Saturday, April 30, 2011

El Dorado

I don't spend a lot of time watching westerns, but this 1967 film starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchem, and James Caan is such a modest, funny little charmer I always stop and watch for awhile, or have it on while cleaning up around the house or sipping coffee on a Saturday morning. Problem is. AMC seems to play it on a monthly basis, so I'm watching it a lot. Watching it right now.

The film starts with a lonesome cowboy song, and images of western vistas. Kinda ironic, cause the film is very small scale and personal. It's the chemistry among the characters that set it apart from much bigger old west epics.

John Wayne is a good guy gunfighter for hire who only chooses the righteous side. Robert Mitchem is the sherrif of the Texas town, who has let himself sink into the bottle over a girl who "ran off with a drummer." The unlikely James Caan is the young and pragmatic Eastern gamblers apprentice.

It's all the little touches that make this little film stand out. Some of my favorite throwaway bits that I keep watching this for include:

*Wayne taking a bullet in his spine early in the film from a ranchers misguided daughter. He spends the rest of the film holding his side and having random seizures.

*Caan can't use a gun for shit, so Wayne gets him a sawed off shottie.

*Mitchem, stinking like hell, tries to take a bath at a time half the town seems to be dropping by. And they all bring soap for him. I guess they are trying to tell him something.

*Caan, chasing some baddies at night, is spoken to by a super hot and sultry, ciggy smoking Mexican gal through a darkened window. She tells him where the bad guys hid because "she does not like these men." She is not seen again after that scene, sadly.

*Mitchum having revenge on a saloon full of evil doers who "laughed at him," including bashing Ed Asners face in with his rifle.

Yeah, a great little Boot Hill game could be based on this.

The film is based on a novel called "The Stars in Their Courses," written by Harry Brown who also wrote the screenplay. The movie is on all the time. Kick back and watch it some one Saturday morning before you go out and actually get something done. Ride Boolie, ride!

Friday, April 29, 2011

DM’s Jollies

Here ChicagoWiz discusses more or less standing his ground on doing in his game what is appealing to him, and not giving in to player demands for what they find fun.

Although I think I am philosophically with him in that, historically I have tried to present things in my games towards player enjoyment. I’ve never really been a “killer DM” or gotten my jollies from “threatening” characters with my bag of DM tricks as is often prevalent among our kind . I think my focus has been on giving players the means to have a good time within the game context, because player’s enjoying my games is probably most of the fun for me. If they feel generally challenged by things, and are also feeling their character is “doing what he does best” and moving towards some as-yet formed destiny, it tends to be fun for them.

The game just sort of happens without a lot of conscious thought during the process of “I’m really enjoying myself!” (Although there have been exceptional in-game moments where I have allowed myself to savor some true bliss). It’s after the game, and during prep for the next one, that I let my mind wander to what I really enjoyed about it. But I can’t expect players to get that same feel. Players need to be palpably enjoying the experience during the game more than any other time. Otherwise it seems like a long time to be sitting at a table together.

Over the decades I have not experienced a lot of player complaints about not getting enough of some thing or another in games. I very rarely hear “we are in the wilderness too much” or “we are in the city too much” or things like that. I present what I am going to present, and players interact with whatever it is. Not necessarily because I “am that good,” but maybe because I am comfortable with any type of location or situation that might pop up in games. I’ve run entire campaigns in the wilderness (ranger and druid focused parties) and in civilization (thieves’ guilds). It’s all good.

Also, because I don’t often enjoy being a player myself, I try not to include things in my own game that I find a turn-off in others. Killer DMing, excruciating and fun-sapping overlong initiative and declaration rounds, and challenges beyond the group’s level are all peeves as a player that I keep in mind as a DM.

But as far as my own enjoyment as DM, it has been tested a bit here and there in my current gaming incarnation. My balls-up with an established Star Wars Saga group the other year is a perfect example of players expecting that the GM is “working for them,” to the point that they even patiently waited for me to leave at the end of a session so they could discuss my performance as a group (can you imagine?).

And in my regular group I have “Power Game Dan” and “Gimmi Gimmi Andy” (great foes of a player-friendly GM) to tussle with on a regular basis. But I get a lot of laughs out of these guys as well, so I don’t feel fully tested as far as an “overworked game master” for the most part. It’s become part of the game dynamic to successfully deal with sharks who go after a fairly easy DM. One hand has “hate” tattooed on the knuckles, and the other has “love” on it.

But bottom line, a GM/DM needs to look to what is fun for him. And if he has no fun whatsoever with games set in towns or whatever, it’s his prerogative to avoid those settings in his games. For the better part of the 90’s I barely had any true dungeons in my games because I had become so tired of them in the 80’s. And this freaking game is called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bows VS. Muskets

(above art by Slug Signorino)

I'm a The Straight Dope fan going on over 20 years, since the column regularly appeared in local free press newspapers in LA. Now that the mysterious Cecil has long since had a website, I pop in from time to time to read up on the brilliant answers to often stupid questions.

But this one interested me greatly, seeing as I have seen a lot of online forums approaching the subject of firearms in D&D lately (usually dominated by brainiacs who tell you that your campaign would be ruined by such extravagances). For sure an interesting subject for all gamers, since many do have primative firearms show up from time to time, including me.

The smartest researcher/shut-in in all creation gives you the low down below.

Dear Cecil:
I watched a rerun of The Patriot over the weekend and was once again reminded of how absurd the "volley trading" European style of warfare was (at least to me). From what I understand, even the best-trained troops of the era could squeeze off only three or four inaccurate shots a minute. Given that the opposing armies were standing within 100 yards of each other and wore no protective armor, why didn't they use archers? I'd think even a novice archer could fire off 10 to 15 arrows for every one gunshot from the enemy. Am I oversimplifying this?
— Ted C., Richmond, Virginia

Cecil replies:

This question teeters on that fine line, familiar to us here at the Straight Dope, between intriguing and ludicrous. Before anyone rushes to judgment, be aware that at least one other person had the same brainstorm as Ted. His name? Ben Franklin. So you might want to hear this one out.

In February 1776, concerned about a shortage of gunpowder, Franklin proposed in a letter to General Charles Lee that the colonists arm themselves with bows and arrows, calling them "good weapons, not wisely laid aside." The idea didn't fly, obviously. Let's look at Franklin's reasoning to get a handle on why.

1. "[An archer] can discharge four arrows in the time of charging and discharging one bullet." True. A skilled English archer could loose 15 shots a minute, with ten the minimum acceptable rate. A newly-recruited musketeer, in contrast, would be lucky to get off two shots per minute, while the best a veteran could manage was five. The key phrase here, as we’ll see below, is “skilled English archer.”

2. "His object is not taken from his view by the smoke of his own side." Also true — prior to innovations of the 19th century, visibility was a major issue for armies exchanging gunfire.

3. "A flight of arrows, seen coming upon them, terrifies and disturbs the enemies' attention to their business." This falls into the true-but-so-what category. A storm of incoming arrows let fly by massed archers was undoubtedly terrifying. On the other hand, the din of musketry and cannon fire, the sight of a line of men cut down like weeds and strewn maimed on the ground … that was also pretty distracting. Guns may not have been too accurate in the late 18th century, but they delivered plenty of shock and awe.

4. "An arrow striking in any part of a man puts him hors de combat till it is extracted." Maybe so, but close-range musket wounds reportedly were much more devastating than arrow wounds.

5. "Bows and arrows are more easily provided everywhere than muskets and ammunition." Here's where Franklin starts to go astray, although it's easy to see why he might think this. At the time he wrote, the colonies had few gunsmiths and little gunpowder. In the war's early days George Washington estimated there was only enough powder for his troops to fire nine shots each. Meanwhile, Native Americans seemed to have no difficulty making bows and arrows, so how tough could it be? Answer: tougher than you'd think.

6. "[A] man may shoot as truly with a bow as with a common musket." Here's Franklin's fatal error. He was thinking of the longbow, which had been used to deadly effect during the Hundred Years' War at the battles of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). The longbow was an English specialty — armies on the continent used the crossbow, which generally had less range and was much slower to reload. An archer with a crossbow didn't stand a chance against one with a longbow.

Not surprisingly, crossbows were soon replaced by guns.

The longbow might have lasted longer, except for one thing: using it effectively required extraordinary strength and skill. The bow, made of tough yew wood, had a draw weight of 80 to well over 100 pounds, something only the strongest modern archers can manage. Training took years — English law long mandated that boys take archery practice starting as early as age seven.

Fearsome as it was, the longbow didn't automatically trump the musket the way it had the crossbow. English armies in the 16th century were sometimes defeated despite their longbows, and by the time of the Spanish Armada the weapon had largely been eclipsed. Other ancient arms still had their uses — the knight's sword evolved into the cavalryman's saber and the infantryman's bayonet, handy in close combat. Not so the longbow. Once the English concluded it wasn't worth their while to train large numbers of archers, the bow's usefulness in large-scale combat ceased.

By Franklin's day it's doubtful anyone in the colonies knew how to make a longbow or could have used it. The Native American version hadn't proven especially effective in combat, and Franklin's evident belief that it could be made otherwise probably had his correspondent rolling his eyes. Guns had the advantage of simplicity: a kid could pick one up and kill somebody with it, a fact that remains apparent to this day.

— Cecil Adams

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Danger! Danger!"

(photo above: Dr. Smith proving that it’s not only little boys he likes to hang out with)

After a long period of being able to post about an ongoing campaign, I find that now it is over with I can go back to making some posts about pop culture things that appeal to me. Comic books, childhood TV favorites, films, books, etc. all had some influence on me and my gaming. Its one reason having a variety of gaming genres to experience has always been appealing to me.

Having said that, I can’t say Lost in Space added anything to my gaming life, anymore than Adam West’s Batman added anything to my Champions games (unless you count it as an example of what not to do). Still, as a child I loved this show. It didn’t matter that it quickly went from decent and fairly hard Sci Fi to a Dr. Smith mince-fest in short order.

It was a big plus for me that when I was a very young child my dad worked on the show as a set painter. Right now I actually have a listing on Ebay of a beat up copy of a script dad nicked from the set. Not only that, but I visited the set and met both my heroes from the show; Billy Mumy and Jonathan “Dr. Smith” Harris. My memory of it is very sketchy, but according to mom Billy was really nice to me, and chased me around with a ray guy. And Harris actually commented on the sweater I was wearing; I loved the show so much that mom bought me (and my next oldest brother) these long sleeve sweater-like shirts with a plunging ‘V’ neckline like the crew of the Jupiter 2 wore.

As an adult of course I can now laugh at the idiocy of the last couple of seasons. Giant talking carrots, space pirates on motorcycles, space hippies, etc. All the things that Star Trek actually portrayed intelligently.

And after reading William Shatner’s autobiography a few years ago, I got a pretty bad attitude about Lost in Space. He talked about how Gene Rodenberry was trying to do a serious, philosophical Sci Fi show on a limited budget, and at the same time the producers of Lost in Space were stealing leftover props from Star Trek dumpsters to save money on their own big-budget show. It was a time when viewer much preferred to be pandered too than be made to do any hard thinking (reminds you of today a bit, eh?).

But finding the above photo, of Dr. Smith seeming to give a little girl an inappropriately sensual kiss (on first glance I actually thought it was Billy Mumy!), really made me think about the show a bit, and how much fun I had with it despite how horrible it quickly became.

About 20 years ago, backstage at the Southern California Ren Faire, a buddy and me were drinking and goofing around, and for some reason we were doing these very gay impressions of Charles Nelson Reily and Jonathan Harris, and it turned out that a mutual friends of ours there, a girl names Jessie, was the niece of Harris. It blew our mind and we grilled her hard on info about one of our favorite mincing actors of the 60’s and 70’s. she seemed to think of him as being somewhat gay (not that there is anything wrong with it if true), but the fact is that Harris was married for many many years and still was at the time of his death several years ago. I think he had kids too. Harris famously said "I'm not British, just affected". But even though straight, he played an obviously gay character so well and flamboyantly that I still love Doc Smith.

Smith started out as an evil secret agent who tried to sabotage the Jupiter 2 (in the process murdering women and children), but they quickly turned him into a swishing coward who would often hide behind young Will Robinson when there was trouble. Good thing they always sent the robot, probably more to protect the boy from Smith than from alien hippies and android go-go girls.

A Family Guy parody had Will Robinson’s dad telling his son “Why don’t you go for a long walk on this uncharted, hostile alien planet. And take this mincing, child-loving pedophile with you.” But it was actually Harris who created the newer, less evil Dr. Smith from whole cloth. The other actors apparently had great resentment because Harris, Mumy, and the robot were getting all the screen time by the second season.

Not long before his death, Harris appeared on Conan O’Brien around the time when the crappy Lost in Space film came out (Harris refused to do a cameo because he didn’t get to play Smith) in a hilarious bit where he makes fun of Conan’s “Pimpbot” like he had done with his old robot pal decades before. Conan was apparently a huge fan of the show growing up, and it meant the world to him for Harris to insult his Pimpbot. Check it out:

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Cheech Marin next to Harris on the couch. Talk about pop culture clash!

Apparently working with Harris was a great experience for Bill Mumy, who stayed close friends right up to Harris’ death. I understand that Mumy was one of the only non-family members present when Harris passed away.

You see Harris pop up in the craziest places. He has done cameos on Sanford and Son, All in the Family, and all kinds of 70’s and 80’s sitcoms. He did a ton of voice work, including one of the Three Musketeers on The Banana Splits. His final role was the voice of the Mantis in A Bug’s Life.

“Danger! Danger! Dr. Smith, step away from the boy!”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Burning out on the game

Interesting post by a guy on Dragonsfoot known as “Prespos.”

A lot of the older (both in terms of age and amount of years spent on DF) posters there seem to have a very embittered attitude about other people and their gaming habits. No matter how friendly or sunny a new person might come off as with their innocent inquiry about this or that topic related to D&D, there is always a long-timer on DF ready to tell them they “are cheating” for using house rules or “are having fun wrong” in some way or another. Some come off with portents of gaming doom (“that campaign will be doomed to fail because…”) over very simple things. It really verges on parody sometimes. It seems to me a lot of these people are past their time of gaming fun and greatness (and often haven’ t actually played in many years), and just seem to lurk around like ghosts for the sake of their own sad egos trying to warn the living about making mistakes that can ruin the experience. You can read a lot of hurt in some of the negatives that show up in place like DF.
If you don’t check the link, here’s what Prespos had to say in part:

“…Been quite badly depressed the last few days,
and i have been thinking of quitting AD&D again, and again ....

Really, i look at the tabletop AD&D (1E) scene, and i really have to wonder ... if i ever want to be part of that scene ever again,
the tabletop scene, the convention scene.

Really, i look at the AD&D community ... what i see : confusion, a waste of time/life, degeneration, and, what is worst of all ...
some kind of a mediocrity, a nostalgic mediocrity that feeds upon itself ... perhaps, by worshiping the words of the dead.

Really, it is the mediocrity, the lack of excellence, that, perhaps, distresses me the most about the AD&D 1E scene.

Really, if i had the choice of being at the lejendary TSR building, or the lejendary SSI building, Now, really: i think that i would go with the latter…”

The thing is, of many of the old timers do, Prespos never struck me as particularly negative or embittered by his years of gaming experience. He often offers helpful advice on DF, and is working on big old school projects of the types that are popular in the OSR crowd. But it is obvious that both his time on DF, and in all things gaming related, has eaten away at him in some way. I think you would have to feel pretty strongly to go on a public forum and open yourself up like this. But really, when you read what is bugging him, it makes some sense. Conventions, game shops, forums; the gaming world is full of true cretins and creepos of every color and kind. It’s one of the big reasons I don’t venture outside my own group more often. Sure, I’ve had some good experiences in the last couple years of my return to gaming after several years off, but any regular readers of my blog know full well that I have had some really major balls-ups when trying to get more involved in the outer scene.

From nit-picky, overly entitled middle-aged Star Wars fanatics, to a geektard regular player of a session I sat in on killing my character in the first 45 minutes of games start, I personally have plenty to be depressed about such as Prespos gives voice too. I think a couple of things give me hope though, besides my great public OD&D experiences of late. One, I have this blog as a place to vent, and hoo boy have I vented. But two, and most importantly, I have a regular group of people to play with who are decent and only marginally piss me off from time to time.

I think that is key to gaming happiness among old schoolers who hold unto much of the old way. Actually playing the dead editions you grew up with and loved goes a long way to keep the bitters away. So many of the negative or depressed voices in the OSR community seem to come out of a place of “the best years are behind us.” I tend to see the 90’s as my Golden Age of gaming, but really now that my Night Below campaign is finally finished, I look back at how amazing it was. How challenging it was for my player AND me. Maybe this is my true Golden Age. I guess I won’t be able to tell for sure until sometime in the future.

But yeah, for sure if I don’t have a regular group in the future, and I keep blogging, or even working on some thankless OSR project to be part of the gaming zeitgeist along the lines of what Prespos was working on (yeah, right, I’ll get on that right away), I may experience a certain amount of burn out or unhappiness with it. I think that was sort of happening by around 2001 or so for me, and was one of the reasons I went into semi-retirement. And I wasn’t even online then seeing that there are actually some intelligent non-creeps in the gaming community beyond the fields I knew.

But most important in Prespos’ words I think is a warning against putting too much stock in the words of the dead. Being too faithful to poorly edited and sketchy rules from almost 40 years ago.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Night Below Modifications

Now that the long campaign is over, I can talk about some changes I made to the adventure as presented in the module, and some of the reasons I made the changes. I doubt many people are going to take up a super-long campaign with this (one campaign I read about started in the 90’s and well into the current decade – something like 8 years including all the book in the module) at this point, but you never know.

Some of the things I read online when I started the campaign were how players were pretty sick of the oppression and the simple hack and slash of the adventure as it proceeds to the City of The Glass Pool. By that point, role-playing was mostly confined to interacting with a variety of evil and neutral tribes of creatures in the Underwilderness. But in reality, it was I who was getting a bit tired of throwing things at the party in the same setting again and again for two years. So some of my change-ups were not just to save time, but to give me a little variety. Here are some of the things I did, for posterities sake if nothing else.

*Time saving: I think this is key in TNB. This campaign takes people years and years to finish, if they don’t get fed up with it by then. I didn’t want to make a lifetime commitment out of The Night Below. So I cut corners as much as I could even though this particular campaign did not include Book 1 or Book 3. Even with an eye towards time management, this campaign has gone on for a bit over two years. We play for around 3-4 hours twice a month, so if you play a lot more than that then time is not that much of an issue for you. Many of the changes I made in this module cut down on some of the challenges, but they saved months worth of sessions. Where I did remove or tone-down foes, I tried to compensate with other, less time-consuming challenges.

A Sketchy Timeline of Changes

*I bought a used Night Below boxed set on Ebay several months into a casual campaign that had PC’s working for a caravan from the big city of Tanmoor. This caravan was travelling to the southernmost frontier towns of the Tanmoor Kingdom. Ultimately, the players planned (through the urgings of the young ranger NPC “Dia”) to go to a classic dungeon crawl further south in the Hobbit lands. I switched things over then to a Night Below campaign instead. Because much adventure had been experienced in the villages and towns of the south, I completely skipped the Book 1 portion of the module. I literally used nothing from that book. I just had the party come to the largest town in the area, and discover that spell casters and others were being kidnapped wholesale and taken to caverns down below. Two of those kidnapped spellcasters would be new players Big Ben and Paul’s characters, who appeared in the clutches of hungry, stew-making Gnolls in the upper tunnels when it was time for them to join our group.

For little Ben, a player who had played a bit more than Big B and Paul, I came up with some cool stuff for his gnome to get him involved. Mainly, a sub-surface sort of panic room below town that his great uncle had built hundreds of years ago, and below this was found “SouthGem,” an old abandoned surface gnome town from ancient times that a family of gnomes from up north, The Toolos, were living in and studying and restoring. This not only gave the gnome character some gravitas, but having some things in the sub-surface area before the underdark as a buffer to the isolation below added a little color, and possible places to retreat to and rest without having to go all the way up to town.

* I added in surface town encounters with a party of drow (travelling incognito). This party, led by a drow city ex-pat named Avatara (is an NPC I have used on and off for decades) encountered a couple of the characters a bunch of games ago. They are still around the area, and have been on a mission to explore the ruins of the drow city at the Sunless Sea in Book 3. With the PC Krysantha being a drow, and The Night Below lacking in the presence of dark elves, I thought it would be interesting to have this group lurking around.

*I totally threw out the Rockseer Elf part of the adventure. Yes, I know they are a big part of it as written, but I just did not want them and their baggage involved in the game, nor did I want them to become a part of the surface world as the end of Book 3 would tell you to do. So Rockseers, including their magic items, artifacts, and bickering NPC’s are nowhere to be found. Sure, they could be around as they are, but I just don’t involve them. This saves a bunch of time (at the point in the module you encounter the Rockseers, you need to backtrack many days to go to their area), though not using them deprives the players of an opportunity to have an 11th level MU, with an enhanced set of boots and cloak of elvinkind, assist in the attack on the City of the Glass Pool.

*Deep Gnomes – I named their city Blingdenblang, and I gave them a much larger role than depicted in the module (to make up for removing Rockseer Elf involvement). They are a little more helpful, and Queen Carmenaran friendlier to them (though no less paranoid about being invaded by the evil below). They provide the usage of a flux point, and also offer up a certain amount of hospitality. I had the party save a royal engineer of Carmenaran’s from certain death at the hands of gnolls (they ate his legs), so his influence helped the party be accepted as well. I still had the gnomes a bit afraid of giving themselves away to the deadlier races down below, so they offered very limited access to the flux point (the party could only use it two or three times). I had to expand the city a bit one night when Paul’s thief/MU Lily went out to burgle a building. She snuck into a building and climbed some walls, filching from a chest in a room some gold and gems.

*I played down the big troll tribe encounter near the gnome city, and instead just had it be a small encounter with several trolls. Cutting back on this encounter probably saved at least one game session, while still providing a nice troll fight and a favor being done for the gnomes.

*No Grell! I threw out this encounter in its entirety. I really don’t like the Grell as a race or as a monster. For some reason the Grell also seemed sort of out of place and alien even for the Underdark. I really wanted the Illithid, Aboleth, and even the Kuo Toa to be the weirdest races down there. I substituted this place as a Dire Corby hunting ground, where at certain times intruders could expect to fight a “murder” (as flocks of crows are called) of them upwards of 100 at a time. As the PC’s slew around 80 of the beasts, they would cease to be a problem for anyone who passed by for some months.

*There are two encounter areas that I used almost completely as-is by the book. The first was the hook horror/quaggoth and Rakshasa areas, and the second was the Roper/Xorn areas. As usual I did fudge treasure a bit, plus I also decided these areas would have been outpost areas for the drow city on the Sunless Sea left over from its doom several hundred years ago. I included some faded drow artwork and writing on some walls, including a magical portrait of Pajarafane that had the illusion of movement and realism cast upon it (similar to the portraits in Hogwarts).

*Pajarafan/Finslayer: The only thing I changed about the historical ranger personality of Pajarafan was to make him instead a female from the past named Pajarafane. Finslayer was looking for a neutral good ranger over any other kind of owner, and the only individual that fit the bill best was the young NPC ranger Dia. I did not make Pajarafane a female to coincide with this, but it all made sense once Dia got her hands on the sword. The drow Krysantha at one point declared that Dia was the spirit of Pajarafane returned, but that was not my intention, and still might not be the case.

*Clovis the Underdark Ranger: I included this NPC as a sort of appearing/reappearing guide who could give guidance and information when I needed such things given to the players. I had thought about Underdark Rangers for a long time, so this was a chance to use one. Clovis turned out to be the son of famous ranger and Woodlord Arcturus Grimm who lived in the southern lands above currently. Both Clovis and Dia are children of Grimm (Dia only recently learned all this. Could Grimm be a descendant of Pajarafane?) Clovis was never meant to fight in the City of The Glass Pool. Instead, I have him mainly being concerned with trying to save slaves during the chaos of the city assault. His entire purpose as set up by Arcturus Grimm is as a friendly observer who can offer aid when possible, but otherwise sits on the sidelines.

*The party encountered a raiding party of Minotaur’s (from my using The Old School Encounter Reference for encounters instead of the books). When Krysantha the drow druid changed into a bat to go see where they came from, I went ahead and included a Minotaur maze city hidden a few miles off of the main passage. Krysantha did not look into it further, so I did not have to wing further encounters off of that. That would make a nice mini-campaign sometime in the future (because I think the maze city idea is hellacool).

*Book 2 really plays up the Jubilex shrine area, and seems to think it is an obligatory encounter. It isn’t. The party fought the Rakshasa (actually, they left him alone for ownership of the Deck of Many Things), the high level deranged magic-user, and some of the jelly/ooze overflow, but had no intention of going into the temple. I suspect a lot of players would avoid it, even if they suspect there is treasure. Nobody likes dealing with oozes. I think knowing about it, and hearing some lore about it, was more interesting than actually having the players go in there. The party bypassing it probably cut down on yet another session.

*Mixing up the Slaver attackers near the purple worm area: the diverse party of high level Slavers is a cool encounter and a brutal fight. On top of that, I added the character Xavier as leader. A high level fighter/thief, Xavier was created by Paul so his character Lily could have a bad man in her past. The module had this group attacking to kill in very brutal fashion. I found that silly considering these were slavers looking for more slaves to sell for top dollar. So I held off of the major killing attacks at first. That made the encounter less dangerous, but it was still a big challenge. Two characters were left in negative hit points (fighter Helena and MU elf Lumarin) when this fight ended (more or less in a draw, as the roof collapsed from all the powerful spells going off), forcing the party to find a side cave to rest in for a week (they had no access to high level cleric heals and such).

*Derro Town - Adding an urban location in the derro area, whatever the size, is a must. I like that this part of the Underdark (the southern Underdark in my world) is a wild wilderness compared to the northern Drow/Illithid/Cloaker empires, but the long-term isolation and oppressive surroundings are a bit much for player and DM alike. The module would have players travelling to the surface world again and again to restock supplies (and train, which I don’t really require) and rest, but I figure that an underground trading town near the City of The Glass Pool provides some shelter and stocking of equipment and scrolls and such when they need them the most, assuming the party does not just attack all the evil things. So I had a small mind flayer tower on a hill at the center of town, and several hundred derro (some of whom are under the control of the Crown of Domination) run the towns establishments.

Besides the Illithid tower (usually manned by a couple of mind flayers plus Zanticor the main mind flayer visits often. Also, a troop of ogre and troll guards are on the first level), there is a derro tavern (a large building open to all races who can pay), a brothel made up of various slave girls, a road house with rooms for rent, and a street market with food, supplies, animals, water, and even a group of derro dealing in scrolls and magic supplies. As long as a party of adventurers doesn’t draw undo attention, this is a great place to rest and resupply. Also, characters may just want to assault the tower and kill the mind flayers, which would cause some chaos in the town. In my game the party negotiated with the derro renegades so they would cause various distractions (cave-ins and explosions) on the outskirts of town so they could assault the tower with little interference. After all that, the party used the tower as an HQ, and a place for freed slaves to be safe while the party attacked the City of The Glass Pool.

*The Froghemoth – I never really got to use this behemoth that originally appeared in the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Nope, there is no Froghemoth in the Night Below material. But I thought it would be nice to have one around in case I needed just one last dose of possible death to hurl at the party. I decided that Kuo Toan priests could control its actions through special flutes (made from fish bones). They would keep it under the Glass Pool in a large water chamber, to be released under one of two circumstances: Either when the statue of Blipdoolpoolp was defeated (which they didn’t think would ever happen), or if I needed another big encounter and could have priests lead the Froghemoth into the next big cavern to attack the players tower, which would have been a cool set-piece. As it was, I had the creature appear after the fight with the statue, and the players booked right out of there. So never got to use it (although it will still be down there amidst the chaos of the broken Kuo Toan city).

If you’re a DM planning to use The Night Below (either for 1st edition as I did, or for it’s intended 2nd edition) and want more details, just search my blog for “Night Below.” My players discovered my blog late last year, so around then I’m a bit less open about my inner thoughts, but still there is a lot of good detail and ideas within those posts.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Campaigns End

Well, there you have it. Last night we finished up my Night Below campaign. At a bit over two years in duration, it is surely the longest campaign I have ever run. It was cause to party, and I was sucking down the brewskies with the satisfaction of a long run concluded.

No combat went down in the session, although towards the end during the final treasure shares, Krysantha the Drow and Vaidno the Bard seemed prepared to whip out there weapons and throw down, specifically over what to do with the Crown of Derro Domination. That would have been cool; finally a character death, at the hands of another character no less. But they managed to table further discussion on it and leave it with Vaidno for now. I have to say, it was really nice to relax and watch the characters, more vocal with each other than ever, pretty much take the ball and run with it. Some great role-playing went down.

Back at the surface and cleaned up, the characters were taken before the Queen of Tanmoor, Libertine, who had secretly come to town with some royal guards to see what all the fuss and kidnappings were all about. Meeting with the characters and hearing their story, she gave them modest rewards, and each a Royal Medal of Valor.

The group all went to Terry’s long-time hobbit character’s castle on the border of the Halfling lands for a party in their honor, with all kind of food, kegs of ale and wine of the finest hobbit make, and musical revelry. Lumarin the high elf MU amused himself by giving Terry’s hobbit’s children Tenser’s Floating disk rides in lieu of a pony.

Although rolling in dough from the adventures (I think most characters ended up each with somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 thousand golds worth treasure, not counting magic items), nobody is truly rich, so there will be plenty of reason for them to set out and adventure again in the future. I have a couple of high level modules in mind I might like to use on them.

But for now, the characters can go on with their normal above ground lives. Vaidno can go visit the tower the Deck of Many Things provided him (along with his 18 charisma), and Terry’s fighter Helena can marry the NPC soldier she got hooked up with in the course of the adventures . What the others will do, time will tell. But all characters have earned a deserved time of rest in the sunlight of the surface world.

Considering that three years ago I was on year 4 or so of gaming retirement (and dying to run games), I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to run a fairly intense and complex campaign for such a great group of players. Most of our games were like little parties, and were big fun. I want to give special thanks to Andy for hosting us at his place; his wife’s backroom workshop (thanks to Andy’s wife Kara are in order as well) which, with its kitchen and nice garden backyard patio, was a nice place to play. For Andy, Terry, and Dan who have been there pretty much since the inception of this group over two years ago, I give wide thanks for being there for the whole ride.

Andy and the wife are probably going to be renting out the back room at some point in the near future, so we are losing the space to play most likely. Our best bet after that for our regular games would have been Dan’s spacious house up on Mulholland Drive, but he is still having construction done on the house and his wife is apparently days away from having her baby. So the games I run may lessen for awhile. A break might be nice, but I’m hoping to put AD&D aside for awhile and do a little of the Knights of the Old Republic thing I want to run. Some more Champions would be nice with just three or four players, and you know I’ve always got my precious Call of Cthulhu in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to strike from the shadows. Game dreams and hopes galore.

But whatever happens in the near or far future, I’m just damn glad to have been able to run a long and fulfilling campaign. Here’s to more gaming goodness to come! “Excelsior,” as that old bastard Stan “The Man” Lee would say.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cliched End Game

There are a lot of things that quickly evolved out of my 1st edtion AD&D. Old school concepts such as henchmen and hirelings, endless dungeon crawls, and strictness about character creation are things that got old long before the 80’s where over. I didn’t really mean for my style to take the high fantasy road, but that was where I went. That later editions of D&D did much the same was a coincidence (my non-attendance of cons or other game groups kept me out of the loop more or less of what was going on in later edition core books).

It’s weird I guess, but the end game of classic D&D, that of clearing a hex in the forest, killing it’s monsters, and building a keep (per the DM guide fretting over the cost of every brick and every mook with a shovel) so a village would build around it and you could collect taxes didn’t seem to appeal to my players by around the mid-80’s. Sure, MU’s need to have somewhere to research at later levels, and clerics (maybe) need to set-up a place of worship, but for the most part, it did not tend to go the classic way of becoming some kind of lord over barony.

Maybe it stems from my DMing style and game setting, or perhaps I’ve just had exceptional players, but characters in my games just seemed too cool and colorful for basic stronghold building when they got to higher levels (or “name” level). Things they often chose to do instead were to use their hard-fought wealth to perhaps buy/build a tavern. Some might buy horses and land and start a ranch to raise ponies. Maybe a garden house in the nice part of town with a view from a hill. MU’s in the big city didn’t need to go live in some cobwebby tower to research. There was the Wizard’s Guild where all the proper areas and equipment were available to members. And for clerics, well, the big city already had huge temples to the major god, with high level clerics already in charge. So if a cleric character didn’t want to go to some bumblefuck bumpkin part of the kingdom to start a new temple, they would usually settle in as a respected cleric/troubleshooter for the main temple of their god in the city.

All the manpower that comes at high level, to fighters and clerics and whatever as in the books at name level, were often turned down by the players. Hey, they would only have to house and feed them. If they don't advance as characters with a passle of henchmen and hirelings along for the ride, they don't get into that "gang mentality" where more is merrier. Most of my players don’t seem to find that appealing. Micromanagement. It ain’t always fun. And if you’ve ever read King Conan, you know that heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially if that head lead a life of action, derring-do, and a new wench every night. There was a great Twilight Zone where the guy thought he died and went to heaven because he was getting everything that he ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter. Turns out that was actually hell, bub.

So I don’t really look to the end game by the book, and my players tend not to as well. To them, settling down with a keep and managing a garrison maybe sounds too final to them. I think they would rather tend bar at their tavern telling tall tales of their adventures, or sit on the porch of their hilltop garden house with the ocean view, sipping wine and waiting for that next big adventure to come along. To most characters in my games, it seems like the end of the adventure life might as well be the end of their fun.

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Weakness is Strong - Monks

It seems to be the opinion of many that the Monk as a D&D character class being based on old kung-fu movies is a no-brainer. I don’t think these folks have put much thought into it. For one thing, how many of these old chop socky guys can speak to animals at an early level? Sure, there is the HTH damage (pitifully low at 1-3 points damage for a 1st level monk). Not being able to use swords or some other higher damage weapons, they have to settle for 1D6 staves and spears. Sure, they slowly do more damage in both HTH and weapons as they go up in level, but this is shamefully slow progression. The monk isn’t even doing broadsword damage until the mid-levels. No Dex or strength bonuses seem like a screwjob to be sure. Yeah, it’s hard to imagine a monk who isn’t high level being a kung fu badass per a thousand horrible Asian karate movies. Perhaps if they wander into a tavern full of unarmed, zero level NPC’s. But how often does that happen in D&D?

I played a Monk character for the first time in 25 years recently. Big Ben from the regular group is doing his own side thing with some of the other regulars, and it’s a low level evils campaign. I know from my own experience that evil campaigns are weird (worthy of a post themselves, maybe this week). They usually don’t have long legs, and eventually fall apart under their own hubris. My Monk came in on the second session, and it seems a miracle that the other sarcastic, murderous characters didn’t kill my guy just for showing up (why do people running evil characters always choose to portray them as confrontational, hand-rubbing stereotypes?).

Really, there isn’t much fun to be had running a 1st level monk. They seem like a watered-downed thief class that can run fast. The majority of the other characters could do, and take, more damage than my guy could. So the Monk was sort of relegated to being a humble, helpful coolie, toting fallen characters to safety. This is likely his role for at least a couple more levels, should the campaign go on that long.

By mid-levels and up, Monks can dole out some decent damage, and start to get some decent skills (if you call talking to animals and being resistant to ESP great skills. I don’t). But it’s a long road to have to run a humble character as more or less an MU who can’t cast spells. “I’m a seeker of ancient knowledge…and, uh…a day laborer.” Sheesh.

Edit: I just read at Wikipedia that the D&D monk is based directly from the martial arts in The Destroyer series of novels (of Remo Williams fame). "Sinanju" in The Destroyer was a martial art of ancient assassins, and gives superhuman abilites, such as the ability to rip steel doors down, or destroy automobiles in a single blow, and superhuman falling and jumping abilities. That for sure seems to jibe with higher level monks.