Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Seizing the Moment

After nearly ten years of running 3E campaigns, using personal initiative rolls for combat became so deeply ingrained that it became second nature, and thus I automatically incorporated it into my Castles & Crusades game.

But over the last little while, I've been getting tired of using the personal initiative system.  It gets cumbersome having to keep track of every player's initiative and there are always cries of: "hey, you missed my turn!" from across the table.  From the player's perspective it is an awkward system as well.  Consider the party magic-user who wants to cast an area effect spell in the first round of combat while the enemies are still nicely grouped together.  He not only has to beat the enemy initiative roll, but all of his team-mates as well, lest the fighter run into melee first and ruin the opportunity for that sweet fireball.  Likewise it seems that the last guy in the marching order always seems to get the highest initiative roll and needs to push his way past everyone else in order to act.  Considering that this character was in the rear for a good reason, pushing in front of the heavily armoured and hit-pointed fighters is probably not a good idea.

Sure, characters can always hold their actions and wait for other team members to go first, but this is just one more thing to keep track of, and sort of defeats the whole point of personal initiative to begin with.

During last Sunday night's game I decided to return to D&D's traditional group initiative rolls.  I expected that it would speed combat up a bit, but I was amazed to find just how much faster the combats ran without the regimented structure of individual initiative bogging things down.  I found the fights a lot more fun and dynamic, too.  The players, during their action, would quickly come up with a plan of action and implement it in whatever order best suited them without having to worry about holding actions and such.

I also really enjoyed rolling for initiative every round instead of once for the whole combat.  The swingyness of potentially attacking, or being attacked, twice in a row if one side first lost, then won, initiative was a lot of fun and added an extra element of risk that nicely reflects the ebb and flow of dynamic combat rather than the structured 'your turn/my turn' sequence of the personal initiative system.  The players really seemed to enjoy the group initiative system, too, so suffice to say it is here to stay.

Carpe temporus punctum!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Session 3: Malash Triumphant

Fearing that a great trove of treasure remained yet undiscovered, the party elected to defer their obligation to the sinister mage-priest, Frasck, and complete their exploration of the dungeon beneath Gogledd Keep.  Making their way carefully through the ruins, the party descended to the keep's crypt and thoroughly searched all of the burial niches, keeping a wary eye out for the pallid humanoid creatures they saw scuttling about during their initial reconnoiter a few days earlier.  In one of the niches was a narrow tunnel extending into the dark. 

Jin, the elven mage, cast light upon an arrow and fired it down the tunnel to see how far it extended.  The arrow eventually struck a rough stone wall illuminating a chamber far down the tunnel.  As the group was discussing their course of action the light from the arrow was suddenly and inexplicably extinguished.  Electing to investigate, the dwarf warrior, Bvar, crawled through the tunnel with shield and spear extended to protect against attack but arrived, unmolested, at the mouth of the cavern.  As he was crawling out of the tunnel and into the chamber he was grabbed from both sides by the grasping hands of emaciated pale creatures whose uncanny strength belied their frail appearance.  His arms were pinned and hooked, serrated knife was placed at his throat.  The creatures warned the party to come no farther, to leave their abode in peace lest their comrade's lifeblood be spilled.  The party agreed and retreated back to the crypts.  Bvar was released and allowed to leave unharmed.

During subsequent exploration of the dungeon a false door was opened resulted the sound of heavy, metal contraption clanging shut in the distance.  The party was subsequently attacked by a band of six Phooka, bestial goat-headed humanoids that dwell in the wild places of Faedun.  Despite their unbridled ferocity, the repugnant creatures were quickly cut down with little harm to the party thanks to Theon's appeal to the divine might of Lir for protection.

Pressing on, the party eventually discovered the source of the distant clangor - a heavy portcullis at the top of the stairs ascending to the upper dungeon level, which proved too heavy for even Bvar to lift.  Carefully studying the walls of the room beyond they discovered a lever, well out of reach.  Jin, however had just learned the spell unseen servant, which had been taught to him by Frasck in exchange for a cloak of elvenkind, and he was able to make good use of his new spell to pull the lever and raise the portcullis.

Returning below, they soon were set upon by a small band of orc mercenaries who were slain before they  had a chance to raise alarm.  The orcs were well-funded and each had a purse heavy with gold.

The party elected, at this point to rest and recuperate before pressing on as both Jin and Theon had nearly exhausted their magical stores.  Pressing on after their rest, the group, opening a door in a hallway, were surprised to find a black-garbed human soldier, wearing a cloak with the blazing eye of Balor embroidered on it.  The guard was just as surprised to seem them and after a moment of stunned silence bellowed behind him to 'ware intruders.

This guard and his fellow further down the sconce-lit hallway were quickly dispatched, but the group had little time to plan a course of action before a half-dozen more guards arrived, roused by the first guard's shout.  This proved to be no quick and easy battle, as the reinforcements were armed with crossbows and they fought a well-coordinated, retreating slowly back the way they came, drawing the intruders deeper toward their headquarters.  Even the warding of Lir was insufficient against such disciplined foes, and Though the group finally defeated the soldiers, Theon was felled by a crossbow bolt.  Before aid could be rendered to Theon, another half-dozen black-garbed soldiers arrived led by a warrior in black plate-mail.  Things looked grim, as the party was reduced to Bvar, Jin, and Jin's spear-maiden Caitlin.  The black-armoured officer called for the party to lay down their arms and surrender in the name of Malash the Magnificent.

While Bvar and Jin dithered and debated, the officer ran out of patience and ordered his men to take the intruders.  Resigned, Bvar advanced and planted himself in the middle of the corridor, axe ready, determined not to sell his life cheaply.  Nonetheless, he fell quickly to the overwhelming odds against him.  As Bvar fell, Jin turned and fled with Caitlin following close behind him.  The officer shouted not to let them escape and, with pursuit hot on their heels, Jin and Caitlin bolted for the portcullis-trapped stairs leading to the upper level.  Once there Jin pulled the lever, dropping the portcullis and cutting off the soldiers just as they were mounting the stairs.  Momentarily safe from pursuit, Jin and Caitlin fled Gogledd Keep and returned to the safety of the Flaming Faggot.

A short time later, Theon and Bvar awoke to find themselves in an opulently furnished chamber confronted by an imposing man in blood-red armour who radiated an aura of power and menace; Malash the Magnificent, no doubt.  The man poured fine wine from a crystal decanter into a intricately engraved silver goblet, and sipped it while studying his bound captives.

"Well," he said, finally, "you two are in a great deal of trouble."

To be continued...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lazarus Taxa and the Old School Movement

A Lazarus taxon is a group of organisms that was believed to have gone extinct but turns out to have persisted, undetected, in small numbers to metaphorically rise from the dead at a later date.

One of the most famous examples of a Lazarus taxon is an order of lobe-finned fish commonly known as coelacanths.  Related to the earliest tetrapods to inhabit land, coelacanths were long thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous mass extinction, more than sixty-five million years ago.  Thus, it came as a great shock to the world when a living specimen was caught by a fisherman off the east coast of South Africa in 1938.



Similarly, old versions of D&D that were believed to be extinct are, to quote Monty Python, "not dead yet!"  I imagine that every iteration of the game has had its loyal supporters that kept right on playing their favourite version, refusing to switch to a newer edition.  Thus, like small populations of coelacanths lurking in the ocean's depths beneath notice, small pockets of gamers lurked unnoticed in the depths of their basements keeping alive old games no longer in print, awaiting the chance to rise again.

One of the first signs of life from the long-dormant clade of "true" D&D games, which I have previously referred to as the "TSR clade" to distinguish OD&D and its legitimate offspring from the genetically unrelated rpgs produced by Wizards of the Coast, was Castles and Crusades, published by Troll Lord Games in 2004.  C&C adhered closely to the spirit of AD&D while introducing some changes by way of an elegant, unified mechanic called the SIEGE engine.  Thus C&C is a descendant of AD&D and has greater moral claim to the title of an edition of D&D than any of the WotC games.  Indeed, the unofficial motto of C&C adopted by many of its fans is: "what 3rd edition should have been."

The close affinity of C&C to AD&D was recognized by Gary Gygax who was working with Troll Lord to publish his famous Castle Zagyg Campaign (can't call it Greyhawk anymore) for C&C.  He was quoted as saying: "AD&D per se is as dead a system as Latin is a language, while the C&C game has much the same spirit and nearly the same mechanics. So why not accept the latter (as the logical alternative)."  I used parentheses because I couldn't recall his exact words at the end of the quote, but they were something to that effect.  Happily, Gary was wrong about AD&D being a dead system.  He said this before the rise of the Old School movement and the widespread proliferation of retro-clone games.


Perhaps coelacanths aren't the best analogy for the this recent proliferation, as the group, represented by only two species, Latimeria chalumnae, and L. menadoensis are threatened and are vulnerable to extinction.  This is not the most auspicious example to use to describe our Old School movement, and a more optimistic analogy would be the repopulation of corals throughout the world.  Throughout the Palaeozoic Era corals were represented by two orders: the Rugosa and the Tabulata, both of which went extinct during the Late Permian mass extinction.  This should have been the end of the line for corals, but a new order, the Scleractinia, representing the modern corals we know today, arose in the Middle Triassic.  At least one species of coral must have survived the mass extinction that extinguished 96% of all species on Earth to give rise to a whole new branch of anthozoans after an approximately twenty-five million year absence in the fossil record.


My hope is that the current crop of descendants of the TSR clade does not represent a last gasp of air before going under for good, but rather a radiation that will repopulate true D&D within the gaming biome.  Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dwarfs in the Ale-barrel

I'm not a big fan of demi-humans in my fantasy campaigns.  They just don't seem to mesh well with the sword & sorcery genre I like to emulate.  When you've had a tough day slaying a power-mad wizard before he could loose a primordial horror upon the world, and all you want is some alone time with the naked wench you're toting around on your shoulder, the last thing you need is some effete elf lamenting the decline of his race.  Likewise, it's tough to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under your sandaled feet when you got some yappy hobbit following you around whining about second-breakfast.

I've come to understand why Gary Gygax emphasized the humanocentric nature of D&D and why he imposed limitations on demihumans to discourage their proliferation throughout the milieu.  3rd edition players: raise your hands if you've ever had to put up with an elven rogue who was played solely for the power-gamey benefits that arose from that particular class/race combination.

Despite this, I have a fondness in my heart for dwarfs.  What's not to love about a bunch of dour-handed, grudge-bearing, treasure-hoarders with an inordinate passion for ale?  I find myself identifying with them more and more as I get older.

I feel that the iconic beer stein is as necessary to a dwarf as his beard or axe, and I love finding miniatures to match.  Here's a dwarf cleric from Reaper:


I call him the dwarven Dr. Strange after my inspiration for his colour-scheme.

Another favourite of mine is Josef Bugman, Dwarf Master Brewer of the Warhammer world:


I love that even his standard and shield both bear the image of a beer-stein.

I am about to start a new dwarf army for Warhammer Fantasy and just this afternoon picked up a dwarf battallion box to get me started (which is why I am rhapsodizing about dwarfs today).

One of the coolest units in a Warhammer dwarf army are Longbeards - hoary old veterans, literally grognards, who constantly grumble about how today's goblins are smaller and weedier than they used to be and how nothing is made as well as it was in their day.  They benefit from a special rule called Old Grumblers, which allows dwarf units within 6" of a longbeard unit to re-roll failed panic tests to avoid the withering glares of their elders.  I think a lot of old-school gamers can identify strongly with the Longbeards.

Despite my general dislike of humanoid races (aside from a minor dwarf fetish) I do allow them in my campaign.  It would be strange to disallow elves in a campaign heavily influenced by Celtic mythology, but I've envisioned the elves of my world to be more like Moorcock's Melniboneans: decadent, often cruel, masters of dark sorcery.

In retrospect, I do wish I hadn't set halflings loose upon the world, though.  I'm not sure Tolkien's creations fit well into a world that tries to explain real-world mythology.  I have modified them so that they are less the jolly gluttons of Middle Earth and more the dark fae of myth.  Halfling clans travel the rivers and coastlines of Faedun in their shallow-draught kin-ships, going from town to town entertaining, telling fortunes, and selling illicit goods.  They are analogous to floating carnivals, but of the sort described by Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Thus, they are even more sinister than the halfling guild-thieves depicted in J.D. Webster's classic Finieous Fingers cartoons.

But, I see that the dwarfs have gotten into the ale-barrel again, and I hate spitting out beard-hair.  So until next time, as the dwarfs of Faedun say: May your flagons be never empty and your bladders never full!

Reviews from R'lyeh

I want to take the opportunity to plug Pookie's blog, Reviews from R'lyeh, which provides detailed and insightful reviews of many game products of interest, with special emphasis on those with a Lovecraftian theme.

I first encountered Pookie's reviews more than ten years ago, where his insanely prolific game reviews appeared weekly in Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid Magazine .  Given the varied and diverse tastes of gamers, finding a reviewer that you trust is as tricky and ultimately rewarding as finding comfortable shoes, and it is a testament to how similar his tastes and opinions are to mine that Pookie has never steered me wrong in any of the numerous reviews I've read.

Anyone who wants a rock-solid, detailed review - particularly if you're interested in Lovecraftian game products, you check this blog out.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Gods of Faeridor

The world of Faeridor was my first attempt at building a coherent and detailed campaign setting; it began, as many home-made settings do, small in scope then expanding over the course of play.  The world was conceived by my desire to explore the dark and capricious nature of the fae, as opposed to the Tolkien-esque elves of high fantasy, and provide a point of origin from which  Celtic mythology arose.  This was a parallel world to Earth and the dimensional boundaries overlapped in places, allowing inhabitants from one world to cross over into the other.

I considered that mythologies of Earth were the distorted, second-hand view-points of human visitors to Faeridor, or the fleeting glimpses of creatures from that world that slipped into our own.  Naturally the concept of Faeridor soon grew beyond a simple study of Celtic mythology and became a point of origin for all of Earth's myths and legends.

Initially, gods did not play a role in my world.  I ran the first games in this setting using GURPS, in which all spellcasters can learn healing spells if they want to, so fleshing out the gods was not a priority.  Oh, there were clergy, but they were impotent devotees of silent gods.  I had always intended the powerful and immortal Tuatha de Danann of Celtic legend to serve as the gods of man, but I never put much thought into them or worked out any sort of cosmological framework for my milieu.

I recently returned to Faeridor, beginning a new campaign set there after a hiatus of over a decade; this time using Castles and Crusades.  Since C&C is an AD&D-inspired rule system, I either needed to get off my butt and finally work out the higher powers of my world or eliminate the cleric class and roll all of the spells into the wizard spell list.  I opted for the former option, taking the opportunity to finally expand the horizons of my setting and answer the questions I'd been ignoring for the last twenty years.  I say 'higher powers' because, although they are powerful, immortal, and worshiped as gods, none are responsible for the genesis of the world or the cosmos, which, to my mind, sets them apart from true deities associated with creation - none of whom exist in my milieu.

The first tier of gods are the Tuatha de Danann, the gods of man.  These are the most humanistic of the higher powers, consumed by their own petty concerns and interests, much like those who worship them.  The de Danann race once dwelt upon Faeridor, extending their rule across the world, including such domains as the Seelie and Unseelie courts of western Faedun.  Powerful mages, capable of interdimensional travel, they frequently meddled in the affairs of Earth and many of them are known to us: Finvarra, king of the Seelie Court, Manannan, Zeus, Thoth, Set, Loki and countless others.  Their internecine in-fighting eventually drove them to leave Faeridor and seek out new homes in the cosmos, but although they have long since lost interest in Earth, they continue to meddle in the affairs of their former home and perpetuate their feuds by proxy, lending power to their cults and followers.  Philosophically, the Tuatha de Danann correspond to the Great Ones of Lovecraft's mythos - petty, self-absorbed gods; though unlike the Great Ones they remain interested in the affairs of mortals.

The second tier of gods are the Fomori; elder powers who ruled Faeridor before the coming of the Tuatha de Danann.  A bestial, primal race of immortals, they fought the de Danann interlopers who eventually defeated them and usurped their position.  Over the millenia the Fomori have been all but forgotten on Faeridor, alluded to only in the most profane tomes of ancient lore, but recent hints have been uncovered that suggest a cult devoted to Balor, the Fomori king, has risen again.  Other Fomori lords include Baphomet, Orcus, and Demogorgon among others.

The third and most terrifying tier of gods are those primordial powers, beyond human comprehension, that ruled Faeridor in aeons long past.  Woe betide the world should any mad cult succeed in waking just one of these from their eternal slumber and draw their attention once again to the world.  Lesser beings of this pantheon still exert some influence upon the world: the Caemric druids of Llanvirnesse sacrifice to Shub Niggurath, dark goat of the woods with a thousand young; and the barbarian tribes of the Hoarfells speak in hushed whispers around the feasthall fires of Ithaqua, the windwalker.

I think I've finally gotten the cosmological mix just right; it cleaves to the real-world mythology upon which the setting was originally based, while incorporating Lovecraftian mythos and iconic demons of D&D in a mix that is just to my taste.

Now to put them into play.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The "evolution" of Dungeons & Dragons

In much the same way that police, physicians, and lawyers must wince at the way their professions are portrayed on television dramas, I get rankled every time I see evolutionary metaphor applied incorrectly and inappropriately to support various positions.

One of the most common misconceptions, and the one most commonly applied to the "evolution" of Dungeons & Dragons, is that evolution proceeds in a linear progression from "primitive" to "advanced," and is most often used to imply the de facto superiority of the WotC's current fantasy roleplaying game, which shall be referred to herein as 4E, over earlier versions of D&D.  You will note that I do not refer to 4E as Dungeons and Dragons, or the 4th edition thereof, as I do not consider it to belong to the the D&D lineage, but rather a separate, unrelated game of independent origin as I shall explain later.

 One of the biggest contributors to widespread misunderstanding of evolution is this famous icon, The March of Progress:



This image, which nearly everyone has seen at some point depicts hominid evolution as progressing in a linear fashion down the road to perfection - namely us.  In reality there have been a number of human lineages that branched off, at various junctures, from the line leading to Homo sapiens.  We see ourselves as the pre-determined end point of human evolution only because we are looking back as the only surviving human species.  We could just as easily now be sharing the planet with other human species, or have been supplanted by one or more of them.  Thus, it is wrong to assume that evolution progresses toward some destined ideal.

Another common misconception is that evolution involves one species "turning into" another.  This is incorrect and a parent-species usually coexists with, and often outlives, its daughter-species.  The analogy that I usually employ when lecturing about evolution is to compare an evolutionary clade (a group of related species that share a common ancestor) to a family.  Think of yourself as a parent-species.  You are born (speciate), live your life and, eventually, die (go extinct).  You may at some point have one or more children, which we will refer to as daughter-species.  You do not turn into your child, you remain a separate and unique individual throughout your entire life, and you might outlive your daughter-species or they might all live long enough to give rise to daughter species of their own.  Thus you may well give rise to many different lineages (the families of each of your children) branching out from a common ancestor.  Using this analogy it is easy to see that evolution is not a linear, progressive process with an older, primitive species morphing into a new, advanced one.

The familiarity of the March of Progress icon and its implied linear progress towards an ideal end-point is so well-entrenched our psyches that it has become an oft-used advertising tool.  Here is one of my favourites, and in this case I find it difficult to disagree:



This brings me to another common, though incorrect, icon of evolution - the tree of life:



Although the 'tree of life' icon recognizes the branching nature of lineages it depicts a cone of increasing diversity progressing to more, and by implication, 'better' taxa.  Note that, in an example of humanistic bias, vertebrates occupy the highest branch in the example above, despite that fact that many other groups such as arthropods and molluscs have far greater species diversity and longevity and are, by all accounts, more successful taxa.  A better graphic depiction of evolutionary diversity would be a shrub, not a tree; or as I like to refer to it in lectures, the tumbleweed of life.  I like the imagery of a tumbleweed, with branches radiating out in all directions from a common ancestor, without a hint of directional trend or implied superiority.

The tumbleweed is also a very good analogy for the explosive radiation of D&D in the 1970's.  The original three 'little brown books' were, as most serious roleplayers know, adapted from the fantasy supplement for the medieval miniatures wargame, Chainmail.  They consisted of a very loose set of rules for "fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper, pencil and miniature figures."  The rules were vague and often subject to various interpretations.  The result was that pretty much every gaming group at this time had its own interpretation of how to play the game and developed their own house rules to fill in the blanks.  In nature, speciation often occurs when genetic change accumulates in different populations of a species due to geographic isolation.  Likewise, without the benefit of the internet to disperse ideas throughout the worldwide gaming community, individual gaming groups were largely isolated from other groups outside their geographical area.  Thus their games continued to accrue changes, effectively speciating via 'descent with modification' from a single common ancestor.  Though some of the branches radiating from the stem were published as their own games, such as The Arduin Grimoire, most were stubby little twigs of home games that failed to proliferate. 

By far the most successful and prolific branch to stem from the 1974 D&D rule system is what I refer to as the 'TSR clade,' which quickly began to accumulate genetic change by way of five additional rules supplements.  Two separate lineages diverged from Dungeons and Dragons in 1977: the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons lineage, and the 'Basic Set' lineage.  AD&D, itself, speciated producing AD&D 2nd Edition in 1989.  The Basic Set lineage consisted of the 1977 Holmes edition, the 1981 Moldvay edition, and the 1983 Mentzer edition, which was compiled as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in 1991. This is a good analogue for natural speciation, as  Dungeons and Dragons did not transmogrify into AD&D; it remained in print, alongside its two daughter-species, AD&D and Basic D&D, for several years.

 In 2000, Wizard's of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, which then gave rise to 4E in 2008.  I consider this WotC Clade to be polyphyletic (unrelated) to the TSR Clade.  Both 3E and, even more so, 4E differ so completely both mechanically and philosophically from the lineages in the TSR Clade that there is little or no evidence of descent with modification from a common ancestor.  It is true that 3E retained Vancian magic (subsequently eliminated in 4E) and borrowed a few of the optional rules (such as Attacks of Opportunity) from AD&D 2nd Edition, but then again many unrelated games have borrowed from D&D.

The games of the WotC Clade retain the name Dungeons and Dragons because WotC owns the rights to the name and are primarily concerned with capitalizing on its brand recognition, not perpetuating the lineage that started with the rules written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974.  Because WotC owns the legal rights to the name they could make a game about anthropomorphized honey-bees and their adventures in pollination and call it D&D if they wanted to, but that doesn't make it so.

I don't mean this as a criticism of WotC or its games, nor do I intend to imply that they are necessarily bad games.  There are lots of great games that are not Dungeons and Dragons and 4E is among the most recent of them.  I do feel that it is disingenuous of WotC to label and market 4E as D&D, regardless of their legal right to do so.  Over the decades the name D&D has become associated with a particular style of game, and there are certain expectations and assumptions associated it, just as there are with Traveller, GURPS, Runequest, or any other popular and venerable roleplaying game.  4E does not meet those expectations.  Those who suggest, as many have, that 4E represents the "evolution" of D&D merely demonstrate that they weren't paying attention in biology class.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dungeons &... Hormagaunts?

As most role-players know, one of the literary influences of Dungeons & Dragons was Fritz Leiber's outstanding Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. I while back I purchased the Science Fiction Book Club 3-in-1 hardcover compilation of the first three books in the series to replace the tattered, dog-eared paperbacks I had originally bought from a used bookstore, and lately I've been re-reading these classic sword and sorcery tales.

My recent involvement in the Warhammer 40K miniatures game caused me to view one of the short stories, The Bleak Shore, in Swords Against Death in a whole new way.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, carousing in their favourite watering hole, The Silver Eel, encounter an enigmatic stranger - a small, pale man with a bulging forehead, who places a powerful geas upon them to seek their doom upon the bleak shore of the Western Continent. Fafhrd and the Mouser immediately depart in Fafhrd's red-sailed sloop across the Inner Sea, accompanied by their Mingol henchmen. Upon reaching the bleak shore, Fafhrd bade the Mingols return to Lankhmar, saying "Do not follow. We are dead men. Go back if you can."

Fafhrd and the Mouser set out climbing the basalt crags on the shore and upon reaching the plateau they discovered a flat landscape of black sand, barren of life, in which was embedded more than two score monstrous black eggs amid a litter of bones scattered over the sand. They hear a thin, clear voice from out of nowhere intone, "For warriors, a warrior's doom," and then the eggs began to hatch. What follows is the passage describing the hatching:

The first hint of their nature came in the form of a long, swordlike claw which struck out through a crack, widening it farther. Fragments of shell fell more swiftly.
The two creatures which emerged in the gathering dusk held enormity even for the Mouser's drugged mind. Shambling things, erect like men, but taller, with reptilian heads boned and crested like helmets, feet clawed like a lizards, shoulders topped with bony spikes, forelimbs each terminating in a single yard-long claw. In the semidarkness they seemed like hideous caricatures of fighting men, armored and bearing swords. Dusk did not hide the yellow of their blinking eyes.

Compare this photo of one of my tyranid hormagaunt miniatures to Leiber's description.  Uncanny similarity?



And here is a rendition of the creature by Fred Fields from the AD&D 2nd edition sourcebook, Lankhmar: City of Adventure



In the description of the creatures, called Gladiator Lizards in the AD&D Lankhmar sourcebook, that accompanies their stat block, they are said to "fight with extreme agility, attacking twice per round, once with each claw.  When encountered in pairs, they are always brood mates.  Brood mates have a mental link that allows them to coordinate attacks, giving the second gladiator lizard to attack in a round a +1 to hit."  This mental link uncannily parallels the synaptic link with which tyranid leaders coordinate the brood warriors.

There is little doubt that the Warhammer 40K tyranid race, in general, was largely inspired by the Alien/Aliens movies by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, but it appears as though the design of the hormagaunt warrior broods might have been heavily influenced by Fritz Leiber's creatures from the Bleak Shore.

But, more importantly, I've found a whole new use for my many hormagaunt miniatures.  Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the dungeon....

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What I love about 4E

I can almost picture the eyeballs popping, and hear the clunk of jaws hitting desktops. It is well known to my friends that I would rather give up gaming altogether than play 4E, so the title of this post must come as a great surprise.

After playing a short 4E campaign, I was asked if there wasn't anything I liked about the game. At the time nothing came to mind, but I have since come to believe that 4E has had a tremendously positive impact on the role playing game industry and the rpg hobby in general.

When Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was released in 2000, it hit the hobby like a 10,000 pound gorilla. In 1997, when Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, D&D was in pretty bad shape due to both mismanagement and the popularity of collectible card games (ccg's)that hurt the entire rpg industry throughout the 1990's. The 3rd edition revitalized D&D, probably saving it from extinction. The buzz and excitement generated by this edition was palpable and this, combined with Wizards of the Coast's Open Game License (OGL), which allowed anyone to publish material using their game mechanics, resulted in a veritable d20 monoculture in the hobby.

Sure, there were still some of the venerable heavy-hitters, like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu, that were largely insulated from the impact of the Next Big Thing by the niches they built for themselves, and by their solid core of loyal followers, but I think a lot of role playing games had a really tough go of it. Start-up publishers were popping up faster than corn kernels in hot oil and the market was quickly glutted with third-party-published material to support 3rd edition. Even I am guilty of having jumped on this bandwagon and I wrote many articles for the d20 system published in Pyramid Magazine and d20 Weekly. But I feel, very strongly, that this sort of monopoly is bad for the hobby.

In the natural world monocultures are a prelude to disaster. It is common practice, for example, for farmers to plant a single crop like wheat or barley, instead of a mixed crop, for ease and efficiency and often to capitalize on high prices for particular crops. This monoculture usually occurs over a wide geographical area and the industry becomes vulnerable to random misfortunes. If all you plant is alfalfa and your area is hit by a disease that targets alfalfa you are screwed. If the price of alfalfa suddenly plummets you are screwed. Furthermore, monocultures wreak havoc on an ecosystem since myriad plants and animals are all interdependent in an ecological web of such complexity that we still don't understand the degree of interactions. Sometimes all it takes is the loss of a single species to trigger a catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Thus, biodiversity and widespread species distribution are essential to buffer against extinction.

At the risk of pushing the ecological analogy too far, the gaming ecosystem was in jeopardy throughout the decade of the d20 monoculture. A high diversity of role playing games ensures that there will be something to suit every gamer's personal taste, and promotes greater dissemination of creative output. I believe that game system diversity = healthy gaming hobby and I think that the hobby is currently the healthiest it's been in decades thanks, largely, to 4E.

With 4E, Wizards of the Coast helped to break the stranglehold that 3rd edition had on the industry, albeit unintentionally. Pre-release marketing of 4E focused on poking fun at how lame earlier editions of D&D were and how 4E was going to change all of that. A lot of D&D fans were offended by this questionable marketing strategy that suggested that gamers weren't really having fun with their older games and needed to be saved from themselves. When the actual product was released many more gamers were alienated, in part by design, as it was intended to attract MMORPG players to the hobby. Online games boast an infinitely larger player base than all paper and pencil rpgs put together and I suspect that WotC was willing to alienate as many existing players as necessary to tap into this market. Additionally, 4E does not fall under the OGL, but instead is governed by the more restricted Games System License (GSL), which prevents every dog's body from publishing products based on the 4E game mechanic. This means we won't see the same glut of third-party material for 4E that we saw for 3rd edition. Of course WotC is glutting the market quite nicely on its own, publishing a new "core" rulebook every fifteen minutes or so; in a few more years we should see the release of Player's Handbook 27.

I have no idea how well this strategy has succeeded, but I understand that 4E is doing very well. I do believe that the widespread backlash against 4E by many longtime gamers has created new audiences for other game systems, which I regard as a very good thing. One of the coolest outcomes of this backlash has been a resurgence of interest in older editions of D&D, which has come to be known as the Old School Renaissance. The OGL, which cannot be revoked, allows people to publish their own versions of earlier editions of D&D. This has resulted in a slew of "retro-clone" games that have become widely available.

The 3.5 edition of D&D has been kept alive by Paizo Publishing and their Pathfinder RPG. There are also a number of retro-clones that emulate original D&D, Advanced D&D, and the Basic Set versions of D&D. Best of all, most of these retro clone games are available for free as PDF downloads, making for a cornucopia of old-school goodness. Some of the more popular retro-clone games are described below:

Mythmere Games publishes two versions of Swords & Wizardry, an OD&D clone: S&W Core Rules, which includes the rules from OD&D plus supplements; and S&W Whitebox Edition, which includes just the rules from the original three "little brown books" excluding supplements (for those who want to play really old school). Both games are available as free PDFs and purchasable hard copies.

Goblinoid Games publishes Labyrinth Lord, a retro clone of the 1981 Moldvay edition of the D&D Basic Set, which was based on the original D&D rules with some modification. Goblinoid also offers the Advanced Edition Companion to play Labyrinth Lord using AD&D rules; and Original Edition Characters, which strips Labyrinth Lord down to the Original D&D rules. No-art pdfs of the Core Rules and Advanced Edition Companion are available for free download from their website.

OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) is an emulator of the AD&D 1st edition rules, and can be downloaded free from lulu.

The Basic Fantasy RPG is a rules-light game based on early editions of D&D and is also available as a free download.

Because these games are all based on the OGL, anyone is free to publish material for them, and there are a large number of adventures and supplementary material available for all of these game systems.

Ironically, Wizards of the Coast could have tapped into the Old School Renaissance by selling PDF versions of all older editions of D&D, thereby retaining customers disaffected by 4E; but they don't want anyone playing older editions, they want folks to play 4E. I know that WotC isn't particularly concerned with the old grognards, but it wouldn't have taken a lot of effort on their part, would have generated some revenue that they aren't otherwise getting, and might have generated a lot of goodwill and customer loyalty rather than alienating a big chunk of the gaming community. But then again I'm not an big-wheel executive, so what do I know?

I'm reminded of Princess Leia's quote to Governor Tarkin: "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

In any event, I'm optimistic about the future of the gaming hobby, and thrilled that older versions of the game are in print in some form or another due, in no small part, to the disaffection of many gamers with WotC and their current game system.  I may hate the system with the flaming passion of a thousand suns, but I'm sure glad it's here.

And that is what I love about 4E.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Session 2: A dark cult reborn?

The adventurers descended into the dungeons beneath the ruins of Gogledd Keep. Inspection of two doors near the base of the stairs revealed a curious revelation - the locks on the doors were clean, oiled, and in new condition - in a ruined keep deserted for a century. Exploring further, the band found a large torture chamber with equipment similarly well-maintained and clean except for occasional splatters of recently dried blood.

There was little time to consider these implications as the group found themselves suddenly cut off by zombies emerging from prison cells in the chamber. Like something out of a nightmare, animated corpses shambled ever closer. They were slow and awkward, but their numbers grew faster than they could be slain and the party was soon surrounded. Arcane bolts flew one after another from Jin's hands until finally rotting hands clutched at his robes and the weight of numbers pulled him down. Theon called repeatedly upon the divine grace of Lir to save his comrades from doom, and Bvar's axe was soon clotted with decomposed flesh. Caitlin, though inexperienced in weapons of war, kept the principal "the pointy end goes in the other guy" and she stabbed repeatedly, fending off the necromantic horrors with her spear.

Though exhausted by their all too close battle with the zombies, the group pressed on with their explorations. Much to their dismay they quickly stumbled upon the lair of a large, ill-tempered ogre wielding a large, spiked club. Fearing that they had pushed their luck too far the party fled, hoping that the ogre would be too large to fit through the doorway of his lair. In their panic they failed to consider that if the ogre was small enough to get into the room it was certainly small enough to get out. This lapse in reasoning became evident as the enraged ogre chased them out of his lair, yelling "Lubash smash!" and near-misses with his great club sent shards of rock debris flying from its impact with the floor and walls.

Realizing that escape was unlikely, the party turned to fight and quickly felled the ogre with a few lucky hits. Searching the ogre's lair, the party was excited to find a wooden chest, but their excitement soon faded when they found that it contained some glass beads an a copper coins. Ever hopeful, Jin cast a spell to sense magic auras, and was rewarded by a glow from the the pile of rags and furs that Lubash used as a bed. He discovered a small-sized cloak of elvenkind and immediately donned it, despite the fact that it was far too small - hanging barely to his buttocks.

A door on the far side of the ogre's lair was barred from the inside and the group initially decided to leave it be, fearing anything that an ogre would want to keep out. After much debate the brave adventurers decided to risk the horrors beyond the barred door, and found that the adjoining room contained two merchants from Dro Madras and a half-starved halfling named Hanzo.

Upon seeing Jin, Hanzo exclaimed with delight "Excellent! You found my cloak."

"MY cloak," Jin corrected.

Hanzo eyed the tiny cloak skeptically. "You should fire your tailor," he muttered under his breath.

The merchants promised to reward the party when they returned to their homes in Dro Madras and Hanzo, the last surviving member of another adventuring group, offered to join up with the party and lend them his skills.

The party decided that they had explored as far as they dared with their depleted resources and elected to return to the Flaming Faggot to rest and resupply. Before leaving, however, they revisited the locked doors at the base of the stairs. Hanzo proved to be an adept locksmith and quickly had them both open. The doors opened into store-rooms containing racks of weapons, armour, provisions, and a large number of black cloaks with a blazing eye embroidered on the backs. Theon recognized the eye as a symbol of Balor, the king of the Fomori, a beastial race that ruled Faeridor before the coming of the Tuatha de Danann. But worship of the Fomori had died out millenia ago.

Looting as many of the weapons as they could carry, the group made their way back out of the keep and led their donkey into the marshes back toward the roadhouse. Before they got far, however, giant ticks dropped out of the trees above, several of which sank their proboscis's into the soft flesh of their victims in order to drain their blood. Once sated, the horrid beasts detached and hauled their bloated bodies away into the marsh, leaving their victim weak from blood loss. Both Hanzo, and Jin, the frail elven mage, were completely exsanguinated, falling dead into the mud.

The survivors returned to the Flaming Faggot and asked Conal Redjac if anything could be done to resurrect Jin. He suggested that the enigmatic sorceror-priest known only as Brother Frasck might be willing to help. He banged his fist against the wall in a staccato beat and a glowing outline of a door appeared, and a black cloaked figure with a deep hood that hid all features of his face, emerged. When Theon and Bvar explained their request, Frasck bid them enter his study and they entered a room filled with horrid paraphernalia: dessicated hands, mutated rats floating in jars of liquid, shrunken heads, and ancient tomes decorated the strange man's abode - a room that could not possibly fit within the architectural layout of the roadhouse. When Frasck determined that the party hadn't anywhere near the funds to pay for such powerful magic, he offered to resurrect Jin anyway as long as the group agreed to perform a job for him. Frasck demanded that they travel north into the highlands where lay an ancient crater formed by a star that fell to earth. The crater had long ago been mined by dwarves for star-metal, and those mines, now long abandoned were the lair of a sorceror known as Sothiss, a renegade of Frasck's order. Frasck required that the party track down and slay Sothiss and return to Frasck a large iridescent orb in Sothiss's possession. Theon and Bvar agreed to Frasck's demand and the sinister mage-priest performed the rites to return Jin to life, but also took a vial of Jin's blood for "insurance."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Session 1: Dernwald's Demise

A priest, an elf, and a dwarf walk into a bar...

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but thus began the latest Faedun Campaign. Theon, human cleric of Lir; Bvar, an itinerant hearth-lost dwarf warrior, and Jin, a Sylvani mage, strangers to each other, accompanied a caravan north into Callovia's Madrasan Marches - each to seek his fortune or find his doom.

The caravan arrived at the gated palisade of the Flaming Faggot roadhouse, the northernmost extent of the empire on the edge of the Caemric frontier, and no sooner were the gates opened than an orc warband, waiting in ambush, charged into the roadhouse's compound. As the caravan guards spread out to meet the orc's charge, the three strangers attacked with axe, mace, and bolts of arcane energy. The orc attack faltered when many in the vanguard were slain, and the main body of the raiders fled to the safety of the nearby woods.

The three travellers, who had instinctively backed each other up in the fight, decided to band together to find their fortunes in the bandit-infested, spirit-haunted ruins of Llanvirnesse. As reward for helping to fight off the orc raiders, Conal Redjac, the hugely muscled, shaven-headed proprieter of the Flaming Faggot, and agent of the Duke of Madras, helped to launch the trio's adventuring careers by offering them first shot at a fresh bounty, not yet posted. The Duke offered a bounty of 100 gold for the head of the bandit chieftain known as Dernwald the Deadly who had been preying on travellers on the south road to Dro Madras.

After an evening of getting acquainted over mugs of the Faggot's famous Red Dragon Ale, The trio set off south at first light in hopes of finding clues to the whereabouts of Dernwald and his band. By late afternoon, near a ford in the Ildanach River, the three bounty-hunters came upon the smoking ruins of some caravan wagons lying overturned at the side of the road. A quick look around turned up tracks heading east into the marshy land between the river forks. An hour's travel brought the group to a ruined fort, destroyed in the Unseelie War, abandoned for decades and now, apparently, a bandit hideout.

After surviving an attack by a pair of giant frogs, one of whom learned the folly of swallowing a dwarf whole, the trio made their way cautiously into the keep. All manner of dangerous marsh creatures laired within the crumbling ruins - a giant spider lurked within the watch-tower, giant rats infested discarded debris, and a huge venomous serpent nested within the rubble. Finally the group discovered the room where Dernwald and his men were holed up, and took them unawares as they were dicing for possession of a captured Caemric woman who lay bound in the corner. Though the bandits outnumbered the trio by more than two to one, the group had the advantage of surprise and slew several before they could mount an effective offense. The quick dispatch of several of their number caused some bandits to throw down their weapons and surrender, but Dernwald and a couple of his most loyal men fought to the end and were slain to a man.

The woman, Caitlin verch Roadan was freed, and though she was poor, with no coin to reward her rescuers, she was also proud and ashamed to be in any man's debt. With little else of value she offered herself for the pleasure of her rescuers (except the dwarf - even a proud woman has her limits), and Jin immediately took advantage of the offer. Caitlin further aided the group by telling them where the bandits had hidden their loot and that Dernwald frequently went alone into the dungeons below to consult with someone - it appeared that there was some higher authority behind the bandit raids. Caitlin, hoping to escape a life of poverty and privation that awaited her should she return home and marry a sheep-herder, equipped herself with a spear and a badly over-sized chain shirt taken from one of the bandits and offered to accompany the party below and lend her spear to their cause. Her life was at a bright turning point and she hoped to fight alongside her elven lover in a quest for ancient treasure, and become a spear-maiden just like in the Caemric epics the bards recited.