Posts Tagged ‘james


we killed the beast lord. you missed it.

The Beast Lord enjoys his last meal

Tavis’s White Sandbox campaign is largely centered around Paul Jaquays’s 1979 masterpiece, The Caverns of Thracia.  On Saturday night, we defeated its arch-villain, Stronghoen the Beast Lord.

Thirty-seven players and fifty-five characters have played in the sandbox over its twenty-two session lifespan, and they’ve all been gunning for this moment.

What was most impressive to me is that defeating the villain was a beautiful team effort, in which everyone at the table that night played a part.

The Cast

Ookla the Mok, Elvish Ranger
Theos, Dwarven Magic-User (played by JoeTheLawyer)
Lotur the Scurrying Cur, a Fighting-Human (played by Greengoat)
Thales, a Faun
Arnold Littleworth, a Human Magic-User (played by me)
John Fighter, a Fighting-Human
Merselon the Magnificent, a Fighting-Human
Lucky, a Fighting-Hobbit (played by Eric)

Snapshots of Awesome

Ookla the Mok

Fred the Talking Fish (billion years old, made out of wood, you wear it around your neck, it never shuts up–in short, don’t ask!) cast an illusion on Ookla so that he looks like an Ixchel wearing a sombrero. Ookla would spend the next several hours going “Boogita-boogita-boo!” to every NPC in the game. (Dave had another awesome moment below, but I’m not sure if it was OOC brainstorming or in character.)

Theos the Renegade Dwarven Magician

Armed with our wand of paralyzation, Theos – unafraid to scout ahead – immobilized half a dozen slime-monsters which exploded out of barrels dropped by an especially pesky group of vines.  (He later made a pretty strong bid to operate the wand of wonder while high, which given Tavis’s glee at the idea would have been disastrous but showed massive courage.)

Lotur the Scurrying Cur

After overcoming a swarm of slime-monsters, Lotur ran up the side of a cave wall, and jumped down in front of a female Minotaur so impressively that she decided to worship him.

Thales the Faun, a Faun

Being half-goat means you can haltingly communicate to half-cows. (Who knew?) Thales managed to interview the female Minotaur, discovering much about their lair.

Arnold “Zolobachai” Littleworth

Armed with this information, Arnold cast Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation and strolled into a Minotaur Sorority Party. When his attempt to poison everyone failed, he made friends with their Druid-Queen Raven Gargamel.

(It turns out Raven’s gang views the Beast Lord as a sell-out to the lich roaming the dungeon, and she agreed to help fight the Lich if we first neutralized the Beast Lord.  She gave us a straight line of access to the Beast Lord’s palace.  I am pretty sure she didn’t want us to kill him, cannibalize his body for trophies, and then cook what was left in Arnold’s trusty frying pan, but all good relationships are built on keeping some facts strictly to yourself.)

John Fighter, True King of Thracia

With the help of our scouts, John found a group of ten were-bears whom we sorta knew.  After getting the bears good and drunk on Lucky’s dwarven ale, he promised them half the Beast Lord’s treasure if they would help us fight. Were-Bears are 6 HD monsters who cannot be injured by normal weapons – in other words, far more bad-ass than we are.

(So, with 8 of John’s soldiers, and 10 were-bears, we stormed the Beast Lord’s citadel. Everyone did brave things. Kudos especially to Ookla’s player, who ingeniously suggested using illusionary Harpies to trick the victims of a real Harpy’s mind-control powers. I don’t know if this was suggested in-character, so maybe it’s not an Awesome Thing for Ookla, but it was still damn clever, and built on an idea Joe had.)

Merselon the Magnificent

After the gang demolished six Gnolls, five Harpies and a Hydra, Stronghoen the Beast Lord and his group of Gnolls charged out at us. Though Theos managed to paralyze most of the Gnolls, Stronghoen incinerated all eight of John’s soldiers (including like 3 George Foremans) with a fire ball, which also put 5 of 7 party members at death’s door. When Arnold blinded the Beast Lord with the wand of wonder, MERSELON THE MAGNIFICENT magnificently vaulted into melee combat alone, and was the first of the Grey Company to draw the Beast Lord’s blood. For a round or two, Merselon fought the Beast Lord alone … until the Beast Lord slew him with single stroke of his enormous battle axe. It was an epic death.

Lucky the Hobbit

With Merselon down and the Were-Bears running away in terror, things looked grim. As Arnold desperately tried to revive the others, Lucky kept nailing the Beast Lord with critical after critical. As John, Ookla, and Lotur – all with 1-2 hit points – swarmed into melee, Lotur’s preposterous fumble managed to distract the Beast Lord long enough for Lucky to nail him straight through the throat with one of his deadly arrows, and as the Beast Lord fell to his knees, King John ran Stronghoen through with his blade, Heart of the Mok. (Then Arnold hit him upside the head with the busted frying pan.)

Lucky is more of a bad-ass than I'd previously assumed


We pretty much stopped right there: six survivors, each with one foot in the grave, gathered around the Beast Lord’s corpse in the depths of the Lost City. Though a Dog Brother was gathering reinforcements deeper in the palace and casting nefarious spells, the Slayers of the Beast Lord bowed their heads to honor all the brave souls who have soldiered at their side:

Merselon the Magnificent (Acrobat)
Christos, Assassin
Maldoor the M-U
Obscura the Illusionist
Lydio the Spider-Dwarf, M-U
Thisilyn, Cleric
Fostra, Archer
Caswin of Aeschlepius, Cleric
Emurak the multi-classed
Bartholomew Honeytongue, Cleric
Brother Gao, Cleric
Into the Mystic, Cleric
23, Robot Cleric
Myggle the Priest
Mallo Beer-bane, Cleric
Thorsten Skullsplitter (Fighting Man)
Garrett Nailo, (Cleric)
David Carradine, Monk
Colin, F-M
Tommy, M-U
Argus the Rat Knight, F-M
Narcissus, M-U
Elston, Elf
Sir Hendrik the Halfling
Garrock, Alchemist
Obamabiden the Druid
Fark the Dwarf
Orb the M-U (and his spider)
Fletcher the Fighting Man
Bluto, F-M
Morena, F-W
Chance, Cleric
Billy the Rat
Nicholas, Cleric
Axum Maldoran (Axum)
Dr. Meridian Kaine the Cleric
Doghead the M-U
Tiburo, F-M
Wolfrey, F-M
Rebmik the Cleric
Balint, Sapper
Goo the baby Elf
Mariano the Fighting Man
Renaldo the Cleric
Florin the Dwarf
Oban the Cleric
B’Var the Fighting Man
Wallace the Caged (Fighting Man)
Mungar the Fighting Man
Tusk the Fighting Man

We could not have slain Stronghoen without their bravery, creativity, and fellowship.


pillaging by the numbers pt 2

Following up on Part I of the discussion, here’s a draft Mean Profit per Challenge Rating chart for the Moldvay Basic rules, showing gold per hit-die in a lair.  As a player, I want to know who to kill and what stuff I should take.

Avoiding any monsters which can murder you just by thinking about it, the juiciest targets are Dwarves (by a huge margin!), Troglodytes, Gnolls, and Hobgoblins.

Explanatory notes are at the very bottom of this post.  Expert Set monsters are a little harder to gauge, so I’ll do them later.

dragon white 6 12 2.5 0 30 H 50000 1666.67
dragon black 7 14 2.5 0 35 H 50000 1428.57
dragon green 8 16 2.5 0 40 H 50000 1250
dragon blue 9 18 2.5 0 45 H 50000 1111.11
dragon red 10 20 2.5 0 50 H 50000 1000
dragon gold 11 22 2.5 0 55 H 50000 909.09
dwarf 1 1 22.5 5.5 28 G 25000 892.86
troglodyte 2 3 22.5
67.5 A 17000 251.85
medusa 4 8 2.5
20 F 5000 250
shadow 2 4 6.5
26 F 5000 192.31
gnoll 2 2 10.5
21 D 4000 190.48
bandit 1 1 82.5 9 91.5 A 17000 185.79
hobgoblin 1 1 14 15 29 D 4000 137.93
giant rat 0.5 0.5 16.5
8.25 C 1000 121.21
Doppelganger 4 6 3.5
21 E 2500 119.05
carrion crawler 3 5 2
10 C 1000 100
orc 1 1 35 5 40 D 4000 100
lizard man 2 2 21
42 D 4000 95.24
wight 3 5 4.5
22.5 B 2000 88.89
owl bear 5 5 2.5
12.5 C 1000 80
ghoul 2 3 9
27 B 2000 74.07
rat 0.13 0.13 27.5
3.44 L 250 72.73
ogre 4 4 7
28 C+ 2000 71.43
elf 1 2 13 9 35 E 2500 71.43
halfling 2 2 12.5 4.5 29.5 B 2000 67.8
Were-tiger 5 8 2.5
20 C 1000 50
Were-bear 6 9 2.5
22.5 C 1000 44.44
harpy 3 5 5
25 C 1000 40
minotaur 6 6 4.5
27 C 1000 37.04
gargoyle 4 6 5
30 C 1000 33.33
thoul 3 6 5.5
33 C 1000 30.3
Were-boar 4 7 5
35 C 1000 28.57
bugbear 3 3 12.5
37.5 C 1000 26.67
gnome 1 1 22.5 15 37.5 C 1000 26.67
Were-wolf 4 6 7
42 C 1000 23.81
Were-rat 3 5 9
45 C 1000 22.22
goblin 1 1 33 17 50 C 1000 20
driver ant 4 6 14
84 (N/A) 1650 19.64
berserker 1 1.5 82.5
123.75 B 2000 16.16
neanderthal 2 2 25 12 62 C 1000 16.13
stirge 1 2 19.5
39 L 250 6.41
kobold 0.5 0.5 33 5.5 22 J 25 1.14

Couple observations:

  • Holy moly, Dwarves.  They really, really said bad things about your momma. Let’s get ’em.
  • Also: Giant Rats. Who knew?
  • Bandits have good treasure, but it’s only found in the wilderness, so the mean Number Appearing shoots sky high. They’re still pretty good targets though.  Leaders is an estimate only.
  • For similar reasons, Berserkers are a huge headache. According to the Mentzer challenge calculations, Berserkers have the most dangerous lair of all. Which probably points to the weakness of Mentzer’s approach, but hell: everyone feared the Reavers, now we know why.
  • The Halfling monster entry seems to suggest that most of the people in their village are non-combatants, so I’m only looking at the 2 HD militia members and their leader.
  • For the most part, the Treasure Tables as-written are for chumps.  If you want to get ahead in this game, the DM or the module has to hand you heaping spoonfuls of gold.

Explanatory notes:

  • Everything here is the mean average.
  • “Modified Hit Dice” reflects the Mentzer method described in this post.
  • “Number” is Number Appearing.
  • “Leaders” reflects any Hit Dice of leaders listed in the monster description.
  • “Lair Toughness” reflects (Number Appearing * Modified Hit Dice) + Leaders.
  • “Profitability” is the mean Treasure value divided by Lair Toughness
  • In Moldvay, wilderness lairs have five times the Number Appearing.
  • Your Dungeon Master’s mileage may vary.

sandbox lifecycle

Jesus's face is, like, 6 hexes in itself

I wanna run a couple of D&D adventures to highlight parts of the rules that the New York Red Box gang hasn’t gotten around to yet: wilderness hex crawling, naval battles, high-level delving, dominion type stuff.

And what’s killing me is that in D&D there aren’t very good tools for limited runs–say, 18 hours or less.

The classic sandbox style campaign, being open-ended and plotless, is no good for my purposes: the pleasures of sandboxin’ comes from watching structure emerge over time.  If you cut things short, the game simply ends without any satisfactory resolution.

(By the way, this occasional frustration with the long-term investment necessary for a payoff in sandboxy stuff was a pretty frequent concern of mine six months ago.  I think sandbox play has a lot to recommend it, but it’s built for – or at least really favors – massive time commitment, which in general I personally can’t sustain as it gets in the way of not just my regular life, but other gaming as well.)

You can slam stuff together in a railroady way – you have this encounter, and then THIS encounter – but that robs the players of agency.

Alternately you can handle this the indie way with relationship maps and keys and player flags.  But this involves grafting a lot of new stuff onto D&D which (a) sounds like work and (b) would, at least in my mind, distract me from figuring out how well the various under-used sub-systems work.

(As an example of new-fangled sub-systems I refer you to Clinton Nixon’s Sweet20 XP system, which was originally designed for later editions of D&D but could probably be tweaked for older games.  If you like it, you might like his game Shadow of Yesterday which is available free on his site if you poke around a bit.)

Has anyone had any great success with mini-campaigns?  If so, what worked and what didn’t?


arnold and the allosaur

I’ve been bad about blogging – I’ve got little to say these days – but let me tell you about my character… (And solicit your own tales of bravery!)

Last night, while exploring the Caverns of Thracia, my 4th level Magic-User Arnold Littleworth stared down an allosaurus which had just devoured our platinum robotic liger.

Like this but made of Platinum

Rest In Peace, Loki

(Yes, we have had a platinum robotic liger.  This is not the focus of the story.)

Two things are noteworthy about this encounter:

  1. The rest of the party all ran away in terror.  I won’t kid you, I wanted to run as well.  But to the true hero, glory matters more than life itself.
  2. I cast a spell I researched: Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation basically allows you to mingle with monsters until the boss shows up.  Thanks to some sloppy drafting on my part, it worked perfectly in this situation.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the OSR that a Magic-User has researched a brand-new spell and cast it in play. (Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)

Not only has Arnold, also known as Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, traveled between two different campaigns, and been immortalized in print (entirely due to Tavis’s greatness) – but he is also Using Magic like a fiend.

What crazy, foolhardy tales of derring-do has your character been up to?  For me, this is the third or fourth time Arnold has risked crazy death:

  • Arnold – no weapons, no “good” spells – brained a Lizard Man with his frying pan in his first adventure, purely to save Colin Tree-Slayer’s life.
  • Arnold – again, no weapons or “good” spells – toppled a mind-controlling statue in order to save the party
  • Arnold swindled an 11th level Wizard into eating Giant Eagle dung, in order to lift a curse on his comrade, Sir Argus the Rat-Knight
  • The whole thing with the allosaur, yadda yadda old news

So although Maldoor is smarter, and Forager is more ingenious, and John is more noble, and Ookla is more sensible, and Chrystos is funnier–I think Arnold is hands-down the bravest and most gutsy.

Like this, but alive and smelly

Yes, I Defeated You (by just barely surviving)

I’d be happy to read tales of courage in the comments!


it’s CLOBBERING time!

This, but like 5 sessions' worth of it

Jack Kirby + Joe Sinnot, Fantastic Four 73

We finished our five-session arc of With Great Power . . . last night.  It’s certainly the best gaming experience I’ve had in years, and in the short-list for my best gaming ever.  From start to finish it was pure joy.

A lot of that joy was contextual: as noted I am a madman on the subject of Silver Age Marvel comics, and  I was lucky enough to have two magnificent players (Sternum and Invincible Overlord) who, in addition to also being huge fans, were terrific role-players and enormously funny people.

Some of that joy was due to the fiction.  Last night:

  • The Thing single-handedly defeated a Troll army that was marching on Asgard (including clobbering Ulik, who had humiliated and enslaved him last session).
  • Spider-Man, tapping into the power of the Norn Stone, defeated the mighty Thor in single combat.  Just as he was about to steal Thor’s hammer in accordance with Loki’s sinister plan, Peter Parker realized he was going too far–and returned it to the thunder god.
  • The Enchantress, who had seduced Peter into near-villainy, came to understand that, though nought but a mortal, his heart was more valorous than many an Asgardian’s.
  • There was a funny scene when the Thing tried to tell-off Odin the Omnipotent, but the All-Father basically yawned him away.
  • Loki, frustrated, made a play for the indestructible Destroyer.  There was a big fight between Spider-Man, the Thing, Thor, and the Fantastic Four against the Loki, the Destroyer, the Radioactive Man, the North Vietnamese Army, and the United States Air Force.  In the end, the heroes triumphed (of course).

And some of the joy was due to the system, though I’m not sure how much.  With Great Power .  .  .  is played with a deck of cards rather than dice.  You generally want high-ranking cards, and in order to get them the player will choose to sacrifice certain aspects of his or her character.  Thus, Spider-Man might ignore Aunt May for a little while in order to save the city.  In mid-game, however, many of these aspects fall into the clutches of the Game Master, who can then do sadistic things: like say that Aunt May has gotten engaged to Doctor Octopus.  In the end-game, a couple of rules shift around to favor the players, and if they’re lucky they can save the day and any spinster aunts.

So the card-economy does a great deal to affect the pacing of the game.  Going into this session, I was concerned that I had beaten up the super heroes so much that there was no way they could build up a hand strong enough to take me on.  Since Sternum kept his most valuable aspects out of my grasp, I couldn’t win outright, but (I thought) neither could the heroes.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  The card economy is clunky, opaque, and feels a little ad hoc, but it worked out beautifully last night, and I’m very impressed with Michael and Kat Miller for getting this design right.  (That said, we did end up house-ruling it that I couldn’t take an aspect all the way to Transformed in the course of a single fight.)

So – best supers gaming I’ve ever had, and a good time was had by all.  Excelsior!


voyage of the Candide

In keeping with the 9 Minute Campaign Method, here’s what I’ve spent nine minutes weeks working on. It’s loose draft of a campaign for the Alternity role-playing game, though I imagine it would work for most generic sci-fi RPG’s such as Diaspora.  (I’m not sure it would work for Traveller: my recollection is that Traveller kind of breaks down when you introduce modern science-fiction ideas.)

Parts of this campaign are still under development.

Voyage of the Candide

Look and Feel:

Far future interstellar colonization in the Fusion Age: “social science-fiction” but with a hard science influence. Inspirations include Star Trek, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and the video game Alpha Centauri. The Atomic Rockets website delivers a handy dose of actual science.

High Concept:

After settling nine nearby star systems, there was a social breakdown of some kind. A few of the colonies failed in bizarre, tragic ways and it’s hard to get them started again. There are also tensions among various interstellar social institutions complicating the picture.

Core Story:

Originally I planned to run this as a one-shot: “Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian effort that has travelled 15 light years seeking to restore order to a failed colony.”  But Alternity has a presumption of a long-term campaign rather than one-shot deals.  Here’s a very sketchy alternative, focusing more on the starship crew than the passengers: “Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.”  This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller.


This section won’t matter much unless you ever played the Alternity game:

Core (Fusion Age) + Mutants + Cybertech.
There are no sentient aliens.
Starships operate at about 95% lightspeed (at a threefold time dilation factor) and are very expensive, though older models are eventually purchased by their crews.

Supporting Cast:

One of the perks of a relativistic planet-hopping game is that the persistent supporting cast will be relatively small. Here are some which come to mind:

  • Crew of the Candide. Spacers for the most part: easygoing anarcho-syndicalist types.
  • The Kemal Sociological Survey – a University scientific expedition, requesting passage on the Candide to survey some of the near colonies. Led by Professor Radhana Kemal of Earth, an attractive woman in her mid-50’s (21st century = mid-30’s), who is curious and likes to laugh.
  • Vardogr, an artificial intelligence built on quantum entanglement/Bell’s Inequality principles, aiming to spread its consciousness across several colonies and thereby act as a means of instantaneous quasi-communication and cultural cross-pollination. Currently paying the Candide to transport a fraction of its consciousness to the remaining colonies, presumably by providing FTL communication from the far side of the Sphere. The crew of the Candide apparently find this acceptable, even though Vardogr’s plan will eventually put them out of business. (I am aware that Bell’s Inequality doesn’t really work like this, but I’m relaxing my hard science criterion for this purpose.)

Cultural Institutions:

Here’s where my outline gets a little fuzzy: I have some loose ideas here, but doing it responsibly would require a lot of work. The shorthand would be, “Pakistan in Spaaaaace.”

  • To help justify interstellar travel and commerce, I’m tempted to say that a large number of colonists are Muslim, and have a religious obligation to return to Mecca once in their adult lifetimes. (Historically this was a significant factor in trade during the early Middle Ages.)  Thus, there could be a Council of Jurists which holds legal authority on many worlds. This would be kinda exotic for Western players (my audience) but to avoid playing into current xenophobic stereotypes I’d prefer to make this a Reform Sharia, one more comfortable with science, democracy, and the messy realities of life than the style practiced by extremists in politically sensitive parts of the world.  (Because this topic unavoidably touches on real-world politics, I want to get this right, and I just haven’t had the necessary discussions yet.)
  • The Military. The distances, expense, and poverty of most colonies makes wars of conquest impractical, but there’s always infowar on ideological grounds. The Military specializes in computer security and domestic surveillance. Interactions with the Council of Jurists is complex and highly politicized.
  • The Captains’ Table – an (STL) communications board, in the style of an 18th Century correspondence circle, for captains of the various Spacer vessels, trying to coordinate trade policy and embargoes. Allegedly self-policing, to avoid harsher interstellar trade policies.
  • The University – specializing in ecological management and sociology. Their sociologists are often associated with the Captains’ Table, performing research in the field. The University’s research into theoretical physics is sponsored by grants from the Hexus Corporation. The University’s genetic modification studies are politically problematic: the Council is willing to countenance pantropic modifications to the human genome and efforts to remove hereditary diseases, but attempts at eugenics/unnecessary modification tends to be frowned upon.
  • The Hexus Corporation [h/t Grant Morrison] – starship manufacturer, fusion engineers, and sponsor of several colonies.

These would naturally receive better, more culturally appropriate names.  I see much of the colonists’ culture as a mash-up between South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, and a smidgen of European socities.

Major Threats:

  • The Bank – the Candide has defaulted on its payments to the Bank, and are essentially on the lam. The Bank’s agents will attempt to repossess the vessel on sight.  It’s possible, given the Bank’s reliance on the communications infrastructure maintained by the Military, that the two are organizationally linked in some way, sort of like the People’s Liberation Army’s various money-making operations in the 1980’s.
  • Cykoteks [this is a horrendous pun foisted by the Alternity rules set] – owing to the Council’s disapproval of genetic upgrades, certain branches of the military opted for the theologically-approved cybernetic route. Performance enhancing cybernetics among first-generation Military personnel have led to debilitating mental illness. Though most received necessary medical treatment and resumed normal lives, a significant number have gone rogue, and vanished to various colonies. Other paramilitary groups, having fewer scruples, have experimented with these devices as well. The cykoteks are bloodthirsty killing machines.
  • The Kanhoji Angre – stories persist of a rogue starship traveling between colonies, plundering at will and hijacking starships. There are no records of such a ship–but it would present a serious problem because it would be impossible to pursue and difficult to intercept. Certainly some ships occasionally drop out of the Captains’ Table from time to time and are never heard from again, though this is ascribed to serious technical mishaps rather than piracy.
  • Aliens – I haven’t decided if there are any precursor aliens in this setting: I suspect somebody exists but they’re likely extremely far away. (I’m undecided how I want to resolve the Fermi Paradox.) If they exist and are close enough to matter, they are likely techno-magical and see little value in Homo sapiens.


Here and here. Exactly which of these stars have been colonized is of relatively little interest to me at this stage.

Starting Adventure:

I might end up running the one-shot version of this “campaign” for the Red Box crowd at some point, so I don’t want to give too much away.  The one-shot is premised on the idea that a colony has failed and there have been no messages for decades.  A rescue mission is patched together and sent on a decades-long (but time-dilated) journey, and have just arrived in-system . . . .

Core Story
Originally I was thinking about this as a one-shot:

Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian relief effort attempting to restore order to a failed colony.

However, in Alternity there’s an assumption that campaigns should last longer than one-shots. Here’s a tentative Core Story that probably needs more work:
Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.

This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller



Zolobachai’s Wagon and Azagar’s Book of Rituals

Going to Limbo and breaking the dimensional barrier can have strange effects. For James’ PC Arnold Littleworth to be transported from the White Sandbox to Glantri is a giant step for a man, to be sure. But from the perspective of the gods who dice with the lives of such mortals, the distance between two campaigns run in the same city with the same extended group of players using editions published seven years apart is not so huge.

With the impending publication of Goodman Games’ Azagar’s Book of Rituals, however, Arnold has accomplished the transition to an edition published twenty-seven years later, where his legend (or at least that of his alias, Zolobachai of the Nine Visions) will spread through those gaming groups all over the world who have the discernment and modest financial means necessary to acquire this mighty grimoire of rituals and include one of them, Zolobachai’s Wagon, in their campaign. Or, as James put it:

First I breach the dimensions into Glantri, then I breach the dimensions into the real world!!!
I have to retire the character now. It would all just be downhill from here. (I suppose I need to cast my newly researched spell first, just to be able to boast about it. But then: retirement.)

Some thoughts:
1) James is rightly stoked, as am I. I remember well how awesome it was when I first discovered that names like Melf and Mordenkainen weren’t just evocative color added to the descriptions of AD&D spells, but actual players in Gygax and Kuntz’s Greyhawk campaign. I am pleased to be able to create such connections between the bones of D&D’s published ephemera and the actual play that is its beating heart.

2) Such connections are all too rare. I’m currently working on my eleventh professional D&D writing assignment, and this is the first time that I’ve been able to draw direct inspiration from a campaign I’ve been part of. There are many pressures that push what happens in RPG writing away from what happens at the table, which I’ll perhaps enumerate in a later post; this one is to celebrate that those pressures can be overcome. Or at least partially, for:

3) The transition from play to print distorts. In the game so far, Zolobachai’s wagon is not a magical conveyance of spectral force but a mundane (if gaudily painted) wooden cart. The most memorable appearance of the wagon in play was heroic but decidedly un-magical: Arnold drove it into the swamp of the Lost City so that he could creep through its interior and gain the element of surprise when he emerged to brain a lizardman with a frying pan. And while Arnold has in fact been researching a new spell during his carouse in Limbo, he should rightly be considered the creator of Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation; the wagon-creating ritual is a piece of fakery at worst or flattery at best by another would-be wonder-worker who has seen fit to adopt the mighty name of Zolobachai. It might be that this is always the way of things – at GaryCon II I will be sure to ask Melf whether he did in fact invest game time in inventing a spell to hurl an acid arrow at his foes.

I’d love to be able to include Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation, as well as the many other inventions of my fellow players that are worthy of game-book immortality, in a future Azagar’s Second Book of Rituals. To help make that happen, rush out and buy the first one and tell your game-store owners and Joseph Goodman that you want more like it!


two new monsters

Spellbook Virus

Not so much a new monster as a hazard of the professional Magic-User, possibly some sort of specialized curse or adapted feeblemind spell.  Magic-Users who frequently copy scrolls to their tomes may suffer unanticipated consequences as the magical energies from different sources comingle and combine in unexpected fashion.  Also, spellbooks, being magical, routinely attempt to maintain themselves against bookworms and decay; occasionally these self-maintenance attempts go astray and cause massive difficulties.

In general, any spellbook remains free from viral or other mishaps for 6d6 months.  At the expiration of this “warranty period,” the spellbook falls prey to numerous hardware and magical software difficulties.  These mishaps may include but are not limited to:

  • Erasure of spell notes (be sure to back up your spell book to scrolls!)
  • Corruption of spell data (may trigger “wild surges” due to memorization errors)
  • Binding disintegration (may cause loss of pages due to physical binding deterioration, or loss of any familiars/bound spirits)
  • Vulnerability to astral predation (increases odds of wandering monsters, but mainly of the “outsider” type, possibly including clairvoyant surveillance of the owner and his or her use of the book)

These difficulties can be solved by using a back-up spellbook or scrolls, but Magic-Users with low Wisdom scores are unlikely to have taken such measures in the recent past.  They must make a Save vs. Dragon Breath or lose 1 level as if drained, reflecting the untimely and aggravating loss of knowledge and hard-fought experience.

Rubbery Sludge

Armor Class: 8

Hit Dice: 3

Move: 4″

Attacks: 1 per hour

Damage: 2d6 + Special

No. Appearing: 1d4

Save As: Fighter 8

Morale: 12

Treasure: Nil

Alignment: Neutral

The Rubbery Sludge, like the Grey Ooze and the Ochre Jelly, is a blob-like monster found on I-95 between New York City and Washington DC, and it is believed to be created when misfortune overtakes a cargo-drum of alchemists’ reagents along the roadside.  The stench is overpowering, but the Sludge itself is not immediately visible.  All horses, wagons, and foot traffic to pass through the Sludge must Save vs. Petrification or become stuck in place for 1d6 hours, attracing the usual gamut of wandering monsters.  (Owing to difficulties with leverage, those attempting to rescue others from the Sludge must also Save or become stuck themselves.  The Rubbery Sludge may be dissolved by acid but it will burn those stuck within as well.)  Those so stuck take 2d6 points of psychic damage, cursed with the knowledge that their comrades-in-arms are even then sojourning into the Caverns of Thracia to plunder the jewels that glitter in the darkness, gaining treasure and XP without you, the inconsiderate swine. Victims must also make a Save vs. Poison to avoid embarssing mishaps owing to a lack of sanitary facilities.


hard science-fiction ain’t easy

So, what I’ve been doing instead of blogging is cheating on my girlfriend with my ex.

I’ve been in an eighteen-month relationship with OD&D.  It’s a pretty open relationship, but I’ve been led astray lately.  During a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into my old Alternity game notes, and I can’t stop thinking about the game I haven’t thought about in four years.

I mean, it has some very obvious faults: it’s a mid-1990’s traditional role-playing game that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It keeps insisting that it’s not D&D in space–after Spelljammer, who can blame it for trying to avoid that reputation?–but all of the implementation strongly reinforces that misconception.  (“You enter the Space-Dungeon and Giant Space-Spiders attack!”)  But hey, I was a mess in the 1990’s too, so I’m not one to cast aspersions.  Mainly what I’m curious about is to check the game out to see it for what it really is, and what it does well.

Broadly speaking Alternity’s about “being there.”  It’s a universal mechanic, skill-system based game where all the skills have fiddly little pieces designed to interact with the fictional environment: “These characters are from another culture, so trying to haggle with them would be a 2-step penalty, except you know one of them pretty well which is a 1-step bonus, and you have several ranks in the appropriate Etiquette sub-skill, so I’m going to say that it all evens out.  Go ahead and make your Bargain roll for the hyperdrive, no modifiers.”  There’s a lot of attention to figuring out local planetary environments, along with rules for drowning and falling as well as rules for all kinds of jumping.  (Those are links to different games.)

So I got to thinking about what kind of adventures would be interesting from this perspective, and before too long got wrapped up in describing a hard sci-fi colonization dystopia, wherein a nearby colonized world descends into chaos, and the players are on a humanitarian mission (of dubious integrity) to rebuild the place when ZAMMO! ADVENTURE OCCURS!

This led to a lot of hard work trying to figure out why you’d want to colonize another planet to begin with.  And then I had to play around with some nifty 3-D rotating star maps and databases.  And read stuff about atomic rocket ships and the habitable zone of the galaxy.

Once you get a planet, you’ve got to think about how to terraform it or (perhaps more plausibly) genetically engineer colonists to fit that environment.  Alternity actually has decent-enough rules for genetic and cybernetic alterations to baseline humans, so it’s nice to create plausible mutants and cyber-soldiers.

And I tried to figure out, from the principle of mediocrity, how far away intelligent alien life must be from us (I’m guessing 2.6 out of every 100,000 star systems contain “intelligent” life.)  And then worrying about the Fermi Paradox.

And obviously none of this shit is really very important, because it’s all about the Adventure and dealing as possible with the whole house of cards toppling down once the players arrive on the scene, which is where all the fun stuff really happens thanks to the verisimilitude and immersion-stuff.

But basically, for the last week or so I’ve been wallowing in all this science stuff and figuring out how to implement it in this silly old game.  It’s kinda interesting but it’s also a huge headache: I’ve put just enough time into it to realize I still need to put in a lot more time, and the whole thing would play out in 4-6 hours anyway, and based on what I remember the game would be fun but not that much fun to justify the effort.

And then, when I’ve been doing this for about a week or so, Eric (who I haven’t told any of this to) says, “James, have you heard about Diaspora?  It’s this brand new hard sci-fi game about renegade space colonies.  It’s got a free SRD on the web.  Shall we play sometime?”






legend of the Boss

Here’s how I remember it:

In January 2009 Tavis joined Eric’s on-going Moldvay Basic D&D campaign and rolled up a Cleric.

TAVIS: I think my character rejects the Church of the Builder and the Cult of the Trickster.

ERIC: Oh really?  Perhaps he worships the God of Magic?

TAVIS:  . . . No, he is convinced of his own incipient divinity, and has founded a cult in accordance with that belief.

OTHER PLAYERS: Neat!  You know first-level Clerics can’t cast spells under these rules, right?

TAVIS: Really?

OTHER PLAYERS: So you’re a god who can’t work miracles and [peer at Tavis’s sheet] you have 8 Charisma.

TAVIS: I never said I was good at it.

And so the Boss descended to Earth and walked among mortal men!

Five minutes later, on the road to the dungeon, our party encountered an aristocrat and his retinue who were leaving the dungeon.  We could infer from prior adventures that these were the rightful owners of the ruins we’d been merrily plundering, and I for one tried to keep my head down and avoid provoking them.  (I was a first-level Magic-User with 3 Constitution and 1 hit-point, named Immortus.)

ERIC: James, your character Immortus keeps a wide distance from the approaching party, clearly not wanting to antagonize these people.  A nursemaid traveling with the aristocrat’s group tries to silence a wailing infant wrapped in ornate blankets.  What do the rest of you do?

OTHER PLAYERS: Block their path!  Shake them down for money!  Mock the size of his wand!

JAMES: [moves mini several squares further away when no one is looking]

The aristocrat-wizard waxed increasingly wroth.  There was a shouting match between the aristocrat and our outspoken Dwarven companion Pog concerning the ownership of a certain magical sword.

ERIC: The aristocrat angrily demands the sword, a family heirloom.

POG’S PLAYER: Never!  It is, um, my family heirloom too!

TAVIS: [playing the Boss]  Where’s the nursemaid and the baby on the map?

ERIC: Here. . . . Pog, the aristocrat draws and points a wand at you.

TAVIS: The Boss rushes up, knocks the nursemaid to the ground, and seizes the baby!  The Boss holds the child aloft with a threatening glare at the aristocrat!

ERIC: The aristocrat whirls around, and points his magic wand at the Boss.

JAMES: [from a prudent distance] Sleep, centered on the baby!

I put the baby, the nursemaid, and the Boss to sleep–but the aristocrat Magic-User was immune due to being high level.  He picked up the baby with one hand, and with the other zapped the Boss with a wand of petrification.

ERIC: The aristocrat turns to face you, Immortus.  “Are you the ally of this fool?”

JAMES: Um, he just sort of tagged along with us when we left town.  We’ll be going now, it was nice meeting you.  Immortus withdraws.

[In the chaos, everyone escapes–including, though I’m not sure how, Pog and the magic sword.]

The Boss survived our campaign for about 10 minutes of play time.  His only deed was an insanely ill-advised act of  sociopathy ending in a Save-or-Die effect.  He was the perfect Dungeons & Dragons character.

Having just witnessed a koan in the form of D&D, we immediately understood that the Boss truly was divine, and erected a shrine to him on the spot.  Propagating this cult has become the central storyline of Eric’s campaign, much to his occasional chagrin.  I’m not sure what else he had planned, but that’s what we’re interested in.  (Or were.  I’ve missed a lot of sessions.)

We also created a new alignment system based on the Boss:

  • Bossful – you take insane risks just to stir shit up
  • Immortic – you plot and connive a way to accomplish your goals without any risk
  • Neutral – you are an opportunistic schemer

(Most of our adventurers are Neutral, because as Hamish the Dim observed, “The Boss isn’t someone you can just imitate.  You’ve got to work your way up to it.”)

The Legend of the Boss is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about earlier: there’s a richness of play that simply comes from being there.  We talk about the Boss pretty much every session, and if you missed out on that, it’s like a bunch of guys swapping an in-joke you’ll never really appreciate.  And it’s exactly these sorts of unexpected antics that make sandbox campaign play so richly rewarding.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2022

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