Saturday, January 31, 2015

Learning the Dungeon: 7 Assumptions

I'm starting a new nine-week term with my in-school Adventure Games Enrichment Class and I'm thinking of new ways to engage my students in the learning-rich treasure trove offered by tabletop role-playing.

By far the largest obstacle to my efforts hasn't been getting buy-in from students or articulating the educational value of the activity to my administrators (who have been very supportive) but rather in the fact that tabletop role-playing as a medium starts to lose something with groups larger than 6-8 players.  Oh, it's possible to run stream-lined games for groups of 25 (which I've done) but at those scales the game world the golden element of intense, personal interactivity with the shared world.  Also, let's face it, for an X-box generation, waiting more than four minutes for your turn is going to be a real challenge. 

Simply put: Skilled GMs are my most scarce resource.

Fortunately, this go-round I have a great mix of students who range from grizzled veterans (who've campaigned through both my afterschool and summer gaming classes) to complete newcomers who've never held a d20 before.  With some fairly experienced players in the room we should be able to break into groups earlier than in any prior class.

To pave the way for developing GMs, and to capitalize on some of the academic potential of tabletop gaming, I intend to start each class out with a short writing prompt.

Example: What are at least four things you should probably do before you try to open this chest?

To help kids who don't have any prior experience approach these questions, I introduce the following list of Assumptions:

1. We are using a generic "swords and sorcery" setting with medieval technology (no guns, flashlights, cell phones, dynamite or electricity).

2. Adventurers explore and search for treasure.

3. "Dungeon" is a generic term for a dangerous, unexplored, sub-surface environment.

4. Dungeons contain traps, monsters, and treasure.

5. While not all "monsters" are immediately hostile, and some are actually friendly, combats are frequent and can be deadly.

6. Some creatures encountered will be far too strong to defeat in a fair fight (you have to know when to run).

7. Adventurers must work as a team to survive.

Am I leaving out anything critical?
Should I add something about each character being a specialist in his or her chosen profession?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Robotech Minis?

What?!  How did I not know about THIS?


After about 100 years on mothballs, Palladium finally put together a miniatures game featuring my all-time favorite giant, tiny, fighting robots!

Robotech punched my brain in the face when I was in 7th grade.  Macross-era episodes would air as I was waiting for the bus in the morning, which means that I never got to see the beginning or end of a show because I'd have to race up the driveway to avoid being left behind.  Still, what I did get to see really grabbed me.  Though I'd had a brush with Star Blazers when I was 5, I couldn't really follow it.  Robotech, on the other hand, had something that (for all their gonzo coolness) Thundercats, Gummi Bears, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Voltron lacked:

  • the episodes didn't wrap up neatly at the end of the half-hour
  • the entire series formed a single story-arc
  • the heroes (even your favorites) could get messily gunned down without much warning ... this was war!  There were no last-second G.I. Joe-style flawless parachute-escapes after every explosion.

Roy Fokker couldn't just punch out!
So I know that Robotech was a mongrel mess, patched together from other shows, that it was melodramatic and really hasn't aged all that well, but MAN those mechs were the BEST!

My chum Heath and I got into the Palladium RPG for a while  in middle school (I still remember some scrapes Jim Sato and PFC Kyle Burke got into), and after he moved away I dragged Matt, Dan, and Curtis into the action for a while, but I always found it hard to maintain a campaign despite some pretty decent sourcebooks (of which the very dark New World Order was my favorite).  My older brother even bought me the novelization of the first two Robotech Wars by Del Rey books (I still have 'em).

"You want HOW MUCH for it?"
As I got older (and a little more cash) I started getting really interested in miniatures (starting with Chainmail) and I saw that the next logical place to take my Robotech itch was to the wargame table -- The thing was, because of big complicated lawsuits, nobody would actually make the minis for those cool veritechs and destroids!  I even remember playing through one large, set-piece battle using the Roman numerals from my family's Risk set.

At one point, after college, I cannibalized some Warhammer 40k space elf models and some Dream Pod 9 heavy gear minis to make my own scratch-built Robotech mechs ... but an officer's pod or Valkyrie was beyond my talents.  Sure there was a collector's market for some of the old Battletech models, but I've seen those listed at close to $50 a pop on eBay ... even nostalgia knows it limits.

So now I guess I finally have a crack at fielding a decent set of Macross / Robotech minis after all these years.  But who would I even play with?  Do I even know anybody who still has that Robotech itch?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Making Short Work of the Silver Princess

Working our way through a stack of classic TSR adventure modules, some players in my Homeguard B/X campaign recently tackled (B3) Palace of the Silver Princess by Jean Wells and Tom Moldvay.

We opened with the level 1-3 party (2 elves, 2 halfling-thieves, and a magic-user) wandering eastward in search of some way to pass over the border and beyond The Fields We Know and into our campaign world's Lord Dunsany-style Elfland.  The aim of their quest was to find a way to bring a fallen elf comrade, Sayana, who had been incinerated by a dragon, back to life.

Instead they were met on the road by Thendara, immortal guardian of the once-verdant valley of Haven.  If the group agreed to be transported to Thendara's world and rescue a princess in peril, she would consent to guide them to Elvenhome.

I replaced offscreen antagonist "Arik" with Orcus, since the characters had tangled with his goons before in both (B2) Keep on the Borderlands and (H1) Keep on the Shadowfell, and played up the undead / corruption angle as Haven decayed under the malicious power of a bloody red glow.

Our first session was pretty pedestrian (the standard skeletons, giant rats, traps, secret doors, etc) but, having had no luck finding their way up into the higher reaches of the afflicted palace, the party withdrew to the gated courtyard where they had begun their exploration.

It was at the opening of our second session that one of my eight-year-old players flexed her creative muscles.  "If we can't find stairs going up, can't we just climb up onto the roof or something?"  Hunh.  That was some pretty sweet asymmetrical thinking there.  I was clear about the consequences of a tumble down to the flagstone courtyard would be grim (2d6 damage) and that I would require at least two climbing checks, but the players were sold on the idea and the dice were hot.  Soon a rope was carefully tied off and the party ascended to the partially-destroyed upper level of the palace, neatly bypassing a dozen encounters with the traps and monsters below.

I was determined to be fair, but not to make this a cake-walk:

  • multiple saving throws against death magic were required since I ruled that the upper reaches were partially bathed in the lethal reddish light that cursed the land -- failure resulting in both injury and a penalty on the next save.
  • I made two different wandering monster checks to see if flying horrors noticed the party among the cracked spires and gables (I was thinking of unnamed beasties using stirge or bat stats)
  • I introduced five different ways the group could proceed -- down one of several chimneys, lowering themselves to reach windows, descending into a distant courtyard, or climbing to a still higher set of windows -- giving no hints as to which would lead most directly to the source of the supernatural blight.
They chose quickly, decisively, and luck was again on their side.  Soon Mary the halfling was rappelling down the wall of the palace's huge garden, but when a twisted "archer bush" spat thorns at her she retreated back to the rooftops.  From there, though additional saving throws against the red doom were required, volley after volley of archery fire reduced the vegetable horrors below to so much pulp.
A view of the garden with its prize: a silver dragon statue.

Though there was a tense moment with a wandering medusa (the front rank made their saves, Mary always carries a mirror, and the creature fell victim to its own gaze), soon the adventurers found their way to the chamber of the evil priest and the ruby blade that he was carefully preparing for the infernal champion that Orcus would soon send forth from The Pit.

A combo of three Sleep Spells and a well placed Charm Person (the priest rolled a 6 for his save) and the party swiftly dispatched or neutralized the defenders (including a werewolf).  Charlotte the level two magic-user led the way into the Great Hall where she promptly smashed the cursed gem with the ruby sword and delivered Haven from its curse!

These guys really played the tactical game beautifully -- there were no flashy heroics here and if they perceived that a fight might be "fair" they were quick to retreat and look for an advantage or another alternative.  Sniping from beyond range, setting ambush, avoiding pitched battle, and making every possible use of the Sleep Spells really typified this approach.  I was really proud of them for making such short work of the opposition.

Then again, I've always had a strong bias toward a tactical approach in my games.

How about you?

Do you prefer to approach your fire-breathing reptile games with the cool eye of a wargamer looking for maximum advantage at minimum risk, or do you prefer a more sanguine style where you are willing to take big gambles in hopes of capturing that epic butt-kicking moment?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Olde School Wizardry: Return to the Vampire Tower of Death

I don't usually post about the long-running, bi-monthly role-playing campaign that I run with adults but, on a whim, I decided to share a session report.  The game mechanics of Olde School Wizardry are more complex than those I usually play, but since we wrote it ourselves those disadvantages sort of melt away in the face of all the flexibility it offers.  See what you think:

In a recent session of Olde School Wizardry, our homebrew, all-wizard role-playing game, Collegium Mysterium practicum students Pronk, T.Table and A. Wensel were assigned the task of recovering the Arch Chancellor's robes of office from The Vampire Tower of Death, a ruined fortification with an evil reputation, a few days south of the college.

The tower was so named not by the region's highland clansmen, who refer to it by its original name, "Kaamen Buydrov", but by recent emigres to the northern barony of Craeg Vale.

Unfamiliar with local fauna, when caravan oxen were found exsanguinated in the vicinity of this brooding ruin, some of the southern "flatlander" folk jumped to the conclusion that a vampire was to blame!  The name stuck even after neophyte wizards proved the real culprits to be "night swallows" -- small, nocturnal, avian predators.

Some years ago, the college's Assistant Librarian, Conigal Save, disguised himself as the Arch Chancellor (in part to shield that worthy from a rash of assassination attempts) by wearing The Mantle of Subterfuge, a most remarkable garment that, among its other magical properties, allowed the wearer to perfectly impersonate others.  In a case of mistaken identity, Conigal was abducted by "Misty" the flesh golem and spirited off to the tower.  Conigal, reduced to a living skeleton by sinister outlaw mages of "The Cabal", was eventually rescued, but the Arch Chancellor's wondrous raiment was left behind in the frantic escape from The Vampire Tower of Death.  Now it fell upon the three practicum students, enrolled in their last year at the Collegium Mysterium, to bring the mantle back to their administration.  What could be simpler?

Abstract Stone Sculpture in the Fields
As it turns out ... just about anything!

First stop along the way to the tower was a riverine gorge in which an earlier Collegium Mysterium survey team had established a camp for the purpose of monitoring the stone elemental that protruded above the waters of the River Clye at that point.  From time to time the blocky bulk of the awakened stone spirit, who had burst from an underground vault to attack the college some years prior before being magically impelled to retreat to this place, would shift or turn on its axis.

The students were to update the observation log before moving on.  Of course, instead of merely noting any changes in the elemental they had to go and magically poke at it!

Through swift use of The Ancient Rune of Warding the students were able to survive the elemental's bull-like charge and The Ancient Rune of Divination even allowed Table to learn the spirit's true name (information that may come in handy in the future).

By this point the minor water elemental carried by Wensel, bound into the shape of a homicidal  trout, began to complain that the bucket of ox blood he carried it about in had congealed.  If anyone was to get any sleep that night, they'd have to deal with the fish's loud demands.  Table invoked The Ancient Rune of Creation to force into existence a magical portal connected to the fish's bucket, but was not able initially to do so with quite the precision he had hoped.  The resulting foot-wide fissure in the world opened to a frigid, starry plain under strange skies.  Nonplussed, Table tried again and was successful enough in linking the Rune to his magical Science "Portals" that he was able to specify the opening be a "sanguine portal."  This newest aperture opened into the bottom of some hideous charnel pit where the pachyderm victims of either sacrifice or gladiatorial bouts were cast to breathe out their dying groans to the accompaniment of braying trumpets and pounding drums.  The fish was happy but nobody got much sleep that night.

Upon arriving at the tower itself, the three wizards and their bodyguard, retained by Wensel in exchange for enchanting the fellow's shield, cast about a bit, hoping to find an easy way into the ruins.  When climbing to a crumbled doorway revealed an entire flock of dozing night swallows, the fellows opted instead to try the mouth of a partially concealed tunnel in the hillside below.

It was common knowledge that Milos and Dietr Vile, the rogue Cabal wizards who once hid out here, were both paranoid and overly fond of nasty, magical traps, so the young wizards proceeded with great caution.  Wensel even let "Pinchy", his magical wooden wolf-hound / giant ant construct frisk on ahead of the group just in case.  Unfortunately, Pinchy proved resistant to some of the carefully concealed magical booby traps and when The Ancient Rune of Destruction was triggered Pronk found that one of his kneecaps was disintegrated while Table lost all the bones from his right hand, arm, and leg, leaving him unable to cast spells!

art by Parallelodrome at
The team Created an improvised flood (Pronk being a Hydromancer) to flush the tunnel and chose to continue despite the hasty retreat of their bodyguard.  Their tenacity soon paid off, however, for descending into the deep places within the hill the wizards soon discovered the privy chambers of the rogue wizards -- dusty and disused, but still containing magical texts, notes, equipment, and a staff of bone.

Daring to explore just a little farther, Pinchy and the three neophyte wizards were soon to learn the fate of the Brothers Vile.  Partially encased in sedimentary rock, the skeleton of Kaerenocht, one of the long-extinct race of dragons was discovered!  Intent on forcing the dragon to reveal heretofore unguessed secrets of magic in exchange for its freedom, Milos and Dietr (both Bone Mages) had reanimated the great creature and somehow returned to it a bit of its old sentience.  Though it must have taken a few years for the opportunity to appear, Kaerenocht eventually got the jump on the brothers as their torn bodies, now held by the dragon as trophies, revealed.  Of course the corpse held impaled on the dragon's great claws still wore the Mantle of Subterfuge!

After a bit of hasty negotiation, the session ended with Table a hostage of the dragon, who tapped out in code its demands that the wizards free it from its stony prison.

Will Pronk and Wensel (now in possession of the mantle) leave their comrade to his fate, or is there yet honor among wizards?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Big Trouble in Little Phandalin: Continuing our 5th Edition Adventure

When I last posted about this campaign ...

The party's dwarven cleric had just been cursed by the ghost of his master, Sildar Hallwinter, while looting his corpse and the gang found out the hard way that they were unemployed.

What are a pair of down-on-their-luck dwarves, a shy elf, an attack-hobbit and their pet goblin to do?

Head to Phandalin of course!

After alienating a few of the locals, pondering an indecipherable sign, and trying the inevitable "rob the shop" caper, the gang eventually found their way to the Shrine of Luck on the village square.

Some ham-handed flirting with the priestess followed, after which the lads were, for a small donation, permitted to spin the "wheel of luck" to try and earn the favor of The Lady.  They managed to negotiate for the removal of the curse and a bargain was struck: if the adventurers journeyed to the ruins of the village of Conyberry to inquire of a dangerous hag about the location of a long-lost spellbook, the priestess would petition The Lady to remove the curse on the dwarf.

Amazing art by Carlos Garcia Rivera
Two days east down the Triboar Trail the crew stumbled across a pack of vicious gray-skinned, undead scavengers feasting on the remains of an owlbear carcass (slain by our last batch of PCs prior to their TPK by orcs).

The party scattered and hilarity ensued amid the maze of bracken and tall grass.  Only Isaac's shy elf could out-pace the undead so the dwarves and halfling dashed back and forth with slavering dead constantly clawing at them (Ted the goblin just climbed a tree to wait things out).

Eventually the creatures were destroyed or scattered with a little help from a traveling wizard, though sadly the dwarven fighter was messily eaten before all was done.

The trip to the lair of the hag was continued without further event and the party did a nice job of remembering to set watches while camping in the ruins of Conyberry.

Upon meeting the hag herself and offering the gift they were sent to deliver, I was a little surprised when the gang decided to stick to the plan and ask about the lost spellbook.  As notes were jotted, the halfling attempted a bit more half-hearted flirting and the group withdrew and headed back to Phandalin where the priestess had ample time to prepare a Remove Curse spell for the afflicted dwarf.

As the group geared up to head out to Wyvern Tor and take advantage of the recent bounty on orcs, they were confronted in the street by a group of thuggish Redbrands, the local gang of ruffians who had been making life hard for the residents of Phandalin.

Rather than be bullied, the adventurers immediately threw down and a wild west-style running fight erupted in the muddy little lanes of the town.  While Ted hid out in an alley, Shy-elf and and the attack-halfling peppered the thugs with arrows, carefully keeping their distance.  A bit of poor dice luck saw the dwarven cleric detonating a local outhouse rather than blasting his foes and falling under the clubs of the ruffians.  By this point the archery had done its work and the villains fled back to their hideout at the old ruined manor on the east end of town.

No time was spared for mourning and thoughts of pursuing the orcs were put aside as the surviving party-members began planning their revenge over the following days.  They spoke to the proprietor of the Stonehill Inn, no friend of the gang, and secured a back storeroom in which to meet and plot.

When news came that the Alderleaf farm was on fire, the adventurers hurried to the scene.  Sure enough, the Redbrands had set the halfling farm ablaze and had put out word that, at least in their eyes, demi-humans are no longer welcome in town.  Attack-halfling spoke to widow Alderleaf and another confederate was soon enlisted in the effort to end the Redbrand menace.

This week we'll see if the adventurers, who are weaker than their enemies man-to-man, can use guile and ambush to deal with the Redbrands once and for all!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Elves and the Power of Positive Thinking?

I don't use elves in two of my four on-going role-playing campaigns -- I don't have a beef, they simply don't fit thematically -- but when players in my B/X Homeguard Campaign (which does include elves) recently ran afoul of a thoul (a silly ghoul hybrid), it got me thinking ...

Sweet thoul pic by Marchomer, found here.

In D&D, elves are immune to the paralysis caused by the touch of ghouls.  That's not insignificant, because with three attacks per round, a single ghoul can potentially make a real mess out of a low level party.  Consider too that ghouls are likely immune to Sleep and Charm spells (the standbys of low level casters) and that they run in packs of 1-6 (2-16 on dungeon levels below the second!) and that spells big trouble.

So ... Why?  Why are elves able to shrug off ghoul paralysis without so much as a saving throw when dwarves and halflings, who are generally more resistant to effects that cause paralysis (e.g. saving on a 12+ vs 13+ in Basic), cannot?

Could it be all the chocolatey goodness that makes them immune?

I was wondering if it has something to do with how elves are portrayed in The Lord of the Rings.  It's easy to overestimate the influence of LotR on D&D, but still I remembered Gandalf saying,

"In Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power." -- The Fellowship of the Ring

Then again, maybe there was no Tolkien connection at all -- I've read a suggestion that the special immunity to ghoul paralysis possessed by elves was a unique artifact of trying to balance point values among various troop types in the proto-D&D miniatures rules Chainmail (see Giant in the Playground ).

Then, as I was digging around at enworld, I found where Uncle Gary said, "The negative energy of the ghoul is the rason [sic] for its paralyzing ability. Elves, having great positive energy, are thus immune to the effect."

Interesting.  If the DM interprets elves as these creatures that aren't native to the game world and who are only partially present a DM can start to weave a cohesive rationale for the smorgasbord of advantages and special abilities that have been tacked onto elves in the rules over the last 40 years of gaming.  

Here's where my (completely silly) exercise in trying to retrofit a rationale took me:

  • Elves are immune to all undead negative energy effects (level drain from wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires; the aging touch of ghosts, etc.) -- they are simply too charged with positive energy for these afflictions to take hold.
  • Elves have a much higher experience point requirements because they experience the mortal world at a remove -- they aren't ever completely here but rather are mere avatars of extradimensional positive energy-laden creatures.
  • Elves have strict level limits -- they simply aren't present in the same way humans are.
  • Elves are immune to Sleep and Charm spells because their minds aren't actually in this world to begin with.  They are likewise be immune to Feeblemind and illusions as well -- this connects to their uncanny ability to spot conceal / secret doors merely by passing by (2-in-6 vs a 1-in-6 chance).
  • Elves infected with lycanthropy expire (their tenuous connection with this world is disrupted) rather than transform into a new form that isn't an adequate vessel for their positive energy.  Polymorph and similar shape-changing spells slay elves rather than transforming them.
  • Elves cannot be converted into undead, nor can they be raised from the dead by magic.
  • Elves have no access to clerical magic (can't use clerical scrolls or magic items) -- they have no truck with the petty deities of the mortal world.
  • Upon reaching their level-limit, elves withdraw from the mortal world, discorporate, and return to the Great Elfin Consciousness or whatever.

I'm not particularly earnest about any of these suggestions and I don't see myself implementing them in my games (except for having elves physically leave the campaign world upon reaching their level-limit), but it can be fun to see what happens when you grab onto an odd little loose thread in the rules and start pulling to see where that rationale can take you!