Sunday, April 11, 2021

Revisiting Old Haunts

Sunday. Our last day of Easter vacation (kids are going back to school tomorrow) and I, for one, am a little sad for it to be coming to an end. It's been enjoyable for the whole family, despite not really doing much of anything...I think the kids really needed a break from the "grind" of clock-punching for school. All of us are a little more slack these days...the wife even said she's not looking forward to her office reopening (she's been working from home since last February), and I'd imagine there are a lot of folks who feel the same after adapting to the amorphous Covid-induced limbo of "shelter-in-place."

One thing we didn't get to, though, was much gaming. Sad but true...the boy had a full schedule of sports this week (soccer Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; baseball on Wednesday; and then both a baseball game AND a soccer game yesterday).  Today he's sleeping in...giving those poor legs a rest...but the last couple weeks of the soccer season look to be equally as busy as it continues to overlap with the Little League (and my daughter's first season of LL is slated to start in a week as well). Seems he may have finally been "called up" to a higher tier in soccer (that's the reason for the extra practices)...just as he was getting ready to chuck the thing in frustration. For me, I'm just happy I can watch my kids play in sunny weather. Yesterday was a beaut of a day (and the boy went 3 for 4 with two runs and an RBI as the leadoff hitter...what a stud!).

D&D. I think we'll be playing some D&D today. Need to exercise the "mind muscles," too.

However, while I have the minute to type, I wanted to blog a few words on my superhero side project. Even though I haven't been gaming this week, I have been designing like a bit of a madman. Even done a bit of writing, though most of that's going to need changes. Thing is, I've been tweaking my whole concept, and while I still like the idea of a game focused on the "superteam" I find I need something altogether different for play-testing. Because the fact is, I don't HAVE a "team" of players to draw upon.

But it's not just that. This week, I've found myself going back to an old well that I abandoned far too soon. Specifically I've been revisiting my old DMI (Deal Me In) game system and Legendary Might (my supers version of DMI). Last tinkered with circa 2015, there were a lot of reasons I set the thing aside:
  • a lack of "robustness" in game play and character generation
  • lack of system for incorporating human elements to contrast with super slugfests
  • need for a modified card play mechanic to allow character effectiveness without "breaking the bank"
  • need for a more abstract combat system, incorporating power usage and comics/film "violence"
  • need for procedural systems that create more than just fight scenes
A lot of these things are interrelated (duh) and while I had ideas for them, they also represented a lot of work (brain sweat) that I just couldn't put together back in 2015, mainly because I was dealing with the upended life and culture shock of moving to Paraguay (not to mention a new baby). Game design in general (for yours truly) was being "backburnered" in those days, and it's not all that surprising I let the thing get all dusty and forgotten on Ye Old Laptop's hard drive.

Stuff happens.

Welp, I've cracked it out of storage and started hammering away again. And with the steady diet of superhero fare we've been ingesting this week (old X-Men films, the Falcon/Winter Soldier series, the old Fantastic Four movies, Guardians of the Galaxy, the entire two seasons of Agent Carter)...well, it's no wonder really. I've got heroes on the brain.

And, astounding as it might seem, it feels like I'm making actual progress (at least, from a design perspective). Much as I was enjoying my MSH-HU mashup of design, the system was feeling far too wargamey for the genre...and the more I wrote, the more I found myself filing off...or amputating altogether...systems that were too specific, and not abstract-y enough.

Because...well, look. When you try to model comics with reality-based specificity (say, something like GURPS, or Champions, or DC Heroes), you find yourself running into all sorts of problems because neither comic books, nor films, give a rip about emulating "reality" UNLESS it is in service of storytelling. How fast is the Flash? As fast as he needs to be. How strong is the Hulk? As strong as is necessary. "Reality" only matters when it makes a decent plot point (like Flash vaporizing himself by pushing past the lightspeed barrier). The laws of physics have never applied to Superman's abilities...only the laws of a "good story."

Yet we know that not all superhuman abilities are created equally. Spider-Man and Luke Cage are plenty strong, but they can't do what Thor or the Hulk can do. Many comic book characters have an agility the equivalent of an "Olympic gymnast;" but even in gymnastics, some Olympians are better than others on a given day (that's why they give out medals). There are super soldiers and there are super soldiers but there's only one Captain America, and it's not really about the shield and costume. 

Going psychotic...as predicted.
Trying to model these things with specificity in a game is a fool's errand. Which is why games like Jeff Grubb's original MSH and Simon Washbourne's Supers! do such a great job: they embrace the abstraction inherent in the genre. Of the two, I think Grubb has the better design, but it still falls down in three areas for me:
  • too much randomness/lack of coherence in character generation
  • too much procedural fiat rather than direction in adventure design
  • too much "wargame" inherent in the game's logistics (in some ways more "board game" than RPG)
[although the last is somewhat corrected in the Advanced MSH system (doing away with the "area" system) it ends up falling prey to the too much specificity pitfall inherent in other games of the genre]

And it's still a pretty darn good game...probably the best for its genre of any I've read/played. At least, so far as system design is concerned. Which, of course, is why I was looking at a streamlined version of MSH for my own system as recently as a couple weeks back.  It just does a lot of things right.

But Legendary Might, especially in its current incarnation, has (I believe) great potential. And its design is all mine, for a change...not drawing from (or knocking off) some other designer's hard work. That has immense appeal to me, a dude who's made most of his money piggy-backing off concepts pioneered 40+ years ago. For that reason alone, I'd like to make the thing work. No, I'm not the first person to use playing cards as a randomizer, nor am I the first to use cards in conjunction with narrative structure...ain't saying that. But the Deal Me In system is still mine, and the way I'm using it NOW in this game...well, it's kind of exciting. 

I kind of want to play-test it. Sooner rather than later. Maybe today, instead of D&D. Maybe.

Happy Sunday to you all. Hope everyone has a good week going forward. Thanks for taking the time to read!
: )

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

X-Men, X-Fan

Mmm...coffee.

Sunday night, the family watched the first (year 2000) X-Men film. I'd been wanting to do this for the last week or so, figuring it was time to introduce the kids to the whole concept of the Marvel "mutant." They, of course, had been resistant, preferring to watch Agent Carter or re-screenings of the various Avengers films, but Sunday I finally got my way. Of course, they ended up digging it...mutants are fun, after all.

For me, I was reminded of all the reasons I dislike this particular film franchise. I haven't blogged about it much (at least, not that I remember...and I'm too lazy to go searching through my back posts at the moment), so guess what? Here it comes:

First, my relationship to the films: I've seen the original two movies multiple times. I didn't LIKE the first one, but I enjoyed it (for reasons I'll describe below), and there were parts of it that definitely begged for revisiting from Yours Truly. The second film I found to be better done and more enjoyable (probably due to cutting of clunky exposition necessary in a first film), and is probably my favorite of the franchise. The third film I found pretty bad/dumb: I've only seen it once. The fourth (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) used a story arc retcon that I hated in the comics, but was still "okay" right up till the end when it turned pretty detestable...at that point I vowed never to see another X-Man movie in the theaters.

However, I broke this promise when I went to see the next film X-Men First Class with my wife (who is a fan of the X-Men since she was a kid).  I found the premise to be interesting but the show wasn't great...mostly bland and un-memorable. This one killed the X-Men for my wife and I've never been to another theater showing of the film. We watched The Wolverine (the next installment) on cable TV, and it was so terrible I swore off the franchise all together. 

I skipped Days of Future Past. I watched Deadpool (free on cable) because so many people told me I had to see it, that it was so good at lampooning the genre, that it was so funny and irreverent and better than the last few movies. I thought it sucked. The last 20th Century Fox mutant film I watched was a small part of Apocalypse, on TV, while drunk, when the family was out of town and I was hanging with my brother and he wanted to watch it. I dozed off during the movie, finding it both badly done and boring.

For me, the franchise got very old, very fast. It was so much a "one-trick pony" that it was simply disappointing on a fundamental level...far more so than the MCU. Just as the mutant-themed comics turned me off over time by shifting focus to their most popular character (Wolverine) the films badly stumbled by A) over-milking the mutant prejudice theme, and B) over-focusing on Wolverine and all his issues...when for me, the joy, the beauty of the X-Men comics was never found in these things. 

See, I was an X-Men fan back in the day...and from a young age. While my elementary school days was a more eclectic collection of comics, in middle school (extremely formative years for Yours Truly) and early high school it was all mutants, all day. X-Men, X-Force, Excalibur, New Mutants...these were the comics my friends and I collected. These were the comics we had to pick up, that we pooled our money to buy, that we swapped and shared. We played a LOT of Marvel Superheroes RPG in those days, and much of our gaming was informed by the stuff we were reading in X-Men comics...despite the fact that there wasn't a single mutant character in our campaign (that I can recall).

[our campaign world didn't contain any Marvel properties at all...it was our own version of "Earth"...and the game being what it is (we were using the Ultimate Powers Book, of course) there were too many interesting character choices to have simple "genetic mutants" infesting our game]

I quit reading X-Men sometime around the early '90s, before I graduated from high school (class of '92) and maybe even before that (I moved on to Silver Surfer about a year before going on a semi-permanent hiatus from comic books). I remember being bemused...and then disgusted...about the Wolverine solo series. Wolverine was a cool character...one of my favorites even...but enough to hold his own series? Doing what? Stabbing folks? He was a bit character with a fairly specialized skill set (as were all the characters in those days)...I had issues where all he did was shovel hay with a cowboy hat and drink beer with Kurt; he never even ranked "team leader" for most of the run! Anyway, it was about that time I stopped buying single issue comics, so it appears I wasn't the "target demographic" the publisher was aiming for.

I realize now, that my experience with X-Men more-or-less coincided with the Chris Claremont run (1975-1991) on the series. 16 years on one title provides a lot of coherence of vision, not to mention a whole lot of story lines, most of which have been completely ignored by the film franchise...despite being the things that made the series "beloved" to fans that grew up with those comics....

I know, I know. "Cry me a river, JB. Wah-wah-whine." Once again I'm bitching and moaning about 'nostalgia' and ignoring the fact that things change. Uh-huh, yep, sure: things do change; I get that. When I started this blog, I didn't even have kids...now my oldest is 10 years old and playing D&D. I am well aware that I am prone to being mired in nostalgia, lost in the past. I've seen Cobra Kai (great series, by the way)...the irony inherent in its protagonists is not lost on me. But listen folks: what are these film studios trading in, if not the nostalgia of an aging fan base? Why not create new and original story lines, or new and original characters? Changing characterizations of existing characters (Cyclops and Storm especially) or changing storylines to fit characters that weren't in the original storyline (Magneto's "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" predates the involvement of most of the X-Men that appear in the first film) doesn't seem to be the way to go when pandering to a fan base.

Though perhaps the filmmakers felt people would be grateful enough just to see their comics on the big screen? Not a terrible hypothesis...it originally worked for this fan (until it stopped working).

*sigh*

Monday night, the family watched X2: X-Men United and, as I wrote, I enjoyed it more than the original. It wasn't that it was more like the comics of my youth; instead, it was a matter of already understanding the filmmaker's vision and so, rather than being put off by disappointed expectations, I could simply relax and enjoy what the product was: Hugh Jackman hogging the spotlight and stabbing people. Teen romances that never were in the comics. Magneto and Mystique featuring prominently. Cyclops and Storm relegated to weaksauce bit parts (with less meaningful screen time than the cameos of minor characters). The bad juju about the evils of bigotry. Etc.

Ah, well...my children liked both movies (they preferred the second of the two) and there are far worse "changes" in the world. The Seattle Sounders' uniform this season, for example: purple and orange?! What in the everloving name of F is that all about?! Holy blankshow, Batman! 

[and, for the record, I would welcome changes in some areas. The season's only just started and the Mariners are already under .500 for, like, the 25th straight year. Crapola]

*ahem* Anyhoo. I suppose that's about all I have to say on the subject (for the moment) except that, as I chip away at my latest attempt at superhero RPG design, these movies are indeed on my mind and in my memory...especially as I look for something that illustrates the genre as presented in cinema. That's really the key thing (for me) to remember: it's not about how "disappointing" a film may be as an homage to the comic book, it's how well it works as a serial story in and of itself. Because in the end (assuming this game ever gets written), it's really not about emulating the intellectual property of Marvel (or anyone else), but about helping the GM/participants create their own "super world," just as my friends and I did in the past. And as we used X-Men comics as an inspiration, I would fully expect younger folks to use the movies in the same fashion.

Times change.

As one last aside, I have to say I think it's especially interesting that Disney has managed to recover the X-Men rights, and am extremely curious to see how/if they will incorporate mutants back into the MCU. If it were up to me, I would reboot the whole thing, without regard to the original franchise films. Treat all that stuff in the same way as Claremont treated X-Men prior to his takeover in the 70s (i.e. fairly unnecessary). We've seen plenty of example reboots in film (the many Batman franchises, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc.) so why should be any compulsion to tread the same sorry-ass missteps made by 20th Century Fox?

But of course they will. The X-Men movies made a ton of money and the film industry as a business has shown itself to be both unimaginative and ever-chasing of past success (*double sigh*). 

All right, that's about enough for a Wednesday. 

Any team that FEATURES Wolverine
(the ultimate non-team player)
ain't no "team." Sorry filmmakers.

OH, WAIT: I almost forgot that today marks the 20th wedding anniversary of my wife and I. I am a very blessed and fortunate man to have such a special person share her life with me. Without her love, it is quite possible I'd be even more curmudgeonly and ranty than I am. Thank goodness she's strong enough to hang in there!

Okay, that really is enough.
: )

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Happy Easter!

The kids will be on Easter vacation (what the secular types calls "spring break") for the next week, so I will probably be too busy to write much. On the other hand, Lent is over and so I might just go back on the caffeine...which would result in folks seeing the occasional early morning missive from Yours Truly.

Anyway, have a good one. Blessings on your families and prayers for a springtime renewal of hope and peace. God and love be with you all!

[now I've got to go buy a ham...]

Yes, back on the red
meat, too.


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Thinking Out Loud

Another Thursday, another D&D session on the horizon. The kids are anxious to get back to their characters, lost in the dark though they are.  Little do they know they're about to run into the mutants ("orcs") that make their home in the tunnels the party are traversing.

But that's all for this afternoon. Right now, I'm thinking about game design. My son is writing his own RPG at the moment (a Star Wars game) that he...amusingly...calls "D&D 5" (all my kids' game designs seem to be "D&D" with an added version number), and while it would mostly seem to be emulating the old D20 Star Wars system, I am pleased with his work on the project (and also that he's drummed up some enthusiasm for it with kids at his school) 

But that's a digression. I mean, I am thinking about Diego's design (at least as much as I'm thinking of the RBI he got in last night's baseball game...man, it's good to have sports back!), but mainly I'm focused on the superhero thing I'm putting together, my semi-knockoff of MSH (should I call it MSH Dos? Maybe as a working title) and how I can do it different. That is, different from other RPG systems of the genre. 

NOT, by the way, because I want to "stand out from the crowd." Fact is, my stuff is so low budget that any grandiose plans for publication are far more likely to fail than the newest version of...well, of whatever's the "established brand of the day" (probably M&M4?). No, I want it to be different...specifically, different in focus...because so many of these games fail to work

At least, they fail for me. I'm not as pig-headed stubborn as some GMs when it comes to the hero thing. I was never a HUGE comic book collector, even as a kid (maybe a couple dozen issues - not titles! - PER YEAR, at my height). I liked to read comics (usually those of my collector friends), but I just didn't have the money to spend on comics, nor the easy access to a solid comic book shop; consequently, I don't have the depth and breadth of comic book knowledge that some GMs possess. In my experience, the folks who can run a system like Heroes Unlimited or DC Heroes or Mutants & Masterminds over the long term is a person who has been steeped in hundreds upon hundreds of superhero comics.

That's not me. And it's not really my kids, either (for whom this game would be written) or even a LOT of folks these days who might be fans of the super genre. They read a couple titles, perhaps, but their main exposure to the genre is through the screen medium: film and television (and maybe video games). That's a tough thing to emulate in an RPG, and I don't really want to try.

What I want to try is bringing the screen medium's sensibility (with regard to genre) to the experiential nature of the RPG medium.  Can that be done?

My question of the day.

Clearly, the drive behind the supers thang is different from my usual brand of Dungeons & Dragons; in D&D characters have impetus be proactive. Go out and get that treasure! Level up! Become powerful! Tackle bigger challenges! The superhero genre isn't that at all, and approaching the genre with a "D&D mindset" will quickly turn the PCs into something a far cry from "heroism" (celebrity attention seekers at best; super powered villains at worst).

Leaving aside origin stories and one-off adventures (we're interested in long-term campaign play hereabouts), what exactly is it that motivates the heroic persona to become a costumed adventurer? What gets them out of bed every evening, donning cape and cowl to brave the terror of the night? Just spitballing, I can come up with a few different categories of hero fiction:
  • The Sad Sack: this is the dude who doesn't have a choice in the matter, whether due to psychological or actual pressure. I'd put both Spider-Man ("if I shirk my responsibility, people die") and the Hulk (constantly hunted by the U.S. military) in this category. These are mostly solo adventurers; they often bemoan the fact that they are super-powered at all, and constantly struggle to achieve a normal life. Whether or not they ever achieve that happy ending they want varies based on the popularity of the character (whether or not their series is going to get cancelled). 
  • The Fanatic: this one is pretty close to the Sad Sack but they're driven to become vigilantes because they have an issue with the normal criminal justice system. Lots of these: Batman, Daredevil, Green Arrow, Punisher. These guys (they're mostly guys) have serious trust issues (duh) which leads them to working solo, as much as their understanding that they are criminals themselves and really taking action that's both unnecessary and extralegal. 
Neither of these types of story are good models to emulate in the RPG medium in part because they're not very conducive to group play (due to their focus on a single, spotlight character). Oh, you could have the occasional "dynamic duo:" Cloak & Dagger fit as a Sad Sack couple, and I'd throw Misty Knight & Colleen Wing (during their Daughters of the Dragon title) as part of the Fanatic group. But more than that, I dislike the motivations presented in these two tropes: in both cases, the characters are driven by negativity. That can make for a good, fun series to read (or watch) but it's not a great one to get players up and moving.

So what else do we have?
  • Defenders of Earth: this one works for folks from the Justice League to Doctor Strange. The hero(es) are tasked with the job of handling extraterrestrial (and extradimensional) threats that Earth, being what it is, simply isn't capable of handling itself. Some might complain these are pretty "reactive" stories (and they are), rather than proactive, but when we tune into a Green Lantern comic (for example) we're expecting something to happen. We figure that MOST (not all!) of the "downtime stuff" will be ignored in favor of the Big Conflict that the comic (or show) will showcase. The stories we are viewing are only the "interesting events" that occur in the life(s) of the character(s). They can dip into a bit of the resignation thing, however (if we don't save the Earth, no one else will). A smaller version of this might be Black Panther ("Defender of Wakanda") or Sunfire ("Defender of Japan").
  • Powered Task Force: the Avengers might be "Earth's mightiest heroes" but they're generally tasked with Earthly missions: taking down super bad guys and terrorist organizations. While the Avengers films include bouts with the occasional intergalactic threat, it is made clear that they spend a lot of time on active duty acting as a kind of extra-governmental global law enforcement. Motivation is some form of "duty" - they're pseudo-military after all - with a heaping helping of "for my teammates" (fellow soldier). This category can also apply to strictly national teams (The West Coast Avengers, X-Caliber, etc.).
  • School for the Gifted: this covers everything from the X-Men to the Teen Titans to Sky High to the Umbrella Academy, all stories about youngsters learning about their powers (as a group) and finding their way in the world (as a team) while developing into adulthood. Motivation is the usual teen peer pressure, wanting to look good / not stupid thing, as well as pleasing parents (probably), and possibly school pride. 
  • Super Families: here we have your Fantastic Four and (for the younger generation) The Incredibles, the latter of which is interesting because it deals with the legacy of the parents and their mistakes. Generally, though, I'd prefer to stay away from a set-up that pits PCs in a parent-child dynamic, at least one involving BOTH parents (too much authority); single parent might be okay (Batman feels okay with both Robin and Batgirl in the mix). Siblings are better: the FF, Power Pack, or the Shazam! family being good examples. Motivation is, of course, family (also sibling rivalries), which makes even downtime activity interesting between monster-of-the-week activities.
  • Superheroes for Hire: the mercenary route isn't a great one for the supers genre because "making money" and "heroism" don't really go hand-in-hand. That being said, for a more light-hearted (i.e. humorous) series (like Damage Control, Ghostbusters, or the original Heroes for Hire), I think it might work. Luke Cage and Iron Fist are a pretty good example: despite doing hero work for pay, it's not like they ever get rich...too many widows and orphans can't afford to pay. And anyway Fist IS rich (amusingly) but simply doesn't care about money. In the end, the motivation is still adventure (and buddy/friendship) with the "professional" title being a justification for hanging out and socking people.
Looking over these categories, I think the ones that would work best for the RPG medium are the Task Force or the School, both of which could include Family dynamics under their umbrella (both military units and school peers being something like "second families," right?). Both these categories of "super" series provide a number of features:
  • Provides a reason for multiple player characters of different types to participate.
  • Provides group dynamics that function outside of adventures.
  • Provides justifications for adventures ("missions" and "exams," respectively).
  • Provides reasons for new characters to arrive (new hires, transfer students, etc.)...it's hard bringing a new sibling into a super family!
  • Provides a motivation for hero participation (duty/job or responsibility/grades).
  • Gives leeway for NPC dynamics OUTSIDE the team (soldiers and students both have non-powered family members, friends, neighbors, etc.). Such NPCs may be privy to the characters' job/school or may be completely in the dark about what they do.
  • For characters whose identities are secret, they don't have to worry about supporting themselves as "full-time heroes" (they're paid a stipend or receive a "scholarship" to their fancy school).
  • Players/characters can leave at any time without disrupting the campaign.
Fortunately, in my current design I already stumbled on a way to scale the game to "younger" heroes...I was thinking of the New Mutants at the time and how the system might develop teenagers and their powers. However, the main issue I have with a school is that it's a little tougher to work with the non-powered kid (the inventor or special forces-type hero)...at least, not in a campaign (mostly) devoid of humor, and I have not been known for running "funny" campaigns. 

[not in the conventional comedic sense; cackling at my players' expense doesn't count]

Still, the rules should work for both, and SOMEone might want to run the game with a bit more ridiculousness than myself; look at the popularity of Teeny Titans! Anyway...

Okay, that's enough musing. I've got a host of errands to run before today's D&D game. Totally welcome any thoughts, critiques, suggestions, and whatnot in the comments section...your input in my brainstorm is greatly appreciated!
: )

Typical paramilitary task force 
with extra-national jurisdiction.


Monday, March 29, 2021

A "Heroic" Interlude

Folks who read through my back posts containing the "review" tag will find very few as relates to RPGs or gaming in general; instead, most of these are reviews for various films and television shows I've watched, most (all?) of which could be called part of the "geek" genre (science fiction, superhero, fantasy, etc.). It's been a while since I've written one of these reviews, but it doesn't mean I've stopped watching this kind of thing...just means I've stopped blogging about it.

But the fact is I've probably watched more "geek media" since the pandemic started. Not necessarily because we've been shut in (that's part of it, though) but because my kids are older now so some of the shows we previously skipped with them have been rewatched. And (often) rewatched multiple times.

The last month or so, that's been Marvel stuff found on Disney Plus. We streamed the Wanda-Vision series and now we're watching the weekly installments of Falcon-Winter Soldier as well as the previously cancelled Agent Carter (which none of us saw at the time it was being made. Too bad...it's excellent.). Along with the old Chris Reed Superman and Avengers films (including Black Panther, Doc Strange, Iron Man, etc.), and the multiple viewings of DC's Wonder Woman films, I've been steeped up to my eyeballs in the cinematic superhero genre. 

[the family also enjoys the old Adam West Batman TV show on occasion...still a hundred or so episodes yet to be streamed!]

I have not seen the most recent re-edit of Justice League, so I can't comment, but my taste in superheroes probably does run along a more "Disney-fied" vein. Heck, I enjoyed WW84 quite a bit...for me, it was reminiscent of the Wonder Woman I grew up with (in TV, cartoon, and comics)...campy and fun. My kids liked it a lot less than the first film (because they love the WWI stuff), but I just can't get behind a WW with a sword and shield, getting all stabby like a Greek hoplite or something. Give me more magic lasso any day of the week. 

*ahem* But that's DC stuff, where the power levels scale way off the chart of plausible (remember when Superman reversed time in that first movie?!) and I'm still (mostly) a "make mine Marvel" kind of guy. 

And, man o man, do I love love LOVE the Captain America stuff. The Falcon-Winter Soldier is right in my sweet spot for the genre. As far as "lore" goes, Cap has some of the best, and Falcon, Bucky, Zemo, U.S. Agent (!! Shout out to Wyatt Russell who is, like the perfect casting choice! Can't wait for him to turn psychotic!) just really gets me cranked. It's just such a cohesive bunch of comic book gobbledy-gook with plenty of Marvel soap opera mixed in to this idealistic concept set against the shady backdrop that is the military-industrial complex. 

*sigh* I could gush on-and-on about all these characters (and Carter, too! She's part of the whole Cap stuff), but I will spare my gentle readers. However, I will say that all this "hero stuff" has inspired me to once again look at the idea of running a superhero game (see Trey? You're not the only one!) and Lo And Behold the system I've been looking at most recently is NOT the B/X-based system sitting on my design board but (rather) the old Marvel Super Heroes RPG from TSR...a game I "gave up on" some decades back. I'm tinkering with it at the moment, especially with its universal FEAT mechanic, finding ways I could scale it down AND up at the same time.

[hmmm...that last bit probably makes sense to no one but me]

Unfortunately, as usual, I'm a bit pressed for time so all explanations (if any...sheesh I'm bad about this stuff) will have to come out in a future post.  What I do have time to say, at the moment, is the following:
  • I think (I think) that, for me, the super hero comic book as a source of "lore" and as a genre may be a dead one. I just don't care very much about "the ongoing story" because most of it is just...eh. Let's just leave it at "I don't care" but ESPECIALLY I don't care about all the new "hero teams" that have been created over the last 20 years (mixing various heroes and villains like a Wild West version of NFL free agency with no salary cap). Just. Don't. Care.
  • I think the cinematic MCU is fairly coherent and is a good model to try emulating. Trey, over at Sorcerer's Skull, started doing an analysis of cinematic supers (how they differ from their comic counterparts) and I think that's a pretty good place to start.
  • Some may detest the light-heartedness and camp that creeps into these films, but I enjoy much of it, not least because it's too hard to take the genre uber-serious. While I appreciate the new DC films since (and including) Nolan's Batman trilogy, there is something I find very pretentious about using grim-dark to tell stories about characters in tights and/or hot pants with silly code names. I like that the actors take the material seriously, but the writers and directors (i.e. the filmmakers) needn't do so. Damn. Have some fun with it! 
And these three bullet-points I think are my new jumping off place for my own private Super-verse. A core "bible" of titles that doesn't play mix-and-match hell for "innovation." A downplaying of four-color costumed shenanigans with lower power levels (though still powered). And a willingness to not take the thing too serious, to allowing humor and the occasional eye-wink to show up.

The supers genre doesn't (generally) make for great "art," but it can still be fun, escapist fantasy. The same could be said about RPGs.  But I have to say that the more I consider the genre, the more differences I find from the D&D genre, and the more I feel I want to escape from systems that build on D&D's design tropes. Jeff Grubb's MSH was a far cry from the opus of Gygax and Arneson, despite some similarities (ability scores, power classes). I kind of want to go back to that well...I think there's still water there. 

All right. Later, gators.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Lost in the Dark


Ugh.

So it would seem that The Forest Oracle adventure still has few things to teach me...mainly that the thing needs even more work than I previously assumed. Last night the party entered the tunnel pass known as the Horns of the Dragon, an old dwarf mine that also doubled as a quick road through the rocky hills. Shenanigans ensued as the party figured out the best way to lead/drive their horses and mules into the subterranean caverns, but it all was worked out (it helped that Sonia the Magic-User had a secondary skill of animal husbandry).

Because the box text in this section of the adventure is small, I read/paraphrased it in order to provide the players with some description of the environment. As we came upon the first branch off the main tunnel, I read:
About 5,500 feet into the tunnel another tunnel leads sharply off to the south...
Wait. What?

5,500 feet converts (in D&D terms) to 550" in the underground. The slowest party member has a movement of 9" per ten minute turn, meaning it would have taken roughly 61 turns to cover that distance, a bit more than 10 hours. The party had only brought ten torches with them: enough for ten hours.

But at the time I was running the game I wasn't thinking hard about this...or doing these calculations...because I was already juggling a party feud (one player wanted to leave the party to explore the side passage while the other was adamant they stick with the main trail). In the end, the party ended up splitting, with both groups plunging their separate ways into darkness. I 'hand-waved' the issue, figuring I'd do the math later. Besides, it was always possible that Kitiara and Raistlin had stolen the halflings' lantern back at the Wildwood Inn (plus their four flasks of oil...).

More shenanigans ensued, mainly with players continuing to bicker at every crossroads reached, until the more "adventurous" PC was finally killed by fire beetles while exploring a side avenue. As it was time to check on my soup (and he had to make a new PC) we called the evening's session.

The problem is...and to be clear, I am totally blaming the author and editorial staff at the old TSR...the problem is the map of the tunnels has no recorded scale AND is drawn on hex map in a winding fashion. Caverns are given dimensions in their description ("roughly 1500' x 1500' and 20' high," for example) but, being natural caverns (or dug-out mining operations), none are regularly shaped. Trying to calculate the scale by working backwards from the description is still an "eyeballing" procedure. 

What I ended up doing (this morning) was assigning a figure of 500' per hex, as this seems to match the dimensions of the most regular caverns (per their descriptions), even though it does NOT match the narrative text boxes for the tunnels themselves (if it did, that first side tunnel would have been 6,500' from the entrance, not 5,500). This makes the entire length of the main tunnel, from entrance to exit, roughly 32,000 feet...about 6 miles. Which makes sense when compared to the main wilderness map, because six miles is the distance given between the entry and exit of the pass (the wilderness map DOES have a scale...two miles per hex).

But while the party can make 20 miles per day in the outdoors (about one hex per hour), there's no way for them to navigate at that kind of speed though the old tunnels. Littered with debris from numerous cave-ins, fallen timbers, and old mining equipment, a journey of six miles (at their speed) will take about 59 hours. Assuming 10 hours of marching per day, that's still six days underground, even assuming zero detours into side passages.

Ten torches and four flasks of oil aren't going to cut it. 

Now, if they'd actually beaten the beetles and made off with their luminescent glands, that would be something (of course, if the half-elf cleric had lived through the encounter, they'd also have his daily allotment of light spells at about an hour a pop). As it stands, they're not quite hopelessly lost in the dark, but nearly so. The party did acquire a +1 broadsword from the bandits, and that will shed light in a 20' radius when drawn from its scabbard, but we'll have to see if they remember that (Kitiara is carrying the sword, but she has her hands full with spear and shield at the moment). 

Anyway, it's just as well that we stopped the adventure where we did last night. Turns out, the party was walking for about 25 hours straight.  *sigh*

This is my mistake...I was so busy worried about un-stupid-izing the encounters in the module that I didn't pay close enough attention to the actual logistics. I will endeavor to do better going forward.

Diego's new character, by the way, is a dwarven thief. Here's hoping he bought a lot of torches.

This is how I picture Thisvynn
the NPC dwarf of N2...kee-rayzy.


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Constraint

Apologies (as usual) for the lack of posting. Had taxes to do last week, then had a kid come down with a cold which meant both kids were stuck at home until we could get COVID tested (good news: we're all fine). Then we had three soccer games over the weekend, one of which was in Tumwater (just south of Olympia), and so, yeah...I've been busy.

I've got a blog post in the hopper (er...on the draft board) that I'll hopefully get around to soon, but I wanted to "touch base" with folks quickly while I have a moment. Some readers might be wondering how the AD&D game is going. "Good" is the short answer. We are playing The Forest Oracle (modified) and so far things are going well. The party (two PCs and their henchman "Big Jim") have joined forces with three mercenaries named Kitiara, Caramon, and Raistlin who would be easily recognizable to long-time fans of the Dragonlance books. Their addition, for me, has been exceptionally amusing (though my players have no idea), because I simply play their personalities as they appear in the books...with a couple changes:
  • Kitiara is 27 years old, and 3rd level. Not an officer in the Dragon Army (of course). Wears studded leather armor, carries normal (non-magical) weapons. Same ability scores as the adventure modules.
  • Caramon is 19 years old, and 2nd level. All equipment as per DL5, save that he has only normal (non-magical) weapons.
  • Raistlin is 19 year old, and a 2nd level fighter. No, not a mage. He has the same ability scores as in DL5, except with a +1 to STR and +3 to CON (so 11 and 13, respectively...body/spirit never usurped by Fistandantilus). Was wearing scale and wielding two hand axes and a scavenged light crossbow. Currently dressed in chain armor (taken from a dead bandit).
Young Kit (from DL5);
still Lawful Evil.
Anyway, no deaths yet (or permanent blindness...removed the nymph from the adventure). The party just finished dealing with the "wererat inn" encounter; belladonna was eaten, fun has been had by all, etc.

But that's not really what I want to write about. What I want to write about is the importance of rules in the game. Not just the AD&D game, but ANY edition of D&D. 

Which I'm sure I've already addressed a thousand times in a thousand posts (in various ways) over the years. But I want to try it again, perhaps from a different angle, and I don't mind repeating myself, because it's something that's worth reiterating and emphasizing.

D&D is a game. Games have rules that constrain play (in a number of ways). The DM is the arbiter of those rules. For the game to matter, those rules at the table must be iron clad. The game is engaged through its rules. We play the game because we want to engage with the game.

Here I will voice my strong disagreement with the "modern" sensibility that the game rules are only guidelines. This idea is stated quite plainly in the 5E Dungeon, from the first page (well, from page 4, the first page of text):
"The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren't in charge. You're the DM and you are in charge." (page 4)

"Rules enable you and your players to have fun at the table. The rules serve you, not vice versa." (page 235)

"Remember that dice don't run your game - you do. Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving." (page 237)
That last nonsensical bit is both preceded and followed by paragraphs on fudging dice rolls; basically, running the game by fiat as a freeform narrative, rather than as a structured game with rules, and I can't disagree strongly enough with the sentiment. Rules are "tools to keep the action moving?" No. That is absurd. How is a rule on encumbrance (as an example) used to "keep the action moving?" Nonsense.

Much of 5E is "nonsense" in my opinion (one of the main reasons I choose not to play it), but this type of thinking pervades DMs across all editions. You read it (or watch it or hear it) in numerous blogs, videos, and podcasts: the idea that game rules should be discarded and/or disregarded if and when they begin to interfering with "having fun" a term that seems to equate to: disappointing a player's expectation of what should happen

Please note that the "player" being disappointed can include the DM. Here's an example: a DM desires (i.e. has an expectation of) a climactic set piece battle between the party and the Big Boss of an adventure, an epic showdown to provide a "satisfying conclusion." That attachment to a particular end can result in the DM doing all sorts of machinations, manipulations, and mental gymnastics to preclude the PCs from interfere with the expectation. Which is just as bad (or worse!) than players crying and whining how "unfair" an energy drain or save-or-die poison attack is. 

Rules constrain our actions in the game. In the D&D game, a player's choice of armor for her character has a number of in-game consequences, helping to determine encumbrance and movement in addition to protective value (which, in the case of metal armor versus certain spells, might be a negative value). That choice matters...or rather, it should matter...but if the DM fudges attack rolls or ignores those movement values then the "mattering" disappears. And so too does the validity of the player's choice. 

In the AD&D campaign I'm currently running, I use a modified version of the training rules found in the DMG. The rules have been explained to the players; the players understand the manner in which the rules operate and how it constrains them. In our current adventure, the cleric just achieved enough x.p. to advance to 3rd level, and even possesses the cash necessary to procure training. However, the party is in the middle of a "quest" and the nearest priest is days away from their current location. The player has a hard choice to make: he can continue adventuring (still gaining an extra hit die, increased attacks and saves, etc.) OR he can choose to seek out a temple that can initiate him into the "higher mysteries" (i.e. 2nd level spell use). The latter choice will also impact the party, as the PC is the only healer in the group...although the party did just acquire two potions of healing. Of course, if "Peter the Adept" decides to separate from the party, the player (Diego) could simply introduce a new 1st level character to the group (they are staying at a roadside inn, after all)...and who's to say he might not enjoy playing the new character more than the prior one?

All these choices matter because we have rules that we've laid down and that I (as the DM) am enforcing. I could waive them, make the game easier...but I don't think that's in the best interest of my players. I want my players to have meaningful choices, because that leads to deeper engagement with the game world. Just "getting on to" the next action encounter does not. Action IS necessary...it is the fundamental reason why we play the game...but without the deeper meaningful choices (created by rules which constrain action), it is a hollow exercise. 

Rules do not serve the DM; rules serve the game. The DM does not serve the rules; the DM serves the players by acting as an arbiter and enforcer of the rules. As the rules constrain action, so too does the DM constrain the players, providing choices that carry weight and impact ("meaning") in the imaginary environment, making for a richer campaign, a greater engagement, a deeper experience. The rules provide limits...those limits make the game challenging.

I understand that type of play is not everyone's cup of tea. Some people prefer "no constraint" D&D and see my constraints as old-fashioned and/or downright myopic, believing it is in the best interest of the table to allow dwarves to achieve any level of fighter, or half-orcs to be paladins, or wizards to cast an infinite number of attack "cantrips," or tiefling warlocks to exist at all. Folks will see me as needlessly limiting the "fun" to be had, disappointing players' expectations and curbing their imagination.

To which I say: 

I'm playing Advanced D&D, a challenging game with challenging rules for players who want to be challenged. 

Some people like a challenge. When I play a game of Hearts, I try to 'shoot the moon' with every hand. Every. Hand. Because that's the most challenging way to play: trying to make everyone lose at the same time. And because playing otherwise is too easy after the scores of times I've played the game. Even just sitting around a table, yukking it up with friends and family, and drinking cocktails...too easy without the extra constraint.

I've expended far more hours and effort at Dungeons & Dragons than at any card game.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Worst Module Ever Written

Thursday's session saw a lot of "maintenance" type work and not a whole lot of "adventure." Which for me is fine because I'm trying to run this game as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, similar to how I ran the game back in the day, when things weren't always about going into a "dungeon." Far from it! Most of the game happened between dungeons ("adventure sites"), taking place on the road or in towns or at whatever campsite the PCs had set-up in the wilderness. AD&D is much more about living D&D (or, rather, experiencing it) than about strict accomplishment. If all you're concerned about is acquiring points and leveling up...well, then you might as well play a more streamlined, less nuanced/clunky edition. Like B/X. Which is what I did for years.

So the PCs said goodbye to Big Jim and went about spending their hard-earned loot from the Tomb of Bendan Fazier. They asked Jim if he wanted to join them as a permanent henchman but he refused to serve 1st level characters ("Look me up when you have some more experience under your belt."). Jumbo was given most of the monetary treasure as Sonia and Barod had managed to recover a magic staff and wand, but they still had enough left over to pay training costs (for the cleric), cover living expenses, and outfit themselves for their next destination. See, Yakima isn't quite as amicable to wizards as one might expect in a city its size...in fact it's downright inhospitable (plenty of temples and clerics, though). A college of sorcery was known to exist in (the barony of) Ellensburg to the north, however, and the PCs figured they could get their new items identified there.

[I haven't had the chance to blog about my campaign setting to this point, so I'll give you the brief: I'm using a post-apocalyptic fantasy version of Washington State as the basis for my world. No, it's not a terribly original idea, but being my own stomping grounds, I'm familiar with the territory, landscape, and history....plus I get to poke fun at things I like to poke fun at anyway (like renaming Bellevue as "Hellview" and making it a cesspool of evil). Also, I've got a great map of the place]

[oh, yeah...I'm calling the campaign Evergreen. More on all that in a later post]

But before they left town, they did take a last chance to locate Big Jim (as Barod was now a 2nd level Adept and feeling quite full of himself). They found him facedown in an alleyway where he'd been beaten and robbed. Once he'd sobered up and rested (and been healed) he agreed to sign on as a henchman, although the cleric was forced to acquire new weapons and equipment for the man. Fortunately, Jim was still wearing the plate armor he'd purchased from his share of the loot. 

Off they went. The journey was uneventful and the tower (just outside of town) was not hard to find. As a DM, I had fun running the old wizard with whom the party interacted ("Rupert") as it gave me a chance to show off some of the potentials for magic-use (with spells like wizard eye, unseen servant, ventriloquism, dimension door, ESP, and floating disk all making appearances...Rupert may be a glorified doorman for the college, but he doesn't mind showing off and impressing "the yokels"). Items were identified, and money changed hands, and the PCs learned quite a bit about the staff of striking and wand of conjuration they'd acquired...not everything, mind you, but enough to make the items useful. I'd assumed Barod would want the staff, but he gave it to Sonia seeing as how she was proficient with staves while he was only proficient with maces and flails. Ah, well.

[some words about identify...it is an awful spell. Much as I appreciate Gygax's work on AD&D as a whole, many of the spell "updates" and additions are poorly done. In the case of this particular spell, I am using Alexis Smolensk's version of the spell, although I still require the material component]

Unfortunately, they ran out of money in the process. Times being what they are, Rupert was willing to take an IOU in exchange for the party agreeing to deliver a scroll to an associate two days journey to the north....with the additional understanding that no more magical aid OR TRAINING (for magic-user characters) would be had until such time as the debt had been paid off. "But where are we going to get more money?" You'll figure out something.

Which leads me to the title of this post.  For the players' next "adventure" I am running the old TSR module N2: The Forest Oracle, an adventure about which I've written before. Make no mistake: it is a terrible adventure. Even without the excessive (and poorly written) box text and linear "plot structure," it is filled with errors and nonsense that show NOT ONLY a poor understanding of coherence and consistency in a fantasy adventure, but an extremely poor understanding of the game itself...how the game runs and how its mechanics function. For those who haven't read it, I'll list a few:
  • In the MM, a bandit's hit die is listed as "1-6 hit points," (i.e. the creature has less than 1 HD). The bandit encounter lists the bandits HD as "1-6," and the bandits as having 10 hit points each.
  • In the MM, giant frogs are given a range of hit dice (from 1 to 3, based on their size), and variable attack damage (via bite) of 1-3, 1-6, or 2-8 also (presumably) based on size. The module gives eight frogs with HD 1-3, 10 hit points each and 3 attacks of 1-3/1-6/2-8 via "blow/blow/bite."
  • A nymph has taken a human lover. This would usually result in permanent blindness, if not death for the human (assuming he's ever seen his lover naked).
  • Multiple encounters with groups of monsters requiring special weapons to hit (wererats, perytons), despite this being a low-level adventure and the absence of any magical weapons among the pre-generated characters. The perytons especially (four of them!) is an especially deadly encounter...I'd expect a good portion of a party to be wiped out without significant "fudging" from the DM.
  • Nonsensical surprise rules, random death (victims carried off by a yeti must save versus death to escape or "die horribly"), strange magics cast by low level characters (the "gypsy curse").
  • A 12th level druid backed by a "Golden Guard" consisting of druids "of Level 5 or higher" not being able to handle a score of goblins (and 5 worgs) living in known ruin a mere 6 miles from their stronghold.
  • A 4th level magic-user leading a band of "traveling people" somehow having access to a cleric capable of casting multiple cure serious wounds spells.
There is, of course, more issues than just these (another encounter with osquips is also especially deadly for characters levels 2-4), even without the terrible, terrible box text staining the module's pages. So, I'm sure the question in most folks minds is "Why the heck would you want to run this thing?"

Well, despite the poor execution, I still rather like the adventure. And for my purposes, strange as it may seem, I believe the thing is salvageable. Here's how I'm doing it:

First off, the thing has maps. If I haven't said it for the hundredth time or so, maps are not my forte...I am pretty much the opposite of Dyson Logos. I have made maps, I can make maps, but I have next to no confidence in my mapmaking ability. The maps in N2 are actually pretty good, especially if you consider the thing as an open area for exploration (a "sandbox"). Even the tunnel under the Horns of the Dragon appears reasonable to me. Consider what it is: a pass through the mountains and/or a played-out gemstone mine (not sure which part of the equation came first). Why should it be convoluted and "interesting?" The side caverns were dug off the main line (delving for gemstones) so as to keep miners from getting lost. It offers a sure path from one side of the hills to the other. From a design perspective, it allows PCs the opportunity to choose whether to take dangerous side treks or not. 

SO...good maps. Used like maps (i.e. showing locations), not for plotting an "adventure path." 'Course this only works if I can shoehorn the thing into my campaign world...which I can by placing The Downs a short distance north of modern day Thorp, Washington

Next thing is, capture "the gist" of what's going on in the adventure while removing any attachment to the order or manner in which things play out. There's a blight on The Downs caused by curse magic. There's a halfling thief running an inn that steals travelers' possessions (though why not just murder them?). A lone, crazy dwarf fights a guerrilla war against a band of mutants (orcs) in the old underpass. There's an enchanted lake. A few monster lairs. Road bandits. A ruined castle (now inhabited by goblins). A large river (this is a length of the Columbia in my setting) with few viable crossings. An encampment of "gypsy" surrogates with an ogre problem. And, of course, a tree fort filled with largely aloof druids of enormous power.

That's not bad stuff. Several of the encounter (especially the peryton) are overpowered for the average party of 2nd and 3rd level characters, but they're easily adjusted...fire beetles instead of osquips, for example. The treasure take in the adventure as written is sufficient: enough to level up a party of seven 3rd level characters to 4th level, assuming sale of the truly random nonsense (why would the designer feel the need to include not just one, but TWO scrolls of protection vs. were-tigers? In two different locations? Did he simply not give a shit?). However, while the amounts are good, the type of treasure is not. 

Does a party really plan on hauling half a ton of copper coins around? Completed linearly (as the dungeon is written) the party will have 1400# of coins by the time they reach the first river crossing (over a tightrope), and that's less than half the coins available for discovery in the adventure total. Some 33-34,000 coins can be pulled as "treasure" by the end, which is fairly obnoxious. Considering the scenario has a bit of the "race against time" thing going, the adventure is forcing the PCs to choose between wealth and experience OR saving a village that was A) heretofore unknown, B) bears no familial/relationship connections to them, and C) has offered nothing so far as reward is concerned. 

So: treasure amounts? Fine. Treasure types? Need adjustment. 

Still, these are minor fixes. Really! Monsters and treasure are easy enough to adjust. My PCs are 2nd level or just about (at the end of our Thursday session a hill giant wandered into their camp site, and they managed to defeat it - after peaceable negotiations failed - which might have been enough to put Sonia and Big Jim over the top), so I can actually REDUCE the treasure amount and still give the party enough to make the adventure worth their while. But mostly, it's just a matter of changing encounters in the thing to be sensible...and appropriate (when necessary).

Let's take the Wildwood Inn as an example: you've got an honest halfling thief (ex-adventurer) running an inn that gets regular business (when the stolen goods are recovered, he knows who they belong to and intends to return it to the rightful owners) situated at a crossroads in a haunted/fairy tale woods. The wererats are guests that steal from the other guests and keep a big chest of gold and silver (as well as a bunch of silver bracelets) in their room. There's a lot that's terrible about this encounter that I'm not even mentioning but that's the basics: inn at a crossroads; halfling proprietor; thieving wererats. Here's how I change it:
  • There's only ONE wererat. Even a party of low-level PCs should be able to take such a creature if they have a silver and/or magic weapon between them and an attack spell. If that fails, they can still attempt to grapple the creature and tie it up, or use fire or...I don't know, players tend to be clever, right? But four wererats (HD 3+1, special attacks & defenses, plus some sleep magic ability) is a screw job as written.
  • The wererat IS the halfling innkeeper (he is a thief after all). Far from being ignorant of what's going on under his own roof, he uses his shapeshifting ability to aid in minor pilfering of guests. Maybe business isn't quite as good as he lets on, maybe he has debts. Maybe he's been shaken down by the gypsies...er, "traveling folk"...and doesn't want to be cursed any more than he already is. OR perhaps his lycanthropy is due to a curse from Madame Riva (the same gypsy matriarch that cursed the Downs) and he needs extra loot in order to pay-off her band so that they'll remove the curse. That certainly fits with the "fairy tale" themes of the module.
  • Far from being a hose job on the PCs, the thief is MEANT to be caught and discovered. Why? Because it makes for more interesting possibilities: the coward can surrender and beg for his life. He can try bribing the PCs with the goods he's stolen. He can explain his plight and ask for aid. He can make a deal with them or give them ownership of a dilapidated inn in the middle of nowhere. 
  • The treasure should be sensible...not heaps of coins (and certainly not silver! Why O why would lycanthropes want to keep silver around? There shouldn't be any silver in the inn!) but small valuables: bracelets, rings, necklaces, silk scarves or handkerchiefs, a fine pair of shoes...and, sure, maybe a silver dagger or two that the halfling has buried in the garden out back. Yes, there will be some coins - the innkeeper does business in hard currency, after all (and presumably buys his provisions the same way) - but you don't need 350# of coins. That's enough to fill eight backpacks!
[as an aside: I imagine it'd be pretty difficult to operate an inn by yourself, in the middle of a forest, with no supporting village or farmers to provide goods to the place. Such a roadside hostel MIGHT be possible if the halfling had a family: a wife and kids to help raise livestock, brew ale, work a garden, etc. but it would likely be pretty raw fare. Regular visitors could alleviate that (by providing coin the innkeeper could use to supplement the menu) but considering there're no delivery trucks and no refrigeration, food for the innkeeper needs to come from somewhere close by. Just saying...]

[me, I'd probably make the inn fairly run down AND give the halfling a family. Even so, the innkeeper would be the only wererat of the bunch (though a DM who runs a grimmer campaign could certainly add wererat children the PCs need to butcher...yikes, the fairy tale suddenly becomes a horror story of "rats in the walls!"...that's probably a shade too dark for my kids), giving yet another dimension of humanity to the innkeeper's situation]

But you see? It's not terribly hard to repurpose the concepts of these encounters to make them functional. For me, the hard part has already been done by the module writers: they made me a map with a bunch of numbered encounters. All the box text and "plot" stuff can go out the window; most of it is garbage anyway (why is the innkeeper in the downs this jovial fellow with this bustling/thriving establishment? Isn't his village suffering through a cursed blight with the populace on the verge of starvation?). But the structure of the environment...in this case, the small section of wilderness the map presents...is sound.

Well, sound enough (for my purposes).

All right, that's enough for folks to chew on for the weekend. If I get around to typing up my notes for N2 in a useable form, I will post them to the blog for interested folks. Later, gators!

Look - I'm not the only one to try
rehabbing N2! Though it does seem to
have killed the other guy's blog....


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Playing the Tomb of Bendan Fazier (P.2)

[continued from here; I ended my last post NOT because our session had ended, but because the post was getting loooong. Here I’ll be picking up the end of our first session, last Thursday…]

If you haven’t read the key to The Tomb of Bendan Frazier, you can find it HERE. The party exited the “Grand Hall” (as they referred to it; chamber #10) and, re-lighting their (dwindling supply) of torches, headed down the long stairway to #9, finding the statues, checking out the tapestry, noticing the river (again, no appearance by the river troll), and sticking a torch in the wall sconce. My players were grossed out by the mummification process (described in the tapestry), and horrified that the slave-workers had been murdered and dumped in the river (sheesh...kids!), but intrigued by the images of treasure being carried into the tomb. 

While Big Jim and Sonia worked to get the tapestry off the wall (since it looked valuable...and is! I forgot to add that to the key but it's worth 400g.p. and weighs about 40#)...

[by the way, do you know how hard it is to find weights on the internet for tapestries? Even shipping weights! And modern day tapestries are generally a lot thinner and lighter than the materials used in past centuries. That was a damn extensive rabbit hole I almost fell into the other day, and the research available was completely unsatisfactory. 40# is a cheap-ass guesstimate of convenience. Bulk is probably closer to 1000 or 2000 coins weight...though, in the end (as the reader will see), this became largely irrelevant...]

*AHEM* While Jumbo and Sonia worked on getting the tapestry down, Barod discovered the necklaces hanging about the statues' necks. Tully was hoisted up (by Tiny) to remove the moon-shaped key from around the second statue, which immediately animated and attacked the dwarf; combat ensued. In the end, the party managed to destroy the caryatid column, but Tiny was slain, having interposed himself between it and Tully. At that point, we ended the session.

[as you can read, the adventure to this point had not been entirely un-fraught with peril...20% of the party had been killed, after all! Even so, when my boy declared that I "hadn't made the adventure hard enough," he was referring to the general lack of monsters in the tomb. Of course, they hadn't yet recovered much in the way of treasure either...]

Session 2 (Friday)

After some discussion on how to bury Tiny, the party eventually decided to strip his body of useful items (including his armor...he had been decapitated by the caryatid and so it was mostly intact) and then dump it in the subterranean river. Barod was anxious to press on: he presumed the bulk of the tomb's treasure must lie with the mummy of Bendan Fazier, and that said tomb was most likely behind the moon door. Sonia was a little less sure of this, but agreed to follow Barod's lead. Asked by Tully the dwarf if they should rest first, they felt there was no need: for the most part, the party was at full health, the bulk of damage from their last encounter having been inflicted on Tiny. 

Big Jim donned his fallen companion's splint mail. His bastard sword had shattered against the monster, but he still had his hand axe (Barod offered him his flail, but the big man declined).

Back up the stairs, through the sun doors, past the "grand hall," and down to the ancient preparation room with its "moon door." Now that they'd seen the tapestry (in #9) the party had a pretty good idea of what had taken place here, and my squeamish players glanced about nervously for signs of brains and internal organs that had been removed from Bendan's corpse. Sonia cast comprehend languages to decipher the writing on the door, and everyone was dutifully awed/disturbed. Barod wanted Sonia to use the moon key but she refused; so the cleric did so himself.

Instantly, bad stuff started happening: the cleric jerked spasmodically as the blood in his veins turned darker, standing out livid against his skin as his eyes rolled back in his head. Everyone took a step back as the cleric, stood up and rounded on the party: obviously he had been possessed by "dark magic!" Barod attacked! Random roll determined Big Jim was his foe! Big Jim decided to grapple his companion. Barod missed his attack roll to keep Big Jim at bay, and so the grappling was on! The usual procedure (DMG p.72-73) was followed and the fighter kicked Barod "where the sun don't shine" inflicting 12 points of damage, immediately taking him out of the fight.

While unconscious, the party cut a length from their rope (the bulk of which was dangling from the pit in chamber #10), and hog-tied the cleric. When he awoke (only 4 points of damage having been "actual"), it was obvious he was still possessed (foaming at the mouth and whatnot). After several minutes of discussion, they decided to take him back to the entrance of the dungeon to leave him with the mules. 

The party had just begun to devise a way to hoist him up the escape shaft when the spell seemed to wear off. Having taken charge of the party, Sonia the magic-user was not about to trust this apparent change of heart, even though Barod pleaded with the group to release him. They relented a bit by untying his legs, and then forced him to walk point as they crossed the threshold of the moon door (now ajar). Barod did not like this ("can't I at least have a weapon to fight with?") but was given no choice by the party. 

At the end of the passage, they found the tomb room of Bendan Fazier, including his sarcophagus, a rotted chest full of gold, and a metal box filled with platinum coins. The large sacks came out of the backpacks and the party filled them with coins. A trap door in the ceiling of the tomb was discovered and the party was happy to see a more ready exit. The sarcophagus they left alone, though they noted the need for a "star key" (which they had already seen around the neck of the statue in #9).

Deciding by this time that Barod could be trusted again (but warning him they wouldn't hesitate to put him down if he "turned" again), the cleric was finally freed from his bonds and the whole party left for the entrance hall, sacks of treasure in hand. Encountering no monsters (like river trolls) on the way out, they again rested, ate Tiny's remaining rations, and regained (or used) spells, all in preparation for opening the sarcophagus. The cleric was sure there must be good stuff inside (he specifically pointed out the magic staff and wand displayed in the wall painting in chamber #4), but both Barod and Sonia were sure there would probably be a big mummy monster to fight!

Back to the tomb (#12): with Tully and Sonia holding torches, Jumbo and Barod went to open the sarcophagus only to discover they'd forgotten about the star key! The party returned to chamber #9 where the cleric and Big Jim proceeded to brutalize the statue before removing the necklace it wore.

[this was rather clever. I allowed them to automatically hit and roll damage each segment...damage being halved as normal with respect to a caryatid column...and also gave the usual chance of breaking a weapon per the monster description. Fortunately, their luck (and their weapons!) held up]

Having reduced it to rubble, they retrieved the necklace. Asked if they were still interested in the tapestry laying on the floor (noting it had been soaked with Tiny's blood): "yeah, I fold it up and put it in my backpack." Explained, no it needs to be rolled up and it's pretty big/thick, they decided it wasn't worth the trouble....

Back to the tomb (again): same set-up as before. The key was turned, the lid was pushed off and the mummy of Bendan Fazier was revealed. When nothing jumped out at them, they heaved a sigh of relief...but they were hesitant to remove any of the goodies in the coffin. "Don't touch the death mask!" Sonia said. Barod took the staff; Sonia took the wand. "Why didn't you want me to remove the death mask?" asked Barod. "Because it's a death mask...it will kill you!" That's just what it's called. Oh.

Barod removed the death mask to reveal the Son of Kyuss beneath, which immediately sat up. Everyone was horrified. The mask was dropped. Saving throws versus fear were attempted and failed (except for Tully the dwarf) and most of the party fled in terror down the corridor back to room #11. Tully was not surprised but failed his initiative roll and was attacked and "wormed" by the creature. Bloodcurdling shrieks were heard by the party as they fought each other to clamber up the rope they'd left dangling from #10. More screams of terror and agony were heard (a second worm found a home in Tully, this one reaching his brain in a single round) as they charged from the grand hall, passed the antechamber and over the bridge, all the way back to room #5.

At this point (huddled together in the dark), I allowed the players to start making saving throws against the Son's "terror" ability. There's no real guidelines regarding how long it lasts (at least, not that I could find), but since they were now out-of-sight/earshot of the thing, I figured that if even one of them could come to their senses, she could rally the others. Which is what happened, as Sonia finally made her saving throw.

Pulling themselves together and checking what they had in the way of resources/gear, they gathered their courage and decided to go back to help Tully (if possible) or avenge their friend (if not). By this time, of course, Tully had already met "a fate worse than death" as he was now a shambling Son of Kyuss also (again, the FF description is unclear how long it takes for the transformation, only that "the process of putrefaction" sets in "without delay," but I figured it would be more terrifying (i.e. "fun") for the party to encounter the shambling corpse of their buddy wandering the halls. After all, there'd been a complaint that I hadn't added enough monsters to the dungeon...).
; )

The worms crawl in,
the worms crawl out...
They discovered Tully just as they crossed the bridge, standing beneath the threshold of the "sun doors" his rotten form not quite silhouetted against the continual light of room #10. Again, saving throws were called for and only Sonia was successful. She engaged the creature, blasting it with shocking grasp, but it punched back, scoring a glancing hit (1 damage). The projectile worm shooting from its face missed. Baron and Jumbo cowered at the bridge unable to approach closer.

Then the cleric had a brilliant idea...remove the support rods from the bridge and lure the "Tully mummy" to its destruction! Jumbo and Barod retreated over the bridge, calling for Sonia to do the same as they pulled the rods from their brackets.

Sonia turned and ran. The creature got a free attack at the mage's exposed back (with a +2 bonus) but failed to hit, as did the worm. We diced for her weight, and it turned out she was beanpole like her brother (Barod is 6'6" and 150#...Sonia is 6' and just over 100#). Even with her gear (not much) she was able to cross the bridge without collapsing it. The dwarf, on the other hand, was of average weight for his kind (156#) even without his leather armor...as it tried to shamble across the rickety bridge, the thing collapsed and he was dropped into the river below. 

The party started to cheer, but stopped when they saw it pulling itself up onto the rocky ledge of the riverbank. Knowing that the ledge would lead the undead creature back to the entry chamber (and the mules! and the treasure!) the party hustled back as fast as possible to the entry chamber #1.  From the collapsed tunnel to the south they heard sounds of a fight with undead moaning and loud growling (the river troll finally put in an appearance as I rolled to see if the dwarf would encounter the thing and the percentile dice finally rolled under 25...see area #7).  "That must be the monster whose footprints we saw!" exclaimed Barod. "We can let it kill the undead creature and then go back for the treasure!"

Jumbo said: "Um...if IT can kill the 'Tully Monster,' do we really want to fight it?"

"Good point! Let's leave!"

So they left. They took the treasure they had managed to discover (the gold and platinum, which had been left with the mules), sealed the doors of the tomb with iron spikes, and piled the largest rocks they could find in front of the door. Barod wanted to add some sort of warning message to the door, but after realizing he had no chalk, decided he didn't care enough to stick around.

The End

[that is, the end of the adventure; the characters are still alive]

So, there you have it. I found the Tomb of Bendan Fazier to be quite playable in practice. As is the usual M.O. with my players, they left a lot of money on the table (i.e. treasure in the dungeon), but they recovered some good stuff, too, including the wand and staff (which they had clutched in their hands when they fled the Son of Kyuss). The final tally of x.p. was even enough to level up the cleric...once he's had the opportunity to train, of course. Probably helped there were less characters to divide the treasure between.

Man O man...it took so long to get this posted that I've got another Thursday D&D session coming up tomorrow. Welp, even though I haven't been blogging, I have been working on my campaign world (which I want to write about one of these days) AND prepping for our next session. Which has been tricky.

I'll explain why in my next post. Hopefully by Friday or Saturday..
: )


Monday, March 8, 2021

Playing the Tomb of Bendan Fazier (P.1)

Thursday afternoon, the foray into the Tomb of Bendan Fazier began in earnest. For the most part, it went extremely well for the party…so much so that when I asked the boy (over lunch Friday) what he thought of the dungeon he said, “You didn’t make it hard enough.” 

I laughed out loud for several minutes. Then I laughed out loud some more.  

Why are you laughing, Pops? “That’s the kind of thing players say right before everyone gets killed.” HAHAHAHAHA. 

Fridays are generally a no-go for D&D because (like most of our week) we have sports practice after school. Recently, though, practices have been at an ungodly hour (7pm – 8pm? Who does that? When are these kids supposed to eat dinner?!) so we had a couple hours to kill after school work and chores were wrapped up. 

A couple hours to kill…HAHAHAHAHA. 

I offer the following write-up of our game sessions as an example for any DM interested in running the adventure. I'd say it worked fairly well (i.e. as intended when I wrote it) being both fun and functional.

Dramatis Personae 
  • Barod (played by Diego, age 10); a 1st level cleric. 
  • Sonia (played by Sofia, two months shy of age 7); a 1st level magic-user. 
  • Tully (NPC); a 2nd level dwarf thief; has the map to the tomb and recruited this expedition. 
  • “Tiny” (NPC); a 1st level fighter with 18/07 strength; ot-nay oo-tay ight-bray. Dubbed “Tiny” because he’s smaller than Jumbo. Grunts more than he talks. 
  • “Jumbo” (NPC); a 1st level fighter with 18/77 strength; AKA “Big Jim.” 6’5”, 250# (300# with scale armor and shield). Smarter than he looks. 
  • Four mules, unnamed. 

Session 1  (Thursday)

The background goes like this: Tully had already investigated the tomb with his prior adventuring party. They did not have a cleric and the skeleton hoard encountered in room #1 proved too much for them; after taking multiple casualties (including their party’s magic-user) they retreated. Tully decided to recruit some holiness for a return delve. The PCs (Barod and Sonia) were only too eager to sign up for an equal split of the treasure. 

Because my daughter was late to the party, Diego/Barod entered the tomb first (with the three NPCs) leaving their pack mules outside. Having been briefed on what to expect the party was not surprised by the dozen skeletons that attacked as they entered the entry chamber. Barod attempted to turn the undead and rolled a “1;” combat was joined! The group had spread out upon entry and now each adventurer was dealing with three skeletons. 

After a round of futility and wounds, Tully turned and fled up the stairs roaring for the others to retreat. “You coward!” yelled Barod swearing to deal with the craven after the combat. However, Tully actually had a ‘Plan B:’ flasks of oil in the saddle bags of his mule. Sonia came up (leading her mule) just as Tully had recovered his makeshift bomb and was heading back to the tomb door. “Follow me!” She did, staff in hand. 

Meanwhile, the skeletons had turned at the stairs and were seeking new prey. Jumbo, Tiny, and Barod had all managed to down a couple skeletons, but now faced fresh foes. A natural 20 roll from Tully incinerated one of the skeletons and lit up a second with “splash damage” (yay, AD&D). The tide turned! Sonia bludgeoned another one to powder, and the party stood triumphantly amid a heap of bones. Cure light wounds spells were bestowed all around, but the party was still pretty beat up…they decided to camp (outside the tomb, with the door spiked) and recover their strength. They realized they couldn’t spend too much time doing so, however, as they’d brought only a week's worth of rations and round trip journey from the nearest town was four days of travel time. What’s more, Barod had neglected to purchase feed for his mule and was forced to share rations with the beast given the poor vegetation of the dry hills. 

Before leaving the chamber, Barod and Jumbo had explored chamber #2 and found both the scattered coins and muddy footprints. With some trepidation, they reported their findings, but Tully poo-pooed it: “the coins were probably left by the workers that constructed the tomb.” Barod wasn’t so sure. 

The next day (after another round of healing), the group decided to explore the broken southern wall of the entry chamber. Tully noted the downward slope and explained it was probably a secondary exit/entry tunnel used only for emergency and left unfinished…when they encountered the river at the end of the tunnel, this seemed to confirm why it had been considered “unsatisfactory” and walled off. Extremely happy to have found a source of fresh water, the party slaked their thirst and refilled their water skins. 

[a couple quick notes here: I had everyone do a "weight check" for encumbrance prior to the beginning of this exploration, and much wrangling was had over what to carry and what to leave with the mules. In the end, Barod ended up divesting himself of most of his equipment in order to carry his entire cache of armaments and not be slowed too much. Tully and Sonia ended up carrying the torches, but everyone had a backpack with some large sacks...they expected to haul a LOT of treasure out of the tomb!

[the other note is this: regarding the scrag (river troll)...well, I diced for it every time they encountered the river or entered an encounter area on the river (like chamber #9). The thing never showed up. Every time I rolled the percentile dice, though, the players got nervous, asking "What are you rolling for?" in tremulous voices]

They followed the riverside path until they saw the bridge overhead (#6); tying a rope to Tully they sent him up the rusty ladder only to have it disintegrate. Figuring that the other corridor from the entry chamber would lead to the bridge, they decided to retrace their steps, rather than press on (they thus, never discovered the scrag's den).

At #3 three character applied their might to the bronze wheel and heard stone moving in the distance. They thought maybe the stone doors at #4 had been activated by the thing, but Jumbo was able to budge them open with effort. They lit the torches in chamber #4 and studied the painting. Continuing on, they examined the rods in #5 but decided to leave them behind. At the bridge ("See we knew this was the way!") they reasoned that the rods from #5 could be fitted into the raised brackets of the thing to add stability, and correctly did so. They then proceeded to "the Sun room" (#8, the antechamber). 

Rather than look for a key, the party decided Tully could pick the lock. Although this activated the fire trap that burned him for ten points of damage, he survived and managed to open the door, whereupon the party was greeted by the magnificent sight of the great Hall (#10). When it was discovered that the jewels could be pried from the floor, several of the party members immediately set to work doing so before being halted by Sonia, convinced that this might activate some sort of trap or curse. She even suggested they find a way to glue the gem stones back, but after much grumbling allowed the men to keep the 3 or 4 stones each had already recovered.

Using Tully's spikes and Sonia's rope, four of the party descended into the preparation room (#11), leaving only the dwarf behind to guard the exit (he spent his time prying up gemstones). Finding the "moon door" the party called back to Tully if he'd found any keys, and told him to run back through the dungeon and see if they'd missed anything in the entry chamber. "What? Are you kidding?!" The players' reasoning was that the bronze wheel had triggered something, and perhaps it had opened a secret compartment or alcove in the entry hall (#1) since that was the only room they hadn't visited/returned to since they'd turned it. Not being able to fault their logic and being badgered incessantly (and not wanting to risk another fire trap), the dwarf reluctantly took torch and started back...only to return a few minutes later.

No way, no how.
"Hey, you jokers...there's still that big stairway [leading down to #9] that we haven't explored...and I ain't going down into the unknown by myself!"

Having (wisely) put his foot down on the issue, the party agreed to climb out of the lower chamber and assemble in the grand hall, leaving the mysterious metal "moon door" to wait below.

[to be continued]