Sunday, May 14, 2017

D&D: art vs play

Image result for moldvay basic
This was the very first image that I ever associated with Dungeons & Dragons.

I encountered it when my older brother brought home a 1981 Moldvay Basic set from KB Toys with hard-earned cash from mowing lawns (I bought a tauntaun with mine).

The image was fascinating.
The magic-user's face reminded me more of Jadis the White Witch than Princess Leah or any other female hero I'd ever encountered.
The dragon lacked wings and was apparently aquatic.  

The warrior was so stoic that, unlike his companion, he appeared unconcerned about the fanged horror just a yard or two away ... in fact, he wasn't really even looking directly at the beast from what I could tell.  His goggled helm and beard reminded me more of Ming the Merciless than Prince Valiant.
Image result for narnia illustrations                             Image result for ming the merciless

The second image that I ever associated with D&D was this one:

Image result for moldvay basic

It too was striking.  None of the three adventurers were turned so that their faces were clearly visible, but rather it was easier for me to focus on the hobgoblins (for whom I eventually found myself rooting--they were more relatable as they defended their territory against attack).  By age six, I knew a bit of history ... enough that I thought the armor of the explorers was odd ... more Classical than Medieval.

Another thing I noticed about these images by the time I was 10 or 11 was how sharply they contrasted to some aspects of the D&D game.

In actual play, we readily spent every last gold coin equipping new characters and carefully calculated our encumbrance values so that we knew just how fast we could run away from pursuing critters.  The adventurers in D&D art, on the other hand, seldom had more than two or three pieces of gear on them.

Image result for moldvay interior
not a backpack in the whole bunch
"That guy would never survive.  All he has is a bow!"

The cleanness and simplicity of the art was lost on younger me as I looked for  (and seldom found) images that matched my experience of the game.

Image result for classic D&D art

Sometimes I'd even invent a narrative to explain a piece that I liked ... "Maybe their mule, supplies, and retainers are just out of sight to the right."

This "problem" persisted over into miniatures too and, though we mainly used them to record marching order or simply as display pieces, the incongruity was still there.

I picked up Swords & Wizardry Whitebox last year, not because I needed another rules set (my Moldvay is in fine shape, I also have that text in pdf, and I occasionally carry a copy of Labyrinth Lord just in case I want a spell reference, wandering monster chart, or treasure table), but mainly because I was charmed by the digest-size, minimalist approach, and simple (almost naive) artwork.  
Image result for swords and wizardry whitebox
as lovely as it is simple

Clearly D&D artwork remains very distinct from D&D play.


Why do you suppose that, with exceptions like Jim Holloway's contributions, D&D artwork has tended to remain heroic or mythic rather than reflective of gameplay?

The dialectical relationship between art and play is strong.  How do you suppose that the "unencumbered hero" image has affected game play and changes in published rules?  

How do you suppose the rules as written have impacted gaming artwork?  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dwimmermount Bushwhack?

Image result for adventuring party
(c) artikid
I opened our latest session by revealing to the players that Loomis Dooin, their wizard-patron, had extended his offer to reward those able to reawaken the "sleeping perpetually moving mountain spirits" beneath Dwimmermount to other adventuring parties.  It looks like the gang was going to have some competition.

Ferdick spent some time at the Green Dragon Inn, learning what he could of these rivals, and hearing for the first time of the Five Delvers--a fairly green adventuring party whose members had been seen talking privately to Dooin.

Trekking to the mountain, over the next real-time 90 minutes, the group thwarted another slime curtain, pried some orichalcum plates out of a stone floor for later resale, and battled a patrol of eldritch bones.  Rather than head deeper to try and accomplish the task set them by Dooin, however, they opted instead to carefully collect all the eldritch bone fragments, remove them from the dungeon, and spend several days of game-time attempting to painstakingly gleen denatured azoth from the skeletons.  
Image result for black skeleton
Matilda the witch took charge of this operation and, thanks to a natural 20, she was indeed able to extract some of the volatile, black substance from the bespelled bones, eventually fashioning the stuff into a crude grenade.

Image result for bushwhackersFor the remainder of our session, after a bit of shopping, Ferdick arranged the party in the entry hall just beyond the Red Gates in a semi-permanent campsite.  His intent was to bushwhack the Five Delvers, reasoning that here in the dungeon the confrontation would be beyond the reach of the law and that the Delvers could be disposed of quietly without arousing undue suspicions.
A few wandering monsters livened things up a bit, but by the end of the session the Five Delvers hadn't yet appeared.  We'll pick up there next time and see how things go down (I'm more than a little curious myself).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Smurfs & Dragons

Image result for smurfs
Smurfs first appeared in my AD&D game back about 1985 as a wilderness encounter.  The party (Alain Blademaster, Fazil the Elf, and Blint Brokenhaft) was trudging off to Barovia or somewhere and, deep in a forest glade, they began to hear singing ... insipid, repetitive, saccharine singing that just wormed its way into the brain and lodged there.  Soon a choir of little blue men (three apples high) in phyrigian caps came into view ... small, elusive, and quick.

"Roll a save vs. Spell"

"I failed."

"Okay, you lose a point of Intelligence, a point of Wisdom, and you start singing the song too."

"What?  Permanently?"


Gratuitous smurf-stomping ensued, but Alain's player was still grumbling about his slightly below average Intelligence score a year later.

My younger daughter had a smurf-themed birthday party a few years ago and among her swag was a DVD with a bunch of the Hanna-Barbera episodes.  Sometimes, when not watching the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon or the Anne of Green Gables miniseries (Sullivan 1985 ... I think Anne would have made a crackerjack DM), she'll pop the Smurfs in for a bit.

Recently, on a long car trip, I asked my older kid (who likes to DM) what her favorite episode of the Smurfs was.  The idea that I was trying to pitch to her was that good DMs can find and repurpose plotlines from virtually anywhere.

"The Howlibird"


"Yeah, it's great."

Image result for howlibird
Here's the plot (as she described it to me):

  • Papa Smurf messes around with magic and accidentally creates a potion that makes his potted plants try to murder him (a good start)
  • Papa Smurf orders some of his incompetent underlings to take the dangerous potion to a desert and bury it (where it will only be a danger to Bedhouins I guess)
  • His incompetent underlings instead simply chuck the potion off a cliff and head home.  Unbeknownst to them, it lands in a bird nest a mutates a chick into a giant screeching horror (which utters the dread syllables "Howli-howli-howli-how" over and over again throughout the episode)
  • The Howlibird attacks Smurf-village
  • The smurfs try a variety of methods to combat the bird and drive it off -- all of which fail
  • Papa Smurf works away until he can produce some deus ex machina spell that reduces the bird to an extra small size
  • The smurfs mock their now-impotent foe

Here's how we decided to repackage Howlibird for consumption by D&D players:

    Image result for graz'zt
  • The Argent Company, a party of paladins, destroys an avatar of Graz'zt; unbeknownst to them, lingering in the smoking landscape of the battlefield is a chunk of the Abyssal-lord's wicked liver 
  • paladins move on to next quest; local clerics discover liver-fragment, carefully collect it, and bring it to their bishop for disposal
  • the bishop seeks divine guidance and learns that if the liver is flung into the sea, Ulmo Sealord will bear the fragment to an undersea abyss and cast it in (sending it back to THE Abyss)
  • the bishop dispatches a party of clerics on this errand, however the liver tempts them toward indulgence and sloth.  Somebody fails a saving throw and the clerics end up frittering their days away in the hamlet of Guff's Crossing, drinking ale and waiting for the weather to clear up ... eventually they just chuck the liver in a hedge and head back to their master
  • the liver infects the alder tree it lands against and mutates hatchlings in the bird nest therein--the Howlibird is born!
  • The Howlibird rampages [here's where the PCs probably come in]; it's big and bad and wreaks havoc.  Hear it's cry and you are stunned (if distant), rendered comatose, or just die (if close).  The Howlibird is immune to most attacks ... or rather it dies but then just rises again in a day or two.  What to do?!
  • The bishop Communes to learn how to stop the Howlibird--this takes a week of purification, intense prayer, and meditation ... the PCs have to keep him alive long enough for him to make contact with the divine genius and learn what to do 
  • The bishop learns that the liver of Graz'zt is behind this (if the PCs didn't already work that bit out)--sends PCs to go find it and do the job properly
  • Guff's Crossing has become a nightmare landscape and the alder is an evil ent-thing that needs bashing 
  • Once in possession of the liver-fragment, the PCs have to make saving throws of their own as they journey to the sea while the damnable thing constantly tempts them to sloth and indulgence
  • Splash.  Spell weakened.  Howlibird can now be put down for good (and there's always a lingering option that the liver gets intercepted and begins spawning new horrors at some later date ... kracken anyone?) 
Image result for medieval bishop

She was pretty pleased with the results and may use it with her own D&D group if she can work it in before the year is over.  One of the real beauties of this is that the plot is so stinking simple and she knows it by heart already that she can run it on the fly.  A fun little experiment in repurposing plotlines that demonstrates how even the most unlikely (or insipid) content can be tapped by a proficient DM.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Another Dwimmermount Double-Header

About a week ago my group gathered following Spring Break to test themselves against the dangers of Dwimmermount once again.  Following the horrors of the Solum wight, the party's ranks had been thinned considerably and so a new group of fools joined Ferdik in his quest to reactivate the "perpetual moving forge spirits" on level three as bidden the group by their new patron, Loomis Dooin the Wizard.

And so Ferdik and his loyal shieldmaiden Brunhilda recruited an elven thief, a witch, a goblin, a fighter, and a kitten before plunging down into level two.

A fey mood took Ferdik, however, and he wasn't in The Reliquary level long before he started poking behind a few of the many unopened doors that the explorers had passed by when spying out the stairs down to level three.  Soon the quest was postponed and the hunt for loot was on.

yes ... we had a kitten
saturated in goblin blood
... don't judge, they're middle schoolers
The search wasn't without mishaps ... both the kitten and the goblin became stuck fast in an oily, black ooze that had migrated down from level one and they would have remained there had Merk the fighter not rather blithely suggested chopping off the goblin's hand--a suggestion which the goblin received with puzzling eagerness.  It turns out that the salty blood of Telluria's goblinoid races was too much for the ooze and it released both explorers in haste before slithering off in search of easier prey.  

[I used my little "Random Slime" 3x5 card to decide on color, diet and vulnerability for this particular beastie]

A tapestry depicting the saints of the Great Church was discovered and hauled away before the group came across a chamber scattered with coins and a few gems.  Almost to the man they rushed in headlong and began scooping up whatever they could snatch (only Matilda the witch hung back), giving the pair of hellhounds lurking in ambush ample opportunity to take the group by surprise.  Merk went down quickly and Matilda took to her heels, carrying the party's only other source of light, and so the fight that followed was largely conducted in the dark, lit by occasional flares of searing breath.

Image result for hellhoundI was anticipating a fresh round of casualties, but the kitten (hissing and spitting) occupied the attention of the hounds for several rounds of the fight [I randomized who the monsters would attack].  Her single hit point didn't go far of course, but she did have nine lives after all.

Meanwhile, Donny the goblin made the best effort he could with his off-hand alongside the newly recruited elf and eventually the party prevailed, though they were a tattered, scorched bunch by the time they withdrew to Muntburg where we ended the session.

The following week, 
Ferdik the Goon once more led the group (this time nine strong) on their quest to reach level 3.  

The Party:
Ferdik the Goon (fighter 3)
Brunhilda (NPC fighter)
Merk (fighter 1)
Kermit (human? fighter 2)
Ghaul (elven thief)
New Guy (M-U 1)
Matilda (witch 1)
Donny the Goblin (hook-handed goblin 1)
Zekiel the Bard (bard 1)

They weren't far into the Paths of Mavors, however, before they were slowed by the heavy residues left on floors and walls by the constant, restless movements of Kitherian slimes.

"Oh yeah, we left that door open up there on level zero."

"Do you think the rope is still there?"

"Hey, you should use your levitation potion [recovered last session] to go close that door."

Taking a detour to look at the Great Shaft, the route that they suspected all the strange oozes overrunning level one were coming from, the group found the vast main hallway blocked by a thick, ragged, yellow curtain that extended into the gloom of the arched ceiling high above.  They had been this way a number of times before, but had never seen anything like this before.  Ferdik strode forward with confidence, slashing at the curtain, and it promptly detached itself from the stone, revealing itself to in fact be an immense, fleshy slime.

Ferdik thrust himself free of the fatty folds of the thing, even as it began to secrete digestive juices, but Merk and Brunhilda were trapped under its bulk!

A grim tug-of-war followed for the next several rounds as the party either slashed away, trying to free their trapped teammates, or stood around and gaped.

Finally, their friends dragged loose, Ferdik unleashed the group's last flask of alchemist's fire, immolating the horrid thing's fatty bulk and unleashing gouts of greasy, acrid smoke.

The new wizard (alternately called "Stick-boy," "Stickly," "Wizard X," or "new guy," throughout the session) was able to get Brunhilda back on her feet with his Cure Light Wounds Spell and so, leaving the flaming ooze blocking the hallway, they retreated back to the middle of level one.

Having noticed some old paw prints in the dried slime, Ferdik abruptly tabled the party's quest and headed off to track whatever strange creature had left the marks behind.  Meandering through a few rooms, they came once more to the head of a second set of steps descending steeply into Dwimmermount's second level.

The crew had been here before a time or two over the last few months of real-time but, as before, the path downward was blocked with a carpet of deadly yellow fungi.  The corpses of several boar-men, now cloaked in spore-bearing orbs, made gentle mounds under the yellow mass.
Image result for yellow mold

Recalling the lethality of the mountain's fungus, Ferdik called an immediate retreat, but Zekiel had ideas of his own and he slid his prized book of musical notations along the floor in an effort to burst as many of the spore nodules as he could.  His efforts were immediately successful and, apart from a brief episode in which Kermit entered the room and starting eating the mold by the handful before being dragged away by Denny, the party was able to escape while the spores settled.

The group left the mountain and finished the session listening to Zekiel perform an impromptu stand-up routine in the Green Dragon Inn.