One Does Not Simply Walk Under Illefarn

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912After several evenings of storming the dungeons of The Temple of Elemental Evil we decided to put the module to a rest since not too much happened, as the dungeons were deadly and it kept being supplied by new monsters, forcing the players to deal with areas they had already explored. Instead we decided to play N5 Under Illefarn (1987), which consists of three small introductory adventures and then a huge dwarven mine divided by three factions.

One does not simply walk into the mines of Illefarn. Its dark corridors are patrolled by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The dreadful necromancer and the dwarven prince are ever watchful. It is a barren dungeon, riddled with old traps, new traps, and empty rooms. The water rushing from the mines is a poisonous sludge. Not with ten thousand sessions could you map this. It is folly.

Boromir on exploring the dwarven mines of lost Illefarn.


One Does Not Simply Walk into Temple of Elemental Evil

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912This blog has been quiet for all too long. I shall attempt to raise it from its slumber, as have not been quiet regarding roleplaying. Revently I have explored Temple of Elemental Evil with my homebrewed OSR Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands).

One does not simply walk into The Temple of Elemental Evil. Its black corridors are haunted by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. Zuggtmoy er ever watchful. It is a multi-level dungeon, riddled with fire, air and earth. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand party members could you explore this. It is folly.

Boromir on playing Temple of Elemental Evil.


[Review] Numenera – Tales from the Ninth World

So I kickstarted Numenera, and as part of that, I received the short story collection Tales from the Ninth World by Monte Cook and Shanna Germain. Normally I don’t read fantasy though plenty of science fiction, horror and weird fiction (though I do read fantasy, but it is mostly sword & sorcery-stuff or books published before 1980, such as Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earth Sea) – and stories in Numenera are somewhere bordering fantasy and science fiction. Also I normally don’t read books written in established universes like the Warhammer-stories, Star Wars-stories or D&D-stories. Mostly because I can’t help suspect that it is just written to order, and without the vision that an author brings to his or her own stories. This is probably way to too simplified, as some authors are skilled enough to produce good stories and some do have an interest for writing in established universes (though I soon discovered, that ).

So with this in mind I usually would not have bothered with reading Tales from the Ninth Universe, but vacation was coming up, so I grabbed a bunch e-books and went on vacation.

The anthology consists of three stories each with a sense in the title (smell, taste, sound) signaling the exploration of the Numenera-setting, one by Monte Cook, one by Shanna Germain, and one co-written by the two. All three stories takes place in the Numenera-setting, they all assume some sort of familiarity with the setting, and they are not very good. I was mostly bored reading them, as they felt unfinished and focused on showing the setting, but not about exploring it or telling stories. Just showing the setting.

The first story, The Smell of Lightening, is about a boy growing up in a mysterious castle containing strange secrets, and among the palace’s peculiarities is the fact, that the building grows. The boy belongs to noble family, and his father is secretly delving into the secrets of the castle in order to harness its powers. Then one day arrives a young man masquerading as a servant, but he belongs to another secret order of explorers rivaling the father, and belonging the good guys’ order. Where the father views the building through a lens of magic and ritual, the explorer views it through science some what. The boy explores the castle along with the explorer, discovers a rift in reality, and later learns of his father’s behavior, and vows to stop his father. Mostly the story read as an outline for an even larger story. Much more time could have been spend exploring the premise and the situation, but it is instead just cut short. In a sense I feel I have read the story before, the premise of the ancient house with its many secrets and a lifetime spent exploring it have interesting predecessors, but here it just touches on the story, shows us elements from the Numenera-setting and goes nowhere.

The second story, The Taste of Memory, is about a scoundrel with some weird ability to hide in shadows and a mechanical bird with an addiction for colored inks from octopi-creatures that produces experiences. She returns to her home harbor town, runs into a mutant streetgirl, and she is suffering from her addiction, as she needs a fix. She encounters a fella with a cover story, and she follows the streetchild to a hidden place through a gate, where she confronts her mom, who has developed a new version of the drug. Then the fella tracks our protagonist, steps through the gate, and there the story ends. Once again it felt like reading a story cut short, and one that were exploring some elements in the Numenera-universe, but elements established somewhere else, and therefore not really introduced in the story (this is another reason for not reading stories in established universes, they skip parts of the world building, because they assume the reader is already familiar with these elements). Though better written than the first story, it sort of just ends after having made its reveal (Look! A new drug with new effects!).

The third story, The Sound of a Beast, is the worst of the three. Mostly it is a dull tour of the setting presenting various monsters and places with out narrator travelling with a band of companions and a hostage as they encounter monsters and bad weather (though the idea of rain as monsters is a fine one), which forces them to seek refuge in a tower, where the inhabitants are also monsters, and after a huge fight the story ends. As an evening of gaming this might be entertaining, but as a story it feels like reading a fictionalized report from a session, and it is dull. Again the story’s main focus is on showing the setting, and certain parts of the setting are left unexplained assuming some knowledge of the setting – or just forgetting to present it to the reader, had it not been that the story actively chooses not to explain the elements.

Generally the three stories were a disappointing read, and I am somewhat more cautious of what to expect from Numenera. I like the art of the setting, and the overarching idea of the setting is very interesting – and mostly what attracted me to Numenera in the first place – whereas the rules seems mostly to be one of the many new systems drawing ideas and mechanics from the many new indie/forge/story games and applying them to 90′s style systems, and I am slightly curious to see, if there is anything to the rules.


A New XP-system: Exploration-based Rewards

Recently I noticed, that Erik Mona does not like the experience point system – and thus have created his own system – and it reminds of how I have been doing XP myself.

On the good old pre-2000 days, you killed an orc and gained some XP. You might get 50 points or so, and only needing a few thousands, then that was ok. Unless you played D&D becmi, where an orc gave 10 points, and your first level fighter needed 2000 to go up a level. Then collecting treasures became really important.

But even with the increased XP values of monsters in AD&D, once you needed 10.000 or even more XP, killing a few monsters granting some hundreds XP or so resulted in bookkeeping XP just felt meaningless. This also began being reflected in scenarios, where you huge sums of XP were being granted for reaching the end of a module, and in some cases whole levels were granted (making it even less meaningful to collect XPs for killing a few orcs).

With this slowly deteriorating system for granting XP became still more useless, many began developing new ways of granting XP, and when 3rd edition came around a new shiny model were introduced, and an even shinier one with the 4th ed rules.

Since XP is such a nice thing to drive the game, as it quite literally is an award, you can use it to tell the players, what you want to reward them for. Kill monsters and bring home treasures! Complete modules! Use your class based abilities! For surviving encounters (as Erik Mona suggests)! Spending your money at the inn between adventures (as I saw suggested years back)! Roleplaying! (An always nebulous one for who is to gauge “roleplaying”, and you might end rewarding extrovert or charismatic players or players for ‘reading’ their GM?).

Attending Class, Gaining XP

I just recently ended an eight year long campaign about a group of teenage wizards at The Great School of Glantri. Xp were not granted for killing monsters or picking up treasures, nor were they granted for ‘good roleplaying’, but instead for attending classes and passing exams, and everytime you had enought to level up, you had to pass a test. Failing exams also gained XP, as you still had learned something.

The system worked great. It gave the game a good focus – we are at school and need to balance fun and adventuring with actually attending class, and what to do, when a great adventure presents itself the night before exams? It also gave us space to explore, what happens at wizard schools and how does it feel to attend one?

Exploration-based Experience

For my D&D retro-clone the focus is on exploration. I have been reading and playing a a bunch of the old, really old modules, and one thing that separates them from the 90′s modules is absence of the detailed narratives to draw the PCs through (especially thinking of the Ravenloft and Planescape modules here), and from the 3,5 material, where you go from encounter to encounter. In the older material you explore areas. You map dungeons, you fight monsters, avoid traps and meet weird things, ancient things and strange things. There are plenty of empty rooms, and sometimes there is a room with a large bed and a lady’s hat for no other reason as to pique the players’ imaginations.

So for my D&D retro-clone (previous design posts part 1, part 2) I want an XP-system, that rewards the players for exploring dungeons, for poking their noses into the next room and the next room and the next room again.

This is what I came up with.

The Adventure Points System

For each room investigated the party gains 50-100 Adventure Points (50 for fairly harmless dungeons, 100 for average dungeons).

For each wonder and mystery encountered the party gains 50-400 points. Mysteries can be an enchanted lake, an illusion covering a room or some other supernatural effect. Wonders are the wonders experienced in the dungeons, as finding an ancient wallpainting made by a long forgotten artist, whose art touches your soul, or it may be a natural rock-formation in a grotto of great wonder.

For each trap encountered is gained 50-400 points – and half that much if the trap is avoided or otherwise not triggered. So if you find a pittrap, but never activates it, or disarm a crossbow-trap before it is triggered, you gain less, than if you fall into the pit or get shot at by the crossbow-trap. The basic idea is to entice the players to touch the red button, knowing they will only get half, if they disarm the red button instead of triggering it.

Adventure Points for exploring, for wonders and mysteries, and for traps are rewarded, when the PCs leave the dungeon and have time to rest briefly. Each PC present gains the full amount (four characters exploring eight rooms each gain 800 adventure points).

For treasures brought all the way home, the players each gain a share of adventure points equal to the treasure brought home. The four characters have borught home treasures equal to 500 gold, so each character gains 125 adventure points, however one of the characters hid a gem (value 50 gold) for himself. That character gains additional 50 adventure points, as he does not share the treasure.

The adventure point table

  • Level      Adventure Points
  • 1                             0
  • 2                     1200
  • 3                    2400
  • 4                    4200
  • 5                    6000
  • 6                    8400
  • 7                 10800
  • 8                 13800
  • 9                 16800
  • 10              20400

So far

I have tested the Adventure Points with several groups, and the great thing is that it works as intended. It makes the PCs open every door and stick their head into every nook and cranny. Since monsters don’t reward any Adventure Points, and combat with them generally slows exploration down, the PCs are just as willing to negotiate and use trickery to avoind fighting monsters, as they are to pick fights, and plenty of things are left alive, as long they grant access to more parts of the dungeon.

The extra points for mysteries, wonders, and traps also ensures, that the PCs are less likely to avoid set-ups and potential dangers, as being exposed to these, grants more Adventure Points. The players are eager to explore and map dungeons, to push on and take just one more room, because they are certain to gain points (every room grants points, whether or not any monsters, traps or any other things are present, so picking just one more room is a calculated risk).


Re-Imagining DragonLance – Part 3b

Welcome to my fifth installment in the series on re-imagining DragonLance. In my previous post I revealed that DragonLance is a science fantasy-setting, and following this argument I will in this part of re-imagining DL3 focus on those aspects that lead DragonLance into the Science Fantasy genre. In the first post I covered those aspects of the module, that can be changed without the science fantasy-elements, and in my post on the hidden history of DragonLance arguing that DragonLance really is a science fantasy-setting I laid the ground for viewing the setting as such, and now I will cover the specific aspects in DL3.

The Ruined Tower

This tower contains some sort of apparatus that for one reason or another points the way to Fistandantilus’ grave, and this is one of many disguised science fantasy elements in DL3, where somehow a mysterious semi-magical apparatus has been designed.

Truly this is the poor ruins of technological wonder, that now is being reclaimed by nature, but some of the machines are still working. By exploring the tower, the PCs accidentally or on purpose trigger the machines, that spring to life with a hum, and an advanced laser pointer and a holographic projector helps the PCs to orient themselves and map the area, but energy is running low, and the tower soon cease to work.

The Steam City

Under the mountains are according to the module huge caverns generation heat and steam, and the dwarves build a city here, that drew upon the steam to heat the city. Now the place is abandoned, but a small clan of Aghar still lives here, and they guard a relic of the past.

Disguised as just a fallen dwarven city and just a magical crystal, this part obviously draws from science fiction archetypical stories, where the degenerate survivors lives on in an automated city that is slowly collapsing, and they guard ancient computersystems, they have the lost the ability to operate properly, and instead they venerate them and operate them in a ritualistic manner, however recently the machinery has begun failing more and more often. It is believed among the degenerate survivors that they have angered the gods, and that they should return to the olden ways. During the story the protagonists arrive, gains access to the systems, and the truth of the high tech city is revealed, but this occurs during a power struggle among the survivors, where one faction considers the protagonists for blasphemers, and the cause of the angry gods. The protagonists are captured, but they succeed in escaping and during the escape, the city is destroyed as the machinery finally fails.

The Steam City encounter can be run as this archetype:

The city utilizes a natural resource in the shape of lavapools or superheated pools, that generates steam. Pipes lead the heat or the steam into the city, where it drives the powerplant. This system must be maintained on a regular basis, and the Aghar does this in a ritualistic manner, but the old piping has begun to corrode, and now rituals can replace the piping. The city is doomed, and it is merely a matter of time.

The Aghar is divided into two or more factions struggling about what is be to done: Sacrifice the chieftains daughter to please the gods? Return to the olden ways? Abandon the city? Appoint a new regent? Led the (false) priests rule the city?

The PCs must navigate between these factions in order to gain access to the “black crystal”, that obviously is a computer system, that is semi-intelligent, and is just waiting for the PCs to ask it questions. It contains no new data, having not been upgraded or updated in centuries, but it can tell things about the olden days. It does not now about the events of the last 300 years, and is naive about the low-tech world of the PCs. Due to age some databanks have been corrupted, but the DM can inform the PCs about whatever is suitable on the olden days and on the presence of Thorbaddins realm.

The steam city naturally collapses during a aghar powerstruggle before all questions have been answered, and the PCs flee from the city as it is destroyed.

The Battlefield

Besides the fact that this location can be read as the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, where the marshy land is swallowing up an old battlefield. This part is truly revealing for the secret history of DragonLance as this land is strewn with the corpses of warmachines.

The warmachines are of course not catapults nor ballistae, as one might assume of the medieval fantasy setting. The module itself states nothing on the nature of the warmachines, and that in itself is a bit curious. In the marshy lands are the remains of highly advanced technological warmachines, tanks and artillery, most likely hovertanks and mobile artillery units capable of spewing death at immense distances. Now it is all destroyed left rotting, and no one understands them nor can operate them. It is here important to describe how alien these objects that litter the place are. They are build of metals and alien substances, they are rusting and being overgrown, but their purpose is opaque, as is their construction. Some may still be vaguely alive, driven by remnants of artificial intelligences barely able to call out from dying speakers and perhaps able to operate a few lights, perhaps a mechanical arm. Beyond the eerie experience the characters gain no further from the exploring the warmachines, but the curiosity of the players should be kindled.

Mostly this part is creating mood and revealing the setting to the players and the PCs.

The Tomb and Fortress of Fistandantilus

This place in the module is a dungeon, that is mostly abandoned, but it does contain two dragons (whose presence seems to be a bit of a gaffe, since one has been bound by Fistandantilus since forever, but somehow it survived the catastrophe – and apparently is able to sustain itself – and has been there ever since. The other participated in the war, so it was a dragon present in the world of Krynn just 300 years ago, when the setting material claims that dragons have been gone much further than that, this dragon is an ally, who has been trapped in a stasisfield and for it no time has passed since the death of Fistandantilus, which means it possesses perfect knowledge of this era – and most likely it might know the hidden location of the dwarfgate, being an ally of the dwarves and a good creature.), and a bunch of undeads and mechanical traps, that have survived the ages.

Generally the dungeon works fine, so I won’t bother changing it much except for strengthening the secret history elements:

The Stasis Field

The module presents no reason as to why, there is a dragon caught in a stasis bubble. It just is. For some reason a stasis field manifested itself around the dragon and it’s victim (it is trapped with a goblin, that it is just about to swallow), and that saved it from Fistandantilus’ suicide strike, that killed everyone else (but the shadow dragon for some unknown reason).

The stasis field is naturally another piece of high tech in Fistandantilus’ fortress

What about the dragons?

Unless there is some reason later in the DL-series for the two dragons to have survived, I will generally just remove them. The dragon ally is relevant in the battle against the shadow dragon, and it is unable to explore the deeper parts of the dungeon, and the shadow dragon is tied to its location. So it can be removed as well.

Instead another shadow monster will be place here. Something horrible of course. What is in here, is one of Fistanditus’ monsters, that as such was killed in the nuclear blast, but its shadow was burned on the wall, and that shadow has come alive.

The ghosts

As with the shadow dragon one option is to see the ghosts as shadows burned on the wall, that has come alive, however several ghosts are rather holographic automated forces still running in the fortress even though they slowly are breaking down. In creating them as holographic forces, it connects with the strange apparitions in the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth in DL1, and ideally the PCs/the players now realize that the ghosts of Xak Tsaroth were holographic computer programs, as they are in the grave of Fistandantilus.

The Skeleton Warriors

The Skeleton Warriors begging to be released from the control of Fistandantilus and forced to fight against their will can easily be explained in science fantasy terms, as they are really mechanized armor with a semi-intelligent AI based on the personality of the wearer being forced to serve Fistandantilus. Trapped inside the armor is the bony remains of the warrior, who wore this technological marvel. Most likely Fistandantilus the AI hacked his way into the armor and took control.

The idea that the mechanized armor carries a rudimentary AI based on the personality of the wearer is useful for a later encounter, since the skeleton warriors will then foreshadow a later encounter deeper in the grave.

Chamber of the Mechanical Hydra

This chamber is in the module a labyrinth of invisible floors and walls lighted by a magical globe hanging under the ceiling, and in the midst of the chamber is a mechanical, firebreathing hydra.

As such the does not make sense whether it is fantasy, science fiction or science fantasy. It is just one those weird chambers, that challenges intruders in adventure stories, but otherwise does not really have a function.

The light in the room is not magical, but comes from a electric source, that has been running for hundreds of years. The hydra is covered in the next section, and as for the invisible walls and floors, they can be shaped by technological force fields, and one option is that they actually are mobile and a way to reshape the room so it can be utilised in many ways, but right now it is frozen into one position. By finding the controls the PCs can reshape the room. Whether or not it can be used as a weapon against the hydra is up to the DM to decide (safety measures in the system are likely).

The Mechanical Hydra

When we played this part, the players were convinced the hydra was a robot of some sort, even though we played the module strictly as fantasy and as written, and thus they decided to search for the on/off switch. In the module is uncertain as to how the mechanical hydra works, it just does. Re-imagined it is of course a part of the automated robotic defenses. With age it has begun to breake down as in the module. The only alteration really needed is to make it truly robotic and add an option of switching the robot off.

The Grave of Fistandantilus

The remainder of the grave contains more mechanical and technological traps, that are just as senseless as the chamber of the mechanical hydra, and they can be explained in much the same sense.

Of interest is only the encounter with Fistandantilus, which again is one the annoying scrptied encounters, that had my players asking all kinds of awkward questions, as they wanted to explore the room further and interact more with Fistandantilus the demi-lich.

In this interpretation he is of course an AI, and he can manipulate nano-particles or holograph projectors to create a manifestation with which he can present himself and interact with the PCs. Since this is just a manifestation and his mainframe is securely hidden away, he is safe from harm, and he can ignore the PCs at his own leisure. He can be manifested as a disinterested, incorporeal avatar, that might deign to answer a few questions, but otherwise just ignores the PCs. In this room is also the controllers for the Skeleton Warriors, and with these the mechanized armors and their highjacked semi-AIs can be put to a rest.

One main point in this encounter is to demonstrate, that not all holographic manifestations are primitive or automated programs, but that some are fully manifested AIs.

The Dwarven Helmet

Ideally aspects of the this encounter has been foreshadowed in the encounter with the Skeleton Warriors.

From an adventurers view the dwarven helmet might just be a part of a magical armor, and the module does portray it much like this, except that for some reason the owner, a dwarven prince, is tied to it, and is able to magic jar into the wearer of the helmet to tell his story.

This is not a magical helmet. It is an advanced piece of technology not much different from the apparatus that kept Fistandantilus in existence. It can carry an AI, and the previous owner of the helmet was able to leave a remnant of his personality in the helmet to tell his story and ask the heroes to return him to his grave. Briefly before his death he uploaded a part of his personality in order to survive. When the helmet is worn, he can use the technology to briefly download into the wearer to tell his story.

As to the dwarf aspect it is removed, as there are no dwarves in DragonLance, only the degenerate Aghar. Instead as detailed in the secret history post the dwarves are nothing but humans, and some of them fell and degenerated into the Aghar. So the owner of the helmet is human from Thorbaddin.

The Finale

In the Tomb of Fistandantilus the PC’s access an old computer, that has satellite maps of the lands for 300 years ago, and these maps show the route to the secret intrance to Thorbaddins realm. The mission is accomplished, the PCs har their map, and now it just a matter of leading the refugees to the gates, where DL4 Dragons of Desolation begins.

Final Words

DL3 possesses the second best dungeon in the DragonLance-series so far. It is far more interesting than Pax Tharkas, but the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth is superior. The travel section of DL3 is way more interesting than the scripted sequence of DL2, and more varied and interesting than the journey in DL1. However most importantly this module is where the science fantasy of DragonLance becomes truly obvious, and this trend continues in DL4, which however is a new low in the series due to its scripted encounters and vaguely interesting dungeon sequence.


Designing an OSR Heart Breaker – Character Creation

I continue my design thoughts on creating a Heartbreaker OSR D&D retro-clone. This time it is about designing characters, and how I want it done. At the end of the post are the rules for creating characters in all their simplicity, but first the frame-work behind it.

I want to use the D&D Clone at conventions, but without pre-made characters, so it must be kept simple and fast, as time spent creating characters is time not spent playing. Also I want an RPG-system, where you do not use one session creating characters, as easily happens with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition.

Creating characters themselves can be a small mini-game and I have enjoyed many a mini-game of creating characters. It is like playing a puzzle or building a small engine, where the different elements of the characters interlock. For instance creating a character for Traveller with their background-system, or for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, where it is quite fun mutating an animal into a mutant ninja (but otherwise it is not that great a rule system), or creating an experienced character with the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG Career System – and likewise creation a third edition character with combinations of feats and skills, and perhaps a few levels in order to activate some weird prestige class from on obscure issue of Dragon Magazine. But it is a game in itself, and it is not the essential part of roleplaying nor of D&D, and I will there dispense with the character creation.

Equipment

Another interesting element is shopping. How important is shopping in RPGs – as part of the character creation and as part of the game? In one sense I enjoy equipping characters, mostly with signature equipment, that interlocks with the character’s abilities. Otherwise it easily becomes a chore.

However equipping a character also contains strategic choices, if the equipment has a function beyond the amount of damage dealt and the defense conferred, but equipment does not really play that role in D&D – once rope, lantern and backpack is secured, and armor and weapons are acquired, the character is good to go, and at later levels so much gold i accumulated, that buying regular equipment cease to be a strategic choice.

And it takes time. Looking at the long list of equipment and then just picking the same essentials is time-consuming, which explains the premade equipment packs.

Since I will severely keep treasures in check and make armor really expensive, and keep track of food, players in the game will keep an eye on their equipment during the game, and consider if they can afford more flasks of oil or if they should save their gold for a chain mail. However for character creation I will use a combination of strategic choice and pre-made package. The players will roll 8 stats, where two of them represents equipment (regular equipment and magical equipment). So equipment becomes a part of the character creation process, but it is kept fast.

Character Class Names

Fighter, thief, rogue, ranger, monk, barbarian, berserker …

What’s in a name? – one might ask, and when players pick a thief to play, it is not uncommon for the other players to assume, that the character might steal from their characters, or if a player picks a fighter, what abilities beyond fighting will the fighter have, and what abilities should a fighter have?

For that very reason I have chosen to rename the classes. There are no thieves or fighters, but instead knights of fortune (this one works better in Danish: Lykkeridder or soldier of fortune – so looking for a new title here) and adventurers. For the same reason I have changed other designations – the characters don’t have Armor Class and Hit Points but Defense and Life Points.

Skills, Feats, and Special Abilities

Quite a few feats and powers in D&D are related to combat, and they are about expanding a character’s abilities in combat, and skills are mostly for non-combat things. Abilities can either be seen as expanding the characters horizontally or vertically. With the steady increase of skill modifiers (D&D 3rd is designed for characters to have the same skills all the way through and then continuously increasing them – e.g. so the fighter has a +4 bonus to riding at level 1 and a +13 bonus a level 10, making it both difficult to put a first and tenth lv character together, but also difficult for a character to expand to other skills, as the increased bonus is needed) choosing to increase a new skill is not really an option, and likewise feats can stack and increase their modifier often making certain feats and abilities mandatory – and that is expanding the character vertically. The disadvantages I have just covered, but the advantages is that the PC can be truly awesome at some things and give them a sense of being epic, heroic and/or badass. Expanding sideways or horizontally adds new abilities or skills (as in AD&D 2nd when acquiring a new non-weapon proficiency granted the skill at full level, but whereas increasing it gave a measly +1 bonus, often making it a better choice to add another skill, than increasing the existing ones). The disadvantage is mostly the absence of a gradual development of a skill, but the advantage is that the characters master a broader range of abilities at higher levels, but not necessarily better than low-level characters, making it easier for PCs at different levels to go adventuring together. I prefer this one, as the PCs can gain more abilities and more options, as the players become more familiar with the game and their characters. The disadvantage is that the character might end up a being lousy at many different actions rather than just a few actions.

All the Things at Level 1

One of the curious things when using D&D 3rd or AD&D 2nd with all the Player’s Option-books, Complete Class Guides, various articles from Dragon Magazine and Campaign Settings is the amount of choices to pick, and all these choices are made at (or just before) level 1. After level 1 there are considerably fewer and fewer choices to make, not more choices. The disadvantage is that the more choices at first level, the more time character creation takes. I want to do it the other round. Few choices, actually close to no choices, at level 1 and then expanding the choices, as the character gains levels. Though in this version of the rules, the character remains quite limited in what choices, there are to make at even higher levels.

Character Creation

  • Step 1: Choose a class
  • Step 2: Roll stats
    • roll 3d6 eight times. Allocate the results on the six ability scores and on the two equipment scores.
    • Ability Scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma
    • Equipment Scores: Regular Equipment, Magical Equipment
  • Step 3: Fill out the character sheet
    • Add modifiers for ability scores
    • Note class abilities
    • Note Attack bonus, Resistance bonus, and First Aid Die
    • Calculate Defense: 10+armor+shield+dex bonus
    • Calculate Life Points: Class + Constitution Score (not the modifier!)
    • Note equipment and weapons

Ability Score             Ability Modifiers

  • 3-4                              -2
  • 5-8                              -1
  • 9-12                          +0
  • 13-16                        +1
  • 17-18                       +2

These are the steps, and since there no choices as such when it comes to special abilities, it is actually possible to have character sheets that are pre-filled for each class, where you only need to add equipment and ability scores and calculate the scores derived from abilities and equipment (attack, defense, resistance, life points, weapon damage).

Example

Trine wants to create a character. She chooses a Knight of Fortune and rolls stats. She generates 15, 15, 12, 11, 10, 10, 9, 6. She puts 15 in STR and CON, 12 in DEX, 10 in both INT and CHR, and 6 in WIS. 11 is placed in regular equipment, and 9 in magical equipment, and she adds the two equipment packages to her character sheet.

She notes 25 lifepoints (10 + con), Defense 15 (10 + chain mail (+5)), Attack bonus +0 (melee +1 via STR), Resistance bonus +0, First Aid Die d10, and special abilities: Weapons Master (+2 to any damage roll with a weapon) and Chug (+2 to challenge opponents to a drinking bout; +4 bonus to resist effects of alcohol). Among her weapons are a battle-axe. Battle Axe Att+1, dmg 1d8+3, effect: crush shield. Besides her regular equipment she is also equipped with a Lucky Coin, Flame Powder, and Waking Candle.

And within 10-15 minutes Trine is ready to go adventuring.

To be continued …


Designing a OSR Heartbreaker – The Framework

I my last post I stated, that I wanted to a D&D retro-clone heartbreaker, and so I do – and have actually done – and with this design diary I want to reflect upon my design choices and bit by bit reveal the rule set.

At first I have for the last few years been playing D&D becmi,AD&D 1st, AD&D 2nd, D&D 3,5, D&D 4th, D&D Next play test and Legends & Labyrinths (still eagerly awaiting the printed book and the complete rules) – beside a slew of other games from the Nordic countries and from the Indie-movement and some more classic games.

From D&D to D&D

Playing the different versions revealed some serious differences in the D&D-editions. They have all the same core mechanic (roll a d20), but the resource management and the structure of the play were quite different. In older versions of D&D (becmi, 1st, 2nd), you can expect not to be fully healed after one or more days of rest, however you can expect spells to have powerful long-lasting effects. In newer versions you at more or less fully healed every day and in some instances during the day (D&D 3,5; 4th). Secondly you have multiple resources to spend each day in each encounter making it more and more necessary to have multiple encounters a day in order to challenge and exhaust the players’ resources. – this for instance make journey based games difficult, as you need to present the players with multiple encounters a day or some really difficult wandering monsters in order to make a dent in their armor. These are just minor aspects but they do point towards a greater problem.

With third edition you needed magic items, and they became a part of the levelling. Even though there many things I like about the third edition (and it’s successor 3,5), I was not satisfied with the magic item necessity. Magic became an everyday thing. a necessary thing even. – and I do like to play low-magic and with strange and weird magic items, rather than yet another +weapon.

Prep

Worse was prepping. I have been playing a lot of different modules – last we played Spelljammer and before that Dragonlance – and when I play with the older systems (pre-1990) most of my prep-time is just reading the module and checking a few spell, monster abilities and magic items. No biggie. When I play post-1990-modules I spend a lot of time structuring events, studying the module text in order to structure all the intricacies of the plot, and then I look up spells, monster abilities and magic items. When I prep post-2000 materials I spend my time on studying the encounters, noting spells and their effects, stacking modifiers, and even worse when it comes to D&D 4th, where I really have to plan the encounter with different types of monsters, their physical positions, terrain and so on and on.

Prepping went from reading the module to studying the module text to planning combats. – However planning combats is more accounting and bookkeeping than just preparing tonight’s game, and it takes me a lot longer to do. More work with the fiddly things and less with just the story. This is to me one of the major differences and weaknesses with D&D 3,5 and D&D 4th (for even though the rules are somewhat different in these two versions, the structure of the game is more or less the same: planning combat).

Encounter Structure

This is where I want to claim, that D&D is doing it wrong – or rather this is not, what I want my D&D to do, and thus I need something else (either going back to pre-2000 D&D or going for D&D Next, that seems to do, what I want D&D to do or designing my own D&D).

I do not want a scenario-structure that is based on encounters, and especially not encounters predestined to be combats. D&D (in my opinion) is not about combat but of exploration (of caves and cellars, of outer planes and isolated villages, of old castles and forbidden islands), and of the meeting with creatures as you explore said places, and I want a D&D-system that can handle exploration and the meeting with other creatures.

Exploring and Quick Combats

I want a D&D-game where I can explore, and the emphasis is exploring rather than killing and looting. As a consequence I want a D&D-style game where combat is quick, and by quick I mean measured in real-time, i.e. the time spent at the table rolling dice battling monsters. Somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes is optimal, and better 15 minutes than 30, and combat does not need to go beyond three combat rounds.

To Sum Up

The purpose of my designing a D&D-clone is to recreate the D&D experience from some of my earliest years. Yet designing that will not make me any younger, so the design must also be able to suit my interests. Thus the retro-clone that I am designing must have the following parameters: (I will explore these parameters in detail in later posts)

  • Focus on exploring (dungeons)
  • Quick combats (15-30 min, 2-5 combat rounds)
  • System must support talking with monsters
  • Combat is choosing exciting actions rather than tactical actions
  • Combat must be a theater of the mind
  • Drifting is a feature
  • As few tables with modifiers as possible
  • A slower progression (than D&D 3rd and 4th)
  • No detailed character creation

To be continued …


Designing an OSR Heartbreaker – Prologue

There has been some silence around the blog, since I posted most of my DragonLance as a/is a science fiction-posts, but since lately I have been caught up on a lot of work with creating a D&D retro-clone trying to all that I thought was wrong with D&D 3,5, D&D 4th and Pathfinder, and recently it has been playtested successfully at two minor conventions and privately and I have now people expanding the rules and adding more modules to the collection, as the grand playtest at Denmarks second largest roleplaying festival, Fastaval, is about to take place. But it is not just a fantasy heartbreaker designed in accordance to (as much as anything can be in accordance with the Old School Renaissance), it as at the same time a living campaign, where the players are exploring a huge sandbox area littered with dungeons (there will be somewhere between 13 and 17 dungeons presently), and when not exploring dungeons (that is sitting at a table playing the D&D retro-clone), you can roleplay yourself as a member of Fastaval Roleplaying Guild collecting rare roleplaying supplements (that is there will be rare rule supplements you can collect, that adds additional options, you can use when playing at the table). As a living campaign my project began back in January with the first convention introducing Hinterlandet, as my project is known as, and it has been running as a living campaign since.

At Fastaval this year Vincent Baker and Lizzie Stark will be attending (Lizzie also guested us last year), and so I will be presenting Old School roleplaying at a convention that usually features a whole slew of Nordic Roleplaying, which is quite artsy and edgy – and which are the RPG’s that I normally produce myself, so I am looking forward to this so rather different year.

I hope to share a lot of my thoughts on creating a OSR fantasy heartbreaker in the next few months and exploring the simulationism-side of roleplaying as I explore the development of the system.


The Hidden History of DragonLance – Part 2

In my previous post I argued, that DragonLance is really not fantasy as much as it is a post-apocalyptic science fiction or science fantasy disguised as fantasy – mostly due to the fact that the story and the setting is planted in the D&D-game.

The main evidence for DragonLance being a science fiction comes from the third and fourth module (and perhaps later in the series, but I have not studied the material that far yet), and it comes partly in the shape of some curious magic items and from vague descriptions, and then from archetypical science fiction narratives and tropes, such as domed cities connected by automated cars or trains and from “gods” destroying the world with “catastrophic” rains of fire – which in the world of pseudo-history as proponed by Ancient Alien Theorists is clear evidence of advanced aliens using nuclear weaponry and such like.

In the following I will sum up some the tropes, but others will be covered in detail in my post Re-Imagining DragonLance – Part 3b.

The Tropes

Degenerate People Living in the Ruins

The Aghar or Gully Dwarves are an obvious example of this (DL1, DL2, DL3)

Domed Cities Connected by Train

The seven underground cities of Thorbaddin in DL4 are a perfect example reminiscent of the cities in for instance Logan’s Run.

Doomed City Maintained in a Ritualistic Manner

The Steam City in DL3 inhabited by Gully Dwarves are an example of this. The city is supposed to run by steam utilizing the natural resources, but slowly it is collapsing as the city is falling apart.

Worshipping Forgotten Tech

The same Gully Dwarves in Steam City protects an ancient artefact, that they have lost the ability to use. The artefact is a black crystal on whose surface text appears, when the crystal is asked questions. This is a computer, and again this follows a not uncommon trope of lost tech in a post-apocalyptic world.

Lost City Protected by Invisible Guardian

In DL4 the PCs reach an ancient city or advanced tomb guarded by a gold dragon tied to the place, who uses an assortment of spells and shape shifting to interact with the PCs as a harmless guardian of the place. In science fiction terms the PCs have reached an automated city maintained by an artificial intelligence manifesting itself through robot and/or holographic projections.

Frozen For The Future

Another trope is the past trapped in ice in such a manner, that it easily can be observed and thus represents a perfect image of the past. In DL6 the PCs find a knight and his dragon mount trapped in ice.

The evidence

Flickering blue light

Strange ghosts and mysterious lights are present in both Xak Tsaroth og Fistandantilus’ grave (DL1, DL3), and time and again the ghosts in these sequences the ghosts are mechanically carrying out the same everyday action as from before the apocalypse. Ghosts repeating themselves in this manner are somewhat known from folklore, but these are very detailed actions with spoken lines etc. This is just as easily understood as remainders of holographic projections running own centuries later. A common element in post-apocalyptic fiction.

War Machines

In the marshes around Mount Skullcap, where Fistandantilus has his fortress are rotting war machines. These machines have been here for 300 years. Had they been catapults and ballistae they would have rotted away long ago, which is not the case. So what are these ‘war machines’? High tech weaponry slowly rusting away.

Stasis Field

Inside the grave of Fistandantilus (DL3) is a dragon trapped in a stasis field. The module does not explain the presence of the force field. It just is there, and it is hardly portrayed as a magical phenomenon, thus again a science fiction element.

Fistandantilus’ Blast

When Fistandantilus was defeated he took all with him, allies and enemies in a blast, that ruined his fortress and killed everyone on the battlefield leaving the aforementioned war machines. From one point it is just a powerful spell out of reach of the PCs, on the other hand this is just as well some sort of neutron blast, that left the war machines, but destroyed all living beings.

The dwarven helmet

At the end of the third module the PCs find the passage to the Gates of Thorbaddin, but they also find a dwarven helmet, that for some reason is inhabited by its previous owner, who magic jars into anyone who handles the helmet to tell his sad tale and have his helmet returned to his grave (in the next module). This is a curious thing, and again it may be magic – the module describes it as a magic jar-effect, but it does not describe, how or why this happened, but the science fiction point of view, this helmet carries an AI, and in this case the AI is most likely a primitive imprint of the original owner, who made it in his dying moments to send a message home, a message 300 hundred years late, but now the PCs are here, and the AI-imprint briefly manifests in the wearer of the helmet to deliver its message.

Next Up

There are more science fiction-elements to be dug out of DragonLance, and more of those in up-coming posts on re-imagining DragonLance. The presence (or absence) of the science fiction-elements does not change the flow of the modules, and can be ignored, if a reconstruction of the modules is all, that is desired.

There is one more way to view the general story of the DragonLance-modules, one that does not change the flow much either, but one that adds an extra dimension. More of this on the third post on the hidden history of DragonLance. Also coming up is the second half of the Re-Imagining DragonLance Part 3.


The Hidden History of DragonLance – Part 1

This post is related to my series on re-imagining DragonLance (DL0, DL1, DL2, DL3a). In the re-imagination of the modules, I strive to improve some of the flawed or weak parts of the modules, but also to introduce what believe is a hidden aspect of DragonLance, but before I continue doing this, this hidden history needs to be exposed.

Some time ago Monte Cook wrote briefly about Science Fantasy in lieu of his new – and rather interesting – Kickstarter (or kickstarted as it is) project Numenera, that plays out in a fantastic setting, where technology is so advanced, that it seems like magic – thus reminding us of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This relates in its own manner to my re-imagining of the old DragonLance modules for my reason to re-imagine them came not from a desire to improve the modules though improvement were sorely needed having been designed in an age, where there was very little experience in writing story heavy functional modules (and in the 90s it was no better as several PlaneScape and Ravenloft modules can attest – and I am a fan of those settings).

No, the reason for re-imagining the modules were the obvious presence of science fiction themes and elements, and that by reading between the lines it became obvious, that DragonLance was a science fiction-setting.

Through the lens of D&D

The one main reason for this not being so obvious is the need to keep DragonLance within the D&D paradigm, thus you must have elves, dwarves, and halflings, there must be gnomes and other elements central to the D&D-rulebooks. This obscures the fantasy-elements, but they are certainly not gone.

Science Fiction … in D&D …?

Expedition to Barrier Peaks is a classic, where the heroes discover a crashed space ship, encounters robots and other strangeness, but it is not the only module with science fiction-elements. The DA-modules for D&D becmi had the heroes travel back in time to distant past, where a spaceship has crash landed. Later this spaceship became a central object in the grand history and cosmology of the D&D Mystara-setting (among other things including a nuclear physics scientist among the Immortals of Mystara, i.e. that is the Mystaran version of deities) – see Gaz3, Gaz10, Gaz13, PC4 as well as Hollow World Campaign Setting and Wrath of the Immortals as well as the final episode of Voyage of the Princess Ark.

In CM6 Where Chaos Reigns the characters travel in time to three different ages to save a dimension from a time travelling, technological highly advanced race, the Oard, that are a bit like the Borg, and now the PCs must save the world in different eras from the borgish monsters.

In the D&D becmi-module IM1 The Immortal Storm the characters being Immortals since this is the i of the becmi-scale they travel to another dimension, where they end up in modern-day New York.

In the PlaneScape-setting can also remnants of spaceships be found, but they seem almost like easter eggs hidden to amuse GMs and players, rather than an attempt to add science fantasy to D&D.

In the AD&D 1st DMG were also rules for cross overs to Gamma World, so in general the D&D-games were not exclusively tied to a fantasy setting, but kept science fiction-elements as an option.

The Science Fantasy of DragonLance

In my re-imagining DragonLance I have hinted at the presence of technology, but it is not until DL3 Dragons of Hope it becomes truly obvious, that the re-imagining includes science fiction-elements. This works best when presented as a surprise for the players. However the science fiction-elements are not elements that I am adding to DragonLance. They were there all the time. I will only be pointing them out.

Next up is retelling the story of DragonLance, but this time emphasizing the Science Fantasy elements.

Retelling the Story of DragonLance

This is not the complete story, but it covers most of the elements, that can be gleamed from the first modules.

Gods from Outer Space

Long ago an alien race came to Krynn, and they were viewed as gods by the inhabitants of this low tech world. They granted immense advances to the inhabitants, and they often communicated with the inhabitants using an elected class of priests, and often using their Messengers to bring the knowledge of the Gods. In the local language the word for Messenger of the Gods were ‘dragon’.

Things went well on Krynn, but the arrogance of mankind angered the gods – as the story has already been told in the DragonLance material – and it was decided to punish mankind. The gods dropped a nuclear device or some equivalent on or near the city of Xak Tsaroth creating the catastrophe, that forms the present post-apocalyptic DragonLance-setting. It is likely that one faction (Thakisis) tricked the other alien factions into doing this, and then led them into exile, so the Thakisis faction could return and reshape the civilizations of Krynn, perhaps as slave races mining rare resources for their alien masters posing as gods.

Having regretted their decision the aliens went into a self-imposed exile, where they abandoned the population on Krynn to fight for itself.

Meanwhile back on Krynn the survivors of the nuclear blast escaped to the plains of Abbasinia – thus the name of the plains, Lands of the Abandoned – and from here the survivors split into three groups: The plains people, who disavowed technology forever, the first emigrants who went west and settled the town of Solace and Haven – hence the names of these settlements – and then a group went south to find shelter in the Seven Cities of Thorbardin.

The southbound emigrants passed the ancient fortress of Pax Tharkas and soon reached the lands of the Agar and their Seven Cities of Thorbardin. However the gates were closed and the emigrants were left to their own, had it not been for Fistandantilus.

Fistandantilus and His Fortress

In an ancient past the engineer Fistandantilus never felt appreciated for his technological knowhow and immense skills, so he uploaded himself as an AI to his mobile, technological fortress. From this position he led the southbound emigrants in battle for the Seven Cities of Thorbardin. In the plains near the Seven Cities it became a mighty battle involving armies of war machines, however Thorbardins mobile fortress were invaded by hostile forces, and Thorbardin released his neutron weapons in order to stop his enemies at the cost of his allies. Now the plains are littered with lifeless war machines and the mobile fortress were frozen in place. In the depths of the fortress Fistandantilus lived on trapped in the isolated circuits of his computers.

The Seven Cities of Thorbardin

Hidden beneath the seven domes are the wondrous cities of the Agar. The Agar were another breed of humans being slightly different from the people of Xak Tsaroth. The Agar had one weakness and it was their susceptibility to radiation. The agar population living in the domed cities that survived almost unscathed, but any agar living outside the domes were corrupted by the radiation and their descendants became the gully dwarves. There were agar living in Xak Tsaroth and at Pax Tharkas, and their descendants all became gully dwarves.

The domed cities have since fallen from their technological might and the survivors of the Agar have become mere shadows of their great ancestors, and now they live in a state of war between the domed cities.

One of the wonders of the domed cities is the flying city, which was the seat of the leaders of the Agar, but now the flying city is being run by an AI waiting for people to return to its city.

The Dragon Army and Lord Verminaard

The lords in the heavens have disagreed on how they should treat the people of Krynn. After having been lured to destroy the human population by one faction of aliens, they all went into exile to reflect on their actions. The faction that tricked the other aliens into destroying the civilization of Krynn had other plans, and they have now returned to reshape the population on Krynn in a new image. To do this they have sent their servant Lord Verminaard.

Lord Verminaard is likely just a robot or a cyborg. Most likely a cyborg with psychic powers. He has been upgraded by his lords from the stars, and been given several dragons as his servants. Lord Verminaard may be the descendant of the human servants, that served the “evil” aliens from outer space, and he has now sent back to Krynn to conquer the world.

Through a program of genetic hybridization he has been given an army of draconians.

So where is the evidence for this?

I will address this in my next post on the Hidden History of DragonLance.


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