Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, September 1, 2023

Back to Neverwhere

 I was delighted to come home from vacation the other day to find an Amazon delivery waiting for me.  I'd pre-ordered Den Volume I: Neverwhere months ago and then forgot all about it until it showed up on my doorstep.


This beautiful hardcover published by Darkhorse Comics, and released just this week reprints Richard Corben's classic Neverwhere story that was adapted as a chapter of the 1981 animated film, Heavy Metal, and will be followed in December 2023 by Den Volume II: Muvovum (which I've also pre-ordered and will be an eagerly anticipated early Christmas present that I won't forget about this time).

For the few who are unfamiliar with Corben's sword & planet hero, Den, the story begins with a scrawny, bookish young man from Kansas named David Ellis Norman who builds a circuit board from a schematic left to him by his missing uncle, Dan.  When activated, the devices opens a portal that transports David through time and space to another world: Neverwhere.  Initially unaware of who he is or what has happened, David is aware only that the letters D E N somehow pertain to his identity, and henceforth goes by this new name.  During his exploration of this new world, Den quickly runs afoul of the Red Queen who is in the process of performing human sacrifices to summon a Lovecraftian monstrosity that she believes she can control to serve her own ambition.  Den is able to save one of the victims from the sacrificial pool and escape with her on a giant bat.

  The woman, Katherine Wells, was plucked from 1892 London and transported to Neverwhere by the sorceries of the Red Queen, and like David, was weak and sickly on Earth, but here she is voluptuous and filled with vitality, which she promptly demonstrates by making love to Den to thank him for rescuing her.

Alas, their newfound love is abruptly interrupted as they are set upon by enemies, and Kath is abducted by insect warriors.

During the course of his attempt to rescue his beloved, Den becomes embroiled in the sordid affairs of Neverwhere, and the various factions all seeking to control a powerful demonic staff called the Locnar, which Den is coerced to steal from the Red Queen for her rival, Ard, who has taken Kath captive.  Den, along with Ard's ally, Kang, travel to the Red Queen's palace, and there split up to better there chances of securing the Locnar.  Den is quickly captured and becomes the Red Queen's boy toy until she discovers that Kang got away with the Locnar while she was satisfying her lust with Den, who is left holding the bag, and must face the wrath of a woman scorned.

It turns out that Kang's wife and son are held captive by Ard, and after turning the Locnar over to him learns the price of trusting him.

This edition is the best Neverwhere collection that has been published to date, and all pages have been rescanned and colour corrected, so that they look better now than ever before.  The artwork is lush and vibrant, printed on high-quality gloss paper, and solidly bound in hard cover.  This is quite simply a book that is not to be passed up by any fan of Richard Corben or of Heavy Metal, and is worth every penny of the $45.99 CAD (34.99 USD) cover price.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Design Notes: Races

 The default assumption in Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old is that there are no non-human player character races.  This isn't stated anywhere in the rules, there simply aren't any other playable races included in the game.  This is a broad departure from the vast majority of all fantasy role playing games in which non-human races are ubiquitous, and it deserves some explanation, which due to considerations of space and lay-out I was not able to indulge in the rule book.

Firstly, the standard fantasy rpg races: elves, dwarves, and halflings, are unquestionably derived from Tolkien, and aren't thematically appropriate in a pulp sword & sorcery game that is inspired primarily by the works of Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft.  Another reason, besides theme, is that non-human races are grossly over-powered in most games.  Gary Gygax recognized that D&D was an anthropocentric game, and that non-human races had the potential to undermine this precept.  He took great pains to curb the impact of other races and balanced their many advantages by limiting their ability to progress in the game compared to human characters.  

Unfortunately these sensible precautions have been completely abandoned in newer editions of the game, resulting in a proliferation of over-powered races that now dominate the campaign ecosystem.  I'm currently a player in a Pathfinder campaign, of which I have formed many strong opinions that will be the subject of a future post, but in this campaign, I play the sole human character.  The remainder of the players all have opted for one of the many non-human races that proliferate the game, and confer such great advantages that human is not a viable option for the min-maxers who seem to enjoy Pathfinder.

The predominance of non-human characters is not just an artefact of modern games.  Until recently I have been running a Tunnels & Trolls campaign in which not one of player characters is human; all of the characters are elves and dwarves because these characters offer such huge advantages in T&T.  But T&T is a game of unabashed excess, and despite my distaste for non-human characters I decided to embrace the game for what it is.  Now I'm in an awkward position, because I want to continue using the campaign world, which has developed over the course of this T&T campaign to run Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old.  I truly love the Free City of Avarice, and continent in which it exists, and it will do very nicely for the continent of Mu in the antediluvian Earth of DD & CO.  The problem is that elves, dwarves, and halflings are now established denizens of this setting.  Fortunately I have never referred to 'elves' in T&T as elves, and have described them as the dying embers of a once-mighty empire, similar in many respects to Melniboneans of Moorcock's Elric novels.  This fits very nicely with the antediluvian earth motif, and they can represent the last scions of ancient Atlantis or Acheron.  Halflings do have some precedent both in history and in the literary inspirations upon which DD & CO is based.  Historically, a species of hobbit-like stature, Homo floriensis, did once exist, and in game they could be synonymous with the Tcho-Tchos of the Cthulhu mythos.  Dwarves can simply be a population of short, stout people.  However I choose to interpret these peoples, they will be treated as species or subspecies closely related to human, and as such will be identical to humans with respect to game mechanics.

And this is how I recommend anyone employs non-human player characters in a Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old campaign.  Other races should be mechanically indistinguishable from humans; players should choose such characters simply because they enjoy the role-playing aspects of these races, not because they confer obvious advantages.  So feel free to make up any zany player character races that you like for your campaign, but I strongly advise against creating any special rules for them.  They should be included for campaign flavour, and nothing else.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Design Notes: Character Classes

One of the biggest departures that Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old makes from the standard OSR rule set, is how I've chosen to handle character classes.  Like the original D&D rules, DD & CO has just three broad architypes: Warrior, Sorcerer, and Thief.  While the original game used Fighter, Magic User, and Cleric, I've opted not to include the cleric class, because it is strictly an artefact of D&D that has no precedent in the sword & sorcery genre upon which my game is based.

I know that the thief class continues to be controversial within the OSR community.  The critics argue that the thief shouldn't be a class because anyone can steal, and having a character class dedicated to this profession neuters the ability of other classes to steal.  I've always found this argument unconvincing because, by the same rationale, any character can fight so why have a warrior or fighter class devoted to combat?  Obviously, having a warrior class doesn't mean that other characters can't fight, it just means that warriors are better at it than everyone else, and it's a good choice of class for players who like to engage in a lot of combat.  Likewise, the inclusion of a thief class doesn't limit other classes from stealing, thief class characters just do it better than everyone else.

These broad archetypes, Warrior, Sorcerer, and Thief function exactly as they would in any other OSR game: each class gains new hit dice each level, and its THAC0 improves at its level increases.  Where DD & CO characters differ from other OSR games is that the player has the ability to customize their character with the application of character templates.

Templates can be applied to any of the three archetypes to create a new character type with additional customized abilities.  A number of sample templates are described in the rules: Assassin, Barbarian, Bard, Monk, Priest, Ranger, Witch Hunter, etc.  Each template includes a number of skills and abilities which are added to the abilities of the base archetype, and become class abilities for that character.  The template has an experience modifier based on the number and potency of the skills and abilities, and this modifier is applied to the experience of the base class to determine how many experience points the character will require to level up going forward.  A template can be applied at any time during the character's career, not just during character creation.  Let's say a 3rd level warrior falls into the company of the legendary Wardens of the Northern Marches, and wishes to join their ranks and add a ranger template to his character.  He gains the skills and abilities granted by that template, which have an experience modifier of +200 XP.  Normally a 3rd level warrior would require 8,000 XP to gain 4th level (the class needs 2,000 XP to go from 1st to 2nd level, and that amount doubles with each level thereafter).  The +200 XP is added to the base experience amount of 2,000, so the character will now need 8,800 to gain 4th level.

Furthermore, templates are not usually restricted to a particular base archetype, so a Warrior, Sorcerer, or Thief could take the same template, although the abilities might vary to better suit the base class.  Take the Bard template for example.  A warrior character might become a battle skald, uttering war cries and chants to boost morale in battle.  A thief taking the bard template might be a typical roguish minstrel, whereas a sorcerer could become a spell-singer of Celtic tradition.  In each case the template may need to be modified slightly to suit the desires of the player.

So templates exist as an open-ended system for the player to collaborate with the game master to create any type of character they might wish to play.  There is no need to be restricted to the sample templates described in the rules.  Guidelines are given for how to apply XP modifiers to skills and abilities, which makes creating custom templates easy.  Game masters can use this system to create templates specifically for their campaign world.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Design Notes: Attributes

 I want to spend some time discussing the design choices I made for Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old, which owing to considerations of space, I wasn't able to do in the actual rule book.

The first way in which I've diverged from the standard OSR-style game mechanic is with the attributes, which in DD & CO are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Knowledge, Acuity, and Charisma.  I've discarded Intelligence and Wisdom in favour of Knowledge and Acuity, and I'd like to explain why I decided to do so.

I've been involved in this hobby for fourty-three years now, and I've played a lot of different games.  Nearly all of them use Intelligence, or something like it, as an attribute.  Because of its ubiquity I never questioned its use, but at the same time I never really felt comfortable with it, and while designing DD & CO I finally took the time to evaluate the attributes and how I feel about them.

First and foremost, attributes are what define a character: who they are, how they act, and how a player will role-play them.  Every character attribute must contribute to our understanding of the character, and its personality, or it becomes useless. It is here that Intelligence fails the test as a useful attribute.

Firstly, what is Intelligence?  What does it mean to be intelligent?  There are different types of intelligence.  Here's the Wikipedia entry defining human intelligence, but this covers a lot of different facets, and I, like most people, rate highly in some respects, but poorly in others.  If I was creating myself as a player character how would I rate my Intelligence?  I honestly don't know.  This ambiguity makes Intelligence fairly worthless as a personality trait for a character.

Secondly, how does one go about role-playing Intelligence?  How does an average player, like myself go about playing a character with a genius level Intelligence score?  You are limited as a player to your own mental capabilities.  I guess you can do it if you use Intelligence solely to make dice roll checks, which, I admit, is the way that most modern role-playing games handle attribute scores, but this isn't role-playing.  Even harder is for a smart player to play a character with a low Intelligence score.  The whole point of old-school role-playing games is to challenge the players, and if you tell a player that their character couldn't have come up with the clever idea that the player just proposed, because the character is too stupid to have though of it, then you're defeating the entire purpose of the game, as well as creating a frustrating experience for the player.

Wisdom isn't much better.  It is also an ambiguous trait that I recall debating often with friends back in high school during our frequent discussions of how to get a handle on D&D.  The best way I've ever seen Intelligence and Wisdom differentiated is the statement that someone may be intelligent enough to know that smoking will kill them, but lack the wisdom to quit.  But, again, this isn't very useful, and I have never once in over four decades of playing seen Wisdom actually come into play in a game except  as a Prime Requisite for certain classes.  It serves no purpose in role playing a character, so it's out too.

In Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old I have replaced Intelligence and Wisdom with Knowledge and Acuity.  Knowledge is fairly straightforward: it is a measure of a character's education, and their ability to memorize and retain facts.  I use this as the Prime Requisite of the Sorcerer class and also to determine how much lore a character might know, and how much information to give them.

Acuity is the keenness of a character's senses and quickness of thought.  A character with high Acuity experiences very little delay between thought and action, and would receive a bonus to Initiative and Surprise checks.  This means that a character with very high Acuity is rarely or never surprised, and is the character who should be making the group initiative rolls, using his quick thinking to shout out orders to the rest of the party.  This corresponds quite nicely with personality types, as one of the traits of extroverts is assertiveness and quick thinking, and such characters are excellent candidates as group leaders in crisis situations.  Introverts, on the other hand tend to react slowly to changing situations, but are capable of intense and prolonged concentration, and deep thinking.

Personally, I'm an introvert, and I would judge myself to have a high Knowledge score, but a low Acuity score, as I'm prone to daydreaming, so my awareness of my surroundings is not as high as it could be, and I lack the ability to make decisions quickly.  I'm the sort of person who needs to analyze all the facts before reaching a decision, and I tend to spend a lot of time researching even relatively simple online purchases, for example.  Just last week I bought a tree pruner, but before I did I read multiple reviews of each model, and carefully compared all the product information before reaching my decision.  My extroverted sister, on the other hand, would simply have bought the first one that caught her eye, then moved on to other things.

So in game terms a high Acuity character will make an excellent team leader and combat commander, whereas you'd probably rather have the slow-thinking high Knowledge character actually planning the expeditions.  Knowledge and Acuity give us a much better handle on how to play our characters, and what their personalities might be like.

As far as Intelligence goes, I consider it far better to assume that a character is exactly as smart as the person playing it, which in the end makes for a much more satisfying role-playing experience.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old


Way back in 2010 I began working on a set of house-rules for my Swords & Wizardry whitebox campaign, and over the years they evolved, slowly metamorphosing from a set of house-rules into a unique game.  The final product, Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old, is now finally finished and is now available as a pay-what-you-want PDF on DriveThru RPG.

My goal with this game was to create a pulp sword & sorcery rpg, that represented the tropes of the genre while remaining faithful to the spirit of old-school games.  This product description sums it up:

Dive into fantasy role-playing 1970's style! Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old is a pulp sword & sorcery role-playing game in the old school tradition with simple, elegant rules that fade into the background and let you focus on what's really important: exploring ancient dungeons, recovering fantastic treasures, then squandering it all in a night of ribald revelry. Break out the miniatures and the Crown Royal dice bags, crank up the Led Zeppelin, and get ready for a night of adventure torn from the pages of Weird Tales, with characters bursting from a Frank Frazetta painting.

This project has been a labour of love that has taken many years.  It was quite a time-consuming undertaking to do all the writing and artwork myself, and the project went on hiatus during the years I was dealing with cancer, which sapped my enthusiasm.  Also, when I first started this project, as far as I am aware, there were no other OSR games devoted specifically to pulp sword & sorcery, but since that time several have been published, so I wasn't sure that it was worthwhile to carry on, and the hiatus nearly became permanent.  Last year, however, I became determined to finish the game I always wanted to play, and think in the end Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old offers a unique take on sword & sorcery role playing, and I'm very proud of the result.

If you're interested, you can check the game out for free by following this link: Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old, or by clicking the banner on the sidebar, which will take you to my publisher account at DriveThru RPG.  I also have a character record PDF available, and in a day or so I'll be adding quick reference sheets, in which all the important tables are compiled.  You can print these out and store them in a binder for easy reference, or insert them into any 8.5 x 11" universal game master screen.

The game has only been live on DriveThru for a couple of days, so I was very surprised to find that a review has already been posted to YouTube.  Check out this great review by RPG Freebies, which neatly summarizes the game.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Session Five: The Dungeon of Xenopus

 Feted as heroes by the townsfolk for having put an end to the menace of the draugr, Hafrgim Bloodslakir, who had for generations haunted the Barrow Hills north of town, the adventurers enjoyed a night of revelry. Kragar the rogue was able to leverage his celebrity status to successfully seduce the mayor's daughter, Elise, after having suffered a critical fail on his attempt after first arriving in town.  Sometimes persistence pays off.

Flushed with success from their previous caper, the crew turned their eyes toward the intriguing tower ruins north of the old graveyard west of town.  Chatting up patrons at the Dragonfire Inn, they heard a number of often conflicting rumours regarding the tower ruins, but were able to determine that fifty years ago the wizard Xenopus disappeared and has not been heard from since, and that soon after his disappearance twisted, misshapen silhouettes could be seen capering on the tower's parapet, highlighted by an eerie green glow emanating from within.  They heard, also of the reclusive Whateley clan who dwell across the bay and shun the company of the townsfolk, and whose patriarch, old Algernon Whateley, was none other than Xenopus's apprentice.  A trip out to the Whateley homestead proved fruitless, as Algernon's daughter, Lavinia, set her sons, Yog, and Soth to drive off the interlopers, pitchforks in hand.  Giving up on interrogating the Whateleys, the adventurers decided to just dive into the tower ruins and see what's what.  

The dungeon is, of course, the iconic Tower of Zenopus sample dungeon featured in the Holmes Basic D&D set.  This is probably the best sample dungeon ever created, as there is a great deal of story potential and threads that can be fleshed out for further use, and which suited my existing campaign perfectly.

Over the course of exploring the dungeon beneath the ruins the pcs came upon a smuggler looking for his two missing mates, and learned that his crew is using the dungeon to stash smuggled goods for overland transport to Avarice.  They also encountered old man Whateley, himself, who has, with the assistance of goblin minions has taken over the dungeon and remaining effects of his old master to bolster his arcane power.  Whateley is an irascible sort who takes poorly to intrusion upon his domain, and had just finished creating statues of the two missing smugglers by way of a Medusa spell.  Leaving his goblin servants to deal with this new band of intruders, Whateley fled to his laboratory on the level below where he prepared a special welcome for anyone who followed.

After quickly dispatching the goblins, the pcs did, indeed pursue Whateley to his lair only to find him surrounded by the glowing nimbus of a protective spell, and a number of cages full of cockatiels.  These birds, which he dubbed Molotov Cockatiels were creatures of his own making, and he opened their cages, then detonated a thunder clap to panic them.  They flew madly about the the laboratory, burning the adventures while Whately remained safe behind his Protective Pentagram.  Hrothgar unwisely swung his axe at one of the birds, easily killing it, but its destruction caused it to explode causing even more damage to everyone around it.  Realizing that killing these birds could trigger a cascade of explosions that would kill them all, the wizard, Fenix grabbed book of arcane lore off a nearby table and threatened to let the birds burn it.  Enraged that someone would dare to touch his things, Whateley charged out of his pentagram, swinging his black iron staff.  This proved the end of him as Hrothgar buried his axe in Whateley's spine, killing him.

Thus ended the session with Whateley dead, and Fenix in possession of the old man's demon-bound staff deluxe, which he fears is more magic item than he can handle.  It also ended with all the characters getting enough XP to gain 2nd level.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Monster Monday: Molotov Cockatiels

 The product of experimentation by the mad mage, Xenopus, Molotov cockatiels smolder with intense heat, dealing 1 point of magical fire damage to anyone they touch, and setting fire to flammable objects.  While not aggressive, Molotov cockatiels are easily startled by loud noises and will fly into a panic, running into things in their attempt to flee.  This makes flocks of them dangerous, even more so if one is killed, because when they die the explode, dealing 2d6 points of magical fire damage in a five foot radius, which can set off a chain reaction of explosions if other cockatiels are nearby.

Tunnels & Trolls stats: Typical MR of 5

OSR stats: 1 HD (4 hp), AC 9, Move 15" flying