Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I've Officially Joined a Cult!

I'm pretty pleased to be able to announce that I'm officially registered with Chaosium, the company that produces Call of Cthulhu, as one of their "missionary" game masters in the "Cult of Chaos" program - I'll be going to gaming conventions and hopefully at some point game stores and running newbie-friendly games of Call of Cthulhu to showcase the system and bring new players into the fold.

The first show I'll be working as a member of the missionary program will be Pulpfest in Columbus, OH next month.  This is the first year they're adding a gaming track to the show, and when I saw that announcement I immediately emailed them and asked if they could use another person running games.  I actually signed up for that before the revived missionary program was announced, so I've been in the process of updating the adventure I'd planned to run to the latest edition of the rules.  I'm most comfortable with 6th edition rules (which are barely different from 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th editions) but as part of the missionary program I do need to be doing my part to promote the newest incarnation of Chaosium's flagship game.  7th edition makes some interesting updates to the rules, most of them geared towards further streamlining the system.

So I'm signed up to run one adventure at Pulpfest, and then in September I'll be making the trek back to my old stomping grounds in Buffalo, NY for this year's Queen City Conquest, where I'll be running two Call of Cthulhu sessions back to back, the second of which, "The Get of Belial," is based on an unproduced script from the show Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  The first adventure, "Nightmare on the Slopes," draws from a number of B-movies released over the course of about 20 years, from the 1950s through the 1970s.  And that's all I'll say about that, in case someone reading this winds up playing in one of those games.

While I'd initially been holding out for the dead-tree edition of the 7th edition rules, because I learn a game better when I've got a physical artifact in my hands to learn from, I went ahead and bought the PDF of the 7th Edition Keeper's handbook from Chaosium.  I won't lie to you, I did balk a little at the price - even with the sale currently going on, the PDF cost as much as a hard copy of many other RPG books.  It's a beautiful volume from what I've seen in the PDF, with full color art throughout and some of the most amazing illustrations in the bestiary I've ever seen for Mythos entities.  Some of them, like the image accompanying the Great Race of Yith, take the descriptions from Lovecraft and interpret them in an entirely new direction, unlike anything I've seen before while still being absolutely faithful to the source text.

I've got the Quick Start guide for 7th edition in both PDF and dead-tree format, and I'm hoping that will help fill in any gaps in reading the main rule book PDF until I can get a hard copy of that, hopefully this fall.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Ankhegs are one of my favorite monsters in Dungeons & Dragons.  I mean, they're an acid-drooling bug that pops up out of the ground - what's not to like? In fact, I'd say one of the best adventures of D&D I've ever run was a session of Pathfinder in which the player characters were hired to resolve a labor dispute at a mine; the miners were striking due to unsafe working conditions and flooding tunnels, the mine's owners wanted them to get back to work.  Investigating the mines themselves, the adventurers were able to determine that the collapsing and flooded tunnels were the result of a nearby Ankheg hive - I made them eusocial, termite-like creatures for this - burrowing in and out to prey on miners and in the process undermining the mines themselves.

Gina and I are currently engaged in "No Buy July" - we cannot buy any new materials in support of our hobbies, or other luxuries, during the month of July.  It's not so much about our budgets as it is about self-discipline.  Now, granted, we spent the last few days before July on a shopping spree, loading up on (in my case) RPG books, miniatures (and in her case) high-end hand-spun yarn.  Among my purchases was a Reaper Bones Ankheg that had literally just been made available to the public a few days before; when I saw the figure in their online shop, clearly inspired by the artwork of David Trampier and Erol Otus in the Ankheg's early days, I knew it had to go in my shopping cart.  And as the largest single figure I bought on my spree (I'm not sure why I bought so many tiny, tiny kobolds to paint...), I decided it was up on the painting table first.

The color scheme I based on one of New Zealand's Tree Weta species of very large, flightless crickets, because I wanted something a little bit flashier then the drab browns I'd been seeing Ankhegs depicted in, without going too crazy.  We recently bought this nice white folding table, currently set up below our living room picture window, for Gina to work on jigsaw puzzles on (one being visible in the background of a couple of these pictures), and I have to say, it's a handy thing to photograph miniatures on as well!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Fort Thunder River

Fort Thunder River is an example of the cyclical nature of all things.  Built as a border fort during the Everlasting Empire's expansionist phase, it has become a border fort once more as the Empire has contracted in on itself.  The once-thriving township of Kroton that sprung up around it as the region was pacified has shrunk to a village of hardscrabble pioneers, retired adventurers, and old-timers too stubborn to leave their homesteads and follow the Empire.

The fort itself, composed of red, white and black sandstone bricks assembled to form mosaics on each wall of the keep depicting the Imperial double-eagle, stands a short distance from a gentle stretch of Thunder River, far from the treacherous rapids to the north, nestled amidst scrubland hills and dense pine forests.  The houses and shops of the villagers cluster around the fort, surrounded by a mid-sized wall.  Of Kroton's once lovely waterfront, only a pair of stone docks and a crumbling road up to the fort remain.

The fort is manned by the last "official" Imperial Legion on the frontier, a garrison of about fifty men commanded by Captain Karl One-Hand, who is also the de-facto Lord Mayor of what's left of Kroton.  The garrison is supported by a local militia due to an inability to recruit new soldiers to replace those who fall in battle.

Only a single tavern remains, the Prince's Arms (jokingly referred to by the local garrison as the Harlot's Legs, with the same motto: "We're Always Open!"), known for its games of chance, decent ales and solid, rib-sticking food.  The current owner, Marlene the Knife, runs a lucrative side-business selling "Marlene's Emergency Dungeoneering Kits" to adventurers, consisting of backpacks loaded with essentials such as rope, iron spikes, torches, rations, chalk, and other sundry tools of the adventurers' trade.  Because of this, she's in fierce competition with Old Pete, who runs the general store and manages Bartok's smithy, for adventurers' business.

A day's journey from the fort stands the tower of Meinrad the Astrologer, a magus obsessed with the study of the movements of the heavens.  Most consider him a harmless, if curmudgeonly, old fortune teller who likes his privacy; some few whisper conspiratorially that he's in league with dark forces, citing the frequency of lightning strikes around his tower as proof.

Other nearby sites of interest to adventurers include the Black Swamp, a festering, pestilence-ridden
the hills surrounding the Grottoes of Discord
stretch of greasy marshland, equally thick with cypress, moss and biting flies.  The Swamp is home to grotesque reptilian humanoids, the last degenerate descendants of the ancient Serpent-Men, and some claim that a great temple of their still stands in the heart of the swamp.  A few hours' ride north of the Black Swamp are the Grottoes of Discord, a collection of limestone canyons and rifts riddled with maze-like caverns infested with savage races - Orcs, Goblins, Neanderthals, Batboys, Devil Apes and worse.  It's unknown what causes these creatures to flock to these caves and share such tight quarters with one another.

An old monastery, known locally as the Spider Cathedral nowadays, was once home to sect of priests who demanded outrageous tithes from those passing through church lands, claiming that, since money was the root of all evil, by collecting it they were cleansing the populace of sin.  The sect died out centuries ago now, but their vast accumulation of wealth has never been found.  The crumbling ruin that once housed them has since been used as the lair of a vile gangster, but currently stands empty and abandoned.

For those willing to travel, a week to the north stands Fort Fire Mountain, similar in layout to Fort Thunder River but garrisoned by the Lost Legion, a band of cut-throats, mutineers, thieves and honest soldiers held together by harder-than-nails commanders who refused to leave their post, even at the Emperor's command.  Fort Fire Mountain was built among the ruins of a Hyperborean resort town, and the geothermal hot springs that once fed the luxury baths of that ancient empire now feed the spawning grounds of giant frogs and stranger amphibians.  Claims have filtered south of an orcish king who runs a gladiatorial arena for savage and Legionnaire alike to watch and bet on the spectacle.

More Thought Given to House Rules

For The Upcoming Campaign (which I'm beginning to tentatively call "Beyond Thunder River"), I've been thinking very carefully about the rules in the book and the rules I want to implement.  The way things are looking, player skill levels are going to vary wildly in this group, ranging from a guy who cut his teeth on Second Edition AD&D (and thus the only one of us with actual experience playing TSR products instead of WOTC or Paizo) to a guy who has never played RPGs before.

Because of this, I don't want the players to have to think about mechanics or memorize rules as much as possible.  I want to keep as much under the hood, or behind the screen, as possible so they can focus on just being their character for a couple hours.  I'm planning on not even giving them access to their class' "To Hit" charts - just tell me what you rolled and I'll tell you if you hit or not.  In fact, for the first time ever in a fantasy game I'm discouraging players from generating characters in advance - to keep everyone on the same page I'm going to have everybody roll up their characters at the same time at the same table.

And this got me thinking about house rules, and what I wanted to tweak in the Swords & Wizardry core rules to maximize this varied set of players' enjoyment of the game - a combination of ensuring that the new player isn't frustrated, the people used to D&D 3.x have something familiar in the midst of all this Old Schoolery, and that everyone has the opportunity to shine and feel useful and accomplished.  This is not to say I'm going to hold hands or make dungeons into cake-walks.  While this may not be Fantasy Fuckin' Vietnam, it may well be Fantasy Fuckin' Hadrian's Wall.

So to start, here are the house rules I feel pretty firmly set on:

  • No Halflings.  Available races are Human, Dwarf and Elf.  
  • Maximum hit points at first level.  No one wants to be the guy wandering around the Caves of Chaos with two hit points.  Everyone begins play with the maximum hit points they can get for their class and Constitution modifier.  
  • For ability scores, roll 4d6, drop the lowest, arrange to suit.  Your character is someone who has gone looking for money and goblin blood in a hole in the ground.  They're not wracked by tuberculosis, feeble-limbed or massively concussed (their sanity, however, may be in question).
  • Damage dice "explode."  You stab an orc with your dagger for 1d4 damage, and roll a 4.  Keep that 4, roll the die again, add the results to that original 4.  Did you roll a second 4? Sweet Jesus, keep rolling and adding until you stop getting 4s.  Total your damage and I'll tell you how massively you ruined that orc's day.  
  • Magic-Users can use light crossbows.  It's not rocket science to figure out how one works, especially for a class that relies so heavily on their intelligence.  Cast your one spell for the day at 1st level? No problem, unsling that crossbow and start sniping from behind that rock.  
  • Everyone gets a hat from the B/X Blackrazor Headgear chart.  Elves and Dwarves can opt to roll on either their racial or class matrix.  
And two I'm a little shakier on but leaning towards heavily:
  • No multi-classed demi-humans.  It just feels to me like more then I want to put on my players' plates for now.  Instead, Elves can be Magic-Users, Fighters or Thieves.  They cannot be Clerics because the gods have turned their backs on the Elvish race.  The Dwarves, meanwhile, can be Clerics, Fighters, or Thieves.  They cannot be Magic-Users because they lack the vocal structures to make the necessarily subtle tones of sorcery.  I'm not sure I see the campaign lasting long enough for level limits to become an issue, so I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.  
  • Magic-Users begin at 1st level with a spell-book containing all eight first level spells - it's a standard-issue text at the Academy.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Few Notes on The Upcoming Campaign

The Upcoming Campaign (henceforth TUC, until I come up with something snappier) is a sword-and-sorcery-meets-science-fantasy game using Swords & Wizardry Core Rules and a generous dollop of material swiped without shame from the works of Venger Satanis.  Here are some unfocused thoughts from the past couple days on some things I'd like to do/see happen with this campaign:

  • A mix of expected and unfamiliar fantasy monster archetypes.  Sure, orcs and goblins are here, but so are 2' tall rat-men, black-furred toad-men, bat boys, snake-men and Stereotypical Neanderthals.  Around that corner's the Manticore's cave, but go left at the fork and you'll run into the stingray-ostrich.  
  • Human-dominated world; Elves and Dwarves are present, though rare.  Elves are very much the Vadagh from Moorcock's Corum books - impossibly long lived, strange senses, sometimes viewed as demons by the unwashed-masses, typically very happy to live apart from humanity and spend decades composing a single symphony or arranging flowers, bored on a cosmic level with existence but incapable of feeling any sense of curiosity or wonder any more.  Dwarves are very much the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Dwarf - a species that's essentially lost its will to live, and is more or less just killing time until their flame goes out.  PC Elves and Dwarves are the weird exceptions that got kicked out of typical Elf/Dwarf society for having the ability to desire anything at all.  
  • I need to not just re-read, but truly absorb into my soul Robert E. Howard's "Beyond the Black River" for the atmosphere of the principle campaign region.  
  • It's looking like everyone (myself included) I'll be running for here at home will be unfamiliar with Swords & Wizardry, most of them unfamiliar with fantasy RPGs in general, and possibly a couple players who have never played an RPG before.  Because of this I want to cut out the way demi-humans are default multiclassed and just say, "Elves can be Magic-Users, Thieves or Fighters, but not Clerics; Dwarves can be Clerics, Thieves or Fighters, but not Magic-Users."
  • In the deep, deep background of the campaign is conflict between Kirby-esque Space Gods and Lovecraftian entities.  
  • I want to gift every player a set of dice to call their own, and what's more, paint everyone a miniature to represent their character (at least those characters who make it past first or second level).  
  • I want to see the PCs go up against an Aboleth at some point.  

Friday, July 3, 2015

Swords & Wizardry Campaign Background

Every year, the Everlasting Empire shrinks in on itself a little bit more.  A succession of weak emperors, as well as several years' worth of plagues and fires, have done much to quiet the expansionist spirit that characterized the rise of the Empire, centuries ago.  As the Empire recedes, it leaves behind a landscape dotted with hill forts and small villages, no longer capable of tapping into the infrastructure of the Empire for resources and support.  These lands are the haunt of bandits and worse; monsters no longer held at bay by civilization's light now stalk the dark, preying where they please.  

In ages long past, this same landscape was home to thriving civilizations - the Iron Kingdoms of Hyperborea, and before them the Great Empire of Polarion's southernmost edges touched this land.  The ruins of cities raised by these kingdoms remain to be explored, their wealth plundered by those with the courage, or madness, to do so.  And of course, it could be that the books of the ancient sages are correct; that Man is not the first master of this world, and that empires rose and fall long before the first humans emerged from the north.  What treasures, then, might these pre-human kings have left behind when their empires fell into red ruin?


This campaign, which I haven't thought of a snappy title for yet, will be played with the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, with a few house-rules in play, many of them taken from the works of Venger Satanis - such as having damage dice "explode" whenever their maximum is rolled (i.e., rolling a 6 on a 6-sided die gets you an additional roll, and as long as they keep coming up 6 you keep rolling and adding to your damage total).  

The game will be a semi-sandbox; the first half will revolve around the various player characters, hungry for adventure, arriving at Fort Thunder River, which is currently about 25 miles past the northwestern-most edge of the Everlasting Empire's current borders, interacting with the fort's garrison and local settlers, as well as addressing threats both human and monstrous in the region.  For this part of the campaign, I'm bolting new chrome onto the stripped down skeleton of the classic module B2: KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS, with the eponymous Keep becoming Fort Thunder River.  

Overall, I'm hoping to achieve a very swords-and-sorcery tone, with lots of snake-men and ape-like monsters in homage to Robert E. Howard, though I'm sure the "look" of the world will probably owe more to Korgoth of Barbaria then to Frank Frazetta:

Yeah, I'm guessing most of the settlers around the Fort will resemble the patrons of that bar in the beginning.