AFG back-of-the-handbook adventure: The Temple (of Cthulhu) Under the Volcano. Also, brief thoughts on mountains and maps

The AFG manual is going to come with a mini-sandbox, because there are few things that set the tone for a game better than the adventure at the back of the handbook.

I had a small Checklist of Awesome for such adventure:

  1. Volcanoes
  2. Cultists
  3. Mountains
  4. Wilderness
  5. Contained

So I picked the first unexplored hex off the edge of my Western League campaign and started to populate it with MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON. After letting the magic of random generation happen I started playtesting it, finished the map (I’m waiting for a proof from the printer right now) and started the writeup. The adventure starts like this:

This volume presents rules that tie AFG adventures to a specific kind of setting: a fake-European, faux-late-medieval fantasy setting. The availability of heavy armours and firearms, coinage names and nature, emphasis on fortifications and many other elements like feudalism all trace back to the European late Middle Ages. But it’s fantasy as well. So: 

What if Fantasy Switzerland had volcanos and a Temple of Cthulhu, containing a huge gold idol?

And what if one of the characters knew about the temple contents and “forgot” to tell everyone else to avoid scaring them?

Playtest is going well. I expect players to put their hands on the idol Tuesday night.

While mapping the zone at a 1 hex = 1km scale (there are reasons for this) I started to feel that simply putting a “mountain hex” was not enough: mountains are not simply “harder” to walk on. Some parts, like ridges, can be extremely problematic, steep and dangerous. So, I thought, ridges can increase the cost of movement and possibly deal some damage to unskilled and/or unlucky mountaineers. Especially if they happen to be simply walking across a mountain range, in the map below the ridges are black and the gap is a mountain pass.

So the usual movement cost of 1 per easy terrain, 2 for hills or forests, 3 for mountains is supplemented by the new obstacle category: an obstacle costs 1d6 additional movement points to cross and represents hard-to pass terrain like steep ridges, wide crevices and rivers. Some obstacles might require appropriate an check, like mountaineering, to pass unscathed or in the worst case even to pass them; if the check is failed the character takes damage ranging from 1 hit up to to 2d6 depending on the obstacle, equipment and other conditions.

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Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Part 2)

Last weekend I played a session of Vornheim, using a PDF on a netbook as the physical copies were still at the printer’s. The preparation and first impact with the game has been discussed already here, what’s missing is some kind of play report and conclusions.

Except the conclusions are right here, and the report follows: if you like any of urban adventuring, random tables, sandboxes, the OSR, improvisation or preparation as opposed to using a premade heavily described setting, get Vornheim now; it’s probably the most-bang-for-the-buck RPG product I’ve ever bought in my life. If you ever plan to run some kind of city adventure, or you like random tables, still get it. I actually recommend it to any GM that can spare a handful of euros both to be aware of what can be done in terms of how handbooks can do to support your game and read  important bits of RPG theory that somehow till now managed not to be published. Just start a short campaign in Vornheim to acquire a taste for it, throwing stuff at your players faster than they can cope with, and see what happens. The city will cope with your initial clumsiness. 😉

V:tCCK is also a stunning example of how to write a setting describing what the characters and players interact with, instead of describing the whole of it. While this might be initially seen as shallowness by a non-OSR perspective, it turns out to be its greater strength. What stuck me, and that contributes to making V:tCCK so awesome, is that it doesn’t describe Vornheim. It gives you a method to create one, two, infinite Vorhneims. They are never going to be the same, but they’ll never be different.

And now, some short commentary on the game. Andrea, if you’re reading, stop now. 😛

My players rolled two new pcs, and with some kind of NPC-ex-machina the session started with an airship mooring on a mast on a Vornheim tower. Their weapons have been immediately taken care of by the police and, thanks to a rat-trap seller they managed to get directions to Zord tower.

Actually the bad reaction roll got them bad directions and kinda got them lost in the tower,(roll) ending up being assaulted by a damsel feigning distress and her accomplices. After the damsel (hf t3), fighting with a sword previously camouflaged as a shirt whalebone, fell under dagger blows and her goons ran away, the party managed to befriend a nearby (roll) glassblower, that allows them to hang out in one of his empty storerooms in exchange for some help in the shop due to a really teary story narrated by Pyeerroo. The “damsel” is searched and, together with money, a (roll) golden statuette of a bicephalous pig is found in her moneybag. The statue is so going to be a recurrent McGuffin, leaving behind a trail of corpses.

Pyeerroo is Andrea’s halfling thief, strangely resembling Hannibal Smith as they both love when plans come together and smoke cigars. Except Pyeerroo’s cigar is never lighted as he’s poor and can afford just to chew it a little bit.

In the room they manage to stabilize their “wounded comrade” and to interrogate her. Tuns out she’s a member of (roll, roll, see below) the Mob, the biggest thief guild in town, with hands in many other businesses as well. Tara (that’s her name, I watched some Buffy recently) barters some information and promises of collaboration for her freedom. The party manages to win her trust and admiration by giving her stuff back. Except the sword, so now PCs have illegal weapons again 🙂

On the way to the tower they met (roll, roll, roll) Gruk, a half orc physician and surgeon that uses modern techniques. Modern as in “they work and kill less patients”. After a short discussion about them being dark skinned southerners and what that means for Vornheimans, they befriend him and tell him that they’ll visit him soon. Then they start to climb up the tower, looking at the various establishments inside, with Pyeerroo ending up in the unlicensed brother at the end of the session.

They’ve been exposed to a number of things unmentioned: slow pets puzzled them but then somehow realized that it’s just a way to show social status by wasting time, architectural elements like towers and bridges, megastructures, gardens, and the Wyvern well.

Anyway, they never mentioned the serpent reader to anyone. Yay paranoia. 🙂

A player asked for feedback quipped:”it seems like Eberron”. Actually they meant Sharn. The fact that they couldn’t remember Sharn’s name says a lot.

Anyway, here are the guilds for thieves and physicians I came up with, from small to big, following the method described here.

Thieves:

  1. Black Fist
  2. Comrades of Empty Pockets
  3. United Bakeries (the baker’s union is just a cover, but they still make good bread. Don’t go for their meat pies unless you like human flesh tho)
  4. Blind Eye
  5. The Ring
  6. Dagger & Thaler
  7. Magnificent Beggars’ Kingdom
  8. The Mob

Physicians:

  1. Vorn Devote Healers
  2. United Unions of Physicians & Musicians (due to restructuring of the building they shared they ended up joining forces)
  3. League of Amputators, Leeches and Cuppers
  4. Surgeons and Physicians Convivium

It’s About Time

Yes, it’s about time: I haven’t posted in a while. Like 8 weeks.

Yes, it’s about time: time I don’t have for either gaming or blogging. I haven’t played D&D in more than two months, since before I moved; gaming has been limited to 4 Civilization 4 games, some Fluxx and Command & control. The campaign I wanted to start never materialized due to lack lack of interest from players, mostly with the reason “D&D is boring/nerdy/uninteresting”.

Yes, it’s about time: the last two months have been a bit rough with my s/o, and we just recently started to eagerly mend.

Two months lost?  The point is that I’m really busy and I’m writing, reading and reviewing a lot, and often with scarce focus; I always found writing really effortful, my mind often wandering, focus being lost, paragraphs rewritten 10 times, never settling on form, always finishing right before the deadline, forever running.

But yeah, the point is that I’m hanging out with mighty fine friends that are not that bothered about playing D&D. And I stopped caring about it, because I just like things the way they are.

Not that I’m going to stop writing and running games, mind you, but I have more important things to do with my time at the moment. So games got taken off the back-burner, left on the table a bit and then put it in the freezer.

Which is kinda a shame as my “secret project-type thing” started to take a physical form.

combat maneuvers: evasion

Over at Paul’s Blog my almost homonym blogs about evading combat. As in ACH! HANS, RUN, IT’S THE LHURGHOYF!

Image somewhat related. Yes, I play Magic, I like it.

Back to evasion… I distinguish evasion in three types, depending on the relation between the evasion itself and the encounter to be evaded:

  • no engaging whatsoever: when a group notices another group first and manages to be completely unnoticed and to put enough distance between them to make engage impractical or improbable. The best evasion type ever and, in my opinion, the best way to win any encounter with possibly hostile creatures. Crucial to this is noticing that other people are around without being noticed. In the Metzner expert set, thieves and hobbits are good at this, as are elves and dwarves at night against someone that doesn’t see in the dark are good too. Spells like levitationinvisibility, fly and silence can help a lot. The reverse situation is horrible: if you wander in the dark with a light source you’re going to be spotted first.
  • backing off/leaving combat: d20 fails at this, as usually it’s enough for the pursuers to charge the evaders to start combat again, as if nothing happened. The case is covered in B/X and BECMI, having a specific rule for this case in the DM section. This might happen because the evaders realize they’re going to succumb or because they have other priorities. The critic part is to find a way to top the engagement long enough to gain some distance: spells such as hold portal, wizard lock, web, wall of fog can be really helpful at lower levels, as can a clever use of caltrops, nets, oil flasks, frisian horses, castles or other fortification of the non-portable kind. Yes, fortified defenders have to run away too at times 🙂
  • running away: an hostile opponent is met, one side RUNS FOR HIS LIFE. It’s possible to flee after combat started (see previous case) or without any combat. Having no burden such as armour helps here, as any kind of help as per above. Spells such as levitation and all the above can really help. It’s also possible to do something smart, such as dropping some food or money (B/X and BECMI mention this too), try to hide and, my favourite, use the location and the chase to gain some upper hand. Such as hiding in a dark side niche while the “obvious” escape route has been made slippery with some lantern oil. Lantern oil that later will be set on fire while slipped pursuers, busy with regaining footing and unit coherency, are shot at with arrows, spells, swearing and so on. Or if there is a difference in number, fighting in a choke point (for the outnumbered escapers) or immediately after (for the outnumbering escapers) can flip the battle. Or will simply deter the pursuer enough to save the day. A pint or two of oil on fire in a dungeon corrider can be enough to dissuade pursuers 🙂

I actually lied. My favourite way to slow down pursuers is to cast delayed blast fireball and drop the shiny gem so that the greedy pursuer will pick it up.

fun was had

A few highlights of last sunday’s game.

  • we used ZZARCHOV’s initative rule instead of the usual “declare and roll”. Strongly recommended.
  • a scouting party was sent out to investigate the road to the tower bridge they wanted to cross. I almost cried tears of joy. Said party fails to realize that the tower is occupied by an Evil Mage.
  • a fireball aimed at the party wipes out 25 people (all the followers, mercenaries and companions except one), all the mounts and mules. This happens before the fighting starts; the other 6 characters either survive the blast and break after a failed morale save or were a distant from the blast. Plinking FTW!
  • the party cleric (an hulking adept of Cthulhu in plate armour, played by Riccardo) casts Silence on himself, grabs the resident Evil Mage and uses it as a bobsled down the tower stairs. Ouch. The mage pulls out his dagger of life stealing and hits the cleric. Ouch. Riccardo goes “Now I’m really pissed off“.
  • the party berserker (by himself), under attack from 6 crossbowmen shooting from arrow slits, bashes down the entrance door, slays all of them, goes upstairs, sucks up a fire trap spell opening a door to the main room of the tower and picks a fight against 5 doppelsöldners. After getting painfully gutted in the process, is left dying on the floor. The player (Mattia) used the word “badass” every phrase while doing all the above. It looked like the offspring of the forbidden love between the Python’s Sir Lancelot and a combine harvester Vs the smurfs. But the smurfs always win at the end, especially if in plate armours and armed with two handed swords.
  • Due to dumb luck rolling on the death table, the berserker wakes up a turn later and quaffs a healing potion, only to meet the boss doppelsöldner, ending up on the floor again. Only to get lucky on the table again later.
  • The Most Important Thing happened: plenty of fun was had even if some PCs died, levels were lost and so on.

Dead before the first room: a phalanx delving in the Castle of the Mad Archmage

After months of begging I manage to talk my cousin Andrea (he plays Charming Bowser in my campaign) into running a game for us. At last he failed a saving throw against Family Pressure and ran Castle of the Mad Archmage using our odd houseruled B/X.

YAY! I wanted to play that as a player. 🙂

Since just me and Riccardo showed up we went to UESM and rolled four B/Xish characters each. For me a cleric, a dwarf, a halfling and an elven mage; Riccardo rolled an elf, a fighter, a dwarven cleric and an halfling thief.

The GM decided that there’s no such things as a first level (the second leve is accessible straight from the outside), so we met a room filled with webs. Barry, my halfling, went downstairs, and sets fire to the thing, retreating immediately, followed by a huge spider, that immediately kills Dolum, my dwarf (a follower with 2hp) because I rolled a 9 and he needed an 11 to save. Darn.

Well, Dolum’s Brother joined the party to avenge his sibling. Thanks DM! 😉 And somehow he managed to lose just him during the whole night. 🙂

We then wiped out the Black Lance (a group of brigands), half a den of troglodytes, a hydra, a bunch of ravenous giant rats and were almost wiped out because a shrieker alerted a band of hobgoblins, attracting a gelatinous cube at the same time (darn random encounters).

It’s also been the only fight where we didn’t use our proven phalanx formation: first line with two haflings and an elf wielding spears and a second line (elf F/MU and a dwarf F) wielding halberds, two fully armoured clerics and my mage in the back. It’s quite powerful as there’s a spear wall at the front, enabling 5 characters to roll to hit (and those halberds hit for a whopping 1d10 hp) yet quite flexible as, spending a round, the halberdiers can move their pointy sticks the other way should someone attack the party from behind.

The last time I played B/X (as opposed to run B/X) was during ’95-’96, using Talorian (MU23), the only other BX character I rolled (well, we actually used Red Box), so last night has been a very different experience: after years I found that D&D is both still fresh (even as a player) and terribly entertaining and challenging. The freedom in exploring a dungeon, in terms of tactics, risk, method, direction, logistics, attitude towards monsters and other encounters is probably what I really dig in fantasy adventure gaming. I hope my players have as much fun as I do, as my campaign world is what I like to write, but try really hard to run it so that my players can have fun.