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]

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


I haven't forgotten about the "god fighting" posts; they shall be continuing shortly. However, my daughter came down with a sniffle over the weekend and so both kids were home yesterday (school policy) which has delayed the next post of the series.

In the meantime, here's something else for folks to chew on:

Sunday we had the day off, and I mean a real day off. No sports, no school, no church (still closed without an appointment), no outdoor activities (it was raining). D&D was thus the order of the day, and the home game began exploring my rework of Xak Tsaroth, AKA The Sunken City of Doom. So far the party is still exploring the swamp, and have faced but a single encounter with lizard men (my world doesn't have draconians). Well, they also encountered some wolves along the road, but they drove those off. 

Not a lot of action, right? I can understand if that seems strange to some folks: running a typical B/X dungeon, I'd expect to get through six to eight combat encounters in a four hour session (depending on the level of opposition, the number of combatants involved, and the relative skill of the players); even for my young players, even running the (slightly) more complex AD&D, we'd expect three to four solid battles in a session...we were doing that easy when running UK3: The Gauntlet

But this is campaign play...advanced play. And the beginning of an adventure is always a bit slower.

We wrapped up The Forest Oracle pretty brief, the PCs decided to leave "the Downs" (Thorp) to its fate, abandoning the quest in favor of more straightforward (and hopefully lucrative) pursuits. None of this 'go-here-do-that-get-this-other-thing-save-town' stuff. Besides, the undermountain tunnel had proven decidedly un-profitable and extremely deadly (they lost...mmm...three PCs in its depths?). More money had been found simply dealing with road bandits, and the players decided to cash in their chips at the nearest decent spot of "civilization:" the small village of Wenatchee.

[I say "village" because it has just under 500 inhabitants. However, Solace in Dragonlance has the same number and is called a "town" in module DL1]

It was in Wenatchee that the party made the acquaintance of Duke Van-Uz, an adventurer and nobleman who had learned of an ancient city, lost forever in the swamps known sarcastically as "Banks Lake." Supposedly, the place had been a thriving metropolis before the people turned away from the worship of their patron goddess in favor of other, darker gods. Legend says the goddess struck down the city in her wrath, sinking the entire place into the swamp and muck, and transforming its inhabitants into inhuman creatures. While most folks consider the stories to be nothing more than cautionary fables, the Duke discovered an old map on one of his ventures, that seems to indicate a large city did indeed exist some 300 years ago....

The Duke thinks the city existed and believes there may be ancient/lost treasures still to be recovered. After some negotiation, he's agreed to outfit the party (to the tune of 1,500 gold pieces) to launch an expedition, with the understanding that he expects a 100% return on his investment within the month. Formal contracts were drawn, along with the usual assassination clauses, and the party set about with provisioning.

[regarding assassination clauses and the D&D economy, I humbly direct your attention to the latest Grogtalk video, Money and the 1st Edition Economy. After the usual rigamarole of banter they get into the whole DMG bit about taxes, tariffs, expenses and fees...but the rather hilarious (and thoughtful) bit about the role of assassins guilds in AD&D society comes in at the 3:35 mark, and I'd recommend starting the video there...for interested folks, it's about 20 minutes of pure gold]

And that's where the time for the session got sunk. In my campaign, Xak Tsaroth is located about where Coulee City is in the real world, some 67 miles east of Wenatchee down US-2. Except there is no "US-2" and the ground is rough enough any kind of wheeled cart or wagon is going to take about a week just to get to the edge of the swamp (i.e. to about the place that wheels become useless). And that's a loooong distance to travel when you're packing in your own food supplies...there is NOTHING between Wenatchee and the site's location.

The party's original plan was to hire about eight men-at-arms, in addition to the henchmen they've already acquired, for a total party size of 13. Two carts were deemed sufficient, pulled by eight mules (four each). The cleric had also purchased a war horse which, along with his riding mare, would be making the trip. Figuring two week's travel (round trip) plus a week of exploration meant 21 days of food and feed for every human and animal in the party: a bit more than 3,500 pounds of provisions. Each cart, fully loaded, can haul 800#...less than a quarter of their required capacity for food alone. 

[we used 7.5# per day for "iron rations" based on the encumbrance figures given in Appendix O of the DMG. As of today, I'm willing to revise that to a more appropriate 3.5# food per person per day, with the difference between "iron" and "standard"simply being an issue of spoilage...but even so, you're only saving half a ton of cartage]

THIS. This is the reason why dungeons exist unexplored and unspoiled by every two-bit adventurer aspiring to the name. Because 60 miles might as well be 600 if there are no roads and no villages in between. The issue turned into an interesting dilemma of logistics for the players, as they played around with different combinations of distance, time, encumbrance, and (monetary) budget. Perhaps if they headed north, they could take a boat down the Columbia to the northern part of the swamp...except that there's no Grand Coulee Dam, and no real way to move wagons through 30 miles of bog to the (alleged) location of the lost city. Anyway, rafting through monster-infested swamps doesn't sound like the safest course of action.  

It took a good long time to reach a decision agreeable to both the party and their patron (they actually negotiated upwards from the original outlay costs). In the end, they purchased a single, four-wheeled wagon (drawn by an 8 mule team), and hired only five light footmen (four plus one sergeant); they did purchase good armor (chain) for everyone. The magic-user is driving the wagon; the cleric riding his palfrey. The party assumes that food eaten on the journey will allow space to be used for packing out...absolutely essential since they'll need to pay their sponsor 3,000 gold in treasure upon return from the venture.

SO. One encounter. Oh, and some wolves in the hills. Most of the men-at-arms were retained simply to guard the wagon and livestock while the adventurers proper push into the swamp's interior. The one lady-in-arms they took with them was slain in the first round of combat with the lizard men...not sure what they plan to do with her body, but the party is pressing on while they still have daylight. 

After all, they only have a limited number of days to explore before the food runs out.
; )

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 1B (An Addendum)

Lest this series goes off the rails when it suddenly takes a hard right turn in the next post, I think I need to clarify a few things about my last post:
  • This series is about Dungeons & Dragons, the game. 
  • Dungeons & Dragons finds its roots MAINLY in 1) the bargain bin of fantasy pulp stories (the kind I used to buy at a used bookstore in Montana for $.25-$.50 a pop to have reading material on our twice annual road trips) and, 2) the back alley sand tables of wargamers: a seedy bunch of rogues craving adventure and glory in a real world that is often challenging in a "not very fun" type of way.
  • Keeping those things in mind, I think folks can probably see how we get to wrestling with gods and godlike beings around the dinner table. I'm not denying it's part of the game.
  • I have an opinion about the way such conflicts are showing up recently (i.e. the last decade or so) in the D&D game. That is an admission of subjectivity, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to go hard at framing my argument or making my point. At this point in time, it's a rather strong opinion, mostly set in concrete and unlikely to change. I'm hoping it's an informed opinion, one backed up by reasonable knowledge and perhaps some hard-earned experience or (at least) semi-diligent research.
  • Part 1 of this series was talking about those pulp fiction roots, because there's a need to explore that (hopefully already understood) foundation of the D&D game, in particular to this topic as it influences my opinion. Apologies if that was unclear. It is not a post about the role of religion or deities in the cosmology of one's campaign world (I've written about that before...many times) except in as much as that cosmology might be impacted by the inclusion of mortal versus divine conflict. And that potential impact isn't really something I've touched on yet...and probably will not be discussing, until Part 3 of this series. Part 1 was simply about taking a cursory look at (some) fantasy literature, especially literature that the game was built upon. The question of "where does this urge to fight gods come from" was mostly rhetorical...though I appreciate the plethora of answers!
Okay. I am hopeful that clears up any confusion. I don't want people to think I was saying "characters shouldn't be fighting gods in D&D," and then get confused when I start writing about how I think such conflicts can (and should) be implemented in the game. Keep in mind that my original complaint was: A) the trope was being used overmuch, and B) the execution of said trope. 

I wasn't complaining that such a trope exists (in D&D) at all.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 1

The other day, in the comments on my Whimsy Addendum, I decried a trend I've seen in a lot of adventure material recently, which is: players encountering (and fighting with) "gods." Part of my annoyance has been with regard to overuse of the scenario (welp, here's another adventure where the main antagonist is a fallen deity...) and part of it has stemmed from the execution: how such encounters are portrayed and used in these adventures. 

And the good Prince of Nothing took umbrage and issued me a challenge, writing:
I think if you could manage to distill the right approach to portraying S&S style deities in DnD, complete with a few examples, you'd be doing the OSR a huge favor.
Wait...what? This is on me?

Set aside from the moment any notion of me doing the OSR "favors" (ridiculous to think they'd take any advice from me, even if I wanted to give it!)...what the hell qualifies me as the authority and resource for this particular subject? I'm just a blogger that runs his, keypad...a bit too much with long-winded meanderings. 

On the other hand, I have fought a god or two.

*sigh* Challenge accepted. 

I'd like to first start out with a discussion of the inspiration behind this particular idea, this claim that it is O So Very Sword & Sorcery for grungy, pulp heroes to be going toe-to-toe with gods and godlings. So let's crack out our fantasy literature and take a look. Never mind that these are stories, not games...we understand that these stories are the impetus and foundational pieces for Dungeons & Dragons play. And it's always useful to have a firm handle on one's source material.

First up, everyone's favorite barbarian: Conan. One gets the impression that the gods of Howard's Hyborian age are fairly mortal (much like the Norse gods)...if Conan stuck Crom with 3' of  good, Hyrkanian steel, he'd probably die. However, we never encounter Crom in Howard's stories, perhaps because Crom is an actual deity. Conan kills some godlike frost giants, an ancient "god in a bowl" (appears to be a naga, much like the one in module N1), and an alien time-traveller that resembles a small elephant. These aren't gods: they're monsters. In the bluntest of D&D terms, they are meant to be slain and looted. 

Elric gets prepared to
throw down with the
god of lizards.
Next up, we'll look at Moorcock's albino sorcerer, Elric. He fights all sorts of gods. The "Burning God." Balo the Jester of Chaos. In the end, he is responsible for the death of ALL the chaos lords (gods) including his own patron, Arioch. Except that, actually, he's not doing the killing. It's his Most-Powerful-Artifact-Weapon-In-The-Multiverse (Stormbringer) that is doing the actual soul-sucking, not Elric. In the final battle he does a one-shot spell that summons a multitude of Stormbringers (Stormbringer has siblings), and they fly around killing all the gods. Stormbringer, as an artifact, was forged to slay gods (and to "keep in check" higher powers). It's a plot point of the books. Do your D&D characters carry such an artifact weapon? 

Okay, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Haven't read as much of them as I'd have liked, but I can't remember them KILLING any gods. Running afoul of them, getting mixed up with them, fleeing their wrath or being cursed by them...sure, all that. But mortal combat (i.e. the hit point draining kind)? No, I don't think so.

Karl Wagner's Kane...well, I've only had the chance to read Bloodstone, and it's been a while. If memory serves, Kane "kills" a super computer masquerading as a deity. Machines break...they are mundane/mortal, not supernatural. Maybe. I get a little depressed thinking about Wagner; he died so young (age 48, alcoholism). 

I don't remember any hero versus god action in Clark Ashton Smith, but I probably haven't read enough of him. I have C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry ordered from Amazon, so apologies if she kills a bunch of godlings and I failed to mention it...haven't yet had the chance to read her stories.

H.P. Lovecraft isn't really an S&S writer, but there's no denying his writing's had an impact on D&D and many OSR offerings. Lots of extreme, alien gods walking amongst men in HPL's stuff. But people don't fight them. They get killed and eaten by them, or possessed, or driven insane. It's not really mano-a-mano. Well, except for a certain Norwegian sailor, who's ship-to-kaiju combat was absolutely NOT stolen by Disney for the climactic battle in The Little Mermaid against the giant octopoid entity. Nope, no way...that scene is straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. Regardless, it's one exception to a multitude of non-combats.

How about non-S&S literature...say, Tolkien's Sauron and all his knockoffs (Donaldson's "Lord Foul," whatever the hell Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan use, etc.). They're "gods" right? And the good guys fight and defeat them?

Well, no. At least in Lord of the Rings, Sauron is never confronted directly, and he's not killed so much as "dispersed" by the Ring's destruction. But perhaps he could have been, when he was mortal. Morgoth was wounded by Feanor with a mortal weapon, after all (elf weapons in Tolkien aren't, strictly speaking, "magical" but, rather, gear of exceptional craft). If he could wound Satan with nothing more than courage and a well-made blade what could the elf lord have done with a typical D&D magic weapon...something invested with supernatural power by a wizard?

Pullman's His Dark Materials (in which a couple kids kill old man God) hardly bears mentioning; not really the same genre. Neither is Piers Anthony's "Immortal Incarnate" series. Dragonlance I'll discuss when I talk about god-fighting in gaming proper. Probably I'm leaving out some (or a lot) of stuff, but I just don't read much fantasy anymore. And, anyway, one would think that "Awesome Confrontations Between Man and Godlike Being" would kind of stand out in Ye Old Memory. I used to read a lot of fantasy, and there ain't much popping up there.

SO...from whence this desire (in D&D) to fight/kill gods?

Just what are these "gods" in fantasy literature? I mean there's GOD, of course (omnipotent, omniscient, unknowable, and unavailable...more a force/influence than a being). Then there are 'the gods,' like the Greek/Norse pantheons (or Babylonian...currently reading Ship of Ishtar)...entities that are uber-powerful, live in a different realm, but have feelings/needs/thoughts that are recognizable by humans. There are supernatural entities from other dimensions/planets (Cthulhu, strange "intelligences," etc.). And then there are mortal beings of immense power that are worshipped as gods, but don't necessarily grant any special favors or divine influence...they simply inspire awe/reverence in lesser mortals (though the same could be said...on a grander scale...of ALL the various "god types" listed).

Different fantasy writers have tackled divinities in different ways (duh, JB) but, perhaps surprisingly, I feel a lot of authors take the approach of their being but one GOD (in the monotheist sense), perhaps with various demons and pretenders, but those certainly aren't necessary (Poul Anderson's Three Hearts, Three Lions is S&S and doesn't require any such entities). Certainly Tolkien is all Christian analogue with fallen angels and whatnot, but Howard's, too, stuff has a mostly Christian (i.e. monotheistic) vibe to it. Even his Conan stuff...while I joked before that Crom was probably mortal enough for Conan to slay, the fact is Crom never actually appears (and neither does Set or Mitra, etc.), nor do those gods grant any sort of "divine powers" to their devotees. Either they are false gods (as would be the typical monotheistic point of view) and their priests simply sorcerers, magicians, and charlatans OR they are just names/aspects of the One True God who (generally) stays out of mortal affairs, allowing folks to exercise free will.

And it makes sense that these writers would take this tack: American pulp writers of the early 20th century were, of course, individuals steeped in Western (generally monotheistic) cultures. They're just writing a fantastical version of the world they grew up in, some with reverence though plenty without.

[writers that leave out questions of divinity from their fantasy work at Vance and Zelazny...I chalk up in the same monotheistic category...the lack of a demiurge points to/emphasizes its existence. Regardless, no one is fighting gods in those books]

There ARE outliers, however, and three of them have had an immense impact on the Dungeons & Dragons game: Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Howard P. Lovecraft. Leiber's world of Nehwon is filled with gods of the "pantheon" variety; so is Moorcock's Young Kingdoms (although antihero Elric is always searching for a Grand Designer behind it all). HPL, of course, gives us all his crazy-ass Star Children from the far reaches of space. Of these three authors, I'd judge Leiber and Moorcock to have had the greatest impact on the game as far as "cosmology" is concerned. That being said, I think in all three authors' cases a major takeaway from their stories is: the gods are NOT to be futzed around with.

You don't fight them. You're not going to kill them. You certainly don't loot their bodies.

All of which runs quite counter to D&D's credo.

But I'll be talking about that in my follow-up post, which will be specifically focused on god-fighting in D&D.
: )

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Wow. I FINALLY Get It!

Sorry. This has nothing to do with whimsy, "gods in D&D," or Dragonlance in any way, shape or form. But I just had an amazing...nay, mind blowing epiphany that I wanted to share. 

For those readers who don't follow Grognardia, James has been writing about D&D ability scores lately. Musing about them really. Anyway, todays post was about the weirdness of the OD&D trade-off for prime requisites, a subject I thought I'd long since answered to my own satisfaction based on the instructions given in the Moldvay Basic book. In brief, my conclusion was: ability score adjustments are a means of offsetting low dice rolls in order to play a better version of the character class you've chosen for your PC.

But was it always meant to be that way?

Moldvay's mechanic is a streamlined version of OD&D's system, and in this context (helping out a low roll in one's prime area of expertise) it makes sense. However, Talysman from The Nine & Thirty Kingdoms had an incredibly astute observation. He wrote:
I think Gygax and/or Arneson had two conflicting ideas here: 

(1) Although each class has a prime ability, other abilities should improve performance in a class (smart and strong fighters should advance a little faster than those who are just strong.) This explains the different point ratios and why M-Us can't use Strength to improve earned experience. 
(2) An actual point swap, to reduce the risk of bad rolls. 

The problem is, they should have gone with #1 without #2, or #2 without #1. Trying to hang on to both leads to confusing language about lowering other ability scores, but only "for purposes of earned experience". Are we lowering the scores, or not?
To which I have the answer: they're not.

Gygax has penned a magnificent mechanic in OD&D that has been completely lost in his inability to express it coherently. Here is what he wrote:
Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each of the various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role. Categories of ability are; Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. Each player notes his appropriate scores...

The first three categories are the prime requisites for each of the three classes...

Strength is the prime requisite for fighters. Clerics can use strength on a 3 for 1 basis in their prime requisite area (wisdom), for purposes of gaining experience only. Strength will also aid in opening traps and so in.

Intelligence is the prime requisite for magical types. Both fighters and Clerics can use it in their prime requisite areas (strength and wisdom respectively) on a 2 for 1 basis. Intelligence will also affect referees' decision as to whether or not certain actions would be taken, and it allows additional languages to be spoken.

Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics. It may be used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters, and on a 2 for 1 basis by Magic-Users, in their respective prime requisite areas. Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.

[insert table that shows adjustment to earned experience based on prime requisite]

Note: Average scores are 9-12. Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring that category below average, i.e. below a score of 9.
The problem here, with my previous interpretation, is that I was using my knowledge of Moldvay (the B/X system I learned the game from) to infer the way the mechanic works in OD&D. In B/X a character's ability scores are exchanged...i.e. order to increase its prime requisite. That's not what Gygax writes. His term is USE.
A cleric may use strength on a 3 for 1 basis...
Both fighters and clerics can use [intelligence]...
[Wisdom] may be used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters...
Units so indicated may be used to increase...
"Use" does not mean "spent" or "exchanged."

What does that mean? It means that if I have a fighter with a 15 strength and a 13 intelligence, then my prime requisite is treated as 17 for purposes of gaining experience only. I can USE my intelligence on a 2 for 1 basis in my prime requisite area (strength), insofar as this does not bring the category below average, i.e. below a score of 9

In other words, I can only USE those points that exceed 9 when calculating my prime requisite, and only on a 2 for 1 basis (if we're talking about a fighter and her intelligence).

Why? Because a strong fighter that is SMART will advance just a bit faster than a fighter that is only strong.

This is the reason for the different rates of "use." Strength cannot be "used" by a magic-user (no exchange given) but by a cleric. Intelligence (smarts) are useful for both clerics and magic-users. Wisdom  is more useful to magic-users than the (bold, courageous, incautious) fighter.

And, yes, this STILL makes sense when you add in the thief class from Greyhawk (Supplement I): the prime requisite of a thief is dexterity. "They may use 2 points of intelligence and 1 point of wisdom to increase their raw dexterity score so long as they do not thereby bring the intelligence and wisdom scores below average." Smarts and caution/insight aid the thief in advancement, not strength. Makes perfect sense.

This is not an expenditure of points to improve an ability score. In answer to Talysman's query: NO, we are NOT "lowering" anything. We are USING points in excess of an average score in CERTAIN abilities (depending on class) to adjust a character's CALCULATED prime requisite to model the advantage of PCs that excel in multiple abilities deemed important for their profession.

Gygax just had a hard time saying that. And later he axed the mechanic from the game and simply said: roll 4D6, put them in order and if you have a 16+ in your prime requisite we'll give you a 10% bonus. Period, end of story.

Very simple. Fine for a game. Less of a model of "reality."

Man, I like OD&D more and more.

***EDIT TO ADD: And as Fr. Dave points out, the side benefit of this is that racial level limits can be increased (using these rules) withOUT the need for an 18 ability score. Your elf or dwarf fighter can make up for a lesser strength score with smarts or wisdom, de-emphasizing the imperative of high (rolled) scores.***

Monday, May 17, 2021

Whimsy - An Addendum

I guess I have a few more things to say following yesterday's "Whimsy" post. I'll try to keep the digressions to a bare minimum. 

When I talk about whimsy in Dungeons & Dragons or adventure/game design, I'm using the definition from my old Merriam-Webster dictionary:
a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation esp. in writing or art
I don't mean capriciousness, nor light hearted or humorous, and I certainly don't mean "gonzo," which my MW simply defines as:
...which is what you tend to get (in gaming) when you pile too much weird on top of weird.

When I wrote that Dragonlance was "post-apocalypse lite," I did not mean to imply it was light-hearted. I'm just saying that its particular version of PA fiction isn't quite as heavy and serious as what one finds in a "harder" look at the genre (considering "hard" to be like "hard science fiction"). And please don't infer my use of the terms "heavy" and "serious" to be "dark and awful" ...I'm saying it's not well thought out (see prior posts on steel currency and religion in DL). 

Dragonlance, for all its flaws, has whimsy. A treetop village is whimsy. A wizard cursed with hourglass eyes is whimsy. A dragon holding an elven king hostage in his own dreams is whimsy. And, yes, even a "steel currency" is whimsy...if also utter nonsense. 

No ewoks, just whimsy.

But for all its pretensions at being "epic fantasy," Dragonlance (at least in its fiction) is surprisingly down-to-earth. The characters care about money to pay for stuff. Their love lives are complicated and messy. People die of old age, get beat up, hurt, fall ill with sickness. They complain about things. They get annoyed with and yell at each other. It's not Tolkien. It's not Star Wars, following the exploits of some "chosen one." These people end up being the "heroes of the Lance," but ANYone could have been "heroes of the Lance" if they'd been in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time...the reason we're following this particular group is because they are the shmucks that ended up with the job and we want to watch how exactly that happened.

[okay, there is SOME pretentious "chosen one" stuff in DL...Goldmoon and Riverwind, for example, or Raistlin being a vessel for Fistandantilus, or Tanis just "happening" to have a past relationship with a Dragon Highlord. But the other characters are more-or-less interchangeable with ANY D&D miscreants]

That, for me, is what makes whimsy work. If you have this "normal" world (assuming, for the moment, that monsters and magic-users are "normal") with otherwise normal challenges (politics and economics, combat being a dangerous proposition, etc.) THEN the injection of the occasional strangeness can produce a feeling of "magic." Whimsy can produce wonder. And that makes for a cool/better game experience.

When EVERYthing is weird/ much so that the weird/strange becomes "business as usual"...that's when you get into gonzo territory. And that's a territory I don't generally like to hang out in. Maybe because it lacks a true "normal" point of reference for me to use in orienting myself to the material at hand.

Consider the animated Heavy Metal film.  The climactic short, Taarna, is pretty lame/throwaway as a story because so much of it is just weird on weird. It's an interesting visual image (at times), but the only scene that works for me at all is the one in the bar, because it reference so many tropes viewed in the western (gunslinger) genre. The BEST short of the bunch is probably Den of Earth because while the thing piles gonzo weirdness on top of gonzo weirdness it has a running narration from John Candy providing a "normal dude" commentary on all the weirdness. Despite its psychedelic plot/visuals it never loses its viewers' perspective or orientation.

"This mutant speaks
pretty good English."
Some OSR stuff...even some of the best OSR stuff...just has a hard time with this. Operation Unfathomable (which I own in hardcopy) is an example that springs immediately to mind. It's weird on top of weird with no chance to catch one's breath, no true respite from the gonzo, no chance to sit back and take stock. It's still cool, incredibly imaginative and evocative, definitely a fun read...and probably NOT an adventure I'll ever run. I want long-term campaign play (or gaming that has the potential for campaign play) not one-off weirdness. A world that will develop over time in recognizable fashion by the actions of the players, not something that starts strange, stays strange, and only gets stranger.  That ain't whimsy!

Neither is whimsy (necessarily) humorous or light-hearted. My buddy, Kris, who wrote the Black Rock Island adventure? Not a humorous dude. Too serious, one might say, though given to a terse chuckle when something (rarely) tickles his funny bone. Knowing him as I do, I'd say any humor or slapstick in the adventure is completely unintentional. He just isn't a jokey kind of guy (and the things that he does find amusing aren't always the same as the average person). Most humorous and "punny" stuff injected into old TSR adventures he'd call "dumb." And the black humor found in stuff like Warhammer FRP would just go straight over his head...just wouldn't even register.

Yes, whimsy can be light-hearted and humorous. A race of kleptomaniac halflings cannot help but draw chuckles if used with some restraint (they're really not much different from the mischievous house brownies of folklore). So can foodstuffs with magical properties. So can talking monsters that exhibit human-style foibles and personality flaws.

In the long-running AD&D campaign of my youth we had one character with an intelligent talking sword. It was beefy...a +4 broadsword with both dancing and defending properties, if I remember correctly...but it just would not shut up. Thing had a British accent, so was called "Chap" and the PC would argue with it constantly (it had a higher intelligence than its wielder). Both fanciful and amusing, after the character was retired from play, she'd still show up as a (shared) NPC, an occasional bit of comic relief in our games.

Comic relief has probably always been a necessary part of D&D play, because the game can be very tense and very emotional even when its not grim, dark, and awful. But comic relief isn't the point of "whimsy." Whimsy's purpose is to add magic to a game that might otherwise resemble nothing more than a numbers tracking game...whether you're talking hit points or gold or encumbrance or experience. D&D is more than just resource management and friends kabitzing around a table. And whimsy, in the right dosage, helps elevate the experience of play to something even more fanciful and fantastical.

That, I think, is what this game is all about: experiencing a fantasy. Folks may have additional reasons for playing, but they pale in comparison. There are better role-playing games for competition, challenge, and telling stories. But nothing's quite like D&D when you can add a bit of whimsy.

All right, that's enough for now.

Sunday, May 16, 2021


Weird dreams this morning, right before waking: was watching "young people" (late teens, early twenties) live their lives in small towns. Places like you find in central and eastern Washington: Ritzville, Winthrope, Leavenworth, Cle Elum maybe. Having fun with each other but mainly complaining about where they lived and how they wanted to get out or get back (to college, presumably) to somewhere more interesting. "The deadest part of my week has been my time spent here, except for my shift" one girl complained to her friends as they worked the kitchen of some eatery...maybe a summer job, earning money off the city tourists traveling to Chelan (or wherever) to get away from their rat-race life.

I've never lived in a small town. I've visited them often enough, seen them in film (of course), had friends and relatives who lived in or were from small towns. I have no idea what it's really like (and, of course, each town is different) and my views are surely biased by the folks I've talked to who wanted to get away...obviously, small towns continue to exist and have (small) populations so SOME people enjoy living there. Other people were not made for (or meant for) the life into which they were born. My mother wasn't...she moved to "the big city" (Seattle) from Missoula when she was 18. Neither was my wife, who escaped via travel (as an exchange student) multiple times before she met me.

Me, I was meant for the town I live in. Oh, I don't always feel that way...there are plenty of times when I find Seattlites to be annoying as hell, and understand why some parts of the country hate our particular piece of the American pie. I get it, and I sometimes feel like a man out of place, even here. The concerns some folks have (which aren't real concerns) or their approach to concerns I share, or their attitude towards...oh, any number of things. Stupid, stupid Seattle. And, no, it's not just the transplants from other parts of the country (we've had a lot of those the last 30 years)...there was stupid here even since my youth. I've had a few good friends, living here, and they've been evenly divided between "natives" (like myself) and "newbies" (people who moved here less than 25 years ago). 

[if you're not a native, but have lived here more than 25 years, you're simply considered a "local"]

Thank goodness for the internet where I have been able to interact with many more like-minded people. I assume they're "like-minded" because the only thing I have access to IS their mind: their thoughts spilling out on pages and blog posts just as mine do. Sure, it's possible that some are lying or crazy or whatnot ("Mama, we ALL crayzee here") but most of what I read tends to have a good measure of "soul baring," making for a decent window into someone's brain. Beware the persons unwilling to discuss their personal connections to the material they're discussing!

One gamer dude blog I've been reading a lot of recently (the last year or three...tough to keep track of that kind o thing) has been Prince of Nothing over at Age of Dusk. I like Prince's writing, I enjoy his (rather dark) sense of humor, I appreciate (much of) his stance with regard to gaming. Based on several strong reviews, I picked up print copies of his adventures The Red Prophet Rises and The Palace of Unquiet Repose


I am weary. I am old. I am curmudgeonly. Know This O Prince, and take what I have to say with a grain of salt: I will probably not be running these adventures

I understand that I am technically a part of "the OSR" or whatever, but these days that's about as meaningful as saying "I'm into tabletop role-playing games." The OSR is a very large is Dungeons & Dragons!...and I am but a single fish circling a particular piece of the shoreline (I won't carry the analogy any farther, because it will get weird). My type of "old school gaming" is different from what so many people are doing these's just...*sigh* how to explain? How to explain in a way that's helpful? Helpful to those few fish swimming in my part of the pond?

About 20-some years ago, my buddy Kris, AKA "The Doctor" (he is not a doctor) gave me an adventure he penned (typed); it sits next to me as I type this. It's in a blue folder with those metal bendy thingys used to hold three-punched notebook paper. In small, black letters on the cover are the words Black Rock Island. The cover page calls it The Dungeon of Black Rock Island, and notes that it is: "an Adventure for 1st edition AD&D; 5-6 characters level 8-10." The first paragraph before launching into the adventure proper says:
You have come to the city of Appleton, on the shores of the Sea of Serenity. You have come together in one way or another, be you long time friends or having just met somewhere along the paths that brought you all here. It is springtime and the time is ripe for adventure. This is good because the fair is in town this week. Fun and frolic for one and all. And just the place to get caught up in a tale you will all tell your grandchildren about some day...
The Doc was no great shakes as a writer. He was born and raised in Edmonds, just north of Shoreline (which used to be "unincorporated Seattle," back when I was growing up). He got through high school and spent his adult working life as a cook in various restaurants. He was a metalhead and a hell of a guitarist, but never did the "band thing" so far as I know (we would jam sometimes). He enjoyed smoking weed and drinking beer, drawing and painting. We shot a lot of pool together. In his mid-20s he "became" (was diagnosed) bi-polar manic-depressive after witnessing a traumatic event (someone being stabbed in a parking lot behind the restaurant he worked at). He got on medication, and then SSI, and soon became unable to work. He's bopped around a bit the last 20 years (living with various siblings and halfway homes since his parents died); the last time I saw him in person, he looked about 78 years old (he's two years older than me)...he'd lost all his teeth (had a hard time talking), his hands had some sort of palsy that prevented him from playing music or painting; overweight, bald, crooked posture, waiting to die.

I met the Doc circa 1997 and we gamed more than a few times together: usually AD&D, but also 2E a couple times, Vampire, Maelstrom (Story Engine), Top Secret, as well as my entire stint with 3E (we both became disgusted with it about the same time). I did some of my first "on-line" gaming with him (both PBEM and in chat cameras back then). After he moved away from the area (too expensive) we still kept in touch (not gaming, though) until I moved to Paraguay, though I can reach him on Facebook (just messaged with him yesterday, in fact). Despite our vast differences as individuals, we are kindred spirits. Knowing him as I do, I think he might actually HATE the stuff Prince has written:
4. Rodeo
This area is 120 yards X 80 yards. It is completely fenced off and the center if filled with loose dirt. As you approach, you hear a man's voice calling out, "WIN 500 GOLD - RIDE THE WILD IGUANADON - WIN 500 GOLD!!!" At one end of the ring is indeed an iguanadon. It's mouth is roped shut and it's claws are covered with some kind of leather gloves. There is a small, crude saddle on its back and you can see even from this distance that it is stained with blood.
Kris's adventure design exhibits the "box text" style prevalent in 1980s D&D modules, but it is mercifully short in most places. Since he couldn't make actual boxes for the text, each entry uses black ink for the read aloud bit and follows with red ink for the stats and DM information. All encounter areas correspond to a number on the map. Here's an example (I'll use italics instead of red font):
9. Milo's Amazing Flying Machine
There is a small lineup of about 20 people waiting to board. A smiling Halfling, apparently Milo, waves people to come aboard. He shouts, "Come one, come all! Men, women, and children! Take a ride on my fantastic flying ship! Right this way now!"
If questioned about the function of the ship or where he came across it, Milo will tell the party it was passed down from his grandfather, Olnick Featherstram, who was a great sailor and explorer The ship was discovered on one of his many fantastic voyages. He's not sure how the enchantment works, but he does know how to sail it. If pressed further for details on the origin of the ship, Milo will simply say that, "It was a long time ago that my grandfather discovered this ship and I'm really not sure how it was that he came across it."
There's no excessive backstory for the adventure; a list of rumors can be heard if the PCs visit the food area of the fairgrounds. Most encounters help funnel the party to take a ride on the airship, which will be attacked by an evil wizard and his fire newt henchmen riding a giant flying whale. Assuming the party survives the attack, the ship will be forced to crash land on Black Rock Island, the abode of the said evil wizard (and his gnome assassin henchman!). The whole adventure is delightfully whimsical: magic statues ask riddles and spray poison if answered incorrectly. The gnome has a maze on dungeon level 2 that he likes to stalk PCs in (reminiscent of Enter the Dragon or Man with the Golden Gun). Xorns that demand silver. A dragon turtle on level three lives in a giant fishbowl, complete with miniature castle (answering the creature's riddle correctly allows party's to raise the portcullis and find the treasure inside...if they can breathe water). Down three long flights of stairs, in its own sub-level, a Type V demon waits in the middle of its large chamber, described as follows:
44a. Type V Demon
The walls and floor of this room are smeared with blood. And a crude pentagram has been drawn in blood, covering the floor. It is dimly illuminated by four candelabras, one in each corner of the room. There is a dark crevasse in the wall on the other side of the room. Suddenly, there is a flash and a Type V Demon appears in the center of the room. She attacks you on sight.
Type V Demon (AC -7/-5, move 12", HD 7+7, hp 62...
I love this entry. I love that it offers no information whatsoever why a Type V demon is here...players don't care anyway, they're just going to attack, so why bother (probably it was summoned by the wizard using a cacodaemon spell and HE still hasn't decided what to do with her). I love that the read aloud simply says "a Type V Demon appears;" this is an AD&D adventure written circa 2000 or 2001...everyone who's playing this knows what the hell a Type V demon is (and if not, you can show the players the MM illustration; the page number is listed in the monster's stat block). The PCs are supposed to be 8th to 10th level, after all. 

There's no treasure with the Type V demon...the crack in the wall leads to a small cave where the party will find the dismembered body of Appleton's mayor, Regis Fane Wellington III. But there IS treasure to be found in the dungeon: hundreds of thousands, squirreled away in various areas (and not a small amount of magical treasure, too) as befits an adventure for characters of the suggested level. 

No, it's not great "design" or high concept stuff. But it's both fun and dangerous. And rewarding, too, not just for looting (little x.p, bonuses abound, like the critically injured passengers of the crashed airship who will die off on a daily basis...the party can earn 1,000 x.p. for each one saved). It's an adventure that's written to be played in the style that Kris and I grew up playing. It's meant to be experienced as a game, in-play.

This sense of whimsy and playability isn't present in a lot of the newer OSR stuff...even the good stuff, the well-written stuff with an eye towards usability and design. Prince's stuff is plenty moody and evocative, but there's a lot of "awful" in it. Not awful writing or design, but just awfulness. His world is grim and perilous and dark and everything sucks and is awful and if the players are winning they're still probably losing because it feels like everything in this world is shitty and it's only a matter of time before you get stabbed in the back or robbed or lose your soul to some demonic purpose. That's not my kind of escapism...that kind of thing should potentially happen in the game, but it shouldn't be inevitable

Do folks grok me? I LIKE swords & sorcery of the darker variety...I just ordered two Elric hardcover graphic novels last week! I'm a fan of Karl Wagner's Kane. I read post-apocalyptic fiction which almost never has anything like a "happy" ending. But...dammit! Elric still searches for his happy ending, even if he continually makes incredibly poor choices, dooming himself...his destruction is caused by his own hubris, not some inevitability of doom and gloom! 

It's like folks can't get over the whole "killing monsters for money" thing. These people must all be assholes, living in an asshole world, because only assholes murder people and take their stuff. Yeah, that's true...IN REAL LIFE! It's like people keep forgetting this is a game with talking dragons and evil faeries (goblins) and shit. Oh, the humanity of our orcish brethren! Not to mention the grell lurking in the corner.

[Black Rock Island DOES have an encounter with a grell. It has no treasure]

Maybe this is part of why I keep coming back to Dragonlance. Dragonlance is stupid, pretentious (at times), poorly designed (for its game), and inconsistently written. But it still has whimsy to it (more so in the original novels)'s not a true post-apocalyptic's "post-apocalypse lite." It's D&D...when the PCs meet some hobgoblins on the road, they talk to them before the (probably inevitable) bloodletting by the side of the road.  In the novel, the talking is nice and civilized; after the combat, the victorious PCs are fairly gleeful at the murders they've just committed. This kind of thing, for me, harkens back to an Alexander Dumas tale: the musketeers are all fine and dandy exchanging barbs and witticisms (i.e. communicating), and just as easy at dealing death (with nary a sign of remorse). It's adventure fiction. D&D is adventure fiction that you get to play. 

Game of Thrones isn't adventure fiction (it ain't historical fiction either); it's blood opera and sadness and awfulness. There's neither whimsy nor adventure nor fun to be found in the books I've read (I've only read the first couple). It doesn't work as D&D, though maybe it'd be okay as re-skinned fantasy melodrama like Pendragon. I wouldn't know because, in the end, it's not really my cup o tea for longterm play (nor that of my "kindred spirit" gamers). 

But I'm hopelessly obtuse; hopelessly behind the times. I've watched Big Trouble in Little China a couple dozen times over the years, and it was only yesterday (not watching it) that I thought about the fact that, hey! Those people they rescue from the bamboo cages when they're freeing Margot and have that fight when the ninja chicks on the bridge and whatnot? Most of those people were victims of human trafficking, destined to be involuntarily addicted to heroin and forced into prostitution! That's like incredibly creepy, shitty awful stuff, that I completely ignored in my mind for decades! As I said, I am hopelessly obtuse...but if my mind didn't once consider "who are these people the protagonists are breaking out of cages" it's because I was so caught up in the story being told by director...not one of oppression and slavery and humanity's awfulness towards each other, but gleeful adventure fiction. Delightfully whimsical. 

Anyway. This is what I've been thinking about since yesterday. Saturday was a delightful day: sunny and beautiful. Got to watch my kid's last soccer game in the morning (followed by a pizza party), then watched him play Little League ball in the afternoon (I love watching Little's the Bad News Bears out there, every day, every team), before ordering pizza (again) for dinner. Couple cold beers to wash it down with followed by the Mariners clawing their way back to .500 (that's not going to last) and then early to bed (for me) to sleep off the second vaccination dose I got administered at 7:45am. I feel good today, even though I'm about out of coffee...but I'll make another pot as soon as I finish posting this. 

Whimsy. It ain't so bad one or two days a week. And how often per week do you get to play D&D?

Friday, May 14, 2021

S**t Stocking

A little Friday "fun rant" for my faithful readers...God bless you all!

This is an interesting take. I've seen lots of people talk about just using the dungeons from the DL modules and dumping all the surrounding story and Dragonlance setting stuff. You're the first person I've seen decide that one of the dungeons had to be modified this extensively.
You can read my (rather long) reply, but the gist of it was: there's really nothing else I can do. Using the dungeon withOUT the setting material (and overall story arc) is complete and ridiculous nonsense because the adventure site isn't stocked correctly for its scale/size, nor for the edition for which it was (ostensibly) designed...that edition being AD&D (1E).

Let's assume, just for "funsies," that you decide you LOVE the dungeon of Xak Tsaroth (sunken cities and black dragons are great!), but HATE the Dragonlance setting (steel pieces! kender!), not to mention the whole railroad story arc/plot thing. If you take the dungeon AS WRITTEN and drop it into your campaign world, let me tell you what the party can expect to find as a reward for exploring its depths:


There are exactly NINE encounter areas with "treasure" and only SEVEN that have value outside of the DL setting (because a setting that uses steel as a currency of exchange values big slabs of steel). Here they are, in order (and, no, this isn't "spoiling" anything, because this adventure has been rotten as 1E fare since its inception):

#1 Doors at the entrance (first encounter area of the dungeon!): two sets of golden double doors weighing 2500 pounds each. In the DL setting, they're fairly worthless, but you can haul them to a city where gold is valued at an exchange rate of 10 to 1 steel. As such, they are worth 10,000 x.p. for all five tons of door. Since this is the first encounter area, a group of low level PCs could do well knocking them off their hinges. Hauling them through the swamp and back to occupied Dragon Lands (where they have value) might be a bit "problematic."

#2 Magic scroll: a single spell scroll with lightning bolt. Guarded by three hobgoblins, er, draconians that fight to the death. 300 x.p.

#3 Small box of five gems, sitting on the floor at the edge of a 30' wide pit (don't fall in!). Each is worth 1000 gold...which means a total value of 500 steel pieces if exchanged in the right place (I guess gems aren't valued either). Since PCs earn 1 x.p. per steel piece, the designers wanted to place a treasure worth 500 x.p.

#4 Six magic swords in a crypt. Each sword +1 is in a stone sarcophagus containing the body of a deceased king. Kind of awesome, but also kind of not (the pre-gens are already armed with +2 and +3 weapons). 2,400 x.p.

#5 Pair of steel doors (located on the 3rd level): each of these weigh 150# and each is worth 15,000 gold (or 1,500 steel other words, they're worth their weight in steel). 3,000 x.p. though trying to get these out of the dungeon will be a real pain in the ass (they'll need to be hauled by the cauldron/elevator, as they probably won't fit in the sewer pipe that leads to this level).

#6 Weapons cache (on 5th level, beyond several rooms housing the bulk of the draconians): three steel long swords of superior craftsmanship (equivalent of +2), an elven bow, and a quiver of 12 +1 arrows. 2,420 x.p. plus whatever value you give an "elven bow."

#7 Palace treasury! 30,00 clay "Culli" tablets (worthless), three throwing daggers +3, gauntlets of climbing (but not swimming?), a shield +1, and a spell book containing wizard lock, knock, and invisibility.  Total value: 2,550 x.p.

#8 More steel doors! Behind them is the dragon's lair, so removing them in a stealthy fashion is likely to be a "challenge." Each weighs 50 pounds, and the adventure doesn't bother to list their value...probably because the designers expect PCs to one-shot the dragon and bring the dungeon crashing down on their heads. However, based on the earlier entry we can calculate their worth 500 steel coins each. 1,000 x.p.

#9 Dragon's hoard! This is it: the big payoff for the adventure. The huge, ancient, spell-using black dragon has the following treasure: the Disks of Mishakal (priceless), 56 gems (200 gold each), a cloak of invisibility, and 1,000 platinum pieces. The dragon wears a ring of darkness (no value given) which will most likely be disintegrated when the PC wielding the blue crystal staff one-shots the monster. Total value depends on whether you're exchanging the platinum in Seeker lands (in which case they're worth 2,000 steel) or Dragon lands (5,000 steel). Since the gems only have value in Dragon lands (where 10gp = 1 steel), we'll fence our loot there: 7,120 x.p. (counting the cloak as the elven variety, and giving no experience for the ring or Disks...they are, after all, an artifact).

SO...for those keeping score at home, that adds up to approximately 29,290 x.p. in potential treasure given the intentional stocking (and exchange rates) provided by the writers. The pre-generated party consists of eight characters, most of whom are levels 4-6 (the suggested level range of the adventure)...and since their survival is almost certainly assured by the weak sauce encounters, that works out to a bit more than 4,000 x.p. apiece (all the PCs have high enough prime requisites to earn the 10% bonus). 

Screw you, Hickman.
Since even the 3rd level magic-user (the only character under 4th) requires 5,000 experience to advance, this is a slap in the face after the time it's going to take to plumb the depths of a five level, 84 room dungeon. A normal black dragon would be expected to have about 50,000 x.p. worth of monetary treasure in its hoard (treasure type H)...there's not that amount of treasure in the entire dungeon! That is bullshit.

UNLESS (big caveat there) you're running the Dragonlance saga in the manner intended.

You see, that's the crux: regardless of whether or not you like riding down the DL railroad, it works (and only works) in that capacity. PCs level up as required by the story, not as 1E adventurers. It's pretty dumb that the designers even bother writing the bit about 1 steel piece earning 1 experience point. Who cares? I'll just use the plot armored pre-gens at whatever level each adventure is designed to be used. It's the ONLY way these modules function.

Which is why any DM choosing to "drop this into their campaign" UN-modified is hopelessly out of their mind! Any reasonable player would lynch their DM after playing this thing for six weeks and coming away with a couple thousand gold and a +1 sword (always assuming they find a way to loot those doors!). That is shitty dungeon stocking. My kid wouldn't even do that (frankly, he's more likely to overstock, with regard to both monster strength and treasure). I would not stand for it as a player...I will not stand for it as a DM. 

I do have a heart, after all!

SO...when I was writing yesterday that I wanted to up the treasure to 200K-300K, I wasn't exaggerating. Even using a "normal" D&D economy (with gold having value and experience being awarded based on that value), the treasure in this adventure only works out to 129,870 x.p. worth of treasure...and 100,000 of that comes from the four golden doors at the entrance to the dungeon! Nope. Just...garbage.

In a normal B/X type dungeon, it would be reasonable to find treasure in roughly one-third of all encounter areas; that's what I shoot for when stocking dungeons. For something the size of Xak Tsaroth, I'd need at least 28 of the 84 encounter areas to hold something of value, with the best loot being deeper in the dungeon. Of course, the largest and most valuable cache of treasure would be in the hoard of the ancient black dragon. The monetary value of such a creature's hoard in B/X would be about 40,000 g.p. (average treasure for type H, doubled, and divided by 2.5, the average number of dragons in a lair). That's 40K without magic items...and there's going to have to be more than a damned elven cloak to entice a party into a dragon's lair!

[yes, yes...I know this is an adventure for AD&D, not B/X. They're close enough...add 15-20% to the values and you get a good approximation]

All right, that's it. Back to work on my teardown-rebuild. Hope everyone has a great weekend!
: )