Dungeon Crawl Classics – Tower of the Stargazer [Session 5]

The Cast for this Session

There were six players and 15 or so characters.

People gathered around a table, listening to a Judge describe the in game situation.

Good Luck With That…

Leveled Characters

  • Ungo the Beggar (1st-level thief)
  • Ahmal the Witness of Cthulhu (1st-level cleric)
  • Obexa the Agent (1st-level dwarf)
  • Spike the Acolyte of Ramat (1st-level cleric)
  • Ralph Quickfingers – an inquisitive halfling haberdasher (1st-level halfling)
  • Quinlynn the Unlucky – an elf sworn to the King of Elfland (1st-level elf)
  • Badger’s Bane – human trapper (1st-level Thief)

The Villagers

Albert, Bartholemew, Calvin, Dave, Krem, Ilvora, Stemp, Chance, Yeasty,Lord Scuttlebutt

Those crossed out did not survive the adventure.

The Session

A Bit of Background

This group of characters is an amalgam of three 0-level character funnels:

As well as survivors of the Harley Stroh’s “Doom of the Savage Kings

I’ve treated each of those as having taken place in the village of Bitterweed Barrow. Buried in this sleepy little corner of the world is evidence of past civilizations.

A hex grid with five filled hexes mapping a small region.

The Known World as of Session 4

Back to Bitterweed Barrow

Having left Hirot after defeating the Hound of Hirot and framing Iraco, the characters returned to Bitterweed Barrow. I advanced the time a month (to reflect that we’ve been playing for over a month

During this downtime:

  • Ralph fashioned an ostentatious hide armor made from the silver wolf skin pelt he found
  • Other villagers had explored another barrow (Joan ran Portal Under the Stars in my absence)
  • People were equipping themselves with hide or leather armor and shields
  • Everyone was restless for more adventure
  • Nine more villagers wanted to take up the life of adventuring. I wonder how many more villagers will hear the siren song of adventuring?
  • Joseph, the drunken farmer, spoke again about a two-headed goat birth and green eyes (See second session for more details)
  • Quinlynn’s player, Erich, asks if he has any recollection of a previous time of two-headed goat births.
    • I made a quick ruling for Elven Lore based on something mentioned in Spellburn #46. I will be formalizing this.
    • XXX recalls at that time helping a wizard who was building a tower north of Bitterweed Barrow; He wanted precisely cut reeds from the fens.
  • Ahmal the Witness of Cthulhu hands over two radiant sacred Ramati scrolls to Spike the Acolyte of Ramat (See side-trek session for more details)
    • I asked for a Luck check for Ahmal; She passed. On a failure Cthulhu would’ve taken notice and disapproved.
    • I’m working towards paying greater attention to character alignments and decisions.
  • Recollection of the Tale of the Barrow Wives

    Deep and ancient magic infuses the funerary rituals of mighty warriors and great leaders. One of these rituals involves the self-sacrifice of a lover of the deceased. The lover is ritually killed and buried in the loamy foundation of their beloved’s barrow; To sooth and serve their deceased lover for the eons.

After a bit, they embarked, choosing to seek the tower of the wizard.

Roadside Reconciliation

For my session prep, I wrote up some procedures for the hex crawling near Bitterweed Barrow. The first hex, they rolled a 1 for their chance at an encounter.

The adventurers see a road-side shrine, like the one that Ungo looted earlier. Ralph urges Ungo to make things right and return those coins. Ungo agreed, and unlike last time, threw caution to the wind and placed the coins in the bowl without careful inspection. The bowl tilted and a crossbow bolt shot from the brush, sinking deep in Ungo’s thigh.

A roar of “Attack!” and a dozen camouflaged bandits burst up, throwing javelins. I should’ve made some rolls for the elves. Several javelins stick, three of the villagers drop dead. The adventurers rally and make a counter attack. Ungo and Ahmal attempting to flank, other villagers charging the bandits, slings bullets launching.

The first tide-turning event is Quinlynn casting Sleep (with the mercurial magic effect of healing 1d6 HP of everyone within 30′). He’s 3 points shy of getting the spell off, and Ralph offers up 2 points of Luck (one will be permanent). Ephemeral swan wings embrace the bandit hero and gentle drop him off to sleep.

The remaining bandits check morale, and press on! Ralph charges into the fray, picking off one of the bandits. The bandits respond and fell a few more villagers and Badger’s Bane.

Spike steps over Badger’s Bane and casts Holy Sanctuary (a cautious move given that Badger’s Bane is of an opposing alignment). Obexa charges a cluster of bandits with a mighty deed of “I want to cleave into the other”. He hits his deed and the attack and splatters two of the bandits.

Ahmal rushes over to save Badger’s Bane; A bandit harries Ahmal, but ultimately Ahmal heals Badger’s Bane. Ungo guts one of the bandits. The bandits check morale, and feel. They call for a retreat.

The adventurers, battered and bruise, pound their shields and drive off the bandits. As the bandits flee, Quinlynn casts another sleep spell, catching two more bandits (and healing the adventurers).

The adventures spend some time looting the corpses (upgrading to studded leather and scimitars), tying up the survivors, and preparing a funeral pyre for the four slain villagers and dead bandits.

One player’s characters all died, so I reached into the envelope of 0-level characters and pulled out Dave the Woodcutter. He had heard the commotion and came to investigate; He decided to join the adventurers.

As the brigand leader stirs awake, still bound, Spike approaches him. “You have done bad things. I want you to repent in the name of Ramat.” I call for a DC 15 Personality check, and he aces it. The brigand leader is a convert of Ramat. He goes to convert his fleeing crew.

A Strange Roadside Encounter

As they enter the next hex, I ask for a d6. Again a 1.

As they press forth, they come to the King’s Way and see a lone traveller. They hail him. And he responds in a stilted manner.

The adventurers immediately think “Zombie” and I clarify. No its more jerky motion. “Like a marrionette?” asked Erich. “Yes that!”

I have some fun pantomiming a very herky jerky man. And talking with a not entirely in control voice. I’m aiming for Vincent D’onofrio in “Men in Black”

Spike attempts to turn unholy to no effect. The adventurers choose to let this “man” continue his trip towards Hirot. And they continue towards the wizards tower.

Approaching Tower of the Stargazer

From here on out are spoilers for James Raggi IV’s “Tower of the Stargazer“.

A forboding tower being struck by lightning. A lone person contemplates ascending the stairs to the tower.

“Tower of the Stargazer” written by James Raggi IV. Cover art by Peter Mullin.

As they approach the tower towards the evening. They note the lightning striking it and the immediate surroundings, even the the sky is clear.

Ralph and Ungo decide to approach the stairs and doors to the tower. They move cautiously, noting a body just west of the tower. At the door they spend some time investigating the knocker, the door frame, the floor, and the door itself. As Ungo is about to pull the serpentine handles, Ralph suggests they knock on the knocker. A loud “Bong” reverberates and the door opens to a meticulously kept waiting room with two doors.

First Floor

The rest of the party ascends the stairs and enters the waiting room. Yeasty lights her torch. In this room, one of the characters curious about illusions jabs a knife into a table. It appears to be real.

They open one door in the waiting room to discover a moldering closet with outdated clothes. They take the other door. It opens to a dining room with fine china, bottles of wine, a statue of a King and Medusa from a popular myth.

There was a wicked King who loved a Medusa. And she loved him. Together they grew powerful. And in this power they grew to resent each other. The King one day betrayed the Medusa and had her killed. In her dying breath she cursed his lineage, and on the 18th birthday each of his children, serpents kill each of them.

They spend a bit of time exploring. Ralph checks out the four wine bottles. They are of an old vintage. Spike continues to advise that they leave them here and can get them as they leave. Ralph, deaf to Spike’s suggestions, pops open a bottle and smells the sweet fragrance of a fine wine. He corks it and puts it back.

Second Floor

They head up the stairs to a servants quarter. They see a table, oven, corridor to other chambers, and stairs going up, with a notable oozing splotch of blood. They explore the servants quarters and find a journal written by Argyle Timmons. It details the day to day activities of the tower. The last entry, some 59 years ago ends with Argyle saying that he is going to flee Sir Uravulon Calcidius. Sir Calcidius, the wizard, has turned murderous and spiteful. They also find a key.

This jogs a bit of Ilvora’s memory; Argyle was a villager that took over helping Sir Calcidius when the tasks became rather onerous:

  • fetch the placenta for a girl birth from a mother that was a first-born
  • gather a rams horn fill with the blood of the ram after you have bludgeoned it to death by the horn

Third Floor

They gather themselves and approach the stairs and the door at the top. They note that blood continues to ooze from the key hole. They try the key and hear a “cling” as they push another key out of the other side of the keyhole. A quick use of parchment and they scrape up the key.

A white bearded wizard trapped in a circle of salt.

“Sir Uravulon Calcidius” by Dean Clayton

They open the door and see a white bearded wizard standing inside of a circle of salt. At this point, the players have a clear idea the Sir Calcidius is not a nice guy. But he starts out friendly and willing to pay them to free him. As they goad him, his anger rises, the veins on his forehead throb and he turns red as he proclaims “Free me now or I will scatter your souls across the cosmos.”

The adventurers proceed to goad him and prod him, exploring his quarters (and taking the 5,000 gp Star Crystal). He responds with equal parts anger, nihilism, and contrition. On a stand they find a book titled “Communications and Signaling the Beyond”. It goes on and on about the existence of other planets and their possible fauna and flora. And means of communication, though perhaps through other planes. A blathering of pseudoscience, if science were a defined concept in this world.

The adventurers checkout the door and find what appears to be an elevator shaft. Ralph, Ungo, and Quinlynn offer to explore (none of them need Yeasty’s torchlight).

Going Up

There are two doors on the 4th level. One towards the center of the tower, the other towards the edge. They choose the center. It opens into a study room with tables. On the table is a book “Surviving the Interorbular Ether”, it is a dense read. There are two doors. They open one, and hear a woosh and are greeted with the scent of stale air. It is a library. There are countless books on three major subjects:

  • Glass
  • Light
  • Metalworks

There is another door leading what would appear to be to the room that was accessible from the elevator shaft. They open that door. It is a chilly room with a wooden box. They open the box and feel a blast of cold air. Inside are 12 vials. Ralph inspects one. It looks like blood. As he holds it, the blood ripples a bit. He checks the other vials. All of them are blood. Not overly curious, he puts them back and they leave the room, heading back to the study.

Take a Chance

They take the other door and enter a room with a table and two chairs, one facing them, the other ready for someone to sit in. To their left, a door with crackling energy barring its entrance. A ghost appears and said “Beat me at a game of chess and I will give you access. Lose and your soul is mine.”

The adventure gave some guidance; But with time running short, I offered a deal. You’ll roll a d20 to determine the results of the chess game. My initial terms were on a 1 to 15 you lose your soul. On a 16 to 20 you win and get 15 XP. I didn’t mention if burning luck would be an option. Chance opted to play. He rolled a 3 (and didn’t have enough luck to make up the difference). He disintegrated and reappeared as the ghost.

This time I offered 10 XP for 50/50 odds. Ralph thought about it, and sat at the table. And rolled natural 1. Poof. Quick thinking Quinlynn Invoked the King of Elfland. A quick errand from his shadow to Elfland (for the spellburn), and Quinlynn stepped back to offer Ralph guidance on the midgame and helped coach him. I gave Ralph a re-roll and increased his success range from 11+ to 6+. He rolled a 12. Chance’s ghost and the chessboard disappear and the force field to the other door blinks out of existence.

Having run out of time, we stopped there. I awarded 9 XP to the survivors.

Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars

The Three Pillars of Adventure

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

From the “D&D Basic Rules: Player’s Basic Rules”

I want to look at a few subsystems of previous versions that are not part of the core rules of 5E. Rules and guidance for these subsystems can be found in the current Dungeon Master’s Guide. But they are not a first class citizen in the rules.

These systems are:

  • Hirelings, retainers, and specialists – additional hired support that can bolster the parties ranks or provide specialized services
  • Random encounters – a procedure to determine if the party encounters random creatures/events outside of the set pieces of the adventure
  • Reaction checks – a procedure to determine non-player characters initial reaction (friendly, indifferent, hostile, etc.) to the party
  • Morale checks – a procedure for seeing if non-player characters and creatures surrender, flee, or fight on

Exploration

Hirelings provide additional options for exploration: a translator, a torchbearer, a rear guard, a camp guard, etc.

Random encounters breath life into a location; Instead of a series of disparate locations the random encounters highlight that the location is dangerous and dynamic.

In editions prior to 3E, random encounters put pressure on the characters to not delay. The majority of experience was from treasure and not combat and a random encounter was a high risk, low reward ordeal.

Reaction checks codify that not every encounter will escalate into combat. It provides a chance for factions and agendas to be discovered and exploited.

Morale checks primary purpose is to ensure that not everything is a fight to the death. In exploration, this means that players may be aware that any opposition is falling back to bolster defenses.

Combat

In older editions, one role of hirelings was to diffuse the lethality of combat. They are both support and built in back-up player characters. They also provide a logical means to for a guest player to join for a single session or so.

Random encounters provide a steady source of potential combat. In older editions, its ill-advised to escalate every encounter (i.e. high risk, low reward). However, for players seeking combat, random encounters are sure to please.

Reaction checks are there to make sure that not everything needs to be combat. It can steer an encounter into a social interaction instead. It adds a bit of unpredictability.

Morale provides a clear mechanism so that not every combat is fought to the bloody end. This is something that a GM could adjudicate on their own, but having procedures in place allows the GM to fall back on the beauty of randomization. No one knows when a combat starts if it will be to the death; But the rules can be leveraged to provide an unbiased decision.

Since morale checks also apply to all non-player characters, it raises the stakes of combat; Will your still loyal torchbearer turn tail at the sight of skeletons? Will your seasoned veteran continue to fight even if their employer has fallen? A story emerges from the dice rolls.

Social Interaction

And this is where the four subsystems shine.

Hirelings may have their own agenda. They may leave on good terms and help the party in the future. Or a mistreated hireling might betray or openly oppose the future endeavors of the party. They provide another known social interaction point in the campaign; No need to create something new, reuse a hireling.

By leveraging reaction checks, it is not immediately obvious if each encounter is meant for combat or social interaction. This ambiguity provides a crease in the game that allows players to flex their ambitions.

And then there is morale; Does the hireling turns tail and runs at a critical moment? Or do they double down with steely resolve? How do the players respond? Do they dismiss them outright? Do they seek to rally, comfort, or console? At a minimum, there is now an in game moment with one of the hirelings that changed the state of the fiction.

And morale for possible opposition enforces that not everything is a fight to the death. Will the players spare the creature? Will they gain an ally? Or will they be betrayed? Can they hire their opponent? It keeps the questions open.

And in all of this, the random encounter is yet another source of fuel for social interactions and combat.

Conclusion

In my survey of numerous OSR games and D&D editions, I have found several implementations of these subsystems.

For Hirelings I’m fond of:

For Morale my preference is:

For Reaction checks:

For Random Encounters:

There are differences between each, but the key components that I look for are as follows:

  • Randomize the hiring process; Some should slander would be employers
  • Codify when morale checks should be made
  • Codify what random encounters are possible and how often
  • Reaction checks should happen at the beginning of the encounter (I prefer that Charisma not come into play unless the characters interact with the creatures)

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski

Disclaimer: I solicited Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a free copy of the Thulian Echoes PDF with the intent of writing up a review.

From RPGNow’s description:

Thulian Echoes is two adventures in one! In the first phase, players take the role of pregen characters exploring the dungeon long ago… their actions recorded, so that the players’ actual characters can then follow in the footsteps of the previous characters and gain all the riches and magical secrets to be found!

Of my previous three reviews…

…two were for adventures by Zzarchov Kowolski. This review makes the count three out of four.

I will now do my best to avoid spoilers. Instead focusing on what I find fascinating about this adventure.

Zzarchov is crafting adventures that are more than backstory, set encounters, and random encounters. In Scennic Dunnsmouth, Zzarchov wrote procedures to transfer the knowledge components of the adventure framework to the GM.

In Thulian Echoes, Zzarchov focuses on the knowledge transfer of in-game information to the characters by way of the players playing different characters. From the introduction

…the journal of another band of adventures from over a thousand years ago who went to explore a location based adventure. The players are then handed a batch of pre-generated characters and get to play through the events in the journal.

Brilliant! Instead of spending time crafting numerous journal entries with hints and fluff, Zzarchov embraces the “show don’t tell” adage.

The trigger is when the characters study the journal. Not when they commit to the adventure. Yes, it is a bait and switch.

Rehearsal

The first pass through the adventure is brutal. Disposable characters will die. And that is the purpose. However Thulian Echoes is not without sympathy.

Zzarchov recommends, for the first pass through, to provide a luck pool for the players. When a pre-generated character dies, the player can spend from the luck pool to avoid death. When the luck pool runs out…the journal ends.

This mechanism facilitates players paying attention and participating during practice. The mechanism is not used for the “real” run of the adventure. Players have hirelings and henchman to replace a deceased character.

While the players are exploring the adventure site, the GM is taking notes. Both action and inaction will impact the future state of the adventure site. And there is interplay with the alterations.

Once More with Feeling

Once the rehearsal draws to a close, the GM has a bit of work to do. There is a bit of dice rolling and review of the various impacts. It is best to do in between sessions, but could be wrapped up in 20 minutes.

The stage is then rebuilt.

For the second time around with the players’ actual characters, things have changed. A millennium has passed. The players can now witness any potential butterfly effect.

Other Curiosities

Competitiveness

The first pass of the adventure is challenging. But nothing about the adventure forces the players to send their real characters through it. Through social engineering – attempting to succeed after previous failure – most players that I know would attempt to do it again.

The Journey

There is an adventure segment that provides a procedure for dealing with extensive wilderness travel. In doing so Thulian Echoes avoids detailing an extensive set of wilderness encounters.

It is instead there is a distance tracking mechanism and a table for random encounters. The random table has the same structure as The Gnomes of Levnec random table:

  • Roll a d8, d6, d4
  • Consult each entry
  • On doubles, triples, or max value there is a kicker

These tables encode enough information to make the wilderness travel interesting without chewing up too much time.

The Map

Jason Thompson created a gorgeous walkthrough isomorphic map for Thulian Echoes. Jason also drew the walkthrough maps of “Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth”, “Slave Pits of the Undercity”, and the “Isle of Dread”.

Summary

I found the adventure inspiring and interesting. I both want to run the adventure and take the procedures and work on my own. So for my purposes, Thulian Echoes is a resounding “must have”.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Want an example of unique adventure construction
  • Want a dangerous dungeon delve
  • Are looking for your characters to explore a remote island
  • Want an adventure you can run more than once – twice in fact!
  • Think your players would like a second crack at something

Do not buy Thulian Echoes if you:

  • Are looking for an urban adventure
  • Are not willing to yank your player’s chains
  • Know your players won’t be on board for playing different characters
  • Don’t want to deal with timey wimey things

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

I believe the complete list of adventures I have run closely from a book are:

  • The Red Hand of Doom (D&D 3E)
  • The Night Below (AD&D 2E)
  • The Dramune Run (Star Frontiers)
  • Under the House of the Three Squires (Torchbearer)
  • Breakout (Marvel Heroic)
  • Bloodstone (D&D 3E, Burning Wheel)
  • The Trouble in Hochen (Burning Wheel)

Yet I own lots of adventures. And keep buying more. Because I like smashing the ideas of the adventures into my brain for later reference.

Screencapture of the PDF cover of Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski

Zzarchov Kowolski‘s “Scenic Dunnsmouth” piqued my curiosity after I read the following back cover text:

Scenic Dunnsmouth features an innovative village generation system using dice and playing cards to ensure that every expedition to Dunnsmouth is unique.

It delivers on that promise.

What Do We Have Here

Most adventures I’ve read provide a “fully formed” adventure. A living creature with skin, guts, skeleton, and sinew.

A fully formed adventure may work for an adventure with a simple relationship graph (i.e. Dungeon Crawl) but for a mystery, attempting to hold the concepts and pieces of the adventure in my mind is challenging.

Scenic Dunnsmouth takes an interesting and divergent approach from a standard adventure. It provides you with:

  • the guts – the core mystery
  • some disassembled mixbag of bones – d4, d6, d8, and d12 kind of bones
  • a bolt of mottled skin – the look, feel, and tone of the writing
  • some connective tissues – Families, relationships, and even possible feuds
  • a toolkit for assembling the adventure

And there lies its genius.

Some Assembly Required

Yes there is a core mystery and evil. But Zzarchov provides a procedure for assembling your Frankenstein’s monster of an adventure.

With a fistful of dice you determine:

  • The locations of the town
  • The weirdness level
  • Where to position a few of the stock characters

Then, you shuffle up some cards and determine the town’s inhabitants. And that is it.

If someone or somewhere doesn’t show up in your town construction, it does not exist in this incarnation of Dunnsmouth.

Taking Notes to Help Remember

When I am reading, I’m a terrible note taker. I don’t mark in my books. The exercise of finalizing Dunnsmouth was the best note taking session for any of my adventure preparation.

The final result of the procedure was a map with numerous locations keyed by:

  • dice size
  • rolled value
  • card suit
  • card value

With those four bits of information, I can get a general sense for the tone of Dunnsmouth. I can also lookup in the character index more information about the inhabitants and locations.

Not bad for 30 minutes of adventure preparation!

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Buy Scenic Dunnsmouth if you are:

  • Interested in unique procedures for adventure creation
  • Looking for weird fantasy
  • Looking for an interrogation/observation-based mystery

Don’t buy it if you are:

  • Looking for a dungeon crawl
  • Interested in lots of action (ie Combat!)

Other Reviews

A Handful of other reviews of Scenic Dunnsmouth.

Fascination with the Flame Princess

Last week, I found myself once again in Chicago. I had plans to meetup with Nathan, and we agreed to connect at our usual rendezvous – The Wanderer’s Refuge. While waiting for Nathan, I stumbled upon a few copies of Better than Any Man, a product that I had kickstarted for Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s 2013 Free RPG Day drive.

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

Recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Arrivals

I had been unable to get a physical copy – what with it being released while I was neck deep in RPGs at Origins last year. So I quickly snagged a copy of this gorgeous adventure. I asked the store owner the cost, and he said “It was part of Free RPG Day, so its free!”

Later, I had an afternoon to kill and found myself again at Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL. My first visit there, I had bought The God that Crawls and The Monolith from beyond Space and Time.

This visit, they had 4 copies LotFP Rules & Magic. But I already had my copy from a previous order. Though I stood over those books and admired their quality.

Late last year, during one of James Raggi’s crazy “Things are On Sale” days, I purchased a physical copy LotFP Rules & Magic as well as Geoffrey McKinney’s Isle of the Unknown and Carcosa – having read and reviewed the PDF a few years prior.

I kickstarted indigogoed Vincent Backer’s The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions during James’s crazy indigogo blitz – 19 concurrent indigogo campaigns many of which did not fully fund. I wanted to see Vincent’s take on the more OSR related things.

Last month, when James was asking for volunteers to test out a payment processing system, I jumped at the chance to both help out and get a discount. I ordered Kelving Green’s Forgive Us, Zzarchov Kowlolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth, and Kenneth Hite’s Qelong.

I also have the Grindhouse Edition of the LotFP rules and Zak S’s fantastic Vornheim. The Grindhouse Edition rules provide a digestible introduction to a game that just isn’t quite like the games that I remember from years past. Things are more fragile and mysterious.

Vornheim is amongst my favorite supplements. It is not an exhaustive description of the city, but instead provides tools, guideposts, brief “essays” each for bringing Vornheim to life.

So confident am I that I will love everything Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I joined the Pembrooktonshire Gardening Society. And my card arrived today.

But here is the dirty secret…

I’ve never once played a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. But they are amongst my most favorite role-playing books.

First, they are gorgeously produced – from the evocative cover art to the decadent paper stock. Just handling them is enough to drive the bibliophile wild.

Second, they are different. They are weird – in comparison to much of what is out there. In some ways reading each of the books transports me. As I crack open one of these books, it is as though I am given another chance at being introduced to RPGs.

So cheers to you James, for all of your crazy endeavors! You are taking risks in what you publish – acknowledging as much in The Monolith from beyond Space and Time – and I’m enjoying seeing the end results. Especially in their high quality printed form.

 

Why the Fantasy Genre

I have a rather extensive RPG collection. And I’ve read most of them. But it is Burning Wheel (et al), Vornheim, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Dungeon World that I keep turning to.

My collection runs the gamut of genres and topics, but there is something about games in the fantasy genre that keep drawing me in.

Burning Wheel (et. al) is heavy on procedure and is so very nuanced. I feel as though the author(s) are doing their best to have a very detailed and exhaustive conversation with me. They manage to speak up to me, instead of down. And they are always challenging me as a GM, player, reader, etc.

Dungeon World simply asks you to ask questions…lots of them…targeted and biased, working to solicit narrative movement from your players.

Vornheim is an distillation concentration of the most inceptive reduction sauce ever. So much is accomplished in so few pages…and it sticks with me. Not the details, but the essence.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is both comfortable and so very different. As if there is an alternate dimension in which I have played the game from its beginning and it resonates across time and space.

There are certainly others outside the bounds of Fantasy, but I have found it is the “common vocabulary” of Fantasy (thank you Gary and Dave) that makes Fantasy the perfect genre to create these fantastic works that acknowledge their foundation but say “Hey, watch this!”

Nostalgically Wishing I Would’ve Been Part of the Old School

There is a bumper crop of Old School games available.  Some are rebuilding the 1E / 0E rules based on the OGL.  Others are re-imaginings.  And others sit somewhere in between.  This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Champions of Zed, Barbarians of Lemuria, World of Dungeons and certainly many more.  Even the D&D Next, by other people’s accounts, is harkening back to the days of yore.

I never played D&D 1E, having started on Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, and D&D 2E. I never had a character who had a cadre of henchman and followers. And none of my characters have made use of the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.

And from the outside looking in, this runs counter to what I believe to have been the Old School game.  Characters were disposable “back in the olden days.” They were fragile. You needed meat shields to protect your characters. Yet, even then, a character was a fragile thing. The hyper capable heroes came along later.

The Old School games are about exploration…cautiously advancing through a dungeon. In fact, as I was reading my 0E copy, I found that turns (10 minute increments) were marked off based on the distance moved within a dungeon. And if memory serves 10 minutes passed after the party moved 120 feet. And strangely, that rule blew my mind. I don’t know if that rule is in the 2E DMG or not, but I never discovered it when I first started out.

It seems so obvious to track time by distance moved, but it isn’t quite as obvious saying that you would move so slowly in 10 minutes. Unless of course you were exploring your surroundings.

These days, I’m looking for a good story to emerge from play. Exploration is clearly one of the means to emergent narratives. To explore requires questions and answers, a constant back and forth for clarity. Each side of the screen engaging each other.

I remember scoffing at the idea that XP was derived from gold pieces earned. In our 2E days, I used to award XP for being on time, killing monsters, and role-playing. It only occurred to me much more recently how elegant a reward system the XP for GP really was.

There is an intrinsic reward in role-playing, defeating monsters, and arriving on time. But by tying advancement to gold, players are rewarded by exploring…by thinking up ways to avoid fighting monsters, which in the Old School are outright lethal, especially if you attempt to fight each room full of monsters.

So I’ve never played in an Old School game, though several of them sit on my shelf. I’m fascinated by the style of play and the reward mechanism.

Post Script

Old School games don’t have the implicit tyranny of the Tolkien inspired campaign – You know where you start out small and follow this plot arc that culminates in sneaking across the continent and casting the artifact of power into the volcano. That campaign where the GM plans everything in advance and ensures that you play with blinders on.

Because, let’s face it, how many of those campaigns have you started? And how many of those have you finished?

The Old School is about getting together for an evening of adventure. One that is self-contained and doesn’t require every one to be there. And if your cleric is missing? Find a hireling or two to fill the void for that evenings foray into adventure.