Thursday, September 17, 2009

"It's about Bunnies!" - redux

(Note: As I am currently heading into the second weekend of a several weekend run of working at a Ren Faire in Central California [4 + hour drive], taking a class during the week, preparing for a bagpiping competition in October, yada yada yad - my posting is getting slower at a time when I was really getting into the flow. So I thought I would, here and there, dredge up a past post from earlier this year when I had maybe three subscribers and before my blogger network membership. I'm not egotistical enough to call it "best of," but perhaps there will be some interest in past stuff that I thought was worth talking/reading about. This one about Bunnies and Burrows has the distinction of being maybe one of two of my posts that James at Grognardia actually commented on - hold the applause!)

I had never read Watership Down, nor seen the movie by the time I first saw a copy of Bunnies and Burrows over 30 years ago. There it was on the stands at Aero Hobbies. All the older pricks were geeking out about it at the game table, like they did with most unique new games that came out. I don’t remember anyone actually running it at the shop, but I was somewhat smitten by it’s strange nature.I had of course heard of Watership Down in the school yards over the year. It would usually be one of the timid, shy girls reading it at lunchtime (this was before Goth kids came into their own and started to be recognized), or one of the seemingly speechless boys from the “special” class. It’s not exactly a “feel good” story. As Sawyer on the TV show Lost once sarcastically said, in a gleeful singsong voice as he was caught reading it “It’s about bunnies!”

I saw no sad little sick rabbits on the run from all kinds of scary things as I read the B&B rules. Only herbalists, fighters, and the incredibly appealing Maverick character class. The rules were fairly light, as were a lot of the new games coming out. It left a lot open to interpretation, which as any Grognard knows is the salt of the earth in a fun-to-GM game.

B&B came out in 1976, only a few short years after D&D, and it is recognized as the first game to have all non-human characters, and also as the first game with a detailed martial arts system. Your skills and abilities varied depending on your character class, and task resolution was on percentiles. There were great little “simple life” rules in the game that gave it a very quaint flavor. Your rabbit could only count up to 5, and I don’t think you were allowed much more than that in the way of objects in your backpack. Yeah, that’s right. These rabbits weren’t exactly humanoid, but it was obvious that they were more intelligent than animals, and could stand upright and manipulate things with fingers. This was not specific in the book – only some of the skills, and some of the drawings (a maverick holding playing cards, the soldier rabbits of the book cover, etc.) lead you to believe that they were more than plain old bunnies. Well, that and the fact that somebody had to have made the backpacks.

Seeing as you are a rabbit and one of the weakest creatures on the planet, role play was key over combat encounters. All forms of animals are listed as enemies, but only human beings with their “alien minds” were true monsters. Snares, poison, and natural hazards filled the daily lives of the little fellas as well.The rules book itself was pretty poor quality. It looked typewritten (as were a lot of my favorite gaming material of the time), and the “artwork” can only be describes as “scribbles.” I drew better looking artwork of cops beating up hippies on my high school Pee Chee folder.

A couple of editions came out in the following years. There was a GURPS version with a cover that could only be described as hilarious. It had two small rabbits furiously attacking a guard dog, like the two raptors attacking the T Rex in Jurassic Park. That seemed to kind of miss the point of the original game right there, but newer gamers probably would not want to play a game were you mostly just forage for truffles all day, Before heading down to the Doe cave to hammer out babies all night.I finally saw the Watership Down movie and read the book in the 80’s, and the game reflected a lot of that inspiration. Figuring I would probably never run it, I sold it on Ebay several years ago for about 50 bucks. Now that I’m going through my own retro gaming fad, I wish I had kept that one. I even created my own little gameworld for it about 10 years ago. Called “Rabbit Valley Days,” I was hoping to evoke those original rules using another system eventually, but I doubt I can sell my current players on it now. The game is about bunnies, after all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Crappy Stats

When it comes to random rolls for stats, it doesn’t matter how generous you are as a DM, somebody may always end up with an 8 or lower in something. Two such stats and you got a real stinker on your hands.

Grognardia James is doing a play-by-post Dwimmermount campaign through the OD&D discussion boards, and of course he is using the oldest, most basic of D&D. That means, among other things, rolling 3d6 for each stat. No substitutions or eliminations. For any of us who were kids getting into D&D in the 70’s, we know that pain. You really had to make your rolls before envisioning what kind of class you would want. Who wants a fighter with a 7 Str or a wizard with a 9 Int? A lot of stumblebums and numbnuts are being created there. My own guy came up with an 8 Wis and 6 Con! Yeesh. Don’t wanna complain too hard, because one dude got a couple of 5’s. Ow. I was one of the lucky ones to get a decent number in one stat; a 15 in my Intelligence. So of course I came up with an MU (see below to get a gander at my stats, and the history I came up with to explain his shortcomings).

I’m not much of an old school “adventurers are just average/below average tomb robbers” kind of guy. Growing up on comics and heroic literature, I preferred haughty champions for myself and my players from an early age. I think we threw out the 3D6-can’t choose the stat type roll-up pretty quick. I went for the best 3 of 4, put on the stat you want methods. I usually allowed an elimination roll of anything under 9. For a long time I allowed a stat or two to be moved around to be able to allow a ranger or paladin or whatever for somebody, and that was cool. I mean, my games are important enough to me that I wanted my players to have the type of character they were envisioning before the rolls were made. This didn’t create supermen, and 18’s were still pretty rare. It just allowed a half-way heroic group of characters, the type who went adventuring, and had a chance to survive it.

Oh, and the other couple of generous things I do is allow max hit points at first level, and also to not let characters die (for the most part) in their first game. I don’t really know how much of an affect this has had on the mortality rate, but it’s probably telling that characters rarely die in my games unless they do something very stupid or very suicidal. I think more characters have died because of other characters and not because of my challenges.

Back to James’ game, it’s pretty funny that all these stat-deficient characters are getting into a life of adventure. Maybe it really is a mental thing in that world. All these buff, healthy farmer lads tilling the fields and enjoying a peaceful life, and these weak, sub-par types marching by on their way to Dwimmermount, a place more than likely to kill you pretty quick. I mean, what did you expect? You’ve only got two hit points! It’s like the Special Olympics – to the death!

FYI – this is the first player character I have created to play in almost 20 years. I mostly GM.

Thurston “Thirsty” BrewerHuman

MU1 H.P.2 AC10STR 11INT 15WIS 8CON 6DEX 12 CHA 12Languages: Common, Elvish, Dwarf, GnomeSpells: Read Magic, Shield, Sleep (probably)

Thurston, or “Thirsty” to his friends is a 25 year old human and looks like Steve Buscemi. Thirsty grew up in Adamas, where his father and mother own a middle-class tavern called “The Drunken Dragon.” Thirsty grew up there and knows his way around tavern work (including stable). He also knows his way around booze. Like most of the men in his family he is a “working drunk,” but in Thurston’s case he had way too much access to hedonistic materials at too young an age. Although he will imbibe almost anything through mouth, lung, or ear, alcohol is his fave as it is the easiest to get, and quickly satisfies his raging oral fixation.

With a liver and his wits quickly getting shot at a young age, Thurston will be lucky to make it into his mid-30’s unless he changes his happily hedonistic lifestyle. As he is not the first in line to inherit the tavern (has older brother who actually works hard), Thurston decided he wanted to learn the magic arts and enrolled in Wizard School a couple of years ago. Needless to say, he was the party animal on campus. One night recently, sauced with friends at the tavern, Thirsty heard some adventurers talking about an exploration of the famous Dwimmermount area he had heard about for years, and inquired about lending his spells to the expedition.

Thirsty stands out due to the 4 wineskins he tends to have hanging off him under his light cloak. But he doesn’t get smashed “on the job.” In dungeon he just sips whiskey during the day to keep the shakes away. The wine is for sharing to celebrate milestones (clearing that room of giant spiders, finding a new level to explore, etc.). It is all good booze so he double-costed it. Back safely in town or village, all bets are off as far as being professional, and Thurston’s party cry can be heard echoing out of the inn or tavern “It’s slobberin’ time!”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Night Below: The Tweaking of Book Two

OK, in my last post I talked about changing gears in my campaign, and having players go into the Night Below setting instead of the dungeon they have been preparing for (leveling up) for around 20 games and one year of play.

One reason for this is that I have been dilly dallying a bit. I wanted them to be hitting the dungeon around 4th level, but I have had so much fun with adventures around villages and towns that I just let time fly. Now they are closing in on 7th level. I also felt that at least a couple of characters were running a bit roughshod over my world and NPC’s. As they got to higher levels without any major opposition outside of orcs, Kobolds, and trolls, they have become a bit cocky. Night Below is enough of a meat grinder to make them see the error of their ways (and possibly have to roll up newer, more humble characters when these ones get decimated in the Derro battle, heh heh heh).

I’m going for it, and starting with the material in Book 2. But in my more focused reading of the material, and in some of the things I’ve read online, I think I need to make a few changes for this to work for me.

The major thing bugging me right off the bat is the scale. Say the characters travel from the Deep Gnome city down to the Glass Pool area. According to the miles given in the map key, this is something like 400 miles! Yeesh. I rarely make characters trek 400 miles on foot in the surface world, so this is kind of a big deal. The adventure books suggest making multiple trips to the surface world, which makes this journey around an 800 mile round trip. So screw that, I’m going to half that (at least). That should still be enough travelling to get across the “underground wilderness” nature of the Underdark (which surface dwellers in my world call “The Great Beneath”) without the characters having to effectively travel half the length of my gameworld continent.

On the same coin, I’m also thinking of making more flux points for the players to use, and therefore be able to get around a little faster (after the initial foot traveling – each flux point would need to be physically seen in order to be able to travel to it). I’m not real sure about the flux’s though. I want this setting to have all that great oppressiveness that should be felt deep below the ground, and making it easier and faster for players to travel may take away from that. Still, I think I would maybe have a Flux Point that is well guarded in the Gnome City, and another one around the Derro area. As you need to first be in the presence of one in order to travel to it (the way I would do it), the Mind Flayer can’t appear in that one, and the player could not get back to the Gnome Flux without traveling on foot first to one in the Derro area. This addition of Flux would seriously cut back on travel and game time spent in dreary travel later in the game.

I also don’t want this to be a 2-5 year campaign (I have heard from various sources that have taken various amounts of time, but the fact that I am skipping Book 1 should cut back at least a few months). My games are a little less than three hours on a Wed night around twice a month, and should remain so into next year. So I don’t exactly have a plethora of time-stuff to do this. I’d like to cover the entire two books-worth of material, from the Deep Gnomes to the assault on the Aboleth city, between now and Fall of next year. Yep, I gots the next 12 months of games covered here. I’m getting kind of tired of all the above ground village and town encounters anyway. It’s time for a real bloodbath in an alien setting.

One thing I think I will cut out entirely is the Rockseer Elves. That should save a game session or two. I’m not a big fan of them here. Not only are they a major distraction and long journey to deal with, but the campaign is meant for them to go to the surface at the end of it all, and reveal themselves to surface elves. Big whoop. Also, the encounter with them requires that some player characters be kidnapped for a bit, and I have found through decades of experience that not only do players hate this, but it requires a bit of railroading on the part of the DM. Players are usually so resistant to being captured in any way; it is often difficult to pull off without some Deux ex Machina involved.

So I think I will increase both the quantity and quality of the Deep Gnome involvement in the adventure. In the next game I’m going to have the party save a Deep Gnome scout from Gnolls in upper caves. The Gnoll shaman will have fed the Gnomes legs to his pet ghouls, so the party will hopefully escort the crippled Svirfneblin down to his people. Not only will they be rewarded with part of the legless gnomes trove, but he Queen will be more disposed towards liking them than in the original material. As the party currently contains a gnome illusionist, the queen will give him the special treatment as described in book 2 (make him a champion, offer the gnome home as a place of safety and succor). The gnomes will also provide far more info on the goings on down here than book 2 wants you to know early on. They will know about the comings and goings of mind flayers between the Glass Pool and the subsurface world, that they have been coveting spellcasters, and that deep below in the Sunless Sea ancient monsters contemplate the subjugation of the underworld and beyond.

I think I will leave in the Troll caves, though I may not have the Deep Gnome queen ask specifically for them to be eradicated. If they prove a problem for the players, it can be up to them to deal with them if they want (which will still end up getting props from the Gnomes). I want to have a lot of wandering monster type encounters in the first long journey to the Derro area, so trolls can be met on the fly.

I like the idea of the Sunken Drow city in the Sunless Sea, and to tie into that a bit more, I am thinking of creating a long-abandoned Drow outpost up here, maybe in the area where the tunnel to the Rockseer Elves starts. It could be nice and haunted, filled with giant spiders, or whatever. As it is mostly undisturbed in the last 700 years, it can contain some clues about the Sunken Drow City and the ancient Drow presence in the Southern Underdark. There is a Drow in the player party, so she should have some interest here.

The Grell don’t really appeal to me. Even as a kid reading about them in White Dwarf (including an article on how to make minis of them from scratch), I thought they were kind of lame. So I am going to replace that Grell community with Dire Corbys. Yeah, you heard me. In all honesty they seemed just as lame or lamer than Grell. They looked crappy in the MM2, and their shouting “Doom” as they attacked sounded pretty cheesy. But recently I got a cheap copy of the Drizzt Du’orden Omnibus Graphic novel (I never read the novels based on Drizzt), and I loved the chilling portrayal of a mass Corby attack within. Even the shouts of “Doom!” seemed pretty cool in that context. So I’m going to use them as a nice hack n’ slash encounter.

The Quaggoth and Hook Horrors seemed pretty dumb to me as well, but upon deeper reading it kind of grew on me. When I learned that the shaggy bear-men were left over from the ancient Drow presence here, I kind of liked it. Their reaction to the Drow PC might be interesting as well. The Hook Horrors being led by a shape-shifted Rakshasa is kind of cool. I haven’t used one of those since my last Isle of Dread campaign around 20 years ago. So that whole area, including the sword Finslayer, stays in the picture.

I need to study the Derro encounter areas a bit better, but from what I can tell that is the true bloodbath of Book Two. With both fighting ability and magic, they seem like a nice challenge. I also need to look more closely at the City of the Glass Pool, because so far I have been more into tweaking the areas leading up to the climax of Book Two. One thing I don’t like on cursory inspection is the Ixians. I think that between the Mind Flayers, Kou-Toa, Aboleth, and all the intelligent races and creatures that support them/oppose them, there are already more than enough evil main villains to deal with. But who knows, like the Hook Horror area they may grow on me. For all I know they are integral to the story. It’s a nice long weekend coming up, so I’ll be taking a better look at the end of that chapter of the adventure.

The Glass Pool area requires multiple assaults, because it is so large in scope and has a lot going on. I haven’t looked real closely a the Aboleth city in Book 3 all that much, but Glass Pool seems to be a more complicated war. I’m really not a fan of assault/go rest/assault some more game play. I really do prefer large battles like this to play out more cinematically. For this I would probably have to cut out a lot of stuff and change a lot of others, especially if I am to do it in one setting. But I don’t want to change the entire philosophy of the Night Below campaign, so I need to tread carefully with things I leave out. But I really want to do a lot with the Sunless Sea area, and to do that in a year (of short, three hour games) will for sure require the leaving out of a lot of Book 2.

So, what do you think of these tweaks? I’d also love to hear from anybody who ran the adventure as is with little in the way of changes.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reconsidered: Night Below Campaign

Reconsidered: Night Below Campaign

During the 90’s, I hardly ever bought D&D supplementary material. I mean, I had so many seeds of ideas in my head when it came to gaming, I never felt I needed to buy other people’s ideas. Plus as a Scotsman, I’m notoriously cheap (and yet can never seem to save any money).

But when I got back into gaming after several years off, I had a hankering to purchase some of the interesting sounding items that I passed on many years before. So some time around winter of last year I got great deals from Ebay on the Dark Sun boxed set, and the Night Below boxed set.

By then I had a nice little campaign going, running countryside adventures to build up PC’s for an eventual dungeon crawl. Although they were interesting reads, Dark Sun and Night Below didn’t seem to have any immediate use in my current games. Actually, I had mulled over making a gateway in the dungeon that would transport the party to the Dark Sun world, that would be sort of a post-apocalypse version of my regular game world. But that was just a thought.

The party is getting up there in levels, most around 6th or 7th, and it is starting to seem like they will be at least 3 levels higher than I had planned them to be for the dungeon. So this last weekend I broke out my copy of Night Below, wondering if it might just make a decent alternative to the dungeon players were heading to. I took a good look at the first two of the three books of NB. I started to see the events of book 2 would be easily adapted to my current scenarios.

Book 1 features little adventures in a populated area of towns, villages, and farms. Much like my games have been so far, these little Mickey Mouse outdoor adventures are designed to beef up the party for eventual underground adventuring. Many little situations in book 1 are meant to give motivations for the Underdark adventures in book 2, but I should have no problem using what has already happened in my games to tie this in. For one thing, in the last couple of games the party has explored a gnomish “Safechamber,” a secret pad under the human frontier town of Overtown built long ago as a place for gnomes to hide from the monsters that once roamed the surface world in greater numbers. The party found a hidden trap door within, and that one appears to lead to an even larger gnomish area around a half mile under the town. I didn’t plan to have them go much deeper than that, but seeing as the underground gnome town (apparently abandoned) had passages to the Underdark, why not switch gears a bit and give the party good reason to go deeper (waaaaay deeper) below?

In the last few games I’ve had party members running afoul of a group of Drow who are in the area, secretly planning to eventually go to the same dungeon the players are going. But no problem, I can now have them coming to the area to meet up with Mind Flayers (from book 2) and working out a deal to capture spellcasters for them. So I can change the human slavers the party eventually encounters near the Derro area underground to these drow no problem. The players deserve a real face-off with these pesky dark elves anyway.

In the next game the party will explore the little abandoned sub-surface gnomish town, and they will discover gnome historians (and their infant daughter) from the gnome areas up north. They will have been spending years here studying and restoring this once bustling little community. The gnome family will be getting bothered by gnolls who have moved into upper caves near the abandoned gnome town of “Southgem”. These gnolls in turn will have been displaced from lower caverns by the troop of orcs that are working for the Mind Flayers who have been moving back and forth between the surface area and the City of the Glass Pool far below in the deeper underdark.

So all this, with a bit of prodding, should get the adventurer’s on their way to the Deep Gnome city, and eventually to the Kou-Toa.

There is a lot I don’t like in the Night Below material, and it will take a lot of my personal tweaking. But it has always been thus when I use modules or adventures created by others. You have personal taste, and you have to take that into account and make mods if you are a creative DM.

So in a later posts I will detail some of the changes, for good or better, that I plan to make in Night Below. If you have used the NB material in your games, I’d love to hear what kind of changes you might have made, and how the adventures panned out. If you have only read the material, I’d still love to hear what you think about it.