Monday, 12 September 2016

My Precious Dungeon Walls!

Dungeons preventing teleport, passwall, and other magical ways around or through walls have been a design cliche since Undermountain. It's been so endemic that Bryce Lynch gives special kudos to designers who don't fall for it. But what, exactly, are they afraid of?

The hypothetical cheater who uses spells to get to the last room of the dungeon must first find the last room of the dungeon. In a sprawling underground maze this is nearly impossible. If you're just using it to get through a locked door, that's the equivalent of a knock spell, and nobody legislates against those.

But let's say you've found the last room of the dungeon, either because it's bloody obvious (top of a tower, sealed chamber in the middle of the maze with the Gallstone of Four Parts) or because you have scried it out with clairvoyance, wizard eye or the like -- another tool type often suppressed by cautious adventure designers.

Let's even forget about the mechanical possibility, in a teleport spell, of having a fatal or disfiguring targeting error happen.

What do you think is going to happen when that teleporting or flying or dimension-dooring wizard gets there? A wizard, alone? Passwall and mass teleport are more of a problem (I don't allow them in my game). But without intelligence on the dungeon, again, they're just shots in the dark.

A better explanation of the obsession with fettering knowledge and movement spells lies in a clash of game design principles.

For incremental game design, everything is a matter of quantity, hit points and resources are worn down bit by bit, and a fair fight can be gauged.

Catastrophic design, though, allows for sudden winning moves, daylight frying the all-powerful vampire, a poisoned shirt killing Hercules. Balance here is non-linear, hard to judge. Discernment, avoidance, and preparation are more important than the toe-to-toe slog. Death is sudden, not gradual. Characters with a spell can kill a maze just like characters with a mirror can kill a basilisk.

The struggle between these two views, one "fair" and one "real," determines any given gaming experience. Another front in the war: turning undead vs. anti-turning medallions.

But even if you commit to the incremental way, "can't" is still the uglest word. Recently I made a try at fixing"you can't move." The obvious fix for "you can't teleport" is for the wizard's lair or whatever to be guarded by a chaotic teleportation zone that dumps you in a random location in the dungeon or even another plane of existence.

You can turn the undead? Fine, but the undead can also turn you. "Can," not "can't" if you please.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Not Just Ruins, But Strongholds

Joseph Manola is onto something in this well argued, erudite essay on the importance of the ruin to classic and old-school-influenced D&D. Ruins, of course, are part of the post-apocalyptic milieu. And yes, part of that genre is allowing characters to have freedom to loot and wreck without getting in trouble.

"Uh, I think they saw us coming."
But another part of the genre are the strongholds. Auntie Entity's fortified town, Immortan Joe's mesa complex. The zombie plague survivors holed up in the mall. The fall of Rome left not only ruins, but also feudal castles, and some places that were both.

An impressive number of classic adventures are actually stronghold raids. The first full adventure from the supplements, Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog. The Giants and most of the Drow series. The Slaver cycle. Even Castle Ravenloft, although its mood is very different.

Quick break for a definition. The difference between a stronghold and a ruin is that the walls of the stronghold enclose a nominally unified fighting group. Sneaking through, avoiding raising the alarm, isolating the different groups, thus becomes part of the adventure. A ruin may have sub-areas held by organized groups, but either they are working against each other, don't care about each other, or they are but a nugget within a larger disorganization. So, adventures like the Village of Hommlet's moathouse or the Keep on the Borderland's Caves of Chaos don't really count as strongholds, even though they have stronghold-like areas.

True strongholds are challenging, and you'll notice they were all written for medium-to high-level characters. They are crafted to overwhelm players who come without subterfuge or tactics. In fact, if the importance of strongholds in gaming has faded, this may be because the hobby has drifted apart from its wargame roots. Early D&D grew, via Chainmail, from miniatures wargaming scenarios involving sieges or spying against organized opposition, like Bodenburg and Braunstein.

The ultimate proof of the importance of strongholds comes from the "win" condition of the game, right through AD&D: get together enough men, moolah and mojo to build your own. The victorious player ascends to the Dungeon Master's throne, using the iconic graph paper not just to snail-creep a copy of someone else's dungeon, but to plan and build a stronghold and delvings of their own. Some old-school revival games, most notably Adventurer Conqueror King, hold on to this goal. And it's surely no coincidence that ACK's meta-plot of rising through the ranks of an organization by doing their dirty work can lead in turn to more stronghold busting than you might usually see in a modern-day campaign.

As a final example of the yin and yang of strongholds and ruins in gaming, consider the vast and uncompromising amateur PC game, Dwarf Fortress. You can play in two modes. First, dig and maintain a dwarven town complex underground, mining and crafting treasures and defending it from enemies. Then, after it is overrun (near-inevitably) by demons of the magma layer or invading zombie hordes or simply collapses in civil war, play in Adventurer mode within the same world, as a wandering figure bent on exploring its ruined fortresses, defeating their occupiers and looting their wealth. For sooner or later, every stronghold becomes a ruin...

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sorcery World

Five more to go in a highly irregular series of 36 d20-based encounter tables. Roll d20, read straight across, or roll 2 d20's and connect the two columns as best you can using the verbs for inspiration.The bold, italic entries are things that can be left behind in a site with currently other inhabitants. This one's about wizards and their doings. For more of these look under the GENRES tag.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: A Review For RPG.Net

Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo, 1862 (tr. Norman Denny)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
System: System-neutral/free-form
Setting: French social realism/pre-steampunk

Let me just start with the elephant in the room: If you like GM-PC characters; if for you the whole point of Forgotten Realms is to rub elbows with Elminster, and you would willingly mount a campaign in the world of Conan even though it means the characters are either going to be Conan or someone who isn't Conan, then "Les Mis" is your bag.

The pachyderm in question is Gary ValStu -- sorry, I meant Jean Valjean. He strides through this sourcebook, soaking up attention in every scene he's in. And make no mistake, in spite of the system-neutral descriptions, he's clearly 18 Strength:

"In physical strength Jean Valjean far surpassed any other inmate of the prison. On fatigue duties, or hauling an anchor-chain or turning a capstan, he was worth four men. He could lift and carry enormous weights ..." (p. 99)

But the stat carnival continues:

"His dexterity was even greater than his strength" (p. 100)

So, 19? Book learning-as-dump stat aside,  he's a super-high level rogue who climbs walls like a staircase, bowls people over with force of personality, and survives death plunges. His disad's are many but they're of the kind that only add to his cachet: some kind of helpless dependent or other, false identity, wanted, hunted, and above all a nitpicking adherence to Chaotic Good alignment.

But is alignment really a disadvantage when the book lays out ways and means to weaponize it? Yes, if you stick to your Good behavior even when it would do you great harm - even when your beneficiary is a scoundrel - even when they are actively trying to rob you - even when doing the right thing would ruin thousands of people - Hugo describes benefits ranging from forced alignment change in the target, to confusing and paralyzing adversaries, even to the point of suicide.

Valjean, then, works best as a benefactor for hard times, striding in, doling handouts and plot coupons - but you can't escape the temptation to put him in the hands of a player, if only for the fun of seeing them play him "sensibly" and never attain the full potential that's sitting under their noses.

Then we have the arch-villain NPC, Inspector Javert, Lawful Neutral over into Evil. Say one thing about this guy, he's the absolute right way for the GM to handle a persistent adversary. As much as he's unbelievably skilled and lucky at hunting down his prey - he finds Valjean twice from a cold trail in completely different cities of France - he also will make that little fudgey mistake that lets the players get away, assuming they haven't made any serious mistakes themselves and don't actually (like Valjean) want to get caught.

There actually aren't that many other NPCs for a 1200 page book. This is due to Hugo's habit of having coincidental meetings pop up routinely, so this new person is "none other than" someone we met 200 pages before. Paris and indeed all of France thus behave in Hugo's hands like a village of a couple hundred. Corny as it may seem, at the table this is actually a great way for both GM and players to stay emotionally invested in the developments. Frankly, too, it's easier to remember a plot with six or so recurring names than with thirty-six of them. Those that are described, in more or less detail, are very good - the Patron-Minette gang, with its varied characters and capabilities, almost begs to come to life as a player character party.

Fortunately, the characters, their doings, and other things "storyline" take up only about half of Les Misérables. The rest is great sourcebook material: minute descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and historical adventure sites like the Battle of Waterloo, the 1830 barricades, and of course the sewers of Paris; long essays about politics, necessary if you're going to understand 19th century France with its parade of monarchies, empires and republics; and quirky sidebar material like the analysis of convents in France, or the description of Parisian thieves' cant.

Pretty much all the locations are gameable, whether as sites to loot, PC hideaways, or places of intrigue (the scenario where PCs have to help a convent carry out an illicit burial and at the same time help Valjean escape is a tense masterpiece.) Infuriating, though, to see a complete lack of maps and illustrations - the GM will have to dig up historical ones or rely on the "theater of the mind's eye" to fill in. Fan material online can't quite compensate for this crucial flaw.

More of this, please.
Overall, while Les Misérables is a worthy sourcebook, it also takes a lot of work on the GM's part. I understand the limitations of system-neutral, but at times it seems the author feels the need to narrate rather than describe happenings in a systematic way the GM can use.  Less plot railroading, less of the author's own political rantings (fortunately, these are contradictory, half pro-Republic and half pro-Napoleon, so it's not as annoying as it could be), multiple system stats, and above all maps and encounter tables, these would take this product to five-star territory.

Style: 2
Substance: 4

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Waiting Out Sleep (etc.) Non-Boringly

A good game-runner, tester, designer, stays alert to the signs of boredom around the table. Like the rules that everyone forgets, the experiences that don't lead to fun or meaning need to be identified, diagnosed and dropped.

One non-fun experience in D&D and its ilk is the use of enemy powers that take a player's character effectively out of the game. Who has not succumbed to the touch of a ghoul, the tentacles of a carrion crawler, or the icy grip of a hold person spell?

All these paralytic effects, however, last longer than the typical combat does. (Actually, AD&D never gave durations for monster paralysis, but 2nd edition has ghoul touch lasting 3-8 rounds and carrion crawler paralysis lasting at least 2 turns.) This mean the affected character is warming the bench until the combat ends. Visible boredom results.

Taking paralyzation effects out of the game is not an option for me. They're an important part of the monster arsenal, much more forgiving than save-or-die, but still scary and threatening. One of my players who was concerned that his combat-machine character might be unbalanced received a healthy reminder to the contrary, when in the midst of pitched battle a hold person spell overcame his puny save against mind magic. A relentless press turned into a chaotic retreat, with the other characters having to manhandle the stiff body of the hapless warrior. The stuff of legends!

Why wait ten, twenty, thirty game minutes for the stiff to wake up can be turned into a procedure, a very simple game.

During combat, the player rolls a new saving throw against paralyzation each combat round, keeping track of successes, and also keeping track of rolls of a natural 5 or less.

  • A natural 20 means they roll again, keeping only success. 
  • A natural 1 means they roll again, keeping only failure.
  • After three successes, the paralyzation ends.
  • After three 5-or-less rolls, the paralyzation sets in and lasts for 10 minutes.

Taking the character out of danger (by ending or successfully fleeing the combat) means the character is no longer *trying* to wake up, and takes the full 10 minutes. Also, you can rule that each roll to wake up costs the character 1 hit point. This is not terribly unfair; usually attacks that paralyze don't do a lot of damage.

This rule give s a character the potential - if very lucky - to get back into the fight almost immediately. More importantly, it gives hope and something to do in what is otherwise a deadly boring situation.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Flying Monsters

In a recent session in the Castle of the Mad Archmage, the Muleteers went to retrieve the bodies, dead or alive, of a couple of rival party members who had gone missing, sent running by a fear gas trap in the middle of a series of rooms full of bats. This meant fighting giant bats, lots of bats. It was actually my first time dealing with lots of flying attackers and I improvised, inconsistently, a number of rules solutions to represent their menace.

After thinking things through I created this one-page rules sheet for the 52 Pages system. It covers where and how flyers can move, and what happens when they attack. Their ability to charge and overfly, surround and disorient, add to the tactical challenge.

One other things: a critical hit that wounds a flying creature in "arm"or "leg" brings it down for good, showing up the greater vulnerability of wings.

Release the bats!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tekumel: The P'raka

(The scenario on the home island of my Tekumel party comes here for general use; next, a short report of how they handled it.)

To while away time until Captain Tarshar's arrival, the elders have taken the unusual step of adding to the dwindling food supply by hunting the p'raka, a low-slung six-legged beast like a wild boar, covered in porcupine-like quills. Which happen to be saturated with a flammable oil.

The plan is for the more useful members of the tribe to circle the p'raka grazing ground in the waist-high, dry whipgrass, and for the vocally talented hunter, Kemune, to imitate the attack cry of the flying serpent Ben'gega (known on the continent as Vringalu). Ben'gega is the only thing the p'raka fears more than fire. In panic, at least one beast is expected to bolt across a low ridge, to where the soon-to-be-exiled PCs are tasked with catching and killing it.

The elders figure that if the PCs fail to catch the beast, it is a bad omen and ample pretext to send them off in shame and oblivion. But if the PCs succeed, this is proof that She Who Hides Behind the Sun smiles on them.. Their quest to find the Greater Eye of Shaping the Earth will be praised and feted, and the elders will give the Keeper twenty well-knapped red-flecked obsidian stones to take along, each the size of a fist.

A warm wind blows steadily from the southwest. The party has about an hour to prepare their ground. If the chasers are successful, the p'raka will burst out of the tall grass between a great red sandstone rock and a stand of thorny-leaved kema bushes. In front of it will lie a 200' wide by 400' deep flat expanse of ground mostly covered with dense, short, dry clawgrass.

The savanna is dotted with 5-8' tall um'hehue trees, about one per 20' area, unclimbable by p'raka but easy climbing for people, with boughs of thorn-edged disk-shaped fireproof, glossy, green-black leaves. At the same frequency are bare patches of stony red sand, tangles of twiggy bushes that can be broken off and woven into fencing, and jutting rocks that block a 5' area or 5' side. Somewhere in the area is a patch of a dozen or so oil-melons, whose slimy internal tissues are very flammable if inedible. The PCs should be encouraged to improvise traps and ambushes, under time pressure (figure one person, in 10 minutes, can alter one 10' x 10' area, dig a 3' cube, or do twice that if skill succeeds.)

The p'raka (3 HD, AC 13 spines, MV 12 with 3 round bursts of 18, attack tusks d6+1) will run out of the grass on the second round of one of its speed bursts, covering 60', then 180', then slowing to 120', then off the map. It will only stop for fire unless restrained, breaking out of cages or nets on a 5-6 on d6. Even faced with fire it makes a morale check on 2d6: 9+ it runs right through, being set on fire, taking half a d6 damage for 3 rounds and doing a full d6 extra if it overruns someone; 5- it turns around and runs in circles looking for someone to gore; other results it seeks a way around the fire.

Complications on d6, 1: The wind changes direction suddenly and blows blustery, fanning and blowing any fire unpredictably; 2: The p'raka emerges from an unexpected area on the map edge; 3: Two p'raka! 4: If someone is up in a tree, there is a blood snake there, 1 HD, attack 1 damage + poison, AC 12 (speed) 5. Unexpectedly, Kemune's call is echoed from behind you - a real Ben'gega is out there hunting! 6: Roll twice, ignoring further 6'es - except if you roll 5/5, 5/6 or 6/6, the Ben'gega arrives on the scene in d6 rounds...

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Tekumel: The Island

Yesterday a group of four players started my Tekumel campaign. In the great tradition of "barbarians coming to the big city and learning the setting" they created characters, members of an island tribe. They each took party roles.

The Speaker (caller in social situations) was a necromantic shaman with a blow-gun, who contributed that the tribal totem was the Wild Dog. He follows He Who Sets the Night In Order, lord of the moons and planets, ordainer of bad fortune, and casts fortunes by scattering bones in moonlight.

The Rememberer (note taker and mapper) was a not particularly competent hunter. He decreed that the rival groups on the island were the Wild Cat tribe and a group of Hlutrgu frog-men, all separated by mountain ranges and a dormant volcano.

The Keeper of the group's resources was a blind healing shaman ("Can I be blind like Daredevil?" "No, you're just blind"). He determined that what the tribe trades with one Captain Tarshar, boss of that big canoe with wings, is red-flecked volcanic obsidian in return for trinkets, hatchets, cloth and food.  He became blind by staring too long in search of She Who Hides Behind The Sun, ordainer of good fortune.

The Defender, lord of military strategy and the initiative die, was a strong and resilient barbarian warrior whose weapon of choice is a big rock on a rope. To him fell the invention of why the PCs, their zero-level followers and about 20 other tribespeople had to leave the island. Famine, due to increasing heat and decreasing water, was the answer. The other three were among the least necessary members of the tribe. The other twenty also had less desirable qualities -- lazy, complainer, drunk, quarrelsome -- and somehow got the short end of the "random" selection by lots conducted by the Wild Dogs' elder shaman. The Defender took pity on them and decided to accompany them. The tribal legend says that across the sea, in a place where people build mountains and live in them, is the Greater Eye of Shaping the Earth, relic of the dawn age, which can bring prosperity to the most ravaged land.

The elders decide that Captain Tarshar, whose seasonal visit comes any day now, must be convinced to take the surplus tribespeople to this built-mountain-place. The quest of the Eye seems like a good use of these exiles. How big, after all, can the world be?

Next: The Hunt

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Kill Six Billion Demons

The webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons (K6BD) starts absurdly: a bulky masked figure from nowhere crashes Allison's first nervous sexual tryst in her college bedroom, pursued by spiny fiends who decapitate him and bear away her boyfriend of three weeks -- but not before the masked one can implant a regulation-issue Power Macguffin of the Chosen One in Alli's forehead and tumble her across dimensions into a sordid hub-city of the multiverse.

If you haven't read the comic but are intending to, it might be best to stop now  with this review and head on over, if you've got a few hours to spare. The setting that ensues is probably best appreciated through the revelations of the story itself. Spoiler warnings apply more to the details of this world than the "hero's journey" chassis of the plot. If that doesn't faze you, read on.

Gradually, through art dark and luminous, punctuated by enormous teeming panoramas, we see the many orders of angels, devils, humans, demigods and stranger sorts in this universe of 777,777 worlds. Through exquisitely stylized dialogue and accompanying didactic texts, we learn the rules, stories and power relations that our heroine must navigate - at first as a screaming, near-catatonic wreck, but gradually gaining confidence in the role she is to play. Currently the series is finishing up its second book and, if the schematics of the plot tell true, there is a great deal of ground left to cover yet.

The setting calls to mind a Planescape built on Empire of the Petal Throne instead of D&D. A wholly original mythos nonetheless mingles recognizable names and themes from Buddhism (Mahayana and Zen alike) and Near Eastern mythology. Deftly balanced with the cosmic ponderousness of angels, gods and worlds in the balance we find sardonic and self-aware touches. These mainly come from Allison's foothold in the mundane, and from a wisecracking blue-masked imp she acquires, Cio, who fancies herself a writer of fanfiction, Allison her Mary Sue.

Rhombicubooctahedra make the best angels
The comic's creator, "Abaddon" (Patreon), has a strong eye for systems of magic and metaphysics, expressed in vigorous visual metaphors. Cio works magic by way of paper: a business card that marks an unwilling pact onto the recipient, a wall of giant paper dolls, an origami flying mount. The system of binding demons involves a hierarchy of colored masks and human-added names: the fewer names a demon is bound by, the more powerful. Landscapes are more often than not dotted with the towering, frozen or ambulatory, bodies and husks of expired gods and angels. This is a fallen cosmos where God is dead, and lowlife and oppression are everywhere. Perhaps not by coincidence given our heroine's sexual jitters, her first otherworldly destination is a lurid bordello district where desires worse than carnal lust are evidently slaked.

As far as gameable content, an official RPG for the setting is in development. In the meantime, I've worked up an old-school compatible set of spell adaptations for paper magic, adding a few effects not shown in the comic.

Paper beings are AC as unarmored, take double damage from fire and cutting weapons, none from blunt, cold or piercing. Spells are cast with appropriate paper materials and a rhymed couplet containing the numbers five and two.

Caster level
1: Paper servant. Paper doll becomes "seen" servant with 1 HD that acts as unseen servant, can become invisble from a particular vantage by turning sideways.
2: Paper planes: Fold (1 round) and throw a paper plane dart up to 30', never missing, doing d6+1 damage. Can repeat once n a row per caster level above 2.
3: Calling card: Caster always knows the location of a card engraved with his/her name, 1 day/caster level.
4: Paper wall: Dolls multiply and grow forming a whirling wall of 20 2 HD 5-foot paper soldiers up to 10' across or 30' long.
5: Origami mount: has 5 HD, up to 3 human sized persons can ride, flies at 18"
6: 52 card pickup: Sharpens and scatters a pack of cards through a 30' x 30' area, doing 4d6 damage, minus one d6 for every 2 points of armor protection.
7: Paper oracle: Pose a question with up to 4 answers, folded finger oracle over 1 round chooses the most correct one.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

One Page Contest Entry: Gripped in the Hands of Time

I had doubts, this year. Didn't think I was going to do the One Page Dungeon Contest. I had some vague idea about a dungeon with a time travel gimmick, but nothing definite. Besides, all my game design time was going to writing rooms in volume II of my megadungeon. Getting nigh on 50 of them.

Then I came to the part in my map where I had a little suite of 4 rooms, earmarked for something secluded and weird. I cast some randomness on it and one feature - a clock - came up. And I started getting ideas. And pretty soon I realized those ideas would fit on one page, too...

The title describes each of the four rooms in a different way, but it was only an afterthought.My initial impulse was to fill in the blanks in the classic roleplaying madlib: _____ of the ______ ______. Then I saw an adventure that broke that trend and the title came to me.

It's conceived as a module, an abandoned hideout that can be dropped into any setting. The fight is probably going to need high levels and the puzzles are definitely going to need sharp minds. What I like is the way the different elements can interact in an emergent way without having to write it all out with "if-then" prolixity. The diary tells of the time sacrifices which gives you a clue what to do at the bas-relief. Bari-ritu's gifts can help you with the clock lock if you are stuck in there.


Bari-Ritu is played by the Burney Relief.

Enjoy! (link to pdf)

Thursday, 24 March 2016

New Edition of 52 Pages

I haven't been blogging, but I have been running the game every other week, squeezing out text for the ol' megadungeon, and putting the final touches on some revisions to the rules I use. They're now in a position to share at version 2.0, so you can download them from the link on the right, or here.

I'd say that after some five years of playtesting, the new version works pretty darn well, at least for the "basic" levels 1-3. There have been a few issues with higher level powers and spells, and some of the variant classes I want to release, but with more experience (now going on a couple of years, having run two higher-level campaigns plus a number of convention games) I think I can fix a lot of those issues.

Accordingly, things are looking good for releasing an extra "26 pages" soon, focused on character development and advancement for levels 4-6 and new classes. The other 26 would have been campaign development, but I find the campaign structure in 52PP is the thing I least use in actual play. So my ideas about wilderness exploration, city campaigns, etc. are probably best put in a different, system-neutral volume.

Anyway, enjoy!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Sci-Fi World

Latest in a highly intermittent series of mix'n'match d20 genre encounter/feature/treasure tables. You got your sci-fi in my fantasy; you got your Barrier Peaks in my Temple of the Frog.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Star Wars, Dying Earth, and the Programmed Setting

This contains discussion of Star Wars VII, no major plot spoilers but some general criticism. (Also, it's five weeks in, so see the damn film already.)

Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is not just a role-playing game set in Jack Vance's literary world. It also tries to codify the essential elements of that world - game as criticism. According to Laws the elements of a Vancian picaresque tale are: odd customs, crafty swindles, heated protests and presumptuous claims, casual cruelty, weird magic, strange vistas, ruined wonders, exotic food, and foppish apparel. The system also handles such Vancian happenings as being persuaded against your better interest, and winning great wealth only to lose it all ("All is mutability!")

And Episode VII for me was also a recombination of the elements of "Star Wars": you could see the boxes being checked off, with "doomsday machine", "terrifying monsters", "lightsaber duel", "alien cantina" and so on. But really that is nothing new. I remember reading more than one Star Wars novel in the 90's that seemed like a reshake of elements from the first three movies. Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy featured a doomsday device called the Suncrusher. There were monsters, dogfights, lightsaber duels and star lowlife a-plenty.

Also: if you tried to do a love story, a police procedural, a picaresque in the Star Wars universe, it might work, but would it be "Star Wars"? The hesitation in the answer reveals that, like the Dying Earth, Star Wars is a programmed setting. It not only provides character types, artifacts and settings, but dictates the plot and action. Compare this to a setting that has become unprogrammed, like the Wild West. While at one time there might have been a stock plot for the cowboy yarn, over many generations its expansion and reinvention has left room for social commentary, horror, preposterous steampunk action-adventure, etc.

Meanwhile, things might have gone differently if the second Star Wars trilogy's attempt to expand the repertoire with political drama, noir elements and romance had been at all convincing. But it wasn't. George Lucas caused a lot of buzz recently defending that trilogy and how he populated it “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.” It's a shallow view, but one that by omission acknowledges that the other "new" elements were failures, that the only things that stand up in those films are the laser duels, space battles, and spectacle. This is probably what sent J. J. Abrams running back to formula, from the potential of a universe to the safety of a program.

I think there's also a reason for the greater popularity of programmed settings over unprogrammed in roleplaying. The Standard Renfaire-Tolkien Setting, with its cozy taverns, dour dwarves, righteous paladins and hen's egg sized diamonds, is a convenient backdrop against which the slightest departure from custom - be it to invoke a different culture, a different genre or just something different - blazes forth like a star of creativity. And on the players' side, a solid and well-known backdrop gives a basis for their own creativity and improvisation.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Surprise Kills Obmi

Obmi is dead. That supervillainous boss of the third level of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, uncatchable nemesis of Gary Gygax's players, was rushed in his lair and taken apart by the terrible force of the Muleteers. And they weren't even at full spells and hits. Here's how (spoilers for CotMA obviously).

"Just go right at 'em" - Captain Aubrey
1. Strategic surprise. Good intentions paid off. Over the last few sessions, the adventurers had been probing and chipping away at the force of hobgoblins, bugbears and goblins in the northeast of the level. A rival party, the Lightning's Hand, had meanwhile fallen foul of Obmi; in cleaning out the last of the orcs in the southeast, they ran across the hobgoblins, with whom they thought they had a deal. But Obmi had been doing dungeon diplomacy to unite the humanoid groups, and the hobgoblins turned on the Hand, killing their main fighter with the aid of a hold person spell from their cleric. Fleeing, they ran into the conveniently placed Obmi and his minions, and (seeing as I rolled snake eyes for the success of this encounter, when playing through the actions of the NPC party) had to surrender after some brutal treatment.

The party was originally planning to go after the hobgoblins, at which point the tribe would have sent a runner to warn Obmi, who would have hooked around with his gnoll squad and a couple of other friends to block their retreat. Even with the aid of the Knights of Antonius, a group of holy warriors who were helping them out, this would have been serious Surtrouble for the Muleteers. But then the voice of morality spoke up in the form of Freya, the hermit, who reminded them of their duty to rescue the Hand.

In their reconnaissance the Knights had found a couple of passages forking off with the intersection marked with the dwarven rune for "O." It was there that dungeon doctrine was again ignored, and the Knights and Muleteers split up, each having one passage to search. Luck, too, came into it as the Muleteers picked the one that would lead them straight to Obmi's lab and lair.

2. Tactical surprise. Ordinarily on their way to Obmi's lair the Mules would have run across a small group of orcs, all that remained of the once mighty Grinning Skull tribe, who had be set by Obmi to patrol the maze. However, at the very same time, the goblin runner from the hobgoblins had been banging on one of the one-way doors into the maze, and the orcs were escorting him back to the door of the lair, which a gnoll guard opened.

Just then Titus the gnome and self-styled muleborne knight decided to try to sneak down the corridor behind them, wearing metal armor,and thus failing. "Hey!" The orcs swiveled around and everyone rushed forward, led by Titus, who started incanting the syllables of his Choke spell... only to fail and cast a different random spell of the same level instead at the targets (he must have mispronounced Choke as Shock) ... the most fortuitous Lightning Bolt. Bouncing around in the confined space, the bolt fried all the humanoids and miraculously stopped just short of hitting the caster.

The path to the huge lair room was now clear and everyone rushed in as fast as they could. Five gnolls were at various places in the room, Obmi was over by the wall tormenting one of the Hand party captives, who were all strapped and locked into various devices and tables. A huge swiveling brass machine with a pointy end was installed in the middle of the room. Bort the fighter, running to engage Obmi, placed himself in a position to fight the six remaining gnolls as they tried to come out of their adjacent barracks room. This was a crucial if unwitting decision that gave the party tactical control of the room.

With a few good decisions and strokes of luck the party had given themselves a huge positional advantage, which was to widen when Obmi, acting out a tragic flaw, chose to use his invisibility ring and boots of speed not to get away, but to make it to his pride and joy, the repulsor ray machine in the middle of the room. (This flaw was activated by some unusually high morale rolls I threw for Obmi.) The beam pushed back a column of party reinforcements as they tried to enter the room, but the energy wizard Orbit managed to get off a Shatter spell that blew a hose on the contraption. With most of the gnolls in the lair now dead, and the rest hemmed into their barracks, the party swarmed around the dwarf, cutting off his escape and eventually finishing him.

I could have further ruled that the invisibility and boots of speed would allow Obmi to slip past engaging enemies, but the result felt like a just reward for audacious action, phenomenal luck, and the folly of the usually slippery villain. Things would have been very different if Obmi had been shielded by a swarm of gnolls and able to pound the front line with his returnng hammer. What I observed years ago was borne out that day: the advantage of surprise is not always to the home team.