Monday, November 18, 2013

SPI on AD&D: Mostly Pig Lips

The Dragon #22 (Feb, 1979) contains Gary Gygax's famous "SPI on AD&D" article — a scornful response to Strategy & Tactics' unfavorable review of the AD&D Players Handbook. While the details of Gary's response are comparatively well known (or at least easy to find), the original review is not. What follows is a transcription of that original review:
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (TSR Games, PO Box 756, Lake Geneva, WI, 53147; $9.95). A Players Handbook, compiling all sorts of information for the D&D crowd. Hardbound (it resembles one of those Golden Wonder Books I used to get stuck with when I was a kid), this is a method to get you to buy what you already have (unless you don't have it, in which case it's not a bad idea). Sort of like the middle ages of rock, when they would put out an album of "Willy One-Book's Greatest Hits". Now you already have everything on the album, in one form or another; but you wouldn't be caught dead without the new item. Same goes for this book. Now it's not that I don't think D&D is a worthwhile pastime; most certainly, it is. A great deal of it is quite clever; then again, most of it is a mound of pig lips. Alas, I know I will be branded a pariah for this outburst. Suffice to say, D&Ders will drool mightily over this. So will Gary G's accountant. Written (rather than grace it with the word designed) by Gary Gygax. One further word: D&D has managed to avoid the great pitfall of role-playing games — rampant silliness. For that it deserves much credit; it is faithful to itself.
—Rich Berg
From Strategy & Tactics 71, p 20.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cyclopean Deeps Errata & Stuff

This is a list of typos, inconsistencies and other glitches for the Swords & Wizardry versions of the Cyclopean Deeps modules from Frog God Games. I don't know whether these issues are also applicable to the Pathfinder versions of those modules. This list also contains some organizational recommendations for the unified print version.

Bold items are the most significant or confusing; if you don't care about editorial minutia, and just want to know what "gotchas" might otherwise sneak up on you while refereeing, just skim the list for the bold items…

Cyclopean Deeps 1: Down to Ques Querax

Tertiary Passage table (p 5):
- Should have bold 1-20 numbers like the other tables do.

Shroom (p 6):
- Supposed to have 3/2 spells listed, but only has 2 first-level spells, and 1 second-level spell listed. (This was likely a copy/paste error from Fthormidor in Demonspore.)

Dark Creeper and Dark Stalker (p 5):
- Possibly important to mention of the two major dark stalker civilizations, or point to the relevant info in CD3, given the possibility of fighting these wandering monsters and acquiring disguises or artifacts.

Dark Stalker Caravan (p 7):
- "Darkfolk" (four places) might be a misnomer, especially as a label for caravans, given that the other text calls them "dark stalker caravans."
- Misspelling: "darkstalker" should be "Dark stalker" in two places.
- Possibly important to mention of the two major dark stalker civilizations, or point to the relevant info in CD3, given the possibility of fighting these wandering monsters and acquiring disguises or artifacts.

Area 0E-1-E (p 11):
- Refers to the teleportation destination being "Area OE-7" which does not exist, and also describes it as "just outside the fortress of Ques Querax," would would be 3 miles away at area 3H-something.

Area 0E-4 (p 11):
- Should the depth of the crystal clear pools be specified? It's one of the first thing my players would ask, since they are, after all, crystal clear; and various other heights are specified (cliffs, ceiling, etc.).

Map 0E (p 12):
- The pool depicted in area 4 should be depicted as closer to the cliff face. The description of area 0E-3 says, "one of the pools is directly underneath the cliff face," and refers the reader to the map for specific positioning.
- There should be a third pool depicted in area 4. The description of area 0E-4 says, "Three pools of crystal-clear liquid glitter in the floor."

Player Map 1 (p 13):
- It has the wrong top-of-page header ("Hex OE Map").
- This map more properly belongs in Cyclopean Deeps #2, since that's where the PCs can actually find it (area 3H-21). (And also because there is no mention of it or commentary about it in CD1.)

Area 0E-5 (p 14):
- Should this indicate the height of the cliff face? (For comparison, area 0E-3 indicates its cliff face height.)

Area 0E-6 (p 14):
- Incorrect implication that Ques Querax is 1/2 mile away, when it is actually more like 3 miles away.

Monster Appendix (p 15-19):
- A number of creature descriptions don't give any indication of the creature's size. Some are called out explicitly in this list below, but not all. The unmentioned ones are probably obvious given the reader's likely familiarity with other versions of the game, but then again, maybe not.

Dark Creeper and Dark Stalker (p 15):
- Possibly important to mention of the two major dark stalker civilizations, or point to the relevant info in CD3.

Fungus Bat (p 16):
- Needs to describe the creature's size.

Khryll (p 17):
- Only an oblique indication of size is given (10ft. tentacles), though the picture can help sort this out.
- Size (length/width) of the psychic cone blast is not specified.
- No indication of how telepathy works. This ought to be specified because of the setup of the Khryll in area 3H-20 (in CD2), where PCs are granted a saving throw to avoid mental probing. (There is no default behavior to be inferred from the S&W rulebook.)

Neh-Thalggu (p 18):
- Needs to describe the creature's size.
- There is an errant line break (and paragraph start) in the last paragraph, between "perhaps" and "exiled."

Shroom (p 19):
- Needs to describe the creature's size.
- Remove the inadvertently left-in phrase, "DC 15 Fortitude save."

Syanngg (p 19):
- Needs to describe the creature's size.

Cyclopean Deeps 2: Eye of the Titan

- Subtitle should be changed from "Cult of the Khryll" to "Eye of the Titan."

Introduction (p 3)
- Last sentence of the introduction is clunky, particularly the start of the last phrase, "... that the Eye ..."

Area 3H-1 (p 5):
Typo: "... they are be attacked."

p 6, Patrons of the Sunworm (p 6)
- The random table doesn't list creature quantity ranges for random patrons, from Huggermuggers on down.
- Shroom: Supposed to have 3/2 spells listed, but only has 2 first-level spells, and 1 second-level spell listed.

Area 3H-7 (p 7):
- It's not clear what level spells the occupants can cast.

Area 3H-9 (p 8):
- Last paragraph has a typo: "... think blue gas ..." should probably be "... thick blue gas ..."

Illustration of Ques Querax (p 10):
- This illustration doesn't match the description on page 5, area 3H-2: "... the walls [of Ques Querax] rise to the top of the cavern like a hollow pillar – they do not have a “top” that can be climbed over."

Area 3H-17 (p 11):
- Refers to Cyclopean Deeps 4: Dread Domes of the Serpentfolk, but according to a note at the end of CD3, CD4 covers a different area. Also the name "Dread Domes of the Serpentfolk" is inconsistent with the name given in area 3H-23 ("Domes of the Serpentfolk").

Area 3H-18 (p 12):
- No indication of room/passage height is given, nor depth of the vertical connection between this area and the throne room above. (Either would be sufficient.) (Note that area 3H-21 gives some clue, with one glass sphere being, "a full ten feet off the ground, very near the ceiling.")

Map of Catacombs of Ques Querax (p 13):
- The lobsters/titans depicted on the map (areas 3H-18 and 3H-22) are too narrow. Area 3H-18 describes it with, "the segments have a diameter of about 20 ft." (Ditto for 3H-22.) If the map depiction is correct, then perhaps the text should use circumference instead of diameter?
- The map depicts area 23 a little oddly/wrong, as if it is south of the area behind columns, when it is actually underneath the columns themselves. (From area 3H-22: "... a stone dais with three orbs floating in the air directly above it. ... the top of the dais swings up and backward on a hidden hinge, revealing the entrance to the prison cell underneath." From area 3H-21: "The prisoner is in a small cell, and is seen from overhead as the ceiling of the cell is lowered down like a hinged box lid.")

Area 3H-20 (p 12 & 14)
- There's an orphaned line at the top of page 14 ("magic resistance.") that is the end of a paragraph that started two pages earlier. Because of the intervening map page, there is definitely an unfortunate page flip that would need to be made when running this room. (Also it would be great if the Treasure paragraph were also kept on the same page as the rest of the keyed area description, though that is somewhat less jarring.)

Area 3H-21 (p 14):
- No indication is given about the size of the glass spheres.
- Misspelling: At the top of the second column, "darkstalker" should be "dark stalker".

Area 3H-23 (p 15):
- Refers to Cyclopean Deeps 4: Domes of the Serpentfolk, but according to a note at the end of CD3, CD4 covers a different area. Also the name "Domes of the Serpentfolk" is inconsistent with the name given in area 3H-17 ("Dread Domes of the Serpentfolk").

Illustration of area 3H-22 (p 15):
- This illustration probably depicts the room incorrectly. I take the corresponding textual description (area 3H-22, especially "Across the bridge, the characters are able to see the room’s southern chamber, which is blocked off by the bulk of the titan.") to mean the floor was not sunken, but that the "bridge" was more like an arch-shaped apparatus allowing access to the top of (and over) the lobster/titan body. If the floor is indeed intended to be sunken, then perhaps the map needs some drop-off indicators.

Cyclopean Deeps 3: Izamne, City of Endless Dark

- Given the prevalence of new monsters, and instances of "see New Monsters" blurbs (which are often longer than the name of the new monster itself), it might be worthwhile to standardize on a simpler sort of pointer: An asterisk * or dagger † could be the shorthand for "see the new stuff section".

Darkmist (p 3):
- Should mention that darkmist reduces illumination from flames down to 10 ft. (This is otherwise first mentioned in area 8Q-4.)

Language (p 3):
- In the finished compilation version, this section should be moved earlier, toward the beginning of the entire book.

The Darkfolk/Dark Ones (p 3):
- It seems odd to introduce yet another term for dark stalkers, dark creepers, etc. Admittedly "Dark Ones" at least has some precedent in the WotC versions of the game. (And google tells me that Pathfinder has "dark folk.") I think I see some value in using terms that bolster peoples' familiarity with the relevant creatures, but I wonder if this could be achieved differently. Possibly in the relevant Monster Appendices? In this case, I think sticking to one term in the body text would be best; and also use that term in each relevant creature description; and also include a monster meta-entry for the selected term which mentions the other term, and directs to all relevant monster entries.
- The start of one sentence is awkward (albeit probably grammatically correct): "They depend for their existence on stealth and mobility,..."
- Misspelling: "Darkstalker" should be "dark stalker."

Avarthamna Civilization (p 4):
- Misspelling: "Darkstalker" should be "dark stalker." (3 occurrences of this misspelling here.)

Kshamarat Civilization (p 4):
- Last paragraph incorrectly uses the concepts of receipts, Ancestor-tokens, and victory-trophies. In the first sentence, "victory-tokens" should be "victory-trophies." In the last sentence, "ancestor-tokens" should be "victory-trophies."

Map of The Shrines (p 6):
- It's not clear where the land part of the ledges are (over which the waterfalls pour).

Area 8Q-3 (p 8):
- Missing a closing parenthesis after, "(see, “New Magic Items".
- Should either include a stat block for ethereal maggots, or at least refer the reader to the new monsters section. (Upon first reading, I assumed they were intended to be handled by the referee in an ad-hoc manner. Only after I reached the new monsters section did I realize that they had actual stats that are significant in terms of removing them.)

Area 8Q-4 (p 8-9):
- Misspelling: "Darkstalker" should be "dark stalker." (3 occurrences of this misspelling here.)

Area 8Q-5 (p 9):
- Table entry 3 says, "... the face, of course, is the face of the wizard Jupiter Kwan." Since this is the first ever mention of Jupiter Kwan in the series, the "of course" should be removed.
- Table entry 4 says, "a hold in a stone floor," which should probably say "hole" instead of "hold."

Area 9L-2 (p 10-11):
- The fourth paragraph refers the reader to the glossary entry for "azamarthi," after the third mention of that term. It might make more sense to move this reference one paragraph earlier, near the first mention of the term. (Or maybe just eliminate the reference to the glossary, because the glossary entry says no more than has already been said.)
- The last sentence's identification of the substance as Darkmist is unnecessary, because that term has already been used to concretely describe the substance. Also, since darkmist was already defined in the introductory information, I'm not sure it's necessary to point the reader to the glossary (though it certainly doesn't hurt).

Map of Izame (p 12-13):
- Should include elevation info on the key, at least showing which colors are higher and which are lower. I think darker areas are higher than lighter areas, mainly due to what appears to be a stairs symbol in some areas leading between levels.
- In the PDF, the second page of the map has no grid labels for the vertical access, which makes it tougher to look up particular coordinates on that half.

Rooftop Animals (p 14):
- Goblin dogs entry should point at the New Monsters section.

Buildings (p 14):
- Temple row says "(see sub-table)" but there is no sub-table for temples.

Agent of Operations (p 15):
- This label has the wrong font & style, and should be like the Alchemical Workshop entry label that follows it.
- Element table: In the first row, "goblin dogs" should point at the New Monsters section.

Flophouse (p 15):
- The table has messed up roll number sequencing; the first two entries are 1-2 and 1-4, followed by 5, 6, 7, 8.

Mills/Pumps (p 15):
- To better match the other categories of buildings names, which are in the singular (not plural) form, this ought to be "Mill/Pump".

Reliquary-House (p 15-16):
- There are two area typos: "3R-15" should be "13R-15," and "3R-11" should be "13R-11."
- The last paragraph of this section is (partially?) redundant with that section's earlier discussion of treasure; though this last paragraph is slightly more generous than the earlier table. In any case, the info could get combined together, so as not to be in two disparate areas (before & after creature stat blocks).
- Should the reference to 13R-11 (as well as the mistaken "3R-11" preceding it) specify the map coordinates for that location (V38), like most of the other 13R-XX references in the module? Ditto for the 13R-15 (as "3R-15") reference (Y25 ?).

Residence, Private (p 16-17):
- various table entries: "Goblin dogs" should point at the New Monsters section.
- table entry 66-70: Should the reference to 13R-16 specify the map coordinates for that location (W65?), like most of the other 13R-XX references in the module?
- table entry 81: Refers to a future installment as "Cyclopean Deeps: Hidden Worlds of Jupiter Kwan", whereas other references add "9": "Cyclopean Deeps 9: Hidden Worlds of Jupiter Kwan."
- table entry 96-99: Misspelling: "Fin Arts" should be "Fine Arts."
- table entry 100: Misspelling: "Reson" should be "reason."

Store (p 17-19):
- Awkward sentence? "Since many of the stores in Izamne are actually craftsmen, or do not fashion the object on site..." It seems like "stores" should really be "store owners" or "proprietors."
- table entry 66-70: "Goblin Dog" should point at the New Monsters section.

Wizard, Shaman, Other Spellcaster (p 19):
- This label has the wrong font & style, and should be like the Theater of Sound and Shadow entry label that precedes it.

Main Streets (p 19-20):
- Table is missing entry for a roll of 18.

Secondary Streets (p 20):
- table entry 53: should refer to New Monsters section for the encephalon gorger.
- table entry 91-97: "Goblin dogs" should point at the New Monsters section.

New Magic Items (p 21):
- No entry for the Veil of Seeing is included, even though area 8Q-3 (p 8) and the Residence, Private entry (p 16) include references to here for a description.

Giant, Jack-in-Irons (p 22):
- Stats are listed in the wrong order. (Saving Throw should be listed before Special.)

Goblin Dog (p 22):
- Stats are listed in the wrong order. (Saving Throw should be listed before Special.)
- Mentions "the goblinoid subtype," which is a d20-ism. Could probably simplify that sentence to just refer to "goblinoids."
- The following sentence is missing a phrase before "saving throw": "...or who otherwise comes into contact with a goblin dog saving throw or break out in an itching rash."

Mites and Pesties (p 23):
- Save stat should be called Saving Throw. (Applies to both the Mites and Pesties stat lists.)

Gloom Crawler (p 23):
- This is out of alphabetical order relative to the rest of the monsters (except Grue).
- Seems odd that the description doesn't say how frequently a Gloom Crawler takes damage from natural sunlight (e.g., once per round or turn or whatever).

Grue (p 23):
- This is out of alphabetical order relative to the rest of the monsters (except Gloom Crawler).
- Stats include Number Encountered, which is not usually given for S&W creatures.

Skum (p 24):
- Stats include Number Encountered, which is not usually given for S&W creatures.

Glossary / Darkmist (p 24):
- Should mention that darkmist reduces illumination from flames down to 10 ft. (This is otherwise mentioned in area 8Q-4.)
- The last sentence refers to just the "demon prince," which probably should be "demon prince Isclaadra." (This confused me when I happened to read that glossary entry without recently reading a passage that mentioned Isclaadra's name.)

Isclaadra (p 24):
- There is an unintentional paragraph break in the middle of the second sentence.

Glossary / Rune of Touch (p 24):
- Misspelling: "Darkstalker" should be "dark stalker."

Player Map of Izame (p 26-27):
- See notes for Map of Izame up above.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Grimmsgate Supplemental Review

This review of Grimmsgate supplements Bryce Lynch's detailed review of the module, as well as Matt Finch's response to that review (Matt is author of Grimmsgate). In particular, this review focuses on some playability/usability details Bryce didn't mention (overlooked?), and focuses in on Grimmsgate's suitability as an introductory module in the rough style of something like B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, which Matt said was the design model for Grimmsgate. But first…

Overall Assessment

Grimmsgate is a good module — a very solid B grade. Not Matt Finch's best (that bar is really high), but good nonetheless. It has a number of Finch-y qualities — odd situations and objects for players to engage with besides just the strategies & tactics of combat avoidance and treasure seeking. There are a lot of recent modules that I simply wouldn't bother running, but I would run Grimmsgate.

However, as an introductory module for players new to roleplaying (or Swords & Wizardry), its grade is lower — probably a C. It has a number of issues that mar its suitability as an introductory module, and some general fit & finish issues that hamper its overall usability. If somebody asked for a recommendation on a good S&W intro module, I would point them elsewhere.

The Village of Grimmsgate

The village itself seems lacking, or underdeveloped as a springboard for adventure. It's fine as a home base; the module tells you what you can buy, how much you'll pay for lodging, and what NPC help might be available. But it's missing built-in adventuring possibilities / temptations.

It's almost unfair to compare Grimmsgate to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, but since Matt mentioned it as the model, I'll compare it anyway. In B2, the Keep itself is a potential adventure site; there are agents of evil within the Keep, there is literally a secret door leading to another adventure site below the Keep (though I can't find the reference in B2 for that at the moment — I apologize if I'm misremembering), and there are other, more selfish reasons for covertly exploring the Keep: Plenty of loot! ("Did the guard say a jewel merchant lives here!?")

By contrast, although the village of Grimmsgate is initially described in a way that makes it seem like it could be a potential adventure site (its a defensible location with guards that don't seem to initially trust you), the module doesn't build off those features. All the occupants are essentially friendly/allies, there isn't much reason for snooping around, and hell, the module doesn't say how many guards occupy the gatehouse. In hindsight, given that the town is relatively defensible, it might have been interesting for the module to include some built-in way of triggering a raid against the town. (e.g., an bit of loot that the monsters come looking for if/when the PCs bring it back to town.) At least that way the defensible location could be more interesting despite the friendly occupants.

Oddly, there's an inconsistent presentation of stats for the townsfolk. Some of the non-classed townsfolk are given stats, but others aren't. Especially strange is that the guard (who levels his crossbow at the party as they approach the village) is not given stats! This is nothing that would disrupt the flow for a GM of some experience, but it might be troublesome for a new GM, or one who's new to old-school games. More on that later...

The Wilderness

Some of the wilderness areas seem kind of "phoned-in." The ogre/ford has a reasonable amount of usable design meat, but the dragon and the bandits have much less. As an introductory module, I'd expect some kind of rumor or hook that helps neophyte players understand that plundering a dragon's lair can be very lucrative (and very dangerous too). The bandits lack guidelines on purpose and tactics. Bandits have it tough in a world with magic-users; unlike the ogre description (for whom there is guidance on how he likes to tilt the odds in his favor, yet still remain somewhat ogreishly stupid), the bandit section offers no impartial guidance on how they might cannily threaten the party.

Holistically, the wilderness areas are too detached from one-another, as well as from the village and the main dungeon. The dragon, the bandits, the hill of statues — you'd never have an inkling that those things would be around, and be worth investigating. You can't see any of them from the village, and there are no rumors or clues that point toward investigating in those areas. The wilderness needs more trails, a wandering monster chart, additional relevant rumors, or similar. (By contrast, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands includes explicit rumors about two of the main wilderness areas, with enough of a pointer so that an interested party could easily head the right direction to find them.)

Oddly, the early Referee Notes (page 4) contain an allusion to a wilderness wandering monster chart, but no such chart exists.

The Elder Temple (the main dungeon)

This section of the module is pretty good, and the most typically Finch-y. The orbs, the spirit, the repeated visions (with a distinct wandering monster trade-off, as you try to experience more visions), and the different decorations & carvings all give the players interesting stuff to think about, while the odd monsters look pretty tough and could easily cause a number of hasty retreats by the party (a good thing!), and force the players to think both strategically and tactically.

My only peeves about this section have to do with content errors and production glitches that detract from its suitability as an introductory module…

Issues as an Introductory Module

Where Did They Come From? Neither the "Start" text nor the wilderness map makes it clear which way the party is expected to have traveled from. Worse, the only path shown on the village map potentially implies that the party came from the east, but that would lead to a temporal oddity relative to the ogre at the ford along the only road to the east, which the party hasn't encountered yet. There is a rumor implying that the characters didn't come from the ford, but nothing stated explicitly that I could find on a re-skim. This jarring/confusing situation could have been easily avoided. (By contrast, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands does explain where the party is expected to have come from, on page 12 of that module.)

Secret Doors: The secret door workings should have been described, with a brief explanation of how each "door" opens and what the triggering mechanism is. The traps in this section, by contrast, are fully described; what if the traps just said, "the sarcophagus is trapped (1d6 damage)?" That wouldn't be acceptable, so I'm not sure why it's acceptable for secret door designers to just put an "S" symbol on a map wall and call it a day. The S&W rulebook is pretty explicit about the fact that secret door workings ought to be given design consideration; the rulebook says that a successful secret door roll doesn't necessarily reveal how to open such a door. Also, there are two rooms (areas 8 and 10) where the module doesn't explain whether the occupants of the rooms know about the adjacent secret doors; for an introductory module, I'd expect some guidance on that point.

Hard to Map: For a group of beginners interested in trying out old school mapping, the dungeon map is really hard to logistically contend with, both for the DM to describe and the players to interpret. Odd angles, non-standard widths, and a lack of alignment to the grid all make verbal descriptions tricky, which could be a big road block to some groups. There's a reason why B2 The Keep on the Borderlands keeps most areas aligned to the grid.

Inconsistent Presentation of Introductory Info: There's advice for new GMs, but it's scattered around and presented several different ways, and this inconsistency doesn't serve to keep things organized or easily findable. One example is the description for area T-20, where it reminds a new GM too late (!) that he should have already presented some information to the players before they entered the area; the relevant info should have been a separate keyed area on the map, outside area T-20. I'd also expect some mention of monster reactions (initial attitude toward PCs) somewhere in the module, given that reactions are hand-waved in the S&W rulebook. I think the expectation is that they are all aggressive, but it's hard to be sure.

Content Mistakes: There are a handful of these, and these kind of glitches never serve to make a good impression on a new group/GM. The dungeon wandering monster info talks about a "special" entry that purportedly relates to each different section of the dungeon, but there's no "special" actually on the chart, nor is there any mention of it in each section of the dungeon. There a mention of a door in area 23 that isn't on the map. There's a flooded room (area 15) that probably shouldn't be flooded, because it has an obvious drainage path down the adjacent stairs. There's a missing slope connecting the highest part of the dungeon with a lower section, between area 14 and the nexus of areas 40 and 41.

Inconvenient Layout Glitches: There are a number of problems, most of them minor, but one stands out as legitimately troublesome during play. The dragon area description in the wilderness looks all nicely ended on page 8. So when you run the module, you could easily forget to look three pages away for the paragraph that talks about the dragon's treasure. There are a couple other similar, though more minor layout offenses, including a table and a new monster description that each breaks across pages, and orphaned portions of room descriptions that could have been avoided by commissioning art *after* doing the layout. It's hard to say exactly how bad these last few glitches are because I haven't seen the physical printed version yet; having to flip back-and-forth to deal with the table (from area T-13) would get old pretty quickly.


Overall Grimmsgate is good, but it feels like it was missing a proper/firm producer's hand. The Frog God Games guys needed the guts to push it back to Matt for another revision. They needed to shepherd the layout and illustration a little bit better, to avoid the jarring/inconvenient page breaks. It needed more polish to really be an "A grade" module.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Parody Logo

I had a flash of inspiration that I could not help but follow to its natural creative conclusion. Perhaps I will find a reason to use my creation...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dark Chateau 2nd printing

I couldn't find pictures of the 2nd printing of Dark Chateau on the internet anywhere, so here are some very quick photos of mine, showing the major differences between it and the 1st printing: Totally different covers, re-done title page (now including the OGL), and an advertisement on page 40 (instead of the OGL).

(I'll do a proper cover scan when I have more time, and upload the cover images to rpggeek and similar places.)

Dark Chateau 2nd printing front cover

Dark Chateau 2nd printing back cover

Dark Chateau 2nd printing title page

Dark Chateau 2nd printing last page

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lost City of the Elders: Out-of-the-Box play with Rob Kuntz

At the most recent Gary Con, Robert J. Kuntz refereed three separate groups through part of his Lost City of the Elders environment. I had the pleasure of participating in the second of those three groups, and it gave me new insight to what Rob has described as "out-of-the-box" or "open form" play.

Lost City of the Elders is most certainly not a typical "monsters in a dungeon/wilderness" environment. Rob is a unique referee. This particular union of referee and environment was a bit of a shock to the system … in a good way. It pushed us, as players, in ways we had not been pushed before. At times, it was uncomfortable or jarring. A couple players left the session early, possibly because of how different it was from their typical sessions. The following day, two other players from my session made comments like, "Can you believe that session? Were we just in a train wreck?"

But I did not echo their consternation. I enjoyed the play session; I certainly learned a thing or three, and I think all the players are better for the experience they had at Rob's table. Given a bit of reflection, I think even the early-leavers would agree.

Depiction of the Lost City of the Elders (from WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure)
From here, I will try to highlight some of the out-of-the-box situations and techniques Rob used during play. I'll avoid direct spoilers (mostly), but because so much of the play was about us (as players) adapting to the changing play environment and trying to stay level-headed, some indirect spoilers are inevitable; many of the out-of-the-box techniques were the changing environment we dealt with.

Player Interpretation of a Visual Aid

After briefly framing our reason for adventure (often a necessary evil at convention games), Rob presented us with a visual aid that offered a clue about where we were to begin our adventure. The illustration was somewhat ambiguous, certainly mysterious, and yet tantalizingly semi-concrete. The nearby NPCs had no information that would help, so it was up to us as players to interpret the illustration using our real-world knowledge and form a plan accordingly.

The obvious ramification is that we used player skill to navigate the situation (which is great), but the less-obvious ramification is more interesting: It forced us as players (many of whom had never met one another before) to communicate, offer ideas, and listen to each other. And because Rob presented the illustration in a "safe" spot in the game world, we got to break through the wall of social pressure without the added stresses of trying to save our own skins. (That added pressure would come later, lol!)

Leap of Faith

Upon viewing a portal unlike others we had seen, our party faced the decision of whether, and how, to go through it. (This was conceptually similar to the "green devil face" from S1 Tomb of Horrors, but not nearly as ominous.) The visual characteristics of the portal gave us no confidence that we would be able to get back through it from the opposite direction, and some physical experimentation confirmed our suspicions.

The simple fact that we could physically experiment with the portal also bears consideration. It immediately showed us that careful thought reaps rewards. And since experimentation means interaction with the referee, one player received a firm lesson in How to Ask Questions of the Referee and How to Clearly State What Your Character Does™.

Finally, because we ultimately concluded that proceeding through the portal was indeed something of a leap of faith, we players learned who among us were the brave players, and who were the cowardly. Or from my perspective: Who were the prudent, and who were the foolhardy.

Get Out of the Box

At one point, the entire party became stuck at the bottom of … well, the specific place doesn't matter. What matters is that only some of the characters had ways of moving vertically toward the exit. For our group, this turned into a "come together" moment. It afforded us a chance to help each other out, to learn the basic capabilities of each others' characters, and to form a plan. It was easily within our means to extricate ourselves, but the potential unfriendliness of the environment gave us an opportunity to ensure we had mutual support among the characters that exited early, and those that exited later.

Add Stress, Change the Environment, and Invalidate Planning

Rob's Gary Con V report (linked down at the bottom) mentions "time compression," so I don't feel bad spoiling this one a little bit. Time worked differently in the dimension containing the Lost City of the Elders. It seemed to change speeds, proceeding at a fairly normal speed for a while, and then suddenly shifting from midday to the middle of the night, or vice versa, and then moving back to a normal speed again. Sometimes there were several day-to-night shifts (or vice-versa) in rapid succession. (Some of the variability may have just been my perspective as a player, because resolution of combat rounds takes more real time than most turns of overland travel, for example. Even so, the rapid day-to-night shifts definitely occurred, even in the middle of a round.)

This was both detrimental and useful. On the one hand, our spellcasters recovered their spell capability just as suddenly as the day-to-night shifts occurred. On the other hand, after some of the shifts, we were stricken with extreme hunger and fatigue, as though we hadn't eaten or rested in days at a time. All this combined to shake up the typical adventuring logistics (what spells do you take, how much food do we bring, etc.), and to encourage us pay more attention to what was going on in the heavens above. It also introduced doubt as to how long we'd be able to survive in this dimension, given that time seemed to be increasing in aggregate speed the further we travelled.

Note that the time compression was only one of several manifestations of an environment change. We faced several other physical or supernatural changes that affected how we interacted with and navigated through the environment. Each such change was virtually a game in itself: Figure out what was going on, figure out if it was beneficial or harmful, figure out if we could alter it, and figure out how best to carry on.

A Figurative Tidal Wave

At one point, we encountered a disturbing-looking denizen of the dimension. Rob's initial utterance indicated that the lone individual intended to harry the party, but by the time his sentence finished, there were so many creatures appearing that they began forming something akin to a living tidal wave, ready to crash down upon us, or climb upon their own collective bulk to reach us at great heights.

So, yeah: Escalation. High-level AD&D characters are pretty powerful. But I don't care what level your characters are, you simply don't survive in combat against literally thousands-upon-thousands of enemies doing what these critters were doing. This was not a single (but very tough) dragon that we can "manage" by forcing it to melee our fighters while the magic-users and clerics concentrated their spells upon it. This was so many creatures that we'd be wiped out in a round or two if we tried to combat them physically. Suddenly our "we are so cool because we have limited wish" characters appeared surprisingly fragile, and it us was up to us as players to come up with ideas to save our characters' skins.

We moved into a survival mindset, not unlike our extrication mindset from the Get Out of the Box example, but this time with a deadline. We had to think fast, and we had to get everybody moving out of there now, which allowed the more experienced AD&D players to impart important knowledge of spell and magic item effects to the less experienced players. It also forced a good bit of naturalistic thinking, as we visualized the imaginary game environment to come up with a plausible way out of our predicament. The naturalistic elements of the game world really mattered, and could mean the difference between characters living and dying. A couple of the players were so affected by the situation that they offered to sacrifice their PCs, obviously to help give the rest of the party a chance to escape, but I believe also because they (as players) were getting stressed out by an escalation the likes of which they had not seen before.

Sadly, this taught one player harsh new lessons in how AD&D spell components work, that wands (and the like) are a magic-user's best friend in times of extreme stress, and (maybe) how hubris can be fatal to PCs.

Pull No Punches!

Quite reasonably, Rob held our level of play to a standard commensurate with our PCs' high levels. This manifested in a variety of ways, the most obvious being that PCs could (and did) die during the adventure. But also, he expected us to be ready with relevant information about our spells and magic item effects, to be straightforward when asking questions, and to not coddle fellow players by supplying answers and advice when the referee asked direct questions of the fellow. The stress level was sometimes high, and part of play skill is the ability to perform well under pressure; a couple of us (myself included) received a deserved slap on the wrist for trying to help another flustered or floundering player.

"Monsters" Transcend Stats

During our exploration, we encountered three types of creatures. I suspect Rob had stats for each such creature type behind his screen, but in only one case did the typical combat stats come into play, and only because we were playing somewhat poorly. (q.v. A Figurative Tidal Wave.)

Rob's use of creatures showed that stats can be thought of as just a tool, subservient to the creature concept itself. The existence of combat stats do not imply that the combat stats are "to be engaged" (through typical combat), any more than inclusion of a creature's height & weight implies that the game is about who has the biggest monster.

More concretely, Rob's use of creatures during the expedition illustrated a concept-first design approach. Presumably, he thought of a situation with sentient beings to be included in the environment, figured out what the sentient beings ought to be like, and then put appropriate stats to them (as a necessary evil, because after all, PCs might take the fight to them). Note the difference between that and the common rpg sub-hobby of "coming up with a new monster."


Hopefully the above techniques and situations aren't entirely new to you. A fair number of referees do these kinds of things already, and that's great. While the specific examples above are from an other-dimensional high-level AD&D environment (12th-14th level, with any three magic items we desired; potency was not restricted), any of the ideas can be applied various ways in lower-level play.

But the important thing is not simply (re)using the above examples or their subcomponents. Certainly there are infinite possibilities; Rob used a number of other techniques in the session beyond those I listed above. The point is feeling the freedom to inject much more than monster-room-treasure in your adventuring environments, and feeling the freedom to flip the play experience on its ear.

Notes and Bibliography

Robert J. Kuntz's designer entry and author credits:
(rpg stuff)
(rpg stuff)
(board games)

Grognard Games' video interview with Rob, including some discussion of "open form" play:

Some of Rob's comments on "out-of-the-box" play:

Rob's Gary Con V report, which includes some of his comments on the Lost City of the Elders sessions:

Rob's character building guidelines for his Lost City of the Elders sessions:

Gary Con convention site:

Finally, the small print: I had two very nice drinks over the course of the last half of the session, delivered by the fine wait staff at the Geneva Ridge Resort, so my memory may not be 100% perfect on all the details above. I may have mixed up a detail or two, but that's not really pertinent to the point of this article. So there.