Archive for January, 2011


Uncomplicated Fun: Results from the D&D 3.5/DCC RPG Experiment

Those who’ve been patiently waiting for the follow-up to the first part of my playtest report on using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG to run adventures written for Castles & Crusades and AD&D will perhaps be mollified by a report from a different experiment. This weekend I ran a conversion of Michael Kortes’s “War of the Wielded” from Dungeon #149,  one of the last adventures Paizo published for D&D 3.5. Our heroes were:

  • Jed’s warrior Lom the Reaver, a mighty armsman who kept an enchanted pitchfork to remind him of his humble origins as an evil turnip farmer; he was accompanied by the zero-level henchmen Brother Pancreas, a cooper, and Ginger, a gypsy.
  • Eric’s cleric Theodorus, Arch-Druid of Cthulu, who returned from his successful adventure in the Castle of the Mad Archmage; his companions from that expedition, Sour Jack and Ganymede, were drained of levels to fill the role of  0-lvl henchmen and thus relied only on their respective training in gravedigging and peryton herding.
  • Paul’s wizard Mordegaunt the Necromancer, a former gambler who traded part of his soul to Amun Tor, god of mysteries and riddles, in exchange for a lucky draw of the cards, and his henchmen Goodwife Cump, guanaco herder, and Lucky Lorinck, astologer.
  • George’s wizard Orik the Elementalist, another evil turnip farmer risen to greatness in the black arts, bringing with him Otis, a farmer from their home village, and his brother Elmo, an ostler.

Note that these were turnip farmers who were evil, not farmers of evil turnips. This was a result of a series of random events – rolling for occupation (d100: farmer), with a sub-chart (d8: turnips),  plus the players’ decision to accept the random alignments I assigned their PCs. I told them being evil didn’t necessarily mean they were raised to eat babies and hate Mom and apple pie; as their characters started at 5th level maybe they had a stain on their souls from a previous adventure which they were now trying to redeem. (I feel the DCC RPG encourages a more fluid approach to alignment than is usual for D&D. There aren’t now-your-paladin-is-just-a-lame-fighter consequences to changing alignment; instead it can open up character options like the different level titles that distinguish lawful evil Mordegaunt from neutral evil Orik. This seems fitting for the game’s Appendix N inspirations, such as Elric’s foreswearing Chaos for Balance as a result of his experiences as he roams the world).  But given the remarkable coincidence of three PCs and henchmen being both evil and turnip farmers, the players decided yeah, actually these guys were from a village where they were raised to spit on Mom’s apple pie.

The “War of the Wielded” adventure is written for 5th level 3.5 characters, and details a conflict between two sets of intelligent weapons that were created to fight a war that everyone else has long forgotten but which the swords still secretly prosecute by dominating hapless wielders to act as their foot-soldiers.  It’s a terrific scenario, presented in a  linear format but offering lots of different ways to break it into chunks that players can approach separately. I started by asking what our heroes’ last adventure had been; they decided to riff off Mordegaunt’s connection to Amun Tor and told me they had come to the city of Sasserine, where the scenario is set, to seek the god’s favor by returning an idol they had stolen from one of his distant temples.

“Cool,” I said, “the priest offers you a riddle. He says there are three possible paths to redemption, but will not tell you which holds your salvation. Ghaultin Valk, a lieutenant in the Shadowshore Watch, seeks help with a murder investigation in exchange for his intervention on your behalf if you’re ever in trouble with the law. Larcos Dengrim is mounting an expedition to the Dungeon of Rust and Fire, and will give you full claim to all non-living treasure recovered from the depths. Finally, Featherwhisper seeks guards to protect her bathhouse from a rival, and is offering a year’s free room, board, and massage services.”

Perhaps predictably, Jed, Eric, Paul, and George chose the dungeon expedition, so the adventure was afoot. In the following notes, I’ll describe what it was like to use DCCRPG to run an adventure I originally played for 3.5 back in the day. Let me make the same respectful disclaimer that I would in talking about my first wife: I still love 3E D&D and we had many great years together. In identifying specific ways that the DCC RPG suits me better nowadays, I don’t mean to slag 3E or people who are still happy with it or its direct descendants. There are many things I think 3E is better at, like having an enormous pool of mechanical bits that are tightly defined but produce unexpected complex interactions and can be used to create things like monsters in great detail so that they feel like something rigorous and real. It’s just that these are not the advantages I’m currently looking for; this playtest let me experience some of the ones I am.

In the original adventure, Larcos Dengrim had been a paladin who fell from grace as a result of being used by each faction of intelligent weapons to serve their venal ends. After winning free of their control, he became a holy liberator (a 3E prestige class that’s like a chaotic paladin, devoted to stamping out bondage). As with so many other things, this 3Eism harkens back to AD&D’s alignment restrictions and single-purpose Dragon Magazine classes like the anti-paladin. I wanted to go with DCC RPG’s more wide-open and OD&D-like approach, where the warrior or fighting-man class can be interpreted as a soldier of the gods, a wilderness scout, or a pit-fighting gladiator as the player sees fit. I also wanted a reason for Larcos Dengrim not to go along on the expedition for which he is hiring the PCs, to capture the enormous rust monster he wants to use to destroy the intelligent swords wreaking havoc in Sasserine.  So I decided that the way he had become immune to the control of the ego-weapons was instead to bind himself to an intelligent suit of platemail, whose objectives were orthagonal to the other factions’ war. Whenever his conversation with the PCs veered too close to a topic his armor found uncomfortable (like tangling with a rust monster) I described how a strange wind would flutter Dengrim’s tabard from beneath and he would quickly say “Let us speak no more of these matters.”

As they considered how they were going to subdue a giant rust monster, the players asked if they could buy a scroll of sleep. Another disclaimer I should make is that the DCCRPG rules we were using are still incomplete and undergoing revision and refinement; many details I’m talking about may have changed even by the time they hit open playtesting in mid-2011. Nevertheless, one of the things that the rules did have was guidelines for availability of special items by population size, which made it easy for me to rule that yes, since Sasserine had 100,000 people there was someone who could make such a scroll, but as they were the only such person in town they would be able to name any price they liked for it.

Once the party traveled on a raft to the Dungeon of Rust and Fire, I checked for random encounters each day of the voyage. The DCCRPG rules didn’t have a wandering monster chart, either because it hasn’t been written yet or because adventure-specific charts of what you meet on the Plains of Leng are better suited to its focus on emulating swords & sorcery fiction than the all-purpose “plains” chart suitable for simulating a world of Gygaxian naturalism. I hadn’t made such a chart for this adventure, so I opened the monster section at random and got Serpent-Men.

The raft schematic for the Serpent-Men encounter; note the Zocchi dice. Used with permission from George's excellent blog Legends & Labyrinths (click for link).

Prepping the combat stats for “War of the Wielded” reminded me how much page-flipping I used to do when playing 3.5. The adventure mentions a dagger of venom; I look it up in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it tells me that this lets the wielder use a poison effect as per the spell, which means I have to open the Player’s Handbook to see what that does.

In contrast, it was quick and easy to run a DCC RPG encounter off the page, even a page I hadn’t read before. The serpent-men’s abilities were succinctly described right there:  “A serpent-man can cast an illusion that causes its head to appear like that of a specific person” and “A serpent-man can hypnotize lesser creatures. Any intelligent creature that looks into the serpent-man’s eyes, as in a conversation or if explicitly directed, is susceptible.” This gave me an immediate feel for fun things I could have the monsters do in this encounter to fulfill the description that they “prefer skullduggery to combat.” The only time I had to refer to other rules during the encounter was when I followed the suggestion that serpent-men are led by wizards, but the minor additional effort of borrowing the individual spell charts I’d printed out for the use of the wizard PCs was compensated by the fun of rolling up unpredictable effects for the spells I chose for the serpent-man caster.

Eventually the PCs reached the Dungeon of Rust and Fire. That isn’t detailed in the Savage Tide Adventure Path for which “War of the Wielded” is a side adventure, and the map provided for it here is disappointing in that beautifully-rendered but functionally-meaningless Paizo way; it’s neither useful for exploration (since the only choice is to turn right or left, which determines which of the two interconnected rooms you enter first) nor for tactical combat (both rooms are basically empty). I wanted to give it more flavor, so I decided that the Dungeon is a former dwarven iron mine that, Moria-style, dug all the way to Hell; the fiendish rust monster that the PCs are here to capture is part of the comeuppance earned by their greed. I borrowed maps from the Harn product Lost City of Kiraz (whose mix of beautiful cartography, simulationist world-detail, and lack of obvious game utility is a post in itself), and had the linear tunnel eaten away by the rust monster Kogloxen cut through its cross-section of wide-open dwarven halls.

That was my rust; for the fire, I had the dungeon’s stone thrones still occupied by the charred, pugilistic husks of eternally-burning dwarves. These weren’t a threat – they didn’t move, and when the PCs tried to communicate with them they just opened their mouth and went “HHHHHhhhhhhh,” which I said might just have been the sound of escaping steam – but especially following up on the encounter with similarly unfamiliar serpent-men that were dangerous, I felt that this creepy interaction fulfilled the mandate that opens the DCC RPG’s chapter on monsters:

A key element of player experience in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is a sense of wonderment. Your job as judge is to convey “the sense of the unknown” that was so easy to achieve when we were children. One way to achieve this is to make monsters mysterious. The less the players are able to predict the specifics of an encounter, and the more they depend on role-played hearsay, legends, and lore, the more exciting their encounters will be.

Running the combat encounter with the rust monster was extremely straightforward. The 3.5 statistics were usable as written, no conversion necessary. We used miniatures because I wanted to show off my childhood set of Grenadier’s Henchmen that I’ve been repainting. The DCC RPG gives the 3.5-compatible information necessary to make decisions like “can I reach there this turn”, without the mechanics like attacks of opportunity that used to make me feel like it was necessary to conduct 3E combat on a grid (even if I don’t now think that’s always true).

The combat did make me realize some things about how fighting feels different between the two systems:

  • The 3.5 rust monster had a +10/+5 iterative attack with its feelers. This is easy mental arithmetic as 3.5 attack bonuses go, but I did have to roll and add two different numbers each in its own separate step so I didn’t confuse which dice was primary vs. secondary.  I envied the DCC RPG warrior, whose iterative attacks used a d20 for the primary and a d16 for the  secondary and could thus be rolled as a single handful with a unitary modifier, so that once you knew what you needed to hit you could just look for the same numbers on each dice.
  • Due to its fiendish template, Kogloxen had spell resistance. It was interesting to see this example of 3.5 swinginess in action but the possibility of having your spell fizzle based on a bad d20 roll wasn’t balanced by the possibility of having something cool and unexpected happen on a good one. The DCC RPG casters were already rolling to see if they lost their spell (boo!) or exactly what it did if not (yay!). Having them then roll for spell resistance a second time and saying “oh, actually it doesn’t work after all” was a downer. In OD&D, spell resistance is something only one creature (the balrog) has, so that having your spells fail against it is an uncanny, unnerving experience that reinforces that you’re in a uniquely bad situation. Spell resistance then became one of  the building blocks of OD&D that Gygax used build the cathedral of AD&D, so lots more monsters got it. 3E’s project of standardizing and rationalizing AD&D meant that overcoming SR became a standard issue for casters, and until the late-3.5 splatbook era (when spells like assay spell resistance appeared) the main way to do this was away from the table; choosing spell penetration feats was part of the pre-play of character optimization that, like building a deck in Magic: the Gathering, became increasingly important with WotC D&D. Since one of the enlightenments of the old-school renaissance for me is preferring to focus on playing the game rather than planning for it, I’m glad to see that neither feats nor spell resistance is part of the DCC RPG. (Admittedly I haven’t read through all the monsters to see if any have spell resistance, especially since many have entries that suggest additional variants in which they may appear to add unpredictability; that’s OK because if only a few do, meeting one will be like encountering an OD&D balrog).
  • The fiendish rust monster also has damage resistance 5/magic. As another historical design mini-essay, I used to approve of the way that 3rd Edition lets you overcome a monster’s immunity to non-magical weapons or whatever by just dealing more damage. In practice, though, Kogloxen already had a ton of hit points even before you subtracted five points from every hit; combined with a measly 1d4 bite attack, this made combat promise to be a slog long after all the PC’s ferrous items had been rusted and nothing more was at stake. Having henchmen helped here, because a single bite could take one out, as did the PC’s planning combined with the DCC RPG’s light hand on defining combat mechanics. Immobilizing the beast in a web, shrinking it with a reversed enlarge spell, and calling for a few opposed Strength checks to tie it up with bolas ended the fight before it became tedious (but not before it ate a hireling); I shudder to imagine what it would have been like using 3.5’s grapple rules. In retrospect, using damage resistance instead of immunity that can be overcome only by having the right tool seems emblematic of some trends in WotC design that 4E took further: the mandate that all challenges must be resolvable through combat (even when running away to hatch a clever plan to learn and exploit a monster’s weakness would be both more fun and take less time to play out) and the tendency to use rules fixes to address scenario design issues, like making sure there are multiple ways around the monster you don’t have a magic weapon to defeat (see also the fifteen-minute adventuring day).

One last scenario design issue became apparent once the beast had been tied up and it was time to get it out of the dungeon. “War of the Wielded” says that, unless the players have come up with a clever plan to transport it, five DC 15 Strength checks will be necessary to move Kogloxen safely through the tunnels. Like all the 3.5 mechanics, this translates just fine to the DCC RPG rules. However, neither the adventure nor either of the rulesets provides any engaging consequences if one or more of these checks fail. Having the rust monster break free would have just meant more relatively tension-free combat with the same foe you just defeated; having PCs fall and take damage would have been faster to resolve but also largely meaningless unless there was the possibility of another encounter before healing, which there isn’t in the scenario as written.

One of the features I’d like to see in my ideal version of D&D is a system that makes the hazards of a journey through a perilous dungeon environment or untamed wilderness as compelling and intrinsically consequential as they can be in a game like Mouse Guard. It’d be easy enough to port in something like a skill challenge system, assuming you already know how to make one that works. One great and intentional virtue of the DCC RPG is that it doesn’t get in your way of this kind of house-ruling, and all the indications are that it also follows the flip side of asymmetric design and pay equal attention to how the rules it does have contribute to the shape of the game.


Mapping the Big Apple Launch Party

"Post-Apocalyptic New York" by Robert Altbauer

I’m psyched to forward an invitation from Jonathan Roberts, cartographer extraordinare, to the opening party of the Mapping the Big Apple: Visions of New York show, where image above and many more like it will be on view! The launch is this Thursday from 6:30 until 8:30 at at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan Street, New York.

I got in touch with Jonathan when I was organizing the panel about D&D in contemporary art – he wasn’t able to attend, but he told me about this show then:

I’ve taken the Cartographers’ Guild – a site that normally does fantasy maps – and run a 2 month challenge to map New York. We’ll be showing the resulting pieces at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art through the winter. The pieces range from a traditional map of Central Park, to a 3D illustration of the original fort in new Amsterdam to a map of the interior of the Statue of Liberty overrun by goblins. There’s a heavy fantasy bent to many of the pieces, but overall a lot of good maps. It’s interesting to see the influences that were brought to bear in the contest.

I ran a show through the summer of fantasy maps – with pieces from Mike Schley, Corey MaCourek and Jared Blando (Wizards and Paizo respectively) as well as lots of very talented hobbyists. It went really well, but I kind of assumed I was the only one doing D&D inspired art (and particularly maps!) on the New York gallery scene.

I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time and hope to see y’all at the launch party! For those who won’t be able to make it on Thursday, the show is open 12-6 Tuesday to Friday, 12-5 Saturday until March 16th and is free to enter. Folks who aren’t in NYC can check out an online preview of the maps; prints will be on sale.


If I Ruled the (D&D) World

Over at storygames, folks are talking about a fun hypothetical:

Someone hands you “Dungeons & Dragons: The Game” to do a re-release. What would you do with it?

Here’s my answer!

All my versions of D&D will be full of lists, illustrations, tables, and long, dry descriptions of nonexistent worlds written in an invented language

I would stop mass-producing D&D anything. I would spend the same amount of money on having artisans hand-craft books, each of which was inscribed in a scriptorium with a different version of the D&D text (put together by a Manhattan Project of designers and lunatics, like in Watchmen). I’d geocache these in locations around the world which would require serious adventuring skills to reach, and would take considerable pains to do this anonymously, so that no one could tell which were “official” and which were just some nut writing up their own dream D&D on stone tablets and burying them for some other nut to dig up.

I would flood the interwebs with better-quality versions of everything that’d previously been released under the D&D brand, make it 100% open content using the OGL, and make these easy to find (text-only SRDs, etc.) for talmudic scholarship. If people tried to scan and share my geocached books I would flood them with variant scans to make it hard to tell which was the real gospel.

I would hire away top-level Scientologists and suchlike cult leaders to run my organized play program. They’d be in charge of managing the project johnzo proposed earlier in the storygames thread:

I’d recruit an elite street team; I’d partner with retailers to find the DMs with the best reputation and dumptruck those DMs with goodies in exchange for them running regular public games of D&D.

The cult leaders would be forbidden to interfere with the street team’s play experience but given a mandate to grab people as they get up from the table, sated and blown away, and turn them into fanatics. I would pay some other people to impersonate these cult leaders and perform bizarre occult performance art rituals, 5% of which I’d leak to the media.

At the peak of this activity I would fake my own death, get plastic surgery, lead a hostile takeover of the D&D brand, and then spend millions on a public image makeover devoted to establishing that D&D is a healthy, social alternative to video games, with grant money for researchers to prove this thesis. I’d open game cafe emporiums in every space that used to be a Barnes & Noble and sell drinks, books, and toys on the margins of a place to hang out and feel safe leaving your kids.

I’d do nothing to stamp out all the berserkers I’d created in phase I – I’d just distinguish squeaky-clean D&D from that occult media hysteria thing that never really happened anyway, pay no attention to the people who might invite you into their basement if you know their secret handshake. I’d harness all the edition war energy into a struggle between above-ground D&D and polyhedrals-inked-in-blood D&D, and let the geek one-true-wayism metastasize in the subterranean culture where people fight over which is the true apocrypha from phase I while in phase II we work on an elementary school curriculum designed to build mastery in the elements that all previous editions of D&D have in common.


The World of the Thief-Dabbler

In worlds within which magic and roguery mix, it is inevitable that the bottomless well of arcane potential is drawn for acts of petty criminality.  Let us consider some of the unfortunate charms and hexes born of the Thief-Dabbler!

Prestidigital Adherence
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: Touch
The miscreant mage is able, by means of this spell, to instantly transport an object weighing up to one pound into a bag or pocket on his person, so long as the caster is in physical contact with the object when the spell is cast.

Tergiversant Testimony
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: n/a
Also known as mystic mendacity, this spell allows the caster to tell the target of the spell a lie regarding a recent event that matches the event’s apparent outcome. The target adopts this lie as a true memory, receiving a saving throw versus spell if they are confronted with contradictory evidence.
“I did not throw this lamp to the floor! I tried to catch it when it fell from the table.”
“Pick your pocket? I tripped on that flagstone!”
“I’m sorry, but I think you wrote that entry in your ledger before you paid me.”
(The last would require a save versus spell if the clerk counted the contents of their changebox).

Boon Contrivance
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: 1 large table
This spell allows the caster to determine the outcome of a minor chance occurrence immediately before it happens, and is used almost exclusively in conjunction with sleight-of-hand maneuvers to affect gambling outcomes.


The Post Where I Give You Awesome Map Graphics

That is, if you think that by awesome I mean a recreation of the art and design methods of late-seventies RPG game maps. Awesome in a way that Red versus Blue of the generic cold war armies on a Tactics II game board are awesome.

If you will recall from my last stint of map posting, I explained the whole process of generating a random and unique regional hex map for use in a starting sandbox style campaign. It was a homage (copy) of the same style of region maps that were put out by Judges Guild in the late seventies for their Wilderlands of High Fantasy series.

Towards the end of the process, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t exactly replicate their graphic style in my final map iteration. The designers at Judges Guild used a combination of hand-inking on a full size sheet and screen tone to produce their textures and shapes on their large 48″ x 36″ maps.

Photo-mechanical printing to capture a full size drawn map seemed a little severe for my purposes and screen-tone is generally only used in Japanese manga as a carry over from pre-digital illustration days. I had already found some digital textures on the internet that someone had lifted off of old wargame designs that would take care of my forests and rough patches. Those were good, but there were still a bunch of tone patterns that were impossible to locate, to say nothing about the mountains and hills that were hand drawn directly on the old JG maps.

So to satisfy my own obsessive sense of needless design (it is a DM eyes only map, no one will get to see it.), I created a bunch of repeating digital patterns to simulate the inking and screen-tone that I could find on the old maps and loaded them into my imaging software for my personal mapping enjoyment.

And the good news is that I am giving them all to you.
They include such top hits like:

  • Forest
  • Grasslands
  • Coast and River Rough Patches (sand)
  • Rolling Hills
  • Rough Hills
  • Mountains
  • Swamp
  • Desert (I am quite proud of all the little palm trees)

And a couple different encounter symbols for :

  • Villages
  • Castles
  • Lairs
  • Ruins

All the patterns are scaled to perfectly fit the 48″ x 36″ 150 dpi hex region map that I am also including in the attached zip file.

Here is the link.

Or try here.

Or maybe here.

See the included readme for further instructions about how to use them in your graphics program. However be forewarned, it still takes a lot of fiddling with layers and brushing and erasing hills to get it to look good. It is no Campaign Cartorapher. It looks particularly good when you lay the whole business over your enlarged watercolor painting. But it also looks just fine in B&W like the old Judges Guild maps.

Enjoy and map-on through your 70’s fantasy lands. Listening to Hawkwind helps the process along.


Origins of the Displacer Beast and Rust Monster

Courtesy of Jim Ward‘s “Pharoah’s Tomb”, from The Dungeoneer v.1, no.4 (March 1977), our last session of the White Sandbox campaign saw our heroes fighting displacer beasts and rust monsters, as well as encountering the god Anubis from Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes. This was deeply pleasing to me because:

  • As a kid I owned one of the plastic toys that inspired the rust monster, before I ever played D&D. Like many kids I remember wondering “what the hell is this thing?”. When I later saw it in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide cartoon, it was a mind-blowing transmedia experience. Here is Gygax on the genesis of the rust monster:

When we were all playing CHAINMAIL Fantasy Supplement Miniatures on the sand table in my basement, finding figurines for monsters was a priority. Of course the fantasy miniatures field was nil then. In my search I came upon the bag of monsters in a dime store, brought them home, and various persons involved suggested what they might be. Eventually we created names and stats for all, and so the resemblance is no coincidence at all :)

In Dragon Magazine Issue #88 (1984) he expanded further:

When I picked up a bag of plastic monsters made in Hong Kong at the local dime store to add to the sand table array … there was the figurine that looked rather like a lobster with a propeller on its tail … nothing very fearsome came to mind … Then inspiration struck me. It was a Rust Monster.

  • I’ve long been interested in the literary origins of D&D monsters, especially since it gives me another reason to re-read the books of Appendix N. I’ve known for a while the common wisdom that the displacer beast is inspired by Couerl from A.E. Van Vogt’s 1939 short story “Black Destroyer”, which later became the first chapter of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle:

His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether… Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish sky line, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world.

Trampier’s illustration in the AD&D monster manual is pretty faithful to this description:


Monster Manual, 1977

Previous depictions of Couerl looked less like either Van Vogt’s description or the AD&D displacer beast:

Astounding, 1939

Recently, David Thiel’s excellent blog Thiel-a-vision alerted me to another depiction that’s more like Trampier’s:

Worlds Unknown, 1973

Did Trampier base his drawing on the Van Vogt story or the Marvel comic? Original D&D artist Greg Bell is certainly known to have looked to comic books for his visual sources: the Acaeum notes that the cover of OD&D’s Men and Magic “was “inspired by” (*cough*) artwork by Dan Adkins, originally found in Doc Strange comic #167, Apr 1968, on page 11″:

And over at Dragonsfoot, OculusOrbis notes that the OSR-famous “Fight On!” images come from writer/artist Jim Steranko’s SHIELD story in Strange Tales #167, page 6, panel 1 :

See this Grognardia post for another example.

I’m hoping that one of my fellow Mules will pull a copy of Worlds Unknown #5 from their inexhaustible store of comics lore to resolve this issue. Right now my money is on Tramp having read the original story, as one of Van Vogt’s characters observes of Couerl that:

…the tentacles end in suction cups. Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine.

So the things that I always assumed were horny growths on the tentacles (maybe they’re even described that way in the original Monster Manual? certainly 4E says they’re barbs), which are visible in Tramp’s drawing but not in the Marvel comics cover, are actually suction-cup manipulators! I really wish I’d done this research prior to Saturday’s game, and will have to content myself with storing up descriptions of absurd and grisly things you can do with tentacle-suckers that appear to be 3′ away from their real position until next time I get to use them in a game – which, at the current rate of displacer-beast appearances in my campaigns, will likely be 2041.


live by the Boss, die by the Boss

Two parables from one tragic session on New Year’s Eve:

Parable One

My character, Arnold Littleworth, (a/k/a Zolobachai of the Nine Visions) shows up just in time!  There’s a $25,000 jewel on the other side of this magically locked door.  Holy cow, that’s a fortune if we can get to it!  Arnold casts a spell!  Hurray, the door is no longer magically sealed . . . which means the highly pressurized poison gas on the other side of the door began to seep through, and Arnold impertinently invited himself to the Great Party in the Sky.  (His enemies Lord Kragen and Stronghoen the Beastlord, both of whom more-or-less died at Arnold’s hand, at last have their revenge.)

Moral: successful Dungeons & Dragons play is all about situational awareness.  If you know there’s poison gas on the other side of a door, don’t open the door, stupid!  I got greedy.

Parable Two

Arnold’s adventuring companion was Maldoor Twice-Shy, a brilliant, prudent, meticulous and painstaking magician.  (Together we are Oscar and Felix.)   Maldoor was too smart to inhale the poison gas that killed Arnold.  He eventually escaped with the jewel – but was beset by thieves upon leaving the dungeon.  He killed several of them, but the last thief drank a potion of polymorph to transform into a Purple Worm, and swallowed Maldoor whole – digesting him completely and irrecoverably two hours later.

Moral:  there’s a limit to how much you can think things through.  OD&D is insane and whimsical and you can’t ever be fully prepared.

And Thus

These two parables are in conflict.  I should have anticipated an obvious danger.  But how the hell do you prepare for a thief turning you into the excrement of a gargantuan hell-worm?  (Well: here’s one way; unfortunately Arnold died before he could cast it.)  There’s not many worse ways to die than to get halfway home with an immense jewel, only to end up as worm “castings” before you can cash in.

In life Arnold adhered to the Cult of the Boss.  A “bossful” character understands that caution has its place, for in the eyes of Fate we are all but 1 HD n00b’s.  Yet if life is short, then glory is eternal.  A bizarrely unfortunate death is far more entertaining than cautious, cowering survival.  I am, frankly, a little envious of Maldoor’s death: Arnold’s demise was run-of-the-mill bad luck, but Maldoor got royally fucked.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2011
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