Wednesday, April 30, 2014

OSWARP Website Now Up!

OSWARP, the east coast old school gaming convention, now has an official website. Come on by, and if you're anywhere near New Jersey (or will be in July), sign up for the convention, maybe run a game. It would be terrific if we had enough support to spin the convention off on its own in 2015!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

If I owned Greyhawk

A thought experiment.

If I was in charge of Greyhawk right now, with 5th Edition coming out this summer, and the setting itself having officially lain fallow, for all intents and purposes, for nearly fifteen years, this is what I would do with it.

I'd have a three-pronged approach.

The first prong would be traditional RPG supplements; more specifics on those in a minute. The second prong would be board and card games that were set in Greyhawk and which played on what I think are its unique strengths. The third would be a series of miniatures and scenarios specifically designed to play into the upcoming Battlesystem rules that were announced yesterday.

I happened to catch some of the Q&A from last Friday's video broadcast, and was (pleasantly) astonished to see the Wizards of the Coast guys talking about treating settings in exactly the same way I've been talking about for quite some time now. Choose a (relatively early) point in the timeline and make that the "default" starting point in the setting. Then have a tableau of events happening in the background. Any given DM could use or not use those events as he sees fit. Perhaps his players will alter the course of those events.

Such an approach requires a deft touch and a firm knowledge of the setting, of course. What are the implications of the PCs rescuing Prince Thrommel from the Temple of Elemental Evil? Veluna and Furyondy are merged in alliance. How does that impact what Iuz does in CY 585? Give some alternatives for pivotal events, especially ones which the PCs could reasonably be expected to participate.

But doing so means you can't extend the timeline too far. The Forgotten Realms chronology spans more than a hundred years (the Grey Box being set in 1357 DR and the Campaign Guide being set in 1479 DR). It would be nigh unto impossible to provide viable alternatives for all of the major events that the PCs could influence, especially when they interact with one another.

But Greyhawk, right now, only spans fifteen years (the Folio and Gold Box being set in CY 576, and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer being set in CY 591). There's a lot of history packed into that decade and a half, but it's still manageable. Certainly enough for a paragraph here and there to describe "alternate timelines" that a home campaign could follow. Fifteen years of in-game time seems like plenty to me, but I might take it out another ten years just to make it an even quarter-century. After that, leave everything to the DM to work out (and stick to that promise!).

So the first "prong" of my approach would have a major setting product, based in CY 576. A boxed set with gorgeous maps would be ideal, but a suitably detailed book would do. Then have another product, which I have previously called the Great Greyhawk Campaign (in homage to the Great Pendragon Campaign product), which details not only the historical changes to the setting over the course of the next 25 years, but gives the DM specific tools that he can use to make the setting come alive through those events. Finally, another end-cap setting product, detailing the world as of CY 601, giving DMs who want to start their own campaigns without the detailed events happening in the background.

That middle product, the Great Greyhawk Campaign, would be a new sort of thing for the setting. I'd organize it by year, broken down by region and season. Have rumors available in different places and different times, so that the PCs will hear about wars and sieges, peace treaties and invasions, as is relevant to where they are at the time. Folks in the Pale in the spring of CY 577 are going to hear different rumors than those in Keoland in CY 585. There would be a detailed breakdown of events in each locale as well. Troop movements, assassinations, intrigues, battles, strange events, royal weddings, etc. Nothing would say that a DM would need to follow this "canonical" timeline, but it would be there, available, and would provide a backdrop against which he could play his campaign.

Adventure modules happening against the backdrop of war and intrigue raging across the Flanaess would follow. Most of the "location based adventures", which don't really change over time, like the Tomb of Horrors or Castle Greyhawk, would be set in 576 as a default, but could be plugged in just about anytime. Others might or might not be timeframe-specific, depending (and if they are, I'd want to include guidelines for moving any of them around in the timeline).

And later on, of course, I'd want to start expanding the descriptions of the world beyond the Flanaess.

The second "prong" would be tabletop board games. I've long been tinkering with a "Merchant Princes of the Flanaess" concept, moving trade goods from city to city. Deliver a lot of silver to Rauxes, and the price goes down. Draw a card, and there's a famine in Wintershiven, and the price of grain goes up there. I've also got a "Fight for the Malachite Throne" idea in the back of my mind. A card game, where players are factions within House Naelax, struggling to get their favorite son on the throne as the reigning Overking lays dying. First there is behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but when enough cards have been played, he dies of natural causes, and the gloves come off. Lots of other such non-RPGs are possible; look at the success of the Lords of Waterdeep board game. That would work in Greyhawk just as well.

And thirdly, since Wizards of the Coast has announced that a mass battle module/game will be forthcoming, a series of miniatures and battle scenarios that capitalizes on the Greyhawk campaign's origins in wargaming. That's one of its great strong points, moreso than almost any other campaign setting (Birthright being a possible notable exception). The Battle of a Fortnight's Length, the Battle of Emridy Meadows, Iuz's invasion of the Bandit Kingdoms, the Iron League vs. South Province/Medegia, the Hateful Wars, the rise of the Empire of the Pomarj... There are dozens of awesome wars and famous battles that could be used as the basis for a whole line of Battlesystem figures and both individual scenarios and campaigns. Dibs on the first set of Knights of Holy Shielding figures...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

On Sandboxes

Even though I'm probably best known for megadungeons, the style of play I personally prefer is the sandbox. The thing is, the sandbox, while it seems on the outside to be relatively simple (throw a lot of random stuff together, and let the PCs have at it), it's actually one of the most difficult things to pull off properly.

Yes, this post is inspired by RPGPundit's review of Isle of the Unknown.

Properly done, a sandbox campaign can be the most satisfying of all modes of play. It gives the PCs complete agency over what they do, where they go, and how they choose to interact with the environment. So, many GMs assume that the key to designing a sandbox is to present the PCs with a region (or an island, or a city, or something else that is geographically bounded in some way) that is stuffed with interesting things, and then shove them out the castle door and let them find things and have a wonderful time in the process.

This is a completely incorrect view of a properly constructed sandbox.

The first point that is missed is that all too often, one thinks that a sandbox means there is no plot. In fact, a lot of folks point to the sandbox as the "anti-railroad" and come to precisely this conclusion. This is perhaps the number one misconception about the RPG sandbox concept. There is indeed a plot. In fact, that's one of the hallmarks of a well-done sandbox; there are many plots, all happening simultaneously. In fact, one of the best uses of plot in a sandbox campaign is to have several of them interact with one another on some level.

Having a bunch of stuff randomly strewn around without any sort of rhyme or reason doesn't make for a good sandbox campaign. Perhaps a good funhouse campaign (and even my own Castle of the Mad Archmage has plots and factions and such that the PCs can interact with in a meaningful manner, and NPCs from whom they can gather valuable information about the dungeon, if they choose to do so), but "every hex is a new weird experience" isn't a sandbox. It's a funhouse. And after a while it doesn't get fun, because there's absolutely no way to predict what the next weird experience is going to be.

Now, before you go all "plot means railroad!!" on me, consider that the mere fact that plots (both in the sense of conspiracies and the sense of pre-planned stories) exist in a campaign does not compel the PCs to follow any of them. Which brings us to the second point...

Player agency cannot exist in a sandbox where the players are making blind choices.

Take, for instance, an island where each hex has a unique monster or some weird magical artifact. Nothing is tied to anything else, and the PCs are blundering from hex to hex and fighting monsters that rear their heads from the foliage, are fought, and then the PCs move on to the next hex. They might stumble on a dungeon, or a group of bandits, or something, but they are essentially flying blind with no idea of what's out there.

In such a case, how can it matter, from the perspective of the PCs, whether they go north or east? They have no idea (and, more to the point, there is no way for them to have any idea) what the difference between going north and going east might be, so they flip a coin. That is not giving the PCs any sort of agency, and that is ultimately not a satisfying experience.

Now, however, imagine exactly the same island, but one where there are two competing cults of which the cleric is aware (in vague terms, possibly knowing their symbols and a snippet about each). The ranger's mentor has told him of a ruined keep on the shores of a lake to the north, and the thief, as a member of the local Guild, knows about a group of bandits to the east that recently raided a caravan and captured a load of spices.

Now the party can at least make an informed decision about whether to go north or east, or to strike out to the west and see what they stumble across. If they happen to stumble across a shrine belonging to one of the cults, the cleric can chime in and possibly add some context; all the better if in that shrine they read a cryptic prophecy that points in the general direction of an abandoned mine to the northwest. And if they capture some of the bandits, they find that one of them has a tattoo marking them as a member of the other cult, and when pressed, he tells them about a secret meeting to take place three nights' hence at a bluff overlooking the river. And so forth.

So, rather than just having a bunch of random, unconnected encounters, the tapestry of the sandbox now has at least three different strings that the PCs can tug on. Two of those strings, it turns out, are connected. If properly set up, there will be other strings out there, waiting to be discovered. Will the PCs start following the string that leads them to the mines, or will they choose to follow the one that leads them to the castle? And what happens if they choose one or the other? Perhaps in a month, if the cultist meeting is allowed to go forth unmolested, a greater threat will arise in the PCs base town. Which then turns into another plot string that they may, or may not, choose to tug on.

The point is that a properly constructed sandbox gives the PCs informed choices. There could be a dozen plot threads that they could choose to follow, or not, as fits their whim. Those choices should have consequences; if they ignore the fact that Hastur is going to be summoned When the Stars Are Right, they should at least have some chance to figure out that's what they're doing. "Oops! You didn't go north, so the Old One has destroyed the town. Tough luck!" is exactly what should not happen.

That's why sandboxes are so very difficult to construct. It's actually much easier to design a railroad adventure. The PCs go from place A to place B to place C, and their actions and the broad outlines of the consequences are known. But a sandbox is a three-dimensional grid with a myriad of options. In order for the PCs to make sense of those options, they have to be given the information necessary to make a decision that is anything more than just a random flip of a coin.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Who Framed the Avengers?

For obvious reasons, there is a lot of talk in fandom about the various Marvel properties owned by competing film studios. Fox owns the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Sony owns Spider Man, and of course Marvel itself owns the rest, including the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Ant Man, etc.

Bear in mind that the studios, although rivals, aren't completely against the idea of doing cameos that cross studio lines. Apparently the Oscorp Tower almost made it into The Avengers (it was cut because by the time the building's design was finalized, the Avengers NYC skyline had already been rendered, and there wouldn't be time to include it). And because of a bit of contractual legerdemain, there will be a helping of shawarma relating to X-Men: Days of Future Past after the credits of the Amazing Spider Man II (but that isn't indicative of any coming cross-over between Spidey and the X-Men).

Now, this begs the question, given the multi-billion dollar potentials with the Marvel properties, between Spider Man, X-Men, and the Avengers (not to mention Fantastic Four, etc.), why don't the studios make some sort of deal to cross-pollinate their properties?

There is certainly precedent in Hollywood. Look at 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

In that film, Disney kept control of the project, but arranged deals with the owners of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Felix the Cat, and Betty Boop to bring those characters (and more) in as cameos. In exchange, the owners of those characters got to stipulate how they were used (Bugs and Mickey shared a scene, as did Donald and Daffy), and I'm sure were handsomely paid, and everyone hailed it as a milestone not only of animation but of inter-studio cooperation. They had Steven Spielberg to argue their case, but Joss Whedon might do as well, given his recent track record.

I see no reason the same sort of thing couldn't be done for the Marvel Universe properties. Fox has already said they'd be up for it.

What if the studios who owned the various characters arranged for very strictly controlled, limited, and reciprocal cameo appearances? Simple background stuff should be easy, assuming it can be worked out technically (as with the Oscorp building showing up in Avengers; surely the Avengers tower could show up as Spider Man swings by). It could be more involved than that. Wolverine gets a five-minute scene in Captain America 3 (reminiscing in a bar about World War 2?), and in return X-Men: Apocalypse gets a five-minute segment showing S.H.I.E.L.D. reacting to whatever the heck is going on, helicarriers and Nick Fury and all. If New York gets trashed in the new Fantastic Four movie, there's a quick scene of Spider-Man webbing some debris out of the way before it crushes a baby carriage, and in return Doctor Doom is seen turning down the Sinister Six when they come to him for assistance. The details could be worked out, but it could be done.

The point is that these sorts of crossovers don't have to be huge, multi-movie-spanning deals. Just a couple of minutes here and there, woven in and between the various studios, could not only cement the franchises as belonging to the same larger universe, but would also serve to raise all boats as people who like Spider Man might be a little more inclined to see Fantastic Four, and Avengers will pull in some more X-Men fans.

It worked for Roger Rabbit. It can work for Steve Rogers.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

More on the Temple of Elemental Evil

Over the years I've done a lot of thinking about the published T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. To my mind, it's one of the great disappointments in D&D history - we fans were waiting literally for years for the follow-up to the excellent T1 Village of Hommlet, and what we got seemed bloated, listless, and generally a let-down (Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits being another huge disappointment, and interestingly connected to ToEE, as we shall see).

Some past posts of mine talked about connections between the ToEE and the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, the novel by Thomas M. Reid, a first pass at possible connections between the Elder Elemental God of the Vault of the Drow and the Temple of Elemental Evil, and speculations on the nature of the Elder Elemental God itself. That last will become highly relevant, as you'll see.

I've rounded up some relevant quotes from Gary Gygax concerning his original intentions for the Temple, with an eye towards perhaps "fixing" it. I've cleaned up a few of the quotes to make them more understandable and focused on the ToEE itself, and included some more specific references in brackets, but there are links to the originals if you want to read them in situ.
Thinking back, I believe that the "nine" [in the poem in ToEE p. 66] was meant to refer to Thrommel being the ninth of his line in succession for the crown--and his level, which of course could not be "known" per se. the trouble is, one forgets to set forth all the information created as backstory.
As for Lareth, yes, I did plan to develop Lolth in a different direction. The Q1 module sort of shot that idea down in flames...
She would have made a comeback via the EEG, though, as he was planned as the central baddie in another adventure module...that I never got around to writing (EnWorld Q&A part II)
* * * 
I had hoped to get to the Elder Elemental god in a sequel to the ToEE, but... (EnWorld Q&A part II)
* * * 
Q: In your original conception of the Temple of Elemental Evil, was Zuggtmoy the big baddie, or did you come up with her as a replacement for Lolth after Q1 was released and you were forced to rethink her involvement?
A: When Dave Sutherland did the Q1 as it was, and Brian okayed it, I was rather stuck. Lolth was supposed to be in there, and in the depths the prison of the Elder Elemental God. I had my hands full with the management of the D&D Entertainment Corp. out on the West Coast, so I couldn't get to the completion of the ToEE. That's when Frank Mentzer took a hand and filled in the lower levels that I hadn't detailed. That's why they ended where they did instead of proceeding downwards more to where the EEG's area was going to be. (EnWorld Q&A part III)
* * * 
Q: At the end of D3, the party can end up with the "egg". "In the egg are an iron pyramid, a silver sphere, a bronze star of eight points, and a cube of pale blue crystal." [Great Fane of Lolth, Dungeon Level, Room 5.] The pyramid, sphere, eight-pointed star, and cube evolved into the triangle, circle, eight-pointed star, and square from the ToEE correct [see p.108 of ToEE]? Did you intend the items in the egg to be associated with the elements as they turned out being in the ToEE?
A: When I wrote an adventure I always tried to put in a few disguised hooks for later exploitation, or not, as the creative muse moved me.
As you note, the shapes were repeated in the ToEE as I did intend to tie the latter into the series. Lolth was to be connected to the temple, she the key to activation of that which would remove the imprisoning bonds from the Elder Elemental God. Of course that would have been by unintended consequences of her actions when the PCs discovered her.
How it was all to operate was something I never did get fleshed out. This was to happen in the lower levels of the temple, the development of which I never got around to because of my work out on the West Coast. (EnWorld Q&A part III)
* * * 
Q: Is there any relationship between The Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE) and the Elder Elemental God? (T1-4 indicates no relation whatsoever, but according to your above comment on the Eye of Fire symbol, it appears she was blatantly using the EEG’s symbol, or a parody of it, as part of her ruse-religion to draw evil beings into her service.)
A: You have sussed out a dark secret! The EEG was indeed meant by me to have a place in the very nethermost recesses of the ToEE. An anomaly there allowed him to manifest a portion of himself, and by doing the wrong (right from the DM’s point of view) thing the adventurers could release him also! Of course that would counter somewhat the freeing of Zuggtmoy, had she been loosed, so on balance it could serve to redress that error. But, alas, I was too busy with other things at the time when the project was being completed. As it was already quite hefty, I decided to omit any mention of this to Frank Mentzer, and so the ToEE was released with only the Eye of Fire as a clue to what I should have included in the adventure. (Oerth Journal 12)
So, to boil all this down, it seems there is definitely a connection between the Elder Elemental God that is worshipped by Eclavdra and the drow house Eilservs, and the Temple of Elemental Evil. They share an unholy symbol (the trisected triangle, aka the Eye of Fire).

The Elder Elemental God is partially manifested in the deepest levels of the dungeons beneath the Temple. The magical devices in Lolth's "egg" correspond to the elemental symbols in the Temple, and are presumably the keys to releasing the Elder Elemental God (or keeping him captive).

There are actually two trapped powerful beings beneath the Temple. Zuggtmoy, who was imprisoned by the forces of Good when the Temple fell, and the Elder Elemental God, who took advantage of an "anomaly" below Zuggtmoy's prison and sought to escape his own extra-dimensional prison through here. In so doing, he became stuck. It is possible to free him, however, as well as Zuggtmoy.

I think it can all be put together like this...

In the distant past, the Elder Elemental God was imprisoned on a distant star by the demonness Lolth. The contents of the egg are the keys to his prison. It is only in certain anomalous locations, such as the dungeons under the Hill Giant fortress, the Fire Giant halls, and the Vault of the Drow itself that he can even partially manifest himself, with the aid of magic such as the tentacle rods. Another such anomaly is beneath the Temple.

Zuggtmoy, seeking a suitable "cover" cult, settled on that of Elemental Evil, believing that the Elder Elemental God was in no position to object. She was unaware of his ability to partially manifest. With Iuz as partner, she set her new Temple of Elemental Evil atop the ruins of an ancient shrine to the Elder Elemental God, drawing on a bastardized version of its iconography, not realizing that her efforts were strengthening the imprisoned god, eventually allowing him to partially manifest beneath the Temple, although still unable to actually escape his prison.

In 569, The Temple was defeated at the Battle of Emridy Meadows and Zuggtmoy imprisoned beneath the Temple by the forces of Good. They were unaware of the Elder Elemental God's presence, believing the "cover story" that Zuggtmoy was behind it all. Construction of a small keep is begun in Hommlet, to garrison the area against a resurgence of the Temple.

After the triumph of Good, the Temple is riven by factions. The four elemental cults are made up of those "useful idiots" who were unaware that "Elemental Evil" was just a cover for Zuggtmoy and Iuz's machinations. Factions loyal to both of those demonic entities are to be found, as well as a faction loyal to Lolth, who sent agents to infiltrate the Temple, thinking it was a genuine manifestation of the Elder Elemental God.

Once he himself was freed from the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, Iuz began his attempts to liberate his ally and restore the Temple, needing a force to keep Furyondy/Veluna off guard with a threat to their rear. Humanoids and brigands begin to trickle back to the place, and spies are placed in Nulb and Hommlet (and beyond). Prince Thrommel is kidnapped and kept in the Temple dungeons for safekeeping.

At this point, rumors of the revival of the Temple begin to spread as the raids by bandits and humanoids under its banners begin anew. The adventurers arrive at the tiny village of Hommlet to investigate...

This gives a lot of layers to the onion. The outermost layer is the Cult of Elemental Evil, which is just a ploy invented by Zuggtmoy. Within that layer are the cults of Zuggtmoy and Iuz, acting as pupper-masters from the shadows. But there are also agents of Lolth, there to infiltrate and undermine what they believe is a legitimate cult of the Elder Elemental God. And in the innermost recesses is the actual Elder Elemental God, trying to escape the prison that Lolth has placed him in, partially manifested in the deepest levels of the dungeons. The surviving factions of the Cult, although currently directionless and feuding, could be brought back in line either by a freed Zuggtmoy, an engaged Iuz, or by stumbling on the actual Elder Elemental God, whom they thought they had been worshiping all along!

In a "fixed" version of the adventure, I would keep T1 (Hommlet and the Moat House) and T2 (Nulb) intact. Some of the material on the upper levels is good, but I'd make the factionalized nature of the inhabitants a lot more obvious, and rework the elemental nodes thing, which never really worked for me. I do love Zuggtmoy's prison. I'd also add a deeper section that was the actual locale of the Elder Elemental God. The players could free Zuggtmoy or the EEG, Lolth could be summoned (and if slain, she leaves behind her platinum egg that contains the keys to the Elder Elemental God's prison...).

And, if the party ever adventures in the Hill Giant Steading or the Hall of the Fire Giant King, they might find those temples beneath them look awfully familiar...

Happy Easter


Saturday, April 19, 2014

New Spell and Monster: Egregore

(This spell and associated monster description are published under the auspices of the OGL, and are designated as Open Game Content.)

Create Egregore

Level 4 Mage spell (evocation)
Requires: Incantation
Casting time: 1 hour per maximum level of spellcasters

This spell invokes an egregore - a mental construct agreed upon by the participants in the spell - which is given form and power by those who cast the spell in unison with a specified purpose. It requires a minimum of three spellcasters, all of whom have memorized the spell and who begin the casting at the same time, and can be cast by a maximum of seven. More and higher level spellcasters will result in a more powerful and longer-lasting egregore. It has no effect if less than three spellcasters cast it, even partially, and no mage can cast the spell while an egregore in whose creation he previously participated is still extant.

By combining their energies and concentration into a shared goal, the casters of this spell will bring into existence an egregore (see below). The exact form and purpose of the egregore must be agreed upon by all of the casters of the spell at the beginning of the casting - if even a single participant varies in his intentions for the egregore, the spell will fail. The purpose of the egregore must be clearly stated in no more than twenty words; like any construct, the egregore will follow the letter of its instructions, and it is entirely possible that a slight miswording could lead to disaster.

The cumulative levels of the three or more mages who cast the spell will determine the duration, hit dice, and damage caused by the egregore:

Cumulative Levels
Duration
Hit Dice
Damage
28-56
7 days
7d8
1d8
57-84
14 days
9d8
2d8
85-112
21 days
11d8
3d8
113-140
42 days
13d8
4d8
141+
84 days
15d8
5d8

If an additional mage of no less than 7th level casts a spell of 4th level or less during the time the other mages are creating the egregore, and does so with their permission, the egregore will be able to cast that spell once per day. Often, spells such as burning hands or wall of ice are used for this purpose.

It is rumored that there exist certain rare substances that can greatly extend the duration of an egregore, which result in their being encountered decades or even centuries after their last creator has died. No confirmation of these rumors exists, however.

The physical form of each egregore is completely open to the desires of the casters, and can range from as small as a dog to as large as an elephant. It can even be made to resemble a specific individual if that is the desire of the group of casters. (Specifying the physical form of the egregore does not count against the 20 word limit on its purpose.)

Egregore

Number
1
Morale
n/a
Hit Dice
See spell description
Armor Class
0
Move
90’/min.
Magic Resistance
A
No. of Attacks
1
Damage
See spell description
Defenses
Immune to physical weapons
Attacks
Telekinesis, possible spell use
Weaknesses
None
Size
Varies
Intelligence
0
Alignment
Neutral
Treasure Type
None
Treasure Value
n/a
Magical Treasure
n/a
X.P. Value
Variable

General: Egregores are non-corporeal magical constructs created by the spell egregore (see above). While they project a physical image, they are in reality non-corporeal and are thus not hampered by physical barriers of any sort. Solid lead or silver will stop them, however. A successful illusion check will reveal them to be insubstantial, but will not lessen any of the damage or other effects they can inflict.

Combat: The precise physical attack of the egregore will depend on the physical form decided upon by the casters who created it. The amount of damage will depend on the aggregate levels of the mages who cast the spells that brought it into existence. In addition to its regular attack, it can also use telekinesis up to 240’, and are able to move up to 700 pounds in weight. Often, this is their favored attack form, as they will try to make their actions look like accidents (stones falling from great heights, chains breaking at inopportune moments, etc.) unless they are specifically instructed otherwise.

Appearance: The exact appearance of an egregore is dependent on the desires of the mages who cast the spells which create it. It can be as large as an elephant or as small as a dog. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

OSWARP is looking for game masters!

Hey all! I wanted to throw out a reminder that registration for OSWARP (and DexCon, the parent convention) is now open. OSWARP is the Old School Wargame and Role Playing convention, to be held in Morristown New Jersey on July 4-5.

We're looking for you to run a game! If you volunteer to run enough games (64 player-hours' worth if you're getting the special OSWARP membership), you get comped into the convention altogether. Types of games we're looking for:

  • Old-school RPGs (Basic, AD&D, White Box, BECMI, Metamorphosis Alpha, Boot Hill, T&T, Runequest, Traveller, C&S, FASA Star Trek, etc. etc. etc.)
  • OSR retro-clones and associated games (OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, S&W, C&C, DCC, Barbarians of Lemuria, etc. etc. etc.)
  • Wargames (hex and counter types and others, like Afrika Korps, Third Reich, War in Europe, Campaign for North Africa, Kingmaker, Starfleet Battles, other AH/SPI/Victory Games/etc. - doesn't have to be from the 80's)
  • Miniatures (historical miniatures from any era, Chainmail (with or without the fantasy supplement), Battlesystem, etc.)
  • Anything else you think would be appropriate for an "old school" convention

You'll find the game master submission form right there on the DexCon registration page. (DexCon is happening July 2-6, and a DexCon membership doubles as your OSWARP membership.)

Make sure you select OSWARP in the "type of game" section in the form when you fill it out. And when you do send in a game proposal, let me know either in the comments here or by email, so I have some idea of what's coming. I'll be doing regular updates as games come in, so as to drum up interest, and have some ideas for stuff at the con that requires I know what's on the horizon.

And don't forget, when you pre-register for the convention, use the code OSRDX17PX30, and you'll get a $30 discount off a complete membership. To take advantage of this deal, you must sign up for 4 Oswarp-labeled events once the schedule is posted, or two OSWARP events and the OSR Team Dungeon Crawl. (Which, if you're reading this blog, you were probably going to be doing anyway, but just in case...)

That means you get into Dexcon, and can play as many RPGs, board games, video games, LARPs, miniatures games, and wargames as you can put into your schedule over 96 hours for just $40, including all the OSWARP games you can handle. That's pretty damn good. (If you're just planning on coming for the Friday/Saturday OSWARP programming, that's still the best option to choose, in terms of price.)

See you there, and spread the word!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On the epidemiology of rumors

I've long advocated using the broad sweep of history in the Flanaess, with all the wars, revolutions, invasions, and other changes to the setting acting as a vast and sweeping backdrop against which the campaign and the PCs can operate (Mortellan over at Greyhawkery covered this very subject himself yesterday).

One thing that occurs to me, however, is that unless the PCs are in the immediate vicinity of events, their knowledge of what is happening hundreds or even thousands of miles away is going to be out of date, incorrect, or both. And for that matter, their knowledge of what's happening right around them might not be that accurate, either!

I envision some tables (of course it's tables!) that uses the distance from the actual event and the time elapsed to determine how accurate a given rumor will be. Distance will determine how soon rumors of a given event could reach a location, as well as distorting its accuracy (as the information is passed through multiple people as it moves from place to place). Time will distort the accuracy as well, as stories are embellished as they are retransmitted. Assume that rumors are traveling with merchant caravans, ships, and the like, so 15 miles per day as a very rough estimate.

Rumor Table 1: Accuracy

Die Roll (d%)
Accuracy
01-20:

Wildly inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 100 times, names are completely wrong, basic facts are inverted.
21-40:

Inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 10 times, names are inverted, basic facts are distorted.
41-65:

Somewhat inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 3 times, names are distorted, basic facts are generally correct.
66-90:

Accurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 2 times, names are mostly correct, basic facts are correct.
91-00:

Very accurate. Numbers are correct, names are correct, basic facts are correct, details are mostly correct.

Rumor Table 2: Distance Modifiers

Distance
Accuracy Modifier
0-1 mile
+15
1-30 miles
+10
31-90 miles
+5
150-300 miles
-5
301-1,000 miles
-10
1,000+ miles
-15

Rumor Table 3: Time Modifiers

Age
Accuracy Modifier
Less than 1 week
+10
Less than 1 month
+5
More than 3 months
-5
More than 6 months
-10
More than 1 year
-15

Now let's apply this and see how it works. As a test subject, let's say that our PCs are in the City of Greyhawk, and they're picking up rumors in a tavern. It's CY 583, and the "Greyhawk Wars" are just getting into full swing, so there's lots of information flying around.

The first event that will hit the PC's attention is the fall of the Duchy of Tenh the previous year. Since Tenh is around 800 miles away from Greyhawk, there's a -10 modifier for distance, and since the event happened more than six months ago, but not quite a year ago, there's an additional -10 modifier for age. The GM rolls a 53, modified down to a 33. Inaccurate. This is what the PCs hear:

A horde of a hundred thousand screaming barbarians from the Barrens swept through Tenh and is besieging Wintershriven in the Pale even now.

(In reality, the barbarians came from Stonehold and further east, numbered in the thousands, and never entered the Pale.)

The second event is the fall of the Horned Society just a month ago. Molag (capital of the Horned Society and pivotal in the rumor) is only 420 miles from Greyhawk, so no distance modifier applies (it would have taken about a month for the news to travel this far and reach the ears of common folk, although the Lord Mayor will certainly have known about it much sooner, as he will rely not on caravans to carry information, but will have networks of riders and spies). It happened around a month ago, so there would be no age modifier either. The GM rolls a 53 again. Somewhat innacurate. This is what the PCs hear:

Molag has fallen and the Hierarchs are slain! Only one of the leaders of the Horned Society made it out alive, and no one knows where he is now. Iuz came down from Dorakka with an army of demons and slew everyone in the city. His armies conquered the rest of the country in just days.

(In reality, more than one Hierarch escaped, the slaughter in the city was great but not total, some demons were involved, but there was no demon army, and it took two weeks to conquer the Horned Society.)

What I would love to do is to collect scores of rumors and put them in a vast matrix; if you're in this place at this time, you hear these rumors, and have them all spreading across the Flanaess like ripples in a pond, growing gradually more distorted as the rings get larger and larger, eventually becoming unrecognizable. That'd be a lot of work, though, and in the meantime these guidelines, and a good timeline of events, should be enough to get me through.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 5)

Having left off last time with Incabulous, the book now turns to Istus, the Baklunish goddess of fate. She goes from being a 14th level cleric, 14th level druid, 24th level magic-user, and 14th level illusionist to being just a 16th level cleric and 16th level magic-user. She also plummets from having 377 h.p. to 75! In addition, her companion/servant (a sort of time elemental mentioned in the Guide) has disappeared entirely. Her clerics have a little more descriptive text about their personalities, and have a new 6th level spell, enmeshment, which transports those affected to an extra-dimensional labyrinth of dread where they could be attacked by other prisoners, until they make a successful saving throw vs. spells (they get to save each round). Clerics of Fharlanghn should feel a little ripped off in the new spell department...

Iuz, the evil demigod who rules his own eponymous realm, is next. Here we see an important distinction, which isn't really called out in the book so much as it is implied, as he doesn't have an avatar, but rather only his true form. He does, however, lose his 16th level assassin status that he enjoyed in the Glossography (although he is still a 16th level cleric). His clerics are presented as, essentially, headhunters, with the number of skulls they have displayed an indicator of their status within the priesthood. They do have a unique 1st level spell, spittle (a reference to one of Iuz's own powers), which can have some really serious consequences against enemies in combat (no attacks for 1d4+1 rounds, for instance).

Nerull is next. His avatar is oddly not so much lowered in power from the others; he only goes from 16th to 14th level as a magic-user and cleric, and loses his assassin levels. His hit points go from 400 to 90, though, which is certainly significant. His clerics get a new 5th level spell, ebony tendrils, which can hold enemies fast for 5 rounds unless they make an open doors check when first struck. Pretty nifty, but I might put it as 3rd level.

Obad-Hai ("The Shalm") and Olidammara are not covered in the book.

Pholtus is next, with his avatar losing 8 clerical levels and changing from an illusionist to a magic-user. His clerics go through something of a change; now it is specified that they must be lawful neutral in alignment, where before there was no distinction between the lawful (any) alignment of his worshipers and his priests. Their new 5th level spell, sunburst, which inflicts 6d6 h.p. of damage on undead and blinds other creatures. Quite the potent spell.

Ralishaz, the god of bad luck, has an avatar not that far removed from his own true form (we assume), losing only 2 levels as a cleric and switching from a 9th level illusionist to a 7th level magic-user. Everything else is pretty much the same, but clerics gain a new 2nd level spell, vicissitude, which will give the caster a +10%(or +2 on a d20 roll) chance to any roll, but which has a 5% chance per casting of backfiring and turning into a penalty. Nice, suitably powered, and it does fit the nature of the deity.

Ulaa rounds out the section on deities (which also omits Raxivort, Trithereon, and Wastri - one of my personal favorites - Xan Yae, and Zagyg). Her avatar is lacking 13th level fighter abilities, but is otherwise largely unchanged (except, of course, for hit points, which like all avatars seem to plummet to a third or less of the original). Her clerics' additional spell is the 6th level command earth, which can either hold earth elementals (and associated creatures) at bay or attempt to charm them. It works both in terms of power and with the nature of the deity, but an argument could be made for making it a 5th level spell.

That brings us to the end of the section on deities. The avatars, I think, are a change for the worse. They're severely under-powered and under-hit pointed, but yet they seem to have the weapons and powers of the actual deity in full strength. A more comprehensive explanation of the relationship between the real deities and their avatars would be most welcome - what we get is rather perfunctory and certainly doesn't spell out certain salient details. We lose a number of deities altogether, and in some cases lose or change details which add character to their clerics. The additional special spells for each deity's clerics are a good idea on the whole, but some of them seem ridiculously under-powered to the point where no one would reasonably choose to memorize them.

Up next: Monsters of Greyhawk.

WotC News Roundup

A couple of news items of interest today...

Dead in Thay, the next season of D&D Encounters, is launching on the weekend of May 10-11. Seems to be an old-fashioned dungeon crawl.

There's a revised version of the Dungeon board game coming out in June, with a sticker price under $20. No word on what changes are being made since the 2012 edition.

The usual submission window for Dragon and Dungeon magazines is not open as it would normally be in April. No word on the fate of either of the now-on-hiatus electronic magazines.

Lords of Light - The Thundarr the Barbarian Story

Check out this amazing short documentary on one of the great formative cartoons of my childhood.


h/t to +Noah Stevens

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Greyhawk through the ages


This post is inspired by something that +Eric Franklin posted on Google+, asking about From the Ashes, and it inspired me to take a quick jaunt through the various published incarnations of the setting (Gygax's home campaign was originally quite different, but morphed into something more like the published version as time went on). I'm going to focus here on the boxed sets and setting-wide sourcebooks, rather than the specific modules and regional sourcebooks that have been released over the years.

First, of course, we have the 1980 folio. This was the original incarnation of the published version of the setting, and packs a lot into its 32 page gazetteer. There is a broad overview of history, written in terms of migrations of peoples (reminiscent of the late Classical era migrations of the Germanic tribes), as well as capsule descriptions of all the nations and natural features (mountain ranges, forests, rivers, etc.) on those beautiful maps by Darlene. It is set in CY 576.

Many of its fans feel that one of its strengths is its brevity and lack of detail. There are no descriptions of deities or religions (beyond Iuz, because he rules a nation, and even then there are no stats in the conventional sense of the term), no adventure hooks, no NPCs (other than rulers, and all they're given is a class and level). I think modern audiences would probably find such omissions frustrating, whereas we OSR types see them for what they are - room to fill in ourselves.

The folio was followed shortly by the 1983 Gold Box, consisting of those same Darlene maps and two books. The Guide covers much of the same information, in terms of kingdoms and forests, but adds a lot of information on deities, random encounter tables for various regions and nations, quasi-deities, tables for appearance and national origin, and more. Much of the additional material had appeared in the pages of Dragon magazine, but some, such as the mini-adventure seeds, are new to the product.

Up to this point, the setting is what could be called a "classic" fantasy setting. It portrays the forces of evil and good in the world as being in relative equilibrium, has a quasi-medieval/Renaissance feel and level of technology, it can be called a high magic setting, and its relatively low amount of canonical information still makes it very easy for a DM to make it his own without worrying about contradicting something written in some novel or sourcebook (a problem which plagues the Forgotten Realms). There is a definite feel that evil is on the rise, but the situation isn't hopeless and the stalwart heroes can stem the tide through bold action.

1992's From the Ashes, produced after Gygax had left TSR, takes the setting into a different direction and sets a decidedly different tone. While the basics of the setting are still intact - it's still relatively high magic, the quasi-medieval/Renaissance organization is still there, and the canon is still relatively low compared to the Forgotten Realms (but growing, especially with the City of Greyhawk boxed set and the various regional sourcebooks that started to come out after this boxed set was published). The various nation descriptions are updated to reflect what's happened in the timeline between the time frame of the Gold Box and this set (which takes place in CY 585), but the real change is in the tone of the setting.

Evil is now clearly ascendant. Iuz has conquered most of the northern Flanaess, the Great Kingdom has collapsed into undead-fueled anarchy, giants besiege or have conquered the western Sheldomar Valley, demons and devils (tanar'ri and baatezu, ahem) stride the land, and the Scarlet Brotherhood is popping up everywhere taking out leaders and conquering territories. The feel now is that the forces of good are on the ropes, besieged on all sides as well as from within, and evil could triumph at any moment.

Once Wizards of the Coast acquired Greyhawk, they moved the timeline ahead yet again, this time to CY 591, and released the Players Guide and Greyhawk: The Adventure Begins, both in 1998. This time the pendulum swung back to the "evenly matched good and evil" side. Iuz is more-or-less contained, successor states are rising in the former Great Kingdom and establishing (relative) order, the Scarlet Brotherhood has suffered reversals, and the western Sheldomar Valley is being reclaimed from the giants. One gets a sense from this incarnation of the setting that everyone is catching their breath after the tumultuous years that preceded it.


There's also much more of a focus on the central Flanaess and the city of Greyhawk itself in these products, but not so much that they seem to be in isolation. By this time, however, the weight of the accumulated canon (in the assembled adventure modules, sourcebooks, novels, magazine articles, and miscellanies) is starting to tell - inconsistencies are creeping in much more frequently, which is inevitable when so many authors have written so much material for a single setting - but in terms of sheer volume it is still far behind the Forgotten Realms.

Finally, we come to 2000's Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, which was an incredibly thorough and comprehensive treatment of the setting, including an enormous depth of history on all of the territories and nations of the Flanaess, information on deities and religions, NPCs, and more. It is set in the same CY 591 timeframe as The Adventure Begins and the Players Guide, and served as the launching-off point for the Living Greyhawk campaign managed by the RPGA. Because of this, although it adds a wealth of detail (indeed, it might be said that it adds too much, straying the farthest from the original folio in terms of content vs. room for DM invention), the tone of the two earlier books is still maintained.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What happened to the DIY ethos?

I know that the title of this post is going to honk off some folks, especially within the OSR, who will (rightly) chime in that the DIY ethos is alive and well in the RPG hobby. After all, we've got a glut of RPG rules right now - desktop publishing software and print on demand have ushered in a veritable golden age of DIY gaming.

Well... yes and no.

While it is true that there are a ton of new RPG rules being written and published (thanks in large part to Amazon, Lulu, and RPGNow), the hobby does seem to have lost some of the DIY ethos nonetheless. I'm thinking particularly of the accouterments of gaming. There was a time that it was a hassle to find 25mm unpainted lead figures. Terrain? Dungeon walls? Good luck. I picked up a slew of dungeon walls made out of cheap plaster at GenCon in 1985 (I think), but that was it. It was that or grease pencils on acetate.

Now, though, we've got pre-painted plastic figures and Dwarven Forge dungeon walls. Artistically rendered dungeon tiles are a dime a dozen. Some games even require that one use their figures, and GW even requires that they be painted a certain way. It's one thing to be the only company making a D10 Klingon Battlecruiser, and having a game that you can't physically play without having purchased the right miniature. And yet another thing when, if you show up to a game with a non-authorized figure (GASP!) you will be turned away.

One of the reasons I like Ogre Minatures so much is that it still has this DIY ethos. Part of it is certainly not by design - Steve Jackson Games never produced any Israeli Golems or Nipponese Ninjas - but a great deal of it is simply that when the game was made, that's just what you did. You bought some figures, you kitbashed or created from whole cloth the ones you couldn't (or didn't) buy, and you played the game. And then you made your own terrain. Some of it was great, and some of it sucked. But it was homemade, and that gave it a certain authenticity from which we seem to be actively moving away. Not that it's dead by any stretch, but it is definitely going out of style.

Go read this post from Chirine's Workbench ye trendy and despair. There's gold in handmade terrain, and handmade figures, and even hand painted figures. Let's not let the "industrialization" of our hobby lose sight of that.