Monday, January 16, 2017

Mythic Underworld: Cerberus and Mysteries

The story of the twelve labors of Heracles is simple. Driven mad by the goddess Hera, he killed his own children. Since this was such an awful deed, he was given ten labors by Eurystheus to expiate himself; technicalities allowed Eurystheus to add two additional labors. The twelfth, capturing the hound Cerberus, is the one we're interested in.

Cerberus (the "C" is hard) is the guard-dog of Hades, who prevents unwanted access to the underworld. He is usually depicted with three heads, although in connection with the Hecatoncheires (100-handed giants), may have had 50 or 100 heads, some of which may have been snake heads. And he had snake tails, or several backs. In any case, you've got a nasty beast that stops the dead from escaping the realm of Hades.

As Heracles prepared to enter the underworld and retrieve Cerberus, he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. This was a rite of knowledge, granting Heracles insight into the secrets of Persephone and Hades, and is certainly notable because it is the earliest reference to Greek mystery religions. So armed with new understanding, Heracles descended into the realm of Hades.

It's not exactly clear how Heracles got Cerberus out. Some accounts have him wrestling the beast and beating it, possibly involving the impenetrable skin of the Nemean Lion that Heracles used as a cloak. Others say that Persephone, who thought kindly of Heracles, gave the hero a chain, or possibly that she herself chained the beast and handed it over. The fight makes the more obvious of the two stories, but it's intriguing to think about the hero winning the fight by getting Persephone on his side.

Of course, Eurystheus did not actually want Cerebus, and Heracles returned the beast to its proper place in Hades after having brought it up to the surface. This last bit is probably the most amusing part of the tale; unlike the Lernaean Hydra or the Nemean Lion, Cerebus is not a menace to be slain. Hell is supposed to have a three-headed dog-beast who eats anyone trying to leave.

If all we got for gaming from the tale was Cerberus as guard-dog, that'd still be an interesting twist on the dungeon guardian. After all, Cerberus was not there to keep intruders out, but to pen the denizens of the underworld in. I really like the idea of a formidable monster that is not necessarily an immediate threat for PCs to overcome, but plays a role in the dungeon's ecology nonetheless. Some groups will try to kill simply anything, but that can always be solved by a powerful creature that refuses to offer direct combat. Of course, at some point the PCs will have to deal with the creature – but by that time it will become a strategic obstacle to overcome.

Then there's the little matter of the Eleusinian mysteries. This is a secret initiation ritual that gives hidden knowledge; in many cases this hiddenness was quite literal, and the content of the mysteries have been lost to the ages. Such an initiation is a way to integrate player characters more deeply into the setting. We are used to scriptural religion in the West, but introducing a mystery is an opportunity to create literally esoteric knowledge about the world, which can be revealed to players only when their PCs make a particular commitment. PCs, of course, will be inclined toward the mysteries that grant knowledge of the dungeon underworld they face.

The last idea that I particularly like is the loan of a chain from Persephone. This is a good way to have a taste of powerful artifacts in the campaign, by lending them instead of permanently giving them to the PCs. Most artifacts throw off the ability of PCs to be meaningfully challenged, but having them given on short-term loan lets them flavor the game without dominating it.

However many heads Cerebus has, the story of Heracles subduing him has a lot of interesting wrinkles for the D&D underworld. I do want to tackle more Mythic Underworld segments, because Greek myth alone has a lot to offer in this regard.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday AM D&D: Actual Play Notes

A partial map made by players in my Sunday AM D&D campaign showing the Fazren Hills and the town of Farwater.

I've been using the Rules Cyclopedia and have to say that I've been enjoying it. We're using the optional skill rules, which add a very minimal but useful layer to the game. They're built on top of the "roll-under" system familiar to most B/X players, and add depth without dominating the way the game is played.

A couple of encounters in today's game were interesting even though they didn't result in direct interaction between the PCs and monsters. We've been playing in hexcrawl style, and the PCs were heading out at the north edge of the woods; I rolled an encounter overnight and it was a dragon. The characters had cover from the trees above them, and I only gave the dragon a 10% chance of noticing them and taking interest. The dice didn't show that, so I let the dragon fly over and focused on the incredible noise of its wings as it flew by in the early morning hours.

Later, after the PCs had secured a big treasure, I rolled another encounter in the overnight. This time it came during the dwarf's shift to watch, and a couple of elves were rolled. (Of course the dwarf was up for the elves.) I had them avoiding the PCs' campfire, and it wound up being a case where neither side wanted to approach the other.

Both encounters served to give a sense of depth to the world the PCs are in. Neither was actually about them at all, but instead just things they happened across. It's a richer place because it has things totally removed from the PCs and what they're doing. Also - having a dragon in the second adventure, even just a fly-by, simply feels right in a Dungeons & Dragons game.

One resource I used was the d30 Sandbox Companion by Richard LeBlanc. It's a really nice booklet, although I'm very much tempted to roll up a week or so of weather in advance of next week's game. It's a very good system for having weather actually happen during a wilderness exploration, it's just a thing that takes a minute out of the game when you actually roll precipitation.

Between the two was a short dungeon trip with a significant treasure. It will be interesting to see if the PCs go back next week for more - and if they find out what else was in the ruin they were exploring.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Goblins, or Why Use Humanoids

(Note: this post contains spoilers for my Sunday morning game.)

The first time I ever played D&D, I took a piece of graph paper, sketched some rooms on it, and stuck a few goblins in them. Two players went through them, beat the goblins, got the treasure and some XP. I've enjoyed goblins ever since.

I feel like there's a particular prejudice against using default humanoids in OSR games. I think that two points from Bryce Lynch's review standards sum up the reasons why.
  • Non-standard monsters.
    • The party should not know what to expect. What are it’s attacks and weaknesses? Mystery, wonder, and fear!
  • Go light on the humanoids, or even replace them with normal bandits, etc.
    • If all it’s going to do is swing a sword and die then it can be a human. People can do can pretty disgusting stuff.
I've actually tried using this approach in my games for a while, and switched between humans and odd monster races (beastmen, Selenites and others) for my main monsters. But I keep going back to goblins. Why? Well, frankly I don't think a gang of bandits is necessarily a better match than a horde of goblins, and having the option to use either makes the game a bit richer. Sure, the bandits might eventually say "Stand and deliver," but I feel like they're possibly more of a cliché in my game than goblins are.

(As an aside, I'm not picking on Bryce; I like his reviews and I think his standards are good, I just find them a useful statement of an attitude I see in a lot of places.)

When it comes to humanoids, I think the key is to focus on a single type of monster. In my Sunday AM game, there is an influx of goblins in the Fazren Hills, so they'll be a piece of the low-level games. I don't intend for the goblins to act as a step on the cursus honorum before the PCs get to orcs and hobgoblins etc, but rather to use them as one of several factions in a larger sandbox.

For the goblins in the Fazren Hills, what the PCs will find out as the game goes on is that the goblins who are now pushing into human territories have been exiled from the Fae realm. Many of these goblins have links to that realm, and one of the things I need to work up is a chart of minor effects of this exposure – minor illusions, short-range teleportation, conjuring minor items, strange features, and so on.

I particularly want to play with this idea because I love the notion that goblins are really bogeymen, in the old fairy-tale sense. There was an element of this in the bugbear, but there's a reason that we talk about ghosts and goblins, and bugbears was a vocabulary word until Gygax decided to make each thesaurus entry into a monster.

I think a sandbox game needs strong factions, and ruling out humanoids cuts off a whole category right off the bat. The problem with most humanoids in D&D is that they're just an entry in the monster zoo, the ordered thesaurus that the PCs have to kill to get the treasure. I'd say that a good faction in an adventure or sandbox campaign has the following:
  1. A strong hook
  2. A tangible goal in the game
  3. Something that distinguishes them from other factions
Overusing humanoids and overusing humans alike make #3 more difficult. My feeling is that one of any given type of monster makes it easier to do #3 both in terms of the factions, and in terms of making it stand out. If everything is special and different, then it all goes into a kind of sameness. Taking an established monster and tweaking it is a good way to make them stand out but still keep the game familiar and grounded.

At the end of the day, I just like goblins. But I do think they can fit into creative old school play in a way that I don't think is properly acknowledged.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking Back and Forward - the OSR in 2017

2016 has a bad reputation around the Internet because of celebrities dying and certain things about elections, but as far as old school gaming, "good" would be an understatement. It was a pretty phenomenal year.

First and foremost, 2016 saw the publication of Maze of the Blue Medusa. Not just the best RPG product of the year, it's one of the seminal products in the whole OSR, an adventure with such dense and imaginative ideas that you could get lost in it for years. Just the wandering monsters in the book are a revelation, much less the hundreds of keyed areas. Patrick Stuart is one of the most creative voices working in old school gaming today, and the book clearly benefited from both Zak S's artwork and his relentless dedication to doing things extremely well. Also, its layout is revolutionary and sets new standards for RPGs.

A thing I like but haven't talked about much is The Black Hack. This was released in March and quickly created its own ecosystem of products. Black Hack is a stripped-down, ultra-light clone of D&D that incorporates a number of clever ideas for streamlining play. I am particularly fond of its usage die concept for abstract handling of expendable items, where a die reduces in size as the item is used up. This squares well with things like arrows and abstract combat. My favorite particular supplement for the Black Hack is a bestiary called Waste-Land Beasts and How to Kill Them. It's a terrific collection of post-apocalyptic nasties with some great illustrations.

Maze of the Blue Medusa winning out on the product front overshadows some great adventures. Misty Isles of the Eld is a psychedelic sandbox addition from the Hydra Cooperative. Lamentations of the Flame Princess delivered both Rafael Chandler's World of the Lost (a dinosaur romp in Africa aimed directly at my heart) and Jeff Rients's Broodmother SkyFortress, each of which could have won product of the year accolades in some other year. They even overshadow the new Carcosa modules by Geoffrey McKinney, which were good but could have been incredible with some art and layout work.

The Swords & Wizardry Whitebox ecosystem also put up some great work. One that I particularly think is going to create some great convention play is WWII: Operation Whitebox. This is a special forces-oriented game that I am hoping to run in convention play. White Star also got a Companion that, I think, elevates it over the original game considerably and makes it a really solid engine for sci-fi gaming.

Bruce Heard, formerly of Mystara, released Calidar: Beyond the Skies, a god-focused product that mingles story and supplement in the style of the Princess Ark stories from Dragon magazine. Autarch released Lairs & Encounters for its Adventurer Conqueror King system, which provides a valuable assortment of monster lairs that can fit into a hexcrawl.

So yeah, 2016 was a good one for the old school. What is on the horizon for 2017?

A couple of new system books loom. Swords & Wizardry Complete will enter its 3rd edition, with an improved layout and a new cover and an awesome all-woman team doing the update. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea will release a second edition. And Jim Wampler's Mutant Crawl Classics is due out from Goodman Games. All of those have a chance to redefine the landscape for the next year.

I'm hopeful that a couple of delayed adventure projects will hit this year. Ernie Gygax and Benoist Poire's Marmoreal Tomb would be a big one, particularly for people like me with a lot of cash in the release. And it's looking like Jim Ward's Epsilon City for Metamorphosis Alpha will also hit this year, making that an officially thorough system.

I'm excited for Clint Krause's The Driftwood Verses, a sea-drenched adventure done up for LotFP (but not an LotFP release) and the Hydra Collective's Operation Unfathomable. Not to mention that Patrick Stuart could just win another year's releases if Veins of the Earth comes out from LotFP and lives up to the reputation that he and Scrap Princess have built with DCO and Fire on the Velvet Horizon.

And that's just what we already have a bead on for the coming year. The OSR has been firing on all cylinders for three years now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. So grab your dice and buckle up, it should be a good one.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Setting Questions: Sunday AM D&D

I'm starting a new campaign using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia that I'm calling, because of its timing, Sunday AM D&D. I want to use the 20 questions from Jeff Rients to define some of the basics of the kingdom of Pelyria.

1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion?

There are several clerical orders.
- Order of the Unconquered Sun - standard clerics, Lawful
- Order of the Bull Rampant - militant clerics, Lawful
- Defenders of the Silver Tree - nature clerics, Neutral
- Brotherhood of the Black Fist - secret order of unholy clerics, Chaotic

2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

PCs start out in the town of Farwater on the west bank of Lake Dremen. The retired adventurer Joberd operates a general store that sells most typical adventuring euqipment, although weapons other than bows and arrows have to be bought from the blacksmith Treb.

3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

No one in Farwater makes platemail. The king's armorsmiths in Ardglas might be willing to do it but it would take weeks for the fabrication.

4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Fen Pal of the Yellow Cloak is reckoned the mightiest, although Genten the Merciless in his tower to the north is considered far more dangerous.

5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

Arris the Daring, a retainer to King Merik IV, is the greatest warrior. His castle in Westerlyn is home to an annual tournament that draws warriors from far and near.

6. Who is the richest person in the land?

Borin Lo is a powerful merchant prince with a palatial estate south of Lake Dremen.

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?

Look for a cleric and hope you're of the right alignment. There's an Unconquered Sun monastery in the Fazren Hills.

8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

As with #7 above. Several of these can also be cured by powerful wizards. Again: good luck.

9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Magic-users are under the tutelage of a mentor until 4th level, and gain spells from them (as per Rules Cyclopedia). After that, they may go to Ardglass and attempt to pass the tests to join the Arcane College. There are practical and knowledge tests. If the MU passes, they get access to the College's library and higher-level spells, although there are very strict regulations on spells above 6th level. If they fail, they have to continue as hedge-wizards and fetch spells as they may from lost spellbooks and discovered scrolls. Many of these get up to 9th level and join the Alchemists' Guild.

Elves are of course different; after 4th level they need to perform a quest for the King of Elfland in order to gain access to their family spellbook, an heirloom passed down among generations. Sharing spells from this book with outsiders would be unthinkable.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Ardglas, although some itinerant experts will pass through places like Farwater.

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?

If you go south to Valnesse, there are usually mercenary companies working there. They will hire men out at fairly normal rates.

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

Casting spells within Ardglas is strictly regulated. In most of Pelyria, casting spells is frowned upon but not illegal.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?

There are several dockside bars in Farwater, notably the Old Salt, which has a rather hard reputation. The Sign of the Hippogriff is a decent place to grab an ale and you're not likely to get into a rumble. If you can snag an invitation, Zell Lefa hosts the best parties in town.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

Currently there is something of an influx of goblins making the roads unsafe at night. But if you want to become famous, there is word of a dragon in the Fazren Hills.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

The border with Valnesse was never stable to begin with, and that only got worse in Valnesse's recent civil war. Dorram Arel pressed an ancient claim on a border province and the conflict there has been back-and-forth for over a year.

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

No. Aside from tournaments, horse racing is the phenomenon in Pelyria. (And there is a lot to be made on gambling.) Gladiatorial combat would be considered barbaric.

17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

The Brotherhood of the Black Fist definitely qualifies. There is also the Decanari, a secretive group of criminal organizations that has a generally bad attitude about things.

18. What is there to eat around here?

Farwater, being a lakeside town, eats a lot of fish. Mainly trout and catfish. The staple grains are barley and wheat, eaten either as porridge or as coarse brown bread. During the growing season, carrots and peas and onions are frequent additions. Pickled carrots are eaten throughout the winter. Fruits are quotidian - apples and pears and grapes.

19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

There are ruins from the Acradian Empire that have ancient treasure.

20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

There's a dragon in the Fazren Hills.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

First Thoughts: White Boxes

On a recent Lulu jaunt I picked up a small softcover called White Box because of its Stefan Poag cover. It's a revised version of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. Both are pictured above with what I think are their best covers: the original S&W:WB by Pete Mullen and the new WB by Poag. Both books are pretty similar in size, and both are quite affordable. White Box is all of $5.99 in print. This is quite a contrast to the actual OD&D woodgrain box that just sold for $22,100 on eBay.

If you've read the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox book before, White Box's contents are immediately familiar. Taking advantage of the original's use of the Open Game License, WB contains a lot of the S&W:WB text, though it puts it into a fresh and attractive layout. The internal art uses William McAusland's fantasy stock art, which you will find familiar, particularly from Labyrinth Lord. It's a funny feeling to see images like McAusland's mace-wielding cleric repeated, although slightly nostalgic for those of us who cut our teeth on 1990s TSR products, when pictures were in heavy reuse. Still, as a whole the look and feel of the book is a step up from S&W:WB, which felt like it was printed off of a word processor.

A Thief class sneaks into this game, with a simple "Thievery" die; this made its way from James Spahn's White Box Omnibus. It's an ultra-light solution to the thief class, fitting with the White Box approach, using a d6 roll for all thief skills. It starts off with a 2-in-6 chance, working its way up to 5-in-6 by 10th level. If this system seems simplistic, the probabilities wind up being favorable to the low-level thief. In White Box, 3rd level thieves have a 2 in 6 chance of performing a thief task, or 33%. No B/X thief at 3rd level has a skill over 30%. Likewise at 6th level, a 3 in 6 chance (50%) beats B/X's 45% chance to pick pockets or open locks. It's only at 9th level or so that thieves slip behind.

Mason expanded S&W:WB's hopelessly thin "Playing the Game" rules with a list of extra rules adapted from other sources. Overland movement from Delving Deeper makes its way in, as do the basic dungeon exploration rules (here credited to Douglas Maxwell, though I'm not sure where his rules are available). This goes a long way toward making White Box a more complete game than the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox version. Similar rules have made their way into other S&W iterations but S&W:WB has stayed in more or less the same form since 2010.

A few other rules make their way into combat, such as jousting (credited to John Stater from Bloody Basic) and a morale chart – the latter is not given specific credit but it's a fine and simple table. The rest follows, pretty straightforwardly, from S&W:WB. Curiously, the example of combat from S&W:WB has gone missing. I'm not sure how useful it was, as I wouldn't have read it if not for doing this overview. It's certainly not the densely written combat examples of Holmes D&D or the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

White Box takes the rest of the book fairly literally. The one change to spells is that an overlap in the tables for the Sleep spell is removed. There are more monsters, and a few monster entries are tweaked, but what you get is pretty much what you'd expect. Treasure follows the monster-based system in Swords & Wizardry, which is probably the only real disappointment for me; I'd have preferred if Mason could have brought over the stocking rules from Delving Deeper, but that would have been a bigger shift.

This is a complete RPG for $6 in print, and captures much of the earliest edition of D&D in 166 pages at 6"x9" size. It's a good update of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, which has sat fallow for years, and if I may have liked a further-going revision, this one is welcome. I'd recommend it over the original, particularly in the Stefan Poag cover. The edits and updates make me feel better about it as a complete game that could be run by a referee with no experience with OSR or older D&D games.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Master Class in Refereeing

You should watch this interview with Dave Wesley, the inventor of Braunstein, the war game that led directly to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and thence to Dungeons & Dragons.

Wesley describes how a refereed game changed his wargaming: once there was a referee, players could take ad-hoc actions. He describes how players in one wargame scenario decided to take apart a barn and use the timbers to build a bridge across a river to move their troops. And Wesley as the referee had to rule on how long it took the troops to deconstruct the barn and move the timbers. He also goes on with a few thoughts on how crossing rivers might work in a wargame, including randomly determining its depth and making rulings from there on what can go across.

This is an adaptation of the principles of free Kriegsspiel – the open war game method used in 19th century Prussia – based on Wesley's reading of Charles Totten's Strategos rules. (You can buy a facsimile of Strategos online now.) The historical progression that Wesley describes is logical and compelling; his desire for more complex refereed scenarios and his severe time constraints combined to create what would become Braunstein.

Wesley describes three basic things that make part of his rulings. First, there's the question of what he had decided secretly before the scenario; he may already know that the river is only a foot or two deep and cavalry and infantry can wade across (although artillery cannot follow). Second, there is random determination, where Wesley would throw a die to decide how deep the river is at this point. And third, his own knowledge often factors in, as he describes the results of the river's depth. There is no formal rule for this. so he comes up with appropriate descriptions.

He also describes a touch of classical irony that sometimes happens in gaming as well as war, where soldiers fought to take a bridge when they could as well have waded across. I'm sure this rings true for many referees.

Although Wesley focuses on the river scenario in this discussion, the lessons (and indeed, much of the ideas of free Kriegsspiel) are generally applicable in RPGs. One thing I think adventures benefit greatly from are details like the barn that properly motivated PCs can use to try and gain an advantage.

The other detail that Wesley gets into that applies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to RPGs is when he talks about the persistence of details across games. While it's mostly obvious, the idea I particularly liked is using notoriety as a way of changing how a PC is perceived. Dave Arneson's bandit starts off as a no-name Mexican but once he blows up the bank there are "Wanted" posters plastered across the town. (Of course, it's also a delightful gaming story that he blew up the bank.)

The specific resolution that Wesley arrived at for a duel in the first Braunstein game (a simple roll-off where one participant had 3 dice and the other 2) is too simplistic for RPG combat, but most of the ideas can translate directly. Wesley is a brilliant referee and this is a great peek into his mind.

(The photo at the top of this article is referenced during the discussion.)