Friday, January 29, 2021

The Lichway - "why are they here?"


The Lichway is a dungeon that originally appeared in issue #9 (Oct/Nov 1978) of White Dwarf magazine out of England. It was an old favorite of mine, and over the decades I've now used it probably 4 or 5 times. It would have been more than that, but my groups tended to be long lasting, years, and I could only spring it on an entirely fresh group of players. 

Many old schoolers probably are more about using Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos multiple times (I've used them maybe twice since I was a kid). But while KotB is about as basic and vanilla as it gets (just fight endless caves of humanoids and maybe a nice-seeming cleric is a homicidal asshole), Lichway is an artifact of old indy style D&D like Arduin Grimoire and Judges Guild. The old school common dungeon elements are abundant:

The location has a gritty background (necropolis for deceased undead worshippers).

It has a shallow waterway running through it.

A deep variety of mostly offbeat monsters inhabit the area. 

There is plenty of grim mood and dungeon dressing (hundreds of open crypts, worms that will choke you in the fresh water sources, vampire statues, a long-ranging rustling sound emitted by a unique creature, a horrifying possible no-win scenario...think quick!).

But most iconic to me is the fact that several (and by several I don't mean like just 2) different groups/gangs are currently inhabiting the dungeon with for the most part no real goal or purpose other than await murder hobo's a'coming to call. I mean, there are a pair of Man Beasts (character class out of White Dwarf and another favored old school thing of mine)  just sitting around in a small enclosed hallway. Just like old school you need to inject your own motivations and reasons, whether the designers planned it like that or not (I suspect in most cases not. The style was just to give little description, because D&D was once a game about just killing monsters. Period.). 

I always injected a little of my own juice here and there since the first time I used it as a teen. It was easy just to assume the 2nd level Man Beast, a male, is training his lower level female follower, and a crypt with all kinds of creatures in it seemed like a good spot. 

I think that in all but one of the times I used it, the party manages to release the Sussurus, the ape-shaped thorn creature that emitted a windy sound that put undead in earshot to sleep. In my second to last use around four years ago back in LA the MU cast silence on it. So I've experienced that joy of playing out the party running away in chaotic "every man for himself" style through the part of the dungeon they hadn't explored yet to get away from hundreds of angry undead. Always a hoot. I think a player or two has been lost over the play through due to a bad decision or delay (describing a body being torn to bits by a howling mob of skeletons never gets old), but so far no TPK. but its come close almost every time.

So anyway, my first campaign in my new town the other year ended up geared towards Lichway. It didn't start out that way. This was an entirely new group and I was using 5th edition for the first time. To say I went into it NOT studied up on the rules in an understatement. Since all my players were newish to the edition, I used that as a way to learn. As the players learn while using their characters I would tap into that and learn along. 

And to be honest, on an old school note, I was able to wing things much more than I thought I could. Just tap into the stat base save mechanics for everything and you are good to go. Really, outside of magic use the system is pretty easy peasy. 

But since I was new to it I started slow. Running each game in sort of a simple episodic manner. At first not really looking to the future, but as time went by, the characters made contacts and friends in the way of NPC's, I had to start looking at a direction. And I knew I wanted to use an old school module, in part because I knew the players would not be familiar with anything I had from the old days. They were all a good bit younger than me. 

So first thing was to be prepared to use Lichway for 5th editon. No worries. Really nothing in there was too out of the ordinary. Man Beasts and the Susurrus were needing to be adapted. Not much else. 

But this time I decided to do something entirely different. This was a twist for me, and since it might be for you, you might want to consider it if you ever use this really excellent dungeon setting. What did I do?

Two things. First I decided to give all the groups in the dungeon an actual reason, and actual purpose, for being in the dreary place. A convergence of coincidence for good reasons.

Second, I would have the party, early on adventuring a hundred miles south of the Lichway in the big city Tanmoor prior to the Lichway delve, actually meet and interact with some of the inhabitants whom I had yet to set up shop in the Lichway. There would be a variety of things ahead of time that would set up the dynamic elements within the necropolis. And in so doing quadruple the feeling of gravitas once the location was reached. Sort of a prequel to Lichway as presented, starting  maybe a month before the actual dungeon delve.

I switched the female MU gang leader Dark Odo from a human to a young drow magic user. Highly charismatic and specializing in charm magic, the dark elf enchantress' gang was almost complete as shown in the module.. The Man Beasts were paid scouts and body guards working for Odo, hirelings more than charmed henchmen, while all the other members of the gang were recruited by Odo's considerable, manipulative charms.

Why would Odo go to the Lichway? And who where the unrelated thieves who were exploring the Lichway? Not to mention the former adventuring party that was slaughtered except for Odo's gangs captives. How did the character party get involved in all this? 

In my next post I'll lay out how I took my first 5th edition campaign towards the Lichway, and why all the NPC's are in it when the party finally shows up at the Korm Basin necropolis. 


Kevin Mac

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Early D&D Pirate Ship

 Below is another of a series of articles I wrote a couple of years ago for a pop culture entertainment site.

The Smell of Wargamers is In the Air

It was a beautiful August day in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and a throng of men old and young were lining up at a sign-in desk at the entrance to the historical Horticultural Hall to sit at a table indoors all day. It was 1976 at GenCon, originally a tabletop wargaming convention that had evolved to cater more to the players of a new game: DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS.

Inside at the many tables set out for the event sat middle-aged WW2 and Korean War vets clinging to their historical wargames.

Horticulture Hall
Geek Asgard circa 1976

Some scowled over at the nearby college-aged youths who in the last couple of years were invading the stodgy event, pretending to be elves and dwarves in the newish game Dungeons and Dragons.

Occasionally a paunchy, neckbearded wargamer would sidle over out of curiosity, and eventually ask a question non-D&D players would ask for decades. “How do you win?”  Each player had a different answer.

Charles Grant
“Blah blah blah Hitler. Blah blah blah Napoleon. “

In one corner of the hall, not far from several seller’s tables, a blond, bespectacled 21 year old was hanging a fabric banner on the wall. The edges of the sign had been burnt and dirtied to give the impression of an old timey treasure map. On the banner were the words JUDGES GUILD.

Building A Pirate Ship

The young man’s name was BILL OWEN, and he was there to represent he and friend BOB BLEDSAW’s new game company, Judges Guild. Bob was back at home sick and could not attend, and they had forgotten to arrange the use of a merchandise table, but that wasn’t going to stop Bill. He and partner Bob Bledsaw had a product to sell, and it was to be a game changer.

Based on Bledsaw’s home D&D campaign, it was a beautifully designed and intensely detailed map of a fantasy city they called CITY STATE OF THE INVINCIBLE OVERLORD.

Invincible Overlord Map

The map immediately evoked inspiration in even the most skeptical D&Der, with it’s dozens of buildings labelled as mundane businesses such as rope maker or bath house, to more fantastic shops such as wizards supply and monster hunter. It had an intricate system of alleyways and streets with names like Slaver Street and Misty Street. The maps were snapped up, but many buyers wondered about the details of the locations.

That had yet to be worked out; Bob and Bill had assumed Judges (what Dungeon Masters were called then) would want to add their own details. After all, Gary Gygax and TSR didn’t produce settings for the game yet, assuming there would be no demand. Bill thought for a second, then led any who inquired to his car, where he provided Bob’s address. “send us your address and 10 bucks, and we’ll put you on our subscription list for further info and releases.”

Bill had just invented Judges Guild’s subscription model. With few hobby shops specializing in role playing games yet, this turned out to be a winning move. The Judges Guild pirate ship had launched, matey.

pirate ship D&D
“Avast there, me dorkos!”

Flash back a few months. 32 year-old Bob Bledsaw, who had fallen in love with D&D almost as soon as it came out, had been running a locally popular campaign for some time. He and young player Bill Owen had talked a lot about producing game materials, and Bob’s incredible map design skills made them decide to visit TSR Hobbies in hopes of convincing Gary Gygax to agree to let them produce game materials for D&D.

They were unable to gain audience with Lord Gary, but D&D co-creator Dave Arneson was happy to meet them. TSR didn’t think game setting products would sell, assuming everybody was happy doing their own homebrews. Dave went ahead and gave verbal permission, and Judges Guild was born (Gygax would much later say he would never have made the agreement).

The Ship Launches

The City State map proved wildly popular, and in order to fulfill the first subscription requests, Bob whipped out the details of the city he created. The vibe he instilled in it would be his gameworld standard. Bob’s personal home game setting was Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but this new location could not be more different from the lands of Bilbo and Aragorn. It was totally gonzo.

The style was part ancient Greece, part Hyperboria, and part Lankhmar, the city of Fritz Leibers Fafhred and Grey Mouser. The city was designed as an outdoor dungeon, and walking the streets could lead to random monster and villain encounters. Walking into a shop and roughing up the haberdasher could be unwise; he might just be a 10th level sorcerer or even a demi-god.

Interesting to note, The City State’s Pegasus-riding Overlord was himself unabashedly evil, as well as 90% of his advisors and council.

Invisible Overlord book

Years of campaign play could be enjoyed without the characters ever leaving the city. This was not a setting for wanna be novel writers. It was pure sandbox. Characters were supposed to wander the city and encounter non – player characters who would react to them.

There were charts and tables describing random encounters and events, and each shop location featured it’s own rumors being discussed by customers and shopkeeps. If players heard a rumor that a dolphin had appeared out of thin air at a bathhouse, characters could hightail it over to see what was going on. It was up to the dungeon master to wing it and adjudicate the situation.

Bob continued expanding his City State setting. Calling his lands THE WILDERLANDS OF HIGH FANTASY, many adventure modules and packets containing maps and info on other locales and city states in the setting were gobbled up by the new Judges Guild faithful. The tropes of The Wilderlands included having it’s city state communities exist in isolation in the middle of howling wildernesses, with little real power outside their city walls.

A Gritty Sandbox to Play In

The Wilderlands were lands in decline, full of ruins of older civilizations, with little in the way of usable trade roads or safe havens. Bandits, monsters, mutants, and even aliens could kill you as you journeyed. If you were a resident of a town in the lands, a ten mile hike to visit your cousin was a suicide mission. Much like The City State, populations of all sizes (at least the human dominant ones) tended to be evil in nature. In most fantasy settings there were pockets of evil. In the Wilderlands, it’s good that is hard to find.

The brutal Wilderlands made Westeros look like Tolkien’s Shire.

highlands of High fantasy book

Another labor of love of Bob’s was Tegel Manor, a haunted super-mansion set in the Wilderlands, a dungeon chock full of ghosts, ghouls, vampires, and an endless variety of threats. With many gags, tricks and traps, it was a total funhouse dungeon. Playing in the mansion was like being on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, except you have to fight everything you see. It featured over 150 rooms, and a maze of hallways. It was both deadly and goofy as hell. At the main foyer you might be greeted by a butler in the form of a Balrog’s ghost, or you might enter a room to witness several zombies bowing before a large white rat wearing a plumed hat. In typical Bledsaw fashion, single sentence descriptions were the norm.

It was up to the haggard DM to decide why the hell zombies were bowing to a rat.

The manor halls were adorned with a hundred magical paintings of former residents with mystical affects.  There’s no evidence that Bob Bledsaw was a coke hound like Gary Gygax, but he sure came up with some wild-ass stuff.

D&D map

Fans of Judges Guild ate it up. It seemed the perfect weird fantasy world to D&D in.

Bill Owen would leave the company in 1978 for other pursuits (his true love before and after the Guild was the travel industry). But The company continued to expand, gaining the ownership of Dungeoneer Magazine, a fanzine-like product chock full of new monsters, magic items, and new adventures to add to the growing Wilderlands.

Sailing Along

The Dungeoneer book

Judges Guild produced over 250 products related to D&D, and by the early 80’s employed over 40 people. Not bad considering many of these items were poorly edited, very often contained fairly generic and unappealing artwork, and almost always were printed on poor and flimsy paper stock. And this was one of the reasons The Guild was heading into a decline to rival the decaying civilization of The Wilderlands.

Gary Gygax and company over at TSR had wised up and realized there was a demand for settings and adventures. The items they began to produce were well edited and typeset, done up with high grade paper stock and hard covers, and professional artwork. Judges Guild rejected these notions.

Bob Bledsaw
“But the sign in front of my office is bitchin’!” – Bob Bledsaw

Also the Guilds ideals of dungeon gauntlets, jokey puns and gags, and devotion to gonzo concepts were already becoming old. The D&D fanbase was changing and becoming more sophisticated. Ironically, players of a game where you pretended to be elves faced a growing realism movement.

Playing D&D
“Realism will make our dorky elf game legit!”


Judges Guild lost it’s license from TSR in 1982, and this proved to be the nail in the coffin. After a few last gasps (The Guild had a few licenses with other companies), the gangplank to the pirate ship was pulled up in 1985.

Sinking pirate ship
Glub glub

But, A Legacy Among the Faithful

Many years later Bob would briefly team with others to reprint some old Guild items, keeping his name in the gaming loop. Bob passed away in 2008 (the same year as Gary Gygax), but to this day his legacy carries on, through his son Bob jr. teaming up with small press game companies.

Original printings of Guild items sell for high prices on Ebay and Amazon.

The pirate ship is long gone, but the gonzo lives on in the hearts of Judges Guild faithful, like yours truly.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cubes of Sadness


What more can be said of Gelatinous Cubes? They've been written about for decades. Forums have hundreds of threads about them. But they are so basic, iconic in D&D, that they remain fairly unchanged. They slide down  corridors looking to paralyze and digest organic material.  Not much else. 

 Old school/new school (I'm not sure) wildman Patrick Stuart has a new take that he discusses on his blog False Machine. I know Patrick from Deep Carbon Observatory, an almost unrunable adventure that I actually managed to run, adapting it (about 50% of it) for a Star Wars KOTOR game. Setting it on an alien planet actually made it much more workable than using it for my fairly vanilla D&D setting. But outside of this scenario the rest I know about him is from reading about Zak Smiths many many many kurfuffles with other OSR folk. Most of this happened while I was taking a very long sabbatical from the OSR and my own kurfuffles, so I don't have much in the way of commentary about it since I'm trying to have a more positive experience with talking about the hobby. But to me Patrick is kind of a mad genius with this stuff. To say he thinks outside the box when it comes to D&D is and understatement. He is a madman who kind of makes you think outside that box as sort of a contact high from his madcap stuff. Sometimes hard to describe in my own words the odd appeal. 

Recently on his blog Patrick talked about Gelatinous Cubes, the most basic of D&D creatures that defy tweaking. Sure, stick one in a trap door pit, or have one fall from above as a trap. But what more can you do with them? 

Mad philosopher Stuart has applied a sort of "Sadness Demon" aspect to them. They are attracted to grief. Or something.   As in Deep Carbon he can paint a picture with few words, making your mind fill in blanks in a way any great outside the box writing  can make you do. An instant collaboration. But man when he applies an abundance of word stuff it gets wild. I took some of that, shook it up with my own spices, and out popped my gel cube evolutions almost by inspired osmosis. 

So my take on the them, with a nod of the bonnet to Pat. 

Did you ever read Marvel Comics horror series Man Thing? MT was a mindless muck monster that shambles around the Florida Everglades, being encountered by everything from Fountain of Youth lost soul Conquistadors to Howard the Duck. 

A unique power/curse the creature has is a "fear sense," If a creature is in a state of fear nearby, it agitates the Man Thing. MT will seek the thing out and puts its muddy mitts on them. As the saying in the comics go "whoever shall know fear burns at the Man Things touch." Yep, if you are fearful (how could you not be in its presence?) you catch fire wherever it touches you. 

So, I'm not suggesting we change up the cubes damage to catch you on fire, nor be attracted to fear. But how about sadness? The cubes go about their business in the caves below, slurping up and quickly digesting dead rats, rot grubs, and goblin poop, but if some sentient creature within a few miles is in a state of great sadness, they change gears and seek it out. 

I kind of imagine a small town near a cave/dungeon complex. Travellers will come to town noticing how happy everybody is acting. Good cheer and friendly hello's. Even fearsome looking characters will be greeted happily. Whats going on? Perhaps the town drunkard, cheery at first, whispers to the characters that they should get out of town, as the constant cheer can itself be exhausting. He says he's had to forget his dear wife who died years ago so as to not dredge up sad feelings. He starts to weep a bit, and a few townies proceed to give him a pounding, all with smiles still on their faces.

Maybe you remember that old Twilight Zone with the kid who can grant his own wishes, and the remaining townfolk who are super cheery and "that's a good thing you did, Johnny!"

While obtaining rooms and having a drink at the inn, a hand at the stables gets kicked by a mule and is killed outright. The townfolk gather and try to put a stop to his wife and kids in shock and crying. If they don't soon stop, daggers come out and the party can intervene to stop the murders. 

Either way it is too late; a slurping and glurping sound comes from the outskirts of town from all directions, and into view comes sliding several full size gelatinous cubes that go after those sorrowful people. Even if the sorrow is stopped its too late. The cubes are here and they sense living meat. The siege is on. 

I can also imagine a roadside tavern scenario where one of the keepers children has died, and the sorrow in the place is heavy. The inn can be besieged by a couple of cubes (excellent for a low level scenario). A new twist on the zombie attack. More cubes start showing up, and a drunken sage says they are attracted by the grief. The party can take it from there. 

Or how about some sadness oozes and jellies? Sad blob attacks can be fun too.