Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Letting The Dice Fall Where They May

When I was a young DM at the ripe age of nine, oh those many years ago, I didn't quite understand the full concept of the fantasy role-playing game. We would pick a cool monster (usually if we had a mini for it) which would battle a first level hack of a character, for example, a 5 headed hydra battling a single first level fighter.

Needless to say, our first level characters died……often.

Even with finding treasure, at times I would think oh this treasure is too much or too powerful or not enough and I would alter it.

So in those aery days the concept of 'fudging' the die rolls became the norm - at least for D&D.

Jump ahead some 30+ years and lo' your wisdom score improves.

Fudging die rolls is no longer on the table. Philosophically, the game is suppose to be an exploration in randomness. Dice determine everything within the game from the characters themselves to the dungeon encounters, treasures, weather, tattoos - whatever.

Now I embrace the entire concept of the crazy randomness of the game. Perhaps it took me these many years to finally fully comprehend the freedom that implies.

Let go…..

Let it be….

In our campaigns, I've mixed dungeons that I've created with what other folks have created. If treasures are too small, so be it. The PCs just risked their worthless lives for nothing. If an awesome treasure is guarded by a not so awesome monster, well, stranger things have happened.

I've learned to trust in the skills of other dungeon designers and let the game fall where it may.

Case in point, in one of the dungeons that I've adapted to one of the levels of our Tower of Zenopus campaign (I'll fill you in on who created that another time but it's one of my favorite finds on the interwebs), the dungeon designer emphasized the dangers of the icy blue lava. He also pointed out certain percentages of fails when trying to accomplish a very dangerous task involving this lava even giving the thief class an extra bonus. I loved his dungeon and took his 'guidelines' to heart. So when our favorite thief character attempted to do the exact task described in the dungeon key, lo and behold, the dice roll came up as a major fail, character fell in the blue lava and instant death! No saves. Just death. End of character.

Table shock!

No second guessing on my part. You play, you loose, you die.

The player took it in stride, of course as it's just a game, and even wrote up a final character explanation to his recklessness.

Another memorable game death.

And that's important. Characters need to die (at times). It keeps the game dangerous. If, as a DM, you're always trying to 'save' your PCs then what's the point? What's the risk? Death is a random thing. Let it be that in your game. There's always ways for characters to 'save' off death but in some instances death comes and there's just nothing you can do about it.

Embrace that randomness.

Anyway, my point is that do not second guess anything in the game. Let the dice fall where they may, let the treasures and monsters be what they are. Let the game be what it wants to be.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dungeon Time-Tracker

Timekeeping during dungeon exploration is a crucial component for any game session and it's up to the DM to note this detail. Time keeping is important in knowing when to roll for wandering monsters, how long a spell may last as well as the use of torches, lanterns and other PC resources.

This gaming aid will help the DM keep track of rounds, turns and monsters encountered during a game session. It's based on my Campaign Journal gaming aid but has been simplified just for time keeping during dungeon exploration.

US 8.5 X 11

Europe A4

Time keeping is just a mechanic of the game and doesn't have to slog down game play. If PCs explore a room for example, a turn is checked off and descriptions are given. A DM doesn't have to drag time out.

Time keeping notes:

I usually just check off the time whether it be rounds or turns. If I'm keeping track of Torches or Spells, I use a notation T6 for a torch lasting 6 turns, S3 for a Spell lasting 3 turns, P12 for a Potion lasting 12 turns etc. You can use whatever system you like for the above mentioned or any other item you like such as Effects of poison or duration of spells effects.

In my campaign each round lasts 10 seconds; so 6 rounds is equal to 1 minute and 60 rounds is equal to a single turn (if combats take that long)

I usually mark a completion of a turn after a melee, the extra time being taken up resting, binding wounds, etc.

According to the 1st ed DMG (pg 38), A party should be required to rest 1 turn every 6. I don't always use this rule but I think it is a good one. It doesn't have to slow the game down either. Just checking off an additional turn is all that is needed.

Searching a 30X30 space takes 1 turn

Searching for a secret door along a 30 foot section of wall takes 1 turn.

If players discuss a course of action their PC should take, depending on how long the conversation takes place, I may check a turn off.

Torches traditionally last 6 turns or 1 hour. This can sometimes be amended to make things more interesting by letting them burn for 1d4+4 turns (from BFRPG). To keep it simple I usually go with just the 6 turn torch.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Session XXXIII: Lost!

After much debate about whether to go directly after Zenopus or seek out the Eye of Zenopus, a magical crystal that can return the site to Onyx the blind wizard who can then read the recovered spellbook of Zenopus and aid our heroes in their fight against Zenopus, it was decided to seek out the Crystal.

During this time, Gnarly returned to his cave in Harrowood to grow another Mushroom-man companion.

With the arrival of spring the townsfolk's spirits are high though there is a wary caution hovering in the air. There have been mysterious disappearances along the southern road to Brakken and Pirate ships have been spied once again in the distance.

As Arvin's Avengers prepared for another descent, Wolfheir and Adara (who have turned evil after exploring a magical room) were nowhere to be found, while Televon was discovered to be in his Moon-tower entranced with his moon-milk. So Slick Vinny, Tibag, Skwanky, Maudlin and Gnarly along with a few of his Mushroom-men in tow descend beneath the tower.

Making their way deep below the ground they once again enter the furnished room where their other companions had lost a battle with their evil selves. While in the chamber Vinny casts a Locate Object spell to seek out a magical crystal. Casting the spell, however leaves the adventurers in the room to long and the magic takes hold of them once again. Vinny, Gnarly and Tibag fall asleep while (evil) Skwanky and Maudlin engage in combat with their opposite selves.

The dwarf, after a brutal battle, defeats her evil self once again!

The halfling, however, who had earlier battled against his evil self and lost now found his conscious evil self in melee with his unconscious good self. In this case, the good Skwanky over came the evil Skwanky, forcing him back into his sub-conscious.

With the battles of the Sub-conscious over the party awakens and quickly leaves the room to continue their journey, still no closer to finding the Eye of Zenopus.

They worked their way through some twisting passages eventually coming upon a chamber filled with Zombies. After a battle with burning oil and swords (and a halfling atop a Mushroom-man) the zombies lay dead with the party little worse for ware.

Beyond that room they found hall where there were three doors. Beyond each of these doors were swirling colored portals. Before anyone could stop him, Skwanky leaped through one of the portals and disappeared!

Cursing the halfling and debating whether to leave him to his own fate, Tibag and Slick Vinny experiment with the portals by tossing things through them. Not having any luck determining what might happen to someone or something going through the portal, Tibag thought about sacrificing himself by leaping through the portal and trying to bring the troublesome halfling back. Gnarly decided to send his owl Tuk through the portal and, being able to 'see' through the eyes of his familiar determine the fate of their companion.

Meanwhile, Skwanky, having passed through the portal found himself in complete darkness. Lighting a torch he discovered that he was in a cavern with a passage headed south. Before he had a chance to explore more, items being sent through the portal by his companions appeared behind him, however, there was no way to return through the portal from which he came. It was only one way!

Soon, Tuk the owl appeared with Skwanky.

The others, after Gnarly relayed what Tuk had seen, decided to follow the halfling through and share their fate together. Soon they were all on the other side of the one-way portal not knowing where in the earth or universe they may be.

Maudlin the dwarf deduced that they were at least deeper beneath the surface than they were before. A lower level, perhaps?

Together again the party moved through the cave until it opened up into a large cavern. In one corner was a large primitive looking statue, but that wasn't the oddity. What they found scattered randomly throughout the cave were a number of giant eye-balls embedded within the floor blinking and staring, watching the intruders every move.

Further within the large cavern was what appeared to be blue lava flowing from a small opening and passing down a passage in the east.

Tibag explored the statue while Skwanky examined one of the eyes. The halfling looked into the eye and saw only the eye staring back at him but detected a consciousness behind it. He moved onto another eye and at this one became almost hypnotized by it. Within the halfling's mind, he saw the most grotesque images of indescribable and unimaginable horror; empty pantries, wasted food, bare cupboards. That was too much for little Skwanky and he went running madly and screaming in horror down the passageway.

Slick Vinny, having had enough of his tiny impulsive companion, pulled out a wand and paralyzed Skwanky in his tracks!

Gnarly ordered one of the Mushroom-men to hoist the halfling under it's arms and carry him along and along with the party feeling it best to leave the room of the eyeballs behind, walked down the twisting east passage.

The blue lava flowed along the tunnel which were still filled with the embedded eyeballs. Finally the blue lava crossed their path and they had to work their way over it which was a bit of a challenge for the weak (Vinny) and the stubby (Maudlin).

As they proceeded the cave narrowed to just a thin opening. Walking single file they passed a number of opening on either side but continued south. Eventually the passage opened up into a cavern filled with mist as warm air from the east mingled with the chilly air above the blue lava.

Trying to cross the eyeball littered cavern the party heard a deep hooting sound soon followed by a growl. Gnarly, sending Tuk the owl in the direction of the sound, saw the party being approached by a large Owlbear. Quick thinking Vinny ensnared the beast with a web spell trapping it. With the beast trapped, Tibag and Maudlin hacked away at it until it died with the ever watchful eyeballs observing.

Exploring the southern portion of the cavern where the Owlbear had come from, they found a narrow cave opening where the blue lava was flowing into. There was a narrow ledge leading into this cave. Tibag worked his way along the edge but slipped. And to the horror of his companions fell into the icy blue lava, freezing into a fragile crystalline form and was swept away into the darkness never to be heard from again.

Slick Vinny, Maudlin and Gnarly were in shock while the paralyzed halfling shed a tear. They were now trapped and lost beneath the surface of the earth.

To Be Continued…..

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The First Avenger Preview

When I was growing up, besides Spider-man, Captain America was my favorite superhero Whether he was solo, fighting with the Falcon or assembling the Avengers there was something about his costume, honor and determination that struck a chord with me (hey, it's a comic book and I was like 7 years old). So to say that I'm a bit excited about how the new movie is looking is an understatement. It looks like they're hitting all the right buttons with this one...well take a look for yourself. (if you can't see this well enough 'cause of my site layout, check it out here)

WWII, The Red Skull, The Howling Commandos, Flying Wings, dare I say...the Cosmic Cube!
"This summer, enter the world of the Super Soldier!" (I'm not comparing previews or anything).

Captain America: The First Avenger is the prelude to the upcoming Avengers movie and will tie a lot of the other Marvel films together. Not a bad concept if they pull it off with class.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Anything Can Happen Sandbox

So, all I can say is what a session we had on Monday.

My players and I have been talking about taking a hiatus from our Swords & Wizardry campaign to get our feet wet with some other rpgs (Savage Worlds, DC Superheroes, Paranoia and perhaps Traveller). Mostly one-shots / small campaigns. I've been getting a bit burnt-out behind the screen and it would be fun to be a player for a while.

So we all agreed.

The campaign plot threads were building up to a type of episode 1 climax and I thought it would be a great time to leave everyone hanging with some shocking developments until we get back to the campaign in a couple of months.

Well, the best laid plans…..

In a sandbox campaign, especially this one, I pretty much let the players head in whatever direction they want to. Whenever I made plans for what should happen it pretty much never went that way. So I've given up on planning the sessions at all. I did plan out Monday's session to begin bringing various plot threads, hooks, npcs, etc. to a head.

The players, true to their nature, chose a totally different path, unexpected and unplanned for and are now in quite a predicament well outside the events going on in the outside world. It really emphasizes the aspect of really not needing any large plot happenings or world changing events as the players tend to get themselves into enough trouble to last sessions!

So what may be our last S&W session for a while while we branch off into some other adventures turned out to be quite the cliffhanging conclusion. That session left our player's characters in two groups with one dead original member of the party having been swallowed in a flow of blue ice lava (only 3 original PCs remain), the dungeon map destroyed(?) with the dead character, the party trapped and lost beneath the tower having traveled through a one way portal, two characters, having lost to their evil-selves, are partying in Caladan and a Cleric getting high off of Moon-milk in the Moon Tower. All this while the vampyre Zenopus is still on the loose and other world events coming to a head.

This seems as good a place as any to be continued….!

Full session recap coming shortly!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poll Results: Who's Your Barbarian?

The results are in!

It seems, almost without surprise, that Frank Frazetta's vision of the swords & fantasy barbarian is by far the most popular based on the Warlock's No-So-Scientific Poll.

It's not hard to wonder why as his paintings and drawings exemplify the explosive fury and savagery of this warrior archetype and has defined it for over 40 years. See for yourself.

You can't disagree with that!

The second most popular vision/version of the barbarian archetype goes to John Buscema and his iconic Conan the Barbarian illustrations. It's hard to dispute that when a whole generation grew up with his interpretations of the exploits of Howard's Hyborean-aged savage-warrior-king. Buscema does have a very dynamic classical quality with everything he does, whether it's superheroes, Tarzan or Conan.

Finally, coming in as the third favorite of everyone's concept of the barbarian, we surprising have Saturday morning's Thundarr the Barbarian. It's hard not to see why when you have the character concepts of Jack Kirby and an impulsive barbarian in a mutant future age. Savage, fearless and not taking shit from any mutant wizard Thundarr was a Barbarian through and through and the cartoon captured the world and character like a bullseye. There's no way a cartoon like this will ever make it onto the post-Nancy-Reagan era Saturday cartoon world.

After that we have a tie between Arnie's portrait of the warrior and the classic, historical image of those marauding hoards.

Sorry Groo!

Though there are many images that try to capture this savage warrior in all it's glory there was one that we all agreed upon that wasn't even close. You never want your barbarian to appear as this guy here:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poll: Who's Your Barbarian?

The Barbarian in Public Consciousness
Somewhere along the path of pop culture the concept of a barbarian became this hulking musclebound idiot.
Barbarians are really nothing of the sort. My friend Mike put it in the best possible terms when he said "They're warriors, not body builders."

And he's right.

Somewhere, the concept of barbarian became this bulky, giant sword wielding, long-haired heavy metal freak (no offense to any bulky, sword wielding long haired heavy metal fans out there).

So I'm taking a poll as to what is your iconic image of the Barbarian?

The samples are below while the poll itself is to the right.

1. 1930's pulp hero Conan?
2. The Savage Tarzan?
3. These more historical guys?
4. Greek Myth Hercules?
5. Keven Sorbo Hercules?
6. Genghis Khan?
7. Frazetta's Conan?
8. Barry Windsor Smith's Conan?
9. Buscema's Conan?
10. Margaret Brundage's Conan?
11. This Cartoon Guy?
12. Groo?
13. Cerebus?
14. A'nold
15. World of Warcraft barbarian?
16. The guy in this poster?

17. Sun-Sword wielding Thundarr?

18. A Spartan (the movie kind)?

This is America so feel free to vote more than once and let the bodies pile up!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Thoughts On The Upcoming Conan Movie

Now that the first teaser trailer is out for the new Conan the Barbarian (2011) I feel it's time to say a few words.

I don't like to say anything if I don't have anything positive to say, but....

Since there has been a trickle of photo stills from the sets of the film I can't say that I've been much impressed with what I've seen. I'll admit that these are pre post production shots meaning that lighting and tinting can be altered after the fact. I can't help but think Si-Fi original TV movie (that's Si-Fi and not Sci-Fi). I think that even more-so with the teaser trailer.

This time 'round, Conan is played by Jason Momoa (from Stargate Atlantis). Mamoa may be a decent actor and he's not as 'bulky' as Arnold, a plus in my book (like my friend Mike says, "he's a warrior not a body builder"), but every time I see Mamoma's Conan I just don't quite see the character of the Cimmarian. Don't get me wrong, he's no-name enough (for me anyways) to play the part (no typecasting here) but that may be less Momoa's fault and more of the director Marcus Nispel (and through him, the art direction, set design and costumes).

Now maybe the film-makers will tint his eyes a steely blue in post, I'm crossing my fingers.

Say what you will about the 1st flick from the 80's but one thing you have to (hopefully) agree upon is that the art direction by Ron Cobb did set a certain Hyborian mood with it's Frazetta influenced sets. Sure, the movie itself may have been more Kull than Conan but the bulky Arnold did work to some extent in the role of the character (in a more Buscema kinda way). And John Milius' took the Howard vision (as a whole feeling and mood) to heart (IMHO) to a great extent. Was that the perfect Conan movie? I'd have to say not but it did get some things right.

Now Hollywood has to break away from the burly barbarian heavy metal over-sized sword concept of the character and redefine it more closer to Howard's powerful yet cat-like thief-warrior-king. I hope they try to do that in the new movie but from the teaser trailer I don't get that impression. Do we have to leave this up to fan films to do right? Has Hollywood failed again? We'll know in a few months.

All Conan fans have a different impression of the character and that may be hard for any one actor or director to satisfy. But get it in the ballpark at least or let it be.

It's a great character, with fantastic gritty stories. Only time will tell if the new movie even gets close to that.

Can't say that I'm overly excited for this one at the moment.

Oh and speaking of everyone's individual impression of Howard's barbarian, my first exposure to the Conan character was when I was about 5 years old when I had the Marvel Treasury Edition of Rogues in the House and Red Nails so I have a very Barry Windsor Smith vision of the one day king.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Session XXXII: Chaos!

The theme of this past session was chaos and I mean that in more ways than one. First, we had a full table which was rather rambunctious (to the extreme even for us). Second, there was a trapped room that altered some PC's alignments. So it was an unruly game in more ways than one. I, as DM, probably could have controlled the table a bit better as well as some game elements but when the table is loud and chaotic, it's hard to maintain some of the flow of the game as well as making on the fly judgments. Oh, and actual role-playing is like climbing a mountain on your hands and knees. But alas, on with the recap.

As the party explore the 'mirrored' room they are joined by Televon and Gnarly along with his mushrooms. Exploring the room, some of the party began to fall asleep upon the divans and couches. Maudlin, Adesa, Skwanky and Wolfheir, who were still awake saw the others disappear until each is alone in the room with a mirrored version of themselves. The mirrored version is an evil version and attacks. Maudlin fought off the evil Maudlin by catching the tossed dwarve's hammer and then hammering evil Maudlin into oblivion.

Adessa, Skwanky and Wolf, however were not as lucky. They were defeated by their evil selves.

After their individual battles, they reappeared with the rest of the party and their sleeping comrades awakened. Wolfheir began to smash things in a rage.

The party finished exploring the chamber and Gnarly found a stone in the ceiling hanging from a chain. Having one of his mushrooms pull on the stone revealed a secret door. Beyond the opening was a small furnished living chamber with a door.

Going through the door they found a furnished bedroom unused for quite some time. Examining the room they discovered Zenopus' spell book!

While Wolfheir began to smash his way through this room's furniture, Skwanky explored down a passage that was filled with heavy webs. A torch was tossed in to burn the webs but immediately, two large spiders leaped out and bite the halfling who goes down poisoned and drooling. Adesa and the others leaped in to slay the arachnids. Before they fall, however, Adesa too sucumbs to the poison of the spiders.

As their two comrades lie there dying, it is decided to head back to the surface and try to heal them before it is too late.

They make it back to Caladan and Skwanky and Adesa are brought to the temple of Mithra and cured of their poison. Slick Vinny, meanwhile heads to the Cloven Hoof to talk with Onyx the old wizard that use to live in the tower before he was blinded by Zenopus. Onyx confirms that this is Zenopus' spellbook and they if Arvin's Avengers can find the Eye of Zenopus, he will be able to read the book, regain his spells and aid them in their fight against Zenopus.

Vinny decides to hide out in the Cloven Hoof in case Zenopus comes looking for the book.

So the session sort of ended at that point. With a rowdy table and three characters that switched alignments things were a little more up in the air than usual. I don't feel that I handled the battles amongst the good and evil selves to best keep the table involved and I think that's where things began to break down. I also didn't expect three of four characters loosing to their evil counter-part. That always throws a player for a loop in terms of his character concept. They have to suddenly shift gears and I think some of that was handled pretty well with the players. With some time to think about it I think they'll have a better handle next session.

I'll be clarifying a few things with the players this week over email to smooth things out and fill in some of the blanks from last session.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

More Minis

This week's theme at the Home Brew seems to be about minis, so here are a couple that I recently painted. The first one was given to me by my players to celebrate or first whole year of campaigning. It's from Otherworld Miniatures and needs no introduction...

I like to have a mini for the main 'villain(s)' in the campaign and if you've been following along, I introduce you to Zenopus!

Believe it or not, I've never painted a dragon mini so this is the first. It's an actual lead mini that I picked up at a yard sale (along with about 50 other minis for $5).

And here are some men at arms....

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Behind the Screen Part 4: Miniatures

Continuing my behind the screen series on what I use for gaming at my table. The first 3 parts are linked at the bottom of this post.

I've talked about the pros and cons of using minis in your game session here and here. In a classic style game they're not really needed as the combats tend to be loose and fast. In fact, in our sessions we've gotten through some pretty mass combats without the aid of miniatures.

Still, there's something alluring about having minis a part of your play. Even if you don't actually use them, to have a tiny representation of your character that you spent time painting is part of the pleasure of the game.

I've tried to bring minis into the game off and on but they just haven't stuck. As a DM though, using minis on the tabletop does help when there is a lot of players (in our case 8) and folks are exploring rooms, heading off into different directions and battling hoards of grim crypt crawlers.

So I've come up with a couple of solutions.

So to save time on painting some minis such as hirelings, I go with a dry brushed silver over black. It gives the details some definition as well as makes the fully painted PC minis stand out more. Plus I think these look classy like chess pieces ("Mongo only pawn in game of life").
I picked up these guys with about 50 other minis for $5 at a yard sale!

Another problem with minis is that, as a DM, you usually have to supply all the monsters. That means there could be hundreds of possible creatures to choose from with multiple instances of these creatures; 20 orcs, 50 goblins, etc. I like to keep the game as inexpensive as possible and it occurred to me that minis are just simple representations of what is happening on the table top in just a brief moment of game time so why 'invest' a lot of time and money into buying and painting monster minis?

Moving on to the hoards of monsters and other creepy crawlies, I tried to use paper minis and you can find a bunch online but the issue with those is storage and durability. They tend to get...crushed.

I like the concept of tokens. They're compact and durable. You can place them on the table quickly and they're still abstract enough to not distract from the role-playing at the table. But I wanted to spice up my tokens a bit with an old school feel.

So I picked up some 1 inch wooden discs online, bought a 1 inch hold punch at a craft store, pulled out a bunch of my classic books (Monster Manual, modules, etc) and began scanning. And this is what I ended up with.

I like using the black and white images as I feel that it doesn't distract at the table. The black and white stands out enough for one to see what it is without having to focus on it. Black and white, IMO, lends itself open to one's imagination.

Now, since I used copyrighted images for my tokens, I can't give you the finished sheets but I can give you the photoshop / GIMP template file (see below) for you to make your own tokens.

  1. Just scan your artwork at 300 dpi greyscale
  2. Drag them into the template
  3. Size them to fit within the mask.
Make as many copies of the monsters as you need to. A sample of one of my sheets is below.

Once you fill your sheet, print them without any scaling.

Pop the paper tokens out with a 1" hole-punch then glue them to the wooden discs.

Your hordes of the Underworld will be ready to wreck havoc on your unsuspecting party.

To go along with the tokens and the minis I've made some custom dungeon tiles. Again, they are very simple, nothing too distracting from the focus of the game, the role-playing. The grid on the tiles are 1 1/4 inch squares (five feet game scale) which will work great with your based minis and tokens.

I bet these guys are thinking they should have stayed in the tavern!

To cap this all off, I picked up an unfinished wooden box and with a little work created a storage for the minis and the tiles.

Cheap hoards
Free tiles
Hours of gaming fun!


1" Wooden Discs
1" Paper Hole Punch
The Warlock's Dungeon Tiles
Token Template TIF File (about 9mb) Right click and save as onto your desktop. It's a layered TIFF file so it should open up in both Photoshop and GIMP.

Behind the Screen Part 1: Rules and Supplements
Behind the Screen Part 2: The Screen
Behind the Screen Part 3: Random Charts