Friday, March 26, 2010

Emirikol the Chaotic and Trampier the Mysterious

I always loved the artwork in the Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and DM Guide back in the day, but the artists themselves were never much on my mind. It wasn’t until my involvement in the blogging community that I started reading about them in places like Grognordia and finding new appreciation for them.

I was looking through the Players Handbook and DM Guide the other day prepping for the next game, and had to stop and gaze on the rendering of the mysterious Emirikol The Chaotic. This page always intrigued me since I was a kid. A bearded, not-so-nice looking gent gallops down the street while shooting what is probably a magic missile at a man, while another lies burning on the cobbles outside a tavern. Not only did he look like a cool character, but the street and buildings of the picture themselves were so well done, they forever became how I envisioned the slightly claustrophobic streets of my own main city.

David A. Trampier, who often signed his work as “DAT” or “Tramp,” drew people, monsters, and places in a sort of classical, realistic style, but they still captured the essence of D&D. Often they were the first time iconic monsters in D&D had been depicted. Rakshasa, Catoblepas, the Fire Giant, Werereats, etc. To me, I see his work and say “that is for sure an artist who played the game.” I didn’t know until this week that he was also the creator of “Wormy,” that great cartoon from the old Dragon mags that featured the point of view of a dragon and other denizens of a dungeon, who almost all seemed to have East Coast personalities (an Imp who lives in Wormy’s cave called him “Woimy”).

Not only did he do the most iconic D&D image, that of the Players Handbook idol cover (and famously used as the title image over at Grognardia), but he also did a ton of the best images from Gamma World. He touched so many things in gaming, and his visuals determined how I pictured things in game terms in many ways.

What really blew me away when I researched Trampier a bit this week was that he quit his D&D artwork, and also his work on Wormy in the middle of a storyline, and went off to be a cab driver in a small Illinois town. He was actually still getting checks for his work, but they were returned to TSR and they just assumed he had died. Can you imagine? His photo eventually showed up in 2002 in a local university newspaper, and many of his fans recognized his name and even tried to contact him. He apparently rejected the attention from fans, and politely asked them not to write or call him. Wow.

His work was so good, and Wormy so popular and it is hard to envision somebody just stopping. I’m sure the money was not huge (with tips a cabby could probably make more money than niche artists in the early 80’s), but there had to be other reasons he was “done with the game.” Did he really dislike the people he had to deal with in the business? Did the dorky fans scare him off? He could probably drive a cab and do his art, unless he is one of those poor souls who really go for the cab money and work 15 hour shifts 7 days a week.

D.A.T. has full old school cred and would no doubt get some real props if he were to pop up as an interview on Grognardia or something, but given his history, it seems he is destined to go down as yet another mysterious figure in a field that is full of them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"That porn chick slew my elf!"

I said "slew," right? Whew!

Zak Sabbath, an avant garde artist, activist, and performer in several “alternative” adult videos (I’m not sure “porn star” should apply to Zak, but I guess that is subjective) has a blog page hit on his hands with his Playing D&D with Porn Stars site. How could he not with a title like that? Not to take anything from Zak; he seems intelligent and capable when it comes to the usual niche talk about gaming. But there can be no doubt that his blogs popularity has more to do with the fact that he knows porn girls, strippers, tattoo artists, and other alternative types than his post looking at what monsters start with the letter “f”. The fact is, having grown up here in Venice Beach and living in LA my entire life, I have known a pretty good variety of these sorts myself. But for Zak these type of people orbit around the things he is into, and more power to him for getting some of them to game with him.

With the video series I Hit it With My Axe at The Escapist, we get a glimpse into the actual gaming Zak does, namely, Zak’s DM’ing for a motley crew of underground misfits, including a hair dresser, a stripper (who doesn’t look much like the glammed up strippers at most higher end clubs), some punk rock guy you barely get a glimpse of, and a couple of “name” starlets. One is Kimberly Kane, a name I had actually never heard of, but Is apparently the winner of several AVN awards for Gang Bangs and facials and all that great stuff. Also Sasha Grey, a name I have heard of, who I have to admit seems like a gimmicky tack-on to the entire proceedings. I didn’t get the impression she was there because she wanted to play D&D. I kind of doubt she had ever heard of the game before that day. Outside of Sasha (who has a great “girl next door look” similar to that pregnant chick from “Juno”), none of the group are the good looking cutie dolls of mainstream porn, but seem more likely involved in labia piercing and nipple chain goth porn that doesn’t usually show up on shelves next to the latest opus’ from more big name stars. I suppose I shouldn’t say, because I haven’t seen anything with any of these people in them (and believe me I watch my fair share), but as far as my tastes go I like girls with much less of a “hard” street look.

In the background of the very small room that the game takes place in, a sort of wary looking dude sits on a bed and reads Zak’s comic collection, looking up occasionally to scrutinize the proceedings. He is the boyfriend of one of the girls, and his very presence outside of the game seems to indicate to me he is there more like the guy who goes with a stripper to a bachelor party – there to watch out for the girls interests and protect her. His presence there really give me the impression that at least one girl is there more as a publicity thing than as a player. Kimberly, however, does come across as a seasoned player.

We don’t get a ton of idea of the game play, but Zak at least sounds like a capable DM.At one point he starts the game of saying “let’s skip the usual do what you want city stuff, and cut to the chase.” All us DM’s have been there, so you for sure get a “shared experience” vibe from that. But other people’s game are rarely all that interesting to us, so the gimmick here has great importance towards the number of people who have watched and commented on the video. Hopefully we’ll get more detail on the gameplay itself in future eps, or even better some of the girls will start taking their clothes off and making out. Either or.

I have to say the camera work and editing are total shit. No bones about it. Sure, it’s nice to have a Blair Witch thing going on, but the point should be to see more of the gaming and get more of an idea of the characters and situations. But bottom line – this is just another project by a guy with a lot of irons in the fire. Of course this is totally gimmicky, but the truth is Zak does play D&D with some porn-related folk. I’d like to think that Sasha would show up to a game that had no cameras, but I seriously doubt it. But even without Sasha, the whole thing does hold interest for some of us who would like some actual pornie babes at their games. All I get to my games are good girls who only know of “facials” as something you get while you’re getting a pedicure.

Over the last few days there has been some kind of controversy in the old school community regarding this videos presence on The Escapist. I really don’t have time to do all the research, but I guess some folks are up in arms because gaming is a “kids” thing, and sure, that is where most of us start our gaming life. But I for sure have no problem with it (I don’t have kids, nor do I want to game with them), and the video itself has nothing salacious about it (sad to say). It’s just some lower end adult industry people playing D&D. Nothing more.

I want to say finally that from what I understand Zak has a few charities that he is personally involved in, and not just on a “wish I could do something about this” level. He actually donates sizable amounts of money from his endeavors to these charities, so he isn’t just talking the talk. If you give money to a cause, you ain’t no poser.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Have you ever tolerated a thieving party member?

Thieving from the party that is. Well, not directly from anybody (yet), but, well, here’s the tale.

One of my fairly new players is running a magic-user/thief named Lily. A few games ago when the character was started, the party was on the way into the Night Below setting. Lily and another new player character were tied up and about to be added to stew for a hearty Gnoll feast. The party slew the gnolls and took on these new party members.

Lily is a child of the streets with a tragic family background. She is a thief and a prostitute who learned some magic from a “boyfriend” to help her get by. Lily is not a great fighter, and the most she usually helps out is by throwing the occasional dagger at an enemy during combat. There is a single classed MU in the group a little higher level than Lily, so Lily is sort of outshone in both combat and magic-use.

But she really loves move silent, hide, and pick pockets. She will use her abilities each time she is near a treasure stash, and she is more often than not the first to the treasure area (while others still slug it out with the monsters) and she usually nabs a small item or two for herself. Mostly gems and jewels, but once a decent magic item too.

Last night Lily was on fire, getting to the biggest treasure pile in the campaign so far while the others were in combat (but a couple of wary characters trying to catch glimpses of her movements while they fought). With some lucky rolls on hide and pick pockets (I was using that to see how slick she was with grabbing a couple of small gem boxes), she got some more good stuff.

Already suspicious of her (and sort of catching her red handed in a previous game), the female drow of the group used detect lie and threats of strong arm tactics. Lily handed over the gems she just took, but that did not satisfy a couple of the characters. The two other female characters took her aside for a strip search, finding a couple of other suspicious items. Lily managed to “kiester” her small magic item and they didn’t find it.

Lily does not tell them what they want to hear – that she is sorry and is just used to stealing to get by. She is unabashed and comes off with a fairly nihilistic attitude. “It is what it is.”

She is still in the party, but I’m not sure this would be the common outcome in other games. So, what would your party do about Lily once she had her say?

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Sword Named "Finslayer"

Finslayer, the most iconic magic item to be found within the Night Below setting for AD&D 2nd edition, is about to be found by the party in my current 1st edition AD&D run of NB. Located (as indicated in book 2 of the 3 book set) in the treasure trove of a Rakshasa and hook horrors, it is looking to be taken into the possession of a neutral good Ranger.

Finslayer was created a few hundred years ago by an unnamed wizard, for a ranger named “Pajarifan.” Pajarifan had different racial enemies than the typical ranger. Instead of goblins and giants, Pajarifan hated Koa Toa and Drow. Finslayer was made to complement the hatreds of Pajarafan, who, as the greatest hero of the southern settlements, quested into the southern Underdark to defeat his enemies. Finally defeating the drow, Pajarifan unwittingly opened the door for the Aboleth to one day rule this part of the underworld. In the module, Pajarifan’s final fate was unrevealed, but it may be safe to assume he took the fight to the Aboleth eventually, and met his doom somewhere around The Sunless Sea.

Here are Finslayer’s powers and abilities:

-Finslayer is a long sword, +3, +4 vs. aboleth and drow, +5 vs kuo-toa.
-It is of NG alignment, very intelligent and has an ego to match.
-It converses with you via telepathy. It speaks in common with the others. It also speaks Undercommon, Drow, Aboleth, and Kuo-toa.
-At will (or by your request) it can:
o detect invisible objects within 10'
o detect secret doors within 5'
o detect magic within 10'
-It can cast "Strength" on you once per day, but the duration is a full 18 hours. If Finslayer strikes a kuo-toa it will confuse it for 2d6 rounds (they get a ST)
• Finslayer will not stick to kuo-toan armor.
• While holding Finslayer you are immune to kuo-toan Symbols of Insanity.
• Finslayer has extensive knowledge of kuo-toa, drow, and aboleth.
Finslayer will come in very handy at the climax of book 2, “The City of the Glass Pool,” where a Kuo Toa army is one of the obstacles to be faced.

Now, I made a couple of changes to the history of Finslayer. For one thing, I decided for some reason I wanted Pajarifan to be a female, so I added an “e” to the end of the name and made it “Pajarifane.” Nice, eh?

So at the game tomorrow night the party is about to dig in to the treasure trove, and Finslayer will be found. As it turns out (quite by accident, I created her long before deciding to do Night Below), the NPC in the party is a teenager ranger girl from the same area as Pajarifane, named “Dia.” The party had already discovered that she is special. A dozen games ago or so they found out she was the secret daughter of Arcturus Grimm, the most famous ranger in history and occasional benefactor to the characters. So Dia comes along being exactly what Finslayer is looking for – a neutral good ranger. So the weapon will most likely go to the NPC. That is probably going to work out pretty good, because it leaves me free to do what I like with Finslayer without basically controlling a player character.

So we will see how it goes tomorrow night. It is especially going to be a fun night, because it is all around the biggest and best treasure find I am bestowing upon the players in a year and a half of these characters adventures. I’ll hopefully get to kick back most of the night while the players argue out who gets what in all the great stuff, that in addition to Finslayer will include a druidic Scimitar +2, +4 when used outdoors in full sunlight, an elvish +2, +4 vs. goblin types long bow, +2 mace, wand of lightening bolts, and a few other goodies (note: I have heavily modified the treasure trove from what the book indicates).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Night Below - Ecology of the Rakshasa

I really thought that after a year and a half of this campaign, I would finally kill at least one character last night. OK, just from that statement you can tell I am not a “killer DM.” After 50 games or so most groups would have experienced some death. Well, with the party facing a crafty and powerful Rakshasa and its Hook Horror cronies, I thought I would get my kill.

Right now the party is in that area of the Night Below setting where Quaggoth and Hook Horrors engage in almost constant conflict over their territory of caves. I should mention that these creature types, and also the eventual “boss monster” of the area, the Rakshasa, are not monsters I have used much in the past. I don’t find quaggoth and hook horrors all that interesting. But I wanted to run some of the Night Below by the book, and I would do so with this section. Also, the quaggoth, as one-time slaves to the drow who once ruled this area (until the drow civilization here was destroyed by an ancient ranger with a magic sword called “Finslayer) were an interesting clue for the groups one drow character to find out more about the people of the old drow city of Sunkenhome. As for the horrors, they were basically thralls of the rakshasa, and therefore made good fodder to weaken the party for the rakshasa fight.

I should mention that the party had found an old stone ziggurat at the entrance to the complex, with drow writing on it. Turns out this was an old wilderness outpost of the drow city below. With there being a drow PC around, I decided to add a little more drow history for the characters to learn of. If you are familiar with the Night Below setting, then you know that the drow are pretty much long gone in this area. Putting in an outpost with some text and graffiti around would add a little drow flavor for the sake of the drow PC, while at the same time keeping the drow-free feeling (refreshing for an Underdark campaign) of the setting.

After some combat, and then parlay, with the quaggoth, the party went on to fight groups of the hook horrors in order to find a rumored horror leader that was able to cast spells and was said to have a vast treasure. This was indeed the rakshasa, who had been appearing to the monsters as an exceptionally strong and magical leader hook horror. While he had the creatures making trips into the tunnels to search for his estranged and marked for death brother (who, according to the module, would be later found by players in the Jubilex Temple area down the tunnels a bit), the rakshasa stayed in a cave lair with this copious treasure trove.

When the party approached his cave, the rakshasa cast a stinking cloud from hiding, and much of the group was temporarily incapacitated. The rakshasa immediately sent in several more horrors to attack the disrupted party, and I had them worried for awhile. But they managed to regroup and destroy the attackers. The party has two magic-users, and they help a lot by casting growth and strength spells on the fighters.

Rushing into the rakshasa lair, they saw three more hook horrors, seemingly guarding a tied and prone female figure. The rakshasa had taken on the appearance of a former party member named “Nutriciia.” The party was none the wiser, and as they attacked the horrors so they could save the girl, she revealed herself as the rakshasa, and snuck up behind a character to sink in claw and fang.

Outside of being a bit weak in melee (claw/claw/bite for 1-3/1-3/2-5) 1st edition rakshasa have killer defenses. Besides ESP and the ability to appear as somebody they see in a victims mind, rakshasa have -4 AC, and are completely immune to any spell below 8th level! Normal weapons do no harm to them, and any magic weapons below +3 only do half damage. They also have access to MU and cleric spells, and in addition to the stinking cloud this rakshasa had a fireball cocked and ready to use. I really thought that 7 dice fireball had a good chance of taking out at least one already wounded character, maybe more.

But he never got to use it. OK, here is the deal. I have my own version of the bard class in my game world. They really are not much like the standard D&D bard, where you have to experience several character classes to truly be called a bard. My class is sort of a thief subclass, but with a set of musical abilities that begin to act like MU spells as they get higher level. The group’s bard, the half elf Vaidno, is one such bard, and he is now getting high level. He recently accessed the “dance” music/spell ability. It is very much like a somewhat powered down version of the 8th level Otto’s Irresistible Dance spell. For one thing, it allows a saving throw. Well, Vaidno got on his mandolin, started playing a serenade for the rakshasa, and even though I gave it a bonus to its save for being a demonic being it failed. There ya go, my boss monster is pretty much helpless for the next 4 rounds. The characters moved in, and even though their magic weapons are modest, they took him down in 3 rounds. Good for them, because he would have blasted the entire area he stood in with his own fireball. That would have for sure killed somebody (pending save).

So my rakshasa didn’t really get to shine, but the party was pretty happy with themselves. They could tell overall that between the hook horrors and the rakshasa, I had finally thrown a possibly deadly fight their way. No more mucking around and running roughshod over my challenges. They are in The Night Below, and they know now that things are really heating up. And as any of you who know Night Below can attest, there are much worse things than rakshasa in this underworld. I’ll get one of those pesky characters next time!