Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Joy of Random Encounters

I ran a game this evening - first actual play I've had since November. I just wanted to share a couple of tidbits here while events are still fresh.

Probably the stand-out for me this evening was a random encounter. The players were going through a corridor, and reasoned it would have a secret door; they sent enough characters down it that I actually rolled a 1 on the square with the door and it was revealed. The door went into a pocket, and the players failed their surprise roll. The kobolds on the other side didn't fail theirs, so they took a round of dagger-throwing. The kobolds were evenly numbered but the players, with much better AC, managed to take them down without fatalities. The characters looted the kobold room (I think it was actually the only keyed piece of treasure in the session) and were searching for secret doors when I rolled a 1 on my random monster check.

Now, as a referee I always prepare my listing of random encounters. I wanted something icky, worm-shaped and Cthulhoid, but not too high in hit points, so I rolled up a quick, squishy Spawn of Shub-Niggurath using the charts from Carcosa, and it came out to pretty much exactly the kind of beast I needed: ugly, a bit frightening, totally new and unknown to the players. They thought quickly and used a button on the inside of the secret door room to shut themselves in. Then they got one of those moments of ingenuity that you just can't fabricate: they realized that the door seemed to be able to open or close by pressing a panel, and that they might be able to use this against the Spawn. I rolled a quick check, giving it about a 35% chance that the secret door would work like they expected (not have to recess all the way before it began to close) and it came up in favor of their idea, so they managed to neatly bisect the Spawn. I assigned 2 dice of damage for this; it would've been a save or die if the enemy had been less....thing that should not be-ish. Taking down the remaining half - what, you expected it to just die? - didn't take long, and they discovered that the blood was acidic, which they managed to bottle and sell for a bit of a profit.

Of course, I probably could've come up with a suitably Cthulhoid encounter without the charts in Carcosa, but it was fun to have a whole bunch of different options to stat up the kind of creature I needed for a very particular niche. I was also very pleased with the lateral thinking to get around the fight, which turned the whole thing from a "you see something weird" "we run / kill it" into a memorable encounter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Modules, Megadungeons and the Old School Renaissance

A lot of this is prompted by thoughts shared on this thread on RPGnet, by Mike Mornard (Old Geezer), one of Gary Gygax's original players. Reading it will give a bit more context into what I'm talking about.

As somebody who read about the megadungeon idea and said, "Wow, that's cool!" and went off to make his own, I have to say that I feel like today's old school modules are going down a path that, while it has its merits in its own right, is neither useful to the megadungeon designer, nor reflective of the old school play that we are trying to get at. Read the RPGnet thread linked above, Mike Mornard makes the main points: a lot of the classic modules are relatively linear grinds because of the requirements of tournament play. And as they were popular, and needed their own justifications in the world, they tended to be given a location, a rationale and a place that makes them awkward fits at best for a megadungeon.

But there are a few products, both older and more recent, that make me think there is another way to approach the module. Two are classic Gary Gygax modules: EX1 Dungeonland and EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. These are high Gygaxian funhouse areas that were linked to the original Greyhawk Castle -- in fact, they're really the earliest published levels from that classic dungeon. The other is a more recent product, which I was lucky enough to actually play in: Bottle City by Robert Kuntz. This was another sub-level in Greyhawk Castle, and the product really shows the difference - it's a big sandbox to play in, rather than being a linear, plot oriented dungeon.

What makes these modules so interesting for me is that they validate an alternate model to the classic convention module. The intent is not to have a fully sustained, well plotted and placed dungeon, but something that can be dropped into an existing dungeon with relatively little difficulty of integration. It doesn't have to be Wonderland, since Gygax already did that, but it could be just about anything that is accessible from stairs, a chute, a teleporter, a mirror, a bottle, or anything else you're likely to find in a big dungeon.

But the other thing that sets EX1, EX2 and Bottle City (and the Living Room, which I've yet to receive) apart from other modules is that they are not simply someone dreaming up "what dungeon should I put out next" but real sub-levels from dungeons, which arose not out of commercial or convention needs but were worked up for an actual play group, cleaned up and published. There is something wonderfully authentic about that, the sense that I'm not just reading a scenario the author wrote for others, but an actual level from a well-loved dungeon, which I can add to my own dungeon (or not) because the idea is so interesting.

Who knows? Maybe once I stock it and some players actually get to it, I'll write up the "abandoned temple" sublevel of my own dungeon and put it out on Lulu. But I hope this is food for thought for some of you looking to write a module.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My lizardmen

The idea of lizardmen always struck me as one of the cooler "mash up a human with an animal" type of monsters, because they're a bit squick-ish. The first picture of a lizardman in Greyhawk (which I use primarily for monsters and the paladin class), after all, was sufficiently cool to be TSR's logo for several years. And it has always struck me as a neat D&D monster just begging for variants, but apparently even modern editions haven't done too much of interest with them.

So, I spent an afternoon a few weeks ago looking up different facts and ideas about different types of lizards. And, as is my wont, I translated some of these things into game-ready ideas: nothing really too extreme, but enough to make a class of monsters varied and fresh for a number of encounters.

The race of lizardmen results from a long-ago magical cross of humans with various sorts of lizards. The "standard" lizardman type is in fact a mongrel of different breeds, which has few if any of their special qualities. Purebred lizardmen have preserved their characteristics much more strongly, and are named for their lizard progenitors. All of the lizardmen types noted below regenerate at a rate of 1 point per turn.

Iguana - These lizardmen have a third eye, which allows them to see through magical invisibility. 25% of the time they will be accompanied by a shaman who is effectively a 2nd level magic-user.

Chameleon - Like their namesakes, these types can change their skin color to match their surroundings. Groups encountering chameleon lizardmen are surprised on 3 in 6 instead of 2 in 6. Chameleon lizardmen are usually found in small hunting packs.

Komodo - Based on komodo dragons, these lizardmen are considerably larger than average and have armor class 4 and 4 hit dice. Their bite (used on 1-2 in d6) is a powerful poison, which acts as a slow-acting poison described elsewhere in this book*. Fortunately, Komodo lizardmen are almost always solitary creatures.

Plated - These massive lizardmen have heavy plate-like scales, and correspondingly AC 3, but only move at a rate of 3". They do an additional 2 points of damage based on size.

Horned - Although they more resemble frog-men covered with short, pointed spikes, the defining characteristic of horned lizardmen is their ability to squirt a stream of blood from near their eyes. This is not poisonous or caustic but, if the target fails to make a save versus dragon breath, he is blinded for 1d6 rounds.

Spiny - These lizardmen are light, fast (base move of 9"), and walk effortlessly on walls, being closer to lizards in their stature. Their bodies are distinguished by short spines that resemble those of Horned lizardmen.

* My poison rules are actually somewhat more forgiving than the standard. Slow acting poisons work as follows: if the saving throw is failed, they do one die of damage per turn for 6 turns. At the end of the 6 turns, if the character is still alive and has not been cured, he (or she) makes another saving throw; this one is "save or die." You're free to make komodo lizardmen have save or die poison if that's how you roll.

Monday, January 12, 2009

D&D and Miscellanies

The previous post, Save vs. Death Ray, is from a longer document I've been working on, on and off, for a while. My initial intent was to fill up enough content to put out a 8.5 x 5.5 supplement perfect bound from, but it turns out that requires something ridiculous like 84 pages, which is honestly more rules and details than I want to put into the thing. So I've considered doing it 6 x 9, which would let me put out a smaller saddle stitched book. I may eventually compile the material I put out here, and on the OD&D forum and other places, into such a book. But for now I'm going to be putting some of the stuff out bit by bit.

You see, for me the perfect book has little of classes and races and spells as such. And, while I do occasionally like a module for inspiration (either in mapping or room descriptions), to be honest I'm not going to be running so many of them. I would gleefully use a hundred thousand stacks of monster books, though. But what I'm really interested in is a miscellany.

It's one of the reasons I never run without my Ready Ref Sheets - it's just a great little resource where I can pull out, ominously roll a couple of dice, and have dungeon dressing or something of the sort. So a lot of the stuff I've been working on is in the vein of "here are a bunch of things that might be interesting if you dropped them in your game." I have a listing of reputed properties of gemstones (only applies to flawless stones, which are about 5% of specimens), advantages and drawbacks for magical weapons, properties of herbs, types of lizardmen and so forth. Everything's simple, adhering to a straightforward philosophy of - "maybe it does something, but it's minor." A couple of examples:

From Gemstones: Topaz: A true topaz will lose its gold color when brought within 5’ of poison. When removed from the proximity of poison it will regain its color.

From Herbs: Eyebright: A poultice of this flower must be laid over a character’s eyes for 1 full turn. When it is removed, he can see the blurry outlines of invisible creatures or objects for the next turn. The poultice cannot be used twice.

So the questions I'm interested in finding the answers to:

1. Would you be interested in a 32-page miscellany of the type described above?
2. If so, what additional items would you be interested to see in it?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Save vs. Death Ray!

One of the things that strikes me when I read through the OD&D rules is a throwaway item in the saving throw list. There is a save versus "Death Ray or Poison," which for the most part is interpreted rather tamely as referring to spells like finger of death and similar effects. Don't get me wrong, that's perfectly legitimate way to look at save versus death ray. But it's missing one of the most fun aspects of old-school gaming: making up fun stuff based on vague suggestions in the rulebook.

So, the way I figure it is, death rays have different color beams, which determine the overall effect.

Red: Red death ray beams are based on extreme heat. They will cause wood or cloth to burn, and if intense enough, may cause metal to become white-hot.

Orange: Orange rays are derived from acid, and must be extremely corrosive to any object in their path. Items must make a saving throw or be destroyed.

Yellow: Yellow rays are effectively lightning, and will be conducted by any metal they come in contact with.

Green: Green death rays are based on poison.

Blue: Blue death rays are based on extreme cold. Liquids (canteens, holy water, potions etc) must save or the vessel containing them will be destroyed.

Indigo: Instead of causing physical destruction, indigo death rays affect the mind. A character who fails his or her saving throw will go irretrievably insane.

Violet: Violet death rays reduce living matter to its constituent elements. A person killed by a violet death ray will be reduced to a pile of ashes and a mass of super-hot, boiled water. This has no effect on non-living matter.

And, of course, death rays have to be launched from something.

Ray Gun: These are small enough to be held by hand and do 2-3 dice of damage per blast (save for half). They only strike their target if the wielder first makes a successful "to hit" roll, considering all man-type creatures to be effectively unarmored. A ray gun will have enough energy for 1-100 (roll d100 to determine) blasts.

Cannon: The cannon is a form of death ray too large to be held by hand. Based on their size, cannons (which may weigh from 100 to 1000 lbs) may do 4 to 12 dice of damage. A cannon will have enough energy for 4-40 blasts.

This is just a sketch of how I intend to have death rays work in my games. Has anybody else done anything like this with death rays?