Friday, March 22, 2019

Human Lands of Karameikos

From the Cook/Marsh Expert set (page X60):


Specularum - Originally a trading port founded when this area was first explored, the major city of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Approximately 5,000 people live in or immediately around the city. The Duke maintains a standing force of 500 troops and may raise an army of 5,000 from the surrounding countryside in times of war. A small fleet of warships is maintained in the harbor.

The city is primarily noted for its excellent harbor facilities and shipyards. Walled on the landward side, the city is also protected by 2 breakwaters that extend into the harbor, restricting passage to a narrow entrance. Overlooking the harbor is the Duke's castle, providing ample defense of the harbor.

Black Eagle Barony - This area of the Duchy has been given as a fiefdom to Baron Ludwig "Black Eagle" von Hendriks. The central town is Fort Doom, a forbidding structure. It is rumored to have dungeons filled with those who have displeased the Baron, an extremely cruel and unpopular man. The Baron may have possible connections with evil slavers and disreputable mercenaries. The Baron maintains a garrison of 200 troops, using them freely to quell dissent and crush attacking non-humans.

Luln - Composed primarily of persons who have fled Black Eagle Barony, merchants who have come to trade with the Baron, and some non-humans who have left the wilderness, Luln is a base town for adventurers exploring the Haunted Keep, also called Koriszegy Keep and the surrounding land. Somewhat lawless and open, the town can provide most of the basic needs to any group of adventurers. The town is poorly defended, relying on the goodwill and capabilities of both the Baron and the Duke for its defense. Approximately 500 people live in the town.

Before continuing, I want to mention "the Haunted Keep," AKA Koriszegy Keep as it is renamed. This adventure site first appears in the Tom Moldvay edited version of the Basic rules (the "B" in B/X) as an example of dungeon design; it is meant to be a first dungeon for new players. For the sake of completeness, I'm adding the Keep's description here, as it contributed to the "lore" of Karameikos (and because this background is later changed in GAZ1):

"In the distant past, the Haunted Keep was the castle of the Rodemus family. It was abandoned many years ago when the family mysteriously disappeared. It is now rumored to be haunted. Strange lights and sounds are often seen and heard in the ruins by passing townspeople.

"Recently, a tribe of goblins has been raiding the countryside. On their last raid they captured a dozen prisoners. The prisoners are all relatives of the player characters, who have banded together to rescue their relatives. The party has tracked the goblins to the Keep or castle, right up to the only door to the east tower..."

What the players do not know is that the Rodemus family has become a family of were rats, and still live in tunnels under their old castle. The family has joined the goblin raiders and are using them to find the strengths of the surrounding countryside. If the raids show the country folk to be weak, the family plans to raise a goblin army and attack...

[excerpt taken from page B55. I've cut out some of the descriptive info of the Haunted Keep and some of its DM notes]

The 1983 (Mentzer) Basic set does not include the Haunted Keep, instead using the ruined castle of Mistamere (one-time stronghold of the wizard "Gygar" and now the lair of Bargle the Infamous) as its introductory scenario. Personally, I find Mistamere to be both too hard and too pedestrian as an adventure (even as an introduction), but I have run it multiple times (with everyone dying in the first encounter: a carrion crawler). I've never run the Haunted Keep as its only coded level is too small and I never felt like filling out the rest of it...however, it's not a bad start and it has some interesting features, the best of which is the Lovecraftian "Rats in the Walls" vibe that's going on.

The original "Haunted Keep" from B/X;
details (and wererats) to be added by DM.
The 1983 (Mentzer) Expert set did retain Karameikos and most of its text (including the stuff in my previous post) is copied verbatim; however, there are differences, some subtle and some not, that point to a very specific direction of development. Here we have the first mention of Duke Stefan's "Elvenguard;" here also we have the gnomes providing the silver that the Duke uses for minting coins (despite the difficulty of trade with the community, retained from the earlier edition). The "somewhat lawless" town of Luln is no longer the presumed base town for the player characters, instead being replaced by idyllic Threshold and its benevolent Patriarch Sherlane. Baron Ludwig no longer uses his troops to crush "attacking non-humans" but simply "attackers," and he is set-up as an antagonist with a "network of spies and agents" including "Bargle the Infamous."

"Koriszegy Keep" is no longer the proper name of the Haunted Keep but is instead the proper name of the family that once ruled it, replacing the Rodemus family (despite the fact that a stronghold need not be named for its owner, or even its surrounding lands: see Mentzer's own example of Tarnskeep, castle of Patriarch Sherlane in Threshold). This become especially irritating in GAZ1 when Moldvay's rather horrific rat-hole of giant, subterranean caverns is transformed into "Ravenloft Lite;" a rather bland little ruin of eight encounter areas with a single crazy vampire (he's cursed to stay within the confines of his castle for the last two centuries, so he must be insane, living off summoned bats and having nothing to do but write on the walls).

The "updated" Keep; coffin and treasure
of vampire is in area #9 (*SPOILER*)
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a little disdainful of the changes that were made to Karameikos and its inhabitants (good and bad alike). It's not ALL terrible, of course...several of the ideas (especially from Allston's GAZ1) are worth using/stealing, and some are positively inspiring. Cardia's (Flying) Carpet Service airline...I find to be pretty cringe-worthy. I feel a lot of Mentzer's ideas tend to be of the "juvenile fantasy" vein; Harry Potter-esque years before Rowling was a published author. But his wilderness maps are a bit more readable than the originals, and I really appreciate him locating the various modules' adventure sites within the territory (it's nice to know just how far The Keep on the Borderlands is from the nearest civilized town).

I do have more to say on the subject of Karameikos...specifically some of the changes and "spins" I'd put on the country. But I'll save that for a later post. As usual, comments are welcome (especially from folks who've spent any amount of time playing in or running the Grand Duchy).
: )

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Revisiting Karameikos

Sometimes (often?), when I have a blog idea that really gets me jazzed up, I end up doing a bunch of "research"on the subject, that can distract or derail me for days (or weeks) on end. Such is the case with this post, which has been sitting in "draft form" since January 18th. While this info doesn't matter all that much to the subject at hand, I feel like folks might be interested in the fact that I'm not (always) pulling these missives out of my ass, and that when I have a delay in posting it's (sometimes) due to me trying to get more info for my readers' benefit.

[BTW: I put "research" in quotes, because a lot of my study is simply culling and collating stuff from various places on the's hardly locking myself in some shadowy corner of the library. Not trying to put on airs, people!]

GAZ1; Published 1987
The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is a campaign setting that's been around (in published form) at least as long as I've been in the hobby. As I mentioned the other day, Aaron Allston did the bulk of the work fleshing out the Duchy in the BECMI supplement Gazetteer #1 of the same name. I won't go over too much of what's covered in the Gaz; interested folks can get a brief overview of the setting from this podcast (which draws from multiple sources post-1983, i.e. after the advent of Mentzer's BECMI edition).

[there's another video review specific to the Gazeteer itself, but while longer it has a lot of extemporaneous nonsense, ranging from opinionated asides to factual errors regarding both the setting and the game's development...I gather Mr. McCoy is more of a 2E/Forgotten Realms enthusiast, so his musings may be pertinent to folks interested in his perspective]

Karameikos first appears in published form in 1981, both as a territory of "the Known World" in module X1: The Isle of Dread, and detailed as a "sample wilderness" in the Cook/Marsh Expert set (the "X" rulebook of B/X). As has been noted by others, the Known World setting was originally created by Tom Moldvay and Lawrence Schick for their home campaign and in that setting (per Schick's old notes) Karameikos appears to have been little more than a Thyatian city-state existing on a skinny peninsula.

Besides changing the city to a Grand Duchy (and much larger territory), the Expert rulebook offers the following details of the land of Karameikos:

"The Duchy is a large tract of wilderness and unsettled land claimed by Duke Stefan Karameikos the Third. Although he claims control of a large area of land on paper, large portions of it are held by humanoids and monsters. The two main settled areas are the coast near the main city of Specularum and the Black Eagle Barony on the Gulf of Halag.

"The weather throughout the area generally temperate and mild with short winters of little or no snowfall and long summers. Rainfall is ample but not heavy and easterly winds blow cool breezes from over the sea.

"The mountain range running along the north edge of the map is known by different names by the peoples of the territory including the Black Peaks, the Truth Mountains, or the Steach. The two large river systems that provide drainage from the area are left for the DM to name.

"Due to the climate, large sections of this map are heavily forested. Humans engage in lumber operations near the edges of the forests, but are loathe to venture too deeply without good cause. Timber, both hardwood and softwood, is a prime resource of the area, and is either exported or used to build ships in the shipyards of the port of Specularum."

- D&D Expert Set, Page X60

In addition to this overview of the territory, the book (briefly) describes the three areas primarily inhabited by humans (Specularum, the Black Eagle Barony, and Luln) and the gnome community residing in the foothills of the mountain range (north of the coastal capitol). The map shows three inhabited castles (not counting the Duke's fortress), two ruins (Wereskalot and the Haunted Keep from the Basic set), and several humanoid areas within the Duchy: two forests of "elves," three different tribes of "goblins," some "orcs," and a region of "frost giants" (!!) in the mountains of the northeastern border.

I'll discuss the "human lands" in a later post. What's most interesting to me, in light of the development that has occurred in the years since its first appearance, are all the things that are NOT mentioned in the description here that became later "plot points." Missing is any mention of a Thyatian connection, nor is there any discussion of conquest or of an indigenous (Traladar) people. There is no discussion of native religion, mythology, or history...the Lost Valley (site of the 1986 adventure module B10: Night's Dark Terror) isn't even part of the territory (being located over the northern border). No familial connection is made between Baron Ludwig and Duke Stefan, and the baron isn't portrayed as quite the "scheming villain" he becomes later in the Gazeteers (also: no mention of any mage named "Bargle"). The gnomes are not the Duke's silver-smiths...they don't even seem to be allied with Karameikos at this point, though this appears to be a possible adventure opportunity (building an alliance with the community). For folks only familiar with Mentzer's Expert set, there is no mention of Threshold at's not even on the map (and I'm inclined to believe it was entirely a Frank Mentzer invention).

Mainly, Karameikos is presented as an underpopulated area ripe with adventure opportunities; a place to be explored and (at higher levels) settled by the player characters. Specularum appears far more of an Old West style "border town" than a place rife with intrigue and feuding merchant clans (as detailed in B6: The Veiled Society and GAZ1). For me, a guy who mostly ignored BECMI when writing my "what-could-have-been" B/X Companion, I find myself intrigued by the possibility of re-inventing (re-imagining?) Karameikos along my own lines...something a little less "good two shoes" with its O So Noble Archduke, his pleasantly banal family, and the mustache-twirling Baron of "Fort Doom." While I did play a good deal of BECMI in the past, my players never spent much time in Karameikos (at least, after exploring the various scenarios in Threshold and the Keep on the Borderlands), instead spending most of their time in Glantri, Darokin, and (to a lesser extent) Ethengar. I think that the Grand Duchy, even with slight twists to the existing "canon," could be a pretty neat setting for a campaign.

I'd definitely like to dig a bit deeper into it.
: )

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

High Level D&D

For men, there're few things more juvenile than comparing the size of one's penis as a method of bragging to (or belittling) friends and rivals alike. Most guys with a modicum of maturity of course realize this, and any banter is likely to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I think it's safe to say that any man in a healthy relationship with a satisfied partner cares little about the size of his cock; the fact that it functions is a far more important matter to his confidence and sense self-worth.

There's a lot of correlation between comparing character level (in a D&D game) and comparing the size of one's dick. What really matters is whether or not you're playing at all; whether or not you're enjoying yourself.

And yet, back in the day, there was more than a bit of this kind of thing. "Oo, my character is level 15." "Oh, yeah? Well, mine is level 19." "HA! The characters in our campaign are all 24th level!" There's nothing quite so nerdy as nerds nerding out over some nerd hobby, but it is (perhaps) human nature. Or at least the nature of boys (it's rare I've heard this specific type of bragging from female gamers, except as a matter of shutting up some mouthy kid). Coming from mature male gamers (i.e. "old geezers") boasting of character level isn't really a lacks class, I suppose, though it may just be the shift in perspective that comes with age lends itself to a different type of bragging ("Back in my day, we had to walk 20 miles and fight a dragon in the snow for a bag of silver pieces...and we were damn thankful to get it!"). 

Yeah, it's probably just a male thing. Like comparing dicks.

In response to yesterday's post in which I reflected on "old school" level advancement (as discussed in Gygax's article from issue #7 of The Strategic Review), Scott wrote:

Ok leveling. 18th level or whatever always struck me a silly. The sweet spot for d&d, at least in 3E and beyond, is about level 3-6. You can take on 10th level opponents like dragons with planning and luck, and that’s thrilling. Once you get a handful of 4th level spells, it stops resembling the source fiction. 

 In my own home game, 10th level is a great achievement. We’ve played about 50 sessions and the highest level guys are 6 and 7. And that’s a little slow, but it’s okay because the threats can stay at an imaginable level and there’s always something out there that can kill you with a snap of its fingers.

Scott comments here frequently (which is nice...thanks!) but this is the first time I remember feeling riled up by something he wrote. Maybe. Let me try to articulate my thoughts in a coherent, constructive manner.

First off: 3rd edition...and 4th edition and 5th edition...can all go to hell. If those are your editions of choice, that's great: love them, play them, play the heck out of them, introduce new people to "D&D" using them...whatever. At this time, my reflections and writings are unconcerned with late edition versions of the game...I just cannot care less. Had a very nice conversation with a very nice gentleman yesterday about 5E and comparing it to older editions. I was patient and listened, but there was nothing he could say that had me the slightest bit interested. Until further notice, I am done with any post-2000 rulesets. If you can find something in my posts that work for your later edition game: great! But if you don't: eh. No skin off my nose.

OKay...moving right along: what Scott wrote is something I've heard before, more than once. I've heard it from AD&D players, I've heard it from folks in my B/X games, I've heard it from dudes who play those editions for which I give not a shit. Something along the lines of "the best play of the game (D&D) is somewhere in the mid-levels." The notorious "sweet spot" after which games simply become "silly." That high level play seems downright super heroic (as in, comic book superheroes) compared to the grubby, By Crom, low-powered pulp adventure action that comprises low to mid-level play.

Bullshit, says I.  But that's the TL;DR answer...the real answer is a little complicated.

Gygax's "silly" character.
While I'll agree with the early writers of the game (Gygax and others) that levels in the 30s and 40s (and up) are patently ridiculous and pretty much outside the scope of play as intended, there is plenty of good, solid play that can occur for characters of "high level;" say levels 14-24. There are some threats/opponents that just can't be approached by characters under the 16th level or so, and certain adventures that I consider pure "pulp literary fantasy" (like those involving extraplanar travel) are all-but-inaccessible to characters of low level.

What IS silly is the way many (most) of us "old geezers" played as kids when we first got our hands on the game: dishing out millions of coins worth of treasure (not worrying about how one would carry it), suits of +5 armor, vorpal artifacts, and dragon mounts, if only so that we could pit our players against Demogorgon, Asmodeus, and all the legions of hell. Was it fun? Yes, of course. Was it silly? Absolutely. Was it satisfying play? In the long run, NO...not for most of us (there are some people, of course, who continue to enjoy this kind of play), but I would argue that it was (and is) a necessary form of play for newcomers to the game.

And not just because we had to "get it out of our system!" Playing ridiculous games of that nature allow you (the players and the DMs) to try out all the various rules of the game. You get to experiment with things like magic resistance and gating demons; you get to see how the benign and malevolent effects of artifacts work. You get to try all those high level spells and powerful items, and see how a battle with the Tarrasque might go down. This kind of gaming forces you to read and learn the rules of the helps you explore the possibilities of D&D while having a wa-hoo good time. Yes, it's absurd and ridiculous and we can all laugh at our Monty Haul-isms...but it still teaches players and DMs alike.

Though, as I said, for most of us it isn't satisfying long-term, and once we get tired of pummeling Odin, most of us settle down and start over with a 1st level campaign and try to run something a bit more serious and sincere. I know I did...and that was when the "real gaming" for me and my players began...the serious (if not particularly sophisticated) gaming.

Now here's the thing: playing D&D with a "serious mind" (regardless of one's particular sophistication) allows magic to happen at the gaming table. In my experience, it allows the game to take over and consume individuals. It's what causes players to have emotional attachments to their characters; it's what pushes DMs to exert their creativity to its utmost, fiendish limits. It's what drives gamers to incorporate all the minutia and side rules they can find (and create their own to boot); it's what changes a simple tabletop game into an obsessive pastime. It's what drives people to argue about stupid things (like whether or not a PC wearing a ring of free action that jumps in the ocean crashes to the bottom, taking full "falling damage" if the ocean's pressure wouldn't do the character in by itself). It can turn the casual participant into a lifelong lover of the hobby. It can create powerful, intimate experiences and deep friendships (as well as bitter rivalries).

In that type of environment - one played with a measured amount of "serious mindfulness" - characters of high level aren't silly at all. Getting to a high level in a serious game is a good thing, as it opens up serious, high level challenges and adventures for the players at the table.  Earning your high level in such a campaign is something to take pride in...especially if the DM is willing to "play hard" with the participants at the table.

My best character started as a 1st level half-elf ranger in my co-DM's first "serious" campaign. He advanced to become an 8th level ranger / 9th level thief-acrobat /15th level bard before we retired the campaign. My friend's magic-user went from 1st to approximately 14th-16th level. Another player had a cleric that was at least 16th level. This was all after a couple-three years of solid, serious play. Strongholds were built, outer planes were explored, vendettas fought, children sired. The characters from earlier "wild and woolly campaigns" were simply legends...heroes from a Golden Age of Myth that might never have been (save that it was).  And while my bard did (for a time) possess a pegasus mount (with a topaz embedded in its forehead...can't remember what that was all about), our campaign was treated with the utmost strictness and seriousness. Yes, we used speed factor and casting time, "weapon vs. AC" adjustments and disease/infection rules. About the only thing we ignored was the "training time factor" rules from the DMG, and that was probably because we were playing all the time (when we could) rather than recordable, weekly sessions. And those characters NEVER encountered anything so powerful as a Demon Prince or Duke of Hell (no Tarrasques, either).

My brother's best character (played in a campaign I ran during high school) was a human fighter that reached approximately 12th level, and was probably the only time he ever played the game "seriously." With the aid of his buddy's cleric (also 12th level) and a couple NPCs (a magic-user and a thief) he was able to take on the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, perhaps even making it a bit further in the G-series (the memory escapes me). It helped immensely that he was armed with Blackrazor, which his character had recovered from White Plume Mountain. His fighter might have been as high as 15th level by the time he finished the giants.

I had a group of friends who ran their own AD&D campaign in the era of the "supermodule." They started with the Temple of Elemental Evil and moved on to the H (Bloodstone) series, eventually completing the entire thing (H4 is for levels 20-100...I believe their characters were in their mid-20s by the time they finished). I wasn't part of their game, but they put in some marathon sessions over the course of a couple years to slog through all that (and, to my knowledge, none of them have played D&D since, save for a one-off game here or there). I received many play reports their games over lunch in the cafeteria.

Anyway, back to the comments: I find nothing inherently "silly" about 18th level characters, not even those gifted to a player by an over-generous DM (as I did for my buddy Scott, circa 1984...hey, I'd just got my first PHB; we needed to try out those 9th level spells!). Finding ways to challenge such characters can be quite a task for the DM, especially if the characters were truly "earned" through exceptional, long-term play...the players of such characters are likely to be wily, experienced, and blessed with an inordinate amount of luck. But the D&D game, especially the Advanced version, provides many tools and ideas that can help build adventures of suitable challenge for such characters (should we choose to use them)...and it should go without saying that the DM who advanced the characters in the first place should have learned something from the experience herself (or himself). Saying the game works best at intermediate levels (5th to 9th) is, in my opinion, a highly inaccurate statement. For me, that's when the game first starts to really open up.

[of course, as the guy who wrote the B/X Companion for high level play, I might be slightly biased on this subject]

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Black Dougal's Revenge

While tooling through some old zip drive files the other day, I found these hastily jotted notes for a possible adventure module; the notes are from 2010, the file is titled Black Dougal's Revenge. Here's what they say:


Nearly 30 years ago a party of adventurers braved the Haunted Keep, ancient structure of Castle Wereskalot. Only three of them made it OUT, but one was left alive in the dungeon beneath of [sic] the keep...

The thief, Black Dougal, awoke from a poison needle trap to find himself lost and abandoned in the dark beneath the cellars of the Keep. Searching for a way out he only found a way DOWN, delving deeper into the bowels of the earth [sic].

Forced to rely on his own wits and resourcefulness, he avoided death time and again, even as he failed to find an exit from the dank corridors. Cursing the friends that had abandoned him, Douglas swore that he would have his revenge should he ever return to the surface.

It took him more than a year, but he did eventually find a way out.

Forever changed by the experience, Black Dougal found he could no longer stomach the contact of civilized folk. Hiding in the shadows, traveling only when unseen, Dougal tracked the whereabouts of his erstwhile companions, finding they had moved on to other adventures. And so, having no where else to go, and no more friends in the bright, submit places, Dougal turned his back on the surface world and re-entered the subterranean caverns that had become his "home." He returned to the dungeons of Wereskalot.

The only other notes are the following:

BD (19 or 22 level Thief/Greater Vamp) OR Greater Lycanthrope??? Like greater undead but shapeshifter!  Hmmmm... ???
Now residing under Wereskalot (found Grimoire, refurbished, launched attacks of vengeance)
Vamp army + wererats (or both!)

Silver Leaf (a bloody, mangled mess)
Sister Rebecca (defiled/desecrated...turned into vamp(?))
Morgan Ironwolf (afraid for her life, aged, offed quick perhaps?)
Frederick (insane, starving, imprisoned lesser vamp...berserk strength, turn resistance)

There are no other notes. As far as brainstorms go this appears nothing more than a brief Summer squall, probably typed up during a break at my old job (a lot of my writing projects started like that). Looking over it now, it seems more silly than interesting...certainly not "gripping," and I don't feel bad for not having followed up on the idea.

Which is just as well, seeing as how this is the kind of thing WotC takes a hard stance on.

Anyhoo, just thought I'd share before I throw the file in Ye Ol' Trashbin. Now it's been etched into the interwebs FOREVER...EVER...EVer...Ever....ever....
; )


Random D&D Notes

The following thoughts are things I could probably wrap whole posts around, but I've been a little busy lately and (thus) don't know when I'll get to it. Rather than lose these in the ether, I figured I'd just jot them down, perhaps to examine more deeply in the future:

Some great replicas, but
this one was real.
Viking Treasure: had the chance to check out a great exhibit at the Nordic Museum (in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle) on loan from Uppsala University in Sweden. Called "The Vikings Begin" it was a great collection with a lot of historical information. Didn't know that that the Norse didn't really have a currency before the 10th century or so; they collected coins from their travels, and would still use them for trading (as silver), weighing them with small (portable) scales. Also, silver coins? Really f'ing tiny (about the diameter of a nickel and thinner than a dime), though otherwise fairly uniform across multiple centuries and cultures; the exhibit included English pennies, coins from Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, Arabic dinars, and some sort of Russian coin, all dating from the 7th to 9th centuries). Norse people liked to use wealth (gold and jewels) to decorate their stuff, especially weapons and armor.

Viking Shields: really big. Something along the line of Alexis's rule for large shields is appropriate, if a little generous (the +2 versus small missiles in the original DMG might model better; your call, of course).

Magic Swords: I keep wanting to write about this and I keep finding it hard to make the time. Magic swords in Original D&D (and also continued in Holmes Basic) only added their magical bonus to attack rolls, NOT damage. As far as I can tell, this is simply a continuation of the rules for magic swords in CHAINMAIL, the tabletop war-game which doesn't record "damage" anyway: one hit = one kill. Miscellaneous magic weapons, on the other hand, add their bonus to both attack and damage, save in the case of certain weapons (like magic bows). This wasn't changed until the 1st edition of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, where bonuses became universally applied to attack and damage rolls for ALL weapons (including bows), presumably for simplicity and consistency...I can find no other reason/information for the change I've spent the last couple-three days combing through every issue of The Strategic Review and early Dragon magazines leading up to the DMG's release (and afterward) to see if there was mention of this change, finding nothing.

Here's the thing: I actually LIKE the original rule better; I like how it models abstract combat in D&D. Armor does not reduce damage; it prevents damage being inflicted at all. A magical bonus to hit reflects the magic weapon's ability to penetrate the armor. I don't require the weapon to inflict "more grievous wounds" especially as a successful attack roll with a low damage roll can still indicate two parties grappling in fierce melee and thumping each other with fists and feet, while they try to get their blade in position to strike home. Adding a damage bonus to a sword attack means every blow is more likely to have been a killing stroke...and I just don't like that. Leave that to the axes and spears and arrows. I find this is yet another thing I really like about the original game and the Holmes version of Basic.

[also, for some reason, my D&D groups have always played that magic bows do not inflict their bonus to damage. I have no idea why this is, as both the B/X and AD&D rules are clear that magic add their bonus to both attack and damage. Weird....really don't know where we learned to play like that...]

Old School Advancement: And this will be the final thought of this post, as I've got stuff to do. In reading these old magazines, I've found a lot of info, much of it fascinating, insightful, or informative. No, not all of it is great, but there ARE kernels/nuggets of "good stuff" in there, one of which is Gygax's own thoughts and ideas on how advancement was supposed to look in D&D: a successful player who's character participated in 50-70 game sessions per year could expect to reach 9th to 11th level after the first year of gaming, and then another 2-3 levels per year thereafter. At the time he was writing this, his Greyhawk campaign had been going on for four years and Arneson's Blackmoor had been going for five, and he could "definitively" state that no character in either campaign was higher than 14th level...presumably (it isn't explicit) due to a combination of character deaths, energy drain, and retirement from active adventuring. By my calculations, this rate of advancement amounts to a (rough) average of 4,000 experience points per character per session over the course of a year, which seems a little high but perhaps he was still using the pre-Supplement I system when it came to awarding XP for defeated monsters. For certain the article was written prior to the publication of the AD&D books.

[the reason for the high level spells in D&D (which became part of the system with the advent of the Greyhawk/Sup1 booklet) then appears to be neat and/or legendary effects that can be found on scrolls or provided through the good graces (or by paying) of high level NPCs]

I have to admit this seems entirely reasonable rate of advancement to me, and makes old tournament modules like Tomb of Horrors and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth really look like worthwhile "epic paydays" for adventurers. Tomb of Horrors, especially, finally starts to inspire ambition as it's potential treasure payout is 437,409 g.p. Given that destruction of Acererak is another 100,000 x.p. that's a pretty substantial chunk of advancement for even a large party of adventurers. It really makes me turn up my nose at the paltry 53,035 g.p. one might pull out of White Plume Mountain...though, I suppose the original idea was that players would find the (campaign-wrecking) power of the magical weapons to be reward enough for their endeavor (all later publications/variations of WPM have insisted that the weapons be removed from PCs possession following the adventure).

All right...that's really all I have time for today. Later.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

New Zealand

So, the last couple days I've been working on writing a post discussing racism in gaming and some specific things about the adventure module X1: The Isle of Dread which I find to NOT be offensive or "problematic" material. Part of my writing has been to research various Pacific Island chains that appear to be much of the inspiration for the adventure AND for the adventure fiction that inspires it.

And then a Goddamned white supremacist guns down a bunch of people in New Zealand.

At this time, I feel it would be in very poor taste for me to post anything that doesn't contribute to building a more tolerant and inclusive world for people to live in. Maybe I'll post something about treasure counts in a couple days.

Until then, please keep the people of New Zealand...and all victims of hate your thoughts and prayers. I know I will.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Swords and Silver (Princesses)

Guy would probably do better
tossing the axe to a buddy.
B3: Palace of the Silver Princess was never an adventure module I owned or ran "back in the day." Certainly I remember it sitting on the toy shelf of the local Pay N' Save (back when you could buy D&D in such own copy of Basic D&D was purchased at a J.C. Penny), but truth be told I never had any interest in it. Yes, the Erol Otus cover art is fantastically fiendish, but the simple statement on the front ("Introductory Module For Character Levels 1-3") resulted in an immediate hard pass on my end. After all, the characters in our campaign were way past 3rd level, and there was only one way they were going, baby.

Up. Of course.

[yes, we still played with character death and level drain, but in a world or wishes and resurrection, such inconveniences were petty concerns. No need to sack the Keep on the Borderlands when the party fighter was already sporting a rod of lordly might and the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd]

So it wasn't until this last week that I ever, finally, had a chance to sit down and read the thing, spurred in large part by (once again) GusL's brainstorm on how to re-skin the adventure. As I've blogged before, I dig on old fashioned fairy tales; that stuff was my bread and butter long before I acquired the title of Dungeon Master (someone really should give you a hat or something that says "DM" the first time you run a game). *AHEM* Anyway, the idea of a fairy tale castle for exploration (right after a "fairy tale apocalypse") is a pretty cool thing. Pretty darn inspiring, in my book.

Unfortunately, GusL's ideas are (*sigh*) a LOT better than the module itself. It's just not very good, and it would need more than a simple "re-skin" to make it work. Yeah, he probably wrote words to that effect in his blog post and I probably glossed over them in my enthusiasm...that happens. But there's just so much LAME in this thing. Worst of all is probably the module's assumption about the players' motivations and morality: why would they destroy the giant-ass ruby when they could simply loot and fence it? What if they decide NOT to fight the evil cleric or stop him from summoning his demon overlord? The adventure offers no explanation of the doesn't hazard to entertain the possibility as a possibility.

The original Jean Wells (orange cover) copy of B3 is much more interesting and usable "out-o-the-box" if a little more standard: it's just a dungeon crawl through an ancient ruin. But there's a lot of other stuff going on (including a detailed wilderness outside the ruin) and no moralizing (the adventure module is explicit in the player characters option of joining with the evil cleric...should they so choose). It's still not great, and it leaves out the fairy tale aspect that was my impetus for checking out B3 in the first place, but it's a better adventure. Heck, it even provides the value of the ruby (10,000 g.p.) though this gem isn't linked to some imprisoned evil demigod; it's just loot.

There's actually a lot more loot in the original B3 adventure than in Moldvay's rewrite. The total amount of plunder one can take out of it is a bit more than 24,667 g.p. and probably more once the DM adds the suggested additions (there are a few "empty rooms" that DMs are expected to populate). This should be enough to get a party of eight PCs pretty close to 3rd level; quite a nice haul for a small, two level dungeon. By contrast, the green-covered re-issue version only yields a total of 9,776 g.p. which is pretty paltry for the recommended party size. However, if players are willing to fulfill the adventure's wishes of un-cursing the castle, each PC can expect to receive a 3,000 g.p. "bonus" as a reward from the Silver Princess herself...or 1,500 g.p. and a kick in the ass for those that chose to loot the Princess's belongings in the process. As I said, kind of lame...and disappointing.

Because, here's the thing I'm wondering: even if the treasure was good, even if the morality play wasn't there, even if the thing was an easy re-skin for a dark fairytale adventure, even if this were the case...

Would it matter? To the players? Really?

Same maps, more treasure.
To a DM, details matter. A coherent (or at least sensible) story/background matters because it helps the DM remember things (like how NPCs are motivated and how they interact and react). Evocative detail and memorable monsters matter because they provide inspiration for a DM's narration. Interesting treasure matters because it gives the DM things with which to poke and prod and goad the players.

But does this stuff matter to the players? Do the players look at a monster as anything more than a challenge with a particular set of special attacks, a certain number of hit points to be whittled down? Is treasure anything more than the way in which players keep score?

I suppose it does to a certain degree...players would get bored with boring same-old same-old after a while. If every encounter was a goblin, if every treasure was a chest of gold, if every magic item was just another +1 this or +2 that. But even so, even though it matters somewhat to players, these things don't matter so much as how they are presented by the DM. It doesn't matter nearly as much as how the DM runs the damn thing.

And, as a well-designed adventure can aid in a DM's running, I suppose me answer is that it matters quite a bit.

Neither version of B3 is particularly well-designed. I kind of like the ubues from the original (better than another clan of bugbears, for sure), but I dig the whole evil ruby/demon summoning thing from the later rewrite. I like the many new monsters and lack of moralizing in Wells's original, but I prefer the more original background of Moldvay's version (rather than yet another un-plundered ruin in need of exploration). I definitely lack the time to re-write either module in a way I'd find palatable...but then I also lack the time to come up with an original adventure of my own design. Certainly I'm not interested in working up a castle blueprint for a fairytale princess...but the maps in this module leave quite a bit to be desired. Maybe Strahd's castle would be a better re-skin for such an idea.

[sorry I didn't get to talking about swords. There's one noteworthy sword in B3: the lycanthrope chick's blade which is carved from a single gigantic ruby. Unfortunately, it has no attached value to it (even though it's potential least in the Moldvay re-write) so it might as well be, know what? Never mind]