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?"

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Session 8: Into the Barrowmaze

I've been remiss in keeping up with session reports; I'm already two behind, with another session this evening, so I'd best get a quick summary posted before I forget too many details.

Recently returned to Catapesh, the survivors of Black Goat Wood made the acquaintance of a thief who had obtained a map that revealed an entrance to the catacombs beneath the necropolis.  Pooling their resources, they hired a couple of crossbowmen from the Armsmen's Guild, purchased crowbars and sledge-hammers, then followed the map to a long-abandoned crypt where they found a rope descending from a block-and-tackle into a hole in the crypt's floor.

After first dropping a torch down the hole to illuminate the chamber below, the party descended the rope one by one, into a room whose walls were adorned with frescoes depicting an ancient Atlantean burial procession, and they soon became aware of a total, almost oppressive, silence in the catacombs.  They heard none of the familiar subterranean noises, such as dripping water, or chittering of rats.  Steeling themselves, the party carefully proceeded into the preternatural stillness beyond, while Balinor probed the floor ahead with his ten-foot pole.

This turned out to be a wise precaution because, as he probed the floor beyond the first doorway they came to, he triggered a pressure plate that caused a stone wall to descend from the ceiling, bisecting Balinor's ten-foot pole into a five-foot walking stick.  Had anyone passed through the doorway they would have been trapped in the chamber beyond.  After a quick return to Catapesh for a new ten-foot pole, the party continued their exploration, this time opting not to explore any doorways.  Instead they stuck to the corridors, and chose to spend their time mapping out the dungeon area to get a better feel for its layout before risking ingress into any more chambers.  Consequently the remainder of the session yielded little treasure - only a few hundred gold pieces gathered from some burial niches - and the party devoted themselves to exterminating vermin such as rats and stirges that occupied the catacombs, though they did encounter some zombies roaming the halls, and had a very tense encounter with a band of rival tomb-robbers who decided to eliminate their competition and help themselves to some pre-looted treasure.  Despite being outnumbered the party gave a good account of themselves, slaying several of the tomb-robbers, causing the rest to flee the dungeon.

After a fairly conservative evening of exploration, the players decided to call it a night and return to Catapesh  to spend their loot on a good carouse.  Ebbin furthered his reputation as a lucky gambler, winning big at the gaming tables and increasing his stake.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Future of Game Publishing

Last weekend was the second anniversary of this blog, and I've been reflecting upon how much the OSR blogging community has changed and grown in that time.  Not only has there been a tremendous proliferation of blogs about old-school gaming - more than I can possibly follow, there has also been a veritable explosion of publishing ventures initiated by members of our community.  I've even published my own game this year.

What really strikes me is the high quality of these 'amateur' publications.  My last three gaming purchases, Barrowmaze, Vornheim, and Weird Adventures were all products of the OSR community and they are the best gaming purchases that I've made in years.  Advances in desktop publishing and POD services make it possible for anyone to create products that are as slick and polished as any produced by a professional game company.  And even those products that are not as slick still have an old school charm reminiscent of the games from the '70's and early '80's that we all remember so fondly.

This begs the question: what is to become of professional game designers, who are shackled by the need to sell enough product to make a living?  This means that they need to produce new products on a regular schedule in order to generate steady revenue.  These shackles become even heavier for corporations, which are not content to make living wages for employees, but need to produce profits for their shareholders.

Hobby publishers, on the other hand, do not depend on selling games to feed their families, pay their mortgages or enrich their shareholders.  They can afford to take their time to produce games and products that are true labours of love.  This probably explains why I get far more bang for my buck from hobby publishers than from professionals; because we are publishing as a hobby we can produce a better product for less money.  I've long maintained that a labour of love always trumps a labour of profit and this has certainly proven true of the gaming hobby in recent years.

This is why I have no hope, whatsoever, that the next edition of Wizards of the Coast brand D&D will have any soul.  This game is nobody's baby.  It hasn't grown, organically, out of someone's home game, like its ultimate progenitor did, and which all of the above-mentioned OSR products did.  Instead, it, like 4th edition before it, was the result of artificial insemination by the marketing department.  This is no love-child, and neither 4th, nor 5th edition grew out of the needs of the game, but rather a need to generate large amounts of cash.  That, in my opinion, is an ass-backwards way to run a game business.

In contrast, OSR products are almost always the by-blow from somebody's game table.  Barrowmaze is Greg Gillespie's home campaign; Vornheim is the collection of rules that Zak S. uses to run his city adventures; and Weird Adventures is the setting of Trey Causey's pulp adventure campaigns.  Likewise, the much anticipated Dwimmermount megadungeon adventure has grown out of James Maliszewski's own campaign.  There is no way that a product whose only reason for being is to make money can compare, and it makes me wonder how much longer professional game companies can continue to compete with home-based hobby publishers who aren't forced to crank out product on a fixed schedule.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been badly burned by some over-priced and entirely useless game aid that sounded much better than it actually was.  I've purchased a number of badly-written and -edited products from WotC that were cranked out to make money and will never get used - probably by anyone.
It isn't just Wizard's of the Coast, either.  I've been stung by over-hyped, high priced products of limited value produced by Paizo as well.  Even small companies, like Troll Lord Games have produced their share of disappointments.  And it isn't that the writers are bad, or aren't capable of creating some amazing material, it's just that when you are forced to produce products, clockwork fashion, to pay the bills you are going to wind up with more stinkers than hits.

In the past we had to put up with it.  That was just the way it was, so you plunked down your money, crossed your fingers, hoped for something special then, more often than not, came away with nothing more than a lighter wallet.  But now we have a whole host of amateur publishers in the OSR who are turning out some very high-calibre work - often at prices that are so low that I'm a lot more willing to take a chance because, even if I don't like something, I'm not out a lot of money.  But you know what?  That hasn't happened to me yet.  Every single OSR product I've bought, I've actually used.  I've never been able to say that of any game company.

Now, there are some companies that are publishing labours of love, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics, which Joseph Goodman wrote for Joseph Goodman.  I have a great respect for Goodman for having the passion and conviction to write the game he always wanted to play - that's how you make good games.  Even though, from what I've seen of the DCC beta rules, it isn't the game for me, I have no doubt that it will appeal to many others.  I don't know what Goodman's situation is; whether he has a day-job or supportive spouse that pays the bills, or is making enough money from his other products that he could afford to indulge in a pet project.  But I suspect that most other companies couldn't or wouldn't take the risk of investing so much time and effort in such a niche product of potentially limited appeal.

Anyhow, the times, they are a'changing.  We've seen Wizard's of the Coast losing ground to Paizo, and I have to wonder whether, if the proliferation of high-quality products from indie publishers continues, game companies might be in their waning days.  For many years now, traditional brick-and-mortar game stores have similarly suffered from competition with online retailers, and to survive they've had to adapt and offer customers services they can't get online.  Store owners have done this by fostering a sense of community, hosting events, and giving customers a reason to come into the store instead of buying, often more cheaply, online.  Similarly, if professional game companies are going to compete they will have to offer a level of support that customers can't get from indie publishers.  I'm not sure what might be, but I do believe that they may have no choice but to adapt to the new reality or face an eventual demise.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Noble Houses of Catapesh

In the wake of the Dolrathan invasion, most of the Rhajani nobles were put to the sword and supplanted by the Dolrathan Great Houses: Toronescu, Dragomere, and Zuul.  The sole exception to the destruction of the Rhajani noble houses is House Bashir, whose scions have retained their rank, power, and influence to this day.  This has led to no small amount of speculation as to why this one Rhajani house was spared when all the others were cast down.  Popular rumour holds that Bashir troops opened the city gates to the armies of the Overlord and were suitably rewarded by the  new regime, but the truth of the matter may never come to light.

While the nobles of House Bashir occupy the highest echelons of Catapeshan society, rubbing elbows with invaders, many native Rhajani, who are treated as second-class citizens, regard them as traitors to their own people.  Nor is Bashir well-respected by the Dolrathan noble houses, who consider it to be a house of jumped-up peasants.  Nonetheless, Bashir is an influential house with a long tenure and deep roots in Catapesh.  While the ostensible source of its wealth comes from textiles, its true power lies in its extensive information networks within the city and there is little that transpires in Catapesh that does not make its way to Bashir informers.  It is even said that Bashir exerts considerable influence over, if not outright control of, the thieves guild.  Bashir has dwelt so long in Catapesh that it has become inextricably intwined in the social fabric of the city.  They know where the skeletons are buried and they aren't afraid to use this knowledge to their advantage.  Thus, despite their poor reputation, and relatively lesser wealth, Bashir is probably the most powerful of the great houses.  Evidence of this lies in the fact that lord Omar Bashir is the current Vizier of Catapesh, and oversees the governance of the city in the name of the Overlord.  The sigil of house Bashir is a loom, which is an overt symbol their textile monopoly, but also a subtle reminder that they weave intricate designs in the tapestry of Catapeshan society.

House Dragomere forged its house through strength of arms.  The late patriarch, Zoran Dragomere, was a warlord in the Dolrathan host who distinguished himself repeatedly in wars of conquest, and who personally led the assault on the walls of Catapesh.  When the city fell to the invaders, Dragomere was elevated to the nobility, and became the Overlord's first Vizier.  The years of Zoran Dragomere's tenure as Vizier were marked by brutal and ruthless pacification of the native population who, he felt, needed to be ruled with an iron fist.  So effective was Dragomere at crushing all resistance, that the iron fist became the sigil of his house.  The current Lord Dragomere, Zoran's grandson, Zoltan, has built upon the strengths of his house.  Dragomere boasts the greatest host of fighting troops of all the great houses.  Dragomere also controls the city guard and the armsman's guild, and both the Overlord's elite Invincibles and the Barrow Wardens are led by officers of the Dragomere family.

House Torenescu's power stems from the sea.  Two centuries ago, Antonin Torenescu sailed across the Sonorous Sea to the uncharted shores of the dark continent and returned with a fortune in exotic hardwoods, spices and gold.  He parlayed this stake into a large merchant fleet, which has come to monopolize the sea trade along the west coast of Lemuria.  In addition to its merchant fleet, fishing vessels and war galleys, House Torenescu controls the longshoreman's guild in Catapesh, and owns warehouses in every coastal city.  Torenescu earned the Overlord's favour during the siege of Catapesh by blockading the entrance to the harbour, cutting off the city's sea-borne reinforcements and supplies, and ultimately ensured its capitulation.

Jealous of Torenescu's wealth from across the sea, many other great houses and trade consortia have dispatched expeditions to the bleak shores of the dark continent.  All have met with disaster.  Some are turned back back fierce storms, others by terrible creatures from the deep, while others disappear without a trace.  Many folk whisper that Antonin Toronescu forged a dark pact with the primordial powers that dwell, still, on the dark continent, trading his soul for the rise of his family's fortune.  Still others claim that there was good cause for Toronescu to claim the kraken as its sigil.

The House of Zuul has also made its fortune through commerce, though of a less savoury nature: it controls the slave trade and the slave market of Catapesh is the hub of human trafficking in Lemuria.  After the fall of Catapesh, Zuul supplied the manpower, however unwilling, that rebuilt the city's infrastructure, and was rewarded by the Overlord with a seat on the ruling council.  Zuul has long-standing business ties with Atlantis, supplying their constant demand for human slaves.  The scions of Zuul seem to number more than their share of sorcerers who, it is rumoured, study the necromantic arts under the tutelage of Atlantean adepts.  In addition to controlling the slave trade, Zuul has controlling interest in the mason's guild and owns many of Catapesh's brothels.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dilbert on OSR Publishing

This Dilbert cartoon in yesterday's paper really made me laugh.  How many times have I gotten half way through a project only to have someone else publish the same thing?  There is truly no such thing as a new idea.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter VII, Manoeuvre

It is hard to believe that an entire year has passed since I wrote the last chapter in this series, but the first six chapters left me burned out and in need of a break, and this post has been sitting as an unfinished draft since last April.  In the intervening months I've come to realize that although an interpretation of The Art of War for dungeon delving is a fascinating and damned useful undertaking, the chapters are really too long to make for practical blog posts.  I know that I have a hard time reading and absorbing long posts, particularly when material is mentally challenging, and a blog simply isn't the right medium for this series.  Consequently, this will be the last chapter of The Art of Dungeoneering that I will post here.  Instead, I intend to revise the first seven chapters, finish off the remaining six chapters then publish it as a book, which is probably the approach I should have taken from the start.

I began this project back in the fall of 2010 as I was re-reading The Art of War when it occurred to me that it was full of useful advice for my players who were struggling with the difficulties of old-school dungeon delves.  Since I've recently had the opportunity to sit in, as a player, in Greg Gillespie's Barrowmaze campaign I've realized that we can all benefit from Sun Tzu's advice on planning and strategy.  So, I believe that The Art of Dungeoneering will not only be an invaluable strategy guide for newcomers to old-school play, but also a useful refresher course for old hands as well.

1. Normally, when the army is employed, the general first receives his commands from the sovereign.  He assembles the troops and mobilizes the people.  He blends the army into a harmonious entity and encamps it.

2. Nothing is more difficult than the art of manoeuvre.  What is difficult is to make the devious route the most direct and to turn misfortune to advantage.

3. Thus, march in an indirect route and divert the enemy by enticing him with a bait.  So doing, you may set out after he does and arrive before him.  One able to do this understands the strategy of the direct and the indirect.

4. Now both advantage and danger are inherent in manoeuvre.

One factor to consider when exploring dungeons, particularly famous dungeons containing legendary treasures, is the competition of rival adventuring parties.  The last thing you want is to hack your way through a tribe of riled hobgoblins only to find the fabled treasure hoard already looted by rivals who have left you to face the consequences of their perfidy.  The solution?  Do it to them first.  There is no honour among thieves, and resorting to dirty tricks is one way to out-manoeuvre your rivals and make sure that you, and not they, are the first to loot the treasure hoard.  Consider drafting a phony treasure map that you arrange to fall into their possession.  Perhaps this map leads not to treasure, but into a nasty trap or room fool of angry monsters.   Alternatively, it could lead to an area that you have salted with minor treasure, with the aim of making your rivals waste valuable time by searching for the trove that doesn't exist, while you proceed expeditiously to the big score.

Thus, you can turn your past misfortunes to advantage by luring others down the devious routes that have thwarted you previously.  These tactics can also be employed where rival monster factions exist within a dungeon.  Lure one side into the other's territory, and hopefully to battle, leaving lightly guarded or unguarded treasure for the looting.

5. One who sets the entire army in motion to chase an advantage will not attain it.

6. If he abandons the camp to contend for advantage the stores will be lost.

Simply put, progress will be slow when you are encumbered by an entire dungeon expedition.  Equipment, stores, treasure, and hirelings combine to impede progress and can make you forfeit advantage when time is a factor.  On the other hand, abandoning encumbrances to move more swiftly and efficiently runs the risk of losing them altogether.  Once again, previous advice to establish well-guarded outposts in defensible positions within the dungeon recommends itself.  If sufficient men-at-arms have been employed, supernumerary personnel and and supplies can be left safely in their care, allowing lightly equipped parties to make short forays into new areas quickly and efficiently.

Having well-guarded outposts also creates defensible fall-back positions should the party be forced to retreat.  This allows such retreats to be made in good order instead of a panicked route, which could be disastrous.

7. It follows that when one rolls up the armour and sets out speedily, stopping neither day nor night and marching at double time for a hundred li, the three commanders will be captured.  For the vigorous troops will arrive first and the feeble straggle along behind, so that if this method is used only one-tenth of the army will arrive.

8. In a forced march of fifty li the commander of the van will fall, and using this method but half the army will arrive.  In a forced march of thirty li, but two-thirds will arrive.

9. It follows that an army which lacks heavy equipment, fodder, food, and stores will be lost.

I believe that the previous three points are an excellent metaphor for pushing too far in a single day's exploration of the dungeon.  Most of the catastrophes that I have observed have resulted when the party is running low on hit points and nearly out of spells, but decides to check out 'just one more room.'  This is the dungeoneering equivalent of a forced march that leaves your troops strung out and easy to defeat.

While it is certainly possible to push on if necessary when you are low on resources, the decision to do so must be made with the understanding that casualties that will almost surely result.  Thus, the players must determine whether the gains justify the risk involved in doing so.

If time is not an important factor, it may be better to retire early and recuperate than to continue on in a weakened condition.  However, when circumstances dictate that the party must continue, the players must be prepared for losses and so forewarned, be prepared to take steps to mitigate against them, such as adjusting the marching order to place the characters that are currently best able to survive an attack at the front.  This may mean placing the fighter who has been reduced to 3 hit points behind the thief who has 6.  The thief now has a better chance of meeting an attack and surviving, allowing the fighter to strike back from relative safety.

10. Those who do not know the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of the army;

11. Those who do not use local guides are unable to obtain the advantages of the ground.

The importance of scouting cannot be overstated but, in my experience, it is seldom employed.  Having a stealthy character explore and map areas of the dungeon in advance of the party allows the players to make informed choices when laying their plans for how to proceed, instead of plunging ahead into the unknown.  Traps, ambushes, and dungeon layout can all be more easily ascertained by a single stealthy character, preferably one who can see in the dark.

Performed improperly, solo scouting can be a death sentence, but even still, losing a single character to trap or ambush is preferable to losing the entire party.  But by taking adequate precautions, the hazards of scouting can be mitigated to the extent that the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.  Invisibility potions and spells can be employed to great effect to allow a lightly armoured character to quietly explore the dungeon unobserved, but they are all too often squandered for a mere one round combat advantage.  The main party can also follow along slowly, just out of sight, but close enough to come to the scout's aid if needed.

By having a good idea of the layout of the dungeon and the concentration of foes, the party can plan surprise attacks instead of just blundering into the monster's lair, and may also be able to plan alternate escape routes should things go wrong and the primary path of retreat gets cut off.

Adventuring parties should also be prepared to capitalize on local knowledge.  Captured monsters can be an excellent source of information, particularly when subjected to a charm  spell.  A charmed creature makes an excellent guide.

12. Now war is based on deception.  Move when it is advantageous and create changes in the situation by dispersal and concentration of forces.

13. When campaigning, be swift as the wind; in leisurely march, majestic as the forest; in raiding and plundering, like the fire; in standing, firm as the mountains.  As unfathomable as the clouds, move like a thunderbolt.

14. When you plunder the countryside, divide your forces.  When you conquer territory, divide the profits.

15. Weigh the situation, then move.

16. He who knows the art of the direct and the indirect approach will be victorious.  Such is the art of manoeuvring.

I used to play in a lot of D&D tournaments when I was young and my friends and I learned early on that the key to victory was to act boldly and not dither.  Make plans quickly and decisively and then act on them.  Don't spend half an hour debating every possible course of action - that is just asking for wandering monsters to come eat you.  Implementing a plan of action boldly, even if it isn't a good plan, is almost always better than standing around and arguing.  It's easy to correct mistakes on the go because the other side will be reacting to what you are doing instead of taking initiative themselves.  Once you lose that momentum, however, you will be forced to react to your opposition's plans, and that is a situation to avoid.

17. The Book of Military Administration says: 'As the voice cannot be heard in battle, drums and bells are used.  As troops cannot see each other clearly in battle, flags and banners are used.'

18. Now gongs and drums, banners and flags are used to focus the attention of the troops.  When the troops can be thus united, the brave cannot advance alone, nor can the cowardly withdraw.  This is the art of employing a host.

It is not a bad idea to organize prearranged signals within an adventuring party.  Hand signals and flags may be gainfully employed to pass information when silence is necessary.  Also, such signals become very useful when a silence spell has been cast in the area, rendering verbal communication impossible.

Likewise, audible signals, like whistles and claps, can be used to pass information and execute plans without alerting enemies to your intentions.

19. In night fighting use many torches and drums, in day fighting many banners and flags in order to influence the sight and hearing of our troops.

Banners, flags, and drums have long been used to bolster the morale of friendly troops and steady their courage.  They can also be used to strengthen the resolve of hirelings, making them less likely to flee in the chaos of battle.  Flags may also be used to mark rally points where the party is to fall back to and regroup in the event that they do become scattered.  Leaving some men-at-arms behind to guard a rally point can help to prevent a retreat from becoming a route.

20. Now an army may be robbed of its spirit and its commander deprived of his courage.

21. During the early morning spirits are keen, during the day they flag, and in the evening thoughts turn toward home.

22. And therefore those skilled in war avoid the enemy when his spirit is keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers homesick.  This is control of the moral factor.

Whenever possible, time assaults to suit yourself and discomfit your enemies.  Many subterranean creatures suffer penalties to attack in daylight, whereas surface dwellers will be at a disadvantage when fighting in darkness.  Plan your attacks accordingly.

If guarded objectives need to be captured, it is best to delay until the guards have been on duty for several hours and have become bored, complacent, and inattentive.  This may help you to achieve surprise, enabling you to take your objective quickly and with minimal opposition as opposed to attacking when the guards are fresh and alert.  This is another example of how scouting and gathering intelligence can pay dividends.

23. In good order they await a disorderly enemy; in serenity, a clamorous one.  This is control of the mental factor.

Historically, disciplined troops have triumphed over undisciplined troops.  The unwavering shield walls of Roman troops and the unflinching firing lines of the British infantry during the Napoleonic Wars won many battles against numerically superior foes.  Hirelings under the control of an experienced leader may receive a morale bonus that could make the difference between standing firm against a foe that may be more likely to fail its own morale check.

24. Close to the field of battle, they await an enemy coming from afar; at rest, an exhausted enemy; with well-fed troops, hungry ones.  This is control of the physical factor.

25. They do not engage an enemy advancing with well-ordered banners nor one whose formations are in impressive array.  This is control of the factor of changing circumstances.

26. Therefore, the art of employing troops is that when the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him; with his back resting on hills, do not oppose him.

Take care to fight your battles at a time and place that is advantageous to you.  Pick a defensible location and make the enemy come to you; do not initiate an attack against a prepared and well-disciplined enemy on their own ground.

27. When he pretends to flee, do not pursue.

28. Do not attack his elite troops.

29. Do not gobble proffered baits.

In other words, be careful not to fall into the very same traps that you are laying for your enemies.

30. Do not thwart an enemy returning homewards.

31. To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape.

32. Do not press an enemy at bay.

The most dangerous foes are the ones who have no choice but to win or die.  Leaving them an avenue of escape plants the idea that there is an alternative to death, making it more likely that they will choose to flee when the battle turns against them instead of fighting to the last man.  The vagaries of luck dictate that the longer you fight the greater the chance that improbable dice rolls could turn a sure victory into a defeat, so let a broken enemy flee and save unnecessary casualties on your own side.

When the enemy is trapped and at bay, with no possible avenue of escape, offering them a chance to surrender may also end the hostilities early.  This is riskier than allowing the enemy to retreat, because they may not trust you not to slaughter them once they surrender.  So you may need to allay their suspicions, and a past reputation for killing captives will only work against you in these situations.

33. This is the method of employing troops.