Monday, November 30, 2009


A few grab-bag ideas that have been rolling around in my head that I'd like to hear from any of you on...

-"Hey Chad, what's your cleric's name?" "Maurice." "What's his god's name?" "Chad." Chad has solved the cleric role-playing problem by declaring that he, Chad, is the god that his cleric follows. Is this Grant-Morrison-esque move interesting or repulsive to you as a DM, or both?

-1st level PCs suck at everything, except their armor class, which can be fairly decent. Have you noticed any implications of this in-game?

-When I run AD&D, the written rules make it hard to sort out how many spells a PC can know per level vs. how many they can cast in any given day. When I run 3.5, I have the same damn problem. I usually end up winging it, or feeling as though I just did. Am I just being lazy/forgetful and refusing to comb through the books or does everybody else have this problem?

-I've never run a large-scale hexcrawl. Those of you who do: do you just sort of write a few bits about each place and wing the details when the players get there, or what? (And yes, I've read those "how to build a hexcrawl" blog posts in Points of Light or Bat In The Attic or whichever.) Addendum: I am not asking you to tell me to go read something, I am asking YOU what YOU have done when you ran a hexcrawl.

-Post-apocalyptic sci-fi DMs--here's an idea: "anachro-anarcho-arachnids". Go!

-I assumed, in a dungeon I ran, that a group of 1st level PCs defeat a vampire and/or a medusa (both high-level monsters, run totally legit) (separately) on the condition that they expected to run into the monster and the monster didn't expect to run into them. And defeat them did. Am I being a soft-hearted monty-haul about this or is this pretty much what you'd expect?

-It occurs to me that the simple initiative system is a big culprit in these victories. If the PCs get initiative, they all get to go before the monster. So: if they win initiative, good for them. If they lose but then win initiative on the next round, then they essentially get to go twice before the monster's second action--still a pretty good deal for them. Essentially: if you outnumber the enemy, then simple initiative works in your favor, even if that enemy is more powerful than all of you put together. Knowing this, do you still like simple initiative?

-Golden rule for awesoming up your players: Fear of death is the mother of invention. Agree or disagree?

-It occurs to me that while the verb "to awesome (one's players)" is stolen from Jeff Rient's essay on the subject the actual approach he describes there emphasizes the carrot more than the stick. My opinion is: the carrot only works if the player's a hardcore gamer and will be back next week no-questions-asked. Casual players need the stick. Agree? Disagree?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bellet Osc and The Cruel City

Apparently, during the Black Death, doctors actually dressed like this for reasons explained if you click the link.

Anyway, I used it as a visual aid to show what the unruly mob in the city of Bellet Osc looked like.

Bellet Osc

Bellet Osc (or The Inferior City), like most northern cities, reacted very poorly to the legions of skeletal warriors that've been roaming the countryside since forces unknown (that is, Mandy) unleashed them.

The citizens have taken to roaming the streets at night in a motley parade, wearing animal masks, waving torches, and hitting each other with fish parts mounted on sticks, eventually congregating in a statue-lined square beneath a balcony at the foot of a stone tower.

The tower protrudes into Bellet Osc proper from a corner of The Cruel City--a desolate and forbidden district whose rotting spires lie atop the rest of Bellet Osc like a gray crown. From somewhere deep within the unknown corridors of the Cruel City, the Hex King emerges each night onto the tower's balcony at the height of the parade, and whispers enigmatic decrees.

In times of unusual confusion, the Hex King orders his attendants to drop a goat from the balcony onto the square, where the hidden meanings encoded in the patterns and positions of the resulting blood and innards are interpreted for the populace by a shrill crone.

The rules of this science are obscure and jealously-guarded, but the resulting interpetation inevitably blames any local crisis on the appearance of a band of recently-arrived PCs. This, in turn, inevitably results in the entire population of the city transforming into a fulminating rabble bent on destroying the PCs. Which, in turn, inevitably results in the PCs fleeing Bellet Osc proper for the seeming safety of The Cruel City, past the crumbling gates of which the citizens of Bellet Osc are forbidden to pass (or even gaze).

Six black swans swim the moat circling The Cruel City, which though very quiet, still finds ways to justify its ancient name.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I've Created A Monster (Well, I've created lots of monsters and if you're reading this you probably have, too, but anyway...)

"Hey Mandy, want to roll on tuesday?"


"Ok, tell Frankie," (Frankie's never played, but she's always wanted to play.)

"Ok, and Julia," (Julia'd never heard of D&D, but now wants to play because Frankie's playing.)

"And me!" (That's Cricket, Cricket is a guitar-playing Suicide Girl who thinks D&D sounds really lame and dorky, but wants to play because her friends will be playing.)

"Oh, and Kimberly says she wants to play." (Kimberly is a three-time AVN award winning porn actress who thinks D&D is dorky, and has, in the past, said "Oh jesus no" when asked to play. And says she will show up wearing a cloak.)

"Oh, and should I ask..."

"Ok, wait, before you ask anybody else, just let me check if the regulars are coming so I know at least three of the people who will be there have actually have played D&D and know they like it and want to play, ok?"


We'll see how this works out...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Oh My God I'm Drunk and I Have To DM In The Morning

I wrote this last night: ____ "The entrance is a big skull, like a robot skull..." This is Mandy explaining to me about She-Ra. Which she's watching. This is what happens when I go out drinking--I come home and find my woman watching She-Ra at 3 in the morning. The explaining she's trying to do is about how She-Ra is not actually all a lot of suck but actually was the only cartoon when she was growing up which was for girls that prominently featured skulls and lasers and violence and therefore was actually a good thing. It is a difficult perspective for me to accept, especially if you consider the number of beers I have just had, which number is considerable. "Even the Whispering Woods are not safe from the Horde..." Shut up Adam, you have a terrible bowl cut and lavender boots. If you're gonna die, die with your lavender boots on. Anyway the point of this is tomorrow I have to DM a game. A during-Thanksgiving-dinner game. And I am not sober. I must brainstorm. I think I'm going to use the medusa/halfling vampire dungeon which I am able to use because none of the players who will be playing tomorrow read this blog. Unless they do read this blog secretly. If they do then they are reading these words right here now. In which case they are bad and should stop. Anyway. I have to figure out how to make this dungeon into a one-shot... So--last time I ran it, it took four days. So the question is: how do I make this into a short one-shot? Because there is like tryptophan in turkey and this game isn't going to last that long. (This is what He-Man is saying on the episode of She-Ra that Mandy is watching right now: "Magna-beam, what's a magna-beam?" You should know by now, He-Man. Be more educated about your world. Also: no-one likes you, go put on clothes.) Here's my dilemma: if I don't eliminate something the players won't get anything done, if I eliminate too much, it ceases to be a sandbox and becomes essentially a linear dungeon. Hi! Do this. Happy Thanksgiving. I don't want to be that guy. Every time I try to write a one-shot this happens--I make it too complicated. Okay: Eliminate the wandering monsters. Eliminate the minotaur. (I hate eliminating minotaurs. There should always be minotaurs.) Make all the clues point toward the... Oh my god, Beastman just wheeled in a cake and then Skeletor just used a magic spell to turn himself into a chef and his henchmen into sous-chefs. With moustaches. I can't think anymore. Good night. Happy Thanksgiving if you're American and care.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Snack Management Is A Fundamental DMing Skill

Let us not ignore the white elephant at the gaming table: snacks.

All Games Considered knows it.

The default is: many snacks. Excessive snacks. More snacks than can reasonably be eaten.

It's game day, your free time will be taken up by the game, no reason not to just spend the pregame hours at the 7-11.

Fresh mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella cheese is good and goes well with anything, but: you have to slice it and it's moist to the touch. If you're handling paper it gets the paper wet. Plus there never seems to be enough. The amount that would be enough to last the whole game is also too much cheese to eat all at once. Plus you'll want tomatoes--which have all the same problems all over again.

Although perhaps less "mature", a simple cheddar is versatile--and can be sliced thinner without losing coherency.

Salami is a delicious snack, but has the oiliness of mozzarella, and thus many of the same drawbacks. Ham will be eaten if it is there, but is preferred by few. Better to avoid snacking than to snack by necessity on undesirable meat. Sliced coins of deli sausage would appear to be optimal, if money is not a consideration.

Popcorn is excellent, but may encourage simulationism.

Chips: chips are fine and good. The only problem with chips is they cannot be combined into a multi-classed snack. They crumble and fail when stacked into a small sandwich with other foodstuffs. Better a cracker.

A cracker? What kind? The triscuit is undervalued, I find. As is the wheat thin. Less exciting than the Ruffle or tortilla chip--to be sure--yet infinitely more versatile.

The Ritz? Perhaps. A compromise between the baked saltiness of a chip and the stoic healthiness of the wheat thin. The Ritz is the half-elf of grain-based snacks.

The Cheeto is to be avoided at all costs: it is hollow, less tasty than true cheese, and stains exposed surfaces with despicable orange dust.

The Frito is by far a nobler snack, and surprisingly filling.

Gummi Bears are toothsome, do not crumble or quickly melt, and, when properly bitten across the lower extremities to create a smooth surface, can be placed on the tabletop and used as goblins or henchmen. And the related Gummi Worm is truly an imposing beast at 28 mm scale.

Some pine for immersive foods: trail mix, suckling pig on a spit, ratmeat and orcflesh. These people are hippies.

The cheap wafer is an intriguing snack--in strawberry or vanilla flavors. I would not disdain it.

A baguette--a fine long loaf of crusty bread. This is a superior snack! And the French, wisely, eat them with chocolate.

Chocolate should be present in some form, or female players may turn sour and cruel. M&M's, though initially tempting, are difficult to combine, and frequently scatter to the floor, like small dice.

Chips Ahoy or Oreos are good, but the urge to dunk them may be overwhelming, and this leads to twin evils: wet spots on the maps and open-topped glasses of drinks rather than bottles. Should you enlist them, guard your table well.

If, like, mine, your gaming table includes those professionally obliged to remain fit and healthy, you may provide Healthy Snacks. Of Healthy Snacks I know little, and will say less--only this: I have yet to find a healthy snack that is not either too tasteless or too small to distract the players from hunger.

On the other end, the temptations of both the donut and the pastry are well known, and deceptive. A man may eat a single donut, or a man may eat ninety donuts, but either way the donuts will not last throughout the session. Place not your faith in them. Also: donuts cause discord--for who gets the jelly? And who the creme?

Of utmost importance is the heartiness of the snack. If the snack be too hearty, then players may tire of it, and want to stop for a genuine meal. If the snack be not filling enough, players may get hungry, and want to stop for a genuine meal.

The integration of a true meal is the mark of an experienced DM. However, timing is key: a meal at the beginning and the players will be hungry by the end, a meal at the end and players will decide to end the game when they get hungry.

By far the best arrangement is a planned delivery of lunch or dinner in the middle of the session. A mysterious door, the precipice of a terrifying encounter, and then--Thai? Chinese? Pizza? A brief take-out menu interlude, and then back into the fray.

Pizza is traditional, and not unwise. Beware the complexities of half-pies, particularly when ordering by phone, however, and of the lactose intolerant.

The various deliverable foods of the Far East are likewise desirable--but soups at the gaming table are treacherous, and cold noodles are to be despised. Therefore, those who would eat noodles while gaming would do well to eat them fast. Also, gamers are a superstitious, cowardly lot--they may be unduly influenced by fortune cookies.

Deli sandwiches are simple, inexpensive, unsloppy, and can be eaten cold.

Of the dangers of mexican food, enough has been written.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Oh, right...

So I just noticed all these people (or, in some of your cases, all you people) talking about me over on this post. (And saying nice things, so thank you.) Anyway, it hadn't occurred to me that I haven't really talked much about how I ended up playing old school D&D with professionally naked women.

The only reticence I have on this subject is I want this blog to be for us--that is, people who play games--and not a sort of gossip-mine for the porn press. Porn press is weird: there are, for example, robots that cruise the web for the word "porn stars" and automatically create new porn websites out of whatever content the sentence was part of and they've already done it with my site.

Meanwhile, the human people in the porn press also take any scrap of gossip about anybody in porn that's remotely interesting or stalker-friendly and repeat it endlessly and distort it to make porn people seem even stupider than they sometimes are, which particular headache I and my friends don't need.

And don't even get me started on snarky lunatics who post random hate on porn blogs. You don't want those psychos next to you in the "comments", trust me.

Plus, if you want to know non-Dungeons-&-Dragons-stuff about me and the people in my game it's really easy to track down info using the posts on this blog tagged "players". I mean, most of you reading this can probably find FASERIP-converted statistics for Vecna's best friend's cleaning lady in less than fifteen minutes--I'm guessing you're all googlicious enough to be able to find some porn on the internet.

So anyway, here's how this started:

Satine Phoenix, who I've worked with many times, was talking about how she wanted to play D&D ever since she broke up with her D&D-playing-boyfriend.

I said, "Alright, let's do it."

Then I wrote an adventure.

Then it sat in a drawer forever while we tried to schedule it.

Then I ended up using it with Mandy Morbid and some other (non-porn) friends while I was visiting New York.

When Mandy and I got back home to LA we were all jazzed because we'd had so much fun, we started kicking it into high gear finding players. Since most of the people we know in LA are from her work or mine, they're all people in the Industry.

That's that.

Monday, November 23, 2009

McCormick and His Paladin

So McCormick has a paladin.

"What god is your paladin dedicated to, McCormick?"

"Ummmm..." [on-the-spot tumble into existential spiral of performance anxiety at the thought of whether he can think up the coolest possible god on such short notice] "...uhhh..."

"Ok, McCormick, unless you tell me different, your paladin is dedicated to Vorn, god of iron and rain..."

[dubiously]"Vorn? Ok. Vorn."

"So what's your guy's name?"

"Ummmm..." [more existential dread]

"Ok, well let me know if you think of a name."

It took him three months to get a name.

In action, McCormick is slightly more decisive:

"I pray to Vorn for guidance."

"You don't get any."

Although McCormick has kind of a love/hate relationship with Vorn, and can never remember what he's the god of, he likes praying to Vorn and saying stuff like "I show no fear, secure that Vorn will protect me from these armed and foul-smelling heathen."

Actually, in-game, Vorn is shaping up to be kind of a sucky god. Not only is he constantly being blasphemed against by whatever local usurping demon cult stumbles through the campaign, he does a terrible job of keeping an eye on his people:

One of his clerics (in a rare and tactically foolish display of pure role-playing) ended one game on her knees howling "Why Vorn? Why have you forsaken meeeee?" while her brother and sister were busy stabbing the big boss in the next room, and his other cleric, Mitchell, had, on his first day at work, his arm ripped off by a minotaur, and then, in his second, was knocked down to zero by a hydra. Likewise, McCormick's paladin can't seem to catch a break either--despite being armed with the impressive Tooth of Vorn he's hardly managed to kill anything big. He did kill a bunch of 1 hp peasants last sunday...

It takes forever for AD&D paladins to level up, too, so McCormick's paladin still has to roll high to hit anything--and usually doesn't.

So what does he do? He lays on hands (curing 2 hit points of damage) an awful lot (which is good, considering how useless and accident prone the clerics of Vorn so often are) which, at first level, is nothing to sneeze at.

"Can I lay hands on myself?"

"Sure, um, but do you want the rest of us to, like, leave the room first?"

"Do you get experience for laying hands on yourself?"

"Some, but not as much as if you lay them on someone else..."

"I don't know, if you're a girl and you lay hands on yourself until you get it right and then you show someone else the right way to lay hands on you, I think you should get more experience..."

Another paladin function: detecting evil.

McCormick loves detecting evil. Here are some things that he's sure are evil:

-the vampire
-the skeleton in the black robe with the one black eye and one red eye that sets you on fire when you look at it
-the goblin who was rifling through his pack while he was asleep
-the rug on the second floor of the tower

"You notice the rug has a bizarrely intricate pattern."

"Is it evil?"


"It's an evil rug?"

"Yes, it's an evil rug."

McCormick also often takes point and parleys when the party encounters something that isn't evil.

"I see, thank you sir. Can you tell us anything about the evil rug on the second floor?"

"'I know nothing of such bizarre things, my lord.'"

"'Bizarre things'? You're a talking swan."

"And you're a man who's covered in blood and waving a giant tooth and talking to a bird while laying hands on himself, what's your point?"

McCormick is also developing a talent for the metagame:

"While, I--as a paladin of Vorn--would never suggest such a thing, a less pious and self-sacrificing man than I might perhaps suggest that we use that healing potion on me rather than the half-orc since I'm down to only 3 hit points..."

However, for all his foibles, the paladin is the rock of the party:

"Fear not, I shall cover your retreat! Zorn will protect us!"


"Avant-garde jazz will protect us?"

"I mean Vorn, Vorn will protect us! Fly, you fools!"

So, yeah, that's McCormick. Long may he ride. I love my players.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Mechanical Peach, Pulp Magic, Hard Science, etc.

It's Friday, I'm far from home on pornographic business, and I'm paying a dollar every 6 minutes to update from a Dunkin Donuts. But, because I'm such a great guy, instead of just giving you no update at all I'm giving you all my laziest update ever.

Here's some links I like:

A nice mechanical apple.

A really good idea for spells.

Excellent "hard sci-fi" resource, if, for some reason, you want to make spaceships that work the way spaceships really would work.

Free audiobooks of Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, De Quincey, Gibbon, and lots of other stuff in the public domain. Read by random volunteers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Review of The Grinding Gear Plus Things It Made Me Think About


So this is going to be two things:

-A Review of the one-shot adventure The Grinding Gear by James Edward Raggi IV, put out by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, (WITH SPOILERS) and

-some rambling about things it made me think about.

So bear with me...

First, The Tomb-Of-Horrors-Issue

Now, The Grinding Gear brings up what I call The Tomb of Horrors Issue, which goes like this:

There's a doorknob.

Turning the doorknob the right way opens the door to the next room, turning the knob the wrong way activates a trap that kills you and your whole family and your cat.

The knob looks normal and has no reliable and certain clues as to which way is the wrong way or even that there is a wrong way. The only way to deal with it is to either to:

A) Be very lucky, or

B) Realize there might be a trap there before going anywhere near the door and then dream up a clever, safe way to test the door, or

C) Die, roll up a new character and do it the other way the next time.

If you imagine a whole dungeon full of things basically like that, that's Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors--a module created because everyone was complaining earlier modules for D&D were too easy.

Some people hate Tomb of Horrors and think it's just a sadistic joke because it will kill you if you don't scrupulously prepare and don't go slowly and methodically and don't use every resource at your disposal and don't try to think just like the person who built it.

Some people love Tomb of Horrors and think it's an awesome intellectual challenge because it will kill you if you don't scrupulously prepare and don't go slowly and methodically and don't use every resource at your disposal and don't try to think just like the person who built it.

Now there is an internet controversy, which I hope is settled by now, about whether it is even possible to beat Tomb of Horrors (without knowing the module beforehand) using the rules as they existed at the time the module was written. According to the Internet, not only is it possible, it has actually been done--in public--with official TSR people adjudicating. It's just really hard.

(There are many other people, of course, who claim to have done it or seen it done, but there will always be controversy about whether they did it totally by-the-book and with no prior knowledge. The Gen Con example, however, is a seemingly totally legit historical example of a successful finish.)

A more interesting question is whether it is fun to try to beat Tomb Of Horrors--that is, whether it's fun to go through a dungeon slowly and methodically and largely without combat and all the while trying to pre-empt the thousands of ways any given architectural feature you see might be trying to kill you.

The answer to this question is, of course, entirely subjective, and depends on your players' temperament.

You could accurately call Tomb of Horrors a Death Trap Dungeon because it's full of death traps, but it's not a very useful name because nobody likes to walk into a death trap. (Hey, you wanna go into the Death Trap Dungeon? Uhhh...) and you can accurately call Tomb of Horrors a Funhouse Dungeon because it's full of gimmick architecture, but that's not useful because everybody likes a funhouse. (Want to go into the funhouse? Sure! Fuck, I'm dead.) The most useful name for Tomb of Horrors is a Puzzle Dungeon because only players who like puzzles will like it. (Which is not to say all players who like puzzles will like it, but you get me.)

So anyway, know now that The Grinding Gear is a puzzle dungeon--though it's not designed to be nearly as hard as Tomb of Horrors. Knowing that, let's take a look at it:


I love the format of the thing--a short, 'zine style, stapled adventure in between a few unattached nested covers. The maps and a handout are printed on the covers and there's a short, pleasant, honest description of what kind of dungeon TGG is at the beginning. Efficient, transparent, and easy to use. In a perfect world, there would be thousands of inexpensive one-shot adventures printed up in exactly this format at every train station in the world written by thousands of different DM's all over the civilized world.

But enough of my utopian babbling--I don't want to waste space describing the production values--let's just say they do their job admirably.

So, Anyway What's In It...

The Grinding Gear a puzzle dungeon written for low-level characters. It is well-written, clearly presented, and has, so far as I can tell, no lapses in logic (though, as with any puzzle dungeon, an unexpected magic item or homebrew spell could be used to bypass a particular gimmick's logic, but there's nothing anybody can do about that).

It's perhaps not truly a full-on sandbox because it's largely linear--that is, there are many rooms that can only be accessed in order, and there is a certain point past which, if the PCs haven't already been certain places, they will probably die. You can't really just romp around in there--it has a beginning, middle and end, a sort of "plot" that is built into the structure of the dungeon.

This is similar to Death Frost Doom, by the same author. However, in DFD there is a distinct possibility that the PCs will spiral off the rails into their own semi-self-created lunacy before reaching the "decision points" in the dungeon. The Grinding Gear doesn't have nearly as much entropy-fuel (though between the random-encounter charts and standard PC behavior, anything's possible). Whether or not it is in any given game session, The Grinding Gear seems to want to be mostly a series of dungeon-puzzles presented more-or-less in order with a few familiar-type encounters in between. That is, the designer's creativity went mostly into the puzzles.


What Kind of Puzzles Are In The Grinding Gear?

First off, this is the kind of dungeon where players will want to remember to roll to find secret doors and will want to succeed at these rolls. In fact, if there is a major mechanical "bump" in this adventure it's that DMs will need to know exactly how they want to adjudicate the "find secret doors" rules for whatever system they're using before they run The Grinding Gear. Is finding secret doors active or passive? Do the PCs know when they've failed? Are there circumstances under which players are allowed to roll more than once? The answers to these mechanical questions could easily mean the difference between life and slow death for the PCs. Before publishing this review, I sent Raggi an e-mail asking how he ran it, here's his response:
Players have to declare a search and where they are searching. If
they describe how they are searching, and that description seems
like it would make the secret door easier to find, I give them a
bonus to their chances.

If the secret door has no special method of opening it listed, a
success finds the door and the opening mechanism. If there is a
specific way to open it mentioned (say, "removing x book from the
library shelf opens the door in the west wall for 60 seconds"),
then the success finds the door but not how to open it.

For example, if searching the statue in the beginning for secret
doors or compartments, a success would find that one side seems to
be moveable, but I wouldn't tell them that pressing the plaque is
what causes it to open.

I don't tell the players if they succeeded or failed in the roll,
just if they found something or not. If they didn't find anything,
they don't know if it's because nothing is there to find or they
just failed to notice it.

I absolutely allow re-tries. Each search takes one turn. I thought
that was the D&D standard... But with all the different editions
and clones that all change minor details, it very well may not be
I recommend that--in addition to the other very helpful introductory notes on rules to pay particular attention to when running The Grinding Gear--Raggi includes something like that passage if TGG is ever printed again.

Ok, so there's looking for traps. What else?

In addition to monster encounters (most of which are, if not easy, at least fairly straightforward in their tactical set-up) and various dungeon features which will probably have no direct effect on the outcome one way or the other, I count 26 distinct puzzles.

Allowing for overlap, borderline cases, judgement calls, and Gordian solutions by players ("I ask my precognitive belt buckle which door to take"), these puzzles break down into:

10 tests of caution, in one form or another--2 of which are of the you'd-be-better-off-just-staying-the-hell-away-from-this-dungeon-feature-altogether type,
2 tests of thoroughness,
1 (long) test of resource management (the whole second floor),
8 tests of gullibility (most of which are non-deadly in themselves and will generally only waste time if the PCs go for them),
4 puzzles that test perceptiveness, memory and thoroughness simultaneously,
1 that tests thoroughness and caution simultaneously.

So, although this is a puzzle dungeon, it's a puzzle-dungeon of a very specific kind: the players aren't being tested on their ability to solve riddles, figure out mechanisms, figure out obscure uses for magic items, or find hidden meanings in things. It rewards methodical thinking rather than flashy thinking--it rewards people who really crawl through their dungeoncrawls.

...which is exactly what it claims to do. So here we have a product that is what it says on the tin: a low-level one-shot puzzle dungeon that tests the player's dungeoneering skills.


Where it somewhat falls down for this reviewer is in the style department: a few of the the set-pieces that make up the adventure are excellent, and none of them are bad, but, likewise, none of them deliver the suggestive weirdness Raggi's capable of. He set the bar pretty high for himself with creepy and inspiring products like Death Frost Doom and People of Pembrooktonshire, both of which point to depths far beyond what's presented in the text, so when you find out that the premise of Grinding Gear is simply that somewhere off the beaten path there lives a crazy innkeeper/inventor, and this guy created the dungeon specifically to test adventurers, it's a little disappointing.

As a villain, there's something tediously provincial about Garvin Richrom--the dungeon's fictional designer: he includes puzzles requiring you to spell out his own name and remember how many guest rooms are in his inn. It ain't Lovecraft. In terms of overall tone, The Grinding Gear ranges from dungeon-standard at best to Harry Pottery at worst. While GG could be run in any number of ways, and the second-level could, if tuned properly, be a great ticking-clock thriller, it isn't pre-packaged with the black magic that I want from a LOTFP product.

Or, to put it another way, when I first read Death Frost Doom, I wanted to run it immediately to see how my players would react; when I read Grinding Gear, I wanted to cannibalize it for parts (which its relatively simple structure makes fairly easy). So: I'll take the engine, but that matte-brown paintjob has got to go. As one-shots go, I give it a 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Easiest Hit Location System I Could Think Of

You can use this system whenever you want. In my games I use it for hits on PCs and for most monsters, but if I'm pressed for prep time I only use it for monsters in the big battles.

  • Get a picture of the creature in question--this can be one you drew yourself or one you printed out or photocopied. It can be any size as long as it shows all the parts of the monster that'd be accessible to an ordinary attacker. (Different pictures will produce different results but, hey, different ballparks produce different ballgames.)
  • Draw lines to the different limbs or other hit locations.
  • Distribute the creature's total hit points around the body in an intuitive manner. (For low level humanoids, I generally assume 1 hit point per limb, with extras going to the torso, legs, and arms in that order.)
  • Creatures with more locations than hit points get extra hit points up to one h.p. per location (lucky them)

    • When a creature gets hit, lay the picture flat on the table and roll a d4 on the picture. The creature gets hit wherever the corner of the d4 closest to the center of the creature points*. (The actual result on the d4 is irrelevant.)

      • If the player wants to hit a certain location, he or she can try rolling the die him or herself.
      • Losing all hp on a given hit location renders that limb useless until it heals at least one hit point.
      • An attacker who rolls the maximum damage possible for his or her attack with a slashing weapon and causes enough damage to render a hit limb useless severs that limb.
      • Depleting all the hit-points on a creature's head--presuming it has only one head--knocks the creature unconscious. Creatures wearing a helmet may be allowed a save.

    • In major battles with large creatures like dragons or giants where hit location is important, if a PC's dex is higher than the monster's then the PC may be allowed to roll a number of hit-location dice equal to the difference between the PC's dex and the monster's and choose the result they like best.
    • The same system, optionally, can be used for determining attacks by small, intelligent creatures like pixies on normal-sized opponents.
    • You may want to give 1st-level PCs and 1HD monsters extra hit points or the maximum allowable for their class or something because this system fucks people up fast. You'll be up to your neck in limping, bandaged PCs in no time. But it's fun.

    * The center of the creature--from the attacker's position--is not necessarily the center of the picture as in the flail snail example. Choose the location that is closest to the center of the attacker's crosshairs, so to speak.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lucky Number Kung Fu

I may be playing Oriental Adventures this week. For me, the fact that the East somehow feels less dungeony to me is somewhat compensated for by the fact that in Asia--or at least in the crazy D&D Asia in my head--there is lots of kung fu. More kung-fu, in fact than in the original rules (though there is some).

Now there are a million clever ways to add more kung-fu to this game, but I know my New York crew and I know that if I'm gonna spring this on them I need a system that is simple, fast, and requires very little on-the-spot-making-shit up during combat or character generation. We'll see if they bite...

So here is:

The Simplest D&D Kung Fu System I Could Think Of
  • Each PC, NPC, and humanoid monster has a certain quantity of "kung fu numbers"--these kung fu numbers can be any number from 2 to 19.

  • The quantity of kung fu numbers a character has is equal to his, her, or its dexterity bonus +1. Monsters can, alternately, have a number of kung fu numbers equal to their hit dice.
  • Kung fu numbers can be chosen by the player during character generation (and the DM during adventure-writing) or can simply be 2, 3, 4 etc. or 19, 18, 17 etc. for everybody to keep things simple.

  • Rolling one of these kung fu numbers (naturally and unmodified) on an ordinary to-hit roll in melee, whether or not this number indicates a melee hit, means that the character has maneuvered themselves into a position suitable to perform a kung-fu move. This kung-fu move effect is in addition to any damage that may or may not have been inflicted by the same roll.

  • The kung fu moves available are: disarm, prevent opponent moving* for one round, move opponent 2 tabletop inches in any direction, knock opponent to the ground, take something from opponent, grab opponent--or anything else within reason that does not simply cause more damage.(i.e. you can cause more damage by knocking someone into a flame pit but you can't say your strike just 'causes more damage' without some situational reason.)

  • A character that successfully rolls his, her, or its kung fu number(s) may automatically execute the move of their choice. The effect occurs immediately.

  • Common-sense restrictions apply--like you can't knock a giant snake over.
  • Ninja, kensai, and monks all get one extra kung-fu number.
After first level, shit gets more complicated in as-yet-unspecified ways. If you're still using this system by the time your players are second level, let me know and we'll figure it out.

*The victim can fight, shoot, cast spells, etc.--just not move around the tabletop.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

...And From There It Writes Itself (Pt. 2)

Ok, so what are a medusa, a vampire queen, a fat unconscious demon, and a goblin alchemist all doing in the same dungeon?

You could just throw all those monsters in there, but having a logic to it all actually makes it easier to write. If the monsters are there for a reason then it's easy to decide how they'll react to unexpected behavior on the part of the PCs.

So here's the logic:

The demon is from a gazillion years ago. He and his brothers once ravaged the Earth--as colossal demons will.

So along comes a horrible necromancer. He's horrible, but he likes living and not being stepped on, so he recruits some medusas to walk around and turn the demons to stone.

So the demons are turned to stone. The last demon is blind so he can't be turned to stone, but they stop the last demon anyway with some kinda black magic.

So then the problem is imprisoning him. So they slice all the petrified demons into blocks and imprison the last demon underground inside a prison made from his brothers.

The horrible necromancer builds a whole underground complex around the imprisoned demon--with a very nice library. He can use it to leech off arcane power from the demon for various nefarious purposes. Plus the demon has a sort of subtle evil influence over local events even though he's chained up.

The necromancer's got a thing with one of the medusas (facilitated by some sort of petrification-proof charm, I guess), she lives there too.

Sooner or later, sometime in the past, what with all these adventurers going around adventuring all the time in D&D-world, the necromancer gets neutralized by some do-gooders. (Some PCs in some campaign some guy I've never heard of who lives in Nebraska ran in 1983, probably.)

He is then entombed, in a semi-living state, in his own dungeon. In a secret location.

His medusa girlfriend sticks around, statue-fying occasional visitors, living the lonely life of a medusa. Collecting art, etc.

Thousands of years go by, eventually the entombed necromancer develops enough power to place a necromantic curse on an ant or small spider. The ant will turn the first person it bites into a vampire.

In the hopes of creating enough trouble in the outside world that someone might stumble on his tomb, the necromancer sends the ant out to cause trouble in the outside world.

It bites a hapless halfling.

So the halfling, she becomes a vampire, and raises a ruckus with enslaved fellow halflings.

They all move underground so she can stay out of the light--the complex is naturally the place they go since it's close to where they live.

Meanwhile, a sphinx--being, like all her kind, a scholarly type--has been looking through the library (it's a very nice library). When the vampire queen finds the sphinx in there, she captures her and locks her up in the lowest dungen levels so she can ask her questions, if need be.

Now the medusa isn't happy about this, but anybody who comes near her door she turns to stone, so she's willing to tolerate the halflings being on the other side of the complex for a little while.

The vampire and company have been there for like a month when the posse shows up.

The goblins just recently showed up because they got lost and a cave collapsed behind them when they were in the area. They've been here about a week.

Then, as usual, you got brainless wandering monsters that live udergorund and eat stuff.

And then there's the posse, who just showed up.

Makes sense, right?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Partial List Of Wishes on RPG-Friendly Stars For This Period In Time

-Let our flight to New York be soothing and quiet and give me time to finish reading both my Jack Vance book and my Donald Barthelme book.

-Let my readers be apprised that even such highbrow and literary-establishment semi-acceptable reading as Donald Barthelme contains RPGable ideas such as "We have rots, blights and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet."

-Let my pal in NYC have the time and inclination to run his Oriental Adventures game, and let it be like this Takato Yamamoto drawing:

(but let my guy not be the skull).

-Let character generation, taking care of John's kid, and all such non-oni-killing-related business not take too terribly long so we have lots of time to play.

-Let someone produce or let there already be--despite the technical difficulties involved due to the number of undercuts required and the number of pieces it needs to be cast in--an awesome miniature of a hydra. Let it be not all simplified like the D&D minis Fen Hydra, let it not look like a bunch of alligators sewn together like the Ral Partha Huge Hydra, and let it not look like a bunch of alligators with beaks sewn together like the Dark Elves War Hydra.

(Oh fuck, wish came true--from Reaper:

....also from Reaper:

...and this thing is a "Hybrid Hydra" for something called Urban War Koralon, but it looks like it'd work perfectly well for anarchist Warhammer 40k...)
-Let Reaper minis relocate their factory next door to my house and have the people who work there decide I'm cool and give me stuff whenever I walk by on my way home from the 7-11.

-Except not the fumes.

-Let someone put together a miniatures database that's nearly comprehensive and contains every mini yet produced. Let the internet realize that, come on, if it can't do that then what is it good for?

-Let Caroline Pierce not hit traffic and arrive on time for the spooky-tower-exploring adventure I plan on running monday night before getting on the plane to New York.

-Let me remember where that adventure left off last time she drove down from Vegas.

-Let there be enough stuff left in that tower to keep them busy for an evening.

-Let me be able to cannibalize the unused stuff in the other dungeon I'm running suimultaneously if there isn't.

-Let my players always advance at a rate precisely tuned to the speed at which I tire of whatever monsters are appropriate to their level.

-Let me one day think of a scene in an adventure awesome enough to justify using the following image as a visual aid:

-Let Mandy finish her Creepy Enchanted Forest soon because all the weird pictures she's been grabbing off the internet to use for it are so cool--especially the Ivan Bilibin ones--that it's making me anxious to play kind of like the way you'd get a game for Christmas and stare at the cover for months until one of your friends decides to play with you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Not Quite Shatnerday

I like the idea of Star Trek more than Star Trek itself. Why? Probably because Star Wars exists and everything in it looks cooler. But anyway...

Here's a game Mandy and I thought up just before bed at the end of a long discussion about how RPGs work . It's called...

Star Trek Poker or, The Star Trek RPG That Actually Plays Like An Episode of Star Trek

(Probably also adaptable to simulate other hour-long space-travel shows like Galactica, Firefly, Babylon 5 etc, but I can't be sure because I never watch them for reasons I won't elaborate here because I don't want to risk further alienating my audience.)

Ok, so first off:

Character Generation

You generate characters as normal using whatever system. Strength, intelligence, weird abilities etc. You can use one of the 3 (?) systems that already exist for Star Trek RPGs or Savage Worlds or GURPS or whatever.

HOWEVER, in addition to all that the character will get a "position"--this is basically his or her "role" in the show--it can be a formal position on the ship or just what they tend to be in charge of. Positions can include: Tech (Geordie, Scotty, O'Brien etc.), Captain (Picard, Kirk, etc.), Security (Worf originally, Odo), Omnicompetent (Spock, Data, Dax, 7 of 9, etc.), Psychic (Troy), Doctor (Bones, Bashir, Crusher, etc.), Seemingly Useless 2nd Stringer (Nog, Barkely, etc.)

The "position" allows you a special "power" which you can use--under certain very specific circumstances--to completely change the plot in a Forgeite/narrativist sort of way.

The Tech person can solve any one engineering problem, the Captain can convince NPCs and foes to do things completely counter to their nature, the Security person can get previously unknown information out of nowhere, the Omnicompetent has no special powers but gets to have a bonuses to all of his or her ordinary stats--s/he gets more "build points" if the system uses that, the Psychic can reveal (make up) secret facts about NPCs, the Doctor can solve any biological challenge, and the Seemingly Useless 2nd Stringer can do any of these things but at a lower rate of success.

Which brings us to the mechanic for these powers...

Basically, the GM has to build a specific kinds of adventure--or "situation"--and this situation MUST be complicated by:

A technical obstacle, a dealing-with-unfriendly-aliens obstacle, and a biological obstacle.

For example: the ship is stuck in a [insert pseudoscience here] field while aliens that have the ability to replicate their own bodies using the ship's food replicators are invading the ship and chewing apart the guidance sensors.

In addition to all the work that needs to be done to make any RPG adventure, each of the three sub-problems must have a "difficulty level" on a scale of 1-10. The GM has 10 "difficulty points" to allocate. So, for example in this adventure the GM could decide that the technical obstacles are a level 6 problem, communicating with the aliens is a level 3 problem, and understanding the alien genetics is a level 1 problem. The GM writes all these numbers down and keeps them secret.

Also, there should be a "ticking time bomb" type-element to an adventure, where certain things, if they are allowed to occur, will have permanent negative consequences. Like if the aliens aren't stopped then the crew wil have to abandon the ship and their next adventure will take place in an escape pod.

Now, the PCs start each episode with zero "plot points". They go along playing the game like you would any RPG set on a spaceship--however whenever any player achieves something positive (shoots a hostile alien, succesfully pilots through an asteroid field, etc.) he or she is awarded a number of Plot Points.

The Plot Points are shared by the PCs as a whole. At any given time, rather than addressing the problem normally, the crew may decide to "bank" on a given PC's special power. (Usually after a sort of conference with all the PCs present.) That is--they tell the GM they are going to spend 6 Plot Points on, for example, the Tech guy's abilities. (The 2nd stringer can only use 3/4 of the available plot points--rounded down.)

At this point, the GM reveals the Difficulty Level of the relevant challenge. If the number of Plot Points "banked" on the power is greater than the Difficulty Level, then the crew "solves" that problem in some way--narrated by that player.

Like if the crew decides to bank 6 points on Geordi and he's facing a 5 point technical challenge, the person playing Geordi can announce "All I have to do is modulate the linear induction around the phase coils! Of course!". And that'll work. If the GM revealed that the technical challenge was actually an 8-point challenge, then it wouldn't work.

Either way, the crew then loses all the banked Plot Points (and precious time). If they fail, then that means they've got to either to do more stuff in the traditional way to solve the problem, or else build up more plot points to "gamble" again on a different aspect of the problem. Like if the technical problem turned out to be level 8, then that means that the diplomatic problem can be a maximum of level 2 so all they need is to get 2 more Plot Points before the ship blows up and they can save themselves by making peace with the aliens.

Ok, there you go.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

...And From There It Writes Itself

This is a dungeon for 1st-level players I ran this summer.

Here are the main bits--I might post more about the details later if I feel like it:

The players wake up in a library, in a pile of corpses. This is the middle of the dungeon.

(This is the best possible beginning for an adventure in my opinion. The only bad thing about it is it starts to get old if you use it more than once a year.)

There's obviously just been a battle, but the players can't remember anything.

This dungeon is built around a chamber containing a huge, fat, (three storeys tall, and three storeys wide) imprisoned demon. The demon way outclasses the PCs but, luckily, it's imprisoned and asleep.

The north--and upstairs--of the dungeon is dominated by a halfling vampire queen (with a pet vampire monkey) and her army of albino cannibal mutant halfling subjects.

The southeast (and downstairs) of the dungeon is the domain of a small group of goblins who've been trapped down there for weeks and are just trying to get out.

The southwest of the dungeon is the opulent and statue-adorned lair of a lonely medusa and her pets. One of her statues is the petrified goblin leader--an alchemist--who the goblins suspect holds the key to getting them out of the dungeon.

The alchemist's lab contains all kinds of useful things that low-level players might be able to use to defeat a medusa or a vampire but they're labelled in an obscure orcish dialect.

In the lowest depths of the eastern part of the dungeon (accessible from the medusa's lair and the halfling section), there's a sphinx who's been imprisoned by the vampire queen. If the PCs free her and/or help her take revenge on the vampire queen, she can provide all kinds of useful information.

Careful questioning of the dungeon's inhabitants and or eating some of the local obliviax will allow the PCs to remember they were part of a large posse/invasion force sent to eliminate the evil halflings, who have been ravaging local cities and towns every night and disappearing before dawn. Although the PCs still won't be able to remember exactly how they got down here.

When the PCs arrive, fragments of the posse will still be battling room-to-room with the halflings.

(The posse will keep fighting in the dungeon for as long as it's interesting, but they'll never get all the way to the vampire queen's inner chambers. They're not as smart as the PCs.)

The PCs won't wake up with all their equipment, but there will be plenty of dead bodies of both sides to loot in the corridors.

The battle in the dungeon has lasted several days, and the rotting corpses lying around have brought all manner of cannibalistic wandering monsters skulking into the corridors.

One PC will wake up with a note from his or her mother (a witch) reminding him or her of a spell she put on him before she let him/her run out and join the militia: "Remember, strangers will always believe the first three words you say."

Killing the medusa will de-petrify all of her victims. It's also worth noting, however, that this medusa is ancient, and a great deal of the dungeon itself is made of stone block cut from the bodies of her frozen victims--such as the imprisoned demon's colossal brothers, and perhaps a few dead gods.

Therefore, killing the medusa may make some corridors unstable (as the keystones turn into inert slabs of geometric flesh), create new ones, and--perhaps worst of all--will free terrible and hidden things that have been walled up in stone prisons for centuries.

So...have fun with that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I Got Your Endgame Right Here, Buddy

Tower Golem

These enormous magical stone constructs--allegedly a hybrid of goblin alchemy and dwarvish engineering--are as tall as castles and feared in every civilized nation. In siege warfare, the looming juggernauts are employed to crush battlements, stomp infantry, carry archers in their stony crowns, and act as living bridges across moats and parapets.

In order to control a tower golem, one must--during the battle--employ a specially-prepared and highly-accurate scale model of the battlefield upon which it is to be deployed, including a model of the golem itself quarried from the same stone as the golem.

The golem's hulking bodies burn magic quickly, and few remain animated more than four or five hours. When the energies that power them dissipate, they slump over, immobile, and are often converted into fortified residences. Occasionally, depending on where they come to rest, their "corpses" become integrated into the strongholds they once were employed to destroy.

On rare occasions, it has proven possible for clever wizards to re-animate these living siege engines after their "retirement", and on rarer occasions, the creatures have been known to live on in strange and subtle ways long after their original purpose has been served.


A tower golem isn't something ordinary PCs should be able to take on directly. Big h.p., big damage, big in general, great A.C.--4-10 storeys tall. They're slow, though, so their to-hit on any individual target smaller than an elephant should be pretty hopeless. If you wanna really get under the hood you might say it ignores any AC due to armor but AC due to dexterity or size counts double.

In most cases, you'd be fighting a tower golem in a large-scale-battle. Taking it out would be an objective in a daisy-chain-of-death-and-destruction-type-situation, by hitting it with a catapult or tricking it into a trench or taking over the controlling model or by going inside the golem and attacking its power source or vital systems or something like that.

High-level PCs, of course, might have a shot at it, in which case I'd say remember that it's big and slow and made of stone and its vulnerabilities should reflect that--picks do more damage than hammers which do more damage than axes which do more damage than swords which do more damage than arrows. Fire likely only makes it angry.

Sketches by me. They're a little more cartoony than I imagine the thing to be. Hopefully you get the idea.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Challenge

To the left is a magic item. What is it? What does it do? I don't know. You tell me. I'll post the best responses in a few days. Then we can all drop different versions into our dungeons...

image credit: actually it's a sculpture by Joseph Cornell.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Adventure Writing As Problem -Solving

Problem 1

So it all started when I ran Mandy through Death Frost Doom (spoilers) and she caused thousands of corpses to rise from their graves, as most PCs who know anything about having a good time pretty much will, when playing that adventure.

So then I face an interesting DMing problem: How to run a game where the living dead are rampaging through my game world.

Of course there are a lot of ways to sort of handwave them away before the next session, but that didn't seem like The Path of Maximum Fun. On the other hand, while I like my zombie movies as much as the next guy, zombies and ghouls don't feel particularly "medieval" to me (whatever that means). Plus, zombies are so everywhere right now that when our kids start writing Cheesy-Retro-Zeroes-Movie-Style RPGs in 20 years, they'll all have zombies in them. If there's a few thousand of something in my game, I want it to be something I'm in love with.

So I decided that, actually, most of the dead had risen as skeletons. In mechanical terms, this is a minor change, but aesthetically, it somehow made the whole thing a million times more up-my-alley.

Skeletons are mega-medieval, and in the late Renaissance/early Middle Ages, they were a metaphor for the Black Plague* and so the idea of them spreading grotesquely across the land works just lovely for me.

Yes, a rotting corpse come back to life is psychologically disturbing, but seeing a skeleton walking around is God trying to tell you something.

So anyway, the point is we got skeletons. That problem's solved.

Problem 2

So then it was time to write the next adventure--and bring in two new players and their PCs. I figured I'd never played with these people before, so I wanted to give them a lot of room to sort of play the game in whatever style they wanted to play. This way I figured I could kinda feel them out as far as what they were into.

I also figured it'd be nice if the first post-Death Frost Doom adventure didn't feel like "Ok, what we're doing from now on forever is fighting skeletons".

So I said ok, there's a city run by a decadent Duke. He's an elf named Malekith (inspired by the Thor villain of the same name)--and he's like a pitiless Northern Viking-mythology type elf. And this Duke throws a party in his castle. The idea is all the nobles and important people (and elves) get invited and they lock the doors and stock up on food and hire entertainment and drink wine on the balcony and watch the skeletons come and slaughter the commoners in the streets and laugh and wait this whole undead-army thing out.

The PCs have invites--the Cleric because she's 3rd level and therefore relatively important, the fighter is hired as a guard, and the thief got a hold of one while picking a pocket.

The way it's set up is: there's stuff to do at the party (not all of the guests being necessarily what they seem), and below the party there's a dungeon full of who-knows-what-riches lower down in the castle. So, all good--if they want to schmooze NPCs or pickpocket party guests, there they are, and if you want to go down to the dungeon, rock on.

Another nice thing about having a multiday party going on above the dungeon is you have an unending source of (possibly drunk) NPCs that can wander down into the dungeon and make the game weirder if necessary. So, problem 2 is solved.

Problems 3 & 4

The PCs have fun with that and eventually make their way down into the dungeon, fun is had, all is well, the session ends with a cliffhanger right before a fight.

For the next session, we have two whole new players showing up and they've never played D&D before.

So, how do you:

A) Get the PCs into the dungeon, and

B) Show them how to play the game in a way that makes the game seem fun.

So then I came up with the box and put my two new PCs in it.

All went well with that. We play again tomorrow.

Problem 5

So now everybody's down in the dungeon and committed to finding the Duke. Excellent.

But next session we've apparently got two more players coming, both newbies. Girl A has always wanted to play--which is good, she'll be fine--but Girl B had never heard of the game until last week and may just be joining in because her friends are doing it. Also, I don't really know Girl B. So Problem 5 is making sure she is introduced to the game in a way that makes it seem maximally awesome.

It's not so much that Girl B has to come back--that'd be nice, but, like I said, I barely know her--it's more that I don't want the chemistry at the table to go bad during tomorrow's session, especially since Girl A is definitely D&D material and I want her first game to not be all about feeling self-conscious about having brought Girl B to do this thing that Girl B thinks is lame.

I have not yet come up with a comprehensive solution--I am certain part of the solution involves delicious and well-presented snacks. Another part will involve spending all my DM-chi this session--breaking out the visual aids, maybe have a few audio cues, stuff like that. Then probably the dungeon will need a fresh coat of kickass gimmicks--I write as I go, so the PCs have chewed through a decent section of what I've mapped already. And, probably, liquor will help.

I'll let you know how it goes.

*Zombies, on the other hand are usually metaphors for large groups of stupid people who are themselves weak and slow on the uptake, but who, in a group, are world-transformingly dangerous. Why they became so popular during the Bush/myspace era is probably not too terribly hard to figure out.

image credits: paintings--Pieter Breughel, drawing--Harry Clarke

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Adventure-Writing Process (Basic and Advanced)

These are diagrams/sketches I draw when I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna write an adventure--(I've censored out stuff my players haven't seen yet on the off chance they'll be able to figure out what any of it's supposed to be).

Basically the idea is to figure out what kind of monsters and items and tricks are going to be in there--and, to some degree--how it's all supposed to fit together.

But enough about me...meanwhile, Mandy is still working on her creepy enchanted forest adventure but has kind of stalled.

Me: So when are you gonna finish writing that adventure?

Mandy: I don't know--I'm scared.

Me: What's scary about it?

Mandy: Well, I just don't know if it's good enough. I mean, I know what kind of things I want to be in the adventure--I know what mood I want, but I don't know how to get it.

Me: Just remember, the people want to imagine the things that you're saying. Like, if you say "There's a giant red mushroom with green spots" the players are gonna imagine a giant red mushroom with green spots because they want to imagine it--they want to play the game and believe it and have fun. You don't have to describe it all. What you really want to do is focus on setting up a situation where the players do the kinds of things the main characters in the kinds of stories you want to use do. Like if it's a Night of the Living Dead thing then you don't have to worry about describing decaying faces and graveyards and all--the players will already be doing that. What you need to do is set up a situation where the players have to like fortify a location and decide who gets the rifle and worry about who they can trust and whatever else people do in those movies.

Mandy: Well I've already got a map and monsters on it, am I done? I mean, there's all these cool items and treasures and I think "Oh, that'd be cool" and I get overwhelmed, I don't know where to put everything.

Me: When you're starting out, just treat the monsters like problems the players need to solve--they're the main thing. The items are there, if the players run into them, it changes the problem a little. Like if you get a sword that is +1 vs. rabbits and the players know there's a rabbit monster one way and a different monster the other way then they'll fight the rabbit monster first. You don't have to make it all make sense on the first go. Just focus on the monsters and stuff like that and then the items are like extras that can change things around if the players find them.

Mandy: Well, then, am I done?

Me: Do the monsters have stats?

Mandy: Well I didn't do that yet...

Me: Well pull out the books and stat up the monsters you're going to use. You might get some ideas while you're doing that. Just having the books there and having to think about that stuff can give you ideas about what else could be in the adventure.

Then Mandy gets a phone call from her sister.

So anyway, while they're keeping me awake at 5am on a Saturday night with their real problems, I'm sitting here trying to think up some good adventure-writing advice for Mandy.

What I want to do is just sit down with her and the stuff she has so far and just go, "Ok, let's do this and this and this..." but then, of course, it wouldn't be as fun for me when it comes time to go through the adventure as a PC.
Unlike many of us, Mandy didn't spend hours of her youth drawing little boxes on graph paper and filling them with sinkholes and pit traps and crevasses and whatever else was on the Red Box map key and then slowly building up DM expertise from there.

So, anyway, if you can think of any specific ideas about things that could help someone finish off that first adventure, post them here.

What probably won't help is links to pages full of general "how to write an adventure" advice or links to published adventures. We've got lots of that in the house already. What Mandy needs at this point is to simplify the process rather than to have more options laid out for her.

When you're writing your second or third or fourth adventure you can worry about "Hey, why not have a whale's stomach be a dungeon?" and "Why not have a trap that isn't a trap unless the PCs think it's a trap?" Right now the idea is to simply lay out what you need to make an adventure decent and DMable.

Here's an example of a simple tip that worked:

When it was time for Mandy to draw a map, she got a little worried about how to do that right--so I suggested she could print out a map of a forest from a video game and then just change the key and start filling in things she wanted in the forest, and then that'd give her a sort of feel for how maps work.

So, here's where we are:

The adventure has a format (it'll be mostly location-based and mostly linear, I'm guessing.)

The adventure has a setting (a spooky enchanted forest) and it has a map.

The map has monsters in it, and probably one or two distinct "places" within the forest.

Mandy has lots of interesting magic items and ideas she might want to use.

So, if you have any simple ideas about how to seal the deal, or how to tell when an adventure has reached that critical mass where it has enough stuff in it to support at least one session of play, or tricks you can use to push an adventure over that critical mass, post your ideas here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Skrath

The Skrath

The Skrath is indeed horrible, and feared in every corner of every land, more even than the dread Tarrasque. His body is the loathsome body of a hideous crawling thing, and his face is a grotesque mockery of the faces of men.

He creeps along the undersides of carriages, whispering foully to coach-horses and exposes his horrific tongue to lone fishwives on the wharves in the night.

It is said that the coming of The Skrath makes doves abandon their eggs, it is said that the coming of The Skrath causes gourds to grow in unclean shapes, it is said that the coming of The Skrath makes good men weep and wail and gnash their teeth and clean their knives until his coming is ended, it is said that the coming of The Skrath bodes ill for the education of children, yet it is also said that he teaches them the secrets of the Moon and the White Star.

Crunch & Notes:

Basically, The Skrath is a unique three-foot-long greyish-green monster that shows up one day in a town or city and is usually found just lying there doing nothing (there is a 25% chance it will be found lying there doing nothing with its tongue hanging out). Treat The Skrath like an artifact or relic in AD&D--what exactly The Skrath actually can do is left entirely up to the DM, but the main thing is that the villagers, townsfolk, nobility, and other excitable 0-level types see The Skrath as the worst possible omen and have copious legends built up around it that may or may not be true and are terrified of it.

In imagining possible properties of The Skrath, remember that The Skrath may be powerful but it is not flashy: it won't just shoot fireballs at people, but maybe anyone who points at it will slowly melt over the course of a day, or maybe The Skrath just makes everyone roll at -15 all the time, or maybe it eats kindness and so removes all tender feelings from people, or maybe it is impossible to kill not because it has a million hit points but merely because anyone wanting to kill it immediately loses all motivation, or maybe it makes everyone's wishes at the exact moment it appears come true--so if someone's thinking "I wish I could find my shoe" then s/he'll see The Skrath and find a shoe, and if someone's thinking "I wish I'd never had a child" then their child disappears, or maybe The Skrath is a benevolent wizard doomed to crawl the earth in a detestable guise, or maybe The Skrath is a magical rorschach test that responds to people in whatever way they treat it, or maybe The Skrath is a philosopher that says disturbing things like the Earth revolves around the Sun and monarchy is not the ideal form of government and women should have the same legal rights as men, or maybe The Skrath is just a one hit-die greyish-green animal that lies there looking horrible and not doing anything and people think it's evil even though it's actually just ugly.

Image credit: me

Friday, November 6, 2009

Top 10 D&D Monsters Sort of

I wasn't blogging yet when the 10 Favorite D&D Monsters meme went around. I keep trying to write one but I always end up with too many. Plus, really, I just love the classics. Especially compared to, like, Noisms and his Yak-men and people who actually like owlbears.

Basically, my favorites fit into these categories:

Things the Greeks thought up:

Minotaur, medusa, hydra, sphinx. Deep in the human mind is a maze and in the maze is a monster. It's a Greek monster. This probably has something to do with the invention of geometry and the Apollonian/Dionysian tension at the heart of all human endeavors. Or something. Maybe it's just me. Basically all I know is, if it refuses to die, turns you to stone, asks riddles, or is the product of an unholy union of man and beast I want to see it, then see it die.

The spooky magic kind with shrill voices that scare birds and eat babies and make terrible things happen to you if you tell lies or touch their weird magic tree.

Flail Snail:
Pretend you don't know what a snail is. Pretend you don't know what a flail is. Now look at the picture. God that's fucked.

Medieval demons, Lovecraftian demons, effete 19th century demons, succubi. Whatever. Your parents were right about this game.

Smart skeletons:
Lich, Death Knight, Eye of Fear and Flame. It is dead, yet it knows something you don't. Or, worse: It is dead, therefore it knows something you don't.

non-Draculoid vampires:
Vampire halfling queens with pet vampire monkeys, for instance, or the Hollow Bride. Vampires are generally metaphors for the evils associated with The Old World and its ways. And D&D is all about the Old World and its ways. So fighting vampires cuts to the, bad pun...gets to the, worse pun...anyway vampires seem very close to the point of the whole thing.


Worst. Eye. Ever.

Image credits:Minotaur Adrian Smith, Beholder Tom Wham, Skeleton Harry Clarke, Flail Snail--Alan Hunter.