Monday, November 27, 2023

Bonus session (#7.5)

Although the players from the main group were all busy with Thanksgiving festivities, I had visitors from out of town who wanted to play, so we had a game on Saturday.

Cast of Characters:

Thorgrim (Dwarf Cleric 4)

Rebecca (Elf Fighter 4)

Baron (war dog, who Thorgrim can speak with due to a Knack)

These two had done some exploration in the Perlammo Salt Mines (at Thanksgiving last year), but having heard rumors that another group of adventurers had pretty thoroughly cleaned that area out decided to look for other adventuring opportunities. At the Grand Casino of Boreon they met Greenthistle, a renegade half-elf from the Whither Woods, who offered to serve as a guide in that area and lead them to the elves' best treasures. They also picked up a rumor of an enchanter in town named Nestor who had disappeared into the woods some months back, after possibly having gone insane. So, defying the prohibition on non-elves entering that forest they took off in that direction, planning to tell any elves they ran across that they were looking for their missing friend Nestor (and figuring that, with Rebecca herself being an elf, albeit a meadow-dwelling high elf from the north, that should be sufficient to avoid them being summarily slain). 

After a few days crawling through the woods they had various minor encounters, including an unfriendly hermetic pig farmer who they suspect was likely Nestor the insane ex-enchanter, and picked up vague rumors that the elves in the western part of the forest had gone wild and strange. However, when they encountered the elf village of Willowtarn, the inhabitants were surprisingly non-hostile, and in exchange for Thorgrim healing an injured elf-maid with a broken leg offered them food and hospitality, including a strange herbal tea that they call the soma. The party became increasingly suspicious as they noticed a distinct lack of the otherwise-ubiquitous mundane wildlife (squirrels, birds, etc) around the village, as well as a lack of any elf-children or spellcasters, and that many of the village's dwellings and trees showed signs of old but unrepaired scorching and battle damage. Greenthistle the guide was particularly unnerved and insisted these elves were not acting normally at all, and discreetly refused to sample any of their food or soma (the other two did sample both, but were unaffected, perhaps due to Thorgrim's naturally strong dwarfish constitution and the magical periapt Rebecca had acquired on a previous adventure). They were shown to a hut to spend to the night, that upon examination appeared to have been the home of a druid but was dusty and neglected and hadn't been inhabited for some time. Realizing that some elves were standing giard outside their hut Thorgrim cast a discreet Know Alignment and upon scanning the guards confirmed his suspicion that they were, in fact, chaotic evil, so they decided to sneak out of the village rather than waiting for morning, and managed to do so successfully.

When morning came they spotted a group of elves on a path headed west out of the village and followed them to a blighted area where all of the trees and other plants were infected with various molds and fungi, and eventually to a massive (200' tall) oak tree in the center of the blighted patch, with a 10' diameter shaft at its base which the elves descended into. Greenthistle declined to follow the party into the hole, so they made arrangements for him to travel back to a meeting place a couple miles away and wait for their return.  

Inside the hole they found a series of narrow winding tunnels dug into the muddy earth but, unable to determine which way the elves had gone, went wandering and encountered various unpleasant fungal monsters, most notably a patch of black moss that drained 24 hours of Thorgrim's memory, leaving him very confused about where he was and why. Rebecca informed him the moss had done it and that he needed to destroy it before she too was affected in the same way. Thorgrim's only current memory was that Rebecca had told him to destroy the moss patch, so they did so, but were then at a loss for where they were or what to do, until Thorgrim found a map drawn in his own hand showing a path from the elf village and a set of tunnels. A quick consultation with Baron the dog confirmed that they were missing a day of memory but had followed the elves here from the village and that the elves were enemies. Alas, nobody knew or remembered what had become of Greenthistle the guide (because Baron the dog doesn't understand people language to know what Thorgrim and Rebecca had discussed with him). 

Some further exploration brought them into contact with a group of elf guards who they captured and interrogated, learning that they are followers of Ianthe the dryad who dwells beneath this great oak and supplies them with the soma. Asking how long she had been doing so, the elves were unable to answer, and their best guess was "umm, forever?" Venturing into the next chamber they encountered a group of fungus-men who were too strong and numerous to fight so they fled back to the surface with their elf-prisoners in tow. Taking those prisoners back to the oak of the dryad Eulalia (whom they had previously encountered in their earlier wanderings) she was vexed to hear that her sister was causing trouble (but also unsurprised, since she hadn't heard from her in a long time) but, unable to do anything about it herself, directed them instead to the nearby elf-village of Glenbrook.

After Rebecca explained to the inhabitants of that village what they had encountered and handed over their prisoners, the chief druid Moonmist examined them, as well as the supply of food and soma the party had recovered from their camp, and confirmed that the food was tainted and the elves were under a malign influence of unknown origin, and that something strange is definitely afoot since dryads aren't normally familiar with herbalism and certainly not anything based around mold or fungi. A contingent of elves from Glenbrook village joined with the party as they returned to the caves beneath Ianthe's oak where the group did battle with and defeated the first batch of 16 fungus men, but used up so many of their resources in that battle and, hearing another group approaching from deeper within the tunnels, expeditiously retreated back to their village, bringing the session to an end.

Although these two explored a lot of ground and did a lot of fighting (and had a lot of fun and wanted to keep going but it had gotten too late), they recovered negligible treasure and almost everything they fought in the dryad-cave is capable of respawning, so it's likely their activity will have negligible visible impact on the area if and when the other party makes their way here. The one definite consequence is that Greenthistle the guide, after waiting most of the day at the appointed meeting spot, fled back to civilization with a new rumor to spread to anyone who will listen at the Casino - about the village of evil elves deep in the Whither Woods, the fungal-blighted giant oak tree with a cave-entrance at its base, and the group of adventurers who descended into that cave and never returned! Will that story be sufficiently intriguing to draw the attention of our other adventuring party away from the Perlammo Salt Mines? Unlikely, since they seem very single-minded and meticulous in their focus on that location, but we'll find out one way or the other this coming Sunday...

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Lucky session #7

Another action-heavy session as the party continued the Gopine Holocaust. 

Regular cast:

Kronk - Gnome Cleric 3 (Boreon)

Grain Tobblefoot - Gnome Thief 3

Thron Hammersmash - Half-orc Fighter 3

Tares - Elf Cleric 3 (Boreon)

Eldin - Human Magic-user 2

Thorn - Half-elf Ranger 2

While most of the group was training they acquired some more rumors about various outdoor locations and feel like they’re getting a pretty full picture of all the plot threads active in the area but chose once again to return to the Perlammo Salt Mines where they had unfinished business with the gopines dwelling on level 2. On their way in they discovered that the rope ladder they’ve been using to enter and exit the dungeon had been sabotaged, but used their own ropes to repair the damage before anyone fell. 

Venturing down into gopine territory things got violent quickly, with a running battle across several rooms and the group briefly cornered between two squads. A sleep spell evened the odds a bit, but the robust gopine boss, armored in elfin mail and dual-wielding a dagger and a magic rapier, did a lot of damage before he fell, causing the party to use up all their healing magic. 

Having fought their way to an open escape route with a door spiked shut behind them they retreated back to level one to regroup, but the last of the gopines - the lieutenants - gave chase and caught our heroes by surprise. Another sleep spell failed to decimate them and things were getting ugly - Kronk the cleric unconscious and everyone else reduced to single digit hit points. Eldin the magic-user was forced to use his potion of fire breath, but even so it was dicey until Lumph the ogre, friend of the party and hated foe of the gopines, heard the sounds of battle and joined the fray. 

Grain Tobblefoot received enough XP to hit 4th level. Thron kept the gopine boss’ magic rapier and Thorn the ranger claimed his armor (which fit him but was too big for the gnomes). With some time remaining at the end of the session Eldin the magic-user decided to exploit his 16 charisma by hiring some henchmen. He got responses from two prospects: a fighter and another magic-user. As we left off he was debating whether to offer employment to one or both. 

We’ll see what happens in the next session on December 3rd. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Next session (#6)

 The party was short-handed again today (as Elden the magic-user wasn’t able to make it), but with almost everybody at 2nd level (and Kronk the cleric at 3rd) they were feeling confident enough to carry on, and had a dramatic but successful expedition:

Cast of characters;

Kronk - Gnome Cleric 3 (Boreon)

Grain Tobblefoot - Gnome Thief 2

Thron Hammersmash - Half-orc Fighter 2

Tares - Elf Cleric 2 (Boreon)

Thorn - Half-elf Ranger 1

As they were preparing their next incursion into the Salt Mine dungeons they learned that strangers have been making inquiries about them in Creektown and that they need to keep a low profile and possibly relocate to someplace safer. Arriving in the dungeon they learned that people have also inquired about them with Lumph the ogre and apparently bribed him with brown lotus powder.

With that ominous warning the group decided to avoid the area where the lotus smugglers are known to congregate and instead headed down the back stairs they had discovered to the area where they had previously fought the sun-spiders. Exploring around that area they met another wandering sun-spider and finally encountered the fox-people (who were generally hostile). Deciding to avoid their area they instead explored the northern part of the level, where they had a close call with some shadows, an even closer call with some poisonous spiders (and learned about the unforgiving nature of poison in 1E, but also that holy water has an alternate use - and a reminder about the value of joss factors), and decided some scorpions weren’t worth the risk, but also found and looted a secret alchemical laboratory. 

However, as their explorations took them further south they accidentally triggered an alarm alerting the fox-people, including an illusionist who caused a lot of havoc before they were able to defeat him (but at the cost of Grain the thief again being knocked below 0 hp). Fleeing back to their secret hideaway to regroup, they realized that in order to get back to the surface they had to either explore new areas in hopes of finding another exit, cross back through the realm of the sun-spiders, or back through the realm of the fox-people. A well-deployed silence spell from Kronk the cleric allowed them to successfully sneak past the latter and make it out. 

Back at home they used a detect magic spell on several jewels and other loot they had recovered hoping for magic items, but not finding any, decided to sell it all off through a fence they met in town, and learned another lesson about the high GP/XP value of jewelry (to the tune of 1600 XP apiece). This was enough to bring Thorn up to 2nd level, Thron and Tares to 3rd, and Grain (who had pocketed another 1000 GP necklace) not only to 3rd but with enough leftover that she would have hit 4th if only the rules allowed it.

With most of the party now at 3rd level and the party MU expected to return we’ll see what they decide to do in the next session on November 19th. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Playtest Session #5

Action-packed session today, which was nice after two kind of flat ones in a row. Back at full strength, the group ventured back into the Perlammo Salt Mines first to get done well-deserved revenge upon the best of stink bugs who had almost wiped them out the week before, and then to take on the encampment of goblins who were the only significant encounter area remaining on the first level. 

Cast of characters:

Kronk - Gnome Cleric 2 (Boreon)

Grain Tobblefoot -Gnome Thief 2

Thron Hammersmash - Half-orc Fighter 1

Tares - Elf Cleric 1 (Boreon)

Elden - Human Magic-user 1

Thorn - Half-elf Ranger 1

The two players who’d missed last session were forced to roll on the Character Catch-up table in Midkemia Press’s Cities to determine what befell them during their downtime, and it was nothing good: both were mugged and lost their cash on hand, Thorn was also scammed and lost 1/3 of his banked money and Elden learned that his father had died but was too broke to travel to attend his funeral. So, facing desperate financial straits, they decided to rejoin their adventuring companions. 

Scouting around the goblin hideout they managed to keep the goblins’ wolves quiet, used a sleep spell to eliminate the first set of guards, made quick work of another set, barricaded the door through which reinforcements were approaching, got into a bloody but ultimately successful brawl against the goblin bosses, and ended up finishing off the last of them in a two-front battle. 28 goblins in all were sent screaming to the Nine Hells. 

Looting the boss’s chamber they recovered some minor treasures and a mysterious and very heavy wizard-locked iron chest. They also found four cowering non-combatant goblin cooks who they interrogated and then dispatched, which inspired two of the party to change their alignment to Chaotic Neutral.  

Thorn the ranger convinced his companions to fire the captive wolves and led them out of the dungeon and then, heavily laden with treasure, they made their way back to town. 

Alas, the combat XP and bulky but not-especially-valuable treasure wasn’t enough to bring them up to 2nd level (with Elden the magic-user painfully coming up 18 XP short). However, they had recovered a letter from the goblin boss that they were unable to decipher (though they did determine in was in the Chaotic Evil alignment language) and decided it was worth paying Geromini, their NPC magic-user friend in town, to cast Comprehend Languages on it. Once translated, the letter gave them the password to open the chest, which was filled with 50 gold ingots, intended as a bribe from the Goblin King of the Palm March to the chieftain of the Blue Goblins of Melonath Falls, and the value of this haul turned a break-even expedition into a major victory, worth enough XP to level up not just Elden but also Thron, Tares, and Kronk (to 3rd). Only Thorn the ranger still fell a bit shy.

Next session is on November 5th. Having effectively cleaned out the first level of the mines we’ll see where they decide to go next - whether to the lower levels of the mine or one of the several other areas nearby they’ve gathered rumors about. 

Edit: Fun addendum - while we were playing one of the players got a text from her sister who was attending GsmeHoleCon (in Madison, WI) that she was at that same moment playing in a game run by Luke Gygax (5E, I assume, but still pretty neat). Alas, their story didn’t have the same happy ending ours did: their party got TPKd. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Another session report

The group was down two players this session compared to last one so they decided to proceed cautiously. To start with they paid a visit to the Grand Casino of Boreon hoping to gather some intel about the mysterious fox-people who they’ve heard about but not yet actually encountered. Coming up mostly empty and failing to win big at the slots (and realizing they’re not nearly well enough equipped to knock the place over) they returned to Salt Mine dungeon and once again bribed their way past the ogre guarding the back entrance. 

They’ve now got a nearly-complete map of the top level and were feeling pretty confident after dispatching some ghouls and giant rats but disaster almost struck when they decided to attack a nest of giant stink bugs: half the party (the thief and of the clerics) was rendered unconscious and the gnome cleric had to leave his pack and maul behind in order to drag his comatose companion to safety. Venturing back to retrieve the lost pack only a well-placed Sanctuary spell saved the remaining two from disaster and probable TPK. When you're low level and outnumbered AC4 and a 1d6 bite adds up quickly.

A few sacks of silver pieces was a visibly disappointing haul but was just enough to allow the thief to hit 2nd level. She also pocketed a nice-looking coral necklace that a jeweler in town offered her a cool thousand GP for but she decided not to sell, suspecting it might be magical. 

Next session (set for 10/22) they’re hoping to be back to full strength, which is good because their options are narrowing - taking on the goblins or armed men they avoided this time around, venturing back down to one of the lower levels (which they’re still very afraid of), or leaving this dungeon altogether to follow up on one of the rumors they picked up at the casino - such as the mysterious goings on in the village of Veirona a day’s travel upriver, near the famous Melonath Falls. 

[Fun OOC note: when they were in the casino hearing about Veirona with its lumber mill and seedy reputation and the nearby Melonath Falls, one of the players said "I'm starting to get a kind of Twin Peaks-y vibe about this area" which I appreciated because it's 100% intentional but she's the first person who's ever noticed (or at least who mentioned it out loud to me)]

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Playtest session #3

Playtest session #3 was held today, very eventful and fun but not too rewarding. All four of the players from the previous session returned (including the guy who thought he wasn’t going to be able to make it) and they were joined by two new players - another cleric and a half-elf ranger. 

Venturing back to the Perlammo Salt Mines after a week in town they found the main entrance barricaded and guarded, and surmised that somebody must not have liked what they did to the watchers they encountered in their last expedition. At first they wanted to fight their way through but upon seeing that the guards were in mail and armed with crossbows had second thoughts and decided instead to seek out the back entrance they had heard rumors of. Locating that shaft they climbed down the rope ladder they found there and encountered the ogre dwelling at the bottom who demanded a toll to pass but after some negotiation agreed to collect on their way out. They explored about 10 more rooms and even ventured down a set of stairs to a lower level but quickly lost heart and fled back up after encountering some giant sun spiders and then catching sight of the even bigger mother-spider. 

Although they did a lot of exploring and filled in many of the gaps on their map, they found little by way of treasure and realized they were in a bind since to get back home they had to face either the ogre (who they didn’t feel they had enough to pay as toll) or the guards. Settling on the former they decided to offer him some platinum pieces they had found with a contingency plan to drop a sleep spell on him and hope for the best if that didn’t work. Luckily for them it did and he allowed them to pass back out, but for all their efforts (including going an hour past the scheduled quitting time) they didn’t have much to show for it treasure-wise. 

Once again, nobody died but there were a couple of close calls with the 15 hp ranger at one point reduced to a single point. A paltry 400 XP apiece (50% from combat vs an assortment of unpleasant bugs) was enough to bring the gnome cleric to 2nd level but left the thief 100 XP short (don’t say the +10% bonus for high stats doesn’t make a difference because it would’ve here!).

Next game is scheduled for October 8th. I get the impression they want to stay on the first level longer (those 3d4 damage rolls from the sun-spider bites were quite traumatizing) but may not have much choice since they’re running out of areas to explore there, unless they change their mind about trying to murder and rob the ogre…

Monday, August 28, 2023

Playtest Session Recaps

Keeping it short and sweet:

Session #1 (8/13/23): Two brave novice adventurers - a half-elf magic-user/cleric of the Far Wanderer and a gnome fighter/cleric of Boreon - came to the town of Warnell seeking fame and fortune. Following up on some rumors they headed for the abandoned Perlammo Salt Mines and explored about a dozen rooms in which they encountered some goblin squatters, located a central lift-shaft and evidence that somebody is both maintaining and using the lift, discovered a couple of secret doors and a lost treasure room, and found a map showing the entire mine in cross-section. Both survived, but the half-elf got very lucky and only barely avoided the effects of a cursed scroll.

The half-elf's player isn't able to make the next session, so it will be up to the gnome and his new group of companions (i.e. the players who weren't at this session) to pick up where they left off: will they attempt to roust out (or befriend) the goblins? Will they venture down to one of the deeper levels shown on their map - the dormitory, the chapel, the deep mine, the experimental mine, or the caves? Or will they just spend a few hours wandering around and not accomplish much of anything at all?

Session #2 (8/27/23): Since his half-elf companion was called away on important business, the gnome rounded up some new adventuring companions - a human magic-user, a gnome thief, and a half-orc fighter - and the party of four set off back to the mines to continue exploring. They managed to explore 10 rooms on the main level in which they fought some creepy monsters including a rope-like kampfult and some winged vipers, found a set of stairs and an open shaft leading down, learned about a lotus blossom processing operation in the lower mine (and killed their lookouts), and recovered some good treasure, including a few non-cursed magic items (a magic dagger, a potion of gaseous form, and a scroll of 3 MU spells). Once again nobody died, but there were some close calls - the magic-user spent most of the session with one hp, and the cleric burned a couple joss factors to ensure he didn’t die from snake-venom (though he actually rolled well enough that he didn’t need them). Nobody has hit 2nd level yet, but the two gnomes are both getting pretty close and another expedition as successful as this one would likely put one or both of them over the top.

Session #3 is set for 9/24, with 3 of the above 4 returning and possibly some new players joining them (a couple of yesterday's players said they are planning to invite some of their friends, and a couple other people who weren't able to make either of these dates are still interested). While they're likely to continue exploring the "abandoned" mines, maybe they will also be tempted - now that they're all flush with cash - to pay a visit to the Grand Casino of Boreon north of town in an attempt to parlay their winnings (or blow them completely). And now that word of their discoveries is getting out, they may soon find that they're not the only party of adventurers interested in the site. Only time will tell...

If anyone reading this is in the Los Angeles area [edit to clarify: these games are being run in-person at a local game store, not online - sorry for not making that more clear and getting a couple folks' hopes up to join] and wants in on session #3 let me know - there's still at least theoretically room for a couple more players (since it's TBD whether or how many of the potential new players will actually materialize), and the entire party is still 1st level so there are no issues with adding more members. There is still a LOT of adventure left to explore, so as long as people remain interested and available this could go on for a while, but we'll see. [FWIW 4 of the 5 players so far had some prior experience with AD&D but none of them are hardcore fans like me and none of them had played it anytime recently; the other player is an AD&D n00b whose only previous D&D experience has been with 5E. All of them have had a lot of fun so far - or at least that's what they're saying to my face.] 

Monday, August 7, 2023

Heroic Legendarium Deal of the Day

Hey y’all,

The Heroic Legendarium is the “deal of the day” today (Monday August 7th) at  - heavily discounted (effectively $10 off both the pdf and hardcopy versions) and featured on their front page for 24 hours (of which there are about 20 remaining). 

I’m assuming most everybody reading this already has a copy, but if you don’t (no judgment) or want to gift someone a copy or pick up a spare hardcopy or two, now is the time to do it!

Edit (8/8/23): The sale is now officially over. Final tally for the day was a bit over 100 copies, which is what it normally sells over about 9 months. I’m pretty happy with that! Big thanks to anybody who bought a copy or helped spread the word.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Greyhawk Deities

A couple years ago when I converted my bootleg "AD&D Companion" compilation into the legitimate/OGL-licensed Heroic Legendarium, one section I was sorry to have to remove was the summary of the World of Greyhawk deities and the characteristics of their clerics, collecting the information that was previously spread across the World of Greyhawk boxed set and various issues of Dragon magazine into one convenient reference. 

Now, in preparation for next weekend's public playtest session, I decided to revisit that document. But instead of just copying the old text I decided it would be fun to expand it to include both those deities listed but not detailed in the boxed set as well as assorted god-like monsters. 

In creating the list I edited out a few deities* who seemed redundant or uninteresting (to me), and in a few cases repurposed some of their cleric characteristics into other deities with similar portfolios. Likewise, some deities were given cleric characteristics suggested by Roger Moore in Dragon #85 for use with clerics of the pantheons from Deities & Demigods. The rest I created myself, attempting to remain as consistent as possible with both the style and power-level of the published examples. It's likely someone else has already done and shared this same work at some point over the last 40 years, but I couldn't find anything online (at least not within my preferred 1st edition AD&D paradigm).

Symbols for the deities not detailed by Gygax or Lakofka mostly come from this wiki page (which I presume is based on content from post-Gygax TSR and WotC products with which I am not otherwise familiar), but I have unapologetically changed them wherever I didn't like what was provided there (and careful readers will also note other minor editorial emendations - deities with modified alignments or portfolios). Similarly, portfolios for the arch-devils and demon princes were mostly gleaned from a variety of online encyclopedias of folklore and witchcraft, in researching which I was surprised and amused to discover that almost all of the demon and devil names provided by Gygax in the Monster Manual II are authentic from medieval texts. In order to fit my list onto a single page I wasn't able to include all of the demon lords here, but I did keep a list of the portfolios of most of the remaining ones.

Anyway, as usual, once I've done the work I figured there's no reason not to share it more widely here. All of the deity names and previously-published descriptions are, of course, copyright Wizards of the Coast, LLC but are being used in a non-commercial manner, just like the wiki site linked above.

Download the pdf here 

*Beltar, Bralm, Delleb, Fortubo, Jascar, Lendor, Lydia, Phyton, Rudd, Velnius, and Xerbo. 8 of these 11 were detailed by Len Lakofka in Dragon magazine (issues #86-92, June-December 1984), for those who are interested

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Milestone achieved

Yesterday, a bit over two years after work-in-earnest began (though the original outline was actually done back in 2017), I finally finished writing up the last encounter area for my D&D adventure/campaign book (working title Brink of Calamity), officially completing the first draft. 

It ended up being even more massive that I had originally intended, with the current draft clocking in at about 133K words and 167 pages (including 20 pages of maps). The original plan was to cover levels 1-6 but a few of the tougher areas may actually go beyond that (playtesting will tell). Here's how the contents break down:

  • Roughly 8,000 square mile wilderness area with 30+ detailed locations
  • 1 detailed town & 2 detailed villages
  • 5 dungeons (including Melonath Falls and the Perlammo Salt Mines) with 16 combined levels (+ several mini-dungeon lairs)
  • 3 dragons
  • 7 new monsters
  • 4 new magic items
  • Over 130 named & detailed NPCs
  • Extensive rumor and random encounter tables
  • Dozens of potential plots and character interactions
  • Enough material to fill at least 20 sessions of play

Playtesting is still ongoing (including a couple public sessions in August if anyone reading this is in the L.A. area and interested/available), as is editing/revision/layout work, so it will be still be a while before it's actually available for sale, but for as long as this thing has been gestating and as many fits and starts as I've had writing it just having a complete draft already feels like an accomplishment, so I wanted to take this opportunity to crow about it a bit.

And, while we're here, here are a couple other small things I created recently while procrastinating over finishing up the book draft:

1) An AD&D character sheet incorporating all of my additions and house rules from The Heroic Legendarium and Foster's Miscellany. I will always love TSR's old goldenrod AD&D character sheets, but it was becoming an increasingly large hassle, especially with new (or new to 1E) players, having to tell them to ignore this and add that and to put in X where it says Y. This sheet is purely functional and doesn't have the fun graphical elements and flourishes that I love in the goldenrod sheets, but (at least IMO) their increased ease of use makes up for that. For my own games I've printed them on light blue paper.

2) Even more randomly, a sheet of Character Background Detail Tables for Twilight:2000 1st edition characters. I never owned this game in its day and just recently acquired it (and being a dyed-in-the-wool grognard I of course chose to pick up the vintage 1984 edition rather than the current one published by Free League) and mostly loved it but also found it odd and frustrating that the characters' non-military background and lives and personalities were essentially completely undefined, so I decided to fill that stuff in myself with some Mekton/Cyberpunk-style lifepath tables. I suspect later editions (which I haven't seen) also cover this stuff, rendering this exercise kind of pointless and redundant, but I had fun coming up with it so I've got no regrets.  

Friday, May 19, 2023

Heroic Legendarium is Electrum!

Today, almost exactly two years to the day after its release, The Heroic Legendarium has officially become an Electrum bestseller at DriveThruRPG, which puts it among the top 13% of all paid products on the site. This has no practical meaning, but is still pretty neat for me, proving that the book found an audience and is continuing to sell at a pretty steady clip of a couple-three copies a week that hasn’t really slowed down at all in the past 20 months or so. It feels validating for something that was produced on literally $0 budget and has received no promotion whatsoever beyond customer word-of-mouth, and that I honestly thought might sell a couple dozen copies to my friends and family and then disappear into the ether. 

If you’re one of the people who has purchased a copy (at DriveThruRPG or during the brief time it was available on Lulu) thank you very much. Your support means a lot to me. And if you’re one of those 227 people who has it on your wish list or in your shopping cart at DriveThruRPG, what are you waiting for?! Now is the perfect time to get on the bandwagon and become part of the in-crowd (and help me hit Gold)!  8) 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

[Review] Lost Dungeons of Tonsiborg

Received this thing in the mail a couple days ago, purchased as part of the recent Kickstarter. It was originally only offered as a deluxe hardcover "collector's item" edition at $100 per copy, but late in the campaign the organizers bowed to public demand and added an option for a "mass-market" softcover version at $30, which is what I bought. It's POD quality, black & white interior (I believe the hardcover version has interior color), 164 pages long including an index and OGL boilerplate. 

First, some quick history: Greg Svenson was one of the most active players in Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign and, among other things, a participant in the first expedition into the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor over the 1970-71 Christmas holiday, as recounted here. In 1973, so after about 2 years of play, Greg decided to create his own dungeon, Tonisborg, using the pre-publication draft of the D&D rules that was floating around the Twin Cities at that time (the first rules these players had ever seen, since prior to Gygax drafting and sending these rules to the Twin Cities for comment, Arneson had kept everything in his head as, effectively, a black box). He then lent the 10-level dungeon to his friend and fellow Blackmoor player (and creator of the Dungeon! boardgame) Dave Megarry, who was spending the summer in Boston, where he promptly lost it. But then, 40 or so years later, Megarry found the manuscript (which it turned out wasn’t actually lost, just misplaced) and shared it with Greg and the guys behind the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary, and they decided to publish it as a book, initially in a super-limited-edition deluxe hardcover collector's edition in 2020, and just now in an affordable paperback version (with promises of an eventual pdf version to come as well).

So this is a pretty neat historical artifact - an actual complete 10-level dungeon (maps and accompanying keys) that dates all the way back to before the publication of D&D, written by one of the players in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. This makes it very analogous to Rob Kuntz's El Raja Key dungeons, created around the same time by a similarly-situated player (as Rob was one of the most active players in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign) and published a few years back on the El Raja Key DVD Archive, but in an incomplete form (IIRC only 2 or 3 of the 12 levels included keys). This book includes both photographic reproductions of the original hand-drawn maps and hand-written keys (one line per room) as well as re-drawn maps and expanded (but still pretty minimalist) keys in something like the manner of the treatment given to Rob Kuntz's Bottle City.  

Looking at the maps, the resemblance to Arneson's style (as seen in the Temple of the Frog dungeons and the Blackmoor Castle dungeons in First Fantasy Campaign) is immediately obvious, and striking because it doesn't really look like much of anything else that's come out in the 50 years since. The dungeon levels are almost all hallways, many of them at 45-degree angles from each other, with tons of stairways and shafts connecting the levels. Sometimes the hallways meet in larger chambers that are almost always odd-shaped. There are only about a dozen rooms per level (only the bottom level has more than 20 rooms) and they're generally very small (10x10 or 20x20) and hidden behind secret doors in the middle of hallways (sometimes a room will lie at the end of a hallway, but more often the hallways end in stairwells or just dead-end). Almost all of them are occupied by monsters, with seemingly little if any consideration given to the inhabitants' size: a 10x10 room might well contain a dragon or purple worm or 18 ghouls or a dozen giant hogs. My guess as to how this would tend to work in play is that the players would wander down a hallway, a monster would burst out from a secret door to attack, and the party would flee to either a wider hallway or chamber to make a stand, only returning to the monster's lair post-combat to collect whatever treasure it might have had. 

It seems worth noting that all but one of the monsters and three of the treasures (with the "specials" all located on level 10) could be - and presumably were - rolled straight off the tables that would later appear in D&D vol. 2 & 3: a spectre with 10,000 silver, 2 gems, 4 jewelry, and a potion of growth; 2 gargoyles with 6,000 copper and 3 jewelry; 4 giant ants with no treasure; 2 wererats* with 3 gems and a ring of human control, etc. This is primitive stuff. But that's okay. In fact it's the point - it's a window into how the game was played in its earliest days, when it was all novel and everyone hadn't become jaded. Your mind is not going to be blown by this - you're not going to get any mystic revelations into the True Spirit of D&D or whatever. But you might get a stirring memory of the first dungeon you designed when you initially discovered D&D as a kid and how thrilling that was. There's probably no point in actually playing it - anyone with a copy of the rules and a set of dice can come up with something just as good on their own. It might be fun to run at a convention, though - let multiple groups delve in and see which one returns to the surface with the most treasure, and let them know the dungeon they're exploring was created in 1973, before the rules were actually published. Pretty neat for a few hours.

I'm a sucker for D&D history and love looking at these old artifacts - First Fantasy Campaign and Rob Kuntz's archive and those over-the-shoulder photos of Gary Gygax's Greyhawk Castle dungeons, and so on. To me, there's something refreshing ands inspiring about seeing what the game looked like to its creators before it become professionalized - when they were creating stuff to play, not to sell. So, for me, this content, which between the 2 versions of the dungeon and a couple pages of history (the history of the manuscript, not in-game backstory) fills about 50 pages, is worth the $30 I spent on it. Which is good, because the other ~110 pages are weird and dubious.

To start with, before the dungeons, there's a ~35 page introduction made up of essays about how to play and run games in the "old-school" style filled with anecdotes and interview quotes from Arneson and various members of his circle (a lot of it seemingly drawn from Secrets of Blackmoor) a lot of which is good advice (though some of it is questionable) focusing on all of the usual-suspect topics: players should focus on strategy and tactics and think outside the box and focus on the situation rather than the game rules; GMs should focus on keeping things moving and building atmosphere and tension and shouldn't be afraid to improvise (rulings over rules) and shouldn't focus on stuff like balancing encounters - challenges should be tough but potential rewards for good play rich (and resource-management concerns should always be considered: light, encumbrance, etc). Generally pretty solid advice (and, I would note, little if anything that Gary Gygax would've disagreed with) but all very basic and old hat to anyone likely to be reading this book (i.e. hard-core collectors and game-historians). 

Early in this section they make this statement: "We do not assume that you or your players have ever played an RPG before. This entire book is a lesson on how to play these games and how to combine new and old play concepts in order to create an enriching play session." Really? Someone who's never played or read an rpg before is going to pay $100 for this book of all things? This ostensibly high-end collectible (when the publishers were arguing against the notion of doing the mass-market edition one of their justifications was that they wanted it to be an archival-quality collectible that people would treasure and pass on to their grandkids) that isn't even available for sale via traditional retail channels is also supposed to be an entry-level product? Bizarre, to say the least. 

These essays could have made a nice pamphlet aimed at new (or at least new-to-old-school) players, and would sit fairly comfortably alongside the many other such pamphlets that already exist, but in the context of this product it all feels pointless and even vaguely insulting, as if to say that anyone with sufficient knowledge and interest in the history of the hobby to be interested in this book would actually need to learn any of the "lessons" offered here - that we're apparently all idiots who need explained to us (over half a page and at least 500 words) stuff like the idea that the referee shouldn't place the map on the table but should instead describe it to the players verbally and have them draw their own copy of the map as they explore. Wow, really? I had no idea! I mean, I've been doing this for 39 years, but  because I've only experienced the debased Gygaxian version for idiots and not TRV ARNESONIAN DND I've never been exposed to this revolutionary concept. Thanks, guys!

This bizarre confusion about who the audience of this book is supposed to be is compounded by the final third of the book, which is an entire "retroclone" version of the original D&D rules. These "Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering" rules were apparently previously published in a standalone version before being included here and purport to be a true-to-Arneson representation of the game. In practice, it appears to be about 90-95% identical to the contents of the 1974 boxed set, including all of the same ability scores, classes, races, spells, monsters, treasure tables, and magic items, all of which are dutifully reprinted. 

As with any retroclone game, there are a few minor differences: saving throws are handled differently (saving throw values are rolled as a parallel set of stats); XP is only earned for GP that are spent (as per FFC); there's a critical hit system when an attack rolls a natural 20 (with a 1-in-10 chance of instant death); etc. I'm pretty sure all of these differences could have been summarized in about 4 pages of house rulings (and, I should probably note here, none of these additions or changes actually appear to be, you know, any good - to the extent any of them actually do represent material that was used by Arneson and present in the pre-publication drafts but was left out of the published game that's, if anything, a testament to Gygax's editing and playtesting to identify them as bad rules). But instead we get almost 60 pages copy-pasting every spell, monster, and magic item description, and every table from D&D vol. 1 & 2. Curiously, except for a couple pages about dungeon-stocking, nothing else from vol. 3 is included - nothing on outdoor adventuring, castle building, barony management, expert hirelings, aerial combat, or waterborne adventures. Maybe this material was included in the standalone version of Champions of ZED but was excluded here as not being relevant to play within the Tonisborg dungeons? 

We even get half a page explaining how to read dice: what "3d8" means, how to use a six-sided die to get a number from 1-3, and how to use 20-sided dice both to generate a number from 1-20 (use a control die to determine if you use the number rolled or add 10) and to generate a number from 1-100 (roll two dice at once where one represents the tens and the other the ones, with a result of 00 counting as 100, not 0). Because, again, in the publishers’ minds there are apparently people out there who were willing to pay $100 for this book (and, for that matter, to read all the way to page 96 in it) who don't already know that. 

So, it's weird. On the one hand it's a reproduction of an artifact from the earliest days of the hobby of interest to the hardest-core game historians. But on the other, it's trying to be a complete stand-alone game and instruction manual for n00bs (who have $100+ to spare and are following rpg Kickstarters). I'm not sorry I bought it, but am very glad I only spent $30 on the softcover and not $100 on the "collector's item" hardcover. When the pdf version is released, I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in the early days of the hobby. If you like original D&D and First Fantasy Campaign you'll probably find the middle-third of this book (the actual dungeons) interesting. 

*This one is a mild curiosity because wererats weren't actually included in the original D&D set and were added to the game with Supplement I (Greyhawk) in 1975. I wonder if maybe they were included in the draft Svenson was using but got dropped from the final product, or maybe he'd heard about them from someone who played in Greyhawk, or maybe it was a case of parallel evolution (wererats, after all, feature prominently in Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar, published in 1968, and seem like a pretty obvious candidate to become a D&D monster), but the last doesn't actually seem all that likely since it would be the only such case in the dungeon - everything else except for the one "special" monster on level 10 comes straight out of the D&D Vol. 2 monster list  (or, for the various giant animals - spiders, beetles, ants, hogs, etc. - the dungeon encounter tables in Vol. 3)