Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Some Highlights from Lulu

I always post on G+ but some readers might not be completely aware of a page I'm very intent on keeping up:

OSR Products on Lulu

This is a long list of products that I have either bought or have a PDF from, and have curated into a list of goodness. There is a code through 11/26, TURKEY30, for 30% off, and I want to highlight some products before the holidays.

David McGrogan, Yoon-Suin.
One of the two best OSR products on Lulu in 2015. Yoon-Suin is a bunch of tables and ideas for running a sandbox campaign with some unique flavor.

Scrap Princess and Patrick Stuart, Fire on the Velvet Horizon.
The other best 2015 product. A statless monster manual full of inspired weirdness, in the style of an old zine done by pasting together.

Richard LeBlanc, CC1: Creature Compendium.
A great B/X monster manual. If Fire on the Velvet Horizon is great inspirational material, this is an excellent, practical, and non-standard monster book for your needs. (Richard also has a psionics book that I'm hoping will be available in print sometime soon.)

Simon Forster, The Book of Lairs.
A neat book of the type I've wanted for a while: just a collection of wilderness monster lairs. Each lair is a compact but usable mini-dungeon that you can put in a hexcrawl.

Those four are the best new Lulu-content over the past year, and all are well worth getting. I also would be remiss if I didn't do a little self promotion. Dungeon Crawl #2 and Dungeon Crawl #3 are still available on Lulu, as are two projects I was proud to contribute to: Narcosa and Petty Gods. Narcosa particularly is a beautiful book of literally trippy weirdness, and PG is a wonderful tome.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Clones and Rules, Inside and Out

One of the interesting aspects of the OSR is the multiplicity of clones, and particularly the way that clones emulate the games that they are based on, and even more, what they choose not to emulate. Which is why I think the cases of two popular clones that I've run, Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, are so interesting.

Swords & Wizardry is a clone of original D&D. Or at least that's how it's sold. It has close approximations of the ability scores, classes, races, equipment, spells and monsters from OD&D, and a general semblance of similar rules. (This is hard because OD&D has lacunae.) So far so good.

But if you look at the way treasure is built in S&W, it's radically different from OD&D. In OD&D, treasure in the dungeon isn't built from the Treasure Type tables in Monsters & Treasure. It's built from the tables in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, which portion out treasure based on dungeon level to half of the monster rooms and one sixth of the empty rooms. Just reading Swords & Wizardry you'd never get that. S&W only ties treasures to monster Challenge Rating. It does tell you to leave some rooms empty, but not to put a significant portion of the treasure there.

This is an important difference. An OD&D dungeon designed according to its guidelines is going to have "unguarded" treasure. According to the book it should be hidden and/or trapped. But a S&W dungeon isn't going to have that, if the referee follows the guidelines in the S&W rule books. Over time the game is going to play differently, since the OD&D group is going to be looking for hidden treasure while the S&W group would be justified in looking for combat.

Indeed, if you follow OD&D's logic a bit further, treasure is based not on monster level but dungeon level, which is significant. Level 1 of an OD&D dungeon, following the monster tables, is likely to have gnolls, a 2 HD creature from the dungeon level 2 chart. But the gnolls should still be guarding a level 1 treasure. They only get level 2 treasures when they're found on dungeon level 2. This means that fighting gnolls on level 1 in OD&D is a losing proposition. But in S&W, gnolls should always be guarding CR-appropriate treasure, and therefore the reward is determined by monster level, not dungeon level. This pulls the game toward the modern "dungeon combat" genre.

All of this is fine if that's how you want to play. It clearly works for a lot of folks and they're having fun with the game. But Swords & Wizardry doesn't really talk about this anywhere, and I think that's a shame because adventure design is such a big part of how a game ultimately plays. Which brings me to another clone.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess bills itself as weird fantasy. But on a reading of the Rules & Magic book, novices typically ask the excellent question: how is this different from standard D&D? On the surface, it mostly looks like a minor variant on B/X Dungeons & Dragons, going a bit further afield than Labyrinth Lord but still very much in the same ballpark.

Except in LotFP, the adventure design aesthetic is distinctly different. Here, certain features of the typical D&D world – anthropomorphic gods, human-like monsters, cozy Tolkienesque worldbuilding – is explicitly rejected in favor of horror set in the early modern period of Earth's history.

There, as they say, is a distinction with a difference. Everything in LotFP is implicit in how B/X D&D is played. Characters are going into dark, dangerous places filled with monsters, hoping to come out alive and with arms full of gold. But it cranks up the nastiness of the threats to 11, and strips out elements antithetical to this approach. What's fascinating is that, in play, it winds up being more exploratory than Labyrinth Lord. For God's sake, you certainly don't want to be fighting!

And yet, this is 95% in the adventure design. You could run B2 Keep on the Borderlands with LotFP, and I wager that it'd go swimmingly once you converted ACs and switched GP to SP, as long as nobody casts Summon. In fact, it wouldn't be too different from running it with Swords & Wizardry. Both would have minor differences, but the underlying module would show through.

For me these differences in preparing the game show a lot of the underlying philosophy of a rule set. S&W has a lot of the exterior resemblance of OD&D, but if played as written it will have a natural tendency to drift in a direction more toward a "modern" game with a heavier emphasis on combat. Whereas LotFP, which totally upsets the apple cart of standard D&D, comes around and goes back toward exploration. It's a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Announcing The Secret of Cykranosh

I am extremely happy to announce that you can now buy The Secret of Cykranosh via DriveThruRPG as a Pay What You Want module.

This is a short module (6 pages) that wouldn't exist without Dyson Logos's work. I based it on the Dellorfano Protocols Dungeon that I linked in last night's Actual Play report. Dyson has been releasing certain maps with a CC-BY license thanks to his extremely successful Patreon campaign. This allows anyone to use and remix the original work, even for commercial use.

Because I like Dyson's move so much, I've also released the complete text of this module in CC-BY. So not only is it free if you want it, you can also use it in your own projects however you like. I'm a big fan of the Creative Commons license as a way to share and distribute gaming material because it's less restrictive than the OGL.

You'll also notice that it is an OSR Compatible module. I've always intended to use this mark as a way to distribute my own work, I've just run into problems getting a lot of that work out. There's a complete compatibility statement at the start of the module.

As anyone who recognizes the statue of Tsathoggua on the cover can tell, and anyone who's read "The Door to Saturn" knows, this is deeply inspired by the work of Clark Ashton Smith. I've worked CAS's ideas throughout the module, and I think fans will really enjoy this little adventure. The cover is from a (Creative Commons licensed) photo of a statue of Tsathoggua made by Richard L. Tierney, who happens to sort of be an Appendix N author (Tierney wrote a story in Swords Against Darkness III).

In my opinion, "The Secret of Cykranosh" is the kind of module that should be in a magazine like Fight On! or The Dragon. But we don't quite have that, so I'm happy to release it as a PWYW module on DriveThruRPG. If it has a good reception I'm certainly happy to do more in the same vein.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Actual Play: OD&D, Greyhawk and a touch of Arduin

I ran OD&D today. It seems odd, given a wide array of systems – including clones – to still use the original booklets to run games. I did recently give Lamentations of the Flame Princess a whirl, and it's a fine clone. And yet I now feel like OD&D is my "home" system.

(The picture above is of dice inked by Lou Zocchi. I was using the tiger eye beauties above as my primary d20s, using a d6 as a control die. There's just something to it.)

The game used Dyson Logos's Dellorfano Protocols Map. I loaded it with an adventure that had some plot behind it, a portal leading to Cykranosh (the Clark Ashton Smith name for Saturn), a few other CAS references, a few monsters, and a couple of interesting tricks. It was a ball to run.

Using OD&D plus Greyhawk as a basis winds up a lot like AD&D lite, or an alternate version of B/X D&D. But I like this particular iteration's quirks the best. It was how OD&D was really played, and it hits a sweet spot that attempts to add more detail or systematize things wind up missing. There is a comfort level to it, but a big factor is that it doesn't feel as much like somebody else's game. That's the main weakness, in my opinion, of the various clones.

As a side note: I think the best thing that you can do for your D&D experience is to run original D&D, no supplements, at least once. It's like a Zen cleansing moment for D&D: you just get to focus on the dungeon crawl itself. My love for OD&D I think stems from that. Everything I add, I choose to add, for a specific reason that I understand.

I also used the Arduin Grimoire, which I've been consulting for its quirky-as-hell critical hit table for a few games. It's a frickin' riot in use. One of the PC hobbits got a result of "eye" against a bandit with a dagger, and the damage was enough to kill the bandit straight out, so I described the hobbit getting up on top of the bandit and jamming the dagger home. I'd actually like to see a book like Arduin but designed by a person with better rules-sense than Hargrave, and less of the stupidly complex charts like individual weapon damage by number of enemy HD.

And of course the Ready Ref Sheets were in hand. It's another product I love but would appreciate a new version for. I'd like a to-hit chart closer to the one in Iron Falcon, which has additional gradations by level, and a fresh dungeon searching table. And of course various and sundry other charts.

My feeling is that D&D is an intensely personal game, being a creature of imagination. So it's naturally going to wind up as a kitbash game, where you take from the variants and other games out there and construct your own. Other people have talked about how they're running an "OSR Frankengame" and I think that's educational. The best thing the OSR has done is put out an awful lot of material for kitbashing. No one piece is a sine qua non, but there's plenty out there to tune a game just the way you want.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mythic Underworld: Eurydice

Continuing with the theme of classical myth, Eurydice was a wood nymph (or possibly a demigoddess) who was married to Orpheus, who was the greatest musician and poet ever born. (He was also possibly a demigod; there was a lot of that stuff in classical myth.) She was bitten by a viper, and died.

Orpheus, then, followed Eurydice into the underworld realm of Hades, where he found Eurydice. His music was said to be so piteous that Hades and Persephone permitted him to bring Eurydice out of the underworld and back to the world of the living, but he was to walk in front of her and not turn back. But as soon as he reached the outside world, he turned around; Eurydice had not yet left the underworld, and was lost to him forever. He eventually was killed by women in a Dionysan fury. The story is one of the great tragedies of Greek myth.

In D&D terms, of course, he should have just had a friendly cleric cast Raise Dead.

We talked in the Persephone entry about people belonging to the underworld, so I won't repeat that part. I do think it's worth underlining how final death was in Greek mythology; there was no easy way back, and even the gods would intervene to keep their favorites alive (think of Athena and Odysseus). It is somewhat cheapened when any cleric with access to fifth level spells can pop dead Eurydice back.

The basic frame of the story, of going into the underworld on a perilous quest, is of course inescapable in D&D. It's the whole point. Getting back out safely is, of course, an exercise in ingenuity (and sometimes luck) for the player.

The landmark of the underworld in Ovid is the great river Styx. It was this river that was supposed to have given Achilles his power (and the vulnerable heel that he was dangled by), although it is notably not the river navigated by Charon; that was the river Acheron, although Ovid still mentions a ferryman. Still, the idea of a river bounding the underworld has a lot of potential. If you are using the mythic underworld concept in your dungeon, an underground river or a gate (Ovid mentions the gate at Taenarus) is a terrific way to convey it.

Having such a boundary makes it a definite choice for the characters to cross into the realms below, and allows you to incorporate areas such as the basement of a castle that is "just" an underground location and not part of the underworld proper. The rules that Philotomy discusses, such as doors remaining stuck or monsters wandering the corridors, only apply once you have crossed the Stygian border. There may be consequences or challenges for taking something out and into the broader world.

One aspect of the Eurydice story that I love is how the rulers and inhabitants of the underworld are moved by Orpheus's song. Ovid is quite explicit, describing how the famous inhabitants of the underworld such as Tantalus and Sisyphus stop their efforts as they hear it, and even the Erinyes (Furies) are brought to tears.

A genuine sense of aesthetics and taste in its denizens is generally under-utilized. Evil is often aesthetically "ugly" and unappealing, and that has overall been the trend in D&D. But it isn't necessary; the underworld can contain and appreciate beauty, even if in a dark and twisted way. You can read the "music tames the savage beast" into this, where particularly beautiful offerings might be useful for negotiating with underworld entities.

One other rabbit hole that can be gone down with Orpheus and Eurydice is mystery religion. Orpheus is closely linked with the Orphic Mysteries, a well-documented early form of the mystery cult. Initiates were taught rites and rituals that had a secret mystical meaning, and we have several surviving Orphic hymns. These are poems, attributed to Orpheus, that contained detailed information on the mythological world. This strikes me as a fertile religion for a fantasy world; its initiates form a secretive group, and it represents a way of thought that is different from modern rationalism in an interesting way.

We'll leave Orpheus looking back at Eurydice. For the curious, I also intend to look at Odysseus and Heracles within the realm of Greek myth, and getting into Egyptian and Norse myth. Any thoughts on other mythology to approach would be appreciated.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Mythic Underworld: Persephone

This is the start of a new series inspired by the discussion several years ago by Philotomy on the Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld. To boot, I am going to be talking about ... the underworld in mythology, and its implication on Dungeons & Dragons and similar games where characters go underground to seek treasure. One convention: in these posts I'm going to use the Greek names for deities, even when the Roman names are better known.

In the short version: Persephone was a goddess of nature and flowering plants. She was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, who burst forth from a rift in the earth. Her mother, Demeter, eventually convinced Zeus to send Hermes to retrieve her. However, she had eaten either four or six pomegranate seeds from a fruit offered to her by Hades, and the lord of the dead was able to claim that each year, she must spend an equal number of months as his queen in the underworld.

This was a transparent explanation for plant growth in winter, which is alternately described as either Demeter's sorrow for her daughter in the lost months, or the effect of Persephone's simple absence. But that's not really what I think is interesting in this myth. Rather it's the idea that things in the underworld can permanently change a visitor.

A literal interpretation of the Persephone myth takes us to an interesting sort of "special" in a dungeon chamber. A table is laid with exquisite food and drink, but drinking it places the characters under an enchantment specific to the underworld. For instance, they might fall under a powerful wizard's Geas, or any command or curse type of effect, and optionally the amount of food eaten might be proportional to the price taken. This is suitable for any food coming from the dungeon, or perhaps any kind of "garden" sub-area, et cetera.

Hewing still closer to the Persephone myth, one possible consequence is an impressment into service within the dungeon. A character might not be the "queen" of the underworld – Persephone was a goddess, after all – but they might have to help build out a new sublevel, or maintain and clean traps, or guard against intrusions by other parties, et cetera. Of course this has the potential to thoroughly hijack a campaign.

Moving further afield, there is a general idea that things of the underworld are not wholesome and safe, quite possibly in a sense that implies moral corruption or chaos. If you like, corruption based on, say, a powerful magical treasure bound to the underworld can follow a path similar to the physical corruption of wizards in Dungeon Crawl Classics, or it can stay closer to home with the kind of mental drawbacks that we usually find with artifacts. It's interesting to make the PCs also slowly become creatures of the dungeon, in the sense of Nietzsche:
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
This sense of corruption can be signaled in a lot of different ways. Perhaps the coins, instead of showing good and wise kings, are transfigured into the faces of wicked tyrants; instead of portraying the lawful and virtuous gods they now portray leering demons. Metal implements such as iron spikes left too long in the dungeon might take on a sinister patina, or wooden ones growing dark and twisted where once it was straight and true.

As the PCs delve deeper, the dungeon can subtly make them its own. When they leave, perhaps, or if they are foolish enough to overnight underground, they can have vivid dreams of the underworld passages, ending just before their bloody death. A low Constitution PC might pick up a lingering cough or chill that marks them, or the PCs' faces might take on the cast of the dungeon's unhallowed darkness.

Of course, the end stage of this is the Innsmouth effect - where the PCs become fully monstrous. This should be preceded by both PC choices, and some kind of warning effects. Perhaps drinking from mysterious pools and fountains has a temporary helpful effect but slowly changes the characters; they might get infravision, or the ability to open stuck doors, without the normal hassles assumed by the D&D rules. But there needs to be a way to reverse or turn back from this course. It's worth thinking about having the PC "go monstrous" at certain intervals, like in lycanthropy, so they don't experience it all at once.

The story of Persephone was a myth that deeply affected me when I read it as a kid. I've always felt that the idea that you make one mistake and now belong to the underworld is one of the more chilling ideas in mythology. So naturally I see it as a key building block if you want to make your dungeons mythic.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Guide to Stonehell

Ah, Stonehell. The picture of the stairs got me thinking.

If you can't see that for some reason, the second book of the Stonehell megadungeon is coming out on October 27. That is awesome, and I want to talk about it a bit, having run the first book for a number of sessions and thought about what could be done better.

Presumably Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell will be available both as a PDF and in print-on-demand. I'd recommend getting the PDF (volume 1 PDF), because you can't really run a megadungeon from a perfect bound book. Also make sure you get Supplement One and Supplement Two.

I have had some ideas since I ran it on how I'd actually want the book presented. This is how I'd recommend preparing and running the dungeon.

First, there's the physical preparation of the materials. I'd recommend printing the front matter, the master maps, the monster lists, and the sublevel descriptions – but not the sublevel maps and keys – in a big spiral-bound book. You can get the print-on-demand versions, but a single spiral bound book is going to be easier to reference. Then get the appendices printed on good cardstock, so you can reference them frequently. Then get the two-page spreads printed out on sheets of white 11"x17" cardstock, so each sublevel is one big spread that you can reference while running the game.

Second, go through the sublevel keys with two highlighters. Find every monster and highlight it with one color. Find every treasure and highlight it with the second color. You will want to be able to tell at a glance what is in a room.

Third, get a copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The entrance to Stonehell is located in a canyon almost identical to the one housing the Caves of Chaos in B2. The titular Keep is a solid home base for adventurers, and the wilderness map is perfect for an expanded version of Stonehell's surroundings. the Dragonsfoot index to B2 contains an overwhelming amount of writing that has been done on B2. The Zenopus Archives resource page is a more compact guide, and The Project on the Borderlands is a solid set of enhancements.

Fourth, dig in and make it navigable. As you get familiar with the dungeon, create maps (which may be partly inaccurate or out of date, see the sixth point below) and write out directions that monsters or NPCs can give to PCs. Add in some extra treasure (Stonehell is pretty stingy with the gold stuff) and sprinkle in hints about where it is. The goal here is to encourage play that goes for bigger treasures rather than blundering through every room that Stonehell has to offer. You may want to also discourage players from taking a "typical" bash-in-the-door approach to areas such as the Quiet Halls or Kobold Korners (or later, Monster Dorm) as this can turn into a grind.

Fifth, make it your own. Stonehell is a campaign, not a few sessions, and it cries out for a referee's individual stamp. It needs more treasure, it needs more weird monsters, and it needs sublevels. Take either material you've written, or from other modules, and steal it for Stonehell. If I were to run it again, I'd work in a lot of material from Geoffrey McKinney's Isle of the Unknown and Dungeon of the Unknown. It's fresh, distinctive material that contrasts well with the classic D&D feel that is abundant in Stonehell. Just one example: the "dragon" in level 1A could easily be creature C11 in Dungeon of the Unknown, which has a "breath weapon" consisting of razor-winged butterflies; that would totally change the complexion of the encounter. You can hang a lot of other material on what has been written here.

Finally, make it a living dungeon. The kobolds are a great mechanism for doing this. Throw up "under construction" signs, block off passages that PCs have previously taken, and create a roster of new monsters to move into areas that have been "cleared." Slap fresh coats of paint or have a slime monster create a tunnel that wasn't there before. Especially when PCs choose to spend time away from the dungeon, it should not be the same place when they come back.

One side note: while Stonehell can be run reasonably well in pretty much any system you like, it pays to have a copy of Labyrinth Lord handy, just for reference to the monster descriptions. Stonehell's stat blocks are tight, but they don't list out any special abilities of the various creatures. B/X, and hence Labyrinth Lord, critters are a touch different from those found in non-B/X derived games.

Stonehell is a neat place, and if the first half is any indication the full thing will be worth the work. Michael Curtis has created a huge, coherent dungeon that is a solid basis for a D&D campaign. But it needs to be treated as a collaborative effort; the very style of a megadungeon campaign deserves no less.