Friday, August 28, 2009

Magic Item: The Way Stone

I have a feeling that this is far less original than I think it is, but I can't find it anywhere in my books that I have access to at the moment. I'm sure if I'm just copying from a sourcebook that I only remember fuzzily, they'll tell me.

The Way Stone

These devices are simple in both form and function. A flat bit of knapped flint pointed on one end, these devices are easily mistaken for arrow or spearheads from a technologically primitive tribe, though a detect magic spell will reveal a minor enchantment of divination. To use, one must simply hold them in the palm of one's hand and name a desired and known location. The stone will spin to point in the direction of that location.

Successful use of the stone is based upon how well known the desired destination is:

*Location known intimately to user (having physically visited for a period no less than 4 hours) - 95%

*Location known in passing (physically passed through on at least one occasion, but did not stay) - 85%

*Location described in detail (as from one who knows it intimately or from a text) - 75%

*Location known only vaguely or by reputation (have heard of location, but do not know any details about it) - 50%

*Location known only by legend or heresay (true existance unsure) - 10%

A failure indicates 50% of the time that the stone simply does not function and 50% of the time the stone will point to a random, incorrect location.

Note that the stone does not indicate passable routes, only the direction in which a point in space is situated. Thus, if asked to point in the direction of the center of the planet, it will point straight down and not at the location of a tunnel that will eventually lead to the center of the planet.

A very few (5%) of these devices will, in fact, point not to a location, but a passable route to reach that location. In the case of common towns, cities, castles, etc., the stone will likely point to a nearby road that will take the user towards their destination. If no road exists, or the "best" route is a direct, overland route, the stone will point in that direction. Asking the location of mythological locations, or locations that are not entirely within the confines of the Prime Material plane will likely generate a prosaic response similar to a Divination spell: helpful, but likely not direct or straightforward.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Illithid of Thylia Part II

Rather than just edit the previous post like any normal human would, I'm going to make this a follow on post.

For the most part, the Illithid remain an unknown quantity in Thylia. Typically living in deep, subteranean caverns, it is rare for the mind flayers to step foot upon the surface of the world, though from time to time, explorers have stumbled upon one of their outposts and lived to tell the tale. What is known to the surface world is based almost entirely on wild stories that grow more lurid and less true with every telling and the academic observations of a handful of sages lucky enough, or mad enough to have gotten their hands upon the body of one of these creatures and some of their belongings: Petras is one of the more widely known "experts" on the subject and occasionally will hire the foolish and greedy to venture beneath the surface of the world to collect samples for him.

In truth, the Illithid are the first sentient species to inhabit the place now known as Thylia, or at least the remnant of it since it is almost certain that their current form is not their original for it is the driving motive behind all of Illithid society to drive their race to physical and mental perfection via targeted modification. Having had practice for many thousands of years, the mind flayers have grown exceedingly skilled at biologic and genetic "artistry" as they would term it. Potential changes are proposed and discussed by a council convened once every century where further and alternate courses of research are explored. When a desired change is fully agreed upon, it is implemented in young Illithid and undifferentiated spawn (a viscous and vile slime kept in great vats by tenders capable, with electric stimulation, of spawning half-power Illithid in 1d2 weeks and grow to full strength over the course of 1 year) where its effects upon the population can be carefully monitored. Eventually, the modification will breed into the population as a whole and the original form left behind.

Long ago, a mind flayer exploratory party discovered the mortal races infesting the sunlit realms and found in them not vermin or food (though they found the brains of these creatures to be particularly appatizing), but a blank genetic/biological canvas upon which to paint their will: a collection of simple, uncomplicated DNA strands compared to the vastly denser Illithid genetic code providing a perfect experimental test-bed to be used without compunction. It's unclear how many test subjects are kidnapped from the surface and how many are purpose bred, but it is almost certain that the humanoid and demi-human races have all been affected by the experiments of the Illithid lurking beneath their feet.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Illithid of Thylia

From "Illithidia: An Examinatory Journal and Summary" by Petras, Scholar and Hedge Wizard:

"Cold, alien, and methodical." Such are the only descriptors that can, academically, be reasonably applied to the little known, almost mysterious, beings known as the Mind Flayers, or Illithid in their own parlance. Those who tell the stories about them, though, tend to add such descriptors as "evil, malignant, horrifying, etc." either out of ignorance, or desire for enhanced narrative interest. Indeed, outside of certain academic circles, very little is known about these entities which is, I'm certain, a result both of the sedentary lives of typical peasants and the difficulty of returning with objective observations from survivors of actual encounters.

From a simple anatomical standpoint, the Illithid are wholly alien and otherwordly compared to native species of Thylia. Vivisections of those few living individuals brought back by enterprising adventurer capatalists reveal few familiar anatomical structures within the Illithid, though I have tentatively identified pulmonary and cardiac systems: however, even these seem entirely divergent in form and function than those found within standard humans and humanoids. For instance, I have found no emotional center within the cardiac system of the Illithid I've examined as one would expect in a human or, say, an elf: the whole seems to be decentralized and independant of other systems. Indeed, these beings show marked differences in basic form even one from the other so much so that it is possible to identify, potentially, two sub-species of the larger whole.

Of motives or intellect, little can be said of these creatures even though the learned are cognizant of some of their actions. Those with first hand experience of the lairs of the Illithid report laboratories similar to those kept by the learned and wise of the cities. Test subjects of various sorts kept confined in cages, tables for vivisection and examination, various delicate tools (extremely fine knives, hooks, probes, and other unidentifiable tools), and other such academic apparatus dominate as well as, on occasion, the apparant results of their experiments in the form of misceganated conglomerate beings: humans with the limbs of wild animals, horribly and purposely mutated persons presumably captured from the surface world, and hybridized creatures somewhat akin to the bizaare owlbear familiar to our world. The Illithid seem to be experimenters, creators, and changers, but to what purpose none can say as they do not speak of themselves nor reveal their thoughts in any intelligable way to the remainder of the academic community.

Whatever their intent and purpose, one must admire the artistic flair of the Illithid's creations and ponder what, if any, entities now living upon the surface world have been touched by thier hand.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Coming Up

Coming up in the near future to this blog as real life begins to calm down:

1. The Drow of Thylia are dragged kicking and screaming into the light. Never really cared for the original conception of them, or more specifically what Salvatore did to them, but I've always had a passion race of dark (metaphorically) ur-elves that had grown socially if not genetically along a different path than the typical elf.

2. Illithid culture of Thylia. Lurkers in the dark.

3. The map I've mentioned once or twice, if I ever manage to remember to bring it to work where I have a scanner. Then you can all mock my complete ineptitude in artistic matters.

4. Dragons and the Great Game.

5. A general outline of a few thousand years of Thylian history.

6. A play report of my attempt to run Death Frost Doom this comming Sunday. Yes, I actually game. Surprise.

What's With All The Ruins?: or Fantasy Urban Renewal

If there's one surety in any D&D campaign, it's a surfeit of crumbling ruins, mysterious misplaced castles and towers, and vast, intricate, underground complexes. Those underground complexes are another issue unto themselves, but that's neither here nor there. My question today is: where the hell do all those ruins come from?

For the most part, these types of things are only haphazardly explained in most campaigns, or not at all. Which is fine since the real world is replete with abandoned and decaying structures the purposes of which are either long forgotten or not widely known. Hell, Eastern Europe is positively lousy with decrepit castles, monastaries, and stone structures. So it's not exactly a tremendous stretch to imagine a fantastic, medieval stasis type world positively busting with such things. After all, you know how wizards are: they must have some sort of fetish for non-Euclidian geometry in home decor . . .

But the problem for me is that the little Smeagol in me, in all of us really, starts to ask "where are they from?". Who built these places and why? Who was the original owner of the castle that the PC's evicted a tribe of goblins from? Why? Where'd he go? What came before this? I'm always, as a player, snuffling around looking for a root cause, an origin, a precurser, which drives my DM absolutely insane at times. "Sometimes a castle is just a castle" indeed.

It's not crucial to explain every single nuance of the world, and in fact doing so is detrimental in the long run, but a ref owes it to himself and his players to at least throw out a generic, overarching rational for the surplus of crumbling architecture. First off, it provides an easier way for the ref to fend off the overly curious players who look to make a bigger comotion out of relatively minor details. You have no damn clue why that particular castle is there, but if you can tell them something, anything, then they'll probably be satisfied on some level.

Second, and better, it provides a potential jumping off point for deeper explorations by the players. It leads those curious players deeper into the world even though it's only an illusion of depth and into that curious place where the players start helping the ref build the world around them. Tell them the tower is a guard post and the really good ones will start asking the next obvious question: a guard against what? Their speculations can lead to some pretty decent ideas that inspire new directions. Who the hell knew a great hobgoblin nation lay just on the other side of that winding valley path? Or that in the deepest pit of this place was a magicaly spawned portal into some insanity inducing realm responsible for some of the stranges things in the world. Hey, owlbears have to come from somewhere don't they?

For its part, the current region of Thylia being details (the northwestern region of the continent for those who actually care) was the site of a gradual invasion and assimilation by the distant Thelerite Imperium. A fleet of 4 ships made landfall on the western shore and promptly informed the local population (mostly cloistered dwarf communities who cared little for anything but their craft and semi-nomadic bands of humans) that they had been conquered and were expected to render unto the Imperium. The dwarves promptly ignored the invaders in typical dwarven fashion for, south of their home kingdom, they really didn't care a whit what some poncy Imperator had to say. The tribal humans found the whole thing terribly amusing and proceeded with business as usual, treating the Thelerites as a mild curiosity and occasional trading partner: their steel weapons were, after all, far superior to the copper and knapped flint still used by many. The Thelerites, satisfied that they had succeeded in claiming the land expanded ever eastward in waves, leaving in their wake long defensive lines of keeps, towers, and walls that the natives simply went around, under, or over as was convenient.

Around 350 years ago, however, the Imerium began to recede towards the coast again and before long, the carefully built civil structure that they had created was gone. Few, according to the dwarves, cared or even noticed the change.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Assassins and Archetypes

One of the greatest strengths of D&D, I think, is the class system. No, it doesn't have ten thousand options for not only fighters and wizards, but "beguilers" (whatever the hell those are), knights, barbarians, warlocks, battle mages, etc. But that's not the point, nor the intent of the AD&D class system (and the D&D system from the little brown books and BECMI as well really). Instead, Gary Gygax's conception of a "class" was less of a packet of customizable character powers and abilities to help some poor dateless wonder realize his fantasies of playing a super cinematic character, but as broad archetypes, instead. Thus, a fighter isn't a job description, it's a category denoting "those who fight with armor and weapons in a martial manner" instead. A magic-user/wizard/mage is "one who uses arcane spells" and not a title. A thief - often the butt of grognardian displeasure because, of course, why does one need to belong to the thief class in order to steal? - is not so much one who steals as "one skilled in subterfeuge, stealth, and non-direct means."

Within these categories, the possibilities are numerous. Within the category of "fighter" for instance, lies the characters of an ex-soldier, Robin-Hood, a raging berserker, a swashbukling romantic hero, a town guard seargeant, or simply a degenerate thug. Likewise, the cleric category can encompass anything from Brother Cadfael to a frenetic ideological zealot. This is why I don't really like the multiplication of entities when it comes to classes. Simply put, they're just not needed, or they draw a distinction where none should be (i.e., why is it that all barbarians after UA are really berserkers? Isn't "barbarian" a cultural and social distinction instead?).

That's why, in the end, I don't see the need for an entire class devoted to the assassin. In the end, isn't an assassin merely one who kills for money? Why can't a member of any class perform that function? As it is, the class seems merely to co-opt part of the function of the thief class, but not as well. Ostensibly, a professional hired killer and a spy (two archetypes for the price of one?), but I simply do not see the need for this in the core rules say what you will about maturity, tone, of juvenality. The removal of the assassin from the core PHB in 2nd edition was, in my mind, a moderate improvement along these lines.

But what about the ranger, druid, bard, and paladin? Aren't they the same issue?

Yes, they are. And no, given the model of archetypes that I think Gary was following, I don't think that they're all together neccessary or needed within the core rules of the game. Each of their niches can be filled about as well by one or more of the other classes and good role playing as these extra classes can. Hell, the 2e PHB actually denotes the druid as a type of specialty mythos priest, but then goes out of its way to make it virtually impossible to replicate it via the guidlines given for special mythos priesthoods, so go figure.

In my mind, the only truly neccessary classes within the archetypal fantasy framework of AD&D are the Fighter, the Cleric, the Magic-User, and the Thief. All else is gravy.

Of course, one could take this argument far enough to say that there shouldn't be any classes at all and characters are entirely defined by what they do, but then it just wouldn't by D&D would it? We'd be off playing GURPS or something like that and there's no need to insult anybody by going there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emanent Death Not Imminent Death

One of the most frequent complaints leveled at the old school style games I see (and, let's be honest, one of the most inaccurately used points of "nostalgia" as well) is that characters die frequently and gruesomely and often pointlessly. That statue in the first room? Yeah, save vs death. Those who fail, die instantly as the things leaps across the room and throat punches your character. Those who succeed, make a new saving throw every minute until you fail. Then you die.

The belief that Old School dungeons were designed to be unfair PC death traps is, perhaps, a bit unfair. Imminent death, in the static between mistranslations, means that the old games have a "kill-em'all" attitude. That reputation is not entirely applicable, in my opinion as, more often than not, it seems to be based on the conflation of the Tomb of Horros with all modules and the perception of Gary as a "killer GM."

Of course, in reaction, the New School type of gamer pushed towards no save or die at all. It seems to have culminated in 4th edition's "save or minor inconvenience" mentality. Traps are now merely minor obstacles that can be plowed through effectively. The once terrifying powers of high level magic seem . . . less so in the name of egalitarianism of function.

Of course, I'm of a mind somewhere in the middle. Death should be emanant rather than imminent.

Yes, that's a butchering of the English language and I should be locked up for crimes against grammar, but that's not a surprise to anybody here I suspect. Let me explain.

By "imminent death" I mean that character death is all but certain if not immediate. Running through this dungeon, it's only a matter of time before you succumb to one of the plentifle traps forcing save or die effects, the vicious "grudge monsters," or simply the capriciousness of a dick ref. Death WILL happen, and it will be brutal and bloody and there's very little you can do except stave it off for one more room.

"Emanent death," on the other hand, is slightly different. Death is close, possibly even immediate, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. There's always a way for a clever, observant, and well played character to escape should he be intelligent enough to look, even if that way out is to walk away entirely.

That statue in the first room that lops off heads at the drop of a hat? All the clues that a player needs to realize that this is a challenge and to overcome it are present, if they bother to look. Blood stains on the blade, walls, and floor. Perhaps a headless corpse, or a corpseless head at its feet. A very close look from the door might reveal the joints at which the statue is meant to articulate. A detect traps spell obviously. Whatever the circumstance, there's always evidence there that allows the players to escape relatively unscathed, or even to excell.

This non-post brought to you by the fear of corporate layoffs.

Perhaps I'm imagining things here and this is the way all sensible referees run their games. If so, then grand.