Friday, September 15, 2017

Galaxy's Edge: Attack of Shadows

Another month, another Galaxy's Edge book!  Anspach and Cole continue to deliver at a remarkable pace, and with remarkable quality!  They also continue to defy expectations by doing something different.  Let me explain a bit...

The tagline or hashtag for Galaxy's Edge has always been #StarWarsNotStarWars.  (You can easily see that vibe on the cover art right there, too.  A Boba Fett looking villain, standing in front of Scout walkers with Republic drop ships coming in over a big, bright moon, etc.)  In spite of that, the first Galaxy's Edge novel, Legionnaire, was not necessarily all that Star Wars like.  I've compared it frequently to the movie Zulu, which has become a real classic tale, told and retold, by now. (One could say that the history of Leonidas is the same story with a more tragic ending.)  If this was Star Wars, why is it the story in the jarhead (buckethead?) life of a stormtrooper, and why are the stormtroopers actually elite commandos rather than ineffective mooks?  It's a great book, but the mil-sci-fi look doesn't really fit Star Wars that well, which was always swashbuckling space opera.  So, it was a risky move.  They've sold and promoted their book as a "fork" of Star Wars—they take the concept of Star Wars, file the serial numbers and I/P off of it, and then tell it the way they think it should have been told, instead of the way Lucas and then later, Lucasfilm did.  There was a risk of audience mismatch there; but the book was good enough that it was successful.

The next volume, Galactic Outlaws was the one that is more specifically Star Wars like.  It's got the fringer space opera vibe down perfectly, with a plot that reminds you of westerns and other influences that directly inspired George Lucas back in the mid-70s.  These characters could absolutely exist side by side with Han Solo, young Luke Skywalker, Chewie, and even old Ben Kenobi (maybe not Clone Wars era Obiwan Kenobi, though.)  It has a similar feel to, especially, the very first Star Wars movie.  And if you've read any of my posts on the Secret History of Star Wars, you'll know that I 100% agree with that direction, if you're going to riff off of Star Wars, riff off of it at the very beginning!  So this one was a much less risky book.  Curiously, ties to the first book are relatively light.  It's clearly the same setting, but we don't (yet) have a sense that any of these characters have anything to do with characters from the first book (although in the next book, we find out that they do, actually.)

The third novel, Kill Team goes back to taking place immediately after the first volume (the second book takes place seven years later.)  This non-linear (or at least non-chronological) story-telling is interesting.  And we get yet another direction with this volume; this time, we've got a space-faring spy thriller.  James Bond meets Jack Ryan in space.  It's another excellent book, and another one that is bold; it does something quite a bit different than what you might expect from #StarWarsNotStarWars.  Nick Cole mentioned, when I asked him on Facebook, that I was totally right in seeing the influence of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as well.  Of course, the other thing that this novel does, is bring together the seemingly disparate Legionnaire and Galactic Outlaws and demonstrating that they are intimately tied to each other in ways that are sure to surprise and delight readers (well, they did me, anyway.)

So for the fourth novel, what do Anspach and Cole do?  Another bold move; telling a tale in the space-faring version of yet another genre, and utilizing hardly any of the past characters!  Attack of Shadows is the opening move in trouble that's been brewing for three novels, and it describes a single day; one battle, from multiple perspectives.  There's another bold experiment with narrative structure; very short scenes that cut back and forth quickly between each other, showing the same events from multiple angles.  Most of the characters are brand new, and on both sides of the battle; shocktroopers and tri-fighter pilots of Goth Sullus' attacking force, fighter pilots from the Republic, a space-dreadnought admiral, a crooked space politician, etc.  This quick back and forth between characters that we don't know is unique; it was at first a little disorienting, but I learned to settle back and enjoy the flow of the narrative.  This book, more than the ones that preceded it, is about plot and description—the back and forth of a hard-fought surprise attack and major battle, and we get an entire novel describing the events of a single day.  I finished rather quickly, and was left somewhat breathless at the end of the novel.  I need to read it again to better absorb the details, because there were so many of them that I have no doubt that I missed some.  Plus, knowing now what I do having read the whole thing, I want to go do it again with enough context to better see what's going on with characters that I don't know well.  This is similar to how when you've just watched a very complex thriller or mystery movie, you need to watch it again to catch all of the stuff that you didn't realize was going to be important, so you didn't pay enough attention to it.

So, again—they could have blown it by doing something so bold, but yet again they manage not to by doing so skillfully.  I'm pretty pumped after reading what was a really cool battle in what's going to shake up to be a really cool war.  But I've also really had my appetite whetted to get back to the characters that I grew to know over the first three books.  Maybe knowing this (or maybe not; maybe it was just serendipitous luck) there's a three-chapter preview of the next book included at the end (Sword of the Legion) in which we see familiar characters (from both disparate main groups of characters) reacting to the events of Attack of the Shadows.  They go back in time to the beginning of the day, and foreshadow that some of the stuff that was only briefly touched upon in this novel—cameos, really—will be treated in more detail in book five, and our familiar cast will be the stars of this action.  It also foreshadows that one key event which takes place off-stage in this novel, which would seem to be an unaccountable and unforgivable mistake, will actually be the main course of action of the coming book.

So, again: in spite of the fact that so far Anspach and Cole are writing at a faster pace than anyone other than Dean Wesley Smith and his "pulp speed" crowd, I find it difficult to wait for the next novel.  This was an experimental piece, and it packed quite a punch, but most especially, it set up what is to follow.  In fact, that's my only concern (or maybe just question) at this point; if they're really going to tell Galaxy's Edge in 9-10 novels or so, which I seem to remember is what I saw or heard them say, in a podcast most likely, then we're nearly halfway through and the main story has just started!  Of course, maybe this means that they decided to take more volumes to finish it than they originally planned.  Or maybe, we'll skip ahead and then fill in details as desired with spin-offs in the future.  I dunno.   But I do know that I'm excited to continue the journey with them.  This has been a fun ride so far.  I'm glad I was able to get in on the ground floor.

Friday Art Attack

I'm going to attempt to make Friday an "Art Attack" day, where I do something like what I did here, post some art from the collection of digital art that I've found over the years online here and there, and then relate it to one of my settings under development.  So, I've tagged this post not only ART, but also DARK•HERITAGE, AD ASTRA and TIMISCHBURG—a new tag for the expanded CULT OF UNDEATH setting as its shaping up.

Of course; right away, I'm going to miss next Friday—I already know that I'll be unavailable to post anything anywhere about anything all next week.  But... after that, I'll try and make it pretty regular.  I do, after all, have an awful lot of digital fantasy and sci-fi art that I've collected over many years of looking around online, thinking; "hey, that's a cool picture" and then right clicking and saving it.  Plus, I'm a fairly visually minded guy, so having pictures is fun—it helps me more than just about anything to get in the mood to develop setting, or anything else for that matter.

So, let's start...

RAWR!  Too big to be a thurse, this is probably going to use the stats for an ettin.  Either that, or I can create another daemon type to represent it.

Maybe the main villain of CULT OF UNDEATH should be a woman!  I like the concept of saving a damsel in distress from a vile man, though—there's an element of sexual threat to that that is an ancient, visceral kind of thing (used to great effect by Edgar Rice Burroughs when John Carter has to save Dejah Thoris from Tal Hajus and then again Sab Than.)  Then again, women with magic and a bad attitude are often scarier than men, who tend to have more straightforward motivations.

I really like my idea of the Death Sages of the Voormellei Confederation; space undead.  Although you've got to admit; I need to be careful to keep them from becoming pedestrian, so there shouldn't be very many of them, nor should they make a lot of appearances.  That said; I've posted a fair number of "undead astronauts" here and there.  I think the idea of them is pretty cool.

AD ASTRA is mostly ersatz Star Wars, but then again, Star Wars is a grab bag of all kinds of influences, and one that fits very well into AD ASTRA is the thoroughly 80s notion of some cyberpunk.

Art originally developed by a Traveller fan, this would be a perfect example of a one-man space-ship—perfect for small freight runs.  This is the equivalent of a space trucker.  I'd imagine that ships like this ply the space lanes of AD ASTRA as often as big rigs ply the interstates of America.

Whereas this, on the other hand, would be the perfect ship for a full party of PCs.  It even looks a lot like the ship from Star Wars: Rebels, although I think the art predates that show.  The only thing about these two pictures, is that they are both way too clean, neat and bright for AD ASTRA.  Grunge them up, making them look dirtier and more run-down; make that docking bay look like the last time you had your car in to a self-employed mechanic.  That's the look, pioneered by Star Wars in many ways, that AD ASTRA also needs to have.

I've never been shy of undead.  In fact, I have to be careful to make sure that I don't use them too much and make them become routine.

What if saber-tooths had leopard-like spots?  Gotta throw a paleontology picture in there from time to time.  Besides, sabertooths have been in DARK•HERITAGE and the FANTASY HACK ruleset from the very beginning.

I used to say that every city in my settings was, by default, a wretched hive of scum and villainy.  This isn't necessarily literally true, but it mostly is.  This might actually be what Grozavest looks like all of the time, considering that the sun never rises on it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Baboon hobgoblins

Sometimes we lose sight of our own history, even in hobbyist subcultures like that of D&D.  I was browsing the text—written by the man E. Gary Gygax himself—of The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, published by Troubador Press and illustrated by underground artist from a similar van art semi-psychedelic fantasy scene as produced the Heavy Metal magazine.  If you haven't ever checked it out, you should.  Yeah, I know—it's a coloring book.  On high quality cardstock, with prose text by Gary Gygax, and an included mini-game.  It's worth checking out.  Plus, you can find high quality scans of the entire thing pretty easily.  Here, for instance.  But I draw your attention in particular to page 20 and its facing illustration; a battle between hobgoblins and gnolls.  The gnolls are described in a way that is very familiar to D&D players even today: "...hyena-looking humanoids.  These creatures are covered in greenish gray fur, with erect reddish gray manes. The gnolls' flat black eyes, dark muzzles and drab clothing mark them distinctly... clad in filthy brown pelts or scraps of clothing, and their shields are of dark blue, white, black, or deep green markings."

However... and I had forgotten this, because it had been a really long time since I looked at it, the description of the hobgoblins is very unfamiliar, and nothing at all like hobgoblins as we know them from today's D&D.  For that matter, the 1e illustration is more similar to today's conception of hobgoblins, but Mr. Gygax himself described them very differently here.  "On one side are hobgoblins, their baboon faces contorted with hate and fury.  Reddish brown and gray-black hackles raised, orange and red faces snarling, these creatures chop and stab at their opponents. One of the hobgoblins is so close that the elf can plainly see its blue-red snout, glaring eyes of bloodshot yellow-brown and bared fangs. The hobgoblins' yellow and red shields and black leather uniforms fill the entire left side of the arena."
I dunno; I find this whole thing strange and bizarre in the extreme. How did the hobgoblins end up being anthropomorphic savage baboons?  Where did that come from, and where did it go?

Monday, September 11, 2017

More thoughts and commentary on running Cult of Undeath

Now that I've mostly finished the CULT OF UNDEATH project, it makes perfect sense that I'd continue to undermine and second-guess the wisdom of even doing so in the first place.  Let's talk briefly about how I'd really run my ideal campaign in Timischburg and what I'd really do if I wanted to create a game that was open-ended and would potentially last for many months if not even possibly years.

I'd have to make a few assumptions, first.
  • 3-5 players is my ideal group size.  I'd probably not really enjoy a solo or even duo game, although I could pull it off in a pinch.  More than 5 and it starts to get too hairy trying to keep track of everyone in the group.  It's just not as much fun for anyone anymore.
  • This would be a potentially rather dark game with PCs that may skirt the line, on occasion, between anti-hero and actual villain.  At least, I've seemed to capture that vibe (whether because of something I'm doing, or just because of who I've played with) in the past, and I can run with it.  In fact, I rather quite enjoy it.  That said; dark is relative.  No creepy, pervy stuff.  But this is definitely a "hard PG-13" game, I think.
  • Characters may be a bit shady, and if not, they'll certainly have to dip their hands in some pretty shady business.  I said long ago, and I borrowed this verbiage more or less from Privateer Press's Five Fingers book, but it applies equally well to anything I run; there are three themes and most campaign-length games will alternate back and forth between them: crime and skulduggery, political intrigue, and horror.
  • As I say in the actual text of FANTASY HACK itself, I make no presumptions of a "balanced party"—in fact, I think assuming that there will be one and penalizing players, either passively or overtly, for not creating one, is a passive aggressive dick move as a GM.  Your job is to bring a campaign for the characters you've got.  As a corollary, I also make no assumptions that the party works well together.  I tend to enjoy the game most when they don't actually; when they're on the verge of screwing each other up royally rather than bringing A-game tactics and playing like a well-oiled machine.
All that said; how would I actually run the game?  Well... time for yet another list.

  1. Bring something like Chris Perkins' 3/24/2011 column "Point of Origin" for the characters to latch on to, if they so choose.  Along with the character ties rule in chargen, this means that I need players to make characters as the first "half" of the first session, but they'll be nicely tied to both the setting and to each other when we're ready to start.
  2. I'd have a bit of a minor railroad at the start.  In my experience, players rarely are capable of intelligently taking initiative for a session or two until they've managed to get their bearings in the game.  Give them something obvious to work with right off the bat.  This would be directly related to the early CULT OF UNDEATH events.
  3. Create two other plots.  I don't mean plot in the sense of novel or screenplay writing; I mean plot in the sense of "major impending problem that will be unable to be ignored.  Clues point directly to it, and mitigating actions can be taken, which is where the PCs come in."  Or, "NPCs causing big trouble that will collide with the probable course of the PCs."  But they provide the solutions; you just provide the problem.  For instance: the CULT OF UNDEATH problem is based on the secretive Black Path trying to steal one of old professor Alpon's amulets that can be used, along with human sacrifice (and of course, Alpon's daughter for various reasons is the preferred sacrifice) to open the vault under which Tarush is kept imprisoned under Grozavest.  Other ones might be: Jann pirates have grown increasingly bold on the coastal cities, and have razed some completely to the waterline.  Far from being a nuisance and mere raiders, they are now migrating to Timischburg, will burn Grozavest itself to the ground, and kill or enslave the inhabitants as they attempt to establish their own nation on the ruins of the one that stands here today. What is prompting them to move en masse from their homelands on the southern shores, anyway? Or, daemonologist heretics from the northwest are gradually loosening the bonds which hold a number of powerful daemons at bay outside of the world as we know it.  At first, only small daemons are able to slip through the tiny cracks, creating havoc in the north, but it's gradually going to get worse until a powerful Daemon Prince is able to come, which will bring about apocalyptic levels of devastation and suffering.  These are kinda cliche, but that's OK (it ain't broke) so put a twist on them.  
  4. These other plots will eventually get more development.  Clues to what's happening will start to pop up early on, and by the time we're three or four sessions in, the PCs should have all kinds of dangling hooks from which to choose and bite on.
  5. In addition to this, create a secret mystery or arc related to each character; something that is separate from the big stories, but which is important to the character.  Totally cool to work with the players on this; either because they picked an origin that you suggested, or because you're riffing off of an origin that they themselves created.  Start throwing clues of this out there too.
  6. Mix, rinse and spin.  You don't need a plan beyond this that stretches more than a session or two.  As you dangle clues and hints of things related to all of plots out there, the PCs will go whichever way they choose to go, and you are reacting to their actions rather than the other way around.  Create stuff that seems logical and predictable based on their actions.  Give them some big wins.  Give them pyrrhic victories.  Have them wallow occasionally in the agony of defeat.  Always make sure that stuff gets complicated, though.  Even the big wins will tend to have side effects, and even the worst defeat has a silver lining that can be taken advantage of to claw their way back into... something entertaining.
Anyway, that's the way I'd run this if I were actually running.  Which maybe I'll try to do.  Like I said recently, my old gaming group is too fragmented, too busy, too far apart—I don't think that's viable anymore.  But I've got a store not far that I can trawl for new players, and I can maybe come up with other alternatives too. First I just have to make sure that I'm not too busy to do it...

Dark•Heritage, Fantasy Hack and Cult of Undeath

How would I see each of these illustrations reflected in my ruleset/settings? (My ruleset is heavily informed by assumptions that are common to these settings, of course.)  Grabbing a few pics that recently fell across my hard drive.

Contrary to the high fantasy assumptions that are based on a Victorian (or at least Edwardian) morality, the pulps are almost gratuitous in their pandering to their audience.  Sexy women running around exotic settings, threatened by leering monsters who often want more than their lives, are saved by red-blooded, heroically masculine heroes that every woman swoons for in desire and every man yearns to be.  We need more scantily clad damsels in distress in any setting that uses FANTASY HACK as its rule base.  Those monsters are too weird to be woses or even werewolves; but they might be servitor daemons, extremely savage orcs, or most likely thurses.

There are few things scarier than a really bad woman, amirite?  The central character there is no doubt a sorcerous lich witch.  The champions around her seem to be wights; the one with the extra arms is really freaky, and should be represented by a wight with extra attacks.

This would be a pretty cool relatively difficult challenge for a group of higher level PCs.  A lich on her own would be a pretty difficult challenge, but three wights as reinforcements who arrive after a few rounds, including one with multiple arms, and then—what's that in the back, some kind of ghost?—round out the encounter by making the setting hazardous.  Steep staircases, high balconies, rotting superstructure that can collapse under the stress of combat, and haunts meddling with the PCs tactics... man, I'm already itching to run this baby, and come up with a brief backstory for this lich lady.

Ghoul sorcerers and a feral vampire riding on a fell ghast, attacking a sinking riverboat in a swamp... I don't even see anything that looks like PCs here, but I don't care.  It looks like there are chaos warriors there, which are of course a very Warhammer setting element, but it's hardly like powerful, daemonic black knights aren't a staple of all kinds of fantasy fiction.  I'd make them high level fighters, and then give them a few special abilities borrowed from the daemons, probably.

This would fit in quite well as a final battle in CULT OF UNDEATH, or as... well just about any relatively high level fight in any game or setting that uses FANTASY HACK.

Did I mention that we need more scantily clad damsels in distress?  I'm a little skeptical of the loin-cloth and pirate boots wearing barbarian (even if this is the cover to a pastiche Conan novel) because in real life, barbarians wore all kinds of leather and armor and other stuff like that, of course.    But whatever.  Some kind of crocodile or weird dinosaur, a water elemental (or even just a burst of water coming out of a tunnel) and holy crap, this would be fun.

I imagined Ketos as looking more like the Kraken from the new Clash of the Titans movie, but this would certainly work.  As an aside, I'm one of those guys who thinks that the textual evidence suggesting a "whiter" complexion for the aristocratic Greeks and Romans that lasted for centuries, if not millennia, before being swamped by the darker-haired Mediterranean people around them is almost impossible to ignore.  Then again, Andromeda was a "white Aethiopian"—not a Greek.  I've got Medusa in my monster list as well as Ketos, so this is a totally doable idea in FANTASY HACK.  As it should be.

RAWR!  This guy could pass muster as a thurse/sasquatch/gnophkeh, but he might be big enough that using ettin stats would be better.  And, again with the scantily clad damsel in distress!  You should look up fine art related to Perseus and Andromeda.  The poor girl is almost always naked according to the Renaissance and Romantic era artists.  Then again, I think they thought that the Greeks in particular just always ran around naked.

It's actually been a while since I regularly posted WAR pictures (although I posted a couple a few days ago).  I don't really have a ghost dragon per se.  I'd probably just make this a fell ghast.  In fact, I think that I like more and more the notion of fell ghasts being some kind of undead dragon—after all, they're based (loosely) on the terrorgheist model for Warhammer, which also doubles with a head swap and a few other details with the zombie dragon model.  So, all of these dracolich, zombie dragon, ghost dragon, etc. variants are all fell ghasts in FANTASY HACK.  As always, feel free to customize with a new special ability or two if you like, to make your version of the monster more exciting.  And I like the notion of crafting encounters themselves using a small, localized variant of the three act story structure; have this be the capstone of the encounter after the PCs have already been fighting undead creatures in a castle that's literally crumbling down on their heads, and suffused with some kind of necrotic pollutant that seeps through the walls like a cursed fog of some kind.

Although their inspiration was probably a little too on the nose, I couldn't resist adding ratmen, including rat brutes, to FANTASY HACK as an homage to the skaven and their rat ogres.  The Skaven are likely the best addition to the canon of fantasy by the Warhammer setting.  Although you've gotta admit that their chaos daemons are also really cool.  But since they're a hybrid of actual Judeo-Christian demons and Lovecraftian stuff, they're much less original.  Just very cool.

You'll notice that these pictures, if I'm using them to represent what I think a FANTASY HACK game—in any setting—should look like, that I'm clearly embracing a wahoo, gonzo, gratuitous exotica (and maybe even erotica) pulp aesthetic that no doubt the high fantasy tweed jacket and pipe smoking crowd would find vulgar.

Given that I consider The Lord of the Rings my favorite (by quite a long shot) work of fantasy fiction—or of any fiction, or even any literature, for that matter—it may seem surprising that I'm thinking of a much more pulpy feel for FANTASY HACK.  But then again, maybe not.  I've also said two things many times, which I'll repeat again here:
  1. I'm not old school, but I'm definitely old fashioned.  I don't like old rules, and I don't like the "pixel bitching" and dungeoncrawling paradigm of play.  But I very much do like the pulp fantasy inspiration that informed early D&D, even if it's just crass thud and blunder, than I do to modern pseudo high fantasy extruded fantasy product.
  2. Fantasy writers (or artists, or gamers, or any other creative type) would do well to recognize that Tolkien was a truly unique genius, and few can (or should) attempt to imitate him without having a bit more of his very unusual suite of talents and education, lest you want to come across as a cheap imitation.  Even other high fantasy guys who aren't modernized extruded fantasy product—and here I'm thinking of writers like Poul Anderson or Lord Dunsany, although there are plenty more to choose from—didn't try to sound like Tolkien (assuming that they post-dated him, which to a great extent they did not).  They did their own things based on mythology, Medievalist romances, etc.  So should you.

Star Wars is Dead!

Disney has killed Star Wars.  The word just hasn't quite gotten out yet.

In theory, it doesn't have to be dead dead—it's just in critical condition in the intensive care unit of the hospital.  It's possible to revive it and return it to health.  It's just unlikely, because Disney itself—and LucasFilm specifically too (even before the buyout by Disney)—is completely and totally unsuited and unwilling and unwitting when it comes to the solutions needed.

Instead, do your own thing (AD ASTRA) or read a "fork" of it (GALAXY'S EDGE) and let Star Wars go off into the sunset with a little bit of dignity.

Not saying that I won't still watch the movies when they come out.  But, I won't really expect much of them, or go beyond them at all anymore.

Friday, September 08, 2017

GMing advice

Well, I've now read the entire run of Ray Winninger's Dungeoncraft and the entire run of Chris Perkins' DM Experience.  I've done that before, mind you, but not in several years—and I was reminded of a number of cool things (the three act encounter structure, for instance, or Perkins' campaign ties as part of chargen.)

Now, just because, I'll read the Duets column, and I'll probably be overloaded on GMing advice for a time.  But I've been somewhat separated from the hobby for a little while, due to circumstances beyond my control, mostly (extreme real life busyness for everyone concerned.)

I'm thinking of popping by my local hobby store after I get back in town from my delayed backpacking trip (which will at least give me Colorado fall colors with spectacular aspens) and seeing about setting something up, with players that I can hopefully count on to meet regularly.  My old group, much as I enjoyed gaming with them, were not only too busy, but also too geographically separated and spread out. But I'd really like to put some of the techniques I was reminded of, plus the work that I've put into FANTASY HACK and CULT OF UNDEATH to use in a way that's not merely hypothetical.  (Some readers may also wonder what in the world happened to AD ASTRA too.)

Anyway, I guess there isn't really a lot of content here.  Here's links to the columns I'm specifically referencing, and I recommend you read them yourself too.  And speaking of AD ASTRA, the wonderful ersatz Star Wars Galaxy's Edge is due to get its fourth volume in your hands (or on your Kindle) next week.  If you still haven't taken the plunge, you're missing out on what is one of my absolute favorite series right now.  And if sword & sorcery is more your thing than space opera, just for the heck of it, I'll throw in a recommendation for For the Ashes of Ruin by Matthew D. Ryan.
I may also consider implementing some of the advice that I'd forgot about until rereading these columns directly into my CULT OF UNDEATH while there's still plenty of time to tinker with it too.  We'll see.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Chris Perkins DM Experience Part III (Concluded)

The last of the DM Experience columns lightly annotated bibliography.
  • By The Nose — as you might guess from the title, this is on "when to nudge the players."  Even the most self-motivated players will occasionally stall, due to confusion, feeling that they've gone into a dead end, etc. in the type of game that I prefer to run.  While it's not to be encouraged, helping them out occasionally has to be a tool in the GM's toolbox.
  • Necessary Evil — on using plot devices successfully.
  • Death-Defying D&D — another post where Perkins has to wrassle with the system not doing what he wants it to do.  Normally, I'd say these can be more or less skipped, but as it happens, there's some advice that is good here, even if you're sharp enough to either fix or replace systems that don't do what you want them to.
  • Goldfingers — on tinkering with the rules; kitbashing elements in from other editions (or other games) mostly.  Fer instance; I picked up Action Points from d20 Modern (and then modified them significantly), Healing Surges from 4e, although I borrowed the concept rather than the specific rules, and Minions (also from 4e) and then grafted it into m20, which was a brusque restructuring and condensation of d20.
  • Acts I, II, and III — on using the famous three act structure at the session level.
  • Spin the Cliché — on adding twists to well-worn and well-known elements of the game so that they feel fresh and interesting.
  • The Third Rule — trust issues with NPCs.  I gave some similar advice long ago here as well.
  • Gang Aft Agley — sometimes the PCs do something so clever that they basically circumvent your entire adventure.  It's OK.  Think of it like when Indiana Jones shot that swordsman rather than having a big, physical fight scene with him.  Let them enjoy their little victory... for a time....
  • Sudden Death — I'm not sure I can summarize what this is "about" in terms of GMing advice, but it's a great campaign story that can ring helpful in indirect ways easily enough. I also really like the notion of an "epilogue" session after the game itself has ended; especially if it ended, as it did here, with a tragic yet noble sacrifice; a Pyrrhic victory over the god of Undeath himself. Recommended.
  • All Around the Campfire — a bit of a rambly column comparing D&D to the grand oral storytelling tradition.
  • Lego My Ego — on common GM failings and how to avoid them.
  • Humpty Dumpty Conundrum — on using your notes to prompt interesting twists on past events when your current events wind down and you feel stuck.  Recommended.
  • Yippy Ki-Yay In D Minor — On the ways in which villainous organizations can be superior to villainous individuals—or at least offer things that the latter does not.
  • Dial M for Melora — on using divine intervention as a play aid, and not a cheat.
  • Unflappable — on GMing style, and rolling with the punches.
  • The Old DM and the Sea — on learning lessons from various systems, and retrospective on 1st through 4th editions (at the time of its writing, 5e was in development.)
  • Let The Conversation Begin — dialogue is the lifeblood of any interesting NPC, but it can't really be planned ahead of time effectively.  This column gives four archetypes to facilitate helping you improvise interesting dialogue.
  • Best Supporting Character — some players naturally gravitate to a "leadership" role in the social dynamic of the gaming table, and become the "stars" of the show, while others will tend to fall into a slightly more passive supporting character role.  This is perfectly fine, as that usually fits the personality of the player.  But be aware of it, and pay keen attention the dynamic, and make sure all of your players are having fun, if you want to be successful as GM.
  • Ulterior Motives — on creating NPCs that drive intrigue.  It's more of showing rather than telling, and although there's some good advice there, you'll still be on your own without too much of a road-map when all is said and done.  
  • Where's the Love? — a brief flirtation (no pun intended) on the topic of romance in-game between characters.  This could have been really cringey, but luckily, Chris Perkins sees the issue as one that only rarely can be successful, and he's never really tried it.
  • A World Worth Saving — make NPCs likable and competent enough that the players don't get sick of them and the whole setting, not caring to even save it when it's facing threats.
  • Master of Suspense — on using suspense effectively.  Also, an example of an interesting epilogue for a group that made a heroic sacrifice; TPK to save the world.  Fun read.
  • Make It Big — on boldness as a GM—make stuff memorable.  Great read.  I'm reminded of my own DEMONS IN THE MIST game, which in many ways was my most memorable; mostly because I wasn't afraid to do anything that seemed fun, even if it was well-beyond what staid, serious, Tolkien-loving D&D players would have applauded.
  • Where To Begin — the final column; Perkins talks about starting over.  Echoes of Ray Winninger's "campaign hook" advice echo here.  It's a short post, but includes a "campaign bible" for the next campaign he was to run using (presumably) 5e.
With regards to the final, in my experience, it's way too long.  I've talked before about using campaign briefs (here and here) and I think the key is to make them considerably shorter.  The rest of the information included in the campaign bible can be pull-information; i.e., if players ask about it, you give it to them, or it can be "discover through play."  Or, as I advised back then, relegate more information to a wiki that the players can peruse as they please, but if they don't please, no big deal.

In any case, I never claimed to agree with everything Chris Perkins did or wrote, merely that he was a great example of the kind of GMing style that I prefer, and that he had done a good job of articulating a number of great skills and techniques that make it work.  I still highly recommend his column—the entire thing (minus the odd post or two that is either irrelevant, or where he went somewhere weird that I disagree with)—he's got a reputation as a great GM, and I suspect that it's well-warranted.

Chris Perkins DM Experience Part II

More of the Chris Perkins column summaries.
  • Real Complicated — on planning pre-arranged complications, as well as taking advantage of opportunities for unplanned complications, that make the campaign more interesting.
  • Slave to the Rules — on rewarding PCs for making bold decisions, even if the rules "should" make such bold decisions tactically or strategically unsound.  This is less an issue with a rules lite game as I prefer.
  • Unfinished Business  — on PCs leaving behind certain plot hooks unresolved to pursue something else, and what to do to make that work out.
  • Shiny New Thing — when another idea crowds out your love for your current campaign and tempts you to divorce it, or have an RPG affair.
  • The Circus Is In Town — on having a bizarre collection of characters that look nothing like the population of the setting in which they are adventuring.
  • Stephen King's Third Eye — advice from a popular writer on descriptions
  • The Storytelling King — lots of DMing advice borrowed from the literary advice of Stephen King (and I will note: although Perkins is obviously a big fan of King; I am not.  But the advice is still mostly sound.)
  • I Am Devastatorz Megabomb, Destroyer of Worlds! — when the PCs have a powerful artifact that changes their interaction with the campaign in potentially unpredictable (or at least unpredicted) ways.
  • A Lesson in Mediocrity — on those sessions when you're just not on your A-game for whatever reason as GM.
  • Waxing Gygaxian — dungeons for a campaign and GM that doesn't normally use dungeons (interesting for me, at least, since I absolutely fit that description.)
  • Never Surrender — when PCs fight to the death... and die.  A lot of advice around GM/player trust as well.
  • Cuts and Splinters — when the party splits, and a technique to manage without losing the attention of the guys not in play at the moment.
  • Acererak's Apprentice — some dungeon concept ideas submitted by readers
  • Kitchen Sinks and Frying Pans — encounter balance, and how it's been bad for the game
  • Ice Capades — on structuring a session for best entertainment value to the players
  • Know-It-All — on the value of an NPC that the PCs can trust to give them good information that helps the game progress when needed.
  • Triple Threat — on GM skills, but especially the importance of improvisation
  • Demigenius — on borrowing and kitbashing ideas to create something that feels fresh and original—without necessarily being really cleverly innovative or truly new.
  • Extra Ordinary — on the uses of truly ordinary NPCs as "extras" to flesh out the campaign setting as one populated by things other than antagonists, patrons, treasures and monsters.
  • Stan! Down — guest post by a player who died after getting himself into an implausible pickle, but how it was an organic and predictable (and predicted) outcome from choices that his player made over the course of many, many sessions of play, and how it's not good for GM's to save PCs from themselves (or their players.)
  • The Moral Compass — on dealing with a group of anti-heroes, or even outright villainous player characters.
  • Whedonism — (I also consider Joss Whedon to be vastly over-rated as a "geek icon."  Plus, he's a sexual predator and psychopath, as has been recently revealed.  But the advice is good, regardless of how it comes to us.) On challenging the players' expectations and surprising them.
  • A Suite Alternative — a detailed rules-related article that only applies if you're using highly complex and complicated game systems (like 4e, in this case) but your style isn't really suited to that type of game.  I don't know why he wouldn't just change systems instead, but it is what it is.
  • Die, DM, Die! — more complicated rules specific advice—this is all completely irrelevant for a player of old skool, OD&D or B/X level complexity games.
  • What's My Motivation? — on working with the players to flesh out their characters and their connection to the setting.
  • The Well — on dealing with long-campaign fatigue, on dealing with interesting (and unexpected) PC choices, etc.  Maybe a bit all over, but this one is really interesting to me.
  • The End Is Nigh — on wrapping up long-running, complicated campaigns.  Highly recommended column!
  • From Jose Chung — using pacing and structural elements from TV shows to improve the development of the session; treating a session as something equivalent to an episode of a complicated show (in this case, The X-Files.)
  • Old School — an interesting discussion on the exact same sentiment that I express about myself as "I'm not old school, but I am old-fashioned."  Plus, some cringey name-dropped of perennial geek culture Fake Celebrities and all-around shameless betas Wil Wheaton and Ed Greenwood.  Luckily, that's a minor part of the column.  Blech.
  • I Got Your Back — using history to inspire NPCs and plot hooks.  Coupled with a spectacularly misinformed and "spun" narrative about Sir Richard Owen as a devious supervillain and Gideon Mantell as a poor, downtrodden tragedy.  Nobody who's ever read a dinosaur book or seen a dinosaur documentary in the last thirty years should say that they've never heard of Gideon Mantell, fer cryin' out loud!
  • Trust Gnome One — on player vs. player conflict (or more accurately, on PC vs. PC conflict, and how to make sure that it isn't actually player vs. player conflict.) Recommended.
  • Leap Year — an experiment in advancing time one year after an extended period (4-5 weeks) of being unable to meet.  Advantages and disadvantages of doing something like this.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Chris Perkins, DM Experience

I made reference to the Chris Perkins DM Experience column, although I said that the archives need to be searched at WotC to actually find the articles.  It looks like Scribd has backed up the column, although the formatting leaves a lot to be desired...

While I obviously don't agree with literally everything Perkins wrote, this is a really good column, it describes quite well the playstyle that I prefer and how to do it well, and it actually has some moments of absolute brilliance here and there.  Even me, and I consider myself a pretty good and experienced GM who's had some really good success in the past and stumbled across a lot of techniques that work well for me.  But there were at least three or four specific techniques that had absolutely not occurred to me here in this half of this column alone.  And even then, when he's describing things that I've kind of learned intuitively how to do, it's always nice to see it spelled out clearly rather than intuitively.  Sometimes the guy who learns all of this skills technically can outperform the one who does it all by intuition if he's learned them very well; and the guy who has both is unstoppable.

Here's a quick summary of the "episodes" covered by the first half of the column.  I'll do another one for the second half at some point.
  • Surprise! Epic Goblins! — Go above and below the PCs level; not only to build verisimilitude and tension, but to also give the PCs challenges that they can't easily overcome, as well as opportunities to kick butt.
  • Previously in Iomandra... — The quick summary the players need before each session starts; how to maximize.
  • I Don't Know What It Means, But I Like It — use ideas as they come to you.  They don't need to be fleshed out to introduce them. You don't have to know where they'll go.  Throw them all out, see which ones the players latch on to, and go with it.
  • My Campaign: The TV Series — how to adopt what makes good TV shows entertaining to your D&D campaign.
  • Instant Monster — some specifically 4e related advice on how to reskin monster stats and make them up on the fly.  
  • Point of Origin — some great advice on how to make player characters immediately latch on to the world as part of chargen.  Highly recommended.
  • A Moment in the Sun — how to involve all of your players in the game, and give them all a chance to have the spotlight here and there.
  • The Dastardly Duo — villain NPC advice.
  • She Eats Babies! — more villain NPC advice
  • Best Villain Ever — reader submitted villain NPCs
  • Man Down! — when a player leaves the group (i.e. moving away out of state, in this case.)
  • Big Map Attack — how to on making digital campaign maps
  • Constellation of Madness — advice on being unpredictable as GM and giving challenges that challenge the players at least as much as the characters.
  • Post Mortem — player character death and how to make the most of it
  • Special Guest Star — a concept on having a guest player, and how to use them effectively to make the thing more fun for everyone.
  • Popcorn — advice on using minions
  • The Wyrmworn Experiment — working through an involving character arc (secret: it involves much less planning than you think, and no railroading...)
  • Magnificent Minions — player submitted minions
  • Joy and Sorrow — on the player contract, on mature players, and how to pull things off that challenge them without pissing them off.
  • All Talk — on the combat-free session (and when to go ahead and indulge it anyway)
  • It's About Time — using time travel to challenge your players (ed. no thanks)
  • What's In a Name? — on names and NPCs and what kinds of development activities are actually useful to an under-preparing, wing-it style GM.
  • Voice Talent — on modeling NPCs to make them memorable
  • Intervention — the player who isn't on the same page as the rest of the group
  • Maptism — site maps
  • DM's Lib — don't over-prepare.  Don't railroad. If the PCs do something really unexpected, roll with it.
  • Epic Fail — on how to turn failure into entertainment for the players anyway. (Hunt: without DMus ex machina to undo their failure, of course.)
  • The Villains Fault — more advice on running villains effectively
  • T'wit — on pacing and contraction and helping the players stay on track without dragging them to the game.
  • Lies My DM Told Me — more great advice on running NPCs
  • C'est La Vie — PC death (note: the assumptions are for modern D&D where resurrection magic is relatively commonplace.)
  • The Invisible Railroad — it's not as bad as it sounds...
  • The Covenant of the Arcs — building campaigns around "story arcs" and NPC motivations rather than hex or site based exploration or module running and railroads
  • Setups and Payoffs — general GMing advice.
  • Love Letter to Ed Greenwood — not as cringey as it sounds (although Perkins is also Canadian...) More about NPCs, really.
  • 3DNPC — effective NPCs.  Echoes some Ray Winninger advice, actually—specifically his Second Rule of Dungeoncraft
  • Boo Hoo — on challenging the PCs.  A lot.
  • Catapult — on risk taking as players, and how to manage as GM
  • Lloyd the Beholder — on humor
  • Event Horizon — on session planning
  • Behind Every Good DM, Part 1 — player feedback
  • Behind Every Good DM, Part 2 — more player feedback
  • Riot Acts — on the three act encounter.  Highly recommended.  Brilliant stuff.
  • My Campaign Has Issues — on political and social issues that are "real life"
  • Player vs. Player — a specific kind of challenge for players.  Recommended too.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Surrounding Timischburg

I was thinking on some stuff I said late last week: the fact that running something like the Carrion Crown adventure path—even if compressed and heavily modified into CULT OF UNDEATH—isn't really my style.  This is true; what I'd normally do is use the material (maybe) that I've already developed, factored out at a high level the motives and plans of some villainous NPCs, and then that would be all that I'd have done.  I'd probably also do the same thing for other villainous NPCs, except no relation whatsoever to the CULT OF UNDEATH plotline.  As with CULT OF UNDEATH, though, it'd focus on the Mittermarkt and Ebenbach area—at least to begin with—before expanding out from there.

So, I'll continue the next few phases of CULT OF UNDEATH, because that's what this blogging project is all about.  But I will also talk briefly about what else I would add to an actual campaign that I were to run—assuming that I'd run this as an open-ended, meant to last for a while campaign.  One of the things that I'll need to do in order to pull this off is talk at a very high level about what's going on outside of Timischburg itself, since some of the threats will have origins outside, and it's likely that the PCs will eventually travel abroad to deal with them.  Right now, I don't know for sure what those other plot hooks are, but it will help me figure them out to figure out who else is in the neighborhood around Timischburg.  And since I'm fond of calling Timischburg a bowdlerized Ustalav (which is in itself a bowdlerized Unversal Horror version of Transylvania turned into D&D) with just a touch of Karrnath from EBERRON thrown in as well,  it makes sense to use a shorthand of some other source first, and then bowdlerize it from there.  (I like that word, by the way.)  So, I'll pick another nation from another setting (or from history), place it nearby, and then come up with my own new names.  At this early point, I doubt I'll spend much time worrying about how I will differ from the prototype, but I'm sure that all of these nations will end up differing from them as much as Timischburg differs from Ustalav before I'm done: it will have the same themes, but otherwise resemble the prototype very little in terms of details.

Directly to the east, and southeast from Timischburg, following the coastline of the Mezzovian Sea, will be the Terrasan Empire (borrowed from the Mark IV version of DARK•HERITAGE) which is a Mediterranean pseudo-Spanish or Aragonese (to be truly pedantic and precise) fantasy country.  I'll also presume that the elves live in forested, autonomous "reservation"-like areas either within or on the borders of Terrasa.  Halflings can also have communities here and there.

North of Terassa (and therefore northeastward, mostly, to Timischburg) will be the Empire of Warhammer's The Old World; a very Holy Roman Empire Teutonic fantasy country, and probably the original source of the Timischer aristocracy that rules Timischburg.  Directly north of Timischburg will be a kind of northern steppe and forest, mostly populated by either various barbarians (Celtic in style, I'd wager) or small settlements of the Empire moving further west.  And to the north of that will be more seas, and ersatz Vikings.  A mountain range running north-south from here (t-junctioning with the Knifepoint mountains, following a large gap) will be one that's populated by various strongholds of dwarves as well as goblins and hobgoblins.  Needless to say, these two populations are often at war with each other, as well as with the settlers and city-states and tribes of humans who live in the lowlands around them.  Some hardy, La Tène style "Gauls" live in the mountains too.

The northern coastline dips southward after this, so the country immediately to the northwest and west of Timischburg will be a "classical" country—i.e., a Graeco-Roman Republic at its height, just prior to its conversion to an Empire under Julius and Augustus Caesar.  I'll borrow anything from any era of Greek and Roman, from Bronze Age Achaeans to early Middle-ages late Roman Empire and stir it all together.  While this is a relatively good "protagonist" country, there are a lot of very dark cults that eat through the social fabric of this empire like worms; daemonic and Lovecraftian type stuff that's become relatively socially and politically powerful, even though it must remain under the surface, technically.  Although I think having something like a smaller version of the Worldwound—at least the same concept as the Worldwould—smack in the middle of this country would be interesting.

South of this ersatz Graeco-Rome would be a savage country of orcs; a combination of the Hold of Belkzen from Golarion (although I haven't read the longer book on that area yet, so I don't know how many details it will retain) combined with some Skorne stuff from Iron Kingdoms.  Further southwest of that are the city-states of Baal Hamazi and the homeland of the kemlings.  It'll be different than the DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV in some ways, because I'm sticking it on the coast, but I'm not worrying too much about the details of it yet.

In the middle of the Mezzovian Sea, mostly directly east of Baal Hamazi and directly south of "Belkzen", will be an undead country of pirates and slavers; very similar to Cryx from Iron Kingdoms (although probably less necro-steampunk, since that's too Iron Kingdoms to fit exactly in any other setting.)  And then there will be another shoreline to the very southeastern part of the map, south of Terrasa but across the Mezzovian Sea, which will be al Qazmir from DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV and the home of the jann.

(As an aside, it's curious how much of the old MODULAR DND CAMPAIGN SETTING material ended up being just that; modular stuff that I'm reusing again and again.  This whole expansion of the Timischburg setting almost feels like it could be a revision of my old PIRATES OF THE MEZZOVIAN MAIN game that I ran a number of years ago, except now with Timischburg bolted in.  Lot of "full circling" going on.)

I whipped up a very quick, sketchy "map" that is just ovals representing these countries; more to show their relative location to each other than anything else.

This list also has the following great side-effect: it pretty much creates a nearby homeland for all of the races you could pick.  Most of these nations are human nations, of course, but I've got nearby dwarfs, elfs, halflings, and orcs.  Cursed are already present in Timischburg itself.

Of the appendix races, it gives me homelands for the kemlings, goblins and jann; the woses are already also present in Timischburg.  Everybody's now on the board, including even hobgoblins (I could probably add them to the appendix, taking them from my EBERRON REMIXED work—or maybe I'll just treat this as a different culture than the Belkzen orcs.)

I've got "Dark Lords" not only in Grozavest itself, to some degree, but up in the Haunted Forest and out on the island of Cryx.  "Graeco-Rome" has dark cults, and Baal Hamazi is the remnants of a tiefling empire, basically—so it's got plenty of dark lords too.  This gives me lots of obvious and iconic fantasy villains, as well as the opportunity for potentially bitter rivalry between human countries whenever I need it.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Brief commentary on running the Cult of Undeath

OK, let's talk just a bit about the whole notion of running CULT OF UNDEATH since I've finished fleshing out everything that I would ever do prior to running what is a module's worth of adventure. (Even though it's pruned and summarized from two modules worth of adventure as published; and published Paizo modules tend to have more side-quests and extraneous crap in them than I'd ever run myself.)

I've said before that I'm not old school, but I am old-fashioned.  What do I mean by this? Mostly that I prefer systems that encourage and enable an old-fashioned, rulings-centric style, but I'm not old school in that I'm not a fan of the game played with those rules the way it was originally played. Most long-time players of D&D came into the hobby from one of three vectors, and have—speaking very broadly—three major playstyles (that don't necessarily correspond to the vector that brought them to the hobby.)  You could over-split this into more taxonomical classifications, but I'm deliberately keeping it rather broad.  The approach vectors to D&D, up to and including through the big "D&D as fad" period in the early 1980s, are the following:
  • Wargamers and other hobbyists.  This is the original vector into the hobby, but it was destined by its very nature to remain a niche vector.  Gygax and Arneson, of course, were hobby wargamers, and D&D rose out of playing around with solo variations on wargames that they were playing in wargaming hobby stores and whatnot.  
  • D&D players who may not have been wargamers, or even particularly interested in wargaming as a hobby (although they may have dabbled a bit here and there) but who were fans of fantasy fiction and wanted the game to resemble that as much as possible.  I'm one of these kinds; my wargame experience even today is limited to a handful of games played here and there, and looking over stuff because it was somehow related to D&D (in other words, D&D was an abortive vector into wargaming; the exact opposite as above.)  In fact, I presume that a very large majority of gamers came in via this vector, and it makes up by far the largest population within gamerdom.
  • D&D players who joined because it was faddish.  Back when the Puritan-descended totalitarians who have been culturally and socially dominant in America since Lincoln's War went through one of their many episodes of paranoia, hysteria and mob/Crusading, D&D was a target.  This predictably made lots of people check it out.  Most of them didn't really stay, they played D&D when it was faddish and stopped when it wasn't—but some of them did. 
While there is some correlation, I believe, between approach vector and later preferred style, it's not a perfect correlation.  Or rather, I think the first two are somewhat correlated to two specific playstyles, the third approach vector isn't correlated to anything, and the third playstyle is one that's just common no matter where you came from, because it's an easier way to run the game, and requires less effort and skill, while still giving a relatively decent result for most gamers.
  • Focus on sandboxing.  Hexcrawling is very popular with this crowd.  Modules that are not hexcrawl-like in nature are not often used.  This is what I mean when I say "old school"—there's a high correlation between the approach vector of wargames, the tendency to treat D&D itself more like a game where the characters are more like tactical chess pieces than characters, etc.  For whatever reason, this playstyle also tends to attract a lot of really whiny, bitter, resentful caitiffs who are desperate to smugly proclaim their superiority to anyone else who doesn't play the way that they do. 
  • Focus on module play.  This was unfortunately encouraged early on by the publication of tons of modules, of course, but a side-effect of that is that a lot of GMs don't really know how to run more player-driven games very well, and don't know what to do when players deviate from what's written, so they tend to railroad them back on track using ham-handed DMus ex machina.  Better GMs can pull this off, and assuming that the players are somewhat forgiving or willing to be a bit on the passive side here and there in the interest of promoting the game, this is probably by far the most common mode.  It's not limited to any particular approach vector, I don't think, although the wargamer approach vector seems to be the most likely to hate anything that even hints at this.
  • There is a third method, of course, which is probably driven by guys who are fans of fantasy stories, novels, movies, and TV shows, and who use techniques found therein to create a experience who's end result bears a passing similarity to those as well—including an emphasis on character and roleplaying to equal the emphasis on combat and exploration.  I doubt many people approach gaming with this style who don't come into the hobby via the second approach vector.  This is an approach that can go wrong if not done skillfully, although what usually happens to GMs who try this and fail is that their game simply degenerates into something like the second style above, but with home-made modules.  Either that, or it degenerates into sitting around talking sessions where nothing exciting happens.  The tea party with Lady Moonblade which takes up multiple sessions is the parody of complete devolution.  But that's what you get when the style goes wrong, or when you just have an extreme Girl D&D as Jane Austen Wannabe endpoint on the spectrum.  When it goes well, it's going to be more like an exciting action movie with likable characters.  Fantasy James Bond, maybe, or fantasy The Three Musketeers, etc.  Don't get me started on what the other two styles are like when they go wrong, but trust me; they're at least equally obnoxious and irritating.  I'm assuming for the sake of argument that when talking about these different playstyles, we're talking about when it's being run by a skilled and talented GM who understands the strengths and weaknesses of his style and does it well.
If you can't tell, I certainly am part of that third group.  There's some good advice out there from folks who are good at running games that way, if you can still find it, that used to be published in Dungeon Magazine as a column.  The first to get your hands on is Ray Winninger's run on the Dungeoncraft column, and the second is Chris Perkins' gig as the author of the DM Experience column.  Sadly, the archives of both are no longer available on the Wizards of the Coast website, which is a bizarre tragedy.  Luckily for me, I grabbed the text of all of those columns while it still was and copied and pasted it into a text doc so I could have them available when I wanted to read them—but I know for a fact that you can find most of the content for both at various other archive sites here and there.

Of course, you may be thinking to yourself, "Hey wait, this CULT OF UNDEATH project you've been describing doesn't really sound like the third method, it sounds more like the second method with a handful of nods to the first method sprinkled through it."  That's... actually not an unfair thing to note.  CULT OF UNDEATH is specifically me trying to find a way to adapt a module series in a way that would be successful for me, but it's not really my style to use published modules at all in the first place.  But assuming I were to want to, how would I make it work for me?  CULT OF UNDEATH is supposed to answer that.  I'm trying to keep it from becoming the worst kind of railroad, while still maintaining the structure of the modules, more or less.  (Well, actually I've changed a lot there too.  Paizo is a highly SJW-converged company, and its products reflect that same twisted, delusional world-view, so I've had to make some fairly significant structural changes so that their "horror themed adventure path" doesn't actually resemble the "anti-horror, anti-heroic hot mess" that was published.)

It's my intention that if I ever actually ran CULT OF UNDEATH, it would be in one of two ways.  The first is the simplest; it's a shorter, mini-campaign with a planned, bounded finish in sight from the get-go.  How fast it moves depends to a great degree on the group.  But from my most recent experience with my most recent group, I'd say that the whole campaign could be done in 8-12 sessions.  The stuff that I've already done could easily consume four sessions.  We have long sessions—often over five hours, but we've also known each other a fairly long time and "waste" a lot of time chatting, messing around, eating, and otherwise not really playing.  I'd guess we get anywhere between three and four actual hours of play in an evening.

The more intriguing way to use CULT OF UNDEATH would be to have it be only one of probably about three threads going on simultaneously.  This means that I'd need to create something like two other CULT OF UNDEATH equivalents, and drop all kinds of hooks and hints about those other two, interweaving them throughout the CULT OF UNDEATH experience.  Normally when I play like this, which is normally how I play, of course, I'm not adapting anything in particular.  I rarely have so much material planned out; I just have NPCs with vague goals that I've only fleshed out a few sessions at most of at a time.  I also wouldn't be adopting some other material without any reference to the PCs that I have, so I'd stuff going on that the players could really sink their teeth into, because it would relate more directly to their characters.  It's a much more fast and loose, invent stuff on the fly approach, that's driven by NPC agendas clashing with PC agendas.  By "planning" I really mean that I have some NPCs and they have their goals and plans, and I predict what the PCs are likely to do about it in the immediate term only, and then prepare something accordingly.  If my prediction isn't right, that's fine; I can usually use what I prepared in some other way,and if I can't, well, I figure something out.

I prefer not to let one thread dominate for too long before the ignored ones start to press in on the campaign by virtue of their neglect; the NPCs with their agendas are doing things while the PCs are otherwise occupied.  Anyway, as I said earlier, the best thing to do to understand how to run this method successfully is to read the columns mentioned above.  There were about 25 or so columns by Winninger before he briefly (and abortively) started over with another sample campaign.  The second example is not only incomplete, but it also just highlights the same methodology, so it can be skipped entirely without missing anything.  Chris Perkins' columns, on the other hand, weren't nearly so carefully organized, and he bounced back and forth from one topic to another. It's all good, but you really just kind of have to read it all.  There's at least a hundred columns, I'd guess.  But they're all relatively short.  About midway through his run, he collected all of them in a single 107 page pdf (but each column has gigantic titles, an illustration, and some white space, so it's not as intimidating as it sounds.)  And of course, it's only the first half of his columns.  I think the actual articles are still available on the WotC site if you do a search for Iomanda.  But you'll need a list of the columns if you want to read them in order.

Running Cult of Undeath, Part II.2

A part II.2—an expansion to Part II.  Borrowing some more encounter ideas from the first two modules, here's some other encounters that you could sprinkle here and there in the various areas of Ebenbach and Mittermarkt to add more stuff to the whole experience, just in case you'd rather not rush the plot-line, such as it is, along.  I highly recommend picking up at least a couple of these.  Not all of these are meant to be combat encounters.  In many cases, I refer you to the actual modules for some details on the NPCs.

THE CROOKED KIN.  A traveling circus of sorts is met on the road near the crossroads marked on the map between Ebenbach and Mittermarkt (they're on their way to Mittermarkt from the west.)  It's probably too late for them to make it to Mittermarkt before the day is over, and one of their performers, Aleece is missing.  As noted in The Beast of Lepidstadt, she's been killed by a giant spider after wandering too close to the river.  If her body is found, the spider will attack the PCs to preserve it's dinner and possibly add to it, although it won't fight to the death unless cornered.
SPIDER, GIANT: AC: 15 HD: 7d8 (35 hp) AT: bite +6 (1d6+4 plus poison)  STR: +6, DEX: +1, MND: -4, S: successful bite attacks deliver poison.  Target must succeed on STR+Level check DC 14 or take 1d4 STR damage.  One minute later, a second check must be passed or character takes 1d4 DEX damage.
The details about the rest of the carnival performers, if desired, can be taken from the module; they name and describe the entire troupe.

CITY WATCH CAPTAIN.  In Mittermarkt, Montagne Daramid is the captain of the city watch.  The town is all in an uproar, and rumors are flying fast and furious.  He's actually advertising for bounty hunters to help with finding those responsible.  The primary problem is, of course, the Beast, a flesh golem looking for its creator, Alpon Lechfeld.  Ebenbach is technically under his protection as well, although no watchmen patrol it (he does have two rangers who's assignment is to patrol the countryside around Mittermarkt, including Ebenbach, to a radius of about 15-20 miles, however.)  The challenge is, as you'll see below, the Beast is not the only problem Mittermarkt has right now...

THE SWAMPERS OF MORAST.  In the hex immediately to the NW of Mittermarkt, the river has soaked the ground for many miles, creating a vast forested marsh.  There is a small hamlet named Morast located there, more or less as described in The Beast.  Some of these swampers have been murdered, but this is not actually the work of the Beast; it's the work of unscrupulous grave-robbers who found their supply of fresh body parts insufficient for their needs, so they went to go create their own bodies.  Curiously, they also can be a clue which points to Lechfeld—they have stolen some of his notes from his office in the Academy (although semi-retired, Lechfeld kept an office that he visited once a week or so, and spent a night or two in.)  These murderers are Vorkstag and Grine; two collegues of Lechfeld's at the Academy.  I'm borrowing this concept from The Beast, but greatly reducing the complexity—these are just two professors with an interest in the arcane and bizarre who are murderers; there's not a whole little "dungeon" around them.

However, Vorkstag is a changeling, a humanoid who can take on the appearance of another person at will (although not their clothes or gear) which, if used with some cleverness, can make him an interesting antagonist to confront (although he's not a great fighter necessarily; especially compared to a whole party of PCs.)
VORGSTAG: AC: 14 HD: 3d6 (12 hp) AT: broadsword +3 (1d6), STR: +2, DEX: +2, MND: +2 S: Can change form as a single action.
And Grine should use the same stats, except that instead of the special noted above, he has access to 1d4 spells of your choice.  In addition, they have done some small prototypes of flesh golems, although they are not at the same level as the Beast, and are less dangerous.  One is, in fact, a dog-like creature, and the other is a small humanoid, made up of body parts of children, mostly—including some of the murder victims from Morast.
FLESH HOUND: AC: 14 HD: 2d12 (10 hp) AT: bite +4 (1d6+2) STR: +3, DEX: -2 MND: -3 S: Immune to most forms of magical attack.  Regular weapons do only half damage.  Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage. 
CHILD GOLEM: AC: 14 HD: 2d12 (15 hp) AT: slam +5 (2d4+2) STR: +3, DEX: -2 MND: -3 S: Immune to most forms of magical attack.  Regular weapons do only half damage.  Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage.
They'll probably be confronted in their locked Academy offices.  Their golems stay in a small house buried in the marshy woods not far from Morast.  Old Lazne from Morast is still the witness here, and he can also give the clue that specifically connects the Morast murders to Grine; who was wounded by a crocodile (or blood caiman) trap, as described in the module, while trying to murder another victim.  Grine still has the bite mark, since the murder attempt was only a few days ago.  Lazne also knows of the hidden marsh cottage with the golems, which will also have incriminating evidence in it after the two golems are destroyed, that points to Vorgstag and Grine as the culprits of these particular murders.

HERGSTAG.  You can use Hergstag from the module; a small hamlet across the river that's been abandoned the last few weeks.  The Beast is actually responsible for these murders here, though—there's little to discover here that Captain Daramid's rangers haven't already.  There's no mystery to uncover here, really—although in the wake of the murder, dangerous wild animals may have taken up residence in the remains of the village.

SANCTUARY.  This is an asylum located just upriver from Mittermarkt, and easily visible from the walls.  As noted in the module, it's been burned and abandoned in the last several weeks; although it wasn't "the Shambling Man" who is responsible; it was the Beast itself, trying to find Lechfeld.  The place has been inhabited by a small pack of ghouls since its destruction, though—three of them.  Because of their proximity, they will shortly present a real threat to the town if not dealt with.

The ghouls here come from another small town (which I'll need to add to the map) just a hex or two up the road (and river) from Mittermarkt, at the crossroads of the main road, which continues from Mittermarkt into Vetala County, and a small, poorly maintained and infrequently used narrow path that heads towards Eltdown.  This small town is named Frouxerr, and if it needs to be detailed, use the map of Carrion Hill from the adventure of the same name.

Meanwhile, in Ebenbach, while the ghosts are wreaking havoc, this is also causing a great deal of turmoil in the small village, including the expression of strange madness and more.  The following take place in The vicinity of Ebenbach.

MONUMENT DESECRATION.  The possession of Gibs is more or less as detailed in the first module; although there's no Vesorianna holding the ghosts in; it's the professor's stolen amulet that has allowed them to wander freely.  But the possession is a nice touch, with its sleepwalking mischief, up to murder.

NURSERY RHYMES.  Children around town have started saying a bizarre nursery rhyme.  They profess no knowledge of how they learned it, and may even be confused when they are interrupted and asked about it, as if they didn't even know that they were saying it.
Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
The Mourning Maid will pass this way.

Baby, baby, she's a vicious crone,
Heart as black as Mittermarkt's steeple,
And she feasts on those not grown
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if she hears you
As she passes by the house,
Limb from limb at once she'll tear you,
Just as a cat tears a mouse.

And she'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And she'll beat you into pap,
And she'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.
Of course, the Mourning Maiden is a ghost released by the loss of the amulet.  Not unlike The Woman in Black, she targets children in particular as victims.

RAT SWARMS.  The Pied Piper haunt manifests during the day too, in a minor fashion.  Rat swarms appear suddenly from wells, fields, sewers, or other places, and run wild through the village, frightening everyone before disappearing again into the countryside.  This can happen several times a day for a few days, until the Pied Piper haunt is destroyed.

RESTLESS DEAD.  It's not just ghosts, of course.  If you want to step up the scariness, have a handful of bodies actually crawl out of the graveyard here and there at night.  No more than one a night, and not every night, but this can be done up to three times before the villagers are panicked about it.
RESTLESS DEAD: AC: 12 HD: 1d6 (4 hp) AT: hand strike +1 (1d6) STR: -1, DEX: -1, MND: -4, S: undead immunities, only takes half damage from arrows or bullets.
All of this starts less than a week after the death of Alpon Lechfeld, and contributes the rumor that spreads like wildfire that he's a necromancer and rests uneasily in his own grave, tormenting the poor people of Mittermarkt and Ebenbach following his death.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Running Cult of Undeath, Part II

  • A well-loved professor, Alpon Lechfeld has died in what appears to be an accident—although there are some suspicious clues that cannot rule out foul play.  For the sake of getting the game going, I'm going to tell the PCs that they've all been asked to be pallbearers and are named as (minor) heirs in his will.  He'll give them a few things, but most of his fortune is left to his daughter Revecca.
  • Ghosts are appearing in town, threatening (or at least frightening) many residents, that can be traced to a haunted and abandoned ruin of a former prison.  Why are they leaving their normal territory? (linked to the murder above.)
  • A rampaging Frankenstein-monster is blamed for some more townsfolk murders.  This, and the ghosts, are probably happening at the same time, so nobody knows which is responsible.
  • A mob of townsfolk wants to exhume Lechfeld and "put down his corpse"—of course, it turns out that someone has already exhumed him and dismembered his corpse, as well as apparently eaten some other recently dead in the graveyard.  Notably, an amulet that he was buried with is missing.  Revecca suggests that this amulet kept the ghosts in check in some way; if it's gone, that explains their extraordinary aggressiveness.
  • The Frankenstein monster was a creation of Lechfeld himself in an extremely foolhardy experiment years ago, and it has come into town looking for him when he stopped visiting.  It really is a monster, though, not some misunderstood something or other—he's killed numerous townsfolk viciously.
  • The ghosts have to be put down (salt and burn their remains) in their haunted house.
  • The professor's beautiful and friendly and otherwise hopefully quite sympathetic daughter, is missing.  Gigantic wolf-paw prints and other hints of that nature surround the area she was last seen.
  • Her kidnappers are, indeed, werewolves from the Bitterwood, and they've taken her to Innsburough.
  • To follow up, the werewolves may have to be confronted in the Bitterwood, though.  They're too good at covering their tracks to be followed to Innsborough.
  • The Black Path has Revecca in their grasp, and want to sacrifice her on the Devil's Reef by Otto von Szell, the manorial lord of the Innsborough territory.
  • Revecca knows enough about her father's amulet to use it as a key to enter the sealed tomb of Grozavest.  This ability is related to its ability to suppress undead activity in some way.  But Otto von Szell had his own ideas, and wanted to call up some undersea daemon (Typhon?) to destroy his rivals in the Black Path.  Namely, Grigore Stefanescu.
  • Stefanescu steals Revecca and her father's amulet, either from the PCs if they've rescued her, or from von Szell if for some reason they don't.  Maybe it's a ghoul group that actually carries out the abduction?  Ghouls from Dragomiresti seems like a good way to bring that into play.
  • The ghouls take Revecca to Grozavest, where Stefanescu foolishly intends to "rescue" a Primogenitor sealed in with Melek Taus, thinking that by so doing, he will gain a champion capable of dealing with any of the other noble houses.
Ideally, this would be interwoven and run concurrently with the ghost business from Part I.  The Beast of the Ebenbach Road is more apt to attack travelers on the road between Mittermarkt and Ebenbach than to attack people in either location.  It's a ravenous flesh golem, looking for its creator, and obviously not being able to find him, since his creator is Lechfeld himself, and he's dead.  

What are flesh golems like in CULT OF UNDEATH (or DARK•HERITAGE for that matter?)  For the real low-down, read "Herbert West: Reanimator" by Lovecraft; written as a deliberate parody or pastiche of Frankenstein.  That's what we're going for here.  (If you haven't ever read that before, you should, even if you don't care what I think about flesh golems.  It's a pretty cool story.  Funny that Lovecraft himself was never happy with it.  He hated that he was required to write it in a serial format with a cliffhanger at the end of each installment, which was not his normal style.)  In Mary Shelley, the golem was a sad, pitiable philosopher.  In "Herbert West" they're savage monsters who would likely try to eat you if they noticed you.

The golem has attacked a few travelers on the road over the last few days, but now its breaking into homes or barns or something in Mittermarkt.  People are dead, and their bodies gnawed on and partially eaten.  The mob gets kicked up trying to figure out what's going on—or at least to find someone to blame and lynch.

Here's the golem stats, from the monster list:
GOLEM, FLESH: AC: 16 HD: 4d12 (28 hp) AT: slam +8 (2d6+4) STR: +8, DEX: -2 MND: -3 S: Immune to most forms of magical attack.  Regular weapons do only half damage.  Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage. 
The stitched together remains of human(oids) given an evil unlife by foul magic.  Flesh golems are notoriously tough and difficult to kill, although luckily they are very rare, and the research into the creation of one is usually punishable by death in most civilized lands.
The Beast, when put down, has fragments of notes on golem creation in its pockets—in Alpon Lechfeld's own hand, and prominently mentioning his name.  And yeah; turns out he had a bit of a reputation as a macabre eccentric, prowling graveyards, and whatnot.  While it had been seen as part of his research, he's now universally decried as a necromancer, and the cause of these attacks—both by the ghosts and by the Beast—and the mob wants to exhume him to (at the very least) make sure that he's really, truly dead.  Maybe treat him like a vampire; behead him and stuff his mouth with garlic, or burn his body, or something.

There's a major clue when he's unearthed; his body has been dismembered, they find that other graves in the cemetery have also been raided (and partially eaten.)  Most importantly, Revecca notes that an amulet that he was insistent in his will be buried with him is missing.  Revecca knows something about this amulet, and suggests that it was the key that was holding back the haunts; now that it's missing, that's why they're all going crazy.

Of course, the PCs may insist that the body not be exhumed.  They may take no interest in what the villagers do, on the other end of the spectrum.  I'm always hesitant to have the next step of the adventure hinge on them finding some clue that they may not find, and may not even be interested in looking for.  So, they don't have to.  The townsfolk will probably eventually get around the PCs and dig up the body, and then rumors will reach their ears.  The next phase is Revecca being kidnapped, and if they don't have any knowledge of the amulet, well they can still move forward without knowing that.  They can find out about the amulet some other way.  Heck; if the PCs don't do anything heroic, maybe someone else can; I think it'd be funny if a bunch of flat on their asses PCs are dinking about around town and another group of bounty hunters or adventurers show up with the amulet that they rescued from a pack of ghouls leaving town, and they're bringing it back as a gesture of good will.

This is the beauty of adventure planning by focusing on "what will the NPCs do, unless interrupted by the PCs?"  It doesn't require the PCs to do anything if they don't really want to.  But the world goes on without them doing it, or goes on while they're chasing after red herrings somewhere else, or while they're distracted by some other whatever.  If they want to do that, they can.  The NPCs just keep putting their plans in motion all the easier.

What are some other potential encounters or avenues that the PCs might chase down?  They might try to track the amulet thieves, which as noted, are a pack of ghouls—probably 8-10 of them.  
GHOUL: AC: 13 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT: claws or bite +2 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: -1, S: touch paralyzes for 1d4 rounds, humans wounded by ghouls are cursed if they fail a MND + level check (DC 12) and will slowly turn into ghouls themselves.  This process involves taking 1 point of MND damage every day (which does not heal overnight) until they reach -5, at which point the conversion is complete.  GM may provide antidote/remedy to counter this curse. 
Formerly humans, who fell prey to daemonic, cannibal rituals, and were transformed via blackest necromancy into feral, subhuman monsters that endure endless hunger for human(oid) flesh.  Their most fearsome ability is their tendency to spread their curse to those who survive their attacks.
Ghouls are nasty opponents for lower level PCs.  You might want to have a notion in your back pocket of how the PCs can find some way to deal with the ghoul curse if they follow up with this.  Either that, or the survivors will have to ruthlessly put down their former comrades when they turn into ghouls themselves.  Harsh.

If they're really harsh, they might end up fighting against the mob of townsfolk, although if they do that, they'll find that they've worn out their welcome very quickly, assuming that they don't get killed. Regular human civilians aren't tough, but when there's thirty of them, maybe a couple of old veterans, and they have big mean dogs too, they can be trouble to a party of low level PCs.  And even if they kill and/or chase off the mob, then they'll have to deal with the sheriff and his deputies.
HUMAN, TOWNSFOLK: AC: 11 HD: 1d6 (4 hp) AT: weapon +0 (1d6), STR: +0, DEX: +0, MND: +0 
HUMAN, VETERAN OR DEPUTY: AC: 12 HD: 1d10 (6 hp) AT: weapon +1 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: +0 
HUMAN, SHERIFF: AC: 14 HD: 3d6 (12 hp) AT: weapon +3 (1d6), STR: +2, DEX: +2, MND: +2 
DOG: AC: 12 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT: bite +2 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +1, MND: -3
Anyway, there's also the possibility of some countryside exploration as they're looking around for clues.  Like I said earlier, interweave all of these things with the ghost stuff I mentioned in Part I, and this can be a plenty busy few nights of role-playing.