How to Make Sweet D100 Tables for Fun and Profit

Posted in New Rules, RPGs with tags , , on May 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Or: The FINGER system of faux-creativity

So, I’ve got a terrible confession to make.  As a self-described GM/Referee and creative person, I’m not actually that good at coming up with wacky creative ideas out of thin air.  I read stuff by Greg Gorgonmilk and Zak S. and Jeff Rients and so forth, and I’m always astounded by the raw awesome they seem to be able to pull out of the ether, and I greedily appropriate it for my own game.

On the other hand, what I am good at, if I may say so myself, is in selectively recombining things to get something new(ish) with a coherent feel.  So, a pastiche artist, if you will.  This used to drive me into fits of self-questioning angst, or launch me into pretentious justification of the inherent creativity of fitting together other’s works, but now I just accept it and try to have fun with it.  And keep my ideas for Thing A + Thing B but in Place C fantasy/sci-fi novels/comics/movies to myself (or realize the setting would be better for games anyway).

darth_vader_riding_charizard__colored__by_smithaboy-d59f14o

You know, this sort of thing

Recently, this tendency has been combined with my immersion into the Old School Renaissance/DIY D&D/whatever you want to call it.  I’ve always liked to tinker and house rule and design games, but specifically the habit of reading gaming material with an eye to ruthlessly tear out, appropriate, and modify any rules that I find useful is one that I’ve developed to a higher degree the last few months than ever before.  I initially got a bunch of retroclones and versions of D&D with the idea of soberly comparing, weighing strengths and weaknesses, and then selecting the one I liked best.  But now I look at all of them with the dispassionate eye of a black market organ harvester.  One of these days, DCC RPG is going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing its zero level “funnel” character creation rules.

And then, last week, just as I was going to stat up some simple hydra teeth that turn into skeleton warriors, or a goat-legged Cyclops or something, I had a revelation.  I was reading the synopsis of “7th Voyage of Sinbad” and I realized how insanely D&D it was.  I checked other Harryhausen synopses and found that while the Sinbad movies were far and away the most D&D, everything had some stuff that was usable.  And I realized that I had started applying the pitiless scalpel of game material selection to creative stuff, fluff if you will, as well as to mechanics.  And the d100 table of random Harryhausenisms was born (by far my highest traffic post so far, so thanks folks).

I was thinking about it, and I realized that the actual procedure I used is replicable, and is in fact quite simple.  And that if you’re willing to be a little pastichey, you can cover a lot of setting ground with it.  This one’s going to be a little long, but you can probably get most of what’s here with the following list and the two examples at the end. Without further ado:

Jeff’s Guide to Making a Dwhatever Map Stocking Chart for Fun and Profit

(Okay, more likely just fun, but let me know if you figure out the profit part)

  1. 1.     Find an inspiring piece of media
  2. 2.     Identify the cool stuff in it
  3. 3.     Noun that stuff
  4. 4.     Genericize those nouns
  5. 5.     Expand their uses
  6. 6.     Ready your chart

(I figured out I could get a cute acronym about halfway through).

Step One – Find an Inspiring Piece of Media

Select a piece of media that gets your motor going or that fits with the milieu you’re shooting for.  Alternatively, if you’re looking to spice things up, purposely select something *outside* of your usual genre/world tropes, but that is still inspiring to you.  That’s the main thing.  You think it’s cool, and it’s something creative.  This is easiest to do with things that tell stories: books, movies, comics.  But you can do it with pictures or music or whatever as well.  I’ve started using heavy metal song lyrics all the time.  Examples to follow the explanation.

Step Two – Identify Cool Stuff in It

Go through this inspiring piece of media, and look for the cool stuff.  The easiest way to do this is to go to Wikipedia and read the plot synopsis (that’s what I did for the Harryhausen table), as this will by definition hit the highlights and moments of drama.  You could use back of book blurbs, internet reviews, whatever.  Or if you *really* like something, you can read through the actual source material and take notes or highlight or whatever.  Find the things that most scream “Gameable” and  “Awesome” to you. 

Step Three – Noun that Stuff

Once you’ve identified elements from your source material that are cool, you want to Noun them.  This is the opposite of Verbing things.  You see, verbs are the province of Plot.  Plot is not what we want here, because we’re all good sandboxy/player agency oriented referees, right?  Notice that’s big “P” Plot.  Yes, you can have a lovely picaresque plot emerge from the processes of play, and it probably will.  That’s in the future.  Because for our purposes, verbs are what *player characters* do.  Sometimes NPCs get to do verbs in *reaction* to player characters or because of some internal game world logic, but that’s not what our stocking table is for.  If you have a bunch of verbs on your list, then you either have to run an entire clockwork world in the background, for which there are better tools, or else have the artificialness that the zany, interesting action the players just walked up on just so happens to be going on right as the players find it, no matter when or under what circumstances they roll up. 

That’s why you don’t want to put the action in there, you want a person, a place, or a thing.  Maybe a scene or tableau if you want to push it.  The key here is that you present an element of the world, just like any other, that the players can act on and react to.  Making the scene into a noun makes it make more sense as a static feature, or even if it is a “this happens as you come upon it” (sometimes fun to include, I’ll admit) it doesn’t presume the player characters’ involvement.  It’s just there for them to interact with. None of this is to say that these nouns shouldn’t be ready to spring into appropriate action once the player characters poke it, just try to avoid things that are the other way around (that’s what random encounters are for).

Step Four – Genericize those Nouns

Now, here’s the tricky part, but the part that will help you find way more ideas: you want to take the cool nouned elements from your inspiring piece of media, and then you want to file off the serial numbers.  Got a reference to Mentok the Mindtaker? Turn that into “an evil mentalist”.  There’s a balance to be struck here: too generic and stuff isn’t cool or gameable. Too specific and your table becomes less useful to others, and also less useful to you.  If you want to use a cool specific guy or monster, don’t put it in a stocking table! Put it where you want it in your world, or else on a random encounter table.  The only thing gained by putting a specific person or thing in a stocking table is you don’t know where he or she or it will end up, and you can just do that by rolling once for the thing. 

Likewise, don’t get hung up on trappings or genre stuff too much.  For the Harryhausen table I made, even though most of the table came from the overtly fantasy Sinbad movies and Clash of the Titans, something like a quarter to a third of the entries (don’t quote me on that) are from movies set in modern America with fantastic elements (even aliens).  So, when you spot an evil wizard, consider thinking of him as just “an evil powerful guy” or “an evil guy with secret knowledge”.  Or if you find a story about hackers jacking some stuff in cyberspace (like the kids do), you can genericize it into “A highly skilled group of rogues pulls off an impressive heist.”  The key is not to lose the “character” of the person or thing you identify and make it so generic as to be boring, but to make it broadly useful and able to fit into whatever sort of world (unless the whole point is to introduce some gonzo weirdness or subvert genre tropes, in which case, have at it).

A variation of this if you’re only concerned with your own campaign world is to ‘reskin’ rather than genericize.  That’s basically what I did with the Harryhausen results from the 20th century America movies (and even the caveman movie) – I recast it in D&D terms (science becomes magic, aliens become generic invaders, et cetera).  Again, try to keep what was cool or striking about the thing, the underlying reason it will be a potential source of danger or excitement, but then make it so you can recombine it with any other damn thing.

Step 5 – Expand their Uses

Okay, I started stretching the names a little bit at this part so that I could make the acronym FINGER.  What I mean by “expand their uses” could also be described as analysis (from the Greek for “to chop up”, more or less).  So, you’ve got a cool thing, you’ve made sure it’s a noun, and you’ve made it so you can drop it into multiple places and situations in your world. You want to make sure that one entry on your chart isn’t being too greedy.  One of the chief values of charts is that like our old favorite sexual reproduction, you can recombine elements in novel and unexpected ways, and the end result might be a better fit for your environment than something you would have expected of planned.  The way to maximize the recombinatory potential of your chart is to try to make sure each entry is just “one thing”.  The way you get each entry to be “one thing” is to chop up an element you stole from your source.  So, if you find an awesome fight scene where a guy fights a wizard’s guard dragon by jerry rigging a ballista, and then the dragon falls on the wizard and kills him, you can turn that into 1) A wizard with a guard dragon, 2) A jerry rigged siege weapon, 3) A beast that kills its own master (that last one is a little verby, but hey). 

Step 6 – Ready your Chart!

This one is easy and was mostly in order to get the full acronym.  Just take your entries and arrange them into a chart.  Usually you’ll do this as you go, and the fact that, say, you only have 89 will spur you to find those last 11 so you can make a d100.  And you’re done! 

Well, you’re done with this chart.  But as mentioned before, unless your only goal is to make something for other people, or a crutch to fall back on in some indeterminate future, the process of making this chart could just as easily have been used to think up a setting.  Zak S. talks about this in his thoughts on types of random generators.  What we have above is kind of an incomplete results generator to spur creativity, but by itself that’s not very useful to you, since you made the chart yourself.  So, unless going through and making the table was a useful exercise for you creatively, or you just want to have on hand stuff that will surprise even you when the players go somewhere new, you need a little more to make your new chart super awesome.  For that recombinatory goodness, you could make a second chart, and make any locations of interest be Chart 1 + Chart 2 (a mutational generator, to use the terminology from the above link).  Or you could just make a d1000 chart or some other madness, so that you end up with things you stole from the Poetic Edda rubbing shoulders with things you stole from a Dethklok album which are a few days voyage from things you yoinked from Hellboy.

Connections are another good one: randomly determine two of the things you’ve placed on the map, and then make a connection.  You can either use a connection suggested by the nature of each entry, or you could randomize it.  Do enough of this, and there’s a lot of latent connections throughout your map that players can stumble across, and if you do need to do some background verbs, you know what they’ll be.  I think coming up with a good system to find relations between placed sites of interest is going to be my next big rules project after this one.

For bonus points, you can put your new chart in Abulafia and combine it with the work of others and save yourself time all at once.

With all that said, let’s do some examples! I probably should have just made the whole thing examples, but I’m a very verbal, explainy person, so there you go.

Example #1 – Wikipedia Plot Synopsis

HillsOfTheDead11

I could just recap what I did with the Harryhausen movies, but that would be cheating, and I want to test out my method as explained.  So instead, let’s pick something else inspirational for D&D type stuff and go with everyone’s favorite hardass puritan, Solomon Kane! Let’s go with “Hills of the Dead” by Robert E. Howard.  Wikipedia has the following blurb:

“First published in Weird Tales, August 1930.  In Africa again, Kane’s old friend N’Longa (the witch doctor from “Red Shadows”) gives the Puritan a magic wooden staff, the Staff of Solomon, which will protect him in his travels.  Kane enters the jungle and finds a city of vampires.”

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: Was pretty easily accomplished by finding an awesome story by Robert E. Howard.

Step 2) Identify the Cool Stuff: is also not too hard, because REH stories are dripping with D&Dable material, even when summarized in two sentences: Solomon Kane, The Hills of the Dead, Africa, N’Longa the witch doctor, the Staff of Solomon, a jungle, and a city of vampires.

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: I kind of went ahead and identified the nouns in the process above, but if we had a more detailed synopsis and I wanted to pull an element out of a cool fight scene with the vampires in their city, this is where I would do it.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: To genericize this stuff, we could turn Africa into “a mysterious continent” or “an unfamiliar land” or whatever.  The idea is to get at what made Africa an exciting place to set a story to a 1930’s Texan writing about a 17th century puritan and pull it out for D&D (exotic, unexplored, dangerous creatures, magic, unfamiliar cultures, “savagery”, et cetera).  The Hills of the Dead is a nicely evocative name that you can lift and then decide what it means.  It could be a place full of barrows, the burial grounds of ancient dynasties, a hell on earth ruled by the undead, whatever.  Sometimes you get generic by taking a specific cool name and then making its use generic, rather than stripping the name off of a specific cool thing.  Make N’Longa just “A witch doctor”, make the Staff of Solomon “A Powerful Magical staff” or even just “An ancient artifact”.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: Expanding/analyzing isn’t super necessary for most of these elements, but here’s a couple of examples: take N’Longa giving Kane the staff and change that into “A witch doctor with a useful magical item” and into “A powerful artifact from ancient times”.  Or take the city of vampires in the jungle and break it out into “A City of vampires” and “An ancient city in the jungle”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :Take that cool stuff and slap it into a table! Here’s a lame tiny table smaller than is really worthwhile to make:

  1. A wandering religious warrior
  2. An exotic, unexplored land
  3. An old friend from a foreign land
  4. A witch doctor with a useful item
  5. A powerful artifact from ancient times
  6. An ancient city in the jungle
  7. A city of vampires
  8. The Hills of the Dead

Example #2 – Cover to Hellboy: Conqueror Worm

Rather than go the easy route and use a plot synopsis of this comic, let’s just look at the artwork for inspiration (okay, I’m gonna probably rely on some of my Hellboy knowledge here to provide context, but that’s only because Hellboy is so awesome).

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: This picture:

250px-Hellboy_Conqueror_Worm

Step 2 Identify the Cool Stuff: Hellboy, gasmask guy, Lobster Johnson, giant worm, floating flame, golem, head in a jar, a saint, some skulls, the name “Conqueror Worm”

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: A lot easier with a ‘posed’ picture, so not much to do here.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: Hellboy becomes a half demon, or an investigator, or a hero fighting monsters (or in the next step, all of these).  Gasmask guy becomes the footsoldier of an evil regime.  The golem can stay a golem, the head in a jar can become a mad scientist, or an evil wizard, or a head in a jar, or a demi-lich, the conqueror worm can be a mundane giant worm, or a summoning gone wrong, or the avatar of an inhuman god, Lobster Johnson can be a vigilante, or a skilled warrior, or a man seeking revenge, the saint can be any old saint, or a painting of a saint, or the shrine to a saint.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: As mentioned above, Hellboy alone can give us three different people, and that’s without him even having any action to draw off of in this picture.  If we dig a little we can also say: the son of a witch, the possessor of a magical weapon, an artifact that is the key to the end of the world.  Our gasmask guy can be an evil footsoldier, undead menace, a faceless servant of darkness, a bug eyed, long snouted creature, whatever.  Sometimes you don’t necessarily want to completely parse out every aspect, or you’ll lose some of what makes that element cool to drop in.  You might prefer to have “a half demon who struggles to be good” rather than “a half demon” and “a warrior who struggles to do the right thing”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :So, let’s do another d8 weak sauce table:

  1. A half demon son of a witch
  2. The incarnation of an alien god
  3. The head of an evil wizard kept alive in a jar of fluid
  4. Faceless shock troops of an evil regime
  5. A vigilante that leaves his mark on his victims
  6. The defiled shrine of a saint
  7. A golem with a sense of self
  8. An enormous, disgusting wormbeast

Fellhold Session 30 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , , on May 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Last night once again saw the absence of a couple of players due to finals-induced napping, but also saw the reappearance of the long absent player of Blum (the dead wizard) and Ash (the new wizard who has basically been played as a henchman up to this point). Varian’s player returned, and despite some good natured complaints that the rules were “unfairly targeting” him, sure enough gave the carousing rules a go and peer pressured Yllgrad’s player into joining him.  Unfortunately for me, both passed their poison saves easily and another one of the players agreed to cover Yllgrad’s excessive tab, so I was robbed of all opportunities for shenanigans springing from Mr. Rients’ excellent carousing table.  But it remains, waiting for its next opportunity.

So, after recovering from hangovers, the party set out to engage the services of one of the captains they found out about last week.  They decided to go with Guth and Spir, the gruff ex-watchmen and his lanky partner, on the thinking that a couple of treasure hunters might prove hardier than some of the other captains if the natives turn restless.  After some negotiation on fees and some debates about the nature of insurance for faux-medieval shipping, they saved some money by pressganging their huge following of hirelings into rowers (to be fair, they were willing to take some turns at the oars themselves).

cleveland_volcano_june_2012_3_0

Only even more Volcano-y

After making the necessary arrangements, they set out to the island of Fyrberg.  After some discussion, they decided it would be best to soft pedal things to begin with and get the lay of the land.  So after an arbitrary percentage roll to determine if there was foul weather (there wasn’t), around dusk they came up to the docks of Bjergby, the sleepy little fishing town on the island, and arranged lodging for their troupe.  They told the innkeeper there that they had come to check out the hot springs, and he told them to head on up to the shrine in the morning.

When they came to the shrine, they were greated by the high priest of Gurgu, Bjergmund.  He’s a friendly, enthusiastic-in-a-low-key-kind-of-way guy, and he informs them that all are welcome to enjoy the hot springs for a small donation (1 gold per person for as long as you like), but that all are invited to learn the ways of Gurgu.  Yllgrad declined to get in on this nonsense, not trusting the baths, so he hung back out of sight and out of mind.  Earn, the cleric of Dwyn and his followers decided to simply partake of the baths, while Caleb decided to feign interest in the cult of Gurgu.  He convinced Varian and Ash to come along as well.  I reminded him that as a cleric, he is a character who believes in his god so hard that he gets magic powers, but also that his god is a god of deceit and trickery, so he should factor those things into his decision.  He said he felt good about the fake initiation into a new religion and a delighted Bjergmund led them deeper into the volcano (did I mention the shrine is inside the volcano?).

Meanwhile, Earn and his three hirelings take a long, relaxing and rejuvenating bath.  They don’t know it, but had they been injured, they’d have healed at an increased rate, and if something comes up where being relaxed enmineraled seems like it would be a factor, I’ll come up with some other unspecified benefit.

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Earn’s the only PC who enjoyed a nice, pleasant non-baptismal bath

Also meanwhile, after the other two groups are led their separate ways, Yllgrad sneaks in and starts to listen at doors and snoop about.  I love how the default assumption in D&D that things are perilous informs players’ actions.  More on that later. At any rate, he finds a human sized robe of the initiates of Gurgu and puts it on, then hitches it up and continues on his snooping way.

The party following Bjergmund is led past a central open shaft in the volcano (totally unrealistic but also totally cooler than either a) spurts of magma coming out of a relatively short mountain or b) a tall, normal seeming mountain that suddenly explodes and kills everyone) and into a chapel.  He invites them to kneel and says a brief prayer to Gurgu, welcoming these new followers.  He directs them to a font of steaming hot mineral water and has them drink.  Then he leads them to a series of linked baths called the “cleansing path”.  The players are mostly passive through all this, though Caleb keeps spontaneously chiming in with expressions of devotion and converted zeal.  Each stop on the path is a little allegorical homily followed by a dunk in hot mineral water, at the end of which they are invited to pray as the spirit of Gurgu moves them.  Once again, Caleb whips out the new convert gusto and Bjergmund is impressed, almost like this guy knows how to lead a prayer or something.  He then leads them around a path, showing them some store rooms and a secret entrance known to the faithful, and then back to a statue where followers leave small candles and offerings in times of trouble, and then he invites them to dine with some of the other initiates and leaves them to attend to some other matters.

Earn’s bath continued to be lovely through all of this.

Yllgrad, on the other hand, begins to follow a path that spirals around down around the central shaft, lit by the glow of hot liquid magma hundreds of feet below.  He pokes his head in a few rooms, finds some storage areas, a kitchen (which he avoids, because he hears the sounds of cooking inside), and a darkened classroom with wax tablets covered in the runic alphabet, and a storage room with child sized robes.  He has a moment of awful revelation that they’ve never seen any children here until I tell him that, yes, there were children in the village, just none here in the temple he’s sneaking around.   So he decides to change into a child sized robe and hides the adult sized robe in the storage room before going back out to the central shaft and continuing down.

Well, it’s at this point that he gets hit by a jet of scalding hot steam.  I’ll admit to a little trepidation in their employment, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.  See, I wanted to have a hazard that could be spotted and avoided like a trap, but which was in fact just a natural hazard.  Unfortunately, basing their “activation” on a random chance when anyone passes them (1 in 6) makes them seem like they’re set off with intent.  Even if you allow his dwarven stone sense to notice there’s something weird (passed, described water in otherwise dry area, crack in wall – he tested by rolling a rock and throwing another).  And a listen check to hear the building hissing sound (failed), then a breath weapon save to take half damage (failed).  So he got rather scalded, and I’m worried I fell a little into ‘bad trap’ design.  I realize now I should have described the noise of the building steam rather than testing to see if he noticed it, because that was the key step to his agency in negotiating the hazard.  By randomizing it, his only options were “use my player knowledge that we’ve engaged this feature with a lot of rules already and go back rather than press on to presumably interesting stuff” or “press on since I don’t have a good reason to take any further precautions”.  I failed to build enough clues in for him to ask about to learn enough to make an informed decision.  Well, live and learn, I suppose.

And Yllgrad lived and learned as well, even if he did take 12 damage from scalding steam.  So, when he heard footsteps beyond the next door he gave a listen to, he concocted a clever ruse.  He imitated a child and said “help, help!”  Well, these folks come running, and he’s waiting for them.  They’re unarmed, so unlike his initial plan to hit one in the face with an axe (or rather, all 3, because they’re all 1 hd fellows), he instead grabs one and leans him out over the lava shaft and demands to know what is going on here.  He figures they activated the steam since there was no obvious trigger mechanism but it burned the crap out of him.

They blubber a lot because they were minding their own business helping to sweep the local church when some dwarf in one of their robes grabbed one of them and threatened his life.  But he pulls the guy back and holds him hostage with his knife and demands to be led the way they came from.  He asks them what’s back there, and they tell him the greater mysteries, they don’t know, they’re just initiates.  He threatens to kill their friend and they say the same thing. Well, he makes them lead him through the doors into the greater mysteries, and every time they object even a little, it’s again with the knife to the throat.  So, he finds some rooms with mysterious gold circle patterns inlaid in the floor, and they don’t know what they are because they’ve never been in there before.  And that’s where we left off.

sm64volcano

Only imagine Mario holding a Goomba over the edge by the throat

As I was saying earlier, it’s fun how the combination of a) the default assumptions of D&D, and b) some rumors they picked up at dockside bars in Mickleheim, have the players convinced that the seemingly innocent cult of Gurgu is not what it seems.  And maybe it isn’t. Their going theory is that Gurgu is a demon and the cult has been duped into thinking he’s a benevolent god, and that they’re going to find something sinister sooner or later, which will give them the chance to kick some ass and take the Heart of the Mountain, the rumored giant ruby they came here to find.  We’ll see, I suppose.

One interesting thing about running this location is that I kind of inadvertently ended up with a “Village of Hommlet” kind of scenario, where the interactions with and within the village will end up being important, and the NPC personalities will be big factors (for now at least).  I also gave some thought to Zak S.’s talk about places sometimes being dungeons and sometimes not, depending on what’s going on there.  The shrine was not a dungeon to most of the group, but it was to Yllgrad.  Later on it might be a dungeon to everybody or to nobody.  I didn’t really set out intending such a scenario, but it’s turning out to be fun and an interesting departure from the default assumptions of Fellhold itself, the wilderness, or even Mickleheim.

Once the players finish up with Fyrberg, I’m going to post a full write up of the location as an adventure and map, but I don’t want to give anything away just yet.  In the meantime, here’s a steam vent hazard for some quickie rules:

Steam Vent

A crack in the wall is covered in condensation, and the floor in front of it is damp compared to the surrounding area. Every so often, a jet of steam bursts from the crack, scalding anything in its path.  When a party passes, there is a 1 in 6 chance of the steam venting.  It is preceded by a telltale hissing noise, like water about to boil in a tea kettle.  Randomize which character in an affected group is in front of the vent when it goes off, and then apply a cone to ft long and 5 ft wide at its widest.  This cone does 4d8 scalding damage, save vs. breath weapon for half.

Ray Harryhausen Tribute

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs on May 10, 2013 by Jeff Russell

ray harryhausen-medusa

So, others have been able to address in greater detail and with more value the influence Ray Harryhausen and his films had on the development of D&D, both the original game and the thousands of referees and dungeon masters that have implemented it, so I will not reinvent the wheel.

Instead, I will speak as a relative newcomer.  You see, I grew up at an unfortunate time where Harryhausen’s stuff was old, but not yet classic (at least, not viewed as classic enough to have wide exposure despite its age).  So other than some background noise and glimpses, I didn’t really get into his stuff until well after computer generated graphics had seized Hollywood visual effects.  (And what a loss! “7th Voyage of Sinbad” is pure D&D gold!)

Immediately, though, I could appreciate the fundamental realness of the creatures.  Sure, their movements were slightly unnatural, and sure, it was sometimes clear that they had been inserted into the shot, but there was never the flat fakeness of CG to cope with.  Something that the guy in charge of the “bigatures” from the Lord of the Rings movies said in one of the behind the scenes specials really stuck with me.  He talked about how despite all the advances in CG, there’s just something about real light bouncing off of real objects and into a camera (even if it’s then digitized) that CG just can’t beat.  Maybe someday, but right now, even if your eyes can tell something is a model, they can also tell that it’s a real thing.  That’s one of my favorite things about the LOTR movies, that they used real models wherever possible.

And I think that’s why Harryhausen’s stuff holds up so well.  Even if the film itself looks dated, the stop-motion critters continue to look like tangible, and even if it’s clear that they were shaped by human hands, it is clear in the same way that an impressionist painting or a Duhrer sketch are clearly not photographs, but were filtered through an individual’s mind and creativity.  And I think that’s why the Harryhausen creations have more sticking power than even creative and well done CG – that analog artisticness is appealing.

So, Mr. Harryhausen, I am sad to see you go.  But thank you for making your creativity tangible and sharing it with so many.  It’s an inspiration.

I’ve taken some inspiration from Zak S.’s use of random Thor elements or random Tolkien elements, and come up with 100 cool adventure hooks/things of interest based off of Harryhausen’s movies.  This would make excellent fodder for a “Wavecrawl” type setting, but I’ve tried to keep most generic enough to be useful wherever, but specific enough to inspire referees.

021

D100 List of Random Harryhausenisms

  • 1.     A selfish and duplicitous wizard in need of help to retrieve a powerful magic item
  • 2.     A Cyclops who sinks ships with thrown boulders and hoards their treasure
  • 3.     An arranged marriage to stave off war between two kingdoms
  • 4.     A magician’s entertainment goes horribly wrong and angers the queen
  • 5.     A princess under an enchantment used as leverage against the players
  • 6.     An angry father blames his daughter’s transformation on a political rival, rather than the true culprit
  • 7.     The shell of a Roc’s egg is a necessary ingredient in some vital potion
  • 8.     A ship’s crew that mutinies at a time of great danger!
  • 9.     Screaming demons that drive sailors mad in dangerous water
  • 10.  Shoals that are swarming with hungry sea serpents
  • 11.  A cylcops’ lair full of treasure and places to imprison unwary explorers
  • 12.  A river of wine that proves irresistible to hirelings
  • 13.  A genie enslaved against his will who knows how to be freed, but needs help
  • 14.  A two headed roc and its young
  • 15.  Idiotic hirelings that make a poor decision because they are hungry or thirsty
  • 16.  A wizard’s lair with vicious guardian beast
  • 17.  An ally of convenience double crosses the players
  • 18.  A wizard’s skeleton champion bodyguard
  • 19.  A river of molten lava blocking escape
  • 20.  Lots of Cyclopes
  • 21.  Multiple dangerous beasts that are hostile to not only the players, but each other
  • 22.  A beast unexpectedly kills its own master, whether by turning on him or falling on him
  • 23.  A pair of foreign hunters looking for exotic animals to capture live and display for profit
  • 24.  An enormous performing ape goes on a rampage after being provoked
  • 25.  An ancient beast, awakened from millennia of slumber by magical experimentation
  • 26.  A rampaging monster destroys shipping on its way to a crowded city
  • 27.  A creature whose blood spreads a terrible disease
  • 28.  A one-of-a-kind weapon necessary to stop a terrible threat
  • 29.  Mysterious disappearances off the coast
  • 30.  A powerful navy halts all shipping to investigate a number of ships sinking
  • 31.  A massive tentacled creature from the deep attacks coastal landmarks
  • 32.  A surgeon that is depressed with his lot in life and seeks adventure
  • 33.  A mad giant king that keeps a life sized “doll house” of people and animals
  • 34.  A trial by alligator
  • 35.  Desperate men plot an escape from a prisoner of war camp
  • 36.  An island covered in lush jungle, boiling geysers, and erupting volcanos
  • 37.  A monstrous crab
  • 38.  A shipwrecked noble lady and her daughter
  • 39.  A chest with ancient, powerful magic items washed ashore
  • 40.  A giant, flightless bird
  • 41.  A giant hive full of giant bees
  • 42.  Pirates waiting in ambush
  • 43.  A mysterious underwater king with access to miraculous devices
  • 44.  A sunken ship raised from the deeps
  • 45.  A king who has seized power in a coup
  • 46.  A king that orders children slain to thwart a prophecy has angered a god
  • 47.  A king arranging a suicidal quest for a rival
  • 48.  A contest to join a prestigious crew
  • 49.  A truly excellent ship, said to have been crafted in part by the gods
  • 50.  A treasure hoard guarded by a massive bronze statue with a fatal weakness – a plug on the back of its heel
  • 51.  An adventurer who has wasted the last of his divine favor
  • 52.  A prophet tortured daily by harpies
  • 53.  A strait between rocks that crush ships between them
  • 54.  An amulet that will summon the aid of the gods – once.
  • 55.  A king who offers a feast but plans imprisonment
  • 56.  A princess who becomes enamored with a prisoner and helps him escape
  • 57.  A divine relic guarded by a hydra
  • 58.  Hydra’s teeth that will produce regenerating skeletal warriors when sown
  • 59.  An underground city of intelligent insects  with no prior contact with surface dwellers
  • 60.  A savage land whose only law is lust
  • 61.  A harsh desert filled with giant lizards, ape men, and giant spiders
  • 62.  A massive sea turtle attacks a primitive village with a beautiful chief
  • 63.  A child trapped in a tree by a ravening monster
  • 64.  Warring tribes united by the destruction of their homelands seek a new home
  • 65.  A tribe of gypsies steals a valuable animal to end a curse
  • 66.  A gypsy seeks to free a beast from a lost age that is on display for amusement
  • 67.  A mysterious golden tablet dropped by a flying creature that brings strange dreams
  • 68.  A vizier with a golden masks holds one piece to a puzzle that will unlock a map to a powerful artifact
  • 69.  A black robed magician with homunculi servants seeks the map to a lost land
  • 70.  A wealthy merchant seeks someone to make a man of his lazy, no-good son
  • 71.  A rival animates a figurehead to attack its crew
  • 72.  A wizard gains the allegiance of a primitive group by impressing them with a small act of magic
  • 73.  A magic fountain guarded by a good griffin and an evil Cyclops centaur
  • 74.  A prize of youth, a shield of darkness, and a crown of untold riches
  • 75.  A city under curfew because packs of ghouls roam the streets at night
  • 76.  A priest turned into a baboon by his stepmother so that his half brother might ascend the throne
  • 77.  An alchemist hermit who holds the secret to unlock a curse
  • 78.  A witch and her son pursue their enemies in a ship powered by a brass golem in the shape of a minotaur
  • 79.  An ice tunnel to a hidden pyramid
  • 80.  A vicious giant walrus guards the frozen passage to an ancient land
  • 81.  A huge face-shaped stone gate
  • 82.  A massive troglodyte that knows a hidden path
  • 83.  A witch transfers her consciousness into a frozen saber toothed tiger when desperate
  • 84.  A princess imprisoned by her father to keep suitors away is visited by an amorous god
  • 85.  A mother and infant son afloat at sea in a wooden coffin
  • 86.  A city destroyed by tidal wave due to the wrath of the gods
  • 87.  A once fair kingdom transformed into a nearly lifeless swamp
  • 88.  A prince punished with a hideous transformation for slaying sacred animals
  • 89.  A princess who cannot marry unless a riddle is correctly answered. Those who try and fail are burned at the stake
  • 90.  A magical sword and shield, and a helm that grants invisibility
  • 91.  An arrogant queen who draws the gods ire when she compares the beauty of her daughter to a goddess
  • 92.  A city threatened with destruction if they do not sacrifice a beautiful maiden
  • 93.  A group of three witches that share one eye among them
  • 94.  A monster that can only be defeated by the baleful gaze of another monster
  • 95.  Giant scorpions that sprout from a monster’s blood
  • 96.  A canister filled with a mysterious glob that hatches a fast growing creature
  • 97.  A dangerous creature is held seemingly securely by sages studying it
  • 98.  A man and his wife bear news of a dangerous attack, but lack evidence
  • 99.  A group of creatures appears dangerous because of a lack of communication, but actually seeks an audience with a man of learning
  • 100. A new magical weapon allows a beleaguered people to fight back against a superior foe 

Fellhold Session 29 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on May 9, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Last night’s session saw us with about half the usual group due to a confluence of work and finals for three of the players.  So, that left us with Caleb, Earn, and Yllgrad in the big city of Mickleheim.  Their players were pretty pumped about getting stuff sold and getting to the Volcano, but a) I wanted to flesh out Mickleheim some, b) I wanted to give some of the Vornheim city kit rules and others that I’ve compiled a test drive, and c) I needed some more time to properly prep the volcano adventure, so we ended up zooming in on their errands in the city.

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First, the group helped the gate guard come to a decision on whether giants warranted a Slave duty or a Beast duty by simply paying him for his guard duty (or lack thereof).  They decided to play up the whole spectacle of arriving with captive giants (again, why didn’t I cause more trouble with them, why?) so they hired street performers and tossed out coppers to the crowd and swung torches around and such.  Very prince Ali of them.  Well, Cnud, the seneschal for House Dagaeca is a rather poker-faced chap, so while he was impressed, he didn’t make a big fuss out of it.  He ended up offering the party a fair price (gold = xp for the critters, and they had already received full xp for capturing them) which they accepted on account of prior good relations, even though they were a bit disappointed by the value.  Due to some later events, I may end up helping them out some more from House Dagaeca so that they feel like the relationship is going as well as I mean for it to be so far.

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Having offloaded their giants for some sort of amusement, they now decide they need to sell the wine discovered in the cellar with the hideous undead abomination.  They took Cnud’s advice and headed to the wine merchant his kitchen patronizes.  Well, let me just say that the Vornheim shopkeeper table is a lot of fun.  It made the whole business of trying to sell the wine a lot more complicated and interesting than it would have been otherwise. At least, I thought so.  Hopefully the players weren’t just frustrated.  At any rate, the first merchant turned out to offer terrible prices and tried to get the wine for a criminally low price, after helping himself to a bottle to sample.  They realized they were being had due to Sir Varian’s vague alcholic’s knowledge of wine, and so said good day, sir.  The next merchant was a crotchety old man with a monkey, who was just on the verge of giving them a reasonable (but not great) price when they made the mistake of being kind to his monkey.  They figured out their mistake, marched in, roughed up the monkey some and made an offer.  After some consideration, he accepted it, but then they told him they had to think about it (aah, intra-party debates).  Well, they tried one more merchant, and this fellow was an eccentric butterfly collector, but gave them an excellent price in exchange for the promise to bring him any butterfly specimens they find.

150px-Mr.monday

Again, the Vornheim shopkeeper chart was a lot of fun and opened the city up to being more characterful and weird than I probably would have let myself do on my own, so I’m grateful for that.

Oh, and Yllgrad arranged with an apothecary to have some worg fangs turned into a berserker potion, half paid up front, and half to be paid upon receipt.  The apothecary was a fat, friendly fellow who rather cheerfully dealt with a somewhat dour Yllgrad.  More on him in a moment.

The party then had the option to rest for the night or to carouse.  Again, I was anxious to flesh out the game and introduce more wacky complications.  Up until this point, I’ve allowed players to blow money willy nilly on booze and wenching in order to convert unwanted gold into xp (we’ve been playing where gold/treasure only earns XP when spent or used, and you only get it once.  There’s some wonky bookkeeping for stuff like fine tapestries decorating their personal home, but it’s been working out).  I wanted carousing to be more interesting, and Jeff Rients’ awesome carousing table seemed to be just the ticket.  Unfortunately, though my players will act all manners of foolhardy in order to obtain gold, they balk in the face of risk in *spending* gold.  I worry that it’s a bit fair to be putting strings on spending gold for XP just as they’re getting to the levels where you really need to spend *a lot* to level up, but hopefully this will result in them doing things like getting involved in local politics, building up their town, et cetera.  We’ll see. I also think some of the absent players (Sir Varian’s in particular) will dive right into carousing and potential mishaps with great abandon.

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So, my players are chicken and decide to rest peacefully.  Yllgrad awakes to go pick up his potions and finds that poor Hengist – the fat, friendly merchant – has been brutally murdered at his work! Yllgrad looks around for some obvious clues, gathers the partially ground worg fangs, and then notifies a rather dim-witted city guard about the murder, but otherwise decides not to get involved.  Fair enough. For a moment I was afraid that my players, used to plotlines and quests would assume that I was dangling a “necessary” plot opening in front of them and that they would feel obligated to look into this random act of violence in order to find the fun.  I mean, I fully intended to wing an interesting and exciting investigation if they did, and things may still come of all this, but I don’t want to give them the impression that they “ought to have” investigated if they didn’t care.

The others have started the morning by asking after rumors of the Volcano and ships that can take them there.  Earn’s player seems a little bored with the whole “buying rounds of drinks to learn rumors” thing, but the others are doing okay with it.  I end up naming a string of dockside bars after places in Austin (well, two of them, then I had to make up a third because I ran out of plausibly nautical themed names).  Investigating, they heard a number of interesting stories about the Fyrberg (the volcano): there’s a fishing village on the island, they worship the volcano by the name of Gurgu, there’s a giant ruby called the heart of the mountain, it was actually built by a wizard, the priests can make the volcano erupt at will, there’s a demon in the volcano, and so forth.  We’ll have to see how true they turn out to be.

As for the search for captains, I used the chart at the end of this entry that I came up with to randomly determine some ships’ captains that were in port and looking for work.  They ended up being referred to Acca, an enormously fat merchant with a crack crew and a high price, Guth & Spir, a gruff retired watchman and his sarcastic partner who are rumored to be treasure hunters, and Stol, a nervous, twitchy fellow who works for the great house Anlaf, but will take passengers on the side.  If you use the ship’s captain table, I’m sure you’ll recognize a few of the fellows, but just use names appropriate to your campaign and change a few details and they should fit right in.  Oh, and feel free to make any and all of them women, or randomly determine the sex ahead of time if you so desire.

They wrapped up the evening by going back to Cnud and letting him know that maybe Beorn is a bit of a rip off.  Cnud says they’d just always used the guy and he’ll look into it.  I’m sure he’ll be pretty grateful when he discovers one of the reasons his house has had trouble with finances.  They wrapped up the evening and decided that when we come back they’ll talk to the captains and settle on one of them, and then hopefully set sail for Fyrberg and adventure (Earn’s player is really anxious to get to that volcano).

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Rules: Random Ships’ Captains

When characters wish to hire a ship, determine how many options they have/hear about/discover and roll a d12 that many times and consult the chart (or just pick).  If you need more than 12, scratch out any who are used and make up your own. “Base control stat” refers to what the captain and crew as described will need to roll under on a d20 to maintain control in a storm or other special circumstance. This can be modified by player actions, hiring additional/different crew, et cetera. If you have a different system, I arbitrarily decided that 15 was average for a professional captain and went from there.

1)     Sober, clean shaven, cautious.  Former smuggler turned honest.  Asks a high price, but crew is very skilled. Base control stat: 18.

2)     Reckless drunk.  Looking for work, unreliable, crew is drunk and unreliable.  He’s cheap, though.  Base control stat: 10

3)     Charming smuggler and his mountain of a first mate.  A local crime boss has a bounty on their heads.  His ship is remarkably fast.  Base control stat: 15. Ship speed +5 miles per day

4)     Enormously fat merchant.  Dresses in high style, happy to take on passengers or high-value cargo, employs crack mercenaries as guards.  Expensive, but well connected.  Base control stat: 15

5)     Foreign, doesn’t speak the language very well.  Finishing up unloading a cargo that turned out unprofitable, sour mood, wants to get the hell out of here.  Base control stat: 14 (10 if crew is local)

6)     Stereotypically piratical.  Y’arrrr, parrot, peg leg/eye patch, flamboyant clothes, you know the guy.  May or may not actually be a pirate. Base control stat: 16

7)     Big talker, promises the moon, talks about his extensive exploits at sea.  Just purchased his first ramshackle vessel crewed by rank amateurs.  He starts out high, but can be bargained to extremely low prices.  Base control stat: 8

8)     Gruff, bearded retired watchman and his lanky sarcastic partner.  They take the jobs they can get, but mostly are after treasures.  Base control stat: 14

9)     Old man with a great big bushy beard injured by a great beast of the waves.  He seeks to hunt it down with a maniacal intensity.  Base control stat: 15

10)  Employee of a great house willing to take some passengers on the side for his own profit.  Thin, nervous, and flighty.  Base control stat: 12

11)  Captain is stubborn, quick witted former military officer who just wants his space and his freedom, and won’t look too closely into the legality of a job he takes.  He might have a light hearted pilot, a hard assed female first mate, a cheery female engineer, some hired muscle, and a sheltered surgeon.  Base control stat: 16

12)   A cunning and accomplished reaver with a crew of seasoned raiders.  He considers passengers an unworthy source of income, but times are rough.  Base control stat: 16

Requiescat In Pace Mr. Harryhausen

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 8, 2013 by Jeff Russell

I didn’t grow up with Harryhausen the way a lot of the folks into this Old School stuff did, but I certainly love and appreciate his work.  And that’s why I think that the idea to make Friday an OSR blogfest in honor of the late, great Ray Harryhausen is a fantastic one.  So spread the word and tune in.

Fellhold Session 28 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , , on May 2, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, after a two week hiatus due to my visit to the exotic orient for school, we resumed our regularly scheduled game on Monday.  Everybody, not least of all myself, were a little bit rusty, and a few players had connection issues and/or reasons to show up late and leave early, so it was a bit rocky, but overall a good time. Probably even more kibbitzing and joke making than usual, including a rather inappropriate one involving ents that had the whole group rolling, but is best left unrepeated.

The thing I’ve noticed about campaign prep is that no matter how much time is taken, you never get everything you want ready.  I have great faith in my ability to improvise in just about every activity in my life, but I’m discovering that my D&D improvisation benefits from some robust support.  There are just so many cool things I want to incorporate from what I’ve seen online, read in published material, or stolen from heavy metal songs.  Oh well, the important thing is that the game keeps going so I keep having a chance to use this stuff and improve.

We picked up with the characters getting ready to high tail it away from outside of the giant cave after their fight with the trolls.  They decided to risk being surprised and injury/damage on the mountain path to move faster, not slowing down until they made it into the woods.  I spent a lot of my prep time coming up with some random adventure sites, focusing on the wilderness areas between the giant cave and Silverdelf, and overall I’m really happy with what was added.  The Kraal is a crazy awesome crowdsourced hex map of an arctic area, and I’ve stolen a lot of good stuff that has really started to make the wilderness feel like a living place, not just a vehicle for burning rations between marked locations on the map.  I still need to flesh some stuff out, but I like what’s there so far.

Speaking of which, as the group was coming to a stopping point near dusk, they spotted the ruins of a small inn and trading post, apparently as ancient as the Volsungril mine and probably serving the traffic that used to pass that way.  They burned some torches and got their hirelings in a police line and searched the place pretty thoroughly, but didn’t find much.  Then, during the night, Yllgrad the dwarf was on watch and heard a faint scratching sound.  Investigating, he found a trap door buried under some rubble, and when he opened it, he found a cellar.  He impetuously jumped into the cellar after sending calling for the rest of the party to wake up, but didn’t wait for their help.  He found a wine cellar, then a storage room and around that time everybody else showed up.

So, they’re checking out the nondescript storage room with an enticing strongbox when BAM! a huge, disgusting undead beastie bursts through the cellar wall and attacks! Now, I made this monster up myself (rules below) because all I knew before they found this place was that there should be something creepy there at night.  I was all excited to run this (I thought) scary monster against unprepared and largely unarmored (!) characters, but you know what? They wasted it in like 3 rounds, with only a scratch to the dwarf, damage-wise.  And that was without their minions.  I really need to work on my sense of challenge scale.

I’ve actually arrived at a new philosophy due to this, and other experiences: your players can handle it.  Anytime you’re wondering if you should spring something on the group, repeat that mantra.  It might take desperate creativity, multiple character deaths, and unorthodox solutions, but they will totally wreck every dangerous thing you throw at them.  So don’t pull your punches.

Anyway, after dispatching this fat nasty thing with a gaping maw, they break open the strong box, finding a fair amount of gold ,and then our alcoholic former nobleman checks out the wine and determines that he’s maybe heard of the vintage, somewhere, and it ought to be worth some money.  So they drink one bottle, then haul the other 159 out and take some special precautions to transport it, and hope to get some money for it.

After that, they start out again for Silverdelf, and one of the clerics (Caleb, cleric of Hrokr, the Crow Father) uses his favorite spell, speak with animals to try to get some info about the area.  I ended up doing a lot of animal impersonations this game (squirrel, sparrow, owl).  I try to give each animal a personality based on what they’re like, vague memories of Redwall characterizations, and what seems fitting at the time.  I also make it a point that they’re, you know, animals.  They can have perfectly intelligible conversations, but they don’t care about the same stuff we do or make the same distinctions.  They don’t have the same concepts of distance or time, they care a lot about food.  That sort of thing.  The more ‘supernatural’ the critter (like crows and cats, maybe) the more person-like their thoughts and conversations will be.  At any rate, they heard about some Great Owl that “knows things” and decide maybe that’d be cool to find, so they vaguely set their course in the direction indicated by a helpful sparrow, but mostly keep heading for Silverdelf.  The next night of camping, they end up encountering the Great Owl. Now, they had learned from one of the animals or another that it will answer questions, but only a limited number (turns out it was 3).  Earn (Cleric of Dwyn, the Oak Mother) wastes the first question with “What’s up?” and gets the response “the sky”.  The owl won’t engage in conversation besides answering questions, and mostly just stared at the party.  They ended up asking about the Volsungril mine and mostly just confirming what they already knew about it (I wish I had thought of more details to make it even cooler, I hate to waste a cool mystical question answer about something the players are already invested in), and then about what Trolls fear (fire, being bested in a deal, and their gods).  Then it mysteriously flew off to the Northwest.  They hope to find it again sometime and maybe learn some more things, and I think that’s cool.  I need to work on more connections across the map so things feel interrelated and point in different directions.

They made it back to Silverdelf and commission some wine racks for their new haul, and otherwise stock up on provisions and set out the next morning for Mickleheim, giant captives still in tow.  I *really* need to be making them more of a pain in the ass. So far all they’ve done is eat extra rations.  I ought to come up with escape chances and increased likelihood of wagons breaking down and all that jazz.

So, the road to Mickleheim has been established as pretty safe, so I let them get there no problem, but we call it a night as we were coming up on our time limit (midnight, my time). I’ve adopted from Zak S. the incredibly wise procedure of stopping play about to go somewhere/start something rather than after resolving something.  This allows me to go “hey guys, what are you planning on doing next time?” Now, sure, often this changes or is just vague, but it allows me to triage prep time most effectively.  I certainly don’t try to plan out what they’re gonna do when they get places, I just try to make sure there’s stuff there for them to interact with, and I have enough of a rough idea of everything else that I can wing it for a session or so, it just might be a little flat.

At any rate, this discussion led to the decision to go check out the volcano on the newly detailed and awesomed map.  I think I discovered a principle of refereeing: Checkhov’s Volcano.  “If there is a volcano introduced on the map, players will go there eventually”. It’s the one thing our usually fairly “along for the ride” player has strongly pushed for, so I want to do it justice and really bring the awesome.  I also see it as my chance to do my first real stand alone dungeon entirely from scratch for this campaign.  I’ve used lots of geomorphs, random generators, pieces from published adventures, and otherwise mostly kitbashed stuff rather than doing it from scratch.  And where it has been from scratch, it’s mostly been as part of Fellhold, which has its own stuff going on.  So the chance to do a stand alone, strongly themed dungeon of a decent size as a complete unit is new and both exciting and scary.  I just have to have enough for one night’s worth of play ready for next Monday night, and I want it to be awesome.

For rules, the Disgusting Undead Abomination the players made short work of in the basement:

Disgusting Undead Abomination

HD: 5

AC: 4

Attacks: Claw/Claw, Special: Bite (1d6/1d6, 1d8)

Saving Throw: 12

Special: On a natural hit of 16+, grapple and bite for 1d8 damage and drain 1 point of CON. Anyone reduced to 0 CON dies, and anyone killed by damage or CON drain raises in one round as a ghoul that will eventually turn into a Disgusting Undead Abomination

Move: 12

Alignment: Chaotic

Number Encountered: 1

Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

Every Version of D&D Part II: Men & Magic

Posted in Every Version of D&D, Projects, RPGs with tags , , on May 1, 2013 by Jeff Russell

menandmagiccoverart As promised, we’re beginning with the beginning – the Little Brown Books of the original white box.  Okay, yeah, yeah, you might call “the beginning” Chainmail or Braunstein or what have you, but this is the first thing released into the world as “Dungeons & Dragons”, though not yet as a “roleplaying game”.  I’m no James Malieszewski when it comes to the history of the game, but for this analysis, I’m more concerned with differences in the products as rules manuals that I can use now than I am in their history.  I will touch on it briefly (as well as I’m able) in order to speculate on what changes tell us about the play experiences the designers were trying to address.  But enough jibber jabber, let’s jump in.

Men & Magic

Here is something better!” First off, a word about formatting and graphic design (in the sense that Zak S. talks about it) – there isn’t any.  Well, that’s not true, there’s formatting of the sort some guys could do as hobbyists in 1974, and yes, there’s some charm to ‘slap it together yourself’ aesthetic, but it’s a terrible in-play reference.  Material isn’t very clearly grouped, there’s no index, and rather important concepts get a mention and that’s it.  I honestly think a lot of the reputation OD&D has for being “incomplete” or needing high levels of referee involvement and prep stems from the fact that it’s not formatted in a way where you can pick it up and use it as an instructional manual.  As I’ve mentioned before, I started out with the purist vision of playing actual OD&D, but after the first session of character creation and brief play, I made the switch to Swords & Wizardry Whitebox on account of its being easier to reference (and I actually have dreams of reformatting that in a more useful way, but it’s still loads easier to refer to in play than the LBBs). With these books, you have to read, re-read, internalize, interpret and otherwise work to make the text work for the game.  That’s okay, and there may even be some virtue in that, but overall I tend to come down on the position that RPG texts should facilitate learning the game and referencing the rules in play first, and being engaging and thought provoking works a distant second.  The engagement and thought provocation ought to come out in play rather than the rules.  Given how rarely RPGs acquire new players by someone picking up a book out of the blue and getting an impression of it from that book alone, I think that’s a fair set of priorities.  That tangent out of the way, let’s take a look at Men & Magic section by section, even if they are inadequate as organizational tools.

Foreword

There’s not much applicable to the rules here (as you’d expect), other than the emphasis on campaign play and the exhortation that these rules are intended for people with imagination. I like that.  As much as I admire a “scientific” approach to game design, where rules are crafted to attempt to guide players to the desired play experience, there’s a lot to be said for openly putting the onus on the players to use the toolkit provided.

Introduction, Scope, Preparation

So, despite my smack talking about OD&D’s value as an instructional manual, it does go into charmingly specific detail on recommended equipment: “Sheet Protectors (heaviest possible).”  It also gives a piece of advice that remains good to this day, around which I’ve built the entire Fellhold campaign – start small and build up detail as you go.  Other than that, it emphasizes the expectation that the referee will house rule like the devil, and the flexibility of the rules, from the prehistoric to the futuristic.  I like to think of this as acknowledging the then latent potential of roleplaying games as a form combined with some understandable boosterism for a fledgling product.

Characters, Abilities, and NPCs

What I find most interesting about the characters, abilities, and non-player characters sections is what they say about the play that produced them.  The character races that have become canonical are presented more in the sense of “hey, here’s the stuff we already figured out, but go ahead and make up something else if you want”.  Acquiring followers and armies, and their morale and loyalty scores get a lot of detail, showing the wargaming roots.  I like that abilities are “determined” rather than “created” – I think James Maliszewski hit on that on Grognardia, this notion that your character is randomly picked from all the possible characters in the world rather than crafted to your whim.    I’m still confused about the “use one stat for another at a 3 for 1 rate for experience purposes only”, but I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Equipment

Some of the prices here don’t show the same concern for medieval verisimilitude that later editions get to.  Though not listed here, it’s a running joke in my game that tents, as priced in Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, costs something like a year’s soldiering wages.  Great fun was had by me in describing the giants’ new loin cloths after they chased the party out of camp.

“Alternative” Combat System

Here we have the combat system that turned into D&D’s defining mechanic.  The tables are a little confusing, or rather the ways they try to save space by giving Magic Users and Clerics as relative values to Fighting Men.  Deep in my heart of hearts, I’m a THAC0 man myself, so I’m considering switching over, originalism be damned.  It’s interesting to me that AC only goes down to 2 and up to 9.  I’ll have to check out the Supplements to see when that was expanded.  The 10 to -10 spread is imminently logical, but it does divorce the idea that AC represents particular armor types.  That was probably inevitable, and possibly desirable, considering the diverse uses AC was already being put to to describe different monsters that are hard to hit for reasons other than wearing particular types of armor.

The saving throw matrix is also kind of terrible.

Spells

Level 1 spells have a lot of overlap between Magic Users and Clerics, but after that they start to diverge quite a bit.  Clerics get “Remove Curse” as a level 3 spell instead of level 4, and obviously have all the healing spells.  Otherwise, perhaps what’s most surprising about the spells is how little many of them have changed.  Effects and mechanics are remarkably consistent for many of them, and despite the profusion of spells available in later editions, most of the most used and iconic ones are right here.

Next up in the series will be “Monsters & Treasure”.

 

For rules, here is the method I used recently for filling out “adventure sites” as determined with the previous rules adapted from Welsh Piper (which generated too many adventure sites and too many large outposts for the vibe I was going for, but would have been good for creating a dense, interesting small map)

Adventure Site Generation

Take stuff from a good source like Dyson LogosHexenbracken or the Kraal, or the Tome of Adventure Design, or your favorite published setting material or:

01-60: Monster Lair

            – Roll Random Encounter Chart for Terrain type

61-70: Surface Ruins

            – Use outpost generation rules to determine size and type of ruins, then either roll random encounter chart for monsters there, add intelligent but dangerous inhabitants, or come up with something to make it worthwhile

71-80: Some Kind of Inhabited/Dangerous/Interesting Place besides an outpost

81-90: Small 1 Level Dungeon

            – Generate Randomly, Wing it, or Grab a map

91-00: Full Dungeon

            – Generate randomly, grab a map, or go whole hog and make it