Archive for the ‘play’ Category

our ghouls and ghasts are not as good as the originals

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

On a Wikipedia binge, I learned the origin of the D&D ghast: Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. (I’ve read it before, but this detail never made an impression on me.)

The ghasts are a race of fearsome humanoids. They are much larger than a man and have a vaguely human face, albeit missing a nose. Their skin is rough and knotty. Their senses are unusually acute; they can see in the dark and have a strong sense of smell. They hop about on a pair of hooved, kangaroo-like legs, and are swift, strong, and agile. They have also been described as lacking a forehead. Ghasts prefer to dwell in complete darkness and have no tolerance for natural light — sunlight will kill them instantly.

That grotesque kangaroo-hopping detail is what gets me. Make these guys pack hunters who travel, say, twice as fast as the PCs, and, whether they’re chasing you across midnight plains or down pitch-black dungeon corridors, you’ve got a really creepy monster.

D&D ghasts, on the other hand, are like ghouls but they smell bad. As far as I’m concerned, D&D ghasts now hop like kangaroos.

Score: D&D 0, Lovecraft 1

Ghouls, of course, are from Arabian folklore (the earliest mention is in the Arabian Nights). Arabian Nights ghuls act a lot like D&D ghouls: they hang out in graveyards, eat human flesh, etc. “The creature also preys on young children, drinks blood, steals coins, and eats the dead, then taking the form of the person most recently eaten.

Ghouls were already one of my favorite D&D encounters, but this is the detail they’ve been missing. A shuffling pack of ghouls, each with the familiar face of their victims, partakes somewhat of the horror of doppelgangers and somewhat of zombie-movie zombies, but it has its own special something. This isn’t a “this zombie was once my buddy” pathos moment, or a “my buddy was a doppelganger all along” chills moment; this is a “this ghoul ate my buddy’s face, and now he’s wearing it” rage moment.

In the past, I’ve had my ghoul-eaten PCs return as ghouls, but I think that from now on I’ll have the original ghouls take on the PCs’ appearances.

Score: D&D 0, Arabian Nights 1

why you want Domains at War

Friday, May 17th, 2013

There’s about a day left in Autarch’s Adventurer Conqueror King: Domains at War kickstarter. I was lucky enough to get a Domains at War war-game playtest with Tavis Allison. It’s very impressive for the same reason Adventurer Conqueror King is impressive: it marries simple D&D mechanics with rock-solid behind-the-scenes mathematical rigor. That may not sound like much, but that combination is a rock on which many RPG-design ships have foundered. I still can’t believe that ACKS has pulled it off, and I keep peeking behind the curtain, only to find that the system is even more solid than I expect.

Let me tell you two stories: the first is why you should have ACKS on your bookshelf, and the second is why you should back Domains at War right now.

Ask Adventurer Conqueror King: How many knights per square mile?

Right now I’m reading Charles Oman’s A History of the Art of War, a giant volume that, according to Jon Peterson, was a primary text for Gary Gygax’s Chainmail. I’m reading a chapter chock full of the meaty medieval economic information I love:

We have seen that “knight-service” and “castle-ward” were ideas not altogether unfamiliar before the Conquest, and that the obligation of every five hides of land to send a mailed warrior to the host was generally acknowledged […] A landholder, knowing his servitium according to the assessment of the vetus feoffamentum of the Conqueror, had to provide the due amount of knights. This he could do, in two ways: he might distribute the bulk of his estate in lots roughly averaging five hides to sub-tenants, who would discharge the knight-service for him, or he might keep about him a household of domestic knights, like the housecarles of old, and maintain them without giving them land. Some landholders preferred the former plan, but some adhered, at least for a time, to the latter. But generally an intermediate arrangement prevailed: the tenant-in-chief gave out most of his soil to knights whom he enfeoffed on five-hide patches, but kept the balance in dominio as his private demesne, contributing to the king for the ground so retained the personal service of himself, his sons, and his immediate domestic retainers.

OK, this seems pretty clear: each knight needs five hides of land to support him. Problem is, what’s a hide? Apparently, it’s an extremely variable amount: the land needed to support one farming family. Its area is most often given in old texts as 120 acres.

Given this information, I extrapolated two useful pieces of information: how many families can be supported by a square mile of farmland, and how many knights defend it? (Stuff like this can be very useful for D&D worldbuilding, whether you need to know, for instance, the size of a country’s army or, conversely, the size of the country needed to support the army you want to use.) According to my initial calculations, a square mile of farmland, 640 acres, contained about 5 hides: about 5 farming families and one knight.

I thought I’d compare this to ACKS. I discovered that each hex of civilized land contains, according to ACKS, about 4x as many peasant families as I expected. I had a feeling that Autarch hadn’t missed a trick here. I emailed Tavis and Alex to see if they could unravel this riddle for me. Alex responded:

It’s quite confusing because a hide is not a fixed area of land. It’s 60-120 acres, but the acres in question are “old acres”. ACKS uses “modern acres”. A hide is about 30 modern acres. See […] Now, 1 6-mile hex is about 32 square miles, which is 20,480 acres, which translates into 682 peasant families. At sufficient densities I assume a surplus that includes non-farming craftsmen, so we end up with the cap of 750 families per 6-mile hex in ACKS.

In any event, 5 hides supports 5 families in ACKS. Each peasant family generates on average 12gp per month in revenue for their lord. 5 x 12 gp = 60gp. The monthly cost for a knight is 60gp (see Mercenary Wages, Heavy Cavalry). So each 5 hides can support 1 knight, as per The Art of War in the Middle Ages.

Mystery solved! My estimate for peasants per mile was off by a factor of 4 because the area of an acre had increased 4x! Furthermore, I was delighted to see that five families exactly supported one knight, as Oman suggested.

That’s one of the big selling points of ACKS for me. I like to do historical research and tweak my game accordingly, but if I want to double-check my answers, having ACKS on my shelf makes things easier. And if I consistently fall back on its prices, domain rules, end economic model, I’ll end up with something more plausible than what I could cobble together on my own.

Domains at War: Richard and Saladin

A few nights ago I went over to Tavis’s house for a playtest of the Domains at War system. I hadn’t read the rules, but I was deep in Oman’s descriptions of the major battles of the Crusades, and I’ve read a lot about medieval tactics. I figured that my ignorance of the Domains at War rules was actually a boon for the playtest. If I could command an army using only the tactics described in historical battles, and get plausible results, without knowing rules, that would be a win for the system.

On the train ride over, I’d been reading about the battle of Arsouf between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. I think Tavis had some other playtest planned, but after I enthusiastically recounted the battle, he said, “That sounds fun: let’s play that.” Oman gives a rather detailed troop breakdown of both sides, including the generals in charge of various divisions of the Crusaders. D@W includes rules for subcommanders, each with their own initiative and attributes, so the wings of my army were led by their historical commanders: King Richard at the center, King Guy of Jerusalem in the rear, and the Duke of Burgundy in the van. I put the Bishop of Bauvais, a cleric, at the head of the small band of heavily-armed Templars at the fore. Although D@W includes rules for battlefield heroics by PCs, King Richard and Saladin never met for a decisive D&D-encounter showdown.

The Battle of Arsouf is exceptional because the Crusaders, for once, held their ground and stuck to their game plan instead of charging disastrously into traps set by Saladin’s more mobile cavalry. I set myself the same challenge: could I maintain discipline and resist the temptation to charge Tavis’s skirmishers?


After a few turns of being peppered by arrows, I deviated from King Richard’s strategy. I saw an opportunity to send my cavalry into the flank of Saladin’s wheeling cavalry. It was worth it to see how beautifully my rolling cavalry charge checked Tavis’s advance and sent a few of his units fleeing for the woods.

After a few turns of opposed cavalry charges and countercharges, I was rolling up Tavis’s left wing while my own left wing was close to routing. We’d each taken a lot of casualties. Tavis needed to kill only one more of my units to force a potentially game-ending morale check; I needed two. And in real life, it was well after midnight. We played one more turn. On my left wing, Saladin concentrated his forces on one of King Guy’s cavalry units, trying to force it to flee, but it held. Meanwhile, on my right wing, I chased down and defeated one of Saladin’s light cavalry units, and sent a thundering charge into a second, but, bad luck for me, it made its morale check. Night fell on the battlefield, ending the battle inconclusively after a tense final turn. I got home around 3 AM on a work night – the sign of a good game.

As the game went on, I found myself trusting the rules more and more. If I had just role-played the part of King Richard, I think the game system would have given me the victory. In fact, I role-played the part of an undisciplined, impetuous Crusader cavalier, and, as they so frequently did, I nearly turned victory into defeat. Maybe Tavis will give me a rematch sometime. This time I’ll stick to the plan.

a moment of dread on the Isle of Dread

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

The 5e playtest version of Isle of Dread encourages the DM to spindle, fold, and mutilate the original adventure. The module suggests (spoilers ahead) having NPCs who visit the jungle center of the island return as undead, possessed, or otherwise corrupted versions of their former selves.

I went with this idea: the natives of the friendly village warned that explorers often come back “wrong:” not undead, but with an imperfect memory of their former lives and with a cunning tendency to act normal until they found a way to kill as many of their fellow villagers as possible. Therefore, the villagers had instituted a password and security-question system for letting explorers back in the village.

When the PCs met some native villagers walking around in the jungle interior, they somehow forgot about these hints. They trustingly hired the natives as guides: furthermore, they insisted that the villagers keep watch at camp so that all the PCs could go to sleep at once (including the high elf, who insisted that “I don’t NEED to sleep, but I LIKE to sleep.”)

That night, the corrupted villagers tried to creep up to the sleeping PCs and slit their throats. Only a series of improbably high PC Listen checks prevented a sleeping TPK. The PCs killed the corrupted villagers and then finished their rest.

The next day, surveying the carnage, the PC druid had a horrifying thought. “What if the villagers were sneaking up to put mints on our pillow or something? What if we’re the ones that are “wrong”? They went through the checklist: do we leave piles of their bodies in their wake? check. Are we remorseless? Check: this was the second night in a row the PCs had gone blissfully to sleep among corpses of their own making. Do we have poor memories? Sure, they’d forgotten that natives in the jungle might be dangerous. Besides, PCs never remember any plot points from week to week.

For a while, the players seriously entertained the notion that I was acting as an unreliable DM narrator, and the players had “gone wrong” and were killing innocents. And I? I cursed myself for not thinking of it. If I’d planned it, and managed to pull it off, this could have been The Creepiest D&D Game Ever.

OK, I don’t 100% encourage you to try this trick in your own Isle of Dread run. It could go horribly wrong and really alienate all your players. But on the other hand, it could go horribly right. Either way, it’d be a memorable campaign, and I’d like to hear about it.

play D&D with me right now!

Monday, October 8th, 2012

In April 2011, Mike Mearls did something cool with his “Legends and Lore” column. He intentionally misused the weekly poll software. Instead of asking “do you like the ideas in this column?” he asked “You stand at an intersection, with passages heading to the north, south, east, and west. Which way do you go?”

His crowd-sourced, poll-administered D&D game only lasted a few months, but it was a great idea. From now on, I propose that a play-by-poll D&D game be called a “Mearls”. I wrote some Mearls software, and I’ll be running a game this week (and maybe beyond).

D&D isn’t D&D unless it’s open-ended. Therefore, in this Mearls, there will be no pre-written choices. If you have an idea, you can suggest it. If people like it, they will vote for it. You can change your vote any time.

As the DM, I’ll advance the game two or three times each day. Join the game to get alerts!


downton and dragons 4: Titanic dungeon crawl

Friday, August 24th, 2012

In my last post, I described a big nine-PC D&D adventure set in 1912, on board the sunken Titanic. Like Telly Savalas, the PCs were after the contents of the Titanic’s safe.

During the adventure, the PCs managed to placate the Titanic’s ghosts by organizing one last ghostly waltz. Now that the ship had been drained of dangerous ghosts, the PCs had less to fear on their way to the safe. Still, I ran the exploration of the ship as a standard dungeon crawl. Here were the rules I used:

To get to the safe, the PCs must go down 2 staircases and through 6 sections of hallway. In each one, roll for a random encounter:

1-2: SEA ZOMBIES OF FIRST CLASS PASSENGERS: 2d4 zombies wearing furs, pearls, suits, top hats… there may be zombies of people the characters know. [Use zombie stats as appropriate for edition: I used the ones from the 5e playtest.] Every successive first class sea zombie encounter has 1d4 more zombies than last time. Treasure: do the treasure check as if you had rolled a 10-12.
3: SEA ZOMBIES OF THIRD CLASS PASSENGERS: 2d6 zombies. Mostly Irish. One of them is playing a fiddle faster and faster: zombies get +1 to hit every successive round (use an escalation die as if you were playing 13 Age). They all die if the fiddler is killed. Treat any further rolls of 3 as more first class zombies.
4: CARNIVOROUS SEA HORSES ridden by mermen. 3 units. Bite (+3, 1d8+5 and trident (+4, 1d6+5). After round 1, they will try to blow a conch to summon reinforcements: 50% chance of summoning more mermen.
5: PROBING TENTACLE (if the kraken was not defeated. If the kraken was killed, a roll of 5 results in no encounter.) A huge tentacle probes down the corridor. AC 14, 30 HP, +5 hit, 2d6+4 damage. If it hits someone, it automatically does 2d6 next turn unless they’ve escaped. After it grabs someone, it tries to draw them back out to be eaten three turns later.
6: LOCKED OR STUCK DOOR: strength check to open. Each round of failure: The PCs hear noises from behind them. Make a new random encounter roll.
7-9 No encounter.
10-12: Inanimate first class passenger corpses (wearing necklace, rings, furs, books, checkbooks, gold headed canes, cigarette box, gold pencils, etc). If the PCs loot their bodies, roll 5d6: every roll of 4-6 lets them find a valuable item worth 400, 500, or 600 GP.)

I ran this section pretty much straight, except that when mermen called for reinforcements, I decided that more identical mermen would be boring, and had them summon a merman riding a giant racing crab who made 2 pincer attacks per round.

the safe

The PCs got to the safe. In front of it, there lay three corpses: two older men in fancy clothes and one surprisingly handsome young man in working-class clothes.

At this point, several of the girl players made “aha” sounds. The guy players remained mystified.

The rogue opened the safe. “You find–” I said.

“–a nude picture of Kate Winslet,” said one of the girls.

“–A surprisingly inept pencil sketch of a nude woman,” I said. “Also, a priceless diamond. And the will of Patrick Crawley.”

The party high-tailed it up to the deck of the ship, where they met


A ghostly Leo teleports in front of each player in turn, spending a second or less in front of each, and says “Where is my diamond?” (If, for some reason, no one has taken the priceless diamond, he will leave them alone.)

Roll initiative! Not that it matters. In order to make a single creature a viable challenge for nine players, I had Leo act right after every character’s initiative, attacking that character (whether the character made an attack or not). Thus, Leo got 9 attacks per round. Leo was teleporting from character to character so fast that every character could make either a melee or ranged attack on Leo, their choice.

Oh, one more thing: While fighting Leo, use a laptop to play this heavy metal version of the Titanic song.

Leo attacks each character with a dagger:
AC: 16. +2 all saves, +4 on dex saves. 150 HP.
Attack on each initiative: +5, damage 1d4+10.
Quick Teleport: Leo attacks after each character’s initiative. Movement-restricting effects don’t work on him. Stun and similar turn-stealing effects only works for one player’s initiative.

When Leo is brought to 50 HP, he yells “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!” From this turn on, his attacks do an extra 5 damage a turn.

Here’s an ability I forgot to use in the game:
If Leo is ever alone, he uses one of his attacks to whistle and summon 1d4 sailor zombies. They attack random targets on Initiative 0.

When the PCs killed Leo, I described him getting old and puffy before his spirit dissipated.

Wrapping Up

Once the players had the will, they did some investigation: they found the new heir to Downton Abbey, a one-year-old baby. Next there was some player-directed roleplaying, wrapping up loose ends:

  • The rogue and sea captain conspired to ruin the quartermaster’s career and keep the submarine.
  • Two of the characters waylaid the evil wizard Matthew Crawley in an alley outside a tavern, and straight up murdered him.
  • One of the characters had a personal enemy, Lord Filth. The PCs smuggled Matthew’s corpse into Lord Fith’s bed, and then, in an act of pettiness, stole a bottle of perfume.
  • The halfling rogue and the daughter of the Earl got engaged!

    I had been thinking of having a final battle with Matthew Crawley, but it would have felt anticlimactic after the Leonardo fight. (I was going to play “Mr. Crowley” by Ozzy.) Anyway, Matthew’s anticlimactic ambush was funnier.

    All in all, the game was a pretty good prediction of what will happen in Season 3 of Downton Abbey.

    I’d never DMed a group this big. Given the challenges, I think that it didn’t go too badly. It’s tough to keep a nine-PC game moving swiftly through combats, and I bet there were times when it got annoying to wait several minutes to take your attack. Luckily, 5e combats do run a little quicker than 4e, and I had people roll their attacks simultaneously whenever possible.

    Outside of combat, everything worked very well. As it happened, everyone got to spend some time in the spotlight, and people were very entertained by each others’ antics. This was strictly a result of having a good collection of D&D players.

    As a 5e playtest? We hit a few jagged edges, which I’ll note in feedback. In general, though, I had a great time. That’s true of every D&D edition in which I play, which, maybe, makes me not a stellar playtester.

    The most important 5e question was answered: Does 5e works as a Downton Abbey simulator? It does!

  • downton and dragons 3: nautical nobles

    Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

    Last time, I described the first part of a D&D 5e playtest set in 1912 England. Today I’ll continue the adventure. The second half of the adventure took place deep in the Atlantic ocean, on the sunken Titanic.

    When the PCs decided to explore the sea bottom, the character with the “Tycoon” background decided to consult his weather wizard. He just decided that that was something that a tycoon should have, and it sounded like a good idea to me. I had the weather wizard give everyone the ability to breathe and move freely under water.

    Rory, who had a Naval Officer background, asked if he had a ship. I decided that he had a sloop he could use to get to the coordinates of the Titanic wreck. Furthermore, I decided that he knew a dishonest quartermaster who would sell the characters the following naval equipment:

    An experimental submarine: the owner is asking 15k. (I intentionally priced this so high that the players couldn’t buy it with the money they had. I was curious if they’d be able to get their hands on it anyway.)
    Underwater diving suits: 700 GP each. Underwater, these act like +1 heavy armor, and above water, they are extremely cumbersome.
    Spidersilk swim trunks: For characters who wear cloth armor, these extremely modest Victorian bathing suits give a +1 AC bonus.

    The tycoon decided to buy upgraded armor for everyone, but he didn’t think we needed the submarine.

    Laura K, the swindler rogue, really wanted the submarine. She talked to the quartermaster privately. A few Charisma checks later, and he revealed that there was said to be a fabulous diamond on board the Titanic when it sank. If she would obtain the diamond for him, he’d give her the submarine. Showing a touching faith in her honor, he handed her the keys (or however you give someone possession of a submarine).

    under the sea

    I planned a cool fight for the PCs against a giant kraken. Because the PCs had a submarine, I didn’t use it as written. Here’s what I planned:

    The Titanic is lying on the sea bottom, broken into two pieces. A giant kraken is clinging to the broken cross-section of the front half, reaching inside and pulling out bodies, which it drops into its beak. When it sees you, it wriggles its fins and heads towards you.

    The kraken body has some huge number of HP, like 300, and the PCs are better off attacking the tentacles, which have 30 HP each and a reach of 20 or 30 feet.

    Every turn, the kraken can attack up to four PCs with up to four of its eight tentacles (doing 3d6+4 damage on a hit). On a hit, the subject is grabbed and needs to use his or her next turn to escape. On the kraken’s turn, all grabbed creatures take 2d6 damage. Tentacles currently holding PCs can’t make attacks; nor can tentacles that have taken 30 points of damage.

    If anyone decides to attack the kraken’s eyes, they may do so: each eye has 30 HP. Anyone who attacks an eye will be the subject of two tentacle attacks on the next turn.

    I had a roll of black crepe paper. I was planning to extend a piece of it to anyone grabbed by the kraken and ask them to tape it to their clothes.

    I don’t know how this fight would have gone, because the PCs had the submarine. They had negotiated with the port’s quartermaster for three torpedoes as well.

    I like big numbers, so i decided that each torpedo did 1d100 damage. Since firing the torpedo was a Dexterity attack, Rory, the sea captain, ceded control of the torpedoes to his cousin, Lady Glossop, a noted archer with a keen eye.

    3d100 damage later, the kraken was reeling. The characters swam out of the submarine to finish it off with a round of ranged attacks that dropped it to 2 HP.

    In the last round of combat, the kraken rolled very poorly for initiative. I announced that if any PC could do 2 points of damage this round, the kraken would be killed before it could attack.

    The wizard announced, “Magic missile! Autohit for 1d4+1 damage!” And the mighty beast died.

    That battle was a cakewalk for the PCs. I liked that it was a cakewalk because of the PCs’ actions. The rogue made a special effort to get the submarine, and the players were rewarded for it.

    In the Ballroom

    The PCs knew that they were looking for a safe on the C deck of the Titanic. When they left the submarine and stood on the ship’s deck, they saw stairs leading down. They also saw a deck-side ballroom, around which dozens of ghosts were gathering.

    There was really no reason to investigate the ballroom, but the players were curious, as I thought they might be. Here are my notes for the ballroom:

    The main ballroom is swarming with spirits. Normally, anyone who goes into the ballroom will see flitting white shapes and take 1d20 damage per round from their ghostly aura. Clerics, or those in a spiritual state of some kind, will instead see the ballroom the way it was the night of the accident.

    There is a full orchestra in evening dress, and a small choir. On the dance floor are many groups of people talking quietly to each other and asking strangers (like the PCs) for news. “We heard a crash! Did we hit anything?” There is a rumor going around that the ship is sinking.

    The band is worried that they may drown. If asked to play music, the bandleader will say that this is no time to dance. The PCs must convince the band. it should take 2+ of the following methods (or one really good one:)

    AFTER ONE SUCCESS: After one success, the bandleader will clearly be wavering. He lifts his baton and is about to strike up the band. Then, cold, black water starts flowing along the floor of the ballroom, getting peoples’ feet wet. People start screaming. The bandleader lowers his baton and looks to the PCs for advice. He will require a second success to make him play the song, preferably a success of a different type.

    -Good reasoning (it will buck up the people and keep up morale! etc)
    -An inspiring speech (or a good charisma check)
    -PCs starting to play instruments or hum or dance
    -any form of magical compulsion
    -offer them blood to drink (they will lap up the blood but still not admit that they are ghosts)
    -any other interesting trick

    FIGHTING: If the PCs offer violence or intimidation, four gentlemen in the crowd will yell “This is no time for violence!” and try to grab the most obnoxious PCs (they make attacks at +5; on a hit, they do no damage, but the PCs are Grabbed. Grabbed PCs must spend their actions making an escape attempt. If PCs attempt further violence, the ghosts will flip out.

    TELLING THE TRUTH: If the PCs tell the ghosts that they are ghosts, or that the Titanic has already sunk, the ghosts will flip out.

    GHOSTS FLIPPING OUT: If the PCs escalate the violence, the civilians will become more obviously spectral and start flying around the ballroom. Each PC will be attacked by two ghosts each (roll initiative).

    If successful, the band will strike up “Autumn” by Louis Von Esch. Go here and press Play:

    After a few moments, all the people in the room will start waltzing. Spectral ghosts will flow into the ballroom from all directions. As soon as they enter the ballroom, they will turn into richly dressed couples and start dancing.

    The way it worked out was even better. One of the clerics convinced the bandleader to play, and then convinced panicked passengers to dance. “It might be your last chance,” he said, truly.

    Meanwhile, the tycoon, who had the ability to interact with the spirit world because of a 5e class feature, asked if he saw the dead heirs or anyone he knew. I said that he saw the ghost of his old friend, the millionaire John Astor. John Astor said something like, “There’s a lot of noise about this ice collision, but the Titanic is unsinkable. Everyone is overreacting. Will you play a game of cards with me?”

    The tycoon agreed to a game of cards – agreeing to take several rounds of damage from the ghosts’ auras. He wanted to make a Bluff check to let his friend John Astor win one last game of cards.

    A Bluff check was made. There was a pause. “You always were a terrible bluffer, old friend,” Astor said. (The players sighed in disappointment.) “I could tell right away you had terrible cards. I have a full house!” (The players cheered!) John Astor, happy in his last victory, faded away!

    This scene was actually a tiny bit touching. The mournful musical cue, which I played from a laptop and which was actually the last song played on the Titanic, really helped set the mood.

    Next time: The players wrap up the Titanic dungeon crawl!

    downton and dragons: backgrounds

    Thursday, August 16th, 2012

    Last weekend, I ran a D&D game for a big group: nine players plus myself. As it happened, an oddly large percentage of the players were in graduate school, so I took the only course open to me: I classed it up.

    I haven’t seen a lot of Downton Abbey, but I’ve seen enough to know the basic premise. There’s an Earl. His closest heirs are drowned on the Titanic. Now they’re stuck with some distant, middle-class relative as the next in line to the estate! Hijinx ensue.

    It seems like a pretty good setup for a D&D adventure. Except that D&D characters have some options not open to the characters in the show: they can GO DOWN TO THE TITANIC, fight the zombified remains of John Astor and the other upper-crust disaster victims, and, in one way or another, set things right.

    Not only was this adventure a TV show homage, it was a Fifth Edition playtest. I made a few tweaks to match the 1912-England-plus-elves-and-magic setting. Maybe next week I’ll publish the adventure: today, here are the custom backgrounds I made available to the player characters. Note that they’re generally more powerful than the 5e playtest backgrounds: I like to go gonzo for one-shots.

    Dependent Noble

    You’re of good birth, but you’re not in line for a fortune. You might be dependent on relatives, or the possibility of a good marriage. Your charms are your greatest asset.

    You start the game with the following equipment:
    1 set of noble clothing
    10 GP
    popular novel

    You start the game with your choice of one of the following irons in the fire:
    1) A rich suitor or admirer
    2) a secret career as an artist, nurse, revolutionary, or other low trade
    3) a disgraceful engagement with someone entirely unsuitable
    4) knowledge of a secret which you could use for blackmail

    You also start the game with 1 family heirloom. Roll on the following chart:
    1-2: +1 weapon or magic staff of your choice.
    3-4: +1 armor, shield, or ceremonial robes of your choice.
    5: Your heirloom necklace is decorated with 1d4 resurrection stones.
    6: Devoted valet or lady’s maid (AC 15, attack +5, damage 1d6+3, 20 HP) whose expertise gives you +1 on all charisma checks.
    7: Roll again on this chart using a d6. The item you roll up comes with a curse.
    8: Your choice of item.

    You have the following skills:
    Society Lore

    Finally, come up with one friend, enemy, or other associate with whom you have an important relationship (it may or may not be another player):

    Click here to read the rest of the backgrounds!

    You can cut each page into strips and let people grab whichever background suits them. Note: There are some duplicates here. For instance, there are several copies of “loyal servant” background, but only one “tycoon.” First come, first served.

    Next: The adventure!

    war is the only word i know

    Friday, August 10th, 2012

    The creature opened eyes like two red stars and looked at Ekmal. It opened its beak and cried out stridently the only word it knew: “War!” “Of course, war,” said Ekmal, holding out his arm.
    -Leigh Brackett, The Hounds of Skaith

    I used this detail in a game I ran recently. The players were sent to open diplomatic negotiations with the giants to the south. The giants – courtly, bejeweled – rode on fine, massive horses and carried man-sized hawks on their arms.

    The PCs’ mission was to prevent war with the giants. The birds’ constant cries of “WAR!” didn’t help matters.

    No visit to a foreign court is complete without a hunt. For quarry, I had the giants hawking dire al-miraj, horned rabbits so big that the players could joust with them.

    Naturally, diplomatic negotiations broke down (as they always do in D&D) and the PCs ended up fighting the giant king (as PCs always do).

    This last fight was notable because I’d given the PCs a one-shot item, a magic gem that let its owner roll 1d100 for damage instead of the normal damage die. This is kind of a silly item, but we were running a gonzo game. And it paid off in drama: everyone was excited when the fighter snapped the gem to his sword and challenged the giant king to single combat.

    The fighter rolled his attack. Hit. Rolled 1d100 for damage. And got a 3.

    But wait! Looking over his character sheet, he remembered that he had a power that let him reroll damage for one attack.

    He rerolled the d100.

    And got a 1.

    Such are the fortunes of war.

    Scans of some kid’s D&D notebook from 1989

    Monday, April 30th, 2012

    As I mentioned, I recently came into a windfall: 45 pounds of D&D stuff that comprise some kid’s D&D collection from the 80s. From the Dragon magazines, it looks like he subscribed from about ’83 to ’89, and he stopped playing around the time Second Edition came out.

    I was excited to get the books and magazines, but the first thing I opened was the spiral notebook, on the cover of which were scratched the letters “D+D”.

    It’s a peculiar, and brief, notebook. I might need a little help prizing out its secrets.

    It starts very strong, with an awesome map of a land called ARCAUEN:

    There are so many kickass names here, including, but not limited to, Drosifer Tower… Doricus… Isles of Clakoron… Drafek…Okioxion… Mount Flinkorst… Garroten… Dracorius Hill… Blueis Lake… Bay of Bengal… Straight of the Dragon. It’s like an episode of He-Man, in the best possible way. My favorites have to be Bay of Bengal – yeah, it is an awesome name for a bay, even if it is real! and Straight of the Dragon. Straight of the Dragon isn’t even a strait – it’s a peninsula. Spotmarkedx suggested that the world of Arcauen is two dimensions, which you can traverse with the right spell: an island, in which the Straight is a peninsula, and a landlocked sea, in which the Straight is – well, still not a strait, actually. Maybe some sort of bay. Anyway, a good idea.

    Other locations of note: Black Ledge, which protects Drosifer Tower, the home of (I suspect) the greatest evildoer of the campaign, and Plathister Tower, where good wizards weave great magics using the poetry of Sylvia Plath. That’s just a guess.

    The other interesting thing about this map is the scale: it’s not a continent, as I first thought, but a pretty small island. It’s maybe 30 miles across – approximately the same size as Mauritius. There are a lot of great locations packed together pretty tightly here.

    On the next page, we have an Encounter Table!

    do you want to play some Mazes and Monsters? what about Dwimmermount?

    Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

    I’ve been remiss in finishing my retro-clone of the bizarre RPG from the movie Mazes and Monsters: maybe if my planned Random Dungeon Kickstarter works out I will try to print M&M as a game book. If you’re not yet familiar with the rules, check them out: they’re insane.

    I mention this because, next week, I will be running a game of Mazes and Monsters in a museum, and, if you can make it to Brooklyn, you’re invited.

    Come to Brian Droitcour’s Big Reality show on March 15, at the 319 Scholes gallery in Brooklyn. One of the pieces will be “Lawful Evil”, where I will run a game for a party of evil players. The game system will be a Mazes and Monsters/OD&D hybrid, and the adventure will be a preview of Dwimmermount, James Maliszewski’s megadungeon.

    If you want to play, though, be warned: Mazes and Monsters is the game that drove Tom Hanks INSANE!