Saturday, May 30, 2015

Super Saturday: Universal Realignments

Okay, so I don't follow the superhero comics as closely as I once did. But I think I grok the following: this summer, both DC and Marvel are running near-identical universal-time-crisis-continuity-conflict-shakeup events; for DC called "Convergence", and for Marvel "Secret Wars". At the end, you'll have new alignments of each of those universes. For DC this is about the 5th time they've done that in the last few decades; whereas for Marvel, it's the first time in their history that they've retconned their entire continuity.

Why? Well, regardless of the reasons for spawning such events in the past, the reason in the case seems clear (esp. in the Marvel case): movies. Quite recently the movie-production for these characters seems to have became the tail that wagged the dog, upending the business, with the comics becoming merely a piece of add-on merchandising instead the principal art form. Marvel was bought by Disney, DC just moved its offices to Hollywood last month, etc. And since these continuities have become disjoint (movies vs. comics), you can sort of see why you'd want those properties aligned in terms of who the characters are, so customers don't get confused and frustrated.

But here's my point of criticism: Trying to align the movies and comics is untenable; a fool's errand. How come? The main problem is movies getting primary status but relatively infrequent releases , versus comics trying to be follow-ons but with a much faster monthly production cycle. Comics will always by their nature be veering off from the movie continuity, simply by their need to tell a greater number of stories; and when the movie producers/directors come through at a later time, and touch on those same characters (without heed for what happened in comics), they will then again be out-of-synch.

Example: Let's say any Marvel comics writers want to bring in the super-villain Titania for a story arc. To my knowledge she hasn't appeared in any property outside the Marvel-616 comic books; and she has a slightly complicated backstory in being created by Doctor Doom as part of the 1980's Secret Wars storyline. The writers (and I) would broadly guess that movie producers would not expect to use her any time soon. But if the movie producers do use her... then almost surely they'll re-write, re-costume, re-backstory the character in some totally unpredictable fashion, that serves the purpose of one particular feature film. Repeat that for every character that ever appears in future movies.

In summary: The comics are doomed to become mis-aligned with movies, simply by the need to tell more stories each month, to be using a greater number of characters and situations each month, and if the movie productions ignore that, then they will always be out-of-synch. 

Now, DC just had its last universal shake-up 4 years ago (Flashpoint, 2011). The Marvel cartoon which I liked the most, "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" was ended and re-booted to be closer to the movies after only a 2-year run. Obviously this pressure has caused the Marvel-616 continuity to be broken for the first time in history this year.

So my prediction is that these shake-ups will be more routine and more frequent in future years. Personally, I don't think it's a great idea because it fractures the fanbase (much like radically-different editions of a game like D&D). Will we ever have a consistent, strong continuity in superhero comics again? Possibly not; if the characters all become archetypal, and merely a million different faceted story-perspectives on the "idea" of each character, then the age of the compelling continuity and crossovers may have come to a close in the comics format.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Callers

Callers (or party leaders) are mentioned throughout the earliest D&D materials, but it's a mechanism that's fallen by the wayside in most playgroups. I'm the only DM I know of that always requests designation of a party caller at the start of every game. I actually get more and more convinced of this element as time goes by. So: a compilation of thoughts on the party caller. Callers are:
  • Chosen by mutual consent or election by the players when the game starts.
  • Not a dictator, but the liaison to the DM if it's unclear where the party as a whole goes next.
  • Similar to the chairman of a committee: responsible for determining and reporting the party consensus (sometimes by calling for and counting a vote).
  • Analogous to a union representative, or a construction foreman; point-man for negotiating with the higher power.
  • Inoculation against a random dominant personality taking over in the middle of a game; front-loads the conversation about how decisions will be made, and gets explicit agreement/buy-in to follow someone diplomatic & supportive of the whole group.
  • Keeps the game from getting bogged down by in-character squabbling and indecision.
  • Relief from the tendency in a large group for someone to always have one more idea for something to do/question/search/look at before moving on from an area.
  • Generally important in exploratory mode, and takes a back seat in encounter mode (where we quickly go around the table for each individual's action).
  • More important the more people you have (e.g., as in the earliest games with 10+ players).
  • Insurance against splitting the party.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Vault of the Drow in Dragon 298

One last thing in the wake of my AD&D Module D3, Vault of the Drow game mentioned last week: Loren Rosson on his blog pointed me to the expansion of the Vault of the Drow, in particular detail on the depraved capital city, in Dragon Magazine #298, August 2002 (link). This would be in the middle of the 3E era, and this particular issue was the first one put out by Paizo Publishing, having taken over the periodical from the rapidly-outsourcing Hasbro/Wizards.It's an all Drow-themed issue and as such, the kind of thing that I would roll my eyes at and pass over.

However, I must say that that the article expanding the Vault of the Drow, by Frederick Weining (under the "Living Greyhawk" rubric at the time), is well worth taking a look out. It's a dense 12 pages of added detail and a full-page map for the city of Erelhei-Cinlu. As usual for this kind of setting information, it's not directly playable, and the DM would have to flesh out any location with maps, monsters and treasures. But it closely honors the original module D3, is surprisingly hardcore in theme for its time, and has some very intriguing ideas -- such an academy run by mind flayers, depraved acrobats, fearsome mimes, infectious and incurably diseased beggars, an arena hosting ghastly events other than battle, undead and medusae prostitutes, etc., etc.

In particular it has some of the best names for locations that I've seen. It includes calling every one of the districts of the city a "Ghetto"; the Black Widow Bordello, Demon's Draw Casino, Haze Avenue, the Antisolar Institute, the judicial Verdict Hall with its Chief Discriminator, Venom Boulevard, the Soul Crusher Saloon, the annual Running of the Ghouls in Necropolis Square, etc., etc., etc.

For me, it hits just the right note of total nightmare mixed with some subtle black humor. The other Drow articles in this issue would be much less useful to me; but if I were running an expanded D3 campaign then I would definitely use Weining's work here as a basis for the city of Erelhei-Cinlu. If you can find a copy in paper form or online, then I'd recommend checking it out.

Monday, May 18, 2015

HelgaCon VIII – Outdoor Spoliation 3

At HelgaCon in early April, for each of the last few years I've run a medium-to-high-level game (8th level PCs) set on the Outdoor Survival board, using pretty close to the Original D&D rules in Vol-3 for wilderness adventures, which I call "Outdoor Spoliation". The idea is that if the PCs can gather 100,000 sp in the four hours of game time then they'll advance to 9th level, be declared Barons, and get to establish keeps and strongholds. Coincidentally this game has always fallen in the last spot on Sunday early afternoon, it's been a big hit every year, and each time it feels like a really neat rollicking denouement to the convention. (See prior years' writeups here and here.)

A couple points to set the scene. In prior years, our intrepid players had actually sacked the castles marked at #3 and #5 (see the annotated map below). Castle #3 was taken three years ago, and I don't think the players recalled that; they actually started by making a beeline directly towards that stronghold as an attractive target. Castle #5 was taken one year ago, and they did recall that. My revised game notes stipulated that these two castles had subsequently been taken over by two randomly-rolled Superhero fighters, brothers, rivals of each other (one being Neutral, and the other Chaotic). Since they had recently taken over sacked castles, they were noted as having only minimal treasure (1/3 of treasure type A).

Another change is that as of this year we're using my revised Book of Spells, 2nd Edition for the magic being used in the game. One of my sharp-eyed players spotted a very nice spell combination now available (pretty sure it was Dave G., who to his credit prompted the overhaul to the spellbook last year after he nearly broke my D2 game via pushing the text of polymorph self to the limit). One change I made is to have the 4th-level extend spell (a.k.a extension) stretch any lower-level spell with a duration in turns to 1 day (I did this partly because the classical +50% duration is so lame that no one had ever used the spell in 30 years of my games). Among the most desirable spells of that criterion would be the 3rd-level haste, which doubles the speed of up to 20 creatures. So whereas the party had in prior years loaded up on heavy warhorses and draft animals carrying lots of supplies (and some hireling guards, etc.), this time they went for a light-and-fast approach. They took 16 riding horses and cast both haste and extend spell on all of them -- allowing them to run 20 hexes on the board, that is, 100 miles each day! A very smart move that reduces the checks for wandering monsters, which are always a key playing consideration; and it seems very in-flavor, a use of magical power which to me feels very true to both myth and pulp fantasy.

To date, the players have never achieved the victory condition in the game -- but they've come close. Once again I had a packed table of 9 players with their pregenerated characters (many familiar from prior years) ready to go. Which, as a DM, is both exciting and a bit anxiety-provoking. Will the players finally win this time? Will I screw the pooch juggling everything happening in the game?

The Third Travels

  • The players start on the western edge of the map at castle #7 (a Neutral Necromancer who helps them get started), and gallop in a great rooster-tail of dust halfway across the entire board, to the outskirts of castle #3, in a single day.
  • The party assaults the castle openly with magic and feats of epic strength. The wizards start with a pyrotechnics spell overhead, blinding most of the men on the walls, and then follow with fireballs, lightning bolts, and sleep spells; meanwhile, the giant-strengthened frontline warriors ride up to the main gate and portcullis and literally kick them down from their horses. The Superhero warlord and his 4 plate-armored Ogre henchmen charge into melee with them! The battle swings forward and backward in the gateway, with mighty blows struck on both sides. The superhero scores a critical hit on Grimbold the Champion, a mortal wound that will kill him in a few turns without recourse. Then Grimbold's friends cut down the warlord, and his ogre henchmen try to drag him out of the fray; but they too are felled. The party wizards have charmed a number of the guards, and the rest surrender.
  • The PCs are somewhat aggrieved that the castle has so little treasure; some magic but no actual valuable coinage (as I roll it on the fly). They make an interesting choice here; while Halig Redsaber has a wish in his magic sword that might bring back a PC, the group decides to save it, let Grimbold actually die, and instead use charm monster on the captured superhero as a replacement instead. This succeeds, so I rapidly start rolling up stats for this NPC and scanning a list of random names for him.
  • The new PC is named Shark Grinandson -- and his rival brother is given the name Demon Grinandson. Why are they rivals? Well, funny story: when I roll up the treasure randomly for Shark at this moment, the dice coincidentally generate two of the same item, a pair of swords +1, +2 vs. magic-users and enchanted monsters. So as the players interrogate their now comically-helpful new ally about local inhabitants and treasure, Shark points to Castle #5 and says that his brother likewise has little treasure, and has a grudge because while both were bequeathed identical magic swords from their father, Shark stole them both and ran off. The PCs decide to explore in other directions.
  • On the way to Castle #1, the PCs explore a cave along a path in the woods. They find a small number of men (bandits?), and the party Thief/Wizard sneaks up invisibly and strikes them with a fireball. This toasts most of them, but the rest turn into weretigers and attack viciously! Fortunately, the rest of the party can hold off the small number of survivors, but only a measly 300 sp treasure is found.
  • The party reaches Castle #1, and parley with the men on the walls. They declare that the castle is owned by "Iruinea of the Sacred Wood" (as usual, named on the fly *), so the PCs ask if they would be allowed to rest the night and confer. The castle agrees, and they are treated to a banquet that night, hosted by Iruinea and her somewhat distracting pair of pet man-eating manticores (charmed, of course). Cutting to the chase, the charismatic Ruric the Fox asks, "Is there any place nearby with a great treasure?". To which Iruinea replies: "Why yes! Berserkers to the far southeast have immense wealth -- in fact, I hereby geas you to travel to that place immediately and bring me back half of their treasure." At which point the PCs were compelled to march out of the castle in the middle of the night, led by the incredibly enthusiastic Ruric (and the completely un-dispellable max-level magic curse). After some miles, the party decides to rest instead of traveling in the dangerous darkness; Ruric refuses, saying that he will proceed on alone -- at which point the rest of party jumps him en masse, leaving him tied up and gagged until dawn breaks.
  • The group crosses the southern mountain spur. Halfway across it in a valley between two ridges they meet their only wandering encounter: a group of several hundred bandits, under arms, marching northwards! The bandits see the group of ten riders and perceive them as easy pickings, launching a flight of arrows and charging their horsed troops to the attack. But of course the PCs respond with eldritch, destructive magic, and the fighters launch whirlwind attacks, roll giant boulders down from the cliffs, and so forth. The bandit leader, Lord Gorba the Nighthand, runs from the field and escapes, at which point the rest of his men break and scatter in all directions.
  • The party reaches the cavern lair of the Berserkers to the far southeast of the of the mountain chain. This is one of the sites that I've recently expanded in my adventure notes, with a sizable complex of about 60 rooms and a double-gate barring the entrance to the cavern complex. I had no particular plan for how the PCs could win here; my assumption was that they'd battle their way in, get ambushed on all sides in a long cave by the 170 crazed Berserkers, and then I would watch with great curiosity at how they'd conceivably get out of that. But in this case, the PCs did not start with an open assault (although Ruric is again jumped and tied up temporarily to prevent him from doing just that). The dwarven fighter Onund Pigchaser sneaks up invisibly and uses his ring of human control to charm most of the guards on the outer towers (one makes his save, but is abruptly pushed off the tower by his former barracks-mate). Without sounding an alarm, they clamber out of the towers and join the PC party -- telling them of the location of a secret rear escape tunnel that lets onto the throne room and the chief's quarters.
  • The PCs use this rear tunnel to enter onto the throne room, guarded by 10 berserkers who mostly fall prey to a sleep spell. Then the charmed guards point the way to the chief's quarters. The PCs break down the door to find the chief in conference with his two strongest lieutenants. The chief at this point is determined to be Antinko the Grizzly, a 9th-level berserker Lord, with -- oh, let's say -- Strength 18, Dexterity 18, Constitution 18, with the feats of Rapid Strike (double attacks) and Great Strength (total Str 20), and a magic +2 Two-Handed Sword! I basically decided that ad-hoc so as to not give the PCs too easy a time (since they'd avoided the larger horde of Berserkers). In response, the PCs beat down the lieutenants and capture the mighty Antinko with another charm monster spell, adding his strength to the party once more (note to self: the stronger the boss monster, the more the PCs can gain with a successful charm).
  • Antinko helpfully reveals a back-room with the Berserkers' communal treasure, and it is indeed a great cache: 400 gp and 30 jewels each worth 2,000 sp -- total value: 64,000 sp, about two-thirds what the party needs for a victory in the game, prompting the players to celebrate! Also: three scrolls cases, which the party eagerly open. Scroll #1: a map to a magical treasure in the center of the distant southwest swamp. Scroll #2: a map to a great monetary treasure in the cave in the woods to the far northeast of the map. Scroll #3: a curse which zaps the entire group to the far northwest of the map, with no horses and no food or water with them. The DM laughs maniacally!!
  • The party now struggles to get back to someplace with food and water before they expire in the barren wilderness with their precious load of jewels. They can still use the extended haste strategy, but on foot even this only earns them 6 hexes of travel per day. They come up with the clever tactic of casting a wall of ice and letting it melt to gather the water. Over several days they round the northwesterly mountains and reach the hunting spot noted in the northern woods there; the fighters hunt various game and manage to feed the party for a few days. They enter the cave there and find a den of spotted lions and take them out with an ice storm. Then the group decides to skirt the area between the forest and the western mountains, southward, hoping to get back to Castle #7 and pick up fresh horses before time runs out in the session.
  • The PCs approach the cavern at the edge of the mountains and the eastward-running forest path. As it turns out, this is one of the secret strongholds that I've placed on the map, a powerful body of Bandits, led by another 9th level Lord and various lieutenants and serjeants. Scouts in the woods spot the PCs approaching and raise an alarm; a horn sounds in the distance, and when the PCs break through the trees they find the entire fighting force assembled against them -- 240 Bandits: two units of 60 Light Foot each, 50 Archers, 50 Light Cavalry, and 20 Medium Cavalry, with the various leaders distributed between these units. We roll initiative and they attack!
  • The greatest threat in a situation like this is the Archers, who can launch a huge number of attacks at will on the small party: they fire and I go around the table rolling 5d20 for the five attacks on each party member (criticals always being a possibility on 20's, maybe instant death!). The players respond with a pyrotechnics airburst against the bowmen to blind them. The cavalry start to charge, but the PCs throw up a wall of fire to break it up and delay the attack. The hasted fighters spot the enemy leader and sprint across the battlefield to engage him in melee. Fireballs are launched by the party wizards against the stronger horsemen, and then the footmen surround most of the party, squeezing them into a tight ball and attacking with hand weapons. Onund attacks left and right, felling ten men each round with his Great Cleave ability. The archers break morale and flee; and so do the medium horse. Confusion is cast on one group of light foot, causing some 20 of their number to begin mistakenly attacking their own fellows; ten of the light cavalry are charmed, and this further disrupts their attack. Finally the frontline fighters bring down the bandit leader, and everyone else runs from the field. One of the party fighters is found dead on the field of battle, and Halig uses the wish in his sword to bring him back to the living. 
  • The party is delighted initially to have captured enough mounts to continue their explorations on horseback. Then they explore the bandit lair and find their biggest treasure yet: copper, gold, a cache of gems, and jewelry worth over 70,000 sp. The players have, somewhat accidentally, finally won the game of Outdoor Spoliation and they cheer! But quietly, Ruric makes plans to fly with the gems and jewelry back to Iruinea...


  • This game friggin' rocks.
  • I expected that after 3 years, this would be the last session that I would run this. However, at the end, several players actually requested more of this scenario. In particular, Paul S., who was playing the Ruric the Fox, expressed great interest in taking half of the treasure back to Iruinea -- completing the magical geas -- and then immediately terminating her and taking the treasure back. Also he had carefully documented the locations of the other treasure maps to secure even more wealth on the next expedition...
  • * Inside joke: Iruenia is actually a Neutral Necromancer. When I was scanning my list of names for her when the PCs found her castle, I just thought both for spice and my own amusement how funny it would be if someone like that simply lied and took a Lawful-sounding name like "of the Sacred Wood" just to confuse people. I think this succeeded in setting up the geas quite nicely.
  • The accidental creation of the duplicate magic swords, giving a backstory to Shark Grinandson's feud with his more Chaotic brother, was one of those delightful ad-hoc discoveries that you only get from random rolls in the middle of a game. I would never have invented that on my own in any number of nights at home trying to be "creative". I also rolled up a potion of green dragon control in his random stash; the players then started wondering as to which forest cave on the map might be hiding a green dragon. I hadn't previously set one in my notes, but as the players speculated on the matter I changed one of the encounter areas to have such a green dragon. I won't tell you which area it is... for now.
  • The players surprised and impressed me with new magic-based tactics in at least three cases. One was the use of speed in their travels, combining all light riding horses with the extended haste spell. That was huge, and the players were rightly congratulating themselves at the end of the game for making the switch. Two would be actually sacrificing a party member and using a long-lasting charm monster on an enemy Superhero to replace the character for a given player. Three would be using a melting wall of ice for a water supply in a cursed-teleport-to-the-wilderness emergency. 
  • On recent changes to the Book of Spells: I really like my adjustment to extend spell; this was the first time I ever saw it get used in 30 years of playing D&D (one of those wonky Sup-I entries). The new effect was potent, memorable, and very in-flavor, without being really overpowered (the party did have to burn two high-level spells each day to double their overland movement). Paul S. said that initially, when I reverted haste to give no attacks or armor benefit (it doubles movement and that's it, as in OD&D), he predicted that no one would ever use it again; but in fact players are still constantly memorizing and using it to great effect it in all my games -- and I think that further highlights how grossly overpowered it was with all the extra benefits in 3E, et. al. But is my new pyrotechnics possibly too powerful? It basically blinds a whole army unit with one 2nd-level casting.
  • I neglected to update the spell names in the PC spellbook listings to match the revision in Book of Spells, 2nd Edition. This caused some confusion at the table when players couldn't find a given spell in the index of the rulebook. I need to fix that before the next game (and some sympathy to published games where those kinds of mistakes pop up).
  • I was too generous in letting the PCs ride into battle mounted on light riding horses. Paul S. pointed this out after the game, and I had just flat-out forgotten to even think about it during play (partly because in prior games fighters were always on warhorses). If players get the benefit of extra travel speed, and avoid almost all wandering monsters, then I should definitely balance it by making the horses shy and forcing the fighters to run into combat on foot.
  • My critical hit tables (link) have quite a few results like "death in 2-12 turns" or "death in 1-6 days". In prior years, I had always allowed a cure light wounds to alleviate this effect, which I decided was far too soft-cushiony for my tastes. Recently I changed my house rules so that only a regenerate spell would do the job; but granted that spell is not actually available in my game (no clerics, etc.), it then turns those results into inescapable doom, which doesn't feel right either. Perhaps I should allow something like 3 doses of cure light wounds to be effective (equivalent to cure critical wounds/potion of extra-healing from AD&D)?
  • When starting these games, there's always a slightly awkward moment when I query the players as to how much food and water they're carrying for a large number of men and horses. The players aren't sure what units in which to respond (usually "two weeks' worth?"), and then I have to pull out a calculator and check encumbrance, load, etc. The water and food are consumed and weighed in different units (water per day, food per week). I really wish I had a very simple system to assess that with all of the units in simple integers.
  • Another thing is that with all the random warlords in castles and large groups of bandits, brigands, berserkers, pirates, etc. in the wilderness, I keep running into trouble generating those 8th- and 9th-level fighter leaders on the fly (what with equipment, ability scores, hit points, magic items, etc.). I really need a "rogues' gallery" list of fully equipped, named, and statted-out Superheroes and Lords to grab in those situations. Even if the lower-level Lieutenants and Serjeants are "vanilla" (i.e., skip special ability scores and magic), having the top boss leader fleshed out would give some concrete specificity to the scene. Ages ago I had a Basic D&D program I'd written to spit stuff like that out, but it doesn't work on current systems, and I probably don't have the time anymore to repeat that kind of project.
  • Whenever a player-character dies, no matter what the circumstance, remember to ask the player, "Do you have any last words?". This seems to take the edge off the loss, giving the player some final agency in the event, and the response is usually rib-crackingly hilarious. (Hat tip to Chris Hardwick on @midnight for this tactic.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Rob Hand's Great Fane of Lolth

Speaking of module D3, Vault of the Drow -- in a crazy coincidence, the week after my players ran through the place at HelgaCon VIII, Mr. Rob Hand posted a photo album on Facebook of his custom-made model for the Great Temple Area. It's got demonic bas-relief details on the walls, fully webbed staircases, a model of Lolth herself, and even functioning pool and mystical wall mural that light up and spin. Holy Great Spider! It's way too good to keep locked up in the book-of-faces. Kudos and thanks to Rob for letting me share them here!

Monday, May 11, 2015

HelgaCon VIII – Vault of the Drow

HelgaCon, the annual mini-convention with my Boston-area friends, was held once again in early April. We rent a house by the seashore on off-season rates and play games all weekend. Actually, the event is now so busy that the house is full and we have overflow attendees staying at a nearby hotel. Pretty cool.

Frequently, this is actually the only time I run D&D games all year long. That's not ideal for someone who blogs weekly about the game, but I'm very grateful for some kind of opportunity to blow the rust off. To some extent, it allows me a greater chance to reflect deeply on the proceedings and how to improve things the next time I play; my house rules have been richly cultivated in the last few years in response.

It's been 6 years now that I've been running the G-D (Giants/Drow) series of adventures annually. Of course, this is Gygax's masterpiece, originally a sequence of tough high-level tournament adventures, the first to be published by TSR back in the day. Many would agree that they constitute the best D&D adventure series of all time -- I might even expand on that, and assert that all by themselves they justify the existence of the D&D game system, as a platform for experiencing this particular campaign. So here we conclude the cycle (I'm unlikely to run Q1 for a few reasons) with module D3, Vault of the Drow. In my opinion, it's the best of the series; Gygax at the pinnacle of his powers, with the richest expression of his gumbo of pulp fantasy a la Vance/Howard/Lieber/Moorcock, et. al., and pieces that only the gaming grandfather could have come up with. (I am not alone in this opinion.)

I've been running these games for a mix of players: some who started with Red Box D&D; younger players who are more familiar with things like Fate and Dread; and complete newcomers who have never used funny-shaped dice before. It's definitely my favorite way to play these days, and it's delightful to get to revisit these adventures through new eyes, as it were. This year I reached a new record number of registrations for the game, with a full table of 10 players ready to bring nemesis to the Drow. And they bring both quantity and quality; their play performance has been getting sharper each year, and they all come very organized and ready to support and reinforce each other (particularly brand-new players), and really bring some serious hurt on my monsters.

Each year,  I've been learning a little better how to fit these sprawling adventures into a tight 4-hour convention block -- and this year I think it finally "clicked". You really have to work on developing and preparing the major set-pieces, the "crown jewels" of the setting in question. For the D1-3 series it's actually pretty straightforward (I say now): each has two lead-in tunnel encounters (say: 1 hour each), and then a major terminal area at the end (estimate: 2 hours). One should almost certainly skip random encounters so as to not miss out on time in the major areas (although there is a loss in both resource-challenge, and texture to the milieu; for example, finding that the major tunnels are patrolled and maintained by Drow, while the secondary passages have more exotic monsters). The G1-3 modules are somewhat more highly coupled (being single sites), and a little trickier to know what to highlight. But one thing I found this year is that it's no bad thing to give lots of detail to earlier important areas, and if you have to improv later areas that you didn't expect players to reach, they don't mind at all.

So it's possible that this was the best game I've ever run in my life; after 30-odd years of kicking at D&D, I finally ran one game that really felt right. Spoilers, of course, follow.

The Proceedings

  • Among their choices for approach tunnels, the party chose the trapped "garden path" (see also: back cover of the color version of the module). The lead invisible scout was detected, charmed, and drained of a level before the rest of the party could engage. But the party was immediately suspicious of the paradise-seeming cave, and using a sword of detect evil proved the case. Wregan the elf hid in the "trees" only to find the illusion disappear around him and instead be was covered with a wave of giant rats. Melee between party, demon, vampire, and waves of bats was fast and furious. The bats and rats were fireballed, the monsters were put down, the temporarily defeated vampire turned to gas a drifted out of sight, and the party moved to put as much distance between him and them as possible.
  • Entering the Vault proper, the adventurers first sent a flying wizard to scout the tops of the cliffs on either side as a precaution. Finding nothing but fungus and crystal-strewn open tableland, they cast a sphere of invisibility which covered the entire party and marched down the road forward. Coming to a three-way fork, they took the upward path, coming to the Black Tower. 
  • Using their magical stealth, a few of the group's strongest fighters and wizard scouted out the open gate to the tower. Finding a sizable group of Drow guards, the wizard Ezniak let loose an ice storm that filled the first guardroom, felling many of the lesser Drow. The chief jumped up to close and bar the door, but the party's magically giant-strengthened fighters, Boris and Hedron, charged forward one after the other, breaking open the door, smashing the table inside to splinters, and battling the High Bailiff to a standstill. More Drow poured down the stairs while other PCs ran into the tower until the whole first floor was a confused wall-to-wall melee. The main problem was the High Bailiff's extraordinary AC, defending with enchanted sword and dagger. The player of one of the pregenerated PC's, randomly named Atol Daggerbreaker, asked: "Can I try to break his dagger?"; to which the answer seemed like it had to be "yes". So with his warhammer he smashed the magic dagger, and then the sword, and then the High Bailiff finally got the beat-down. 
  • Meanwhile outside, a more cautious Jurden the Red Wizard chose to levitate to the top of the tower, thinking it would be abandoned; however he appeared over the battlement right in line with a guard manning a ballista-sized crossbow. "I go down! Down!" cried the player. "Too late, he fires!" I said gleefully. My roll: a natural 1. Saving throw vs. fumble: failed. Result from the critical chart: entangled with weapon; so the bolt snagged the dark elf's belt and he was shot off the roof, Wilhem-screaming (link) to earth.
  • Inside, a wall of fire up the tower stairs fried most of the remaining Drow guards. One was charmed and gave the party useful information about travel and customs in the Vault, and the way to the High Priestess of all Drow. A chest containing an invaluable set of green cloaks were procured, which would thereafter allow travel in the Vault with being accosted by Drow patrols; and also a set of weird eye-cusps, and a letter of passage from some entity named "Eclavdra". The wizard Zaki Azeem chose the opportunity to cast animate dead on the fallen dark elves, raising ten zombies under his command, which were also outfit with green cloaks. So enlarged, the group moved on from the tower into the larger expanse of the Vault.
  • Here I described the party's further travel in the Vault, entering into the debauched city of Erenhei-Cinlu, and the disturbing practices of the people therein. The group was allowed over the flying bridge to the plateau of the noble families, and directly passed on to the very Egg of Lolth. (This was a sequence which I intentionally planned to accelerate, but I think I gave just enough narration to get an overall sense of the setting; all random encounters and even the Lesser Temple were skipped.)
  • The party entered the terrifying, demon-carved, web-shrouded Great Fane of Lolth. On the first floor, the group marched directly through the foyer to the Great Temple Area. The figure of Lolth herself rose before them! So the party launched a vicious barrage of offensive magic: an ice storm, fireball, hold monster, and more (a total of 68 points of damage), all to seeming no effect! (Or was she held?) Fighters slashed, and the party wizard cast fly, spiraling up around her to investigate. (Eerily,  the players perfectly recreated the Jeff Dee illustration of the scene.) Once the ruse was discovered, the dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus noted the weird mural in the rear, but the rest of the party was cautious, and chose to move in a different direction.
  • The web-like stairs up were chosen: and the group was ambushed by a giant black widow spider the size of a small horse. Boris was bitten but made his saving throw against the extra-deadly poison, and then with the rest of the party's help he slew the creature.
  • On the second level, four Drow guardswomen surprised the party and let loose poisoned bolts. The PCs responded smartly with Ezniak using a ring of human control to charm the whole group, ending the combat, and forcing their agreement to lead the way upward to the High Priestess.
  • Up another three levels to the topmost floor of the temple's pagoda. But the High Priestess was warned by a secret alarm, and an opening flame strike instantly fried all the charmed Drow and the zombie troop leading the way. With the priestess casting spells from an unseen location (through a high peephole on the wall), the PCs pushed into luxurious lounge area with jewel-studded spider-tapestries. A word of power and the tapestries transformed into another 8 gargantuan spiders, scuttling forth with more murderous venom! Fighters struck and dodged, Atol tried to smash through the very wall with his hammer to get at their tormentor, and a few spiders were hemmed in with a wall of fire and magic missiles. Then the infamous Zaki Azeem declared that he was dropping a cloudkill to cover the whole room. The whole table groaned, thinking they'd died to friendly fire, and I turned to the Book of Spells thinking the same thing. But it turned out this was a brilliant ploy; all of the party was too high-level to be affected, while the giant spiders all died to the poison gas. Brilliant. (And the same would be true in any standard edition of the game.)
  • Then the High Priestess used her sinister demon staff to conjure a Vrock demon on the party! The response in this case was: a suggestion spell to "protect us". I tried to find some loophole on why this wouldn't work on a demon, but couldn't find any (nor could I after the fact) -- failing both magic resistance and saving throw, the demon stood rooted to the spot, neither attacking for the PCs nor hindering them. The crew then bashed down the High Priestess' inner door and engaged her in melee. She fought back with blindness spells and a magical +5 mace; only a few members of the party could make contact with her back to a corner, and with her AC of -9 (!) the party was almost entirely unable to land blows -- it looked like she might alone turn the tide against them. And then Jurdan nailed her with a feeblemind spell, and failing her saves she was reduced to a drooling incompetent. The players all cheered lustily and finished her off en masse.
  • The party gathered what treasure they could from the queenly riches around them. The secondary priestess was met running up the stairs, and another charm spell turned her too to the party's side. Inquiring as to a way to escape the Fane (one of the victory conditions I'd set for the group), she revealed the hidden tunnel far below in the cellar. Leading them there, the group quickly worked its way back down the stair, along the hidden tunnel, and into the wharf cavern with underground-river going galleys, scores of ghoul and ghast sailors, and much-needed stacks of supplies. One galley was loaded up, and the party sailed off into the darkness on a demon-headed ship surrounded by Drow priestesses and slavering ghouls. 


  • As noted above, choosing to spend preparation time on selected highlights of the adventure really paid off. (And note that Gygax adventures are generally pretty open-ended with demands for DM expansions, with D3 surely the pinnacle of those.) I created illustrations of the outside of the Black Tower and the Great Fane which set the scenes well (above); and also floor maps of the inside of the Black Tower, thinking that was a likely necessary battle to have (in fact, the module text comes close to fully describing the layout; was there a map that was cut for space?). I skipped all random encounters which turned out to be the right thing to do. Based on prior games (which were always short on time), I really did not expect the group to make it all the way to the High Priestess of the Fane, so at that point I was flipping through the book in an ad-hoc fashion trying to interpret her defenses there. The players actually took great joy in my discomfort when I blurted out this fact. (But possibly on a future run I might plan that final encounter out a bit more.)
  • Module D3 has some of Gygax's most fantastic descriptive text, but it is tangled up with rules information and material the players should not know -- recall that this is before the invention of "boxed text" which would set the scene for players as they enter a new area. Again, concentrating on the highlight areas, I drafted a page of my own effective "boxed text" for the outer encounter areas: the Garden Path, the Vault, the Black Tower, and the entry to the Egg of Lolth. I surely wouldn't do it for every room, but being able to edit out the essence of Gygax's flowery descriptions, and setting each encounter zone by sharing most of his words with the players, felt right. I think it would be a shame to play through D3 and not get to encounter his descriptive language here. 
  • In particular, Paul S. noted after using the "weird cinnabar eye cusps" to see clearly in the Vault, and thus viewing its "true splendor... [as] a dark fairyland", how reminiscent this was of the mystical lenses in Jack Vance's story of Cugel the Clever, "Eyes of the Overworld" (link). Asked Paul, "Is what I'm seeing now the real thing, or just a fraudulent illusion? That's creepy!". It's one of those great observations that I smacked my head for being blind to in advance (no pun intended), and wish I'd thought to play up ahead of time.
  • Nowadays I am ready to use miniatures in the game, almost only if the players request it for clarity. (This happened in another game last year and it worked out pretty well.) I actually created and brought simple scale battlemaps of the first floor of the Black Tower, and also the "Gatehouse" encounter (outer hex Q²49), but neither of them were used. 
  • A lot of Gygax's creations from this era of Advanced D&D have an overwhelming number of special abilities (Drow, Demons, Kuo-Toa, etc.; their descriptions run several pages each) that even I can't keep track of during fast-paced play. So I make the decision to streamline those, too, and try to pick around 3, at most 5, abilities to highlight during play. A few of the Drow minor abilities get snipped out as I do this, but this too feels like a correct decision.
  • A possibly more legalistic issue to Drow powers is that if you play them by strict AD&D rules, then they would inherit the powers from other elves in the Player's Handbook; in particular, 90% resistance to sleep and charm spells. But that resistance doesn't show up anywhere in the OD&D rules that I'm using (even Supplement-I, Greyhawk), and so that's a power that the Drow here do not have. The players in my game relied quite heavily in more than one place for charm spells against certain Drow, to gain information and guidance; whereas technically as published that would likely not be possible. Truthfully, I didn't mind either the pacing pickup or reduction in wall-of-powers to track. But was the AD&D elf resistance to charm specifically an invention to prevent this stratagem in D1-3? Also, it's fortunate for the players in this regard that the description for Drow says they know the "common tongue", in addition to various underground races (and honestly I didn't even think to consider any language barrier for them during play).
  • On the other hand, all Drow did have both boosted saving throws and magic resistance being checked -- and yet they seemed to routinely fail both every time I checked them. Generally the players in this game had great rolls working in their favor (making almost all their saves), and terrible rolls on the part of my monsters (failing almost all their saves and resistance checks). So certainly that was a helping hand on this particular mission.
  • My Book of Spells finally feels "right". Everything that happens with magical effects feels correct, efficient, quick, and necessary; never skewed or irritating to the proceedings.
  • Keep in mind that at high levels, long-lasting invisibility is both very powerful and widely available (via spells, rings, cloaks, invisibility spheres, etc.). Part of my preparations for high-level is to always consider the interaction of invisible scouts into each area and whether and how they might be discovered, etc. (among the first details in any area description; see back in my D1 game when I was caught flat-footed at the need for that).
  • My expectation was that this would be final appearance of this group of pregenerated PCs and this campaign sequence, and I wouldn't mind ending on a high note in this way (there was a heartwarming round of applause from the players at the end of the game). But at the end there was more than one request to continuing playing with them somehow. One inquiry was to actually go back and re-play module G3 from a few years ago (link): that's probably the most physically brutal adventure in the series, and the players were short-handed, so they got mercilessly pasted in that adventure. Another possibility, I think, is to start expanding to other locations in Gygax's underworld; as the PC's ended sailing on the waters of the Pitchy Flow, it seems like a pretty clear opening to adventures in the realms of the Mind Flayers, Kuo-Toa, Sunless Sea, etc. But that's the end of the Gygax-penned adventures for now!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Dungeons & Demographics, Pt. 3

In the last installment, we noted that OD&D text descriptions for leader distributions (read: NPC levels) are totally different than what emerges from a simulation of actually playing out games against the dungeon encounter tables (read: PC levels). But: We did see that if we alter rolls on the OD&D encounter tables in the simulation to the reduced level of 1d6-4, then we do get a population that is passingly similar to the described NPC distribution. Here I'd like to use those simulations to come up with an evidence-based system for generating high-level character ability scores and hit points.

One important thing I noticed in an earlier, partial analysis of ability scores and hit points (link) is that these improved high-level distributions are still bell-shaped. That is: You would not want to use a method like "roll d6's, minimum 3", because that causes a pileup of scores on the low end (e.g.: 3), which is to say, generates a right-skewed distribution. (For example, the "minimum score" method that Gygax uses for hit points in AD&D Unearthed Arcana, p. 74, is contra-indicated.) 

What I came up for a simple dice-rolling method for such heightened, generally bell-shaped scores is to roll two dice of some type and add a fixed bonus, such that the maximum result is still 18. Consider these dice to be our toolset for this purpose: 3d6 (Expected value 10.5), 2d6+6 (E = 13), 2d4+10 (E = 15), and 2d3+12 (E = 16). Now we look at the average scores for our population generated by the Arena program (with an encounter roll modifier of -4), and try to find the best fit at each level:

I've batched up the levels into groups of about 3 at a time for convenience. At higher levels, the picture is pretty clear; scores in each of Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution trend upward as only the fittest characters survive to higher levels, as we would expect. In the 2nd-4th level tier, characters have an average of 13 across each of these abilities, arguing for a roll of 2d6+6 in three abilities of the player's choice. For levels 5th-7th, it looks like one ability is about 15 (2d4+10), and the two others 13 (2d6+6). For levels of 8th and above you have at least two scores at 15; in this case I'll take a bit of artistic license and use one 2d3+12, one 2d4+10, and two 2d6+6 scores. Not too bad.

But now let's focus on the slightly troublesome 1st level. Whereas the 0-level clearly depicts the straight 3d6-roll for newly generated normal men (average about 10.5), characters surviving to 1st level do evidence about a 1-point advantage across each of Strength, Dexterity and Constitution (average about 11.5). The problem is, using the dice "tools" above, none of the abilities quite reach halfway to the 2d6+6 roll method (mean of 10.5 and 13 = 11.75). But if we pool the overall improvement in all three scores, then we get a value a bit over 3 (3.2). So to reflect that basic trend, I'm going to give 1st-level characters in my games a boost of about 3 points by selecting one single ability -- likely their prime requisite -- and rolling 2d6+6. (This replaces my old house rule of rolling all 3d6 and then swapping two of the player's choice.)

In summary, here's my new evidence-based house rule for rolling ability scores:
  • Level 0: Roll all abilities 3d6 in order. 
  • Level 1: Roll one selected ability 2d6+6, others 3d6.
  • Levels 2-4: Roll three selected abilities 2d6+6, others 3d6.
  • Levels 5-7: Roll one ability 2d4+10, two 2d6+6, others 3d6.
  • Levels 8+: Roll one 2d3+12, one 2d4+10, two 2d6+6, and two 3d6.
Hit Points: Note that in the table above, average hit points at each level are truncated, not rounded (average hit points at 0-level are really 3.5, at 1st level about 6.5, etc.) The best method to generate higher-level hit points is to simply re-roll any dice that come up 1 or 2. (Or equivalently: roll a die of one size less and add 2.) From a purely technically standpoint you wouldn't want to do this for the very last level (the character has not proven survivability through that level yet), but for practical purposes I don't want to split that hair in my house rules, nor have to remember about it.

Final Thoughts: While we've developed this system looking at the "NPC" population at the -4 encounter die level, the truth is, any other close modifier generates about the same ability scores and hit points upon surviving to higher levels. So I'm comfortable using this system for generating scores for both high-level PCs and NPCs. It's conceivable that future refinements of the Arena simulator program might change things here, but my expectation is that the method will remain pretty stable going into the future.