Saturday, October 19, 2019

Another holiday treat

In the same spirit as my last post, here's another preview of content that will eventually appear in The Heroic Legendarium that seems to capture that creepy Halloween-season vibe. This was originally drafted as an encounter area in a dungeon,  but in Gygaxy fashion I realized I could generalize it into a class of monster. There's some conceptual weirdness here that all makes sense in my mind, but I might not have explained clearly. Comments letting me know if you are or aren't able to follow the description here are welcome.


FREQUENCY: Very rare
MOVE: 12
% IN LAIR: 100%
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1 – 4/1 –4/1-10
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Silver or magic weapons to hit
ALIGNMENT: Chaotic evil
Attack/Defense Modes: Nil/nil
LEVEL/X.P. VALUE: V/ 320 + 5/hp

These nightmarish creatures dwell in non-dimensional space and are only able to access the Prime Material Plane when two mirrors are set up in direct opposition to as to create an endless series of reflections. When such a conjunction is created there is a 5% chance per turn that a group of mirror-fiends will be drawn to it. If so, they will initially appear in the 12th reflection deep (which is typically the very limit of where any detail can be made out by an individual standing before the mirrors) of one mirror or the other, though if more than one mirror-fiend is encountered some may appear in each mirror. When they first appear, someone looking into the mirror only has a 5% chance to notice their presence, but each round they will move 1-3 panes closer, and with each pane the chance of noticing them increases by 10% (so they will always be noticed in the first or second reflection). Moving, covering, or breaking either mirror (or plunging the area into total darkness) will prevent the fiend from approaching, but if the mirrors are again aligned within one hour the fiends will still be there, in the pane they had last reached. Otherwise, they will wander off and a new check will be made to see if a different fiend appears when and if the mirrors are realigned.

While within the reflections, mirror-fiends cannot interact with the reflections of the characters and cannot be affected by individuals in the Prime Material Plane unless they are able to reach into either the Ethereal Plane or non-dimensional space. If the fiends reach the first reflection, they can climb through the mirror into the Prime Material Plane, where they can both attack and be attacked. They will typically attempt to grapple opponents - if both claws hit the victim suffers no damage but is held fast and can only escape by means of a successful bend bars check, or a successful counter-grapple or attack (both made at -2 “to hit” and, in the latter case, limited to a knife, dagger, or similarly small weapon as the character’s arms are held). The next round following a successful grappling attempt, the mirror-fiend will lift its victim and climb back into the mirror. The fiends will usually carry victims back to them lair in the 13th reflection - passing through 1-3 reflections per round - and will then devour them with their oversized and razor-sharp teeth.

Each reflection-space looks identical to the Prime Material Plane space being reflected except that (1) any reflected beings are only silent images that cannot be interacted with, and (2) the space only exists in the area that is included in the reflection plus a few feet beyond in each direction, beyond which is pure black non-dimensional space. Beings within the reflection only appear in the reflection in which they are located, not any of the others and can only be communicated with via telepathy or similar means. If the mirrors are taken out of alignment, covered, broken, or plunged into  while a character is within the reflection then that character is trapped in non-dimensional space unless he or she has some means of traveling across planes. If the character does not move and the reflection-pattern is recreated exactly then he or she will still be present in the reflection when it reappears. Otherwise, the character will be forever lost in non-dimensional space (with perhaps a miniscule random chance of wandering into another reflection-pattern, or perhaps into the back end of a portable hole).

Even if a character who has been dragged into the mirror manages to slay the mirror-fiend, they will still face a considerable challenge returning to the Prime Material Plane, for they cannot cross through mirrors (nor can they break or move them in the reflection-space). Unless the character has some means of traveling across planes, the only ways to get back to the Prime Material Plane are (1) to force or convince a mirror-fiend to carry them, or (2) to cover him or herself with the blood of a freshly slain mirror-fiend. Each mirror-fiend has sufficient blood (a nasty-smelling, sticky black ichor) to cover up to three human-sized individuals and their possessions, but the blood only retains its potency for three turns after the mirror-fiend is slain. A blood-coated individual can pass through one reflection-level per round. If the character wasn’t keeping count it may be a matter of trial and error how many reflection-levels they must pass through to reach the Prime Material Plane, and if there are no companions there to serve as an anchor, it may not be immediately obvious which layer is actually the correct one until they try to move beyond the reflection-area.

Mirror-fiends’ treasure is always stored in their lair on the 13th reflection-level. While this lair can be reached by following the reflections in both directions from the Prime Material Plane, there is only one lair, not two. If two or more characters have entered their lair from opposite directions at the same time they will end up in the same place and temporarily can return to the Prime Material Plane in either direction, unless all of them leave in the same direction.

Mirror-fiends communicate with each other telepathically and do not speak or make any noise.

Description: These creatures generally appear as a distorted, horrible version of the individual(s) looking into the mirrors in which they dwell - their flesh is pallid, their teeth and fingernails sharp, and their eyes featureless and black. Their true, natural form is as thin and gray-skinned humanoids with sharp talons, oversized jaws and pointed teeth, and stringy white hair, but this form is only likely to ever be visible to an individual with true seeing or similar ability.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Three seasonally-appropriate magic items

As work continues on the Heroic Legendarium one of the additions I've made to balance the material I cut is about 30 new magic items. Looking over these, I realized that at least a few of them are seasonally appropriate to Halloween, in a way that would both make for a nice post here to remind people that this blog still exists, and also a preview of things to come once the new book is released, of the 40% or so of the final page count that will be made up of new, original material that wasn't in the previous version. So, without any further ado:

Animated Puppet: This wooden puppet stands 30 inches tall, but can be folded to fit inside a 1’ x 1’ x 6” box, which is how it is most likely to initially be found. If detected, the puppet radiates an aura of alteration magic. A command word is carved onto the back of the puppet’s head in magical runes. If spoken, the puppet animates and will follow the orders of its master, with the following stats: MV 15, AC 4, HD 2+4, hp 20, #AT 2 or 1, dmg 1-2/1-2 or by weapon, SA hide in shadows 75%, SD +1 or better weapon to hit, immune to piercing and blunt damage and mind-affecting spells (but see below), susceptible to normal fire, +1 dmg/die from magical fire. The puppet can wield a knife or dagger in each hand with no penalty, may throw knives, daggers, darts, or throwing stars, or may wield a larger melee weapon (up to shortsword size) two-handed. The puppet follows the orders it is given unfailingly to the best of its ability, however, every time it is activated there is a cumulative 5% chance that it will become alive and free-willed, in which case its Intelligence score is determined by a roll of 2d6+6 and its alignment is determined as follows:

1 lawful good
2 neutral good
3 chaotic good
4 lawful neutral
5-6 neutral
7 chaotic neutral
8 lawful evil
9 neutral evil
0 chaotic evil

The now-living puppet has complete memories of its former pre-life, and depending on how its alignment corresponds with that of its owner it may continue to serve, may attempt to escape, or may plot to murder its former master. To any of those ends, the puppet may choose not to reveal its new status, as even after it comes to life the puppet does not breathe or require food or water, and can remain perfectly still for as long as it chooses.

Puzzle Box: Only six of these objects are known to exist in the multiverse. They were created in eons past by infernal beings, originally as protectors for their soul objects, but may hold other treasures by now. Each puzzle box is a 1’ cube of meteoric metal chased with intricate inlays and patterns - each box is unique in design and distinct in appearance from the others. All of them radiate alteration magic and strong evil if detected. 

The box is opened by twisting and shifting parts of the box in order to arrange the pattern in such a manner to unlock the box. Because of the complexity and intricacy of the pattern, finding the correct combination of moves is extremely difficult and requires three rolls of the character attempting to open the box’s intelligence score or less - the first rolled on 4d6, the second on 5d6, and the final roll on 6d6. A successful Remove Traps roll or Legend Lore (spell or bard ability roll) will reduce the total of one roll by 1d6 (roll all dice normally, then roll an additional 1d6 and subtract it from the total of the first roll). One week of study and research provides a -1 adjustment on one roll (up to a maximum -6 per roll). The box must be physically grasped by an intelligent creature in order to manipulate and attempt to open it, and cannot be operated by means of telekinesis, an unseen servant, a mechanical contraption, or any other means besides direct physical contact. The individual holding the box may follow directions from another as to how to manipulate the box, in which case the intelligence score of the character providing the directions is used in place of the character holding the box. However, if that individual is not operating under their own free will (i.e. if they have been charmed, possessed, hyptonitized, dominated, etc.) then an additional d6 is added to the roll to reflect the partial disconnect between that individual’s mind and body.

Failed attempts to open the box produce cumulative effects. The first failed roll produces no ill effect in itself. However, the second failed roll creates a feeling of foreboding and the character holding the box will have a  -1 penalty on their next saving throw). If that character makes another failed attempt to open the box, on each failed attempt starting with the third, a roll is made on the following table to determine what occurs:

1 the box shifts and resets (erasing all prior successes)
2 the box holder is struck by a poison needle (save at -4 or die)
3 the box releases an acidic cloud (6-36 damage to the holder, 2-12 to all within 10’; save vs breath for half damage)
4 The box-holder is teleported away (1-2 100-1000’ in a random direction; 3-4 100-1000 miles in a random direction; 5-6 to another (randomly determined) plane)
5 The box-holder’s soul is trapped within box and replaced in that character’s body by the soul of last victim trapped by the box
6 A Gate is opened to the box’s creator

Only a wish can reset the count of failed attempts (and even a wish will only provide one success and will not automatically open the box).

If successfully opened, the box reveals an extra-dimensional space of 10’ x 10’ x 10’ size. Anything (or anyone) stored within that space will have been held in a state of temporal stasis that is automatically broken when the box is opened, but reinstated on anything within the space once the box is resealed. The GM must determine what will be contained within the box when it is first discovered - whether a demon’s or devil’s soul object, a hoard of treasure, one or more imprisoned beings, or something else altogether.

Anyone who successfully opens a box once can open that box again without requiring any additional rolls (barring exceptional circumstances such as the individual having his or her memory wiped) but if such a character attempts to open a different puzzle box then the normal process of rolls must be followed again.

Skeleton Key: This device appears to be an ordinary skeleton key made out of bone and approximately six inches long. It radiates alteration and faint conjuration/summoning magic if detected, and also radiates an aura of evil. It will infallibly open any mechanical lock and is 90% likely to open any magical lock unless set by a wizard of 21st level or higher. It can be used once per day safely, but every use beyond that has a cumulative 1-in-6 chance that the portal or object opened will reveal not to its normal location or contents but instead is a gate to the Fourth Hell, where those whose sin was greed meet their punishment. The individual who opened the gate thus is subject to immediate judgment by the devil Belial. A lawful evil character who immediately swears fealty to Belial (or a lawful neutral or neutral evil character who is willing to change alignment and swear fealty) will be geased to perform some service to Belial in order to prove their worthiness. Any other character will be dragged down to Hell by a company of 1-4 bearded devils to face eternal torment unless they are able to defeat the devils in combat or have some other means of escape. In either case the key will disappear, having been reclaimed by its master to be re-seeded on some other world. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Rulebook art?

What is the minimum necessary amount of art for an rpg rulebook? I know that (with the notable exception of the original "little black book" edition of Traveller) rpg rulebooks have traditionally included a lot of illustrations, and that certain types of products (bestiaries, adventures with scene-setting illustrations intended to be shown to the players, products aimed at beginners who aren't necessarily familiar with the genre and its tropes) need illustrations, but is this also true for a "standard" rulebook aimed at experienced players containing "crunch" info on classes, spells, magic items, and procedural stuff? Other than making the book more attractive to look at, are "filler" illustrations that just exist to set a mood (and fill white space) and aren't depicting anything practical really needed?

This isn't just idle navel-gazing, since I'm working on a product for publication that I am not capable of illustrating myself (at least up to a standard I would consider acceptable) so I'm trying to gauge how much art I'm going to end up having to buy (or beg) for this thing. A cover illustration is surely necessary, but what about the interior? RPG audiences are accustomed to seeing an illustration at least every 3-4 pages because that's what we've been given for the past 45 years, but if a book doesn't include that would it necessarily be seen as incomplete and unprofessional? Do I need little pictures of adventurer-types rappelling on cliffs in my section on wilderness adventuring, or a guy strumming a lute in the section on bard spells? And if I do need to include some interior illustrations, what is the minimum acceptable amount? Would 3 or 4 illustrations in a 128 page book be sufficient or if I'm going to have that few would I be just as well off not having any at all?

On the one hand I'd obviously prefer not to sink all of my potential dozens of dollars of profit (and more) into art, and I especially don't want to feel obligated to buy or accept a bunch of low-quality art because it's the only stuff I can afford, but on the other hand I think the text of this book is of high quasi-professional quality, and I'd like the presentation to be at a similar level if possible. If I'm going to expect people to pay real money for this then they should feel like their money was well spent, and I'm trying to get a sense of how important interior illustrations are to that determination.

I'm wondering how my 12 (!) readers feel about this. Given that a lot of good art isn't an option, what are folks' preferences between (a) no interior art at all; (b) a couple-three pieces of interior art; or (c) the book must be fully illustrated, even if the illustrations are of amateur quality?

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Heroic Legendarium

Most of the 11 readers of this blog are probably familiar with the "AD&D Companion," the book of uncollected AD&D material by Gary Gygax (mostly from Dragon magazine) + original material I wrote based on or inspired by Gary's unrealized ideas and post-TSR games, that I compiled a few years ago and distributed as a pdf. I put a lot of work into that document and was pretty proud of it, but due to the nature of its contents was always leery of distributing it too widely lest I invite a Cease & Desist Letter from Wizards of the Coast or the Gygax Estate, or both.

Those same 11 readers may also remember that there was some D&D rules content on this blog (some new races, spells, monsters, magic items, etc.) that is no longer here. The two are related.

A couple months ago I began revising the Companion to remove all of the content that was directly copied from a prior source - in some cases adapting it, in other cases leaving it on the cutting room floor - as well as editing the whole thing to become OGL-compatible via OSRIC, which consisted mostly of changing references from "DM" to "GM" and not referring to AD&D or any of its rulebooks by name, but also of substituting out a few other "protected IP" terms - such as names of particular off-limits monsters, planes, locations, and characters. [A key point worth mentioning here is that in those cases where the OSRIC rules differ from AD&D - either through that work's editors' legal caution or personal preferences - I have not adapted my work to their standards and in particular have not adapted any of the alternate/substitute versions of AD&D classes found in Dangerous Dungeons (though I have pulled some names of monsters and planes from there).] Doing all of that left about 2/3 of the material from the Companion - those parts I wrote or adapted myself - all safely OGL compliant. From there I started plugging in new material I'd written since the Companion was released, as well as revising and updating the contents to reflect a couple years of additional playtesting and feedback. Some of this material has previously been posted here, but much of it is new.

That effort is still ongoing (a lot of new material exists only in rough-draft or outline form and still needs to be expanded and polished) but I'm making good progress and it seems likely at this point that within a couple of months I will have a document at least the size of the original Companion (if not larger) that consists entirely of original content - some of it adapted from other games, the rest of it original to me, but inspired by the spirit and flavor of Gary Gygax's AD&D. I'm calling this new version The Heroic Legendarium (because I obviously can't use its old name) and I think it's going to be very useful to anyone who plays AD&D or OSRIC in the manner of the original Gary Gygax-penned rules and adventures - that it really will feel like something TSR might have put out had Gary remained in control and the company not shifted directions creatively, a way for those of us who still hold onto and prefer that original creative vision to continue in that direction rather than remaining frozen in amber.

A few items from the old version are gone (Roger Moore's very long and boring article from Dragon magazine about the Astral Plane has been deleted and adapted into 2-3 paragraphs of useful info, the monsters and magic items collected from TSR's 1984-85 modules are no longer included, and neither is the Hunter class) but I feel the new material that's been added in their place all still captures the same spirit more than makes up the difference. I'm also declaring everything in the book to be "OSRIC Reference Content," so that any other OSRIC-licensed product may use and refer back to it: if someone writing an OSRIC adventure wants to use one of the classes, races, monsters, magic items, or anything else from this book they will be able to. I'm probably kidding myself about the likelihood of anyone actually doing so, but it seems kind of cool that they'll at least have the option to.

The downside (for you, not for me) is that now that I will no longer under the cloud of potential C&Ds, I'm no longer going to give it away for free - it will go up on one or more web-stores (as pdf and/or POD) and I too may get to live the dream of earning dozens of dollars as an rpg publisher. I don't have an estimated release date yet because I'm still working on the text (and haven't even begun to tackle the subsequent challenges of transforming that text into a credible publishable product) but I've made sufficient progress, and am sufficiently excited, that I wanted to share this update with all 11 of you, to let you know what I've been up to during the last few months and what's to come in the future. I hope you'll stay tuned!

Monday, January 21, 2019

[D&D] Reflecting on the Hall of Many Panes

Shortly after the turn of the century, Gary Gygax's posts to his email list and on message boards began talking about a new adventure he was running in his home campaign and was preparing for publication - the Hall of Many Panes. From what we were able to gather, the adventure concerned traversing a gauntlet of different dimensions and overcoming a variety of challenges there in order to free a trapped demigod. The premise sounded similar to both Gary's novel Come Endless Darkness and the summaries he provided of the unproduced D&D Movie screenplay he co-wrote with Flint Dille. Gary emphasized the variety and difficulty of the challenges, and described it as one of his proudest achievements, and when publication was announced by Troll Lord Games it was described as a boxed set and described as "an adventure of significant playing-length." This seemed likely to be an epic masterpiece, the next step following Necropolis, and a worthy substitute for the Castle Greyhawk dungeons, that were then in limbo after a rumored plan to publish them with Kenzer & Co. for their Hackmaster game failed to materialize.

Alas, when the set was finally released and we got to see it for ourselves it quickly became painfully obvious that it was, to put it mildly, not what we had hoped for. Even leaving aside the production and editing issues that are endemic to everything Troll Lord Games has ever published (among others things, the adventure was double-statted for both the then-current D&D 3rd Edition and Gary's own Lejendary Adventures game, which was handled very awkwardly and made things not only much longer but also much harder to read and comprehend) the content of the adventure was sorely lacking.

There are 49 panes, 7 colors and 7 shapes in every combination, and to finish the adventure the PCs must successfully complete all of them. Each plane takes the party to a discrete sub-plane, usually dropped into the middle of a scene where they first have to figure out what's happening and then what they need to do to escape (usually performing some task or defeating some enemy). Many of the panes put the PCs into other bodies - animals, monsters, other humans, and in one case even animated acorns. Some of them require solving puzzles of various types. Some are straight combat. So far, so good. But on closer examination some problems become apparent. First and most obvious is that there are way too many panes, and the requirement to complete every one of them shows that the "significant playing length" description wasn't kidding - actually playing through this adventure would likely take two years or longer. Second, too many of the pane adventures are too similar to each other, which is likely to become tedious. Thirdly, the entire thing is completely arbitrary: the situations are all random and unconnected, with no larger scale meaning or pattern, not that it matters since they have to complete all of them anyway. Fourthly is that many of the pane-adventures are significantly underdeveloped, more sketched and fully-written, with a requirement that the individual DM either add a significant amount of their own development or treat things in a very shallow and railroad manner - and the fact that every one of the situations must be played through in order to finish the adventure makes this a pertinent issue, because the DM can't just choose to skip over the weak or problematic entries. [There's also a technical issue in the D&D rules context in that, over the course of playing through 49 panes (actually 51, including two special panes that appear when certain conditions are met), it's inevitable that they'll gain several levels; since the panes may be entered in any order the party will likely be several levels higher for the later ones than for the earlier ones, which the adventure glosses over in what I consider to be a very unsatisfactory manner by simply recommending that the DM increase the difficulty of the encounters within the panes to keep pace with the PC levels. I can only assume that in Lejendary Adventure, the native ruleset under which Gary originally wrote and played this material, character improvement is on a shallower curve and this wasn't an issue.]

Because of all of these issues it was obvious that I would never actually run this adventure, so it went off into the closet and was pretty much forgotten about. Which was unfortunate, not only because it so badly failed to live up to my pre-publication expectations, but because despite the overall disappointment of the product as a whole there were a few episodes that did capture moments of the old Gary magic. Those feelings were exacerbated when Gary died a few years later and this was left as his last major legacy (since the later Castle Zagyg series was both left incomplete and was in large part the work of Gary's co-writer). So, from time to time over the years since I've pulled this out again, or at least thought about it, convinced that this could have been better.

Eventually, I sat down with the adventure for a couple of hours and pulled together the following, my ideas and notes for how to extract the actual Gygaxian classic buried within the mess that was published.

My first recommend change is to reduce the number of panes significantly. Instead of 49, I've settled on 25. My second change is to tie the panes together thematically by both color and shape, as follows:

SHAPE (Challenge Type)
Rectangle - combat
Square - helping
Oval - puzzle
Disc - transformation
Hex - misc
Star - false finale
Diamond - finale

COLOR (Setting)
Red - underground
Orange - misc
Yellow - desert/plains
Green - woodland
Blue - mountains/boreal
White - false finale
Violet - finale

Combining the two, I came up with the following "best of" panes list.

Red Rectangle - Pane 35 (Key)
Orange Rectangle - Pane 30
Yellow Rectangle - Pane 19
Green Rectangle - Pane 3
Blue Rectangle - Pane 11

Red Square - Pane 47
Orange Square - Pane 27 (Key)
Yellow Square - Pane 44
Green Square - Pane 17
Blue Square - Pane 4

Red Oval - Pane 20
Orange Oval - Pane 48
Yellow Oval - Pane 21 (Key)
Green Oval - Pane 5
Blue Oval - Pane 16

Red Disc - Pane 10
Orange Disc - Pane 46
Yellow Disc - Pane 22
Green Disc - Pane 1 (Key)
Blue Disc - Pane 13

Red Hex - Pane 8
Orange Hex - Pane 15
Yellow Hex - Pane 45
Green Hex - Pane 36
Blue Hex - Pane 23 (Key)

White Star - Pane 50 (appears when all of one color + one of each type (or vice versa) completed)

Violet Diamond - Pane 51 (appears when 5 key panes completed)

The "key" panes (one of each color + shape) become the only mandatory ones needed to activate the final pane and complete the adventure, so a group of players who are paying attention can figure out and exploit that pattern. In order to draw further attention to the key panes and emphasize the pattern of them, I also recommend that the first four completed key panes also provide the party with special useful tokens:

Special Tokens (gained upon completing first four key panes; one use each)
1. Lens - view a pane before entering
2. Reset - return to pipe without completing a pane
3. Extra Life - killed in pane respawns in pipe
4. Phone a Friend - commune with Zagyg

This doesn't solve all of the issues with the adventure - not all of the selected panes neatly fit the challenge or setting categories I've placed them into, and many of the pane-adventures are still underdeveloped (and of course to actually run this I'd also need to convert all of the stats into a game system I know and use) - but I feel that it solves the core problems, and transforms the unusable mess of the published version into something that I could use in a game, an adventure that would be challenging and memorable to the players without overstaying its welcome, and that would actually feel like it was rewarding player strategic planning and attentiveness and not that they were just passengers on an inevitable train ride. Something like this would be, I feel, a much more fitting legacy to Gary Gygax's memory than the unfortunate product that Troll Lord Games actually released.

P.S. Lastly, the backstory of the adventure - the trapped deity, the reason why he was trapped, and why the PCs are sent to rescue him, involves the machinations of various deities. In the published adventure, these deities all come from Gary's Lejendary Earth pantheons. If the adventure is instead adapted to the World of Greyhawk, I recommend the follow deity substitutions:

Gwynn = Baalzebul
Bili = Belial
Arianrod = Fharlanghn
Llew Llaw Gyffes = Pelor
Amadan Mors = Zagyg
McGreggtim = Heward