Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Imagine a World ...

Like the Scarecrow, I believe that one of the greatest rewards for having a human brain is the ability to think deep thoughts. To imagine the big picture. To envision a grand machine in your mind and then command its wheels to turn and its gears to mesh. It’s the joy of invention, of imagination, of pure creation.

Different people find that joy in different forms. For some, it comes surrounded by dancing numbers that align themselves in beautiful patterns. To others, it comes from a story that delivers the consummate twist at the ideal moment or resolves itself in the perfect way. To me, it comes in the form of an atlas that can zoom across continents, showing empires as they rise and fall. It shows cultures in migration, the growth of cities, and the spread of order or chaos, right down to the cruel warlords, eccentric shop owners, or talking animals that define whatever macrocosm or microcosm sits under the lens.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Adventure Notebook: Hallways to Hell

Monday means Adventure Notebook ... unless it's been a really busy weekend, in which case everything gets delayed until Tuesday. This week's delve is Hallways to Hell, where heat rules the lava pools.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jafar, the Ideal Villain?

Any discussion of wizards brings to mind Jafar from Disney's Aladdin. In most ways, Jafar is my ideal villainous wizard.

Others might think I'm way off base here, but I see Jafar as coming from the same mold as R. E. Howard's Thoth-Amon and Yara. Most of the villainous (and some of the non-villainous) wizards I've used since 1992 started out as Jafar and were refined from there.

Much of Jafar's power came from a single, potent magical device--a cobra-headed charming staff. Clearly he had mojo that went way beyond the staff, but the cobra stick was the one thing he never left the palace without.

Jafar is a solid hook. His menace comes from a melding of cruel mind and wicked implements and he fits my style of game.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Zamora

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. -- Lord Acton, 1887

In Tuesday's post about lessons learned from Conan, I mentioned the idea that magic should be feared.

That's a bit of a misstatement; what I really mean is that magic-users should be feared.

Magic is power. Those who study it seek power. Even those who stepped onto the magic path interested only in knowledge wind up gaining power whether or not they want it, and as Lord Acton proclaimed, the simple possession of power threatens to corrupt even the stoutest soul.

In this regard, magic is an almost perfect metaphor. It can corrupt its users not only psychologically but spiritually and physically, too. We have a long tradition of sorcerers who can be identified by their scarred flesh, inhuman gaze, and bizarrely misshapen appendages. Wizards immerse themselves in taboos: they associate with dark forces, study death, and (most likely) challenge or at least question the authority of the gods.

It's the wizard, then, that's feared. Magic use is a symptom of darker purposes and intents, and those are what inspire fear.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chill: The Night I Died

The first half of the Chill adventure came off last Saturday, despite some confusion about the day of the game. Events unfolded almost perfectly from my point of view, and the Chill rules worked fine--though true to form in our horror sessions, we barely called on the rules. That should change soon.

The adventure being played is "The Night I Died" from the Trail of Cthulhu collection Shadows Over Filmland. I chose this adventure because of its creepy Val Lewton-esque atmosphere. Lewton produced mood-heavy horror films such as Cat People and The Body Snatcher in the 1940s. I wanted that type of psychic unease to be central to the story.

It appears to be working so far. The players seem to harbor some actual doubt over whether the main NPC is truly a ghost as she claims or is still alive but deeply psychologically disturbed. And how do the Sumerian god Ereshkigal and the London Zoological Gardens fit in? I can't say more than that because some of the players read this blog ...

The risk with this type of scenario is that what I perceive as players unsettled by the unknown and the supernatural might really be players just frustrated by the unknown. There's no clear, straight path through the mystery. Most Trail of Cthulhu scenarios involve more than the usual amount of sifting clues for meaning and running down leads. I love that sort of thing, but not everyone does.

I'm looking forward to collecting everyone's reactions to the scenario and to Chill after we wrap up the episode. It should reach a conclusion this coming Saturday. I'll post the synopsis and debrief next week.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Conan the Instructor

I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library.

Being young and impressionable, I read the stories nonjudgmentally. I didn’t know what portions came from Howard, from Carter, or from de Camp. The word “pastiche” wasn’t in my vocabulary. All three names got credit for everything, good and bad.

No one should be surprised, then, that Conan looms so large in my imagination and in my preferences when it comes to FRPs. Conan and Howard taught me many valuable lessons for navigating the worlds of high adventure.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Reeking Pits of Alchemy

Monday means another installment of Adventure Notebook. This time it's "Reeking Pits of Alchemy," an enigmatic, abandoned alchemist's lab.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Chill: Horrors from the Unknown

Saturday evening, I'll be running a session of Chill for the Call of Cthulhu group. We like to mix things up now and then, so we've experimented with other rules and other eras. This will be our first foray into Chill.

The last few days have been spent getting reacquainted with the rules. Chill is a solid 1980s game with few pretensions. The designers knew what they wanted, and they cut straight to the heart of the matter. Some people have criticized Chill's use of a universal table for action resolution, but I like it. Chill's is done well and is fairly easy to use (with one small change). Whatever confusion might exist at the start of play disappears after a few uses. It's not flawless by any stretch, but I've played many games with more "elegant" systems that ran less smoothly, so I don't take criticisms of Chill's action table too seriously.

My only disappointment with Chill was over the published adventures. Too many of them were roller coaster rides; plenty of ups and downs but no opportunities to veer off the track. That wasn't true of every Chill adventure, but it afflicted enough of them to leave a general distaste. For this outing, I'm adapting a scenario from Shadows Over Filmland to the Pacesetter rules. Filmland is just about note-perfect for Chill's Gothic atmosphere and emphasis on classic monsters.

I expect to have a great time revisiting this game with a group of players who've never experienced it. It's given me a chance to re-watch some favorite horror classics from Hammer Films and American International Pictures, as well as to reread old ghost stories for inspiration. I've been steeped in Lovecraft for so long that I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Edgar Poe, Ambrose Bierce, M. R. James, and Reynolds's Mysteries of London.

The crew that formed Pacesetter were all friends of mine: TSR expats looking for greater creative freedom away from the mercurial management and financial follies of TSR. They invited me to come along, and turning them down was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. It ranks as one of the three major crisis points of my career, and I still wonder from time to time where I'd be now if I'd chosen differently.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

36 Trap Effects

Barbara Steele, trapped in The Pit
and the Pendulum
, 1961
To go along with Wednesday's 36 trap triggers--36 trap effects.
  1. Drop
    1. Into pit
    2. To lower level
    3. Into fire
    4. Into water
    5. Into monster lair
    6. Onto spikes
  2. Entrap
    1. Portcullis, stone block, or lock seals door
    2. Cage falls around character
    3. Adhesive
    4. Wall of force
    5. Ring of flame
    6. Net or snare
  3. Sharp Objects
    1. Bolts or darts
    2. Spears or spikes
    3. Scythe
    4. Needle
    5. Teeth/biting object
    6. Enchanted weapon
  4. Crush
    1. Block falls from ceiling or ceiling descends
    2. Rolling boulder
    3. Walls close in, wall or columns collapse
    4. Sand or gravel buries characters
    5. Spring in floor launches character upward
    6. Grinding gears
  5. Blast
    1. Fire
    2. Lightning
    3. Poison gas
    4. Flood of water, acid, ooze, or slime
    5. Blinding light
    6. Polymorph or antimagic ray
  6. Other
    1. Paralysis or petrification ray
    2. Vermin or snakes
    3. Trapped animal released
    4. Summoned creature or entity
    5. Animated object
    6. Teleport

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

36 Trap Triggers

As a followup to Tuesday's brief primer on traps, here are 36 trap triggers for your dungeons. Tomorrow I'll offer up 36 trap effects. Combine the two and get 1 x 10^56 possible traps! Let me know when you run out, and I'll make more.
  1. Active A
    1. Fail to deactivate trap
    2. Fail to pick lock
    3. Succeed at picking lock
    4. Open door or chest
    5. Open door or chest wrong way
    6. Close door or chest
  2. Active B
    1. Pick up object
    2. Move lever/press button
    3. Pull rope or chain
    4. Shift tapestry
    5. Search body
    6. Tap wall or floor 
  3. Passive/unintentional
    1. Step on pressure plate
    2. Drink poisoned or infested liquid
    3. Make sound
    4. Open book
    5. Lose balance
    6. Carry flame too close
  4. Magical A
    1. Step into light or shadow/hide in shadow
    2. Look in mirror
    3. Speak trigger word
    4. Fail to speak safe word
    5. Cast spell
    6. Detect magic
  5. Magical B
    1. Read writing
    2. Activate glyph
    3. Draw weapon
    4. Don armor, belt, gloves, robe, or other garment
    5. Use magic item with command word
    6. Disturb liquid
  6. Strange 
    1. Step through doorway frontways
    2. Carry trigger object through doorway
    3. Insult idol or blaspheme in its presence
    4. Spill blood on floor or sacred object
    5. Blow whistle or horn
    6. Use wrong key

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Trapping with Purpose

The trap is a D&D icon. Classic dungeons such as Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are famous for their mechanical ambushes. Traps are so central to the concept of dungeons that an entire class—the thief—was developed to deal with them (along with locked doors).

In real life, of course, archaeologists have never had to deal with this abundance of traps in ancient tombs and ruins. No trap of any kind has been found in an excavation: no scything blades, no darts with pressure-plate triggers, not even poisoned needles in treasure chests. Sliding blocks have been used to seal passages but never to squash intruders. Deep pits were dug in the entrance corridors of some tombs, but they were meant only as obstacles. The pits weren’t covered, so only the most irresponsible of thieves risked falling in, and none of them left behind skeletons with broken legs. Tomb architects went to great lengths to keep people out, but no thought was given to killing them once they got in.

GMs need to put some thought into it. Before putting a death trap in that hallway, you need to ask exactly what it’s for. Designing a clever, challenging, logical, dangerous, and yet enjoyable trap is one of the toughest tests facing a GM.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly. Then come back on Wednesday for a list of random trap triggers and Thursday for a list of random trap effects.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pocket Dungeons

One of 102 (!) geomorphs
by Dyson
I'm a sucker for small adventures, dungeons, and particularly, small dungeons. That's nothing against megadungeons. I've had awesome RPG experiences in dungeons that went on forever. But small, out-of-the-way caves, burial mounds, ruined castles, and forgotten temples exert a powerful pull on my imagination.

That's why I'm so impressed by creative exercises like the One-Page Dungeon Contest and Pocket Full of Peril. They cram a heap o' adventure into a brief format. I enjoy them so much that I'm jumping into the pool too, beginning today, with Adventure Notebook. My aim is to post a new pocket adventure each Monday.

What I like most about this minimal format is not only that the dungeons themselves are small but that the format forces descriptions to be terse. They cover the basics, provide some atmosphere, and leave the rest to the GM.

An adventure shouldn't try to do all the GM's work for him. Doing so removes the GM from the creative process and reduces him to a script reader. Yes, GMs can ignore all that excess detail and substitute their own. I suspect most do. That's what happens on those rare occasions when I use a highly detailed adventure. Who can, or even wants to, remember all those baroque widgets in the heat of the action? Pressing the pause button to reread a long room description when the door is hanging in splinters means there is no "heat of the action." No one wants to be the DM who constantly says, "wait, I forgot something that screws up what you did five minutes ago" any more than anyone wants to be the GM who just pushes pieces according to a program.

I'd rather glance at three or four lines of text (having highlighted a few key words in advance) and make up the rest on the spot. Extemporizing amplifies the feedback loop between players and GM. That feedback is what drives the best tabletop roleplaying.

Three participants sit around the game table: the players, the GM, and the rules. Minimizing any of those three roles is a bad thing. That's why single-track, railroady adventures are rightly criticized; they decrease the players' role. The same flaw afflicts overly detailed adventures. They boost the role of the rules (and the adventure writer) at the expense of the GM.

The best adventures and the best rules encourage full participation and input from everyone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Feudal Primer

One of the items on my list of topics for this blog is medieval demographics and the feudal system. Today I ran across "The Medieval Kingdom" over at The Fascinating World of Charles Ryan. Charles hasn't been posting much lately, which I guess is how I missed it before now. I might get around to delving more deeply into demographics at some point (I find the subject fascinating, but most people appear bored to tears by it; can't for the life of me see why). In the meantime, you should read Charles's essay. He knows more about the subject than I ever will.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Plight of the Demons

Demons and devils occupy an odd position in the pantheons of most fantasy RPGs. For the most part, those terms are just two more names in a long list of monster classifications, not much different from fairies or talking animals. They’ve been stripped of their terrifying spiritual implications.

That’s a shame, because their unholy aspects are what make demons and devils so fascinating in our collective, churning imagination. Reducing them to scaly super villains deprives our fantasy campaigns of some fascinating potential. Sadly, the same affliction cripples most RPG “gods,” who are diminished to the status of remote, somewhat apathetic super heroes.

D&D’s cosmology throws more oil on the hellfire by pitting devils and demons against each other instead of uniting them in a mutual war against Heaven.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The OSR 'Gator

As a followup to yesterday's post, I've aggregated all the free OSR fantasy RPGs that I'm aware of into a single page. It's permanently tabbed at the top of this blog.

I've wanted an aggregator page ever since I started hunting down free OSR manuscripts. Since I never found one, the time seemed right to build my own. If one already exists that I've missed, someone please steer me toward it.

This is a work in progress, and I'm not an expert on everything out there. I'll try to keep the page up to date and expand it with new links and additional categories as time and resources permit. Let me know if something has been overlooked, described incorrectly, doesn't belong on the list, or if any of the links are misbehaving.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why the OSR is Cool

A movement is happening in the shadows of the big fantasy RPGs. It calls itself the old-school renaissance, or OSR for short. You might have seen its logo popping up around the web.

Like most grassroots movements, there’s no specific date when this got started. It’s tough even to say whether what we’re seeing is a true renaissance or just greater visibility thanks to the web. Old-school blogs are easy to find. I run across a “new” one every couple of days. The best of them are outstanding. They offer some of the best RPG blogging out there.

Every edition has its adherents who never jumped to a newer version; they get everything they want from whichever generation of D&D they’re playing. What distinguishes the OSR from people who never stepped away from AD&D or OD&D is the appearance of retroclone games. Retroclones are newly written games that emulate the rules and frequently the writing style of D&D rules from the 1970s and early ’80s. These publications are made possible by the OGL and the SRD (and possibly by a lack of interest or time in the Wizards of the Coast legal department).

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)