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?"

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

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Sessions Three and Four: The Barrow Crypt of Hafgrim Bloodslakir

 We managed to squeeze in two game sessions during the holidays, during which the characters arrived in the town of Vermisport, two days west of Avarice, after winning a map of the tomb of the notorious Urgoth warlord, Hafgrim Bloodslakir.  As the players were keen to avoid the wrath of the cultists of Atlach-Nacha in Avarice, an extended vacation seemed in order.

While in Vermisport, the party established themselves at the Dragonfire Inn, owned by the dwarven innkeeper, Drungard Aleson, who is inordinately fond of his own brew, Dragonfire Ale ("burns going down, burns coming out") and never passes up an opportunity to drink with his guests - whether they invite him or not.  Of the party, only the doughty dwarf, Hrothgar the Red, was brave enough to quaff Dragonfire Ale with their host; the others stuck to gentler libations.

In preparation of exploring the Barrow Hills north of town, the party stocked up on supplies at the local outfitter: Madam Marigold's Muffins & Sundries (free muffin with every purchase!).  Marigold, a matronly hobb, expressed an interest in purchasing any artifacts or curios recovered from the barrows, and also offered to sell the party a map of the tomb of Hafgrim Bloodslakir - an exact duplicate of the map Kragar the rogue had won back in Avarice.  Rather than a rare, one-of-a-kind treasure, the map was a scheme concocted by the Vermisport JCs to promote adventure tourism in the economically depressed town.  The mayor and local shop owners felt that a steady stream of adventurers spending their loot in town was a business opportunity too good to pass up, and if one of them happened to put down the wight that had been haunting the Barrow Hills for years, all the better!

After hiking into the hills, and exploring a few of the lesser barrows, the party finally came upon the one they sought: the crypt of Hafrim Bloodslakir.  At the first intersection after entering the barrow, they found another party of adventurers buried beneath the rubble of a pitfall trap.  As these adventurers were all dead there was only one thing to do: go through their pockets and look for loose change.  In addition to loose change, one of the corpses also had one of the copies of the barrow map.  Thus forewarned that the crypt contained deadly traps, the party became even more paranoid than usual, afraid to put a foot down lest they trigger some unpleasant surprise.

After thoroughly exploring and looting the crypt, the players confronted the final room in the northeast corner of the map, which they correctly believed to be the resting place of the wight.  They ignored the four alcoves on the north an south walls of the antechamber, and went straight to the room farthest east where the wight awaited them.  This was a wise choice, for had they opened any of the alcove doors all four would have swung open, dropping a portcullis at the entrance of the chamber, and releasing the zombies within, so they would have those to contend with as well as the wight.  As it was Bloodslakir, by himself proved to be a challenge, though he was eventually defeated without serious harm to the party.  Bloodslakir's treasure, a chest full of rubies was protected by a poison needle trap, which Kragar was clever enough to discover without being stuck by it and killed.

Their mission accomplished, the party returned to Vermisport to celebrate and lay plans to explore the ruins of the abandoned wizard's tower north of the old graveyard.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Monster Monday: Boozehounds

 I introduced boozehounds to my game a couple of sessions back, and the players got a kick out of them.  They suit the whimsical nature of Tunnels & Trolls, and the notion that players should at least be chuckling as their beloved characters are torn apart.

Boozehounds have an insatiable lust for alcohol.  They can smell it at great distances and will track it relentlessly once they've gotten a whiff.  A typical boozehound has a monster rating of 30, but for each round that they spend drinking booze, their MR increases by 10, to a maximum of twice their starting MR.  For old-school D&D style games, they have a typical hit dice of 2-3, and a 1d6 bite, but their HD increases by 1 each round they spend drinking, to a maximum of twice their starting HD.

The drunker they get, the nastier they become, so it's best not to let them get a snoot full!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Session Two: Redjack's Roadhouse

 The characters began this session the following day, nursing their hangovers at The Slippery Vixen while discussing whether to follow up on the treasure map that Kragar had won at the gaming table the night before.  They had just settled on an expedition to the Barrow Hills after suitable preparations had been made, when one of the tavern regulars announced that the body of Abdul Farouk (the fence to whom Kragar had sold the group's stolen gems the night before) had just been finished out of the nearby canal, showing signs of torture.  With this fresh intelligence, the characters decided that planning for expeditions was over-rated and that an immediate departure was just the thing.

They departed within the hour, catching a boat to Ferryton, on the mainland, where they booked passage with a supply carriage to Vermisport the following morning.  They spent a nervous night at the Ferryton Inn, with Kragar perched on the inn's roof all night keeping watch for spider cultists.  The night was uneventful, and they departed as planned shortly after dawn.

They arrived that night at Redjack's Roadhouse, the halfway house between Avarice and Vermisport on the Old Coast Road.

While socializing over supper and drinks, the players met Balzac Brightson, a mercenary, whom they hired to accompany them on their expedition in exchange for a 10% cut of the treasure.  At this point the session was cut short due to a player with food poisoning who could no longer continue.  With luck in the upcoming session the players will make it to Vermisport and commence their exploration of the tomb of Halfgrim Bloodslakir.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Game On!

 My long spell of gaming drought has ended, and I've finally launched my new Tunnels & Trolls campaign that I've been planning for ages, but haven't been able to get off the ground until now.  It's been a pretty stressful year for me; back in the fall of 2020 I found out that my prostate cancer had become aggressive and I needed surgery as soon as possible.  Unfortunately the pandemic had other plans, and cancer surgeries were cancelled as nurses were reassigned to Covid wards.  I waited for nearly a year, stressed out and wondering if the cancer was spreading and becoming inoperable.  I finally got my surgery at the end of August, and just in the nick of time: the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes (which were removed for good measure), and was impinging on my bladder wall.  This latter will still need monitoring, but for the moment I appear to be cancer free.  Just as I recovered from that surgery I was back in the hospital a few weeks ago for emergency gall bladder surgery.  Now I'm on the mend from that, and barring any more organs that need removing, my health care woes are behind me, and I can finally look to the future.

And thus it was that I finally was able to return to the virtual game table last week to kick off a new sword & sorcery campaign!  I'm using my favourite 5th edition (1979) rules, with some elaborations from the Deluxe edition (2015).  The game is set on Ken St. Andre's Trollworld, but on a continent of my own design, Pentamer, the starfish continent, located on the far side of the world:

The campaign is set in the city state of Avarice, on the south coast.  There is as yet very little detail on the map of the continent.  I'll be filling in details as needed, and as the players explore their world.

The first session began with the PCs, Hrothgar, a dwarven warrior; Kragar, a vartae rogue, and Fenix, a vartae wizard carousing at their favourite tavern, The Slippery Vixen in the Flotsam district of Avarice.  Rumour going around the tavern was that the temple of the spider god had a brand new idol of Atlach-Nacha sculpted with huge rubies for eyes.  Our intrepid ne'er-do-wells decided that those rubies would be much better off in their hands than in those of a bunch of spider cultists, and so without further planning set off for the temple district to liberate them.

The caper initially went off without a hitch; temple guard patrols were quickly dispatched and the gems were pried out of their sockets.  Then the characters decided to explore the temple and see if there was anything else worth stealing, and walked into the quarters of half a dozen temple initiates.  Hrothgar was confident that he could tank the damage from a handful of dagger-wielding fanatics, but then an acolyte from the adjoining room cast Oh Go Away on him, and Hrothgar fled the battle, leaving the rogue and wizard feeling very much like Julius Caesar on the senate floor.  Fenix was able to kill the acolyte with a timely casting of Take That, You Fiend, but then the mob fell upon them, daggers plunging, and Kragar, and Fenix soon passed out from blood lost.  When Hrothgar was finally able to master his fear, he returned to the battle to stand alone against the mob.  He eventually cut them down but was, himself, very low on Con at that point.  He was able to stabilize his comrades and they decided to quit the temple while they were still alive.  Fenix cast a Lock Tight spell on the temple doors after they exited, to delay any pursuit, and then made their way home, rubies in hand.

Kragar took the gems to Abdul Farouk, a reliable fence, who took them off his hands for 800 gp, much of which the characters blew on a well-deserved carouse at The Slippery Vixen.  At the gaming tables, Kragar won a treasure map detailing the tomb of Halfgrim Bloodslakir, located in the Barrow Hills, just north of the town of Vermisport, two days west of Avarice along the Old Coast Road, and plans for the next money-making venture were laid...

Friday, August 30, 2019

Whence the Labyrinth?

Dungeons are probably the most common adventure locale in role playing games; they were the cornerstone of every adventure in the early days, and remain popular today.  Sprawling expansive underground complexes filled with terrifying monsters and fabulous treasures exert a powerful draw upon our imaginations, and a call to adventure that is impossible to ignore.  Dungeons often serve not just as the locale for an adventure, but for the entire campaign, with huge mega-dungeon complexes taking novice characters to the giddy heights of power, as they delve ever further into its depths.

But where do these ubiquitous underground complexes come from?  This is a question that has plagued many of us, I'm sure.  I recall debating this topic ad nauseam with my friends back in high school, railing against the absurdity that such huge underground complexes could reasonably exist, and straining to provide credible rationale for them.  Indeed, this need for rationalization has caused many gamers to eschew dungeons altogether.

Another school of thought is that dungeons represent the mythic underworld, which requires no rationale, and follows its own rules and logic.  This very old-school view hearkens back to the earliest days of the hobby.  This mindset is explained in a thorough essay by Jason Cone in Philotomy's Musings, and is summed up nicely in this post by DM David: The Dungeon Comes Alive in the Mythic Underworld.  The beauty of dungeons as mythic underworld is that it does away with any need to rationalize them: they just are.

I really like the notion of the Mythic Underworld, but I'm the kind of guy who prefers a naturalistic explanation for things; not out of  a pedantic need to rationalize everything, but because doing so adds to the constructed history and culture of my game world, and it helps to fuel my imagination and come up with exciting adventure ideas.  It's easy to come up with a logical explanation for a single dungeon, but how do you account for the large numbers of such complexes that dot the landscape and support the cottage industry of adventuring parties upon which most fantasy roleplaying games are predicated?

One answer lies in early twentieth century history, because it turns out that mega-dungeon complexes are real and not as laborious or time-consuming to construct as my teenage self used to believe.  Ever since the hundredth anniversary of the armistice last year, I've been reading about the history of the 1st World War, focusing most of my reading on the western front with its trenches extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  Pierre Berton, in his book, Vimy describes in great detail, the underground network that housed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including a map illustrating passage ways connecting officer's quarters, kitchens, sleeping quarters that looks exactly like every dungeon map I've ever seen.

The bedrock throughout much of France is composed of chalk, and the trenches, dugouts, and holding areas incorporate huge natural karst caverns into their labyrinthine networks, which extended tens of meters below ground.  Because the bedrock is so soft it was easy to dig the tunnel networks, and sappers dug mines and listening posts into no-man's land using nothing more than vinegar and bayonets.  Many of the caverns housed 500 men or more apiece, and Berton claimed that it was possible to walk 10 km from the Canadian trenches at Vimy to the Spanish trenches at Arras without ever seeing the light of day.  These complexes were, in effect, vast underground cities, and the Canadian complex at Vimy housed a population greater than any city in Canada at that time, barring Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg.  These tunnel networks were so vast that soldiers often got lost in them, so that specialist guides were designated to escort units to where they needed to go.  So by any account the underground complexes supporting the trenches of the western front are bigger by far than any fantasy mega-dungeon I've ever seen.

Entrance to a German dugout (creepy clown with free balloons not included)

So how do I incorporate the dungeon complexes of the 1st World War into a fantasy setting?  Trench warfare was a response to the devastating might of modern artillery and the advent of the machine gun, which made the infantry lines and cavalry charges of the 19th century obsolete - a fact that escaped many old generals in the early days of the war.

In a fantasy milieu artillery is called wizards, at least in campaigns where wizards are common enough to be included in the ranks of the army.  TFT is just such a game; wizards are so commonplace that seven of the sixteen listed wizarding occupations on the jobs table are with army or mercenary units, so clearly battles on Cidri are waged with wizards on both sides of the conflict, a situation similar to that depicted in Steven Erikson's fantasy series, Malazan Book of the Fallen (probably not coincidental, as the series was based on the author's GURPS campaign).  Parallel evolution suggests that since mages of Cidri are analogous to artillery on the western front of Europe, similar defensive networks would be built to protect soldiers from near certain death on the open ground.

This inspires lots of cool ideas for a campaign set in the aftermath of a great war.  Perhaps an invading empire laid siege to fortresses along the borderlands of its neighbors as it slowly advanced.  One by one keeps and castles fell to the besieging army that entrenched itself around the defenders, sappers extending tunnels to breach the defenses, defenders digging counter mines. The aftermath of each siege leaves behind a dungeon complex radiating from the hub of a ruined castle upon a field littered with the dead and saturated with magic.  What treasures and artifacts lay forgotten in the ruins?  How many thousands of dead men lie where they fell in the killing ground?  What manner of vermin have grown large gorging themselves on rotting corpses, and warped by magic?  Imagine the number of such dungeons that would lie in the wake of such a war.  Perhaps a necromancer has laid claim to one such castle drawn by the huge number of corpses upon which to practice his art.  Such places also make excellent refuges for bandits, orcs, goblins and other unsavory creatures that come to inhabit the ruins.

I also like the idea of injecting a bit of the 'mythic underworld' into this setting.  Might not such sites of mass killing and magical maelstrom leave an indelible imprint, perhaps tainting the land with the touch of Chaos?  The dead might rise of their own accord, animated by pockets of magic that linger and drift like clouds of chaos through the area, and the dungeons themselves might become semi sentient, like haunted houses, hungry to claim more souls upon which to glut themselves.

So this naturalistic rationale has given me lots of ideas for adventures, as well as provided an historical backbone upon which to build the campaign.  A land littered with dungeons - artifacts of the last great war.  They present a persistent threat to the surrounding countryside, as well as a source of riches that reward those brave enough to dare explore them.  This is why I like to have a logical explanation for dungeons in my game - such rationales help me to build an internally consistent world, and fuel my imagination.  To quote Ray Bradbury on story ideas: "I'll never starve here."