!

Fortunately the wizards have found temporary shelter from the lethal cold within the tubeways and towers of Dream Station Six--a facility for broadcasting frustrating nocturnal signals to the surface of the world below (inspired by Paul Gorman's Faery Ring to Alpha Ari).
The Black Obelisk, a means for jumping between worlds, rests but a stone's throw from the Dream Station, and the wizards have deduced they can harness their own Quintessence to temporarily reactivate the elfin portal generator.  However, the psychosyllabic glyphs scribed upon the stone are both subtle and complex.  Programming the Obelisk properly is a tricky proposition and a miscalculation could strand explorers anywhere. 

Image result for giger xenomorphStation transmission logs, listing psychic "addresses," might help a great deal, but the wizards had better act quickly. An accident has allowed a nightmare to become corporeal, and it stalks the shadows of the station, able to frighten its victims to death! 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Returning to Phandalin

Image result for 5th edition D&DThis summer, after a careful look around our Friendly Local Games Stores, I knew that I wanted to offer a 5th edition D&D game in our after school club.  Despite my own preference for older editions, I figured that once my students head off to high school and college, some familiarity with 5e will make it easy for them to jump into any pickup games they encounter.  Also, should some of them be bitten by the bug and decide to teach themselves the full game, 5e can be purchased retail in five different local shops and bookstores.

Though I've run something like 70 sessions of 5e before, some aspects of the system just don't stick with me and I've constantly got to review some bits to stay on track: 

  • spells prepared vs spell slots
  • short rest vs long rest
  • reaction vs bonus action
  • 5e spell descriptions vs their 40-year-old analogs
  • some conditions (e.g. "poisoned")
Image result for lost mines of phandelverTo that end I ran my older kid through Lost Mines of Phandelver at home to help me brush up some.  Her quartet of adventurers made swift progress, hitting a few side quests but mainly focusing on locating the Forge of Spells, rescuing various NPCs, and thwarting the Black Spider.  

In fact, perhaps because she cut her teeth on B/X D&D, she was adept at avoiding unnecessary combat and focusing on recon, speed, and stealth to achieve her objectives.  She wasn't willing to risk a confrontation with the adventure's final guardian and so, after a brief but polite conversation, she withdrew, leaving the Forge unplundered.

As the school year kicked into gear, this gave me an idea: except for a bugbear boss, rogue wizard "Iarno the Glasstaff," and the Black Spider, all of the named villains made it through to the end of the adventure unscathed.  Instead of rewinding and starting Lost Mines over again, why not just pick up with my new group of players from where we left off?

I started session one with the group, a company of free swords hired by the Lords' Alliance and Sildar Hallwinter (the new townmaster of Phandalin), acting to support the two surviving Rockseeker brothers.  

Having at long last discovered its location, the pair of dwarves had all but beggared themselves in order to purchase a charter to reopen Phandelver Mine.  This meant that they had scarce resources left to hire laborers, provisions, and equipment.  

But wait!  

The Redbrand gang had left a considerable stock of supplies in their hideout when they were chased out of the ruins of Tressander Manor ... somebody just needed to trek up there and haul them out.  

And rumors that the manor was haunted?  Bah.  Probably just cooked up by the Redbrands to keep the townies away.

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Drop a furtive ghoul into the northern hallways (gnawing at the bones of slain brigands) and  and voila!  Instant memorable, creepy, first encounter.  
It became even more memorable when, once the ghoul had brought down the party's cleric and was dragging him off by the ankles, another emerged from the cistern behind them!

One PC fled, two went down, death checks were passed, and thanks to the presence of two rogues in the party (rogues seem to be the new fighters), both ghouls were vanquished.

Image result for nothicSession Two: after his arrest, rebel wizard Iarno Glasstaff had spilled the beans to avoid the gibbet.  Among the information he shared was the fact that he had built a lab under the old manor ... in fact, his books and papers were still there as far as he knew.  

Harid, the party's wizard, might profit by getting his hands on some of those books and notes.  Iarno had said something about a creature he called "mad eye," ... but that was probably just to keep profiteers from looting his lab.

The group tangled with the Nothic, and defeated it (just barely), making a third plunge under the manor's ruins to find Iarno's lab.  His old familiar (re-skinned as something much more along the lines of Brown Jenkin) made things interesting, but they got back out with a bit of swag.


Overall I'm feeling good about the plan to simply continue the storyline ... following some threads out and fleshing out others (e.g. orc raiders planning revenge for the defeat of their chief's son or necromancer finds something of interest in the ruins of Old Owl Well).

Because of the novice experience level of my players and the increased mechanical complexity of 5e, however, I'm finding that the pace of the game is much, much slower than what I had anticipated, however.  With 5-6 players at the table, I'm really only getting a couple of encounters in for each 90+ minute chunk of play.

Will that pace hold their interest for the longer term?

Will it hold mine?