Sunday, September 23, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 8


The party holes up for the night in the room/house with the crossbow skeleton, spiking the door. In the morning, the group listen at the door and hear some shambling and moans. The four zombies they had turned from the previous day had returned. Mel and Nyphus turned two of them again while the last two had to be hacked to pieces.

After the fight, the group head north back to the room/square with the well. They manage to open the door to the west that was previously blocked before. Pater scouts ahead and finds himself in what appears to be a private family’s tomb. Within the wall lay corpses in burial wrapping. A smaller set of child-sized holes lies empty. Hidden in one of these unoccupied holes Pater finds a small stone seal which when pressed opens a secret door into a hidden passage west. Through the short passage another secret door is found (by Nyphus, I believe). This exit ends up on another north-south passage/street.

The group head north and reach a door where they hear intense buzzing behind. They try western room first that houses dozens of bats which fly down the passage south. The room reeks of guano. Underneath the dung is an intricate tile mosaic of elven designs. A minute after the bats have vacated, the group hears eerie singing down the southern passage coming from an open area. Nyphus investigates and finds an ancient elf chained to the eastern wall within.

The group joins him. The dusty fellow proves to be half-crazed, welcoming them to the great elven kingdom of Nevelainen. He speaks in vague nonsense of a calamity that befell the city long ago and mentions the Les Fourmir or the dead. They try to free him of his ancient bonds, shackles pinned through his forearms. Once removed he disintegrates.

The group head north to the door where they heard buzzing. Upon opening they find four giant ant men and six giant ants. All are eating maggoty fly larvae. The ant men speak in a heavily-accented archaic form of the Common tongue. The group explain they want to leave, but the leader of the ants, an apparent head guard explains he must bring all trespassers before their queen, unless some other arrangement could be worked out (bribe). The ants notice that Br. Karnoff is bound and they ask to trade the prisoner for permission to leave. Nyphus and Mel are fiercely against the proposal both from a sense of morality as well as pragmatically wanting to keep him alive to use as a way to get into the northern slave city of Ravenstone in the north, the seat of the Green Mark, run by the Archbishop Nemesine who Father Thelbain said was blackmailing him. The ant suggests he could take part of the prisoner while keeping the conscious part of him alive. Again, they reject the offer. The leader notices Mel’s necklace and scarab broach, and Renic’s golden earring. An exchange is begrudgingly made.

The group leave the buried city and find themselves toward the bottom of the cliff to the north of Morgansfort, facing the sea. They find a small dry cave and rest a few days to rest and heal, fishing from the sea, and planning their next move. That plan is to head back north to Slateholm to find a ship to take them over the Western Sea to Ravenstone where they hope to infiltrate, expose, or destroy the Green Mark.

Friday, September 21, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 7


It is around 11:30 p.m. Father Thelbain acts quickly and has his acolytes clean up the remains of the dead, mute cultist, Brother Malachi. Brother Karnoff is bound and gagged. Before more discussion of Ravenstone and Bishop Nemesine can be had, the Morgansfort alarm bells begin to ring. Fearing soldiers coming to the church to investigate and find a dead cultist, the priest ushers them to the back of the sacristy where he tells them they must leave the fort immediately. He explains that the cultists have ingratiated themselves to the Bailiff Tomandy as diplomats from Ravenstone. If Br. Malachi is discovered to be dead, the PCs will be arrested. Thelbain is also eager to keep his connection to Nemesine via blackmail private as it will mean his de-frocking. He encourages the group to take Karnoff with them which they want to do anyway as a way in to Ravenstone. He gives each of them a healing draught before leading them to the upper level of the Chapel of St. Queril where it meets the northern fort wall.

Thelbain talks his way through a guard tower and follow the inner keep wall around to the central tower. As they make their way above the fort, they see troops below mobilizing and in the distance, strange lights appearing over the Old Island Fortress. Thelbain unlocks the tower door with a special key. Inside they descend a long spiral staircase to the ground floor and beyond until they reach another door of a far older make. Thelbain tells them that they will find a way out of the fort through the cliffs to the north by the sea. It is a way only know to himself, the Bailiff, and the Baronet. Thelbain tells the party the staircase to the passages below heads south. If they turn themselves around and head towards the most northern and western path they will find the way out. The group enter the passage and Thelbain closes the door. The key clicks behind them. They are locked in.

Pater scout ahead down the stairs 20 ft. south, coming to a landing with three stairways branching west, south, and east. The group heads down the western branch. The ceiling did not slope with them. As they descended the ceiling became cavernous above them. They found themselves in a north-south “hallway” with cobblestone flooring and white-washed plaster walls. They realize they are in fact in an underground city. The floor is a road and the walls are buildings. Examining the walls more closely they found a door directly from across the stairs. Pater checked for traps, found none, and opened the door. A crossbow bolt shot out missing Pater and Nyphus at the front, hitting the wall behind them. The “bowman” was a (in-animated) skeleton sitting across from the door with a crossbow aimed at the door which apparently discharged with the disturbance of the door. The room is covered in dust and curtains hanging on the walls. There is no further way forward.

The group head north back in the hall and reach a doorway/gate leading to a 30’ x 30’ octagonal room with a large well in the middle. There are other doors to the west, north, and east. Pater checks out the well and the group are surprised by a giant, fanged skull on a stalk body of vertebrae. The snake-like bone creature begins to sway, hypnotizing part of the party. The group engages in an extended battle. Pater is hit a couple of times and comes close to death before jumping on the back of the spine behind the head. Eventually the group manages to defeat the great thing cutting the head from the spine which clatters to the bottom of the well.

Nyphus “lays hands” on Pater with a loud slap, rebuking him for disturbing the well and reviving some hit points.

The group recognizes the room to be a small, town square and head through the door north. They find another dead skeleton holding a small chest. Inside the chest are two cruets of holy water and a small scarab broach (of protection). Br. Karnoff comes to life and starts mumbling motioning towards the well-room. The party see shambling figures silently approaching the threshold to the well-room from the south. Renic springs into action and charges. Pater fires an arrow. Mel and Nyphus attempt to turn the zombies. Mel’s turning works and four of the foul beasts flee. Mel and Nyphus coat their arms with the holy water and join Renic in bottle-necking the zombies at the door. All contribute, but Renic’s new sword is the bloodiest ending the battle with a pile of a dozen zombie corpses stinking up the room. During the combat Pater tried both the room to the east (blocked/caved-in) and the door to the west (locked/stuck).

Now the party find themselves in an underground city, past midnight with low to mid-levels of hit points, and their spells depleted. They must now decide whether to rest whether to push on to find their way out or hole-up for the night to rest up. Once out, they need to plan a course of action. Ravenstone is far north across the sea. Do they return to Slateholm to find a ship? How do they transport their prisoner (Karnoff) without arousing suspicion? What if he refuses to help them get into Ravenstone?

RPGaDay 2018


August was a bear for me. Between two family vacations, a busy work schedule, and the kids starting school again, I didn’t even try to keep up with RPGaDay. That said, now that it’s over, I still wanted to have a chance to give my answers even if it is after the fact. Last year, RPGaDay helped me kickstart my blog so I feel compelled to participate. No, I should say I feel grateful to be able to participate. This last year has been a fun one returning to the hobby, and this gave me a chance to take stock.

1. What do you love about RPGs?

I love the unexpected possibilities that come from active player participation. As a GM, I like seeing what the players will do with what I set up for them. As a player, I like the mystery of finding out what’s going to happen next. The “storytelling” isn’t as important to me as the experience of engaging with a shared world. It’s not so much what happens as how it happens and experiencing how it feels.

2. What is the first thing you look for in an RPG?

The first thing I look for in an RPG is a sense of wonder and mystery. I want something that sparks my imagination and gives me a solid dose of dream fuel. Part of this means good artwork. Part of it means inspiring elements of the game (adventures, spells, powers) that make me picture myself in that world. Furthering this sense of wonder and mystery, I like there to be as few of rules as possible. I don’t want lots of conditional mechanics stripping the fantasy away with over-explanation and bogging down the game in math and strategy.

3. What gives a game “staying power?”

For me, a system specific to genre, but not tied to any one setting is the key. Middle Earth, Tekumel, and Greyhawk are great, but I’m not fond of being beholden to books of lore that will dictate the parameters of the world. There’s not much staying power when the game is built to be played within one world. Another key component is a system that supports early character levels but doesn’t break at the upper levels of play. This second one is something I’m working on in my game now. A game doesn’t have staying power if you’re constantly making new characters because of nearly guaranteed PC death at early levels. Conversely, if the PCs become unstoppable at high levels, the game’s longevity suffers because it’s no longer a challenge.

4. Most memorable NPC?

From my most recent campaign: the ape-vulture/crow hybrid, Ghazold. He freaked the PCs out, gave them useful information, and later was featured in a past history they found. He’s likely to show up again which is always a sign of a good NPC.

5. Favorite recurring NPC? (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: Describe an ambitious campaign idea.

I’m working on a module, or more accurately a twin/double module that’s part hexploration and part underworld. I don’t want to get into too many details, but it will be a dense sandbox within six, six-mile hexes and what lies beneath. The challenge will be to not let it get out of control and go beyond the scope I initially intend.

6. How can players make a world seem real?

Players can make the world real by treating the decisions their characters make with respect and taking the stakes seriously. Speaking in character is helpful, but not strictly necessary. It’s more important to me that they pay attention to the details I’m giving them and attempt to interact with what I put before them. I want them to be curious about the world and ask questions.

7. How can a GM make the stakes important?

An easy answer is character death, but this is too simplistic. The players need to see that there are meaningful choices to be made and that creative solutions will be rewarded. I don’t mean rewarded in the sense of “winning,” staying alive, getting loot and XP. I mean that the world will react to their decisions in a satisfying way. A GM can make the stakes meaningful by having inaction by the PCs mean as much as action. A good example in an adventure context is Deep Carbon Observatory’s use of multiple dire scenarios happening at once. Will the PCs help the kids on the raft about to be washed away or help the drowning cleric with the only key to the church?

8. How can we get more people playing?

This is an interesting question because things seem to be on the upswing. I guess my approach is how to continue this trend. My answer would be to be open and welcoming to anyone who seems interested. You never know who’s always wanted to try playing. The other thing is to be perfectly frank about what the game is and is not. There’s no point in selling them on something that won’t actually be the case when they sit down to play. If the game is complex, be up front about it. If the game usually takes 3-4 hours, don’t tell them it usually takes an hour or two.

9. How has a game surprised you? (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: Describe your thoughts on playing a character.

I don’t play as a character that often, but when I do, I want to envision myself as that person and approach the game world with an eagerness to uncover mysteries. I’m not so concerned about who they’ll be in ten levels so much as I am interested in finding out where they’re going to go in the course of their adventures.

10. How has gaming changed you?

When I was adolescent gaming stoked my imagination and gave me an outlet for creative impulses. As an adult getting back into the hobby after 25-plus-year break, it’s put me back in touch with a pre-adolescent enjoyment of playing and pretending. These are sadly things we’re shamed into giving up as we grow older and I think our empathy as people suffers for it.

11. Wildest character name?

I never really had any wild character names myself, and my players are similarly, pretty serious-minded. I’m more amenable to sillier names these days than I was growing up. I think serious play can happen no matter what the names.

12. Wildest character concept?

I’m going to answer this a little differently and give an overall system concept, then give a specific example – both relating to fantasy RPGs. Nowadays, a “wild” concept is a two-character class (Fighter and Magic-User) fantasy system. This is shown in Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa and in James M. Spahn’s recent Untold Adventures. It gets rid of the Cleric and Thief classes and basically only worries about balance between those characters who use magic, and those who do not. This concept goes entirely against the popular drive to have set, codified classes with an array of player options to choose from. For me, this kind of pre-packaging boxes you in as a player and squashes your imagination.

As far as a specific character concept, using a two-class game, I would build a type of insane trickster in the spirit and physical mold of 1960s Arthur Brown. You could build him either as a Fighter with specialization in performance, fraud, and thievery; or you could build him out as a Magic-User who uses illusions to shock, influence, and distract. Either way, the concept doesn’t need mechanical benefits to define it. You could play the character as a chaotic, unpredictable loon no matter what their stats say.

13. Describe how your play has evolved.

I’ve become more comfortable with In-Character role play. I’ve stopped feeling guilty for house ruling things. It’s something I always felt bad about as a kid, but I refused to feel bad about now. I used to make up all my own adventures, but as a husband and father of two, I have less time to devote to world building. Because of this I’m much more likely to run a module.

14. Describe a failure that became amazing. (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: How do you prepare an extended campaign?

I used to start with a map of a big world area, perhaps even included a couple of continents and a few seas. Now I prefer to start much smaller. I don’t have the time to create large-scale worlds anymore, and it’s more fun to let the players actions and interests dictate what’s around the next corner rather than coming up with numerous cultures, myths, and histories only to have the PCs completely pass by all of your work.

15. Describe a tricky RPG experience you enjoyed. (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: What makes you want to GM?

I like coming up with interesting scenarios that stoke my players’ imaginations and engage them in the story. I like freaking people out through creepy, weird interactions that stay with them after the game is over.

16. Describe your plans for your next game.

It’s this Saturday (Sept. 8th, now). The players are leaving the general adventuring area that they’ve been in since the start of the campaign. They’re hitting the road with a specific destination in mind. I asked them if they wanted to do a “time passes” fast-forward through the travelling or if they wanted to play it out. They voiced that they don’t want to skip over the travel, but I know they don’t want to spend the next six sessions hex crawling in the wilderness. Their journey is a straight road north (12 days journey) to a port and a voyage over the sea (12 days sailing). If paced correctly we’ll handle the land travelling portion in the next couple of sessions, a session in the port town, and one session at sea. Now, they may decide to abandon their previous course, so I have a number of obstacles to give them some choices that further campaign events instead of 12 sets of daily rolls for random wilderness encounters. It should be a lot of fun.

17. Describe the best compliment you’ve had gaming.

The best compliment I’ve had is when my players tell me my monsters creeped them out. That’s all I really want.

18. Art that inspires your game.

I could answer this question in 5,000 words by itself. I really like the art in Symbaroum, which although it is realistic has a darker, stranger feel to it than say, 5e. I’ve also seen a lot of public domain art I’ve liked recently, particularly in Blueholme Prentice Rules and Necropolis of Nuromen adventure as well as the older work used in the zine, Wormskin. These last examples have a dark, fairy tale feeling to them rather than the cartoonish drawing style I used to enjoy in classic TSR works.

19. Music that enhances your game.

I’ve tried some playlists this year that I thought would work well featuring Popol Vuh or Goblin, but most of it was fairly distracting. What seemed to work best were well-known fantasy soundtracks (LotR and Conan) or generic Ren-faire music, both of which were so familiar that they could be ignored, just acting as audio wallpaper.

20. Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

I’ll list two, both of which I have yet to use in my games, but still excite me. The first is the single Saving Throw mechanic of Swords & Wizardry. I was resistant to it at first, but it’s won me over, not only for its simplicity and elegance, but because it allows for me to call for a save without giving away the nature of the threat. This creates more tension and suspense. The second mechanic is the newly in vogue level-less spell system that Lamentations of the Flame Princess is moving towards. I’ve heard some early playtest reports that if not implemented carefully, it’s possible for casters to take over the game at early levels. However, the way that Lost PagesWonder & Wickedness employs it is really compelling in its simplicity and flavor.

21. Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

D6 ability/skill checks. More and more, the Open Doors, Find Secret Doors, Hear Noise, etc. d6 ability/skill check from OD&D is one that makes sense to me. The standard method is that any character has around a 1 in 6 chance to do anything. This is 16.667%. Which in modern d20 terms is roughly a DC of 17-18. Interestingly enough, Basic Fantasy uses 17 as the starting target number for any Ability Roll. This 1 in 6 chance can be altered by an ability bonus, each of which increases the chance for success. For instance, a 1 in 6 chance to open a stuck dungeon door becomes a 3 in 6 chance if the character in question has a high Strength of 16 (+2) to give an additional 33.333% chance. The GM may add an additional modifier in the player’s favor if they explain procedurally how they might use something to their advantage (or a negative mod if something works towards the attempt’s disadvantage). If the player explains that they want to use a crowbar they took off the bandits to help open the door, perhaps they would be awarded a +1 (another 16.667%) to give a 4 in 6 chance.

Different systems use this mechanic with interesting rules to provide more granularity. The old-school Mars game Warriors of the Red Planet has a great idea by having the character get another base +1 to any ability/skill check when they reach 7th level. You could also implement a simple skill system where a character who regularly searches for traps or attempts to track enemies receives a +1 for that skill when they level up. The GM is simply rewarding the player for their character’s repeated attempts in game, representing them getting better at something they’ve done a lot. Lamentations uses a similar skill system for all Specialist (Thieves) skills using a d6 chart for a specific set of skills. Lastly, Basic Fantasy gives a way to scale the challenge when even a 16% chance is too generous. For the truly near-impossible attempts, move up the dice chain from a d6 to a d8, d10, d12, or d20. The modifiers also scale down giving exceptional characters a better shot, but still make the challenge tough.

22. Which non-dice system appeals to you?

Most dice-less systems don’t appeal to me. A couple of story games that I’ve heard about that have piqued my interest are Marshall Miller’s The Warren and Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. These games are interesting in theory, but I worry that they would end up as rhetorical contests between players. Some people like that kind of thing though so who knows, maybe there’s something for me in it.

23. Which game do you hope to play again? (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: What appeals to you about GM-less games?

A couple of things appeal to me about GM-less games. First, no one GM-ing means that there isn’t just one person shouldering the burden of preparing the game. That takes a lot of pressure off. Second, not having to GM means that everyone gets to experience the mystery of what’s going to happen. True, the unexpected is still present in your standard, GM-run TTRPG, but the amount of mystery isn’t the same for the GM who has spent a lot of prep time thinking about the game ahead of time. I have a friend who owns both Gloomhaven and Mansions of Madness, both of which sound really fun.

24. Which RPG do you think deserves more recognition?

I have a few that I’ll mention. First, Warriors of the Red Planet is a terrific game. It’s OD&D on Barsoom with custom classes built to fit the genre and all kinds of self-contained optional rules to flush out a campaign. Next, a game I purchased last year that I finally got my head around is Whitehack. What I love about this system is how open-ended it is. It’s OD&D stripped of the crunchy wargamer bits. It’s a game of negotiation between the player and GM, particularly how it relates to magic. Finally, although they aren’t standalone RPGs in and of themselves, John M. Stater’s NOD magazine series is a thing of wonder. There are currently 34 issues featuring fantasy RPG classes, options, alternate rules, settings, adventures, and the best hex crawls I’ve ever seen. Gabor Lux once mentioned in a NOD review thread on tenfootpole.com that the only bad thing about it was that it might be too much of a good thing – how was anyone supposed to ever use all of it? If WotC hired him to write an adventure book it would be the best Dungeons & Dragons adventure they would have put out in 30 years.

25. Game that had an impact on you in the last 12 months.

I’m not sure if this is asking for an RPG system or an individual session. For the former, there would be too many to name. I’ve come back to the hobby this past year playing catch up, drunk with the incredible games to buy, spending money like a fool. As far as impactful sessions, the first session I ran around this time last year was the first time I had run a game in over 25 years. I was terribly nervous, but after knocking the rust off, I was eager to do it again, as soon as possible.

26. Gaming ambition for the next 12 months.

Last year I started up a regular group and have continued a campaign throughout the year. I also got to play in a superhero game run by my friend. I helped proofread the latest Basic Fantasy module and I was a low-tier runoff winner in the One Page Dungeon Contest.

For this year, my ambitions are as follows:
·       Expand, or at least maintain, my current Basic Fantasy campaign.
·       Run a few games for another local group including some in-laws who are new to TTRPGs.
·       Run or play in a few games online with some of the people I’ve met through Facebook groups.
·       Flesh out my One Page Dungeon entry into a 16-page module and put it up on Lulu.
·       Write and submit a first draft for a sandbox module I’ve started working on for Basic Fantasy.
·       Learn how to play 5e and hopefully sit in a game or two at a local game store.
·       Continue to work on my own house rules for OD&D. I don’t think I’ll finish it this year, but I’d love to have a first draft done and start playtesting it, by as a play-by-post.

27. Share a great stream / actual play.

I don’t have any of my own experience with this yet, but I’ve enjoyed IvanMike1968’s Lamentations from Prussia games and DarkAgeOfRollPlayGame’s Basic Fantasy games he’s run over the last year. I’ve also been enjoying Matt Finch’s Swords of Jordoba OD&D game as well. As for the big, popular streams, I’ve just recently taken to the Adventure Zone. My wife suggested listening to it together during our ride to work, but we only made it part of the way through the first episode. I was initially not into their goofy attitude, but after going back to it, they’ve won me over. I still think they roll too many checks though.

28. Share whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for.

In terms of creators, there are too many to name. I’m grateful for all the early figures in the OSR (Finch, Marshall, Gonnerman, Proctor, etc.) who paved the way for everything that’s come after. They may not be as well-known as some other folks, but they deserve some kudos. James Raggi and Zak Smith both get a lot of attention, but to my mind, it’s well worth it. They consistently put out really creative supplements you can use piecemeal or whole cloth. Same goes for Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess, and Zzarchov Kowalski. I’m thankful for even lesser-known creators like John Stater, Richard LeBlanc, Geoffrey McKinney, Norman & Gorgonmilk.

In terms of personal inspiration, I would say my local group of players (Adam, Brandon, Andrea, and Kerrigan) who inspire me to come up with all kinds of twisted things to send their way.

29. Share a friendship you have because of RPGs. (Skipped)

ALTERNATE QUESTION: Who would you like to share this hobby with?

Easy. I’d love for my wife to start playing, even if only occasionally. She’s a voracious reader, including a lot of fantasy works, so I think she would be both good at it and have a terrific time.

30. Share something you learned about playing your character.

I only played once this year in a game so my recent experience is limited. It’s pretty generic, but it was fun to watch my character’s personality develop over the course of the game. I was also able to find the humor (though not silliness) in certain situations which made the heavier parts of the game even more serious.

31. Share why you take part in RPGaDay.

As I mentioned, I had a busy month and I knew I would likely be posting this after the event. It would have been easier to not go back and post anything. Yet something made me want to do it. RPGaDay helped jump start my blog and made me reflect about what it was specifically that was drawing me back into the hobby after such a long time away. I think it helps me take stock of what I want to continue to get out of the hobby and set my goals and priorities.

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...