Shadow over Alfheim, Part One – Sigyfel’s Tomb –

I kicked off my B/X game on monday. It’s been the first time in several years that I had DMed, and the rust was apparent, though I feel like I did a lot better than I’d worried I would.

I only had two players, which in a B/X game that was going to primarily use OSR modules dropped into a custom campaign setting made things difficult. We were supposed to have at least a 3rd person, which would’ve been significantly improved the party’s chances against tougher foes, but she forgot that we were gaming(despite the fact that we held the game monday to specifically accommodate her, as she is leaving the country soon, to the expense of two other potential players) on monday/had a nasty argument with the host about the benefits, or lack thereof, gluten-free foods possess for individuals who do not have coeliac disease and was too butt-hurt come over and play. This made having Sigyfel’s Tomb a real blessing, because as piddly as this Labyrinth Lord one-sheet is, it is almost perfectly balanced for a party of two.

The guy whose first game it was as B/X played as a fighter. It took a bit longer to roll up a character than I initially thought, but he was ultimately impressed with the simplicity of the system, especially when compared to a 3.5 Gestalt build. The older gent decided to play as a Cleric, because a party that small needs two decently capable fighters and some spellcasting/healing ability. Plus turning. Of course, being a medieval scholar of history, religion and language makes him both a natural choice for a party cleric, making him the intellectual and moral center of parties much in the same way that he is the intellectual and moral center of our town’s larger gaming group. So, Sven and Cynewulf make their way into the wilds of Alfheim under the patronage of Lord Kadesh Richmond.

One of the first things I discovered was that despite the detail I’d put into my world, it was still a bit too shallow in some regards, namely in terms of local cults and religions, so I had to come up with a number of things on the fly as best I could.

While I wanted my world to be a sandbox, I made the mistake of introducing too much, too soon, including things I was not really prepared to cope with, given the party’s makeup. The setup for Sigyfel’s tomb involved a run-in with the wife of the victim, lamenting her husband’s fate in the farm fields just outside of Alfort (in most but name). The hook worked both too effectively and somewhat ineffectively. Their initial instinct was to go straight to the tomb at nightfall, but they decided to check in at town first. This worked out, because it gave the widow a chance to collect her thoughts and approach the cleric in the morning with more coherent information about the tomb and a request that someone help put an end to the evil that plagues the farmers.

My new fighter learned how to map OSR style. He had some trouble at first, but I was patient, helped him and even corrected him in a few places. In this, Sigyfel’s tomb was good because it was a simple and more or less symetrical map. They came in, got hit by the pendulum trap for minor damage. I made a few rulings about it, since it’s not well described in the module, that it could either be spiked or they could simply walk under it in the future.

While they were messing around with a door on the west wing, a pair of skeletons showed up. They did some very minor damage, and the cleric turned them. The skeletons ran and got clocked by the pendulum. It was a nice moment. They found the secret door with the stash of silver, but poked around long enough that rats appeared in the bolts of rotting silk; they failed to do any damage and after two of them were squished, they ran off (“I don’t think they’re going to run and warn anyone”). I hesitated to have the skeletons in the sarcophagi animate immediately, and maybe I shouldn’t have, but it worked out nicely; the PCs said “There’s nothing worth fighting for in here”, so they spiked the door shut, sealing the angry skeletons inside.

When they tried the locked door toward the tomb in the central tunnel (there are two locked doors and no key in the module; this could have been a bigger problem than it was), the fighter decided to bash the door down. I decided that this loud bashing attracted the attention of the evil cleric’s two orc body-guards from the east wing, who attacked and were promptly dispatched (one killed, the other fled and got an arrow through the neck) after doing minimal damage. The module says that if the Cleric’s body-guards are killed, he should try to flee. The problem with this is that he really doesn’t have anywhere to run. So, I decided that after his body guards were killed, the players find him kneeling in supplication, begging for his life. This gave me an interesting and fun roleplaying opportunity.

This guy has no motivation or story or even name given in the module, yet unless the dungeon is being run for a single hero, there’s no reason he won’t promptly surrender. A level one evil cleric by himself is hardly even a cleric at all. So, I decided that he was actually a mad-man, who had been instructed in a dream to come here and pray for the return of the big-bad’s lieutenants. It involved lots of mad ramblings and was a lot of fun. It also let me get away with not having the overall plan fleshed out yet; this guy is too low on the totem pole to have any idea what the big-bad is up to. He’s taken prisoner, tied up, and given a key (so the players can unlock the doors) on his person that wasn’t from the module.

They open the first locked door. And here’s where I had one of my first real dungeon problems: how to describe a room that stepping into triggers a trap. Do I describe the room first or activate the trap and then describe the room? They clearly would see the room before they went inside. It’s kind of a flow-thing. Anyway, the room is oddly shaped, and though it has some description to it, nothing in it is important, except for the trap. So, I just sprang the trap and treated it like a normal hall.

They opened the second locked door and entered the burial chamber. There are three really evil looking statues here, and it was fun to watch the players panic thinking that they would surely spring to life. They ultimately decided that opening the sarcophagus would be a bad idea (and it probably would have; I’m not sure they could have survived the ghoul unless I ruled that it would not use paralysis with its attacks) and made a pretty cool roleplaying choice. They dragged the evil cleric back to Alfort and turned him over to the Magistrate. The Magistrate thanks them for their service, informs them that the cleric will be tried for murder, attempted murder, assault, diablerie and Medism, and will dispatch a company of local constabulary to investigate and cleanup the crime scene. The next day, the party heads to the tomb, and are pleasantly surprised to find that everything is under control. Two guards are posted outside, the dead orcs have had their equipment seized, and the party finds a few of the guards smashing the evil statues, burning what’s left of Sigyfel, and tending to the two wounded guards who are suffering from ghoul paralysis. The cleric uses his one spell (I let them start at level 2, since it would be cruel to run a game for two people at that low a level) to heal one of the two guards. My older player remarks happily that in all of his years of playing D&D, he’d never been in a game where he’d been able to call the cops before.

My problem was that I didn’t do a chapter end right away (partly because I wasn’t aware of the time). I’d created too many things for them to be interested in checking out that I either was not ready to run yet or would need to significantly re-balance given the party’s extremely low cumulative hit-dice. Already they were interested in checking out the Zombraire’s Estate (undead farm animals was too juicy a rumor to pass up), and they were about to start exploring the Old Island Fortress (though they’d been instructed not to by their patron’s solicitor “You were just hired; the last thing Lord Richmond wants is for you to get yourselves killed before he gets any work out of you”), where they would’ve promptly been torn apart by wolves. I’m mad at myself for not giving myself a better out and for making my invisible walls too visible. I wouldn’t have had to do it if I’d ended my session sooner, or at least been able to do the time-skip to make things feel less rushed (the first letter said to expect orders in 5 days, the orders came the following day, delivered hastily by a messenger who basically said ‘the plot is over here, sorry but you haven’t got into sand-box territory yet’; i’m not proud of it). But, they wanted to keep on going, and really, I wanted to oblige.

They got their instructions to seek out Laws End so that they might run the Blueholme Maze of Nuromen module. Their instructions in the letter were to “Find a certain book” I had to come up with the contents of the letter on the fly, and really it wasn’t one of my finer moments. “What book is it?! The letter doesn’t say what book we’re even looking for!” The solicitor’s(my) oversight was thankfully forgiven, and the pair were off in search of Law’s End. This led to a fun encounter at a crossroads, where a bard was noodling and giving cryptic answers about the return of the elves. I don’t know if the fact that he was there at the crossroads to sell his soul to evil elves to play better lute was lost on my players or not, but it was still a fun encounter to roleplay. Another nice little set piece, and I don’t know if it was effective or not, but I liked it, was outside of Laws End, when a procession of ghost elves carrying a dead king on a bier marched past, through the valley and off into the mountains.

My players made it into the entrance of the dungeon when i realized that it was time that I had to call it a night.

I had a blast, and despite my mistakes, I think my players had fun too.

As for Sigyfel’s Tomb, I give it a 4/5. There’s really very little substance to it, and it will take some work adding your own details, unless you’re running it as a board-game style encounter, but it worked really well for a tiny party and someone almost completely a novice to old-school style tabletop rpgs. The main changes I would recommend would be removing the pendulum trap altogether, naming the cleric and give him some sort of reason for being in the tomb, and adding an encounter in room 4. In some ways, the tomb itself is too small to justify having random encounters; the tomb itself is at most two-three times as big as a house and is actually set up kind of like a tomb, rather than a crazy non-sense dungeon maze. Overall, though, I was happy that I had something that I could run that wasn’t too hard for new players to map or for two pcs to fight through.

After I run Maze of Nuromen, I’ll do a write up about that one as well. While i initially loved it upon reading it, I’m now feeling a bit wary about actually running it. A lot of the rooms have a LOT going at once, and my fear is that I’ll fail to describe some important aspect of a room because it is buried in the description. The one advantage of having block-text is that it give you an idea of what your players see vs. any mechanical interactibles in the room. It’ll be a tour de force, but I think if I study it hard enough and do some highlighting, I can run the module with a decent modicum of competence.

Update: Note that the module’s actual name is “The Tomb of Sigyfel”.

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Shadow Over Alfheim

So, the 3.5e Gestalt campaign seems to be sputtering out, giving me the opportunity to swoop in and run some B/X dungeon crawls. In honor and maybe memorium of the stalled Shadow Over Beryl campaign, I’m calling this Shadow Over Alfheim.

I’ve pretty much just dropped a handful of OSR dungeons in a custom setting loosely based on Morgansfort, which allows me use of some of those dungeons as well as all the others. I’m trying to prepare for anything I can, since I’d like to be able to sandbox it and keep it an ‘open’ campaign, so I’ve written up rumor cards, have a location flowchart, and a nice little intro blurb:

“Alfheim lays in ruins. The humans who live there now call it the Wilds. A few coastal towns and strongholds flourish, but the shadow of bygone ages lies over the land. Those who do not live behind walls still feel the menacing presence of lingering magics and the stench of death that wafts from the old places. The Elves of Alfheim were a foul and decadent lot by the end of their history. Too much dabbling in the black arts, orgiastic debaucheries, and worship of foul unearthly powers brought a swift and unpleasant end to their dark revelries. While semi-nomadic greenskins are known to inhabit the Wilds, occassionally claiming castles, caerns and crypts as their own, the men and women who eek out their existence from the land have found that it is easier to live with their demi-human neighbors than the ghosts of the past.

Doing various odd-jobs around Portsdam may have finally paid off. Kadesh Richmond, a person of some import has caught wind of your names and contacted you via his solicitor. While his affairs keep him largely occupied in the port city at the northern edge of the Wilds, he has business interests he wishes to develop in Alfort and is seeking agents who would be willing to participate in a profitable venture. The solicitor informs you that Kadesh will cover your expenses for food and equipment as well as grant you each a retainer stipend of 100 gold per month. All you need to do is accompany a few wagons with some cargo and capital from Portsdam south to Alfort. It’s just one week, and once you reach Alfort, you’ll be given apartments, paid for by your benefactor. Once things start to solidify in Alfort, there may be more work for you.”

Here are the rumor cards:

-Some Goblins would like to set up a toll along the road between Portsdam and Alfort as it passes through their territory.
-No One has heard anything from the Village of Gernauch for a month.
-There’s enough Elf magic lying around Alfheim to destroy the world twice-over.
-It’s not the Elves you need to worry about, it’s the Gremlins.
-Alfheim is crawling with undead; they have to come from somewhere.
-The Elves of Alfheim were a completely different race of beings altogether than the “Elves”(PC elves) from across the seas.
-There are no such thing as Elves.
-There are no such thing as Vampires.
-Dozens die every year trying to explore the old fort. While the city has not outlawed attempts to explore it, they strongly recommend against it.
-If Elves could be vampires, we might all be doomed.
-Merchants would like to see Alfort build a harbor to reduce the need for using roads through Goblin territory or pass too close to Elven ruins.
-Worshipping Dark Gods may have turned Sigyfel into a Lich. True or not, Farmers around Alfort shudder when they hear his name.
-There’s a beautiful sorceress named Merilla who has a tower in the Wilds, but no one has seen her in awhile.
-There was an Elven King named Calden who once may have controlled all of Alfheim, before even Laws End Fell into decadence. His wickedness may have started Alfheim on its self-destructive decline. His tomb is somewhere deep in the wilds, but no one is sure where.
-The old Elven Town of Laws End was destroyed and cursed in some sort of Cataclysm. Its lord, an elf-mage named Nuromen, was said to be exceptionally depraved.
-Stull is an unhappy place made worse by kids who obsess over the ancient Elves.
-Milk from Zombie cows can’t be good for you.
-All of the old Elves of Alfheim are dead. Too bad they don’t stay that way.
-Too many mages in the Wilds are obsessed with old Elven magic.
-Some Punk Kid has figured out how to become a Lich.
-Some tribes of Orcs have been known to be led by women.
-Things are so bad in the Wild that there are entire plantations of undead.
-Somewhere there’s an abandoned keep where lights are seen and a strange gibbering noise fills the valley at night.
-There’s a haunted tomb just Northwest of Alfort.

I’m also using Zenopus Archives’ Adventurer/class packs (or at least a variation on them) to help quickstart everyone’s characters.

A Post about the Future

Every so often one still comes across some post bemoaning the death of the OSR. They’ve slowed to a trickle by the end of this year, but every once in awhile some guy gets all weepy about the Grognardia archives or something.  Consider the Dyvers list, which shows that there are still hundreds of blogs out there. Sure, several of them may be “going dark”, but for every gaming blog that has died, there are dozens of others still going strong.

I think that people confusingly correlated the publication of clones to the community as a whole when they proclaimed the OSR is dead.

There IS a decline in the publication of new clones & “OSR Heartbreakers”. A big part of this is that there are already LOTS of good OSR Clones and OSR Retro systems out there already to choose from. I would not go so far as to say that the market is saturated, but between Basic Fantasy RPG, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princes, Blueholme, ACKS, BBRPG, DCC and several other acronyms I’m forgetting, chances are most gamers are going to find what they like without having to go out of their way to write a new system. Add to that that Wizards finally reprinted darn near every edition that the OSR draws from, and you’ve got choices gallore! And I’m pretty sure that Pathfinder and the plethora of d20 stuff has the 3e crowd sufficiently covered until the end of days.

There has been some backlash caused by a number of kickstarter debacles, including games that funded but were never delivered and established gaming companies using it essentially as a pre-order system (which was NOT its original intent), but that doesn’t mean that there are suddenly less people out there gaming. Just less people taking a chance on developing new systems for which there is shrinking demand, simply because people don’t have time to run all the games they have, much less try out new ones.

So, where does the community go from here? Obviously, modules for existing systems will be where the bulk of creative energy will be directed. Most of these will not be so ambitious as to need kickstarter, but you’ll find some good ones out there hosted on blogs or at DriveThruRPG. Interestingly enough, 4e will be the final frontier for the OSR, as long as we’re talking about retro-clones. As Wizards drops support for the red-headed step-child of D&D, I predict that in 2014 we’re likely going to see some reimaginings of the 4e system.

Plus, all of the above assumes that gaming is limited to the D&D sphere, which it most certainly is not.

Generic Dungeons and Some Oblivion Inspiration

I’ve recently been playing a lot of Oblivion, continuing the adventures of Mr. Pants. I just finished re-running the Shivering Isles expansion, and Mr. Pants has has returned to Cyrodiil to continue his misadventures in the great green fishbowl. Since his return, not a lot exciting has happened. At level 5, he was impressively able to kill Umbra and take her stuff with the help of a handful of clanfears (nothing like being able to send a demonic raptor dinosaur thing after low-level enemies) and finding a nice ledge to shoot down at her from. But that’s really been about it. I’ve run through a couple of the generic dungeons, and the dungeons of Shivering Isles only serve to reinforce how generic they are.

The average non-quest related dungeon in Oblivion is 1-4 levels of cave, mine, castle or elf-crypt. There is a specific “type” that is randomly drawn from based on your level, and generic randomly spawning chests. Nothing to write home about. There are a few non-quest places that have a little bit of flavor, like Goblin Jim’s cave (a generic goblin cave that has a crazy naked dude who lives with goblins) and the elven ruin that was destroyed by some sort of flood, but for the most part, there’s not a lot going on and you’re not going to find anything of interest.

Shivering Isle, on the other hand, with a few exceptions, has some interesting and rewarding stuff even in dungeons that aren’t quest-related, some of which would be a great inspiration for some table-top games. Now, I can’t remember their names, but a few descriptions should suffice:

-A family tomb that has become an obsession. I’ve always said that I’m fascinated with cursed and haunted tombs in RPGs, how they began as normal tombs and what the transition ot a cursed/haunted tomb must have been like. One of the most interesting Shivering Isles dungeons, Ebrocca I think it is called, is a look at a tomb that is nearing the end of its transition from normal family tomb to crazy cursed haunted tomb. The patriarch of a family has become obsessed with building his family tomb so that it will stand for all time and be a sanctuary for the family dead forever, so he fills it with all kinds of traps and apparently curses as well. His relatives have expressed concern, the tomb is far too dangerous for the family to actually visit, and the traps and curses actually lead to the death of a number of said family members. To top it off, the crazy patriarch has made himself immortal so he can guard the inner sanctum of the tomb for all time.

-A cult of poets have found an awesome ruined subterranean amphitheatre and had a great idea: kidnap people, give them anything they desired, and then have them compete in poetry and playwriting. Of course, the people who are kidnapped are all in a panic and think that they’re going to be forced to fight each other to the death. Instead of asking for the luxuries the cult are willing to provide, the prisoners ask for weapons and end up trying to kill each other. The cult of poets panic and hole themselves up, hiding because “oh, god, these people are crazy and are going to kill us!”.

-A young man convinces his wife to leave the big city behind and go live in a cave. Not just any cave, but a wonderful, beautiful cave that has everything they’d ever need! Unfortunately, the cave is lonely and the wife wants to leave. Eventually, the young man relents and lets his wife go off to return to the city, but she gets hurt and killed trying to flee a dangerous animal in the cave. Now, in the game, you only find the woman’s corpse, and the husband is programmed to immediately attack, so as far as that goes, it’s a set-piece and is a little disappointing in how it plays out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for some inspiration.

These would make for GREAT adventures, or at least offer a lot to pull from. The vanilla Oblivion dungeons, though, can’t help but make me think of the Labyrinth Lord Gibbering Tower, which is a non-descript ruin with some rather vile monsters and no worthwhile reward. The best way to win is to avoid the place completely.*

Now, it is time for the irony of this ‘generic’ dungeon complaint to show itself. I’m setting aside Mr. Pants for a bit to start playing Elona again.

*:Gibbering Tower, it should be noted is one-page dungeon and a con-module.

The Dungeons & Dragons Movie (and Why the “Rights” Dispute is Stupid)

Why is it significant that there are now talks about Warner Brothers making a Dungeons & Dragons movie? And now Hasbro is claiming that they have a deal with Universal.

First, I’d like to put forward the incredibly heathen idea that the first Dungeons & Dragons movie is not as terrible as most people say it was. When I saw it in theaters ages ago, it was just me, my mom (I was 16), and some fatbeard. While it was not remarkable or amazing, it was fairly entertaining, I enjoyed it well enough. After the movie, the fatbeard went on about how horrible it was and how they got everything from D&D wrong and such. Now, given further retrospect, I know one thing to be true and another highly likely to be true: Dungeons & Dragons was one of the better movies Marlon Wayans has been in and if the Dungeons & Dragons movie had be called “Final Fantasy” and Final Fantasy: Spirits Within had been called anything else, there would be a lot less butthurt nerds in the world.

Okay, that’s out of the way.

D&D is the Kleenex of the RPG world, at least as far as non-gamers or casual gamers are concerned. To the non-gaming world, playing any sort of tabletop roleplaying game that isn’t LARP fodder is “Playing D&D”. However, the OSR movement has made this true among gamers as well. “Playing D&D” can mean playing Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, Blueholme, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or, god forbid, actual, literal, published by the company that also gave us Littlest Pet Shop, Dungeons & Dragons! And really, those Retro-Clones pretty much are Dungeons & Dragons, with the name replaced and a handful of writers’ favorite homebrew mechanics and pet rules codified. For awhile, I was really confused about what Pathfinder was, but oh, hey, turns out it’s Dungeons & Dragons.

So, why bother with fighting over the Dungeons & Dragons name & licence for a movie? Clearly the gaming community has moved beyond caring whether the trademark name is slapped across something. They already know what’s up. Anyone could make a Dungeons & Dragons movie pretty much the same way anyone can make a Dungeons & Dragons retro-clone: strip out the names and product identity. Everything else can be done with a wink and a nod. Don’t call your movie Dungeons & Dragons and don’t base it on published books and settings. Fill it with dangers, monsters, magic, and, of course, dragons. Give your wizards Vancian magic and familiar spells (“Magic missile!”). It’s cool. We’ll know it’s Dungeons & Dragons.  But you can stick a copy of the OGL in the credits if you must.

Looking for Art for Towers of Dream + Campaign Prep!

Well, I’m finally on track to getting Towers of Dream play-tested. I’ve got my first player and we’re looking  to round out the rest of the group. It might not be the best test environment, since I’m incorporating it into a bigger campaign, but it’s better than nothing!

In the meantime, I might be looking for two or three pieces of original artwork for a published version, so if anyone might be interested in that, let me know, and maybe we can work something out.

As for the campaign I’m looking at running, I’ve cobbled together a hodge-podge of OSR modules, created a subway-system style map of how the hubs dungeons/modules are connected in a vague geographic sense, and a flimsy meta-narrative to drive the plot.

In summary, the adventure region was once an ancient, and very evil, elven empire where Necromancy and debauchery were the watchwords of the day. Necromancy seems to be coming back into vogue, a local wizard is thought to have become a lich (he hasn’t), tombs and towers of old elven necromancers seem to be stirring again, and no one really knows why. Turns out, a particularly wicked elf figured out how to surmount OD&D’s level cap: Become a vampire. I figure that as much as I love liches, they’re kind of played out (yeah, I know Vampires are pretty played out, too, but definitely not in high fantasy). Having a 10th level elf become a vampire will definitely pose some unusual challenges and create a truly unique and dangerous foe. I feel that a vampire’s powers make him an even more formidable enemy than a lich, if for no other reason than he can so easily come and go (combine living appearance & charm vs shambling skeleton wizard) and is harder to destroy (unless he’s Voldemort, a lich will have one phylactery, whereas a Vampire may have crates of earth hidden all over the place, especially if he is planning something big.) I might post some more high level vampires later.

So far, what I’m looking at is:
Morgansfort (Basic Fantasy Roleplaying) – as a hub city, plus some nice dungeons to act as time sinks while the enemy puts his plans in motion.
Sigyfel’s Tomb (Labyrinth Lord) – A nice warm-up, I think
Nuromen’s Maze (Blueholme) – See evil + elves + necromancy. I don’t think it’s stated if Nuromen’s an elf, but hey, why not?
Towers of Dream (ME!)
Gibbering Tower (Labyrinth Lord) – A crappy dungeon with no real way to win or worthwhile treasure? Well, that’s because the big bad already hit the place first and found what he wanted!
Merilla’s Magic Tower (BFR Adventure Anthology) – Either the bad guys get some legendary weapons, or the good guys get the means to stop him.
The Zombraire’s Estate (BFR AA) – A fully operating undead plantation totally fits the necromancy theme. (This is probably my favorite mini-adventure from the BFR Anthology)
Deathcrypt of Khaldhun (BFR AA) – High level undead monsters + a high level macguffin? I think this fits.
Night of the Necromancer (BFR AA) – Just need to tweak it so the necromancers in question are subordinate to the big bad.
Crooked Rock Tower (BFR, Fortress, Tomb & Tower) – This one is a maybe. I don’t know how I feel about incorporating the Lizard men, but it’s a cool dungeon that could be played a lot of ways in this setting.

Free OSR Module: Towers of Dream

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block as far as Cirsova is concerned, but maybe this little effort will help me break through it.  Over the last week or so, I ticked out a little module called The Towers of Dream.  It’s a nightmare themed module for low level parties.  There are some puzzles, non-euclidean geometry, and some really creepy monsters.  It’s generalized enough that you can plop it into any setting or any system (though I did you Labyrinth Lord to roughly stat out some monsters).

Right now, Towers of Dream is kind of in a rough draft state, and I do intend to polish it up quite a bit before I’m done, but for now, I’m going ahead and posting what I have.  I’d love to get some feedback on it.

You can download Towers of Dream here.