Archive for August, 2012


mouse guard con scenario

somewhere deep in the wilderness

The weasels, distracted by the unexpected appearance of their look-out’s severed leg, left their captives unattended just long enough for Black Mariya, hidden on a ledge above, to hoist her two injured comrades out of the torture pit.  The survivors fled from the caverns and hobbled through the crumbling autumn leaves, struggling desperately to get back to Port Sumac.  A bitter squall of late October rain threatened to drench them to the bone.  As they huddled huddled around a hastily-constructed fire, they reminisced about their fallen patrol leader, Vidar Blue-Cloak, pierced through both eyes by two arrows.  “God, he was fat,” someone said.

mouse guard’s a lot of fun

(if you like it when mice suffer horribly)

Last night we finished up our three-session run of Mouse Guard, one of those RPG’s that calls out, “Run me more often!” from my shelf.  (Others who clamor: Shadow of Yesterday, Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures.)  Mouse Guard has been out long enough by now that it’s already found it’s audience, but damn if it isn’t an elegant, low-prep, easy-to-run game that (in my experience) always provides a session that is at the very least entertaining.  The thing is written in a way to put me to sleep, and they’re kidding themselves if they think the audience is children, but it’s a damn fine game.

the honeycomb dispatch

A one-shot Mouse Guard scenario, with pre-generated characters, that plays out in about three hours give or take.  Comes with character sheets, GM record forms, a map, and other stuff like that.  I think this link ought to lead straight to downloading a zipped file folder.   But I’m dumb with this stuff, so if it doesn’t work I apologize.


the vampire strategies

The other night we played Greengoat’s delightful Devil Gut Rock one-pager (PDF), and emerged victorious.  And wealthy.  MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW.  Or I guess were implied by the title of this post.  And the pictures.  So, uh, never mind.  Sorry, people who care about spoilers.

The discussion afterward led us to think about Vampires in B/X D&D.  As noted previously, Strahd von Zarovich wasn’t much of a threat in the final analysis.  So this got me thinking about “ideal vampire strategy.”  I’m assuming that Vampires are pretty smart, and that adventuring parties, while prone to doing foolish things, have a pretty pragmatic hive-mind by the time they’re in their mid-levels.

the fight a vampire probably doesn’t want to have

Looking at the B/X Vampire mechanically, it’s got an absolutely devastating double level-drain, respectable conventional melee damage, one of the best Armor Classes for non-dragons, respectable THAC0, and lots of hit points with regeneration.  To me this suggests that the Vampire is built to slug it out with one or two targets in melee, sucking them dry.

Adventurers, of course, aren’t going to fall for that.  If there’s sufficient space to spread out, the smart play is to attack from a distance with spells, magic arrows, and Turning.  (Vampire tip: Pick a fight in a tight space.)

The Vampire’s charm ability can lure reluctant adventurers into melee range for drainage- the Cleric being an ideal target, of course, but the Magic-User a close second.  But in the meantime you’ve still got archers at a distance or an especially foolhardy warrior in your face.

The Vampire can counteract that by summoning help.  The wolf option seems like a handy choice, but Bat Swarms in B/X automatically disrupt casting and impose a -2 penalty to hit, while Rat Swarms can knock enemies prone on a failed save preventing them from attacking.  This might buy a Vampire enough time to melee.

Either way, though, it’s a dicey thing.  If the party concentrates their fire, you’re in serious trouble.   Your little monster-guys probably won’t delay that for more than a round or two.  If things start looking bad – nobody’s been charmed, targets are all spread out, enemies are hasted or there’s a lightning bolt involved, it’s time to run.

Also, fleeing applies with equal force if you get surprised by a gang of adventurers.  Once they’ve got a free round, it’s going to be extremely hard to recover from that.

(Note that this advice changes a lot if there are multiple Vampires in the encounter.  In B/X a lone Cleric probably can’t turn all of them, and if the Vampires spread out properly and deploy their minions they can probably be enormously more effective.  But a lone Vampire is surprisingly squishy under a lot of circumstances.)

targets of opportunity

The other way of handling a party of adventurers is to do the whole “fade into the jungle” thing.  Follow them along as a Bat or a cloud of vapor.  Wait until they get into some other encounter, and then assume Vampire form and charm or feast on the rear guard.  Once the party is alerted to the threat, vaporize and get out of there, only to strike again at some other time.

Another option would be a surprise raid when the party is making camp for the night, probably once spells have been used up and folks are unarmored.  That’s one hell of a dirty trick, but Vampires are supposed to be extremely fearsome, highly intelligent adversaries who can travel almost undetectably, so it’s worth trying once.


As noted above, if you’ve got several Vampires or other monsters to back you up, a Vampire can probably hold up pretty well in a dungeon environment.  But if it’s a lone Vampire, you may need to think about alternatives.  Once a group of adventurers know they’re up against a Vampire, it’s all sharpening stakes, fitting garlic cloves into slingshots, and preparing collapsible bridges over running water.

It’s been twenty years since I read Dracula, but as I recall he mainly hangs out in the background nibbling on NPC’s while the main characters scratch their lambchop sideburns in confusion about what’s going on.  Maybe a Vampire is simply an eccentric guy at the royal court using charm for political influence (likely against the Church?), who likes to go slumming amid the lower classes for a snack; he might simply frustrate the party through social or political means.

A more dungeon-ish option is for a Vampire to pass himself off as a Werewolf Lord.  Hey, he can change into a wolf; he can summon wolves; who’s to disagree?  Then when everyone is running at him with silver daggers and wolfsbane, it’s time for level-drain.  (This also suggests that there might be a real Werewolf in the vicinity who’s pissed at all the bad publicity this guy’s stirring up.)

The other consideration, of course, is the Vampire’s coffin.  Like the Lich’s phylactery, this isn’t something you want to display too conspicuously, and it may help to have a fake or spare coffin in case the adventurers get lucky.  One possibility: bury the coffin under a large cairn or talus, which the Vampire can reach via gaseous form but would take some time for humans to dig through.  Another: a coffin on a very high ledge, such that it isn’t normally visible unless someone could fly/levitate/climb walls.  Or, you know, just make the thing invisible.

a couple magic tricks

So far as I know, it’s an open question in B/X whether Vampires can cast spells.  Certainly a few magic items or special-purpose dungeon design elements can make the encounter more memorable.

Continual darkness is a pretty handy spell for a Vampire.  Blocks daylight, and mitigates the blinding effects of continual light.

Sticks to snakes is a mean trick to play on someone about to stake a Vampire in its coffin – maybe this is a magical trap embedded in the coffin’s lid?

Mirror Image not only keeps a Vampire alive a bit longer against concentrated fire, but might persuade the party that they’re hopelessly outmatched and should flee.

Web is a good way to immobilize a lot of pesky enemies and drink their blood spider-style.

Hold Portal or Wizard Lock, either on the lid of the coffin or on doorways to the Vampire’s lair, might frustrate escaping adventurers or otherwise buy the Vampire more time.


Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart

I just got my paperback copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games from Amazon. It is impressively huge, and after checking out some of its 698 pages at random, I was compelled to track down this quote from Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

Sometimes I’ll be blathering on about the early history of roleplaying and people will say “hey Tavis, you should write a book about this stuff.” In the past I’d feel bad that this was unlikely to happen, but now I no longer have to worry about it. The position has been taken by Jon, who (to extend the Snow Crash analogy) I firmly believe has a tattoo on his forehead consisting of three words, written in block letters: EXTREMELY THOROUGH RESEARCH.

I first heard about Playing at the World back in March, when Emily Melhorn contacted me for help in trying to get Mike Mornard’s permission to reproduce in the book a map that he’d drawn for the original Greyhawk campaign. She said that Jon had purchased the original of this map at an auction many years ago, and that “he would like to use it to illustrate how the secrecy of a dungeon map was a fundamental design innovation of D&D, which he then further describes how “secret information’ was used in previous wargames.”

This sounded like a pretty cool thesis, and at first glance it looks like Playing at the World is going to take it to lots of interesting places. But Peterson’s killer app – the nuclear warhead on a dead-man switch that he’s carting around to discourage any would-be bad-asses – is his degree of access to primary materials. Just hinted at in this original email, it’s on full view at the Playing at the World blog, where he began busting out a fantastic assortment of ur-texts beginning with Domesday Book #1 and the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1.

In the comments there, early D&D scholar Daniel Boggs writes “For Pity’s sake Jon, why don’t I know who you are?” I think the answer is that the wings of the OSR devoted to rediscovery of original approaches through actual play, and self-publishing of retroclones designed to support such play, have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the circles (like the OD&D boards) that I hail from. The community efforts of roleplaying collectors, like the Acaeum, represent equally vital and dedicated wings of the OSR cathedral. Previously I’ve only sensed the scale of those wings via echoes at places like the North Texas RPG Con which seem to bring out a lot of collectors. Playing at the World is proof that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s an achievement even grander in scale than OSRIC, and like the first retro-clone I expect it will be the foundation for a lot of further expansion by fans and scholars. As Jon says in reply to Dan’s comment:

One of the reasons why I took on this book project was because, as a collector, I have access to some obscure resources that haven’t gotten a lot of prior attention. If you glance through the book, you will for example find a reproduction of a pre-D&D Blackmoor character sheet, with the original names of the abilities and so on. I also have some circa-1974 letters from Arneson, including material that sheds light on which ideas from the Blackmoor system Gygax rejected. Having the big picture from Corner of the Table really helps as well. In short, there are a lot of resources that the community has lacked to date. Expect that as people start assimilating what’s in the book our picture of early Blackmoor will probably shift a bit.

This is exciting stuff! If you’re at all interested in the history of this thing we do, you owe it to yourself to follow the blog and buy the book.

Rob Conley mentions that Playing at the World “doesn’t have much in the way of personal stories about the individuals of the early days.” Although this would seem to leave an un-filled position, I am glad to report that Mike Mornard, a badder motherfucker than I could hope to be, is taking care of it with a memoir of those early days titled We Made Up Some Shit We Thought Would Be Fun. That work is forthcoming; given the dense goodness of Playing at the World, I’m hoping it will take me long enough to read it as it does Mike to write his reminiscences so that I can put down one and pick up the other.


Orc Stomp

Orc Stomp is a 5K fun run being held twice at this year’s Gen Con – once on Thursday at 8 am, and once on Friday at 6 am. I didn’t get it together in time to register, but will be doing it anyways on Thursday morning. If there’s room, I’ll join in with generic tickets; if not, I’ll cheer on the official runners and then do the route myself once they wrap up.

Click for the Orc Stomp page on Facebook!

I’m currently training to run an entire 5K without walking, which hasn’t happened yet. Yesterday’s combined walk/run time gives me an ACKS movement rate of 76 feet per round, which falls woefully short of the 120′ I should be able to do as an unencumbered human. However that pace is an average of my speed over 228 rounds. ACKS assumes I can only run at 120′ for a number of my rounds equal to Constitution x 2, after which I will become exhausted and have to walk at 40’/round for the next 60 rounds until I can run again. Somewhere in there is a way to calculate my Constitution score, which vanity and/or laziness compels me to put off until my time improves a little.

I heard about the 5K at last year’s con from Rich Rogers, who I’d gotten to know online when he interviewed me for the Canon Puncture podcast and then met in person when he stopped by for the continuous Adventurer Conqueror King demo game. I’d been finding that doing things like running up the hotel steps was helping me stay alert during said extravaganza, so I was excited to commit to something longer and more structured at this year’s convention. Rich interviewed me recently for This Just In… From Gen Con – you can hear the results here – and hooked me up with some 5K guides from that helped me get started. Rich is going to be running on both Thursday and Friday morning, and it would not surprise me if he will also be running to and from each of the far-flung This Just In reports he’s got scheduled throughout the con.

Also planning to run on Thursday are Andrew Pascal and James Sprattley, two-thirds of the team behind the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary. At least one of them is training to do a marathon, so they are probably fully capable of discussing the project during the run. (I’m still at the stage where I’m breathing too hard to talk, against the advice of those running guides.)

Other less-strenuous opportunities to learn about what promises to be a truly excellent documentary (and meet third member of the team Anthony Savini, who plans to sleep in on Thursday) will be the Filmmakers Meet & Greet on Friday at 10 am, and the panel devoted to their documentary on Friday at 4. Following a ten-minute preview of their footage, I’ll be moderating the panel discussion. Since this is scheduled immediately after the Kickstarter panel I’m on, getting from one to the other will provide me with another opportunity for running!

Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2012

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