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?"

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bringing out My Dead pt.2: Vintage Skeletons

Along with the zombies that I featured in the last post, Citadel also produced a collection of skeletons for their Fantasy Tribes line.  These also bear the initials 'MP' on the base, leading me to believe that they, too, were sculpted by Michael Perry.

I've always had a great fondness for skeletons owing to my childhood love of Jason and the Argonauts, and its awesome skeleton fight scene.  Since Harryhausen movies were one of my early gaming influences, skeletons remain one of the great iconic D&D monsters for me, and I always envision them moving with the scary-quick stop-action motion depicted in the film.  I was delighted to see that the skeleton miniatures produced by Otherworld Miniatures look like they might have crawled right off the celluloid, owing to their great resemblance to the skeletons of Jason and Argonauts.  I haven't bought any of the Otherworld skeletons yet, but they are very tempting.

There are eighteen skeletons in the Fantasy Tribes Skeletons line; twice the number of zombies, but without the incredible number of variants.  Like the zombies, I believe I bought these sometime in 1982.

FTS 04
I have a couple of copies of FTS 04 - Skeleton Charging/Spear, and I love the pot helm that makes me wonder if he could be an outlaw biker with pool cue?

FTS 05
I decided to paint the shield blue on FTS 05 - Skeleton Attacking with Axe and Shield, because I felt that given the earthy colour I paint the bones that a brown wooden shield would have made the model too drab looking.  You can see that I use blue and red on most of these skeletons to provide a splash of colour and contrast.

FTS 06
I also have several copies of FTS 06 - Skeleton with Bow both painted the same and featuring characteristic Atlantean glyphs on the bow and quiver to give them some campaign context.

FTS 07
FTS 07 - Skeleton Swinging Club was painted several years ago and therefore doesn't fit in quite as well with the more recently painted skeletons.  He'll probably end up getting a repaint if only to touch up the smear of white paint I see on the club.  The camera always reveals what the eye misses.

FTS 09
FTS 09 - Skeleton Attacking/Dagger has the recurring bright blue and red clothes to contrast the drab dirty bones. I've tried to convey a very aged look to the skeletons in this collection.  They are not the recently dead, but the remains of Atlanteans that have lain preserved in tombs, possibly for millennia.

FTS 10

FTS 10 - Skeleton Hacking with Sword

FTS 17

FTS 17 - Grim Reaper is obviously a figure who was of some significance in life and is adorned with bronze and gold and wears a turquoise cloak that is adorned with Atlantean sigils on the back.

FTS 18
The last figure in the Fantasy Tribes Skeletons line, FTS 18 - Legion of Hell Standard, is my favourite.  He has risen from his long slumber to call the legions of Atlantis once more to battle, much to the woe of man.

I've got a few other old vintage skeletons in the collection as well, such as this one produced by Denizen Miniatures FA 13 - Antihero:

Denizen Miniatures FA 13
And also the following four miniatures that I have no information on.  If anybody recognizes these and knows who manufactured them, please let me know - any information would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bringing out My Dead pt.1: Vintage Zombies

In preparation for running the very undead-centric Barrowmaze, I thought it wise to begin marshaling my forces, namely gathering up my miniatures and, where necessary, giving them a repaint.

First up is my collection of vintage zombies from Citadel Miniatures 'Fantasy Tribes - Zombies' line from the early '80's.  If my faulty memory serves, I believe I bought these sometime in 1982, and on the bottoms of most of the bases are the initials 'MP,' which I assume stands for Michael Perry who, along with his brother Alan, began sculpting part time for Citadel in the late '70's at the age of 17, while still in school.  As soon as they graduated they both went to work full time at Citadel and have been there ever since.  These days the Perry brothers are working primarily on the miniatures in GW's Lord of the Rings line.

There are nine different zombies in the Fantasy Tribes line, FTZ 01 through FTZ 09, but each one has at least twenty-six variants with slightly different heads or weapons.  This means that the truly dedicated collector will need to track down around 234 slightly different zombies!  I have only six different sculpts, so clearly I have a long way to go to collect them all.

I've just finished repainting all of my zombies, having recently stripped the old, nasty paint off the lot of them, and I've been having a lot of fun experimenting with skin tones.  I wanted the zombies to have a variety of flesh colours to represent varying degrees of decomposition rather than giving them a uniform appearance.  I've been studying stills from recent zombie shows, including The Walking Dead, as well as pictures from old EC comics such as Tales From the Crypt, and Haunt of Fear.

FTZ 01

With FTZ 01 - zombie staggering forward (variant #1 of 26), I've gone with a very pale skin tone that was inspired by the legless zombie in the grass from episode 1 of The Walking Dead.  I started out by basecoating the flesh with Reaper Maiden Flesh (a very pale flesh tone), then highlighted by mixing pure white with Maiden Flesh.  I shaded it with a wash of Reaper Cloudy Grey mixed with GW Asurman Blue wash, then finally glazed it with Reaper Bone Shadow.

FTZ 02

The skin colour of this FTZ 02 - zombie attacking (variant #1 of 26), is one of my favourites.  Here, I relied heavily on a series of washes to give it its tone.  I started with a basecoat of Reaper Half Orc Highlight (a yellowish brown that is almost identical to GW Snakebite Leather), then shaded it with Reaper Brown Wash.  Next, I reapplied the basecoat then highlighted the flesh by adding Reaper Tusk Ivory to the base colour.  Then I washed the flesh with GW Thraka Green Wash, followed by a wash of GW Leviathan Purple Wash.  The end result is an over-ripe rotting look that I really like.

FTZ 02
I have two copies of FTZ 02, and with the second one, I decided to try the Thraka Green and Leviathan Purple washes over the Maiden Flesh basecoat I used on FTZ 01.  The result is okay, but not nearly as sickening as the one with the Half Orc Shade basecoat.  It looks to be at a slightly less-advanced state of decay.

FTZ 03a
With FTZ 03a - zombie with club (variant #2 of 26), I went with my standby, the Reaper undead flesh triad: a basecoat of Reaper Ghoul Skin, followed by a layer of Reaper Moldy Skin, and finally a highlight of Reaper Bloodless Skin.  I finished off with a glaze of GW Gryphonne Sepia to give it a warmer tone.

FTZ 03b
This one is another variant of FTZ 03, but I'm not sure which variant number it is.  I painted the flesh with the same Ghoul Skin/Moldy Skin/Bloodless Skin triad as the variant above, but selectively applied some GW Leviathan Purple wash on various points to give it a splotchy, mottled appearance, then finished off with the Gryphonne Sepia glaze to warm it up.

FTZ 07
FTZ 07 - zombie with spiked club (unknown variant #), is probably the most innovative of the flesh tones I experimented with.  I started with a base coat of Reaper Mahogany Brown, then layered this with a mix of Mahogany Brown and Rainy Grey, with a final highlight of pure Reaper Rainy Grey.  As usual, I finished off with a glaze of Gryphonne Sepia to tone down the harshness of the highlights and warm the skin up.  This was a very successful experiment, and the resulting zombie looks like a withered and desiccated corpse that slightly resembles the Crypt Keeper and could be crawling off the pages of an EC comic.

FTZ 09
Last, but not least, FTZ 09 - zombie with meat cleaver,  is a miscellaneous product number assigned to four different zombies, of which this is one.  This is my favourite of the nine Citadel zombies and I decided not to get fancy with it, so I just used the undead flesh triad with a Gryphonne Sepia glaze to finish it off.

Next time I'll bring out my Citadel Fantasy Tribes Skeletons...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Delving into the Barrowmaze

Last week I posted a preliminary look at Greg Gillespie's new dungeon adventure, Barrowmaze.  Owing to the fact that the pages were still hot from the laser printer as I wrote it, I wasn't able to delve very deeply into the dungeon, but in the week since, it is fair to say that I've become a Barrowmaze fanatic.  Many in-depth reviews have been already been posted, including a recent one on Grognardia that sums up my take on the adventure perfectly, so I don't feel the need to write another.

What I would like to do is describe what it feels like to descend into the Barrowmaze, which I had the privilege of doing last night as a guest player in Greg's own Barrowmaze campaign (anyone interested can read the session report here).  In short, it's scary as hell.  Remember the first time you ever played D&D when you were a kid?  Recall the apprehension and nervousness you felt when you cautiously descended the steps of your very first dungeon?  That's what this felt like; everything old was new again, and with thirty-three new monsters, many of them new creations, even hoary old veterans will tread carefully and take nothing for granted.  I spent most of last night's session on the edge of my seat; I felt like I was actually in claustrophobic confines of the dungeon with death waiting around the next corner.  The tension was only slightly lessened by Greg's players taunting me by waving donuts in front of the web cam then making yummy noises as they ate them.

Obviously, since the object of the adventure is to explore ancient catacombs beneath a field of barrow mounds, there is a strong undead theme, which is always popular - at least in my gaming group.  Moreover, the dungeon is filled with details that add to the atmosphere and suspense; cursed sarcophagi, mysterious runic tablets, dead gods, dark cults, amphorae and canopic jars, and inscriptions carved in the Black Tongue.  This dungeon isn't just a map filled with static encounters, it is a dynamic and believable setting that draws you in and holds you tight until you run screaming in terror.  Which is exactly what our party did last night - yelled, "Oh, shit, run," then hauled ass out of the dungeon and back to town as fast as our legs would carry us.

The picture above is an example of the excellent and evocative art that profusely decorates the adventure's interior.  I'm not usually keen on lots of art in an adventure module, because it is usually gratuitous and only the GM usually ever sees it.  But in this case, the art so well-illustrates the dungeon that it greatly helps the GM to get into the mood and describe the setting.

This is also a very well-supported adventure; you can go to the Barrowmaze website to download extra goodies, like an expanded map of the barrow moor, a custom character sheet, and I know that Greg is working on barrow geomorphs and stocking tables for parties that hex-crawl in the moors.

So, if you haven't already done so, head on over to RPGNow and pick this gem up - you won't be sorry.

(I couldn't help notice, as I copied the Barrowmaze URL on RPGNow, that many customers who bought it also purchased Megadungeon! so thanks to all of you who have done so.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Victory is Mine! At Last

After the countless games of Megadungeon! that I've played in the past year, I have just now won my very first!  My unbroken string of defeats has made me the subject of mockery around the house for quite some time  since the family finds it hilarious that I've never managed to win the game that I, myself, designed.  But the tide finally turned during this evening's family game night as I thoroughly trounced the wife and daughter, then celebrated with victory laps around the dining room table.

I've been perplexed, for some time, as to why I've never managed to pull off a win after nearly a year of playing with family and friends.  Indeed, I usually come in dead-last.  By very odd coincidence, in the January issue of White Dwarf, veteran game designer Jervis Johnson wrote an article explaining why game designers tend not to win their own games very often and offered some interesting insights.

Apparently, it's commonplace for designers to lose their games, and Jervis chalked this up to a couple of factors.  Firstly, designers play by the rules the way they were intended, which tends to blind them to a variety of options that other players, who see the rules the way they are actually written, can more easily exploit.  This makes a lot of sense to me; I know what I had in mind when I wrote the rules and have probably become locked in a fixed mindset that inhibits my performance.

The second factor that, according to Johnson, contributes to Designer's Defeat (a term I've just coined) is that designers are constantly assessing the rules while they play, thinking about balance and rules-amendments instead of really concentrating on the game at hand and paying attention to what their opponents are doing.  This may also contribute to the problem, but in my case I think the former factor plays a larger role than the latter.

In any event it gives me a convenient excuse for losing...I'm not really thick-witted and unlucky, I'm focusing on the rules.  Yeah, that's it.  But, tonight at least, I am the undisputed master of the Megadungeon!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bestiary of Lemuria: Gorgons

Having recently written a post regarding minotaurs, medusae, and gorgons in D&D, I thought I'd share gorgons as they appear in Lemuria.  These are inspired by C.L. Moore's story, Shambleau.

Gorgons look like normal women in every way except for a mane of writhing crimson tentacles in place of hair, which they conceal by wearing deep hooded cloaks when they venture into civilized regions.  The dearth of reliable information regarding the nature and habits of gorgons has fomented many rumours and folk-tales, most prevalent of which is the notion that a gorgon's gaze will turn the viewer to stone.

Like many folk-tales this one has some basis in truth, but is greatly exaggerated.  In fact, the gorgon's tentacles are used to subdue mates for coitus by latching onto the victim/mate with a lamprey-like mouth and injecting a mild neurotoxin that renders him incapable of voluntary movement.  The victim's sensory and involuntary muscular functions are unaffected; he remains aware, he breathes, his heart still beats, and his ability to participate in sexual congress, however passively, remains unimpaired.  Upon completion of intercourse, the tentacles then exsanguinate the gorgon's lover, storing his blood to nourish the gestating embryo.

On occasions when a gorgon engages in intercourse for pleasure rather than reproduction, post-coital exsagnuination is not strictly necessary, and if the gorgon has developed feelings for her partner she will sometimes, unadvisably, let him live. The legend of the gorgon's petrifying gaze likely stems from the accounts of paralyzed lovers who lived to tell their tale.

Because no one has ever reported the existence of a male gorgon, Brother Mendelius, a scholar at the Temple of Thoth in Catapesh, has postulated that gorgons are a human offshoot whose ova can only be fertilized by x-chromosome spermatozoa, thus guaranteeing that gorgons give birth only to daughters.  He has also suggested that gorgonism is a dominant trait since no human woman has ever acknowledged being born to a gorgon mother.  These hypotheses are highly speculative, however, and are based on Mendelius' questionable transliteration of an ancient Atlantean codex on genetic science.  Other explanations exist for the lack of male gorgons or non-gorgon offspring, such as the possibility that these undesirable babies are consumed by the mother's tentacles immediately after birth.

Regardless, it appears that gorgons are highly selective when choosing mates, and pick only the strongest, smartest, and most attractive males to father their offspring.  Consequently, gorgons are exceptional in their physical prowess, intelligence, and beauty - discounting, of course, the mass of squirming red tentacles on their heads.

Armour Class: 9                          Special: Neurotoxin              Morale: 10
Hit Dice: 2                                   Move: 12                            Alignment: Neutral
Attack: by weapon or tentacle      HDE/XP: 3/60

The bite of a gorgon's tentacles do no damage, but inject a neurotoxin that afflicts the victim with total paralyisis for 1d4 turns.  Saves against the toxin are made at -4 due to the large number of simultaneous bites that are invariably inflicted.

Paralyzed victims have no defense against lethal exsanguination, but this normally only occurs after copulation.

Gorgon neurotoxin is a valued commodity sought by both assassins and surgeons, and will fetch a price of 10 gp per dose.  Each tentacle contains one dose of neurotoxin in its venom-sac, and an average gorgon will have 10-100 tentacles that can be harvested.  It is for this reason more than any other that gorgons take extreme care to disguise their nature and leave no living witness to their presence.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Barrowmaze: First Impressions

For most of my professional life I've been a beneficiary of serendipitous discoveries.  Indeed, I consider the simple expedient of happy coincidence to be one of the driving forces in the history of science, and often refer to serendipity as the 'handmaiden of discovery.'

My gaming life has also recently benefited from a fortuitous and timely discovery.  Variable attendance at my game sessions has recently required that I shift my campaign away from the ongoing exploration of the ruined city of Thrace, deep within the Jungle of Zahar, to an urban environment.  My plan is to run urban adventures when few players attend, with an ongoing exploration of the subterranean burial chambers that lie beneath the city's necropolis when attendance allows.  My problem is that this shift happened quite suddenly, and I found myself without the time to properly plan out the ancient funereal complex beneath the necropolis of Catapesh, before my next session on Sunday night.

Then, along came Greg Gillespie's new adventure, Barrowmaze - a megadungeon beneath an ancient field of barrow mounds.  What are the odds that an adventure ideally-suited to my needs would appear just when I need it?

So, I've downloaded and printed it, and have given it a quick look-over, and I thought I'd share my preliminary take on the adventure.  A more in-depth discourse will follow in the forthcoming session reports.

The basic premise of the adventure is that the PCs are tomb-robbers, looting an ancient interconnected system of underground tombs that lie beneath the burial mounds in a great moor near the town of Helix.  Picture Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, rather than Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, traveling through the Barrow Downs in Lord of the Rings, and you'll have a good idea of what this adventure is all about.

Now, when it comes to published adventures, I am a very difficult customer to please, and I've criticized, at length, the many shortcomings of contemporary adventure publishers in How Not to Write an Adventure.  Let's see how Barrowmaze holds up as a useful game aid.

1. Font.  I run my games in my basement and adventures that are written in fancy fonts that are too small to read in dim lighting get tossed in the bin without ever gracing the game table.  Greg has chosen a sans serif font that is both reminiscent of old-school adventures and is easy on the eyes, and the text is large enough to read comfortably.  First hurdle cleared.

2. Keyed areas.  I believe that adventures with insipid read-aloud text should be consigned to the pits of hell.  I also absolutely loath authors who unfold the plot of their adventure in keyed areas as if they are mini chapters in an epic novel.  Adventures are game aids, not novels and, fortunately, you'll find none of this crap in Barrowmaze.  The keyed areas are free of read-aloud text and are very brief, containing only the information that you need, like what lurks in the room and how much treasure it has.  This means that you don't need to spend hours studying the adventure before you can run it.  You can sit down with Barrowmaze and run it after about a ten-minute look over.  Second hurdle cleared.

3. Maps.  Adventures with maps scattered throughout the text drive me absolutely bug-shit crazy.  If an adventure-writer's goal is to provoke me into a homicidal rage, then by all means make me hunt for the maps then force me to flip back and forth between them and the keyed areas.  The three maps in Barrowmaze are located at the end of the adventure and are intended to be cut out and taped together to make one big map that I can have in front of me at all times.  Just like I want it.  And, they're blue the way Gygax meant them to be.  Since I only have a black-and-white laser printer I don't benefit from the blue maps, but I do appreciate the old-school aesthetic.  My only real complaint with the maps is that the font chosen for the numbers in the keyed areas looks like an L.E.D. and I find it hard to read.  The maps are also small and cramped, though I understand why: Barrowmaze is a very large dungeon and the maps were undoubtedly kept small so that they can fit onto three pages.  Nonetheless, I like to make notes on my maps to remind myself of things, and there is no room to do so on these.  I would have preferred larger scale maps, even if it meant increasing the number of map pages.

4. Bonus goodies.  In addition to the adventure itself, Greg has included lots of fun and useful extras, including:

  • seven new magic items
  • two new spells
  • thirty-one new monsters
  • a random tables for dungeon dressing, pit contents, graffiti, runic tablets and dungeon restocking
  • tables of pre-generated Men-at-arms, Torch-bearers, and Henchmen - I have a feeling players will be going through lots of these
  • a custom-designed Barrowmaze character sheet
Altogether, this is a whole lot stuff for $6.66 and, most unusually, contains none of the usual hallmarks of badly executed adventures that piss me off and have turned me against published adventures.  Paizo should take note.

Barrowmaze is the dungeon I wish I had written, and I can't offer any higher praise than that.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Weird Adventures

Now that I finally have Megadungeon! finished and out the door, I can turn my attention to other distractions, particularly my copy of Trey Causey's new pulp campaign setting, Weird Adventures, which arrived in the mail last week.

I know I'm late off the mark on this; Weird Adventures has been out for some time now, but I was holding out for the hard copy, which came out some weeks after the PDF release, and needed to be delivered 'by sled dog' as Trey jokingly commented, to my home in Winnipeg.  Consequently, there have already been several reviews posted within the OSR community that describe what the book is all about, and I don't mean to retread well-covered ground.

Suffice to say, much of the flavour and detail of this setting is provided in Trey's vignette-style posts and his free supplement, Strange Trails, which can be found on his blog, From the Sorcerer's Skull, while Weird Adventures is the foundation that provides the context for these essays.  The book is divided into four parts: an overview of the world in general, a more detailed overview of the continent of Septentrion (North America to you and me), a detailed guide to the City (a weird and lurid version of New York City), and a bestiary of weird menaces.

What I really want to talk about is the physical product, itself, which is one of the most beautiful and professional-looking books that I've seen come out of the OSR community.

Weird Adventures is available as a PDF download, a perfect bound softcover, or hardcover.  I opted for the digest sized softcover, which is my favourite format for game books.  When I received it I was struck by just how similar it looks to a pulp fiction magazine.  My copy of Weird Adventures would fit right into a stack of Weird Tales magazines, which immediately sets the mood for what is to come.

The interior of the book is lavishly and profusely illustrated, which really helps to convey the tone of the setting.  One such example is this illustration of City denizen, Nick Scratch, by artist Seth Frail:

One glimpse at this picture and I have a pretty good handle on Nick Scratch; the little horns on his forehead, the expensive suit, the pack of smokes and banker's lamp on his desk, and the view from his window are all my imagination needs to figure out what this guy's deal is.  I barely even need to read his write-up, which just confirms what I had already figured out.

This is just one example; the book is full of evocative illustrations such as this.  Another aspect of the book that needs to be mentioned is the layout and choice of fonts, both of which support the text with additional flavour; the book is cleanly laid out and easy to read and the various fonts all suggest a 1920's pulp periodical.  This feel is further supported by advertisements for Djinn Cigarettes, Brown Jenkin Whiskey, and classifieds at the back of the book.  In short, I don't think I've ever seen a game book that so effectively evokes the look and feel of the genre it emulates, and Trey has set a new standard for what such a book can be.

While I'm a huge fan of early 20th century pulp adventure, having read a lot of Doc Savage books as a kid, (indeed, GURPS Cliffhangers remains one of my all-time favourite source books) I've never actually run such a campaign, as I tend to stick primarily with sword & sorcery or modern espionage games.  Nonetheless, Weird Adventures offers a lot of gaming inspiration even if you never run the campaign as written.  One of the things that really impressed me was how many parallels there are between Trey's world and my own City States of Lemuria sword & sorcery campaign setting, and it gave me some great insights in to how my world would likely evolve and what it would look in 2 million years.

For that matter, there is much within Weird Adventures that can be ported directly into a sword & sorcery fantasy campaign: hillbilly giants lurking in the mountains, infernal crime syndicates, not to mention the City, itself, which could easily be re-imagined as a city-state in a fantasy setting.  Also, since the menaces in the bestiary are given old school D&D stats, they are directly usable with old school game system of your choice.

I should mention, however, that aside from the bestiary, Weird Adventures contains no game mechanics whatsoever.  This is purely a descriptive setting book and it provides no advice on how to run a Weird Adventures campaign.  Though the bestiary is described using D&D stats, the setting itself is completely system-neutral.  If you do want to run it using an old school D&D ruleset, you may need to do some work to tweak character classes for a modern setting and come up with rules for vehicles, firearms, etc.  Of course this also leaves the door wide open for Trey to publish a follow-up book with the nuts and bolts of running a Weird Adventures Campaign, with character classes and equipment specific to the setting - which is something I'd dearly love to see and would buy in an instant.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Megadungeon! Now Available

I am thrilled to announce that, at long last, my fantasy adventure boardgame, Megadungeon! is finally finished and available for download at RPGNow.

This game has been nearly a year in the making, with nearly ten months of playtesting and revision, and the end result is, in my own biased opinion, a fantastic, family-friendly boardgame reminiscent of great old games like TSR's Dungeon! and SPI's Deathmaze.

If you haven't been following the development posts on this project over on Hopeful Monster CreationsMegadungeon! is a monster-slaying, treasure-looting dungeon delve suitable for the whole family.  Each player selects one of three characters, warriorsorcerer, or thief. Each player, on their turn, draws a random dungeon tile, places it and moves their character into it.  Thus, you are able to explore a completely different dungeon every time you play.

There are variable victory conditions, which allow you to play as long or short a game as you wish, but the dungeon has up to eight levels for those who wish a truly epic challenge!

The PDF download, available at RPGNow for $2.00, includes a ten page rule book and quick reference sheet as well as the following game components to be printed onto cardstock:

  • Character Cards (customized for each class, plus blank ones so you can make your own classes)
  • Map Tiles
  • Treasure Cards (for up to eight dungeon levels!)
  • Dungeon Level Counters