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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Mythos: Canon or suggestion?

One of the risks of working with a licensed RPG or setting is the idea that the source material is the final measure of things. In other words, your stories, etc. need to match with what was put down before. You can't put the Shire next to Mordor or give dwarves bazookas and still call it Middle Earth.

Lovecraft is interesting in this regard because despite all the stories, entities, and monsters the whole idea is that people don't know these things' true natures. It gives you a fun springboard to start from.

While I am working with several ideas based on actual "official" creatures for the campaign, I do think I will be homebrewing a few things as well. Another issue with licensed/derivative games is that the players may be quite knowledgeable about "the lore." While good players will avoid metagaming, an obvious tell as to what their dealing with might wreck the suspense.

[I'm deliberately avoiding spoilers here, as a potential player or two might stumble along these posts.]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh those college days...of TERROR!

"Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life."

-Tom Lehrer, "Bright College Days"

Saginaw College a fictional institution on the coast of Saginaw Bay, Michigan (between the thumb and fingers of the "mitten"). It was founded in 1846 as a presbyterian divinity school when the Lowell family left a sizable bequest and their property outside Bangor to be used for the college. The school only lasted a few years before going bankrupt and shuttering its doors in 1858.

In 1889, the campus grounds and old estate manor were purchased by a consortium of wealthy patrons. The school was re-opened as a secular liberal arts college and has been in steady operation since, except for reducing its course offerings during the Great War.

The campus consists of two main sections. The "New Campus" a handful of brick buildings built during the college's inception as classrooms and dormitories, and the "Old Estate." Which consists of the old Lowell home and original buildings. These are used as administrative offices, faculty housing, and the chapel for services.

Bangor township lies a few miles south from the college along the shoreline. It is a small town of about 8,000 people. Its main commercial interests are fishing and logging, though salt industry employs several locals. There is a modest international shipping trade with Canada through the Bay as well.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Behind the Curtain

So the next big question in the assembling of my campaign is What The Heck Is Going On? This entails some spoiler territory, so rather than listing lots of plot details, I'll discuss a little about what goes on in my decision-making process.

Sandbox campaigns (nonlinear or plotless) aren't a good fit here, as there needs to events or mysteries for the investigators to, well, investigate. There needs to be a secret to uncover or a cult to thwart or similar. As the goal here is an ongoing campaign instead of a single adventure, there needs to be some sort of link between adventures. This can be as simple as receiving a new research assignment from the board that oversees your fellowship with no real connection to the previous job, or there can be a thread of common elements that lead the PCs on a progression from start to finish.

The latter certainly has an appeal from a narrative satisfaction point of view, but in my experience complex plots like that can quickly get off the rails. On the other hand, simply dropping the night's adventure in the party's laps can feel rather artificial and "rail-roady."

All aboard the Plot Train!

My theory is to steer a middle course. Events will transpire –barring PC intervention– along a certain timeline and in a certain order. The party will be given direction at least occasionally via the research project plot device, but not constantly. PCs are free to investigate matters on their own, but may find balancing their "normal" responsibilities difficult at times- which is a nice touch of realism, I think.  If things are progressing too quickly, an unrelated mystery may present itself as a break from the main plot. I may limit that a bit, so as to avoid muddying the waters too much regarding the central story.

The mysteries at work in the background will react to the PCs as well. For example, if the bad guys' next step in their plan is to perform some ritual, but the party managed to capture a crucial relic last session. Obviously the cultists will need to get the relic back first.

I have in mind that the "forces of evil" in the campaign are working toward an ultimate goal that is achievable during play. It will be up to the PCs to stop them. Delta Green isn't charging up at the last second to save the day. Thwarting the bad guys will be possible, but not guaranteed and not without a cost. I usually like to give characters a shot at a "clean win," but this is Cthulhu, darn it!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Framing the house (of Horror)

So, for starters, there needs to be a reason for the PCs to be together and investigating various weirdnesses; there needs a coherent setting in terms of what's "normal" for the PCs; and there needs to be a progression of events that doesn't railroad, but gives incentive for the characters to pursue the plot-line.

You all meet in a speakeasy: not

One of the things I feel is important for trying to make this a campaign as opposed to a short adventure is there needs to be a sustainable rationale for the PCs to not only investigate things, but to continue to associate with one another. The hook I'm considering is to have the party all be either students or junior staff at a college or university. To further "push" them together, I'm thinking in terms of a small college, probably somewhat rural. Back in the 1920s, such a locale could be an island of learning in a backwater town or similar. These rural farming towns and the like are classic backdrops for Lovecraftian horror. The campus gives the characters some resources for research, etc. but its library and pool of scholars is limited. Plus, the daily routine of student life provides a backdrop of normalcy.


As far as a motivation to investigate, the device I'm considering is for each PC to be a recipient of a "research fellowship" from an academic society. The fellowships cover tuition, etc. and provide a small stipend for living expenses. The catch, however, is that the society periodically may assign "field work" projects to its beneficiaries. This may be simple research in the library, cataloging materials, or actually going out and tracking down clues to greater mysteries. None of this exempts the PCs from their responsibilities as students or staff, though.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Spookiness, Horror RPGs, and campaign ideas

So, back again.

I don't know if anyone is still reading this blog, but here I are.

I've talked about horror gaming in the past. It's not my usual thing, but I'm way too fond of HPL stories and Warhammer (Fantasy & 40K) to not think about it as a playable genre. With Halloween approaching, it's also not so strange that horror is on my mind.

Lately, I've been re-reading my old copy of d20 Call of Cthulhu. It's really an excellent conversion IMO. The GM section on the Mythos and running a horror game is a must-read regardless of version or system you're using.

In any case, I'm not going to argue the plusses or minuses of the d20 version vs. the BRP rules. My point simply is that I've been thinking about running a CoC campaign. This is a bit of a departure for me, as I normally prefer horror in one-shot doses and I'm more often a player than a GM for things like Cthulhu. Short adventures make is easier to build and maintain suspense. Also not everyone is up for a longer term investment in spookiness. 

All that said, I am going to pursue trying to piece together a framework for a campaign. It might not be sustainable indefinitely, but I'm after something that doesn't just come to a close after the first adventure.

CoC as a system wasn't a given for me. I took a good look at Goblinoid's Cryptworld. It's a nice, compact set of rules, but I'm just not up to speed on the Pacesetter action tables system. Perhaps if Mr. Snider will be so kind as to run a game or two at Garycon next spring, I'll get a chance to see it at work! 

Anyhow, for me that left Cthulhu. I haven't actually decided about BRP (Chaosium's classic rules) vs. d20. I'd like to give the d20 version a spin, but I may get more player buy-in with BRP. We shall see.

Next up on the to-do list was location and time period. Cthulhu defaults to 1920's but that's not set in stone. I'm leaning toward that era to avoid some of the issues with technology short-circuiting (a-heh) certain challenges. Of course it also meshes nicely with the source material.

Next up on my to-do list is a general outline of events. I have cocktail napkin level ideas, but they need organizing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Not... Dead...Yet!


Not a lot of activity from me in the blogosphere lately, I know. I'll hopefully amend that somewhat over the summer. Along those lines, feel free to take a gander a new video I posted about getting minis painted for tabletop play.

Get it on the Table - ep.1: Prepping the Mini

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

RMA: Roc


While running my Barrowmaze campaign a while back, the party stumbled upon a small Roc as a random wilderness encounter. No combat ensued (hooray for non-hostile reaction rolls), but it did mean taking a good look at its stats. I commented on how interesting the beasts were as written and one of my players suggested that an RMA might be in order. So here it is.

Roc, S/M/L (from Cook)

AC: 4/2/0
HD: 6/12/36
Move: 60' (20'), Fly 480' (160')
AL: Lawful
Att: 2 claws/1 bite 
Dmg: 2-5, 2-5, 2-12/1-8, 1-8, 2-20/3-18, 3-18, 8-48
No. App: 0 (1d12)/ 0 (1d8)/ 0 (1)
Morale: 8/9/10

One omission in the Cook Expert entry is the Save As listing (typo). 

This one took a little research because despite the fact that the entry includes three different sizes, the descriptive text is pretty sparse. I cobbled together a mental picture of ol' Beaky between BX, LL, 1st ed. AD&D, and d20 (3e). 

One thing to keep in mind is that these are some truly formidable birds. Even the small one is no picnic considering there might be TWELVE of them flapping about. At 6HD minimum, Sleep spells are useless, too. The AC not great for the smaller ones, but it's not terrible either. Three attacks at middling damage can mean a bad day for someone who looks like bird food. Small Rocs are relatively skittish though, so you might scare them off.

Medium Rocs are significantly tougher (x2 HD than small) but otherwise similar. Their bite is impressive though.

The Large Rocs are crazy! More HD than a Dragon Turtle! AC 0! Attacking with both claws and beak can deal up to eighty-four points of damage per round! Despite their hugeness, rocs' flight speed (all three sizes) is unbeaten and nearly unmatched.

I assume that the sizes are age categories and all rocs eventually become large ones (if they reach full maturity). 

The alignment is worth noting. It is a lawful creature that reacts poorly to neutrals and chaotics. They are not particularly intelligent, though. It makes me wonder how they make distinctions with whom they are dealing.

They have a fair chance of treasure lying about the nest (mostly coins and jewels per the chart), but the real wealth would be to make off with some of the eggs. Such chicks can be trained as mounts, which should entice some PCs to risk tracking down a roc eyrie.  The 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual has a fun note, too:

"Rocs are occasionally tamed and used by giants." 

At first, I thought they meant as hunting birds, but no. According to the Storm Giant entry, they RIDE them! Imagine that encounter! A couple of giants flying at you on the back of a bird that can pick up an elephant! 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Back from Garycon VI

Which was, as usual, a blast.

I got to play chainmail for the first time in maybe ever (I honestly don't recall). It was a lot of fun, and interesting to see how the mechanics are so different today in many games from their roots. The table were a bit confusing at first, and I don't know that I ever fully grasped the turn sequences, but one of the advantages of playing in the game with several people, and having a referee running it, is that there is always someone to ask. In the end, we (the dwarves) won out over the elves. My captain's valiant run to get the simaril away from the pointy-ears allowed Durin's folk could keep the fabulous jewel. This turned out to be critical in securing the necessary victory points for our side.

I ran a session of my Mutant Future module The Gyre, and the players did well, surviving to the end and finding their way home. In retrospect, an adventure with a bit more action might have been preferable. Of course, the mutant cactus got to slap a brain lasher in the face with poison thorns, so I wouldn't say it was completely action-free.

There were many other games, including a fun one I hadn't played before called WEGS Old Skool that I enjoyed enough to pick up the books for. Michael Curtis ran one of his upcoming DCC RPG adventures for us, in which my dwarf feigned drunkenness while pounding on the kidnappers' door as he bellowed for Tito to come out and take his damned money.

So of course they released the dogs on me.

I missed out on Jim Wampler's Mutant Crawl through Stonehell because the chainmail game ran late. I did stop by to see the group of post-apocalyptic mutants start to draw from a Deck of Many Things, though.

During a six hour Castles & Crusades game run by Steve "Iron GM" Chenault, I managed to steal Dale's coffee and received a goblin patch for it.

As tedious as extended campaign stories can be ("If they weren't there, they don't care."), they do serve to remind us of those moments that keep us in this oddball hobby. It's the little moments that make you cringe or cheer or laugh out loud that are remembered: not the scores, or the XP, or what level you were, but the tales we recall around the metaphorical campfire, like old campaigners telling war stories.

This is why Garycon exists, not only to remember Gary, but to celebrate all the lives that are being well played.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

RMA: Driver Ants

Despite all the playtime other huge bug-like creatures get in D&D, I don't think I've used giant ants in a game. There have been a lot of versions of this monster, but for these purposes, I'll be looking at BX's "Driver Ants." (B34) These suckers are 6' long picnic busters of the first order. 

First off, they can turn up as a level 3 random encounter. This makes a certain measure of sense, as the colony might have tunneled into a dungeon corridor. In the wilderness, they are one of the most common random encounters! (Who knew??) Insects occur as a possibility on almost all the terrain types and driver ants have a 1:6 chance on the Insect Sub-Table of being the lucky bug (as opposed to 1:12 for all the other specific critters). Pet peeve: Should spiders and scorpions be on an "Insect" table? ;-)

Moving on, the random encounters yield either 2-8 or 2-12, depending. In the lair there are up to 24 "guards." Since these suckers are 6' long each, that's a lot of RAID. Now let's take a look at the stats:

Driver Ant (from Moldvay)

No. Enc: 2d4 (4d6)
AC: 3
HD: 4
Move: 180' (60')
Att: 1
Dmg: 2d6
Save: F2
Morale: 7/special

First off, these guys have a decent AC and hit points. The mandible bite damage is pretty respectable, too. The scary part is that one in a fight, they IGNORE ALL MORALE "even trying to cross flames to reach their opponents." So no luck scaring them off. The eat anything edible in their path, so if a PC falls to them and the party can't get him back right away, any organic equipment (or remains) will be gone in short order. 

This is my favorite bit right here. There is a 30% chance that the ants have –while digging their tunnels– been mining for gold! Yup! We got prospector ants here! Herodotus would be proud!  If they are mining ants, somewhere in the nest is 1d10 x 1,000gp worth of gold nuggets. How cool is that? That's a great incentive to send PCs down into a maze of tunnels filled with giant insects if ever I heard of one.