Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ray Harryhausen and the Brass Golem

I, like all right-thinking people, am a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen's films. Closing in on 50 years after its release, Jason and the Argonauts is still an amazing thing to watch, thanks both to its timeless story and the awe-inspiring stop-motion effects. I suppose that for people who grew up with CGI, the animation sequences might seem whimsical and phony, which is sad. The irony is stunning: visual effects created with objects that actually existed and moved in the real, 3D world can seem less true than effects that never existed beyond momentary blips of electricity blazing through a maze of wires and silicon chips.

When I was a kid, opportunities to see films like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad were rare. We were at the mercy of late-night and Saturday afternoon broadcast TV schedules. If we got to see three Harryhausen stop-motion masterpieces a year, we counted ourselves lucky. Without DVRs or videotape recorders, there was no backing up to watch the skeletons give battle or Talos groan to life for a second, third, and fourth time. All that animated wizardry was on the screen once and then it was gone, not to be seen again until the next magical time it aired -- a wait of a year at least, if not longer.

In the interim, my friends and I made our own stop-motion films using the school's super-8mm camera and G. I. Joes (the multi-jointed, 11-inch versions) as maquettes, along with whatever other props and scenery we could manufacture or scrounge. Our films were violent, gory, and shamelessly awful in ways that only grade-schoolers can revel in.

The fact that I can now order DVDs or stream Harryhausen's entire library, along with just about any other classic movie from my childhood, and watch and re-watch them as often as I want, is immensely cool.

What else is cool is that a few years ago, WotC gave a nod to one of Harryhausen's creations with the brass golem in the Night Below set of D&D Miniatures. Harryhausen's minoton was created by the evil sorceress Zenobia in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It rowed her barge across the ocean and forced an entrance into the Hyperborean shrine where two more Harryhausen creations, a giant troglodyte and a saber-toothed cat, fought to the death.

Aside from the fact that the brass golem tips its horns to one of my cinematic heroes, I love the way it continues a D&D tradition. In Appendix N, Gary Gygax mentioned movies and screenplays as part of the fantasy melange that helped to shape D&D creatively, but he didn't credit any particular films. There can be little doubt that he was a fan of Harryhausen. Those movies influenced the game's original creators and, 35 years later, still inspire the people working on D&D. On the eve of the release of what may be the biggest CGI extravaganza of the decade, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, Ray Harryhausen's accomplishments are still worth celebrating.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Tao of D&D

The combination of freelance deadlines and full-time work on Dragon and Dungeon online have been one-two punching my lights out for eight weeks now, and probably will continue treating me badly until the end of the year. That's keeping me away from the Howling Tower, unfortunately.

If I don't have time to offer up pithy thoughts of my own, I can still steer you to someone else's. The Tao of D&D is one of my favorite old-school D&D blogs. It's consistently thought-provoking, and the last few days, in which Alexis wrote about The Golden Rule, Crossovers, and New Monsters, have been outstanding. If you're looking for some shrewd D&D wisdom to ponder, click over to The Tao of D&D and feast your brain.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The First Paladin

Yesterday evening, I was invited to sit in on the filming of a new episode of The First Paladin, Peter Adkison's video series about his Chaldea campaign. The group is using the D&D Next playtest rules for the campaign, and they wanted to update their characters from the 1st iteration of the rules to the current, 3rd iteration. My contribution was walking them through that process and answering questions.

If you haven't watched any of the First Paladin vidcasts, check out a few. The campaign is highly political. That's not to say there's no fighting, because there's plenty of action. Instead of dealing with monsters and dungeons, the story revolves around the machinations of the ruling Swartout family. The Baron of Gaunt sits an uneasy throne and faces schemes from every direction, particularly from his own family. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paying Dues

Guilds were a notable feature of urban life in medieval cities. If you were a craftsman of any type in Europe during the Middle Ages, you almost certainly belonged to a guild.

Guilds show up in fantasy RPGs and campaign settings, too; every city has a thieves’ guild and a wizards’ guild. It’s mostly lip service, though, because those guilds seldom do anything other than issue vague threats (thieves’ guild) or accidentally blast their guildhalls through dimensional portals (wizards’ guild).

So what should a guild do? What DID a guild do? Or in other words, why should your character pay dues? (Yes, there are dues. The name “guild” comes from the gold collected in membership fees.)

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Say No

In recent years, the philosophy of “yes, but” has become a hot ticket for GMs. Let me assure you, this was not always the case. I’m reminded a bit of the way philosophies come into and out of fashion in business management (are you a one-minute manager in search of excellence?).

If that sounds dismissive, it’s not meant to be. There’s a lot to be said in favor of “yes, but.” As GM philosophies go, it’s better than most.

It can, however, become a trap for the unwary or overly generous GM who’s trying to build a world with a strong theme.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Elevator Pitch

When designing a world as a setting for replaying and storytelling, condensing your concept down to an elevator pitch is a great exercise. Not that you’re likely to corner a venture capitalist and a Hollywood producer in an elevator and pump them to invest money in your idea, but because you are going to corner friends, players, and readers and ask them to invest something even more precious than cash in your creation—their leisure time.

I can’t talk about elevator pitches without declaring how much I hate the term. Once that proletarian complaint is out of the way, I’m ready to proclaim that the elevator pitch is a great tool for sharpening up a product.

Did I say “product”? Absolutely! Even if your worldbuilding effort is entirely for private consumption, treating the work as a product is constructive.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

World of Wonder

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I’m definitely not a reactionary type. I consider myself to be progressive about most things. But in some regards, I’m an unapologetic originalist. I almost always prefer the first recording of a song to the cover version, the original version of a movie to the remake, authentic ethnic food to an anglicized, family restaurant dish, and charcoal over propane. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I’m not entirely sold on the whole theory of progress idea. Looking at the ancient world, one has to wonder whether we’ve really come as far as we like to think we have. Sure, modern medicine with penicillin and vaccinations is great, and it’s tough to imagine life without the Internet anymore even though it’s been around for less than half of my lifetime.

But ask yourself, what does the 21st Century offer to rival the seven wonders of the ancient world?

The American Society of Civil Engineers has a list of modern engineering wonders and, make no mistake, it’s impressive. Yet I can’t escape the nagging feeling that our steel mills, steam-driven excavators, tower cranes, and computer-aided structural analysis constitute cheating on some level.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

X1, The Rings of Doom

X1, The Rings of Doom, my adventure for The Secret Fire RPG, made it to just in time for Halloween. You get 18 pages of old-schooly, underground mystery and death for $7.99. I recommend it highly, of course, but I would. With any luck, it will garner a few impartial reviews before too long.

I'd love to write more about it now, but I'm swirling round and round in the deadline drainpipe and if I don't keep my mind on the money, I'll get flushed. So it's back to work. I promise that I will give a fuller accounting of X1 sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lure of the Unknown

“The unknown” has a hypnotic lure. If you’re anything like me, then you started exploring the dark recesses of the closet the moment you were old enough to switch on a flashlight. After the closet came the basement, the attic, the garage, neighbors’ yards, the woods down the hill, and eventually the storm drains that carry runoff hundreds of yards beneath the streets through pitch black, echoing concrete pipes the perfect size for a 10-year-old to crouch in.

A world without secrets is a world that doesn’t need adventurers. It might need heroes to save it from some catastrophe or looming evil, but it doesn’t need explorers willing to strike out into the darkness with no guarantee that they’ll make it back home to the light or investigators driven to peel back layers of concealment and deceit from ancient horrors or modern crimes.

Let’s look briefly at three types of secrets that can be buried in a campaign: geographical, historical, and magical.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Terrible Place to Visit

How often have you heard the phrase, “It’s a great place to visit but I’d hate to live there?”

When designing a fictional world, you’re actually aiming for the opposite reaction: “It’s a terrible place to visit, but I’d love to live there.”

Your world is a terrible place to visit because it’s falling apart at the seams. It might be threatened with conquest by a godlike necromancer and his undead legions; it could be undergoing some sort of magical catastrophe; it might be in the final throes of social collapse, overrun by zombies, engulfed in war, split into dozens of squabbling city-states ruled by iron-fisted, would-be emperors, or at the beginning stages of rebuilding from the ashes in the wake of any of the above.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Land Beyond the Shrine

This week, Adventure Notebook takes you to the secret land beyond the forgotten shrine. This is a great little gateway to further adventure deeper down inside the Earth (or wherever your adventures take place). I'm a sucker for lost world romances, and this is the back door to the lost world.

This might be the last Adventure Notebook for a few weeks. Interest seems to be waning, if the number of page views and downloads is a reliable indicator, and my time will be at a premium until early November. We'll see how things go this coming week.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy The Land Beyond the Shrine. I'd love to hear where it leads your heroes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Follow Friday

I'm proud to be a member of a writer's group called the Alliterates. This group was started way back in the '90s, with members drawn entirely from the ranks of TSR. It's expanded a lot since then. We now have 32 members, including people who never worked for TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Our complete membership roll is below.

This being Follow Friday, you can tune in to everything the Alliterates do -- which is quite a lot, between games, novels, kickstarter projects, ebooks, poetry, art, and whatnot -- by subscribing to the Alliterates list on Twitter, by liking our new Facebook page, or by checking the Alliterates website.
* You should also follow Steve Sullivan. He's one of the more prolific Alliterates, but because it's his list, he can't put himself on it.

Alliterates Roll Call
  • Wolf Baur
  • Jason Blair
  • Bill Bodden
  • Stan! Brown
  • Tim Brown
  • Jamie Chambers
  • Monte Cook
  • Bruce Cordell
  • Troy Denning
  • Matt Forbeck
  • Dave Gross
  • Jeff Grubb
  • Scott Hungerford
  • Rob King
  • John Kovalic
  • Jennell Jaquays
  • Jess Lebow
  • Will McDermott
  • Jason Mical
  • Doug Niles
  • Don Perrin
  • John Rateliff
  • Thomas Reid
  • Mike Ryan
  • Steven Schend
  • Lorelei Shannon
  • Lester Smith
  • Stephen D. Sullivan
  • Monica Valentinelli
  • Eddy Webb
  • Johnny Wilson
  • Steve Winter

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse?

All my favorite RPG settings are either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Yours probably are, too.

Is that a surprise? Take a moment to think about it.

The most obvious footprint of the apocalypse is the ruins it left behind. When was the last time you saw an RPG campaign map that didn’t have a symbol for ruins in its key?

Somewhere in the Gazetteer there will be a discussion of the empires that rose and fell in the centuries leading up to the current era. The causes for their downfalls always involve megawar, anger of the gods, or techno/magical calamity on an unimaginable scale—assuming the place wasn’t just overrun by zombies.

The fact is, an apocalypse has much to offer a world of adventure.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Maze of the Dreamer

Another Monday, another Adventure Notebook!

This one is a bit trippy, and that's by design. It's a case of an idea that's too big for this format. I'd love to design a full-size dungeon around this theme. It cries out for more. If you use this, throw in whatever else pops into your head. It will work.

The tiles in Maze of the Dreamer were drawn by David Millar, who hasn't been featured in an Adventure Notebook before now. AFAIK, Millar is the man behind Dave's Mapper, the online tool that generates these Adventure Notebook maps. I can sit in front of the computer, clicking up new maps endlessly and just exploring them with my eyeballs. Dave's Mapper is a really excellent tool. Experiment with it for a while and I'm sure you'll agree.

Friday, October 12, 2012

X1, The Rings of Doom Cover

Earlier this week I got my first look at the cover for my adventure written for The Secret Fire RPG, "X1 The Rings of Doom" (slight title change from the original "Rings of Death"). I'm told there might be slight tweaks to the illo or layout before it's finalized but nothing anyone is likely to notice.

The illustration doesn't show any specific scene from the adventure (wolves don't play much of a role in it), but I dig the painting anyway. It's a great piece of art for a Halloween release, which this is slated to be.

If you haven't tried The Secret Fire RPG, it's well worth a look. George Strayton and Tony Reyes packed more than a few interesting ideas into it. If any more X1 news comes my way, I'll be sure to pass it along here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keeping Your Balance on the Power Curve

The Legends & Lore column by Mike Mearls on Oct. 8 concerning magic items in D&D Next has set off a predictable flurry of online ... hmmm, let's call it "conversation and debate."

The debate is not just over how magic items should fit into D&D. It goes straight to the mathematical heart of D&D and raises fundamental questions about how the game should work.

The argument boils down to this. If magical bonuses are "balanced" across the system, then they become wired into the game's math so that magical accessories become mandatory if characters are to keep pace with the power curve set by monsters. If those bonuses aren't wired into the math, then even a small magical bonus boosts characters ahead of the monster/NPC power curve and upsets the balance of "level-appropriate" encounters.

The problem as I see it is that those positions assume there are only two ways to deal with the power curve: You either define it rigidly as 3X and 4E did, or you ignore it and punt the problem into the DM's lap, as the original, 1st, and 2nd editions did.

I say a third option deserves a look. That's to develop a simple, reliable way to assess actual character power that looks beyond character level. The rigid systems currently in use assume that all level X characters are equivalent in power. Actually, they don't assume it; they are engineered toward the goal of ensuring it. Every level X character is forced to be equivalent to every other, or so goes the theory.

In practice, it doesn't work. Players rebel against uniformity. There are those who always look for means to pull ahead of the pack, and in a complex system like D&D, ways are bound to be found. Others make suboptimal choices, intentionally or unintentionally, that put them behind. Some DMs give away too much magic juice and others don't give enough. Once the rulebooks leave the warehouse, it's beyond the publisher's ability to control.

So the Average Power of a level X character is a statistical datum that has little bearing on the Actual Power of a specific character. Very few level X characters sit on the average. For a host of inescapable and desirable reasons, most will be some degree stronger or weaker than the arithmetic mean. In a group of five characters, those variations can average everything back toward the center or they can cumulatively create a whopping gap between expectation and reality.

If character level is an inadequate gauge of PC power, that doesn't mean the alternative is having no gauge  The alternative should be to develop a tool that is adequate -- a way to measure a character's effective level as opposed to its XP level, if you will.

I haven't developed such a system nor do I intend to, but I can illustrate how it would be used.

  • Speary Mason is a level 5 fighter. He has Str 12 and no magic weapon or armor, making him slightly below average for a level 5 fighter. His EL (effective level) is 4. 
  • Bill Guisarme is also a level 5 fighter, but he has Str 18 and a guisarme-voulge +1. He kills things faster than an average level 5 fighter would, so Bill's EL weighs in at 6. 
  • Lance Wielder is another level 5 fighter, but Lance has a girdle of awesome muscles, a warhammer +3/+5 vs. creatures with bones, and a pair of Can't Touch This dancing pants. Beefed up with all that magic, Lance operates at EL 8 -- three ranks above his level.

When the DM designs an encounter for these three characters, she knows that 18 ranks of foes, not 15, will give a balanced fight, and that those foes should average around EL 6. The fact that all three PCs are level 5 is irrelevant. They could just as well be level 3 or level 8. What matters is that they function as a group of three characters at approximately EL 6.

The needed component is the system that lets DMs and players assess the real power of a character, accounting for level, ability scores, and magic. It should be easy enough to use so people will actually use it, but it doesn't need to be simplistic. The calculation needs adjustment only when something changes, as when characters go up a level or "inherit" a significant magic item. Effective Level would be more dynamic than character levels but only slightly so.

The benefit, which I see as huge, is that it cuts the wires binding together the XP tables, treasure tables, and monster tables. DMs can be as stingy or as generous as they like with magic swords and girdles, and they won't upset anything. Each campaign can establish its own power gradient unfettered by an official curve that depends on levels alone for gauging power. Whether I equip everyone with vorpal swords and pet dragons, or with bearskin diapers and t-rex jawbones, I'll still be able to put together a balanced, challenging encounter. Whether I want to is another story entirely; at least I'll have the tool.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Question #1

Worldbuilding is about telling stories. Storytelling and worldbuilding flow from the same spring. When no one knew what lay on the far side of the hills or across the wide river, any story about those places was set in an imaginary land that could be as fanciful as the storyteller cared to make it. (“Snakes there have two heads, fish speak in riddles, and the people walk on their hands! I have seen these things, and I tell you they are true!”)

When beginning to sketch out a new world, the first question I ask is not about cultures, races, geography, politics, science, or gods. All of those come later. Question #1 is, “What happens here?”

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Sporcerer's Lair

Yes, that's sporcerer's lair, not sorcerer's lair. You should understand the difference after reading the notebook.

I suppose I ought to say something about rules. These little adventures clearly are aimed at early editions of D&D -- OD&D, AD&D (1 or 2), B/X -- along with any of the current crop of retroclones or OSR titles. They all work equally well in this context. I don't specify levels of play because everything about these adventure notebooks is meant to encourage seat-of-the-pants GMing. If you can run one of these notebooks at all, then you should be able to make it work for almost any group of adventurers. The target is low; in my mind, I'm always writing for characters in the level 2-5 range.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Me Friday

A week ago was Friends Friday. Today will be Me Friday. Here's what I'm working on currently.

1. A big 4E city adventure. This is the longest chunk of anything that I've written for a while, at 65,000 words. That's great for me, because after a decade of publishing short, daily material on the web, I've missed really sinking my teeth into a subject.

2. Planning for Kickstarter. Two fantasy projects are firming up in my brain for Kickstarter campaigns. Both ideas have percolated in my head for two decades or more, waiting for the right combination of timing, financing, and opportunity. They never got any traction at TSR, which probably ought to make me wary, but Kickstarter is the perfect venue. They'll be geared toward Labyrinth Lord as the system of choice, with conversions to other OSR systems and possibly to Pathfinder, 4E, and even 5E, depending on funding and legal terms. I'll have a lot more to say about these in the future, obviously, but one is an adventure with a peculiar theme and the other is a campaign setting.

3. Some D&DNext conceptual stuff. This project involves putting together an optional rules module for D&DNext. I can't disclose much more than that for contractual reasons, but it's a subject that's close to my heart and I'm digging it. Probably a bit too much, because I was already behind schedule when I had to set it aside to tackle the city adventure on a short turnaround. (When I fall behind on a schedule, it's usually because I'm having too much fun and don't want to stop working. Jim Ward calls this affliction designeritis.)

4. Coming up sometime soon in Dungeon online will be "The Blood of Gruumsh," a 4E adventure for heroic tier characters. PCs explore a lost elven religious colony and uncover some buried secrets that certain followers of Corellon would rather not see exposed.

That's a whole lot of vagueness amounting to little more than "I'm writing things I can't talk about yet." But soon I will be free to talk about them, and I hope that all of you will find them as exciting as I do now.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Target Zones

Balance has always been a big concern among RPG players and designers. My friends and I had our first debate about whether D&D’s classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items were “balanced” during our very first D&D session. We reached no definite conclusion other than that balance is a fleeting target.

D&D is not a competitive game. Players are not trying to force the DM into checkmate or each other into bankruptcy. The whole situation is fluid. If characters are winning too easily, the DM can ramp up the opposition; if they’re losing unexpectedly, the DM can toss them a lifering from the S.S. Deus ex Machina.

As RPGs have grown more detailed, characters have become more specialized. In practical terms, this means they can dominate the situations they were specifically designed for, they probably can pull their own weight in related situations, and—if their specialization is really thorough—they could be almost helpless under exactly the wrong circumstances.

As a group, these players can be given what they want only by a narrow range of encounter types. So the question of the day finally arrives, and it’s this: is the GM required to deliver that narrow range of encounter types?

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Flooded Temple

This week marks the tenth installment of Adventure Notebook. That makes me happy. These started out as an exercise in rapid creativity. The challenge was to see how quickly I could design a small dungeon using a randomly assembled map of free geomorphs and a few randomly selected notions from Risus Monkey's DungeonWords. The answer was "not as fast as I'd like," but everything takes longer than I expect it to. These little dungeons have been great fun to work on, and I'll keep writing them as long as you keep making the effort worthwhile by downloading them.

To celebrate AdvNtbk 10, I added a new monster in The Flooded Temple. Of course, in this format, designing a new monster means assigning it HD, AC, damage, size, and treasure, so don't exult too much. But exult a little.

I've also compiled Adventure Notebooks 1-10 into a single PDF for the "collectors" among you. It's a non-numbered, unlimited edition, but you should still get yours now at the Adventure Notebook page.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Friends Friday

One of the benefits of loitering around this business for as long as I have is that you collect lots of interesting friends, many of whom pursue all sorts of game-related activities that you'd like to promote. Without further ado, here's what some of my friends are up to that my readers might like to know about.

From Lester Smith: Popcorn Press is gearing up in two ways to publish its annual Halloween collection of horror-themed poetry. First, PP is raising money through Indiegogo so that, unlike previous years, it can actually pay contributors in something more legal-tenderish than copies of the collection. Second, PP is accepting submissions from poets who'd like to have their work included in the collection in exchange for plaudits, exposure, and some of that legal tender. If you compose horrifying (as opposed to horrible) poetry, get in touch. And back the project on Indiegogo.

From Jamie Chambers: Ben Mund's The Very Hungry Cthulupillar is now available in PDF at DriveThruFiction. Just $3.99 gets you "16 pages of full-color illustration by Ben Mund, and will call back fond memories of childhood along with the maddening knowledge of our cosmic insignificance and forthcoming doom." This book is an amusing parody of a children's book intended for children of all ages -- except young ones.

From Monte Cook: It's too late to actually get in now, since the funding window has closed, but you ought to at least be aware that Monte's Numenera project on Kickstarter broke the half-million dollar mark. That's from an initial goal of $20,000. Of course, it has Monte's creativity and productivity behind it, but still ... It's pretty amazing what this community can do with a bit of motivation.

From Steve Sullivan: Steve's new steampunk novella Heart of Steam and Rust is available in all ereader formats. This is another tale set in the Steam Nations universe and featuring Lina Ivanova, the heroine from his previous book in this setting, The Last Ranodon. I hope to have more to say about HSR in the future, once it's percolated to the top of my reading list.

From Doug Niles: Doug has wrapped up work on Eyeball to Eyeball, the first book of an alternate history series about the Cuban Missile Crisis. This series is also coming from Popcorn Press in October. According to Doug, "The 'alternate' part means that I make it worse, lots worse, than it actually was." October 22nd is the 50th anniversary of JFK's monumental speech announcing the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba, so you can expect the historical event to get lots of retrospective coverage. Once you know the real story, get the book and find out why we're so grateful to JFK.

From Matt Forbeck: Next week, Matt is releasing Hard Times in Dragon City, the first installment of the "Shotguns & Sorcery" trilogy in his weird and wonderful "12 for '12" project. Shotguns & Sorcery is the second of four trilogies that make up 12 for '12. Words pour out of Matt the way smoke and cinders billow out of the funnel of a steam train.

Finally, there was a terrific post at Wampus Country a few days ago about "making things worse" during an RPG session, plus a followup. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

X1, The Rings of Death

A few months ago, I wrapped up writing on an adventure for The Secret Fire RPG. It's titled (in a style reminiscent of the old TSR numbering system) "X1 The Rings of Death."

To give an idea of what it's about, I offer up the introduction. This reveals slightly more than what characters know at the start of the adventure, so if you suspect you might face the Rings of Death as a player sometime, read on at the risk of spoiling a bit of your own enjoyment at uncovering the mystery surrounding the rings.

The Rings of Cernossen have stood for millennia. They were raised by a race of men that ruled this part of the world thousands of years ago. These kings were among the first to learn the secret of iron. With it they dominated their neighbors, drove the marauding, blood-worshiping beast men into the forests and bogs, and cemented their rule.

The great hill and its hollowed-out heart were sacred to this tribe. They erected the stones to honor their tribal deity Cernossen (a being who drew its power from the Elder God of Life), the antlered entity that brought fertility and abundance to their plains. Over the centuries, the tribe carved tombs from the hill to hold their royal families and further catacombs where priests could carry out rites to Cernossen.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Power Fluctuations

In roleplaying games, sometimes the characters who make up the adventuring party aren’t all at the same power level. In the olden days, that could be because a few characters died and had to start over at 1st level while the survivors were at 4th or higher, because one unlucky soul bore the brunt of the wight’s level draining, or because someone rolled a string of 18s during character creation. In newer editions, it tends to happen because a few players are experts at cramming every possible bit of destructive power into a character while others take a more casual approach, prefer to invest their points in something other than combat prowess, or simply don’t pay much attention to swords and arrows and other nasty things.

No matter what the cause, the result from the GM’s point of view is a group of characters that’s hard to challenge. While Grimjaw and Skullbuster are chopping monsters into coleslaw, Sunflower and Gigglebear are being pulled inside out and dropkicked back to the Bush administration.

What’s a GM to Do?

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Cult of the Keepers

This week's offering involves a cult that worships ... well, just about whatever works for you will work for them, as long as they can be obsessed with the written word.

If you need help coming up with descriptions for a dozen generic traps, see my blogs on trap triggers and trap effects for plenty of ideas.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rise of the Miniature

Phil Viverito's "Siege of Alesia"
at Cold Wars 2010
It’s a piece of RPG legend that D&D arose from wargaming. Although that’s true, it’s a case of something not really meaning what people think it means. A more accurate statement would be that D&D arose not from wargames but from wargamers. After all, the magical spark at the core of D&D is that it wasn’t just another wargame; it was a little of this and a little of that rearranged into something startlingly new and different.

But the inventors and early adopters of D&D were steeped in wargaming ideas, and they left a strong imprint on the game. Typically, this influence gets simplified to the most recognizable of the wargamers’ tools—miniatures—yet miniature figures are probably the least of the ways in which wargaming influenced RPGs. Early editions of D&D stated clearly that the game didn’t need miniatures at all. That was an important declaration, because rules for miniature wargames are what TSR published in the early 1970s. Anyone who bought a rulebook from TSR expected it to be for and about miniatures; hence the need to be up front about what people were buying.

It’s curious, then, that the use of miniatures in D&D and its offshoots reached an apex here in the 21st Century. After being almost entirely written out of the game in 2nd Edition, minis came back with a fury in 3E and 4E. Some people love that 3-D emphasis and some hate it, with pretty much the same fervor displayed in religion and politics.

It’s fair to ask, then, what purpose miniatures really serve in D&D. Are RPGs made better or worse by little plastic or metal heroes and villains?

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Gnoll King's Treasury

Even the king of the gnolls needs a safe cave in which to hide his treasure. Nothing, of course, is safe from adventurers who are bent on riches or glory.

Since Next Innovator raised the subject of the location's puzzle in a comment, it probably deserves a few words of expansion. Because of the space limits inherent in Adventure Notebook, the puzzle is more brief than it ought to be. These constraints made it impossible to provide clues to how the puzzle should be solved. If it's played strictly as written, players will either guess right or guess wrong and that's that. A guessing game is not a puzzle. In play, I would embellish these bare bones with hints and feedback based on what the characters are doing. None of that feedback is written down, it's just something that I do, and I encourage other DMs to do the same. Insert whatever type of clues and feedback your players will respond to. You know what catches their eyes and sparks their neurons better than I do, anyway. These Adventure Notebooks are predicated on that type of improvisation.

Friday, September 14, 2012


When is the last time one of your characters bothered to own a horse in a D&D game? How long has it been since anyone soared over the mountains on the back of a roc or traversed the underworld on a lizard or giant worm? Has anyone ever even seen a chariot?

Considering the importance of horses, wheels, and beasts of burden in ancient and medieval cultures of the real world, horses and other mounts seem to get short shrift in fantasy games.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Adventure Notebook -- Not Today

No Adventure Notebook this week. Family is visiting from out of state, leaving no time for dungeon design. There will be a new installment next week as usual.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Their First Expedition

Everybody starts somewhere.

A person’s first experience with tabletop roleplaying will stay with him or her forever. That’s equally true whether it was good or bad. If the player didn’t like it, that player will never come back. If the player enjoyed the experience, the RPG club gains a new member and that person picks up a hobby that could last the rest of his or her life.

So let’s say you’ve roped a group of colleagues or school chums into trying Catacombs & Catoblepases. Making a good first impression is vital. What’s your plan?

Cast your mind back to your first experience with funny-shaped dice. Can you remember the thrill you felt kicking open your first secret door, cleaving your first goblin skull, surviving your first brush with 1 hit point, and counting and recounting those first tarnished silver pieces lifted from a bloodstained purse? Or was the best part slipping unnoticed past the patrolling manticore, negotiating with the gargoyles, and outsmarting the medusa? Maybe it was standing at the edge of the cliff and looking down on the lost city of ruined spires and soaring bridges that no civilized man or woman had seen for a thousand years.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Tomb of Stars

This week's installment of "Adventure Notebook" takes your heroes to a mysterious tomb that has attracted the attention of ... something bad. For more information than that, you'll need to grab the adventure and read it yourself. I'm rather fond of this one. I think it's my favorite so far.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Skills vs. Skilz

One of the arguments I've heard against relying on player narrative where character skills are concerned is that it rewards players who are good narrators at the expense of those who are not. The counter argument, which I seldom hear, is that relying on a numerical system to resolve skill use rewards players who are good number maximizers at the expense of those who are not. By favoring one approach over the other, aren't we just swapping one type of player talent for another?

I've played both approaches--games where every action had an associated number on the character sheet and almost nothing was narrated, and games where characters had no ratings at all beyond a name and a concept, and every action they took involved negotiation between player and GM. In my experience, the presence or absence of rigidly defined character abilities had little impact on whether I enjoyed the game. More than any other factors, my enjoyment depended on who I was playing with and how well the GM handled the session.

That might sound like a cop-out, but RPGs are funny animals. They violate many of the conventions by which we define "a game." I've argued that D&D isn't really a game at all; it's a structured play activity, more akin to building a tower from wooden blocks with a group of friends than to playing parcheesi or Pandemic with friends.

In that regard, isn't trying to shoehorn the standard conventions of games into an RPG a disservice to the RPG? Is it analogous to trying to force elements of poker into chess? Choker might turn out to be a fine game, but it would not be chess, and I suspect that the hybrid would lack the spark that makes both chess and poker shine so brightly.

Experience confirms to me that players who enjoy narrating their characters' skill use are good at narrative, while players who prefer numbers are those who manipulate numbers well. Nothing's wrong with either of those positions, as long as we recognize that both of them introduce their own brand of bias into events around the D&D table.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Setting the Hook

Adventure hooks are the grease that keeps a fantasy roleplaying game campaign moving forward without snagging up between adventures. When hooks work properly, one adventure meshes into another like the cogs in a fine transmission. Players transition from the third adventure to the fourth adventure like Steve McQueen upshifting from 3rd gear to 4th.

In an earlier post on Baiting the Hook, I described how the best way to set hooks in your players is to bait them early. Even with early clues, the time comes when the main attraction needs to be kicked off. Whether you’re looking for the final tug that fully sets a hook in the players or just a different way to dangle some bait, the following list of incidents provides plenty of options.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Hive of the Vampires

This installment of "Adventure Notebook" is a bit higher-level than previous notebooks, and it includes a monster that does not exist in any monster manual, as far as I know--vampiric duergar. Coming up with stats for them is your job. My suggestion is to double their hit dice and give them most of the vampire's special abilities (your choice), but you might want to present them completely differently.

This location would work well tacked onto a larger dungeon. Butt it up to any unexplored door and it's ready to go.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dungeon-a-Day Kickstarter

Dungeon-a-day wrapped up its first outstanding megadungeon project a little over a year ago. The team at Super Genius Games is gearing up to start a whole new megadungeon, and they're funding it through Kickstarter. They've already nearly quadrupled their humble original goal, but the stretch goals are pretty cool, too. If you haven't backed it, the campaign runs until Sunday, August 26. The original Dungeon-a-Day was an impressive undertaking, and I'm sure this next one will be at least as amazing as the first one was.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


“All that matters is that today,
few stood against many.”
Conan the Barbarian
(and John Milius)

 Roleplaying games grew out of wargaming, and to those of us who followed the same vector, the pull of wargaming is still strong. But you don’t need to be an old-timer to feel the tug from strategy and tactics.

Wargaming has important lessons to teach DMs and players about building drama in games. That might surprise folk who don’t play wargames. Pacing, tension, and, above all, balance are major concerns for the wargame scenario designer.

We talk a lot about not railroading players with a one-track adventure plot, but little is said about railroading in combat. I’m not talking about tactics here. In military terms, tactics are the actions taken during a fight—focusing attacks against the hill giant instead of the ogre, using the fireball at the start to soften up the enemy instead of holding it back for later, and other immediate decisions. There might be right and wrong courses of action during a fight, but players usually have complete freedom to choose.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Frozen Hall of Secrets

My apologies for not posting an Adventure Notebook last week. I'd like to say it was a bit hectic because of GenCon, but in fact the frenzy was caused by deadlines and a tussle with food poisoning. All is back to normal now, more or less.

This week's installment is the Frozen Hall of Secrets!

Friday, August 17, 2012

When Skills Fail

It surprises me (sometimes) how many people voice support for the "no skills" approach to D&D. They're pretty much all old-schoolers; not too many 3rd/4th Edition or Pathfinder players among them.

A common thread running through many of the arguments against skills is that they make things too easy; GMs and players who rely on skill rolls are lazy. This argument is a bit odd on its face, since roleplaying is a leisure activity. I see no reason to bind it in philosophies that make the process strenuous.

That aside, I've observed many campaigns that appeared to depend heavily on skill rolls but in fact relied on GM/player interaction more than either the GM or the players let on or possibly were even aware. This has been true not only in D&D but across many different games, including some that use skill rolls to resolve just about everything.

You know what I'm talking about, For the game to advance from A to C, characters must accomplish B. That task might be finding a door, unlocking a chest, spotting a bloodstain, bending a bar/lifting a gate, persuading the victim's lawyer to let you have a look at the will, etc. The player with the key skill rolls 1 on the check, and the GM reaches for his inhaler.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Problem of Perception

One of the most problematic skills in D&D is perception. The problem is that perception isn't entirely a skill. A lot of it is innate, which implies that perhaps it should be an ability score. Yes, it can be improved with training, but so can strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. We all know people who are just more observant than others, without the benefit of any special training. It's hard to miss the advantage in games that treat perception as its own ability, whether as a skill or an attribute.

(This begs the question of why skills and abilities need to be separate at all, but that's a bigger question for another time.)

D&D really suffers in this regard. Perception can't have a stand-alone score because there's no spot for it on the character sheet. So what do you tie it to? Wisdom is the traditional choice, but only because it's the least bad option. Wisdom has the unfortunate consequence of making clerics the best scouts. I don't know about you, but that really breaks the archetype for me. I have nothing against clerics; they're some of my favorite characters. But the cleric shouldn't be your go-to guy when someone needs to peek through a keyhole or find a gem stashed in a merchant's mattress. It doesn't make sense from a story angle or a game angle to let the cleric poach in the rogue's forest that way. It was bad enough when the cleric had the find traps spell.

There are four solutions that I can see.

Option 1 is to add Perception as the seventh ability score. I doubt that anyone sees this happening. The six ability scores are enshrined in marble, whether or not they make sense or serve the game. I appreciate as much as anyone why it can't happen.

Option 2 is step backward to earlier editions that didn't rely on skill rolls. It's true; characters used to perceive things without rolling dice. Finding things like secret doors was more a matter of time than observational skill. If you spent the necessary 10 minutes peering at, poking, tapping, and twisting every inch of a 10-foot wall section, you'd find the secret door. If the DM described a few features and you hit on the idea of pressing the gargoyle's left eye, you might find the door right away and save yourself considerable time and risk from wandering monster rolls. This removes a bit of p'zazz from certain character archetypes; playing the eagle-eyed detective who spots things everyone else misses is fun.

Option 3 is to decouple perception from Wisdom and let it float among the ability scores. There are plenty of occasions where perception depends more on Dexterity than on Wisdom, such as when you're groping along the top shelf of a bookcase in search of the hidden door latch. If the feature that needs noticing is the sort of thing that a sly person would be tuned into, then the roll can be based on Dexterity. If it's the sort of thing that a warrior would be tuned into, then it can be based on Strength. If it's the sort of thing that a wizard would be tuned into, then it can be based on Intelligence. No, this doesn't make a heap of sense, but it would work better 'round the table than always tying Perception to Wisdom.

Option 4 is to eliminate Perception as a skill. Drive an ice pick into it. When some sort of perception is called for, use the skill that most closely relates to the situation. Here are some examples, in 4th Edition wrapping.

  • Finding a secret door? Thievery or Dungeoneering.
  • Tracking a monster to its lair? Nature.
  • Spotting the lich's phylactery? Arcana.
  • Picking out your contact among all the bar's patrons? Streetwise.
  • Noticing the fang marks on the corpse's wrist? Heal.
  • Hearing someone sneaking up on you? Stealth.
  • Spotting the demonic cult tattoo on an assailant's arm? Religion.
This is my top contender. Not only does it a) work and b) make sense, it also c) steers some attention back onto skills that are all too often overlooked. When was the last time your DM called for a Streetwise check? How do you suppose that makes the bard feel? This approach works so well with the skills in 4th Edition D&D that I wish it had been the official choice.

I'd love to see D&D Next take this direction. It's not headed that way right now, but we can lobby.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Tongue-Tied Bard

The introduction of skills into D&D and its offshoots solved some important problems in the game, but those solutions came with costs of their own.

The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Valuing Time

Early editions of DnD -- by which I mean everything up through 2nd Edition, basically -- incorporated a vital ecology based around movement rates, searching, and wandering monsters. That relationship has eroded in later editions, thanks to the introduction of practically instantaneous searching and brisk walking.

It begins with surprisingly slow movement rates. Assuming that at least some characters were wearing heavy armor, a party of dungeoneers could explore just 60 feet of tunnel in a 10-minute turn. That seems painfully turtlelike, but as the rules explained, it assumed characters were mapping carefully, trying to be quiet, listening at doors and junctions, and searching for traps and secret doors as they went. They could move faster if they wanted to but only at the expense of stealth and caution. Additional searching, such as tossing a chamber for valuables, was another 10 minutes at least, or more if it was a big room.

To illustrate this, look at the sample map here (from the adventure Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie). It shows the first portion of the dungeon that characters enter. Just mapping it -- that is, walking through the corridors along the path shown and looking into but not actually entering most of the rooms -- takes about an hour and a half of game time at 60 feet per ten minutes. Every fight that breaks out adds 10 minutes (extra time beyond actual combat is spent binding wounds, cleaning weapons, looting the dead, and so on). Fighting everything in this section of the dungeon, as characters are likely to do, adds another 80 minutes. Searching a room adds another ten, so fully searching all 24 rooms keeps everyone busy for an additional four hours.

That’s seven hours of in-game exploration and combat.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Care Packages

I recently received two gaming Care packages.

The first came in the mail courtesy of Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games. I'm a big fan of GG's publications and I own several in PDF form (I buy PDFs almost exclusively these days). PDFs are good for reading, not as good for actually running games. Now I have a great collection of Goblinoid's publications, and I intend to put them to good use. Rotworld is of particular interest, since we've recently pulled Pacesetter's Chill off the shelf for another spin.

The other came from good buddy Stan!. A while back, WotC needed more space in its game library, so it cleaned out some old material. Stan! offered to snag a few items for me, and he delivered them at Saturday evening's game -- a sampling of Star Frontiers, GangBusters, and Top Secret.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I'll Take the Low Road

From Journey to the Center of
the Earth
by Edouard Riou
In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground.

Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber, Svartalfheim, or just “the underworld”—a journey through that landscape must be a different sort of undertaking from walking or riding between Riverdale and Midvale. Players should never be able to forget that their characters are moving through a dark, alien landscape.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pity the Gelatinous Cube

The only known photo
of an actual gelatinous cube
(image by Mmarti)
During a recent D&D Next playtest session, we encountered a gelatinous cube, a critter that regularly appears on Stupidest D&D Monsters Ever* lists. But I got to thinking, as we backed away and easily killed the thing. We laugh at the gelatinous cube because we know what it is. The very first time one appeared in a dungeon, the experience would have been entirely different.

Picture it: You're creeping up the corridor, moving cautiously and checking for secret panels, when the thief who's out front listening at doors and checking for traps suddenly starts screaming and ... melting! You can't see anything attacking him, but he's flailing weakly at something and unable to pull away while the flesh on his arm simply dissolves. The ranger looses an arrow that inexplicably stops in midair and begins dissolving, too. You have no idea what this is -- a spell, a force field of some unknown kind, a magical trap? All you know is that it's liquefying the thief and slowly closing in on you. The thief is begging you not to cut and run, but ... what in Hell is happening?

Nowadays everyone knows it's just a giant Jell-O shot that can be killed easily once you know where it is. But if you hadn't read the Monster Manual, I maintain the g-cube could be pretty terrifying.

* I'm sort of proud that one of my creations, moon rats, made #8 on that list. And I don't care what he says, my moon rats could give that author nightmares and leave his character begging for death.