Monday, December 26, 2016

Monsters for Christmas

My kids made out like bandits this year.  I still remember when Santa brought me the Monster Manual (Easley cover) back in the day.  

Each girl brought her copy on the car ride to Granny's house and on the way home we played a game where they would name a letter of the alphabet and I would try to guess how many creature entries there were for that letter.

We got as far as "S" before it was too dark to see anymore and I was quite pleased with myself, coming in within 1-3 of the correct answer in every case but "G" and "M".  I even got in a mini-rant about why Uncle Gary would choose to list rhinocerous separately from Herd Animal.

Having never read a Monster Manual, my wife (who is more of a board gamer), wondered aloud, "Why would anyone ever go near the water in D&D?"  I'd forgotten that practically half of the critters are aquatic (I also questioned the need for both Giant Gar and Giant Pike). 

Anyway, it was cool to see a copies of my first excursion into the AD&D product line in the hands of my hobbits.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Book of War: The Dogs of War

My oldest daughter and I have been playing Daniel "Delta" Collins Book of War recently (simulating D&D combat on a mass scale where 1 figure = 10 men) and we decided to take a break from our regular campaign for a pickup game.

This time she chose to build a force composed entirely of dogs, giant wargs, and wolves!

Against her I arrayed archers, medium foot, dwarves, heavy foot and crossbow troops (visible below from left to right).

The match played quickly (simplicity and fast play are part of the appeal of Book of War) and the humans were able to drive The Great Pack off, limiting their predation of the fields men know ... at least for now.

In proper D&D fashion, we talked about the skirmish on later truck rides and let story emerge as a product of gameplay (rather than a script to be followed).  This was cool because we got to discover it together.  

Image result for mean terrier breeds
It turns out that the mastermind behind The Great Pack is this little guy ("Napoleon" by name).  

He's one of those little dogs who is firmly convinced that he's a big dog.  What's more, the little fellow is gifted with a notion of politics and enough savvy to manipulate larger, dumber dogs into throwing off their collars and turning upon the two-legged oppressors.  

So driven is Napoleon in his quest for domination that he has even convinced his mastiff henchmen to ally themselves with their traditional enemies: the wolves ("After all, aren't we truly all part of one breed?  And who benefits from our animosity?  Isn't it the two-legs who set us against each other?!").  Though Napoleon's forces suffered a defeat, we are sure that we haven't heard the last of him or The Great Pack.

Has anyone else tried out Book of War?
Do you have another game or system that you use to simulate mass combat in D&D?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Dwimmermount Season Two: Holiday Spirit

Two characters survived our last delve into Dwimmermount, but with cold season in full swing neither player attended club this week.  Instead we began with six brand new characters (it was the first time in the dungeon for one player--her older sister invited her to join).  We rolled the fresh PCs up in minutes and I rattled off the ability modifiers.

I've streamlined character generation in several ways to accommodate Dwimmermount's appetite for blood and the shorter attention span of my middle school players:
    Image result for skinny boxer
  • Roll 3d6 in order with no class prerequisites -- if you want to play a clumsy thief or weakling fighter, that's your business!
  • I've loosen up on class names, letting players describe characters however they wish.  This go we had a "brute" and two "archers" (each statted as a fighter) along with a "prophet" (magic-user/cleric)
  • Starting gear is simplified to "pick up to 5 things you want to bring with you" and players are given about five minutes before I call time.  A bundle of torches or a quiver of arrows are a "thing" of course, as is a set of armor.  This session two of my players chose a large, aggressive dog as one of their "things"-- "Markiplier" and "Magc" by name.
Image result for burl ives snowmanThings took a funky turn when player Virginia declared, "I'm playing a snowman," but I'm all about bringing new players into the hobby, and if that means I have to expand my fantasy world a bit, then so be it.  Afterall, flying fire-breathing lizards are right in the title of the game ... what's so hard to swallow about a magical ice-construct who sets off to seek adventure in the wide world?

Inspired, another young lady decided that she wanted to play a reindeer.  

"Sure.  She can't do anything that requires thumbs, but she's fast and can gore with her antlers in a fight."

I drew the line at a glowing nose.

Starting hit point rolls were not kind to my six players.  There were two rolls of 1 and a 2.  Curiously though, only one of the six players opted to equip their characters with any armor whatsoever, instead focusing on ranged weapons and tools for exploration.

Quincy, a veteran with over 15 hours at my table, took on the job of mapping and performed admirably, being both quick and precise.  Eric, playing his third session ever, had the only armored character and so took the front rank and the job of "party leader."  Basically he would choose what direction to turn at intersections and when to backtrack ... not quite a party "caller" but a role that really kept things moving and possibly reduced the ever-present temptation to split the party.

To further bolster my sanity, I insisted that players seat themselves according to their three-rank marching order, with the rear rank the furthest from me ... if they shifted for more than the time it took for someone to pick a lock or listen at a door then they would have to physically swap seats with the other players.  

The group was very efficient for a party of six, exploring 8 different rooms in about an hour of play.  They tinkered around with strange pipes, tried to interact with some psychic phantoms of long-dead soldiers and avoided areas that gave Eric "a bad feeling."

Image result for rottweiler in caveTo my surprise, the dogs added considerably to play.  I found that I could shift the dungeon mood by having them alert, growl, nose around in curiosity, or seem disinterested, opening up another channel of information flow to the group.  Of course the dogs didn't always agree with the explorers about what was important!  At one point Markiplier became intensely interested in something and when given some lead went so far as to start rolling in what proved in the end to be monster poo, triggering a trip back to the chamber with the leaky pipes to try and wash him up a bit.

"Hey, that will cover up our scent.  Maybe we should use the monster poo so that they can't smell us coming."

"So ... you all are going to smear yourselves with poo?"



Other interactions were less clear.  Though the psychic phantoms were cause for interest and alarm by the party-members, after only a moment the dogs completely ignored the scentless, silent shapes.  Did this mean they were harmless, or just incomprehensible to dogs?

Despite liberal wandering monster and restocking rolls the session ended with but a single monster encounter--one in which the characters actually arranged themselves in an ambush and waited some time to see what would come prowling along.  

Image result for pig orcIn this case it was a half-dozen porcine beastmen, led by a large sow.  Wary of the dogs, the beastmen kept their distance and attempted a parlay until Eric's character hurled a handaxe at one, killing it dead on the spot.  

I expected half the party to die in the initial clash (recall, half of them had 2 hp or less with no armor to speak of) and this seemed even more likely when two characters focused on keeping their dogs out of the fight rather than battling enemies, but the dice loved them, the pig-men soon routed, and in the end the last creature was run down and speared.  

The sow was stripped of a pair of garnet-studded bracers and the group went proudly galumphing back to Muntburg without so much as a scratch ... where they happily began purchasing weapons with scarcely a thought about trying to buy any armor (except perhaps for the dogs). 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dwimmermount Season Two: The Bill Comes Due

Intent on discovering vaults yet to be breached by the 40 or more characters who've been swallowed by the megadungeon over the previous 15 real-life months, an optimistic (and reckless) band of first level characters descended to level 4 in search of prime loot and immediately found themselves in encounters that were way out of their league.

Image result for minotaurCaptured by ogre-sized, bull-men they agreed to use their (extremely modest) magic to bring Commandant Bik the head of Krishka, the Matron of Rats.  Soon captured in turn by the rat-folk, the group wasted no time in double-crossing Bik and his savage bovines.

"We have come to help you in the war against the minotaurs." *

"Yeah, we were kidnapped by minotaurs."

However, one of the rat-things recognized first level wizard, Oliver from an earlier skirmish in which the group had aided Bik's warriors and fried one of the rodent-men with a spell.  It began pointing at Oliver and jabbering into Krishka's ear.

Image result for backstab"I think I have a great plan ... I take my sword and cut Oliver's head off." **

Though they scattered initially, eventually the rats rallied, clearly impressed by the party's savagery.  Soon the same rat-thing started pointing at Lucin the archer and jabbering again (perhaps recalling that Lucin shot him in the back some time before).  The other creatures looked on expectantly.

"I simply explain that I will not be killing him at this time."

Krishka made no effort to hide her mistrust of these outsiders, "What do you want in exchange for slaying Commandant Bik?"

"We want the choice to live among you as kings."

"No?  How about really, really good best friends then?"

The party was permitted to rest on the edge of the rat territory (under close surveilance from Krishka's folk) and plan their assault.

"Remember, Bik's a big, fat phony.  All his bodyguards look just like him.  It's just a mirror!"

[this was a pretty reasonable assumption having seen the Mirror Image spell in action -- they never suspected that the great brutes might be clones!]

Setting out, they decided to take the most direct route for Bik's throneroom and stab him a lot.  They kicked in the first door they came to and charged!

Image result for david goliathI assumed that we'd have a total-party-kill within two rounds, but the dice seemed to share the blind enthusiasm of my players and they fought on in the face of my consistent single-digit rolls.  Spells soon expended, three magic-users flung themselves into hand-to-hand combat alongside their teammates.  In fact, they actually managed to bring one of the big bull-men down before the odds caught up with them.  Then, in the blink of an eye, Sialren the elf lost a hand, Lucin Fohrdatboi was cut down, and as the rest fled Thanatos was captured.

Image result for hooves cowRetreating to rat-folk territory the survivors made excuses to Krishka and plans, mapping out a campaign of attrition that they hoped would eventually break Bik's grip on level four.  Their respite was broken prematurely, however, when the bull-men launched a raid of their own.  Deimos continued trying to rally the rats even as the maimed Sialren and Maester Coleman fled, and the madcap mage was struck down at last under the stamping hooves of the enemy.

As club wrapped up for the week, we ran a series of opposed die-rolls to see if the elf and wizard could escape the dungeon before Bik's troops could overtake them.  The pair made it out by a healthy margin, living to tell the tale.

* I cordially dislike the use of the name "minotaur" (bull of Minos) in D&D.  It doesn't make a bit of sense outside of a Greek/Minoan context.  "Medusa" as a race also bugs me, though I have no problem with "gorgon."  Do other DMs have similar hangups I wonder?

** I don't normally allow player characters to attack each other--with middle school players it just degenerates into a series of grudges and hurt feelings--but Oliver's player was busy running Wiz-War at another table and I knew he wouldn't mind much.

We are at kind of a tricky place with Dwimmermount now.  The upper floors have been looted, so characters won't level up based on recovering a good haul of treasure from those levels.  Trying to level up through victories in combat requires either careful tactics (which many of my novice players lack) or completely beating the odds.  On the otherhand, diving deep enough to find rich, unspoiled troves pits the low-level PCs against massively superior brutes like "Bik", making their chance of survival very slim indeed.

The original Dwimmermount campaign developed organically around the play-style and choices of author James Maliszewski's own players ... it's a great fit for those seasoned, careful, and thoughtful players (having been built around them), but Dwimmermount shows its limitations over time with a band of impetuous, impulsive novices.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dwimmermount Season Two: Much Ado About Rats

We opened the episode with a gaggle of first level characters down on the fourth level of the mountain fortress, clinging to a fortuitous alliance with a platoon of bellicose bull-men. 

Image result for minotaurHaving roasted a rat-man with magic, the big, bovine brutes decided that the adventurers were both amusing and potentially useful. Commandant Bik, impressed with Oliver's spell (and not realizing that the timid mage's sorcery was exhausted) and charmed by adept Deimos's fast talking, agreed to hire the explorers as mercenaries to help his bulls defeat Krishka's rat-folk.

Bik agreed to Deimos's bid of 500 gold for the rat-matron's head so quickly that they realized that they had either asked far too low an amount or that Bik planned to doublecross them.

The five characters from last session were joined by three others (each run by a first time player), on the fairly thin rationale that they had become separated from their ecclesiastic expedition by teleportation traps and were captured by Bik's troops. The brutes just assumed that the strangers all belonged together.

The party:
  • Deimos the mage, level 1 MU (and de facto leader, though out of spells, this player's second time playing)
  • Master Coleman, level 1 MU (complete newbie)
  • Rudolf the goblin (virtual newbie)
  • Salren the elf (this player has been in perhaps a half dozen sessions)
  • Lucin the archer (level 1 thief, first tabletop RPG session for this player too)
  • Oliver the adept, level 1 MU (no spells remaining, played by a seasoned RPG veteran with more than 150 sessions under his belt)
  • Thanatos, a veteran of earlier expeditions (level 1 fighter, played by a veteran of my summer games class)
  • Excalibur the swordsman  (level 1 fighter, played by a 2-year games club vet)
Provided a pair of bull-man escorts and the password to the teleport traps that had plagued them last session, the crew advanced into rat territory.  The beastmen drew back to let the group do its work.

"Oh no, they are going to ambush us!  He said those hoof prints in the dust were suspicious."

"Um, he said, 'conspicuous' ."

"Well ... still, I don't trust 'em."

Image result for split the party

Dwimmermount is a series of stacked and jumbled mazes of course, so when the inevitable branch appeared in the tunnel ahead the middle schoolers did EXACTLY what I've come to expect ... they split the party.

Image result for split the partyFor my sanity I insisted that the players seat themselves according to their marching order.  A quick shuffle later and both groups had positioned their nearly defenseless mages at the front and their heavily armored fighters in the rear ... a puzzling choice, because even if the newer players hadn't quite realized the importance of armor class yet (especially when the average party member had 4 hp or less), it seems like the vets might have spoken up at this point.

Team North took a left and halted when the glare of their torch was reflected by several pairs of eyes.

"Those aren't minotaurs."

"Maybe they are baby minotaurs."

"I don't think so."

"I ready my bow."

"Hey, those rat-men we saw before were invulnerable.  They just kept healing their wounds."

"Yeah, but you killed that one."

"With my spell ... my ONE spell ... I can't do that again today."

"Well ... here, I have this mutant jawbone ... give that to them.  Maybe we can make friends.  Tell them we come in peace and give them the bone."

"Guys, we were hired to kill them."

Meanwhile Team South popped a door open and came nose to nose with a second pack of rat-men.  The abrupt light and the presence of loud intruders spooked the creatures and they took flight toward a stair that descended to dungeon level five.  As many battered substitute teachers will tell you ... the one thing you must never do with middle schoolers is show fear ... they can smell it.

"I shoot one with my bow!"

"I'm gonna swing at them with my shovel."

"I run after them and try to learn their language!"

Image result for startle easily back in greater numbersThe gleeful pursuit was short-lived, however, for upon arriving on level five the rat-men were reinforced by three more of their kind.  The party was now outnumbered two-to-one, and though easily startled, the creatures soon returned ... and in greater numbers.

"Hey, we are peaceful ... we don't want to fight you."

DM: "You tell this to the one you shot in the back?"


DM: "Chittering in anger they spring at you with notched knives and bared teeth."

Image result for skavenExcalibur took a deep wound, leaving his swordarm dangling and useless as he tried to staunch the bleeding.  Deimos's heel was punctured right through his boots by long, yellow teeth.  Rudolf the goblin switched from his (?) shovel to a filthy blanket, snapping it at the rat-creatures like a whip to keep them at bay.   For his part, Lucin made no more attacks, but stuck doggedly to his efforts to negotiate despite being attacked several times.  During a lull in the fight one of the beasts replied:

"Throw down your bow, leave your dead, and depart or we shall kill you."

Back up on level four Master Coleman (played by a novice) worked on negotiating his own deal with the half dozen ratmen that now blocked Team North's progress.

"What can we do that will make you trust us?"

Rat-dudes: "Put out that torch."

"No way!"

"I can see in the dark, I don't care."

"Um ... okay."

Emboldened the rat-creatures approached and began binding any character who didn't resist.  

"Don't you trust us now?"

Rats: "We shall take you to Krishka.  She will judge you."

"Oh no, I'm scared of people with 'K' names!"

Thanatos wasn't going to go quietly and, though blind, he began swinging away with his axe.  Oliver immediately protested.

"Don't!  Your going to hit me!"

Image result for roll one dieI gave it a one-in-six chance and let the players roll ... sure enough, Oliver took a hit to the side of the head and was sent sprawling.  With the other party members having already surrendered, Thanatos agreed to go quietly.

Oliver's death checks indicated that he had been struck with the back of the axe, and though unconscious he would soon recover.  Team North was rounded up and marched off to see the matron of the rat-folk.

Down on level five Lucin threw down his bow and even offered the rat creatures a few of his precious, silver coins.

DM: "When you hold the coins out they recoil, twitching."

"They're alergic to silver!"

"Okay, sorry.  I put them away."

Despite Deimos's efforts to staunch the bleeding, Excalibur's wound proved too grievous and the fighter expired.  Stripping his body of arms and gear, he was left for the rats as Team South retreated back up the steps to level five.  


Eight players is a big group for middle school because the attention spans are (usually) shorter, my comfort zone is three to six, so I had to keep things moving that much faster at the table to keep them engaged.

Thank goodness I was running house-ruled B/X this year vs last year's 5th edition, otherwise I might have lost them.

Even so, we only managed 4 rooms/encounters in 80 minutes ... which isn't terrible (they had fun) but I was really conscious of the effort to keep pulling each player back into the narrative.

Related imageWe had exactly 40 students at club this week and, though I was posted at one corner of the library, background noise became a factor too ... the farthest players from me sometimes had to repeat their actions.  I've never gamed at a convention, but that must be something that DMs in that setting really have to work around.

That being said, I'm delighted that tabletop roleplaying continues to make a strong showing in kid-interest each week as students select which table to game at (4 of our eight tables this week by my count).  Even more importantly, (in my mind anyway) kids are continuing to run RPGs for each other, which is pretty crazy when you consider that they all have interactive digital gaming at their fingertips.