Wednesday, June 12, 2019

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 13 - Death Frost Doom, part 1 of 2

In the morning, the party leads the group of freed Mothers to the chapel of the Green Mark, down to the crypt, and through the green crystal portal to Bishop Nemesine’s floating cathedral over Ravenstone which is built into a dead titan’s decomposing head. Nemesine leads the group into a small chapel/shrine room of the side of the main chamber. There is an altar, and a bloody magic circle off the floor. Off this chamber is a set of two opposing alcoves, which between them function as a in/out portals, each with green crystals. Nemesine sends the Mothers through first to a small portside town on the western side of the northern continent. The party sees the Tarred Goose in port.

Nemesine then delivers his terms to the party. He will send them with two of his acolytes to an area north in the Demonfrost Mountains, specifically to the foot of Mt. Deathfrost. The top of this peak is said to house the tomb of the Duvan’Ku death cult, the original worshippers of Shah Gzerohn. A group of 12 clerics of Tah sacrificed themselves to seal in the evil there. Also sealed inside the mountain is the Miter of Tah, a powerful relic stolen by the cult which Nemesine seeks to erase his curse and leave this dimension. If the party returns with the Miter, Nemesine promises to disband the Green Mark, end the slave industry of Ravenstone, and leave the known plane. The PCs are welcome to any other treasure found there. Nemesine has also gives them a green gem which will allow them to read ancient runes and writings they may find in the tomb.

The party is equipped with furs, boots, and camping/climbing equipment. They pass through the portal half a day’s journey from the town at the foot of the mountain. Rumors of horror are told that night before an early rise to head up the mountain. Halfway up the mountain the two acolytes take their leave as they cannot approach any closer to the peak without intense mental and physical anguish. A little further on the party discover the shack of Zeke Duncaster, a crazed old trapper who has made his life on this mountain by giving headstones to the unmarked graves at the top of the mountain. One notable marker for Marybelle Walker is in progress. Zeke discovered the names in a book in the cabin at the top of the mountain. He begs them not to proceed and even attempts to stop them short of physically barring their way.

The party reaches the top about 10:00 p.m. The moon shines overhead. The cabin sits at the top of the summit looking down on a huge field of graves and markers covered in snow. An evil-looking dead tree with a hangman’s noose watches them. There is a faint droning sound as they approach the cabin which gets louder the closer they get. They move to the back door where a set of somewhat recent tracks leads off amongst the graves. They find a frozen corpse there in a nightshirt perhaps from a few days ago. There is also a well that the party decides to stay away from after Pater’s episode in the buried elven undercity.

The party enters the cabin from the back and start to explore the back rooms. A harpsichord can be heard upon entering, but it immediately stops as the PCs enter the room with the instrument. That room also features a large painting of the party themselves dressed as they are now, standing before a large skeleton-encrusted altar with a dark passage open to the left of the altar. In the painting, Mel is seen drinking from a cup in one hand and holding a handful of fist-sized glass spheres. In the empty bedroom across the hall, they find a stash of purple lotus powder which Renik recognizes as a potent natural hallucinogen. They take the lot. They find a plain kitchen and a front room with a fireplace, mounted stag head, mirror, a clock, and a desk with a book of millions of names of sacrifices going back millennia – the last few pages full of Zeke’s checkmarks. There are also three chairs that face the party as they come in. The mirror is cold with runes for “every brother” and “every sister” on either side. The stag’s eyes are cloudy and bubbled. Oh, in the middle of the room is a trapdoor on the floor with a padlock on it.

Before trying the padlock, the group inspects the last bedroom where they find the belongings of the corpse outside, one Norquist Orve, a mountaineer and tax dissident. His journal details the path he took up the mountainside, not the longer, cleared path the party took. They take some of his climbing gear and rations and go back to the trapdoor which the unlock and open, exposing a dark shaft, 50’ deep with iron rungs inside. They descend without light as there is no room for lantern or torch within the shaft. Renik and Pater spark a witchfinder candle at the bottom. The droning becomes louder with the opening of the trapdoor and as they go down.

A long hallway of crystalline walls writhes with agonized faces calling out in a lost language. It ends with a door with a gargoyle’s head as a lock. A key is in the lock which requires one to place their hand in the mouth. Pater is volunteered and the door opens and he takes the key. An antechamber of small table with severed hands holding quills next to parchment with the instructions to “transcribe” and “replace” carved into the hands. A set of bronze double doors to east feature a huge sigil, the sign of the Duvan’Ku. The party opens the doors and lets out a gust of cold air.

The group enter the large chapel of the Duvan’Ku. The room is shaped like a blunt-tipped arrowhead pointing east. Rows of stone slab prayer plinths cover the floor. Twelve ice skulls hang from a ceiling fixture. An altar inside a huge skull is at the far end. To the left of the altar is an organ made of bones. Murals adorn the northern wall, one of hanged women with a caption, “name them, but build no monument unto them.” Another mural shows a man being stabbed with nine swords and thrown into a pit as an offering. Two sinks of black water are attached to the southeastern wall and filled with teeth. The Duvan’Ku rune for “gift” is atop the basins. There is a large bronze door with a wheeled lock on the east wall between the altar and the sinks. Another small door leads out in the north wall.

The group inspect everything. Nyphus finds and takes a jewel-encrusted dagger and a ruby necklace in a bowl on the altar. One of them (Mel?) attempts to match the note on the organ to the increasingly louder drone to no effect. Pater or Renic fish a locket with a portrait of a man out of the teeth basin. It matches the picture of the man in the mural stabbed by nine swords. During their time investigating two of the ice skulls hanging from the ceiling have fallen to the floor and shattered. Water drips from the others. The group contemplate pulling out a tooth to offer as a gift in the sink but instead head through the north door.

They enter a hallway with many doors. They try the room to the right which contains dirty bedclothes and cots. Searching discovers a wooden mask with human teeth (obviously taken from the basin) inserted into it. The door to the left reveals a small set of rooms – one locked (that they can’t open), a toilet, and a library with a map. They copy the map on a sheet of paper and move on. The next room on the left off the main hallway is a kitchen/eating area with marble benches and a firepit. The upper walls are stained with smoke. Pater searches the cabinets and the upper walls, and finding no ventilation, discovers a place where there are no stains. A small panel in the ceiling is found with a passage or flue about 5’ x 5’ heading above the room. Pater goes first, and the rest follow, but it is a tight fit.

The passage leads into the ceiling of a room with an elaborate bone-encrusted sarcophagus with a scene on the top in bas relief of hundreds of beheaded men on a battlefield. The top is removed and a desiccated female mummy rises. Nyphus addresses her. She looks at him and asks him, “What do you carry?”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Two Thieves

Jeff Easley's BECMI Thief
I’ve recently decided to run an OD&D game. This, of course, brings with it the age-old question of which version of OD&D (3LBBs-only or plus-supplements) and its corollary: to thief, or not to thief? This is a topic that’s been covered over and over, but one I’ve personally never considered too much because, having started with Basic, I’ve always considered the Thief a core class. Running pre-Greyhawk OD&D is partly appealing to me because I’m not overly fond of the Thief class in the early versions of the game. Most of these problems are covered pretty well in the second issue of Matt Finch’s Knockspell magazine in an article by James Maliszewski and multiple contributors’ alternate versions of the class. None of these versions exactly do the trick for me, so I came up with two Thief options of my own.

Roguish Background

One way to handle this dilemma is not through a separate class at all, but through backgrounds. In this method you stick to the three core classes from the original rules and allow players to pick (or roll randomly) a background. Backgrounds like Burglar, Mountebank, Rogue, Spy, or Scout paired with one of the three core classes could create a viable thief-type character. Each of these backgrounds would give you a +1 to an “x in 6” chance roll based on relevant activities.

Using a variety of backgrounds like this would give players a way to differentiate one thievish character from another, in both tone and actual mechanics. Perhaps a Mountebank wouldn’t get a +1 to removing traps, but they might get a +1 to reaction rolls when attempting to deceive someone, something a Burglar might not get. A Spy might get a +1 to disguising themselves. Maybe a Burglar gets a +1 to climb sheer walls where a Scout wouldn’t. The Scout might be good at tracking in a way the other backgrounds are not.

Each background would color the character differently depending on which class they were. Fighting-men with a Burglar background could be Conan. Magic-users with a background as a Mountebank, might use a slight of hand to slip a sleeping or polymorph potion into someone’s drink, or blur the line between street-magic legerdemain and real illusions. Clerics with a Spy background might be part of an Inquisition-like secret society or Internal Affairs-type cabal within a church, keeping tabs of the corruption of the clergy. Mechanically, any +1 given as part of that background could increase by one at the different class level tiers (Fighting-man in groups of three, Clerics in groups of four, Magic-users in groups of five) at the referee’s discretion.

What I like about this kind of angle as a solution is that it’s very loose and up to the interpretation of the referee. The ref could award the PC with these kinds of backgrounds a bonus to experience for a high Dexterity score in addition to, or in lieu of an average prime-requisite. The ref could give a +1 for any thievish “x in 6” skill rolls. Better yet, the ref could call that certain rolls aren’t required in many cases if the player can describe how they search for traps, hide in the shadows, etc.

Revised Greyhawk Thief

One issue with handling the Thief through a background is that it still leaves out a certain character archetype. A Fighting-man with a burglar background might produce a Conan, but it still feels like a fighter first, and a thief second. It doesn’t quite get you a Gray Mouser or a Silk. Gray Mouser is pretty well-known to most fantasy fans, but David Eddings’ character, Silk, will always be the quintessential Thief for me. Silk may be good with his daggers, but he’s first and foremost a charming spy, acrobat, master of disguise, assassin, as well as a burglar/lockpick/pick-pocket. Calling Silk a Fighter seems just wrong. The Gray Mouser may have been a former wizard’s apprentice but calling him a Magic-user or a Fighter feels inaccurate.

Enter the Greyhawk Thief. The GH Thief entered the game in 1975 and (more or less) remained the same throughout the run of the Basic game into the 90s. A few of the main gripes with this class is that it introduced a new percentile sub-system of skills to the game, it started off being lousy at things it was supposed to be a specialist at, and its early lousiness meant that other classes were even worse at stealthy activities they previously were competent at. While they advanced quickly, the low hit points and poor skills made the first few levels a grind. Many of the skills start at a base chance of 10 – 15% chance. This is lower than the 1-in-6 (16.667%) or 2-in-6 (33.333%) chance most things in the LBBs were given. The 1e AD&D Thief got a little better skill increase, but not much. The Greyhawk Thief also gains some level-specific abilities like reading languages, treasure maps, and magic scrolls which are cool, but again, it’s too little, too late.

In recent years I’ve seen some good alternatives to the classic Thief that are much closer to what I think is reasonable. Charlie Mason’s White Box FMAG has a very good version that uses the “x-in-6” mechanic under a broad, generic skill of “Thievery.” I like this because it allows for referee interpretation of whether an activity falls under that heading. Charlie’s Thief advances in ability in groups of 3 starting with 2-in-6, then 3-in-6, and so on. This means that the Thief starts with a base chance of 33.333% which is in line with demi-human abilities from the LBBs. It also hews to that “x-in-6” system for some skilled activity. It also leaves room for the other classes to at least have a 1-in-6 chance to sneak or remove a trap which – although difficult – is a better chance than the level-1 Greyhawk Thief.

A few other versions I think are pretty good are Delving Deeper’s V.5 version and LotFP’s Specialist class both of which use an “x-in-6” mechanic as well. The LotFP version allows for some customization, including some undefined skills the player and GM may agree upon outside of what’s listed. Delving Deeper keeps the Greyhawk Thief’s level-abilities (like reading languages and magic) but gives it the weakest of hit dice progression of the game (though because they level faster are perhaps on par with Magic-users). Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is also decent, however, like Delving Deeper, the thieving abilities are maybe a little too good right out of the gate for me.

None of these versions are quite what I’m looking for, partially due to how all those versions deal with the Thief’s combat advancement. White Box FMAG has Thieves increasing their to-hit roll along with the Cleric in not-quite groups of 3 (as opposed to groups of 4 from Greyhawk). Delving Deeper lumps Thieves combat in with Magic-users in “smoothed” groups of 4 (as opposed to groups of 5 from Greyhawk). LotFP’s Specialist never increases their combat ability, which makes for a greater distinction between the classes but doesn’t have the feel I’m looking for. In order to find the Thief I want I return to Greyhawk.

My revised Greyhawk Thief would use the combat charts of the cleric (in groups of 4, per Greyhawk), saves and hit die of magic-users (in groups of 5, per Greyhawk), and mix in FMAG’s Thievery skill advancement mirroring the Fighting-man’s combat advancement (in groups of 3). I think I would use the XP advancement in Greyhawk and the hit dice advancement of Magic-users from Men & Magic. This way the Thief’s hit dice would advance faster than the Magic-user, but not quite as fast as the Cleric. The Thief’s attack ability would actually increase a little faster than the Cleric, but lacking their defensive advantage of heavier armor and shields, the Thief’s attacks would still most likely come as ranged attacks or backstabs (which I would run as-is from Greyhawk). I would give Thieves the Fighter’s use of high Dexterity to lower their Armor Class that was ushered in with Greyhawk as well as the reading languages and magic ability at higher levels.

Depending on how this works in actual play, I could tweak this setup by adjusting the XP amounts to be the same as Cleric perhaps, or by going with the Greyhawk d4 hit die, but otherwise, I think this is pretty close to what I’m looking for. I’ve kept things in the non-smoothed out advancement below, but I may find I prefer something a little more gradual. We’ll have to see. There are still other things to work out in terms of how much of the other supplements I’d like to bring in, but this is a good start. I also have a whole host of house rules I want to use particularly related to 1st level character creation, but that’s maybe for another day.

Advancement in Experience, Hit Dice, and Thief Abilities

Level
XP
Title
Hit Dice
Thievery
1
1,200
Apprentice
1d6
2 in 6
2
2,400
Footpad
1d6 + 1
2 in 6
3
4,800
Robber
2d6
2 in 6
4
9,600
Burglar
2d6 + 1
3 in 6
5
20,000
Cutpurse
3d6
3 in 6
6
40,000
Sharper
3d6 + 1
3 in 6
7
60,000
Pilferer
4d6
4 in 6
8
90,000
Master Pilferer
5d6
4 in 6
9
125,000
Thief
6d6 + 1
4 in 6
10
250,000
Master Thief
7d6
5 in 6
11
375,000
Master Thief, 11th Level
8d6 + 1
5 in 6
12
400,000
Master Thief, 12th Level
8d6 + 2
5 in 6
13
525,000
Master Thief, 13th Level
8d6 + 3
6 in 6
14
650,000
Master Thief, 14th Level
8d6 + 4
6 in 6

Combat Table (Cleric/Thief):

Level
AC 9
AC 8
AC 7
AC 6
AC 5
AC 4
AC 3
AC 2
1-4
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
5-8
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
9-12
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13-16
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
17-20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

Saving Throws (Magic-user/Thief):


Level
Death/Poison
Wands
Turn to Stone
Dragon Breath
Spells
1-5
13
14
13
16
15
6-10
11
12
11
14
12
11-15
8
9
8
11
8
16-20
5
6
5
8
3


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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Top 5 Desert Island RPGs

This is in response to DravenSwiftbow’s recent video of his Top 5 Desert Island RPGs. Dave gave a good, solid list which emphasized diversity of genre and system over depth within any one game. He picked self-contained core rulebooks (and one box set) which makes sense. He ended the video asking for people to give their own lists of whatever number or classifications in the comments. Because I’m a wordy dum-dum, I decided to write a short blog about it rather than dump a huge block of text in Dave’s comments.

There are too many ways to do this I’m going to multiple lists. First, I’ll try Dave’s idea of multiple genres. I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but Warriors of the Red Planet would give me exactly what I want from that genre in one slim little volume. For horror, I’d pick the sixth edition of Call of Cthulhu because it’s in one volume (and it's the one I own) and benefits from the advancements made over several editions while still hewing closely to the original vibe. For something more exotic, Empire of the Petal Throne is perfect for its complete world that's intriguing and mysterious. (I just realized that Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa falls at an intersection of all three of these games.) For something to fill the D&D slot, I’ll pick the Holmes Basic box set – either the first printing with the geomorphs and the monster & treasure assortment, or the next one with B1. It may only go up to level 3, but you would be free to extrapolate the rest as you saw fit, and in terms of a ruleset that really totemically gets to the core of the D&D vibe, it’s hard to beat. I’m not really big into superhero games or cyberpunk, so I don’t really have a fifth pick. I guess I’ll choose MERP for nostalgic reasons.

Another way to look at this is to pick setting books, modules, and toolkits instead of an actual game system. Once you’ve played TTRPGs for long enough, it’s easy enough to pick a core mechanic and make up your own system. Many of us can play D&D without the rulebooks by now, so perhaps the best bet would be to bring something with lots of random tables to help generate an infinite amount of adventure. The danger with just picking modules is that it’s an endless trap. Picking five modules to run forever is pretty limited, no matter how sandbox-y they are. There are about five really good megadungeons out there which would keep you busy until the end of time, but it would get a little same-y after a while. Campaign settings can be really good and open (various 2e AD&D, Dolmenwood, and Midderlands), but their specificity doesn't always give you the latitudes you might like.

As far as toolkits go, books like Veins of the Earth can give you procedures to build your own campaign world, but you need to choose them wisely to give you a breadth of settings. You could choose something like the Fight On! compendium of Vol. 1-4, John’s Stater’s NOD or Hex Crawl Chronicles, or James V. West’s Black Pudding collection which are all filled with great ideas. The Judges Guild really perfected this kind of variable setting supplements with their Ready Ref Sheets, City State of the Invincible Overlord, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, and any of their early modules (Tegel Manor, Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, or Citadel of Fire). You could do a lot worse than just picking five things from the early JG stuff.

In terms of something self-contained, any of the OSR retroclones would really do the trick. Basic Fantasy, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Delving Deeper, OSRIC, DCC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Blueholme, and many others give you everything you need in one book. In all honesty, one of these games is all I would need. Whatever you wanted to change you could house rule into your own system and in a lot of cases the clones are easier to run than the original games because of some of their modern innovations. However, these kinds of desert island questions aren’t just about practical usefulness. It’s about inspiration too, and that doesn’t always match what’s pragmatic. Sometimes it’s about what brings you joy, even if that comes from a place of nostalgia and sentimental attachment.

To speak to that, although it would be nice to have a breadth of systems or genres, in the end, I really just want to play some form of D&D. It’s my first love in this hobby and what I’d choose over anything else. If I was going to Frankenstein a nice feel-good collection of five D&D products, I suppose I would pick the Moldvay Basic set (with B2 Keep on the Borderlands), the Cook/Marsh Expert set (with X1 Isle of Dread), the 1e AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax, the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and the original edition’s Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (the original, unedited version, not the incomplete WotC resissue). Even though these five span three different editions of the game (0e, 1e, and B/X), this is D&D to me. I’m one of those people who feel all TTRPGs in some way are just house-ruled versions of the original (this drives people nuts, sorry).

In that spirit, maybe the best choice of all would be the original game and its four supplements: the white box (with the 3 LBBs), Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. You can extrapolate everything from these five, and in fact, we as gamers have over the last 40-some years. What are yours?

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 13 - Death Frost Doom, part 1 of 2

In the morning, the party leads the group of freed Mothers to the chapel of the Green Mark, down to the crypt, and through the green crys...