Author Archive for James Nostack



20
Mar
13

an “oriental” adventure

I’m using “oriental” in scare quotes because my partner is Chinese and keeps rolling her eyes when she sees that word.  But y’all know what I’m talking about.  Last night, with very little prep, I ran a kinda dumb scenario based on OA1: Swords of Daimyo for half of our Pendragon crew (Skidoo, stop looking after your family and come back!)  Alas, while it did feature ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, there were no giant robots or love-smitten beetle-accessories.

a nice day for a . . . white wedding

The unstoppable forces of TANAKA Toru (poetry-loving samurai lord of Bingo Village, notorious for its unbelievable hidden treasure caches) and WATANABE Yuki (financially ruined Bushi and master to the strange hairy gibberish-speaking forest gnome Konando) combined to thwart a wedding!

A wedding of eeeeeevil!

Or, at least, a wedding involving a heartbroken suicide returned as a horrible demon of insanity, a clan of ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, and more court intrigue than could easily be displayed on a relationship-map. Plus, burning buildings! A pavillion tent with one entrance but three exits! Psychic duels! A display of incredible archery! “Furious” urination! An attempted seppuku! Sake! Sorcery! And a litany of similes as inexhaustible as the ocean’s waves!

Poor Tanaka was driven insane, Watanabe kept encouraging the bridegroom to kill himself, and stout-hearted Konando rang a gong like a gong-ringing monkey-dwarf to wake up a priest who actually did the hard work of banishing the demon to save the day.  But he is only a priest, and everyone knows that glory goes to the warriors.

some half-assed prep

Before I had a scenario in mind, one of my players rolled up a down-on-his-luck Bushi character of very low-class origins.  When the Oriental Adventures Monthly Events table indicated that there was to be a Momentous Wedding . . . well, you gotta get Toshiro Mifune to that one somehow, don’t you?

By complete coincidence, this player had named his Bushi after one of the loyal vassal families of Niwa Hirotada, shugo-daimyo (military governor) of Miyama Province.  So I figured some comical fop had gotten the names confused and would deliver an wedding invitation for this dude.  And since, under the Oriental Adventure rules, he would constantly be smacking into serious negative reaction modifiers when hobnobbing among the aristocracy, hijinks would probably ensue.  And they did!

So, dig it:

  • NIWA Hirotada = military governor, head of Niwa family, more or less decent guy
  • IGI Tajima = civil governor, a sinecure position; mostly collects taxes and gives grief to the rival Niwa family
  • EBISAWA Ryu = head of the Ebisawa family, traditionally loyal retainers of the Igi clan . . . buuuuuut, Niwa Hirotada has offered his niece in marriage to
  • EBISAWA Saberu = son of Ryu; engaged to Niwa Hirotada’s niece; just had a heartbreaking affair with
  • WATANABE Minori = princess of the Watanabe clan which is traditionally loyal to Niwa.  Committed suicide when Saberu called off their elopement.

So what’s going on in political terms is that Niwa Hirotada is peeling off the Ebisawa family’s loyalty to the Igi clan. If anyone had known that Saberu was already having an affair with a girl of the Watanabe family (loyal to the Niwas) it might have accomplished the same result, but nobody knew, it all came to tragedy, and Saberu is kind of a mess.

Minori’s ghost comes back as a Con-Tinh, sort of an evil dryad demon of insanity, haunting the cherry-blossom Shrine of Taro the Poet, where Saberu will be married to Niwa’s niece.  She is supernaturally disappointed in Saberu, and plans to possess the spirit of his bride and have them commit a lover’s suicide.

Meanwhile, someone else has hired a clan of Spider-Man suited ninjas to kill young Saberu.  All signs would seemingly point to the civil governor Igi, who is mad that the Ebisawa clan is breaking up with him, but there are actually several other possibilities based on the political situation in Swords of the Daimyo.  I hadn’t really figured out who is responsible, except that blaming Igi was probably too obvious to be true.

It turns out that a second player arrived, created a Samurai loyal to the Niwas and a friend of the Watanabe clan, so that was handy for the purposes of exposition.

The adventure consisted of mostly improvised social encounters as the players gradually pieced the social and political puzzle together, and fended off various assassination attempts and supernatural events.

Major adversaries included the Con-Tinh ghost of Watanabe Minori, three unnamed 5th level Ninjas (a Ninja/Sohei priest with 10 first-level followers; a Ninja/Wu Jen who impersonated a member of the entourage and attempted to poison Saberu; and a Ninja/Bushi who was going to kill Saberu on his wedding night with a sword he’d stolen from the PC Bushi), a group of drunken Were-Bears who kept breaking into a village’s rice-warehouses looking for sake, sarcastic fop Igi Sanekata, and various other stock-character NPC’s.

what worked

The Yearly, Monthly, and Daily Events charts in Oriental Adventures are good stuff, well worth stealing.  For the last five years, my exposure to D&D has consisted very largely of dungeon-delving per the ethos of the OSR revisionist/purist movement.  The idea of running a D&D wedding scenario struck me as irresistibly ludicrous, and it was.

Swords of the Daimyo has a complicated political situation, but that’s actually pretty good in a court intrigue scenario.  The trick is to present that stuff in bite-sized pieces.  In this case, I took the description of Muroto Village from the gazetteer, figured the political situation there would easily tie into the Marriage Event, and bang, the political stuff fell into place immediately.

The rules for Psychic Duels were used, mainly because I wanted to force it in somehow.

Though this scenario was written up perfectly straight-faced–it’s a bummer, basically–the players brought their usual farce and a good time was had by all.  One player couldn’t stop boasting about his secret treasure caches, while the other was busily trying to pretend to be an aristocrat (or hide from people who recognized him).

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the preposterous Korobokuru barbarian, Konando (originally inserted as a henchman for the Bushi PC), who didn’t speak Fake Japanese and nobody else spoke his dialect, so he mostly communicated in gibberish.  Some interesting facts about Konando emerged during play:

    • If his master is a sleep, Konando will wake him by tugging on the left big toe to signal supernatural danger, or the right big toe to signal ninjas
    • Konando is a skilled woodsman, passable dancer, and terrible cook
    • On formal occasions, Konando wears a big pile of furs, to the point where he looks like Captain Caveman
    • Though Konando cannot understand the content of a haiku, he can count meter very well; furthermore he finds blank verse intolerable
    • The word for “ninja” in the Korobokuru dialect is “Los Banditos Malvados!!

what did not work as well

I’m not great at improv.  If the players had said, “Screw this wedding, let’s just hang out in the city instead,” I did not have anything planned.

I was under an extremely tight time crunch, which is why I did virtually zero prep.  As a result, I defaulted to 2e Wizard spells for the Wu Jen ninja instead of using spells from Oriental Adventures, of which there are many and they are not obvious.  (Quick: what does “drowsy insects” do?  Answer: I thought it made guys like Mothra real tired, but it turns out creates a cloud of mosquitoes who put people to sleep.  Who knew?)  Anyway, even with “standard” spells this guy was a pretty devious assassin.

The Iaijutsu, or fast-draw, rules only give you a +1 bonus to surprising your enemy (on a 1d10 roll), which isn’t enough to be worth a proficiency slot.  (Maybe in OA surprise is done on a d6?  Still, lousy benefit.)

You really do need non-weapon proficiencies, or some way of adjudicating courtly nonsense, when your characters aren’t slogging through a dungeon all day.  The OA/2e proficiency system is kind of a kludge.

in summary

Swords of the Daimyo is quite worthwhile as a gazetteer, as I suspected.  Dungeons & Dragons can be hacked to do Fake Japan, and it was fun, but it’s not a particularly elegant fit.  On a player’s advice I’m reading through Bushido (only $18 for a print copy!) which seems interesting (if not for all the dang early 80’s derived scores nonsense).  Bushido apparently doesn’t come with a local setting (maybe I missed it); you could probably drop Swords of the Daimyo in there and get something quite worthwhile.

15
Mar
13

OA1: Swords of the Daimyo

In the other post, Sam Curry comments that OA1 is one hell of a module.  He’s right.  I confess I don’t read a lot of OSR blogs.  Maybe someone has talked about OA1: Swords of the Daimyo before and I missed it.  But I suspect that, like many classic D&D modules, you can’t praise it enough, and it certainly deserves to rank up there with The Keep on the Borderlands, Night’s Dark Terror, and The Vault of the Drow.  If you don’t know this one, you should.  It’s an extremely well done wilderness hex-crawl.  David “Zeb” Cook comes through in a major way here.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this thing for more than two years, but I really wanted to play/run it first, and that never quite got off the ground.  Still, better late than never.  Hopefully someone can use this thing with the class summary charts

the province book: hell yeah

Swords of the Daimyo comes in two parts: the Adventure Book, which is terrible, and the Province Book, which is amazingly good.  Briefly, we get a run down on the Miyama Province, a politically important region in Kozakura (“Fake Japan”).
The first twelve pages of the Province Book contain a sketch of Kozakuran politics, which is basically a four-way struggle for power between the Emperor, the Deputy Emperor, the Shogun, and the Deputy-Shogun.  The prominent families in the Miyama Province are aligned with these imperial factions, and they’re all scheming against each other for influence.  If only there were some ruffian adventurers to take care of dirty work with plausible deniability–or a group of noble heroes to sponsor in a way that brings glory to your house…
(These same twelve pages include some boring stuff about climate, trade resources, etc.)
It’s the last twenty pages, though, where the Province Book really kicks ass.  A gazetteer of the Miyama Province, the Province Book provides several adventure hooks, and provides a hex-by-hex view of the setting in large terms.  Here is a typical entry:

1124.  Stone-Icicle-World.  At the base of the mountains, hidden in the deep woods, is a narrow, rubble-clogged cave mouth.  This is the entrance to a vast series of caverns that underlie all of Miyama Province and more.  Although the exact location is unknown to the general population, there are a few hengeyokai and korobokuru who can guide one to the site.According to local legend, Stone-Icicle-World is the place where O-Miyama-no-Mikoto, a local deity, entered the Realms of the Dead to visit his mother.  The caverns are believed to extend for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles beneath the earth, magically reaching even into other planes and dimensions.  It is also said that the caverns are filled with all manner of horrible creatures, although this is somewhat uncertain as few tell tales of this subterranean region.

As far as names go, “Stone-Icicle-World” kills “the Underdark.”

 

In broad strokes, Miyama Province has three major population centers.  Tamanokuni is the provincial capital, prosperous but beset by feuding yakuza gangs, samurai rivalries, and religious squabbles, while the noblemen plot to wheedle more money out of the shogunate which they can dispense to their underlings to buy loyalty.  Kuda, the former capital, is a large city across Kobawan Bay from the horrors of Kuroijo Castle, where the demon-master Aga wrought untold horrors more than eight centuries ago.  Okahira, to the north, is relatively isolated and has fallen under the control of a Shou Lung (“Fake Chinese”) wizard who is using a figurehead governor to hide an invasion force.
Lurking around are several bandit camps, a ninja village, your obligatory ruins and abandoned mine shafts, and wilderness monster lairs.  There are numerous shrines–including one where a blind saint is teaching fake-Buddhism to a gaggle of goblins.  The former shogun has gone into retirement at a heavily fortified monastery, though he still receives messages from court and continues to meddle in high politics.

 

Numerous villages exist, most plagued by problems which their (naturally) incompetent or corrupt mayor cannot or will not solve.  One of the cool things about the Province Book is that administering your lord’s villages, and making sure the mayors are doing their jobs properly, is an important responsibility for a mid-level samurai.  The idea seems to be that a campaign could be run as an itinerant 7th level Samurai & Friends, roaming around between the daimyo’s manors to make sure everything is cool, bumping into weird stuff on the road and hoping to winter at one of the more comfortable towns.

not everything is perfect

While I’ve said nice things about this product, the Adventure Book that comes with it is . . . well, it’s not good, but it’s 1986 TSR, so you probably shouldn’t expect too much.  It contains a trio of railroaded vignettes which lack all interest.  It does contain eight pre-generated 1st level characters, and maps of typical buildings.

The Province Book’s political situation is a little too complicated for my taste–and much of it happens off screen or by proxy through families in Miyama.  The wilderness encounters are often flavorful, but some could stand to have stronger hooks.  (That said, there are so many laughably corrupt, or slovenly, or undisciplined, or sacrilegious NPC’s that role-playing these doofuses would be a lot of fun, even if there’s no dungeon to loot.)

Also there is a town named Bingo.

how can this be an OSR blog without the occasional C&D letter?

So the problem with Swords of the Daimyo is that the versions available on the secondary market often don’t have the maps.  Let me fix that for you.  Wizards of the Coast, when you put this stuff up for sale again, I’ll gladly take down these scans which are offered solely to help those who have legitimately purchased this on the secondary market.Miyama Province NEMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SEMiyama Province, NorthwestMiyama Province NWMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SW

27
Feb
13

charlemagne in action

charlemagne1

Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700’s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.

23
Feb
13

“oriental adventures” class summary charts

“My cossack asks the Leprechaun, ‘Why did you sabotage that aqueduct?'”

The other day Zak was talking about how come nobody seems to use 1985’s “Oriental Adventures” rules, written by David “Zeb” Cook with material from François Marcela-Froideval.  I think it’s an interesting effort, and one I’ve always been intrigued by, but (among many other problems) the book suffers from some truly bad organization and editing.  If I’m remembering correctly, Cook has said he was bascially handed Marcela-Froideval’s manuscript on Friday and told, “Have this thing ready to publish on Monday.”  That’s not the correct deadline, but it’s that type of story, where publication date had been set way in advance of when the manuscript was actually ready.  And it shows.

Anyway, what the hell: I spent a long time compiling all the information about the “Oriental Adventures” into a set of charts which hopefully are easier to use than the book itself.  I was thinking mainly for use with AD&D 2e but I guess you could port it to whatever you like.

21
Feb
13

charlemagne: by the cross and the sword

Image

Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.

04
Feb
13

against the pixies

hill-giant-scan

Has anyone ever done G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but literally scaled down and reversed?  So that instead of adventurers invading the home of a Giant, the players are Northmen defending their homes against incursions of sprites and pixies?

Just came to me, now that the blockade has been lifted.

"Let's team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure."

“Let’s team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure.”

20
Jan
13

when is a PDF worth $1?

Question for our three readers:

I’ve got a convention-ready B/X adventure that includes a Dungeon, a Dragon, an Evil Wizard, a Castle, some Wilderness Environs, and, I suppose, a spare monster lair or two as one-pagers, along with a party of pre-generated characters.  It runs to completion in about 3-5 hours depending on whether parties take certain shortcuts or get incinerated by dragon-fire.  If you want all the Dungeons & Dragons stuff that Frank Mentzer promised you as a child, condensed into a four hour time slot, I’ve play-tested this thing 6 times and it’s solid.

It’s written for a party around 5,000 XP (approx 3rd level), but yesterday I ran it for a single character with 300,000 XP (approx 9th level) and it proved about as challenging.

I would gladly offer this thing for free, because the OSR provides so many awesome things for free just as part of the culture.  Except that the effort to typing up an explanation, design notes, suggestions, and so on would require taking time away from other things I would rather do, such as playing games, reading comics, and doing my real job.  (For all I care, I’m fine donating the money to a colon cancer charity; I just want to feel that my effort is accomplishing more than just providing an afternoon’s distraction.)

So I would like to charge a nominal fee for this thing to explain to my girlfriend why I am working on this instead doing the dishes, but the question is: if you are going to spend $1 on something, what’s the minimum level of professional production you’d expect?  New monsters, spells, character classes?  Art by someone who cannot draw?  Art by someone who can draw?  Layout by someone who understands the difference between Tahoma and Calibri, or just a slab of text?

To avoid failure, I’m not setting a date or promising anything.  I’m just wondering what the OSR’s expectations are regarding a producer’s ethical obligations when charging a nominal fee for (to be honest) meat & potatoes content.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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