Sunday, September 29, 2019

Castle Nowhere 20 Q&A

The Q&A dynamic by means of Jeff Rients 20 questions is a good gauge to see how a setting shakes. I handed this to my players at the start of the new campaign, Castle Nowhere, as an introduction to the world as a whole. Most of the action will take place in Grimewood, so that's where I focused on when answering.
This will be a hack between Into the Dungeon and GLOG.

1) What is the deal with my cleric's religion?

You can worship Nemes. Immortal empress of the Itean Empire.
You can worship the Crescent Sisters, whose origin is whimsical and misunderstood. They stand for nature and beauty. Their symbol are the moons.
You can worship The Open Eye, an order of holy zealots that seek justice above all, and see magic as a sin to be corrected. Their numbers are low, but are expanding from Diremouth.
You can worship The Voyager, a progressive demigod fond of travel, wealth and commerce.
You can worship the Maggot Witches, or any of the other cult that’s hot this season.
You can worship and old deities of the Elves, the Sidhes (“what Elves are to Humans, Sidhes are to Elves”; mostly artists), or the Lady of Broken Branches (who tends to all lost children). Elven deities are a rarity and even to know their names is a feat.
Dwarves worship their great-grandparents.

2) Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
All Five Towns, including Grimewood, will have most adventuring equipment.
In Grimewood you can try Greta’s Trading Post.

3) Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
Best smiths in Five Towns are the dwarves in Maienstein.
In Grimewood there’s Ulrik Irontide, the local smith. He’s skilled, but drunk most of the time.

4) Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
In Urth, Nemes.
In Five Towns, Lastleaf, the aging ruler of Grimewood. One of the last Elves alive.
However, your best bet for arcane debates is Caeldrim, illustrious member of the Silver Sages, who has his tower in Grimewood. People are accepting of his studies here, and he has some apprentice openings.

5) Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
Zsa Zsa Zelmer, a warrior said to tower at 8 feet tall. She’s lead numerous raids to the Devoured Lands North of Colkirk and returned to tell the tale.

6) Who is the richest person in the land?
The ruling monarchs, of course.
Nobody fully knows the wealth of the Swift Spirit Corporation in Seciras, but they probably own enough gold to make any dragon jealous.

7) Where can we go to get some magical healing?
There is no such thing, at least not for the public or that can be bought with coin.
Grimewood has Imo Kroth, a surgeon that can patch you up. No refunds.

8) Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
Imo Kroth, is always experimenting with concoctions to cure all sorts of ailments. The “price” he charges gets greater the more exotic the case.

9) Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
The Silver Sages are a good bet in Grimewood and across Five Towns (except Diremouth).

10) Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
In Grimewood, Lastleaf is the most knowledgeable individual, but managing an audience is nigh impossible. Caeldrim is the resident sage. The Bleeding Ox might have passing experts.

11) Where can I hire mercenaries?
In Grimewood there’s the Bleeding Ox. It sports outlaws, swords for hire, and other adventurers.

12) Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
In all five cities of Five Towns (including Grimewood) weapons have to be handed over upon entering. Sheathed rapiers and daggers are allowed. Failing to do so incurs a fine/prison.
Minor magics are fine, but will turn heads. Mind altering or powerful magic displayed in public is a hazard, and will bring the guard to your doorstep.

13) Which way to the nearest tavern?
There’s half a dozen of them in Grimewood. The Broken Beetle is cozy and has regular drinking contests. Knife & Needle is frequented by poets and anarchists.

14) What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
Plenty foul creatures from the nearby Forest (close to Grimewood) that have terrorized the area in the past. Hobgoblins lead raids to nearby farms, but are more a nuisance that the local guards protect against.

15) Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
Rumor has it that The Open Eye is gathering mercenary forces from across the Sea of Skulls (probably from the Purple Land) to oppose Nemes and overthrow the Itean Empire.

16) How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
Such barbaric practices are not part of Grimewood. There are enough perils in the forest already.
Maienstein, southernmost city in Five Towns, has arenas where dwarves and whoever dares fight against foul creatures taken out of the bowels of the mountain range.
Colkirk, the northernmost city in Five Towns, has fighting tiger competitions.

17) Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
The Maggot Witches plot and scheme, bringing chaos and mayhem.
The port city of Seciras is full of backstabbing opportunists, so cutthroating practices could certainly be classified as “sinister” there.

18) What is there to eat around here?
Game and vegetables go into all sorts of stews. Note you’ll NEVER get rabbit around here, and you should avoid them due to their sacredness connection to the Elves.

19) Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
Artifacts from the extinct Elven civilization can be recovered in the depths of the forest near Grimewood.
Seciras powerful merchant elite is able to bring in some interesting artifacts from the Purple Land across the Sea of Skulls.

20) Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
The massive Forest next to Grimewood surely has riches and creatures you wish never met.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Powell IV of Raxxe

This is an excerpt of a room for a dungeon of sorts I'm working on. An undead sage, caged in the crypts of a haunted manor. The table of bizarre books can be helpful for other games, and as a boon you can roll and generate Powell's books at the end. The effects and value of the books are left open, for the Referee to fill in.
  • Powell IV of Raxxe, a deceased member of the family. Spent his life alive traveling every corner of existence, until reaching the status of illustrious sage.
  • Now an undead abomination; a living skeleton imprisoned within a silver cage at the end of the corridor, a place that he can’t leave by his own. The door is locked and magically trapped. Someone in their true form has to intervene! Said cage has prevented the minions of the Underground King or the Hive Ensemble to get to Powell.
  • Powell is spying on anyone passing through these crypts, especially the Hive Ensemble. The sage feeds this information to his great great grand nephew Ludwig of Raxxe, who he sees as a younger (and more alive) version of himself.
  • He has numerous self-authored books scattered within his cage. Spending a turn successfully investigating yields D4 interesting books (choose a row for each, or roll 3D6): 

D6 Book Title Book Subject Why Powell loves it?
1 The Tortle Lich The Snail Wars and its aftermath Cosmic dilemmas
2 Revenant Greed How to preserve undead bodies The book’s pages smell...
3 Platinum Sisters Dwarven Macroeconomics Terse prose. To the point.
4 The Twisting Sirens Transcribed poetry of Sotiris Zervides It makes him cry. Every. Single. Time.
5 Oath of Fire A nameless paladin’s romance It’s naughty
6 Storm of Lies Interstellar Sphinx theater Sphinxes. And they LIE!

Friday, September 20, 2019

5e Lost Mine of Phandelver Lessons Learnt

Commission I gifted my players at the end of the campaign. It was actually done by one of my players, the talented @CathalDraws
Note: this article contains adventure spoilers! (duh....)
If you plan to play in Lost Mine of Phandelver, stop right here, right now. You've been warned.

This will be a post-mortem article of my initiation to RPGs in general, and D&D in particular. That's f*ing right, I'm not a grognard that played with Gygax's cousin, nor did I start playing with 3.X boardgame edition. There is some fun revising a successful campaign that ended after 23 sessions with the lens of the OSR mindset I came to appreciate after the fact. What would I've done different with that mindset?

Lost Mine of Phandelver is the introductory module for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. It is praise by all the 5e accolades as one of the best adventures of the last 20 years.

I was fortunate enough to put together a great group of players through Roll20. The group didn't know each other prior, and was assembled through a recruiting post on the platform. International bunch eager to play. What style do I like? What is my Referee style? No clue, and at this point it's not something I'm considering.

Truth be told, I did a ton of homework and research  before starting. Reading blog posts, watching some of the gazillion play-throughs and reviews on youtube, etc. One of the biggest pain in the butt has been setting up Roll20 maps and tokens (did all manually), and catching up with all the Forgotten Realms lore. That becomes a problem when you have veteran players more familiar with the setting and campaign world than you, and there's a metric ton of legacy to learn.... overwhelming...

But, but,... make it your own! OSR hack and paste in your own setting!

True, but I was naive enough to wave that and build on top of the Realms. I figure a lot of people do this, and I didn't want to overwhelm myself. And I imagine a starter set shouldn't overwhelm anyone.

1) Who is that Black Spider again?

The main villain in this adventure is not given enough attention in the written module. The Black Spider needs fleshing out, a lot. Give him a strong motivation as to why it is after the Forge of Spells. He works best as a mid-manager in the Baddies Corp. Was he hired to find and make the Forge operational by the Red Wizards? The drow noble family of Xhit'erak are after magic items? A hefty sum paid by Duke Zalto and the fire giants (to tie to Storm King's Thunder)? Limitless options here. Flesh it out.

It also pays off to have the players choose a background from the pre-generated characters in the box, or even better make a list of backgrounds/rumors of your own, and assign one to each PC before the campaign. Giving total freedom to my group as to what to choose meant that the motivator for the adventure (rescuing a dwarf NPC they barely know that was kidnapped) is weakish.

2) Make travel interesting...

Chapter 3 of this adventure is based on traveling and exploring the vicinity around Phandalin (the home town), and getting to know some fantastic locations. A mini-sandbox of sorts. As written, this can be dull. It is lacking detail. They offer you a basic method to track travel, and a D12 table of combat encounters. This is not to mention that ration tracking is basically a no-go for 5e player mentality. Just by choosing the Outlander background a whole party is good to go. Lame.

OSR shine! Bring in additional tables of random encounters, especially ones where combat is not the first response. Add landmarks (towers, bridges, ruins, farms, ...) for the characters to explore.

Even as a n00b I was able to bring a couple of additions:
  • Example 1: a caravan of bards and performers traveling on the Triboar Trail towards Neverwinter crossed paths with the characters. Lead by an Abjurer wizard, and with several non-traditional bard NPCs on pay (College of the Brush, College of Puppets), they were interesting and engaging enough for the players. The role-playing interactions were superb, and it paved the way in case the characters decide to find them once they deal with this adventure. Spoiler alert: they did!
  • Example 2: when the characters spent their first night in the Neverwinter Wood I had a pair of Green Knights (LAWFULnetural) give the character a strong warning that they do not belong in the forest, and they should leave within 3 days. These mysterious knights were also creepy and gave a good sense that the Cragmaw Castle, Black Spider & co. are but a small sample of all the dangers around the area of Phandalin. One player told me the way I played the Green Knights gave him chills.

3) Use those doppelgangers

Make sure you use the doppelgangers in the adventure wisely. They can be true masterminds and a pain in the butt for the players. There are few exceptions on how to unmask these bastards.

They are a wildcard you should use in plotting against the characters, and make the Black Spider more threatening. It is a shame the adventure gives little to no guidance on how to capitalize on these assests.

Note their stats. That +6 Deception is sweet, and should be used extensively. Contrary to that statblock, nothing is stopping them to wield weapons, wear armor, or drink potions to get an extra boost to their abilities. A potion of fire breath can put the heavily armored Paladin or Fighter in a tight spot!

In a realistic world, assuming one of the doppelgangers is always in Phandalin, I don't see a reason why he wouldn't assassinate the PCs one by one... In fairness, we have to give a reason as to why they're holding off!

Maybe the doppelganger believes the party will retrieve an item from a dangerous location, and is just letting them do the work to then snatch and attack?

4) Do not underestimate the players!

No, really. Do not underestimate your players, especially at the grind that 5e can be. If you throw strong encounters, you get told that "it's not balanced" "what CR was this?! lol" and other pearls. This gets to my nerves. Running/retreating is not in the vocabulary of any of the players. I get it, the Marvel super-hero complex of this edition. But it can make actions and their consequences irrelevant. This is hard to balance and I don't have a definite solution yet. Some things I hacked and my players liked.
  • used a complex underwater trap (as described in Xanathar's Guide to Everything), including a water weird, poisoned harpoons, and more. This whole dungeon lasted a couple extra sessions, but is one of the few places where the group confessed they felt death at their door.
  • used a Nilbog at Cragmaw Castle. The players ended up in love/hate with the little f*cker, big time...
  • considerably increased the difficulty of some encounters in Wave Echo Cave. Using more ghouls, other oozes, minotaur skeletons, etc. and a fire giant!
  • the Black Spider became a drow mage. Because I wanted that last encounter to have some meat on the bones.
The mentality of "let me look at the character sheet for my spells/abilities/skills" is hard to change, especially with experienced players. I imagine a group of new players would me much more open to think outside of that, interact with the environment, use their equipment wisely, etc.

Closing thoughts

All in all, I really had a great time running this adventure. It was very strong as a start for me, and it offered many hours of fun for a small price tag. There are changes and hacks that will enhance the adventure here and there, but you can't go very wrong with this one really.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

M for Motivation

And so it begins...

Finally a collected and motivated way to store all my thoughts and concerns regarding tabletop role-playing games. This blog will primarily focus on old D&D systems and their clones, and everything surrounding the tag OSR: Old School Essentials, Maze Rats/Knave, LotFP and others. Supplements, modules, adventures, random tables. You get the deal.

My bio, however, is quite unusual from most folks surrounding the tag. Although my suspicion is that there are plenty of new players ripe to try better games. I don't have 30+ years experience with the game. I don't remember past editions fondly. There were no RPGs in my life back then. I'm a Gen-5er, who was introduced to the game with the latest and "greatest". But I have seen the light. Had a revelation of sorts on just how mediocre the Hasbro adventures are for running as a Referee. The power creep of Marvel superheroes was starting to get to my nerves (good luck trying to nerf that with the usual 5e player).

So I decided to go where the grass is greener. So far the satisfaction levels are sublime. And let's continue assuming that the OSR label is interchangeable with old and more mortal D&D+DIY community.

At any rate, what to expect from my posts?
  • Rules, supplements and modules in review.
    So that I can spare you buying a sub-par product.
  • My own ideas/tables/ramblings.
    Useful material. If I find D20 different bat stews are useful for a game, maybe you do as well?
  • Play reports.
    Both recollections of what worked at the table, and some flourished prose.
  • Inspiration for our RPGs from other media.
    As a Referee I tend to plunder books, comics, tv shows, movies and the like.

And so it ends. Those are my Motivations for starting the blog.