Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dungeon Crawl Cthulhu

One thing I want to do in my hypothetical upcoming DCC game is include lots of Mythos elements. I have all these cool figures from the Doom That Came to Atlantic City board game, and its a good way to make it weirder and different than normal D&D. Granted I won't be trying to play it as dark and horror-themed as a Lovecraft story, more like dabbling in it like a Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story.

So I dug out my Cthulhu Dark Ages stuff (I got it online years ago before it was actually released as a book) and took some notes. Here's what I have:

The Otherworld is composed of the mists that reside between the spheres. Outside of normal reality disembodied spirits dwell, from ghosts to nature spirits to demons of ideas. Nothing there has material form, and isn't "real" in the sense we know it. Its a dreamland, a place of ideas and nightmares, not a parallel reality.

Ultimately the Otherworld is managed by Yog-Sothoth, but its ways are mysterious to mortals and it often has avatars like The Grey Wanderer. The Grey Wanderer is an Odin-like figure, patron of travellers, bards, and bandits alike. He can call wolf spirits to possess his followers, creating berserkers.

Elves are spirits from the Otherworld who have taken a material form to enter our realm (like the Fair Folk in Exalted). They have a dreamlike appearance and may manifest hints at their spiritual nature.

The Otherworld is ultimately a thing of Chaos, never a part of the material realm. It is a source of much magic.

Shub-Niggurath is a nature goddess. I really don't want this to be an "evil nature goddess" thing, but more like, "if you could grasp the totality of her you would go insane, just like any godly thing". She is the mother of orcs and goblins, as well as darker fae, slimes, and mutant plants and animals. Worshipped by Neutral Druids as a giver of life and death.

Cthulhu is an ancient enemy of man, so in a way comparable to Satan (the adversary). His cults will be standard "sacrifices and bonfires". He is connected to Deep Ones, which I've always wanted to highlight in a game. They're also comparable to Celtic fomorians, especially as presented in Slaine.

Dragons are cthulhu-spawn. Ancient beings, poisonous and hateful towards humans. I have 4 different green dragon figures I want to use as specific dragons in the setting. One will be named Corpsegrinder, because dragons are depicted as living underground and eating the dead.

Giants are "children of earth and sky", meaning part human and part supernatural. Every giant will have a connection to something more powerful. They used to be great in number, but are almost gone from the world now.

Nyarlathotep is the shapeshifting trickster god, like Loki. He sows chaos, begets monsters, and guides witches. He might be simply The Black Man.

Tsathogguah is another rare Mythos entity that seems to want to interact with mortals. He is patron to sorcerors, and if I use the Portal Under the Stairs intro adventure he will be the alien force that helped the ancient wizard.

Appendix N

Appendix N was a list of suggested reading in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. Its Gary Gygax's list of stories, novels, and authors that inspired Dungeons and Dragons.

Its interesting that overall its much more Sword and Sorcery than high fantasy, more pulp than epic, more Conan than Lord of the Rings. Gygax claimed that he only pushed so many Tolkien elements into the game to appeal to a larger fan base. That's arguable, its also possible he was bitter at Tolkien's estate for making him change names (Ent to treant, hobbit to halfling, Balrog to Balor, etc.). Regardless, there's a LOT more going on in D&D than just Lord of the Rings ripoffs.

Appendix N is the inspiration for Dungeon Crawl Classics, an attempt to put more weirdness into fantasy. As someone who likes D&D but is sick of a lot of the tropes, this appeals to me.

Anyway, there's this awesome series on Tor.com where two guys are reading and commenting on authors from Appendix N: Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons. There's some really interesting analysis on what parts of these stories made it into D&D, both from Gygax's direct influence and their impression on players as the game grew.

Related there's an article about Orcs that touches on some thoughts about racism in Tolkien that have been bumping around in my head (short version: its complicated, and I think its in the spirit of the author to talk about it).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

I've seen the errors of my ways, and realize I've been too nice

A while back I reviewed the beta release of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and my initial impression was that there were too many things I wanted to house rule to justify running it. Well, now I want to run it.

I kept reading play reports on Power Shift's blog, and the game sounded awesome. I picked up several adventures and they read like classic Sword and Sorcery, very dark and very weird. A local store had the rulebook, and I flipped through that and the new 5E DMG at the same time. The DMG has lots of cool stuff, but a lot of it is just collections of cool stuff from other editions. Its also less than half the size for more price, and its not a complete game like DCC.


Some thoughts on the classes, in comparison to my initial revue:

  • I was wary of Clerics in a Sword & Sorcery setting (where the gods are supposed to be indifferent), but I like how they're tied into the Law vs Chaos alignment thing that comes up in adventures like Intrigue at the Court of Chaos. I would play Law as an organized Church that champions humanity against the supernatural. Chaos is a scattershot of cults to the Old Ones and demons (including Cthulhu, no way he's Neutral). Neutral is pagan gods, the dual life/death of nature.
  • I love that Clerics heal their own alignment the best and risk disapproval (an actual game mechanic) for healing opposing alignments.
  • Warriors are still awesome. I may house rule the "luck modifier to favored weapon" thing, but its not as bad as I thought at first. Your modifier doesn't change as your score is spent, and not everyone has a luck bonus anyway. Still, I would think a lucky warrior would have a bonus to Armor Class, not one weapon.
  • Thieves are cooler, their skills are bonuses, not percentile anymore. And the bonuses change with alignment! Getting to spend Luck easier definitely fits the class.
  • Wizards have lots of flavor but have lots more to keep track of. I think the Patron thing has potential but needs a different implementation, like a unique spell for each patron. 
  • I'm also thinking of writing up a Witch, Spellsinger, and Scinnlea for the Raewald setting.
  • Elves should have some cool flavor, I could use the random table from Dragon Warriors for inspiration. And I don't think Patrons should be so strongly linked to them right off hand.
  • Dwarves and Halflings are ok, I'd like to see some better flavor, but that could be worked out with a player.
Now that I know I want to play, I have to decide on a setting. Two things I really want from this campaign: 1) It has to be compelling. I want the game to be something myself and the players are excited about. 2) I want the players to have agency. Their decisions have to matter, I don't want to just lead them through an adventure path.

I have a few DCC adventures I've bought, plus the two in the back of the book. I could spread these across a map and let the players explore them sandbox style, with links between them. I would also want to include a few NPC groups who could affect the players and be affected in return, so they can make plans and act on them. I have a few ideas for a setting (twilight forest, shadowlands, volcano-heated tropical valley) that I could start with. 

I also could run Qelong, or "fantasy Vietnam". Its definitely dark enough, and its a sandbox to explore. I have a Mesopotamia setting I've never gotten to do much with, again an exploration mini-setting. Neither of these settings have a lot of NPCs to interact with, and would require some work to fit in the adventures I have. 

I like having options but need to cut down exactly what I want and make decisions. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Castle Ravenloft

I played Castle Ravenloft as a one-shot using Dungeon World rules. I have both the original I6 Castle Ravenloft adventure from first edition, and the 2nd edition version House of Strahd. They're very similar, I had both on me just in case and borrowed from both.


The group was people I normally play beer and boardgames with. We play rpgs occasionally, but except for my wife none of them have played a proper D&D campaign before. One guy at this session had only played a tabletop rpg once before. The point is, it wasn't too serious, and people were open to the narrative structure of Dungeon World because they're not used to mechanics-heavy games anyway.

Since this was a one-shot, I had to streamline things to get stuff done. Everybody picked a class and filled out their character sheet without too much trouble (one reason I love DW, its easy to grok even for beginners). Everyone described their character and then we did the tarot card reading from Madame Eva. Then a riderless carriage arrived to take the party to the castle. The paladin declined both the tarot reading and the carriage as dark magic, but to move things along I said the party could knock him out and put him in the carriage.

Here's the characters we had (again, not too serious):
Detta , daughter of Calypso - Pirate
Uther the Lightbringer - Paladin
Belatrix LaStrange - Witch
Bryan "The Elf" Johnnson - Bard (human, not an elf)
Wesley Snipes - Vampire (with man-servant Ryan Reynolds)

In the past I've let silly names and such get on my nerves, but I've come to embrace it. Its a silly game to begin with, shooting fireballs and monsters and such, and if it makes the player happy, then great. Also, two things tend to happen: either the player realizes how silly it is during play and lets it drop, or by treating it as normal it becomes accepted and less silly.

Most of the session was exploring the castle. We used a grid and minis, not for exact movement and tactics, but its a great visualization tool. And the castle is slightly complicated in layout, so its better to have a map drawn out. The first few rooms have some ominous gargoyles but they don’t attack right away. There’s organ music drawing the characters to a hall room set up with a feast. The Count himself appears to be playing the organ, but when Uther attacked it was revealed to be an illusion, and all the food was rotten. The wine was good though, and Belatrix helped herself to a lot. THEN the gargoyles attacked. Two of the players had never played DW before but they got the hang of describing actions pretty easy. I really like how I can change up mechanics and tactics based off of player description. When Uther just attacked, its Hack and Slash, but when Detta wanted to tumble behind the gargoyles she rolled Defy Danger and just dealt her damage after it succeeded. I decided the gargoyles would pile on Uther since he was out in front, so even though they were getting killed off at least one of them just dealt damage while he was swarmed.

This was a one-shot, so to make the “mark XP on a miss” mechanic mean something I allowed them to level every time they got two XP. At one point, one of the players was hoping to miss in the middle of a fight so he could get a cool advanced move, but it didn’t happen.

One of the clues from the Tarot card hinted at crypts below the castle, so the group took a spiral staircase down as far as they could. Uther decided to go off on his own on the main floor, finding a chapel in ruins. He picked up a silver raven statue, a holy item of some type. Then he spotted two glowing red eyes watching him from above and…failed a Defy Danger check. So cut back to the main group, who had found dungeon cells partly submerged in water. A teleportation trap put Ryan Reynolds in one of the cells but he was quickly freed, and another prisoner, Ivan, was freed as well. Nobody trusted Ivan, but he seemed harmless. Uther returned to the party with foggy recollection of what he had seen, and eager to press onward. 

Further ahead in the dark was an old torture chamber, half-submerged, with a platform and thrones. Presumably to watch people being tortured? Detta started climbing on the platform just as several rotting hands raised from the water, and the group found zombies all around them. As they were hacking into them they realized that the disembodied limbs were fighting back. A Spout Lore roll discerned that the bodies would keep fighting until they had taken so much damage that the dark magic animating them could no longer sustain them. Wesley had one hand dig into his shoulder, only releasing when he tore off the zombie’s head. Uther tried channeling divine force through the silver raven statue, and a flash of light drove away the zombies. Meanwhile, a great wolf had snuck up on Detta on the platform. When Wesley tried communicating with it as a creature of the night, it actually spoke to everyone in an accented human voice, then disappeared in a cloud of fog. Strahd had visited them.

They continued into a room with locked doors and a “throw a gem in the fire” puzzle that they figured out right before the iron skeleton statues in the room attacked. They continued on to the crypts, an enormous room (it took up the entire dry erase mat) dotted with small tombs and hallways to greater tombs. They mostly ignored the smaller tombs and got separated by a portcullis at the king and queen’s tomb. As Bryan Johnnson waited outside three hellhounds approached. He climbed on top of a tomb as the rest pushed the gate up. Strahd appeared again and grabbed Uther in a choke hold, then used the charm he had placed on him earlier in the chapel to make him attack his allies, though he ended up being more of a distraction than a threat. Belatrix had found a red amulet earlier and noted that Strahd was wearing a similar one, made by the same hands. This was enough of a tie to use her thorn attack to pester him from a distance. The escaped prisoner Ivan turned out to be a werewolf loyal to Strahd, but Detta shot him with a crossbow with a silver medallion tied to it and he fled. Detta also distracted the Count by attempting to stake him with her own peg leg. Yep, pirate. It only did 3 points of damage so didn’t get his heart by a long shot, but was enough to make him withdraw. 

I was worried about time at this point but felt like we could accomplish a little more so pressed on, and it worked out wonderfully. They recovered the Sunsword from Sergei’s tomb, took a different door from the puzzle room and found their way upstairs in the study, where they found the Tome of Strahd, describing his sad story, and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Knowing that the object of their search was in a high spot, they found a staircase up the tallest tower. A distant thudding turned out to be a supernatural heart near the top of the tower, and the whole structure started tilting wildly back and forth as a strange creature of Strahd’s necromantic magic chased the group of the stairs. A hybrid abomination of a werewolf, a gargoyle, and a giant spider, it was knocked down the stairs as Detta used the Holy Symbol to blast the heart with sunlight.

At the top of the tower Strahd was waiting, next to several open windows as a storm raged on. Uther attacked with the sunsword and Wesley with claws, and Strahd threw them both around like rag dolls. Bryan hammered the abomination with sonic attacks while Detta finished off the heart with her rapier. Uther was picked up by Strahd and thrown out of the window, landing far below on another tower…with the Sunsword, the weapon best suited to fight the vampire. Still, he was overwhelmed by superior numbers. A rapier strike brought him to 0 hit points. He could have disappeared in fog, but I ruled that the strike went through his heart and pinned him to the wall. Since the Vampire class says a staked heart keeps you from rising, and vampire legends aren’t consistent about a wooden stake, I figured that was enough to keep him down. Just to be sure, Wesley tore Strahd’s head off with his claws. Sergei’s ghost brought Uther back to group and he destroyed the body with his sunsword.

Not bad for a one-shot! I’ve never actually had all of the items from the Tarot card reading come up in play, but luck worked in everybody’s favor. Everybody was really focused, even though most of them weren’t very familiar with the Dungeon World rules. One thing I love about casual RPG players is they just want to have fun with the game, they don’t get too hung up on rules. They also trust me to run a fair and fun game, which helps. 

Some notes on individual characters:

Detta was the Pirate class. Her peg leg was a “look” she chose off of the character sheet, and DW encourages you to embrace the fiction, so her trying to use her own leg as a wooden stake was awesome. She used her “fight like a pirate” move in almost every combat, we found it easy to work in her using the environment to her advantage and actually encouraged her to do more than stand there and attack. Her “sea legs” move helped in the rocking tower too. We kind of skipped over the Bonds part at the beginning of the session, but she filled hers out and used it to role-play her interaction with other characters.

Uther the Lightbringer—okay, the player of this character has a habit of challenging the other players in the group and being a little annoying on purpose. He’s the “lets open two doors at once” or “lets split up” player, but he knows not to push it too far. Which works perfect for a stereotypical Paladin surrounded by Chaotic characters (the only other Lawful character was the Vampire). He played along well when I had to be heavy handed with the vampire charm, or knocking him off the roof.

Belatrix LaStrange was the Witch. I LOVE the Witch class but I feel like more than most classes it needs a conversation with the player about what it can do, specifically the Hex and Thaumaturgy moves. Funny enough, most of the time Hex backfired by hitting another party member or targeting an undead creature in disguise. Also, she used her Skinchanger advanced move to turn into an elephant, which is not what I think of when I think Witch. But at the same time, it wasn’t that effective in a tight castle, she mostly just picked up things.

Bryan "The Elf" Johnnson, using a variant Bard class that’s more about inspiration and less about “magic music”. So he encouraged Uther to use his bare hands while being swarmed by gargoyles, which was perfect because his sword wasn’t effective at that range and he got a +1d4 damage. Also the name—its a human Bard, he just goes by the nickname “The Elf” because its easier to get gigs this way. This player likes to dick around and has a very dry sense of humor, so he’ll push the story in weird ways.

Wesley Snipes…the vampire who doesn’t have sunlight as a weakness (jaywalker). He was disappointed he couldn’t choose “black leather trench coat and sunglasses” as gear. He could choose a trusted manservant instead of an actual weapon (since he had claws anyway), so he named that guy Ryan Reynolds. It was funny but not distracting, honestly. And this guy had only ever played an RPG once in his life before this, so he did a great job playing his character, picking up the rules, staying focused, and helping build the story. The thirst mechanic didn’t come up much, mostly because I forgot to have him start with 1d8 points at the beginning of the adventure, and he didn’t take much damage to heal. 

Three of the classes we used were from Awful Good Games, you can find their products here


Friday, September 19, 2014

5E Basic Monsters


I looked at the free DM's guide for 5th Edition. Which is just a monster book.

168 creatures listed. 95 are Beasts. 19 are Humanoids. 18 are Monstrosities.8 Undead, 6 Giants, 5 Elementals. Minimal Aberrations, Celestials, Constructs, Dragons, Fey, Fiends, Oozes, and Plants.
Lots of animals. Lots of giant animals. Lots of both versions of animals. Giant frogs AND toads. Goats and giant goats. Baboons, apes, and giant apes. Black, brown, and polar bears. Killer and reef sharks, and killer whales.
Thank Crom we have stats for a cats, crabs, and weasels.
Bubears are pretty brutal. +1 damage die and +2d6 sneak attack. The extra damage die feature was called "Brute" and I thought that might be a thing, but no other monster has it.
A goblin's Nimble Escape ability is cool (disengage or hide as a bonus action). They fight sneaky.
Goblin total gear--leather, shield, scimitar, and short bow. That's a well outfitted sneaky grog.
Gnolls can make a half move and bite after dropping a target. Dropping a PC doesn't happen that often, and you don't always want to cheapen that moment with a "gotcha" monster ability.
Lizardfolk attack twice. And can hold their breath 15 minutes.
Ogres...don't do anything special.
Orcs get a bonus move action towards a hostile target. So orcs are super fast now.
Tigers and panthers do more damage with bite than claw. Sabre-tooth tigers do more damage with their claw than bite. WTF? Also, pounce is: if you move and claw, then you might knock them prone and if you do then you bite. Way less complicated than 3E big cats.
Trolls regenerate 10hp/round but not if they took fire/acid damage that round.
"Damage Immunities: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons that aren’t silvered" ...that isn't very easy to read.
Creatures I'm glad to see in a basic list: blood hawk, deer, death dog, flying snake, yeti
The Spectator seems like a cool low-level beholder.
I'm guessing monster stats aren't necessarily a flat-line average for a race but the stats you'd expect from a warrior. For example, the Hobgoblin has a +1 mod in Str, Dex, and Con; and the human Bandit has good Dex and Con. This is different from the 3E model of baseline stats for generic creatures, and also different from the 4E model of the ability scores having nothing to do with anything at all so why are they there.
I'm amused that town guards are more powerful (more HD at least) than a 1st-level character.

Overall, not impressed. Like most of what I've seen from 5E, its stripped down 3E with a few nods to nostalgia, a very select picking of ideas from 4E, and one or two small innovations. I did not get any sense of wonder at flipping through this like I did from 3E or 4E. Granted, its just the small free package, not the core Monster Manual. But my red box monster list was smaller than this and way more interesting.





Thursday, September 11, 2014

RPG A Day: late and all at once

14th - Best Convention Purchase
I won a Pathfinder book for winning a D&D Trivia contest, does that count?
15th - Favourite Convention Game
I've never played an official convention game. I'd like to, but at most cons the cool games are full before I have a chance to plan.
16th - Game you wish you owned
Owning one of the older Basic D&D boxed sets would be cool. There was a game called Lost Souls I read about when I was young that I never found...OH, HAI INTERNET: http://www.hauntedattic.org/lostsouls.html
17th - Funniest Game you’ve played
The single funniest session I ever had was running a Werewolf game (the PCs were a were-naga and a were-dino, but that's not relevant). I improved some random NPC, a drunk farmer complaining about his goats, and the way it played out had us all crying laughing. I've found the unexpected humor always works better than the forced stuff.
That being said, Gamma World using the 4E system was a lot of fun. It was the only game where I tried to "out-silly" the players, like having two sasquatches (a rocket surgeon and a brain scientist) in a crashed spaceship with John Carpenter's the Thing on board.
18th - Favourite Game System
I've played D&D the most, but lately I've been loving Dungeon World. I feel like I'm just out of reach of really running it the best way, but I've been pushing my friends to play it whenever I can.
19th - Favourite Published Adventure
Ravenloft. I have the 2E House of Strahd version and also bought the 1E pdf last October before we ran Castle Ravensmash (heavy drinking was involved). Its really a solid dungeon with lots of character. It helps that I have a deep love for the "haunted castle" idea.
20th - Will still play in 20 years time…
Some type of D&D.
21st - Favourite Licensed RPG
Slaine. I never even ran it as written, but I stole a bunch of ideas for my 4E Celtic game, which was one of the best campaigns I ever did.
22nd - Best Secondhand RPG Purchase
I bought my friend's old copy of Heroquest. Not an RPG really, but its hella-fun.
23rd - Coolest looking RPG product / book
Its sad that nothing immediately comes to mind. The art in Freak Legion was pretty weird.
24th - Most Complicated RPG Owned
I think I still have a copy of 2E Shadowrun. Loved the setting, couldn't grok the rules.
25th - Favourite RPG no one else wants to play
4E D&D. I still like a lot of the elements of it.
26th - Coolest character sheet
I made one once :)
27th - Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of…
I don't want to buy a new game anytime soon, I've got too many to play already. That said, a stripped down version of D&D 4E that allowed me to use some of the books I already have would be great.
28th - Scariest Game you’ve played
Honestly the only time I've ever been scared in a game was in a D&D game when we went into the faerie realm. I read lots of folklore, I knew to be scared.
29th - Most memorable encounter
As a player, I still remember the time Eodrid finally took out the evil wizard that had been terrorizing the town. With his custom spell Prismatic Arrow.
30th - Rarest RPG Owned
HOL.
31st - Favourite RPG of all time
Dungeons and Dragons.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rus

D&D got me interested in history at a young age, and I love running quasi-historical campaigns. I say quasi-historical because I like including lots of folklore, and I'm not trying to run something 100% historically accurate, because that's too much to keep track of and nobody would really care anyway.

I ran a Celtic game based heavily off the Slaine comics and their vision of prehistoric Britain. At one point the group time-travelled to sub-Roman Wales and joined Arthur and some of his knights (notably not Lancelot, who was a later invention) against Mordred, even killing the traitor themselves. I looked up a lot of Welsh mythology, including the oldest Arthur legends. They have been added to so much over the years that the original legends are vastly different.

Perun
Anyway, I recently remembered the Russian storm god Perun and decided to look him up. Turns out he's THE good god of the mythology. He takes the form of an eagle and sits on an oak that connects the whole world. He wields thunder and lightning as weapons, and is the lord of sky and war. He's like Zeus and Thor in one god. In the roots of the above oak tree is Volos, a horned serpentine being who gnaws at the tree and is frequently put in his place by Perun. He is also the god of the underworld, wealth, magic, and music. So he's Hades and Loki, not all evil but associated with a lot of dark things. I thought that was a great simple mythology for a game world.

The idea took root. I'd love to play a setting that was more Russian/Slavic influenced than the typical Western European-style medieval world. I tend to go towards Britain-style fantasy, but that always leads me to a more primitive Celtic world. That's just where my mental rails go. There's lots of cool medieval weirdness that's associated with a later time period, and I could mix that with a Slavic setting and keep the pagan bits, because that area converted fairly late, around the 8th-11th century. That's also when the viking were ravaging Europe, including parts of Russia (the name actually comes from the word "Rus", used to describe the foreign pirates--they became the ruling class).


Koschei the Deathless, warrior lich
So here's broad strokes: Russian and Eastern European legends, dark forests and mountains, vampires and werewolves, a christian-style church that's mostly popular with the nobility, peasants who pay lip service to the church while still honoring the old ways openly, any elements of medieval life and folklore I can shoehorn in. I'm not even sure about system, I'd love to do more Dungeon World but its got so much flavor built into the classes that sometimes it doesn't fit a setting. I'm a little over D&D on the other hand, and people tend to bring their system assumptions with them.

I spoke recently that a setting needs to be compelling. It has to draw the characters into adventure. I'm thinking using 13th Age's icons as inspiration, and coming up with several powerful characters that can influence the setting. The Midgard setting from Kobold Press has articles on icons for that setting, including the Baba Yaga. I'll use that for some inspiration. 

Baba Yaga, making a skull lantern
Influences--Hellboy, Dracula, Slavic mythology, Vampire (Tzimisce, Nosferatu), Werewolf (Silver Fangs, Shadow Lords), Midgard setting, Ravenloft setting (Barovia, Vistani), Hemlock grove, Codex Slavorum (not out yet!), Stravinsky

Characters/Monsters--Baba Yaga, vampires, werewolves, gypsies, Koschei the deathless, firebird, zmey (dragon), domovoi (house spirit), likho (bad luck goblin), vodyanoy and rusalka (mermen and women)