Monday, May 27, 2019

Wandering Hommlet

If a DM considers possibly running the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, one must first answer: Where is Hommlet? Interestingly, its official published location varied quite a lot in those heady early years.

Here's a timeline of relevant publications (all with Gygax's name on them):
  • 1979: The original monochrome version of AD&D Dungeon Module T1: The Village of Hommlet is released. In the first paragraph of the Background (p. 2), it says, "The village... is located some 10 or so leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc..." This places it in hex #1 of the regional map above (each hex being 10 leagues in distance). 
  • 1980: The World of Greyhawk folio set and Gazetteer are published, including the fabulous continental map by Darlene excerpted above. In the single-paragraph entry on Verbobonc (p. 18), it states, "A temple and fortress were constructed in the wooded hills southeast of the town of Verbobonc, not far from the village of Hommlet. (Look for the VILLAGE OF HOMMLET and the TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL modules from TSR)." So: no explicit change, although hex #1 noted above is not depicted with either woods or hills.
  • 1981: The multi-color version of module T1 is released. However, the booklet inside is identical as far as I can tell (even maintains the same inside logo and 1979 copyright, different from the color cover), so no textual changes in that regard.
  • 1983: The boxed-set version of the World of Greyhawk is produced, with the same map, but a pair of expanded books. The Glossography includes more detailed in-game statistics to various entities, including a section on "Adventure Locales" (p. 30), which gives specific hex coordinates for every TSR module published to date. For the Village of Hommlet (noted with a predicted change in code from T1 to WG1), it says, "The legendary villlage is located in hex O4-98 near Verbobonc". That hex is noted as #2 in the map above -- quite a surprising distance away; not 10 leagues, but rather some 40 leagues away from Verbobonc. And still not very much near the wooded area. 
  • 1985: The supermodule AD&D Official Game Adventure T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil is finally published (in the final year of Gygax's tenure with the company; finished with the help of Frank Mentzer). This includes what is mostly a reproduction of the T1 Hommlet module inside; although now the Player's Background section (p. 4) states that it is, "located some 30 leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc" (not 10 as before). In addition, it comes with a rather sketchy wilderness "Map 1: From Hommlet to Nulb" that depicts Hommlet as being in hex #3 on the map shown above (indeed, 3 hexes, so 30 leagues from Verbobonc).
That's really quite a bit of wandering for a little village -- the triangle formed by hexes #1, 2, and 3 above is a bit larger than that formed by New York, Philadelphia, and Allentown, PA.

A secondary issue is: Given Hommlet, where are Nulb and the Temple in relation?

 Above is the wilderness map given in the T1-4 adventure. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of the story with that:
  • In the original 1979-1981 T1 text, Hommlet and Nulb are set fairly close together. The Background says (p. 2), "The folk of Hommlet tended to ignore Nulb, even though it was but six miles distant." Likewise, the T1 moat house is given as "about two or three miles away", along an overgrown track leading northeast off the Hommlet village map (area 33, text p. 8). The text to those ruins reiterates this, describing travel of "a mile or so" along the overgrown track, and then "two miles of distance" along a somewhat clearer pathway (total time: one hour on horse, two on foot; doubled on subsequent trips after clearing it). It concludes this description with, "The track continues past the ruins for many miles -- seven leagues, in fact -- until the temple area is reached." (p. 12) Note that this total of about 8 leagues (24 miles) to the Temple is considerably more than the 6 miles to Nulb in the opening Background.
  • On a related note, the T1 Background speaks of a "Lowroad" leading from Verbobonc, south of the river: "Many days' travel to the east, on the shores of the Lake of Unknown Depths (Nyr Dyv) is the great walled city of Dyvers". This first paragraph seems to be describing the various roads off the edges of the Hommlet village map; the one leading directly east (best matching this description) is labeled "To Nyr Dyv & the Temple". There is no mention in this text of any corresponding "Highroad". 
  • The Brief History in the 1980-1983 Greyhawk products (identical in both) spends a rather surprising amount of time focused on the area and action around the Temple. For a piece of text covering the entire history of the continent, 3 of its 11 paragraphs are specifically about the battle with the forces of the Temple (clearly, it was foremost in Gygax's mind at the time). Yet even here the location of things is just a bit garbled: the Brief History says the battle was, "below the city of Verbobonc" (folio p. 6), while the section on the Kron Hills mentions it as, "the battle above Verbobonc" (p. 23). 
  • With the 1985 T1-4 product you get the wilderness map above, but it seems mostly unrelated to any of the descriptions in the text itself. Note that it clearly shows Hommlet at Nulb as being at least 10 leagues (30 miles) distant as the crow flies; if I map and measure all the little twists and turns on the roads, then I count either 16 or 18 leagues (48 or 54 miles) depending on the route. But the Hommlet reproduced background still says Nulb is "6 miles distant" (p. 5), the track out of town still says the moathouse is "2-3 miles" away (p. 14), and the text to the ruins still describes the same "mile", then "two miles", then "seven leagues" to Nulb (p. 21); which again awkwardly implies a total of 24 miles from Hommlet to the Temple.
  • Meanwhile, the new Interlude section to T1-4 is also contradictory. The Players' Background says, "Just a half-day's journey afoot (only about two hours' ride), east along the High Road, lies the disreputable community of Nulb, and the Temple hidden in the hills nearby" (p. 27). Per standard AD&D/Greyhawk moves rates, this implies a road distance of about 5 leagues (15 miles). On the other hand, under Notes for the Dungeon Master, it says, "The adventure began in the Village of Hommlet, only about thirty miles west and south of the edge of the Nulb area map" (p. 28). 
  • Then the very next thing T1-4 says is, "You can construct your own campaign map by using graph paper of roughly the same parameters as that of the Nulb map, assuming 100 yards to the square. Two sheets of paper the west and to to the south cover all of the important territory, with Hommlet being located on the High Road, two maps west, one south near the map bottom, but in the southwest quadrant. (The Velverdyva river, by the way generally remains along the upper portion of the northern map additions...)". By my figures, the described map would only cover about 4 by 6 miles, although the description seems to cover an area at least 30 by 40 miles on the T1-4 wilderness map. Was this particular text accurate to an early placement close to Verbobonc (hex #1), and overlooked when the official T1-4 map was drafted? Or was it simply a total meltdown in someone's arithmetic?
  • Other miscellaneous comments about the T1-4 wilderness map: Note that while T1 mentioned only a "Lowroad", the new T1-4 sections have now switched to reference only a "High Road". Whereas T1 showed and spoke about a major road leading due east to the Nyr Dyv, the roads in T1-4 are highly kinked, going far to the south and then far to the north (not very useful for a major east-west highway). The map has no placement for the T1 moathouse or the overgrown track leading northeast off the Hommlet map. The relative location of the Temple seems to have switched sides of the road; in T1 you can go northeast of the main road and reach the Temple, while in T1-4 it is shown south of that road. It's weird that the "Low Road" is along the crests of the hills, while the "High Road" is in the depths of the forests; and also that while the T1-4 text speaks of the "High Road" as the major route to Nulb, on the map it is shown as an "unused trace road" with many points of Danger/Evil along the way. Likewise, none of those Danger/Evil areas are described in the T1-4 text.

I hope that you'll forgive me for all that detailed nit-picking. But the contradictory nature of the T1-4 wilderness map has bothered me for a long time, and I think I've repeated this textual exercise a number of times, and wanted to document it here so I don't ever do it again. One last complaint I'll levy is how that map seems to imply that the PCs will need several more custom adventuring areas to gain XP between Hommlet and the Temple, when this simply isn't the case; the average danger level of the Moathouse is almost exactly the same as the first level of the Temple dungeon, by my calculations.

So, at this point I think I might come to the following conclusion if I were to ever run the T1-4 adventure: just kick that wilderness map entirely to the curb as incoherent, and make my own map in line with the original 1979-1980 descriptions, which suffered from somewhat fewer contradictions. Consider: perhaps Hommlet lies in the plains of Verbobonc, along a "Low Road" that runs generally due east (through wilderness and woods) to the Nyr Dyv. Meanwhile, there could be a "High Road" that loops north of the river and the whole area, through the safety and civilization of knighted Furyondy, and reaches Dyvers that way instead. (In fact: Gygax's Gord the Rogue books speak of a "High Road" running through the center of the City of Greyhawk; while not clear there, I might fantasize that this is the same major mercantile thoroughfare running all the way from Verbobonc, through Furyondy, then Dyvers, and then to Greyhawk itself. In contrast, there's no way to interpret the road on the T1-4 wilderness map as doing the same.).

A final thing I'll reflect on (a little bit of back-in-my-day-ism): Just think about the incredible wait time we suffered from the publication of T1 with all of its hints and promises about the soon-to-be-released Temple adventure, until the actual appearance of the T1-4 module. The former was in 1979, and actually my personal copy of T1-4 has a 1987 print date on the inside cover. That spans the time from when I was 9 to when I was 17, or in fact half of my life to that point waiting to get the damned thing. There's a reason why some of us have a small part of our brains kinked up over that production.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

House Con: Now You Try It

As a final-final thought to this year's HelgaCon wrap-up; I must reiterate that this house-con event is the singular highlight of my year for the past decade-plus. Having moved a few states away from where I was before, it's a priceless opportunity to connect back up with old friends, and somewhat surprisingly, some people I consider among my best new friends, whom I've only ever met or seen at this event. Thanks again to Paul Siegel who's been the motivating force and organizer for the event every year.

Along with that, some news I can now reveal (that I've been biting my lip on for months); after thirteen years of developing and refining the AI-driven software that serves to manage and schedule our mini-convention, in the last year Paul has been rolling out a website and associated tools to make it public and help assist other people in creating their own house cons. It's currently in beta testing and if you want to try it for your event, you should contact Paul directly. I can't recommend it enough; we've all been amazed by its seemingly magical powers (far better than any other convention I've attended) for years now. If you do a house-con or are thinking about, ring him up!

Also: We were unable to have a Wandering DMs show this past Sunday due to unexpected developments. We'll be back with a new show this Sunday June-2 at 1 PM EDT.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Helgacon: Lessons Learned

A top-ten (in no particular order) list of observations and lessons from this year's house con:

  1. I still need to get better about handling ("accordioning" per BJ) adventures for time constraints in the convention setting. I did better than Tomb of Horrors a decade ago, but still was over by an hour with the Tomb of Ra-Hotep run-through. 
  2. I'm liking bare-bones minimalist adventure text (like Ra-Hotep) more than towering wall-of-text give-all-details-imaginable (like in the Slavers modules). Easier to "own" the adventure and play loose and flexibly, with less note-lookups. Sometimes the wall-of-text approach (e.g., A2) loses its own plot, becoming incoherent or self-contradictory itself!
  3. In Outdoor Spoliation, I simply must offload the administration-handling to pre-game, if I run it again in the future. 
  4. There's surprising potential for a minimal PC team to do well in a game meant for lots of other players (e.g., the 4-person team in the stockade game). Does a streamlined communication network assist this? 
  5. On a related note, I got away from using the Caller role, and this might have contributed to bogging down the games with larger number of players (esp., Slavers Stockade part 2, Outdoor Spoliation). Part of what explains that is in the last year I've had a bi-weekly campaign that has a smaller number of players (usually 4-6) who also know each other and communicate/coordinate really well. So over time I simply forgot about Callers and if I thought about it, came to think I'd discovered they weren't necessary. But for larger groups (and those who may not know each other so well at a convention), it may in fact be very beneficial. I really need to keep in mind the need to switch protocols with a group of over 6 players, or something like that. 
  6. Also, I was trying out a new method for marching order in these games: Ask the players to sit down at the table the same as their standard 2x2 marching order; for round resolution I then went down the table likewise left-right, left-right and so forth. I officially made this optional but with a +1 bonus to all initiative if they did so. Every team took me up on this, and it seemed to work pretty well (didn't hear any complaints, and nicely represented the front-line people being in contact first). Note that Gygax specifically called out marching order as the one thing that was hard to handle for very large groups of around 20 or so players (I quoted him at Stack Exchange at the link there, from a 2005 ENWorld Q&A). So this real-world physical representation is feeling like a pretty good solution to me.
  7. For the last year or so I've used placecards (folded-up index cards) in front of each player to advertise what everyone's PC name, armor, and weapon are. That's largely so I can address everyone in-character on sight (I've seen a few people do this at other conventions, or else use lapel name stickers, etc.). This year I stumbled into the idea of having players also write their "preferred pronouns" on the placecard (granted that many of my pregenerated PCs have ambiguously gendered names, or else I'm just happy for players to pick which they want to play as in any case). This also may make me seem more "woke" than I probably really am. 
  8. For a climactic final boss fight in a convention game, a battlemap and minis (as used in Ra-Hotep) or something vaguely similar (as in the Slavers games) has a nice impact. This was complimented by at least one player. On the other hand, I need to gauge the extra time this may take. This may be unusual; most games I see with other people are either battlemap-all-the-time of else none-of-the-time. In all my games at Helgacon I had it as a possibility and made a call on the fly about whether to use it or not. 
  9. I may need to find a way to streamline calling distances in combat. The combination of feet (dungeons), yards (wilderness), and inches (rulebooks; 5' for me) definitely confused and frustrated some players. I'm thinking about trying to call all combat distances in "paces" (Roman paces, 5'), which would directly synch up to the "inches" specifier for movement and spells in OD&D. Haven't tried that yet as of this writing. (Alternatively, this possibly suggests the Holmesian approach of just jettisoning the "inches" and writing everything in terms of feet.) 
  10. Granted that intelligent swords were in use in all of my games, Paul's suggested streamlining of OD&D's complicated control-check rules to a Target 20 idiom saved me gobs of time in both preparation and at the table. Highly recommended; I just wrote it into my OD&D rulebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

HelgaCon: Outdoor Spoliation Ep. 7

In the last reflection on my individual games at Helgacon this year, I also ran:

Outdoor Spoliation Ep. 7

This was probably the weakest performance in my games at Helgacon this year, and I'm fairly embarrassed and sorry for the players involved about what happened here. Particularly because the solution is rather obvious in retrospect, but it's taken me to years of lackluster session to realize what I should have done.

When I started running Outdoor Spoliation games a number of years ago, it was my attempt/experiment at running the OD&D wilderness rules as close to by-the-book as I could manage, using the famous (an truly masterful) Outdoor Survival map as a game board. This was a free-wheeling, free-booting game of amoral ne'er-do-wells in the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser mold, looting treasure and sacking castles willy-nilly in attempt to score a particular number of gold pieces for a "victory" (in-game, rationalized as achieving a level to be made barons by the king).

(Side note: I've done this so much that several of us now accidentally say "Outdoor Spoliation" every time we're trying to say "Outdoor Survival".)

I think at the end of the 3rd season, the players actually succeeded at the goal. I thought that would wrap things up, but there was some demand for me to run it again, so I brought it back two years later. The next year or so after that, the players decided to follow-through and commit to the "barons" idea, taking over a castle permanently and setting up for an expanding dominion there.

So that obviously changed the game a lot, and I haven't quite managed to dial in how to handle that change in action. I realize now we might be trying to do something entirely unique: run a dominion as a team of oligarchs at a once-a-year session at a convention, in a 4-hour time slot. What I've done for two years is to come to the table with a budget and "menu" of possible improvements/investments for the expanding domain (a la the list of investments ideas in OD&D Vol-3, p. 24, under "Baronies"), each with a secret "complication" that would drive the need for some in-person adventuring. In the past I've had as many as a dozen players at the table; this year I had seven.

So problem (1) is that the level of complication and cross-complication to prioritizing the dominion budget can create a round-table debate which stretches on almost indefinitely (this year: maybe 1.5 hours? Ouch). If that weren't bad enough, problem (2) is that maybe half the players or more simply didn't sign up for an hours-long administrative council meeting, expecting the mercenary high action from earlier years, and so rightfully might get distressed or frustrated by that. And the problem (3) might be that once the "complications" are revealed, another (potentially very long) round of debate can take place over which of the resulting "quests" should be prioritized first, and how (e.g., Which is most important to secure? But which are conveniently located close to each other? Can we hire and trust NPCs to any of these jobs? Oh, that spins us back to the budget debate.)

Awkward, and I didn't handle the responsibility to rein it in well at all. Kind of upsetting on my part.

Almost immediately afterward, the answer sprang to mind: If I do this again in the future, I should offload the "domain administration" to an online survey mechanism in the days pre-game, and have people do ranked-choice-voting for the preferred budget priorities or things like that. If anyone's not interested in that component, simple; just ignore that online component, no problem (in fact, that would even nicely simulate that idea that only some of the PCs are willing to take on the burden of rulership roles while others drink and wench until the next plundering expedition). Possibly also address item (3) with a similar pre-game vote on what relevant "quests" to take on, so that D&D action can start more immediately when we get to the table face-to-face.

Ultimately decisions were made, and we did get to play out a little bit of nice negotiation with a powerful and semi-trustworthy lord-wizard, as well as two excursion into the mountains versus alien monsters for critical pieces of the political puzzle. But it was definitely slower-moving than I'd planned on, and not all the players were happy with me failing to meet advertised expectations. Mea culpa.

In this one, Jon's griffon-riding fighter got knocked out of the sky and then death-criticaled by one of a flock of roc-sized cockatrice. He was wished back to life, and then basically melted down again later against a squad of black puddings against which his weapons were useless. He wins the "most stoically abused" award for the weekend.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: This one.

Monday, May 6, 2019

HelgaCon: Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Continuing the Helgacon wrap-up this year. For the first time I also ran:

The Lost Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Originally written by Mr. Alan Lucien, this is the precursor and inspiration for Gygax's infamous Tomb of Horrors, and was recently published (for the first time to my knowledge) as a small part of the Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana product. Small spoiler: it has the first invention/appearance of the sphere of annihilation and stuff like that.I did an OED-style conversion of the very sketchy original text (4 handwritten notebook pages) and ran it like that.

Part of my desire for running this is that I ran Tomb of Horrors itself over the first two Helgacons (one, two) and felt in retrospect that I didn't do a very great job with it (actually: only got to about 2/3 of it over two very-late-night running sessions). Major lesson in retrospect: GIVE THE RIDDLE from the first area no matter what (that totally shift the PCs from just blundering into trap after trap, to actively engaging the dungeon and giving them the tools to try and outwit each succeeding area). Also, I was still trying to run with actual 1E AD&D rules at the time, and a pretty strict reading of each encounter area as given in the text (so: achingly slow progress) -- so I wanted to see if my OED rules a decade on, and a hopefully more looser/flexible DM'ing philosophy, would make things run more successfully. 

This seemed to be my biggest hit of the convention. We had 9 players at the table (would've been 10 but for illness) with approximately 10th level PCs each (250K XP, to be precise). I think I initially estimated that I might have about 5 players, so the night before the game I decided to double all of the monsters and traps on the fly, and this seemed just about right in-game (of course I'd estimated danger levels in advance with my Equivalent Hit Dice system; also, I'd made sure to supply some magic weapons that could hit the invulnerable-to-everything-but-+2-weapons monsters involved).

I think it moved along pretty well and I gave players lots of chances to find ways to succeed (e.g., using passwall on the starting entrance to avoid technically opening the door and summoning extradimensional monsters). At a particular point in the game, I arbitrarily sealed off a side-wing to force the PCs more towards the climactic fight(s) at the end. Even so, the huge embarrassment for me is that I went over the allocated convention time (4 hours) by an entire hour, a tremendous faux pas (and surely anathema at a real convention, if I weren't playing at a table where everyone was friends). That said, I was immensely curious at how the last two encounters were going to play out (I really didn't know if they'd be total TPK's or not), so as a gaming scientist I couldn't stop myself from running them. I actually completely forgot about the problem of opening the final doors, even. I suppose I'm at least getting closer to "good" than when Tomb of Horrors was taking us 3 years and around 20 hours of play to get through (actually it hurts me to even write that).

One weird thing that came into play is that my friend Paul loaned me the piece of Art & Arcana to see this dungeon myself for the first time. Then his (brilliantly resourceful) automatic convention scheduler actually put him in the game, and neither of us noticed this until a single day before the convention. We quickly cycled an idea to have him run a "ringer" character, a lost reincarnated soul of Ra-Hotep in the world, with dim memories of the dungeon and a compulsion to be reunited with the master creature -- such that Paul could play the Adversary at the end like I did for him recently. When we reached the final area, a black beam annihilated his PC, I handed him a sheet for Ra-Hotep, and he studied that while I was rolling out a big battlemap for the climactic fight. (Note that these few minutes were the entirety of the study time for the monster that Paul had; I didn't give him anything at all prior to that time.)

Among the most beautiful pieces of play from this was that one of our friends (expert hobbit thief player) had been loudly trash-talking Ra-Hotep all through the adventure, using that to aggravate monsters into attacking them, etc., and at some point had turned to Paul and said, "Geez, I hope Ra-Hotep can't actually hear any of this!". (I was too busy to hear that myself.) So when Paul was revealed as actually Ra-Hotep himself, he pointed an outstretched finger at that player, and shrieked in the most evil voice possible, "You shall be the one to die first, in the most painful manner imaginable!". That was simply priceless.

Pretty compelling fight at the end. Arguably I should have also given Paul control of the mob of Ra-Hotep's evil minions. Having the PCs summon an earth elemental and cast haste on the whole party turned out to be critical in the enormous final tomb area. (Note that I give only double moves, no extra attacks or other side benefits from haste, and it was still a key to victory in 2 of my 4 games that weekend.) On the other hand, Ra-Hotep using his sphere and casting charm monster to turn the lead fighter to his side, and attack a PC wizard, was quite the nail-biter. In the end, he was beaten down by a crush of hasted PC fighters and thieves.

Also, Jon again fought all the way to the end here and then actually got disintegrated by Ra-Hotep in the final encounter.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Punching Mummies".