Sunday, March 31, 2019

A-Z Blogging Challenge 2019

Once again I have decided to sign up for the A-Z blogging challenge (somehow I accidentally signed up three times in a row; I've had problems for years with my Google Drives being in Korean, and I can't figure out how to change the lingo since *duh* I don't read Korean...).

ANYway, I know that I wrote last time (2016ish?) that the thing was a damn grind and I felt my posts were neither enjoyable nor particularly inspired and I didn't suspect I'd participate again. So what's changed? Um...maybe the bad memories have faded? Maybe? Maybe I'm just a sucker for a challenge...or punishment.

[actually, that's not really true. I'm lazy about challenges: I prefer to pummel my opponents at no cost to myself. I like my sports teams to win comfortably, not "edge" the opposition. Real challenges cause STRESS, and I prefer less of that particular juju]

It helps though that I have a theme already thought out for this year's masochism:

Revamping Karameikos for B/X

Yeah, I've been blogging/thinking about Karameikos anyway (see my prior entries here, here, here, and here) and I feel like there's more to blog's just fertile ground for my thought-box. Plus, because of all the dumb fantasy names in the setting, I can be sure to have entries for every letter (should I go with the immortal "Zirchev" for Z, or minister of state "Zogrev Yarol?"). See? Easy-peasy...just like I like my challenges.

Hopefully, this won't be too painful and I'll be able to knock them out in timely fashion. April's actually an extremely busy month for me, but I don't think I'm going to be doing much traveling (for a change) and my plan is to write these posts in the early morning hours. Commitment and follow-through is, of course, good practice for self-discipline and I can always use more of that.

Besides what else do I have to do with my spare hours? Finish my 2018 tax return? Find a damn job? Sheesh...that stuff can wait!
; )

Yeah, it's the 10th anniversary, but this
is only my 3rd time doing it...big whoop.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Re-Working The Black Eagle (P.2)

Before I continue, allow me to take a moment to address the question "Why bother?" Am I simply writing to denigrate these products of 20-30 years ago? To show how I could have "done it better?" No, not really. I actually believe you can still get use out of these products...they provide a ready-made campaign setting to start with (as my friends and I used the Greyhawk maps in the past: we kept the geography and city names and made up all the rest). But more than that, there WAS a lot of thought, effort, and creativity that was poured into these books (the Gazeteers especially), and while I might not have the same taste for the material that I once had (if I ever did), I can at least APPRECIATE the work that was done even as I mine what material I can from the writings. At least these booklets are spurring my imagination; they're making me think.

[and some people, upon reading these ideas, might actually WANT the Disney-ish cartoon villains for their own campaign...perhaps they, like me, have small children they want to introduce to D&D. If any of this encourages people to go back and acquire these old books, maybe even run an older edition of D&D...well, so much the better. And if they still want to adapt the material to their own 5E or Pathfinder campaign? Well, at least I'm encouraging folks to read and think and explore and experiment and we definitely need more of that in our world, IMO]

So picking up where I left off: here are a few ideas I've had for re-skinning the "Black Eagle" to make the character more interesting to me. I write these down to record my ideas (so I don't forget) and to offer possibilities for others. They may be just as trite and tropey as what TSR did back in the day, but at least they're different...and I like these ones better.

Baron Black Eagle as Vlad the Impaler: Karameikos has a certain "Hollywood Transylvania" vibe going on with its nosferatu lords, misty forests, and forbidding mountains. Why not go whole hog and model Ludwig after the voivode of Wallachia himself, Vlad Tepes? I've read more than a couple books on Vlad over the years (fiction and non-), but I find his most colorful portrayal in the film Bram Stoker's Dracula. The man was indeed cruel and bloodthirsty, with a penchant for torture and brutality; Ludwig's "depredations" positively pale in comparison.

Blood drinking? Sure.
Vlad ruled Wallachia during the 15th century, a border territory of the Holy Roman Empire that changed hands with the Ottoman Turks multiple times. He spent most of his adult life in battle, mostly on the side of Christendom (as a youth, he had been a political hostage of the Turks, from which he learned their language fluently and achieved his first reign in Wallachia at the head of a Turkish fighting force). There are many posited reasons for his terror tactics, but from his own words a good portion of this was to inspire fear in a tremendous enemy against whose might he stood little chance (also fear in his own people, who might well have preferred religious conversion to destruction and bloodshed). He was killed in battle with the Ottomans, who hacked his body into small pieces.

It would be very easy to reskin the "Black Eagle" as the "Young Dragon," using the monstrous humanoids of western Karameikos as a stand-in for the Ottoman Empire.  A strong warlord would be considered a necessary evil by Archduke Stefan, and model why Ludwig is allowed to operate in the fashion he does. Keep in mind the reason (in B/X) that a fighter is granted the title of "baron;" the character must be of sufficient level (9th) and be able to keep a territory controlled and cleared of monsters. As the Halag was awarded to Ludwig/Vlad as a fiefdom, he must have demonstrated sufficient ability to the duke.

Baron Black Eagle as Aethelwulf: now that it's available for streaming (and my wife's gotten into the show), I've finally been able to get back to watching the television series Vikings. Despite some historical inaccuracies (mostly the specific timeline of events; for example, Ragnar's first attack of Paris in 845 was basically a "walk-in touchdown" while the famous siege when Count Odo successfully repelled the Norsemen was 40 years later against the historic Rollo) I find the show both fascinating and interesting, especially the way it dramatizes the events of the 9th century in light of the politics and (especially) religion/faith of the time.

Banner still has
a black eagle.
Aethelwulf, son of the scheming King Egbert, is another excellent inspiration for a Black Eagle reskin. In this case we have another brutal warlord, faced with repelling invasions of humanoids (this time a stand in for the Norsemen), but here we have a motivation based as much on piety and faith as on the need to stem the invasion. Only humans can become clerics in B/X...this is a little explored concept in most campaigns. While Ludwig/Vlad is a sadistic tyrant fighting for his life, Ludwig/Aethelwulf sees himself as a holy crusader, battling the enemies of the Lord. Note that he is no "paladin" (such do not exist in B/X anyway), but a devout soldier tasked with a bloody mission. While Vlad would be a tool of the archduke, Aethelwulf is a tool of both his sovereign and his church...and which side will win out in the end (if either)? Note also that demihuman characters (dwarves, elves, halflings) would fall into the "nonhuman" hatred of such an individual...the refugees found in Luln would be demihumans driven from the Barony and their human friends ("sympathizers"). The Black Eagle would see himself as a "good" person, doing God's will, and even if he had the ambitions of Egbert, he'd more likely be going about them in the usual fashion (i.e. making political alliances through marriage to the Archduke's daughter, rather than open warfare).

Baron Black Eagle as King Haggard: as I've written before, I love Peter S. Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn, and for whatever reason I am particularly fond of the animated version of King Haggard (voiced by Christopher Lee). I wouldn't mind adopting the character wholesale to replace Baron Ludwig, age and all. Halag would become Hagsgate; "Fort Doom" could keep its name (a fitting euphemism for Haggard's dire keep), though it would retain the witch's curse from the novel. Heck, I'd probably add the Red Bull and adopted son Lir to the mix. I like a little fantasy whimsy (as I've written before), and King Haggard is plenty callous and dangerous without making him all mustache-twirly. He should be more of a "force of nature" in the campaign than an outright antagonist.

Described as "seventy
years old, or eighty,
or more."
I'd probably put him back about 10-15 years before the events detailed in the novel. Lir would be around, but only a small child; Haggard and his retainers would still be old, if maybe not quite so ancient. Hagsgate would look more like Nulb than a post-apocalyptic, almost-ghost town. And, of course, Haggard would still possess his "magician's magician" Mabruk, replacing Bargle in the campaign. Perhaps Mabruk would still possess the power to delight the grim lord with his magic. In such a scenario as this, the dynamics between the barony and the capital would probably need to change: I see Haggard as having come to the region many years before Archduke Stefan (though probably still from Thyatis) appointed governor/sentinel/warlord who chose to live far outside the bounds of the more populated Specularum due to his particular misanthropy.

Will not be driven away
by halflings. He eats halflings.
Baron Black Eagle as Gregor Clegane: this one is pretty easy, though the stat line will need to change a bit (I'm fine modeling "The Mountain" as a 12th level fighter, but Strength 18 is definitely required...possibly more). Once again we go back to the "brutal but necessary" warlord protecting the Grand Duchy's border, but here's a villain that everyone can really hate, as he's so hateful. In this incarnation, Duke Stefan plays the role of King Robert "Look the other way" Baratheon (or Tywin Lannister if you want your Archduke to be a scheming manipulator). Clegane is the worst kind of robber knight; he is a man without code or honor, with no sense of duty, paying only lip service to liege and faith as it allows him to do that which he wishes to do. He has no loyalty, not even to his own family or retainers (he murdered his own father to assume his title; he killed his own man for snoring too loudly). Clegane lives only to fulfill his basest passions and momentary whims. He slays his warhorse, a very expensive piece of horseflesh, in a flash of anger at losing a joust.

And yet, Ludwig/Clegane has the title and power and fighting prowess that allows a man of such horrible character to not only survive but thrive in a savage, brutal world. Other lords and would-be kings WANT him on their side, because of the terror he instills in their enemies, because of the threat he poses, should they decide to let him off the leash. Like star athletes that have committed despicable acts off the field, people still want The Mountain on their team; definitely better to have him on your side than fighting against you! However, he has no designs on the throne...I prefer this option for the Black Eagle if there are other vying factions in Karameikos (allowing Ludwig/Clegane to act as wild card). He's a man of "simple pleasures," after all.

Beloved by all...except
the French.
Baron Black Eagle as Black Prince Edward: finally, we have the idea of the Black Eagle as an actual, honest-to-goodness hero (or whatever passes for one in a pseudo-medieval period)...a warlord trying to be chivalrous even as tries to be a strong leader for his people. All those rumors about the Black Eagle? Slander. "Fort Doom?" Called that because every prior-appointed baron met their deaths fighting humanoids. Reputation for cruelty? He is hated and feared by his enemies because he is O So Good at what he does. The "black eagle" is simply his banner...or perhaps the baron is a black (i.e. dark skinned) man who happens to use an eagle in his heraldry. Ludwig the "black" Eagle...get it?

In this scenario, Baron Ludwig gets his bad press from his rivals at court (i.e. other barons, nobles of Karameikos) who are vying for the attention/largesse of the Archduke. Alternatively, the rumors could be spread by Duke Stefan himself, keeping in mind that he's ruling a conquered people who have no great love for him (oh, wait...I haven't gotten to that post yet). Maybe the Black Eagle is descended from Traladar nobility or perhaps he is "half-blooded." Maybe he has married into a once-noble Traladaran house, despite his Thyatian roots, "going native" and earning the epithet "black eagle" (like "black sheep") based on the Imperial crest of Thyatis. Such an individual might be loved (or better respected anyway) by the indigenous people of the region, and a focal point for rebellion and the eventual overthrow of Duke Stefan. Being from Luln, the player characters might have more reason to discern truth from the scandal (Lulnish refugees either being from other areas of Thyatian control or victims of humanoid raids and looking to the Black Eagle for protection). That would make for a more interesting campaign then simply overthrowing "Bargle's boss."

But then, I find ALL these alternatives "more interesting" (which is why I bothered to write them down). Derivative? Sure...but fun in a way that "Bwahaha! I'll throw you in my dungeon and feed you to Bargle!" just isn't. Not for me, anyway.

[hmm...I don't think any of these guys are the type to even use dungeons. Torture, sure, but generally "to the death" and in spectacular, public fashion. Only Ludwig/Haggard is likely to drop a character in an oubliette...and then just to forget about him]

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Re-Working The Black Eagle (P.1)

In my prior post on the human communities of Karameikos I provided the only description of Baron Ludwig "Black Eagle" von Hendriks found/detailed in the B/X rulebooks.  With the advent of Mentzer's Expert rules, this character begins to morph into something very specific: a caricature in the same vein as any mustache-twirling cartoon villain. The first thing that changes is the basic description itself, with subtle semantic differences. No longer does it state the "the Baron may have possible connections with evil slavers and disreputable mercenaries;" instead it says "the Baron may have connections with evil slavers and mercenaries" (possible has been removed and the deletion of the adjective implies the mercenaries are evil as well). No longer are his troops used to "quell (subdue, silence) dissent," instead he uses them to "stifle (suffocate, choke) dissent." Finally, the Baron's garrison is no longer used to "crush attacking non-humans" (the barony exists as a buffer zone between the capital and a combo of lycanthrope-plagued Wereskalot, goblin foothills, and marshy coastline), but instead simply to "crush attackers," implying the Black Eagle has no specific beef with non-humans.

The rest of the Mentzer expert set makes it clear that the Baron is up to nefarious behavior, as his "spies and agents" include Bargle the Infamous, unrepentant murderer and villain from the Mentzer basic set. Much internet ink has been spilled about this particular "bad guy" and I will, a later post.

1984s Mentzer Companion set provides a war-game scenario involving the Black Eagle as a means to test its mass combat rules. Here, Baron Ludwig, chafing under "the yoke of restraint" from the Archduke (oh, boy) decides to march on Stefan, fielding a force comprised of 200 Black Eagle guardsmen and 400-1000 monstrous humanoids (the exact number being variable as chosen by the DM). As the Companion rules are meant for high level characters, the scenario and presumed result (the "fall of the Black Eagle") is not accounted for in later publications...the inference is that DMs keep the Black Eagle barony a source of villainy for low- to mid- level PCs campaigning in Karameikos.

1986 is the date GAZ1 is published and here we get the culmination of the character in Allston's description of Baron Ludwig as the "aggressive and theatrical first cousin" of Duke Stefan, who pretended to be an "upright, eager, and very lawful follower" of the Duke, right up until he was awarded his barony in the newly colonized (conquered) Duchy. Here are some excerpts:

From GAZ1 (with Bargle)
"...von Hendriks is about as unlikeable human being as you can find. He's arrogant, easily enraged, easily soothed or distracted; he's a casual killer but fond of formal torture; he lies so often and so profusely that he cannot remember the truth, he is, in short, insane."

"Ludwig would be a handsome man if not for shifting eyes, oily mannerisms, and arrogant sneer. He dresses entirely in black (even his armor is enameled black)."

"He seized Halag, the largest force [even though this was unnecessary]...once it was conquered, he celebrated by announcing to the population his appointment as its new baron. He renamed the village "Fort Doom" to suit his sense of the theatrical, dubbing the barony the "Black Eagle Barony" after his ancestral coat of arms."

"The Black Eagle Baron is an archetypal villain...whenever you need an untrustworthy, dishonorable, compelling villain, you have Ludwig von Hendriks."

Ludwig II, architect of the
Disney Castle.
Personally, I don't find much "compelling" about this NPC...he is a Disney character stuffed into a Bavarian doublet (the Black Eagle symbol was a symbol of the German kings for centuries; the character echoes some elements of Ludwig the Mad). The 1994 (2nd edition) campaign setting Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure mostly copies and repeats the information in GAZ1, only advancing the timeline 10 years and overthrowing the Baron through an invading hobbit army, driving the guy into exile, and making him more ridiculous (I'll get my revenge against you, Stefan! And your little halfling thugs!).


First off, while it's not a bad (or even "contrived") idea to set up rival political factions within a region, this idea of one (or a handful of) good, benevolent ruler versus one bad apple is just a little too "small time" for me. Even in a world of demonic high priests and supernatural evil, it's too least for humans.

Plus, it's boring. We've all seen it before. It's Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham or Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. It's Jafar from Disney's Aladdin or Scar from The Lion King. It's been done...the relative/close advisor who's just waiting for their chance at the throne. And it's silly: does this guy really want to rule over a territory of orcs and goblins? Is this Baltar from the original Battlestar Galactica, content to be hated by his own species and hang with the robots? Do we need another fantasy fascist? We've seen fantasy Nazis before (it's called Star Wars...or any pulp film set circa WWII)...but in a pseudo-medieval setting like your average D&D campaign it's kind of anticlimactic. I mean, most feudal warlords were cut from the "crushing iron fist" cloth.

And that, by the way, is true across eras and cultures. The average peasant-type, whether you're talking Europe or Asia or Mesoamerica, was just happy to survive...when you weren't worried about the planting and the harvest and the winter, chances are you were hoping (and praying) that your lord wouldn't be going to war...with anyone! You'd rather have the back-breaking tribute and taxes then have to worry about raids and battles screwing up your life (let alone conscripting your strongest laborers for a certain death). In a time before there were train timetables to worry about, life was a lot harder, and governments far more tyrannical, than those found in your average fascist regime. Hell, even your religions were brutal, unjust, and merciless!

[we'll talk about the "benevolent" and "beloved" Duke Stefan in a later post]

The BECMI era of D&D could get away with this particular spin of antagonist because of the time in which it was written, the mission of TSR at the time, and the demographic for which it was written. For me...a middle-aged, armchair historian with a taste for B/X and a little more ain't enough.  I don't need the "grimdark fantasy" of Warhammer where every town street is a river of filth, horse dung, and emptied chamber pots, but I do require something more interesting than what Karameikos is serving up...and because I'd like to go back to Luln as the PCs' starting place (rather than the idyllic town of Threshold), this character of Baron Ludwig character needs an overhaul.

I have a few specific ideas/concepts in mind, but as this "preamble" has already run long I'll roll them out in a new post.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Round and Round We Go

I plan on getting back to the Karameikos subject this week; this is just an interlude.

Over the last ten years I've been posting to this blog, there are some subjects that I've spent an inordinate amount of time on. One of my main areas of speculation/musing has been combat rules, specifically as they relate to the B/X system, and my various ideas, proposals, and thoughts on how best to tinker them to better model what I'd like to see.

Mm. Mm-mm-mm.

This post is a "placeholder" of sorts, so that when I am (once-again-sometime-in-the-future) wondering about my past thoughts on the subject and going through this blog by "tag," this particular post will come up FIRST and save me a bit of time. Here goes:

I like the B/X encounter ("combat") rules as written. For the most part, they model exactly what I want.

Variable combat damage by weapon? Yes, exactly as written. Two-handed weapons losing initiative? Yes (though among the missile weapons this only applying to crossbows, not bows). Armor class and ability score adjustments? Yes. Shields? Yeah, with some liberal interpretation of the "cover rules" when it applies to shield walls. Initiative and surprise? Yep. Hit dice and hit points and healing? Yes, though I reserve the right to change the way monsters heal damage, should the issue ever arise in play.

After all the "thought experiments," "practice runs," and actual table play, I am fine and dandy with the way the rules model the basics of combat. Every variation or adjustment I've made has all ended up being for naught....the simple, abstract system as it exists perfectly replicates the way I want my combats to run, right down to ten second beats (rounds).

Now this doesn't mean there aren't some existing "holes" in the system; there are, and they could sure stand to be plugged. Here are things that will (probably, eventually) need to be worked out and adjudicated in the long run, as they aren't found in the B/X system:

  • Disarming
  • Grappling
  • Long-term injuries, maiming, scarring
  • Partial or piecemeal armor
  • Required space for maneuvering (long weapons)
  • Stunning, knockouts
  • Take-downs (overbearing, tripping, etc.)
  • Weapon breakages

I'd also like to add some simple rules for multiple attacks (for fighters only) as B/X proper does not include any of the other editions' options. I can also see limiting the damage of a "normal sword" to 1d6 unless it is used with two hands...but probably not. Much more likely is simply giving a +1 bonus to attack rolls when using any melee weapon two-handed but...again...probably not (I don't want to be giving a low-strength character an advantage for using a heavy, two-handed weapon).

But other than "plugging holes," I have come to terms with all aspects of the Encounter rules (Chapter 5) of the B/X rulebooks. Other aspects of the game (evil clerics, alignment language, equipment costs) still need some adjustment, and I will almost certainly fiddle with monsters and magic items (if only to make the game a bit more interesting and campaign specific). But as far as combat goes, I'm just going to consider the matter SETTLED. It functions...both practically speaking and as a model. And after nearly a decade of tuning it, I am satisfied. Finally.

The ultimate justification for 18 strength receiving
a damage bonus is B/X...

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]

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Comparing Pulp

This post is probably going to ramble a bit. Sorry. I'm in the middle of guzzling coffee, so hopefully my lucidity will improve. Hopefully.

Good podcasts are hard to find. Okay, that's not exactly accurate. Finding podcasts regarding the exact bit of minutia you want to hear can be hard to find. Which just goes to show how reliant on the internet we've all come to be (well, me at least). I'm trying to find comparison reviews of ancient D&D adventure modules and I get irritated when I can only find one or two...this wasn't even a thing five years ago! Sweet Jesus.

But that's what I've come to these days: those who can't do, teach...or blog. Those who can't blog listen to podcasts on the subjects they want to blog about. The other day I listened to a three hour recording of an on-line group playing Dwellers of the Forbidden City (I was doing housework at the time)...and while there's a lot I could criticize about their game, it doesn't change the fact that I listened to (most of) it! And thank goodness I was able to FIND something...those guys were a GODSEND in my "hour of need."

[it was terrible though...I kept wanting to reach through my headphones and throttle them all. First, spending three hours on a single AD&D! pretty inexcusable. But mainly it just irked me that the DM wasn't prepared to run the encounter. Yes, yellow musk creepers are outside the norm of your usual goblin infestation, but then you should have spent some time figuring out (beforehand) how the creature and its various abilities are supposed to work. The dragging out of the encounter was a direct result of the lack of prep]

I'm inclined to blame Delta for this, by the way...Dan's new video channel (with fellow Wandering DM Paul) have become "must-listen" material for me when I'm doing dishes late at night, or running around doing errands. Both of these guys are long-time, experienced DMs, who aren't afraid to step outside their comfort zones and try new things...or adapt new methods...when it comes to their gaming. For the most part, I don't find them trying to "teach" folks how to run games, but are instead talking about things that worked and didn't work at the table...which is really what I'm looking for. Most of the podcast stuff (and here I'm including videos and "vlogs," too, as I only listen to it, I don't watch the screens) about gaming, especially the "teaching" stuff, is pretty damn lame. Dan and Paul gave me hope that there was better stuff out there. That's why I blame them.

So what I've mostly been searching for is stuff about older adventure modules because (as I wrote yesterday) there are packaged modules that I like that I would like to incorporate into a campaign setting. 

Dwellers of the Forbidden City is one. The Isle of Dread is another. Despite the inclusion of bugbears in both (still need to write my "bugbear hate" post), both of these adventures have a lot of elements that I love. Really, they're both decent settings for long-term (multi-adventure) play...what the kids playing 5E these days term "campaign play." Both are large sites, both have multiple access points, both provide multiple "starter ideas" for possible reasons for exploration/adventure, both have numerous potential factions for players to encounter and ally with (or piss off), and of course both have a ton of treasure to be plundered.

The treasure count for both modules are pretty similar, despite one adventure being written for AD&D and the other for B/X. X1: The Isle of Dread has a total "loot count" of 123,010 g.p. divided as follows:

Main Island encounters: 89,810 g.p.
Central Plateau: 15,000 g.p.
Taboo Island (the target objective): 18,200 g.p.

Okay, this IS a beautiful map.
A lot of this requires additional work, ingenuity, and outright feats of engineering to pull the treasure out: gold to be mined, trade routes to be established, etc. As a large island, there are plenty of opportunities to establish additional lairs (and loot) for various monsters on the wandering encounter tables...including a red dragon, black dragon, centaur clan, dryad grove, and cyclops...all of whom have no way to get off the island (it's too far to fly to the mainland) and all of whom probably have some place their bedding down at night. The average treasure yield for those five creature types is 128,500 g.p. (more than the total treasure in listed encounters!) and even scaling down for smaller tribes and younger worms, you could probably still expect to increase the total value of X1 adventuring by 50% or so. That's probably enough to earn adventurers another level...or close to it, anyway.

I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City has (as listed) a larger haul of treasure: 136,323 g.p. value, but almost all of it is straightforward looting and cash grabs. There isn't a lot of heavy lifting necessary (as in X1) nor a number of cursed treasure items (B2) nor even pricy antiquities requiring specialized buyers (Return to B2 has a lot of these). What it does have is a sprawling ancient metropolis with hostile factions/tribes that will try to bushwhack small parties of treasure-laden adventurers and an adventuring site secluded far from any "civilized" area (i.e. places where wealth can be spent or pawned). Yes, the Isle of Dread is 800-900 miles off the coast of the mainland but (despite historical inaccuracy) once treasure is loaded aboard one's ship the return voyage is relatively safe and easy compared to overland travel through miles of (presumably) hostile jungle. 

[running out of food and water at sea just doesn't have the same sting when players have access to high level cleric spells]

Just like X1, Dwellers has plenty of room for expanding the scope (and treasure) of the adventure. While the yuan-ti are reputed to be the "main bad guys" of the city, no detailed lairs or strongholds of the creatures are presented in the adventure. While they may be more independent than the clannish mongrelmen and tasloi, there're definite hints of organization and cooperation among the demon-men, and no reason not have pockets of wealth scattered all about the city (where are they putting all those trade goods stolen from jungle caravans?). Most of the adventure ideas presented at the end of the module require DMs to create additional lairs within the (rather ample) city confines...and lairs mean treasure. There's no reason the Forbidden City couldn't be expanded to accommodate higher level play by increasing both the opposition present AND the wealth available for plunder.

Now, I realize that more than one DM blogger out there has run these two adventures in conjunction (setting the Forbidden City on the Isle of Dread...usually in place of Taboo Island). Heck, James Maliszewski even had a Forbidden Isle project in the works at one point, though I don't think it was ever realized. For me, while I'd like the presence of both pulp adventure sites in my campaign setting, I don't believe they work well together. You can tell me I lack imagination, but I just don't want my Lost World dinosaurs mixing with demon-bred snake-men; to me, that's much more distasteful than mixing fantasy and science fiction (something I kind of love that a lot of people hate). "Reptillian" ain't a unifying theme, and throwing yuan-ti on the backs of velociraptors (or whatever) is just too gonzo ridiculous for my taste. 

Still, I like the idea of having both adventure sites in the same world, and I'm not sure how exactly to do that. And, no, I'm not into the "demi-plane" idea. 

Anyhoo, got to go. More thoughts on this later (perhaps). Or I might talk about swords instead.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Treasure in the Borderlands

The last couple weeks I've been thinking a lot about D&D campaigns, specifically how I might incorporate existing adventure modules into a single, long campaign. There are multiple reasons my brain has been on this track...but the reasons aren't really that important.

Here's the main skinny: there are pre-published adventures that I like, and that I'd like to run as part of a campaign. That's really all that matters.

More on that later (perhaps)'s post is about The Keep on the Borderlands (module B2) and its subsequent 2nd edition sequel Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. I've owned Return for a while now (a couple years, at least), but I've never run the thing. I'm not sure I'd even given it a really thorough read before the last couple-three days as A) B/X has been my edition of choice (and the original Keep my introductory adventure of choice) for the last decade or so, and B) 2nd edition AD&D has never really "been my bag, baby." However, two things (thinks?) made me want to pull my copy and scrutinize it:

1) I've been thinking a LOT about the Advanced game lately...and what I liked/enjoyed about it in the past, and

2) I've come around to the simultaneous thoughts that "pre-packaged modules aren't necessarily terrible to an original campaign" and "pre-packaged modules usually need substantial revamps to work in an original campaign."

That latter idea mainly due to me poring over the various module reviews GusL did on his old Dungeon of Signs blog.

But it's more than just GusL. I have an idea for another, similar post on this subject called "I Hate Bugbears" in which I intend/hope to discuss various classic adventure modules that I'd like a whole helluva' lot better if they used something besides bugbears (I1 and Q1, for example). Giant, hairy goblins that sneak up on a party are

Whatever (excuse the digression)...back to the two Keeps. I really do like the original B2 a lot...a lot. But its sequel (which I shall hereafter call "RtB2") has a few good ideas as well. Ideas that are worth stealing and adapting. However, I was torn on thought of whether or not I wanted to adapt the thing wholesale to B/X (I'm not quite ready to go full on Advanced). And after a thorough analysis of the changes between the two modules, I'm 90% sure I'd rather use B2 (with a few changes) than its successor.

The main issue I have with RtB2 is with its treasure. Not the amount present in the adventure (which is actually quite a bit more than the original), but with its distribution. For the sake of collating my thoughts, here's what I found when I went through the modules side-by-side:

B2 (original) Treasure
Inside the Keep: 43,413 g.p. and change
In the Wilderness: 1,280 g.p. and change
Inside the Caves: 35,696 g.p. and change

[as I've noted before, you can get more treasure...and experience points...sacking the Keep than adventuring in the Caves of Chaos]

RtB2 (sequel) Treasure
Inside the Keep: 3,015 g.p. and change
In the Wilderness: 8.987 g.p. and change
Inside the Caves: 91,420 (!!) g.p. and change

"There's gold in them hills!"
That is a shit-ton of treasure in the caves and only counts the monetary value of loot to be pillaged (in AD&D, PCs also receive XP from magic items discovered and retained...and have the option of selling such items for even more XP/gold). This makes the Caves of RtB2 a much more lucrative delve than the original, both in terms of physical reward and advancement. Likewise the vast reduction in treasure found at RtB2's Keep makes it a lot less tempting of a target for the more villainous (PC) adventuring parties. All to the good, right?

Well, kind of.

Thing is, while there's a lot less treasure in B2's caverns, the treasure there is more widely spread and accessible. Of the original modules 64 numbered encounters (in the Caves area), 48 of them have some sort of treasure to be found. That's a 75% rate of return on exploration (even "empty" rooms are ones that are going to be searched by adventurers, depleting food and light resources and running the risk of random encounters). Sure, half of these (24 of 48) are yielding small change (less than 100 g.p. worth of loot...almost all coins), but the PCs are still getting something...and nearly one-quarter of the treasure drops (11 of 48) are hits of 1000 g.p. or more, which is a good chunk of bling for 1st and 2nd level characters.

By contrast, Return has 77 numbered encounters in the Caves of Chaos and only 28 of them yield any kind of monetary treasure. While this isn't a terrible ratio (I generally strive to have at least a 1-to-3  treasure yield in my own B/X adventures), it feels like a lot less. Cave complex F, for example, has nine chambers of which only two have any treasure. Yes, one of these is a yield of 12,530 g.p. (after a very tough encounter), but the other has a measly 66 g.p. The same complex in B2 finds loot in every single chamber, and while the total is hardly more than one-tenth the sequel adventure (a bit more than 1,550 g.p.), PCs can feel like their explorations are yielding dividends, not simply depleting their resources while hoping to hit "pay dirt."

[likewise the treasure feels more "honest" to me; that 12,530 g.p. hoard? It requires a character to make two successful "appraisal" rolls to determine the true value of a gemstone, otherwise they lose 4,500 g.p. of its value. That's pretty crappy to hinge one-third of the reward on random chance]

In both versions of the adventure, the bulk of the treasure (roughly 50%) is found in the uppermost cave complex (the "Hidden Temple"), which is all fine and dandy as characters should probably be at least 2nd level before venturing into its dark recesses (and thus needing the same amount of XP found in the entire lower levels to advance to 3rd level). But the other distribution is a little strange: in B2, the minotaur's labyrinth contains about 10% (11.7% to be exact) of the Caves total treasure take, while the ogre cave only accounts for 1.3% (it only has one monster)...the other eight cave complexes have between 2.5% to just over 5% with most hovering close to the average of 3.8%. That's not the case in RtB2: three complexes contain less than 1% of the total treasure found in the Caves (.9%, .6%, and .1%). The "ogre cave" (now home to a troll) contains a whopping 5% of the treasure, and while the labyrinth (upgraded to be even more dangerous) still has close to 10% (9.2% actually), two other cave complexed have over 13% each.

In other words, three of the eleven cave complexes in RtB2 contain more than 75% of the total treasure. And while these three complexes all contain hostile enemies that are unlikely to become allies with the player characters, it feels almost punitive that the potential "friendly factions" carry so little in the way of reward, as if to say "join with these guys or you get nothing for your trouble." It's the same with the under-stocking of treasure in the Keep itself. "Crime doesn't pay," is kind of a theme here (even should a party decided to fight the Keep's forces, they'll get bupkis for their efforts). Which isn't exactly enforcing 2nd edition's "goody-goody" mindset but...kind of?

However, there's another downside to under-valuing the Keep's treasure. All joking aside (no low level party is going to be able to knock over the bank with the forces the Keep can muster), there's a good reason the vault holds so much treasure: for buying and changing the wealth the party brings out of the Caves. For a modest 10% fee, the bank is happy to change sacks of bulky coins for small gems and precious jewelry (and vice versa) and the trading post will take those piles of furs and rolls of silk tapestries off their hands as well (presumably after making some cash withdrawals from its own bank account). That the Keep in B2 has so much liquid wealth on hand ensures PCs won't be requiring a wagon caravan to haul a (literal) ton of loot to their next adventuring site. Yes, there's more treasure available in B2's Keep than in B2's Caves, but much of it is of a portable and practical variety to readily exchange with the player characters.

Adventurers in RtB2 are going to find themselves facing a bit of a logistical hurdle when it comes to disposing of their treasure. The Keep is dirt poor, both the bank and the trading post having disappeared, and while regular caravans stop by the Keep "every few days," the merchants carry trade goods, not easily exchanged valuables or portable wealth. While most of the (valuable) treasure found in RtB2's Caves is of the gem and jewelry type (and, thus, already pretty portable), an exchange issue remains, and most adventuring party are going to end up hiking out with backpacks stuffed with bling rather than letters of credit and currency. And a lot of the stuff (like the valuable library found in the necromancer's lair) is far from portable and subject to easy destruction on the road (say, in bad weather)...which is where PCs will have to be if they want to find a place to fence the goods.

Perhaps in actual 2nd edition play, these issues become "non-issues;" players can discard the treasure that's too bulky or "useless" and gain plenty of advancement-worthy XP from the plethora of magic items taken off the corpses of dead monsters. However, much though I've been reminiscing and longing for AD&D lately, I'm still of a B/X frame of mind when it comes to treasure...I still want it to matter and its acquisition to be the most desirable aspect of gameplay. Hell, even RtB2 "strongly urges" that DMs go back to the treasure-for-XP model of 1st edition AD&D when playing the adventure, giving players the signal that a multiple variety of avenues might be taken in pursuit of the goal. If you're going to follow that advice (and why would you not?) then problematic issues with regard to treasure are going to take on a greater importance.