Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Book Shelf: Son of the White Wolf by Robert E. Howard


Robert E. Howard was one of the truly great American authors of the last century. He created the Sword and Sorcery genre of fiction and wrote some of the greatest fight scenes to ever appear in literature. He was prolific writing a vast array of poetry, short prose, and works of fiction of all sizes.

Robert E. Howard created characters that you might know, such as Conan, Solomon Kane, and El Borak. What, you've never heard of El Borak? 

Well until I picked up the Son of the White Wolf I hadn't either.

Son of the White Wolf is a collection of three short stories featuring my new favorite character, El Borak. El Borak is an adventurer hailing from the American Southwest who has spent his time roving about the Near and Far East earning a reputation as the most dangerous man in the world. In a lot of ways El Borak is Robert E. Howard's fictional version of T. E. Lawrence. His relationship with the Arabs and with the world at large often pulls directly from Lawrence's life and legend, but the character's outlook is all Howard's. 

I'd love to tell you all about the ins and outs of this book but it is just too good to spoil for anyone in any way. Do yourself a favor and pick up this fast and infinitely enjoyable read from the master of adventure fiction.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Skill Checks: Balance

Welcome back to my series of articles focused on the Skill System from Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons presenting alternative uses, methods, and readings of the skills as presented in the d20 System Reference Document – because it’s free, editable, and I can provide my own flavor text. Today we’re going to be talking about the use of the Balance skill which is often ignored by everyone at my table but the player playing the thief.

Balance (DEX; ARMOR CHECK PENALTY)

Check: You can walk on a precarious surface. A successful check lets you move at half your speed along the surface for 1 round. A failure by 4 or less means you can’t move for 1 round. A failure by 5 or more means you fall. The difficulty varies with the surface . . . (SRD, Skills I, Balance)
When thinking about alternative uses to the Balance Skill as a player you have to consider three questions: (1.) is using this variation sufficiently exciting enough that my Dungeon Master will allow its attempt; (2.) in making this attempt am I weakening the game for my own empowerment; (3.) am I willing to accept the use of this skill variation when used against me.

One of the things that I encourage in my games is awe inspiring moments. If you want to attempt to catch hold of a Hill Giant’s club and perch on top so that you can run down its length and smack that bad boy in the face, I’ll let you try it. Because having that opportunity to do something exceptional is far more enjoyable and rewarding then rolling a d20 and asking, “Did a 14 hit?” every time we play together.

I’ve read some Dungeon Masters who believe that allowing for this sort of creative play is a form of breaking the game. There is some truth in that view; but only when you allow for the unbridled creativity of the player to be given dominance over the game. It is the responsibility of each party to make sure that the use of this skill will not adversely affect the game and the greater responsibility falls to the player, because the Dungeon Master will make him pay if the variation breaks the game.

So as a player, how do you make sure that the variation you’re proposing isn’t game breaking?

Ask this question: am I willing to have the same action used against me without feeling like the Dungeon Master is taking liberties. If you cannot honestly say that you’re fine with the comeback then the variation should not be attempted.

A Word on Variable Difficulty Classes

I have touched on the subject in the articles Skill Check: Ability Checks and Skill Check: Appraise but it should be stated again, I don’t like the inflation rate on skills. If you’re building your character correctly then there will come a time when your character is unable to fail on a Balance Skill Check that does not involve some bizarrely difficult task like crossing a molten lake of fire on a tightrope while being shot at by hobgoblins and dive-bombed by gargoyles.

One of the ways that I have begun to deal with this inflation problem is to simply stop asking characters with a skill bonus of 15 or better for rolls on all but the most difficult of tasks. This speeds up play, allows for characters who should not fail a check to move on, and in general makes play a lot more fun.

This is not a method that everyone enjoys as I have had a player complain about not getting to make the checks. I put the measure to a vote for everyone and he was the only one who voted against my normal policy; so for him, I make him roll for anything above a DC 10.

He fails more than you would ever imagine possible.

Balancing While Being Attacked

Being Attacked while Balancing: You are considered flat-footed while balancing, since you can’t move to avoid a blow, and thus you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). If you have 5 or more ranks in Balance, you aren’t considered flat-footed while balancing. If you take damage while balancing, you must make another Balance check against the same DC to remain standing. (SRD, Skills I, Balance)
One of my favorite times to adjudicate the Balance Skill is during combat. If you rule the skill exactly as worded than there are lots of occasions when your players will be despirately rolling d2os in an effort to catch that tightrope they were walking on when the guard shot them in the back.

I like that.

The Burt Lancaster Rule for Being Attacked While Balancing

I created this rule late one night after watching a Burt Lancaster marathon on Turner Classic Movies. He was so fluid in his movements that it occurred to me that someone trained in tumbling as he was would trust that movement more than would they simply trust to luck.

The rule I created would be used by characters that also have 5 ranks in the Tumble Skill. Instead of having the player use their static Armor Class the player may elect to use their Tumble Skill to avoid the attack. With this variable rule the player and the attacking creature each roll opposing d20s plus their appropriate modifiers. The higher roll wins.

After the attack, whether it succeed or fails, the player will have to make a DC 15 Balance Check to avoid falling off the surface they’re balancing on. If the attack succeeded add the damage dealt to the player character to the DC. Thus, if the player received 12 points of damage the Balance Check will now be a DC 27 (15 + 12 = 27).

On a side note, Burt Lancaster is the bomb.

Accelerated Movement

Accelerated Movement: You can try to walk across a precarious surface more quickly than normal. If you accept a –5 penalty, you can move your full speed as a move action. (Moving twice your speed in a round requires two Balance checks, one for each move action used.) You may also accept this penalty in order to charge across a precarious surface; charging requires one Balance check for each multiple of your speed (or fraction thereof) that you charge. (SRD, Skill I, Balance)
I really like this rule – except I don’t like the charging option. So I never use it.

To my mind if you’re charging your whole body has to be occupied with building up speed and momentum. Wasting the efforts of your body on balancing limits your ability to charge so I never allow charging when balancing.

One More Really Important Thing

Action: None. A Balance check doesn’t require an action; it is made as part of another action or as a reaction to a situation. (SRD, Skill I, Balance)
It’s really important to remember that the Balance check doesn’t require an action and that it is part of a move. This means that you can allow a Balance Check as a free check during Tumbles and the like.

That’s good to know.

Setting the Mood for Today's Art Session.

This afternoon I'm going to be working on a little art thing I've got going on and my head's been bouncing around like a ball for the past few hours trying to decide where I want to go with the project. But that isn't the sort of internal angst is a pathetic thing when it makes it onto the page.

So here's some music to express how I'm feeling about it all this morning.

First I'm all, this shit is going to be fucking amazing and I can't wait to get involved in it and start rocking it like a cool rain on a muggy day in summer.



Then I'm all, this is going to be awful and my heart's going to be all fucked up and maybe instead of sticking with this project I should just do something new.



Then I start thinking about how sometimes the best pictures are those ones that I hate and everyone else loves and I start wondering if maybe I shouldn't worry about how it all looks to me and should instead focus on how it looks to them.



After all, who cares if it looks like the inside of a cow uterus to me if everyone else loves it right?


Then I just feel like everything is all dark and filled with nothing more than a huge dose of fuck it all.


And I start thinking that maybe I should be playing Gamma World instead.


Or maybe I should just fight through it all and keep going until everything is better and not listen to all the shit going on in my head.


Then again, maybe I'm trying too hard.

Kits?

Can someone please explain the Kits from Second Edition to me?

From what I've been able to read it looks like they're equivalent to a background system for your character in Second, but I'm sure that there's more to them than that. What am I missing here?

10,000 Views? I Feel so Naked.

I just noticed that my blog has hit over 10,000 views today. I'm sure that a little better than half of those views are from vampirestat and the like but still, righteous.

Thank you all for visiting my blog and for your comments and encouraging words. Here's to another 10,000 or some other equally ludicrous goal. Either way, I'm drinking a Dickel and Coke in honor of this occasion.

I know that some of you out there only drink when there's a good song on the radio or your dad just punched your dog. Since I won't do the second thing here's a perfect song to drink to from the lips of Willie Nelson.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Living Dungeon

Old Man in Armchair II by Rembrandt

-- From the journal of Ingacio the Elder, discoverer of the most magnificent Dungeon in the history of man. 

Damn you!

I can still smell your fetid odor and hear the omnipresent dripping of water against stone.You haunt my dreams and I find thoughts of you creeping through my waking moments like daydreams from some long-forgotten devil tempting my soul away. If beseeching your better angels would drive you away I would gladly do so; but we both know better. It is clear that you delight in torturing my soul and twisting the corners of my vision with glimpses of your deadly corridors. My every foot step is but one step closer to death and even in the sanctity of my own home thoughts of you haunt me. 

My wife left me. She couldn't compete with you. My children no longer speak to me and I have lost all that is precious and true in this life due to thoughts of you and I curse the day that I first wondered down your perilous halls!

Lo! I remember it well! There I stumbled along, my feeble torchlight struggling against the pressing gloom. I had fallen. For how long I cannot remember, but when I awoke I was well and truly within your bosom. Far above me - so far that even Jacob's ladder could not reach its height - was salvation. Fear clutched at my heart as I stood there listening to your breath and the steady drip, drip, drip of your salivating maw.

Time stood still as I lingered praying for salvation to come and then my feet found the ground again and I ran. I ran with all the speed that was in my body round corner and bend, past foul goblin and murderous kobold. I ran till my muscles burned and my bones felt as though they would burst. Then I fell against the statue with its cruel and twisted visage. It was then that all my manhood left me and I trembled for I knew you would soon claim me. Tears flowed down my cheek and with the last guttering embers of my torch visions of my two little children danced in the darkness.

Some time later, I can not even begin to fathom how long, a light began to burn against the dark. I tried to call out to it, but my throat was dry and tongue cracked. I tried to stand, to run towards salvation, but my legs failed me and I crumpled to the ground. So I crawled, digging my nails into the cracks of your broken floor. The light was growing nearer, and I could hear voices in the distance. My fingers bleed and my vision blurred; it was then I heard you clearly for the first time. Your voice ground against my soul and crushed my hopes as you spoke. "Funny little man-thing," your voice rumbled, "you're bleeding all over me."

"Stop your crawling and sniveling," you shouted! "For I have answered your prayers and allowed salvation to find its way to you. Look at the light and know that it is I who have answered you. I who have allowed you to live these many days and shielded  you from my servants that hunger so. And it is I who will claim your soul when the time comes.

"For now though, go with these 'adventurers' and return home. Home where you shall tell the world of Me. Tell them of My wonders and of the glory in plumbing my depths. Of the ancient vaults filled with golden treasure and the slumbering God resting in My bowels. Spread the word far throughout the world so that I may feast."

And did I spread your word, you damnable dungeon?

Of course I did.

You filled my mind with visions of gold, piles of jewels and priceless baubles. My tongue was not my own as I told and retold of the limitless wealth within to every passing fool. I was compelled to sojourn to churches, temples, and shrines leaving tales of the Slumbering God with every step and built a new faith around You. And now you feast.

Thousands have died within your halls and the few who have made it out spread your Word more with every passing day. Damn you for this cursed life, damn you for the lives that you've led me to ruin. Damn you.

-- Ignacio the Elder

Creative Commons License
The Living Dungeon, and A letter from Ignacio the Elder by Charles Akins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

When the Game Goes Wrong, and You Just Don't Care.

There are times when I'm running Dungeons and Dragons and things just don't seem to go right. Maybe it's that the players are having an off day, maybe it's me. Either way, when those occasions happen, this is how I feel.

Toddy the Body for the win kids.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Does Anyone Remember Playing Red Steel?


I've been reading and loving the Red Steel campaign setting for the last little bit but I don't remember ever hearing of anyone that played it. The setting has some of the coolest ideas I've seen in a published setting to date. Best I can tell there were only two or three publications for the setting and I'm at a loss as to why it would be skipped over.

So I'm looking for some answers. Has anyone out there ever played in it? What were the weaknesses of the setting and its strengths? Any fond memories? And most importantly did it kick ass or did it suck?

The Goblin in the Corner

Tyler The Creator - Goblin Green by smcveigh92

The setup to the encounter
After exploring a Wizard's tower the party comes to a small stone room fifteen feet deep and four feet wide. There is a closed door leading to a room on the left about five feet into the room and along the length of the room are small holes spaced approximately two feet from each other running horizontally down the center of the left wall. Hanging against the back wall is a tanned hide and a long, poorly constructed table runs the length of the wall. A single candle, sputtering its last few breaths of life, sits in the center of the table surrounded by bits of parchment. In the back corner of the room stands a lone goblin. He wears a flimsy tin crown, his clothes are tattered, and about his waist hangs a moldy belt with several bulging pouches. In his hand is a cruel black blade and as the party spots him it becomes apparent that he's already aware of their approach.
I've run a variation of this encounter five times over the last decade and each time the players ignored the clattering of glass, presumed the goblin 'king' was alone and not a threat, and did not worry about why he was present, in spite of the fact that this was an encounter for a group of tenth level characters. Each time I've run this encounter he managed to kill at least two of the player characters and on one occasion he actually managed to wipe the field.

What makes this encounter so dangerous is that the goblin king is played to the hilt. If you hold back at all in this encounter it becomes an automatic win for the players. Resist that urge.

Everything in the room is designed to give him the advantage. The space is cramped, his weapon is poisoned, and his pouches are filled with magical and alchemical potions to give him the edge in this tight spot. Behind him, concealed from the player's view, is a low hanging bell that the goblin will kick when the players enter the room and get five feet past the door on the left which will draw ten additional goblins into the room from the side room (consider this a readied action as he was already aware of the players' presence). The holes on the left side of the wall are positioned so that the five remaining goblins in the side room can shoot poisoned darts at the players.

If the players choose to speak with the goblin instead of automatically attacking him, he will lie to them at every opportunity and tell them that he will gladly lead them to the Wizard. "After all," he'll say, "no one hates that Wizard more than we goblins. He's vile, treats us terribly, and is an all around a punk-ass." Instead of leading them to the Wizard he will lead them to the most powerful monster on the level, gathering all the other monsters the party encounters on the way to help 'defeat' the Wizard. When the most powerful monster is located he will be introduced as the Wizard's 'guardian' and will be described as loyal to the death so that the players will have to enter into combat with him. Once the players have fully engaged with this 'guardian' for two rounds all the gathered monsters will attack the party making full use of the party's surprise. 

I have only seen goblin king and his entire cadre of goblins killed early once; when a lawful good cleric attempted negotiations and got him to bring out his cohorts as the goblin king attempted to establish the bigger ambush. Once the goblins were all out in the main room the party's wizard dropped a fireball in the room killing them all, and severely wounding the cleric, who was finished off by the rogue. When asked why they killed all the goblins and the cleric the wizard responded, "He looked shifty and I think that cleric's a fucking doppelganger and working with him. How much experience did we get?"

It didn't help that she was right.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

DnD Next: Thoughts on When Demons Intrude by James Wyatt

Yesterday I discussed the most recent Legends and Lore column, Monsters and Stories by Mike Mearls (you can read that article at DnD Next: Ruminations on Monsters and Stories). Today I’m following that up by discussing the interconnected article, When Demons Intrude by James Wyatt.
 “. . . Today, I want to talk about a story element that has cropped up a couple of times in our discussions. Basically, we want to make it very clear in the story of the D&D worlds that when demons enter the world, it's a Bad Thing—and when demon princes enter the world, they leave a stain that will never be removed . . .” (When Demons Intrude)
It’s really interesting to note the change in tone from the previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons and the newest version of the game. In older editions demons happened. They attacked your party, corrupted good non-player characters, and plotted the downfall of your group; but there was no long term effect to the demon’s incursion into the world – unless they never left.

Lots of examples exist in the established game worlds where demon incursions meant that one side had gained an incredibly powerful ally, but their presence wasn’t a blight on the land. In Greyhawk, for example, Iuz the Old not only summoned demons to fight for his side in the Greyhawk wars, but he is a Cambion (half-demon) and has been a long term character in the game world without the sort of world corrupting effect that is going to be happening in the new system.

Which begs the question, is Wizards going to create a mechanic to undo the corrupting effects of a demon’s incursion into the Prime Material Plane?
“. . . A variety of summoning spells throughout the game's history has allowed spellcasters to bring creatures from the elemental and Outer Planes to the Material Plane. That's a part of D&D history we want to keep, for sure, and we're not particularly excited about having people summon celestial badgers or fiendish piranhas. We think calling a creature from the Outer Planes, particularly, should be a pretty big deal, and it should get you a recognizable celestial or fiend—something you can find in the Monster Manual without adding a template . . .” (When Demons Intrude)
That’s an interesting change and it certainly seems to make the use of the Summoning spells far more powerful than in previous versions of the game. The implications of making the spell that much more powerful are tantalizing.

I wonder if this will make using Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa easier? That would definitely make the game weirder and far more dangerous . . . I’m for it.
“. . . But summoning a vrock or a bone devil is not easy. Well, bringing a devil to you isn't necessarily hard, but getting it to do what you want it to do is trickier—you need to give it something as well. And summoning a demon requires a messy blood sacrifice, so you're not going to do it unless you're really evil. It's easier to bring something like a modron or slaad, a yugoloth, or a gehreleth (demodand), and there are fewer strings attached.
 
So you know that when an evil cult is working to bring a demon prince into the world, there's going to be a lot of slaughter even before the demon shows up. And the results aren't going to be pleasant . . .” (When Demons Intrude)
So far I’m really liking the implications that this line of thinking has for the game. Your evil cults are going to be a lot darker and more deadly and that can only make your players that much more heroic as they actively seek to thwart those vile bastards.

Again, I’m for it.
“. . . Ages ago, in some Prime Material world that is long gone and all but forgotten, a group of mad cultists succeeded in opening a gate to the 422nd layer of the Abyss and brought forth Yeenoghu. With a single sweep of his multiheaded flail, the demon prince annihilated the cultists, now useless to him, and he set out on a rampage of destruction and slaughter.

Nothing could stand against his terrible might. Packs of wild hyenas trailed in his wake, keeping a safe distance but feasting on the carrion he left behind. The more they ate, the stronger and bolder they grew, and Yeenoghu soon had a wild horde of demonic hyenas hunting at his side.

At last, somehow, his wild rampage was stopped. Some legends say that it was Yondalla, of all people, who stood up to him, countering his desolation with her abundance and his slaughter with her bounteous life. Whoever it was, Yeenoghu was defeated and sent back to the Abyss with his tail between his legs, and his pack of demonic hyenas went with him.

The last of the hyenas, though—those that had not yet grown large and strong enough to fight at their master's side—feasted on the gore left behind in the great battle between Yeenoghu and his opponent. These hyenas were transformed, gaining a shard of the demon prince's cunning and savagery and changing into his physical image.

They became gnolls.

Although they were originally contained to that one Prime Material world, they spread like a plague and infected nearly every known world of the D&D multiverse.

And let that be a lesson: When a demon prince enters the world, no world is untouched by its corruption . . .” (When Demons Intrude)
Not so sure that I like this narrative for the creation of Gnolls but it’s as good as any other I suppose. I think that I would like it better if there was less ambiguity and more certainty in the story. A deity performing such a heroic act should be remembered and not forgotten.

The ambiguity speaks too much for the limited impact of our actions and too much for the actions of evil.
“. . . Long ago, a cult of Orcus almost succeeded in bringing Orcus into the land of Vaasa, in the Forgotten Realms setting. (This saga is told in a strange series of adventures: H1, Bloodstone Pass; H2, Mines of Bloodstone; H3, Bloodstone Wars; and H4, Throne of Bloodstone, all published in 1985–88. Strange because H1 featured large-scale combat using the Battlesystem rules, and H4 was ostensibly for characters level 18–100.) The spirit of Orcus possessed a duergar and ravaged an entire city of svirfneblin before it was destroyed. But Orcus remained a threat, with a gate to his home in the Abyss remaining and his cultists working to bring him bodily into the world. 

They did not succeed, but Vaasa was never the same. Though its Witch-King was defeated and the hordes of humanoids, undead, and demons that served him were routed, the demonic influence of Orcus is still felt to this day. The ruined Castle Perilous, once the home of the Witch-King, has recently sloughed off its façade of ancient, crumbling stone and re-emerged as a sleek and dark edifice, shimmering with black runes.

It is even possible that the dreaded Warlock Knights of Vaasa, ostensibly powered by a metal they call ironfell, harvested from the regenerating body of a fallen primordial, are not entirely free from Orcus's lingering influence. Perhaps Orcus's power drew Telos to Vaasa, or it could be his will, not that of some inert primordial, that exerts itself through the strange ironfell. . .” (When Demons Intrude)
Now this is a far better narrative to use in a Dungeons and Dragons game then the previous one suggested. All the best elements are there and it’s got me flipping through those modules wondering if maybe I should start running them on my birthday.

A much better ending then where we started but a lot of questions are left unanswered. I’ll have to ruminate on them over the course of the remainder of the week to see if I fully like the implications of this article.

What do you think?

Let's Make Something Challenging Together

The more that I've thought about creating a 30 Day Challenge list the more that I've become serious about actually doing it; and a...