Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dungeons of Castle Dragonscar

I posted this over in the OD&D forums a few weeks back so some of you might have seen it there, but I decided to post it to the blog at least partly so the resolution would be a little clearer. Just click on the image above.

You can see on this version the elevators, pits, and whatnot I included. I'm not sure which levels the elevators go to, but right now I'm thinking one should go to Level 3 and another to Level 6.

My intention is to stock the level myself, but things have been crazy with tons of grading and two bouts of sickness in the last month. I'll post the results here when I'm finished.

Oh, and as I noted on the forums--feel free to steal this baby and use as you will.

Here's the original forum thread in case anybody's interested:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Nine Hells

I've always wanted to go to Hell.

Okay. . .not actual Hell, but when I played AD&D I wanted to send the characters to Hell. Despite Dave Sutherland's wonderfull depiction of "A Paladin in Hell" from the AD&D Player's handbook, I was always initially more facinated with the demons as opposed to the devils in the AD&D Monster Manual. That changed thanks to Dragon Magazine and Ed Greenwood. Greenwood's articles on the Nine Hells (from issues #75 and #76) captured my imagination in a way that only a few other articles in the magazine ever did.

Greenwood's articles gave life to those images in the monster manual. Hell was a place rife with intrigue, plotting, and lots of really awful adversaries. More than that the Hells as depicted were an interesting and varied planar environment. Not just a flaming pit, here we had disease filled swamps, frozen wastes, icy rivers, and a few massive dungeons located under the fortresses of Hell's rulers.

When TSR tried to de-Hellify the Nine Hells and turn it into Baator was about when I lost interest in 2nd edition D&D. Planscape was a wildly creative setting and had some gorgeous artwork, but after years of parents freaking out over Satan and D&D they decided to first just kind of not mention Hell and then later to recast it as Baator. Granted they didn't change much about the actual setting--it was clearly still loosely based on previous published versions such as the Manual of the Planes (1st ed.) and Greenwood's articles--but the name change choked out any of the mythic resonance. It was actually Wizards of the Coast who made Hell Hellish again, but I find myself looking over the Greenwood articles and being more inspired by them than anything later.

Despite my facination with the articles I never really ever sent any of my players to Minauros, Maladomini, Avernus, or any other of the Hells. I always was waiting for them to get powerful enough--which we kind of never did. Pretty soon I was under the spell of another game's depiction of cosmic evil: Call of Cthulhu.

One thing that always puzzled me about parents concerned about Satanism and D&D was that the Devils and Demons were clearly put into the books for players to fight. Having a party of 20th level characters butchering their way through Hell and the Abyss and taking out hordes of demons hardly seems like Satanism to me. Gygax and the folks at TSR put them in the books because Players wanted to go up against the big bads of the mutiverse, and you can't get a better depiction of mythic evil than Hell. Enter Asmodeus and his cohorts.

So here's my pitch: a full on campaign set largely in Hell. Screw the we have to wait until we're 15th level and all that. I ride on the hells tomorrow. . .

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

RPG Video History: D&D Computer Labyrinth Game

I'm slammed with grading this week. But here's another bit of D&D video nonsense.

Beware the Dragon!

Friday, March 13, 2009

King Arthur Pendragon: An Appreciation

I've always loved King Arthur. Malory, Howard Pyle, Wolfram Von Echenbach, The Grail Stories--I was obsessed with it all. My Dad used to tell me stories about King Arthur when we'd go out to eat when I was four or five. I guess he figured that it was a way to keep me occupied. I remember once going to a medieval themed restaurant and listening with rapt attention to his half remembered stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, and the evil Mordred. Looking back I realize that he was probable picking details from whatever he could remember from when he read the stories when he was younger and whatever movies he could remember (likely films such as Knights of the Round Table).

Which brings me to King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford. This game is one of my favorite roleplaying games of all time and my admiration for it has only grown over the years. Greg Stafford has said the game was a work of love for him, and I have to say that it shows. Moreover, the game's rules (despite multiple editions and being published by three separate companies) have essentially stayed the same for over twenty years. And that's a good thing. In a world where new editions of games are coming out all the time that supposedly "improve" on previous ones Pendragon knew something that it might not always be bad to listen to: if it isn't broken don't fix. Different editions have made adjustments to various parts of the rules but most of the changes have been relatively minor and often were for the better. No attempt was made to pull out core mechanics and "re-imagine" the setting. The game was perfect the way it was.

Pendragon was quite innovative for its time as well. Foremost among these innovations were things like passions and personality traits. Some have balked at the idea that a die roll might tell me how my character might react to something but lets take step back and look at the source material. Do the characters in the Arthur stories behave in such a way that they are always doing the tactically smart thing? The best thing? No. They make mistakes. Epic HUGE mistakes. They fall in love with people they shouldn't. They betray each other. Traits and Passions are ways to have characters do those things that really push things in unexpected direction. My group really liked leaving some important decisions up to the dice. And you needn't use traits and passions all the time--they become important at various key points. They should be a resource for deepening the characters rather than something the group should feel slavishly bound to.

The PCs are also bound by their social obligations and responsibilities. Characters are a fundamental part of the game world's society. No wandering sellswords with no social connections in this game.

However, my favorite element of the game is the seasonal advancement. Pendragon plays out over YEARS. In just a few sessions your characters might have aged several years. They grow older like real people. They have losses. They have families. And they die. That's one thing you know for sure in Pendragon. That if you keep playing--eventually the character is going to die. Combat (and the combat is deadly!) or just the advancement of time--one of them will win out in the end. It occurs to me that this sort of advancement could be (and likely has) been utilized by D&D to reflect a different sort of campaign that's more clearly medieval in tone.

Greg Stafford has a website where he's putting new PDF and print supplements for the game as well as lots of free content. Check it out--there's some great stuff there.

Check it out at:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Lament for a Lost World: The World of Tarna

So a few years ago two of my friends and I created a fantasy campaign world known as Tarna for a proposed D&D 3rd edition game. We ran into problems when we got into the game only to realize that we weren't really enjoying the system that much. 3rd edition is great for some folks, but we were all too busy and too lazy to spend the amount of time that the game would have demanded. We ended up converting the game to a Basic Roleplaying variant we cobbled together, and this second attempt at the campaign was much more what we were after. Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system is brilliantly intuitive system that worked well and provided us some memorable and gritty combat. I now realize that Basic Roleplaying has its limits as a system as well, but it worked well enough for us at the time.

However, we loved the little campaign world we'd created, so we kept adding little bits to it. We kept adding, brainstorming, and adding more. We were off dreaming up this world under the heady spell of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films and about a million other things. The stuff we came up with rocked, but it had one little drawback: it was never going to come into the game. Looking back it was one of the most important lessons in my gaming life. It really taught me that while worldbuilding can give you great stuff--you can also drown in it. And we were drowning. Eventually, we moved on to other games having absorbed some of the lessons of our Tarna experience. Yet I keep looking back on that stuff wondering if I should still do anything with it. I've been tempted on a few occasions to run it as an old school OD&D campaign, but the best thing I got out of the Tarna campaign was a stronger sense of what works in the GAME not in some massive fictional world you keep tinkering with.

Some interesting features of Tarna:

* Elves were very long lived, mystically potent, and had held the people of Tarna in slavery for several hundred years, but were now mostly extinct (although they'd left behind massive tomb complexes).

* Goblins were a "plague race" that infected people and turned them into goblins.

* The planet itself was a living deity.

* Magic was an aberration created when the chaos planet Umaen hurled a piece of himself into Aeos (the planet the land of Tarna was located on). This shard of Umaen was the locus of mystic energy on the planet and located far out in the ocean stabbing like a knife far into the atmosphere.

* The savage war goddess Shiara had the head of boar.

Here's one of my maps:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Enter the Magical World of Adventure Gaming


This page from the 1980 Sears Catalog is (almost) single handily responsible for turning me into a gamer. My parents got me both the Moldvay boxed set and the D&D Computer Fantasy Game because I showed them this. The computer game was what I really wanted, but it was the Basic Set that I ended up becoming far more interested in. I still have the Computer Game (although it doesn't work) and the nifty metal figurines that came with it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide: Finding the Gems

Despite my earlier posting about my youthful frustrations with AD&D, I've recently grown to appreciate and understand the massive baggy monster that is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition.

A key part of getting more out of the books is in understanding the play style that they seem to support. I never appreciated things like Wandering Monster Tables, Random Dungeon Generators, and hexcrawl wilderness exploration when I was younger. I suppose part of the problem was that I was too focused on a creating story like Lord of the Rings rather than appreciating what the game WAS good at.

This is something that I feel I've learned from both the old school and the indie gaming communities in the last few years: the story is wherever the players are and what they are doing NOT whatever grand scheme is in your head. Provide your players with situations they can dive into and DON'T provide them with plots that aren't ever going to be realized or that you have railroad them through. Railroading can be okay and provide a satisfying play experience, but it requires significant buy in from the players. D&D can get around railroading by focusing on what might be called environmental dangers (i.e. the dungeon or the wilderness) that by their nature are situational. The major buy in for the players is usually at the beginning during the scenarios set-up or "mission briefing" phase. Once they are in the "situation" they've usually got all sorts of motivations to interact with the imaginative environment. This usually means killing stuff, getting treasure, and getting killed by stuff in return, but it also might mean solving puzzles and avoiding traps.

Anyway, part my problem seemed to be that I just needed to give myself permission to see the game as a toolbox and move from there. I'd argue that AD&D at its core is a pretty simple game actually, but it suffers from a complex presentation and lots of extra "stuff" that got bolted on over the years (Unearthed Arcana I'm looking at you!). The DMG in particular is a labyrinthine text that while filled with some great stuff also has lots of "extras" that you may not need.

Here's Dr. Rotwang's appreciation of the DMG from a few years ago:

So ignore the chaff--find the gems--and dive into the dungeon!

RPG Video History: D&D Commercial

Remember this? And when you DM make sure to always point your finger the air like you're declaring something important.

Monday, March 2, 2009

RPG Video History: When We Were Witches

Wow. I'd forgotten how bad it was. The story is quite a hatchet job. Shame on you 60 Minutes!

Gateway to Adventure?

The TSR catalog that came with my Moldvay D&D Basic Set was titled “Gateway to Advnture.” If you’re curious you can take a virtual tour of it here:

Being a kid of about ten—I immediately wanted lots of stuff from it. I loved my Basic Set, but AD&D (1E) looked “cooler” to my eyes—I mean there were all these hardcover books and the covers were great! So of course I felt I should get those—it was only natural, right? Of course, I was entirely unaware that AD&D was more game that I was probably ready for. To compound things even more, I decided that I was going to be the DM. I didn’t have enough cash to go buy ALL the D&D books, so I decided that The Dungeon Master’s Guide would be the best thing to get first (one of my friends bought The Player’s Handbook and I don’t even remember whether we initially even had a Monster Manual). Now I love the DMG, but it is far from a beginner friendly rulebook. Despite Gygax’s claims that AD&D was a separate game than OD&D, it seems to me that to really make use of the DMG it helped to have a background in OD&D.

When I played AD&D, I mostly just reverted to what I understood from my Basic Set and eventually the game reverted to some sort of bizarre Star Wars game where out characters were essentially in charge of the Death Star. It was fun, but it had stopped being D&D of any kind. The rules had mostly disappeared. I can't remember what dice system we were using, but I know I'd mostly stopped paying attention to the hit charts in the DMG.

I ran a few campaigns in later years that hewed much closer to actual AD&D, but I don’t think I played close enough attention to the rules then either. I grew up with AD&D, but I also feel a bit like I’ve never actually played AD&D (with one or two exceptions where I was a player in someone else’s game—usually someone older with a better sense of how to play the game). From what I can tell my experience does not seem to be unusual. Looking back, I might have been happier if I’d have stuck to my Moldvay Basic Set and just gone from there.

It wasn’t until comparatively recently that I really dove in and took a hard look at AD&D’s rules. After I felt I had gained an understanding of OD&D, AD&D 1E’s idiosyncrasies seemed to make more sense. So I did what I never did when I was younger and which I should have done all along. I created my own House Rules document and a custom AD&D character sheet that, while not being the most attractive thing in the world, certainly reflects my “take” on the game.

Sometimes we so desperately want to be "Advanced" when we may have been happier with "Basic".

Now to find that Time Machine--there's a ten year old boy I'd like to give some advice to.