Sunday, 23 February 2014

One Page Dungeon Entry: Forbidden Steam Tunnels of Emesh Yuu

Hey, I got my One Page Dungeon Contest entry out of the way early this year.

When Random Wizard made public a map of the infamous Michigan State steam tunnels -- implicated in the sad case of James Dallas Egbert, later fictionalized in the novel and TV movie Mazes and Monsters -- I had my raw material, and my inspiration. The dungeon map reconstructs them circa 1980.

Click to enlarge; edited from first post.
Mazes and Monsters provided the adventure hook (inverted in the fantasy world), a couple of the encounters, and the name of the dread Ack Oga. Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons, of course, makes its appearance, and I fit in a few very quick and obscure references to other works of the 1980's moral panic. The colorful mascots of the Big Ten athletic conference fit right in. Telecanter, as usual, provided a couple of bases for the silhouettes.

Remember, it's not satanic if they're not called demons and devils! (I always liked Knights of the Dinner Table's take-off on that - "we'll call them ne'er-do-wells.")

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

What's a Megadungeon?

JD Jarvis at Aeons and Auguries wants to know what constitutes a megadungeon.

Here's my short answer, assuming that "levels" and "experience points" are relevant in your game.
  • It is a single adventuring site with multiple areas of increasing difficulty (challenge levels)
  • with enough "experience points" (rewards of adventuring relevant to character  advancement) in each "challenge level"
  • that two or more adventuring parties can advance to the character level needed to confront the next challenge level, without intruding on each other's sources of experience.

In other words, if in your game a single party will level up after exploring 30 rooms, then each level should have 60 rooms or more to be a megadungeon. To be clear, my definition is not so much about whether the megadungeon literally takes on multiple parties, but more about whether a single party feels that they have a great deal of freedom to get to the next level in multiple ways.

Anonymous, from plagmada,org

Compare this to the more typical adventure-based campaign where each individual adventure site gives all or part of the experience to advance one level. In that kind of campaign, multiple parties can coexist by visiting different adventure sites, instead of the same one.

Right now I'm running one of each kind of campaign and they each have their own rewards -- the multi-site campaign has a lot of breadth and variety while the single-site campaign offers intensity and the development of a strange, obsessive legendry over  multiple visits.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Next 52: Mountebank and Specialist Wizard

These next two classes for the next 52 Pages are magical in nature.

The Specialist Wizard plays on the color magic scheme; at character level 1, level 2 and 3 spells have a failure chance but the Mind save bonus from the class helps. If you ever wanted to blast fire darts, fire puffs and magic missiles all day, here's your chance.

Yes, that is Black magic for the necromancer.

The Mountebank takes the tricksiest colors of magic-illusion purple, summoning and transportation silver, change yellow, conjuring-up blue -and makes a half-rogue, half-wizard go at it.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

From the Valemental Plane of Elementines

They are too nice. An entire plane of existence spawns and confines these simpering cherubs, pigeon-toed kewpies, toddler sweethearts; the cloying animistic objects who love, the yams, the fried eggs, the self-slicing baloneys. Unspeakable affinities. Obsessions whose desire can never be refused, only endured. Love proclaimed in a mute pun. Laugh to keep from wailing.

They are too nice. Faced with the truly monstrous, the denizens of this saccharine dimension are powerless to raise a chubby fist. Brutal blades must be hired from across the omniverse, a price doled out in philtres. Hard steps must fall on candied soil. The Violentine must slay the Beast Beloved.

You find yourself changing; conforming to the local phenotype. Roll d8 and consult the Monster Manual.

1. Lycanthrope, Wererat

2.Fungi, Violet

3. Men, Caveman

4. Orc

 5. Golem, Flesh

6. Devil, Horned (Malebranche)

7. Ochre Jelly

8. Gelatinous Cube

Only by succeeding can you ever hope to leave.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Listen To Your Boredom

For myself and many others, writing-for-a-living places great importance on getting it right. Doing any kind of research, engineering, technical writing, even rules writing for a game requires long stretches of tedium. Fact-checking, revising, setting down the details, these all need careful work.From this activity we learn how to react to boredom as technical writers: Persevere!

Writing creative material, on the other hand, needs a different reaction to boredom. If you are bored writing something, or dreading the task because it is dull; that is your signal to cut that piece of writing out. If you are having fun writing something, then there's a chance - only a chance - that the person reading it will enjoy it. But bored writing is dead writing.

This explains why I can do creative work at times when technical writing eludes me, while other times I need to deaden my mind with drudgery and word-crunching. They are two different resources, two different skill sets. There is no virtue in writing boring creative prose!

Consider: I am describing the wizard's tower of a castle. The tedium of describing five or six small rooms, each stacked on top of each other, weighs on me. To escape this, I decree that the tower's interior is mostly taken up by a misty extradimensional space, threaded by a winding stair; I describe that and the wizard's chamber at the top, and state that a number of other rooms and storages exist in the mist but are not accessible to anyone but the wizard. Need I feel guilty, lazy? On the contrary, I have done something new and added interest to the adventure.

Consider: I am describing the rooms of a group of NPCs in that castle. To escape the tedium of describing the furnishings of each one I simply say "rooms 21-26 are furnished in the usual manner of bedrooms" and presume that any game master of 6 years or older knows what that means. This leaves me the room and motivation to put in the interesting stuff - goods to loot, things to interact with if invited back there.

As anyone who has ever sped up the action, thrown out a rule, or handwaved a procedure will recognize, the rule of boredom applies to game-mastering, too. Boredom occurs when players are neither engaged in adventure, anticipating adventure, or savoring the last adventure. All quiet moments in the game should be strongly focused on one or both or the last two of these.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Download: Bag of Tricks 2, Now Easier

Reading the hoop-la about the Seclusium of Orphone -- mostly, complaints about its difficulty of use at the table - made me realize that a) one of my existing play aids, the Bag of Tricks also is less usable than it could be; b) with just a little work and squeezing it could be re-formatted into a two-page spread along the lines of my 3 x d20 table series and others (such as Vornheim).

I think this takes the product into the realm of being usable in actual live play, rather than just to prepare a dungeon trick in the seclusium of one's home. The resulting pdf is now available over on the right, topping the downloads section, in four-page pamphlet form. It's probably best printed in color, in "shrink to fit page" format. Let me know what you think!

As a bonus here's an example trick generated on the fly:

Pool, with food/fruit which if you cast spell on, gives ...

And here's yet another way to use the Bag - just use the left-hand page and fill in the most appropriate outcome yourself.

A pool, with seven closed exotic water flowers floating on it. If a spell is cast in the room, the flowers open. Picking one and eating its fruit will make the caster recall that particular spell, ready to use again.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Next 52: Militant and Mystic

These are the first of several hybrid classes for the "next" (ho ho) expansion to my52 Pages rules. They can be played from the start or switched into from "adjacent" classes - using rules that will be presented later. Here is the fighter/prophet hybrid and the prophet/wizard. Both classes, actually, made an appearance in my first Trossley campaign, with a PC militant and an NPC mystic.

There are no doodads here, no warhorses or special abilities. If the player of these holy characters chooses evil, their powers remain as before, but are false, substituted gleefully by the Devil. "He casteth out devils through the prince of the devils."

Monday, 3 February 2014

Castle of the Mad Archmage (2014): Short Review

This weekend BRW Publishing finally released the commercial version of Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage megadungeon. I've been running people through (mostly) my homemade level one and the shallower levels of the free fan-release since I started DMing again, so I immediately ordered it from RPGNow in pdf and print.

Really, the Castle's unique virtue is that it's truly capable of taking an old-school party from level 1 to name level, with loads left over. No other product can make that boast. With 12 major levels averaging over 150 areas each, and abounding in special areas and challenges, the Castle is first past the post and still uncontested as a truly complete Old School megadungeon experience.

The other part of the Castle's appeal is that it's constructed, where possible, to match the reports and reminiscences of Gary Gygax and his players about the original Castle Greyhawk dungeon. Here you'll find analogues of the Great Stone Face, the Man of Gold, the chute to China, Obmi the dwarf, and many other legendary features. In the BRW release, necessarily so, the Greyhawk intellectual-property serial numbers have been filed off, but I suppose those who care about the difference will by definition know enough about the old Greyhawk campaign to make their own substitutions in play.

The main added material beyond the older, free pdf includes a complete upper castle works and Level 1, both of which are nicely designed, with a mix of weak monsters, powerful NPCs, and factions who -- much as in the original Castle Greyhawk -- extort tolls and tribute from parties venturing deeper. There's also an illustration booklet, Tomb of Horrors style, for some of the key sights in the dungeon. A nice touch, although I'm thinking some of the pages could have been used to illustrate difficult-to-describe puzzles like the Greek letter or ping-pong ones, rather than dungeon landmarks that can more easily be described verbally.

For the most part, except for some format changes and minor rewriting, the levels and rooms appear much the the same as in the previous product, at least from my perusal of the most familiar Level 2. There are expanded notes on play, including a huge table of rumors, a selection of quests, and improved information about the factions on each level. A nice touch at the start of each level chapter is a miniature map showing the location of any factions or special areas. The full-sized maps have their own booklet and are resized to fit a two-page spread. That's very useful, although I miss the grayscale rather than black background of the maps, as being easier to write notes on.

And notes there will be, because as before, much of the dungeon is given over to essentially empty or undetailed rooms, with one or two sentences describing by-the-book inhabitants and treasure. Many of the tricks and puzzles seem dead-dropped into the dungeon, bringing to mind the likes of White Plume Mountain. Along with certain features, these give a decidedly goofy feel to the environment; nonsense limericks, skeletal musicians, clown murals, and the like.

There's a conversation going on about hacking megadungeons, and I'll write soon about what I do to add  to the Castle myself. One thing to realize - there's not much to choose between a set of rooms left empty for the filling, versus a set of rooms filled with random monsters, undetailed treasure, clues and dungeon dressing features that lead nowhere, and so on. While the Castle has many subtly interesting situations and set-pieces, there is also a lot of filler in the spaces. Still, the thing is finished and out there, so I can't criticize too much ...

In conclusion, serious old school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists this year. Again ... there is nothing else like it. The full set of pdfs is $20 and the full set of softcover books (plus pdfs) will run you about twice that, plus shipping.