Friday, December 27, 2013

The Gygaxian Dollar Store Menagerie

Even though I'm currently in the midst of one of my periodic episodes of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy burnout, I found this recent blog post by Tony DiTerlizzi (one of the best artists of the latter TSR era of the game) very interesting.

It's fairly common knowledge at this point that several of the iconic D&D monsters were inspired by cheap Chinese "prehistoric animal" toys. (I have clear memories of having a plastic rust monster when I was a kid, for example.) But I was completely unaware that the owlbear, a creature that is near and dear to my heart, also had its origin in these dollar-store specials. The figurine that inspired the owlbear looks identical to its depiction in the original Monster Manual, which goes a long way towards explaining why it looks very little like either an owl or a bear. (Still doesn't explain why it was given that name by Gary Gygax, though.)

DiTerlizzi's post includes some high-quality images of the toys that became the owlbear, bulette, and rust monster, along with some that don't appear to have ended up in the Monster Manual. The time has come to correct that, I think. Get to work!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Demon Verge: Post-Mortem

Yesterday evening, I declared the Demon Verge campaign dead. (Go home, Marcie.)

The campaign lasted ten sessions, which I suppose is fairly typical of most RPGs these days. Still, I can't help but feel like a villain for ending it so soon. I was using B/X Dungeons & Dragons rules more or less by the book, which meant that even after those ten sessions there were a few characters that hadn't even reached second level. (That's partly because some players had missed sessions with big XP hauls, but still.)

I've repeatedly mentioned that the Demon Verge was intended as a tutorial for myself; a low-prep, low-pressure game where I could try some things out. I've been playing RPGs for many years, but most of that experience is on the player side of the screen, not in the referee's chair. I hoped to learn some things about game mastering, and I did. I've mentioned many of the things I figured out in my session reports, but here are the big take-home lessons:

Google+ Hangouts are probably as close to a face-to-face, tabletop roleplaying session as you can currently get online, but for me, they're still nowhere near as fun as the real thing. (I recently got in a little face-to-face role-playing and my mind was blown by how spontaneous, natural, and fun it was.) The nature of Hangouts lends a feeling of disconnect to gaming sessions. It instills in its users (well, me, at least) the odd sensation of waiting your turn to speak, as if everyone were sharing one telephone. It becomes too easy for the DM or a single player to hog the game. The effect is difficult to describe, but for me it utterly kills the free-flowing, conversational style of role-playing I prefer. It's highly unlikely I'll try running another game via Hangouts.

I can't run dungeons every week. I had fully intended to run a straight-up dungeon crawling game, because it's what old-style D&D is set up to do at its most basic level, and I wanted to make things easy for myself. That was a mistake, at least for a Hangouts game. It just made everything seem even more laborious and plodding.

My house rules were a mixed bag. Even I forgot to use many of them (particularly the revised weapon damage values). The Adventurer Conqueror King mortal wounds tables did see a bit of use. I enjoy that sort of thing in games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Rolemaster, but for some reason, nothing makes for a weird D&D session like a maimed or crippled player character.

I need to be upfront about a campaign's intended style of play. I initially pitched The Demon Verge as a sandbox campaign, but ended up having an authority figure send the player characters on a series of missions. I'd like to think it wasn't a total railroad, but I didn't have the confidence or the rules familiarity necessary to really do justice to the free-form, go-where-you-will sandbox ideal. I should be more honest with my players and let them know when I just want a low-pressure sort of game.

I'm not sure why I bothered fleshing out the original Demonlord setting backdrop like I did. There's little point in creating a fairly detailed setting if you're just going to run it like a generic D&D world, and use other people's scenarios more or less verbatim.

So what's next? A few lovely people have asked if I'd like to play in their Hangouts-based games, and I will probably give some of them a shot just to see if the problem really is the Google+ interface, or if the blame is on me. Other than that, I'll concentrate on trying to get in more face-to-face gaming with local people. There's a chance I might be able to get some Rifts in with my original gaming group (which started back in middle school) next year, which would be a dream. I've also got ideas for my own game bubbling in the back of my head, but who knows how far that will get?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rifts, the Glittering Apocalypse

I think most people will agree with me when I say that Palladium Books' Rifts RPG is an odd bird. It's a game that was quite popular at one time, but has been abandoned by nearly all but its most diehard fans over the years, for various reasons. It is at once celebrated and lambasted for the way it smashes various science-fiction and fantasy elements together, with little apparent regard for anything approaching verisimilitude. It's also the RPG that I know best, since it's the one I played almost without interruption throughout my high school years. But despite my familiarity with the game, it was only very recently that I came to the conclusion that Rifts is not the post-apocalyptic game many describe it as. Rifts has what would technically be considered a post-apocalyptic setting, but isn't really part of the post-apocalyptic genre at all.


In the olden days of 1990, when the original Rifts rulebook was published, the world of Rifts was what would now be described as a "points of light" setting: tiny dots of civilization trying to scratch out an existence in a vast, monster-infested wasteland. There were a few cities that had managed to restore old technologies, but most of North America (and indeed, the world) was a howling wilderness, depopulated and dangerous. Much of the early artwork for the game -- particularly the work of Larry MacDougall, shown above -- supported this "scorched Earth" interpretation.

However, there was never really much mechanical support for this style of play. There were some character classes, or O.C.C.s (to use Palladium's terminology) that fit in with such an interpretation, including the Wilderness Scout and Vagabond, but others, like the Cyber-Doc and City Rat, supported a more cyberpunk interpretation. Even more plentiful were high-tech warriors like full-conversion 'Borgs, Glitter Boy Pilots, and Juicers. Though not explicitly delineated in the text of the original rulebook, over time, typical Rifts characters were implied to be something like a cross between the heavily armed mercenaries of Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 and superhero teams. You could certainly play out smaller, more personal conflicts, but the published material set up big villains like quasi-Lovecraftian "supernatural intelligences", the evil Federation of Magic, the oppressive, Nazi-esque Coalition, the alien Mechanoids, and even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for your characters to take down, either for money or out of a sense of justice.

Over the years, more and more high-tech wonder weapons were introduced into the setting, usually with each one being more powerful than the last. Mecha began to incorporate gee-whiz science fiction gear like force fields and jetpacks. By the time of Rifts' new core rulebook, the Ultimate Edition (released in 2005), the cyberpunk-meets-superheroes nature of the game was fairly evident. The book is filled with artwork of characters of superheroic proportions, drawn in a style reminiscent of mainstream comics of the 1990s. (Some artwork is recycled from early publications, with the game's author, Kevin Siembieda, specifically saying that he wanted the book to incorporate what he considered classic Rifts art along with some new pieces. Tellingly, few of MacDougall's gritty illustrations made the cut.) The first piece of artwork the reader encounters in the Ultimate Edition is a full-color, Blade Runner-style cyberpunk metropolis. More recent Rifts sourcebooks, like Black Market and Northern Gun, have continued the trend toward an ultra-high-tech world:



Rifts is a lot of things, but I wouldn't call it a post-apocalyptic game. The world may have been laid to waste by an apocalyptic event several centuries in the setting's past, but there's no scrounging for food, digging up old technology, or radiation to be found. It might be cyberpunk, or science fantasy, or superheroic, depending on what elements you want to emphasize. At the end of the day, it's just Rifts. You could make it into a post-apocalyptic game, but it'd take a lot of work. You'd probably be better off looking elsewhere.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Great Gift or a Unique Snack for Your Office Staff


Since the Demon Verge campaign is on hiatus for the holidays, I haven't got a reliable source of blog-worthy material at the moment. But the good news is that Charles Akins of the Dyvers blog made something called The Great Blog Roll Call, an extremely useful list of stuff to read. Go look.

(This nice fellow happened to say that Dungeonskull Mountain is "a fantastic read that draws you in". Posts like this one disprove that argument, but we can forgive him that one inaccuracy.)

Sorry for the brevity and vapidity. Don't worry! I'm going to start posting a bunch of Rifts-related stuff soon. Everybody likes Rifts, right?

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 10


With the holidays upon us, it's getting more difficult for all of the regular players to participate. This session we were short two players again:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
plus their retainer, Ralan the elf

After being thrown into some subterranean river rapids, this session found the Company of the Closed Fist washing ashore in a series of caverns apparently called "the Hall of the Toad-King", inhabited (appropriately enough) by a race of toad-men. There was no sign of the two doppelgangers that had likewise been thrown into the river, or of the thieves, Fingers and the Purloiner. (To avoid having to continue fudging what Thomas and Chris V.'s characters were up to while their players were absent, I ended up declaring that they were apparently thrown overboard during the perilous underground river-rafting journey. They will hopefully rejoin the Company at some point.)

Once admitted through a series of portcullis gates, the party was instructed to take buckets of fish innards and cross a nearby bridge, throwing the guts over the side as they went. The Company did as instructed, which allowed them to avoid being devoured by an enormous, four-headed toad. They were then essentially herded and locked into a cavern dubbed the "guest quarters". Their chamber adjoined a makeshift prison in which were kept three prisoners:

a scoundrel named Aldrous, who was exploring Ebler's Tower before it was toppled, captured by orcs, and apparently delivered to the toad-men for reasons unclear,

an amnesiac, dubbed "the Sun Warrior" by Aelaran, who the party has ascertained may have been an adventuring Hosarite priest before he was supposedly was assaulted by "mushroom creatures" and then awoke in the prison, and

a toad-man called "Six-Failed", shunned by his people for his strange habit of turning to stone rather than entering torpor (as the rest of his kind do) when a certain gong is struck.

After "the Hours of Mystery" (as the toad-men's period of quiescence is called) ended, the Company were allowed to leave their quarters and explore the Hall. They attempted to gain audience with the Toad-King, but were rebuffed. Some guidance from Zaraag, a toad-man sushi pedlar, led them to explore the area from which the gong that signaled "the Hours of Mystery" sounds. They found themselves in an almost mystical setting attended by a trio of toad-man ascetics, who were both more accommodating and more cryptic in their interactions with the Company than their kin, giving the party healing tea and also dispensing strange aphorisms. The lawfully-aligned members of the Company began to piece together that something ill had befallen the toad-men -- possibly engineered by the Toad-King. A visit to the pagoda of Uobo the Butcher nearly confirmed their suspicions that the amnesiac prisoner was indeed a cleric of the sun-god cult, but the session ended with the party quite mystified.

This was another combat-free session, and the whole endeavor felt a bit "off" to me. Not every session is a hit. I did try my best to entertain the players with the often bizarre behavior and environs of the toad-men, and mostly succeeded (I hope), but there's been some discussion of leaving the place as soon as possible, as the players were somewhat baffled -- or possibly just bored -- by what they found.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 9

I was finally able to return to The Demon Verge earlier this week, albeit with only four players:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
plus their retainer, Ralan the elf

The Company of the Closed Fist, having received a sack of treasure from a coterie of dryads in return for promising to rid the dungeons beneath Ebler's Tower of a corrupting influence referred to as "The Poisoner", found a secret door leading into a large chamber that had apparently been used for storage at some point in the recent past. Its alcoves were filled with crates and barrels of assorted goods -- including fine wines and spirits, still in drinkable condition -- and, surprisingly, a party of four dwarves, who gave their names as Maruk, Oum, Nardin, and Jegram.

A lengthy and confusing conversation ensued, in which the Company and the dwarves attempted to come to an agreement regarding joint exploration of the dungeon. The dwarves were affable enough, though oddly particular about marching order, and derogatory towards the Company's sole surviving retainer, the elf Ralan. Their leader, Maruk, seemed nonchalant about signing a contract that was dictated by the Company's cleric, Aelaran, but produced a document in a cryptic, angular script that was unreadable by any party members, including the dwarf, Cadie. The dwarf named Jegram exhibited bizarre behavior, repeatedly insisting that he travel in "THE REAR! YES, THE REAR!" of the party. To cap off the Company's suspicions, when questioned about the origins of his band, Maruk told them they hailed from Oru, a near-mythical dwarven kingdom that was known by Cadie to have collapsed centuries prior. The Company briefly considered attacking the dwarves, but decided to move on with them.

Their guard raised, the party headed into a medium-sized chamber with a sizable hole in its floor, and the word "DRAGON" etched into one of the walls in the language of Nisshar. Cadie reckoned that the floor was unstable. A crate was retrieved from the previous room and hurled into it, where it stuck halfway into the floor, dislodging several bricks. Splashing was heard from below. Magda the Witch elected to carefully enter the room, close to the wall, to examine a nearby wall sconce. Unfortunately, the instant she stepped out of the passageway, the entire floor collapsed, apparently sufficiently weakened by the earlier-hurled crate to lose all cohesion. The magic-user plunged into the darkness, nearly brained by falling rubble, and was swept away by a rapid, freezing current.

Aelaran shouted for lantern and rope, which were quickly supplied by the dwarf Maruk. As soon as Aelaran set to work at the edge of the newly formed chasm, he was bludgeoned with near-lethal force: Maruk was trying to kill him, hammering at the cleric bare-handed and with terrifying strength. A frightful melee ensued, with the unimaginably powerful blows thrown by the dwarves nearly claiming the lives of Aelaran and Cadie, and crippling Garen-Gen. Aelaran managed to flip Maruk into the river below, and the dwarf Oum suffered a similar fate due to his own clumsiness. The Company's captive, Galtin Vauk, attempted to flee, but was slain by the mad dwarf Jegram, who snapped the young mystic's neck with his bare hands. Aelaran healed Garen-Gen and tried to throw the halfling at Jegram, but missed, sending his companion sailing into the chasm to be swept downriver. After a tense struggle, Cadie's hammer delivered the killing blows to the remaining two dwarves, who, upon death, revealed themselves to be leathery, long-limbed humanoids with horribly misshapen heads: doppelgangers, legendary beings thought to live only for deceit and murder.

With two of their number now disappeared, the remaining members of the Company lashed together a number of barrels and crates from the other room into a makeshift raft, and launched it (and themselves) into the watery darkness, in pursuit of their companions... their destination unknown.

This was a short and intense session, where the players truly surprised me and ended up doing something I had never anticipated. I love that. The only thing that frustrated me was the absence of two players, both of whom run thief characters, and who might have been able to avoid collapsing the floor. Not that I'm mad that the players couldn't make it -- I'm more annoyed that I had to fudge what their characters were doing, and if they'd been there (or if I didn't allow the players to end sessions inside a dungeon), things would have been different. This was also the second time we used Adventurer Conqueror King's Mortal Wounds table to determine what happened to a character that was below 0 hit points: Garen-Gen's legs are now useless, which I found a bit depressing, but his player doesn't seem fazed by it. 

Oh well. It was fun, anyway.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Recent Acquisitions

With my most recent attempt to run a session of the Demon Verge campaign derailed by a post-vacation cold, I find myself once more with little to discuss in terms of actual play.

Instead, here are some brief thoughts on a few RPG-related products I've picked up recently. I hesitate to call them "reviews", since I haven't used (or, in many cases, even finished reading) the books in question. But here goes anyway:

Uresia: Grave of Heaven. S. John Ross' fantasy setting has been around for a while now, having had versions released for the now-defunct Big Eyes, Small Mouth system as well as d20. It's currently available via Lulu as a system-free setting resource, in a variety of formats. Since Lulu recently had a substantial sale, I opted for the "Stupid-Expensive HyperDeluxe Omnibus", and it's an extremely attractive book. The fact that Uresia was originally made for an "anime RPG" (whatever that means) means that there's a good deal of well-executed artwork in that style, but there are also more realistic (and more cartoonish!) drawings, a mix which I guess might bother people that place a lot of value on a "unified feel". The setting itself is breezy and whimsical, with an emphasis placed on fun and gameable locations. Ross has a playful sense of humor that only occasionally grates on me -- there are a lot of pirate jokes in here -- and a high percentage of interesting ideas per page. My increasing appreciation for goofy stuff in dungeon fantasy means that Uresia hits what is currently a sweet spot for me. I'm happy I bought it.

Anomalous Subsurface Environment. More weirdo dungeon stuff from Lulu, this time specifically for old-style D&D, with a post-apocalyptic take on fantasy that reminds me of Thundarr the Barbarian and Korgoth of Barbaria. I've been re-warming to the idea of megadungeons lately, and ASE certainly qualifies as one of those. I haven't read much of the dungeon itself yet, but I'm very impressed with Patrick Wetmore's wacky wizard-blasted sci-fantasy setting and the new D&D-compatible classes -- including robots and scientists -- that he's introduced to reflect it.

Qelong. I haven't read this yet. Despite my respect for Lamentations of the Flame Princess' dedication to publishing good-looking, OSR-friendly gaming material, I've never been a big fan of horror, and so I often find that their products aren't my cup of tea. However, Qelong is written by Kenneth Hite, an author I've heard good things about (but have never personally read), and the idea of a Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy sandbox is intriguing. It also comes highly recommended by people whose opinion I value. On the other hand, the back cover blurb references two movies I wasn't a huge fan of, so... we shall see, I suppose.

(Note: I finished reading Qelong since I wrote this post. It's quite well-written and full of interesting ideas, but ultimately, it's a quintessential Lamentations scenario, with lots of nightmarish magic and bodily horror. It's a great book if that's your thing, but it's not really mine. To me, the old WarGames saw of "the only winning move is not to play" seems to apply to a lot of the Lamentations adventures.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Lure of the Mine


It looks like I will finally be able to return to running the Demon Verge campaign next Monday. I'm hoping to finish off the dungeon the players are currently in either this session or the next. This means that I ought to be back to posting actual campaign content here on Dungeonskull Mountain again soon.

Earlier this week, I was visiting my former stomping grounds of New York City, and managed to hook back up with many of my good friends from New York Red Box. I got to play in Session 200 (!!) of Eric M.'s Glantri campaign, which I like to describe as "B/X D&D on Hard mode". (I was able to keep my character -- a Black Metal cleric -- alive, surprisingly.)

I've had disheartening experiences in the past when trying to run megadungeons, partly because the mapping is difficult to handle online, and partly because of my own lack of confidence and preparation, but banging around in Eric's massive Chateau D'Ambreville reminded me of how focused and effective that style of play can be. Though I'm always thinking about what I want to run next when I should be concentrating on the game at hand, and I'm leaning towards giving dungeon fantasy a break for a bit, I might give megadungeons another shot some day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Where Credit Is Due


The Demon Verge campaign remains on hold for now, as I'm traveling this coming week. A couple of my players took the time to tell me they miss the game, which was touching, honestly. It's easy to forget how people get attached to a game they've been playing consistently for more than a few sessions. I guess I must be doing a decent job of DMing, which was sort of the point of the entire exercise: I want to learn to be a better game master.

I realized the other day that Scott Driver is the guy that got me to view the idea of playing old-style D&D as a legitimate possibility. Years ago, I read a post on RPG.net raving about a campaign of his. I was able to talk my way into joining a short-lived play-by-post game he was running. I played a dumb, pimple-faced teenaged fighter who was always trying too hard to convince everybody around him that he was a badass. It was a blast, for lack of a better word, and taught me the reliability of a trick I'm still using: come up with one hook for your character and play the hell out of it. You can round them out later, if they survive that long.

In many ways, I'm just now beginning to understand how to balance having a rich, detailed setting and just having a good time with D&D, but Scott had it down. His work, even eternally unfinished as it seems to be, remains an inspiration, and I hope we see more of it. I miss the guy.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My RPG Person Profile


Technical difficulties prevented us from playing a session of the Demon Verge campaign this week, so instead, you get the latest fill-in-the-blank thingy. This one was started by Zak S.

I'm currently running (online): The Demon Verge, a B/X D&D campaign inspired by an old wargame called Demonlord. I run it on Google+, mostly on Monday nights.

I would especially like to play/run: Rifts, though maybe with a different system. Something post-apocalyptic, anyway. Spacefaring science fiction would be neat, as it's a genre I've never really played in. A mecha thing would be fun, as would a martial arts thing. I still want to run a trashy fantasy game inspired by bad movies, action figures, and Japanese video games from the 80s and early 90s. I also want to give Dragon Warriors and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay another go eventually.

...but would also try: There are piles of games I want to try, sometimes just to see how they're supposed to work. Torchbearer, Pendragon, Savage Worlds, FATE Core, Swordbearer, Tenra Bansho Zero, DragonQuest, Traveller, RuneQuest, ICONS, The One Ring, the list goes on.

I live in: Florida. The Tampa Bay area.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: Renegade Crowns for WFRP2. Malleus Monstrorum for Call of Cthulhu. An Echo, Resounding for Labyrinth Lord (or B/X D&D). All of these are useful for games beyond the ones for which they were designed.

2 or 3 novels I like: Neuromancer. Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. The Hawkline Monster.

2 or 3 movies I like: Jackie Brown. Ghostbusters. Blade Runner. 

Best place to find me on-line: Google+.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Something that shows me how to add onto or change a game to make it more useful to me, or if it's got cool random tables.

I really do not want to hear about: Your campaign world's backstory. But you should totally want to hear about mine. (Yes, this is hypocritical.)

I think dead orc babies are (circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....): Not much fun. Same goes for roleplaying out interrogations. I'd love to avoid both subjects entirely.

Games I'm in are like: This. But I wish they were more like this.

Free RPG Content I made for various games, but mostly old-style D&D is available by clicking on the labeled links on the right of the blog.

If you know anything about an alternate system that would work well for a post-apocalyptic game that has monsters, magic, and mecha it'd help me with a project I'm working on.

I talk about RPGs on Google+ under the name Paul Vermeren.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 8

The roster for this session was:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Fingers (male thief), played by Thomas
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
The Purloiner (male thief), played by Chris V.
plus their retainer, Ralan the elf

This week's session of The Demon Verge picked up where we left off, inside of a dungeon. I initially planned on enforcing a "you must leave the dungeon at the end of each session" rule. That rule minimizes confusion when the players that show up change from session to session, but it so happens that I've been able to pull together an extremely reliable group.

In contrast to the previous one, this session was heavily oriented towards exploration, with a bit of interaction with the dungeon's denizens. The Company of the Closed Fist had been considering resting in a galley kitchen they found, but after some careful experimentation with the yellow mold growing in its basin, they elected to camp elsewhere. They ended up having something of an extended stay in a ransacked storeroom, as Aelaran set about healing his compatriots, and Magda concentrated her efforts on attempting to ascertain the nature of various minor items the party had found earlier. At several points, entities unknown scratched and scrabbled against the spiked door, but were unable to gain entry.

A group of orcs, however, was rather more insistent. The orcs were apparently expecting the arrival of "witches" -- possibly the enigmatic Brotherhood of the Broken Crescent --and were at first convinced by Magda's assertion that the Company was the group in question. However, after getting a look at the party, the orcs immediately launched an attack with flaming oil. Things looked grim for a moment, as the Company had no means of escape, but the orcs' inexpert use of the incendiaries was their downfall, as several mishaps befell them in quick succession, leading to the immolation of two of their number. The orcs soon fled into the upper reaches of the dungeon.

The Company then examined a strange room containing a metal desk covered in raised circular buttons, as well as nine magical "windows", five of which appeared to show in real time different sections of the dungeon they were exploring. Magda secured here possession of a hefty tome called The Lineage of Eastern Dukes, a genealogy from the Demonlord provinces. Around this time, the captive mage's apprentice, Galtin Vauk, professed his confusion over the contents of the ruins, and the sole surviving retainer, the elf Ralan, began to display distinctively insubordinate behavior, insisting that the Company pay him before he would take further risky action.

Finally, the group happened upon a chamber overgrown with gnarled tree roots, from which descended a bevy of green-haired, mahogany-skinned women of vaguely elfin aspect, who informed the Company that their tree had been "befouled" by something called "the Poisoner", and repeatedly begged that the Company aid them. When Garen-Gen agreed, he was presented with a hefty sack of gold coin, after which point the strange women retreated into the oaken roots. A bit of experimentation with a ten-foot pole raided from the storeroom activated a secret door that led further into the dungeon...

Between the magical "windows" and the sudden appearance of the dryads, there was a good deal of weirdness in this session. I've shied away from "funhouse" dungeons in the past, but I'm starting to learn that in terms of raw enjoyment, there's a lot to recommend them, especially in the somewhat awkward medium of Google+ Hangouts. I'm learning a lot with this campaign, that's for sure.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 7


First, I got all bummed out about running D&D. Then I got excited again, after a session that was completely devoid of combat and dungeoneering. This week I had a session that was nothing but running around in dungeons and killing stuff, and it was a blast.

The cast was slightly different this time:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Fingers (male thief), played by Anthony F.
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
The Purloiner (male thief), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: Kharain, Worford, Ralan the elf, and Mordal the dwarf

We were joined by a new player, Anthony F., who introduced his character: a thief dubbed Fingers. My brother, Chris V., elected to set aside his usual character, the fighter Ondola the Blunt, for a while and try his hand at a thief as well. His was a masked man known only as "The Purloiner". I decided to handwave the thieves' introduction to the Company of the Closed Fist. In the past, I've tried to introduce new characters organically, but that generally takes a good deal of time and I was eager to get into the action. I didn't bother explaining why there were suddenly two new members of the Company, at least, not yet.

I'm not going to go into a room-by-room description of the party's exploration of the dungeon beneath the ruins of Ebler's Tower, because I don't feel like it. There was a good deal of fun exploration and interesting (if failed) attempts to navigate some tricky spots. Combat was not in short supply. Surprise rolls were not in the PCs' favor, and run-ins with various giant vermin (including giant killer bees, giant shrews, and giant ticks) were extremely costly -- the retainers Mordal, Kharain, and Worford all met grisly ends in the dungeon. Roleplaying the retainers is among my favorite parts of DMing, and it saddened me to see them go, but I also relished describing the terrifying ways in which they died. I probably got a little too "into" describing a giant shrew bursting out of a slimy chamber, bloodily ripping out Mordal's throat with gnawing yellow fangs, and sending the dwarf's body tumbling down a stairway into a morass of giant killer bee honey and rotten provisions. (It should go without saying that there's no nice way to describe somebody being killed by a giant tick.)

The Company of the Closed Fist's dismal track record of keeping retainers alive is certainly going to catch up with them. There was plenty of humor, though, including a brief encounter with a swarm of mischievous sprites, and a particularly odd stratagem where the Purloiner greased himself with butter and attempted to make a running lubricated dive, Slip N' Slide style, through a half-collapsed room. The session ended with the party preparing to spike themselves into a galley kitchen that featured a basin filled with a foul-looking yellow gunk.

I paid a lot more attention to wandering monsters in this dungeon, and as a result, the party really ended up fighting for their lives. (The giant tick attack, in particular, was a nail-biter where Garen-Gen and Cadie came very close to being slain.) I'm not using a dungeon I wrote myself this time, because I was feeling uninspired. The one I chose has some fairly tough monsters in it, but I figured I've been a little too nice to the players so far. If they decide that it's best to run away and live to fight another day, well, that's a valuable lesson for them to learn.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 6

After all of the endless whining about "losing my smile" that I posted last week, I stumbled across an interesting dungeon online (which shall remain nameless for now), reskinned it, and managed to find some enthusiasm again for this week's session of the Demon Verge campaign. We were slightly short-handed this time, with my brother (Chris V.) unexpectedly finding himself unable to make it to the session, but bravely soldiered on.

The participants were:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
plus their retainers: Kharain, Worford, Ralan the elf, and Mordal the dwarf

The session consisted almost entirely of what many might consider "downtime". We started off by determining which of the Company of the Closed Fist's retainers would be willing to continue working with the party, especially after the terrifying encounter with the green dragon last session. For the first time, I actually adjudicated this properly, by rolling for retainer morale and taking Charisma scores into account. Unfortunately, Aelaran, who is lacking in that department, had hired many of the retainers. However, the dice were in the Company's favor, and all of their hirelings save Bardoon agreed to remain in their employ. (Bardoon, a man fond of referring to himself in the third person, swore never to work for the Company again, particularly after his courage was called into question by Garen-Gen.)

Magda managed to determine that a strange suit of leathern hide armor recovered several sessions ago was magical in nature. As it was originally worn by a hulking, lumpen demi-man of some sort, Garen-Gen planned to have it altered to fit his diminutive dimensions, but found (to his terror) that it molded itself to his frame when he put it on. He was briefly chased about camp by a cleaver-wielding Company physick eager to cut it away, but this scare was mercifully short-lived.

The Company then elected to bring their captive, the young magician called Galtin Vauk, before their sometime benefactor Arjon Tenpher, the acting regent of the city of D'Ansor. The bulk of the session was taken up with roleplaying the scene, with plenty of arguing amongst Galtin, Arjon, and the cleric Aelaran. Though he apparently wanted to take the necromancer's apprentice into his custody, in the end, Arjon stated that he was unconvinced that Galtin's cabal, the Brotherhood of the Broken Crescent, posed as great a threat to D'Ansor as the Company believed, and declined to provide them with more armed assistance (since his two of his personal guard had earlier met their doom in the Company's care). Aelaran expressed his disappointment in no uncertain terms. Ultimately, the party decided to investigate a rumor Arjon relayed to them, about a wizard's tower that was apparently recently toppled. Galtin also managed to secure an oath from Aelaran that the Company would spare his life if he aided them.

After securing the services of another retainer, a tough warrior woman named Kharain (who provided more information regarding the bandits that the party has heard so much about), the Company set out for the ruins of Ebler's Tower. The place the Company sought was four days' travel to the southwest. The journey was largely without incident -- the party did attract the interest of a band of goblins, but the humanoids were unable to surprise the group and were dissuaded by their numbers. At this point, Chris H. (the player of Magda the Witch) had to drop out early, so I decided to wrap up the session by saying that the Company of the Closed Fist had sighted the ruins of the Tower in the distance.

I really enjoyed myself this session. It was devoid of combat and of dungeon-crawling, though there were plenty of dice rolls in the form of morale checks, reaction rolls, and overland travel. I think a big part of DMing, at least for me, is entertaining one's self. For whatever reason, my typical reluctance to cut loose and get into character was largely absent that night, and I had a great time playing Galtin Vauk, the arrogant teenaged magic-user the players took captive last session, and Arjon Tenpher, the rather dismissive local regent. I will admit that most of my interactions were limited to one or two of the PCs, however, which is another thing I'll have to work on remedying in future sessions.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Inevitable Disenchantment

It was bound to happen.

After only a handful of sessions of my B/X D&D campaign, DM fatigue is starting to set in -- or it might be more appropriate to label it "Gamer ADD". This is nothing new, and doesn't mean that I'm going to wrap up the Demon Verge game. It's still chugging along pretty nicely, even with my occasional missteps. If it's going to come anywhere near the open sandbox I'd originally wanted it to be, though, I'm going to have to put more work into it. But at the moment I'm feeling uninspired about it, so it'll probably remain a "dungeon crawl of the week" type of thing for a while. I hope my players are cool with that.

I can point to a number of reasons for my vague disillusionment with the campaign. For one thing, I went out of my way to make a fairly "vanilla" D&D setting this time around, in the interest of hitting the ground running and actually playing something instead of just thinking about it. But there's nothing that's stopping me from making things a bit less "standard D&D fantasy" now that I've got a regular game with a stable group of players. Nothing other than my own blasé attitude, that is.

Before I started looking at making a D&D campaign out of Demonlord, I was working on my own weird trashy 80s science-fantasy thing using a mash-up of Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, but I decided that I was wasting time on a high-concept campaign I was never going to run instead of just making a dungeon and saying "go". I'm starting to think that that might have been unwise. But then again, I've found that no matter how you dress up D&D, people are going to play it like they always have, and that would have just frustrated me more.

Like I said before, nothing is disastrously out of whack with my campaign. But there are a lot of little annoyances -- my own clunky DMing, my constant interest in other games and genres, the difficulty of really cutting loose and getting into character via the strange medium of Google+ Hangouts -- and while they're not killing my campaign, they are getting in the way.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 5


In this session, we picked up where we left off, with the Company of the Closed Fist heading down to the ground floor of Ralu's Redoubt, with the regular cast:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: "Big John" the charmed ogre, Bardoon, Ralan the elf and Mordal the dwarf

The Company of the Closed Fist engaged in a brief scuffle with a pair of young magic-users, again clad in the green hooded robes they'd seen previously. Their skeletal servants were turned away by the power of Kalseru, thanks to the cleric Aelaran. Having lost their protectors, the robed mages were outmatched. One of them fled at the sight of "Big John", backed by a large and well-armed party. The other found himself backed into a corner by "Big John" and staring into the cursed mirror the Company had strapped to the ogre's chest. He quickly surrendered, his face erupting in painful acne from the mirror's malign magic.

The young magic-user proved largely uncooperative, resisting Magda's attempt to charm him, but revealed a few bits of information after the Company ordered "Big John" to begin breaking his fingers: his name was Galtin Vauk, his cabal was called The Brotherhood of the Broken Crescent, their base of power is "several days' travel" to the east, and led by someone called "Mistress Throga". He also engaged Aelaran in a bit of quasi-religious babble, in which he claimed that "the death of all things" was the only true way to "turn away Chaos".

The Company, exploring the remainder of Ralu's Redoubt, found it mostly abandoned (save for a giant crab spider, which gave Garen-Gen a nasty fright), though it held a few well-trapped rooms and treasure caches presumably put in place by the bandits that had previously occupied the outpost.

En route to D'Ansor to inform Arjon Tenpher of their discoveries, the Company sighted a speck in the sky, which was revealed to be a green dragon in short order. The party took to cover in a panic, but the dragon seemed intent on eating their cleric. Only a foolhardy attack launched by "Big John" saved Aelaran. Sadly, their ogre companion was almost instantly slain, then carried off by the great winged reptile. The Company of the Closed Fist then completed the journey to D'Ansor in stunned silence.

I was very tired when DMing this session, and was running on caffeine and little else. As a result, the whole thing was a good deal sloppier than I generally prefer. In particular, I'm not proud to say that I ushered the players through several empty rooms by saying things like "you explore the next few rooms and they're all empty", and I probably telegraphed where to find treasure and traps a bit too much. Also, I didn't run the random dragon encounter strictly according to the random wilderness encounter rules from the Expert book (largely because I forgot that such a thing existed). But as usual, there was a lot of laughter and I think everybody had fun anyway.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 4

For our fourth session, the Company of the Closed Fist was back up to fighting strength:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: "Big John" the charmed ogre, Bardoon, Worford, Ralan the elf and Mordal the dwarf

Having neutralized the threat of the orcs and other Nisshar deserters that had occupied the ruins of the Falcon Hall, the Company of the Closed Fist received a summons from Arjon Tenpher, the man who rules the Duchy of D'Ansor in his brother's absence. Tenpher informed the Company that far from being cross about the deaths of two of his personal guard (and one prize sheep) in the Falcon Hall assault, he considered it a bargain, and requested that the Company investigate reports of new inhabitants at Ralu's Redoubt, a roadside outpost that was previously believed to be abandoned after the recent war with Nisshar. Tenpher suspected that a group of bandits that had been raiding caravans traveling between the Duchy and their southern neighbors in the Principality of Timur may have claimed the outpost as their own.

The Company first contacted two survivors from the first Falcon Hall operation: the jittery, knife-wielding Otto, and the arrogant (if capable) Bardoon. Only the latter accepted their offer of re-employment. Aelaran chose to employ a town crier for a nominal fee, which reaped considerable rewards: several capable-seeming retainers, including a dwarf and one of the rarely-seen elves, offered their services. A new pay scheme was determined for the Company's retainers: a fairly generous flat monthly fee, plus salvaged weapons and armor, with opportunities for formal registry into the Company's roster (and thus, access to the various advantages of a royally chartered mercenary group) for particularly loyal and doughty retainers. (I love watching players come up with this kind of stuff, by the way.)

The Company then spent a good deal of time planning a ruse intended to lure the bandits out into the open, involving a wagon and a pair of draft horses borrowed from Tenpher, and a cart purchased with Company funds. Elaborate plans involving the lashing of demihumans to the undersides of these conveyances, the donning of false pilgrims' costume, and the inconspicuous transport of charmed ogres were hatched. Finally, the Company and their companions set out on the two-day journey southward to Ralu's Redoubt.

Despite conspicuously camping in view of the outpost, the ambush they expected never came. After a nervous evening spent waiting for a bandit attack, Garen-Gen decided to reconnoiter the Redoubt along with the elf Ralan. They found a large, conical hill with two cavernous openings apparently manned by watchmen and dotted with withered trees. Magda the Witch and her ogrish friend, "Big John", decided to approach the outpost with Garen-Gen and Ralan observing from cover. As soon as they came within roughly two hundred feet of the outpost, the "watchmen", who were now seen to be skeletons, signaled a green-robed figure who cast a sleep spell upon the witch and her would-be protector. Both were instantly sent into a slumber. Before the skeletal guards could approach, Garen-Gen and Ralan burst from the bushes and awakened their ensorcelled comrades. The four then fled for cover, with "Big John" howling in rage and confusion, as three skeleton warriors and two very nervous-looking green-robed magic-users emerged from the complex, and then quickly returned to it.

Hearing the ogre's screams, the rest of the Company came to the rescue, and the assembled party then entered Ralu's Redoubt at its upper opening. They soon found a Timurian merchant (named Nomahr) in chains, who told them the bandits that captured him had apparently been overrun by wizards some days previous. The group decided to have Worford take Nomahr and their cart and wagon back to D'Ansor and inform Arjon Tenpher of the developments. They found little else of interest on this level -- save, of course, a magical mirror that robbed Magda of much of her already meager strength when she gazed into it. The session ended as the Company took a downward-leading staircase, "Big John" in the lead, with the evil mirror strapped to his ample torso.

I let the players spend a lot of time planning their counter-ambush this session -- in retrospect, probably too much time, but I didn't want to give away that the bandits they were expecting were no longer the threat. I'm also finding it difficult to get the sort of engaged roleplaying I enjoy going on Google+, which is much more my own fault (and that of the somewhat awkward nature of Hangouts) than that of my players, but I'm planning on forging ahead. I wonder if my players have yet figured out that this whole campaign is really just a way for me to learn how to DM again.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hug a Jug o' Wine


If you're here for Dungeons & Dragons content, you'll probably want to move on. Today I'm writing about Rifts. A lot.

I have spoken in the past of the Rifts campaign I and my friends played in for years as young adults. Rifts is a game with a lot of warts, but its setting remains one for which I have a lot of affection. We've returned to it once before, in a play-by-post campaign that fizzled out (as they all do eventually). Recently, my good friend Kent has started a private Google+ Community for the old gaming group, and is slowly building a new campaign backdrop: Serendipity, an independent town with a commanding position at the mouth of the Mississippi River, since New Orleans was completely submerged after the apocalypse. Kent asked us to pitch some ideas for neighborhoods in Serendipity, and I obliged.

So, with a tip of the hat to the Borderlands video games and to Neil Hamburger's track of similar name, I give you:

Jugtown

The ramshackle bungalows at the northern edge of Serendipity are home to scrapyard workers, petty operators, and rail laborers. These people unload and process the scrap and excavated technologies taken from the McComb Metal Reclamation Camp, several miles further north. They work hard and drink hard. Sandrine Quang is happy to cater to their needs, and from her sprawling establishment, the Scrap Car Saloon, she effectively rules the neighborhood that has come to be called Jugtown.

The Quang family claims Cajun, Creole, and Vietnamese heritage. They have roots in the area going back to the time before the war, where they helped to operate the Ponchartrain Vineyards once located in the town of Bush (now a half-submerged ruin). The Quangs are still winemakers, growing grapes not far from the Ottley farming operation, but now produce a cheap, easily manufactured variant of the spirit labeled "Rasteau Pardo Tonic Wine". Detractors say that the Quang wine is adulterated with corn syrup, turpentine, and less savory additives. Sandrine Quang insists that it is “fortified”. At any rate, Pardo has been popular with the local workers for generations, and the trademark one-handled glass jugs in which the beverage is sold litter the streets and corners of the neighborhood. It is from these discarded containers that Jugtown takes its name.

The Quang family has its hands in more than making cheap wine. Sandrine's husband, Sullivan, works to ensure that the best pieces recovered from McComb find their way onto the black market. Her sister, Corette Quang, oversees prostitution and drug dealing in Jugtown. And Sandrine’s son, Orson, is directly involved in enforcing the family’s protection racket. (A full-conversion cyborg with the words “BOW DOWN” emblazoned on his chest, Orson Quang is among Serendipity’s least popular residents.) Quang family members are involved in practically all areas of business – and crime – in Jugtown.

Since the residents of the area depend either directly or indirectly on railyard activity for their livelihood, Jugtown's political affairs are largely handled by Serendipity's Rail Guild. However, the Quangs have assembled the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a militia named after a trade union from the Age of Man, and are aggressively recruiting area toughs to join it.

According to Sandrine Quang, the BMWE (or “Brotherhood”, as it is more commonly known) was formed to voice the unique concerns of Jugtown's workers. More often, they try to strongarm the Rail Guild into paying Sandrine in return for the militia's (and therefore, the workers’) support on the council. The militia is made up of two dozen or so local hardcases loyal to the Quang family, mostly low-level men-at-arms with cheap body armor and weapons. However, the Brotherhood supplies a valuable defense asset to Serendipity in the form of a fully operational Titan Combat Robot, purchased by the Quang family and piloted by the militia's leader, Rachel Bailey. 

Bailey, a former combat pilot, had a history of squabbles with the Rail Guild before joining the Brotherhood. When still a newcomer to Serendipity, she married into the Quang family without fully understanding what she was getting into. A conscientious deserter from Whykin who disliked her homeland's increasingly xenophobic military policies, Bailey found herself pressured back into the pilot's seat and into acting as a figurehead for the BMWE. She has an honest desire to better represent Jugtown’s citizenry, but has found herself alternately manipulated and intimidated into serving Sandrine’s interests by her husband (and Sandrine’s nephew), Denis. As a result, her standing in the community is steadily plummeting.

The Scrap Car Saloon

Sandrine Quang's saloon is, like most of the buildings in Jugtown, a jury-rigged, ramshackle structure, apparently bolted together from the bits of a half-dozen other buildings. Unlike most of the quietly depressing drinking holes in this neighborhood of Serendipity, however, the Scrap Car goes for bombast. Bright orange power cords are strung haphazardly both inside and out. A loudly buzzing neon sign advertises “SCRAP CAR - WINE - GIRLS - WILDE - NTERTAINMENT [sic]” in hot pink letters, and loudspeakers pointed in all directions blast skip-ridden recordings of Vietnamese pop, Cajun zydeco, and Gobblely drum n’ screech (often all at the same time). 

Past an entrance guarded by large, largely disinterested doormen lies a poorly lit, smoky, but slightly less shabby interior. Beyond what one would expect to find in a saloon – i.e., a bar -- the Scrap Car boasts a small stage for live performances (complete with scavenged sound and lighting system, and which can be surrounded with chicken wire at a moment’s notice) as well as an octagonal pit used to host tough-man tournaments, cockfights, dog fights, and the like. (An ill-fated experiment in carnosaur baiting once nearly led to the destruction of the saloon.)

The entire operation is monitored via video camera by Sandrine Quang, who occupies the well-guarded second floor of the establishment with a rotating cast of other Quang family members. While there are nude dancers (Thursday is “D-Bee night”), and plenty of alcohol is available, hard drugs and sexual favors are not offered here. (Customers interested in such services are quietly directed to other venues, also Quang owned and operated.)

Quanglish

A pidgin language composed of bits of half-remembered Vietnamese and Cajun French, mixed with American (and more recently, Gobblely), used exclusively by the Quangs. "Quanglish", as outsiders derisively call it, has allowed effectively coded communication among family members for generations. Individuals not raised in the Quang family -- even those that speak the languages that make up its vocabulary -- find Quanglish incomprehensible, as it also incorporates cross-lingual rhyming slang.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 3


We were short one player last session, but the newly christened Company of the Closed Fist returned to the Falcon Hall to clear it once and for all:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: Wart, Mordu, Janus, and Yar

Two of the Company's retainers from the previous expedition, Otto and Bardoon, declined to return to the ruined outpost for this sortie. The players talked the local lord, one Arjon Tenpher, into loaning them two of his personal guard (Janus and Yar) and, at the insistence of the halfling Garen-Gen, five sheep at the end of the previous session. Sadly, Garen-Gen proved to be highly allergic to the local breed of sheep and had to remain back at camp while his comrades stormed the Falcon Hall.

The player characters again used some very imaginative tactics, including herding their sheep into the dungeon in an attempt to set off any booby traps. Unfortunately, the denizens of the Hall had enlisted the help of a small squad of kobold trapsters, who had made a barricade of the orcs and goblins the Company had slain last session and seeded them with shrieker spores. The crawling fungi immediately alerted the tribe to the Company's presence, sending the sheep bolting back outside. The kobolds then hurled crocks of oil at the party's magic-user, Magda the Witch, and ignited them. She would have been killed were it not for the speedy intervention of Mordu, the guardsman she had charmed into her service last session. 

The Company set about setting the kobolds' grisly barricade alight and then sealing the orcs and their allies inside the dungeon, barring the main doors and sealing its chimney with a promptly slaughtered sheep. A previously unknown escape tunnel was soon revealed, and the party tracked the Hall's fleeing inhabitants to a muddy creek, where a pitched battle took place. 

The skirmish claimed the lives of every one of the Company's retainers. The orcs' trump card, a club-wielding ogre, was charmed by the badly burnt Magda and then instructed to give the party a tour of the Falcon Hall. The Company of the Closed Fist returned to D'Ansor considerably richer, but it remains to be seen how Arjon Tenpher will react to the loss of two of his trusted men at arms.

The big lessons that I took home from this session? Smart play yields great rewards, players react with dread when you use their tactics against them, and charm is a great spell.


Friday, August 23, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 2


The first session of the Demon Verge campaign must not have been too awful, because everybody returned for the second, to wit:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: Wart, Otto, and Bardoon

Last session, the player characters took a staircase to the second level of an abandoned outpost and started spiking the sliding door that led out of its first room. This alerted goons on both the second and the first floors (the latter of which they had not cleared) to their presence. Though they got out mostly intact (more on that in a bit), it was a lot of fun watching the players figure out how to deal with the orcs and goblins that started arriving in waves from both the stairwell and the doorway, potentially leaving them with no exit.

I'm happy to say that using a relatively small dungeon that I mapped and keyed myself has contributed greatly to my own confidence in running a D&D session. It helped me have a better idea of how things interconnect and interrelate. Knowing your dungeon well enough to have its various denizens react appropriately when adventurers start stomping around and killing their buddies is not only realistic, it makes the dungeon scarier. It allowed me to avoid the unfortunate syndrome where monsters sit and patiently wait to be killed, ignoring the ruckus that the PCs are raising.

Also, one of the orcs scored a natural 20 on my brother's fighter, Ondola the Blunt, and reduced her well below 0 hit points, which let me try out my house rules on both critical hits and mortally wounded characters. (I use the term "house rules" loosely here -- I have lifted these rules wholesale from Adventurer Conqueror King.) After a couple of die rolls it ended up that Ondola was unconscious and had lost an arm. This did deflate the session for a bit, and my brother elected to drop out of the game for the night. I felt kind of bad about this, to be honest -- I wondered if it wouldn't have been better for me to simply declare the character dead -- but it looks like my brother is going to soldier on with his one-armed fighter for at least a little while.

The PCs managed to escape the dungeon, though they were pursued and had to bluff their way out. Also, an orc that Aelaran the cleric had managed to talk into aiding the party was slain by an overzealous guardsman when they returned to town. (That guardsman has since been charmed into their service.) Sadly, most of their retainers elected to retire with the treasure they'd won. I did squeeze in some (rather awkward) roleplaying with the local nobility, which I think was nice for a change.

Next week, the players are planning on clearing out the rest of the Falcon Hall, and have procured large amounts of oil, new men-at-arms, and five sheep to that end. This can only end well.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What Is A Demon? (Part I)

Though my campaign is called "The Demon Verge", I don't really have a clear idea of what the titular "Demons" are. This is largely because the game it's based on doesn't provide much information about them. That sketchiness has mostly been a boon for me thus far. Still, I feel kind of strange about leaving the villains of the setting in such a vague state, so I might as well start figuring some things out.

As I've discussed previously, the wargame Demonlord includes a dwarven kingdom that is menaced by something called "the Balron". It's one of the few things in the game that is a transparent Tolkienism. For the Demon Verge campaign, I try not to directly contradict anything from the game that inspired it, but I have to admit that I kind of roll my eyes every time I have to mention the Balron. For that reason, I decided that the Balron is understood to have been slain by a powerful wizard during the last war. (I figured if I'm going to have a Tolkien ripoff stomping around in the backstory, I might as well write it out with another Tolkien ripoff.)

For laughs, I decided to do an image search for "Balron" (as opposed to "Balrog", which gets you a lot of images of the monster from Jackson's Lord of the Rings films and the big boxer from Street Fighter II). Here's what I get:


Both are apparently from manuals for the Ultima series of computer games, which also used the name "Balron" instead of "Balrog". They've both got the sword-and-whip thing going on, just like the Balrog. Like the designers of Demonlord, the Ultima people obviously liked Tokien's Balrog enough to use it in their game, but probably feared legal trouble from those controlling his intellectual property. Fair enough, but I find this kind of direct ripoff a bit uninspiring, even though I have a soft spot for Denis Loubet's artwork.

I stumbled across another "Balron" during my search, though:


This Balron is a villain from the Saint Seiya anime series, as far as I can tell. The sword has been jettisoned from the standard Balrog armament, and instead of a big leathery beast, this version is a pretty man in demonic armor. I actually find this take kind of interesting, because to me it seems to be somewhat in line with what little is written about the Demons in the Demonlord rules manual:

On Narth, once called the “continent of man”, the origins of the Demons are obscure. Some say a wizard’s summoning went out of control. Others suggest that the Demons themselves opened a magical gateway, still extent [sic] at the gate of Tor’zem, the Demonlord Capital. A few philosophers even believe that the Demons are a natural race, like humans or dwarves, except the Demons became stronger than others.

In that rulebook, it's never stated that "the Balron character" is a Demon.  But the mention of the Demons possibly being "a natural race, like humans or dwarves," suggests to me that they are probably not completely monstrous in appearance. The Demonlords themselves are depicted on their chit counters as horned heads with Dracula-style collars, and one could reasonably assume that the individual on the cover of the game is meant to be a Demonlord. (The Balron's chit looks a little different from that of the various Demonlords: its silhouette is vaguely humanoid, with horns, wings, and big feet.) Whether or not the Balron was a Demon, the idea of mostly human-like Demons like "Balron Rene" is an appealing possibility for my campaign.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 1


After I straightened out some scheduling conflicts, I was able to run the first session of the Demon Verge campaign this past Monday on Google+.

Our heroes were:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by my brother (also named Chris)
plus their retainers, Wart, Otto, and Bardoon

The characters are part of a larger force sent to the Demon Verge to pacify the war-torn and chaos-stricken borderlands. They started out in the Duchy of D'Ansor, collected a few rumors, and decided to investigate reports of orcs, ogres and the like -- presumably deserters from the war between the Demon province of Nisshar and the Hosarite alliance -- preying upon the farming villages to the northwest of town. They were able to track them to an ancient dwarven ruin set into a hillside, and with some clever reconnaissance and liberal use of flaming oil, managed to lure out and slay several of its inhabitants (orcs, goblins, and giant toads) before entering its partially waterlogged interior.

So, as you can see, it was a pretty basic setup (evil humanoids in a dungeon) but I had a lot of fun running it. I really enjoy playing hirelings, goblins, and other "bottom of the barrel"-type characters, and the Meatshields! hireling & henchman generator does an excellent job of instantly creating memorable goons. I also learned some lessons about flaming oil that I had forgotten (namely, that it is incredibly powerful). The players made some very smart choices in tackling the ruins and their inhabitants, got a ton of lucky rolls (no wandering monsters!) and as a result, have managed to acquire quite a nice heap of treasure with no loss of life or limb... yet.

This session was a big improvement over my previous attempts to run a game on Google+, at least in terms of my own confidence and enjoyment. That's due in no small part to the fact that this time, I'm running a relatively small dungeon that I stocked myself, rather than a giant megadungeon that requires hours of study and preparation. So far I haven't gotten the feeling that I'm "screwing up" -- justified or not -- that I often get when running others' material.

I got very valuable feedback from my players, including that they want more opportunities for roleplaying, which was a lovely thing to hear. So, a success, I think.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Domains of the Demon Verge

Here's a (sort of) brief summary of what I've established about the Demon Verge setting, some of it extrapolated from Demonlord, and some of it made up whole cloth. This represents knowledge that player characters, who are not native to the region, would already know (or be able to glean with little effort).

The Kingdom of Altacia
Often referred to simply as "the Old Kingdom", Altacia is the largest human nation on the continent of Narth. It was once the preeminent power in the region, but is now in decline, challenged by its neighbors, the realm of Ekkesh (to the south) and the Demon Provinces (to the east).

The Duchy of D'Ansor
A realm whose people have as much in common with the cragsmen of Altu'han as they do with the Altacian people, D'Ansor only recently bent the knee to the Old Kingdom. Its capital is home to the only magical college in the region. The villages of the Duchy are terrorized by brigands, deserters from both sides of the recent war.

The Principality of Timur
The largest city in the region, save Nisshar, Timur is the eastern trade hub of the Old Kingdom, now wracked by banditry. Once the stronghold of the Hosar faith, it was here that the High Priest was slain in battle, and Hosar's influence here is now as diminished as the spirits of those who were once its adherents.

The Barony of Barthek
A swampy land regarded as a cultural backwater in the Old Kingdom. Since the death of its Baron, Barthek is torn by internal strife between the Altacian nobles that have inherited it, and its people, whose traditions are closer to those of Ekkesh, a southern nation with a long history of conflict with the Old Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Ula
Until one year ago, the Dwarves of Ula toiled under the eye of the abomination known as the Balron and the Trolls that served it. Freed when the wizard Rabat slew the Balron, the Dwarves aided the alliance of Hosar in driving back the forces of Nisshar. Though freedom has come to the Dwarves, untold numbers of slaves yet toil in their mines, and it is said that slavers in Ula's employ still bring travelers to their mountains in chains.

The Duchy of Altu'han
The "mountain realm of the cragsmen", Altu'han is a northern domain ruled from a fortress city. Much of what is now the Duchy of D'Ansor was once the cragsmen's territory. Altu'han was briefly conquered by the Altacians, but its people have proven untamable, and for over a century the Duchy has been a part of the Old Kingdom in name only.

The Principality of Lyung
"Realm of the Sorcerer Cloud Prince", Lyung is an enigma even to its neighbors. What is known is that its capital is impregnable, and that none have been granted an audience with the Cloud Prince in generations. Legends say that the warriors of Lyung ride great dragons into battle, and indeed, some assert that they have seen the figures of men on winged creatures crossing the central plains.


The Great Woods
Home of wild warrior tribes, known worshippers of beast gods and forest spirits. Reputed to be not entirely human, the Great Woods barbarians are unpredictable, allying with Demons or men (or neither) according to their whims, and since the last war, the barbarians' raids against the eastern villages of Timur and Barthek have only grown bolder.

The Land of the Ancients
A nearly forgotten race, the Ancients ruled the hills and plains of the entire region in ages past, and their prehistoric ruins dot the landscape. It is said that the last remnants of the Ancients dwell in a crumbling temple to the north of Nisshar, and that the Demons give a wide berth to this land.

The Province of Nisshar
Westernmost province of the Demon Emperor's domain, Nisshar consists of several sprawling city-states and fortresses in a largely barren expanse of steppe, desert, and badlands. Each of these city-states is ruled by a Demonlord that swears fealty to the Imperial capital, Tor'zem, far to the east. The cities of Nisshar, Erush, and Taegul are places of despair, where men, demi-men, goblins, orcs and all manner of other beings live in common fear of the lash of their accursed masters.