Monday, April 29, 2013

Map: The Dragon Spire

One of the things I did a lot with my last campaign, the one using the Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) rules, was use artwork as inspiration for me and visual aid for the players.  At one point they were on their way to meet with a dragon.  I found a fantastic castle painting by the famous Ted Nasmith to use for the dragon's current hideout.  Then I made up maps of the interior.

Background: this is an old frontier watch tower built by the kingdom of the black (water) dragons many centuries ago.  The dragon statues are of heroes of the kingdom who fell defending it.  It had a small lighthouse to warn river traffic away from the rocks and a small village where the humans and other small servant races lived.  Because the tower was meant for dragons all of its architecture is dragon-sized.  Huge doors and windows, huge rooms, and soaring ceilings are common throughout.  There is also a landing balcony so the dragons can fly in and out.

Today it is the lair or hideout of Ragecloud, the brother of the last dragon king.  The king, Ragewave, is in suspended animation on the verge of death in another massive old complex.  The brother seeks ways to finish off his brother once and for all in order to lift the curse and finally rule the kingdom himself.  Ragewave has several dragonkin (15' tall bipedal draconic humanoids) as his elite bodyguards and leaders, fifty or so human guards, dragonpriests, and scouts, and a dozen or more demon-dogs which roam the tower and areas along the river banks.

The painting:

The maps:

Overview and Courtyard
Below the main keep is a small courtyard which covers the steep winding trail which leads up from the small village below.  In the courtyard is a guard barracks with storage, bunkrooms, mess hall, and armory.  There is also a small stable with a few horses for scouts and messengers.  A tall statue of a dragon overlooks the courtyard from the northeast wall.

Keep Ground Floor
The massive main gates lead into a wide entrance hall with huge wooden double doors on the sides and an archway ahead.  Pools of water stand on either side of the entrance so that travelers may refresh themselves.  The rooms are mostly empty of furnishings except the kitchen in the back on the west.  The central room has an artistic statue in the middle, a deep pool stocked with live fish from the river as snacks for the dragon and dragonkin, and a staircase leading up.  At the very back is a large refuge room with secret doors concealed by carved scenes on the wall.

Keep 2nd Floor

Keep Landing Balcony
This floor has the landing balcony for the tower.  Several demon-dogs roam here to protect against any landing by intruders (the local mountain troll tribes fly on bat-winged opossums, or oppossobats).  In the main chamber a large teleportation disc is set into the floor.

Tower 1st Floor
The floor has huge windows on the east and west sides and huge wooden double doors to the north and south.  The south doorway leads out onto a balcony with a large dragon statue on the ledge.  The north doorway leads to a wide, open walkway ending in a small ancestor shrine with a traditional black stone stele with gold leaf dragonscript on it.  The walls of the main room are hung with massive tapestries.  A teleportation disc is set into the floor; it connects with the landing balcony floor down below.

Tower 2nd & 3rd (top) Floors

The 2nd floor contains two tall bronze lanterns on 15-foot tall stands flanking a teleportation disc set in the stone floor.  There is also a huge carpet.

The Roof is open to the sky except for four stone arches meeting above the center.  There is a teleportation disc connecting to the 2nd floor and a huge black ancestor stele (40' wide by 60' high).  the stele has lines of dragonscript in gold leaf.  On the floor in front of the stele are several huge candles.

It's fairly simple, but with lots of room (literally) to add what ever you need for an adventure.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Okay, so I have seen a lot of references to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) rules by James Edward Raggi IV and finally decided to give it proper full read and do a review.  (FYI, the version I reviewed was the "no art" free version from the website.)   Right off, I was intrigued by the subtitle: "WEIRD FANTASY Role-Playing".  I knew that it was a D&D old school renaissance game, but this subtitle suggested that these rules would have a different flavor or texture to them.  As you may have seen in earlier posts of mine I am not a fan of OSR rules but I was willing to give it a look based on the subtitle.

Diving in I found it to be a huge disappointment.  LotFP is pretty much just another OSR game. There are a lot of tweaks and cleaned-up bits.  Alignment is just Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic.  Halflings are available as a playable demi-human class.  And so on.

So where's the "weird fantasy" stuff?  Well as far as I can see there isn't any.  It's just a vanilla OSR game.

When an author says there's going to be some weird content, I'm expecting something along the lines of Wermspittle over on the Hereticwerks blog.  Wermspittle is a seriously weird, creepy setting.

Bottom line: if you're looking for a walk on the weird side, skip LotFP, go straight to Wermspittle.

Review: Strip D&D by Andrew Shields

Okay, so here's a very short review of a very short set of rules.  Last month Andrew Shields over at Fictive Fantasies posted a "new and improved" version of his Strip D&D rules.  No, it is not a D&D version of strip poker.  As he explains "This game is based on the much less provocatively titled “Searchers of the Unknown.” The root idea is, “What if the characters in D&D did not need more information than a monster’s stat block?” "

The basic rules fit on exactly one page, the five classes spread over four pages.  It is indeed a mega-stripped down version of D&D.  I think it is an entirely usable set of super-simple rules.  I'm not really excited about it as something I'd like to play, but it achieves it's design goals.  The main difference between Strip D&D and what you'd expect in a super-simple version of D&D comes in the classes:

Fighter (simplified, and the simplest—the default)
Thirster (weak-blooded vampire)
Wizard (with a whole new magic system)
Martial Artist (not necessarily a monk)
Lightbringer (mortals with a touch of divine blood)

The obvious differences are the addition of the Thirster (which has almost a full page of abilities/limitations), the Lightbringer (a sort of aasimar/paladin/cleric, but with few special abilities), and the lack of a specific thief class.

What D&D Character Am I? My Results

Okay, so I noticed a couple recent blog posts where people were providing their results from one of the "What D&D Character Am I" quizzes out there.  That sounded like a challenge, so I went to and did the quiz there.  For what it's worth, here's what I got:

I Am A: Lawful Neutral Elf Wizard (5th Level)
Ability Scores:
Strength - 12
Dexterity - 9
Constitution - 12
Intelligence - 17
Wisdom - 12
Charisma - 12

 I've often thought that this quiz method might be a fun way to generate characters for a D&D game.  All the players would take the quiz and play whatever comes back, except that they would all start at the same level (not necessarily 1st level).  Because you can choose whatever response you want to each question, players could either choose ones which represent them or a notional character.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Guest Post @ Dice Monkey: "The Character of Souls"

Okay, so a couple weeks ago I responded to an open call over at Dice Monkey for guest writers.  I finally came up with something decent, entitled The Character of Souls and it was posted recently.  It's further thoughts about souls which I started in an earlier post on this blog.

For those of you too busy to click on the link to Dice Monkey, here's what I offered up:

So I’m slowly working on my “ultimate” campaign world.  This time I’m going to do it right (no, really).  One of the core concepts is that the world is a magical/divine one, not a scientific one.  The world is flat, the sky god really does travel across the heavens in his golden ship each day, typhoons are the wild wrath of the sea god, etc.  So all creatures in the world have a soul, that divine spark whose presence makes a living thing alive.

But this brings up basic question: where do souls come from?  Who created them?  Are they still being created or were they all created in discrete past events or eras?  Where all created by one entity or by several?  And if several, jointly or separately?  Can they be destroyed?  And what level of power is necessary to destroy a soul? Or can only a soul’s creator destroy it?

And there is the question of what exactly a soul contains.  It is the spark of life, but does it have a character of its own?  Since my new world is for a high fantasy campaign, I plan to use the classic D&D alignment system.  So then, does a creature’s alignment come from the characteristics of its soul?  Are there chaotic neutral souls and lawful evil souls and so on?

A D&D type world has creatures which are typically of a certain alignment.  That argues that all creatures of a certain type would have souls of the same character/alignment.  But how would that happen?  Why would all orcs be chaotic evil?  Would chaotic evil souls gravitate particularly to orcs in the womb?   Is it perhaps that when each type of living creature was formed by its divine creator each individual was given a soul of a particular character?  Did formation of the race/species thus included creation of a particular type of custom soul for them and now only one type of soul can fit that species, like a key only fits a certain lock?
Or perhaps souls were created by certain deities and because those deities had fixed divine alignments they were only able to create souls with alignments similar to their own.  The chaotic neutral earth mother can only make souls which are chaotic neutral.  All her creations are thus chaotic neutral in alignment, or either ethically chaotic or morally neutral.

But this leads to a big problem with creatures with highly variable alignment such as humans.  If humans were created by one deity and that deity can only create souls of the same alignment, then all humans would be of one alignment.   But clearly they are not.

In my new campaign world there is a hierarchy of deities.  The original primal gods came first.  They created the divine guardian dragons and the five nature deities.  The primal gods created the three core mortal races (humans, elves, and dwarves).  The divine guardian dragons created the mortal dragons who in turn created the smaller, humanoid drakkar.    The nature deities first created the animals of air, sea, and land as commanded by the primal gods; later these deities created intelligent species and races for reasons of their own.  Lastly a group of newcomer, lesser deities entered the world and created the fiendish (tiefling) and angelic (aasimar) races by interaction with mortal peoples.

So that makes for several tiers of souls:
1. primal-created
2a. nature-created
2b. divine dragon-created
3a. mortal dragon-created
3b. lesser deity-created

Each tier will have its own characteristics and in the case of the 2nd and 3rd tiers have distinct sub-types.  I’m positing that the souls in each later/lower tier are more set in their alignments due to the nature and power level of their creators.

1. The First Races were created by all the primal gods in concert.  The primals used select divine essences and a unique blend of the five elements for each of the three First Races.  This is why they have the widest range of alignments but with each race having a typical “personality” beyond alignment.  There is a reason dwarves love gems and metals and humans covet landholdings.

2a. The nature deities first created the plants and animals of the world.  Because these deities are morally neutral the plants and animals are morally neutral (neutral on a good–evil scale).  Much later they created the beast races (such as minotaurs) in imitation of the other races they saw around them.    This second phase of creation was done in haste and driven by fear and hatred of the races and entities wreaking devastating war across it.  They were birthed as weapons and their souls were tainted with the fear and hatred raging in their creators at that time.

2b. The divine dragons created their mortal avatars, the worldly dragons.  The earliest mated pairs were actually immortal despite being formed of physical flesh and blood.  The five divine dragons were originally formed to guard the five elemental poles holding the world together.  They naturally partook deeply of the characteristics of their corresponding element, two being lawful, two chaotic, and one neutral.  The souls of the later worldly dragons were the same ethical alignments as their creators, based on the element of that ancestor.

3a. The worldly or mortal dragons later created the humanoid drakkar peoples.  The drakkar were infused with the element of their ancestor divine dragon and their souls partook of its essence.  That is why the earth dragons are balanced and neutral while the fire drakkar are passionate and chaotic.

3b. In the final aeon of the world, powerful beings entered from elsewhere and warred with each other.  Though immortal and insubstantial like deities, they were less powerful than the five deities of nature or the divine dragons and nowhere near in power to the primals.  They could not create entire races or species, only rare individual entities.  They could, however, create physical avatars of themselves modeled on the First Peoples and in this way interact with them.  These beings were generally neutral ethically (law vs. chaos) but with variations, but strongly morally aligned, apparently due to their planes of origin.   So their physical avatars could mate with the First Peoples, but their offspring were influenced physically and morally by the blending.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

More on WWI Dungeon Crawls--Don't Go Outside

Okay, so I was thinking some more about WWI style dungeon crawls which I posted about recently.  I got to thinking about the larger setting for the fortress-dungeons.  You don't really need a detailed larger setting, just a series of huge fortresses to explore and some random shell-cratered, gas-haunted wasteland in between to traverse.

Or, you could make the traversing of the shattered landscape part and parcel of the "experience".  I'm thinking that it would make for a great hexcrawl type of game.  The players have a map of the area--too bad it's an old one from well before the war with just some penciled in recent notes.  That village?  Just ruins.  Is the quaint stone bridge still up?  The grand cathedral is just a shell now, but it's tall steeples still stand tall--and hide snipers.  There are tainted lakes, trench mazes, bunker complexes, lost patrols, drifting gas clouds, mutant things hiding in the mists, snipers, random artillery barrages, and deep shafts swallowing the unwary.  Yeah, they definitely made a mistake coming out here.

WWI style forts are built into the landscape, painted in camouflage, and covered in netting.  They're hard to find even if you have a general idea where to go.  And then you have to find a way in.  It is a fortress after all and in an era when they understood concrete and steel.  Climbing and crawling around the outside of the fort is a hazard in itself.  There will be occasional snipers, patrols, watchers in the steel observation cupolas, pop-up mushroom turrets, wide ditches with high walls, and moats.
Then there's the question of the larger setting, the continents and planet.  Who exactly is warring?  Humans versus humans?  Lots of room for roleplay and interesting NPC interactions with the enemy.  Or perhaps the enemy is all mutants and zombies created by science gone wrong.  But you could run it more like Gears of War, where scary things erupt from deep beneath the earth.  Or more like invaders from space, possibly hatching out of a swarm of crashed meteors; the Zerg of StarCraft or Tyranids of Warhammer 40K are examples to work with.  Or you could start with a relatively normal human-vs-human conflict and have the creatures appear in the midst of everything.

There's a good amount of room for variation while staying with the basic concepts of WWI and huge fortress complex dungeon crawls.


By the way, the cool art in this posting is by spacegoblin and ARKURION on  There's more related art work by both terrific artists so check them out.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: Swords & Wizardry, White Box Edition

Okay so this time I'm reviewing Swords & Wizardry, the White Box edition (available free), by Mythmere Games.  Swords & Wizardry (S&W) is one of the surprisingly numerous old school renaissance rules sets available nowadays which aim to recreate the early days of D&D.  I say surprisingly numerous because I am baffled by the popularity of the early editions of D&D.  The early editions had a lot of bad ideas in them and I really don't understand why you'd play them where there are so many better games out.

S&W starts out with perhaps the worst rule of early D&D and that's rolling your stats with 3d6 starting with the first of the six stats and working your way down.  If those stats are bad for the character class you had in mind playing, well too bad.  It sux to be you.  They do allow an alternative where you can arrange the rolls, but why not do the players a favor make that the regular rule up front?  This straight-up rolls rule is one of the things that drove me away from D&D after just a couple sessions.

Next up is a discussion of each of the stats, and again one of the senseless rules from early D&D reappears: the experience point bonus for having a high stat for your class.  For instance, a cleric character with a Wisdom over 13 gets a 5% bonus to any experience gained.  Why?  What is this rule about?  I have no idea.  And what if you planned to play a cleric but got stuck with an 8 Wisdom because of the straight 3d6 rolls?  Well too bad, it sux to be you.  This rule guides people to play whatever class gets them an XP bonus for a high stat instead of letting them just focus on which class they like most.

Then the rules go over the classes in turn.  Once again there is the clunky mechanic whereby each class has its own separate experience table.  As I recall from way back when we first started playing D&D (1978-1979), the varying experience tables tended to draw people to play the classes with the fastest advancement.  Thus people avoided magic users like the plague and generally preferred thieves.  Almost everyone played a thief or fighter (clerics were avoided because the other players would only allow them to take heal spells).  Players should be concentrating on what class most appeals to them, not what their straight 3d6 rolls stuck them with or which class has the fastest advancement table.  Also, S&W maintains the crappy mechanic where classes have certain levels where you get xdx+1 HP.  For instance the Elf class gets 2d6 HP at 2nd level, but 2d6+1 at 3rd level.  That kind of sux.  You basically get to re-roll the same dice as the previous level.  I always thought that was a gyp in OD&D and it still is.

However, one interesting difference in S&W is that all classes use d6 for hit points.  This may be why they have so to have so many xdx+1 levels.  It's an awkward way to set up HP advancement for different classes simply in order to use d6 as the hit die for all classes.

Weapon damage is the old system where all weapons do a 1d6 of damage, some with +1 or -1.  This certainly simplifies things, but I just can't buy that a club does 1d6 and a halberd does 1d6+1.  Why would anyone spend money on a halberd when the club is free?  And if a club is about as fearsome a weapon as a halberd, why didn't ancient armies historically all equip their troops with cheap clubs?

Anyway, if you've read some of my earlier posts you'll know that I'm not a fan of OD&D and thus not a fan of OSR rules either.  If you are a fan, then you'll like Swords & Wizardry.  However, I'd prefer that game designers put their talents into something really new and innovative, such as Old School Hack or 3:16 instead of re-inventing the square wheel.

How About WWI Dungeon Crawling?

Okay, so a little while ago I threw out some ideas about doing some WWI gaming.  I really like the look of the period: biplane aircraft, clunky tanks covered in rivets, the uniforms, the old cars with wooden spoke wheels.  But it's not really a setting conducive to RPG gaming.  But on the way home yesterday I thought of a new approach.  Many years ago I had a thick paperback book on WWI where each chapter was a sort of "short story" on some event in the war.  One of my favorites was about the capture of Fort Douaumont near Verdun.  The massive fortress was captured in 1916 by a very small party of combat engineers from the Brandenburg regiment who managed to slip in, sneak around like in a dungeon crawl, round up the small garrison by surprise, and capture the entire fort without firing a shot.  It was a major coup for the Germans.

So then I thought, what if you take a WWI battlefield setting, make it more sci-fi/steam-punk, swap the single fort for a huge, sprawling Maginot Line type fortress complex, then add in chemically-mutated zombies, and steam-punk automatons.  The PCs are the last survivors of a larger team which got worn down crossing the shell-cratered moonscape of a battlefield outside.  Surveying the deadly surface, with random barrages, drifting clouds of poison gas,  strafing aricraft, and roving units of zombies, they decide their chances are better going in than going back.  They head in, equipped with sapper's equipment like dynamite, headlamps, bolt cutters, entrenching tools, a flame thrower, grenades, etc. and proceed to explore and clear.

I really think the Death Korps of Krieg figures from Games Workshop would be perfect for this type of game--and you could even set it in the WH 40K universe if you really wanted.  The fort could be inhabited by orks, or infested with Tyranids, or whatever.  I think you'd have two main "classes" for the PCs: sappers (combat engineers) and stosstruppen (special frontline assault troops).

Inside they face numerous deadly threats.  There are drifting clouds of different weird gases, some poisonous, some mutagenic, some corrosive, etc.  There are automatons of various sizes--you could have a huge garage area in the bottom (with a long ramp to the surface) with a huge, multi-weaponed tank crewed by a thing composed of the merged mutated crew: the "dragon" at the heart of the dungeon.  There would be lots of weird gas-mutated zombies, some armed some not.  Lots of various mechanical traps, tricks, and puzzles to overcome.  They would have to figure out buttons and levers, find starter keys, repair and operate machinery for bridges/lifts/vaults/etc.

There would also be helpful items to find, such as ammunition, sealed containers of food and water, signal flares, explosives, medical supplies, etc.  This being a WWI-style military game there wouldn't be much in the way of classic "treasure" but some ideas are a shipment of gold bars in a vault, an ornate gold-embroidered enemy battle flag to be retrieved from a tall exposed pole outside, enemy medals to snag, an officer's gold pocket watch, maps of other fortresses, plans for more effective gas masks, mutagen antidote serum, and chemical burn salve.  One thing about a game/campaign of this type is PC mortality.  There is no magical healing so the party may be whittled down over time.  Adding new PCs down in a fortress-dungeon is problematic.  Some ideas are to say that other teams were also sent in and they meet a survivor, the ever-popular freeing of a prisoner who joins the party, or maybe one of the denizens of the fortress joins the party for interesting reasons.

In addition to just exploring and clearing the fortress the PCs' orders include signalling that the fort is taken so that relief troops can push across from friendly lines to occupy it.  You can have various means available, each with certain drawbacks.  There is a radio room, but the big radio is broken and they must scavenge parts from various places in the fortress (and successfully repair it).  Signal flares work, but they have to go outside and climb to the very top of a massive tower if they are to be seen all the way back at friendly lines.  There is a coop of mixed messenger pigeons--but will they fly the right way?  (The PCs should probably start equipped with a basket with a messenger pigeon--but keeping it alive will be challenging.)  They find a field telephone switchboard, but which line leads where and how do you work this thing?  Someone may volunteer to be a runner and take a message back (solo suicide adventure).  There's a hangar containing a hydrogen-filled observation balloon with signal flags, but the roof doors are jammed.

For DMs there are plenty of photos and diagrams free on the web for Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, Fort Moulainville, the Maginot Line, Eben Emael, and others.  Those should make for a great set of inspirational materials to start with.  Add some imagination and creativity and you're off.