Monday 24 February 2014

Everyone Else: The Trolls of Mistwood

A serious problem with the “Everyone Else” series that I had been working on is that I am so far behind that, when I get to a product, it is too little, too late.  So, I am going to try something different, and start with recent products, working my way back.

Caveat:  I am pretty deeply enmeshed with the DCC community now, and I have relationships of some sort or another with most of the good folks publishing DCC materials.  

In the case of The Trolls of Mistwood, by David Fisher (Shinobi 27 Games), I am listed as an editor.  I was lucky enough to have seen this adventure at several stages of its development, and had some very modest input into the direction of the final version.  So, you can take all of my comments with a grain of salt if you like.

The Trolls of Mistwood is a higher-level adventure (4-6), and is intended as the first of several adventures centring around the same region.  It makes use of patron information from Angels, Daemons, & Beings Between, and provides most of the information needed to run the scenario.  You may want to have a copy of the Invoke Patron table for Hecate, Goddess of Witches handy, and that is not included.  You can find it here if you don’t have the AD&BB tome.

Without giving too much away, the adventure revolves around trolls.  Author David Fisher cleaves pretty close to the standard fantasy types for monsters, but this actually makes the adventure work better, as those places where expectations are confounded become more unexpected.  There are some cool magic items, including a very detailed magic sword. 

The inclusion of Mistwood, a settlement that is fully described for Dungeon Crawl Classics, is a very definite bonus – DCC could use a similar product targeted at low-level play, ala Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet.  Of course, the clever judge who started early could use Mistwood as a campaign location from the funnel onward, bringing the successful PCs back home to deal with the village’s problems when they have gained a few levels and toughened up some.  Doom of the Savage Kings (by Harley Stroh; Goodman Games) comes closest to date, and has supplied many a campaign with a potential starting point.

I like the art of David Fisher, and it should be no surprise that, when the author is the artist, there are some nice pieces of art in the final product.  There are some of David’s “clip art” pieces, and his images including trolls are among his best.  I would have preferred that the NPC pictures were less “pose-y”, but you can’t have everything, and for many a judge the images are usable as a visual aid. The cartography is excellent.  It is not surprising that two of the maps have been made available separately as colour art pieces. 

Overall, I am pleased with how The Trolls of Mistwood turned out.  Flavour-wise, the adventure seems to very much influenced by Poul Anderson – which is a good thing, as Poul Anderson gave us the modern rpg troll.  Gary Gygax’s trolls are very much those seen in Three Hearts and Three Lions, with a long-nosed nod to the trolls in L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s The Roaring Trumpet.  I think there is a bit of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance in there as well, although that may just be me looking for influences that may or may not exist.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Empty Spaces

"The room appears to be empty."

As a player, do those words drive fear into your heart?  As a GM, do you find yourself gritting your teeth and wondering why the author of a module would have included another empty room?

Well, take heart.  There are good reasons to include empty spaces in an adventure design.  A few of those reasons are listed below.

1.  The Dread Verisimilitude:  Yes, an adventure location seems far more "real" when every space is not packed to the gills with monsters and treasure.  One of the main criticisms of the dungeon crawl is that so many creatures live in such close proximity without murdering each other.  A really simple solution to this problem, and one that existed when the hobby began, is to include empty spaces. 

2.  Player and Monster Tactics:  Knowledge of the layout of empty spaces allows players to lure monsters into an ambush, and vice versa.  Being able to pass through empty spaces may also mean an ability to bypass certain encounters, which may mean the difference between success and a TPK.

3.  Somewhere to Rest:  Those unfrequented areas of the dungeon make ideal spots for battered PCs to retreat to.  Which leads to....

4.  Change My Dear, and Not a Moment Too Soon:  If areas are empty as the PCs pass through them repeatedly, they can be caught off-guard by unexpected inhabitants.  These might be wandering encounters, they might be ambushes (see #2, above), and they might be battered monsters looking for somewhere to rest (ala #3).  In this last case, the monsters may not be so eager to leap into battle, and the PCs may have the rare chance to exchange words with a manticore (or whathaveyou).

5.  Disguise:  Rooms that are actually empty disguise rooms that appear to be empty, but which actually contain hidden traps, treasures, or monsters.  If there is something in every room, then the supposedly "empty" room in which something is hidden sticks out like a sore thumb.  This encourages "pixel bashing", where having many "empty" rooms actually be empty discourages the same because it is not rewarded.

It should be remembered that "empty" in this case need not mean boring.  The "empty" room can have interesting features (aka "dungeon dressing") that point toward a larger backstory for the adventure location. Such areas can contain clues to the nature of the dungeon as a whole - an ancient kitchen indicates that there should be store rooms nearby, and a dining area.  Perhaps there is also a way to the surface close at hand, with which the pantries were stocked!  

It is not only deadly monsters and traps that deserve a "footprint". The good judge considers how to pass context on to his players at every opportunity.

Thursday 20 February 2014

A Tale of Two Zines

We all know and love Crawl! – or, at least, I do – but there are two new zines for DCC in town.  Allow me to introduce you to Crawljammer and Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad.

Crawljammer is basically Dungeon Crawl Classics in fantasy space – think more Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.L. Moore, and less Poul Anderson and you have the idea.  The zine is the brainchild of Tim Callahan, and his son!, who wrote most of the first issue’s content.  The first issue is pretty much a primer on the setting, information (including a playable class) on lizardmen in space, and a 1st level adventure set on Venus.

I have not yet played the adventure, Cry Freedom and Let Slip the Bat-Men of Venus, but the Burroughs vibe definitely comes through when reading it, and I suspect that it will play well. 

Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, by contrast, takes place in a sprawling metropolis where the “Metal Gods” refer both to human mastery of iron and steel…and of Metal music.  “These heroes became the first Metal Gods, as did all true masters of Metal who came after them, destined make war and debauch throughout the Celestial Realms until needed by Man once again.”  Metal Gods is largely the product of three people:  Wayne Snyder, Edgar Johnson, and Adam Muszkiewicz.

Like Crawljammer, the first issue sets the scene and then offers an adventure.  It also then offers what it refers to as a “Dungeon Insert” – a short encounter/adventure by another name.  The main adventure is Street Kids of Ur-Hadad, which is described as “A Zero Level Funnel Adventure Toolkit”, and that is a fair description.  You could play it many times, and it would be different each time.  This one’s by Edgar Johnson.

The “Dungeon Insert” is called Cave of the Maggot Witch, and is by Wayne Snyder.  It’s interesting, but suffers a bit from being hand-written.  My print copy has not yet arrived; I am reading the PDF copy, so it may appear easier to read with hardcopy.  As with Crawljammer, I have read the adventures, but not yet played them through, but they seem fun.

In a side-by-side comparison, Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad has more material packed into it.  Crawljammer offers a wider setting, and has rules for ship engagements in space.  Metal Gods focuses on a very specific urban setting; Crawljammer paints its fantasy solar system in broad strokes – the setting is as wide and diverse as you choose to make it.  Both are obviously labours of love, and worth the price of admission.  If you were choosing between them, go with what interests you more:  an urban setting or planetary/space romance.  And then, when you have a bit more coin, also pick up the zine you skipped.  You’ll thank me.

Postscript the First:  I love zines, and I want to support these two additions to the DCC family by contributing some writing to them.  I am thinking a zero-level funnel for Crawljammer, but I haven’t the foggiest what to submit to Metal Gods.  If you have some ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Postscript the Second:  Crawl! #9The Arwich Grinder – and D.A.M.N.! #1 …. Where are the reviews?  All I can hear are the bloody crickets, I tell you.  Bloody crickets.

So what to do about that?

Well, imagine that I do have something printed in both Crawljammer and Metal Gods at some future point.  When that Crawljammer issue comes out, I am going to see if anyone linked their Crawl! #9 review in the responses to this blog post, and then random-roll a winner, who I am going to send a free copy of the first issue of Crawljammer I have something published in.

Guess what's going to happen with Metal Gods?  That's right, I'm going to do the same with reviews of D.A.M.N.! #1.  Someone who posted a review of D.A.M.N. #1 and linked it to this blog post's responses will get that issue of Metal Gods on my dime.

Not sure how long you have for that; I haven't started working on either, and there are a number of other things on my plate.  But I am nothing if not prolific.....

Wednesday 19 February 2014

How Much Is Too Much

When designing a game area, how much is too much?  There is a real difference between early adventures, wherein PCs could die – or there could even be a TPK – without any obvious clues that the hammer was about to fall, and Dungeons & Dragons under Wizards of the Coast's 3rd and 4th Editions, where balance was expected and the PCs should be able to take most encounters they met with.

I will assume that readers of this blog understand that encounters do not need to be “balanced” against some idealized party, and that sometimes it is okay for the players to choose to run away.  Still, the question remains:  How deadly is too deadly?

I have three rules of thumb that help me gauge appropriate threat levels:

(1)  Before I put anything truly deadly in, did I include a “footprint” from which the players might be able to deduce that Bad Things Might Happen?

If Smaug lives in the Lonely Mountain, and the PCs head there at 1st level, that's too bad for them.  There was certainly enough "footprint" leading up to the Desolation of the Dragon.  On the other hand, the footprint need not be so clear.

Adventuring – going into dangerous areas to strive with dangerous things, and hopefully to reap the rewards of the same – is intrinsically perilous.  There is a reason why villagers stay home and bake bread, reap the crops, and repair your horseshoes rather than face what lies out in the dark.  Sooner or later, what lurks in the darkness will kill you.  Expecting that everything you meet will be a “balanced encounter” is not only foolish, but it defeats the experience of challenging the unknown.

Trying to figure out the clues is one of the places where player agency shines.  In WotC-D&D, it has been said that the GM has been given better tools to judge the balance of encounters.  In a game focusing on exploring the unknown, it is the players, not the judge, whose job it is to determine whether or not an encounter will be potentially profitable, or even survivable.

This is not a subtle distinction.  In one sort of game, the GM is primarily responsible for ensuring that his encounters are survivable by the PCs, and often the GM is responsible for gauging the average resources to be expended and ensuring that replacements are at hand.  In the other sort of game, the judge is primarily responsible for creating an interesting environment to explore, and part of that is ensuring that the players can obtain enough information to make reasonable choices.  Note, I did not say that the players will obtain enough information – merely with good play, and a little luck, they have the potential to do so.

There is another real benefit to a good “footprint”:  When the Bad Things are finally revealed, the players get either a moment of “Aha!  So that is what those clues meant!” or a smug sense of “Aha!  I told you so!”  Both of these feelings are among those that gamers talk about long after the dice have cooled and the foes are dead.

(2)  Is it possible to handle the encounter?  Even if handling it means “running away”, is it possible to run?

Imagine an “encounter” where you walk into the dungeon, and, regardless of what you do, the first corridor collapses on the party, killing them instantly.  That would suck.  Imagine, instead, that at the end of the first corridor was a lever that did the same thing.  Now the players have a way to handle the encounter – they have agency.  A spell (second sight, for example, in DCC) might give a clue, or the players may discover a way to pull the lever from a distance.  A thief might be able to determine that the lever is a trigger for a trap.  The PCs might just leave it alone.

For those of you who have played James Raggi’s excellent Death Frost Doom, you will know that there is an encounter which, depending upon how it is handled, affects the way the rest of the adventure plays out.  That is a good example of an encounter that can be handled in many ways, but which is likely to be handled in a particularly disastrous way.

Playing Death Frost Doom, my older daughter swore at me for the first time.  Not unfairly; the game was tense, and I was enjoying their reactions to it.  Nonetheless, the players remember that game, and that is an important thing.  They did not simply waste their time; they were challenged in a way that was both entertaining and memorable.  When they finally managed to undo the consequences of that first disastrous attempt, the triumph was all the sweeter.

(3)  Am I willing to live with the consequences of the PCs’ failure?

Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb to adhere to.  If the PCs failing means the End of the World, and you are unwilling to let the World End, you are doing something wrong.  Suddenly, you need to fudge the dice, or the encounters, to ensure that the PCs win.  This is not the players being challenged by the game; this is the players being spectators while you play with yourself.

Really, if there is a TPK, so what?  As Joseph Goodman points out in the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook, you can always play through the party’s desperate attempt the escape Hell.  And I would not make that attempt easy, either.  A “second death” would render future attempts impossible…

In terms of acceptable consequences for failure, all that I can say is look at the material I have written and had published.  Even the characters who survive may find that they have been altered for the worse (or sometimes for the better), if they are foolish, or unlucky, or both.  And I play a game that supports me in that – an unlucky corruption roll, misfired magic, or a critical hit against you can change your life forever in Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Player agency is not only “how do I get what I want?”, but also “How do I deal with what I get?”  Both parts are important.  The judge should never be “out to get the players” – that is an uneven contest, and is frankly not much fun on either side.  What the judge should be out to do is to present a world where there are many things which may be out to get the players, and in which it is possible for the players – through greed, impatience, lack of caution, or even sheer bad luck – to discover that they have bitten off far more than they can chew.

A note on horror:  Horror in an RPG works best when the players begin with a lot of agency, but as a consequence of their choices see that agency dwindling while they are being herded towards an unknown, but clearly evil, end.  The struggle to restore agency before it is too late – often by dealing with choices that you would never otherwise consider – is horror’s bleeding heart.

Avoiding those choices and still succeeding offers a eucatastrophe that only works if the choices were real, and the need to consider them equally so.  You will never find players so eager to think outside the box as when they are faced with three bad options and they are desperate to invent a fourth.

Another Note on Deadly Games:  When I mentioned that I was writing this blog post, my son’s initial reaction was a blank stare that spoke volumes.  Really, what is the point of overcoming a “challenge” that is designed to allow you to defeat it?  That’s like eating chili without any spices.  In many ways, the potential to fail defines the potential to succeed.

In Conclusion

How far is too far? 

I don’t know.  My players surprise me.  Every time I think I have gone too far, it turns out that I have not gone far enough.  Greater challenges seem to just create greater players.

Last night I played the first session of Silent Nightfall with a party consisting of two 8th level warriors, an 8th level wizard, a 5th level cleric, and a 2nd level dwarf.  One of the warriors was knocked to 0 hp (in his defense, he started with a 4 Stamina).  Thus far, they have explored only one room and part of the central shaft. 

They did really well against some foes that came into a nearby village when they ignored the village’s “silent nightfall”, but half the party is already ready to run away from the adventure site.

CE 5: Silent Nightfall is rated for characters of level 2+.

Ask me again how far is too far, and I will tell you again that I don’t know.

I try to figure out where the edge is, and then inhabit the zone just beyond it, but my players are always pushing the frontier back.  These days, even 0-level funnels often have more survivors than slain, as the players figure out how to deal with what they have available.

Monday 17 February 2014

Silent Nightfall.....Epic?

Tomorrow night, I will start running CE 5: Silent Nightfall for 8th level DCC characters.  Basically, this is to allow my players to re-use the characters they created for Harley Stroh's Colossus, Arise!  I would like to see if "level 2+" really works, and I believe that a number of challenges in CE 5 will prove to be "level proof" in that they require the players, not their characters, to think things through.  Also, the design of the map is such that I don't think the major strengths of high-level characters - such as the ability to affect many visible targets with a single spell - can easily be brought to bear.

I can't say too much, because my players also read this blog, but I will be happy to report on their experiences as they work their way through the complex.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Pending Approval

Well, the text of FT 1: Creeping Beauties of the Woods just went to Mark Gedak for approval, and from him it goes to Joseph Goodman.


If all goes well, this will be a module that exceeds Prince Charming, Reanimator in all kinds of ways.  It offers a larger sandbox, as well as a larger glimpse into the world of the Faerie Tales From Unlit Shores series.  It offers a more complete Doctor Chapman, an approved Hizzzgrad (assuming approval), and Faerie Animals as a playable character class.

Did I mention that it offers a Goblin Market?

Where FT 0 was firmly Lovecraftian, FT 1 uses more influences from various Appendix N authors (and fairy tales, or fairy-tale-like works).  Don't worry, though, you lovers of Lovecraft.  You will see plenty more of his influence in FT 2: The Portsmouth Mermaid.

Friday 14 February 2014

That Hideous Heart

It is said that when Percy Bysshe Shelley died, his wife, author Mary Shelley, plucked his heart from the still-burning pyre, and kept it until her own death.  If so, his was a lucky heart, for not all are so dearly loved.  Some are ripped untimely from the breast of the lovelorn by the actions of cruel lovers, and, while their owners never love again, they are unaware that their hearts have left them to become the bloated un-dead known as hideous hearts.

A hideous heart appears like a monstrous, throbbing heart, swollen to the size of a human head.  Pulsing, rope like veins extend from it, which it uses to pull itself along.  It can also use these veins to grasp and strangle, causing its base damage automatically each round.  The hideous heart still makes a normal attack roll; if it succeeds, it also does 1d3 points of temporary Stamina damage from strangulation.  It is possible for the heart to critically hit a grasped character, with the normal effects.  There is a 3 in 6 chance that any melee attack against a hideous heart which misses must be rerolled against any character it is grasping.  A grasped character can escape from a hideous heart with an opposed Strength check (the heart has a +5 bonus), but this uses an Action Die.

This creature is stealthy, attacking by surprise on a 3 in 6 chance.

A hideous heart is completely immune to all charms and mind-affecting magic, having long ago given up on its emotions.  It radiates cold, and although this does no extra damage it may offer a hint to the heart’s weakness:  fire- or heat-based attacks do an extra 1d6 against the monster.

Hideous Heart:  Init +4; Atk grasping vein +3 melee (1d3); AC 15; HD 4d12; MV 20’ and climb 20’; Act 2d20; SP un-dead traits, grasp, strangle, stealthy, vulnerable to fire; SV Fort +4, Ref +0, Will +8; AL C.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday 13 February 2014

House Rule: Luck

No mortal creature may have a permanent Luck score of 20 or higher.  If your Luck reaches this exalted pinnacle, the Gods of Fate demand instant retribution and redistribution of your Luck.  Roll 3d6.  The result is your new Luck score.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Al-mi’raj for DCC

An al-mi’raj appears to be a large rabbit, often with yellowish, blue, or black fur.  It has a one-foot-long pearly horn rising from its forehead.  Al-mi’raj have a natural ability to sense open spaces within 15 feet of them, as well as a limited ability to teleport.  They live in warrens, often built around abandoned burrows, sealed tombs, and other spaces without any obvious entrance or egress.  They are not aggressive, unless their warrens are breached.  Even then, al-mi’raj tend to flee rather than fight.  To many treasure-seekers, al-mi’raj are less of a challenge than an indication that a hidden tomb might exist nearby. Any treasure thus found is incidental, being part of the al-mi’raj lair rather than something intentionally collected by the creatures.

Al-mi’raj can teleport up to a distance of 20 feet as part of their movement each round.  They can also do so when, gaining a Reflex (DC equal to attack roll total) to avoid the attack.  An al-mi’raj who makes this save may automatically places itself into a position where it gains a +2 bonus to its own attack roll.

whenever possible, al-mi'raj flee via teleportation, teleporting into any hidden open space within 15 feet.  Since al-mi’raj burrows tend to be rabbit-like warrens, there is almost always such a space available.  In their lair, however, al-mi’raj stand to fight.  In this case, they gain a +2 bonus on their attack rolls anytime they successfully teleport away from an attack.

Attempts to domesticate these creatures have, thus far, been utter failures.  Indeed, with their ability to teleport, even managing to keep them captive is nearly impossible.

Al-mi'raj:  Init +4; Atk impale +0 melee (1d3); AC 12; HD 1d4; MV 20’ plus teleport; Act 1d16; SP teleport; SV Fort -2, Ref +8, Will +0; AL N.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Aboleth for DCC

Found in warm, dark areas deep underground, aboleth are nightmarish amphibious creatures that superficially resemble monstrous fish weighing over 6,000 lbs.  They have multiple eyes, asymmetrical fins, and two long tentacles coated in thick, corrosive mucous that does an additional 2d4 points of acid damage to any creature struck by a tentacle or which comes in direct contact with their bodies.  Mucous from their skin forms a murky cloud in the water around them, causing 1d4 points of acid damage to any creature within the same water and within 10 feet.  They are generally solitary, and highly territorial.  However, they do come together to mate, and at odd times when their arcane interests coincide.  Seldom do aboleth form lasting alliances, however – most such alliances end in mutual antipathy.

Using an Action Die, an aboleth can attack with a 30-foot cone-shaped blast of psionic energy doing 4d6 damage (Will DC 15 for half).  Once a creature has saved successfully, it cannot be further affected by the same aboleth’s psionic blast for a period of 24 hours.

Aboleth are coated in a slimy mucous which can infect humanoid creatures by contact unless a Fort save (DC 10) succeeds.  The skin of infected humanoids becomes transparent and permeable.  The affected creature can breath water through its skin, but if outside of water for more than 6 rounds takes 1 point of Stamina damage per round until dead.  If the humanoid succeeds in a second save (Fort DC 10) 6 hours later, the infection ends and the victim’s skin returns to normal.  A second failed save makes the victim fall dormant for 6 hours, after which it has undergone a full metamorphosis into a skum under the aboleth’s telepathic control.  At any time before full metamorphosis, the infection can be reversed by a successful Lay on Hands check of 3 HD or better.  Afterwards, no mortal magic can restore the victim.  This slime affects any humanoid struck by an aboleth’s tentacle attack, or any humanoid that touches an aboleth with bare flesh (including unarmed attacks).

Aboleth employ skum both as guardians and as hands to perform their vile experiments.  They have been known to direct their skum in projects to undermine coastal towns and cities.  Aboleth hate land-dwelling humanoids, and have been known to enslave them without any obvious purpose in mind.  Any given aboleth can telepathically control up to 20 skum at a time, and can hold another 20 skum in an inert state as potential replacements.

Aboleth are interested in the arcane arts, and may have spells equal to a wizard with 1d6 levels.  All of an Aboleth's spells can be cast silently; otherwise, they may have mercurial affects similar to those of any other caster.  When rolling an Aboleth's mercurial affects, the judge should modify the roll by -20%.


Aboleth prefer to act through their skum whenever possible.  Because of their telepathic link to their skum, they generally have a very good idea as to how capable adventurers are long before they encounter them directly.  An aboleth will typically keep at least 10 skum in reserve, to prevent adventurers from closing with them unless the aboleth so desires – in which case the skum are used to prevent opponents from fleeing.  If possible, aboleth will meet opponents in deep water, where they can use their Swim skill to gain combat advantage.

Dangerous opponents are met with an opening salvo of psionic blasts, while skum are used prevent them from either closing or running out of range.  If an aboleth believes that its opponents are weakened, it will attempt to convert them into skum.  Even if it has more skum than it can keep, it is easier to dispatch a dormant foe than one which is actively fighting back.

Aboleth:  Init +3; Atk tentacle +5 melee (1d7+4 plus acid and infection); AC 18; HD 6d10+60; MV 10’ or swim 50'; Act 2d20; SP psionic blast, acid, acid cloud, infection; SV Fort +12, Ref +4, Will +20; AL C.

Skum:  Init –2; Atk by weapon +0 melee (by weapon); AC 10; HD 1d8; MV 20’ or swim 30'; Act 1d20; SP infravision 60’, immune to psionic blast; SV Fort +4, Ref –2, Will –4; AL C.