Sunday, November 29, 2009

B/X Monster: Psionic Threats


THOUGHT SKINNER


Armor Class: 5…………No. Appearing: 1-4 (1-4)
Hit Dice: 8+4***…………Save As: Magic-User 11
Movement: 120’ (40’)…………Morale: 9
Attacks: 4 or special…………Treasure Type: B,G,N,O
Damage: 2 or special…………Alignment: Chaotic

Found only in sunless caverns deep beneath the surface, "thought skinner" is the name given to a truly evil and alien humanoid race. Dangerous in the extreme, thought skinners consider other humanoid races to be little more than cattle to be enslaved and (eventually) devoured.

Thought skinners are of similar height and build to humans, but their skin is a sickening mauve color, rubbery and glistening with slime, and their eyes are dead white with no pupil. Their heads end in a serrated, star-shaped mouth surrounded by four, thick, purple-black tentacles. In melee, the 'skinner will attack with these tentacles, lashing onto its opponents head, and burrowing deep into its opponent's skull. Within 1-4 rounds, the thought skinner will reach its victim's brain and draw it forth, instantly slaying the individual (the number of rounds this process takes is equal to five minus the number of tentacles that hit in combat).

However, thought skinners avoid melee combat when possible, instead using their formidable mental powers. The thought skinners can project a blast of psionic energy 60' long by 20' wide at its furthest end. Those caught within the blast must save versus paralyzation or be stunned, unable to take any action for 2D6 rounds. 'Skinners generally use this ability when hunting, stunning their prey to allow easy feeding without struggle.

Thought skinners have a number of additional abilities they can utilize, a product of their highly developed intellect. At will they can levitate, charm person, and use ESP. Although these are the equivalent of magic-user spells of the same name these powers, like the 'skinners' psionic blast, are NOT magical in nature, and cannot be detected as such, dispelled, or prevented by an anti-magic shell or similar.

Some 'skinners have exhibited other powers, including the ability to walk on water and other liquid surfaces or project their minds and bodies through the walls of reality to reach other dimensions and parallel worlds. It is rumored that an entire city of thought skinners lurks somewhere deep within the earth, but no surface dweller has ever verified its existence.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 4)

[continued from here]

And finally we come to the 4th and last module in the Slaver series, the whole reason I decided I wanted to write about these four modules, A4:In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, written by Lawrence Schick (author of the excellent S2:White Plume Mountain, of which much has been written) and largely illustrated by Erol Otus (again, of whom much has been written). So let me ask straight off the bat:

Were Schick and Otus the "cool kids of school" in the TSR workplace?

'Cause I'm reading through this thing and it feels a lot like the whole was mainly brainstormed from their minds, probably developed while dropping 'shrooms or smoking a fat joint and listening to Grace Slick sing about the White Rabbit.

No really...mushroom people that work with fungal alchemy and sit in bonding circles while sharing a group hallucination? The mechanics of the thing is one issue, but the Otus's psychedelic artwork is positively inspiring...which came first in this vision, Schick's words or Otus's drawings? I can't help but thing they did it together building off each other's craziness.

Not to take anything away from Jim Roslov, whose art I love and which is present throughout the module, but you'll notice the treasure of the Slave Lords includes a drawing by Ool Eurts (an obvious anagram), not Mr. Roslov. Schick and Erol are in cahoots, folks.

Well, maybe more on that in a bit. Let's talk about the adventure itself.

I can't for the life of me remember where I was (recently) reading about NOT allowing your players to be captured. How this was a VERY BAD THING. It was in some recent RPG I picked up, or perhaps an adventure supplement, but I can't seem to find the reference anywhere...perhaps it was in a book I was thumbing through (like the Serenity RPG) that I didn't actually purchase.

ANYWAY, the gist of this game's advice was to never have players captured, that capturing players was WORSE than killing them...that at least if they died, they could always make new characters. Capturing player characters is a method of de-protagonizing them after all...cutting their balls off, so to speak.

I wonder if that game designer ever had a chance to play A4:In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords.

For those that haven't read, played, or heard about A4 here's how it starts: the player characters are captured, knocked out, stripped of all possessions (including clothing) and left in a lightless, underground cavern complex. Even the spellcasters are left without spells.

Let me quote Schick's take on the whole "capture" thing:

Many players think of their characters in terms of their powers and possessions, rather than as people. Such players will be totally at a loss for the first few minutes of play. It is likely they will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an "unfair" situation. They will demand or beg concessions. DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY HELP, even if they make you feel sorry for them, Inform the players that they must rely on what they have, not what they used to have, and that this includes their brains and their five senses. Good players will actually welcome the challenge of this scenario....

...To escape, the player characters will have to make the best of the opportunities offered by the contents of the various encounter areas. These opportunities may seem meager to the players at first, but this dungeon contains more than enough material for the players to escape from any of the exits if they have the wits and resourcefulness to recognize and utilize it. However, this module is also a test of the ability of the Dungeon Master! It is a virtual certainty that good players, forced to rely on their own initiative, will attempt to use what they find to do things not covered by the rules. In these situations, it is entirely up to the DM to handle these requests with fairness, objectivity, and imagination.

Hot damn! I wish I'd had this module as a kid. THIS is a perfect example of "challenging the players" rather than the character or stat block. It's also a great example of what is possible with the older editions of D&D.

Schick has created a challenging and exciting adventure that really does force players (including the DM!) to use their wits. There ARE plenty of "found objects" throughout the dungeon that can be used to equip and outfit the characters, as long as the referee uses "fairness, objectivity, and imagination."

But can you imagine how this module would work with D20/Pathfinder? It wouldn't. Unless characters had some sort of "craft spear" skill they're going to be using their fancy feats with bare fists.

And what would they be using those bare fists against? A 3HD badger is plenty tough for 7th level character in AD&D that's fighting naked, but would barely register on the Challenge Rating meter in D20. After all, the whole CR system takes into account PC's "expected equipment for level." They're not supposed to lose their gear. Cries of an "unfair" situation? You bet...'cause D20 ain't designed to challenge the player.

Ah, well...I don't play D3 or 3.5 anymore so it's a non-issue.

Schick has done such an excellent job with this capstone module that I want to play the whole series just to get to A4...psychedelic mushroom folk or not (and by the way, I remember the myconid from the Monster Manual II, but I never used 'em...here I would). I was slightly disappointed that Schick decided to blow up the whole Aerie of the Slave Lords....areas like Dragon Meadow and Drachen Keep were left un-detailed in A3 with the admonishment to keep players from exploring these parts of the map as they'd be "descried in the follow-up module." Instead Schick just covers 'em with lava and magmen and worries about his own little adventure. Which is cool 'cause his adventure is great, but it is a little annoying.

I'm reminded of the Phillip Jose Farmer-edited series The Dungeon, each novel penned by a different author. Author #1 introduced a green-haired love interest for the main protagonist and author #2 killed her off in the 1st chapter or so of the 2nd novel. Which would have been just fine (a series of novels with different authors will naturally evolve different from how the original author intended)...EXCEPT that Author #1 also pens the final novel of the series and has the protagonist once again waxing sadly for his green-haired lady friend...even though no other author has mentioned her in four books.

Fortunately, the Slaver series finishes with a bang and doesn't retread the ground Cook laid down, though I suppose one might consider an exploding volcano to be fairly reminiscent of Schick's own White Plume Mountain ending. Oh, well. Personally, I think that A4 offers something entirely new from other TSR modules of the time, and a real challenge to players, comparable even to the S modules...hell, moreso as players need to think outside the normal boundaries and parameters of the game, not just figure out colored key cards or riddles.

It's too bad there're no monks or assassins in B/X play...I'm afraid conversion of the slaver series would be exceptionally difficult much as I'd like to do it. Maybe I'll need to dust off my old AD&D books.
; )

Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 3)

[continued from here and here]

All right, this series is running a bit longer than I'd originally anticipated (a problem with stream-o-consciousness blogging I suppose), and I've got plans for this evening (movie, then drinkies with friends)...hopefully I'll be able to bang this out and do it justice.

Continuing right where we left off:

A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, despite having what I consider to be the worst cover art of the whole series, is actually the first module in the series that piqued my interest in the series as a whole...and that's saying something. One should not underestimate the value of cover art in helping someone decide to make a purchase and I'm sorry that Dee's color painting isn't nearly as good as his black-and-white stuff (oh, and just for the record, I found Roslov's art...especially the Elf!...on the cover of A2 to be the best of the series).

A3 has a LOT to recommend it. I said in my prior post that I think that the best published adventures each offer something new that helps inform play and gets players (and especially DMs) to take their level of play "up a notch." Aerie of the Slave Lords does that in several ways.

1) It's a challenging adventure, especially considering the level of characters involved. The storoper is not a total "F-You" type monster (it's auto-non-save attack only works twice), but it's pretty vicious. The shambling mound (a personal favorite) is pretty f'ing tough for the pre-generated characters or PCs of a similar power level. And the traps (especially in the entry level are pretty tough). A LOT of the monsters are of the "lone, tough" variety...the golem, the minotaur, the mimic...as opposed to the lesser "horde monsters" (orcs and hobgoblins) seen in the first two modules...and how sick of those are we by the time we get to A3?

2) In addition to two dungeon areas, the module offers a complete "Slaver City" in the form of Sunderham. Granted earlier modules (T1, N1, D3) offered cities as part of their adventures but Sunderham combines the completeness of the Village of Hommlet (or N1) with the wickedness of Vault of the Drow. If you're playing A3 in a non-tournament style (i.e. sans time limits), Sunderham is a great town to explore and hang out...hell, evil PCs might even be tempted to switch sides and join a slaver guild!

3) The use of NPCs. I'm scratching my head, but I can't think of another earlier module that makes better use of NPC adventurer-types as villainous "monsters." The illusionist is excellent (and probably a necessary warm-up to A4!) and a great encounter for an under-utilyzed PC class. But the final battle with the Slave Lords is the piece de resistance. A showdown against five high level NPCs? With coordinated tactics mapped out? That's not something you see every day in an adventure module and is the truly "new" thing A3 has to offer. Other adventures offer one or sometimes a pair of adventuring class NPCs (a pair of monks in C1, a couple of high level Drow with lesser fighter "minions"). But the combination Fighter-Assassin-Cleric-Magic-User-Monk is pretty badass, and gives PCs a taste of "their own medicine" as they get to feel what your typical monster experiences when faced by heavily armed adventurers of different stripes working in concert.

I REALLY like A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords. At under 30 pages, it packs quite a whallop of adventuring goodness.

Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 2)

[continued from here]

Okay, so what do I think of the Slavers modules individually? After all, I salute the effort in getting 'em all out and trying to make 'em a cohesive whole and I think they do a good job of that. But as individual modules? Seeing as how I like to rank my adventure modules separated into their component parts, rather than as supermodules....

Welp, I kind of have to rate them in order...in other words, I feel A1 and A2 are the weakest individually, A3 I like a bit better, and A4 is definitely the crown jewel of the bunch...in fact, the latter really deserves its own blog post (we'll see if that happens).

Now having said THAT, I would like to point out that I have only ever ran A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity. As mentioned earlier, I owned the supermodule at one time, but never had a chance to run it (or even finish reading it!) prior to somehow losing the damn thing. What this means is that my impressions are entirely academic, i.e. theoretical...the true measure of an adventure module is how it plays, not 'how it reads.' So until I have a chance to run A2-A4 (and I should probably run A1 again as well), how they compare to each other is a matter of (academic) debate.

But I can at least give impressions/observations based on a read of the modules with the eyes of an experienced DM.

A1: Slave Pits of the Undecity is the first module of the series, and is written by that master of B/Expert game design, David Cook. It certainly shows a couple of what one might consider Cook's "hallmarks." For one thing, it is set at what (in B/X terms) would be considered "Expert level;" that is, levels 4-7. This is right on par with his Desert Nomad series, the Isle of Dread, or Dwellers of the Forbidden City...in other words, the levels where he has displayed a bit of mastery (in my less than humble opinion). The other thing is the inclusion of the insectile Aspis monster which definitely has a Sword & Sorcery (i.e. "pulp") feel to it that is also present in his better modules.

However, I can't help but feel disappointed in A1, especially in comparison to the other modules of the series. Perhaps it was specifically meant to be a "warm-up" to the other modules; perhaps Cook was not at his best when designing "tournament" modules (I note that he did not write/design any of the "C" - "Competition" modules for TSR). But much of the adventure simply feels like the monsters have been chosen only with an eye to providing the correct "level of challenge" for the characters (the proper number of humanoids, the occasional spellcaster or undead, a not-too-clever trap here or there). Perhaps because of the venue (i.e. tournament) there is little of the leeway or latitude allowed for creativity as present in Cook's other modules. Simply compare the thing to the open-endedness of I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City or X4 and X5...the whole adventure feels constrained and, I'm afraid, a bit dull.

A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, described by one review (per wikipedia) as a "good, workman-like adventure" is the longest of the series, being 40 pages in length and almost totally devoid of interior art. Personally, I find it incredibly interesting that Tom Moldvay was a co-designer in this module...this is the only AD&D module that bears his name as a designer. His other modules are all for B/X or the B/X-derived BECMI (his one module of the latter being a Master level adventure). Seeing his name on it is a bit like seeing Holmes' name on an AD&D module.

I LIKE A2 as a module, but I find it to be derivative...that is, it bears a lot of resemblance to the G1-3 series. Here is a fortress the players must enter. By stealth or by combat they must wipe out the inhabitants. Oh, then they find a scroll that tells them there's a DIFFERENT place to go to. Not much here that hasn't been seen elsewhere.

And as I said in my earlier post I consider published adventure modules to be a key method of informing D&D play. At least, they were in MY youth. You can read the rules set for a game, but without specific examples of dungeon design (Tom Moldvay's Basic set, for example) it can be tricky, putting it all together without a mentor to guide you. TSR's adventure modules worked as mini-mentors for those of us that were "self-teaching" ourselves to play. And while A2 is a nice little (or medium) adventure, it ain't teaching anything new.

Really. For example, it does have nice character: unlike the first module of the A series, A2 bothers to name its slave lords, give them some personality, and tweak them slightly with special abilities (the "blind" fighter that is immune to visual spells, the ogre with his ability to disarm foes in combat). But this isn't much different from King Snurre and Queen with the special auto-kill attacks, or Obmi and his slyness.

What I'm saying is that the best adventure modules of TSR's early years each provided something special to the developing DM: Tomb of Horrors gave us the "monster-less" dungeon, White Plume Mountain gave us riddles and special magic items, Barrier Peaks mixed sci-fi with fantasy, the D series provided the epic and wide-open Underdark, Shrine of Tamoachan mixed in Aztec mythology, Isle of Dread gave us a dinosaur "lost world," etc.. I don't see anything new in A2 that would help inform play, or help a DM "take things up a notch." And so, over-all it feels weaker than the later modules of the series.

Which it appears will have to be a separate post, based on the length of this one....


Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 1)

I am not a fan of "supermodules." Hell, I even passed on a copy of GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders just yesterday, even though it was rated "the greatest adventure of all time" by Dungeon Magazine. Of all the supermodules TSR ever published, I've only ever owned two, and only one of those did I purchase. The only one I still retain in my possession is on "permanent loan" from an old buddy and it is T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil. As it is the only known version of the Temple, I will probably continue to retain it, although I find it fairly unwieldy to use (and have actually only ever used it to run the Village of Hommlet...whadya' know).

The one supermodule I actually purchased I did so at a time when I thought the idea of supermodules had merit, and that was A1-4: Scourge of the Slave Lords. At the time, I got it, TSR was no longer putting out the A series of modules, and as I only owned A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, I figured the only way I would ever be able to run the entire series was to grab the supermodule when I had a chance. Sadly, I somehow managed to lose it (it's probably in bowels of my mother's cellar somewhere) before ever actually finishing a read through. Those supermodules were the equivalent of...well, of most slickly produced commercial RPGs on the market...too thick and weighty to actually get through. Give me a normal, under-30 page adventure module any day of the week.

So now I find myself typing at the computer with a small stack of modules next to me...the entire A series. In order they are:

A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity by David Cook
A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade by Harold Johnson with Tom Moldvay
A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords by Allen Hammack
A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords by Lawrence Schick

And I've had a week or so to read each of 'em in turn. So where to start?

Well, the first thing that jumps out at me is the fact that they were each authored by a different individual authors. And yet they're all fairly coherent. They were all written for a single Gen Con convention (Gen Con XIII in 1980, per the introductory notes of each). How exactly does that get done?

I mean who called the shots for Gen Con in 1980? Was Gygax acting as overlord (or "Dungeon Master") at TSR, setting outlines for "the minions" to write up an immense four-part saga to pit players from all over the country against each other in a timed, scored event?

I certainly don't know...I ain't a historian. And yet, I don't see much chatter on the blogs regarding this particular series. It certainly must have been a wild Con to have such a huge series of modules that people were playing in...I can only imagine gamers from different tables (players and DMs alike) comparing notes between rounds...how did you deal with such-and-such? Wow, did that cloaker wipe out YOUR party, too? Man, my DM was a bastard...etc.

For me, a four-module series like this is pretty much a mini-campaign...and I mean "campaign" in every sense of the term, seeing as how the series is pretty much a military exercise against a vicious and well-organized opposing force. It is much more like G1-3 than any other series of modules...players know who their opponent is and have been tasked with wiping them out. There is no "hidden enemy" (Drow). There is no supernatural force behind everything (Lolth). The forces that have set the campaign in motion are hoping for some very mundane, real-world results...stop raiding our towns and kidnapping our people for use as slaves!

Heck, it walks a line that is almost "heroic" in that regard...though certainly, the powers-that-be may have hired scurrilous rogues of the worst kind for the mission. At least they are not being told to finish the job or their heads will roll (like the Desert of Desolation or the Giant series). Hopefully, they're getting paid well for their efforts.

Anyway, tying four modules by four different authors together for a single tournament in a single year is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Even the GDQ series took took several years to complete (Queen of the Demonweb Pits not being published till 1980, two years after the G and D series), and in some ways with less detail than any of the Slaver series. Oh sure, the G modules had encapsulated dungeons, but the D modules have huge swaths of "go ahead and make this up for yourself" areas. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. But as a training series (and my own personal experience with adventure modules is that they provide training for "how to craft an adventure") the A's are a better introductory type adventure than the GDQ series.

And in many ways a better introduction of how D&D can be played as well...as in, a teaching aid to new players.

I'll explain what I mean by that in a little bit...

Oh, by the way...any readers who want to comment on their own experience with the A series...either at the 1980 Gen Con or more recently, please feel free. I've only ever run A1 myself and would be interested in folks' recollections...unlike, say, Tomb of Horrors or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Slaver series doesn't get a lot of blog time elsewhere...at least not that I've read. Thanks!

Blog-o-Licious

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving...I know I did (and to readers that don't celebrate the American holiday...well, I hope you all had a nice week!)!

I know no one will fault me for being a bit slack in my blogging the last couple days, but I have had the mental pistons firing and I've got a bunch of stuff that I want to get down in the next couple-three days before I forget about it.

First up a two part series on the Scourge of the Slave Lords. Having recently acquired all four of the original modules A1-A4 I've been spending my spare minutes devouring their contents and I'm ready to weigh in with my own judgement on this classic module (and I even bothered to review JM's archive o "retrospectice" pieces...I'm beating HIM to the punch here, which tickles me just a might). : )

Then I've got a piece on yet another difference between RPGs and fiction which is something I wanted to get to Wednesday, but Lord help me, I had a delicious turkey I was responsible for brining. And have I mentioned I'm hell-on-wheels when it comes to chopping/dicing and all-things-knife-related and a big ZERO in the marinade department? Thankfully everything worked out but it required my full attention. Want to get back to that.

Then there's a new thing I was thinking about this morning in the shower...um, what the purpose of playing this damn game (Dungeons and Dragons) is. No, it is NOT a philosophical treatise on "why we game" but rather a look at where we are aiming to go...which is a direct seague into:

A re-defining of experience points in the B/X game...this is something I've had in my head for months now, but haven't had the balls to put down on paper (or blog). I'm 99.9% sure it's going into my B/X Companion as an alternate rule set option, but the Companion, being short on space considerations is not going to have the theory behind it. This blog post is going to be the theory for all those design-interested folks.

And that's it. If I have extra time, I'll be doing up MY version of the mind flayer, and possibly talking about the most recent turn of even in my quest to find a B/X gaming group in Seattle (found an ad posted by a kid whose 29 and has "15 years of experience;" dude...I was playing B/X the year you were BORN, buddy!). But I might not get to that till December...I still need to grab a haircut and see a movie today!

Busy, busy, busy....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Orphan Thanksgiving

This was actually going to be a longer post and maybe someday it will be...but the homefront is busy-busy the next couple days as my wife and I host our first "Orphan Thanksgiving" in the new house: a collection of about a dozen people (and two babies) that have transplanted to Seattle and that have no family with whom to hang out.

My own family IS from Seattle (except my wife), but Dad lives in California these days and my brother is still in Tennessee or North Carolina (I don't really remember), while Mom is up in Whistler (B.C., Canada) for the next several weeks. Guess I'm a local orphan myself!

So shopping, cooking, cleaning, and (of course) eating and entertaining will all be on the agenda for the next couple days...but not blogging or writing. In fact, I'm changing the title of this post and will save my original topic for another day...maybe Friday. I figure many of you will be a little busy anyway over the next couple days.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nope, Not Gonna' Do It


I' ve decided against throwing psionics into my B/X Companion, intriguing as the idea may have seemed last week. There are three reasons for this:

- B/X monsters aren't psionically inclined...which means I'D feel inclined to include a whole slew of them in my Companion. Not only are there space considerations involved with such a thing, there is the potential pitfall of throwing psionics on monsters that wouldn't generally have them simply to include more critters that use the new rules. Quality over quantity, dammit!

- No ret-conned campaigns...people who've been playing B/X for years with nary a whiff of psionic activity and suddenly a bunch of psychic critters come out of the woodwork? No thank you. I hate this kind of thing.

- No ret-conned players...I hate THIS even more. When the Master Rules introduced weapon mastery the real bone wasn't the power-hog factor, it was the sudden retro-conning creating super-swordsmen out of high level characters. Same goes for the RC (and Gazetteer) introducing non-weapon proficiencies (i.e. skills) to the game system. Keep It Simple Stupid is Axiom #1.

So while I appreciate the illithid and would love to throw in some similarly psychic-types for my B/X rules, well...I'm gonna' pass. Maybe I'll introduce a half-squid monstrosity with mind-blowing powers in some future B/X module. Well, I guess there's already the kopru, right?

[hmm...this also means that any future B/X conversions of AD&D modules will be totally non-Psionic; kind of puts D1 on hold, huh?]

Monday, November 23, 2009

B/X Krull: Player Characters of Krull

Not all of the standard B/X classes are available in the Krull game setting. Players are confined to the following choices of character:


Fighter

Wise One

Magic-User

Thief

Cyclops



FIGHTER – Although great fighters do not make great husbands, they’re excellent for killing slayers. The fighter class is the same as in B/X with the following additional abilities:


Dual wield: instead of using a shield or two-handed weapon, a fighter may wield a dagger or short blade in his or her off-hand. Only one attack is rolled, but damage is rolled for both weapons if a “hit” is scored. Only the higher damage roll is used (damage is not added together).


Lightly armored: a fighter wearing leather armor or no armor may double their normal dexterity bonus to Armor Class. For example, a character in leather armor with a 16 dexterity would have a total bonus of -4 (Armor Class 3). This bonus is lost if the fighter wears a shield or armor heavier than leather.



WISE ONE -- The wise one draws his power from the divine spirit and his knowledge of the natural world. A mystic of the wilderness, the wise one is similar to a cleric in most regards with the following exceptions:


Freedom of movement: the wise one may not wear armor heavier than leather and will not carry a shield. He must be unburdened to walk the wilds.


Freedom of spell use: no meditation or study period is needed to perform his spells; he chooses the spells he wishes to use based on daily ability (determined as if a cleric of the same level). The wise one may require the use of certain herbs, totems, or magic stones to perform magic, but in general the DM should assume the wise one has a full stock of such items.


Limits of wisdom: the following spells are not available to the wise one: light, silence 15’ radius, continual light, growth of animals, create water, sticks to snakes, create food, insect plague. If a spell is unavailable, neither is its reverse spell.



MAGIC-USER -- The wandering wizard is no easy role. Magic is hard come-by in Krull and training scarce indeed. The following special exceptions apply to the normal magic-user class:


Knowledge is power: a magic-user learns one new spell per level. The level of the spell learned can be from any level, though no higher level spell may be learned than the level of the magic-user himself (so a magic-user could learn a 4th level spell upon achieving 4th level, but not a 5th level spell). All spells learned are known and need not be memorized on a daily basis.


Power limits: a magic-user can only cast a total number of spell levels per day equal to his level of experience. Thus a 5th level magic-user could cast five 1st level spells, OR one 3rd level and one 2nd level spell, OR one 5th level spell.


Mishaps: a magic-user must succeed at a percentage roll to successfully cast a spell from memory. The percentage chance of success is equal to his Intelligence x5%. Failure to cast the spell correctly may result in an amusing or dangerous mishap (as determined by the DM). Mishaps do NOT count against the total number of spells a magic-user may cast per day…in other words, a magic-user could cast any number of mishaps per day!



THIEF -- These scoundrels are the exact same as thieves described in the B/X rule sets.



CYCLOPS -- The only non-human class available to PCs in the Krull game setting. Cyclops characters are large (generally over 6’) humanoids with the ability to see their own death. A character must have a minimum Constitution of 9 to play a Cyclops; Strength is their prime requisite and a high strength gives them a bonus to earned experience. Cyclops are treated as HALFLINGS in all regards with the following exceptions:


Exceptionally hearty and strong: Cyclops roll D12 for hit points instead of D6. All Cyclops weapons do 1D10 damage plus strength bonuses if any and they do not lose initiative for using a two-handed weapon. A Cyclops wishing to purchase armor must pay 3 times its normal cost to size it to their bulk (note: because of their size and the amount of metal used in their armor Cyclops in chain or plate armor may not use their stealth abilities in the wilderness). Cyclops do NOT gain a bonus to AC when fighting large monsters.

Exceptional throwers: Cyclops’ great strength allows them a +1 bonus for throwing weapons and allows them to add their strength bonus to damage.


Poor depth perception: while their strength allows them to be exceptional throwers, Cyclops are unable to use missile devices (bows, crossbows, and slings) accurately and avoid them.


Know their time: Cyclops know when it is their time to die. A the beginning of each game session roll an 8 sided die; if the roll is LESS THAN the character’s level, they know they will die at some point during the session. The DM should allow the player to choose the time and place of his death. NOTE: even though the die roll may indicate it is NOT the Cyclops time to die, the Cyclops may still be killed through normal misadventure like any other PC; in such a case the Cyclops was either blind-sided or simply refused to admit to himself that it was his time to go.


B/X Krull: Monsters of Krull

Most monsters of the B/X game are appropriate to Krull, though in general it has more wild animals and giant insect type monsters and fewer outright magical creatures. The following monsters are specific creatures from the Krull film.




SLAYER

Armor Class: 2…………No. Appearing: 2-12 (10-40)
Hit Dice: 2+1*…………Save As: Fighter 2
Movement: 60’ (20’)…………Morale: 12
Attacks: 1 …………Treasure Type: Nil
Damage: By Weapon…………Alignment: Chaotic

Slayers appear to be man-sized humanoids dressed in demonic looking plate armor. This armor is actually a bio-mechanical suit of eldritch design for the true form of the creature is a smallish squid-like creature. However, the armor is treated as an extension of the slayer and any hit on the armor causes damage to the creature. The body armor is slow and ponderous, always striking last in melee combat. For distance travel, slayers will often ride normal horses, though they always dismount to fight.

Slayers carry only one weapon of alien design: the slay-spear. The weapon can fire a blue pulse of energy at a range of 240’ doing 3D6 damage; it has a two-shot capacity. Once all shots have been fired, the weapon can be reversed to use as a two-handed spear in melee doing 1D8 damage.

Slayers hail from another part of the galaxy and are alien to the planet Krull. They are immune to any kind of sleep or mind-control magic, and cannot be magically transformed or polymorphed, though they can be affected by a disintegrate spell. Their senses are equal to human and they have no ability to see in darkness without a light source. They will not communicate and cannot be reasoned with or bribed; their loyalty is only to the Beast of the Black Fortress. If reduced to 0 hit points, the slayer gives off a keening shriek and will abandon its armor burrowing into the ground, never to be seen again.


CHANGELING

Armor Class: 9…………No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Hit Dice: 1+1*…………Save As: Fighter 2
Movement: 120’ (40’)…………Morale: 9
Attacks: 1 claw…………Treasure Type: Nil
Damage: 1D6…………Alignment: Chaotic

The Beast has many weapons and the changeling is one of his most subtle. Appearing as a normal human (often as the duplicate of a specific individual), the creature is one used for deception, infiltration, and assassination.

The changeling will choose a time to strike when its prey is alone, defenseless, and vulnerable. When attacking the creature’s eyes turn void black, with no visible pupil at its nails lengthening to claws. If possible, the monster will attack from behind (+2 to hit) and if successful will do 1D6 damage every round as it strangles its prey (no further to hit roll necessary).

Like the slayer, the changeling’s true form is an alien squid-like creature. However, its merging with the human form gives it the ability to communicate and even sometimes to feel emotions as a human does. It is thus possible, though rare, for the Changeling’s loyalty to the Beast to be compromised.


THE BEAST*

Armor Class: 2…………No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Hit Dice: 18**** (85 hit points)…………Save As: Magic-User 18
Movement: 120’ (40’)…………Morale: 12
Attacks: 2 claws + special…………Treasure Type: Hx3
Damage: 2D6…………Alignment: Chaotic

The Beast is a large (15’ tall) humanoid of demonic appearance, an alien being from a different part of the galaxy. The sole lord and master of both the Black Fortress and the slayers, the Beast has access to powers beyond the ken of normal humans.

At will, the Beast may use the following spells as an 18th level magic-user: floating disk, detect invisible, ESP, knock, mirror image, phantasmal force, clairvoyance, dispel magic, confusion, and polymorph self. The Beast has absolute control over his minions (the slayers and the changelings) knowing where they are at all times, seeing through their eyes, and having the ability to end their lives at any time. Should the Beast be killed, all existing slayers will be slain by his psychic death scream.

The Beast may only be damaged by magical weapons, is immune to mind control magic, and cannot be magically transformed except by his own will. Immortal unless slain, the Beast regenerates 1 hit point per round from all injuries except fire and acid. Though he disdains physical combat, he can strike with two wicked claws, and if successful with both will automatically bring foe to mouth and deliver a vicious bite for an additional 2D4 damage.

The Beast is evil and cruel and seeks to subjugate and corrupt all with whom he has contact. He uses illusions and fear to enslave some and temptations and false promises to ensnare others. In the end, he serves only himself and holds himself master above all other beings.


FIRE MARE

Armor Class: 7…………No. Appearing: 0 (20-80)
Hit Dice: 4…………Save As: Dwarf 3
Movement: 360’ (120’)…………Morale: 7
Attacks: 2 Hooves…………Treasure Type: Nil
Damage: 1D8/1D8…………Alignment: Neutral

The fire mare looks like an exceptionally fit and hearty draft horse, but they are only found wild, being possible to capture but incapable of domestication. They roam the plains of Krull and, while dangerous, can sometimes be useful as riding beasts.

When in full gallop, either due to stampede or the urging of a rider, the fire mare can reach great speeds, far greater than any known steed. In addition, they have the ability to travel over land, water, or air equally, their hooves never needing solid purchase once they have achieved full speed. The fire mare’s tremendous fortitude allows it to travel in this fashion for many hours and thousands of miles without tiring, the beast’s maximum range being about 3000 miles over a 16 hour period (roughly 188 miles per hour).

The fire mares’ hooves flash with fire when travelling at speed, clearly visible in the night sky and leaving a smoldering trail in their wake.

Damn It J.J. Abrams!

So the wife and I watched the latest Start Trek movie (titled Start Trek) this Sunday and I have to say it was pretty darn good. Good enough that it put me in danger of becoming a “Trekkie.”

Goddamn it.

Both the wife and myself were impressed enough that we wanted to watch the original Star Trek series afterwards, starring Shatner, Nimoy, etc. And thanks to streaming Netflix we were able to do just that, changing a lazy afternoon into an eight hour “Star Trek Sunday.”

Now just for the record, I would like to point out that I have never been a fan of Trek. Oh, sure, if you asked me which was my favorite “edition” I would tell you the original series, hands down, but it’s not because Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner aren’t fine actors (they are, especially on-stage), or because that “Number One” guy with the beard was the cheesiest actor/character to hit television in the 90s, or even because Shatner was such a pimp. The simple fact of the matter is I grew out of Star Trek pretty early on…Star Trek IV (in 1986) being the last film I actually saw in the theater.

Fact of the matter is, I had stopped watching the re-runs of the classic series even before THAT, and as a kid given a choice between watching Shatner & Co. or watching an episode of The Cosby Show, I would have chosen the latter every single time.

Like Nascar, MTV’s The Real World, and E! Entertainment television, I simply never understood the appeal of Star Trek. I mean, I had a couple or three friends who were Trek-Heads in high school, but I shuddered every time they’d voice some “Live Long and Prosper” Spock-ism. Hell, even in college I knew a girl or two that absolutely adored the Trek and its Next Generation madness. It just wasn’t my preferred form of escapism.

And maybe THAT’s what I should say. I understand that people get their fantasy “rocks off” in many different flavors. I just don’t personally empathize with the love of Star Trek. And there is a GREAT love for that particular intellectual property…I ain’t blind to it.

It may be that I’m just not a humongous science fiction fan. This is one conclusion I’ve started coming to recently. Yes, I love watching a good lightsaber fight on the screen. Yes, I AM a huge (post-mortem) Firefly fan. Yes, I have read (and re-read) the science fiction works of John Steakly, J.M. Stirling, as well as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat.

But with all of these works, it ain’t the “scifi” element that draws me to them. I am NOT a technology buff in any sense of the phrase. I don’t give a shit about space ships and the stars don’t “beckon to me.” I like the New Agey tale of redemption, the Western, the military fiction. The planetary romance is an ADVENTURE novel, and I like adventure…I don’t care about the neat doo-dads or the intricacies of plasma fusion reactors or faster-than-light theories.

Recently reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I am interested in the intrigues and the fictional historical development…not the fact that someone is a psychic mutant or that characters have access to personal force fields. Hell, I didn’t buy my first cell phone till last December (when we were selling our house and my wife was out of town on business a lot I had to be able to field calls from agents all times of day). And even now, I generally only use it for playing Tetris while standing in line.

No, I’m not big into science fiction…especially not stuff that involves human interactions with alien intelligences. That right there might be my biggest turn-off about every version of Star Trek after the original series. Originally, Spock (a character I never particularly liked or thought was “uber-cool”) was the only alien on the vessel…and he was half-human! The Next Generation and later series were filled with these crazy alien races that I found neither particularly interesting nor believable…their personalities were still “human” just given to certain extremes (i.e. caricature) coupled with some silly biological differences and/or “alien customs.” Real human culture has plenty of differences without the need to create a gazillion humanoid “alien life forms.”

In fact, most of the sci-fi series I’ve SKIPPED over the years have been heavy on “alien” cast members. All the various Star Treks, of course, but also Farscape, Lexx, Babylon 5, etc.. Give me Firefly (with 0 alien races), or Aliens and Starship Troopers (where the only aliens are monstrous creatures with an appetite for human death). Even District Nine was (I found) a more believable take on human interaction with an alien species. And while I never actually saw Alien Nation (I read the comic book) that, too, seemed the more likely outcome of a human-alien meeting (i.e. fear and prejudice being the general outcome).

Not that I’m entirely cynical about humanity. But I think that many, many people are very challenged by things outside their normal familiar comfort zone. These people don’t like, or are afraid to try new foods, new cultures, new languages…they don’t travel very far from their home regions. And if you FORCE them to experience the strange and new (by simply moving someone of a different race/culture/ethnicity next door, let alone dropping an alien mothership into the neighborhood) they get all bent out of shape.

And anyway, I believe alien intelligences will be truly alien…there will be no meeting of the minds even to agree that “we should start a war with each other over territory in space.” I think aliens are more likely to be totally incomprehensible to the human intellect. But that’s just me.

And so we come back to the new Star Trek. It was very enjoyable in a non-Star Trek kind of way. Part of this was certainly the updated pacing of the film. Part of it was also the fun of watching new, young actors give fairly good portrayals of the classic characters.

But for me, I simply enjoyed the tone and gravity the film maker brought to it. The aliens of the film were few and far between (similar to the original series, actually). There were no klingons or farrengi or androids on deck, and the more alien rubber masks that appeared on screen had no lines. Yes, there were plenty of Romulans and Vulcans, but these characters are simply what I consider to be “alternative human species” in the same galaxy with their same petty human flaws (rage, jealousy, prejudice, vengefulness). It wasn’t some “borg” seeking to “assimilate/exterminate organic life” simply because…um, it’s a scifi blockbuster.

Another thing that made the film feel more serious, less whimsical was the way the Federation was treated: much more military and much less “military lite” (to coin a phrase from the Mekton Zeta RPG) than prior Star Trek entries. Even watching the old classic series, I see that they had military codes, court martials, and “dress” uniforms for certain occasions (in the Next Generation series I only ever remember seeing characters wear the same damn spandex jumpsuits). Anyway, the film still had no saluting and a surprising lack of military discipline (making a suspended cadet the #1 officer on a Federation warship? What the F?), but still felt like there was SOME protocol being followed…protocol that sometimes requires military personnel to make tough, non-heroic decisions because the discipline is needed to ensure the overall design continues to function.

Anyway…I enjoyed it. My wife enjoyed it (she also says ‘I always liked Star Trek,’ but this is the first time I’ve heard this in the almost twelve years I’ve known her, so I’m not sure how much she likes it). I was SURPRISED by how much I actually liked it…enough that it made me consider picking up a Star Trek RPG, if there is such a thing in print. I know I’ve seen them in the past, but much like the show/films themselves, I’ve always skipped ‘em when I was at the game shop. Now…well. I’m not about to purchase a pair of Spock ears, but I’ve got a lot more open to the idea of exploring the Federation universe!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Krull Campaign Setting

The Seahawks are down 28-3, the Vikes are driving (still) with Tavaris Jackson at the helm (Favre has been pulled after throwing four TD passes...probably want to save him for next week), and while I, as a die-hard blue-bleeding fan must watch till the bitter, bitter end I might as well have a little fun while suffering.

[announcers speaking, regarding a challenge that Minnsota just won: "So, the Vikings winning everything today." Ugh! And now another 1st down pass from the 2nd string QB]

Krull is an interesting campaign setting. After watching the movie yesterday, I was again left with the sense that there is A LOT that's left un-said. And it's this backstory that intrigues me.

I went to a used bookstore this morning looking for the Allen Dean Foster adaptation of the movie...for awhile there, Foster was the "go to" guy for adapting films into novels, and I often found his books MORE entertaining than the movies, as he presented more information than what was present in the film. As a kid I did not distinguish that film and literature are two very different mediums, and I would sometimes "judge" a film (fairly or not) for not living up to written text. This is the classic "which version of The Shining do you prefer" argument.

Now, I am content to accept both as their own seperate animals, which is why I can say enjoy and rave about both The Watchmen film as well as the comic and not be upset at the dramatic license taken in the adaptation.

But it is that "extra info" Foster throws into his novels that I want. Whether he has access to the "film bible" of the screenplay or whether he simply adds his own stuff to "fill in the blanks," I'd like to read what he has to say about Krull.

Why are folks in the film so nonchalant about the alien invaders? Or about the magic of Ergo (which they simply find amusing rather than disturbing or supernatural)? If the Beast and his minions are new to the planet, but have had prior dealings with the cyclops, then are the cyclops new to the planet as well? How did the glaive become the symbol of the human kingdom, and how was it lost so many years before? And why is it Colwyn is able to reach it and instinctively knows how to use it without training?

Was Ynyr and the Widdow of the Web potential fulfillers of the prophecy? And who imprisoned the Widow of the Web? How did Titch end up indentured to the Emerald Seer? And for goodness sake, how is Colwyn and Lissa's child going to rule the galaxy if they're living in a medieval tech-level culture?

Unfortunately, there was no Foster book at the bookstore. If I'm going to write up the Krull campaign setting, I'm going to have to either "fill in my own blanks" or else start with what I know (the Slayers, etc.) until I can find a copy of it.

Ope! And the Seahawks game has finally, mercifully ended. Time-out for breakfast!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Good Fighters Make Bad Husbands"

By that reasoning, I must be a terrible fighter; my wife thinks I'm a pretty darn good husband.

I was watching the vastly underrated film Krull today (ahhh...streaming Netflix!), and was pleasantly surprised at how cool a film it is. As I've said in the past, I enjoy a mix of sci-fi and fantasy, when it's done in the right amounts. In my opinion, Krull does this exceptionally well.

Interestingly, one of the working titles for Krull was (apparently) "Dungeons and Dragons." Of course, there are no dragons in the film so it's just as well that they changed the name. But in some ways the movie DOES seem like a D&D type adventure. There's a princess to be rescued (of course), a motley collection of adventurers from different walks of life, and a couple different subterranean settings (including "The Black Fortress").

Of course, Krull would not actually work as a D&D adventure...well, not one I'D want to play/run anyway. It's a piece of fiction with a plot, and playing a pastiche of the movie would necessitate a lot of linear action and railroad force. Not to mention only one guy getting to play the hero. I mean, how many people would NOT want to wield the glaive? And how many folks really like playing "the comic relief."

At least in a game like Ars Magica, campaigns (or "sagas") are supposed to be long term...which means it's just fine to play a "grog" every now and again 'cause eventually you'll get a chance to step up as a "hero." But Krull isn't really a campaign/saga...it's the equivalent of a one-off adventure (and certainly a race against time). Do you really want to spend your one session as Ergo the Magnificent? Or Titch?!

Nah, Krull is a great movie with pretty cool FX especially for 1983, and the plot, acting, and music score beats most every made-for-TV movie I've seen on the SciFi channel...um, well EVER really. And it certainly has stuff that could be "mined" (i.e. "ripped off") for use in one's D&D adventure...especially a B/X adventure.

Let's see...there are a few monsters (slayers and the beast, of course...but also fire mares and changelings). There's at least one new character class, the Cyclops, that would make up for the loss of dwarves, elves, and halflings. A different way of handling clerical magic (I'd certainly consider Ynyr the mystic to fit the bill with his healing abilities). Of course, the Glaive could be included as a magic artifact...but it would appear to only be wielded by the latently-psionic royalty class (or at the very least, only by a 4th level or so fighter).

Anyway, SOMEone should post some Krull stuff to a blog, and I suppose I'll be the one to do it, at least for B/X play. I was feeling a little passed up recently with Pat's awesome S&S series...I guess it's my turn to contribute something to the game...

By the way...let me just say that I think the Beast is one of the coolest/weird/psychadelic monster villains I've seen in a fantasy film. It's right up there with Tim Curry's portrayal of Darkness in the movie Legend.

Okay, Maybe Niles Ain't So Bad

Although many of my previous comments may seem unkind, I wasn't joking when I said much of Douglas Niles's work irritates me...especially my recently acquired X3:Curse of Xanathon. However, I admit that I did tie one on last night (karaoke debauchery) and some of my irritation may be due to a pounding head this morning.

Also, I found a little something-something to soften my critique of Mr. Niles.

Just finished reading N1:Against the Cult of the Reptile Gods...rather forced myself to read it, despite my boredom with the first few pages and my "irritation with Doug" in general. And guess what...I'm changing my tune. N1 is pretty darn good.

Now, I realize it was ranked 19th Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventure of All-Time Dungeon Magazine in 2004, but I personally dislike and/or take serious umbrage with many of the adventures ranked on the list. For example, I am arm-in-arm with the folks who feel each module should be judged by its individual merit, not with a "series-as-a-whole" approach. But just being on a Top 20 list is good enough reason to give the thing a fair shake (well maybe...The Gates of Firestorm Peak is ranked #11 and I've never even heard of this 1996, 2nd edition adventure).

So anyway, I bothered to finish reading N1, and it's pretty good. I still don't understand why there are no lizard men and how a spirit naga is connected to troglodytes (and why all the cultists are Lawful Evil when their "god" is Chaotic Evil).

Heck, at first I thought there were NO alignments in the module, as none are listed with any of the NPC stat boxes. However, a re-read of the blurb at the beginning quickly explained most folks were Neutral Good while most baddies were of the LE variety. However, before my re-read I was tempted to consider this a pretty cool innovation for a module from 1982...after all, it DOESN'T really matter what alignment anyone is...the bad guys are bad unless the PCs can break the evil spell, and the innocent victims are in need of the PCs' help regardless of their alignments.

Okay, so what did I like about the module.

Well, for one thing it doesn't suffer from the same "silliness" as X3. It is small scale (one town, a la Village of Hommelet) that is in trouble from a real menace that can operate on a town scale. And yet, the adventure has the potential to "scale up;" if the PCs fail in the mission, the bad guy has a plan to spread his evil influence over the next village (he even has his patsy set to start the black tide); the Cult of the Reptile God could transform into a mini-campaign in and of itself!

Likewise, should the PCs succeed in putting down the Cult, the module continues to act as a "mini-campaign setting" with notes on what happens afterwards, how the PCs can set-up base in the town, and other possible adventures around the area. That's a lot of "bang for your buck" from one module.

In addition, the subject matter is mature and dark. The PCs arrive in the middle of a hostile takeover, and the bad guys already have a good foothold. The villains are mean, mean, mean with realistic drives and sub-plots and plenty of potential ickiness (especially once the ensorcelled townsfolk are freed from their spell...lots of potential role-playing issues/drama to deal with in a campaign that doesn't simply treat the module as a single episodic adventure).

I like that. I like depth of play/design. I like nuance, I like possibility, I like "open-endedness."

And N1 IS original. It is different from T1's "re-kindled ancient evil" and any other "evil religious opponent" module you care to name. Hell, it's not every day low level characters get to bring down a god!

And the power of the "god" IS god-like for low level characters. Granted they get some much needed help from a crutch...er, "helpful NPC"...but it's still going to be a pretty grim battle, quite possibly involving a LOT of dead PCs.

Which to my mind is a good thing...encounters can be challenging without giving the Big Bad the farm in "special powers;" to a low level character, a perma-charm, a poison bite, and a handful of spells (not to mention 9 hit dice) is PLENTY to deal with. Throw in the rest of the setting (the mud and trogs and possessed cultists) and you make a VERY challenging adventure for low level characters...especially if they happen to be good-hearted ones interested in saving a few souls (rather than laying 'em out).

So Douglas Niles gets a pass from me after all, and has earned a bit of good will even. Along with his co-developer Allen Hammack, he's designed a very cool and thoughtful adventure module...one that I'd very much like to run sometime.

Earlier, I posted a B/X conversion for the AD&D module S2:White Plume Mountain, and I was asked if I planned to convert any other modules. Well, N1 is certainly in the running for conversion. It's pretty darn simple really (though I might remove the trogs in favor of lizard folk...I think of trogs more like those creatures in the film The Descent). The main challenge to this is the availability of maps and text for this out-o-print module (the D20 version of S2 is available as a free download from WotC web site, N1 is not). However, I think I'll at least do it for myself. If anyone else is interested in seeing my conversion notes, let me know and I'll upload a file at mediafire.

Prost!

Doug Niles Irritates Me

You know, most days I can think of something constructive to post, but for the last couple days, every time I've sat down at Ye Olde Laptop there's only one thing popping into my head: Douglas Niles irritates me.

Not the man, himself, of course...I've never met Mr. Niles and he's probably a swell guy. But for whatever reason, as an author he bugs me. I'm not even talking about his writing style (I wouldn't even know HOW to analyze that kind of thing...I'm neither an English teacher nor a pro critic). But his subject matter, the substance of which he writes.

I don't know what I'm trying to say here...well, besides the obvious title of the post; I guess I'm just venting a little bit. I picked up CM2:Sabre River in the game shop the other day, read through it, and tossed it back on the pile. It just seemed so damn boring and trite. I picked up N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God mainly because it represented a missing chunk of my past. I was even able to get the maps for it that had previously been missing. But I haven't finished reading it as I got bored just a few pages in.

And I think this is part of the reason I never finished reading it in my youth. Well, I'm sure that I was frustrated it was making reference to AD&D stuff that wasn't in my B/X rules, and it WAS pretty low level by the time I'd picked up the Players Handbook. But even still, I probably would have at least READ the module. And I didn't...I just wasn't wowed by the plot.

And now I have X3: The Curse of Xanathon and IT is missing all its pages from 15-18 (ugh!) including a couple map inserts. And in reading the thing, it just feels...I don't know, "mediocre," I guess. In some ways it feels similar to N1...an evil cult has moved into town and now everything's going to hell. You have to raid a bad temple.

But I don't like how it casts the Ethengarians (the Mongol-type people from Mystarra) as the bad guy...and worse that they're SNEAKY bad guys instead of ride-in-bows-blazing Scourge-of-God-type villains.

Then there's the un-killable Evil High Priest. I'm not sure why this is so irritating but I'll try to codify it. Let's see...okay, how about this:

- the guy is invulnerable to EVERYTHING, right? Period. It's not very subtle or clever.
- the only way for the players to find this out is by attacking the guy. There are no hints, no preparations that can be made, no nothing that occurs previously in the story.
- depending on how fast the players figure out their little problem, he could really do a number on them. Of course, he "delights in physical combat," so they only have to worry about him bashing them with his mace and not his high level spells
- during the encounter he does the comic book villain thing, giving the players hints on how to kill him...which, of course, is dumb

Basically the whole encounter is a bit of an F-You to the players, who then need to figure out (from the clues in the High Priest's chamber...you know, the chamber where he is invulnerably bashing them about?) where they're supposed to go to find his "life force" so he can be killed. And then there's another shrine/mini-dungeon to delve. And then it's back to the Evil High Priest. And yadda-yadda-yadda. Boring.

Then there's the whole "oh the Duke is crazy and he's expelled the dwarves and declared war on them" time limit thing. Basically, the players have three weeks to A) figure out the Evil High Priest has cursed the duke, B) figure out the EHP is invulnerable, C) go find his life force and return...or else the dwarves are going to march on the town and raze it.

This is DUMB. The whole adventure takes place in one small Ducal city-state in the kingdom of Vestland. Why would the entire army of Rockhome (the dwarf nation) launch an invasion just for a few insults? That would bring down the rest of Vestland on them, not to mention neighboring allies. And do the dwarves really give two shits about the crazy Duke? He hasn't launched an attack on them, he's just "declared a state of war exists" and threatened to shave the beards of any dwarf that doesn't leave town...and they leave town! So what's the big deal that would get the taciturn dwarves to mobilize in three weeks?

It's irritating. Unlike Mr. Cook, Mr. Niles does NOT unleash the potential of B/X game play with his module...he dumbs it down and makes me uninterested in the game.

When I put Sabre River back on the pile, I had half-jokingly told the proprietor that "I still had a bone to pick" with Doug Niles over the damn Dungeoneers Survival Guide...a hard back book for which I shelled out good money as a kid and never used, except for those irritating non-weapon proficiencies. I probably should have stuck with my instincts and skipped the other modules with his name on it.

I see from his wikipedia entry that Mr. Niles has published many fantasy novels of the Dragon Lance and Forgotten Realms variety. Somehow, this doesn't surprise me as both those series irritate me, too. Yes, I know that the man isn't responsible for either of these campaign worlds. I'm just not surprised that he's drawn to the subject matter...he and I seem to have very different tastes.

[okay, now that I've got all THAT out, maybe I can turn my mind to more constructive matters; sorry about that folks]

Friday, November 20, 2009

A True Expert: Dave Cook Kicking Ass (Part 2)

[sorry, my earlier post was about to explode into an unwieldy amount of text...figured I'd break it up]

Let me just quote a paragraph from the text or two, so you can see why I just saw more and more awesomeness in the X4 and X5 modules:

In encounter 2 of Part 4 (X4:The Master of the Desert Nomads), the adventurers are relaxing with some caravan buddies, elated from an earlier victory over an attack by bandits (by the way, Cook makes good use of all the human "monsters" of B/X...bandits, Normal Men, nomads, dervishes, etc....not just character classes).

If the party remains, they will be the guests of honor at the night's feast. After a thick, syrupy coffee, the merchants will carry in a large platter of camel meat (still on the bone) laid on a bed of rice. Over this will be ladled burning hot grease and melted camel butter until it flows over the side of the tray. Lamshar will then invite the characters to eat. They will be expected to dip their fingers into the tray and pull out balls of meat and rice, dripping with grease. Lamshar and Khel will dine with them, offering the player characters choice bits of camel meat that they have pulled out. After the characters have had their fill (and to only eat a little would be insulting), the other merchants will take their place at the tray. The meal will finish with somewhat green dates.

!!!

Now all that text is DM's Eyes Only stuff...this is not boxed text to be read to the players (though both X4 and X5 include some boxed text). Cook creates a whole culture and adventure EXPERIENCE in under 30 pages of text.

Some might think, that with this kind of loving attention to the background material, the adventure would be short on action. No way. He still has room for a full set of wilderness encounters and a 60+ encounter dungeon (the Evil Abbey), as well as including half a dozen new monsters, pregenerated characters, and mini-mass combat rules. And that's JUST X4! X5 is another great 30 pages...this is practically a mini-campaign setting between these two modules.

X4 was published in 1983, the same year Mentzer's Basic set was coming out. X5: Temple of Death was also released in 1983. This is before Mentzer's Expert set or Companion rules hit...

X4 has no shortage of interesting tricks and traps (here come some spoilers folks). For example, back to the previously quoted encounter: all PCs taking part in the feast have to make a save versus poison ("I don't know if it was a piece of under-cooked camel or the green dates, but I'm not feeling so hot..."). Those that FAIL are up all night with indigestion. However, those that are AWAKE get a shot at stopping a sneaky little critter that ransacks the camp that night.

How cool is that? The characters that SUCCEED get to brag about their iron constitutions, but the ones who FAIL get a shot at being heroes later on!

There are a several of these kinds of switcheroos...an ancient Champion of Law that is so obviously the inspiration behind the Scorpion King of The Mummy Returns film (yep, it's now gone bad...)...others friendly NPCs that aren't what they seem (similar to The Jade Empire video game)...plants and double-agents. And am I the only one that sees the Nagpa monsters the direct antecedent of Games Workshop's Lord of Change greater daemon?

Cook also corrects one of the issues I have with X1: The Isle of Dread, though it sets a bit of a bad precedent to later adventure modules. In X1, adventurers can wander around a huge island wilderness for days or weeks without encountering anything but wandering monsters due to encounters being in certain set locations. Players (and the DM) basically have to get lucky (or fudge) if they want the party to run into a particular set piect. In X4 and X5, the wilderness map is set, but the location of the encounters are not...players will experience each encounter when the DM deems the time is right.

Now when I say this is a dangerous precedent I say it comes dangerously close to a linear railroad type adventure...where the only thing that can happen is "players succeed at encounter and move onto next" OR "players fail at encounter and die ending adventure." Adventure path or "story path" in the end all you're doing is living the author's fiction...with widely varying degrees of control (depending on the level of authored NPC involvement). When this happens, it doesn't matter how cool and interesting an adventure...your game play is no longer a collaboration between creative minds, and that's a shame.

Cook avoids this pitfall, and he does so through a number of ways:

1) With a couple exceptions, wilderness encounters need not occur in a particular order. The DM is just ensuring they occur...that's part of the adventure (just like dealing with the throne room or the demi-lich is part of the Tomb of Horrors...there are specific bottle-neck points).

2) Success or failure at a particular encounter does not necessarily derail the adventure. For example, in X5: Temple of Death players don't HAVE to get into the flying ship (flying ship? Yeah, as I said, both these modules are frigging awesome). And in fact, even though it would expedite some things, doing so leads to its own dangers (I shan't elaborate for the benefit of folks that haven't played).

3) In both modules there is a centerpiece dungeon that players will eventually find, and unlike, say other modules, there is nothing linear or pre-scripted in what happens once "on-site." Hell, the dungeons don't even include the boxed text that is present in the wilderness encounters! They are wholely Old School dungeons, complete with Gygaxian ecology and wide open for exploitation by creative adventuring parties.

4) There is no force used upon the PCs through the machinations of NPCs. Players are still calling the shots about what happens in the adventure.

For all these reasons, I don't feel the modules are forced or contrived. Heck, they're even less so than the Desert of Desolation series, with which they sure certain superficial traits. Despite the lower production value, Dave Cook's two-part series may actually blow the Hickman and Weiss masterpiece out of the water. Well...it's hard to say, though as I've had such a love of the I3-5 series for so long.

As far as a B/X adventure? It is easily the best pre-packaged adventure I have ever read for B/X or BECMI. Hands down...it is head-and-shoulders above both B2: Keep on the Borderlands and X1: Isle of Dread. And seeing as how THOSE two made my Top Ten All Time list...well, I might just have to re-do the list.

The thing is, Cook's modules are not designed for kids. Or maybe they are, but they have a very mature, adult sensibility. The power of organized religions? Demons and possession? The need to use wits and stealth over hack/slash/fireball tactics? This ain't no pick-up game for ten year olds, no matter what the Expert set box says.

Of course, we ARE talking Dave Cook here. The designer behind I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City and A1:Secret of the Slavers Stockade. Snake people and slavers? The guy has a Swords & Sorcery mentality that doesn't quit.

And he brings that S&S style to both X4 and X5. THESE are the potential of the D&D Expert Set...THIS is the kind of mentality I am trying to bring to my Companion set. If Cook had written the sequel to B/X instead of Frank Mentzer, I might have never moved over to AD&D. And, heck, I HAVE made B/X my game/drug of choice after all these years...

Dave Cook is my F'ing hero. Like Gygax and Arneson he should be up on the pedestal of RPG Masters. And, yes, I do realize the total irony with which I write that given his spearheading the design of 2nd edition AD&D leading to the saturation of TSR with sub-mediocre material...but you know, anyone who could take the original mishmash of AD&D and re-organize it has got to be appreciated for design chops regardless of how one views the end result...and I DO appreciate it, even as I loathe the game itself.

Mr. Cook, even as I try to dissuade folks from playing 2nd edition, I will heap praises on your name for your Expert work. And X4 and X5 are shining examples of why B/X is indeed the best version of the game to play. Bravo, sir.

Um...but one, little, tiny issue, Mr. Cook sir. Encounter #2 in the Catacombs? In X4 on page 28? There's no such thing as a "permanent Magic Mouth spell" in B/X D&D...there's no Magic Mouth spell at all.

But one flaw in two modules (for a guy publising in two editions at the same time), is pretty flawless in MY book.
: )

A True Expert: Dave Cook Kicks Ass

Sometimes I worry that I'm a crashing bore. Sometimes I worry that someone I know is going to read something uncharitable I say about them and feel hurt. Sometimes I worry that I'm going to step on someone's feelings just because I couch my opinions with in a bit of inflammatory prose.

Mostly though, I don't worry too much about it...I know I've got my insecurities, and my worries are only as strong as my thought that I'm throwing typos and grammatical errors left and right. If I stopped to worry about all this...well, I guess I'd just be reading blogs instead of writing one.

But folks who've been reading know that I do detour off into the occasional attack post regarding...oh, pretty much everything at one point or another. But those same readers know that I save an especially large share of my bile for a particular edition of D&D...the 2nd edition. I mean, I have turned the cold shoulder to D&D3+ and completely ignored the fact that 4E exists at all. Why, why must I rail against all things 2nd edition.

Um...habit? Who knows? Who cares? Damn...it's just one guy's opinion!

However, in launching so many attacks at the game, it's possible (however slightly) that I might be pissing all over David "Zeb" Cook, the lead designer for that particular edition of the game. I don't know...does he consider it his "baby?" Well, anyway, if it seems like I've got a bone to pick, let me state right for the record now that I do NOT.

Dave Cook is a frigging' genius.

Maybe genius isn't the right term...I want a term like savant, but in my head that always has the word "idiot" at the front and I don't think of Mr. Cook as an idiot. Master might be a better term...you know, like the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance?

Dave Cook is one of the true masters of D&D. If Gygax is the equivalent of Da Vinci, Cook has got to be Michaelangelo. Maybe that's not a fair comparison (Robert Kuntz might feel he's heir to the Michaelangelo title)...but certainly Dave is one of those Ninja Turtle names.

Mr. Cook's old school cred is not in question...he was working at TSR for a long time, and prior to AD&D2 worked on a whole slew of things. Just looking at the works credited to the man on wikipedia, I see a whole lot of stuff that I've owned and continued to own, all of which I certainly enjoyed in my youth: Unearthed Arcana (with Gygax), Star Frontiers, A1:Slave Pits of the Undercity, B6:The Veiled Society, BH2:Lost Conquistador Mine, X1:The Isle of Dread (with Moldvay). I can honestly say that I have used and played everything I've ever owned that was written by Dave Cook. And some things...noteably X1 and I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City...I have used and played extensively with multiple gaming groups.

Of course, just being the hand behind a lot of good product isn't enough to qualify one as a "master" in my book. Lawrence Schick hit a homerun out of the park with S2:White Plume Mountain, but in my opinion one (exceptionally wonderful) adventure ain't enough. And quantity's not enough either...Doug Niles, I'm looking at YOU.

[there I go talking smack again! bad JB!]

It's only the last couple days that I've decided Cook is firmly in the master category...and this is DESPITE AD&D2 and the non-weapon proficiencies of Oriental Adventures. I've been reading his modules X4:Master of the Desert Nomads and X5:Temple of Death.

They are superb.

Taking into account his work on X1:The Isle of Dread, I can only come to the conclusion that Mr. Cook is a true master of B/X, ESPECIALLY mid-high level play or what might be termed "Expert D&D" (hell, even I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City is designed for characters level 4-7). No wonder of course when one considers he was the main force behind the incredibly underrated (in my opinion) D&D Expert Set.

Underrated? Hell yes! I played Expert for a loooong time just subbing in the AD&D Monster Manual before I ever got a DMG or PHB. And many of the standard rules from the Expert set were simply 'ported in to AD&D once we started playing AD&D, including all wilderness movement and naval combat stuff. Sure Expert, like Moldvay's Basic, was just a streamlining and codifying of the original LBBs, but they were done in such expert fashion that they were a lot easier to use than either the LBBs or AD&D. And let us not forget that aside from a few extra clerical spells and Larry Elmore art, Mentzer's Expert set is pretty much word-for-word the Cook/Marsh book. And a lot of people still prefer BECMI and the Rules Cyclopedia.

But let's talk about X4 and X5. Wow. Just wonderful. First off, now I understand why the Expert set bothers to throw both Nomads and Dervishes into the mix. Cook uses every last scrap of Expert goodness in these two adventure modules. After playing through it, players will never relegate ESP and Dispel Evil off into the realms of the "optional miscellaneous" and creative use of spells in general is going to be particularly important. Heck, just about every magic item in the Expert set makes an appearance in one place or another, and scrolls and potions feature prominently...the NPCs sure aren't afraid to use 'em to good advantage!

The monsters are clever and their tactics explicit (very nice for a DM, very challenging for the players...and thanks to the fact this is B/X not 3.5, combats are still a dream to run). The new monsters are especially cool...comparing the Soul Eaters to the Death Leeches of CM2 for example and Cook's creations win hands down as interesting, challenging, while not being "F the players" AND they all have nice "personality." I prefer the new critters in X4 to the ones in X5 (the Fraggle Rock geonid look downright silly), but the Dusanu and Malfera are totally worthy opponents.

There are a LOT of demonic type creatures in the game...monsters like the Malfera, Spectral Hounds, and Soul Eaters all hail from different dimensions or planes (the Nightmare Dimension? the Vortex Dimension?) that don't conform to any particular "D&D Cosmology." I LOVE this. Cook displays what the REAL potential of B/X is...you can make your games a grim Sword & Sorcery tale and completely leave out the Immortals of BECMI or the planar/clerical specifics of AD&D and later games. B/X has THE EXACT SAME OPEN-ENDEDNESS OF OD&D, except that the rules are better written and organized.

And Cook only uses what he's got...unlike Moldvay's X2:Castle Amber, there is no speculation of what a 25th level character would be like (c.f. Stephan D'Amberville). The highest level character in either book is 14, where he ended his own Set. His additional rules are nothing that would later need to be retconned.

For example: the people of Hule worship Chaotic deities. Which Chaotic deities? Who knows? Who cares? Doesn't matter because they are DEITIES and they work in mysterious ways, granting strange powers to some and undying life to others, and flaming damnation to the poor souls that drop down the wrong chute. Ha! Does everything need to be codified (BECMI, D20...I'm looking at YOU)? Nah...I don't think so.

These modules reiterate all the things I love about AD&D that I hated in later editions...edginess and open-endedness ("an anything goes mentality"). Except it uses B/X...wow.