Friday, December 16, 2011

The Assassination Decree

I have discussed this subject before, but wanted to formalize this policy for my Arandish Campaign:

Assassination (see Advanced Edition Companion p. 10) only works in the context of a planned, premeditated assassination attempt, NOT in the middle of standard melee combat -- unless that melee combat is being staged for the purpose of committing the assassination. In other words, "Assassination" does NOT equal "backstab followed by chance of instant death" unless it is as part of a premeditated Assassination attempt. This houseruling may limit how this ability works vis-a-vis the wording in the AEC, but that's how things are in Ara.

"File yer complains with me, filthy human scum!"

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's Vornheim, Charlie Brown!

Says Spawn:

Click to embiggen, naturally.
I took Saturday off from dissertation writing and in addition to starting a batch of sauerruben (fermented turnips) and listening to Wagner and Beethoven, I managed to throw the above image together. It had been percolating in my brain since being reminded of the Vornheim font by this post and learning it can be downloaded here. As was mentioned in the comments, it's so evocative of a specific work that it's not a super-useful font, but it can come in handy for, e.g., Vornheim greeting cards, or similar nonsense like the above.

Had I thought of this a few months ago, this would have been "It's the Great Peryton, Charlie Brown!" I'm sure you can use your imagination for that.

The image comprises elements of original works by Zak S., James E. Raggi IV, Charles M. Schulz, and Andreas Johansson (the electronic font), none of whose claims to copyright or whatever I challenge.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Session 47: Vivuli Makes a Deal

This session occurred on Thursday 11/17/11 and involved PCs Innominus (Clr-6), Dak (Dwf-6), Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard-5), and Vivuli (Assassin-5 / MU-4). NPC Gorgo (Dwf-4, Innominus' follower) was also onboard this time.

Many of our group members were in slightly different real-world locales for this session: Carl was out of town for work-related training, so he Skyped in from San Francisco, CA; Uncle Junkal's and Viv's players met at the former's on-campus office in Eugene, OR (instead of Carl's house as usual); and Spawn and I broadcast from our homes in PA and NY.

That's Uncle Junkal and Viv in the upper left, Spawn in the top center, and Carl next to him.  I'm on the bottom with the camera in front of my face.

The PCs started right where they left off last session, near the center of a vast rectangular chamber with a 600' diameter demonic circle inscribed into the floor.  Uncle Junkal and Vivuli pooled their efforts in order to transcribe the symbols from the demonic circle onto parchments, while Dak and Innominus mapped the perimeter of the vast room, both tasks taking over two hours.

Next, in a kind of bizarre "science" experiment, Viv chucked one of his many rats into the demonic circle. There was a flash of bright orange light and the rat vanished, seeming to fall right through the floor into nowhere. Still curious, the rat-master* tied a 15' string to a second rat, and hucked it after its fellow into the circle. Another flash of orange light and this rat too vanished, the twine spooling out through an invisible portal in the floor. The twine spooled out to its full length; Vivuli reeled it back in to find no rat, only a charred end of twine.

Dak, requiring a bowel movement anyway, took a dump and threw the result into the demonic portal after the rats.

Magmatron? they wondered among themselves.

They also wondered if there might not be more as-yet-undiscovered elevator floors, either above or below those already visited.** So they embarked the elevator once again and started mucking about with the levers, attempting to go up to higher levels (if they existed). The elevator rumbled as usual, then a hideous metal-grinding sound went on for awhile, then all went quiet; the elevator hadn't moved. Viv tried another similar lever combination, again the usual rumble followed by bad-sounding grinding noises but no movement from the elevator

"This elevator is a piece of shit!"
-- Innominus of Endra

Frustrated with the fricking elevator, the party decided to go back upstairs into the country manor to rest overnight. Before retiring, they learned that Prince Arkus was planning to leave with warriors and clerics for the plague-ridden city of Farn Junction early the next day. Grand Vizier Krock would be staying behind at the country manor outside Fortinbras with a minimal house and administrative staff.

Also, before retiring, Vivuli turned himself, Dak, and Gorgo invisible.

The morning of Day 166 of the party's Arandish adventures, Prince Arkus of Minoch left for Farn Junction, while the party returned to the dungeon levels far beneath the manor, selecting the weird metal triangular chamber as their next port of call.

1 square = 20'

Dak approached the wooden door to the strange chamber and opened it; as his hand turned the doorknob he heard a voice inside his mind hiss at him:

"Stay away, puny filth!"

Despite the mental voice's warning, they all went in anyway and, ignoring the disturbing statue of the tentacled thing with no eyes, headed straight for the northern metal door. Innominus cast detect magic upon it; it glowed extremely brightly. The cleric cast dispel magic upon it; sparks flew all over, arcing off the whole surface of the shiny metal door, and then, subtly, the door began to seem less shiny. The door-metal literally became duller-looking before the party's very eyes.

In this moment Vivuli thought to use his x-ray ring to look through the door; no dice.

Dak being Dak, the dwarf swung his New Steel axe fully at the door -- and rolled a natural "20"! His mighty blow left only a minor scratch on the surface of the metal door, and the dwarf could tell that whatever strange metal this was, it was far stronger than anything yet known on Ara.

So Innominus cast dispel magic upon it again, and it dimmed further, and Dak knocked upon it and yelled "open up!" -- to no avail. Innominus threw Holy Water at the door, chanting prayers -- to no avail.

Then Viv walked away from the door and over to the statue of the tentacled thing, placed his hand upon its slimy surface, and asked it to open the door for them.

Projecting thoughts into Vivuli's mind, the statue responded that it would open the door if he (Viv) would agree to grant it one favor.

Distrusting the look of the statue and noticing that Viv was in some kind of fugue state, Innominus threw Holy Water at the statue. The Water instantly boiled off the statue's surface, seemingly ineffectual.

Meanwhile, inside Vivuli's mind, the Chaotic Assassin decided to accept the statue-entity's terms, agreeing to grant it one favor in the future in exchange for its opening the metal door now. Viv removed his hand from the statue and asked his fellow party members to tie him up, in order to prevent his being forced by the statue to attack them or the like.

Then the metal door slid upward into the wall, and a horrific rotten smell bellowed out into the triangular chamber. It smelled like dead things.

The area beyond that metal door looked like this:

Opened metal door at bottom right of map; 1 square = 10'

Pausing briefly to spike the metal door open, Innominus and Dak advanced into the 40' x 30' room, as Uncle Junkal covered them with his crossbow. The ceiling was arched and all the walls, floor and ceiling were metal.  A weird fleshy goop covered most of the floor, and out around the perimeter some small mounds of rotten-smelling fleshy substance grew out of the general pond of goop. Suspecting something green-slime-like, Innominus and Dak prepared oil flasks.

To the east, another shiny metal door in the center of the 30' wall; to the west, an open passageway, also centered in the metal wall.  The group decided to advance westward down the passage, and saw ahead of them a much larger chamber filled with wrecked machinery.  Scraps of metal and various other materials were piled everywhere, and much of this wreckage was also coated with the ubiquitous stinking, fleshy slime.

50' back, the party spotted something moving in the dark depths of the wreckage chamber.  All they could see was an indistinct fleshy mound, but it was definitely advancing toward them.

The party slung oil flasks and shot projectiles, and Innominus cast Prayer.  The blob-thing shot electricity bolts at the PCs in retaliation, but after a short yet intense battle, the PCs managed to neutralize the flesh-blob.  It disintegrated back into the primordial muck of the flesh-slime.

And that is more or less where the session ended.
* Devotees will recall that in Session 44, Vivuli used Conjure Vermin to summon a horde of rats; this session he further announced that he keeps said rats in pockets all throughout his robe -- a "rat-robe."
** So far the PCs have visited four levels via the elevator: (1) the Thoopshib Temple level, from whence they originally came; below that, (2) The Briny level, where they butchered a couple of Ponaturi; below that, (3) the Underwater level with the weird Egg Temple they ransacked; and, atop all the others, (4) the Huge Sulfurous Chamber level, where they began this session.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lands of Ara Enterprises and the OGL

As 2011 draws creepingly to a close, I find myself gearing up for some new Lands of Ara-related endeavors, most notably the compilation and self-publication of the Lands of Ara Compendium 2011.  This project, which I announced here, offered an artwork preview of here, and posted a tentative Table of Contents for here, is going to be the first official publication of Lands of Ara Enterprises, the publishing entity I have formed with my collaborator Spawn of Endra.  My hope is that LAE will function as an "umbrella" or brand identity for future Lands of Ara Compendiums, various adventure modules I plan to release including The Tower of Death, and, in the fulness of time, a Lands of Ara Gazetteer

Obviously, generating content for these projects is not a problem for me: I really enjoy writing gameable stuff, especially adventure modules.  I am also extremely fortunate to have Spawn of Endra as my collaborator / editor-in-chief, for he has a keen eye for (and many technical skills relating to) layout and graphic design. (See, for example, his enlightening queries about Font Use in D&D Products.)

However, where I am still a bit naive and ignorant is in the exact functioning of the OGL and the various legalities behind what I can and can't use from other sources.  Sure, I have picked up on some of the general parameters by reading other people's stuff and consulting posts about various "cautionary tales" -- and the most valuable of these to me is a post by David Macauley wherein he outlines two such tales and follows it up with links to crucial resources for using the OGL properly.  For my own convenience, and to possibly benefit my readers, I will now re-post those important OGL-related links.  I also highly recommend that you check out his original post, esp. the second half. There is also a nice comment by Melan, and some further advice from Matt Finch, which I will excerpt here:

"the OGL can be intimidating if you start by reading the definitions section. In a legal document, capitalized terms are like defined variables. The heavy duty legal language is in the definition of those terms. It is easiest to get familiar with the OGL by skipping the definitions for your first read-through, then reading the definitions to get a better sense of how it works with the details, and then (because you will still be somewhat confused) start going to reputable sources to walk you through it a bit more clearly. Don't rely on those, though; once you have their advice, you should still go back to the OGL for a third reading now that you think you understand how it works."

Now those links:



Thanks, David!

See also Paul Gorman's helpful advice about font use in pdfs.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

First Local LL Game -- Initial Report

Here are a few preliminary details about how this Sunday's local Labyrinth Lord game went. All in all, it was a triumph.

It looks like I will have about five regular players, with one or two others who may drop in and out from time to time. Most of these regulars are veterans of 3.5 and D&D IV play; I have only one truly experienced old-schooler. (More on him in a moment.)

As I said before, I was really hoping to stick to Race-As-Class and other Labyrinth Lord Core Rules conventions, for part of my mission here is to introduce these folks to the mechanics and feel of old-school play, to keep the game as "Moldvay-ish" as possible. In this I was successful: the group conceded to playing LL as writ. Chargen only took one hour, and that time-frame included a lot of discussion about the setting and some gentle guiding of the new-schoolers through the chargen process. Ultimately I had them roll 4d6 (drop the lowest) in order for attributes, then choose their PC's class. All standard LL core classes were available -- even elves!

The session itself was great fun and The Lost City rules! By the end of the session, the PCs had already met their first faction and started negotiating with them, offering to perform a spy mission against one of the other Cynidicean factions in exchange for food and water. They're off!

Full session report to follow.

Related Note: Another Local Game!
That experienced OSR guy I mentioned -- Cid, who ended up playing the party's cleric, Thorgald Thorgaldson, follower of Ragnar -- is starting his own public game at Boldo's Armory, one of the local Rochester area game shops, this coming Sunday. He is running a custom-hacked d20-Lite type system, and setting the campaign in Jeff Rients' Wessex! (From what he says, he literally contacted JR, asked permission to run a campaign in the setting, and apparently received permission plus some background materials and resources from the man himself.) Here is a link to Cid's Obsidian Portal page for the game:

Cid was such a pleasure to play with that as of now I am planning to sit in on his Boldo's campaign on the opposite Sundays from my own local campaign.  Local RPG'ing opportunities abound!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Brockport LL Campaign House Rules

As I mentioned the other day, I am starting a new local Labyrinth Lord campaign here in my home village of Brockport.  I hereby dub this enterprise, to be commenced today (six hours hence), The Brockport Campaign.  This campaign's name refers to the physical locale of the game sessions in the "real" world, as well as the in-game port city from which the PCs hail.  Those PCs have ventured many months' travel west of the prosperous sea port, to find themselves lost in a vast desert. . . .

One ancillary benefit of naming the new game the Brockport Campaign is that the names of my three active campaigns follow an easy-to-memorize A - B - C pattern:

A = Arandish Campaign (commenced 1/18/2010 in Eugene, OR, now plays over Skype)

B = Brockport Campaign (commences 12/4/2011, plays live in Brockport, NY)

C = ConstantCon, Tales From The Hotel Kaladarian (plays in HELL)

At any rate, here are the House Rules I plan* to use for the Brockport Campaign:

Brockport Labyrinth Lord Campaign House Rules

Our campaign shall obey the Labyrinth Lord Core Rules plus:

Shields Shall Be Splintered!
Shields provide the usual +1 bonus to AC. However, they may also be used to "soak" damage from a single attack, thereby reducing damage to zero. Soaking damage destroys the shield.

Shields may also be used against any attack that allows a save for half damage, such as a fireball or dragon's breath. In that case, the shield is destroyed, as above, and the save is considered automatically successful, thereby guaranteeing half damage.

For magical shields, each +1 enchantment bonus gives a 10% chance of surviving a damage soak.

Multiple-Turn Searching for Secret Doors Allowed
This deviates from the "one try only" rule as printed in LL p. 45.

Critical Hits and Fumbles
Any time a player rolls a natural ‘20’ on a to hit roll, it is a critical hit. Damage is doubled.

Likewise, if a player rolls a natural ‘1’ on a to hit roll, it is considered a critical failure or fumble. Typically, this means the combatant hurts himself, drops his weapon, breaks his weapon, or just plain falls down – Labyrinth Lord's discretion.

[EDIT: I removed "The D30 Rule."]

* Note: I anticipate having some veteran players onboard -- I know at least two of my probable attendees have played D&D 3.5 and/or D&D IV at any rate -- so plan to spend a wee bit of time at the top of the first session discussing these house rules and making sure nobody has any strong objections or intriguing suggestions.  For myself, I am really hoping to stick to Race-As-Class and 3d6 in order, for part of my mission here is to introduce these folks to the mechanics and feel of old-school play.  I want the whole thing to be as Moldvay-ish as possible.  So I will resist adding AEC classes as best I can; but I do not want to ruin anybody else's good time either, so we'll see what happens.  I am easily negotiated with.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Las Hurdes: Surrealist Documentary of a D&D Town?

From the world of dissertation madness writes Spawn:

Yesterday I was trying to find a reference to something I had written in a journal of mine from 1994 about labyrinths and illusory walls apropos of a conversation with Carter the other day. Then I got sucked into the journal, this was from a fairly rough period in my life during college. (Note to dissertation writers: Don't move across the country in the middle of writing a diss, and never pull out a journal from 17 years ago. Probably you shouldn't be contributing to a blog either.) And I came across this passage from Nov. 23, 1994, the day before Thanksgiving that year:
Today watched this terrible documentary (Los Hurdas) [sic] about goiter victims and dirt-eating cretins and idiots in Spain. Firecracker murder of mountain goats.
This was in an anthro class, Human Adaptability and Variation, which I absolutely loved, and I presume it was a day-before-Thanksgiving filler. Yesterday I looked this up and found out it was actually called "Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan", (Land without Bread), and depicts the incredibly hard life in the Las Hurdes region in the 1930s, a perennially neglected and shunned area of northern Spain, practically medieval even then. The instructor was making a point about the social abuses of physical anthropology in the early 20th century (e.g., cretinism was a diagnosable condition, not just a snobby insult), and how the doco was so staged and artificial. Hence the "firecracker murder of mountain goats": there's a scene where the dispassionate narrator is talking about how the people only rarely eat meat, such as when a mountain goat falls to it's death. The instructor said they set off firecrackers to make the goat fall for the film (you can see a puff of smoke, frame-right). It's only 30 minutes, you should watch it. This is the "Unpromised Land" version, which differs subtly from the original narration*, but is a better film transfer:

 What I didn't know was that the film was made by Luis Bunuel, everyone's favorite early surrealist film-maker. And they shot the goat, it wasn't firecrackers. Even if you've never seen his earlier film "Un Chien Andalu", you know Dali was involved, there's ants crawling out of hands, and as the Pixies remind us "Got me a movie! Ooh-ho-ho-ho! Slicin' up eyeballs! Ooh-ho-ho-ho!". Well, in fact, there's an argument (thanks Wikipedia) to be made that the whole thing is in fact more of a parody of documentary films than a mean-spirited effort to portray these people as degenerate sub-humans. Mr. Ruoff's article presents a really interesting analysis. It seems that no one got the joke at the time, or even into the 1990s.

But now that you are properly repositioned as a voyeur of this film, and let's say you watch it three more times and work through your moral outrage at yourself or film or anthropology or surrealism or Franco, this would be a creepy place to go into if the absurdities the doco lays on to reality were accepted as true. By all accounts life was extraordinarily difficult in the region, but in a D&D setting, you enter a town and the festival involves 6 guys pulling the heads off of upside down roosters ... I think Raggi has a module like this. Why do they do all this crazy stuff? Why do they not know what bread is, when they were given bread by the 6 heroes? What's wrong with their water, outside of pigs? Or do the pigs have anything to do with the water? What's the deal with the 18 ruined hermitages within the monastery walls? You get a sense of a fundamentally corrupted, poisoned, cursed land. Maybe the PCs need to figure out what is doing this to the folk and remedy the situation?

Of course the fact that no rooster heads or attempts at ripping them off are shown in the film seems to suggest that this isn't actually what went on in Alberca. Our belief is suspended by the narrator's tone and the ethnographic feel of the film. But, even with the surrealism and sarcasm, the average viewer can probably gain a historical sense that the people suffered because of failures of social governance rather than an evil demon living in a cave who makes even their honey bitter. But it's that sort of metaphorical, mythical imagery -- their honey is bitter! Maybe that's not "weird" but it's wrong -- that makes it interesting for thinking about a Village of Hommlet, or a much warmer, drier version of Vornheim, or Children of the Corn, or Parlier, or wherever else.

And you can impress your friends with references to surrealist film and critiques of ethnography. Win-win!

* What I think is closer to the first English-language narration is in 3 parts: here, here and here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ConstantCon Mini-Update and New Local LL Game

I ran my first ConstantCon game -- Tales from the Hotel Kaladarian Episode 1, "Bat Urine Cleansing Agent" -- about a month ago, but still haven't written up the session report. Shame on me!  I will get it composed by the coming weekend if I can.

I launched that ConstantCon campaign in the wake of my aborted public Labyrinth Lord game at Lift Bridge Books. That public game remains aborted for now; nevertheless, since the day of its tanking, I have been approached by many folks asking about whether or not that game was up and running.  Students and casual contacts from my College have asked about it, as have the management at the bookstore.  Further, those wonderful bookstore staffers (THANKS Joe and Cody!) have collected some referrals from people who have come into the store asking about and/or expressing interest in the old-school D&D game. So between my campus contacts and the three or four phone numbers the bookshop sent me, I regained hope in my ability to establish a local Labyrinth Lord game -- this time in my own home.

You see, when my first attempt at a public game failed, I deduced that either

(1) Sunday afternoons are no good for people schedule-wise,


(2) would-be participants are not thrilled to play D&D in a public venue.

Turns out it was the latter only.  So in recent weeks, I have rustled up a group of about five or six players who are willing to play Labyrinth Lord on Sunday afternoons at my place!

This group meets for the first time this coming Sunday to roll characters and start adventuring!!

In time, if this group jells and feels confident to do so, maybe we will take our game back to the bookstore and play in public.  But it seems like it has been easier to convince people to play, and may be easier to get them comfortable with each other and me, in a private venue for the time being.

In any case, now I will have two regular groups running simultaneously, plus occasional Tales from the Hotel Kaladarian. A fruitful and exciting RPG'ing schedule, not to mention more fodder for the blog.

Take THAT, you fiend!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Compendium's Tentative TOC

In the comments to my recent post on the artwork of the Lands of Ara Compendium 2011, Peter Regan (of Oubliette fame) asked:

"Can you give us an idea of the page count and a table of contents at this stage?"

To which I replied that "so far it's a loose list that my Editor-in-Chief (Spawn of Endra) hasn't yet vetted. But I will post a list of the likely Compendium contents as soon as I can."

And now I honor that promise! Note that what follows is neither a comprehensive list -- more stuff may be added -- nor (on the other hand) an accurate representation of how much total stuff will make it in -- I suspect that the final Compendium will have a shorter TOC than this one. But this will give you an idea of what I've been thinking about in a general way . . . .

Sample Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION by Spawn of Endra and Carter Soles

Arandish Horse Movement Rates

Trolls of Ara
Demons of Ara
Dragons of Ara
Horned Cyclops
Dimetrodon, Fire-Breathing
Dimetrodon, Aquatic
Dimetrodon, Flying
Swamp Tiger
Mind Flayer for LL (ROCC psionics)
Undead Yeti
Undead Stirge

Ogre Acid Pool
Triple Fire Trap Room
Holy Water Bolas
Gunger Beykr's Chime of Infallible Wayfaring
Alaxxx's Penny of Retrieval

Rogath the Swamp-Ranger
Dalgoop of Minoch
Toran (N. Achelonian ogre fighter)
Elzar the Horrid
Hokka and His Crew
Grel Kalorian, elf mage
Gorgo of Gannar
Beastarr the Bobcat
Hobart the Ambiguous

St. Ainless of Inocks, Patron Saint of Metal Accoutrments
Dozentit, Goddess of Perfunctory Inquiry

Rodians (race as class and advanced versions)
Ogres as PCs
2d6 Bardery / Basic Arandish Bard
Bard Variant: The Jongleur
2d6 Rangery

Troglodyte Stench Burst
Cannibal Curse
Vomitus Deluge
Alaxx's Zib Flobble
Alaxx's Zib Floogle
Symbol of Porn

One-Hour Dungeon Map
Sark's Cave, an Expansion for Wraithstone Isle

2D Barcode Maps
Aleister Crowley, Master of the Random Table
random d30 table(s)
d30 rule retrospective

That's all I've got on the list so far, plus numerous illustrations by Kelvin Green. As I say, I suspect we may need to trim this down a bit before it goes to press, or it will be too big to be easily usable.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Character Am I?

Always a sucker for whatever bandwagon is passing through the blogosphere, I have joined Peter and David in taking the What Kind of D&D Character Would You Be? test. Here are the results, which reveal me as the conformist I truly am:

I Am A: Lawful Good Human Fighter/Wizard (3rd/3rd Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Primary Class:
Fighters can be many things, from soldiers to criminal enforcers. Some see adventure as a way to get rich, while others use their skills to protect the innocent. Fighters have the best all-around fighting capabilities of the PC classes, and they are trained to use all standard weapons and armor. A fighter's rigorous martial training grants him many bonus feats as he progresses, and high-level fighters have access to special melee maneuvers and exotic weapons not available to any other character.

Secondary Class:
Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Two-Part Revelation About Bards

1. Zak's initial breakdown.

2. Zak's additional clarification, also reprinted below:

(Note especially the comment in the far bottom left: 
"people obsessing over their mechanics as if that mattered")

With all due respect to Uncle Junkal, who I very much enjoy having in my campaign, I admit to feeling this way myself sometimes.  My annoyance has less to do with objection to the Bard character type as such, but to the immense difficulties inherent in making the Bard class work within the rules without feeling patently stupid or wonky at times.

Should Bardery simply be role-played?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Session 46: Raiders of the Underwater Temple

This session, played 11/3/11, included PCs Innominus (Clr 6), Hazel (Ftr 4 / MU 4), Yor (Dwf 6), Dak (Dwf 6), Vivuli (Assassin 5 / MU 4), and Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard 4), plus NPCs Gorgo (Dwarf-4) and Fuzz (Ftr-2).

The party was still monkeying around with the same elevator they discovered last session. Having just killed two big Ponaturi in a tunnel on what I'll call the "Briny Level," the group decided to attempt to ride the elevator even further down into the bowels of the earth. An appropriate place for scum of their sort, in my view.

At any rate, leaving Hazel's follower Fuzz up on the Thoopshib Temple level to work the levers, Vivuli issued him instructions via his monkey familiar, also left upstairs. One lever pull later, the elevator rumbled, and down they went, 800' feet farther below the Briny Level, to a place where they beheld a strange sight indeed.

The elevator exit opened west onto what appeared to be an underwater scene. The ever-bold Dak stuck his arm through the exit-way, feeling a slight tingle as his hand passed through a transparent force-field into rather cold (salt) water. Though it was very dark, the PCs determined that they were looking out at a sea floor about 50' below the level of the elevator floor. The eerie underwater scene was dimly illuminated by some distant light source to the west.

All the party members quaffed water breathing potions. Dak drove a spike into the elevator room floor, tied a rope to it, and the party tethered themselves to this rope in the following marching order: Dak - Yor - Hazel - Innominus - Uncle Junkal. All these (plus Vivuli) set off through the portal, marching along the sea floor toward the light source; Vivuli, untethered, swam a few feet above the column of his comrades as they made their way westward.

The party had a total of 550' of rope, which got them to within about 150' of the light source when they ran out of tether. The pale green light emanated from a huge, glowing, egg-shaped object sticking up out of the sea floor ahead. Vivuli swam ahead alone to scope out the structure more closely, and was able to see that, in the east face of the natural-seeming stone "pedestal" (really an outcropping of the sea floor itself) that cradled the glowing "Egg," there was inset an arched entranceway, 20' across and 30' high. Pitch darkness lurked within the archway; that darkness had a sickly green tint to it.

Vivuli swam back to his rope-bound comrades and, on the basis of his reportage, the group decided to go back upstairs to the Prince's Manor (to rest, recuperate magical abilities, etc.) before returning the next day to explore this weird underwater structure. In particular, Innominus wanted to regain his Locate Object spell, so as to track the location of the coin he placed in the Thoopshib Temple slot a few sessions ago.

Back upstairs in the Manor house, the party learned that the recently recovered Prince Arkus planned to hasten to Farn Junction with cadre of priests in order to save as many citizens of the plague-ridden town as possible. He was taking a regiment of his soldiers north within the next day or so, and was having Grand Vizier Krock and Father Azamondius write letters to numerous Minochian and Kaladarian Holy Orders calling for priests capable of curing disease to meet them just outside Farn Junction. Innominus offered some advice to the Prince on how to proceed with Operation Rescue Farn Junction, but the party felt that their own work was here at the Country Manor, routing out the demonic threat that still dwelt somewhere in its bowels.

Vivuli cast invisibility on the two dwarves that night, and all rested.

On the morning of Day 165 of the party's Arandish adventures, as Prince Arkus readied his men for the rescue operation to the north, the party rode the underground elevator back to the underwater level, quaffed more water breathing potions, and headed back across the sea floor toward the eerie Egg. Innominus cast Locate Object, and indeed that coin of his seemed to be located somewhere within the glowing, Egg-like structure.

They went through the archway and inside, finding themselves in a large (40' x 160' with 30' ceilings), dark, pillared chamber (see map above). They moved slowly into the place (dashed arrow) in their previously established marching order, only with Vivuli in front this time.

Innominus detected for magic and evil, finding that the twelve pillars in the place radiated literally the strongest magic he'd ever seen, and that the entire place radiated very strong evil. He also cast detect traps, which didn't reveal much.

As they walked westward, the group noticed two other sinister features of the area:

- the spaces between the two columns of pillars to their right and left were TOTALLY black, as if some kind of Void occupied that space (see shaded regions on map), and

- there were two 18' tall statues in the place, one at the extreme north end of the room, one at the south. The northern statue depicted a huge lobster-like creature, with LOTS of eyes on numerous eyestalks, plus two great eyeballs clasped, one each, in its pair of huge pincers. The southern statue looked like this:

Reaching the west side of the rectangular room, the group found Innominus' coin: it rested inside a basin set into the west wall of the south section of the chamber. This basin, seemingly made of platinum, was an offerings plate of some kind, with 385gp in it, along with seven huge (10" diameter) pearls.

The party immediately discussed how they might successfully loot the pearls, and Hazel suggested using the old bait-and-switch move like Indiana Jones did in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark: find some valueless object of roughly equal weight and swap it out (quickly!) for the pearls in the basin.

Dak went outside to the sea floor and located a suitably sized boulder while Innominus and Hazel readied defensive spells. The dwarf brought the boulder in, and in a carefully timed effort, he rolled it onto the offerings pedestal as Vivuli pilfered the pearls, the gold coins, and the platinum tray itself! The two thieves were tethered to a rope, which their comrades Uncle Junkal, Fuzz, and Gorgo immediately hauled upon, bringing the looters and their loot back outside the glowing Egg structure.

Innominus then prudently cast Wall of Law inside the chamber, surrounding the central 20' walkway (see line on map) and utterly covering their retreat. That spell:

"Shines as a bright light that will hold all intelligent undead at bay. In addition to taking 1d8 points of damage, any Neutral or Chaotic creatures passing through this barrier must make a save versus Spells and Spell-like Devices at -1 or be calmed for one hour afterwards. Calmed creatures are -2 on all combat rolls during this hour."

Nothing came out of the Egg after them, though Innominus sensed Evil Undead spirits within, unable to pass the Wall of Law he had created.

The group then hastened back to the elevator and rode it to the highest level they knew of: the huge, sulfurous-smelling chamber located 200' above the Thoopshib Temple level they originally came from.

The PCs cursorily poked around in that vast chamber. Yor and Dak walked its perimeter, learning that its dimensions were 1000' (north to south) by 1400' (east to west), with 40' ceilings. Next the whole party* walked out 400' eastward toward the center of the room, and found some demonic etchings in the floor, inscribing a vast, 600' diameter circle. Uncle Junkal and Viv both instantly recognized this as some kind of demonic summoning circle.

And this is where the session ended.

DM's Notes
Uncle Junkal leveled up to Rodian Bard-5.

*Technically minus Hazel, whose player had had to retire by this point in the evening.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Compendium Artwork Update

The Lands of Ara Compendium 2011, described here as "collected highlights of the gaming content from the Lands of Ara blog from its inception in 2009 until the end of 2011, to be released as a free, downloadable pdf in the first weeks of 2012," is slowly starting to come together.

In that same post I mentioned that killer OSR artist Kelvin Green was working on new illos for the Compendium, and indeed he has recently delivered these! So here is a teaser of what is to come, in the form of Kelvin's awesome depiction of an Undead Yeti:

And speaking of killer OSR artists, we have commissioned the Compendium's front cover illustration from Johnathan Bingham. As Johnathan recently wrote, he is well into the initial sketching phase already, and once he has worked his magic, his wife Daisey will be colorizing the cover image for us! No preview yet, but I can tell you I'm very excited about this piece, as well as a number of other GREAT Kelvin Green pics I am keeping secret until the release of the Compendium.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pimping an Archaeology Blog

Ahoy says Spawn:

This is just quick note to pimp a newish blog about archaeology that an old friend of mine is running, called The Subversive Archaeologist. Rob is a Canadian living in California, has a bunch of degrees, and is very opinionated about archaeology. He has plenty of axes to grind, particularly when it comes to claims that Neandertals were cognitively like anatomically modern humans, had religion, had burial practices, language, symbol expression, etc. Bogus, says he. His blog is well written, takes folks to task ... Hmm. Canadian, opinionated, good writer with a slightly high-brow tone, telling everybody they're doing it wrong. It's almost like reading Alexis's blog, except you get the feeling that Rob doesn't think most of his readers are stupid.

Well, that ought to move some traffic over there.

At any rate, if you have any interest in archaeology and critical analysis of the discipline, check it out. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Caldo Ba (Gopher Stew), or Wilderness Foraging LARP

Propoundeth Ein Spawn:

Coincidental with hunting mechanics overtaking my focus in the last couple of days (please check out Talysman's stuff on hunting, gathering and malnutrition/starvation mechanics ... and encourage him to continue with his Liber Zero and Liber Blanc projects, wherein all of this great stuff may be compiled in two awesome places), I was trying to find some images for my disseration and ran across a sequence of photos of me cooking gopher stew in camp in Belize. Just to show that I'm not against capturing and cooking small game here's a little photo essay. The dish is call caldo ba in Spanish/Mopan Maya. One of the project members was paying folks to bring her ba heads for a study, and I eventually told her we should be getting the whole animal (duh, stupid gringos). So a Maya friend of our set some traps and snagged us Mr. Ba.  

Here is his head with hair (part of the study) and the rest of the gutted carcass with the hair singed and scraped off. Fresh ba meat smells a lot like rabbit meat, slightly sweet.

Here's the prep counter/pantry. On the left you see a wa'a leaf with a bunch of fresh culantro that was gathered by another Maya friend. It smells a lot like cilantro (coriander leaf for our UK readers), but is stronger and sharper. Good for caldo! Also the obligatory Belikin stout. 

Here I am prepping the ba and vegetables (I imagine this the sort of prep that The Happy Whisk is always talking about). Ba was cut into 6 pieces so everyone could have a taste, and here is sitting in a bunch of garlic, salt and pepper. Also going in: literal Maya onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.
Now for a bit of browning the ba, onions and garlic. In a crappy aluminum pot! Yay! Why did I not change out of my field clothes, you ask? I probably wasn't digging that day, and had a beer shower (whereby drinking a few stouts makes you feel less dirty than you are).
You gotta problem with that?

Now adding the rest of the veggies.
Cooking gopher stew is a lonely business, my friends. That's the dinner table in the background that slopes violent to the right, and has delightfully warped and splinter-causing benches. Obligatory One Barrel Rum calendar in the background. 
Here's the finished product with the achiote soup stock and culantro added. 
And a portion of caldo ba along with the usual dinner items: rice and salsa, corn tortillas and unidentified breaded object, perhaps a piece of chicken. Overall, quite tasty. There's not a hell of a lot of meat on a gopher, but since these ones eat a lot of fresh corn and so forth, they have a not-so-gamey flavor. I recommend giving it a shot. Bon appetit!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Optimal Foraging Theory and D&D Wilderness Mechanics: A Half-Assed Treatment

Said Spawn of Endra:

Hunting seems to be a hot topic in the last day or so, between this spell of Mr. Bat's that causes people to hunt (a great spell to clear a bunch of people out of a village so you could steal their stuff, if you ask me), and this Simple Hunting mechanic laid down by Mr. Talysman. I always dig what Talysman puts forth. His posts are often what I wish I could come up with instead of my own posts that are 80% material that only I find amusing, and maybe have 20% of something useful for anybody else. As I commented on his post, I think he's got a simple mechanic that is also nicely granular. But wilderness foraging rules still just stick in my craw, and I've touched on that once before when looking at the Joy of Cooking Grindhouse Edition.

In the comments to Tal's post I bitched about "Why is wilderness food-getting all hunting and no plant gathering?", and I said "Well when I'm in Belize I just go eat bush food and look at me I'm so special." What kind of a twat writes stuff that? But anyway, to me hunting game is just a big risk and big waste of time for the traveler. Here's my take on wilderness adventuring hunting.

First, why are you in the wilderness? You either have a specific goal to get to and you've decided it's quicker to risk going off-road to reach it, or you've got a vague sense that there's something in a general area and you've got to explore the hex until you find it. Or you got teleported there or whatever other deus ex machina scenario. [I have literally never played a hex crawl session, so please jump in and tell my why else you are in the wilderness.]

Second, why are you hunting? You ran out of rations, I guess. Is this bad planning? Lack of player skill? Or did something steal your rations, or they got rained on? Hmm. Well if it's either of the latter cases, the DM cares about not hand-waiving* the particulars of wilderness adventuring.  If one has to resort to a hunting mechanic, simple or otherwise, one is probably the DM that wants grit and realism in the hexcrawl (or delights in another tool to throw shit at the PCs perhaps?). As a player, well, I'm going to buy so many iron rations and commission a 500gp sack for them that is both waterproof and has a chainmail outer lining before I play in your game.

The PC is hunting because he/she/it has no food. The player is hunting because the DM is stripping away attribute points like CON or STR (and CHA, obviously -- starving people are just NOT attractive), and probably HP. So I propose this axiom or something:

No hunting mechanic should exist without a preceding starvation mechanic 

That's a problem with LabLord, which otherwise has a decent (i.e., plant-gathering option) mechanic: the penalties for starvation are left to the DM. Raggi's Grindhouse Rules (p.36) do give a mechanic, which is a Save vs. Poison each day or lose 1 CON. At the same time, he acknowledges the real problem is dehydration -- Save or CON is at half.

Note that I'm not proposing any mechanics myself. First off I'm too busy, otherwise lazy and stupid to do so. Second, I don't see the realism that it would add as adding fun overall. Any hunting mechanic must exchange PC time for caloric returns. That's at some cost of movement rates through the wilderness. Depending on the starvation mechanic, in most real situations one is better off just moving on toward the goal rather than spending time and energy chasing game they may not catch, i.e, get out of the wilderness. Time spent hunting is also time for Wandering Monsters to appear. They may either kill you or solve your starvation problem by becoming food. At worst, I envision a space where the party has to devote all their time to hunting rather than moving, and so end up in a positive feedback loop that locks them into sitting in place and not adventuring because they need to devote all their time to hunting. Sucks to that ass-mar. 

Why hunt when you can gather?
I'm an archaeologist, and I draw on the anthropological traditions of cultural ecology and what is typically called human behavioral ecology in my work, among a billion other things. Before starting this post , I went back to some classics looking for data to show why hunting shouldn't take precedence over plant gathering. And I got confused. Here's a classic on Ache foraging by Hawkes et al. (1982)** that shows that deer and peccary are the highest ranked resources they encounter in Paraguay, and most plants and insects are lower ranked:

The ranking is based on the caloric return per unit of time devoted to search, pursuit, and handling/processing. So big animals are higher ranked, and when encountered they should always be taken as opposed to the palm hearts that present themselves at the same time (which are lower ranked due low calories and processing time). Beyond a point of caloric return per unit of time, some potential food sources should always be excluded from the diet, no matter how abundant or easy to get:

Ei/hi is energy per handling time by resource, and E/t is energy return per time invested in foraging given the breadth of resources in the diet (i.e., the return at rank 4 is for a diet that includes resources ranked 1-4 inclusive). It happens that plants are more abundant, so the encounter rate for these resources is higher than for game, but in this group of foragers a lot of the diet is made up of game (about 75% during the period of this study). But it's important that as the diet breadth increases, (the number of resources acquired from rank 1 to rank 12 increases), the average returns of foraging per hour increase. So all the stuff from rank 7 to 10, including the larvae, birds, palm products, capuchin monkeys, lead to overall higher average returns.

These returns are in kcal/hr, so for a 2000 kcal/day diet, this is going to mean ~2.5 hr foraging/PC/day when plants and all the better stuff is included (~800 kcal/hr return). If you only take big game (the two 1st ranked resources) and ignore other foods, you'll get big caloric returns when you bag them, but the hourly return rate goes down to ~100 kcal/hr, so it's going to take 8 times as long if you're picky. That assumes you're in Paraguay and you're with subsistence foragers, or have a good ranger, etc.

If you added the costs involved in devoting so much time to hunting, like random monsters encounters with no loot reward, some other plot-related time-crunch, then all of these things get shifted around. More time spent foraging = more bad stuff, and therefore PCs are foolish to go for the big kill. They should get on to their goal, and not sink time into hunting big game. But again, the DM and the players need to know the costs of starvation for these types of evaluation and decision-making to have any meaning.

And next time I put my money where my mouth is: The Spawn of Endra cooks gopher soup in Belize.

*Is it hand-waving or hand-waiving? Discuss on
** The reference is: Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill, & James F. O'Connell. (1982).Why Hunters Gather: Optimal Foraging and the Aché of Eastern Paraguay. American Ethnologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, Economic and Ecological Processes in Society and Culture, pp. 379-398.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pledge Drive for LL Ref's Screen!

Hey Labyrinth Lord fans!  Make sure to check out the Labyrinth Lord Referee Screen "Kickstarter" Pledge Drive -- make your pledge before December 10 to ensure that this awesome product actually goes to print!  The three-panel screen will include original art by Steve Zeiser, and signed copies are available as well.  Here is the link directly to Kickstarter -- waste no time -- make your pledge TODAY!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts About Skill Systems

I was chatting with Spawn of Endra the other day about Bards and multi-classed characters in old-school Labyrinth Lord-type games. As regular readers know, our own gaming group has struggled mightily over the issue of how to integrate a Bard class into our present campaign, and to be blunt, I am STILL not 100% satisfied with what we've come up with, as I recently confessed.

The problem stems from the "skill system" conundrum observed by so many other grognards. And that conundrum originates with the Thief (not the Bard) class, though the problem carries forward into all other "special" classes outside the "core" classes, which I define (at least provisionally) as Fighter, Cleric, and Magic-User, plus the race-as-classes such as Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and (in Ara) Rodian.

That's right, I am officially going on record now as excluding Thieves from the core D&D classes, even though they appear as a "core" class in Labyrinth Lord. To be clear, I do not mind the concept of a thief, i.e., a specialist who develops expertise in certain areas like finding traps and picking pockets. Nor do I mind the general concept of Bards, i.e., experts in folklore and public performance and storytelling and the like. No, I actually really like these "specialist" classes for their core concepts, I just despise what the grafting on of skill systems does to the game, specifically the way in which it can interfere with player ingenuity and role-playing.

Let me give a few examples. The first couple will relate to my experiences DM'ing Uncle Junkal, our party's Rodian Bard, and just let me make clear right out of the gate that I do NOT blame Uncle Junkal or his player for these disappointments of mine. They are ultimately my responsibility for not seeing how the Delving Deeper Bard, as good as it is, participates in the form of "skill resolution" that started with the introduction of the traditional Thief class and ultimately kind of dampens things for me. So this is My fault, which is why I am discussing it now, in an attempt to fix it while still being as fair as possible to my current PCs.

Example #1: Uncle Junkal Charms Grand Vizier Krock. Back in Session 35, our beloved rodian bard used his charm person ability to place himself in the good graces of Prince Arkus' right-hand man. This whole episode was brilliantly role-played by Uncle Junkal's player: he used his juggling and entertaining skills to get near the Vizier, then, after amusing him with some tricks, started asking him innocuous questions about the Prince's visit and the like. He built trust with the charmed Krock, so by the time he started planting ideas about the the local dwarves, it made sense that the Vizier would listen to him. It was a delight to see this unfold even though it did involve an initial successful 2d6 Charm Person skill check, as we developed for our Arandish Bard Class.

A Solution: No skill roll needed? Maybe just role-play it out as we did anyway? What did the skill roll really lose us or gain us? Is it necessary?

Example #2: Uncle Junkal deciphers the significance of Ponaturi Runes. Just this last session or two, the Bard has been using his Legend Lore ability to decipher the meanings of runes inscribed on the pillars and doors around the Temple of Thoopshib.  This has been going okay all in all, but I have found the skill roll itself to be intrusive.  Being the great player he is, Uncle Junkal's player always explains and justifies how he would know certain things in-character; in this case, he would know seagoing legends about Thoopshib due to his background as a rodian, which is a seafaring culture. 

A Solution: The player and I related Uncle Junkal's bardic knowledge to the rodian's background and back story anyway, so again, what function did the roll serve? Did we need it?  Or am I just nitpicking?

UPDATE! Since writing the introductory remarks and examples above, I have played one more session with the group and actually have found Uncle Junkal's skill rolling far less obtrusive this time.  I did not mind the Legend Lore rolls he made; I just, if you'll pardon the pun, "rolled with it." And it worked out fine. I guess it IS kind of old-school to trust the roll of the dice, and perhaps I should appreciate the random element (and hence excitement) skill rolls introduce into the game. With the roll of the dice, it cuts both ways: I think the Bard actually failed more Legend Lore rolls than he made last session. There were surely a couple times when he failed to recognize some potentially important rune.   So maybe I am making a bigger deal of this skill system thing than it needs to be. Yet. . .

Example #3: Vivuli "Assassinates" Thoopshib. In Session 44, Vivuli snuck up on the physical manifestation of the demigod Thoopshib and, upon successfully sneak-attacking it, made a roll to assassinate it. Now this makes about as much sense to me in retrospect as Uncle Junkal charming an extremely hostile, human and demi-human-hating rock troll does, but I tend to be indulgent of my players' whims in the heat of the moment, and given that we were in the climactic seconds of a pitched melee battle, I allowed Viv's assassination attempt to occur. Note also that for that attempt Vivuli's player rolled "00" on his d%, which would technically be a critical failure, NOT a critical success! So it was fucked in every possible way. But what I SHOULD have done was to grant Viv his sneak attack bonuses and let him attack the thing normally -- it really WASN'T a proper assassination attempt, which should be pre-planned and done for political reasons or for hire. In other words, in this case I FAILED to push Viv's player to role-play it out or justify it. Perhaps understandable under the circumstances -- I did not see it coming -- but nevertheless a misapplication of the rules (or at least the spirit of the rules) as far as I am concerned. My bad for not catching it sooner.

A Solution: Enforce tighter restrictions on what counts as an "assassination" [any suggestions about this from the blogosphere?] and remember that a sneak attack and an assassination are two different things, even though they may often (in practical play situations) coincide.

Some tentative conclusions (?): In some ways the bane of my existence as a Labyrinth Lord has been my open-door policy toward the content of the Advanced Edition Companion. The spells and monsters therein are easily added to basic Labyrinth Lord without disrupting things at all, but the new "advanced" classes can be troublesome, and the rules for "Multiclassing" open up dangerous doors as well, as Telecanter has discussed here and here. Nothing against Vivuli, who I love, but I see now that I should not have let Assassins (as writ in the AEC) into the game. Hell, I don't even want standard Labyrinth Lord Thieves in my game! If anything, I should treat Assassins and Thieves exactly as I would prefer to treat Bards -- as Specialists, using a "x in 6" skill system, as in LotFP Grindhouse.

Why? Because James Raggi's system accounts for specialized skill use while retaining compatibility with certain "basic skills" that ALL PCs (regardless of class) can perform, like searching for secret doors and hearing noises. Since everybody has a base 1 in 6 chance to do stuff like that anyway, Raggi's Grindhouse Rules maintain, why not simply have "thieves" be people with a slightly increased chance to do the same stuff? As James Maliszewski has written, ALL older edition D&D dungeoneers are assumed to be de facto thieves:

"the Thief is a self-justifying class. Prior to its introduction in Greyhawk, pretty much every "thief ability" was something a character of any class might attempt. Listening at doors? Check. Moving silently? Check. Locating and disarming traps? Check. The list goes on. I've noted before that 'thief' is an occupation that could describe characters of any class."*

According to this line of thinking, it really doesn't make sense to have separate "thieves' skills" in the game at all. No, "thieves" would more properly be adventurers who happen to specialize in those kinds of dungeoneering skills instead of focusing more effort on, say, martial prowess or the arcane arts. So it's better to call them Specialists if you need to differentiate them from the other PC classes, since ALL PC classes are thieves!

* Interestingly, in this same post, Maliszewski goes on to defend the existence of the Assassin class. It also worth noting that over time, Mr. M. made peace with the thief class -- see his discussion here and here, and his final result here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Session 45: Underground Elevator Hijinks

"I bet you fish-people taste good!"
--Uncle Junkal

This session, played Thursday 10/13/2011, included PCs Innominus (Clr 6), Hazel (Ftr 4 / MU 4), Yor (Dwf 6), Dak (Dwf 6), Vivuli (Assassin 5 / MU 4), and Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard 4) -- the whole merry gang!

[EDIT: NPCs Gorgo (Dwarf-4) and Fuzz (Ftr-2) were present as well.]

Scale = 20' per square. The "elevator room"  is the circular room in the center near the top.

The party started off in the circular "elevator room" in which they concluded last session.  However, at Dak's suggestion, they swiftly decided to go back above ground for a day or so in order to heal, rest, and recuperate and to gain back spells and the like.  Once upstairs in the Country Manor House now occupied by the recovering Prince Arkus, Dak and Innominus asked Father Azamondius and Grand Vizier Krock whether or not the Brothers of Carcoon would be willing to provide them with some dispel magic scrolls for their return to the depths.  Father Azamondius promised to supply them with three such divine scrolls.

The party then headed back into Fortinbras, where they rent a home on the walled town's southwest side.  One of their first orders of business was to visit a local alchemist's shop, Crazy Larry's Potion Vendor, and see how many water breathing potions they could get their hands on.  Crazy Larry told them he could sell them seven such potions immediately, for 300gp  each; if they wanted more, it would take a week for them to arrive over the mountains from Blintsport.    

The party ultimately ordered thirty (!) potions of water breathing (five for each PC) from Crazy Larry's Potion Vendor, and waited around in Fortinbras for the week it took them to arrive.  Some highlights from that week include:

+ Hazel did her usual of looking around town for unusual arcane items. She asked around for spell scrolls for wall of ice and wall of fire, to little avail. The main Council Spell Library is north in Farn Junction -- a metropolis currently Dark Plague-ridden.

+ Vivuli spent most of his week at the house, tending his snake pits and attempting to harvest venom from some of the asps in his home collection. He was successful, but it is slow going, and he got only one dose of poison for his week's labor.

+ Returning to the caverns far beneath the Country Manor, Dak assisted his dwarven excavation team in building load-bearing supports in the Thoopshib Temple, preparatory to knocking down the partially desecrated Temple's remaining pillars. 

+ Innominus also returned underground and spent the week doing some detection work in the circular elevator room. He cast detect magic on all four doors in the chamber, finding that the little Thoosphib runes on the doors did indeed radiate magic.  Vivuli assisted the cleric, using his x-ray vision  ring to peek at what lay beyond the north and south doors: a storage room at the end of a hallway to the north, and a spiral stars down to the south.  He also noticed that the doors were attached to the shaft walls and opened away from the elevator; the circular elevator room had openings at all four cardinal compass points, but no actual doors attached.

+ Meta-game-wise, this is about when Uncle Junkal's player showed up for the session [see DM's Notes]. In-game, Uncle Junkal visited the elevator room with Innominus and Viv and helped identify the fish-head runes on the doors, as well as some markings near the control panel levers, as belonging to the language of the Ponaturi, a dreaded mythical race of sea-dwelling fish-men.

At the end of the week, the party gathered their potions and headed back down to the elevator room.  Their attention immediately went to the eastern control room, and, as Dak immortally put it:

"I guess I'm not opposed to messing with the levers."

It was decided that Viv would man the levers, Uncle Junkal would remain with him in the control room, and Innominus, Dak, Yor, and Hazel would ride the elevator.

Viv tried several different combinations, too numerous to document here, of the four levers in their up, down, and middle (neutral) positions. The first result he produced, after a few tries, was to cause a loud rumbling noise, then the whole circular chamber went up. It ascended approximately 200' and stopped. The only entrance out of the elevator on this level was to the east: the elevator opened into a vast, dark chamber, not unlike the one the party visited in Session 42. There wasn't much to see there besides a four-levered control panel just inside the vast chamber, so Viv cranked some more levers and eventually brought the elevator room down. However, at the same time as he struck upon the right lever pull, he saw a potent vision in his mind, of the Fish-Thing Thoopshib hissing in hatred at him. Viv was mind-blasted by the vision, and took physical damage from its "psychic hiss attack." The elevator arrived back on his level.

A few more lever pullings sent the elevator plunging downward, down 600' to a briny-smelling natural tunnel headed north. It was pitch dark. As Vivuli tampered with more lever positions in an attempt to return the party to his level, the PCs on the briny level below faintly heard sounds of movement or activity echoing down the northbound passage toward them.

At Dak's behest, Innominus placed his amulet of continual light into his sling and sent it flying down the large (30' diameter) passage. It flew 80' north and struck a side wall, glancing off to the left (west) at a slight westward bend of the tunnel. Dak and Innominus then headed northward toward the light, weapons brandished . . .

. . . Hazel readied her wand of paralyzation and prepared a spell . . .

. . . . upstairs, Viv tried another combination of levers, and the elevator started rumbling . . .

. . . and Dak and Innominus saw grotesque shadows cast upon the tunnel wall, of huge, 15' tall bipedal fish-creatures, armed with tridents, coming down the passage toward them. Backlit as they were by Innominus' thrown amulet, the two monstrosities' exact facial features were indistinct, but they gurgled and growled menacingly as they advanced, and the party struck immediately.

Dak threw an oil flask at the fish-things, striking one and setting it on fire, while Innominus prayed to Endra and cast Hold Person, which seemed not to affect them.

Fierce battle ensued, coupled with a plan: the melee fighters, along with some phantasmal forces of Hazel's, would slowly lure the fish-creatures down toward the south end of the passage nearest the elevator, where Hazel waited with the paralyzation wand. Then the dwarves and Innominus would leap aside and Hazel would zap the fish-things!

Hazel cast phantasmal force, and had some henchman-looking types march in toward the Ponaturi. The Ponaturi seemed to believe in these phantasms at first, and attacked them with their stupendous tridents, while the PCs, retreating southward down the passage, peppered the fish-things with missile fire. Soon, however, the Ponaturi lost interest in their ghostly attackers, and advanced on the flesh-and-blood PCs. Vicious melee ensued, and eventually one fish-man was cut down to chum, and the other one was successfully paralyzed by Hazel's wand. He too was cut down to chum, and both Ponaturi's satchels were ransacked for their pearls. Dak cut off all their hands, and this is where the session ended.

"We didn't even get any loot off of that bitch!"
--Innominus, referring to the Thoopshib slaying in Session 43

DM's Notes
Scheduling-wise, we have switched from our previous Monday evening gaming night to regular Thursdays -- but aligning everybody's schedules is no easy feat. For the next few sessions, Uncle Junkal's player will likely show up a bit late (maybe 30-40 minutes) due to a work conflict. Yet this was literally the only weeknight we could find that worked for everyone. Thankfully, after the present academic term, his schedule will likely change -- of course, so will many of our other players, since many of us are in the college teaching profession and our schedules shift each term.

Other than that, I am thrilled that the party has found potent nemeses in the Ponaturi, and seem to be preparing for some kind of all-out raid or assault on their territory. There have also been some recent out-of-game discussions about possible other plans -- at least some tentative ideas I've heard mentioned by a couple of players -- so, as always, I will look forward to seeing what surprises the party brings on next.

Here are some screenshots from Skype:

Uncle Junkal's player at Carl's house.

Spawn of Endra, now on the East Coast.

Hazel's player, clearly enjoying herself as Hazel slays Ponaturi.

A new mascot for our enterprise, provided by Yor's player.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Clerics and Detection, PART 1, or "If You've Stuck Yourself in Heal-Bot Mode You've Got Your Own Damn Self to Blame"

Thus does pronounce The Spawn of Endra!

[Okay, here's my Cleric cred, right off the bat. I've been playing the Cleric Innominus the Follower of Endra in Carter's game since January of 2010. I've read all the LabLord and AEC rules about Clerics closely, I compile all of Bat's Ancient Vaults and Eldritich Secrets Divine Spells, and I think about how to use my PC to do more interesting stuff all the time. Because of this, I am biased toward the view that Clerics are Bad-Ass.]

There's been a bit of a "Clerics ARE Bad-Ass" vibe going on in the blogospheroid, between Carter's last post on the subject and this one at Grognardia that really didn't have much to do with Clerics initially (it was about a Rients post on class generation). But a segment of the comments on Grognardia boiled down to the relative merits of Clerics, and how they are perceived by some as just heal-bots that no one wants to play. I made a comment there that was perhaps more abrasive than is appropriate for a Canada-based blog (just kidding, Canucks! I know you're not as civil as everyone thinks!):
Quoth I: As a person playing a LL cleric for the last year and a half, I have to say if your cleric is turned into a heal-bot, or never gets to fight, or never uses all the really useful detection spells to make yourself like f'ing Van Helsing then a) you suck as a player, b) you play in a pretty sorry game, with c) other pretty sorry players. If you can't make a B/X cleric awesome and fun, you've got serious problems.
Maybe that's harsh. A commenter suggested that they have a hard time elbowing in to get their way in a game ... and so I guess they get pressured into not fighting and just healing folks. Some folks suggested it's the MMOs that are the problem. Others said it goes further back. Well, I'm sorry but ... well, what I said. Something SUCKS: you, the GM, the other players, the gestalt of all that. B/X/LL Clerics are bad-ass and a lot of fun to play. They don't suck. Some human element of your game sucks.

Clerics apparently are terribly boring in later editions of D&D. I haven't played those editions, but I get that impression from such posts as this one at Rule of the Dice. There I read this rant, and I commented thusly:
Ahoy. I play a cleric in what are essentially B/X rules.... I'm not savvy with later editions, and have no opinions about their mechanics. But for the earlier editions, the magic isn't super spectacular, but the cleric whips ass in combat compared to many other classes (outside of fighters, of course). Yes they can cast Cure Light Wounds, but this idea that they hang back and offer first aid like M*A*S*H doesn't happen in play.
Is this a common thing in 3.x or later that the Cleric ... just ends up being a first aid kit? That's not my experience ... yes, there are times where my character heals a bunch of folks, but it's after my character crushed several skulls in a series of withering flail attacks.
And CDGallant_Knight (the author) responded:
Back in the "old days," clerics were the second-best option for combat, after fighters. (They had to do something once they ran out of spells, after all). The recent addition of so many other classes with specialized attacks and damage-dealing options, however, makes what little combat potential clerics had obsolete. The clerics are there to keep the strikers/DPS characters alive, so they can keep pouring on the damage.
And I said "Well, yeah then that DOES suck." (NB: I'm so old-school I have no idea what 'strikers/DPS characters' are, though I get the drift.)

But I'm not playing that edition. When we first started the Lands of Ara campaign back in January of 2010, I recall Carter mentioning that our party might want to have a Cleric, or even his setting-specific Sword Cleric of Frey, on board, and I took this off-handed remark to heart. I assumed he had some undead-heavy stuff planned. And I also was being that sort of "responsible player" that is alluded to in the Grognardia post comments: somebody has to be the stupid cleric or else we can't play, I'll take one for the team. But my motivation as one of two experienced gamers in the group with a bunch of almost total RPG newbies (two of whom choose to be house-ruled Bards off the bat ... humanities grad students!) was to make sure we were a well-balanced party, because I wanted the campaign to succeed at gaining and keeping new players and giving them enough time to figure out the game through play.

I NEVER played Clerics back in the day and I assume that it was because of all the god-damned (as it were) tonsured monk-looking fools with crosses and rosary beads that were depicted. And not having a spell at first level in B/X also seemed sucky (a topic well-treated in Rients' post and on Grognardia, and in Carter's last post). And no edged weapons. They seemed sucky, but now I know they weren't. The Lab Lord Cleric borrows the AD&D spell progression for the class, and so another layer of potential suck has been stripped away.

Before I get into the detection stuff, which is the point of PART 2 of this post, I'll touch on a few things that make Clerics play really cool. Many of these are not new ideas but there are enough *^$*)$#@ers out there crying about Clerics sucking that they need repeating yet again:
  •  The blunt weapon restriction isn't that severe. In most B/X-style play you've lost only lost rare d10 weapons, d8 one-handed weapons, and d6 missile weapons. If you're JB and consider variable weapon damage optional (as written), it's almost completely an aesthetic choice.
  • They aren't ^&@#@ing priests telling everyone to be nice and turn the other cheek, and they aren't paladins with a boring moral absolutism that has almost no place in a party of killers and looters. They are trying to destroy evil or chaos or whatever in the world. By smashing its fucking skull in with a blunt object. And with righteous fury, I would expect.
  • They have access to all spells of the level they are able to cast each day. This is really important. As Carter has noted, this was one of the first insights I had about the cleric when I got back into the rules. Clerics don't have to find scrolls or buy spells to gain magic. They don't HAVE to slect CLW as their first spell (as opposed to MUs that logically really HAVE to choose Sleep as their first spell after Read Magic, since they are so weak in combat). They just have to pray and do what their deity wants (i.e., destroy enemies of the faith with righteous lust ... duh, what else were you planning to do?). 
  • This means that Clerics are in a better position day-to-day to assess what sorts of spells will be useful in the adventure scenario, and are able to move the game forward in the non-combat sessions when detection is going to be more productive than healing or offensive spells. It's powerful because the Cleric never incurs long-term opportunity costs for selecting a 'lame' spell over and 'awesome' spell, like Magic Users might. You select spells for the day, if they aren't useful, so what? In fact, the ability to choose each day promotes experimentation and creative application of the spells because there is no long-term commitment to keeping those spells.
  • The ability to customize the day's spells to suit the gaming situation (especially if you're using the AEC Wisdom bonuses too) means that around 3rd level and higher, the Cleric's player has a lot of strategic options to consider, whether they are going to be Abu Nidal jihadist or Christopher Lee Van Helsing that day. Nobody else gets that flexibility. And in my experience that is really FUN. At times this can put you in the party's driver's seat, but just as often you get to do your bad-ass thing while the other party members do THEIR bad-ass things and it's like the A-Team just showed up to save Prince Arkus from demons from Hell!
Next time I'll talk about my favorite daily spell lists for Cleric Detective, as well as for Cleric Holy Warrior. For now, let me re-emphasize that I play my Cleric for me,and though I have a sense of trying to support the whole party, I don't put it up to a vote what spells I'll choose for the day to help everyone else out. Van Helsing wouldn't. He's trying to save reality, not save Dungo the Fighter with a +2HP CLW so he can swing his sword one more time. Seriously, folks. Clerics have have bigger fish to fry.