Monday, June 14, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 4

All right…that’s a long enough break since my last post on “killing gods.” More than enough. 

As a precursor, I need a moment to talk about the relationship between clerics and deities; I realize this will seem yet another digression, but it’s pertinent to the conversation. You see, this whole subject came up because I was unsatisfied with the way I feel (many) adventure designs of recent years have been unreasonable with their treatment of gods…but it’s quite possible that this trend (and my preferences) come in part from learning different styles of play. 

I will elaborate.

I’ve written before about the shift in perspective of What Exactly A Cleric Is that came about in 1983 with the publication of the Mentzer version of Basic. As I’ve recounted (often enough) this was NOT the brand of D&D by which I learned the game. The clerics in my first campaign (which I ran up till circa 1988) didn’t receive their spells from “the strength of their beliefs.” No. Un-uh. Spells come from the gods they worship…they are divine favors, pure and simple, miracles granted by higher powers. 

This is, of course, EXPLICIT in the text. The 1981 Moldvay Basic set described it thusly:
Since clerical spalls are divinely given, they do not have to be studied; the cleric need only rest and pray for them.
"Divinely given" is the key phrase here. I can understand if there is some confusion caused by the actual description of the cleric class in Moldvay; its text ("...they are trained in fighting and casting spells. As a cleric advances in level, he or she is granted the use of more and more spells...") could be interpreted as meaning that their magic is separate from their deity, that magical training is something only those who are initiated into the cult's higher secrets are taught. But unless Moldvay is speaking metaphorically (I don't think he is), the phrase divinely given in the Spell section makes clear just who is "granting" access to clerical magic...not higher level priests and patriarchs, but the god or goddess whom the cleric serves.

And Gygax is even more clear in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide:
It is well known to all experienced players that clerics, unlike magic-users, have their spells bestowed upon them by their respective deities.
The DMG text (page 38) goes on for more than half a page detailing exactly how clerics receive their magic directly from their gods, either by being divinely empowered (1st and 2nd level spells), bestowed upon them through intermediaries (saints, angels, demigods, etc. for 3rd through 5th level spells), or granted by direct communication with the deity itself (6th and 7th level spells). It is not a cleric's "inner strength," "strong beliefs," or "mystical training" that allows the character to create is the god itself. A cleric with no god receives no magic. Period.

As said, Mentzer changes this in his 1983 Basic rulebook...a book I never owned until the 2000s, and certainly not the book I learned to play with. But a subtle shift in thinking is evident in TSR's publications as early as 1982. I refer here to two classic modules published that year: N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God and B4: The Lost City. I imagine both modules might be held up as inspirations for the works of recent designers I cited earlier, examples of "sword & sorcery" style adventures featuring "godlike beings" who are nothing more than actual (non-divine) monsters needing to be killed...respectively a spirit naga named Explictica Defilus and the tentacled monstrosity known as Zargon. These false gods, whether through longevity and fear or powerful mind control, have created cults of worship around themselves, followers who hold them in awe and carry out their "divine will, much as one might expect of followers duped by a charlatan.

And yet both modules include actual cleric followers of these monsters...clerics with the ability to access clerical magic. N1 has multiple clerics of Explictica using spells of up to 4th level (7th level clerics). B4 features Darius, a 6th cleric (also with access to spells up to 4th level) of the "cult of Zargon" as one of the Big Bads of the adventure. None of these characters make sense under the rules of the game; none of these characters should have ANY spells whatsoever.

Contrast this with the backstory found in the 1980 module C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan:
Eventually a new Archon mounted the throne in Pontylver, one who claimed [lawful neutral] Alia as her patron. The Temple of the Correct and Unalterable Way grew in followers and prestige, and as time passed, Myrrha noticed that her peers and superiors were becoming increasingly arrogant and arbitrary....Myrrha saw they were falling into the heresy of believing that law is concentrated in the individual and not the community. Investigating, she discovered a well-kept secret: many members of the ecclesiarchy were no longer able to cast high-level spells, thus proving their estrangement from their deity!
If N1 was properly designed (that is, written to follow the instructions laid out in the rule books), neither Abramo nor Misha would have access to clerical spells above 2nd level (and maybe not even those) and Gareth Primo would have no magic at all because a spirit naga is not a god and, thus, not capable of granting spells.

That is the game, folks, and I honestly don't think it's "open to interpretation." But...perhaps because of "satanic panic" pressure over the pretending to worship strange gods (see the 1982 Mazes and Monsters where Tom Hanks plays a batshit-crazy cleric)...TSR started to move away from its own rules. Started to say, hey, being a cleric isn't really about worshipping a god, it's about your character's training and "strong beliefs" manifesting're just a magic-user in priest's clothing and it doesn't matter whether you're worshipping the One True God or some tentacled space slug that crashed on the planet a thousand years ago. We aren't teaching children about the worship of strange pagan gods...heavens, no! There is no god except God, these are just strangely deluded fantasy priests. Pay no attention!

And you see that carried all the way down to today's designers. From Jason Sholtis's magnificent Operation Unfathomable:
...clerics operate under the delusion that their deities actually exist (they do not!). In truth, clerics are merely a distinct variety of magic-user, devoted to one or more of the ten thousand Gods of Order. Clerics manipulate chaos to achieve their results through the mental constructs of their religious practices, rather than rote memorization of arcane mummery.
From 2017's Lamentations of the Flame Princess (James Raggi):
Cleric magic is divinely inspired, and is granted to Clerics through prayer. Whether these powers are granted to Clerics by higher powers, if these higher powers are what the Cleric believes them to be, or if all Cleric spells are merely ritualized forms of sympathetic magic, are all subjects frequently debated...
I would include the 2018 adventure The Red Prophet Rises in this mix of confusion, in which a heretical priest (Khazra), mistakenly worshipping an ancient vampiric entity, still (inexplicably) retains access to the spells of a 6th level cleric of "the Bull God." Why? Is the Obelisk that Thirsts a divine entity? No. Does it serve the Bull God? No. One would think spells would be withheld from the priest, if only to inform him of his delusional apostasy.  Guy uses a sword in combat anyway.

These authors (and others) seem to have been influenced somewhat by these later (post-1982) influences when it comes to explaining the relationship between clerics and their gods. Which is to say, there is little relationship, if any. Any failure of clerical magic can simply be attributed to the cleric losing faith in herself: it is not the deity that withholds magic, but the cleric's own psychological barriers to accessing a purely internal mechanism. 

I'm not a big fan of that interpretation. It doesn't jibe with the D&D I learned to play. It is not the AD&D of Gygax; it runs counter to the DMG and the information found in Deities & Demigods. And while I'll be the first to admit to being a stodgy, groggy, grumpy old man when it comes to my D&D, I'd even say that it's not very "Sword & Sorcery," either...despite what (many of) these authors hope to emulate.

Because as discussed in my first post on the subject, much of D&D is inspired by fantasy fiction of the pulp variety...and in pulp fantasy you see PLENTY of deluded cultists following charlatans and false gods, but they aren't getting any magical powers by doing so. False priests don't get spells: they use tricks and psychoactive powders or rule through fear and tradition and superstition. Real magic linked to worship is generally called sorcery and rightly so, as it is linked to the favors granted by demonic entities...but such infernal divinities are still "divine," supernatural and extra-dimensional. Only divinities grant divine powers: when Jagreen Lern or Elric conjure in the names of their chaos gods, THEN magical stuff happens. 

But maybe I need to rein in a bit and bring this all back around to the subject at hand ("killing gods"). There is, I think, a certain prevalence or attitude or orientation in the Old School Role-playing circles that has wandered far afield from the game as it was originally envisioned. Maybe. Maybe I'm wrong. But here's how I see it:
  • As Mike Mornard writes, the original designers "made up some shit they thought would be fun." It involved exploring strange environs, finding treasure, building worlds. It was inspired and influenced by adventure fiction, much of it "fantasy" in nature.
  • As a game, D&D has a system; it has rules. It models something (a fantasy world of adventure) and the rules are applied to the thing it models (the fantasy world of adventure) up to and including things like "how/why a cleric gets spells" and "how many hit points a god like Zeus might have."
  • That divine architect that Elric is always searching for? The supreme being that orders the lives of even the gods of his world? D&D has that, too: it's called the Dungeon Master. And just like Elric's "supreme being" (who would be Michael Moorcock...duh), the DM is not a creature to be encountered by the protagonists (in D&D's case, the player characters). The DM creates the world but is not OF the world. What will be encountered are game constructs, up to and including the gods that inhabit the game world.
  • As a constructed fantasy world D&D has a cosmology. As a game that models a fantasy world, that cosmology can be exactly and minutely defined...right down to just how much damage Thor can do with a hammer blow, or how many greater devils inhabit the 3rd layer of the Nine Hells...should such info ever become necessary for play.
  • The game (D&D) has parameters (structure) of play. It has assumptions and expectations of how play resolves.  These expectations of play resolution are determined by 1) the rules, 2) the way the rules model the world, and 3) the fiction that inspires the that order. Don't (for example) tell me "well, Gandalf used a sword!" The inspiring fiction (#3) comes behind the rules (#1) and the modeled fantasy world (#2).
As originally conceived, Dungeons & Dragons was never about "telling stories." It was about playing a game of exploration and survival (adventure!) in a fantasy game world. However, some folks were quite unimaginative with how they worked within those parameters, creating murder-hobo funhouses of the poorest variety and this caused pushback in the form of front-loaded drama. We shall not wait for a story to emerge from our adventures! We shall make sure there is MEANING to these characters' (fake) lives!

Combine the success of that front-loaded drama (through company supported publications like Ravenloft and Dragonlance) with an imperative to cut anything perceived as controversial (i.e. impacting the bottom line) from a game now being marketed to children (this being the shift that began circa 1982), and one can readily see the consequences: we don't kill gods. We kill demons. We kill immortal liches. We kill creatures masquerading as gods. We kill surrogates in order to have our high stakes, high drama, emotionally invested play.

Because, originally, emotional investment in a character was mainly found in long-running (i.e high level) characters. And high level characters, by necessity, required greater challenges to stay engaged...tackling gods (modeled as part of the cosmology) and godlike beings (that giant ape from WG6) are a natural evolution of challenge for characters of the highest echelon, because lesser challenges don't cut it anymore. If you want to run a high level campaign, you're going to want to study up your copy of Sailor on the Seas of Fate because that's about "par" when it comes to suitable challenges. Good old Demogorgon has been a part of the D&D tapestry since 1976...and for good reason. 

[hell, I used to fight Demogorgon...on the playground...waaaay back before I ever laid eyes on ANY D&D book. Before I even opened my first box of the Dungeon! board game, even]

Not low level characters (I'm guessing).

Outside of WotC's latest-greatest editions, D&D designers have (mostly) moved away from front-loaded drama and railroad story arcs, but they've still passed some sort of threshold from which they can't seem to return. They want high stakes, high challenge, high weirdness in their adventure...but they don't want high level player characters. They want their players to continue playing "small ball" forever after, retiring (I suppose) should they ever, somehow, reach 8th or 10th level of play. "Too superheroic," is the refrain I hear. "The game is no fun after around 5th (or 6th or 7th) level."

Bull. Crap. But that discussion is for another post.

Throwing high level challenges (like godlings) into low level adventures is an attempt by designers to have their cake and eat it, too. It's an attempt to inject Elric-levels of amazeballs fantasy into the lives of grubby, Warhammer Fantasy-level adventurers in order to draw out low-level play while still keeping long-since-jaded players engaged with the game in front of them. Is that as bad as playing pre-generated snowflakes traveling the Dragonlance railroad? Absolutely not. But it's got to be grating after a while. It would certainly bug the shit out of me.

All right, that's it. I lied about this being the concluding post...just had too much more to say. The NEXT post will definitely be the conclusion to this series. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Has Anyone...?

Has anyone ever played I6: Ravenloft as written, using the AD&D system?

Clearly, the adventure module was extremely popular. And I have no doubt there was a time when people used to sit around the kitchen table reading boxed text to each other and eyes didn't "glaze over" (I know there was a time for me and my gaming buddies when this was the case). 

But did anyone run the adventure proper, as written, using the wandering monster tables, the dictated motivations (and tactics) of Strahd, the paltry treasure, poisonous fog, and the labyrinthine castle as an insert into their normal campaign world?

And, if so, did the players LOVE it?

I'm just curious. As I mentioned before, I never had a chance to play Ravenloft when it was first published: my DM ran it for our playgroup when I was out-of-town one weekend. The reports I recall hearing were more about the antics of the players (bickering with and killing each other) and I think (if I remember correctly) they simply got fed up with adventure and decided to leave (poison mist or no) after frying Strahd with a lightning bolt. Which is to say: they hand-waved a lot of the thing. None of them gushed about it, or spoke highly of it, or offered to re-run it for my benefit...nor did anyone ask me to run it for them. It made extremely minimal impression (as far as I can tell) on our group of kids aged 12 to 14.

I'm not going to fault anyone their nostalgia...not when I've spent years of wallowing in my own, here on Ye Old Blog. But I am curious, because (as I commented to Dennis in my last post) I'm not sure I've met anyone who's played the adventure and "loved" it. Maybe the love comes from DMs who enjoyed the novelty of the thing? I don't know...and I am curious.

Please feel free to leave your comments. I promise I won't judge you for what you enjoyed thirty years ago. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Ravenloft Numbers

Man, this D&D subject...always something to write about, huh?

I've been continuing my examination of the I6: Ravenloft module the last few days, even checking out a little bit of its sequel I10 (which is a terrible hash of an adventure...oh my goodness!). Talk about "going back to the well," Ravenloft must have sold an awful lot of copies (and/or received a ton of fan mail) to necessitate that particular publication. I shan't be discussing it any time soon, but I think it's interesting to note that it includes pregenerated player characters for use in both modules (including one whose secondary weapon is a normal longsword), and that some...mmm..."liberties" have been taken with the AD&D rules when it comes to their construction. 

One of the reasons I continue to poke at this thing, is that I'd LIKE to have a fun "vampire adventure" to throw at my players, and Ravenloft is more than halfway there. A while back (like years back...around the time I finished my first book) I had this idea to write a vampire adventure module of my own, somewhat modeled after Palace of the Vampire Queen, but I never got around to it...and the thought of re-purposing Ravenloft honestly never entered my mind. Now, though...well, there's grist here to work with. 

So...let's talk some numbers with regard to tackling Ravenloft as a monster hunt.

I'll admit that when I read through the adventure before, I glossed over a lot of the "getting there" part of the module, instead focusing on the dungeon (castle) proper. It's mostly box text anyway, and I don't really "do" box text these days...I don't even read it when looking at an adventure even (since I'm not planning on reading it when running), unless it's necessary to explain just what the heck an encounter area IS (there's a lot of this issue in the Dragonlance modules). It's...straightforward enough, if full of typos and inconsistencies. We are told the mayor has been dead ten days, then (in the same paragraph) we're told he's been dead "nearly a week." Sometimes the gypsies are listed with 4 hit dice, sometimes 5, sometimes 6 with no explanation. Ability scores are dropped altogether from NPCs. Just some glaring errors...not sure who "Curtis Smith" is, but he wasn't much of an editor.

But I'm getting side tracked again (per usual). As an adventure hook, it's not a terrible lure of the "false pretense variety." Promises of obscene wealth is actually better than usual (certainly better than the "we have nothing to offer you please help us out of the goodness of your hearts" story found in adventures like N2: The Forest Oracle). 'Oh, look, we can do a good deed AND get paid.' Simultaneously play to the party's compassion (or desire for fantasy heroism) and greed. Problem is, once they find out about the false pretenses, it becomes apparent why the magical poison mist is needed to keep the party in place (because otherwise, they'd just blow off the joint). And while that might work to incentivize a vengeful group of players into launching a raid on Strahd's castle, the adventure is designed to be a spooky/scary mood piece with creepy narration and jack-in-the-box scares. What we want (well, what I would want) is an adventure that draws players to it like moths to a flame...and then creeps them out along the way. Thus heightening the player tension, despite their incentive to press on. Also, it'd be nice to make them sweat a bit.

All that means juggling the risk-reward factor of the thing. Now for D&D players of all stripes, vampires should strike some fear into their hearts. In going over this module, I constantly struggle with NOT trying to tinker with the vampire monster as written in the MM...the urge to "improve" the thing (making it more sensible or more in-line with a particular movie version of Dracula) is immense. And it's totally unnecessary: the D&D vampire is its "own thing" and works just fine as written for putting the fear of the God into players (with good reason! They're vicious!). At the same time, they have some solid weaknesses that a prepared party can exploit...which can make the risk seem low enough to attempt bearding such a beast, given a reward that is high enough.

Does a hundred and fifty thousand gold pieces worth of treasure PLUS ownership of a dilapidated castle sound like a decent enough reward? For a party of 3rd to 5th level characters? Especially if it was known that the current owner was a powerful sorcerer with a decent-sized spell book (AD&D magic-users are always looking to add to their spell lists, right?)...yeah, it sounds pretty hefty. It's not really (for reasons related to castle ownership), but it's still a tasty hook for players to bite on. So what's the risk?

Sunrise in Transylvania on October 31st (a good enough place/date as any) is at 7:21am. Sunset the same day (and same location) is 6:15pm. That gives players a nearly eleven hour window of time in which to hunt up Strahd's coffin and kill him in the traditional fashion (stake through the heart, etc., etc.). All well and good...except  that PCs aren't going to be camped outside the gates, ready to break in at first light of dawn. I mean, they could be...if they don't mind being food for the immortals.

The village of Barovia is about one-third of a mile from Castle Ravenloft...if, like Strahd, you can fly. Otherwise, the road is from the village to the castle gates is 2.7 miles long. A horse with a rider can trot/canter about 8 miles in an hour, which puts Strahd's stronghold about 20 minutes away by horse. Assuming a party is really on the ball, they can probably be up, saddled and ready to go within 10-15 minutes of sunrise (since it only takes Strahd six minutes to fly home from the village...three when mounted on his adventurers won't want to poke their heads out till first light of day). That means the earliest PCs can expect to get to the mountain stronghold is 7:50am, with 8am being more likely...if they are as expedient as possible, working like a well-oiled machine.

Let's assume they are pretty good and are thus able to arrive by 8 (there are always delays). The party will (hopefully) want to give themselves some time to get back to the safety of the village, just in case they aren't able to locate the vampire lord's coffin. 5:50pm would be a good mark to exit the castle, giving the adventurers a full 25 minutes to get back to Barovia, get the horses unsaddled, and get under cover (i.e. into a house that the vampires can't enter). Such speed will only be possible, of course, if the party brings along one or two henchfolk to hold/guard the horses (while they explore the castle interior), and make them ready for departure (upon their swift exit).

8am to 5:50pm is nine hours and fifty minutes...the equivalent of 59 turns for exploration. Ten torches worth of time (or two and a half flasks of lantern oil). That is all the time the party has to locate Strahd's tomb and end him. 

Every thirty minutes they are inside the castle, they have a 2 in 6 chance of facing a wandering monster. On average, they can expect to face 20 encounters. Each encounter will cost them one turn of exploration time. With only 39 turns to work with, a conservative group of adventurers will leave themselves at least half the allotted time to return to the front door (20 turns). 19 turns of movement to penetrate into the heart of Strahd's lair, where the monster lies sleeping.

As one might expect, Strahd's coffin is [SPOILER!] located in the castle's crypt. There are only two entrances into the crypt area, unless characters have the ability to assume gaseous form (like Strahd) or have thought to bring pickaxes for tunneling through a masonry wall and thirty feet of rubble. Assuming such isn't the case, the shortest distance to travel is 770' from the front door of the castle. It involves avoiding two traps (neither of which is deadly, but both of which will derail the party's exploration), a secret door, an encounter with a crazy (human) servant, a fight with a shadow demon that automatically attacks, and a puzzle involving two iron golems which might also result in combat. If the party wears no armor heavier than chain (9" movement) the distance could be covered in nine three turns of searching (assuming success) for secret doors and traps, and another three turns to deal with other encounters. Finding the entrance to Strahd's specific tomb is no easy feat (there are 40 possible crypts to open), but the party will have 40 extra minutes to search.

The second method of entering Strahd's tomb is 980' from the front door, and includes a 390' drop down a smooth stone shaft. So long as the party brought 60 pounds of good rope, this might be the "easiest," most viable and most obvious means of entry. At only 11 turns, it leaves them a bit over an hour to locate the correct tomb in the crypt (assuming the same movement rate as above), but returning the way they came (a nearly 400' rope ascent?!) may take longer than the initial entry time, depending on the generosity of the DM. Doubling the time to descend (43 minutes) would make it a nine turn climb.

None of which is accounting for mandatory rest breaks; parties "should be required to rest one turn in six" (per the DMG; bottom of p.38). Unlike B/X, AD&D does not provide specific penalties for fatigue...but then it doesn't say DMs must give PCs an option regarding rest. Knock one turn off the trap/secret way in, or two turns off the rope climb method. That would STILL leave enough time for a well-organized, well-prepared party to make a deep foray into Castle Ravenloft and stake Strahd while he sleeps. A party with any way to spy out his location and map a route ahead of time (via a crystal ball, scroll with wizard eye, etc.) would be able to execute a true surgical strike with minimal losses, even at low level...depending on how well they deal with the wandering monster encounters.

Of course, Strahd isn't the only vampire on the premises. There are both two "brides" (one located in the crypts, one acting as...a maid?!) and the possibility of encountering 1d4 on the wandering monster tables ("hapless past victims" of Strahd). All of these should be half-strength vampires (per the DMG, page 119), but presumably the death of the Count would launch them into a feeding frenzy, as they drained the other living inhabitants of the castle (gypsies, witches and such) bringing them up to full hit dice. The possibility of the dungeon suddenly containing half a dozen, free-willed vampires, plus their newly created "half-vamp" minions, should be a daunting situation for ANY party of adventurers, regardless of level. Under Strahd's yoke, they did little more than bemoan their fate (and scrub his floors). But now...hoo-boy! What's been unleashed!

That's the ugly truth of Ravenloft. Strahd might be an evil undead creature (or "Creature" as they call him in I10), but at least he maintains control over the situation; he IS still 'lord of the manor,' after all. His continued existence allows him and Barovia to live in a state of perpetual detente...taking him out is, in many ways, a "nuclear option." Perhaps, to some degree, the villagers even realize this; perhaps they don't want the party to exterminate "the Devil Strahd," understanding that the county would face a worse fate should their liege and tormentor meet the final death...being overrun by a horde of undead monsters!

Welcome to vampire country.

[assuming there are "only" six half-strength vampires in Ravenloft...the two ladies and up to four encountered wanderers...a total of 24 hit dice would have to be drained to get all six up to full-strength. 7 witches would provide 21 hit dice and three 0-level humans would provide 1 each. Wandering (6HD) gypsies can also be encountered in the castle...up to eight at a time...but these others are all known and sedentary and would thus probably be targeted first. That makes a total of sixteen vampires (six master, ten thrall) for Barovia...and possibly the deal with]

Um, yeah. Real ugly.

All right, that's enough number crunching. Lots to do this week (last full week of school for the kids). Hope everyone has a good one!
: )

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Killer DM

The Oregon Trail: no mercy from this DM

In other news:
my son (and his class) were introduced to the old Oregon Trail video game by their 4th grade teacher. The game was a little after my time (I never had a chance to play it in school), but I'm familiar with the game by reputation. In class, the teacher did a demonstration with kids voting to see what choices they would make and, of course, it all ended in tragic death for the would-be pioneers.

My son was excited to try the thing solo when he got home with his Chromebook (he did not have positive things to say about his classmate's choices). He beat the game his first try through, paying careful attention to logistics and supply. "It's like D&D," he stated simply.

So proud.
; )

Thursday, June 3, 2021

I6: Ravenloft

A few days ago, Sir Rob asked me if I'd review I6: Ravenloft, not to critique it so much as to analyze whether or not I thought it truly was the Hickmans who started the "Adventure Path" trend (with I6 and/or Dragonlance), and ALSO how I might go about making the game more "player-centric" while still maintaining its "gothic vibe." In other words, how would I un-couple the thing from its railroad aspects while not killing the mood. Being the gracious (and egomaniacal) type of guy I am, I said 'sure, why not?'


But first, allow me to say this: when they look back at their lives, I'm going to guess that the Hickmans (Tracy and Laura) are going to say that the greatest thing they ever did for their careers, was to take a job offer at TSR and move from Utah to Wisconsin. Had they not done that...had they instead taken other gigs locally, gotten help from their parents, continued to raise their kids in the same town they'd grown up...I just can't see them going on to having the success they managed to achieve. Without the backing of TSR (and the built-in fan base)...would they have ever been much more than independent publishers of the occasional D&D module? Would they have even continued to do that?

The fact is, Hickman wasn't a great writer...and I say that as someone who has read the first six Dragonlance novels (multiple times!) and enjoyed the hell out of them. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think Hickman becomes a famous, bestselling novelist without TSR. Steinbeck he was not.

[sorry, I've had Steinbeck on the brain a lot recently, considering the parallels between The Grapes of Wrath and our current pandemic-enhanced homeless crisis. But I digress]

What he was...what both the Hickmans were...were rather good adventure designers. I have no experience with Rahasia (one of two modules that got the Hickmans hired by TSR), but I've run I3: Pharaoh two or three times, I4: Oasis of the White Palm at least three times, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek once or twice...both as "one-offs" and as part of on-going campaigns. While I have a notable soft-spot for anything Arabian Nights related, the adventures were quite interesting, filled with ingenious dungeon design, evocative situations, and (yes) whimsy (the floating tomb of Martek was written/published a year before the rather paltry knock-of appears in DL4: Dragons of Desolation). I especially like the combination of ancient Egyptian mythos with Golden Age Islam fairy tale stuff (this is best seen in I4: Oasis of the White Palm)...but skating over a sea of glass with light-powered sky-ships, avoiding sunspots and purple worms...I mean, come on, that shit is cool!

But it's been twenty years since I've read those modules and it's certainly possible I'd see them today in a less favorable light. The clever intertwining of adventure sites (with actual treasure!) is a bit of a "railroad" but the idea of needing to "solve an adventure to escape" (as in I5) has been around long since before the Hickmans came on board at TSR: Moldvay did this with X2: Castle Amber in 1981, and there's a bit of that in 1980's Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits as well. Likewise, there are other examples prior to the Hickmans' career of both "backstory" and forced compliance with the adventure (a common gripe with the I3-I5 series): you see the former in modules like N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God and B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, and the latter in the introduction to the G-series...all adventures that (generally) receive high praise and/or are considered "classics."

So, now...Ravenloft. For me, I think Ravenloft is best understood (and judged) by looking at what the adventure was and why it was designed. Published by TSR in 1983, the Hickman's wrote the adventure circa 1977 (long before they joined the company) as an adventure to be played on Halloween. It is thus best viewed as a one-off theme-style adventure, NOT something to be viewed as part of an existing or on-going campaign. It is NOT a regular, ordinary adventure.

Viewed in this light, many of the design choices not only make sense, they are...quite frankly...brilliant. The well-themed card mechanic that randomly determines locations of important artifacts, the adventure's antagonist, and the overall motivation of said-antagonist? THAT is an elegant method of ensuring the annual "spooky adventure" is different from year-to-year. Yes, we already know that the living tower is going to attack us with halberds if we aren't careful, but Strahd (or some needed McGuffin) might be up there this year! 

It's almost like a tournament challenge: will we get Strahd this Halloween, or will he get us? Who knows?!

Many of the adventure's problems, I think, can all be laid at the feet of publishing the thing as an ordinary "I-type" adventure, and the changes made thereof. People attending an annual themed get-together are already going to be on-board with the spirit of the adventure...there's no need to add all the heavy-handed stuff that forces a party to act in a particular way (2 hit die villagers, 5 and 6 hit die gypsies, impassable mists, etc.). In a "true" adventure module, there's no need to randomly pull cards to determine locations of important items and adversaries...they should simply be placed in the most suitable, appropriate locations. You can still "read the tarot cards" (or whatever) but with all the "signs" fixed, i.e. set in place. Even though Ravenloft was never run at tournament, it would have fit well with the C series (there's a lot of 1980's C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in this adventure in Ravenloft), and probably would have benefitted well from a set of pre-generated characters, rather than mandating one PC "must be a fighter with a longsword" or other stipulations.

So then, what if you WANT to make Ravenloft an "actual adventure" for insertion into your campaign?

Well, the module has another rather large issue (besides being purposed for something other than it is) and that is a matter of scale: Ravenloft really wants to be a low-level adventure rather than a mid-level one. I think there are three main reasons it is written for levels 5-7, and they lead to a host of cascading problems:
  1. Being placed in the "I" (intermediate) series suggests mid-range (though suggested levels fluctuate wildly across I modules).
  2. Having a big, bad Vampire suggests a higher level of character (because vampires are one of the most powerful forms of undead...THE most powerful undead in OD&D and Basic play).
  3. General survivability: more levels mean more hit points, which means a longer game experience (especially appropriate in a one-off, theme-night adventure).
The adventure would have been served better by writing it for levels 2-4. This mitigates a lot of issues: the treasure is more appropriate for this level of party (it's pretty slim for any adventure this size, but downright criminal for a 1E adventuring party of levels 5-7...again, remember this was not designed for an on-going campaign!!!). Villagers can be level 0 in stead of 2 hit dice (otherwise, we're going to cast charm person on that 9th level fighter with the intelligence of 3 and retain him FOREVER). The "evil gypsies" can be re-scaled as ordinary bandits rather than wandering minotaurs. Madame Eva doesn't need to be a 10th level cleric (I mean "she never gives aid and never needs any" so why does she need to have spells like raise dead or cure serious wounds available to her? Just make her high enough level to curse insolent players!). Get rid of the wandering specters, banshees, and ghosts (all too powerful as is), maybe substituting a wraith or two, knock the Strahd Zombies down to 2HD (and have them turned as zombies not mummies), and re-do trap damage where appropriate.

[actually the traps are all pretty good, even for low-level parties. The sleep trap at #38 doesn't need to carry a -4 penalty...low level characters fail saves just fine...and the crushing trap at #31 should probably just be an auto-kill anyway (how are they going to pull a party member out that survives the damage?!). Most of the killer traps (thousand foot falls and whatnot) simply need to be telegraphed better to give players a choice of risk/reward]

But what about All The Vampires, JB?! First off, vampires DO have vulnerabilities. Garlic, mirrors, and holy symbols will hold a vampire at bay, and don't require a cleric "turning" roll (would a 7th level cleric really have much chance anyway?). The module gives specific ways that Strahd will attack the party and stipulates he will only attack three times (once each of three methods)...and only ONE attack will be direct combat. 

[of course, the module appears to assume that the adventure will be completed in a single 24 hour time period. Remember! The thing was designed to be played one night (Halloween) per year!]

Whatever happened to half-strength undead? Why are all these "brides of Strahd" full hit dice vampires? Is that not a thing in AD&D? Oh, is (page 119 of the DMG). As I wrote when first exploring the Dragonlance stuff, the Hickmans come off as DMs used to only using OD&D + Greyhawk, and here's another example. Half-strength (4 hit die) vampires are fine opponents for low-level characters, assuming they don't attack in packs (they don't in Ravenloft)...I might even rule they only suck one level on a hit, rather than two, which puts them on the same footing as an encounter with a single wight, right? Except that they have all the extra (vampiric) vulnerabilities, too. Give them a lesser charming ability (no save penalty) if you like.

As for Strahd ("The First Vampyr"), parties have multiple resources for aiding in their fight, including the Icon of Raveloft and the Sunsword (just allow the entire sword to be found, instead of only the hilt) while using normal preventative measures (listed above) for holding him off till they can find the artifacts. OR they could just use that time-honored method of hunting vampires: wait till daytime and hunt for his coffin, stake in hand. Even low-leveled parties can handle that, and properly hit diced monsters can serve as great guardians. 

Strahd himself isn't all that great shakes as an antagonist. He's not the earliest "classed" vampire to appear in a TSR module (Drelzna the fighter vamp in Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth might be the first) nor even the first magic-user vampire (see Vlad Tolenkov in Q1 or Sakatha in I2). He's not the first antagonist to have a "motivation" that involves more than killing every murder-hobo that enters his lair. He's a Dracula knock-off (much as Vlad was) and there's nothing wrong with that...for an annual Halloween adventure. But there was nothing particularly original or outstanding about Strahd, even in 1983. Regrets over a dead sibling? Unrequited NPC romance plots? See X2 and B3 respectively.

All four of Strahd's possible goals are pretty lame, actually. If he wanted to switch identities, why do so now? What's so special about the PCs? Would a genius level intelligence really make the mistake about the black opal spell component (never mind the fact that a 10th level magic-user is incapable of manufacturing magical items!)? The missing sunsword is pretty dumb, unless you set this up in an earlier adventure with the thought of later running Ravenloft...and the "reincarnated love" living in the local village...I mean, this thing worked for Bram Stoker's Dracula when she was living in faraway London, but do you really need the machinations for the local damsel? And would such an adolescent ploy ever work better than simply offering her a castle and immortality? And didn't we say this guy has genius intelligence?

[just by the way, can I just say I HATE the whole polymorphing undead thing? A walking corpse...or incorporeal NOT an animal to be polymorphed, so should fall under the purview of polymorph any object, if such transformation is possible at all. The idea of Strahd polymorphing a PC into a vampire is! That is NOT how one makes vampires!And even if it was, why not do that with one of your willing gypsy henchmen?!]

In the final analysis, I think the best way to uncouple Ravenloft from its story is to treat it as a straightforward monster hunt. IGNORE Strahd's "motivations." Who cares what turns his crank...what is it that motivates the PCs? The Hickmans' original impetus for writing Ravenloft came from playing in a dungeon that had some random vampire sitting in a room next to the oozes and goblins for no good reason. Yeah, that's dumb: but that's not what you have here. This vampire has a reason for being in this room: it's his castle! He's been the lord of the realm for a couple hundred years! The villagers are his prey! Etc. Etc.

[I actually really like the idea of Strahd being a greedy bastard. If you draw the card that says Strahd is in his treasury, you find him gleefully "counting his ill-gotten gains." That's motivation right there! The guy is milking the surrounding territory...and any would be passers-through (like the PCs) add to his ever-growing treasure hoard. He's the undead equivalent of a miserly dragon! Love it...probably killed his brother over some piece of treasure. Oh My Precious!]

To run Ravenloft for a NORMAL campaign adventure (as opposed to a one-off) I'd do the following:
  • First, decide on a motivation for the party to confront Strahd. Maybe they are looking for an artifact that he's rumored to have in his hoard. Maybe they're looking for a friend, relative, or colleague ('what's up Jonathan Harker?') that's being held in the castle. Maybe they've been sent to collect outstanding back taxes due to a greater lord. Maybe their deity visited them in a dream and told them they had a sacred duty to stamp out the undead fiend (or face excommunication). Whatever. If nothing else, appeal to their greed (that guy's been sitting on a load of loot for generations, people!) IS AD&D, after all.
  • Next, figure out why the villagers remain in this cursed locale. Look, Dracula had his peasants, too, and they weren't sticking around because of some magic, poisonous fog. There are many reasons why a community might decide that sticking it out is better than the alternative: persecution in other lands, friends and relatives, food supply, the devil you know versus the unknown. Vampires only attack at night, right? So as long as you're indoors after dark (and have your garlic/cross nailed over the door) you're safe to go about your daily farming business during the daylight hours and only need worry about the occasional gypsy abduction. Treat Strahd like any other nobleman/lord and his "gypsy servants" as his equivalent of patrols and men-at-arms (which they basically are anyway).  Decide who might be helpful/sympathetic to the PCs, and who is firmly in the pocket of Strahd (for example, the town mayor or anyone else who benefits from Strahd's magnificence...i.e. not being exchange for cooperation and spying). Remember that Strahd has some human servants, who may actually be "hostages" of village families. Other village families might have made "deals" with Strahd (given over daughters to be his "brides" in exchange for concessions). We are talking a campaign game, not a Sunday night movie!
  • Re-write the thing for a low-level party. I'd say 3rd or 4th would be best (because one vampire hit to a 2nd level character is going to end her adventuring career), but definitely nothing 5th or higher (no need to be flinging fireballs and lightning bolts around your gothic castle mood piece). Gypsies as bandits, villagers as villagers, village idiots as strong villagers (not 9th level fighters...dude should have his own castle!). Shadows and wraiths in place of banshees and ghosts and specters. Half-strength vampire wives instead of full strength ones (treat as wights in all regards). Strahd zombies exactly as written except they only have 2 hit dice and turn as ghasts (inside the castle...outside, they should turn as normal zombies). Probably get rid of the 12 HD trapper (make that the lair of the wandering rust monsters, if you like...clever PCs will find a way to use those on the iron golems). Much as I like the jack-in-the-box of three hell hounds in a crypt, they'll probably destroy most low level parties...knock 'em down to two at 4 HD, if you want to keep Strahd's "hunting dogs" (who wouldn't?). And I kind of love the nightmare (Strahd's "steed") and like the idea of him riding through the streets, bellowing challenges and calls for vengeance the night after the party's first foray into his home.
  • Figure out where you want to put the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, the Tome of Strahd, and the Sunsword; I would not stash any in his crypt, but you could still draw cards to figure out where they are, if you don't have a preference (I would not use the bonuses/penalties associated with card suit). Since Strahd (presumably) moves around a lot during the night, I'd just roll a D6 whenever the party enters one of his possible encounter areas, perhaps with a cumulative chance of finding him (1 in 6, 2 in 6, etc.). I would NOT have Strahd in his crypt except during daylight hours (when he'll always be present).
  • Treasure: the total value of monetary treasure in Ravenloft is a bit more than 120,000 g.p. -- close to double what eight 4th level characters need to level. However, in an adventure with this much expected energy drain, I don't mind the extra experience points. Magic items range from good (helpful scrolls and potions) to weird (three maces +3 in the treasury?) to wow (a deck of many things!). Probably needs some modification with regard to the blander magic weapons. 
  • Stocking: however, the distribution of treasure needs work. In a dungeon this size, I'd expect to find some type of treasure in around 30 encounter areas, not 10. Monsters should be in one-third of the areas, not one-fourth. Around 56% of the castle is EMPTY...just box text description...and while there's fairly good interactivity (especially for DMs that don't mind doing some improvisation when they see "carriage room," for example) I'd want to spread things around a bit more, and probably add a couple more encounters (gypsy henchmen and the like...especially during the daytime). The crypt area especially is a little bland...I can see PCs simply knocking down tombs, one after another, which is more-or-less the same as the (often lambasted) Kick-In-The-Door style of dungeon. Rather than an empty tomb with a bag of coins, I'd prefer to furnish the castle a bit more with golden candelabrum (never lit) and decorative china- and silverware (never used)...maybe a well-stocked wine cellar full of expensive vintages. Maybe figure out where the vampire wives go during the nighttime hours and what the witches are doing when they're not brewing in Ye Old Cauldron. Maybe give the witches a few potions, and give their 42,750 g.p. spellbook to Strahd (they only peruse it when they need to memorize a spell). Hell, put it in his study...simple enough.
With regard to RUNNING the adventure, I'd want to make sure I was keeping excellent track of time, because sundown and sunset becomes VERY important when you're hunting vampires. Party encumbrance and movement rates are going to be essential for tracking time, and every ten minute turn spent searching for secret doors is going to bring the party closer to the witching hour. Probably need to prep some sort of graph beforehand, just to make it all go smoothly. The adventure lists "types of attacks" for Strahd, but they're kind of nonsensical for a character with genius intelligence and centuries of experience. A situational list of actual tactics (based on party location, party defenses, level of vampiric ire, etc.) probably needs to be mapped out and available to the DM so that your players aren't asking 'hmmm...where did these 15 Strahd zombies suddenly appear from when we locked ourselves in this tower room?'  Anyway...

It is doable. That is, it's an adventure one could run FAIRLY EASILY with MINIMAL MODIFICATION. Nothing nearly as extensive as what I'm doing with the Dragonlance modules, because Ravenloft IS a fairly straightforward adventure. It was not the advent of (or precursor to) the Adventure Path or "story driven" adventure design, with its railroads and plot-protected NPCs. Heck, you can't even blame box text on the Hickmans, as that was certainly showing up as early as 1980 (see C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan as Exhibit A). Ravenloft is not some sort of linear rail path requiring specific action from the PCs (besides destroying Strahd, of course). Nothing compels the PCs to deal with (lovely NPC) Ireena Kolyana in any particular fashion...or even keep her alive! The fact that she only has six hit points (as a 4th level fighter?) and no CON score (um...) means she's probably not long for the world anyway.

There is no way in hell I would ever rank Ravenloft "the second greatest adventure module of all time." I wouldn't even call it the second greatest adventure module written by the Hickmans!  But it's not's pretty great as a light-hearted one-off played for a spooky theme night. And considering it was written by the Hickmans in their early 20s (they weren't even 25! Just kids!), it is a remarkable testament to their abilities as game designers that they were able to craft something that touched so many people and launched an entire game line and setting.

Then again, it may be that people just love vampires. 
; )

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 3

All right, let's get this finished up...I've got other things to blog about: secret D&D languages, the uses of audible glammer, maybe even a run at "reviewing" Ravenloft (that was a pseudo-request). Buckle up, folks...this entry might be a looong one.
; )

When it comes to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, there are two inspiring sages that act as my guiding lights, two pole stars by which I steer my ship. They are Alexis Smolensk and Anthony Huso. There are other blogs that I read (and podcasters I listen to), but in the main, these two are the only external forces shaping my outlook on the game. If I had to name one more, Gary Gygax would, I suppose come in a distant third place. 

[does it seem strange to folks that Gygax isn't the brightest star in my AD&D firmament, despite being responsible for the game's existence? There is some precedent. I have it from strong authorities that Jesus is only the third-most important figure in shaping the Roman Catholic Church; the main individuals responsible for our religion (and, thus, all other Christian denominations descended from the western Church) are St. Paul (not even one of the Twelve!) and Thomas Aquinas]

Anyway, don't shake your head at me, Dear Reader; I have my reasons.

Longtime readers of my blog are surely well-acquainted with Alexis, I've mentioned the guy often enough. Huso, on the other hand, has a small enough presence on the internet (his web site has only been around since 2018) that while I'm certain I've mentioned him, he may have well fallen through the cracks of people's perceptions. He is an AD&D aficionado of the deepest stripe, and his blog deals at great length and fair eloquence with that specific rule set, the edition of D&D he's been running for his table since 2014 when he chucked his Pathfinder game for good. It is excellent reading.

However, that's not the reason I mention the man. In my last post on the subject of killing gods, I cited several published adventures of recent years that involved physical confrontations with gods, godlike beings, and pseudo-godlings, all of which were aimed at the low level adventuring party. I explained that I don't find these particularly reasonable, given the parameters of the D&D game as designed. My feeling is that D&D provides at least some guidelines (based in both instructional text and example adventure modules of the earliest origin) for how one ought to proceed with such scenarios and, baby, these ain't it. For me, it's a grating trend and, perhaps, even a disturbing one...there seems to be an aversion to high level D&D play while (at the same time) a longing for high stakes, epic adventure of the type that rightly belongs in the realm of high level characters.

Mr. Huso doesn't share this aversion (he's blogged his thoughts on high level campaign play...more than once) and has demonstrated how one might actually write a "god-killing adventure" with an absolutely exquisite book, a masterwork entitled Dream House of the Nether Prince. It is a lavish piece of art, as well as a fiendish, evocative adventure. It is, as far as I can determine, the single best gaming product I've purchased NEW for D&D since the reissue of the AD&D manuals a few years back. It may be the coolest pre-written adventure I've purchased since the 1980s. Certainly the best since Bruce Cordell's Return to White Plume Mountain (that was published in 1999), making it my favorite for at least the last 20 years.  

Yet I can't...well, I won' the thing. Because I haven't played it...I haven't experienced it. I can review a movie or a piece of music, but I can't give a true review of an adventure that I haven't run, because until I do run it, I can't say for certain if it's excellent or horrible or lost in translation from text to table. And there's just no way for me to run the thing at this point.

Huso's Dream House wasn't written for me...or (probably) for you, either. He wrote it for his own players, as a capstone adventure to finish seven years of AD&D play. It is a suitably epic dungeon, a mission to a massive fortress located in the Abyss, a refuge and "vacation palace" for Orcus, demon prince of the undead. The adversaries present in the adventure are truly staggering. The treasure to be looted is absolutely mind-blowing. The final confrontation might see PCs battling Orcus or Demogorgon or (perhaps) both. It is beautiful to behold. It is a pleasure to read (if, like me, you're "into demons"). It is suggested that no less than six characters of 14th level even attempt the adventure; Anthony's seven player group brought a party of ten, and many of them died, some in very permanent can read a summary of their venture on his blog.

It is an excellent example of what is possible with the D&D rules. A 135 page tour-de-force that puts H4: The Throne of Bloodstone (it's closest comparison) to shame. I really, really mean that. Dream House is a masterpiece created more-or-less by a single person, and it makes the entire Bloodstone line of TSR look paltry and hackish by comparison. The difference, however, is understandable when one considers Huso's book to be something lovingly created for his own group of players, not something churned out for the masses at a time when the company was just trying to stay afloat business-wise. I suspect a lot of people will balk at spending $50 (the price of its POD hardcover) for a niche product of a niche hobby, especially given its limited use in many (most?) campaigns.

Why limited? Because, despite a lot of excellent info on demons and a lot of new/unique monsters and treasures, the adventure is written for the type of adventuring group that most DMs simply don't have. There are no pre-generated characters included with the thing, and I can see why: because just handing someone a character sheet with a 15th level paladin or wizard won't make the player a savvy veteran of the kind needed to navigate this level of challenge. A group with years of experience working together in cooperation would find it a rough go of it...but then, they ARE tackling a unique demonic god in its lair. Such scenarios should be limited, niche, and incredibly difficult. 

Gygax was the first person to put encounters with gods into published adventures: the Elder Elemental (in G1 and G3), Blibdoolpoolp (in D2), and Lolth (in D3). There are two things that all these have in common:
  1. These encounters are all potential in nature; none of these encounters with godlings are mandated, and all may be avoided. 
  2. The adventures in which they are found are the pinnacle of what I call "hard core" Dungeons & Dragons. The novice ("N") series are clearly for beginning players. The intermediate ("I") series are fine for any group already versed in the game (i.e. players that know how to play and cooperate). The special ("S") series are random, rule breaking adventures, that provide enough weirdness to stymie experienced players or give novices a "puncher's chance." But the six modules that make up the G-D series are absolutely punishing adventures, any one of which will TPK a party that fails to operate at a high level of strategic play. 
And I find it fascinating how those godling encounters "ramp up" over the course of the series. In the G modules, the most a party might expect to encounter is an eye or tentacle that will drive a PC insane or drag them screaming to oblivion. In D2, a PC might actually encounter the goddess (on her own home turf) and might be able to treat with or bargain. In D3, the party has a chance to confront a goddess on their own plane, with the potential for actual combat and the possible destruction of her avatar. This is no naga masquerading as a god (as in N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God)...Lolth is the real deal

These scenarios work within the parameters and expectations of D&D play. A party of mid-level adventurers...and to me, 8th to 10th is still only (high) "mid-level"...should not be confronting creatures of godlike power. The encounters in G3 and D2 are more in line with "traps:" really rough traps that are best avoided.  Only in D3 (an adventure for characters of level 10-14) should a confrontation with a demon queen be possible, and only in the most limited of circumstances: outside her home plane, away from the bulk of her power base. Again, Lolth is not the point of the module; exploring the Vault and dealing with the threat of the Eilservs clan is. The goddess might even be a potential ally given the transgressions of Eclavdra and her ilk, though this is not an explicit suggestion of the module.

But again, it is in adventures like these that we see the power and majesty of the D&D game. In the first part of this series I wrote how, of all the sword & sorcery fantasy that influenced D&D, only Leiber and Moorcock display their protagonists in actual interaction with divinities. PCs allying themselves with Lolth, bargaining for leniency from Blibdoolpoolp, or being used as pawns by Orcus (in Huso's book) all exemplify scenes one reads in those S&S fantasies...and while a divinity being willing to treat with mortals speaks to the fallibility (and vulnerability) of the divinity in question, it is really only those characters with world-shaking power (like Elric) who have the capability to bring actual destruction to such entities.

And this is of particular importance to the default setting of Dungeons & Dragons, because under the terms of the game, these are no "false gods." These demon queens and princes are gods that are worshipped, that are followed by devout clerics, and to whom they may bestow spells. And yet they are not safe from destruction! Player characters thus have the power to alter the cosmology of the campaign  setting and impact the reality of the game world in drastic ways. What happens to the Drow clerics of Lolth if Lolth is destroyed on her home plane? Do they cease to be a threat altogether? Doubtful, but her death (if achieved) will surely change Drow culture at a fundamental level.

That's the opposite of de-protagonizing players. 

And that, perhaps, is what I find lacking about some of these other OSR offerings that involve encounters with deities, quasi- or otherwise. There's a certain sort of "enforced smallness" that comes along with placing PCs in situations in which they are absolutely, hopelessly outclassed by a power beyond mortal comprehension. It should be hard for the PCs to even encounter such a being. Barring a long and arduous journey through miles of hostile environment and unnumbered foes to the god's most sacred (and well-guarded) temple, nothing short of a complicated ritual/sacrifice should allow access to such a being on the Prime Material Plane. And as bodily travel to the outer planes is generally outside the reach of low-mid level characters, such encounters should be an extremely rare and wondrous thing...if possible at all.

Okay...perhaps one more post on the subject (to conclude) is needed.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Messing With NPCs

The god-killing series will continue, despite the crickets heard around my most recent post. While I was originally going to start writing Part 3 this morning, my "favorite" web site for pirated adventure modules is currently down (as happens from time-to-time), which means I'll have to dig my original hardcopies out of the closet in the office...a time-consuming task I just don't have the enthusiasm for at the moment. Have you read the Bloodstone modules? They are...not good. And I don't relish the re-read just for an excerpt or two.

[actually, it's not's the prospect of digging out five to six modules, including N2, B4, D1-2, and G1-3, in addition to H2 and H4. Maybe WG4 and D3. All of them are in a pantry, behind boxes of office supplies, book inventory, and crates of tax stuff and moving all that...and then putting it going to be a tall order. Plus, my wife will be on video calls in there most of the day, and I don't want to be a pain in her ass]

But it's Friday Funday (as mis ninos call it) so I might as well write something for the weekend.

The kids (my players) continue to delve deeper into the swamp. I have to say that writing (well, re-writing) and running Dragonlance puts me in a fey mood. Ideas keep popping into my head about how to mess with it. This morning, for instance, when the dogs woke me up at 4:30am (maybe that's part of my mood...) I had a "great" idea for re-skinning the prisoner NPCs in the DL adventures: I'll just use the pre-gen DL heroes.

Okay, okay...let's slow down a moment and lay this all out in a way for pleasant mental digestion.

See, in re-writing Dragons of Despair (well, the dungeon anyway), I've done away with the vast bulk of the DL "fluff" of the adventure series. There's no epic story, no Queen of Darkness on Earth, no capital-H Heroes with a Destiny-To-Fulfill, no Berem the Everman. And, of course, none of that other DL-specific stuff: draconians, taunting kender, steel coins, divine abandonment. I am NOT, after all, playing Dragonlance. I am playing Dungeons & Dragons. The DL adventures just happen to have both A) dungeons, and B) dragons and all I'm doing is repurposing them. Capisce?

One nice thing that BIG adventure modules tend to do (and DL1's Xak Tsaroth IS a "big" dungeon...even more so now that I'm stocking it with actual encounters) is the inclusion of the occasional NPC prisoner/hostage who are willing to join a party if freed. This is a classic D&D trope, and is a great way of adding "beef" (meat shields) to a party or replacing downed also telegraphs 'hey, these monsters will accept surrender and take prisoners...don't feel you need to fight to the death!' DL1's dungeon provides THREE such NPCs: a 3rd level kender thief named Hugon Barker and two 2nd level Que-Shu fighters named Sunstar and Raven-Eye.

[fun fact: as kids, my buddy Matt's long-time cleric was named "Sunstarr" (with two "r's"). His character was created looooong before DL1 was published. His PC was also male, not female]

But those guys are all lame...devoid of any explicit traits or personality. And I've still got half a dozen pre-written characters from Weiss and Hickman to play with (remember, Caramon and Raistlin have already joined the party as NPCs; Kitiara bugged out after the whole Forest Oracle debacle). So, I'm thinking of cutting the NPCs as written and instead substituting three nonhumans from Wenatchee: Tasslehoff the halfling, Flint the dwarf, and Tanis the half-elf. Of course, I'll have to skin them a bit to make 'em even more interesting, right?
  • "Flinty" (dwarf thief, 3rd level): elderly curmudgeon, looking for one last Big Score. Not particularly interested in dying (i.e. cowardly), but knows his adventuring days are coming to a close and would really like a comfortable retirement (i.e. will take foolhardy risks for chance at REAL treasure). Not interested in hypotheticals...must be something he can see and touch. Looks on Tanis and Hasslehoff as surrogate kids.
  • Hasslehoff Birchbark (halfling druid, 3rd level): cheerful and talkative, often past the point of usefulness (i.e. gets in trouble because of mouth). Enjoys going new places, seeing new things, meeting people. Has sticky fingers and "borrows" small items not nailed down (has bulging belt pouches). Would rather talk than fight. Considers Flint and Tanis family, and feels he must care for them and help them "lighten up."
  • Tanis Red-Beard (half-elf assassin, 3rd level): he's good at what he does, but what he does isn't very nice. Has a lot of emotional baggage about his past (i.e. doesn't like to talk about it), instead always trying to focus on the task at hand. Shrewd and practical. NOTE: my campaign seems to see a lot of half-elf assassins; perhaps that's a "thing" in this world. Tanis looks on Flint as a father-figure, Hassle as a younger brother.
All NPCs have 4,001 x.p.; ability scores are as per DL1 save that Hassle switches DEX and CHA scores. Equipment is mostly as per DL1 (without the magic weapons); Hassle uses a quarterstaff, not a "hoopak."

Duke VanUz first attempted to hire these three adventurers a couple weeks before making the acquaintance of the PCs. They refused his offer of patronage and instead attempted to find the Sunken City on their own. Unfortunately (for them) they did...and were promptly captured by hobgoblins. Both Tanis and Flinty have been able to escape, but Flinty was recaptured (is being held in The Larder, #65a) and Tanis is hiding near the falls (#67b), seeking for a way to re-equip himself and rescue his companions. Meanwhile, Hasslehoff is being held in the palace (#70g), where he provides amusement to Matabannik, the ogre-mage who is both City Lord and right-hand man of Onyx. The dragon has no use for the halfling's mindless prattle (she prefers the comforts of food, treasure, and luxury), but the ogre-mage has spent most of the last two centuries starved for company (hobgoblins are useless for intellectual entertainment and Onyx isn't much of a conversationalist)...the talkative druid is a welcome respite from the drudgery of scheming and plotting (not to mention drilling and managing the city's humanoid population).

[EDIT: decided to change Tasslehoff's first name to "Hasslehoff." I told you: I'm in a fey mood this morning]

Dirty, dirty half-elf
Reading over these, I'm finding myself kind of delighted. I think there was a part of me that figured I would never need or use such saccharine sweet goody-goody PCs as the Dragonlance crew in a "normal" D&D game, but they're actually pretty easy to skin as regular adventurers. I mean, they are regular adventurers, but they often (in the fiction of the novels) don't act like regular adventurers. Tasslehoff is a pretty useless thief, for example, Flint never comes off as "6th level fighter," Raistlin acts all tough with his silver dagger while never actually casting a fireball or lightning bolt, and then all the moralizing and pathos and melodrama that passes for conversation ("conversation" itself passing for "adventure"). Can't they just trudge through the wilderness in silence?

But I realize I'm being silly (and digressing)...the point is, I like these guys as potential NPC followers, and I like the various NPC bad guys I've created as well (got about six of those). The black dragon may actually be the most boring of the bunch, but I see dragons as kind of lazy creatures...they're so big and powerful that they're inclined to be slack and arrogant unless there's another one of their kind around. Onyx (haven't bothered to rename her) isn't the mayor over "sunken town:" she's the goddess, worshipped by the humanoid monsters both in the swamp (i.e. the lizard folk) and those living beneath its surface. She's like a cat...a gigantic, scaly, acid-breathing cat, lazily reclining on her hoard, expecting her people to feed her, taking long naps, and generally lording it over everyone from a prone position.

I got rid of the hatchling black dragons, just by the way...Onyx doesn't have a mate so why would there be hatchlings? And why would Onyx have left her brood in the surface swamp anyway (that's kind of a good way to lose the next generation...)? There's an otyugh there instead. Not sure the party's going to stumble into its grove, but they might, if they follow the guy's taking out the trash....

All right, now I'm just rambling. My apologies. I'll get something better up and posted in the next couple days. Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 2

Man, I've got a half-dozen Real Life Important things on my plate today and if I don't get this damn post started, I don't know that I ever will. SO, without further ado, let's get down to the deicide!

The first god I ever killed in D&D was Thor.

To be clear, I was DM'ing at the time, not playing, but I am far more responsible for Thor's death than any of my players. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I was absolutely responsible. This was circa age 10 or so, on the playground, which meant we were still only a couple years into D&D play; at the time we had not yet discovered there was separation between editions of the game, and I was running my game with a combination of B/X and the AD&D Monster Manual and (occasionally) the DMG. My buddy had just acquired a copy of Deities & Demigods (the post-Moorcock/Lovecraft version) and we were anxious to put it into play. Since one of my earliest PCs in the game had a rather high-level thief who had no problem whupping up on normal challenges, I figured Thor would be the perfect encounter to put the dude in his place.

Dead duck
Now, I can't remember the exact circumstances of the scenario (this was some 35 years ago) but I can remember the outcome: Jason managed to piss off Thor (probably after I had pissed off the PC), whereupon Thor used Mjolnr to hit the thief with a 100-die lightning bolt. The thief's ring of spell turning reflected the bolt, Thor failed his saving throw, and was utterly disintegrated by the thing. If I remember correctly, Sneakshadow looted the thunder god of his mystic hammer, but I am 100% certain he never wielded the weapon (he was a thief after all, and rather small in stature for a human). 

I can also recall, later, reading the ring of spell turning description in the DMG and its specific stipulation (unlike the Cook Expert set) that magic item powers could not be turned and thinking: "darn, I screwed that up!" However, at no point do I remember thinking to myself, "hmm, maybe I should not have sent a greater god to fight a player character."

Deities & Demigods isn't a Monster Manual, but it's written like has alphabetical entries for gods, each with a little illustration, a brief description, and a stat block. This is the exact same setup as any of the AD&D monster books. I'm sure I never even bothered to read the instructional text at the beginning of the book (explaining 'this isn't a Monster Manual') because I can remember reading all that for the first time (and loving it) after I purchased my own copy of DDG later in the form of Legends & Lore, sometime around age 11 (i.e. in 1985, before my 12th birthday). By that time, Jason had become a "Born Again" Christian and was no longer allowed to play D&D...though, perhaps, if his mother had been aware of his history with destroying pagan deities, she would have relented a bit.

For a kid to make such a mistake is pretty understandable...even older players can probably be forgiven for making lazy assumptions when confronted with a book with a similar format (and thus skipping over the pertinent parts of the introduction). The DDG was written the way it was to update the prior OD&D supplement Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes (Supplement IV) for the "Advanced" D&D format, and it is a decent emulation of the style in which Supplement IV was presented. So why did authors Rob Kuntz and Jim Ward provide god stat-lines when ambitious players were certain to treat them as challengeable monsters? The answer is in the Foreward to GDG&H:
This volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Haul" DM's. Perhaps now some of the 'giveaway' campaigns will look as foolish as they truly are. This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?
There it is: the book was meant to be a crack-down on what was deemed to be some of the "excesses" (as they saw it) of certain campaigns. By providing statistical representations for both literary heroes (Elric, Conan, Vainamoinen, etc.) AND the gods of various pantheons, D&D players would have a scale of comparison against which to measure their own characters and campaigns.

Which, I suppose, could be an admirable goal...if D&D wasn't a completely different animal.

The first
"monster manual"

D&D didn't really seek to emulate/model a particular setting (with an implicit scale) nor, really, a particular genre of fantasy. Elric's multi-verse spanning adventures are very different from Conan's down-and-dirty conflicts, and both pale in comparison the the physical might displayed by John Carter on the surface of Mars. D&D sought to provide rules for creating fantasy adventures - and it succeeded at that! - but it never meant to constrain or limit the players' imaginations. Telling players three years after the fact that they were "doing it wrong" was a ridiculous attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. Scale should have been baked in from the get-go if that had been the intention, instead of assuming similar minds and attitudes...and who's to say the attitude wasn't similar anyway? Both Gygax and Arneson had plenty of "wa-hoo" in their own campaigns.

But back to the discussion: regardless of what one thinks about the outrageousness of fighting...and potentially slaying...divine entities, it is absolutely clear that the D&D game provides explicit rules for doing just that! At least up through 3rd edition (the last edition for which I purchased a Deities & Demigods book), textual instruction has been provided that enable DMs to run gods as encounters against player characters. Certainly, each edition to do so (OD&D, AD&D, BECMI's "I" rules, 3E) have made the prospect more and more daunting, giving divine beings ever greater abilities...and yet, the game has never simply come out and said "nope, can't be done." The gods remain ever vulnerable to mere mortals.

[forcing a deity to make a saving throw at all...even if the chance of failure is only the 5% probability of rolling a "1" on a saying that the being is as fallible as any human. 'To err is...' and all that jazz]

And as said, the D&D game supports this type of play. It's own fiction (I admit to only having read Dragonlance and the Gygax-penned Greyhawk novels) encourages this type of play. And multiple adventure modules from D&D's "golden era" (pre-1983) provide examples of how such play might be handled.

In a reasonable fashion.

And I guess that's the part that has (recently) found my prickly hide to be chapping...well, one part anyway. The unreasonableness of the encounters being given. Or...perhaps...not even the unreasonableness of the scenarios, but the disconnect I see between the game and the...the...

Hmmm. It's not "style." Or "fiction." It's more of an attitude or outlook. An orientation. Folks want to play D&D in a particular way, a particular fashion. Okay, that's cool...that's fine. It's still D&D. But then they want to have these god-encounters that aren't least not in the manner of the game as designed.  

Hmm...I'm having a hard time expressing this. 

Let me try a different way. I've heard people say: "If my DM put a wight in a first level dungeon, I'd punch him in the face" (or words to that effect). Okay, great...I get your point, and it's a reasonable one given the parameters of the game as written. Low-level adventurers don't have the abilities to confront such a creature. Low-level adventurers don't have the abilities to confront a LOT of creatures.

SO...why would you put a god or godling in any sort of low level adventure?

Halls of the Blood King (levels 3-5)
Palace of Unquiet Repose (levels 3-5)
The God That Crawls (levels 1-2)
Operation Unfathomable (levels 1-?)

There are others...of course there are others, there are always others. These ones just spring immediately to mind, and I'm too lazy to go hunting up others. 

[that's another part of the hide chapping: I've lost track of how many low-level adventures see players encountering godlike beings. It's become such a regular choice for scenarios, it could be included in Moldvay's list of standard scenarios (page B51) between "Fulfilling a Quest" and "Escaping from Enemies." Call it "Confronting Godling Made Flesh" or something]

An adventure that pits a party of 4th level characters against "The Lord of All Vampires" is not, to my mind, a reasonable execution of the D&D system as intended, nor is an adventure that finds a party of 1st and 2nd level characters accidentally wandering into the lair of "Shaggath-Ka the Worm Sultan." It belies the dynamics and expectations implicit in the game's design. Yes, I'm sure that some (like the authors of these adventures listed) would beg to I wrote previously, this is all my (strong) opinion. So, I'd imagine some folks (those I haven't hopelessly offended) are wondering what I'd put forward as a reasonable adventure involving a godling?

Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

Q1 is not, of course, one's only tussle with Lolth, the demon queen of spiders...she first appears in Gygax's own D3: Vault of the Drow as a god made flesh, dwelling incarnate in the lowest level of her chosen people's greatest shrine (although why she's there is never explained). To be sure, Q1 is a flawed adventure, but I've found it to be a very fun adventure in play, and a rather solid example of possible "god fighting" in D&D. 

Note the high level: 10-14 is pretty darn high for AD&D. My very over-powered bard was something like 15th level (max levels for fighter/thief) when I tackled Q1, but the character's total x.p. was equivalent to a fighter of 11th or 12th level. 14th level spell-casters have close to 30 spells per day to play with (more, for high WIS clerics), and all such characters have a ton of resources, both magical and mundane, to draw upon. Attacking an arch-devil or demon prince (or queen) in its lair is a legitimate challenge for D&D characters that have otherwise grown too big for their britches.

Beefy monster
"Come on, JB, Sutherland's adventure is the height of're just being nostalgic here!" Not at all. Given sufficient time adventuring, PCs will acquire resources such that normal logistical problems no longer apply: the ability to create food and water. Bags of holding and portable holes. Magical mounts and constructs that can carry immense burdens, rarely (if ever) tire, and that can bypass obstacles by flying. Magical means of entry and egress - or escape! - including teleportation, passwall, word of recall. And, of course, the power to bring fellow party members back to life whenever it suits them. Some Dungeon Masters recoil at the thought of their campaigns getting to such a level, it no longer resembling a game of "scurrilous rogues" in running battles with lizard people while trying to hide a gemstone up their nostril. That's right: it doesn't. High level characters have graduated from such grubby affairs and require larger challenges to test their abilities.

Planar travel becomes an option at high levels, and rightly so...because other planes provide the opportunity for DMs to throw the greatest challenges at PCs. And I'm not just talking encounters with gods and godlings...on other planes, all bets are off with regard to what might be thrown at PCs. Different physics, different rules, screwing with spell effects, reducing or limiting magical abilities. Pocket dimensions and demi-planes provide all sorts of justifications for strange, non-book monsters and unique, fantastic treasures. Q1's problem (in my opinion) isn't one of steam-powered spider ships; rather, it's too many damn bugbears and coin piles...the adventure could be even weirder and stranger than it is (though the demonweb map itself is a rather beautiful thing). Talking about D&D's literary roots, Moorcock's Elric stories provide excellent examples of just how weird and messed up things get when you start skipping around the multiverse...and just how much trouble PCs can get into when their magic and magical items stop functioning the way they're accustomed to on the Prime Material plane.

But that's not low-level stuff. Elric is sometimes accompanied on his extraplanar adventures by low-level characters and (spoiler alert) things usually go very, very badly for them; insanity and death are both par for the course. Which is as it should be. Your high level party isn't going to get any positive results out of taking a small army of men-at-arms into the demonwebs, nor should they. Soldiers have their place in the D&D world, but planar invasions of a demigod's home plane ain't one of them. Such an scenario shouldn't be a place for any character with less than a million experience points. Literally.

Okay, that's enough for Part 2. Part 3 coming up!

[here's Part 1 and Part 1b for those who missed them]