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?"

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Citadel Finecast

As many of you are no doubt aware, last summer Games Workshop announced its new line of 'Finecast' miniatures - the brand name they've chosen for their resin-cast models.  They no longer produce metal-cast miniatures and are in the process of replacing their whole metal line with resin.

Naturally, this resulted in a storm of controversy, and opinions regarding Finecast are strong and fall into one of two camps: love it, or hate it.  I've been anxious to try out a Finecast model, myself, to see what all the fuss was about, and just before Christmas I purchased my first resin miniature; a Dwarf Runelord.

As you can see in the photograph, the level of detail is exquisite.  The reason for this, I am told, is that moulds for resin-casting are made directly from the 'green,' the sculptor's finished product, whereas moulds for metal casting are made from a cast of the 'green.'  Therefore the moulds for resin models retain a higher fidelity to the original sculpt.

There are a few other advantages to casting in resin; the models are extremely light weight and low density.  Thus, when they are dropped or knocked over they are less prone to damage and paint chipping and are therefore well-suited to play on the table.

Resin is not without its drawbacks, however.  The main problem, which has plagued the Finecast line since its release, is the abundance of pitting on the surface of the model, which mars the appearance.  You can see an example of this pitting in the face mask on the Rune Lord model above.  In this case, the pitting isn't too problematic and can be explained as 'battle damage' to the helmet.  More serious were a series of fine pits in the beard, which were next to impossible to fill and really ruin the fine detail of the model.  The underside of the rune staff had a couple of really big pits, but since they were on a smooth open surface, they were easy enough to fill with greenstuff.

The pitting on this model was not terribly serious, and though I am somewhat dissatisfied it wasn't bad enough to warrant a return, and it is no where near as bad as some of Finecast models that I've seen on other people's blogs.  Apparently resin is far more damaging to the moulds than metal is, wearing them out much more quickly.  I suspect, that in an effort to maximize profits, Games Workshop has been pushing the moulds beyond their useful life, which results in a number of very sub-par miniatures being released for sale.

One of the other drawbacks to resin is that it is extremely soft and fragile and the models come with excessive amounts of flash and mould lines, compared to metal miniatures.  GW has dismissed this, claiming that the models are easy to clean up by scaping a knife edge along the surface of the model.  This is probably true when the flash and mould lines are on flat open surfaces, but dwarf models, such as this one, are so small and compact that getting in and cleaning them can be tough, especially when the mould lines cut across the beard, as it did with mine.  Because the resin is so soft and fragile, extreme care must be taken when cleaning or damage can easily occur.

The final complaint with Finecast is the price.  Despite the fact that resin is a much cheaper material than metal, GW is charging the same price.  They also, rather unwisely, introduced Finecast along with an 'across the board' price increase, so you're actually paying more for a Finecast miniature than you would have for a metal one.  Given that GW's metal miniatures were, themselves, horribly over-priced, the cost for the resin miniatures is atrocious, especially in light of GW's poor quality control.

In the end, I'm not in one of the hate 'em or love 'em camps.  I'm still on the fence.  While I 'm a something of a traditionalist and prefer the heft of a good, solid metal miniature, I do see the advantage that resin offers, particularly for large and unwieldy figures that are prone to toppling over.  Small, character sized miniatures, on the other hand, have little to gain from being cast in resin, particularly if we are being asked to pay exorbitant prices for sub-par casts.  Games Workshop appears to have jumped the gun on the Finecast line and switched over to resin casting before they had the process completely worked out.  Consequently, they must be purchased with the caveat 'buyer beware.'  When purchasing a Finecast model make sure to open it in the store and inspect it before purchasing.  Even still, it is unlikely that all of the imperfections will be apparent until you sit down with the model and begin cleaning it up, so trips back to the store for a return may be necessary.

Here's a summary of what I consider to be the pro's and con's of Citadel Finecast miniatures:

Pro                                                            Con
1. Exquisite detail                                       1. Frequent pitting
2. Light weight and resilient to dropping     2. Commonplace warping
3. Soft, making conversions easy               3. Excessive flash and mould lines
                                                                   4. Fragile
                                                                   5. Overpriced

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Solstice to All!

Courtesy of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
(if you want skip the long instrumental, the song starts at 58 seconds)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fun Family Games

My daughter's sixth birthday was last week and I got her a couple of new games for us all to play on our weekly family game night.  Since Christmas is just around the corner I thought I'd post a quick review of them in case anyone is looking for some last minute game gift ideas.

I've been intrigued by the the line of Lego games ever since I first heard about them, and I was sorely tempted to pick up Heroica, but I was afraid that it might be a little too advanced for a six-year-old.  Instead I opted for the simpler Lego Magikus, which is aimed at ages 6+.

Like all Lego games, the first step is putting the game together, which is half the fun and though the box that it comes in is big enough to store the entire assembled game, my daughter often likes to disassemble it so she can put it together again.

The game itself is pretty elementary.  The object is collect one each of four different spell ingredients that are on a set of shelves.  On each player's turn he or she chooses a row or column on the shelves and rolls the die and receives an ingredient that corresponds to the colour rolled.  The first player to get all four ingredients wins.

It seems to me, however, that many game manufacturers underestimate children's abilities and over-shoot their audience.  While my daughter does enjoy Magikus, I'd say that six years old is approaching the upper age limit and that a more accurate range would be about 4-6 years old.  The game is entirely random; it requires no skill to play and can be quickly learned by very young children.

One of the really cool things about Lego games is that they encourage kids to make up their own house rules, which can be posted on the Lego website to share with the entire community, so Lego appears to share the same game ethic as the OSR community.

While Magikus may be a bit too young for my daughter, I'll definitely consider buying other Lego games in the future, and I'd certainly recommend Magikus for younger children.

The other game that I bought her was Carcassonne, published in North America by Rio Grande Games.  This is an amazingly fun game which involves laying tiles to create the countryside and the object is to complete projects such as roads and cities.  Points are scored by allocating followers to certain projects; the player with the most number of followers on a project when it is completed wins all of the points.

The game is extremely simple to learn and, because there is no writing on the tiles, it can be played by children much younger than the manufacturer recommended 8+.  Indeed, it has quickly become my daughter's favourite game and she regularly beats my wife and me.

On each player's turn, he or she draws a tile from a face down pile and places it on the table adjacent to existing tiles making certain that road sections connect to other road sections, city sections to cities, and so on.  One of the important aspects of the game is resource allocation, because you only have seven followers to devote to projects and you don't get them back until the project is complete (i.e. city or road is completely built).

While the game is very quick and easy to learn, there are subtle strategies that take longer to master, which makes it fun and challenging for all ages.

I highly recommend Carcassonne as a fantastic family game.  With several expansions available, it will provide a great deal of fun for years to come.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bestiary of Lemuria: Suideans

Among the commonest threats to human civilization in post-Atlantean Lemuria are the roving bands of beast-men that were created by the Atlantean overlords by crossing humans with various animal species to create superior slave races.  Left behind when their masters quit Lemuria, they now lurk in the ruins, worshiping the gods of Chaos and preying upon the weak and unwary.

The Suideans (pronounced soo-idean) are one such race, created to serve as shock troops in the internecine battles of the Atlantean warlords.  Bred for ferocity and stamina, the flesh-shapers combined human DNA with that of wild boars to create the ultimate warrior race.

Suidean tribes are able to grow quickly because sows have large litters and short gestation periods.  They also have short generational spans; the average suidean reaches sexual maturity in just five years.  Despite their high fecundity, only a handful of suideans survive to adulthood.  The Suideans are typical r-selection strategists; they produce far more offspring than can possibly survive and provide little parental investment.  In their brutal and militaristic society only the strongest survive to join the ranks of the warriors, while the weak are bullied for sport.  Indeed, the only members of suidean society outside of the warrior caste to receive any degree of respect are the armourers and boar-handlers.

The idea for suideans arose from a strange dichotomy; I have always, since my very first days playing D&D, disliked pig-faced orcs.  Actually, 'hated,' would be a better word for it (see my previous rant on the subject) The Tolkienien concept of the orc was permanently entrenched in my psyche at a young age and I refused to accept the AD&D spin on them.  At the same time, I really like the aesthetic of the pig-faced orc and I love the Otherworld Miniatures line of pig-faced orcs.  The solution, of course, was to create a race of pig-faced humanoids that are not orcs.  Now I can indulge in these wonderful miniatures without betraying my ideals.  Semantics, I know, but putting a new, campaign-specific, spin on an old monster freshens them up and makes them far more palatable to a pulp sword & sorcery campaign.

Suidean (No. Encountered 2d4/3d10 x 10)
Armour Class: 6           Special: Bestial Charge, Berserk         Morale: 8
Hit Dice: 1                    Move: 12                                          Alignment: Chaos
Attack: by weapon        HDE/XP: 2/30

Bestial Charge: Suideans are capable short range bursts of speed coupled with savage fury, and they receive a +1 bonus to hit and damage on the round that they charge into combat.
Berserk: Suideans are, by nature, cowardly bullies and are easily intimidated by superior force, but when they are wounded they go berserk and fight with suicidal rage.  Berserk suideans automatically pass all morale checks and will fight to the death.  In such a state they are immune to fear and mind control effects and cannot be negotiated or reasoned with.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's The Most Horrible Time of the Year

It's official; it is December 1st and the holiday season is well and truly upon us.  I awoke at 7 a.m. this morning to a seemingly endless playlist of Christmas music on the radio.  By 7:15 my sanity was at the breaking point and the mad piping of Azathoth would have been a welcome respite.

In Lemuria, celebrations, albeit of an entirely different sort, are also held at this time of year.  For much of the year the human inheritors of Lemuria concern themselves with the perils left behind by the Atlantean overlords; but there are older and darker things in the land that surpass even the foulest works of Atlantis, and they begin to stir as the solstice approaches.

For twelve days prior to the solstice, the people celebrate with gift-giving and offerings of food to passing strangers.  This tradition dates back thousands of years and is believed to have started as a means of appeasing the capricious spirits of the earth that stir more fitfully as the days grow short.  Of course, city-bred men scoff at such superstition, but many country folk, who live at the sufferance of such forces, hold to the old ways and huddle warily behind locked doors and shuttered windows in hope that their offerings will be sufficient to divert the attention of things best not spoken of.

The barbarian tribes of Lemuria seek not only to appease, but also to gain the favour of, the primordial eldritch forces of the earth through the performance of ancient rites passed down from elder to elder through the ages.  These rites include such offerings as the skulls of slain enemies, the hearts of captured foes ripped, still beating, from their chests, and the life-blood of comely maidens of virtue true.  As a consequence of this last, young women of child-bearing age are eager to lose their maidenheads prior to solstice night, and the nights before solstice are carnal bacchanals that the young men of the tribe look forward to all year long.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Session 5: Did Anyone Bring Rat Poison?

As exploration of the dungeon continues it is becoming apparent that the degenerate humanoid inhabitants have been training various vermin to guard their halls, including borer beetles, giant spiders, and rats.  Indeed, the upper levels of the ruins of Thrace have been utterly infested with vermin, and stirges and rats have proven to be particularly lethal hazards to exploration.  Yet, a surreal encounter this session raises the question of whether something more sinister may be at work.

Opening a dungeon door, the party spied a nest of especially large and fierce-looking rats.  Having had enough rat-bites to last a lifetime they elected to spike the door shut then head back to camp to buy some flasks of oil and immolate them from afar.  Returning an hour later, the room was now empty; the rats having exited through the doorway on the other side of the room.  The party had counted on the rats staying put until they got back with the oil; they are just dumb animals, right?

Passing through the room and through the far doorway, the party found themselves in a narrow, labyrinthine passage.  As they slowly proceeded they heard a voice crying out for help, just ahead.  Ignoring the voice, they decided to explore a side passage and a few minutes later, heard the same voice crying out behind them.  Returning to the place where they heard the voice, they found nothing.  This same thing kept happening as they explored the labyrinth: voices in the dark behind them or around the next corner calling out for help, or persuading them to "come and play."  Yet they party was never able to find the source of the voices.

It turned out that the voices were those of the rats, themselves, who were attempting to herd the party into to their main nest, a great hall in which the party was attacked on all sides by a swarm of giant rats, led by an enormous, hideously mutated nest mother.

Ironically, the monstrous rat-mother was killed without her inflicting a single wound on the adventurers, though the normal rats proved a considerably more difficult challenge, and they inflicted some serious wounds before the characters managed to kill them all.

And, thus, the session ended with the mystery of the weird talking rats and their mutant nest mother, and what, if anything, they signify.

This session was also the first in the campaign in which no player characters were killed and it was a welcome respite to end a session with players high-fiving instead of rolling up new characters.

Rats.  Why did it have to be rats?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reaper Treats

In yesterday's mail, I received a shipment from Reaper Miniatures.  Any order of at least $40 placed during the month of October also received a Halloween goody-bag.  Here's mine:

Inside the bag were three bottles of Master Series Paint, plus a special bottle of pink paint created to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a pack of playing cards with C.A.V. (Combat Armoured Vehicle) logo, and a bag of candy.

And, best of all, each bag included either a Halloween miniature treat or trick.  I got....

Is it any wonder I love ordering from these guys?  What a great swag bag!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jeff Dee Kickstart Project

I just wanted to pass along, for anyone who hasn't already heard, news of Jeff Dee's kickstart project to recreate the art from his TSR projects, eventually to be compiled in an art book.  He plans to start with the Egyptian chapter from Deities and Demigods, and progress to the other chapters, including missing illustrations that were never completed for the original book.  According to Dee, all of his original art work was thrown out by TSR, so he has to recreate all of the illustrations from scratch.

This would be a pretty neat project, as Dee's artwork graced a lot of AD&D books and adventure modules and, along with Sutherland and Trampier helped create the iconography of the game.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Session 4: Need More Body-Bags

This session, a good deal more of the level was explored and mapped, and various and sundry vermin were exterminated.  After continuing to track Sathera's adventuring party through the dungeon, the PCs finally found their remains - entangled in nets and gnawed upon.  The perpetrator of the gnawing was the subject of much debate until zombies from a nearby room shambled in and settled the debate.

Although the rescue mission ultimately failed, the upswing was that the PCs got to loot the bodies of the missing party, thereby obtaining a shiny new +1 longsword.  Also, Sathera was not among the bodies of her comrades, and evidence suggests that she was dragged off, so hope remains of her survival.

The session ended, again, in a fight with the black-robed, pale-skinned zealots who were gambling on a fight between a borer beetle and a giant spider when the party came upon them.  Just as the previous session ended with these albinos killing Thorsten the sorcerer, this time they killed that same player's new character.  The turnover rate of characters is such that players are refraining from naming them.  Aside from the two longest running characters, Thomas and Ebin, the characters are referred to as The Thief, The Warrior, etc., and the most recent new character is called New Guy.

Monday, October 31, 2011

THIS is Halloween!

One of my daughter's favourite movies is Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, and she always sings along to the opening song.  I wonder how she'd react to this very creepy Marilyn Manson cover?

 Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Scratch-Built Hill

I've been devoting a lot of energy, lately, to painting my Warhammer Dwarf army, and I've also been building some terrain to match it.  My first ever attempt at terrain building was my dwarf fortification, and I've just finished a hill.

The top of the hill is large enough to hold a large unit of Thunderers or Quarrelers, or a couple of artillery pieces.

This was a pretty simple piece; I just cut out a kidney-shaped piece of styrofoam insulation, sanded it and glued it to a piece of MDF board for durability, then took some smaller pieces of styrofoam, shaped them with sandpaper and glued them around the edges.  Painted, added grass and snow, and done.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Brundage and Domination

For this week's set of Weird Tales covers, I thought I'd contrast last week's overtures of lesbian sadism with a sampling of women being menaced, usually while bound, and often with whips, by sinister men.  By now a common theme in Weird Tales covers should be clearly evident due to the fact that, as Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright noted, the issues with kinky covers sold out quickly.  Notice how many of the villains are dressed in masked, hooded robes.

January, 1933

April, 1934
September, 1934
March, 1936
January, 1937

And, in a rare example of equal-opportunity kink, a cover depicting a busty woman whipping some naked men...

October, 1937

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Painting the Mythos: Byakhee

Since my last Mythos-painting post was in mid-July, I'm long overdue for another.  I didn't get much painting done over the summer due to the oppressive heat, and for most of autumn my painting time has been spent on my Warhammer Dwarf army and a batch of new Reaper minis for my City States of Lemuria campaign.  So my vow to finally paint all of my long-neglected Call of Cthulhu miniatures has been occupying the back seat for the last few months, but I did recently manage to get my Byakhee miniature painted.

This was really a pretty quick and easy paint job.  Because there is a lot of surface texture on the miniature, I started out with a base coat of dark blue, then drybrushed several layers of successively lighter blue.  Likewise, the wing membranes were basecoated in dark red then drybrushed up to a final light layer of orange.  The claws and teeth were picked out with a light blue/grey mix, and for the eyes I used the same technique of blending red up through orange to yellow that I used on the Deep Ones eyes.  I finished the eyes off with a dot of pure white to give them a demonic burning look.

The base was sculpted with an epoxy modelling compound then drybrushed with several successively lighter layers of grey.

"... there flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things. ...They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall." - from The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft.

Byakhee are an interstellar race often found in the service of Hastur the Unspeakable.  They are capable of flying through interstellar space and of carrying a rider, if that rider is suitably protected from the cold and airless vacuum of space.  They have no earthly bases, but can be summoned by sorcerers to serve as mounts.

Armour Class: 6            Special: Blood drain           Morale: 12
Hit Dice: 3                     Move: 9 (24 when flying)    Alignment: Chaos
Attacks: Claws or bite   HDE/XP: 3/60

Byhakhees may attack with both claws or a bite.  If they successfully bite a foe they attach and drain its blood, automatically dealing 1d6 points of damage on each successive round unless the creature can be dislodged or killed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Session 3: Let Sleeping Gods Lie

Continuing from last session, the group finished exploring the second level of the dungeon, then descended into a series of subterranean caverns filled with a couple of deep pools.  They decided to plumb the depths of the pools by having the sorcerer cast Light of Aten on some stones, then threw them into the pools and watched as they sank into the murky depths.  Nothing bad ever came from throwing stones into ancient forgotten ponds, right?

They similarly cast Light of Aten on an arrow and shot it across the second pool, around which no path existed, and they caught a shadowy glimpse of a large stone idol in an alcove on the opposite shore.  The monk decided to strip down and swim across the pool and investigate the idol.  By himself.  Nothing bad ever came from splitting the party in a dungeon, right?

On the far side of the pool he saw a hideous effigy - a humanoid proboscidean that combined the worst qualities of man, elephant, and octopus - and which bore a striking resemblance to a sketch of Chaugnar Faugn they had seen in a scroll fragment.  The monk checked the idol carefully for secret compartments, and pulled on its trunk and each of its tentacles in hope of finding a concealed lever.  Disappointed, he decided to swim back to the rest of the group, and made it about half way across before Bad Things happened.

Feeling something slimy brush against him, the monk began to swim faster, and then tentacles as thick as a man's thigh began to thrash about, hunting for him.  One of them wrapped about his leg and attempted to pull him under, but he was carrying the light-enchanted arrow retrieved from near the idol, and he drove it hard into the tentacle, which then let go, allowing him to escape safely to shore.

As the party stood on the shore debating whether the time had come to vacate the dungeon, they saw the surface of the pool begin to froth and boil as something large began to rise from the depths.  This observance decided the issue of whether to stay or go, and as they fled they saw a huge tusked creature emerge from the pool.  Its bellow of rage was like the trumpeting of a hundred elephants, and it shook the very foundations of the cavern.  The party fled the dungeon, half-carrying the monk, whose leg was injured by a falling rock as a cliff face began to collapse.

Limping back to camp, they found a party of concerned on-lookers drawn by the roars of bestial rage issuing from yonder collapsing cliff.  Explaining what had happened, they consulted the scholar, Cruro, about how to end the threat.  Cruro's only suggestion was that he had read that Chaugnar Faugn was associated with dreams and portents, and that perhaps sleeping dreamers in camp were empowering the creature.  As it happened, the camp had recently grown as camel trains of merchants arrived to cater to the adventuring parties exploring the ruins, and among the merchandise was a healthy supply of Akla, a recreational hallucinogenic drug derived from the venom of the Dream Weaver spider.  Everyone quickly ran through the camp waking anyone in a drug-induced stupor in hopes of putting the creature back to sleep before it burst free of the caverns and destroyed the entire camp.  Finally, the entire cliff face collapsed and as the dust settled all was quiet.  Perhaps the thing had returned to the depths of its pool.  For now.

The party spent the next week or so resting in the camp and recovering their wounds and they heard rumours of people disappearing from the camp in the middle of the night, and the sighting of pale, ghoulish creatures that some claimed were vampires, while others insisted were the spirits of the dead citizens of Thrace, come to punish the intruders.  Meanwhile, the less wounded party members spent the time scouting out new areas of the ruined city to explore and the warrior, Ebin, met a swordswoman named Sathera who was about to lead her team into some newly discovered caverns and she suggested that Ebin and his group meet up with them when they were up to it.

It was still several days before all of the party members were healed up enough to tempt fate again, by which time Sathera and her team had still not returned.  Concerned, Ebin suggested that they go in search of the overdue adventurers.  Entering the new dungeon, they saw evidence of Sathera's passing: mud tracks on the floor, dead creatures slain by sword and axe, and so on.  While investigating a room the party set off some shriekers, which attracted the attention of the dungeon's denizen's - a party of degenerate black robed albinos who wielded crude stone weapons.  The fanatics fell upon the party with crazed zeal, and did not flee, even in the face of horrific casualites.  The zealots were little match for the party, but a pair of the crazed attackers managed to fall upon Thorsten the sorcerer and beat him to death with stone axes.

Thus ended the session, with the demise of the party's sole practitioner of the dark arts, leaving only one original party member left alive.  The dungeons of Thrace continue to live up to their deadly reputation.

This was an amusing session, particularly since the entire encounter with the thing in the pools was completely ad-libbed and based entirely on the paranoid musings of the players who were sure that some tentacled horror lurked in the watery depths.  It hadn't occurred to me, but hey, a good idea is a good idea.  Players will always conjure up greater terrors than I'd be able to come up with on my own, so why not let them dictate the course of events?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Margaret Monday

In last week's introductory post on the magazine cover art of Margaret Brundage, I mentioned that many of her covers, including her first Weird Tales cover, featured an S&M theme with lesbian undertones, which were probably painted at the request of editor Farnsworth Wright, who understood the tastes of his readers better than they seemed to themselves.

Here are a few more Weird Tales covers sharing this theme:

November, 1934

December, 1934 

January, 1936

July, 1936

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Feast Days

It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and, although Thanksgiving Day is actually on Monday, we, like many families, celebrate on Sunday; my wife likes to have the next day off to make turkey soup from the carcass.  In between making stuffing and bottling an outstanding batch of Chenin Blanc, which has been aging in the carboy for nearly three years, I've spent the day surrounded by dungeon maps, keying rooms in preparation for next session and thinking about aspects of Lemurian civilization.

So now, as I sit groaning, with my pants undone and struggling to breath, my thoughts turn to Lemurian Feast Days and festivals.  Since Lemuria is a huge continent holidays vary considerably between City States and geographical regions, but there is one universal feast day celebrated throughout the land: The Feast of Emancipation.

The days of Atlantean rule were grim for mankind, who were among the lowest of servitor races.  The Atlanteans bred many specialized hybrid races for important tasks, such as the Suidean warrior caste, and humans performed the only the most menial of duties although they did play an important role in many Atlantean holy days - typically having their still-beating hearts cut out by knife-wielding priests.

Although free of Atlantean dominance for centuries, the dark days under their reign remains a part of mankind's collective consciousness and the Feast of Emancipation celebrates the decline of Atlantean rule in Lemuria.  The feast is held on the first day of the new year as a symbol of new beginnings, and on this day throughout the land, aurochs are slaughtered upon the altar of Mithras and roasted on spits in the public square, and all partake in a day-long bacchanal of eating and drinking.  By tradition, even slaves are given a free day and allowed to partake in celebration.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bestiary of Lemuria: Borer Beetles

The giant Lemurian Borer Beetle is a common inhabitant of subterranean limestone caverns.  It is seldom seen above ground, but evidence of its passing can be found in burrow-riddled outcrops.

burrow network

The Borer Beetle burrows by secreting a highly concentrated acetic acid, which quickly dissolves carbonate rock.  The animal absorbs essential minerals and nutrients by drinking the neutralized slurry, which it then uses to secrete a protective exoskeleton of chitino-phosphatic plates.  The beetle can go through several instars before reaching sexual maturity, each time shedding its old carapace before undergoing a growth stage and then secreting a new, larger exoskeleton.  During the growth stage it is completely vulnerable, and unable to move or protect itself; it therefore ensconces itself in a deep burrow before undergoing ecdysis.  Unlike other insects, Borer Beetles continue to molt and grow in their adult stage, and their upper size limit is unknown.

Borer Beetles are predaceous carnivores who ambush cavern-dwelling prey by undermining passage ways with a network of burrows.  When the prey passes over the burrow network, the passage collapses and the beetles fall upon the stunned creature, spraying it with acid then dismembering it with powerful pincers.

Borer Beetles are superficially similar to the Fire Beetle, but can be distinguished by bright green mottling on the carapace and an accessory secretory organ on the dorsal surface.

Beetle, Giant Borer (No. Encountered: 1-3)
Armour Class: 4    Special: Acid spray
Hit Dice: 2             Move: 12 (1 when burrowing)
Attack: Bite           HDE/XP: 3/60

The Borer Beetle can shoot acid from its accessory organ in a pressurized stream up to fifteen feet away, but  can only do so once before needing to recharge its reservoir.  This assumes a beetle that has just achieved sexual maturity.  Older, larger beetles have much larger acid reservoirs and may be able to fire an acid stream several times.  The acid deals 2d6 damage and continues to burn for 1 point of damage each round thereafter for 1d6 rounds.  Armour does not protect against the spray; only shields and dexterity bonus can help prevent the target from being sprayed.  While the acid will etch metal armour given time, if it is wiped off quickly it will not cause immediate damage.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Session 2: The Ruins of Thrace

Acting upon rumours of treasures recently discovered in the ruins of the Atlantean city of Thrace, the party traveled north, by caravan, through Hellspire Pass and into the the Jungle of Zahar wherein lie the remnants of a once-great city, whose crumbling, vine-covered walls and broken towers extend as far as the eye can see.

Making their way through a make-shift squatter's camp of scholars and adventurers who have come to explore the ruins, the party made the acquaintance of the scholar, Cruro, whose colleague, Thesus, descended into the catacombs beneath a recently uncovered temple a day earlier and has not yet returned.  Cruro suggested that the party might wish to begin their exploration here, and hopefully discover Thesus's whereabouts.  He also offered to purchase any Atlantean artifacts that might be found within.

The party entered the subterranean complex beneath the temple, and began to explore the stinking, guano-covered rooms.  They came upon a nave containing an altar, behind which was a horrific demonic visage in bronze, mounted beneath a brass brazier.  A careful search of the altar uncovered a sacrificial dagger.

After exploring further, the party descended a short flight of stairs to a large web-filled hall and were set upon by an enormous spider that was intent on making meals of the lot.  After slaying the monster, a search of the web-filled room revealed a golden medallion depicting the same demonic face seen above the altar, with two small rubies for eyes.

Proceeding into the next room the party found the withered remains of a priest slumped in a bronze chair, clutching a black, leather-bound book in it's shriveled hands.  As soon as the party approached the priest, the medallion grew warm to touch and the emerald eyes glowed with unearthly light.  A similar eerie glow emanated from the eye-sockets of the corpse as it began to stir, hoarsely proclaiming, "I live...again!"

The party attacked the creature, but found that their weapons made no impact on the unliving horror; only the spells of the sorcerer, Thorston, seemed to have any impact at all.  Naturally, this threat drew the attention of the thing, which promptly trapped the sorcerer in a corner and attempted to grasp him with its taloned hands.  The thief, known only as Grit, threw himself at the creature in an attempt to tackle it and knock it away from Thorston but, instead, upon contact his very life essence was drained away by the creature, and Grit slumped to the ground, dead.

Now utterly drained and unable to call further upon the demons of darkness for arcane aid, Thorston desperately slashed at the creature with the ceremonial dagger he had taken from the altar, and finally killed it.  The book, deciphered by the monk, Thomas, was entitled The Litany of Hate, a treatise on the demon lord, Namtur, and containing rites of worship, sacrifice, and summoning.

The party, now weakened by their battles, elected to return to the surface though they were unable to make any report to Cruro as to the fate of Thesus.  So badly battered were they by their trials that they elected to travel two days south to Hellspire Keep, where they were able to recuperate in comfort in the Flaming Faggot.

After a week of rest and recovery, they returned north to the ruins, and recruited a sorcerer who was looking for partners to explore the ruins.  Returning to the dungeon below the temple, the party continued their investigation.  The rest of the upper level consisted of mouldering, guano-filled rooms.  Finally, they descended a spiral stair-case to the second level, and discovered the exsanguinated corpse of Thesus on the stairs.  Continuing down to the chamber below, which was thick with the overpowering stench of fresh guano, the party soon discovered it's origin; a flock of stirges that were drawn to the lantern light and swarmed about the adventurers, several of whom nearly succumbed to blood loss before they were able to kill all of the stirges.

From there the party passed through a short hallway into a room containing a large silver-inlaid chest, covered in stirge-droppings and permanently affixed to the floor.  Now lacking a thief to open the locked chest, the group resorted to the common man's lock-pick; a crowbar.  The moment the lid was forced open,  iron bars slammed down in the passage trapping everyone except Thorston and the newly recruited sorcerer within.  Unfortunately the new party member was standing directly under the bars and was impaled through the torso, killing him instantly.  As soon as the bars dropped into place, the north and south walls of the room began to close slowly in on one another.  The trapped party members tried to drive iron spikes to halt the walls that were sure to soon crush them, but only succeeded in slowing their advance temporarily.  Just as space was starting to get tight, the warrior, Ebin, searched the ceiling and discovered a concealed trap door.  He was boosted up to open the hatch and climb into a vertical passage above.  Just in the nick of time he tied a rope to the iron rungs and lowered it to the two others still trapped below, who climbed up just as the walls met in the middle.  They were able to climb up to the first level and make their way back down the spiral staircase to rejoin Thorston in the second level entry chamber.

After further exploration and an encounter with a pair of acid-spraying borer beetles, the group decided to call it a night and return to camp.  On the way out however, they came upon a pair of giant rats, and Brother Vigmar, Scion of Thoth, was slain in the ensuing battle, just before they were able to exit the dungeon.

This turned out to be a rather lethal session, with three characters dying during the night, two of which belonged to the same player, and Thorsten the Sorcerer and Thomas the monk are now the sole surviving original party members.  For how much longer remains to be seen.  The dungeons of Lemuria are not for the faint of heart.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Margaret Brundage: Queen of the Pulps

In celebration of the recent launch of my sword & sorcery campaign, The City States of Lemuria, I want to dedicate several posts this month to the works of Weird Tales cover artist, Margaret Brundage (Dec 9, 1900 - April 9, 1976), whose paintings dominated the covers of the magazine for most of the 1930's, setting the tone for heroic fantasy iconography, perhaps for all time.

When Brundage took her portfolio to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright he immediately put her to work as a cover artist and her first published cover was for the Summer 1932 issue of Oriental Stories.

Oriental Stories, Summer 1932

She painted her first Weird Tales cover for the September 1932 issue, and went on to illustrate sixty-six covers for the magazine, including all nine of the Conan covers.

Weird Tales, September, 1932

Original painting used for September '32 cover

Many of her covers featured sadistic scenes of nude women in bondage, often with lesbian overtures, that are provocative even by today's permissive standards, but must have been truly scandalous in the 1930's.  The covers were, indeed, controversial, and many Weird Tales readers criticized them as trashy, misogynistic and lurid.  But Farnsworth Wright noted that the covers featuring a Brundage nude made money, while issues with more modest covers lost money.  So there is little doubt that despite the puritanical protests, the covers were a big draw.  Indeed, one of her most provocative covers,  featuring a nude blonde in bondage being whipped by a scantily-clad brunette, illustrating the Conan Story, "The Slithering Shadow," in September, 1933, was largely responsible for selling the issue out.  Not only did sex sell then, as it does now, but sex has been inextricably linked to the heroic fantasy and horror genres at least as far back as the 19th century.

Weird Tales, September, 1933
Brundage was the reigning cover artist for Weird Tales until Farnsworth Wright resigned as editor, and the magazine was sold.  She was paid $90 per cover and, as is the tale with many creative minds, her work was never truly appreciate during her lifetime, but now commands a high price and in 2008 her first Weird Tales cover sold for $50,000.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Session One: The Temple of Atlach-Nacha

As dusk settled upon the glittering domes and high-spired towers of the City-State of Kashpur a small band consisting of a warrior, a sorcerer, a thief, and two monks gathered beneath the high walls surrounding the temple of the spider god with ropes and grappling hooks in hand.

The cult of Atlach-Nacha has a monopoly on the production and distribution of the hallucinogenic drug, Akla, which is derived from the venom of the Dream Weaver spider.  Aside from being a popular recreational drug, Akla is vital to attaining the meditative state necessary for the Scions of Thoth to access their ancestral memories.  Capturing a live Dream Weaver, or better still, an egg cluster, would help break the cult's monopoly on Akla production.

More to the point, however, word around the Willing Wench was that the idol of Atlach-Nacha had eyes set with enormous amethysts and the idea of a night time incursion to liberate them sounded better with each pint of ale.

After scaling first the wall, then the cupola at the end of one of the eight wings radiating from the temple, the band was inside.  Deciding to first explore the rooms in the wing before heading to the altar, the band ventured into the occupied bed chamber of one of the temple priests.  This resulted in the alarm being raised and a battle with the priest and two of his fellows occupying neighbouring chambers.

After dispatching the priests, four of the band donned the black web-embroidered robes.  When confronted by temple guards, the disguised party members said that a band of thieves had fled to the upper floor of the rear wing.  The guards ran off to capture the miscreants, leaving the party alone with the idol of Atlach-Nacha.  The idol had two large amethyst eyes, and four smaller ones.  The two larger were pried out of their sockets without harm, but two of the smaller were broken.  Just as the thief was prying out the last of the eyes, two more guards entered the hall, and this time bluffing them was out of the question.  One was quickly slain, but the other fled to summon reinforcements.

Electing to exit the temple as expeditiously as possible, the band ran for the main entrance, but found it blocked by two guards and the temple's prelate.  After killing them with ease, the party was tempted by a set of descending stairs, and elected to explore the lower level of the temple instead of making good their escape.  They quickly found what was assumed to be the temple's treasury - a room filled with chests, each containing 1,000 gold pieces.  Each party member claimed a chest of gold, and at this point they decided that they'd made a sufficient haul for the night, and that it was time to leave.

Unfortunately, they weren't quick enough getting out, and met the first four guards that they'd sent on a wild goose-chase, who were now examining the body of the dead prelate and his guards.  The ensuing fight did not go as smoothly as the earlier one's and the party's warrior was slain in the melee.

As the party made their way through the grounds to the main gate, they heard the chittering of an enormous black spider that had dropped out of the trees behind them.  Thinking quickly, the sorcerer brandished a golden spider emblem he had taken from one of the priests, hoping it might serve to identify them as cultists of Atlach-Nacha.  The ploy worked and the spider backed away into the bushes.

After escaping from the temple grounds the surviving party members, many of them badly injured, decided to lay low for while and wait for the heat to die down before trying to fence the amethysts.  Much to their dismay, when they opened their purloined chests, they found that their haul from the temple was not 5,000 gp, but 5,000 cp.  Illusions can be tricksy.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The City-States of Lemuria

Ever since I first became a student of Earth history I've yearned to run a campaign set in Earth's distant past; when creatures so fantastical roamed the land that they could rival even the weirdest entries in the Fiend Folio.  I've never gotten around to it, but now that I am about to start a new campaign to test out my home-brewed sword & sorcery rules I needed a suitable S & S setting to run it in.

Very little of the campaign setting has been fleshed out, I have a very general idea of what the world is like and intend to grow the setting throughout the course of the campaign rather than having every detail determined before the first die is ever rolled.  Likewise, instead of dumping a massive campaign background in the laps of the players, who will probably never read it, I mean to reveal details of the world bit-by-bit in game and as a series of vignette posts that will be much easier to digest.

So far, all I know about the world is what I've told the players:
The Atlantean Empire, which in the distant past was widespread and all-powerful, once oppressed and enslaved the men of Lemuria, but when the Atlantean civilization was wrought by decadence and decay, and their empire collapsed, they abandoned their holdings one by one, finally withdrawing to their island nation of Atlantis, and have seldom been heard from or seen since. Mankind is now ascendent, and the city-states of Lemuria fight interminably to establish mighty kingdoms and empires of their own. All across the land the crumbling ruins built by the Atlantean overlords beckon to adventurers of bold spirit, promising fabulous treasures, arcane lore, and artifacts of magic and super-science, long abandoned by their owners. But such treasures are guarded, still, by horrific creatures summoned by the black arts of Atlantean sorcery or abominations twisted by genetic experimentation. Only adventurers bold and mighty can dare such dangers and return alive to tell the tales and spend the gold of their conquests.

I have a great fondness for intertwining fact and fiction, and I've never been able to resist doing so in my campaign settings; it enhances the plausibility of the game, and consequently my enjoyment.  As such, the lure of Lemuria was irresistible.

Throughout much of the 19th, and well into the 20th century, sunken continents were common explanations for the biogeographic distributions of species, and Lemuria was proposed by zoologist, Philip Scatler, to explain the occurrence of lemurs in Madagascar and India, but not Africa.  He suggested that a large continent once occupied part of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, bridging Madagascar and India.  "Lost" continents were discredited in the 1950's when the discovery of plate tectonics provided support for Alfred Wegener's theory of Continental Drift, which had, until then, been generally disregarded by the scientific community.  But until then they were considered to be valid scientific hypotheses, supported by some of the greatest scientists of the day, including Ernst Haeckel.  Lemuria was even proposed as the birthplace of humanity, which raises all sorts of interesting possibilities in a fantasy campaign.

It is hardly surprising that the lost lands of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Lemuria, Atlantis, and Hyperborea would show up in the literary works of fantasists such as Robert Howard and Clark Ashton Smith; they were undoubtedly influenced many of the intriguing hypotheses proposed by scientists of their day, and let's face it, what writer of weird fiction could possibly resist the notion of lost continents and civilizations?  Or what gamer?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Media Res

After a long hiatus from roleplaying, I will be kicking off a new campaign this Sunday.  I've always found that first sessions are very special as they tend to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.  They are pregnant with possibility; a golden time when anything is possible.  Players sit with brand new, vaguely defined characters written on crisp clean character records that do not yet bear the scars of constant erasing or the doodles borne of months spent waiting for their turn to act.

After that first session characters start to become defined, pathways chosen, story arcs develop and inevitably, just as happens when we make choices in life, doors close.  Never again, for the rest of the campaign, will the players experience that same thrill of untold possibility as they do when they sit down to begin that first session. That's a lot to have riding on a single evening.

So, how do we usually kick it off?  By spending the evening shopping for gear, then maybe meeting up in the tavern to make awkward and forced introductions followed by the Employment Offer (TM) that assumes that each character will have sufficient trust and cause to band together with a group of strangers and go risk their lives together because, hey, that's how its done.

At least that's how most of my campaigns have traditionally started, despite the fact that I find this unsatisfying and a waste of such potentially thrilling possibilities.

The best first session I ever played was in a friend's Traveller campaign about thirty years ago.  I'd missed the first few sessions and had to join in after the game had already started.  My character, whose name I forget, was a disreputable Jack of All Trades whose sole possessions were a leather jacket, a 9mm slug-thrower, a boot knife, a pack of smokes, and a hover-car I'd gotten as a mustering-out benefit.  In the opening scene, I was driving down the street when a fellow (PC) ran out in front of my hover-car frantically waving for me stop, then beseeching me to give him a ride to the spaceport.  As I was negotiating a price a trio of attack helicopters suddenly flew around a corner and opened fire.  My passenger screamed at me to drive while throwing fist-fulls of money at me.  I drove.  After a very exciting chase, my bullet-riddled hover-car careened into the space port at high speed and, with pedal to the metal, I raced into the cargo hold of a ship that was just preparing to boost off planet.  All of a sudden I found myself in the company of rebels who were en-route to assault an Imperial prison planet to free some political prisoners.  And I was going along for the ride.

This is perhaps the most memorable game session I've ever played, and what made it so successful, in my opinion, was starting off in media res.  I had no idea what was going on.  I was thrown into the thick of things without any benefit of introduction or back story and before I knew what was happening I was in over my head, being chased by powerful enemies and trying to stay alive long enough to get my bearings and figure things out.  Kind of how you'd expect real people to get drawn into adventures.

So, this time around I think I'm going to try starting the campaign in media res.  No shopping. No introductions.  Just "here's the situation - go!" I have no real plan for a first adventure; I've got a bad case of game master's block, so I may just wait until I see what characters get rolled up and then go from there and just wing the session.  Most of this campaign is an experiment in which I'm play testing my sword & sorcery rule system, so I may as well add yet another experiment and go with my gut and see how things unwind.  It may be an epic fail, or it could end up as my best campaign start ever.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dwarf Army WIP

As summer gives way to autumn and the heat begins to wane, I find myself drawn to my paint station to resume working on one of my many ongoing projects.  Of late, I've been turning my attention to my long-neglected Warhammer Dwarf army.

The first thing I ever bought for this army was the character Joseph Bugman, the dwarf master-brewer.

One of the conditions for using Bugman is that any army he is in must include a unit of longbeard rangers.  Longbeards are hoary old veterans, grognards in the literal sense; they've fought more battles, drank more ale, and endured greater hardships than any younger dwarfs could possibly imagine.  They grumble ceaselessly that nothing is as good as it was in their day; craftsmanship is poorer, goblins are wimpier, and the younger generation just isn't up to snuff.   Consequently, longbeards have the 'Old Grumblers' special rule that allows any other dwarf unit within 6" to re-roll any failed panic tests so as to avoid the endless litany of 'I told you so's' that the longbeards would bestow upon any panicky unit of youngsters.  I find myself identifying more strongly with longbeards the older I get, so including a unit in my army is a given.

Since Bugman is a pivotal character in my army, I've decided to play up the beer-drinking theme throughout the army.  My unit of  longbeard rangers are Bugman's Brewery Boys, the brewmasters and artisans that create the finest ales of the dwarf race.  To represent this I've modeled up a scenic 40 mm monster base that includes some ale barrels with a banner bearing Bugman's personal emblem stuck in the ground as proxy for the usual unit standard-bearer, as I reckon the Brewery Boys would be more inclined to rally round the ale barrel than anything else.

What would you say to a cold beer?
"Going down."
Including some barrels of Bugman's Best is not only characterful, but is also reflects one of Joseph Bugman's special rules; any unit he is with can drink from Bugman's tankard to refresh themselves, restoring a lost wound as well as making them immune to fear and terror.  This is going to be one tough unit of hopped-up axe-wielding maniacs.  I almost pity the monster that gets in their way.

What is a dwarf army with some fortifications to go with it?  I've also been spending much of the past week working on a fortified gun-battery terrain piece.

This is my first attempt at making my own terrain, and it was pretty straightforward.  The hill and rock wall are made from polystyrene insulation sculpted with a hot wire cutter and a sanding block, then mounted on a piece of hardboard for extra strength and durability.  The wall is made with foam core board.  Add some of the many extra dwarfy bits left over from various kits, a couple of layers of acrylic paint, finish off with some moss and snow, and voila!  A cheap-ass terrain piece ready to go.

Once I finish of the longbeard ranger unit, I'll just have a unit of miners to finish and then I'll have more than 2,000 points of bearded, ale-swilling hard-asses who are just itching to kick the tails of any skaven, goblins, or vampire lords silly enough to cross their path.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Sample Adventure Format

After writing yesterday's post detailing the format that I would like published adventures to be written in, I thought it might be useful to provide a sample adventure written in just this format.  It will also be interesting to make up an adventure off the top of my head as I write - I don't promise that it will be an interesting adventure, just an interesting experiment.  So I'll put on a Dead Can Dance CD for some background inspirational music, and here goes:

Canopus Rising an adventure for 1st - 3rd level characters

The blood-scribed pages of the Book of Eibon tell of a blasphemous ritual that will awaken the elder demon, Iog-Sotot, who was ancient when this world was new.  To enact the ritual, a virgin bearing the mark of Carina must be sacrificed upon the equinox when Canopus is at its zenith.  Sukhara, leader of the chaos cult, The Children of Dis, has kidnapped a young woman with a birthmark on her thigh that resembles the constellation Carina, and he believes that her blood can fulfill the ritual to call forth Iog-Sotot to wreak havoc upon the campaign city.

The players are hired by a local merchant named Marconus, to locate his missing daughter, Adara, who has recently disappeared.  In fact, Adara has been kidnapped by a chaos cult, The Children of Dis, to be sacrificed to the demon Iog-Sotot, who the Cult and its leader, Sukhara, priest of Eris, hope to summon.  Marconus's assistant, a young man named Memnot, a cult member who has long desired Adara, espied her in her bath and noticed a wine-stain birthmark upon her thigh in the semblance of the constellation Carina.  Seeking to gain favour with Sukhara and status within the cult, Memnot arranged the kidnapping of Adara, stealing her from her bed chamber after drugging her wine with lotus blossoms.

Marconus has reported Adara's disappearance to the city watch, but the Children of Dis are a wealthy and influential cult and have circulated the rumour that Adara ran away with her lover, Memnot, and they have also bribed the watch officers to let the matter rest.  However, Marconus is a wealthy and prosperous merchant, himself, and it is well within his means to hire mercenaries to locate Adara.  He promises the characters 500 gp each to rescue his daughter.

Marconus has no certain idea who took his daughter or why, but he finds it suspicious that Memnot stopped coming to work immediately after the kidnapping, and he knows that Adara had no romantic interest in Memnot - in fact she found him odious.  An investigation into Memnot, by making inquiries at his favourite tavern, the Willing Wench, will soon reveal his affiliation with the Children of Dis.

Adara is being held in the cult's hideout, a system of karst caverns beneath the city, she is unharmed and being kept safe until the equinox, three days hence.  The cellar of Memnot's home in Nocturne Lane, which he shares with his mother, herself a life-long Child of Dis, contains a secret entrance to the caverns.  There are several other entrances to the caverns that might suggest themselves to suspicious investigators.  There has recently been a series of late night disappearances in the vicinity of the Willing Wench that has set the fearful residents to gossiping.  The sewers in the neighbourhood have crumbled, leading to the caverns, and the cult has been using this as a convenient venue to kidnap drunken tavern patrons for Sukhara's foul necromancy.  Furthermore, local fishermen  have noticed suspicious activity around the cave entrances on the coast.  The cult has been transporting supplies by boat to the coastal caves that lead to their caverns.

The cavern complex consists of a series of interconnected caves and passages including one large cavern that serves as the cult's ritual chamber.  It is in this chamber that Adara will be sacrificed on the night of the equinox.  In the days leading up to the equinox the caverns will be a hive of activity, with cultists coming and going while making preparations for the big night.  The caverns are patrolled by zombie slaves - the animated remains of past sacrificial victims that Sukhara has raised to protect the lair.  One of the caves is home to a trio of harpies that have made accommodation with the cult, the two groups avoid each other, but cultists are not above luring enemies into the harpies' lair and trapping them there.  The caverns are also haunted by an ochre jelly that Sukhara finds convenient for disposing of incriminating evidence.  The occasional cultist also falls prey to the jelly, but here are plenty more where they came from.  The cult has also concealed many of the sinkholes in the caverns to serve as traps for unwelcome intruders.

Should the PCs fail to stop Sukhara from performing the ritual, then he will succeed in awakening the elder demon Iog-Sotot.  The repercussions of this are left the the GM's discretion, but the cultists should almost certainly not profit from their perfidy.  There is a price to pay when trafficking with the forces of the Dark Beyond, and the wrath of Iog-Sotot will most definitely be focused on those who aroused him.  But the city, itself will also suffer from the demon's ire.

Dramatis Personae
Adara - daughter of Marconus, kidnapped victim of Sukhara who will be sacrificed on the eve of the equinox.
Lucrecius - a notorious strangler and defenestrator, he is also Sukhara's chief lieutenant and body-guard.  He  leads the warriors of the cult and will deal with any interlopers who ask too many questions about town.
Marconus - a merchant of the city and father to Adara.  He knows that Adara has been kidnapped and suspects the involvement of Memnot.
Memnot - employee of Marconus and cultist.  He has not risen in the cult as he had hoped and has come to resent Sukhara.  He could be persuaded to betray the cult if he can do so without risk to himself.
Menara - mother of Memnot and cultist.  She dwells in her home on Nocturne Alley and knows of the secret entrance to the caverns below.
Sukhara - necromancer, priest of Eris, and leader of the children of Dis, he possesses the dread Book of Eibon and will perform the ritual to summon Iog-Sotot upon the rise of Canopus on the eve of the equinox.

T minus 3 days: Marconus hires help to find his daughter.
T minus 2 days: increased activity around the coastal caves is noted by local fishermen for the next two days.
T minus 6 hours: the cultists in the city and surrounding area begin to congregate in the caverns in preparation for the summoning ritual.
T minus 1 hour: by midnight all cultists will be in the ritual chamber, Adara will be bound on the altar, and Sukhara will begin the ritual.
Eve of the equinox: Canopus will reach its zenith at precisely 1 a.m. at which time the ritual will culminate with the sacrifice of Adara, awakening Iog-Sotot.

Random Encounters (1-in-6 chance, roll once per turn in the caverns)
1. Cultists* (1d6) 25% chance that Memnot will be among them.
2. Cult warrior patrol (1d4)
3. Zombies (1d 4)
4. Cultists (1d6) 20% chance that Sukhara and Lucrecius will be among them. (refer to area 15 for stat lines and descriptions)
5. Giant Centipedes - Medium (1d3)
6. Ochre Jelly
7. Sukhara*, Lucrecia and 1d4 cult warriors.  (refer to area 15 for stat lines and descriptions)
8. Adara* - she's escaped her cell and is running blindly through the caverns, hotly pursued by a cult warrior patrol and 1d6 cultists.  (refer to area 6 for stat line and description)

*If any npcs are met in a random encounter they obviously will not be in their lair as described in the keyed descriptions.

So, there we have the crux of the adventure laid out in just a couple of pages.  The abstract conveys all of the information necessary to run the adventure.  Although the map and keyed areas are not provided, a cavern map could be very quickly sketched and, in need, the GM now knows enough about the plot, the important npcs, and the timeline of events to run the adventure on the fly without any keyed areas or further preparation.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How Not to Write an Adventure

As I prepare to kick off a new campaign starting in September I've been giving a lot of thought to adventure design.  In general, I don't use published adventures and never have.  It isn't that I'm opposed to published adventures in principal; while I do prefer to create my own, tailored to my specific campaign, there are times when I'm really pressed for time and would appreciate having something to 'plug and play' with minimal preparation required.

The problem is that I've very rarely ever seen a published adventure that was any good.  My long-time aversion to modules began with my very first D&D game back in 1980, when I attempted to run Keep on the Borderlands.  The session was a disaster, which probably owes more to the fact that my friends and I had no idea what we were doing, than the quality of the adventure.  Nonetheless, at the end of the session one of my friends said, "That sucked.  You should just make up your own adventures."  And I have ever since.  I still bought modules from time to time, suckered in by a neat looking cover or a cool sounding teaser, but I always came away disappointed and, since I had very little money to spare as a teen, feeling a bit angry and ripped off at having purchased something I could have done a better job of myself.  After a few years I'd amassed quite a collection of unused adventures on my bookshelf.

Now, I don't envy anyone who writes adventures for publication.  It can't be easy to come up with an idea that is generic enough to be used by a wide audience, but unique enough to get that same audience to buy it.  But it was never really the ideas or concepts themselves that I found unappealing, it was the way the adventures were written and laid out.  As far as I was concerned they were, and still are, useless as game aids.

So here's the type of adventure structure that I would find useful, and if anyone ever wrote such a thing I definitely be inclined to buy it:

1. Lead off with an abstract.
An abstract is a complete, yet concise summary of the contents in just a few paragraphs.  All scientific papers have abstracts, which fully describe the contents of the paper, including the conclusions.  I don't read 90% of the articles in science journals - I just don't have the time.  I only read the full papers devoted to my immediate area of specialty.  For all the rest I, like most other scientists, only read the abstract.  The abstract tells me everything I need to know.  The rest of the paper is devoted to the details of the experiment and presentation of data, which is only important if you're interested in the nitty gritty details.  Similarly, in a module I would like to see a complete synopsis of everything that happens in the adventure.  Most adventures have teasers, which don't really tell you anything.  There seems to be some fear of "spoiling the ending" by summarizing everything up front.  But guess what?  I'm the DM, I need the info.

2. Dramatis personae
Borrow a page from Shakespeare and give me a list of all the important characters in the adventure right there on the first page.  When I write my own adventures I always include a list of characters as an aide memoire that includes what each character knows in case he is questioned by the PCs.

3. Random Encounter Tables
These are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the adventure.  They transform a series of static encounters into a dynamic and believable setting.

4. Timeline of Events
If the adventure includes a villain with an evil scheme, it should also include a timeline for the implementation and execution of that scheme that assumes no interference by the PCs.  There is absolutely nothing I hate more in an adventure than the set piece where the evil villain is poised with dagger raised above the sacrificial victim, the final passages of the incantation of summoning on his lips in perpetuity, just waiting for the PCs to enter before beginning the downward stroke.  Here's the thing: players are easily distracted by shiny objects.  They might head back to town for R&R halfway through the adventure and then get distracted by a side quest.  They might even decide, as has often happened to me, not to undertake your planned adventure at all.   Unless the main villain in the adventure is Heinz Doofenshmirtz, if the players don't show up the evil scheme will now go off unopposed creating a potentially even more interesting situation.  Mwah ha ha.

5.  Maps
I really miss the detached maps on the inside module covers from the old TSR adventures.  These days maps tend to be scattered throughout the adventure in a devious scheme to drive me into a berserk rage by forcing me flip back and forth between the keyed areas and the map they describe.  Now, I know that the detached maps of old probably aren't easy or practical to do anymore, but FOR THE LOVE OF ZEUS'S BUTTHOLE don't scatter the damn things all over the place.  If the adventure is saddle-stitched, put the maps in the middle so I can pry up the staples and remove them.  Failing that, at least put them all together at the back of the adventure so I can find them quickly.

6. Keyed Areas
In my opinion, read-aloud text boxes should be forever excised and consigned to the lowest pits of Hell.  I can't imagine a more useless and demeaning contrivance.  Descriptions to keyed areas should be kept as brief as possible, and should never, ever, be used to introduce important characters.  I should not be meeting Ilbar the Terrible for the first time in the description of his throne room.  I should already know all about him and what his deal is from reading the dramatis personae back on page one.  The only thing I want to see about Ilbar in the room description is his stat line and the goodies the PCs will get when they loot his body.  Likewise, I never want to see plot developments unfold in the keyed area descriptions.  That should have been laid out in the abstract.  The ONLY thing that should be included in this section is a short description of what is in the room.

If an adventure were written in this format I could run it with less than five minutes of preparation.  With just the map, the overall plot line, a list of characters and random encounter tables I'm good to go.  All the important information is laid out up front and easy to access.  Adventure modules are not epic fantasy novels, so why do so many authors insist on writing them as if they were?  This is the difference between an adventure that I can use at the game table and one spends the next thirty years gathering dust on the shelf.

The Best and the Worst
While I've never seen an adventure that was completely satisfactory as a ready-to-run adventure, the best I've ever seen were those published by Judges Guild, especially the ones written by Jennell Jaquays, who was the master of open-ended adventure.  The Caverns of Thracia is my favourite adventure module and the one that stands out as the most dynamic and exciting.  Jaquays accomplished this by her excellent use of elaborate random encounter tables to turn the dungeon into a dynamic and real place, with guards patrolling the halls, NPCs going to and fro, and escaped slaves desperately fleeing jailers.  This made the dungeon feel like a real place to me, and I've never quite seen its like ever since.

My vote for the worst publisher of adventure modules goes to Paizo Publishing.  I know, their adventures are very popular and they are considered by many to have set a new standard in rpg adventures, but I've bought a few of their adventure paths, and they violate every single one of my rules for good adventure design.

To give them their due, Paizo adventures are fun reads, but I have a whole basement full of novels to turn to when I want a good read.  When I buy a module I want a good game adventure.  Unfortunately Paizo's adventures come off as though they were written by frustrated novelists, not experienced game masters.  The plot lines are overly detailed, generally linear, and unfold gradually as you read the adventure, which is just about the worst sin that an adventure writer can commit.  The DM should not be forced to study harder to run an adventure module than he did for his doctoral defense.  The whole reason that I would buy an adventure is as a time-saving measure, and preparing to run one of Paizo's adventures is more work than creating your own to begin with.

The books themselves are perfect-bound and will not lay open flat on the table, and are densely written in small font size, which is difficult to read in a dimly lit basement - two more flaws that make them unusable in a practical gaming environment.  Furthermore they are printed in full-colour on gloss paper, which adds, unnecessarily, to the cost of the product.  An adventure module is not a literary masterpiece to be handed down from generation to generation.  It is meant to be used.  Probably only once.  What is the point of such a lavish and elaborate product, other than to needlessly increase the production cost?  My cheap TSR modules are still in pristine shape after several decades.

Likewise the maps, which are distributed helter-skelter through the adventure, are artistically rendered in full-colour, which is unnecessary especially since the DM is the only person that will ever likely see them.  Personally, I prefer a utilitarian black and white map that clearly illustrates the setting.

So, despite their enormous popularity, I hold up Paizo modules as the best examples of how not to write an adventure - or least how to write adventures that I'd never use.