Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gingersnap's Medicine: A Guest Post Play Report on 4e by my oldest

Ever since the game came out, nearly our whole family has entertained an on-again, off-again fascination with the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. On the one hand, it is completely and utterly not DnD, and is, in fact, a tabletop adaptation of MMORPG and other video game paradigms so completely that it barely qualifies as a role-playing game. On the other hand, it is an excellent game with well-made rules and a deeply entertaining gameplay process. Our consensus is that it is what it was designed very, very well, even if that design goal may have been suboptimal, and so we've come back to it briefly time and time again.

Our most recent revisiting of the system actually led a small group of us to play it, and we recently finished the first adventure of our odd little 3-man campaign. In order to fit the need for many characters on the field with only two actual players, we're running 3 PCs each, taking advantage of the more tactical and less in-character nature of the game to make this work. The individual encounters we faced, even the large and extended ones, were actually fairly short and sweet, so we were able to slip them in over the course of our day in small doses. The result was actually quite entertaining and fairly interesting at a theoretical level.

The player disposition was as follows:
N-the Gamemaster.
   Killroy Killigan, human fighter. Killroy is a polearm specialist with well-rounded stats and a power selection focused on the survivability of himself and his allies. What little characterization he has is centered on the fact that, while he is of good alignment, he likes fighting far, far too much.
   Archibald "Archie" Dickens, half-orc rogue. Archie is totally centered on doing as much damage as possible, with a very high dex, the Brutal Scoundrel class option, and Backstabber as his first feat all allowing him to do high damage with either dagger or shuriken. As a character, Archie is, despite growing up a lonely half-orc orphan, unstoppably cheerful, painfully chipper, and convinced of the power of positive thinking.
   Genericus McGi, elf druid. Genericus is a wildshape specialist who has stacked racial and class abilities to achieve an utterly ludicrous amount of battlefield mobility. He has sacrificed some damage potential to do so, but is still a very workable controller. His dedication to protecting nature and revering the power of the untamed wild totally clashes with every other character's personality, allowing him to act as the straight man of J's group.
   Erobern, dragonborn warlord. Erobern's charisma score of 18 makes him a terrifyingly powerful inspiration-warlord. His power selection allows him to fight on the front lines with the other warriors, but still causes him to shed combat buffs on all nearby allies on a continuous basis. The only character in the party not of good alignment, Erobern entertains ambitions to one day conquer the world, though he's careful not to let his allies get too wise to this.
   Tordek Valladwarf, dwarven paladin. The culmination of a years-long running gag about a character who fulfills the party role of, "Wall of Dwarf," Valladwarf has selected all of his abilities and feats with the double goal of making himself as unkillable as possible and of making himself as much of a target as possible. He does both excellently. He also has even less characterization than the other PCs, in keeping with his role as the Wall of Dwarf.
   Stark, human sorceror, AKA, "The Swoleceror." As a sorceror, Stark has a high charisma score, but his most important stat is his 18 strength, which the Dragon Magic class feature allows him to use for spellcasting and armor class in addition to physical damage. His area of effect damage potential is enormous, even at first level, and the combination of a feat that allows him to turn any spell into a melee attack with his Dragon Magic feature allows him to literally muscle through any problem. As expected, he speaks with a, "surfer dude," accent, and is obsessed with physical perfection.

Through some bizarre, convoluted chain of events yet to be touched upon, all 6 of these characters somehow became fast friends before the first adventure. So, when Stark's estranged uncle died and unexpectedly left him the deed to his enormous mansion in a walled frontier village, the entire party decided to move in together as roommates to seek out the nearby adventures rumoured to exist all around the Village. 

When they arrived, they were greeted by the Village Elder, who turned out to have been so thoroughly briefed on the legal situation of the Mansion that he basically served as the executor of the Uncle's will. He showed us to the Manor and gave us the keys, and we were able to explore it and take stock of what was inside. The Manor was rundown and semi-abandoned, as the Uncle was just reclusive enough to not keep any servants to care for it; but the house was still far and away large and well-furnished enough to serve as a comfortable base indefinitely. 

While exploring, Genericus' preposterously high perception check triggered, and he noticed a secret door. Behind the door were stairs leading down into a large, bare room, with a jail cell-like door in the opposite well that led to another large, bare room. The second room, however, contained an inverted pentacle engraved on the floor, which contained an enormous iron snake with glowing purple eyes. Simply entering the room was enough for Erobern to become dazed and slowed, so we beat a hasty retreat.

We decided to leave this alone for now.

After we finished our tour, we were called to the stable by the Village Elder, and informed of the other part of the will. It turned out that the will also contained strict and sternly-worded instructions that Stark was to take extremely good care of his Uncle's horse, Gingersnap, which had served as a beloved pet who comforted him greatly in his last days. Obviously, he also informed us that Gingersnap had become gravely ill with an unknown disease just a few days earlier, and, after our druid rolled a 1 on his nature skill check, the only hope for the horse's survival was the eccentric herbalist Hermit who lived on the edge of town.

So, keen not to trigger any negative contingencies that might be hidden in the will, we set out to meet the Hermit. We arrived to find his hut battened down, closed tightly and surrounded by wolves, and nearly caused a severe faux pas when Genericus used a high nature roll to dismiss them into the forest, only for us to find out that the wolves were actually his tamed pets. Luckily, the Hermit was a friendly, absentminded fellow, and we were easily able to fast talk our way out of that particular problem. Unfortunately, he then informed us that Gingersnap was sick with an extremely rare disease that required many esoteric and rarely-gathered herbs to cure. Obviously, he was also currently out of said herbs due to using them to cure a nobleman's prized steed just a few months prior. The only way he knew to get more was through negotiations with a friendly tribe of lizardfolk that lived in the Baneful Swamp, a nearby landmark. He assured us, however, that this tribe was very friendly and their chieftain knew him by name, so as long as we sought out the lizardman with the large, blue headdress, we'd be fine.

With this advice behind us, we set out, and, later that same day, arrived at the outskirts of the Baneful Swamp. Not long after that, we found a forward picket for the lizardfolk tribe with a couple of guards manning it. However, unexpectedly (for our characters, at least), these guards turned out to have a xenophobic hatred for outsiders, and attacked us despite our efforts at diplomacy.

Luckily, our initiative rolls were superb, and the entire party was able to act before them. With the opening move, Archie did a shuriken sneak attack for more than twenty points of damage, bloodying one of the guards instantly. After that, all 3 martial fighters advanced in short order, and engaged the battle fairly successfully, although Valladwarf was cursed with unluck for the whole battle, and rarely landed a hit. Genericus was shouldered out of the way somewhat by this, but moved to flank regardless. Stark opened up a barrage of acid orbs and stormwalk thunderbolts, but similarly missed with his first few attacks. Luckily, the guards also had some accuracy problems, so we were dealing with them handily.

To complicate matters, however, reinforcements came shortly after the battle began. These consisted of a pair of enormous lizardmen with greatclubs and spines on their tails that dripped poison, which left us a little worried. They joined the engagement quickly, and we found ourselves in a massive brawl. Killroy and Erobern fought hard and did significant hand-to-hand damage, though Killroy was poisoned for a worrying amount of damage, and Valladwarf did his job of sucking up attacks for the rest of the party beautifully. Unfortunately, a slight mismanagement of positioning prevented Genericus and Stark from using their area of effect attacks without hitting Valladwarf, forcing Stark to use only his at-will powers, and Genericus to continue to hang out at the edge of the fray. Archie, however, proved to be the MVP of the battle. By maneuvering behind the main engagement, he was able to continue to sneak attack, and since his main at-will power targeted reflex rather than AC, his accuracy was excellent.

Before long, we noticed that another lizardman had stealthily made his way to the edge of the combat, and was loading a dart into a blowpipe in a perfect flanking position. Sensing he finally had an opportunity to contribute, Genericus charged the newcomer in wildshape form, and pounced on him. Unfortunately, it was only after he hit that he heard the dart sniper cry out in Common, "No no! I'm on your side!" Both mortified by this, the unexpected allies moved on to join the fight for real, with Dart Guy immediately starting to take potshots at the club-wielders, and Genericus finally getting a chance to do some real damage.

Not long after that, the battle was won. The same guard that got sneak attacked in the first 3 seconds of combat had also been hammered by Killroy and Stark, and was on death's door. The other guard wasn't looking too good, either. Furthermore, while one of the club users still wasn't bloodied, the other had sucked up a sneak attack and multiple hits from Erobern and Valladwarf. The real cinch for the engagement was when Archie closed to near-melee range and used the daily power Blinding Barrage to make a shuriken attack against every present. The high damage of this attack, combined with a sneak attack-ferocious strike combo against the injured club user and the attack's blinding effect, dropped half of the enemies and left the other two so vulnerable that the other characters were able to finish them with impunity. This satisfying success led me to shout, "I am an orc ninja!"

Afterwards, Dart Guy led us down a masterfully concealed path, from which we were able to distantly observe the lizardfolk village, where we could see the poison-tailed lizardfolk, led by an enormously tall and heavy-set blue-scaled chieftain, oppressively leading the bulk of the tribe as slaves. At the end of the path was a hidden gazebo where we were able to rest long enough to recover our full hit points and daily powers. While we were there, Dart Guy explained to us that his tribe was once a peaceful, friendly one led by a deeply spiritual shaman-chief. However, not long before, a human had come to their village, and led the rebellious warrior Bigscale astray, causing him to ally with the rival Poisonscale clan and conquer his erstwhile tribe. In order to maintain a hold over his new slaves, Bigscale kept the chieftain and his top men hostage rather than killing them, which was the only ray of hope for Dart Guy, who was the only warrior to escape with his freedom. In exile, Dart Guy had obsessively scouted out his village, and worked out a route that could take him with a small force right up to the prison where the Chief was kept without them being spotted. He believed that we were the just the chance he had been looking for, and promised that if we helped him save his tribe, they would certainly give us whatever supplies we needed.

We agreed to this deal, for the sake of both Gingersnap and the lizardmen themselves. Early the next morning, we set out for the attack, and before long, we sprang our sneak attack on the prison guards. Unfortunately, the somewhat difficult terrain of the boggy village area restricted our movement enough that our surprise was wasted in making a partial approach. After that, we fared poorly for the first couple rounds of combat. Archie, Stark, and Erobern all repeatedly missed with everything they tried, and the others barely fared any better. And, while the guards luckily missed with all of their encounter power Javelins, they had freakish accuracy in hand-to-hand, and did good damage to Killroy, Genericus, and Valladwarf. 

Things started to look up at the end of the second round, though. Dart Guy successfully busted the prison where the chief and his men were imprisoned, and they broke out equipped for battle to engage the nearby guards, allowing Genericus and Archie to break of their attempted flanking to focus on the force the rest of the party was engaging. Immediately afterwards, however, with the alarm being raised, two more guards arrived to fight the chief, and Bigscale himself came crashing out of the brush behind us, charging the party!

The final part of the battle consisted of all 6 PCs in a climactic confrontation with Bigscale, the one, slightly wounded guard who was near him, and the lizard-priest that led the guards, set against a backdrop of an enormous lizardfolk brawl. The sequence of events of the battle was interesting. Bigscale missed with every single attack he ever made, but the guard was freakishly accurate, and did significant damage, while the lizard-priest tied up multiple PCs for an extended period of time. At the start of the battle, things were looking fairly grim: Killroy had been repeatedly hit and poisoned, and was dangerously low on hitpoints even as he engaged Bigscale; Genericus had prioritized taking down the guard, but his low AC and HP made this much more dangerous than he anticipated; Stark had ended up in melee range when Bigscale charged, and was unable to use his ranged powers; Archie and Erobern were both trying to deal with the priest, but remained bizarrely unable to land a hit on him; the best performer was Valladwarf, but his damage output was so far rather low. Things reversed pretty quickly, though. Stark's Bladechanneling feat let him use his best powers as melee attacks, and while he missed with and wasted his encounter power, he then hit with his daily power for massive damage. Even more than that, Killroy then missed with a Comeback Strike, but used an action point to try it again and scored a critical hit, healing up and doing massive damage to Bigscale in one stroke. Unfortunately, he ended up poisoned again shortly thereafter, and continued lucky hits from the guard ultimately downed him. Meanwhile, Genericus tired of the licking he was taking, and used an encounter power to do some damage to Bigscale while shifting away, where he used an action point to take his second wind. Stark and Valladwarf continued to pound on Bigscale, but he just had too many hitpoints to be brought down quickly. Meanwhile, Erobern missed with an encounter power against the priest, and remained unable to do high damage to him, while Archie similarly remained on a miss streak. Eventually, however, his orc ninja powers returned, and he was able to take the priest from unbloodied to dead in a single enormous sneak attack, freeing up Erobern to charge Bigscale and speak an Inspiring Word just in time to get Killroy back on his feet. Against the combined firepower of a warlord, a paladin, a fighter, and a sorceror, Bigscale finally went down in a storm of arms, and, with the main body of guards routed by the Lizard Loyalists, the guard we'd been fighting surrendered, bringing the conflict to an end.

In the wake of that, the newly restored chief thanked us with a sizeable donation of herbs, as well as several magic items that belonged to his tribe and a promise of friendship in the future. Equipped with this, we returned to the Hermit, only to find that he had absentmindedly forgotten the other important ingredient of the antidote he was out of, setting the stage for us to begin the next adventure by travelling south the City to buy the remainder of the cure from the Hermit's friend, the Noble.

J's Observations:
One of the beauties of 4th Edition is that the rules are actually quite simple. Combat flows quickly and smoothly, contributing to its easy-to-use fun.
Rogues are an interesting class. We crunched the numbers, and Archie did more than half of the damage done by the entire party in the first encounter, and didn't exactly fall flat in the second, either. However, they are somewhat volatile, as they can be neutralized, at least temporarily, with ease. Furthermore, looking at their future progression, it seems they may lag behind at higher levels.
I was previously fascinated with the Wildshape-focused druid, but now I'm having second thoughts. It turns out that a character with controller stats focused on engaging foes in melee isn't the best combination. It may be that this build falls into the, "Difficult, but Awesome," camp, but it will take more analysis to be sure.
With a large party, 4th Edition combat is immensely flexible. You can fight one overlevelled monster, a mob of underlevelled monsters, a party of equivalent monsters, or anything in between. The variety also contributes to the fun of the combat.
The randomness of the combat system also gives it an enjoyable dynamism. No matter how well you lay your plan, you never know when a missing streak is going to derail it, or when a random guard suddenly becomes the boss of the encounter. Bizarrely enough, it almost gives the gameplay an Old-school feel!

It turns out that Orc Ninja is a surprisingly viable build, and it's hilarious that one of the basic druid powers is, "pounce." All I can think of is Tigger when I use that power.

It turns out that the Mighty Muscle Wizard is a viable build, too.

N's Observations
On the one hand, monsters are pretty weak for their listed level. On the other hand, the book encourages you to use overlevelled monsters. In the end, it's a wash.
Also, any monster not listed as, "solo," or, "elite," simply cannot fight a PC without being part of a mob. This seems to be by design, but is an odd dynamic.
It turns out that minions balance striker PCs. A rogue may be able to do 30+ points of damage in a single blow, but this is useless against 20 1-hitpoint monsters. This redeems the minion concept entirely in my eyes.
Designing a combat-only adventure is incredibly simple and easy, but adding skill sequences is another dimension that must be kept in mind for correct adventure flow.

S's Observations
Even though each class is listed with 3 prime stats, you can get away with only using one or two, which enhances the customization process immensely by giving you varied options.
Because of the nature of the encounters, it's very easy to break up an adventure over multiple days. This is a point in the game's favor, because you can slip the adventure into a busy schedule.
The game turned out to be very fun. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

After Game Report: South of Adrian

  The crew returned to the very edges of the Kingdom of Seaward tonight. The party was:

Jennifer - Trixie Finespark, female gnome Cleric/Thief 1st/1st
Jack - Lenard, male human Nobleman, 1st
Alex - Gare'E Byuzee, male elven Magic-user, 1st
Sam - Ludwig, male human Nobleman, 1st
Nick - Anarawd, male human Bard, 1st

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Magic Item of the Week: Phlothor's Carriage

  Little is now known of Phlothor the Artificer except that he was rather popular in the court of the Green Empress, contemporary writers praised his genius for creating magical constructs and vehicles, and that he was killed in a dimensional rift explosion that eradicated his personal magical library, most of his creations, and both of his apprentices.
  But one thing he created survived and was copied at least once - his Carriage

Friday, July 14, 2017

Strange Things Afoot in Skull Mountain

As recent posts have indicated, the crew have been busy cleaning out level three of Skull Mountain, thoroughly searching level two, and scouting around the entrance to the Deep.
My oldest had the day off, I had the afternoon off, and we did a marathon session.
Also, I'm beat, so - bullet synopsis!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Notes on Cleaning Skull Mountain

As mentioned when discussing the aftermath of the big throwdown, the party decided to clean the main hallway to prevent disease and the spread of russet mold.
People have asked 'how?'.
Good question!

Interestingly enough way back at the beginnings of the Briar Mapping Expedition Seeker passed on instructions to the hirelings at the Skull Mountain base camp to begin making lye soap and vinegar.
Yes, really. If anything can be said of the style of play of the party 'paranoid', 'prepared', and 'OCD' should be included.

After the battle a team of speakmen, porters, cooks, and the healer trouped down to level three and cleared away the bodies, taking them to the fire pit in the center of the Plateau. The goblin dead were burned, taking a day. While that went on the team returned to the site of the battle and (using water from the goblins' cistern heated in their kitchen)  sluiced the hall, then scrubbed with lye soap, sluiced again, then rinsed with strong vinegar, then sluiced again. In each case the slope of the floors tends toward the Deep and the hirelings helped it along with mops.
Of course the party had supplied brooms and mops a few real-world months ago!
This took another day, during which the party thoroughly explored level three and part of level two, eventually deducing that one wall near the Study is covered with a permanent illusion.

The party gave me fetailed notes on the cleaning process, BTW.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

GM Report: Even More Level 3

Wow! Busy night! Quick synopsis follows:

Campaign Notes: Goblintown

Recently in my main campaign the party captured almost 200 goblins (mainly non-combatants) and people are asking, 'where are they going?"

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

DM Report: Skull Mountain, Level Three Continued

Part one here, part two here.

The party rested, rememorized, and returned, pausing in The Study on level two where they found - a cookie jar with a note that said 'take one'.
Many did. Ginger snaps. Delicious and fresh.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Other Blogs: A Reply to Gitabushi on A Princess of Mars

Edit-Darn it! The link didn't stick!
Link added.
Over at another blog Gitabushi is talking about A Princess of Mars and, well.
I'm replying.
Let's just dive in, shall we?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Block Review: Iron Fist episodes 4 and 5

First block here. Please read it first

Review: Finn Jones continues to be terribly miscast, which is a shame. Rosario Dawson shows up and, just like I said about Carrie Ann Moss - when a competent actress is on screen is shows how bad the two female leads are. The show is doing the origin story of Colleen Wing as a superhero (and not doing a bad job of showing how she is able to do things only a superhero can do!)  and the actress is so wooden I care less than before.
The real problem, though, is the writing. There are a few moments that are good, even really good. But based on the overall tenor, I suspect those are from the showrunner - i.e., the stuff that is being forced on this particular writing team so that Iron Fist matches Daredevil, Luke Cage, etc. is pretty good because someone else wrote it while Iron Fist wallows because the dedicated writers aren't very good.
The interactions between Danny and Colleen in particular are really... odd. My theory is that the writers know that Danny has a vow of chastity (i.e., 'no sex outside of marriage') and simply have no idea how chaste people act. Jennifer (The Wife) disagrees because she thinks Colleen's dialog and such are worse - her theory is the writers just suck in general.
So we are in a weird position of liking the comics, thinking the villains are solid, and recognizing that a lot of the incidental characters are great AND being interested in the overall plot while disliking the female leads, the secondary male lead, and thinking the protagonist is terribly miscast.

More to come

Monday, June 26, 2017

DM Report: Skull Mountain, back to Level Three

The party and initial foray can be found here.

The party spent 3 days healing and recovering spells. It took so long because the spear they found had a curse on it (it is a kinslayer - on a natural 20 it hits and does maximum damage to an ally). They were able to free Ingrid from the spear since she had not yet dealt a killing blow with it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Frothing Rant: Wonder Woman in the early '70's

Maybe I am an old grognard in comics, too.

Maybe I devoted too much of my life to reading comics and learning about them.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Quick Review: Doctor Strange

Watched the MCU film Doctor Strange with the family last night. This will not be a full review.
Spoilers follow:

Monday, June 12, 2017

DM Report - Skull Mountain: Level Three

The crew started a foray into Skull Mountain on Saturday. only a short session this weekend due to Life, but a good one.
The party was:
Jen: Ingrid (5th level fighter)
Jack: Seamus (4th level druid)
Alex: Starfalcon (6th level ranger, half-elf)
Sam: "Clint" (6th level paladin)
Nick: Owen (5th level magic-user)
Various henchmen, including Octavius the 4th level half-ogre fighter and Bertold the 6th level religious brother. And Mortimer the brownie, of course.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Night in Skull Mountain: Level Zero

A big gaming night!
As my regular readers (all 4 of them - hi, kids!) know the party is doing a big, big hex crawl mapping expedition and have found - weirdness. Jack, my oldest boy, had been working second shift at a job 40 minutes away. This week he started is new first shift job 1/2 a mile away so we celebrated with Thursday night D&D.
Through a series of events, accidents, and such the party found a hidden door to what they call 'level zero' behind the eyes of Skull Mountain. While Team Thief (all the PC thieves in the campaign) are mapping Team Paladin (led by Clint) decided to examine Level Zero.

It freaked them out!

The night started with Team Paladin bringing 4 months of food and candles to the mountain for the holding force (Team Henchmen), along with a huge amount of tea (to keep morale up). The cartographer had been mapping the North Area and the surrounding mountains. He had gone to the scree slope on the 'back of the skull' (the players have seen it several times but never explored) and saw a crevice going intot he mountain, but approach was too dangerous. They then used a Helm of Languages and a book of lore to temporarily disarm the Glyphs on the door and went in.

Long story short, it was a corporate office block. Bedrooms, sure, but also a large bathroom with modern stalls; a break room with a 'box that heats food' and a 'magic kettle that heats water'; posters of rock stars on the walls. But the images, the mugs, etc. were for people with five fingers, like the Man in Purple....
They also found remote monitoring stations for Remote Stations #1 and #2 and a room called Tactical Control. Almost everything was depowered and shut down, but the main tactical control was on maintenance power, letting them realize that 'tertiary target acquisition' means 'whatever the binoculars on the mountaintop can see'. The system indicated that Remote Station #1 has a "containment breach" in the 'magma power chamber' but is otherwise online.
They also deduced where a secret door should be, found it, opened it, and - 'animated armor' attacked. It was looking grim until Clint showed the access card he found on level two, when the 'animated armor' announced 'clearance level recognized'.
They found out that the armor, Security Unit 9, would only allow people with Black clearance to go further. Since it was close to tactical it could answer questions by 'querying the database', although it warned the database had not been updated in 175 years and was partially corrupted. With patience and time they learned that many years before the "Elder" (who all have black clearance) had been hired to come to Skull Mountain and protect it from attacks from space. The "Elder" had created the dock on the peak and level zero and had gained power for their base from 'the Contraption' deeper inside the mountain and built local power systems near the montanic lances.

The party realized that some of the things they were learning seemed connected with old folk tales from the Kesh in the area. They also learned that kobolds have 'white clearance' - they had been used as cleaning staff by the Elder.
Security Unit 9 seemed to get agitated when questions veered into security topics and the more often he accessed a corrupt part of the database the more aggressive he became. The party left him guarding the lone door deeper into level zero and struck out for Remote Station #2, AKA Ol' One Fang's cave. Using a copy of the partial map they got there quickly with only a minor skirmish with wild pigs. Going into the hidden chamber Clint inserted his access card and uttered the phrase Security Unit 9 had mentioned and - the turbine engaged. Soon the panel reported that Montanic Lance #2 was powered! They looked carefully, but the crystal horn was not extended. They used the card and phrase to deactivate the turbine and returned to Skull Mountain, passing Team Thief on the road.

Once there they decided to look at the crevice. Seamus used his Boots of Levitation while 3 party members used ropes to position him while avoiding the loose shale that could dump them into the crevice or over a cliff.
Looking down, Seamus saw that the opening, about10' x 20', opened up to be about 60' - 70' across and went down, down, down.... And there was a metal ladder going down at least part of the way! He began to descend to get a better look. He noticed a metal door virtually identical to the one to level zero along one wall when metal shutters snapped open to reveal three turrets that began to point towards him. Calling to be pulled up he ascended as fast as he could and was narrowly missed by the bolts of lightning spitting from the turrets.
Once he was certain he was safe he hovered over the crevice again and dropped a metal rod with Continual Light cast upon it and counted as it fell.
He saw a door about 50' below and a bridge perhaps 300' feet down. And at about 1,200' the rod hit water and sank. Then something swam over the rod. Then the something burst out of the water to fly up the shaft, roaring as it came!
Seamus was pulled aside and in just a few rounds the turrets could be heard firing, driving the creature back down the shaft. Later Seamus again hovered over the opening, watching the creature (which resembled a jellyfish and a beetle) swimming far below before it vanished pop! like a soap bubble, revealing it was Conjured.
The next day the light rod was gone.


The party is catching on that Skull Mountain is vast and Skull Mountain is old. They now believe that the Temple was added by cultists after the fall of the Lord of All Evil who moved in after something else, etc., back to a time before any of the races that live in Seaward now lived even close to these mountains.

Jack admitted that the science fiction stuff is terrifying him. He said,
"Orcs? Dragons? Demons? We know them, we understand them, we can make a good threat assessment. Aliens? Robots? Cyborgs? We can't even figure out if they are dangerous! For all we know, we all have radiation poisoning right now and we will think it is a curse!"
Good times.

Early in the session, when talking about how they plan on going deeper soon they joked that 'Skull Mountain needs an elevator'....

They will continue to map the Briars, but exploring Level Three is suddenly WAY up in their priorities!

I will edit tomorrow

Monday, June 5, 2017

Magic Item of the Week: Kojo's Diary

Originally developed by Kojo Dreamwood, henchman to Lehru the Many, the Diary has been copied by others over the years.

The name is also a bit of a misnomer; the Diary is actually a small ivory strip with a piece of vellum attached obviously designed to be used as a bookmark. If a person writes their own name (including mage names, call names, etc. - it doesn't have to be a true name) and then places the bookmark into a blank book (codex) the book will become their Diary.

The Diary will record the major events of the person's day with a date stamp. A sample entry might appear akin to this;

'Threeday, first week of Blossoms, in the Briars. Woke at dawn and travelled South along the Old Road until lunch at Noon. Encountered a brush cat at about the 3rd hour after Noon. There was smoke from Skull Mountain at sunset."

  The Diary does not know what the person being recorded does not; for example, the diary will not record directions for someone who is lost or time of day for someone underground who has lost track of the time. In those cases, the best guess of the diarist will be used ('late Blossoms', 'about one league',  'about the third day underground', etc.). The diary will record time of waking, sleeping, naps, meals, journeys, encounters, battles, and other such things as an average person would consider 'memorable' at the end of the day.

  At any time the diarist can say 'dear diary' and what he speaks will be written, verbatim, in the Diary until he says 'your truly' or ceases speaking for a full round. If the diarist remains still and focuses on an image or vista for a full turn a black and white sketch of the image will be recorded on a page of the diary. If the diarist focuses for an entire hour it will be in color. This image will be of the quality of a skilled woodcut, etching, or limner, but is not a modern photograph.

The only limitation on the Diary is the number of blank pages in the codex. The bookmark will magically move through the book as pages are used until it reaches the end. It can then be placed into a new blank book.

The Diary will only record as long as it is on the same plane as the diarist, but otherwise distance is no factor. Other people may move the bookmark to new, blank, books as needed.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

DM Report: Phase I of the Briars Mapping Expedition

Over Memorial Day weekend we got in about 16 hours of table time. Earlier breakdowns are here, here, and here and my guesses are here.

More Adventure: After recovering from the near-fatal for several members fight with Ol' One Fang and using the Broom to ferry the freed slaves to Skull Mountain the party mapped for 3 more days then headed to Skull Mountain where they met - their other characters. Because the mapping will take so long other adventures are going on at the same time. All of them were at Skull Mountain for Midsummer and, as per tradition, they used the pre-sets on the mountaintop oculars and saw:
-Pyrotechnics over High Morath
-A flying swanship land in Timberlake
-An 80' tall humanoid climb to the rim of the Demon's Eye and wave at them
-A space battle between a dozen dragonfly ships and what appeared to be a massive snail ship. Clint thought that the oculars briefly put a red circle around the snail ship

Team Thief returned to complete mapping the western Upper Briars. The grind of mapping continued. As a group we discussed how mentally exhausting the mission would be: Constantly climbing through rocky, hilly terrain covered in briars; your clothing wearing out rapidly because of the constant wear and tear; limited sight lines meaning you are under constant threat of ambush so you can never relax; meals a constant cycle of one type of magical paste to another. Rough living.

While travelling they correctly guessed the command word tot he Ring of Raven Control they found and before too long Seeker was giving shiny coins to the various ravens of the Briars and contemplating becoming their new king.
Three or four times they witnessed a bright light from the Low Briars, always from the same spot.
One night they saw the Red Maiden on her owl chase a griffon, then transform it into a chimera and order it to follow her before she returned over the mountains.
They saw Ol' One Fang;s daughter, armed with a massive great sword but she ran off. The ravens told Seeker she gave Manbreaker to Ol' Knobby and that her name is Erena the Gorgeous.
And near the end they met the man in Purple with his travelling fortune telling tent. Just like the legend says, he answered 6 questions for them.
Total in-game time to map the western High Briars? 112 days. The eastern portion is larger. The Low Briars is much larger but the terrain isn't as bad.

Notes: It took about 50% longer than they expected because of bad weather, Ol' One Fang, and wanting to be at Skull Mountain for Midsummer. They hope the eastern portion will go faster. and they really hope they can get out of the mountains and hills to the Low Briars before Winter!
With the thorough map they are able to travel through the Briars they have explored much faster and, most importantly, without a real chance of getting lost!

What I Got Wrong: Almost everything! When bad weather hit the party just hunkered down so they avoided the flash floods and the tornado and the worst of the rest. The immediately fled from Ol' One Fang and then carefully counter-attacked and ambushed him. Although the party does admit - if O' One Fang's first blow had not been a miss at least 2 party members would have died - it was that close.

Next Steps: The 'other team' will try to get to the portion behind the eyes of Skull Mountain and then try to get to Remote Station #2 - the paladin has a weird metal plate that might fit the slot in the side panel.... Team Thief will continue their mission to the east while looking for Ol' Knobby, the new owner of Manbreaker. They will continue to hide from the Red Maiden whenever they see her.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Mid-Session Report: Briars Expedition - Ol' One Fang Is No More!

After the last session we woke up to a hearty breakfast and 4 pots of coffee, talked a bit, and sat down for the early session.

The party learned that Ol' One Fang (OOF) had put a stone over his lair's entrance. Seeker cast Audible Glamar to mimic the sound of the party falling into the pit trap nearest cavern and OOF charged out, boulder ready and the fight began.
Brigid pulled out her rarest of weapons, a Wand of Lightning Bolts, and blasted OOF for - very little damage after he saved. Godfrey, Nigel, and Thorin used the last of their enchanted arrows, pouring on fire, and Seeker engaged in hand-to-hand. OOF missed Seeker!
Then first thing in the second round, OOF tagged Seeker for minimum damage vs. a non-human - 15 points. Seeker fled. Godfrey and Nigel used their last enchanted arrows and Sparrow - engaged the female hill giant that had been this close to ambushing the party. Sparrow is a thief, but was using a great sword one-handed (magic items!) - he was overmatched. Brigid confronted OOF as OOF chased Seeker, who was running for his life. She struck with Mor Altach and hurt OOF. Then OOF hit Brigid with Manbreaker for 36 points, below average, and put Brigid well inside 'minimum damage kills you' range. She held firm.
The third round was the same with the party pouring everything into OOF while Sparrow held off the female hill giant by himself. Brigid got in a mighty blow with Mor Altach as Nigel, Godfrey, and Thorin all had excellent, top notch rolls with mundane arrows and Seeker fired his bow, also hitting and...
...OOF went down.
  Brigid began a coup de grace  as the female hill giant broke into a dead sprint for OOF. The archers shifted fire to her, Sparrow hit her (finally), and even Thorin tried to block her, but she kept racing for OOF, crying out 'Father!' in giantish then - snatched up Manbreaker and kept running! The archers got off another salvo before she slid down a steep slope and vanished into the thick briars. Godfrey pursued her (as the party called him back) and hit a pit trap on the prepared escape route that damn near killed him! He hobbled back to camp with 3 h.p.
  The party found 3 slaves in the lair and spent 3 days healing, clearing traps, etc. The cash loot was tremendous and they got a few nice magic items. They also found a Skull Mountain style door. A door that had been forced, then hidden. They found more of OOF's loot in the vestibule, and a narrow corridor went further back.
In the back room was a metal wall covered in 144 small hemispherical piece of crystal that flashed various colors, each one with a rune by it. The ceiling was a sort of smoked glass that lit up as they entered. On a side wall was a panel of metal that had weird glass plates on it with writing. The writing was in the ancient tongue used by wizards and looked like this:

There was no key hole, although there was a narrow slot off to the side.

At this point the players threatened to murder me over the female hill giant getting away and the fact they now feared blanketing the Briars with fallout if they messed with the panel too much.

The players rested and healed then resumed mapping after sending the slaves to Skull Mountain via broom. After a few more days they encountered a band of brigands and kobolds hired by the kobold king to find the exile by searching Skull Mountain. The party rushed back and prepared, but the brigands came, inspected the eyes, and left.

The party now suspects the g6 key opens the door in the back of the eyes.

They decided to have the party rest at Skull Mountain for a week and we took a real-world break, too.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Post-Session Report: Mapping the Briars

Play today was about 7 hours. The team had already placed their team in Skull Mountain and they headed to the High Briars on the first of Plantings ((mid-April). 8 o'clock, day one - giant spiders. A dozen of them. The party dealt with them then burst into laughter - if there had been surprise the party might have died as they left the road!
The party began their methodical mapping doing 'super-hexes' as possible, as I mentioned in the pre-game post. Pretty soon they settled into a routine and the map started coming together. The 'minor highlights' were:
-Skull Mountain reported a lone kobold, ragged and scrawny, tried to enter. They killed it and hid the body.
-The party spotted hippogriffs from the mountains more than once.
-The  famous ravens of the Briars seemed to be curious about humans so deep in the wilderness.
-Lots of encounters with things like brush wolves, briar cats, wild cows, feral goats, etc.
-Patches of large spiders here and there meant they had to stay sharp.
The more major encounters were:
-A troll - the party got 2 counts of surprise at 30 yards. The scouts and the fighters put it down while it was surprised and then Bridget put it down for good with Mor Altach
-A quickwood hurt the party, but was slain.
-A hangman tree was so tough they got away from it, marked the location, and went around.
-A warband of 20 kobolds ambushed them spreading injuries around, but Bridget got into melee and killed them a a prodigious rate. Seeker was able to Hold three of them (the only survivors). Details below.
-A beautiful human girl who said her name is Vasilissa of about 14 with blonde hair in a braid and a peasant's dress. She was looking for someone to help her with two bags. One was full of dirt and poppy seeds, the other full of good wheat and rotten wheat. Someone she would only call 'Grandmother' had given her a limited amount of time to separate the poppy seeds and the good grains, respectively. Seeker used his Gather cantrips to do the tasks for her. In gratitude she told the party,
"If you meet grandmother, always be polite and don't be snoopy about her affairs and she won't eat you. Probably."
Then she hurried off.
-They met a 10' tall raven that called itself the Raven King. It told them of the 'shiny cave' where they could get many shinies. Days later the Raven King started warning them to go to the cave for the shinies or they'd be sorry.
-A clearing deep in the briars. At the center? A shrine to St. Christopher and a sacred pool that seemed to hold back the thorn bushes 1/2 mile in all directions.
-Ol' One Fang (details below).

The kobolds: one of the prisoners was a boastful 'thug' (sergeant) who told them the folktales of his clan, the Ice Dagger Tribe. The prisoners were ferried to Skull Mountain by broom, causing a pursuit by a griffon that tried to pluck off the kobolds as they hung beneath the broom like Christmas stockings. They also said that they were following an 'exile' from the kobolds who has stolen a key. After dropping off the kobolds Seeker searched the body of the one killed by the hirelings at skull mountain. He found a silver key etched 'g6' that was of the same design as the key to the Apartment in Skull Mountain.

Ol' One Fang: The party were fairly certain they that Ol' One Fang's lair was near the source of the Rill (the river in the Briars) in the mountains overlooking the Briars. The Raven King seemed to confirm this. As they got close they noted that the brambles were often trodden down, the barbarian spotted massive bootprints, etc.
As they came into a ravine near the slope up into the mountains O' One Fang (OOF from now one) rose up and began hurling boulders from a position atop a hill with no briars.
The party immediately ran back the way they came at a dead sprint. Being the Thief Crew they assumed they were in a heavily-trapped killzone and retraced their route at maximum possible speed. Seeker got hit with a boulder before they could get around the shoulder of a hill.
About 20 yards further down Godfrey (the scout) and Nigel (Godfrey's scout henchman) turned Invisible (the other magic the party negotiated for) and set an Ambush using the scout rules as the rest of the party kept running.
The rest of the party then got hit by the Raven King and about 12 huge ravens. Raven King was screaming how OOF rewarded him with shinies for luring humans into the traps and he would eat their corpses after OOF crushed them. OOF was running behind, obviously coordinating with the ravens.
Then OOF ran into the ambush zone and rolled 2 segments of surprise just as Bridget engaged Raven King. While Raven King's beak and claws hurt Bridget badly, it wasn't enough. Bridget, Thorin (the fighter/thief) and Seeker put Raven King down.
In the ambush Godfrey and Nigel hit with 6 out of 8 arrows and did an incredible 34 points of damage (and using up all but one of their magical arrows) before they ran away. Nigel got hit with a boulder, but kept going. OOF actually turned back!
The party checked out Raven King and found a ring on its leg - this was eventually revealed to be a Ring of Raven Command.

The party began tracking OOF and were able to use his movements to avoid the various traps leading to the 'stairs' (a rocky slope) leading up to his cave. Seeker went Invisible and used the broom to scout - he found a path for non-giants, disabled the trap on it he found, then flew to the cavern. There he observed OOF healing himself with shamanic spells and ordering a bedraggled female elf in chains to heal him more. As she protested she could not, Seeker flew off to brief everyone else.

End of the session.

Overall Feedback from the Players:
-Because of the 3 times a day check in with the cartographers on Skull Mountain with the magical oculars, if the party gets lost they can correct course within a few hours. In the confusing maze of the Briars they get lost about 1 in 3 days. They very quickly realized that with their check ins within a week they would be lost and without magical provisions might very well starve to death before they could find their bearings again, another reason the Briars are so dangerous.
-They realized the large spiders and briar asps (a cobra-like snake) are the routine threats to normal groups and are quickly coming to hate the vile vermin.
-Sam recognized the tasks of Vasilissa, but can't remember what fairy tale they come from....
-Realizing that Raven King was OOF's spymaster and that the ravens of the Briars were reporting their movements to OOF, they realize that OOF has been the effective ruler of the western Briars for 2-3 human generations.
_The weather slowed them down to about 2/3rd - 3/4th of their hoped-for speed, but they are making progress, But after 52 games days they have barely dented the vastness of the Briars.
-After thinking about the holy pool and the shrine they had the cleric try Turning Undead on the briars - the closest briar bush burst into bloom with briar roses. They are puzzled by this....

My Comments:
-They reacted to Vasilissa in a very proper manner, if you know your fairy tales.
-This was 2 firsts for an initial OOF encounter - they ran immediately (almost every other party has charged right into the avalanche)  and no PC died in the first encounter. In every other encounter OOF killed at least 1 PC on first contact.
-Watching them realize how very little they know about the Briars after travelling the Old Road back and forth for 4 real-life years is a lot of fun.

Next Time: They are going to go after OOF in his lair!!

DM Data Dump: Fruit of the Briars mapping expedition

Fruits of the interrogation of a kobold officer:
 “Long ago, when the Lord of Evil ruled Skull Mountain, he ruled the entire realm. Kobolds were rich and fat and the elves lived far, far away. The Lord of Evil built the Old Road and the Old Bridge so he could conquer the wicked elves. The elves came to fight the Lord of Evil, but he drove them away. Then bad people came from the sky and attacked him with fire and acid from floating things. The Lord of Evil made the nearby mountain grow crystal horns so he could shoot lighting at the moon. The bad sky people called for help and an army of men and elves came and destroyed the Lord of Evil, his friends the Red, Blue, Black, and White cultists, and robbed kobolds of all their wealth and food. Now kobolds dream of when a new Lord will rule the mountain, make the mountains grow crystal horns, and drive out the elves and humans again.”

 “Freetown is far to the west, past the King of Kobolds. Anyone can live there, even stupid kobolds who do not worship the goat god and don't sacrifice humans. Some of them even worship the Human god! We go to Freetown 2 times a year to buy tribute for Ol' One Fang.”

 “When we travel east we navigate by the Shining Hut, the hut where the Human that Glows lives. When have never been there and no kobold will bother the Shining Man because he can crush our skulls with his hands.”

 “We also navigate by the wizard's tower. We never go there, but we see him, sometimes. He's scary.”

Losing Track: Rangers, Thieves, Monks, and What They Really Do

Many years ago my pal Joe Urban ran me, Lew, and a crew of players through some of the Slavers modules. Joe was relatively new to GMing, but we had a ton of fun. I had never read any of the Slavers stuff, so I borrowed Stockade to read through afterwards.
Reading it upset me. A lot.
Some of it was thematic (surgical alterations? Sure, sure, Island of Dr, Moreau, but - really) but the one that really torqued my cookies were the entries that read like this,
"This trap is a rope in the middle of the door on greased rail and cannot be detected by thieves"
First off, this is more of the railroad nature of the module in question. Second, it means the writers (yes, I know who they were) didn't understand what thief abilities really are.

Sure, sure, it seems easy to do. I have run into this situation myself,
DM: "The force of 150 brigands, all on horseback, seem to have dragged the 20 heavily-laden merchants' wagons across the open prairie towards the frontier."
Me: "We follow the tracks."
DM: "There is no ranger in the party, you can't follow."

The DM in this case didn't realize that rangers don't follow tracks like these

but rather tracks like these

Yes, anyone can follow the trail left by 150 horsemen and 20 wagons across the unspoiled grasslands - the grasslands are now spoiled, after all. But when an elven thief wearing Boots of Elvenkind sneaks across bare rock swept free of dust by a constant wind? A ranger can track her.

Monks can be seen as similar. Sure, your fighter can punch this guy until he goes down

but a monk can punch this guy until he goes down.

Anyone can hide in these bushes so only a careful search may find you

but a thief can hide in this room so only a thorough, careful search can find him.

This looks a lot like this internet meme, actually

Likewise, anyone can spot this trap

but a thief can spot this trap

What I am saying is, the various special abilities of thieves, bards, monks, rangers, etc. are not 'stuff that anyone can do' but rather damn near superhuman abilities.

I have had people who are OD&D ultramontanists - I mean purists - tell me things like,
"Thieves? Hell! I just have my fighting man probe ahead with a pole and then tap chests and stuff! Same thing!"
Sure, my fighters on point use poles, too. But it isn't meant to be the same thing!
The writeup in Slavers Stockade that a thief 'can't find' a particular trap gets it backward. It should read 'only 'only a thief has a chance to find...' because the Find Traps ability of thieves is supposed to be like what the Grey Mouser or Nift the Lean can do - an almost mystical ability to find hidden traps no one else can.

"But Rick," you say say, "That isn't what I think."

The DMG says that thieves can climb a sheer wall that is slippery with water. Slowly, but they can climb it. I agree - anyone can climb this for 80'

but I think climbing this for 80'

 is almost a supernatural ability. And that is the difference between someone without the ability to Climb Walls and someone with it.

Like my post about people who want to do away with the cleric (and there are many!) I often think they don't understand what these classes really do, what they are really for, or the impact on play in some combination. That, or they are OGs ('Original Gamers') who want to play with just the 3 brown books and nothing else. Kask strikes me as one of these. Some of these types just like that basic feel, some think anyone who plays d6 thieves is a counter-revolutionary kulak whose badwrong fun proves they are mentally disabled and of poor character and they really should have been on the Taggart Comet.
I like AD&D 1e and 2e. They're fun.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pre-Game Report: The Mapping of the Briars

My wife, Jennifer, suggested I do a pre-game show, uh, report before the huge marathon this weekend so I can compare what I think will happen versus what does happen.

The Coming Adventure:  The thieves and such of the campaign, accompanied by the barbarian (custom class) Bridget (arguable the toughest fighter PC) will hexcrawl the entirety of the Briars (map here).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Weighty Problems

Prompted by a question from James Eck that boiled down to 'why do your players keep going back to Skull Mountain rather than setting up camp and staying there?'.

Here is the player-facing map of the Briars:
1 hex = 1 mile

\It is about 30 miles from the nearest town, Esber. The light yellow is the Lower Briars, the gray the High Briars, then badlands, then the plateau, then Skull Mountain. The line is the Old Road, a paved Roman-style road from the Old Times. On horseback with good weather a party can push from Esber to Skull Mountain in four and a half days.. The road is old, unmaintained, and in some placed washed out and turned to tracks (the biggest breaks are marked with yellow). The first break is called the Patrol Camp because it is the furthest any patrol will go. A wagon could potentially make it to the Patrol Camp in 3-4 days but past that nothing larger than a 2 wheel cart can go. In good weather a two-wheel cart could make it to Skull Mountain in 9 days.
BTW, in typical weather it takes six days and 20 days, respectively. In bad weather (snow on the ground and storms in Winter, say) it can take a month+.
Off the Old Road? No one has ever tried....

When parties set out to adventure in Skull Mountain they have to have enough supplies with them for the trip to and from plus 'loiter time', i.e., time in the dungeon. Sure, you could hunt along the way, but game animals shy away from the road and Skull Mountain and its massive flock of stirges has very few game animals within a 4 hour trip. This means 2 weeks of food per person and mount, minimum. For a real dungeon crawl you'll need a month of food per. With a person needing about a pound of preserved food a day, that is 30 lbs of provisions per person. Since forage along the route is effectively zero horses will need grain and some hay - about 5 lbs a day (minimum) or 150 lbs so a horse and rider really should carry 200 lbs of just food to Skull Mountain. This means the horses are moving slowly, so that gives you about 10 days in the mountain.
If you take a cart or two you can bring more, but extra travel time! Again, this leaves you 10, maybe 12, days of dungeon crawling. You can bring pack mules, for example, but they need their own food and if you have more than 1 or 2 you need teamsters and such.
In short, getting to Skull Mountain to adventure requires a supply chain.

The party has done this in the past. Almost every adventure to Skull Mountain has taken a few in-game days. Especially when they went to the Second Level they spent 10 days inside the mountain and left enough hidden provisions that the mapping expedition only needed to bring half of their estimated provisions, so it can be done. But until some way of providing food locally is found you will need to maintain routine pack trains along the Old Road at least 4 times a year at great expense just to have enough food.
As a result parties tend to plan ahead, arrive for a particular reason, spend 3-10 days inside the dungeon, and then retreat to civilization.

Guess what else is needed?
Light sources. The mapping expedition took an entire cart of just candles and lamp oil. That horse needed provisions, by the way.

This is why Skull Mountain has to be cleared out from time to time.
But that could be changing; the mapping expedition's base camp will stay at the mountain for at least 6 months and could remain as long as 2 years. The cost of the provisions is so high that any stay of more than a year means the expedition will be forced to rely upon treasure found while exploring to break even!

The players are wondering how Skull Mountain was ever permanently inhabited to begin with!

DM Report - Back to Skull Mountain. Again.

  I have been running the Seaward campaign since I was a pre-teen and Skull Mountain has been part of it since Funkytown was on the Billboard Top 40, but the players always surprise me.

The current crew is still traumatized by level two of Skull Mountain and want to wait a bit before going to level 3. But the need to return because of their self-imposed mission to map the Briars.
I had never thought anyone would map the area, but they are determined to do so. The Briars range from rolling hills to almost badlands and are generally covered in briars, brambles, thorns, pincushion bushes, needle trees, and more. The party is planning to thoroughly hexcrawl all 500+ square miles of the Briars, carefully map it, and then sell the results to the King.

The Briars are home to Ol' Knobby (said to be a massive ogre), Ol' One Fang (a mighty hill giant), the Red Maiden (what appears to be a beautiful woman who rides a giant owl and bestows curses on wanderers), and at least one tribe of goblins. These are just the 'big names'; it is also home to kobolds, lions, giant spiders, and a lot more.
The party decided to do a ton of preparation over the weekend in preparation for a marathon session over Memorial Day weekend.

First was a three way swap of money and potions so Clarence, the not-quite-evil assassin could take Starfalcon's wand of fireballs to Skull Mountain alone. Taking the secret stairs he dumped Fireballs into the caverns containing the huge flocks of stirges, quickly killing them all. It also burned away the wooden screens (painted to resemble stone) at the back of the stirge caverns. Clarence reported to the main party, returned the wand, and then left.
The main group had hired some mercenaries, a cook, and two cartographers. They had also purchased supplies and hired a cart (to go with the carts they own) and transported their NPCs to Skull Mountain where they set up a base camp. The hirelings would remain there under command of some henchmen, while one cartographer observed the party from the various viewing points in the mountain and checked their location with the spyglasses on the peak at regular intervals. The PCs would take their other henchmen and the cartographer with them as they methodically sweep through the Briars dealing with what they find and mapping.

The players have been preparing for this for years. They have sought out and even traded magic items for other items with NPCs to make sure they have what they think they need. The expedition's magic gear:
- a pair of Elven Helms (allow communication with line of sight) - one in Skull Mountain, one with the party so reports can be sent back and forth.
- Boots of Levitation to make sure the wearer of the helm is above the Briars to communicate.
-  A Murlynd's Spoon to reduce the need to carry rations.
- an Everful Flask to provide water.
- A Broom of Flying for emergencies.

The party made their way to Skull Mountain, got the base camp setup and the cartographers to work using the spy glass to make a rough map then - climbed into the left eye cavern. Inside they found 14' tunnel sloping up that ended in an iron door with at least 4 Glyphs on it along with a rune they recognize that indicates that it was sealed by a priest to keep danger in. They left it alone.
Next they strike out West to begin the mapping!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Block Review: Iron Fist episodes 1, 2, and 3

After the slog of reviewing Stranger Things an episode at a time (which I eventually just abandoned) I want to look at Iron Fist, which I have hopes for.
Daredevil season 1 was very good (I will eventually review that since I think people missed a lot) and the first half of season 2 is good so far. Jessica Jones was a snoozefest. I am watching Iron Fist before Luke Cage mainly because I am terrified Luke will be as boring as Jessica.
My Background: I was never a huge fan of Heroes for Hire. Sure, it had its moments, but it was one of those early '70's comics a lot of comics nerds don't like to talk about in public - pop-culture comics.
Enter the Dragon was released in 1973 started a massive pop-culture focus on martial arts. Marvel made Master of Kung-fu by the end of '73 and Iron Fist within a few months. While Shang-Chi was associated with a license to make Fu Manchu comics, Iron Fist was off to the side, being all topical and relevant, so they teamed him up with Power Man who was...
...another pop-culture comic character. In this case, blaxploitation. Luke Cage's dialog was peppered with 'jive turkey', 'sweet Christmas', etc. for the first few years. By combining the two characters they survived the short shelf lives of their pop-culture origins until '86 when their combined comic was cancelled with a real shocker of an ending.
Crew: Scott Buck is showrunner and head writer. he has experience and has been on some fairly successful shows. He's joined by Dwain Worrell (who hadn't done much prior) and Quenton Peoples (more experience than Worrell). The directors for these were John Dahl, who has a fair amount of TV experience, and Tom Shankland (also a decent TV resume). In all three the cinematographer was Manuel Billeter, who was solid if not exemplary. Good use of lighting, his day scenes were as interesting as his night, and he captures fights well for a Western cinematographer. I'd like to see more camera motion, though. Editors were (in no real order) Jonathan Chibnall, Miklos Wright, and Michael Knue. Editing was decent, although Chibnall was a little 'heavy-handed' without detracting from the quality.
Main Cast: Finn Jones is the male lead. He is obviously a skilled actor with range. Jessica Henwick is the (so-far) lead female protagonist. So far she is pretty one-note with 'irritated and dismissive' her only mood. Tom Pelphrey is the primary male antagonist and he is doing very well with little and is slipping a little pathos into his character (and is the only one that seems to notice how ridiculous some things are). Jessica Stroup is the (sofar) female antagonist. As an actor, she's pretty enough, I guess. David Wenham is the hidden male antagonist. A talented actor, he's virtually wasted here so far. I hope he gets a chance to do more later. So far the best scenes are Ward and Harold in the penthouse because Wenham and Pelphrey together are wonderful.
Acting: I am breaking up the flow I usually do to get this out of the way. The real problem in the first three episodes is the actors and the acting. I separate them for one reason - Finn Jones. He's a competent actor: you can see it on the screen. He is just horribly miscast. For being 6' tall in real life, Jones comes across as a loveable hobbit onscreen - all I want to do is tousle his hair and give him a cookie. Again, he is obviously competent, he just isn't the guy to play one of the deadliest kung-fu masters on the entire planet filled with smoldering anger over his past losses. Wenham and Pelphrey are good and are great together, but they don't get to do enough in the first few. But the real problem are the female leads. Henwick is giving a master class on how to play every scene as 'mildly irritated' and Stroup might as well be the boom mic for all the emotion she projects. When Carrie-Ann Moss shows up in a minor role and actually, you know, acts, it is a painful reminder of how the female 'leads' aren't.
Plot and Writing: The origin story is a solid one and the writing is better than I expected. It is certainly better than it appears. The lousy acting from Stroup and Wenham is effectively erasing the emotional content from 2/3rds of the story. The miscasting of Jones is watering down almost all the rest until Iron Fist is almost just people on-screen talking and who cares?
That is a shame because there are some really interesting bits in the story. For example;
-Danny Rand does his best to always tell the truth which virtually always lands him in trouble. This is rather pointed commentary in the contemporary world!
-A couple of characters believe that anyone can be bought and are surprised when this isn't true. Another interesting critique of contemporary outlooks.
-Plenty of people know, for a fact, that Danny really is Danny, but they need specific physical evidence for this to be official. Nice examination of objective truth versus official truth that could be really interesting.
There is more, of course, but plenty to be done.
I do see some weaknesses, however. My main one is how Danny's emotional instability. Yes, I get it - he's back. But wouldn't a kung-fu master with 15 years experience in deep meditation be able to get a grip?
When Colleen Wing defeated a much larger man in the ring there should have been more discussion along the lines of 'that's impossible!', etc. After all - she's a superhero! That was her origin story. It should stand out that she was only able to do it because she is Special.
But it is early, so I hope these concerns will be addressed.
So far the action is pretty good, even though we need a lot more.
Bottom Line: I enjoy it enough to keep watching. If you aren't a huge fan of Marvel, don't seek it out. But don't avoid it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, either.

Monday, May 15, 2017

DM Report and DM Tips: Lighthouses, Swords, and Derailing Campaigns

Ran a quick session on Saturday, just 3 hours of gaming (we only expected 90 minutes but Son #5 fell asleep on the couch!). WE played in my AD&D 2e campaign, called Blackstone, and the lower level guys went to stop some bad guys from getting intelligence from a ruined abbey.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Magic Item of the Week: The Hoary Head of Hogarth

Found in the treasure hoard of a Jann alchemist, this creepy item has been seen in the town of Oldbridge. According to rumor Hogarth was an evil man who repented late in life and answering questions after death is part of the expiation of his sins.

 Appearance: The head of a bog mummy. A human head with the skin tanned from long immersion in bog water. The eyes are closed and the neck still has the strangling cord knotted around it. The dark brown skin is smooth and the eyes are closed. The hair is still intact and dyed a dark auburn from the tannins in the water. Because of the process of preservation it weighs only a few pounds. When its powers activate the eyelids open, revealing bright blue eyes that move about as if the head were dreaming. The mouth moves and the head gives the answers in a whisper. The Head will always speak the language of the person holding it.
 Powers: Only magic-users can use the Head’s powers. All powers are at 12th level of ability.
 Augury once per day
 Comprehend Languages once per week
 Identify once a month (a 100 g.p. pearl must be placed in the Head’s mouth. The pearl is destroyed) 
Speak with Dead once per month
Legend Lore once per year

 When first found the Head can whisper one spell to its new owner (level and particular spell randomly determined as if a scroll, but of a level the owner can cast). The mage can automatically learn this spell, even if it would normally exceed the maximum spells knowable by level. If in the possession of a magic-user who gains a level the Head will whisper a spell of the highest level the mage can cast. The magic-user has a +15% chance to learn these spells.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Earth as Space Australia, Part III

"John, I hope you will forgive the intrusion."
"Gar-tu-B~luk! Come in!"
"Thank you. I wanted to discuss something with you. The ship log indicates that you did a manual override of the air-quality and fire alarms for your cabin and then that the air quality here, in your room, was at dangerously poor levels last night. Is everything acceptable?"
"Oh, sure! I just had the other 5 Earthers over for poker night?"
"Is this a holiday of some sort?"
"No, Gar, it is just when Earthers gather together to play a game of chance. It is more of an informal social bonding ritual, you would say."
"Does this game of chance involve burning furniture?"
"What?! Oh! The air quality. No, gar. Poker night was special because my father was able to send me some gifts from Earth. Here."
"What is this?"
"Hold on, John, I have added an Earth Information Module to mt personal device sine we spoke of dogs and cats. Yes, let me see. Ah. 'Brandy is where earthers use distillation to concentrate the ethanol byproducts of fruit contaminated with yeast.' That makes sense; you used ethanol as a sterilizing agent to ritually clean your room and the toxic fumes must have..."
 "No, Gar. Brandy is a special treat. We drank it."
"You drank it. It does contain ethanol, yes?"
"And ethanol is a sterilizing agent and solvent on Earth?"
"Among other things."
"Is this 'brandy' what allows you to consume 'hot sauce' without dying?"
"No. Enjoy the taste of brandy. I overdid it a little, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Our bodies produce toxins as a by product of consuming ethanol. If we consume enough ethanol in one setting the toxins, plus the depletion of essential nutrients, cause us to feel discomfort, even pain, the next day. We call this a 'hangover'."
'Then why in the universe would you drink it?"
"Ethanol has a psychoactive effect on our nervous system which produces a feeling of mild euphoria. It unfortunately also inhibits judgement in larger doses so..."
"The more you have the more likely you are to have too much? That seems risky, John."
"We learn to manage our intake. Well, most of us. Some humans become alcoholics."
"One moment. Let me read this.... So you are saying that this solvent that you drink is also addictive to your species?"
"If you aren't careful, sure. It takes a lot to create a dependency, though. Well, for some people it doesn't. Anyway - we like drinking it from time to time."
"So as you drank the brandy you and the other earthers emitted toxic fumes that set off the... Why are you laughing? Doesn't that mean you are amused?"
"Gar, the air issue was from the other gift. I have a few left. They are called cigars."
"My database beckons. 'Cigar - a tightly rolled tube made of the fermented and dried leaves of the tobacco plant'. You ate these and then the...."
"Gar, please. We don't eat cigars. We smoke them."
"Ahhhhh! Now I see! Like the incense at the religious festivals!"
"No. We light one end and then draw the smoke into our mouths through the tube."
"The smoke? Into your mouths? For how long?"
"Oh, a few seconds at a time, and we repeat that until the cigar is consumed."
"John, I ask you to forgive me, but - why?"
"Remember how we use capsaicin, a natural pesticide, to enhance the flavor of foods?"
"Certain plants developed an anti-herbivore defense called 'nicotine'. It is an alkaloid and powerful toxin that has a strong stimulant effect on most earth creatures, especially mammals."
"Please continue."
"Tobacco contains a fair amount of nicotine so we dry the leaves, form them, and then burn them and inhale the smoke so we may absorb nicotine through our mucous membranes."
"To what end?"
"To enjoy the sensation given by the nicotine on our metabolism."
"Do all earthers enjoy this?"
"No. Some dislike the effects, others dislike the taste of the smoke. Some are concerned about addiction."
"Let me hazard a guess - nicotine is mildly addictive?"
"Goodness, no! It is highly addictive. I prefer cigars to other forms of smoking because it has a lower incidence of addiction."
"But not zero?"
"So 'poker night' involves you and other earth people gathering together to drink an addictive solvent while inhaling the highly addictive smoke of a plant so you may metabolise a powerful toxin. And this is an informal ritual that builds strong social bonds?"
"Yes! Lifelong friendships can form from regular poker nights."
"John, your species terrifies me. What do you do to convicted criminals to make them regret their crimes?"
"Oddly enough? We don't allow them to have ethanol. Access to nicotine is a right, however."
"I am NEVER going to earth!"

Monday, May 1, 2017

I Love the 'Earth as Space Australia' Trope Part II

Part I is here:
"The wife and I got a dog for our son this weekend."
"A... 'dog'?"
"Member of the canine family. Pack oriented chase predators."
"Wait. You got a chase predator for your son? Why?"
"So our son can learn responsibility from feeding and training it."
"How would you train an animal in a cage?"
"Huh? No! Rover is going to be part of the family! He'll sleep with our son in his bed, play with him outside, and our son will train rover so they can cooperatively hunt for wild game."
"So you want your immature son to be subordinate to a chase predator?"
"Goodness, no! Our son will teach rover to be subordinate to him! Rover will keep our son safe while they are off together, hunting alone."
"So your plan is to bring an apex chase predator into your home and make your immature son responsible for its care, grooming, and training as it runs free inside your domicile so that your son can not only make it a subordinate hunting assistant but so that the canine will protect your son?"
"Absolutely, This is a human tradition older than writing. I'm just glad rover gets along with our daughter's cat."
"I know I am going to regret this, but - a 'cat'?"
"A small feline, a pounce predator."
"Is your daughter to subordinate this pounce predator for assistance in hunting?"
"Oh, T'l'k'K'geb, you are so funny! No, our daughter just thinks cats are cute."
"Adorable? Aesthetically appealing in a manner reminiscent of helpless things?"
"Your daughter thinks a pounce predator is aesthetically pleasing?"
"All humans tend to, yes. And we find the cat useful, as well. It predates any rodents or large arthropods that enter the home that we do not like."
"Really? I had assumed that these 'cats' would have to be completely harmless in order to be viewed as 'cute'"
"Far from it! Cats have caused dozens of earth species to go extinct and the version of felines humans prefer most slaughter over 100 billion avians and mammals a year on earth."
"What is the name of the rings! You mean you not only accept one of the most lethal predators on earth as 'cute' you purposefully put them into your homes?!"
"Well, they are useful in making sure that mice don't scare the wife. I'm just glad rover likes kitty."
"Because 'kitty' would add rover to the list of dead mammals?"
"Nooooo! Don't be ridiculous. Dogs kill cats all the time; you have to train them to get along, usually."
"So these 'cats' with their massive amount of dead creatures are NOT earth's apex predator?"
"No even close! They're adorable little furballs that humans love to stroke, pet, and play with because they are so harmless."
"I am never going to Earth!"

DM Report - Oriental Adventures and the Trip to the Perfume Islands

I have been doing a little bit of OA as part of the Seaward campaign. Initially based in Yashima (Japanland) the party consists of:
Jen: a Sohei
Jack: a Wu-jen
Alex: A Yakuza/Ninja
Sam: A Bushi
Nick: A Kensai (bamboo spirit folk)

After a series of adventures where they foiled the humiliation of daimyo, stopped the theft of a lightning fan, toppled a group of yakuza who were not protecting the peasants, prevented a ninja clan from assassinating an imperial functionary, and more they were up in level a bit and had earned a reputation as being trustworthy.

I Love the 'Earth as Space Australia' Trope

You've heard the idea before - earthlings get into space and other intelligent life FREAKS OUT at how much we love danger.

"What is that - smell?"
"Authentic earth food!"
"No, that harsh chemical smell?  From that bottle?"
"Oh, that is hot sauce."
"'Hot sauce'?"
"Yup. On earth certain plants developed natural toxins to deter predation. One of the most powerful of these is something called capsaicin. It is a potent pesticide and is toxic to many earth creatures."
"Fascinating. But what does that have to do with 'hot sauce'?"
"Oh, right. See, take the plants with high concentrations of capsaicin and heat them to concentrate the toxins then mix the toxins with salts and acids to make hot sauce."
"Goodness! What is it used for, assassinations?"
"Nah. We put it on our food. We enjoy the way our body reacts to the toxins as we eat them and it enhances the flavors of the other foods."
"This stuff is so powerful you have to sign a medical waiver to purchase it. I put it on everything!"
"Humans are terrifying."

Friday, April 28, 2017

DM Tips - Campaign Building: Of Cabbages, Kings, Languages, Trade Routes, Orcs, Pies, and More

In 1979 I started my own campaign world, called Seaward. It had a village (5 houses, an inn, and a trading post), a coastline, and where the pirates were. For 5 months that was it.
Thirty eight years later it is a 124 page book of rules, 5 active notebooks (1,000 pages), 14 GB of digital documents, and 4 GB of maps. Stuff out of rotation is about 20,000 more pages and 20 more GB.
But how much do you need to play a TRPG?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Misunderstood and Improperly Played: Save or Die Mechanics.

Not too long ago I ran into episode 43,912 in the unending series of posts that can be summed up as 'Save or die is teh stoopid'.

As much as I want to reply,
 "No! You're stupid! you're stupid and you play wrong!"
I didn't.

Well, until now.

Your Party Had Better Have More Than Four People In It - Hints for Players and GMs

When I was just starting out as a wee DM of 11 years old I had to make due with the players I could find. Before too long I was good at recruiting and training players. I typically had 3-7 people at the table with me.
But I always had 6+ characters in the party. Sure, sometimes they were henchmen, but always 6 or more.
When I joined Lew Pulsipher's group he had a pretty firm rule - at least 6 'tough guys' (meaning PCs or close-to-PC-level henchmen) in the party. Eight full PCs and their henchmen is best.