Friday, August 20, 2010

Teaching the Game: August Blog Carnival

The new blog carnival for this month involves teaching the game to newcomers.

Joe, over at Greyhawk Grognard, advocates a set of quick start, introductory rules to teach new folks how to play the game. I can't say as I disagree entirely. I think there is a decided dearth of introductory type products in the world of RPG gaming, and it's a real shame that there aren't more, especially in an age when the most "modern" set of rules reads like a Sony manual and requires a great deal of player skill and comprehension to even function on a basic level. Even the introductory type rules WOTC handed out in their Keep on the Shadowfell product were not terribly well explained and were inadequate to explain the concepts that weere at play. Of course, it doesn't always have to be that way, especially since the original TSR D&D Basic set was, as I recall, something on the order of 50 pages of text and included just about everything you needed in order to play the game in perpetuity (yes, assuming you never advanced beyond level 3, but seriously now, give the book some credit) including a rather excellent module that further taught the designated victim . . . er, DM, how to run a campaign for his players. And it all started with character creation, after a very brief "what is role playing" schpiel that we jaded grognards skip over out of hand nowadays.

My quarell, though, is that this entire approach relies first upon there being enough interest in the person's mind to even pick the product off the shelf in the first place (or in the age when the Brick and Mortar Stores are slowly dying off in favor of and direct vendor buys, adding it to one's "shopping cart") and second, being willing to part with the cash to pay for it in the second. Granted, this entire topic is about how to teach somebody the game after they've expressed the interest, so those questions are somewhat moot. However, gaming society has become somewhat insular beyond even what it was originally and, let's face it, we can be rather off putting to the uninitiated.

Any way . . . I don't think a set of introductory rules is quite the right way to go here. Handing somebody a book and saying "here, read this and you're all set, and by the way maybe you should choose an edition now . . ." really isn't welcoming or inclusive. It's akin to handing somebody homework and then asking them to come back next week and speak Shibolleth.

Instead, I think that the best way to teach somebody how to play is, and will remain, handing them a character sheet (most groups I game in tend to have a collection of NPC's hanging around, or the sheet of a PC who's player isn't on hand just for this purpose) and pointing out the first few things they'll need to know immediately (character name and class, race, hit points, armor class, and weapons and gear) and then sit them next to a more experienced player and just have them follow along. Don't demand an action from them, ask them what they want the character to do, and then show them how to do it (pick up a D20 and tell them to roll it and see the result). Don't hand them a host of rules in advance, introduce them to the rules slowly as they are required. It breaks that learning curve and lets the new person participate immediately in the game rather than having to cram the arcana of a rules set into their brains. They came to play, not study, so help them play in a hands on manner.

Of course, this all relies upon the presence of a group willing to help them learn rather than somebody alone teaching themselves, but I'd be willing to bet that many, if not most, of us learned at the feet of a more experienced gamer to begin with, and still do from time to time.

H.P. Lovecraft's Birthday

It is, as noted, HP Lovecraft's Birthday.

While I'm certainly not the biggest Lovecraft fan, I've been on someting of a kick for the Cthulhu Mythos the last few weeks, and even went over to the HP Lovecraft Historical Society and picked up a sweatshirt for the Esoteric Order of Dagon and the boxed set of Dark Adventures Radio Theater and plan on enjoying them entirely tonight. As a little bit of celebration, take the time today to read through a story and ponder the horrors that lurk just beyond sight.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Monster: The Slender Man

Inspired by the "mythical myth" created here: Something Awful Forums, a new monster for AD&D 2e.

Climate/Terrain: Any forested or wilderness area, typically new growth forests where the creature's nature lends it a level of natural camouflage.

Frequency: Very Rare (possibly unique)

Organization: Solitary (possibly unique)

Activity Cycle: Any

Diet: Carnivorous

Intelligence: Exceptionally - Genius

Treasure: Unknown

Alignment: Chaotic Evil

No. Appearing: 1

Armor Class: 3

Movement: 18, 18 (braciation), 12 (climb)

Hit Dice: 7

THAC0: 13

No. of Attacks: 2 claw or 1 bite (see below)

Damage per Attack: 1d8/1d8 (claw/claw), 1d10 (bite)

Special Attacks: Grapple, Bite/Chew, Surprise

Special Defenses: See below

Magic Resistance: 25%

Size: L (approx. 8')

Morale: Champion 16

The Slender Man is very rarely encountered, at least by those who live to repeat the tale, and is believed by some sages to be a unique and malignant entity lurking in the birch and aspen forests of Thylia. It appears as an impossibly thin and wasted humanoid figure standing approximately eight feet tall. When encountered within the forests (its preferred haunt), the creature imposes a -5 penalty to opponents' surprise rolls as from a distance, it is nearly impossible to distinguish from the trees around it. Once it has attacked, though, this benefit is lost as its victims know what to look for.

When combat is joined, most resemblance to humanoid beings is lost as it is revealed that the Slender Man has many tentacles (2-3' long) along the back of its arms and legs permitting it to climb even vertical, virtually smooth surfaces and allows the creature to swing from branch to branch as if it were a mockery of some great ape.

It strikes using two great hands that are, like its frame, impossibly elongated and terrifying and end in sharp, hooked talons. If both claws successfully strike against an opponent in one round, that opponent will be grappled and drawn close to the Slender Man immediately for a bite attack. Once grappled, a victim can only escape by rolling a successfull bend bars/lift gates roll and only has a 50% chance of having and arm free to utilize small weapons against the Slender Man (no medium or large weapons can be used when grappled). While grappling, the Slender Man will continue to chew and drain the blood from his victim for normal bite damage each round and will attempt to flee simultaneously with his victim. It is considered to have STR 19 with regards to encumbrance.

The Slender Man takes only 1 point of damage from piercing type attacks because its thin frame is so difficult to target. Likewise, bludgeoning weapons inflict only half damage. Slashing weapons inflict normal damage while swords of sharpness and vorpal type weaons inflict double damage in addition to all other effects of such weapons. The Slender Man will immediately flee from these types of weapons, but will attempt to slay their bearers by stealth, bearing a specific hatred for them.

Furthermore, the Slender Man is strongly resistant to magic.

It is unclear if there is only one of these creatures, or if there are many, but they have been a part of folklore and terror stories for many years in rural areas and are frequent bogeymen used to frighten children and keep them from wandering into the woods. They are never seen in more heavily urbanized regions and tend to stay towards the fringes of civilization. It is unknown if any of them collect treasure or valuables.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Guaging Interest in North NJ for AD&D 2nd Edition

I'm posting here to see what interest there is in getting together a new 2nd edition AD&D game in North New Jersey (along the I80 corridor mostly).

Currently, I'm pondering weekly play, probably on a weeknight, starting at Mighty Titan Games on Rt 10, and possibly moving to my house in the spare room.

Game would either take place in the Kingdoms of Kalamar or within my own homebrew Thylia (yes, I know I've not posted much about it here, but that's mostly because of long work hours and it having recently undergone a fundamental redesign).

Let me know either in comments here, or in email.

The Thylian Ranger

*note: image presneted here without permission from Serrated Soul.

The Ranger underwent some odd, and annoying, changes between incarnations, not just between the AD&D and D20 versions, but between AD&D 1ed and 2ed. I suppose if I were unkind, I could attribute the change between AD&D editions to that execrable character Drizz't and legions upon legions of fanboys who wanted a character just like him, but that's probably more than a little unkind and out of order. Still, hard to deny.

In the Gary's PHB, rangers were stout men and women who went into the wild "kicking ass and taking names" to be blunt, and were particularly effective in clearing out humanoids and giants, pushing the wilderness back from civilization and protecting civilians from Nature. Essentially, the Chuck Norris of the AD&D world. If you crossed him, the ranger would hunt you down no matter where you went using his awesome tracking abilities and take you apart piece by piece. On top of that, when he reached higher levels, he developed a following of contacts throughout the wilderness and world (for that is what they were originally, contacts not just hangers on).

By the time 2nd edition rolled around and Drizzlemania was in full swing and the Forgotten Realms became the all purpose dumping ground and universal setting for all TSR product, the ranger, if you'll excuse my cynicism, was a sissified and hippified version of himself. Gone was the damage bonus against giant class monsters and in its place we have . . . favored enemy? Ok, I get the concept that gives us the option of a ranger choosing his foe based on what happens to be plaguing the region he hails form, but seriously, the ability is effectively useless by about 4th level. Fifth if we're being generous. So our ranger has been castrated, and it seems that the designers realized this, so they handed him the ability to fight with two weapons at once without penalty. I have yet, after all my years of gaming, to figure out what dual wielding weapons has to do at all with being a ranger other than hopping onto the fan wave of immitating the aforementioned drow. An army of them, in fact.

It doesn't end there, though. The followers list was torn apart and they were turned into tagalongs and pets. It also seems that the focus of the class shifted from a man protecting civilization from nature and the horrors of the wild, to a man who just didn't like cities and so took up a life in the forest to be left alone. Now, rather than gaining some proficiency in magical and druidic spells as added survival tools, the ranger is confined to plant based clerical spells. A tree hugging hippie. Ugh

It's not all bad, really. I do like that the tracking ability was changed to a non-weapon proficiency in which the class is the only one not taking a massive penalty. That, to me, is a significant enough improvement to not entirely discount the class whole cloth.

The less said about what happened to the ranger in third edition the better. Suffice to say I'm still confused by the idiocy that went into the willful misinterpretation of the word "Ranger" to mean "he who attacks with a ranged weapon" and yet still somehow manages to dual wield scimitars pointlessly.

Instead, for my game (assuming I can generate the time and players interested), I plan on merging Gary Gygax's ranger with the 2nd edition ranger. The 2nd edition ranger will serve as the platform, the architecture so to speak. Dual wielding weapons and "favored enemy" will be chicked out summarily and replaced with the damage bonus form the 1st edition ranger. Moving silently and hiding in shadows will be handled per 2nd edition PHB, or perhaps mocking up a system similar to how thieves function (assigning percentage boosts each level).

The followers list in the 2nd edition PHB will be chucked in favor of the 1st edition followers list, and instead of having followers show up at 9th level in a lump, followers will be spread out across levels, showing up periodically according to their abilities. A wolf follower might show up early on at 2nd or 3rd level, while human followers would show up a little after that, and a dragon or other powerful fantastic creatures might not appear until well after. And further, the ranger would have to "earn" his followers. They aren't added class benefits, they're as much NPC's as the mayor of the local village and need to be treated as such.

I want the ranger, in Thylia, to be taken back to its roots with a little mechanical update for the AD&D 2nd edition and to toss out the foolishness that seems to be inbred into the class in later generations.

Wierd Roleplaying Lands in New Jersey!

Late on Wednesday night, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Wierd Role Playing boxed set arrived on my doorstep. I proceeded to spend most of the night reading through it and much regretted having to go to the office the next day. I must say that I'm impressed by this game. Raggi continues to improve his craft and set a high bar for the OSR in general: showing us all "how it's done" so to speak.

At first glance, the boxed set is just a bit overwhelming. The artwork is, simply put, astonishing. We're all familiar with the box cover and I'm sure that every single one of us will look at it and agree that it is a spectacular bit of work. But I'd like to take the time to put in a good word for the interior art as well: evocative, inspiring, and, if I may say so, not just a little fundamentally unsettling in some places (a certain bearded and distorted faced warrior image comes to mind here). On top of all of that, the books have terrific "hand feel." In my hands, they feel of equal quality with my old copy of the White Box sitting nearby, perhaps even superior in some aspects. The box and books are built to withstand the rigors of play.

We all know the contents of the box by now. Come on, let's all say it together. First out of the box is an introductory slip with something that every game should have, a very quick, concise definition of the contents and style of the game, though for the record, I would like to see that on the back cover, too, since the box presumably comes to the store sealed. It's also a bit of a quick instruction manual on how to proceed through the remainder of the contents and the now somewhat infamous disclaimer about male pronoun exclusivity. I find the warning about occult activity, mental abberation, and deviant behavior amusing and if I ever can get my act together, I'd ask James permission to copy it into any product I can put together myself. Perhaps it can become another in joke of the OSR, which I think desperately needs one.

Next out of the box is the Tutorial book. Disclaimer: this is the only bit of art in the box that I actually don't care for. The three figures across the top are just a little intrusive and don't strike the right vibe for me as I get it from the game. THey look more like the BECMI style ADVENTURE! type figures than the strange and wierd that the rest of the game gives off, though that little monster on the left is flat out odd. If it were me, and it wasn't, I'd have felt that the bottom image of the mob of peasants marching, pitchforks and torches in hand, to the castle gates was more than sufficient and evocative of the great Hammer Horror flicks of their day.

Anyway, I give the inclusion of a tutorial high marks, especially in a boxed set that purports to be a complete game. It's a mistake on our collective part to assume that anybody picking up the product is already a gamer and knows what it's all about if not the specific rules in play. It fosters a type of cliquism and continuity lockout that is problematic and obnoxious and discourages new adopters from attempting the game on their own. This tutorial artfully averts that tendancy that neckbeards have and takes the part of a kindly and patient referee walking a new player step by step through their first game (in this case, a haunted house) with quick instructions "on the ground" of how the basics work. The only issue I have with the tutorial is that it does go on longer than it should, but that seems to be because of the inclusion of an introductory, single person module there and an extended play example. This is fine, and I honestly don't see a way that it could have been done without compromising the step by step nature of the tutorial, I feel that some of the material there could have been pulled out into another booklet. One last note about the tutorial, I'm pleased to see a nice little glossary of important terms on the back in easy reach.

Next up is the Rules book with the titular Flame Princess I presume on the cover. Here we have what one would expect to find in the player's handbook. Character classes, in the style of the Basic game so long ago, the Cleric, Magic User, Fighter, Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf, and a Specialist (a renamed Thief). The classes are described completely with a refreshing brevity that is utterly lacking in today's published gaming supplements. It's excellent to find a comprehensive description of, well, anything that clocks in at under a full page of block text nowadays. The fact that the majority of character creation is completed within the first 17 pages of the book is no mean feat. Moving further, I find a surprisingly comprehensive equiment list containing in addition to classics such as the 50' rope, chalk, and shovel, some oddities like soap and manacles. What adventurer before has worried about his hygene? Or, for that matter, a pair of manacles? It speaks volumes in only to line items in a list in my opinion. There are, in addition, lists for weapons and armor, animals, vehicles, and basic services and an encumbrance system based rather than on weight like most others, on items. I find that last an interesting choice that shifts focus away from micromanaging weight distributions in the party to a systemized exercise in common sense. Rather than jiggering around with pounds to cram one more thing into the pack, it's simply a matter of counting items and moving on.

The rest of the Rules book contains, naturally, most of the rules a player would be expected to need to play the game. Swimming, climging, mapping, getting lost, healing, languages, movement, maritime adventure rules, rules for hiring retainers, rules for property and finance, and, finally on page 40, rules for combat. It's fascinating to me that the combat rules, which oftentimes are the first rules discussed after character creation, are quite literally the last rules presented in this game. It's obvious that combat, while important, is not the central focus of the game like certain other alliterative games out there. What's even better in my mind, is that the combat "chapter" is only six full pages, one of which is a full page illustration, and it covers as much as the AD&D books covered in significantly more page realestate. Again, that long lost art of brevity and concise writing coming to the fore again.

Digging further into the box, I come across the magic book. This is majorly, as one could divine from the title, a list of spells for both Magic Users and Clerics including the Turn Undead spell which is no longer an innate power of the cleric and a quick rundown of the rules on memorizing spells and research that most experienced players and referees will find themselves comfortable with. In fact, very little needs to be said about it since most of us will be able to walk through this book quickly and understand the vast majority of it.

And that, actually, is all one needs to play the game. All the rules (excepting monsters) have been covered and you're ready to start rolling characters and get moving if you're a player. But there's still a number of other books to pull out here. Next up is the Referee book with the serpent lady demon, a marilith without her swords. This, I make no qualms about it, is my absolute favorite book in the set. Without a doubt. Inside, you'll find no rules excepting for a few guidlines in the monster section, only frank and straightforward talk about how to run a game. Themes that run through the wierd role playing "world" such as science versus magic and mystery, horror versus the wierd. But better still are the meditations on how to construct an interesting adventure that captures the attention and imaginations of your players, treasure placement, maps, and how to build a larger environment and world than just the current explorations, how to build connections to the outside world. I'm immensly impressed by this tiny little booklet and how it manages to equal Gygax's own DMG in content and, in somme way, exceed it since it rises above merely a section of the rules intended for the referee. This is, very simply, the act of taking new referee's under your wing in text format. Kudos Mr. Raggi.

Next up, two adventures, one introductory and one exploratory. The "Tower of the Stargazer" is an excellent little introductory adventure based on the titular location and the players' explorations thereof. Classic and comforting and full of explanatory notes on not just how things function, but why they are there, it's as much an adventure as it is a tutorial for the referee in adventure structure. An excellent quality detachable cover with maps, a feature sorely lacking in most of the old school world, is a nice addition.

Where "Tower of the Stargazer" is a tutorial on adventure building, "Wierd New World" is the excercise portion of a referee's training. As is noted in the introduction, there is a lot of work to be done here to make the module work, and it's up to the local referee to do it. Expand the brief descriptions into a living and breating experience for his players and draw the links here that will draw them further into the wilderness and, eventually, to the pirates cave. This modules is a graduation ceremony for both sides of the screen. On the one side, the referee is ready to start building his own world and the campaign, and on the other, the players are ready to graduate beyond confined and comfortable little dungeon crawls and start making names for themselves.

The last booklet in the box is titled "Recommended Reading" and it's Raggi's own personal Appendix N. If anything, it is a great list of inspirations from which James himself has drawn, and which individual referee's can garner ideas as well. It's also a nice touch that the individual authors are not just listed, but extensively commented upon and guidance given to the uninitiated.

The rest of the box contents include a few character sheets and some graph paper for mapping, a tiny little pencil and an adorably tiny bag of dice that, while to any experience gamer are virtually superfluous, to a new player would be indispensible and certainly go a long way to creating a complete game in a box.

I only have two small issues here. First, I want the box to be slightly larger. I have this strange urge to fit all of my LOtFP books into it, and they just won't fit without overly stressing the box. Yes, it's nice to open up the box and find it surprisingly full, but I would like to have the option to store all of these products together in a single container to carry with me to games. This is a minor and, likely, nonsensicle complaint as it would be easy enough for me to just grab a larger box to put them all in, but still.

My second problem, and slightly more serious, is with the magic book. All the spells are, on the one hand, completely familiar to experienced gamers, and that's a plus on some level. However, it is siumtaneously a problem for me. They're all familiar and workmanlike and none of them, in my estimation, really earns the title of "wierd." In the description of magic users back in the rules book, we're told that they taint their souls bit by bit for power, but I'm just not seeing that here. Yes, I understand that there are the alignment restrictions, but that's just one thing. I know, I should be making that rule up myself if I want it here, but this is something that could have been a spectacular addition to the vancian magic system to complement the themes of the game.

Overall, I think that Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Wierd Fantasy Role Playing is, as a product, a spectacular success and I honestly hope that the first printing sells out entirely and a new printing is worked. I wish all the success that the author has earned. There will be a love hate relationship with this game, though. New school gamers (those inducted into the hobby with D20 versions of the game) will love the themes and ideas here, but will gnash their teeth and tear their shirts because it's not "intuitive" or "complete" or whatever it is these youngin's complain about today.

The oldest and crustiest of grognards, on the other hand, will wail and shout about how its not just like the old boxed sets and that it's bait and switch and that they were tricked by its presentation as a boxed set.

Meanwhile, if you take the box on its own terms, you'll see it for what it is: a truly excellent example of minimalist game design and a wonderful exercise in atmosphere and creation.

Full marks and my sincerest congratulations and thanks to Mr. Raggi. Most excellent, sir.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Doing in the Wizard?

I've been pondering, of late, what "Low Magic" really means. Yes, the easy answer is to say "Look at D20 3.x edition and cut that by 75%." It's also a bit tounge-in-cheek, I suppose, and irreverent, but whatever, it's fun to mock games that we don't like and don't play. So my answer has always been that I like a low magic gaming experience, or at the very least, a game in which remains magical, whatever that means.

It's not just as simple as a single scale with D20 gonzo magic on the one hand and a completely mundane world on the other. It's not just the amount of magic, but the level of magic seen, how flashy it is, how spectacular it is versus how subtle it is. Another aspect of the issue in my mind is the cost. The typical fantasy game - or at least the modern day and age where we feel we are entitled to anything we want without consequence - have trained us to look at magic as "just another tool to be used" and that there are few if any downsides. The endless arguments recently online among the younger gamers who look at Vancian magic as some sort of cheat and that a wizard just isn't being wizardly unless he's throwing spells every single round as if he were carrying some sort of Star Trek phaser that only runs out of power when it's convenient to the plot.

So just the other day, I pulled out of my gaming closet a copy of the old Game of Thrones RPG from the defunct Guardians of Order. (Yes, he's going to talk about those novels again!) Those of us familiar with the books will know that magic is extraordinarly rare and low key, if it even exists at all most of the time. What magic we know does exist for sure is fraught with peril and exacts a terrible price for whatever boon it might grant. The game captures this motif by effectively removing magic entirely except for a vague and difficult to interpret chapter that gives a general outline of how to handle magic. Essentially, it's governed by what you want to do and what tools you have and is very symbolic, i.e., bathing a child in hot ox blood to grant him strength and courage. And it always comes with a price and a high chance of something going terribly wrong.

So, my question for whomever actually still reads this thing I can so rarely update, is this: what would the effect be if I were to "tune out" a great deal of the magic level of even a low magic game? Would I be entirely unfair if I were to consider doing this for real?

If I removed permanent items (all those lovely +1 swords, magic carpets, and cubic gates) and simply left expendable items like potions, low charged wands, and scrolls, how would everything else have to be changed? Obviously, creatures like gargoyles and others that required magic weapons to affect would be significantly more dangerous. It'd become a requirement for a wizard or priest with some appropriate spells to deal with them as even the most powerful warriors in the world wouldn't even be able to put a chip in them. OF course, I could compensate by removing the requirement for a magic weapon to hit and instituting a version of D20's Damage Reduction mechanic instead. So yes, a powerful fighter could harm a gargoyle, but it'd be tough going for him. I could create a spell or two for the wizards and priests to temporarily empower a mundane weapon with the power of magic. At this point, spellcasters become far more powerful relatively speaking, and perhaps even an integral part of life as every community would need one or three to defend them against the horrors of the wilds lurking on all sides. Every community might host a caster and travelling casters might find themselves made honored guests as locals conive to keep him there, perhaps marry him off to unwed daughters and anchor him in place.

Taking it another step, I've often thought of how the matter is handled in D20modern (yes, another D20 game, but at the moment they serve as decent models) wherin casters are "prestige classes" that cannot be taken until later in the career of an adventurer. It might be possible to follow the same kind of model with 0D&D or AD&D by adjusting the spells per level of the wizard and priest classes to decrease the number of spells and push off gaining new spells to later levels. Perhaps even limiting what spells are available. No more magic missile, fireball, and meteor strike. Instead, only lower key spells are available. Or perhaps only certain schools such as necromantic and diniation (the concept of a character reading bones or entrails to helop the party out entertains me somwhat). I'm pretty sure that at this level, even the oldest old school gamers would start objecting.

But what I'm really interested in at this point, is how people would react to the GM removing magic almost in entirety? There are no casters, no permanent magic items excpet, perhaps, for ancient holy relics that come with enough attached strings to make even the most foolhardy players think twice about picking them up. No potions, scrolls, wands, or staves. No easy access to healing and disease curing. The only magic that would be allowed would be intricate and dangerous rituals that are intended to accomplish one set aim, such as trading a life for a life to hopefully raise a needed hero from the dead to fight one last time to protect the innocent. How would this function in terms of a D&D game model? Or would the system simply not be able to handle it?

I'm curious to listen to the thoughts of others on this.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Arduin Eternal Review

Well, since I actually had time off from the office rather than spending 18 out of every 24 there, I figured it was time to put that time to good use and post something.

A while ago, I wrote up that Arduing Eternal would be shipping "soon." Well, soon turned out to be measured in months when it came to the playtester copies, but they did finally arrive about two weeks ago.

I was excited about getting this book. After all, I had been part of the playtest, so I was chomping at the bit to see the finished product. When I opened my copy of Arduin Eternal, I was sorely dissapointed. First, I should say that, when it's boiled down and we get past the issues, I still think that AE is an excellent system that contains rules that could cover just about everything (a real draw to some) and what I feel is a true inheritor to the original Arduin. I do like the game.

However . . .

The artwork and layout of the book is subpar in many instances. Not all the art, but frequently the illustrations in the book made everyone in our group do a doubletake, especially one particularly infamous illustration on page 98 that has an unfortunately anatomical appearance. Arduin has never been known for innovative or incredible art, but it was always evocative and interesting. This time, though, it invokes mostly a bit of headscratching and laughter. At the same time, even those illustrations that were quite good got crammed into corners and had proportions distorted to force them to fit where they didn't need to be, presumably in an effort to avoid orphaned text giving some of the art a squashed look. And in the meantime, too much of the art looks . . . well . . . the only description is "wrong" that it's distracting. This includes the cover that has what we presume to be a rune weaver but who looks more like a barbarian and whose proportions are so odd that it looks biologically impossible. You can see it there at the top of this post.

The greatest offender here, though, has to be the general editing of the book. It seems that during the assembling of the book and the final work that, in order to keep the book as a single volume, a great amount of material had to be cut. We understand this, after all, the book is already over 800 pages long and any longer would have made it practically unusable. The problem arises when it turns out that a significant portion of what was cut was neccessary to understand how things work, such as something as basic as how a thief picks a lock. You can check out a partial list here that just our group has been compiling based on a day or two of character generation. There are more than these, and a quick dip into the other topics at those fora will show a few of them.

Compounding this problem are numerous editing mistakes such as gramatical and spelling errors and references in the text to versions of other sections of text as they were in either the alpha or beta playtest versions of the game that didn't get updated to the new, finalized version. Readers are forced to hunt through the text hoping to determine where soemthing is, or go to the forums begging for enlightenment. Sometimes, the material is well and truly missing, promised in a forthcoming set of books to include a Culture book and a Bestiary (we hope they make an appearance soon) as well as reworkings of the excellent adventure White Roc's Inn. But for the time being, they're conspicuously absent. And that includes the index of the book which is available for download on the Emperor's Choice website.

In this day and age, and especially in an instance when many of the plyatesters were offering their time free of charge to assist with the editing, or merely in exchange for a copy of the book or two. It smacks of unprofessionalism. We understand, of course, that the author is not a full time RPG author and that his real life has interfered with the execution of this massive project, but there were options that could have certainly alleviated the issues that many have noticed. In the end, this book looks like a strong mid-draft rather than a finished book, and that is unfortunate.

At its core, one supposes that one of the central conceits of the Old School Rennaisance is simplicity. That a core rules set can and should be contained to a mere 100 pages or less and that the rest is entirely up to the GM and players to expand upon. I agree with this model to a certain extent, though I'll allow for more comprehensive rules when they work towards the concept effectively. The problem with Arduin Eternal is that it is so massive that it's daunting even to players who have been at the game for more than 20 years. Character generation is an extensive process that can and does take days of effort if you know what you're doing. I can only imagine what it takes the uninitiated. Here is something that the Compleat Arduin books had in spades. At every step in character generation there were text boxes set aside with examples of the process, and they helped immeasurably to comprehend an otherwise complicated system. They are sorely missing here, and I can only hope that we see something like that in the future, either as a free PDF, or as a fan released document.

This leads to another issue, at least an issue that I have and I'm told it's not universal. To create a character, one is forced into that loathsome concept of "the build." Creating a character is a careful balancing act of weighing pro's and con's of each choice, playing each benefit and drawback against your character's central theme and abilities, always with a plan in mind of where he's going. It's a process that is virtually impossible to avoid a strong current of meta-gaming if you're looking to create a mechanically effective character. Now, I'm told that not everybody feels that this is a drawback. The D20 crowd are certainly no strangers to this and even I will admit right here that it can be fun to spend your time building a character in this way and truly become attached to him from the beginning. But in this instance, it's so antithical to the old school mindset that it seems injurious to one segment of Arduin's core audience. The grognards and neckbeards still playing with the little brown books or the clones of the white box won't find the original Grimoire volumes that were a grab bag of whacky and zaney goodies for their games and if that's what they want, they'd do much better picking up copies of the re-edited and republished Grimoire from Emperor's Choice and calling it well done.

What should have been made clear from the beginning and is not is that this is absolutely not an introductory RPG. This is not a way to cut one's teeth either on gaming in general (I'd recommend sticking with S&W/LL or OSRIC on that regard) or even the idiosynchratic world of Arduin for that matter (better I think to grab up a copy of the World Book of Khaas). A great deal of the game relies on a strong and confident GM who is willing to take the material and work with it until it resembles the shape he needs for the game. Things left unsaid or entirely open (glaringly, the function and nature of lycanthropy, or the entire bestiary) have to bee worked up on a case by case basis to the satisfaction of the individual players and it requires players as well who are strong and on the game. Novices and neophytes will be frustrated and lost.

While D20 players might feel more at home - after all, the secrets and skills are a strong D20 influence I think - they will undoubtedly be daunted by the preliminary inellegence of the game. As clunky and poor as many of us find the 3.x versions of D&D (not to mention 4ed), those games run like a well tuned Ferrari in comparison to this without a strong and sure guiding hand at the wheel. There is no strong advise on how to run the game, no Game Master's guide except for a few pages at the back of the book. There's no advice on how to run a distinctly Arduinian game and we are left to either intuit that or to import what we already know from our old Arduin games and make it so.

All together, I think the game itself is strong and excellent. I look forward to getting into our upcoming campaign and may post a few after action reports. However, I find that this particular book is not quite up to market snuff and that it needs a bit of help in terms of editing and presentation, as well as at least a few planned supplements at least one for the GM exclusively comprised of advice and guidance, in order to feel entirely complete.

Pick up a copy if you are an established Arduin fan, or if you're an experienced gamer looking for a challenging but very rewarding game.

Don't pick it up if you're looking for a book in the style of the Old School Rennaisance, or if you're looking to introduce yourself or somebody else to gaming.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review: Frandor's Keep

Well, I've had the module in my hands since about release day, so I figure it's about time I gathered myself to say something. Just finished reading through it last night thanks to hectic schedule pushing me to read about 1 page a day, but anyway.

Physical Appearance

The book has absolutely no shortcomings here. The cover art (pictured here) is evocative of certain old school images without being a straight rip off, and definitely evocative of the mood and atmosphere of the module itself. Interior art, maps, and layout are impressive, especially when it is considered that Kenzer employs something on the order of about 6 people irregularly. Old school, reminiscent of Kenzer's HM4 art but without some of the hokiest qualities that could plague that. Most often simple line drawings that are, nevertheless, quite excellent. The quality of the materials used in construction, as well, is evident. Kenzer continues to be plagued by editing mistakes in the text, but they are unobtrusive here, and infrequent. To put it succinctly, the quality of the book makes things coming out of a certain coastal wizards' lair look like crap.


First, a note: this is, very loosely, a sequel to their prior "Little Keep on the Borderland" which was, itself, either an expansion of or a sequel to the original "Keep on the Borderland." It is not, however, dependent that one knows about the previous materials in order to understand the module, nor are their such distasteful elements as plot, merely something that'll make those in the know chuckle to themselves as they read it in passing, something emblematic of the humor that the authors shine at. Of special note is the origin of the mad hermit in the wood, who is not the prior hermit in the wood, who was himself not the original hermit in the wood.

Another important thing to know is that this book is not, in strictest terms, a module in the sense of an adventure. It is, as the cover states, an "immersive setting for adventures" instead. Of course, that's a particularly dry rendering of it, but that is, frankly, what you get: a location based product that goes into extreme effort to detail the areas in and around the eponymous Keep on the Borderland to an extent that would keep a group of players with an uninventive GM busy for months without exhausting all the possibilities or having to add any more. Of course, those of us who laud the qualities of "less is more" and minimalism will likely go into apopleptic fits over the volume of material detailed here, and that's entirely expected. The module is not written in the minimalist mode and no apologies are made for that here. One hopes, though, that even the staunchest of Gygaxian gamers will find something they like about the book.

The first half to two-thirds of the book devotes itself to in-depth descriptions of locations in and around the Keep and the road from the nearest civilized settlement, "Vew." There are some minor encounters mentioned, but for the most part, it's a travelogue and guide more than anything. The marvelous keyed 3-D projection maps (available for free, by the way, from the Kenzer Co. website) list who owns each paticular business/building, who lives there, their personality's, foibles, and involvements and most sections include a note about how the PC's might be expected to interact with each person lest we think this is merely a massively overdeveloped castle out of somebody's home campaign. There's a great deal within the walls of the keep itself to keep players busy and I envision many sessions never leaving the Middel Bailey at all as the curiosity and foolishness of PC's gets the better of them.

Additionaly, there are notes throughout helping a GM to "breathe life into the Keep" rather than just turning it into a static lump in a corner, the six acre gorilla in the room so to speak. That seems to be a strong theme in this product. Frandor's Keep is a learning module as much as the original Keep was. It's filled with not only advice on how to invest the entire assembly with motion and energy, but with notes that help novice GM's and players to test the width and breadth of Kenzer's new game system, Hackmaster Basic without ever devolving into didacticism and always remaining entertaining and challenging.

The new Keep is set in the Kingdom's of Kalamar world, and it is strongly felt throughout the product. The maps are straight out of the Kalamar Atlas volume, and some pains have been taken to link entities within and around the Keep to the larger world outside. It is assumed that groups will play in that world, though with effort, it is possible to transport the whole assemblage to another world. Unfortunately for those who wish to do so, there are more and stronger threads to be cut and rewoven, but it is conceivable that any low/infrequent magic world with a moutainous border region could receive the module without too much fuss.

The greatest difference between this module and the original, the one that everybody will notice first upon picking up the book, is that the Caves of Chaos are not here. This is, possibly, a deal breaker for some, but I don't think it should be. Yes, they're missing from this particular book, but they are due to come out soon in conjunction with the Advanced Hackmaster rules since they are of higher level material than the rest of the area and, as I said above, there's enough material within to keep most parties busy for a long time, especially with the addition of the three PDF modules "White Pallette, Ivory Horns," "In the Realm of the Elm King," and "The Mysterious Shrine," all available on the Kenzer Co. website for free, or for cheap. At least I see three months of gaming time in this book, assuming weekly sessions of considerable length. Those of us who know the joys of gainful employment in this day and age will likely find even more here.

The assumed system of the module is, of course, the new Hackmaster Basic (HMB) which is certainly not to the tastes of all. I confess myself not entirely enamoured of it, though I find it to be excellent on its own merits, just not something that gels perfectly with my own style as I'm sure many others will agree. However, the system does little to influence the wrigting of the material and it would be a trivial matter indeed to utilize Swords and Wizardry, AD&D, or even BRP to play here.

A high note here may be that some of the forced humor and over the top confrontationalism of the HM4 days is absent. There is a bit of "Gary Speak" involved, but it is much toned down and the "joke elements" are much reduced. Those of us who looked on the previous Hackmaster as a joke game will have to re-evaluate our opinions. It remains to be seen, though, if the designers will swing too far in the other direction in their efforts to shed the joke system mantle that saddled them throughout their prior years. For instance, in the new game, the bugbears have an interesting quirk of biology which is definately designed to get at our squick factor: the female of the species must consume an infant of a sentient race in order to go into heat and reproduce which provides one of the primary modes of conflict between humans and the bugbears. On the one hand, it's not over the top, but it does smack of the sensationalist gross out factor that so many mistake for more adult or darker these days. I hope that this does not become a trend in the new material.


Overall, for quality of production and content, the module earns 5 out of 5 stars. A truly remarkable effort that proves that the folks at Kenzer & Co. can really out do themselves even after years of truly excellent products. They've set the bar high for their future offerings, and I've little doubt that they will exceed our expectations. Frandor's Keep is, frankly, the best RPG product I've seen in a year. While it might not be entirely to the tastes of all gamers, one cannot deny that this book sets a high standard for the entire gaming industry.

Those of us looking for the minimalist approach will be unhappy with what's here, but that is not now, nor has it ever been Kenzer & Co's vision of Old School, and they make no appologies for it, nor should they. Rather than throwing a generic, undeveloped location at the GM, instead the module throws a fully evolved and integrated Kalamar location, complete with links to the larger world without ever devolving into the world shattering events and plots of grand and global scope that so tainted later Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft materials. At its heart, Frandor's Keep is a strong location based adventure locale that takes the extra step that GM's normally would to bring the module fully into the assumed setting. And it does it with true style.

Get this if you're looking for a setting based module for the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting with real life and energy.

Don't get this if you're looking for something in the same style and mode as the original Keep on the Borderlands, minimalist and generic enough to cameleon its way into any world with no effort.

Frandor's Keep, here, takes effort, love, and work to work and play well. It takes a strong and inventive GM, curious and even foolish players who won't get bored by not having a gaff sized hook to lure them on by the nose from A to B to C, and a willingness on both parts to fully engage the material that is presented and build on it. It's worth it though.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kingdoms of Kalamar

Since not enough people seemingly know about this, I'm bringing it up here and doing my little bit to schill for the Kenzer guys. The Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign setting is something that I think should be more popular than it is today. In my view, this is a setting that learned all of the best lessons of Greyhawk and The Forgotten Realms and produced one of the best campaign settings for sale today. And yes, I'm a great fan of it, why do you ask?

Since Dave can say it better than I can, I present you with his own words on the matter.

From my perspective, what draws me the most about it, is simply the campaign setting book. It's a mark of its quality, I think, that I can open the book to just about any page at random and pick out at least a dozen adventure ideas and long term campaign plans. Liberating the dwarf stronghold Karasta, recently conquered by the resurgent Kalamaran Empire of the Vast. Fighting the slavers and priests of the Overlord of Pel Brolenon, a city where more than 75% of the population is in bondage. Exploring the remains of Kolokar's Barrier, a great wall built to hold back the invading barbarians. There's just so much in every page that, frankly, I actually get giddy with ideas for running a game in this world, and that's what it is, a world. It's not just a campaign setting, it's a fully realized world in so many ways.

The greatest aspect is, in my view, that just about any adventure type is supported. Political and cultural adventure types are the setting's forte for sure, but at the same time, it's easy to shove that into the background and just hurl oneself into dungeon crawling and monster slaying. God killing? Yeah, you can do that.

I recommend it to all the Old Schoolers, Middle Schoolers, and New Schoolers out there that the CS is worth a look, even if you only pick up the PDF copy of the campaign setting and Atlas (currently with 4e mechanics in it, but so few you could count the instances on one hand and still have fingers left over), or grab a used copy of the book from Amazon or NobleKnight. It's definately worth your time.

And now, I'll refrain from further shameless displays of fanboyism.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: Castles Forlorn

This isn't so much of a review as it is a retrospective, but I've been unable to come up with a better term that isn't a direct steal from Grognardia, so here we are.

While I don't get any time any more to DM (working 12 hour days can do that to you), I do get to play in a semi-regular weekly game, and for the last two years of real time, our group has been deeply embroiled in TSR's Castles Forlorn module. It's not exactly a great secret that AD&D2nd edition's tenure as the current D&D game represented a profound dearth of good modules. TSR seemed incapable of bringing out modules of the same quality as T1, the G and D series, and pretty much any of the 1st edition modules that truly created the shared experience that was AD&D 1ed. Dungeon Magazine certainly had a few that were noteworthy, even great, but it was hardly a suitable patch for a gaping hole in the time.

So, consider my surprise when, from the player's seat, I found myself dropped directly into one of the huge boxed set adventures that can so easily go so very wrong, from Ravenloft of all places, a campaign setting whose published modules are notoriously bad at times, and finding that not only was it good, but great. I'm going to talk about this module from the perspective of a player, since that is how I have experienced it first, and in the interest of full disclosure I should say that our GM had stitched a number of other modules into the main, most notably the otherwise horrifically bad Feast of Goblyns, one of the first Ravenloft world modules. I've only lately been able to look at the insides of the module books themselves, and I'll talk about that a bit too.

In short, this is adventure appears to be a standard gothic horror type story that Ravenloft made its life's blood on and threw so many gamers into fits because of the heavy handedness of it, with a time travel aspect thrown into the works. Yes, time travel. And it works. At its core, the module is still the story of one of the Dark Lords, the system breaking big bad guys, that rule parts of the Ravenloft world, one Tristane apBlanc. His story is appropriately angsty without ever seeming to go over the top or into the realm of the hokey like so many of the others did. In the end, the main villain here amounted to little more than a colossal prick damned to an eternity locked up in his own ironic prison. All pretty par for the course up until reality itself breaks around the castle and three separate time periods begin to coexist in the same location.

Wandering through the castle, the players stumble upon certain points within the place which will trigger a switch in time between three points in history representing a spread of about 300 years. Clever players will realize pretty quickly what's going on (as a reference, it took the group I play in about 3 game sessions to realize what was actually happening, and a great deal longer to figure out a way to use it to our advantage). In the end, you get a couple of different things. First, you get about three times the dungeon for the price of one as the castle is significantly chnaged between time periods and requires exploring in each to learn enough about what is going on in order to deal with it. Second, and this is more interesting I think, it provides the opportunity for players to "get at" the story of what has happened in this place from a number of different angles and force them to work at piecing it together themselves. What you learn in one time period may shed a differnet light on what happens in a previous time, or a future one.
Yes, this kind of setup will definately throw Old Schoolers into an unhappy place. After all, what has "story" got to do with D&D? In the end, though, I think that what you get is an excellent Middle School style module with a strong balance between the gothic story that gives purpose to the place, but not too much heavy handed material that forces the players to conform to a pre-determined sequence of events (see Ravnloft II: Gryphon Hill for the most egregious example). In the end, it's a huge location based module that hands the DM a place, a story of what has happened in the past, what's going on at the moment, and then sets the players free to deal with it, or to just walk away if they so choose.
There are, though, a number of flaws within the whole product, though. First, and primarily, the presence of a story that many, if not most, would find overwrought and dull. Yes, the story is a little romantic (in the literary period sense of the term, not the genre sense) and melodramatic, but it's believable enough that it doesn't really get in the way. For the most part, it's merely an excuse for the place to exist rather than an integral part of game play.
Second, I have no idea what analytical geniuses playtested this module, but it could have used some more help in that regard. Ostensibly, Castles Forlorn is intended for characters of 4th - 6th level. Truly, PC's of that level range are more than likely going to be slaughtered in short order in this place if they are not tremendously careful to the point of impotence, one of the primary reasons that it took 2 years of real time for us to finish this module. One of the primary foes is the Goblyn, a very excellent creature that I recommend for use everywhere, but one that can easily take a lower level party apart in a matter of moments. The main villain here is even more powerful and posed a significant threat to a party of level 7 and 8 characters. This particular issue, though, can easily be fixed by shoehorning other modules into the periphery of this one. A few side adventures orbiting about the main one will give the PC's a bit more XP and resources that will better prepare them for diving into the heart of this monster.
Thrd, and most damning of all in my opinion, is a truly bad case of Elminster Syndrome. Relatively high level NPC's who are single handedly capable of resolving all the issues at hand lurk about the corners of this module, and they don't do so for no good reason. Players are going to sit back and ask why in hell the 12th level + druid and her cohort of other high level druids haven't just plowed the castle into the ground by now and destroyed the evil that infests it as they could so so very easily, and the text itself provides no real answers on this matter. To its credit, though, the module does not throw the PC's into the role of supporting cast to sit back and watch as more powerful and more important NPC's do everything, nor do the NPC's fall into the equally aggravating role of "quest givers." Perhaps the only solution here, really, is to decrease the levels of notable druids, or merely to push them into the background more.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Came Back Wrong

The Raise Dead spell is one of those iconic spells in D&D and I've never known a player who didn't look forward to 9th level more than any other so that he could bring his companions back from the dead. I've even seen a few who started using the spell as a source of great profit, raising peasants from the dead for a hefty fee. However, once this spell gets into the hands of the players, death can become very cheap. At earlier levels, a significant enough mistake by the players leads to death which cannot easily be reversed if at all. Players may go through multiple characters before they even manage to make it to level 2, but by 9th level, death suddenly has much less meaning.

Of course, by this level, the cleric is casting other spells of equally significant import. At this level, there seems to be a qualitative change in the nature of spells for the cleric, going from localized and immediate effects to far reaching and often permanent effects (Quest, Plane Shift, and Commune by which the cleric may speak directly with his deity). Raising the dead seems to be the quintessance of that trend, so on the one hand, it might be wise enough to leave well enough alone and not fidgit with the spell.

However, I've never been a fan of the revolving door afterlife, and I'm definately a fan of the harsh, stark, and terrifying. That's why I'm throwing a little twist into the concept of any creature returning from the lands of the dead, at least in Thylia where the cosmology of the Great Wheel is not present (but that's a separate post).

Anyone who is raised from the dead via the magic of mortals (i.e., via the Raise Dead, Ressurection, or Reincarnation spells) or via magical artifacts created by mortals has a flat 65% chance of simply "coming back wrong" from the strange and horrifying realms beyond this one. If so, the DM should roll randomly or use his own discretion. The players need not be told.

1.Profound Epiphany: During his time in the realms beyond, however brief or extended, the character has been deeply affected by what he has seen and come to the realization that his life was spent in banality and sin. Due to this, his alignment is shifted randomly at the discretion of the DM and he may abandon a previous career or goal in favor of something more in line with his new ethical views.

2.I Remember Everything!: Rather than having his memory wiped appropriately by the spell, the character remembers everything he perceived in vague and undefinable terms. As a result, he is either 1.manic and incoherent, 2.despondant and suicidal, or 3.catatonic. In any case, he will require the intervention of powerful curative magics or some other method to repair his personality as determined by the DM.

3.Broken Mind: The stress of returning from the grave lands has snapped something within the character's mind. He has developed a type of insanity dtermined from the DMG.

4.Brought Something Home: On his way back, the character has been lached onto by a being from outside the Prime Material reality. Equal chances of it being Good or Evil or an entity entirely designed by the DM. The creature may or may not enter reality immediately alongside the character, or may appear many miles away, or on the other side of the kingdom, but the creature will be aware of the character's location and will feel compelled to seek him out for reasons of his own. Alternately, the creature and the character may find themselves occupying the same mind, vying for control of the body (a successful saving throw vs. Paralyzation during a situation of intense stress is sufficient to gain or retain control on the part of the player).

EDIT: Forgot to add that I intend to increase the casting time of this spell from a single round to a full hour requiring specialized rituals and chants. Never seemed quite right that Raise Dead took only a minute of chanting and wailing and suddenly he's all better again. Such a boon as this would take significant supplications and effort I think.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Fantastic is Fantasy?

I know I shouldn't, but it's a bit like a dog worrying at a bone. On those dull days in the office when no actual work seems to happen, but a lot of "station keeping" goes on, I typically surf over to the forums (usually at Giant in the Playground since they're terribly entertaining and infuriating at times and the Kenzer & Co. boards since Dave and Jolly and their crew are just so damned cool for refusing to be just "another turd in the pot" company) and pick on the New School folks. It's a bit hypocritical, I know, since I'm not really and Old School kind of guy, but sometimes they just tickle me.

Today and yesterday, though, they actually got me to thinking on a couple of things. Primarily, the discussion of what level of the fantastic is "right" for a game. Just how strange, fantastic, or downright odd do things get before one draws the line? As things on the internet go, there was no real room for moderate views in this discussion. You were either for, what was termed, dull and "Tolkienian" fantasy, or you would permit anything and everything (specifically, everything and anything that a player wanted, but that's another argument entirely). The example that got dredged up from the fevered recesses of somebody's mind was that you could either be playing Greyhawk with nothing but the core Human, Elf, Dwarf etc. core races and classes, or you would play in a game where the players could create a sentient squirrel wizard riding in the "cockpit/wand turret" of a constructed flesh golem mobile platform.

I swear on all that is holy that I'm not making that last bit up. See for yourself.

My first reaction has got to be . . . why the fuck would you want to play such an absurd character? What possible interest would you have in it? I mean that seriously. What connection could you make to even access such a concept as anything other than a monster? Why would it not simply be swarmed by folks the instant it stepped into public and slain for the abomination that it is? And of course, the opposite would be just ye olde boring D&D campaign right?

Now that the thought's been rattling around in my brain, slowly eating at my sanity (if it weren't for my horse, I would not have gone back to school that year . . .), I have to ask myself at this point whether there's a real difference between such a . . . thing . . . and the concept of wizards conjuring fireballs from thin air and giant winged reptiles with terminal halitosis hoarding coins and magical items? I like to say often that there's a difference between suspending your disbelief, and hanging it by the neck until dead, and that this clearly falls on that side of the line, but why is that on one side, and the dwarf on the other? Huge metropolitan campaigns where everybody plays as their favorite monster race on that side, and the race preference charts on the other? I mean hell, I'm in the middle of working through some material for Thylia, and I stumbled across a line where I traced a particular artifact to extra-terrestrials, and I'm OK with that, but still something that wierd as even the sentien necromantic rodent sticks in my craw.

James has talked about this in passing over at Grognardia (and I'm not throwing up a link because I'm far too lazy and if you read this you're most certainly familiar with his work) as it concerns that notable module about and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Gamma World. He termed it Science Fantasy, and I think it's fair to say that in its original inception, D&D was, as much as Gamma World, a science fantasy game rather than a strict fantasy game. In the end, I find myself much more comfortable on the Fantasy side of that equation, even so far as to prefer fantasy literature that reads less like fantasy and more like medieval period pieces - A Song of Ice and Fire as case in point.

Am I wrong to sit here and strip out such things from "my" game? Am I hammering D&D into a mold that it doesn't really entirely fit? The answer is, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that the more strangeness (specifically, the more breaks from our own reality that we are forced to make) in a game, the harder it becomes for the players and the DM to insert themselves into the world and interact with it. It becomes less about exploring, and more about constnatly trying to keep your feet and learn about the next thing that's been changed. The wierder things get, the more quickly I, as a player, get thrown out of immersion.

And I suppose that I'm a real fuddy who should just hang up his dice because in browsing through a PDF of The Savage Frontier supplement for the Forgotten Realms, I'm forced to admit that, while the background material is excellent, most of the interesting locations that they call out to attention just drive me creatively up the wall. The stronghold of Ascelhorn, now fallen after its occupants had dealings with Hell in order to preserve their power, now known as Hellgate Keep (or something like that): good. It's interesting, and provoking. It then goes on to say that the keep is now ruiled by a type VI demon with hordes of minion demons and undead and that it is a terrible place on the brink of conquering the entire North: not so good. As much as I like demons and devils, and I really do, for some unidentifiable reason, this just . . . ugh. And it's largely the same for much of the Forgotten Realms. It seems that magic and "fantasy" are just leaking out of its pores, every page screaming D&D adventure. If anything, the best way I can describe it is that the Realms are just too . . . well . . ."too D&D." They're too heavily influenced by the way the game works, allowing mechanics and rules books to shape the realm than letting the rules serve the world setting, as I see Greyhawk doing for the most part.

I honestly have no conclusion here, other than to say that this is bothering me with some absurd shame about not being fantasy enough. Am I wrong here? Where do others draw their line between what does and does not make it into a D&D, or any other system's campaign?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Lord's Blade

The Lord's Blade - for its original name and wielder have been lost to time - appears to be a bastard sword of good quality, inscribed with runes the length of the blade along either side of a deep blood groove. The cross guard and pommel seem to be plain, unadorned brass, the hilt wrapped in plain leather the last time this sword surfaced. Closer examination by a competent smith, however, reveals that the blood groove is, in fact, no such thing. While most weapons of this type are constructed of a single bar of steel stock formed into a blade and sharpened, this blade is constructed by 6 thin strands of unalloyed iron welded together and overall clad in a hardened steel jacketing. The result is a bastard sword weighing a full 20% more than a typical blade (12 pounds instead of the typical 10 pounds), but which is of exceptional balance and craft. The runes are deeply incised and no scholar has yet been able to translate them without the aid of magic. If a suitable spell is utilized, they can be translated thus: By this symbol I swear this oath, and by this blade I maintain my oath, that leadership is service.

If subjected to a detect magic spell or effect, the weapon radiates a strong aura of magic of indeterminate type. All efforts to elucidate the abilities of the weapon - whether by Identify or Legend Lore spells, or by some other method - fail unless the oath is taken. If someone capable of wielding the blade holds it in both hands and, under the blessing of a Priest of either Light or Dark, speaks the oath, that person will become bound by the oath and all powers of the Lord's Blade will be apparent to him.

*First, due to its exceptional balance and craft, the speed factor is reduced by three whether wielded one handed or two. Further, the sword has a saving throw of 5 against all types of normal physical damage whether due to extreme stress, fire, lightning, and etc. Extremely powerful magics can overwhelm this. Both of these bonuses are inherent to the blade itself and are not magical.

*During combat, it functions as a +2 weapon in all regards.

*In the hands of an acknowledged leader (whether a king, emperor, baron, or merely a mercenary captain), the sword confers a +4 bonus to Charisma. This bonus does not affect the physical appearance of the wielder (i.e., it does not make them handsomer), but improves their ability to command and influence those around them.

The Lord's Blade, while certainly a very powerful magic item, is a tremendous curiosity throughout Thylia, for though its oath would appear to be at odds with an evil world view, it will serve an evil warrior as faithfully as it would the staunchest Paladin. It is believed in some circles that the weapon possesses some level of intelligence or ego, though this has never been proven or even evidenced. Currently, its whereabouts are unknown.