Sunday, 25 July 2021

Obscure Adventure Review: Desert Plots

Amazon Mutual #2, Desert Plots
Mary Ezzell (The Dragon Tree, 1983)

The Dragon Tree was part of the flourishing horde of low-budget D&D-compatible publishers in the early 1980's. You might have read my review of the first book in their Amazon Mutual adventure series, a collection of four quests of wildly varying style and quality, influenced by the gonzo style of the Arduin rules and sporting the company trade dress of a monochrome Day-Glo cover.

There was only a second Amazon Mutual book, this one in eye-scorching fluorescent red instead of orange. It stands out as one of the few adventures from that era authored by a woman, Mary Ezzell. Her design and writing showcase a playful creativity that was soon to be lost, as TSR's detail-oriented fantasy realism, heroic plotlines, and oh yes, army of lawyers crowded more amateurish third-party publishers out of the game.

The title of the book, Desert Plots, links it to Dragon Tree's "Book of Plots" product, a collection of loose adventure storylines to be run in more detail by the DM. This link augurs in one of the fumbles of the book: the overarching plotline lacks a grand synopsis and is incredibly hard to follow. Two complete dungeons with about 20 rooms each are followed by five sketches of adventure material without maps that can be retroactively read to connect the two sites' goings-on. Along the way, we see four sections titled "What Really Happened"--two of which, unhelpfully, contradict the other two.

As this narrative goes on, the DM is repeatedly instructed to wing the details, and to adjust them not just for the characters' level, but for their play style as "hackers" or "thinkers." Amazon Mutual 1 also took play style into account, true. But the writing in Ezzell's adventures gets vaguer, with more self-serve instructions just when the grand design of the plot requires a stricter accounting, as if the manuscript is running out of pages.

And yet what a plot it is! The action is built around a series of increasingly preposterous magical gimmicks. Starting with a scroll that helps you find other specific written material with the help of a glowing green line, and a manual of very unusual golem recipes, we next see efreet working to exploit complex dungeon tricks, and rooms that go from one plane of existence to another. Much of the wackier stuff can be explained by the heirlooms of a religious order that used unusual magic effects to help people find harmony. The leaps of logic all hang together--barely.

Outlandish page art by Mary Ezzell

Ezzell uses the implications and side-effects of each gimmick to advance the character-driven plot, which sets up parallel love triangles each hinging on a forceful and creative female character. We have very much just been through the 1970's in this module, what with the flared hand-drawn psychedelic art and chapter titles. There are references to the Doors of Perception, student revolutionary movements, drugs-as-treasure, and heavy quoting of Buddhist philosophy. The meta-idea that the characters are working for the Amazon Mutual adventuring insurance company, which featured so prominently in book 1, is little more than a framing device in book 2.

Ezzell refreshingly refuses to lean on the Near-Orient cliches that are a staple of desert adventures. There are no harems, eunuchs, yelping desert raiders, or wheedling merchants. The orcs, efreeti, and bandits are "all D&D" here. Their uniqueness comes not from any surface detail but from their role in the convoluted and bizarre magical plot. While there is conflict and cruelty, everyone has reasons to do what they do, even if they are the wrong ones. Unusually for 1983, and probably thanks to the woman writer's perspective, a magic effect that could have led to nonconsensual player-character sex is specifically given a loophole.

Would it work at the table? Well, you would need to lay down the clues to the grand mystery a lot more firmly than the book's have-it-your-way approach. You would have to slalom past the 23 uses of "DMO" (DM Option) as a substitute for details, and jot down specifics that work for your group. The system might not matter much, because many of the encounters are designed for the "thinking" party to overcome through negotiation or puzzle solving. And yes, some of the dated references are a little cringey, like Heinlein's TANSTAAFL as a magic word, or a student movement called the "Orcan Liberation Front". All the same, the creativity on display in Mary Ezzell's Desert Plots might just be worth sharing with a set of old-school or even 5th Edition players who can appreciate its whimsy.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Alignment II: Complications and Excuses

Revisiting my musings on the D&D concept of alignment ten years ago, I stand by the observation that conceptually, it's a mess. Is alignment:

* A force that guides great destinies, setting mortals and monsters at opposite ends of the cosmic chess board?

* A political ethos that rules the morals of states and societies, and those who follow them?

* A style that shines through in the tactics and personality of individuals?

I made these observations about the Law vs. Chaos dimension, originally. But on reflection, they also apply to Good vs. Evil. I missed that originally because people in Western culture, raised on Western stories, will believe that good and evil nature goes through and through. Good people live in good realms and follow good faiths of good gods. Evil people likewise stick to their zone.

Good and Evil Wallpaper (66+ images)But storybook morality falls apart in the real world. Cruel and power-seeking worldly systems can and do serve noble ideological goals. A society supposedly dedicated to tearing down the universe can sweeten its appeal to the outcast by giving them kindness and understanding. Kind and power-hungry individuals can each find their place within those systems.

Yes, the three levels on the average reinforce each other. But the really interesting cases are those where the morality of ultimate ends, worldly means, and individual character fall out of ... alignment.

Think of a repurposing of the I Ching hexagrams, not a system to define characters, but a way to generate possibilities. The first three are the three levels of GOOD --- and EVIL - - : cosmic ends, worldly means, and personal character. The second three do this for LAW --- and CHAOS - -.

Using a site such as this one we first get:


Here's someone who, like most in their society, upholds a cosmic order where the strong rule and everyone knows their place. Although the gods of this order are cruel, the church and state who serve them are set up to cushion the blows as much as possible, seeing the diabolic as the only effective bulwark against forces that would utterly wreck the world. Despite their strictness in rule, the powers that be find it expedient to hire less constrained agents. Such a one is our hero, who believes in rules -- for other people -- but is otherwise good-willed and magnanimous.


Here is a harsh contradiction -- a lawful evil social order served by a chaotic good person while the order itself serves a chaotic good metaphysical cause. Can anyone believe in all three layers simultaneously? Does this example break down and force us back into the seamless view of alignment?

No, not necessarily. Consider, through the dark arts of social psychology, the many ways in which people deftly reduce the cognitive dissonance from incompatible elements of their belief system. The ease with which people go from hugging their dog to dining on pork, or the ways belief systems put qualifications around "respct for human life", prove that excuses and rationalizations are everywhere.

We can put all of them to use in our example.

  • Means-end separation. The dictator is only taking charge to preserve the dream of freedom and benevolence! When its enemies vanish then the true end state will be possible! (But the enemies never vanish, do they...)
  • Denial of responsibility. The system is too big to change, I can try to make it better from within, if I didn't do this someone worse would.
  • Advantageous comparison. Say what you will about our kingdom, over there they have it much worse!
  • Euphemistic labeling. Come with me to the Cells of Liberation where the truth will be extracted from you in the Palace of Joy.
  • Selective moral concern. Oh yes, it may seem that we are mean and oppressive, but only to subhumans / criminals / malcontents who deserve it. To our loyal people we are liberal and fair!
  • Straightforward fingers-in-ears denial. What? Nonsense! We don't torture people. I don't know what you're talking about. Those are all lies spread by our enemies.

None of these excuses are ironclad, and each of them can be toppled over time. Then you have personal evolution or a social revolution. But the fall of a tower of mutually reinforcing rationalizations should never be taken for granted. Its tensions and dynamics contain the seeds of situations much more intriguing than the storybook goodie/baddie distinctions that alignment by-the-book encourages. 

Next and finally: Everyday morality and alignment.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Alignment I: It's A Relationship

A decade ago I dedicated a number of posts to thrashing through alignment in the D&D family of games. A few complicated half-baked systems emerged in these pages. But in the actual play of games I've run since then, I've never had players write down their alignment. Let me show you how it works instead, from my online game this year.

The atmospheric "burning bridge" from Dragon Age -- looks well burnt!

The adventurers, seeking a prophecy at a Dervish shrine, had to cross a magic bridge. The span gave protection from fire through black ashes that floated up from the chasm below and stuck to the person on the bridge. The amount of ashes was in proportion to the virtue of the person. This was relevant to the next magic bridge, which roasted its passengers with flames.

Judging this strange place was uncontroversial. Everyone remembered the characteristics that had emerged over by then six months of weekly play. Some characters had shown benevolence and moral prudence, attracting a full coating. Others had shown the deficient magnetism of their moral compass by constantly urging mayhem, torture, and murder. Sparse were their ashes indeed! 

And this discrepancy set up one of the more touching moments of the campaign. A virtuous lizardman sun-priest embraced a questionable armadillo-folk* entertainer, and this act of compassion transferred half of his protection to the sinner, allowing both to pass scorched but alive.

Indirectly, my example illustrates the first and most useful point about alignment. It is not a rule, but a relationship.  I treated the rewards of virtue as judgement from an implied spirit of the bridge. The spirit had total access to past deeds, and its own concept of sin and virtue. Would a different spirit have decided differently? Possibly!

Do you, the GM or designer, sometimes need to make benefits or malisons depend upon player behavior? You can avoid the many pitfalls of a universal rule by stepping into the role of a supernatural judge with its own agenda. For example, if you feel the powers of a paladin need a limitation on behavior, you can make level advancement conditional on a "performance review" with an angelic tutor. Play it out as you would for any other non-player character in a mentor role.

Alignment in the environment is another story. You can have spells that detect, defend, and attack the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. But only by becoming a lich or a saint can a player-character register in this world of essences.

This brings me to two ideas from my earlier musings on alignment. They have endured in my game-running, not as rules, but as principles, lurking in the background. I'll cover them in the next two posts.

Alignment is inconsistent - but so is morality

Neutrality is everyday morality

Saturday, 27 June 2020

One Page Dungeon Contest 2020: Stela Obliterata

In these pandemic times, I have summoned seven redoubtable players from my previous one-shot games and campaigns to join in a weekly online game, following the path of least resistance to Roll20 and the well-supported, and still world's most popular, 5th edition D&D. For this year's One Page contest I thought I'd work-up an area based on the campaign.

Here I must ask my current players to look no further!

The campaign is set in a region of Mittellus, far away from where eight years ago the Game of Iron campaign began. It is a desert-ringed land, culturally combining ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruling empire a torpid and death-obsessed metropolis amid concentric canals that divert its life-giving river. There is more promise in the vassal kingdoms. The campaign began at the edge of one of these, Wahattu, which had recently seen its neighbor Dulsharna fall to incursions of gnolls.

My principal goal was to make this campaign last longer in game time than previous ones, which had compressed three or more years of real-time play into less than a game-year. To this end, characters would spend months between levels training up. I also wanted to give the players more of a stake in the land by having them sponsor and economically improve the last bordering village, Alakran.

After about 12 sessions they have had some outdoor and social adventures, and run through two adapted scenarios I placed in the map (Jason Morningstar's Khas Fara from Fight on! #2, their introduction to Alarkan; and following a newly dry streambed to relieve a family of flying camels from drought, they found it had been diverted to feed the fell doings of the Sinister Shroom, whose Pod Caverns lay below).

I might have more to say about this low-level economic game, and about 5th edition in general. later on. But right now, here's the entry ... wherein the players have only ventured to, and been soundly thrashed in, the bronze cedar tomb.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Some Odd Experiences

Although my current RPG campaign is on hiatus I got two chances recently to introduce novices to roleplaying using Chris McDowall's Into the Odd. This is not a review so much as a breakdown of what works and what doesn't work for me.


Character generation is simple and yields perfect shabby-Victorian protagonists for this weird industrial setting, more punk than steam. Starting equipment is derived super quickly, balancing out poor stat rolls with better stuff. All magic resides in things (arcana) and nobody is extra at anything. You are only as good as your starting rolls, your stuff, and later your levels which let you survive better.

The Oddpendium is a fabulous gaggle of percentile tables that let you quickly generate info about characters, places, and things. It conveys and embroiders the setting.

New players love the quirky characters and the quick dive into action. There are real Every-beings without super-powers or fancy tricks. The system forces low cunning and inventiveness to get by.


Behind the screen (well, the uptilted book) I was sweating a little. The system outright omits some features I am used to in judging adventurous events.

No skills, just saves vs. ability scores. I guess this makes a statement about the replaceability of characters and importance of possessions in an industrial world. I found it more fun and characterizing to roll a random former profession and give an extra roll, or "advantage" in 5e terms, on saves related to it. And "saves" can be proactive, covering any player action that is unsure to work. New players really need all the hooks for character they can grab.

Combat is simple and safe-till-it's-deadly; being in combat means you score a die roll's amount of damage which is taken first from hit points, which high level characters and monsters have more of, and then from Strength. Each wound to Strength requires a Strength save or you are incapacitated, and dead if not tended to. Advantage and disadvantage in combat means using a bigger or smaller die. Armor can only reduce 1 point of damage, or more for certain monsters.

I like the limited armor - that's in-setting - and randomly deadly wounds. But -- I find there's something you miss by not having a hit roll or the possibility of defense in melee. There's firearms, so taking a long shot seems particularly poor to model and not well covered by the disadvantage idea. You can try to flee when your hit points are zero, but they'll always be able to "hit" you as you run.

At a minimum I suggest: To get a shot in at long range with a ranged weapon, save Dex at disadvantage. Medium range, just save Dex. Automatic damage at close or point blank range.

In close melee, damage with fists (d4) or short bladed weapon (d6) or claws/teeth is automatic. With surprise, damage is also automatic. At swords' length, each attacker saves vs. Dex to hit, and each defender gets one Dex save against one attacker to parry or evade. To speed up a fight you can take Disadvantage on the attack to force the defender to do the same on the defense. If a successful hit is met with a successful parry, both sides roll damage and the difference is applied to the loser.


Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Failed Monster Designs

Although I have written about bad monsters in RPGs, you can identify another type I have sometimes written about: the failed monster, whose basic idea is OK but whose mechanics are off. Either it's too weak or too strong relative to expectations, or just not a good join-up between concept and implementation.

Some examples, from AD&D first edition, with my writings about the first three:

  • Ghosts are super-powered, with “zap” effects like aging and possession, but aren’t really true to the variety of their source material. It's a similar failure to golems. There should be lower-level hostile living statues (as in Basic D&D) and lower-level hostile hauntings.
  • The gelatinous cube as a 4 HD bag of hit points just doesn’t, er, gel.
  • Piercers can be much improved. 
  • The carrion crawler with eight attacks is an overpowered paralysation machine. It hits plate and shield on a 14. Good luck!
  • The slithering tracker is an undescribed, underdeveloped monster – really, more of an effect -- of consummate unfairness.It tracks you invisibly, paralyzes you in your sleep, and kills in six turns. There is no way to set watch for it unless you're willing to prod sleeping comrades every hour for a reaction.
  • AD&D dragons are borderline failed. Certainly their implementation in 70’s-80’s D&D, with fixed HP and breath weapon damage, substitutes “special” for “scary,” and has been repudiated by every edition since and even some retro-clones.
  • Harpies are mixed-up with sirens. There should be just normal shitbird harpies. Charm-harpies should be more powerful than they’re given credit for, with squads of charmed minions.
  • The oddly specific horror story of the night hag is hard to use in actual adventuring. Like the Fiend Folio’s penanggalan and revenant, the hag’s description is focused on her threat to a lone civilian. It's assumed the party is supposed to barge in upon and rectify the haunting and draining by the hag, even though the victim by definition has to be exceedingly evil.
A common theme in these and other failures: indecision about combat encounters. There's a desire to make monsters about more than a line of stats, to make fighting them a matter of strategy and decisions as well as lining up and whaling on them. But these work better as rules than as haphazard monster effects. That way the strategy can generalize, and be inverted, working for both sides. Just some examples, some of which I've written on:
  • Monsters can be scarier, and true to life, by coming into close combat where your weapons are less effective.
  • Little monsters can, and must, climb you. You can also, and must also, climb big monsters.
  • Flying monsters should be annoying as hell.
  • Immunity/resistance to weapon effects. No flesh, can't slash. Nothing hard, can't bash. No vital points, can't pierce.
  • Monsters with that one weakness. Puzzle monsters, in a word; murderous locks with murdering keys.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Gloriously Water-Logged Mines

In writing adventure material, nothing pays off like primary research. Look into the lives of rats, and you find that they are purblind and communicate subvocally. Pay attention to stone, and you find that at the juncture of limestone and granite sometimes grows a layer called skarn, laced with gold, copper, and gems. Architecture, chemistry, botany: as much as they constrain design with realism, they also open up intriguing possibilities with the ring of reality to them.

Lack of research also shows. How many lost mines, dwarven or not, have been written up for adventures? How many of them have been glommed together from the residue of Moria-sublime (halls, chasms, demons) and Wild-West-banal (railcarts, lifts, ingots)? The one thing that's certain is that horrible things from the deep have been unleashed and are now running around in the place. But can we do better in setting the scene?

Waterwheel-driven pump
Even cursory research turns up one detail of deep metal mining, in medieval Europe or any other civilization, that presents enormous challenges. Below the water table, mines tend to flood. The simplest solution: dig a drainage channel, or adit, to lower ground. But this presumes your mine sits on higher ground from somewhere. Deep mines don't have this luxury.

So, pump the water out. At first people pass buckets hand to hand, then as craft deepens, machines use hand power, mule power, water power to lift out the groundwater using buckets, screws, suction pipes and tubes. All these latter solutions need keeping up, and once the mine is abandoned, the lower levels partly or fully fill with water.

Flooded floors, concealing pits and swimming monsters; flooded tunnels, requiring magic light and water breathing to have any chance of mere survival. Or, another way: get the old pumping machinery working again and see how much you can clear out, and what treasures lie in the murk.

All this assumes a pre-industrial European level of technology. But a fantasy world also has dwarves, that people of notably precocious craft. Indeed, one solution only they might reach comes from the computer construction game Dwarf Fortress, whose worldbuilding is as complex as its graphics are crude. The game simulates groundwater by having some settlements sit over an aquifer level, whose water floods and ruins all construction beneath it. The way past the aquifer requires one of many complicated engineering solutions, including rapid pumping, opening a shaft to cold air that will freeze the water, or dropping a "plug" of dry stone into the wet level and boring through it.

Dropping the "plug"

Although Dwarf Fortress simplifies the geological reality of seepage, the plug idea suggests that dwarves might have the skill to locate the source of groundwater and simply wall it off with non-porous stone. Maybe the water is controlled and channeled into a reservoir, for drinking and industrial use.

Allow a certain amount of magic in mining, and the pumping operation can be helped in a dozen ways. Maybe the dwarven priests have deals with elementals, or maybe these solutions are found among other underground peoples, like the dark elves. Golems can be set the task of working the pumps. The miners themselves breathe water in flooded galleries. Magic freezes flooded caverns so that ice tunnels can be dug through. A portable hole, or elemental portal, does the work of an adit in draining off water. And what might come through the portal the wrong way?

Another difference: human metal production historically had to be distributed over several sites, because the material for processing ore -- water, wood, and aboveground oxygen -- was not present within a mine, and not necessarily plentiful close to it. Dwarves, though, live entirely underground. Their mine dungeons necessarily include areas for crushing ore, then sorting and filtering the metal-bearing compounds through the action of water. They need to smelt ore in the heat of a furnace, creating liquid metal. If steel is being made, the fuel needs to infuse the raw iron with carbon. Most likely for dwarves this will be mineral coal rather than the medieval-era charcoal. Why not have the facilities for shaping and working metal objects right there to hand as well? A whole complex suggests itself. The only limit is availability of fresh air and water, which architecture or elementals need to supply. And Dwarf Fortress gives another idea: using the earth's own magma to power fierce furnaces.

In short, thinking about realistic logistics can take you places in design your unconstrained imagination never would. It can insert unforeseen challenges into mundane mines, or underwrite the need for a thematically varied industrial site in the more fantastic variety.