Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Random Thoughts: Up or Out, Overreach, Gaming Enlightenment, and No Endgame for Games Writing

One of the things that happens when you write regularly is that you end up gradually expanding the scope of what you do. With me it happens in sort of a punctuated equilibrium that’s preceded by an odd blend of exasperation and despair. It’s hard to transition because the new topic just isn’t your beat and you aren’t ready for it! It’s nerve wracking. I went from doing mostly Car Wars, to doing classic D&D, to attempting a range of general gaming features, to general game design, and now… to old science fiction and fantasy. Each expansion resulted in a doubling of the size of my audience. I think a lot of the blogs that go dark are due to the writers being unwilling expand their scope. It’s really an “up or out” kind of thing. If you’re not growing, you eventually quit.

So the designer of Domains At War did this talk: People are Getting Smarter…Content is Getting Dumber: Alexander Macris at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity. Now, he’s talking about trends that I am being exposed to all the time lately, so this was my comment:

The Appendix N reading list is pitched to a significantly deeper level than comparable literature from the past couple of decades. It is also more diverse, displaying a wider range of tropes, concepts, and situations. The voices and tone are also from all over the map ideologically. Reading one of these books a week is a very modest commitment of time, but it can change the way you think.

I must have overreached here to some extent, because I immediately received RPGPundit’s flames of divine nemesis. I have been wondering lately when I was finally going to jump the shark in my Appendix N series, and this was it. Heh.

I haven’t really gotten a lot of negative reaction on the series. Aside from that one accusation of engaging in yellow journalism, most of the heated discussion has been with people that are completely unfamiliar with the books. People outside of the science fiction scene mostly do not want to hear about how significant Edgar Rice Burroughs is. They don’t want to hear that Conan is really jam packed with a surprising amount moral virtue. People that are really enjoying gaming the way that it is don’t want to hear the ravings of madmen that act like they can become enlightened just by picking over a few old books.

But it is mind blowing. To see someone like Poul Anderson take the antecedents of modern fantasy and take them in a completely different direction than what Tolkien was doing. To see bits and pieces of what would become D&D so plainly laid out in the work of Vance, Anderson, Zelazny, and Gardner Fox. To see that Edgar Rice Burroughs is a primary influence on Superman, Star Wars, and D&D. To see that Conan thoroughly embodied the values and integrity of the rugged and hardworking men of Depression era Texas. To see that the now nearly unknown author A. Merritt fairly well bridges the gap between Burroughs and Lovecraft in a surprisingly original way. And to see just how often science fiction and fantasy tended to merge together back before the eighties: with space aliens showing up in swords & sorcery tales and fantasy settings being set so often in a star spanning far future universe.

I read a book from the Appendix N list every week and I am consistently surprised at what I find there. I’m truly staggered by it… and if I try to explain it, people think I am flat out crazy. But the fact that trashy “low brow” throwaway pulp fiction can do this… provide this kind of “Allegory of the Cave” type experience… that in and over itself is staggering. But no one believes me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of the positive feedback that I do get is from the people that have already read most of these books and are glad to see someone else finally come to their senses. That’s pretty much it at this point! Everyone else… they think I’m totally nuts….

But this is what I don’t get: I like interactive fiction. I have played and reviewed a lot of small, “indie” projects over the past few years. I am pretty critical of the big monetized glossy slick dumbed down games. I’ve even written rants about how the industry doesn’t define my hobby. I am completely underwhelmed by the big AAA video game lines. And now… I’m off on some tangent of what is effectively literate role playing game design. (Though it makes me gag to come right out and say that.) Take all of that together… and… (oh no) I’m basically in the exact same boat as Leigh Alexander. (For those just now tuning in, Leigh Alexander recently made a big splash by essentially firing off the first shot in this huge brawl over Gamergate.)

So… if we’re so much alike, why does she rub me the wrong way? Aren’t we both sort of nonconformist types with an iconoclastic streak…? Aren’t we basically coming at games from similar off the wall angles…? Aren’t we both looking for something… more….?

Now, when I asked this over on my google+ feed, I was really looking for an answer that could strip away of the standard political and religious type of antagonism. (Just asking the question like that, it does look like I’m mostly fishing for compliments, but… this really was an honest question.) Anyway, Rick Stump chimed in that the difference is one of approach: descriptive versus prescriptive. Interesting.

I think descriptive writing is more likely to be useful to people of diverse opinions and objectives. The problem with prescriptive writing is that it leaves you in the distinctly narrower role of merely building the morale of people that already agree with you. I know that for me, the latter just isn’t an option. If the past few decades of noodling around has shown me anything it’s that my meager attempts at polemics are the least persuasive things in existence. Attempting to articulate things as they are is controversial enough, there’s just no call to go out and add fuel to the flames… especially given how small the potential audience is here in the first place.

In the process of sorting this out, I uncovered this:

“I have a freelance job with Gamasutra that allows me to not starve. But as everyone’s been saying, the market for games writing has contracted massively. I now make about half what I used to a few years ago, despite having grown in experience and in reach…. There’s really not yet a significant market for mature games writing — you hear that time and time again — and moreover, there is no endgame for a mature games writer. It’s about time for someone like me to think about the fact that at this rate I’ll never have a financially-healthy adulthood or be able to start a family.” — Leigh Alexander

Now, I think Lewis Pulsipher has made it fairly clear that no one is going to make a lot of money in game design. And there are plenty of top notch fiction writers that can’t or won’t quit their day jobs. This shouldn’t be surprising, but I’m still flummoxed by this. It’s just really disappointing to hear that someone doing something that I wish I could be doing just… can’t… make it. This is someone that could fill an auditorium at XOXO with cheering fans, too. She has connections and bona fides and credits that I will probably never have… and she’s basically at a dead end.

No wonder she and so many people in her line could so casually commit career suicide like that. They didn’t have anything to lose. I wonder what happened that could cause the market for games writing to go away like that…?

Blog Watch: The Face in the Frost, Dishonest Fascists, Tulkinghorn, and the Death of Play

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs — “This is good stuff. The magic here is mysterious and dangerous. It’s creepy… and yet this hapless monk can’t seem to stop himself. He refuses to take the proper precautions and ends up in sort of a cross between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Twilight Zone. But this is only the beginning.”

Appendix N ( Advanced Readings in D&D: John Bellairs — “The magic is messy in this book. It often doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as intended, and even when it does work, it’s not the sort of magic that’s super-powerful wizard laser beams or massive fireballs. It’s cantrip-type stuff. Enchanted mirrors. Little magical trinkets. Making notes and drawings in books. Trying to find the card and the right word that makes the stone bridge go boom.”

Video Games (The Escapist) Shadow of Mordor: Storytelling in a Middle-earth Game — “Games that have fixed stories exhaustively told with lengthy cutscenes can have their charms, I suppose, but they’re over with when the script ends, and a story that is being crafted on the fly around me and my actions seems to get me invested much more efficiently with considerably less effort.”

Post-Apocalyptic (Dice, Doubloons and Random Musings) A Once-Green And Pleasant Land: A Bullet for Cromwell — “Without an overwhelming catastrophe like a nuclear exchange, the products of civilization continue to exist even though civilization itself has fallen apart, and are there to be scavenged and repurposed. That’s why everyone in The Road Warrior is wearing piecemeal armor made out of leather jackets, football pads, scrap metal, i.e., whatever they could scrounge up and put together. In fact, watching the film, apart from the centrality of vehicular combat, most of the fight scenes have a decidedly medieval vibe to them, as people fight with crossbows and melee weapons. Guns are now luxury weapons, highly-sought-after for their lethality but no longer really in production….”

Writing (Brad R. Torgersen) When is it okay to quit? — “But there ought to be a point of clarity. A realistic look in the mirror. A limit past which sanity tells you that you’re doing something self-destructive. That the void you’re trying to fill (with Passion A) is actually just a process of digging your hole deeper. When what you really need is to go discover Passion B (or C or D or E, ad infinitum) and allow those seed(s) to sprout, and blossom, in the soil of your soul.”

Hold on… The TRUTH didn’t matter? (Monster Hunter Nation) Fisking the Deseret News’ anti-CCW article — “It wasn’t just the USU police, but the FBI that specialize in internet crimes that said this threat was bunk. Hell, I’m not exactly a cybercrimes expert, but I read it and scoffed. It was written like it came from somebody whose knowledge of weapons and violence came from reading the newspaper (hint, actual gun experts don’t talk about their “semi-automatic” weapons). Not to mention they tracked it back to originating in Brazil, so he’d have to fly to another continent, catch another flight to Utah, and last time I looked the TSA frowns on pipe bombs in your carry-on luggage. So logistically after he comes to another hemisphere, he could try to illegally procure weapons as a non-resident or procure bomb materials on unfamiliar territory, without attracting attention, all while planning an attack on new ground in a very short period of time, and then pull it off in a place where the audience can shoot him.”

Appendix N (Black Gate) Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: The Doom that Came to Sarnath by H. P. Lovecraft — “The Doom That Came to Sarnath was the second volume of H. P. Lovecraft stories published under the BAF imprint. It served as a bridge between the Dunsanian fantasies of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and the Cthulhu Mythos related titles that followed. Many of the stories in this volume weren’t published until years after they were written or were published in amateur press publications of the day. These days, we’d call them fanzines. The contents include the aforementioned Dunsanian fantasies, some traditional horror stories, and some early Mythos tales. Also included are a few prose poems and one selection of Lovecraft’s verse.”

The Dragon (Black Gate) Art of the Genre: The Top 10 Dragon Magazine Covers of the 1970s & 80s — “Perhaps the most controversial cover ever used on Dragon Magazine, art director Roger Raupp had to go to great lengths to get this witch properly covered, and Editor Kim Mohan certainly took a good deal of blowback from it. Still, it is gorgeous, with the divine feminine raising itself up to the full moon in all its Wiccan glory. Artist David Martin only got two covers for Dragon, this one being his final, probably because Raupp didn’t want to deal with any more spankings from Mohan, but whatever the case, #114 still sticks out in most gamers minds as a triumphant divergence from the pure D&D fare most covers received.”

Video Games (The Escapist) Shadow of Mordor is Tawdry Tolkien Fanfiction  — “This is even more infantile when you realize that one of the themes of the books is that revenge — and the lust for it — is poisonous and destructive. In the original work, the forces of good win at the end because nobody had the heart to murder Gollum, even though they all knew he deserved it. The Hobbits were the key to victory not because they were fierce and cunning, but because they were guileless and gentle. Their innocence protected them from the allure of a ring that devoured normal guys just like Talion: Guys who want to solve the world’s problems by stabbing.”

AD&D (Don’t Split the Party) When the Wise Man Points at the Moon the Fool Looks at the Wise Man’s Finger — “Do you know what this means?! This means every wizard that knows both Clairvoyance and Teleport is effectively a one-man space program with access to FTL travel! If you have Teleport without Error or similar in your campaign it means there isn’t even that much risk involved!”

D&D (B/X Black Razor) Hating on Lizards — “Actually, in reading a few articles on-line about where these critters came from (many derived from Gygax’s mind…at least their abilities, if not their names and images)…I see I’m waaay off base in my assumptions. Many times, Gygax was just “stretching things” to make them fit the needs of his campaign. Many images of iconic monsters (like kobolds and pig-faced orcs) simply come from the artist’s rendering (and we’ve been using those images, incorporating them into the stats and background color ever since). Well, at least that’s better than simply making monsters to fill a niche created by a class ability.”

Bitte, Bitte (Washington Post) Inside Gamergate’s (successful) attack on the media — “‘If you’re concerned with ethics in games journalism, the best thing you can do is contribute to an atmosphere where journalists are not afraid to speak their mind,’ said Ian Miles Cheong, the editor-in-chief of Gameranx. ‘When you target a writer’s livelihood because you disagree with their opinion, you’re enabling the hostile atmosphere that leads to silence and dishonesty.'”

The End of Gawker (Gawker) How We Got Rolled by the Dishonest Fascists of Gamergate — “Mercedes-Benz—listed on the site as a former partner, and therefore a target—briefly paused its ads on a network that serves ads to Gawker. I’ve been told that we’ve lost thousands of dollars already, and could potentially lose thousands more, if not millions. Consequently, the editorial director of Gawker Media, Joel Johnson, took to the front page of Gawker to clarify that Sam Biddle does not want to bully anyone, and that Gawker Media as a company and institution is not pro-bullying.”

Appendix N (2 Warps to Neptune) ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ from The Dragon #12 — “The column was penned by two genre legends: Rob Kuntz, co-author of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and the first edition Deities & Demigods (1980), and J. Eric Holmes, author of the first D&D Basic Set (1977). H.P. Lovecraft was, of course, listed as an ‘immediate influence’ upon AD&D in Gygax’s famous Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). Despite having little to do with the heroic fantasy genre as we know it, Lovecraft’s oeuvre is consistently identified with it, and has been just as influential on the development of fantasy role-playing as Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft’s long-distance friend.”

The Original Old School (Charles Dickens) Bleak House — “The old gentleman is rusty to look at, but is reputed to have made good thrift out of aristocratic marriage settlements and aristocratic wills, and to be very rich. He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is of what is called the old school — a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young — and wears knee-breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings. One peculiarity of his black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when not professionaly consulted. He is found sometimes, speechless but quite at home, at corners of dinner-tables in great country houses and near doors of drawing-rooms, concerning which the fashionable intelligence is eloquent, where everybody knows him and where half the Peerage stops to say ‘How do you do, Mr. Tulkinghorn?’ He receives these salutations with gravity and buries them along with the rest of his knowledge.”

D&D (I’ll See It When I Believe It) Reverse Level Benefits for AD&D — “When a magic-user finds and learns a new spell, they earn the spell’s level squared x1,500xp (e.g. finding and learning a 2nd level spell earns 6,000xp, a 5th level spell earns 37,500xp).”

History (Edith Hamilton) An Excerpt From “The Greek Way” — “Wretched people, toiling people, do not play. Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The life of the Egyptian lies spread out in the mural paintings down to the minutest detail. If fun and sport had played any real part they would be there in some form for us to see. But the Egyptian did not play. ‘Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children,’ said the Egyptian priest to the great Athenia. At any rate, children or not, they enjoyed themselves. They had physical vigor and high spirits and, too, for fun. The witness of the games is conclusive. And when Greece died and her reading of the great enigma was buried with her statues, play, too, died out of the world. The brutal, bloody Roman games had nothing to do with the spirit of play. They were fathered by the Orient, not by Greece. Play died when Greece died and many and many a century passed before it was resurrected.”

The End of Gamasutra (Youtube) Leigh Alexander, Writer – XOXO Festival (2014) — “In general my approach often puts me at extreme odds with the typical gamer fan type of reader for various reasons. I’m a polarizing figure, but I’m thriving even still– despite the fact that I’ve deliberately alienated the traditional audience, somehow I still have a career; that gives me a lot of hope.”

The Horror… The Horror (Hack & Slash) On What to Do With a Dragon Corpse — “By the time I actually got to act, I had already lost nearly 100 hit points. The dragon took flight, and breathed on as many targets as he could. At this point, only being the barbarian and the 1/2 orc monk. I did 56 points of damage. You’d think this would be deadly to a 1st level monk and a 3rd level barbarian. They both save. 28 hit points leaves the barbarian with 10, and the monk, being a half-orc, is not killed outright, so remains standing with 1 hit point.”

Guest Post: Bird Masks and Ghostly Haunts

Session 4

As novitiates, Abraxo and Guruff pair up with a level 1 mentor from the Maidens and Magi, respectively. The mentors are full members of their cults, with the PC novitiates technically subordinate to them. These NPCs were not simply meat shields doing the party’s bidding. They didn’t lead, but they occasionally advised or issued cautionary observations and insights.
Sativa— fighter, HP5, AC5, short sword.
Souvlacus— MU, HP3, AC9, silver dagger, ventriloquism.

Their first stop is the last unexplored, non-cultist room on Tier 3. They peek in, see noxious yellow fungus coating everything and poke it from the hall with a pole sending spores everywhere. They wisely burn it out and depart.

Shunning the descending ramp and the ghouls, they descend a hatch to Room 35 on Tier 4. They opt for the less-trafficked east door (the one Sativa and Souvlakus have never used).

While there may once have been adventurous Cynidiceans, they are now a rarity. The cultists shun parts of the Ziggurat not actively in use by them, and they always take the safest and most direct route to their quarters. Only drug addled or insane Cynidiceans wander unknown hallways.

Creeping slowly through eerie stone halls (ever alert for traps and secret doors) brings the party to Room 36 (Chamberlin’s Burial Room), at whose locked door they hear nothing. They batter it open, heedless of the noise. Zombies shamble out into the hall one by one, and are dealt with without too much fuss. The room is empty of treasure.

Now eager for more action and booty, they move west and crash into Room 40 (Master Thief’s Burial Room), which contains a carrion crawler. With seven attacks against the 13HP creature, they should have had no trouble. But Souvlacus refused to get close enough to engage (he was often “defending the rear”). Almost everyone else fell to the paralyzing tentacles… except for Wilfer the paralytic-immune Elf. [Throughout the campaign, Matt would cast many low to-hit rolls, such that Wilfer didn’t shine very often. This was one of his better moments.]

While juices of the hacked-to-pieces carrion crawler leak everywhere, Wilfer and Souvlakus attend to the unconscious, bar the door, and search the room. When the others awake, they help pry precious gems off the coffin. They also locate, and promptly forget, a set of lock picks on the mummified corpse.

Everyone is operational after about an hour. They creep north along the 250’ hall. A dead-end hall to the east infuriates them when they are unable to find the secret door they know must be there. At the northern end, someone triggers the pressure plate outside the door to Room 39 (Rolling Boulder Trap).

There is a low rumble in the darkness ahead, quickly growing to a cacophony, like a castle wall collapsing. They hear and feel a tremendous thud, followed by another and another… accelerating towards them. The lantern doesn’t penetrate far enough to see, and the darksight of elf and dwarves makes out only a vague mass.

They panic. Each has their own escape plan and I do not let them coordinate. Most dive into the unknown of Room 39. Guruff flees to the dead-end hall, while Wilfer flees all the way south and back around to where the zombies were. Guruff is the only one to get a glimpse a stone mass run by on two stout legs. A few moments later a crash and then silence. He creeps south to see a mound of stone blocks strewn everywhere. Wilfer is isolated on the other side.

The main group stumbling into 39a (Noble Lady’s Burial Room) find a surreal scene. A sarcophagus dominates the room, lit by flames emanating from brass jars at each end. Four Cynidiceans, clad in bird masks and papier-mâché wings, “fly” around the room. They leap atop the sarcophagus in fright when “Carl” and Honey Boo-Boo snap at them. The party quickly concludes that these folk pose no threat.

Meanwhile, As Guruff and Wilfer wonder how to rejoin, the mass of rocks takes shape again. Once more they flee, only to hear it return and reset into the north wall from which it came.

[This is one spot where the module as-is (with a giant, ten foot diameter boulder never having been triggered in hundreds of years) bends credulity too far. The existence of this un-triggered trap is one of the reasons Philotomy gave for his modifications to the Ziggurat—in particular, creating the hatch to from Tier 3 to 35 to facilitate movement of the cultists through this extremely dangerous level (and to bypass this trap). Anyway, a multi-ton boulder can’t put itself back in place, and I couldn’t imagine the cultists or Goblins having reason to reset it either. So, I turned it into a no-stat magical-summoned/created earth elemental-type-thing, meant more to scare than to harm, with the ability to reset itself.]

This whole chaotic mess, while harmless, gave the players a lot to puzzle and fret over. Unseen threats are way scarier than those seen and fully described. RPGs are like horror films this way—the imagination produces more anxiety than the eyes.

The heatless flame in the brass jars presents a puzzle too, which they eventually just accept. They find a partial map of this tier hidden in a jar, and though it does not give them new intelligence, they enjoy figuring out how it relates to their map.

After stripping the “birds” of their masks, freaking them out a bit (“You ripped off our faces!”), the reassembled party makes it last stop in Room 37 (Giant Rat Lair). The rats score a few nibbles, and the PCs slice some rat. The rest flee, and the party burns out the nest, eventually salvaging two valuable gems from the ashes.

Satisfied with the foray, most return to the safety of Tier 3 and the Magi (Abraxo and Sativa to the Maidens).

Session 4 ends with no fatalities, some small wounds, and 5635xp divided among five PCs and two NPCs. The Halfling, Abraxo, is the first to level 2.

Session 5

During the party’s couple hour absence, four more members of the Expedition stumble up the pyramid and are intercepted by the Magi outside. Too weak from dehydration to be a threat, Auriga and Padoma agree to provide succor in 19a, the Magi’s storeroom.

I had a list of about twenty NPCs from the Caravan. I didn’t have a fixed method of how and when to introduce them. I kind of had in mind to start with one or two small batches, before eventually bringing in the balance of them. For this first Caravan event, I rolled a D6 for number and then a D20 to determine who.

The list included four NPCs who could pose a real problem for the Party (either by virtue of outranking them, or having an agenda, or both). There were four likely to be genuinely helpful and competent combatants. The rest were mostly for color, potentially of use if handled creatively.

The Party drew– Eves, lead animal handler; Rudolph, scrivener; and the pair Mengelev and Dongalev, mercenary bodyguards of Viscount Langardeaux. These last two were 3rd level fighters, brave, smart and capable of independent planning and action. Their main goal was survival, but once they realized that booty was on tap, that became a competing priority. Anyway, it was a good role for this group.

The four were too weak for much other than chit chat, so the party decided to set out again after a brief rest.

Accompanied again by Souvlacus and Sativa they descend the hatch and this time head west along halls known to the Cultists. Unlike Cultists, they batter down doors. In Room 29 (Embalming Room) they do not disturb the many pots and tools laying about, thereby avoiding the Shadows, but no treasure.

Room 30 is empty except for the requisite sarcophagus and wall engravings depicting scenes of history or biography.

Outside Room 27 (Councilor’s Burial Room), they note with apprehension that a lower corner of the stone door has been chipped or gnawed away. Undeterred, they bust in. As they approach the coffin, three furious blurs of hair and razor sharp claws launch at them. The shrews kill “Carl” and almost kill Guia in the initial attack. The PCs prevail, but it is a near thing and there is no treasure here either. They retreat to the Storeroom to rest.

Still unconscious and feverish hours later, Guia is left behind attended by Auriga. The rest sally down the ramp to Room 31 (Guard Captain’s Burial Room). In one corner stands a mummy, exquisitely armed and armored, lined by skeletons holding short swords. The front pair enters cautiously. At the front of the marching order this time, Sativa and Abraxo are immediately assailed. Deciding that six vs. nine is too risky, most of the party withdraws. But Sativa is left inside, blocked by skeletons from escaping… and the PCs shut the door locking her inside with the undead. They hear her fierce struggle, a cry of pain, and then silence.

Chagrined, they go to the Maidens to report the tragic loss, editing the account somewhat. Padoma is absent, having descended to the City to check on developments there. Guruff delivers a rousing speech and works the remaining Maidens into a frenzy. They cannot let the death of one of their own go un-avenged, and they certainly can’t leave her on Tier 4 where she will surely swell the ranks of the undead horrors if her body is not recovered.

The Party, now reinforced by six Maidens, burst into Room 31 and shatter the skeletons. Their blood up, they are persuaded to sweep the Tier of evil.

In the hall where the ghouls killed Raina and Blaise (in Session 2), a figure shambles towards them. It is the gnawed-on corpse of Raina the elf. Pausing only a moment to shed a single tear, they cut her down and move on. The two remaining ghouls are decimated. The High Priest’s mummy is unceremoniously stripped of jewelry, before the rampage goes on.

East, they run into 25a (Ghostly Haunts). Two shimmering figures, the very likeness of centuries-dead King Alexander and Queen Zenobia, curse the living interlopers and threaten death if they flee not. Wilfer and all of the Maidens (fail their save and) flee.

Guruff recklessly passes through the haunts and is unharmed. The rest refuse to follow, so he follows the winding passageway alone. It leads to a dead end and he knows there must be a secret door or trap somewhere. With the Party now scattered, he jogs back and everyone regroups once more at the Storeroom.

2980xp is divided among three full-share PCs (Guruff, Abraxo, Igollad), two PCs played in absentia (Wilfer, Guia), Souvlacus and the six Maidens. Guruff and Igollad reach level 2.

By this time, the new players kind of know what they’re doing. They’re not seasoned veterans. They hesitate at unusual places and aren’t attuned to some things the way a veteran player might be. Dickie often steers them in traditional FRPG directions, but he’s actually not the most blood-thirsty hack n’ slasher of the bunch.

They’ve fully embraced the surface level intent of the module—leverage NPC help and go find lots of treasure. I don’t think they know why they’re doing it. But they know it’s fun!

Blog Watch: Changeling Earth, Pirates, Golems, and Reactionary Rage

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: Changeling Earth by Fred Saberhagen — ” Of course, as D&D evolved it became so much more conventional and self-referential that it is now hard to imagine this book having any impact at all on the game’s milieux. But when AD&D was just about the only game in town, Gary Gygax intentionally designed it with a wide open multiverse at the Dungeon Master’s disposal. Whether as a brief themed sublevel in a funhouse dungeon or as a fully realized parallel world, he intended referees to have the latitude to be as creative as they wished, even going so far as to encourage them to shift temporarily into other game systems!”

Appendix N ( Advanced Readings in D&D: Fred Saberhagen — “And that’s the problem with Changeling Earth. Its background becomes its foreground and makes everything else—all the things that Saberhagen spends so many pages describing, at the human level—seem so trite. Maybe that’s the point. That humanity is insignificant compared to the forces it has unleashed upon itself. But really, my takeaway is that sentient godlike supercomputers and demonic nuclear bombs are way more interesting to read about than the little guys that run around the planet trying to pretend what they do matters in the larger scheme of things. So why did Gygax include it as the lone Saberhagen inclusion in Appendix N? Sorry, I’m too distracted by the explosive battle between Ardneh and Orcus to pay attention.”

Adventure Design (Semper Initiativus Unam) How Not to Write an Adventure  — “The main responsibility of the adventure is that it becomes plot when PCs are exposed to it. This requires it to have potential conflict, or the seeds of conflict, within it. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy; it’s just another way of saying there should be monsters and/or NPCs standing between the PCs and what they want. A dungeon will often do this literally, for instance by having the quintessential orc and pie. If the PCs decide they want pie, that instantly transforms into conflict between the PCs and the orc. Nothing fancy is required, and it can be as detailed or simple as the referee prefers.”

Realism (Just the Caffeine Talking) Work In Progress: Corsair (Part 2) — “I think the tension in pirate fiction derives from two facts: 1) People think pirates were cool and romantic, and 2) Pirates were a horrible bunch of amoral sociopaths. The modern pirates of Somalia are following exactly in the tradition of their Jolly Roger predecessors, except that they use motorboats and AK-47s instead of fast sloops and cutlasses. So unless one wants to create a work of fiction which realistically depicts a bunch of amoral sociopaths in action (and now I wish someone would hire Quentin Tarantino to make a pirate movie), you kind of have to soft-pedal the looting, raping, and murdering in favor of rope-swinging stunts and buried chests of gold.”

AD&D (The Hill Cantons) AD&D’s Apocalypse and Hereafter — “AD&D’s isn’t just a hard-fought world that merely experienced the fall of great empires centuries before, it’s one where humanity came close to the abyss in the recent past—and has stayed there. It’s on that stage of pure chaos that player-character, the rootless opportunists knocked out of the fabric of society, find themselves adventuring in.”

AD&D (The Escapist) How Did Golems Go From Jewish Mysticism to D&D Icons? — “Golems first appeared in games in 1975, when D&D’s first supplement Greyhawk included flesh, stone and iron golems. The creature’s appeal seems obvious, in retrospect, since golems allowed Gygax to include what are essentially killer robots in a fantasy setting. But more than introducing golems to games, D&D also changed them for a generation of role-players. Importing golems into a world where Judaism didn’t exist largely broke them with their religious overtones, allowing them to evolve into a different creature entirely. This began with separating golems into subtypes based on their material, an action that made their points of reference closer to science fiction than mysticism.”

Appendix N (Black Gate) The Fantasy Roots of Fan Fiction — “The father of the modern fantasy pastiche is L. Sprague de Camp, who made a multi-decade career reworking Robert E. Howard’s Conan. We know Howard spent four years writing Conan stories, from 1932 to 1936, producing roughly three book’s worth in the process. In the two decades de Camp spent writing Conan, he produced far more than Howard did: six full-length novels and a dozen collections, mostly in collaboration with other writers like Björn Nyberg and Lin Carter. When de Camp died, his brand of Conan story quickly fell out of favor, and his Conan pastiches are not highly regarded today — certainly not when compared with the brilliant work of Robert E. Howard, anyway. But there’s little disputing the fact that he kept the property alive for several decades, and without de Camp, it’s possible the name Conan (or even Robert E. Howard) wouldn’t be nearly as well known today.”

Game Design (Robert Fisher: Thinking out loud (3.0)) Thoughts while watching the conversation between John and Zak — “When I am attempting to design a conventional game, I am trying to make a closed system. When I am attempting to design a role-playing game, I am trying to leave things open for player creativity and referee rulings. So the difference between a conventional game and a role-playing game isn’t that the rules tell you to role-play but that the rules leave space for role-playing.”

AD&D (Black Gate) Art of the Genre: The Top 10 TSR Cover Paintings of All Time — “Maybe that is why it is so good, because there were no art directors heavily involved, and no corporate suits to edit what is and is not politically correct/economically viable in it. TSR’s ownership at the time was comprised of hardcore gamers, and thus they saw themselves in the painting and ‘went for it.’ In the end, there is little wonder that when TSR turned corporate, Trampier’s ‘stripped naked’ vision of the hobby was replaced with Easley’s more acceptable wizard and flying mini-demons, but in a way it just makes this cover all the more special.”

Campaign Design (Save Versus All Wands) Your Campaign Setting: Middle-Earth or Narnia? — “What works for successful fiction does not necessarily work for successful campaign design from the point of view of gaming, or more accurately, fun gaming. Plenty of referees and players have discovered (partly through purchasing Middle-Earth settings such as the 1980’s I.C.E effort) that Middle Earth is neat to have as a setting for a story but in the end is often pretty boring to play a fantasy adventure game in.”

Appendix N (Semper Initiativus Unam) The roots of the game — “Including elements from Lord of the Rings was decisively different from any other major elements of D&D. They were strategic, because — let me be blunt here — they were much more popular than fantasy of the type preferred by Gygax. LotR took fantasy out of the ‘pulp’ magazine and put it into the paperback book. D&D was released at a point in time when Tolkien became popular that the utterly hacklike Sword of Shannara was published just because it was like Lord of the Rings. This was clever marketing on Gygax’s part, as well; by injecting Tolkienesque elements in the game, he made it relatable to a much larger audience than the pulp fantasy connoisseur like himself. To go out on a limb, I don’t think D&D would’ve been nearly as successful if it weren’t so easy for an aficionado of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings to slip into it with familiar assumptions.”

Gaming in the News (Daily Beast) Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage — “Just like, to delve into the weird side of geekdom for a moment, ‘legitimate’ debates about whether older or newer versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules are better turn into an excuse for the Manly Men of Role-Playing Games (or, as we say in D&D jargon, ‘grognards’) to rear their ugly heads and rile up a mob against the ‘politically correct hipsters’ infesting their hobby.”

Guest Post: Slithering Horror, Ten Foot Poles, and a Dog Named Honey Boo-Boo

The next session saw two new players. These were old friends who had introduced me to the other three, and had created characters weeks before. These two were also entirely new to RPGs, though they’d heard me talk about them for a couple years.

  • Igollad, lawful Cleric, AC2, HP16 (lvl 3); Str14, Int5, Wis11, Dex11, Con13, Cha7 (Sebastian)
  • Guia, lawful Dwarf, AC4, HP 8 (lvl 2); Str13, Int10, Wis11, Dex10, Con14, Cha8 (Steisha)

CharGen had taken a very long time largely because these two really agonized over equipment. I encouraged everyone to use one of the Fast Packs on the rear panel of the module. Everyone supplemented from the equipment list. But Steisha and Sebastian really thought long and hard over how to squeeze out every GP of value.

I mentioned in passing that they could acquire things not on the equipment list, as long as they were mundane, or they took the effort to explain from the in-character perspective why they’d have this or that thing, or were otherwise reasonable. Well, they went to town probing me for what freebies they might get. They came up with things like mortar & pestle, prayer rug, cooking herbs, wooden box, fishing net, mirror (glass not polished metal), pair of tongs, pipe (smoking not music), and a terrier (a dog named Honey Boo-Boo). Most of this would not matter at all. I just found it funny that, while they didn’t know how to metagame or take advantage of any other aspect of D&D, they aggressively pushed it for equipment.

So, session three had four players and the entire team of five PCs—Halfling, two Dwarves, Cleric and Elf (run in absentia)—all still level 1. Guia and Igollad make their way through the introductions, killing a Stirge outside along the way, and stumbled onto the others en route to the Magi of Usamigaras.

This was one of many times that Guruff’s Charisma bonus helped the party avoid combat and make friends. The leader, Auriga Sirkinos, took to Guruff immediately. Halflings, Dwarves and Elves do not exist in my Cynidicea. They are known from the historical record, but only as relics of a distant past. They found the Halfling Abraxo delightfully cute, and the Elf Wilfer inherently exotic and alluring.

Guia’s terrier they found wondrous beyond description—an immediate object of covetousness. In Cynidicea they still have insects, reptiles and some mammals. But, like some humanoids, many are long lost and known only from illustrations in ancient folios. Their memory kept alive mainly by the colorful masks worn by every human Cynidicean.

The PCs and Magi talk at length, and visit Topside, where the Cynidiceans stare in wonder at open sky for the first time in three generations. The PCs notice that the night sky is fundamentally wrong. Stars are out place. Where the moon should be new, it is now nearly full. Auriga has no notions as to why this is. The Magi have kept careful charts and records of the movements of the heavens. He confirms that the constellations in the sky do not match the ancient records of his people from before the Fall, four centuries ago. Also that this is the same experience noted during every other “return of Topside” since the Fall.

Auriga and the other Magi then delve into study and contemplation. When the party expresses a desire to poke around the Ziggurat, Auriga steers them towards the abandoned northwest section of Tier 3.

Following the rotating passage they enter the hallway aimed at Room 13. They spot the secret door to 18 (Secret Room). They nudge the basket full of coin. Peeking under the lid, they avoid the first strike of the vipers. Closing the lid, they set the basket on fire, killing the snakes and securing a pretty considerable XP haul.

They enter the door to 17a (Water Trap), which is just an empty chamber, and discover a camouflaged pressure plate in the floor. Everyone exits the room but for Guia, who taps the plate with a wooden pole. The door slams shut and the room rapidly starts to fill with water from vents up high in the wall. The Dwarf, in chainmail, is quickly submerged. The others debate how to release him, looking for a trigger to open the door. They don’t know B/X and Open Doors, so it only occurs to them to try to force it on the third turn, after which Guia will drown. They make their roll and I do not have to deal with Steisha losing her only character in her first role-playing game.

Soaked, but still unharmed, they creep back to 13 (Abandoned Ceremonial Chamber). Listening at the door, they hear moaning and mumbling. They knock, and the door is yanked open by a creature that is top human and bottom giant snake. It has been crudely sewn together in the midsection to join man and snake. Its hands end in sharp talons and its eyes are reptilian. It moans piteously, body held up high on its coils. As they frantically back away down the hall, it slithers after them, gibbering incoherently about its punishment at the hand of the Priests, and asking if it has been forgiven for its sins. Terrified, they put their backs to wall and keep very still. The horror, expecting punishment or redemption and finding neither, slithers by and out the door. The PCs scoop up the Zardozian ritual artifacts and make their way back to the chambers of the Magi.

During their brief foray, Auriga has conferred with Padoma of the Warrior Maidens about recent developments. Padoma admires the party’s bravery and willingness to explore. She and her entourage also take to Abraxo (the only female PC) and pass the Halfling back and forth among them.

Guruff is offered and accepts membership as a Novitiate with the Magi. Abraxo likewise joins the Maidens. Wilfer (when I next speak with the player Matt) later declines membership with the Magi, who will continue to court him without success throughout the campaign.

In my games, PCs in the absence of the player earn XP at half the rate, like NPCs do. 1810 XP are therefore divided into nine shares, and divvied out—two shares to each PC with a present player and one to Wilfer. Two of them have already exceeded 1000 xp, but none have yet hit level 2.

In contrast to campaign Group 1, this group does not assume that every living thing it meets is evil or dangerous, despite having suffered three fatalities and a fourth near death. They are learning to be open to indirect solutions to problems, whether that means negotiation, retreat or siege. Virtually all of their XP thus far has been earned other than by melee. I find this very much to be in the spirit and intent of B/X.

I feel a need to explain how I played the factions. I’m a bit hesitant, because this is a little un-politically-correct. But I think it helps illustrate something about GMing and role-play in general.

Kanadius and the Brothers of Gor’m I play as a stern, sober, honorable bunch, wary of taking risks and not especially open to new ideas. Auriga and the Magi of Usamigaras (in their multi-colored robes) I play as effete, omni-sexual, decadent, friendly schemers. Padoma and the Warrior Maidens of Maduara are direct, brave, rash, honorable.

I shamelessly use a lilting gay voice for Auriga, and a sassy black woman’s voice for Padoma. It might be lazy, falling back onto obvious stereotype. And I totally get that gayness and blackness ought not to be used as objects of inherent amusement, thereby rendering them implicitly not-normative. The thing is, it works. At least it worked for me and this group. Stereotype in a game can be really fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think most of us have experienced it.

I do know that stereotype, by its very nature, is easy because it’s familiar and accessible. It’s kind of shorthand that can be used to rapidly fill in the blanks of a character’s motivation, personality, appearance, etc. What it discards in depth and sensitivity, it gains in accessibility (to the un-offended anyway). It paints a colorful picture quickly, if two-dimensionally. This is super useful when trying to engage players around a table.

This kind of gets at a broader aspect of my GMing style. I’m a huge planner, researching/inventing the history, geography, politics, etc. of the game world. And I’m very much drawn to making it “realistic” in its way, with reasons for the existence of various humanoid races, monsters, magic, and so on. But in actual game-play, I tend to play up humor and irony where I find it. I don’t run a silly game. But I don’t shut down table banter, however silly, if it’s in-character or about the game-world or adventure.

I think I embrace humor, however lazily, in part because I don’t have access to players who are willing to play the sober game I’m actually more interested in. I’d love to play a hyper-realistic game, where monsters are deemed monstrous, magic wondrous, and NPCs are entirely three-dimensional. But it’s a rare player who would be willing to invest that much psychological effort into taking it that seriously. So, I go for a second-best mode, blending realism and hyperbole.

There’s certainly a longer essay to tease out here, but this isn’t my forum (and I haven’t written it anyway). I just thought I’d throw it out there, because the tone I set for the faction NPCs was a big part of the fun of these campaigns. It occupied a fair bit of screen time, and went a long way towards getting the players to engage.


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