Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A 5e Must-Buy: Fortress of the Ur-Mage

"The Ur-Mage opens the doors of his Fortress once each decade, allowing the heroes and demigods of the realm to enter."

With the advent of the 5e SRD and DMs Guild, the 3rd party floodgates have been opened. There was already a ton of stuff coming out anyway, but in the scant few months that DMs Guild has been up, there are over 1000 3rd party offerings on that site alone already, with more being added every day. It is probably impossible to read it all, and keeping track of even the adventures seems like a full-time job (but thank you Merric!).

Anyway, how does one sift through all of this to find worthwhile products? For every interesting idea, safe bet, and no-brainer, there are one hundred or more complete and total mysteries, abject failures, and gross money-grabs. 

Well, I can at least point you to one product that I consider the first true 5e 3rd party "must-buy" that I have encountered. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of good stuff out there, but there is only one offering so far that I really think DMs should rush and buy immediately. And that would be Fortress of the Ur-Mage

From some of the minds that brought you 4thcore, this "tournament deathtrap dungeon" carries on their rich tradition of turning system assumptions upside down, shaking them, throttling them, then curb-stomping them into oblivion.

This is not an adventure made to gently insert into a campaign. This is a one-shot meant to test the mettle of even the most experienced players. This can be run in a tournament setting, with multiple tables attempting the dungeon at once, or with a single group. The party or parties score points based on how much they accomplish. You know that annoying thing where it is hard to gauge how long a one-shot might take? You won't experience that here. After five hours of play, finished or not, "a horde of summoned Spectral Death Knight Cavaliers atop fleshless horses" gallop through and slaughter the party. Kinky. Determined parties will want to try again and again to reach the final chamber.

This adventure is filled with all of the trappings we have come to expect from the 4thcore crew: fantastically grim set-piece encounters, a myriad of cruel and creative monsters, powerful and interesting magic items, and killer cartography and artwork. I was so pleased to see that the legendary Crypt Thing, Robert Waluchow, had done the maps and art for this. He is a great talent.

This thing comes with everything you need to get right to it: pregens, handouts, magic item cards, everything. Priced at a mere $6.66 (!), the value of what you get here puts a lot of 5e pricing to absolute shame.

If you are looking to run an event at a convention or if you have a group of seasoned players that think they have seen it all, you owe it to them to grind their bones into powder with this module.
Published by "DDE Adventures", it is unclear what future 5e plans these demented souls have in store for us, but follow them HERE to find out.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review: Tales From The Game Tavern #2

A while back I posted about how we are living in the golden age of the RPG zine, and the passing of time has only reinforced this view. It seems a week doesn't go by without some awesome new zine coming out.

I have been a fan of Grand DM's excellent Ultanya blog for quite some time, and it is great to see that he has thrown his hat into the zine ring. Today I thought I would take a look at issue #2 of Tales From The Game Tavern.

This is a holiday themed issue, but what with all the blizzards and snow going on, it still seems timely. There is a good bit of content for the price, with 28 pages of material (not including the cover). I enjoyed the variety, as you get class material, items, monster stuff, an adventure, as well as a recipe (!) in one issue.

Some of the material focuses around Krampus, which is nice and gameable. Highlights of the issue for me are a very nice hex crawl adventure, and "Krampusnacht Curios", some flavorful items that tykes might find in their shoes. These are minor enchanted items that eventually lose their powers; I like introducing things like that into my games, as they encourage use and do not affect long-term game balance.

An example of the high quality of the layout 

There is a "roast beast" soup recipe, the term taken from The Grinch that Stole Christmas, which I found a nice touch. It calls for a "turkey carcass". Yum...carcass!

This is a very creative and welcome addition to the burgeoning OSR zine scene. The stats provided are loose and generic, and thus fitting for any OSR game. Pick up one yourself and check back frequently at Ultanya to grab past and future issues.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Let's Read Polyhedron: Issue 3, Winter 1981-1982

If you would like to read previous installments of this series, just click the "Polyhedron" topic link down the right side of the blog.

So issue 3 is a double issue, coming in at 32 pages. It features an awesome Erol Otus cover. The ray gun hints at things to come in the issue.

The front end material consists of notes on the RPG Scholarship Fund, "White Rabbit", which basically apologizes for delays associated with the newsletter and modules, and a little forgettable Xmas fiction piece. Mentzer pens a short column that announces the newsletter will be going bi-monthly instead of quarterly. The Letters section is dominated by reader suggestions for future content.

Dispel Confusion has a couple of interesting bits. One, a question about clarifying the use of caltrops, which I certainly would have found helpful at a young age. Two, a question about surprise segments in 1e. Poor guy's party got surprised by a group of gargoyles, and using the 1e rules to the letter, it ended up being something like 40 attacks. Needless to say, it is a rule I am happy to see gone, one that I have never used anyway, and probably an unexpected rule interaction on Gygax's part (I hope).

The main article (foreshadowed by the cover) is a long interview with Jim Ward. It is worth tracking a copy down just to read this, especially if you are a fan of Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World, both of which are covered in detail. He tells the story of meeting Gygax, how MA came to be, and touches on his personal introduction to science fiction and gaming. One cool thing about reading these old newsletters is seeing products referenced that either never came to be, or came out years later in different forms. In the letters section, a "forthcoming" work on fantasy weapons is mentioned; here, Ward talks about a Gamma World box set, "Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega", which ended up as the title to the 2nd edition of MA in 1994.

There is a recap of a Fight in the Skies tournament, followed by a preview of the 7th edition (Dawn Patrol). 

Turnbull has a short opinion piece talking about the nature of hit points; you see many of these sorts of questions and debates even today, and I find them just as tedious. 

There is a piece on miniature painting, even though I have been told numerous times on the internet that nobody really used minis prior to 4e. Whoopsy daisy.

There is a convention recap with tourney winners listed.

There is a call for submissions to a Top Secret gadget contest, a bit on cryptograms and codes (frustrating, as you have to mail off for the keys to the coded messages provided), and some more miscellaneous info on RPGA memberships and product orders.

We get another readable collection of mutants from Jim Ward. I dig Fluter the Mutated Sun Fish. This is followed by another contest, this one for Gamma World artwork.

Notes for the Dungeon Master offers traps and tricks sent in by readers. They are mainly of the goofy variety, such as polymorphing the party into fat orcs while they are squeezing through a tight space. 

Spelling Bee spends a page and a half sucking the fun out of the invisibility spell. Worth reading just to feel good about your own campaign.

Saga of Marnie is a guest article by a contest winner and her GenCon experience. After a few upcoming convention dates, the issue is over.

The Ward interview more than makes up for the rest of this issue, and if you are interested in the early days of the hobby and how the first sci-fi games came to be, try to find a way to read it. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Secret of Cykranosh by Wayne Rossi

I first encountered Wayne Rossi on Google+ and immediately began following him based on a mutual adoration for the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I eventually got to game with him once (a fun OD&D dungeon crawl with Tekumel beasties), and I have enjoyed his Dungeon Crawl zines. When I noticed he had recently released an adventure in pay-what-you want format, I immediately downloaded it to check it out.

This is a short (6 pages) location-based adventure, ostensibly set in Hyperborea, although with minor tweaking it could be set in pretty much any fantasy setting. It is compatible with classic D&D editions and OSR games.

I am always in need of short, easy-to-prep adventures that I can drop into hexcrawls and sandbox environments, and this fits the bill perfectly. The referee can read and absorb this in less than an hour, and it should provide a good session's worth of gaming.

The first thing to catch your eye will likely be a great map by Dyson Logos, who never ceases to amaze. The adventure itself is interesting. There are a lot of cool encounters packed into this thing. There are idiosyncratic flourishes that I found pleasing. For example, found among a bandit treasure is the coffin of an orangutan corpse stolen from a carnie caravan.

Perhaps the module's greatest strength is that Rossi managed to develop two rival factions in such a short adventure. This raises the value, as different groups can have wildly different experiences with it. A group could simply hack-and-slash their way through, work to pit the groups against each other, or perhaps find themselves the ones unknowingly manipulated. That sort of depth of possible experience is not typical for most short adventures I read.

It is tough to find anything to be too critical about. My only suggestion would be to have had the map take up its own page, as when I run PDF adventures I typically print the map or make it its own file in order to read the key simultaneously. A minor quibble.

Though I am sure things could change, Rossi has mentioned perhaps doing a number of these short adventures, then later combining them into a larger print product. If they are all in this vein I will definitely be purchasing it. In the meantime I would encourage referees to check it out for themselves.

You can find The Secret of Cykranosh HERE. Check out Rossi's blog HERE.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Let's Read Polyhedron: Issue 2, Autumn 1981

Issue 1 read-though HERE

Issue 2 has a great cover by Stephen D. Sullivan, with a dude being polymorphed into a tree. Harsh.

The Letters section is pretty standard, but it is revealed that the awful D&D Computer Labyrinth game retailed for $40-60 bucks! No wonder my parents wouldn't buy it for me. They weren't suckers. Apologies if you loved it.

There is a notice about Dragon subscription discounts and then the Sage Advice-ish "Dispel Confusion" column. The biggest takeaway here is that Carrion Crawler paralysis lasts 5d4 rounds, which is of course brutal as hell, but preferable to indefinite.

We get part two of the Gygax interview. He seems to have chilled out a bit since part one, but still takes a pot-shot at Bakshi's Lord of the Rings. Given the dubious quality of the script for the never-realized D&D movie, he was probably better off leaving it alone. He talks a bit about miniature licensing, even though to this day I still see posts here and there around the net insisting nobody used minis with AD&D.

The newsletter is very young and doesn't really have a name, so there is mention of a "name the newsletter" contest, along with a call for submissions to "Spelling Bee", a future column that will seek to clarify spell use and terminology.

There is a preview of Dawn Patrol, which I am completely ignorant of and likely always will be.

"White Rabbits" aims to become a forum to communicate about RPGA membership issues, especially in regards to errors and oversights.

Jean Wells has a decent article on monster creation that I might have found helpful back in the day. Turnbull pens a short essay on current gaming trends, extolling gaming clubs and dissing D&D knock-offs.

Probably the best article of the issue is Jim Ward's "Mutants", a Gamma World article containing new creatures and robots purported to originate from the chronicles of "Random of the Many Names". Gurosh the mutated feline requires three times its body weight in food per day, while the Wess Reel (mutated grape vines) have been known to protect secret societies in exchange for fertilization.

There is a list of RPGA products for sale, including R-Series modules such as Doc's Island.

"Notes for the Dungeon Master" has more trick and trap ideas, none of which really bear repeating. Allen Hammack offers some sensible Top Secret GM advice about keeping missions varied. There is a blurb about the world of Rocksnoz, he of the Tom Wham comic. The issue ends with an article about the RPGA tournament system.

Not a lot of meat on the bones in this issue, but it was still an interesting snapshot of a lost moment in time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On-The-Fly Rulings In OD&D

For some players and DMs, the absence of rules is a problem. OD&D is seen as lacking "options". If something is not explained in the rule book, it is as if it can't be done. This is far from the truth of course; in fact, what rules ARE there are merely guidelines in the first place. Still, for a player or DM coming from a more modern iteration of the game, there is a bit of culture shock looking down at your character sheet. For some DMs, on-the-fly rulings and improvisation can be a bit daunting. This isn't strictly a modern problem; even in the OSR, you sometimes will see someone opine for decent grappling rules, and it is well-documented that Gygax and Arneson got numerous inquiries for "rules clarifications" in the earliest days of the game. This post is to throw a few ideas out there for players and DMs that need a little coaxing and reassurance to ditch the rule straitjacket. I realize the irony of doing so; in a way I am adding rules myself.

Combat maneuvers and skills have become more and more codified over time, reaching their pinnacles in modern editions. I am not trying to teach a history lesson here, so I leave it to the reader to chart the different permutations. The end result of it is that not only has the game developed lists of specific things you can try, it has also dictated the effects. This has hardwired a lot of notions into DMs and players. Take a look at this character sheet, noting the complete absence of modern trappings.

From a player standpoint, consider this as freedom. Freedom to try whatever you like in combat, whatever you like in a social situation, whatever you like period. This doesn't mean you will be successful. Indeed, this doesn't always mean you will even have a chance of success. You know your strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn't mean you cannot attempt something. Just know that your actions, and especially your failures, can have have consequences.

From a DM standpoint, be open. Allow players to be creative.

This still leaves the question as to how to adjudicate rulings. Try these simple ideas.

1. The better the related ability score, the better chance to succeed. 

Her high charisma and intelligence scores helped make Joan a shrewd negotiator.

2. Depending on the ability scores, a task might be automatic or impossible. It is up to you to decide when a chance of success or failure even exists.

Pip was so weak that he struggled to swim against even the slightest undercurrent.

3. When attempting a special maneuver that involves attacking another creature or object, use the AC as the base target number and the degree of success or failure to determine the outcome. 

Larry wants his fighter to trip an opponent. Larry beats the target AC by enough that the DM decides he has succeeded. 

4. When attempting a "skill", roll under the most closely associated ability score. Modify based on the situation if needed and use degrees of success or failure to determine the outcome. 

Hilda tries to balance on the thin edge of the cliff. The howling winds make it more difficult. Hilda rolls a 2, well under her dexterity score, even modified for the wind. She makes it look easy. 

5. Have fun with crits and fumbles.

Joan stood before the council, encouraging them to join the cause. Unfortunately, the player rolls a 1, and just as she opens her mouth to speak, Joan farts. 

Note that I have not listed any hard and fast modifier charts, or spelled out any degrees of success. I leave this to the DM. I personally suggest doing this based entirely on feel.

I am not sure how helpful this is. For experienced DMs of OD&D, you probably have had your own system for a long while, perhaps decades, and I am not telling you anything you do not already know. I do hope that for anyone reading this that has never tried OD&D and was either curious or biased about it, that it might have some use. A lot of it might seem like common sense, but the main idea I want to get across is that the perceived "lack of options" is a feature, not a bug.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Let's Read Polyhedron: Issue 1, Summer 1981

Inspired by The Other Side's series reading White Dwarf, and Grognardia's old Imagine mag posts, I wanted to do a "Let's Read....Something" series. I settled on Polyhedron, primarily because the issues were so short that it seemed like I might actually have time to keep up with it.

This of course was the RPGA newsletter. I completely missed out on the RPGA back in the day. I was aware it existed from Dragon mags, and it seemed like it would have been cool to be a member, but I was a broke kid and didn't really have the wherewithal to do anything about it. Years later I got to rediscover the newsletters, and there is a lot of cool stuff to be found in them.

It had actually not yet been given the name Polyhedron when the first issue came out in the summer of 1981. The first thing you notice is that awesome, familiar art style of Darlene, she of amazing-Greyhawk-map fame and the talent behind many other iconic illustrations, such as this one from the 1e DMG.

Inside, we begin with a hello from editor Frank Mentzer and the beginnings of the letters section.

Next is Dispel Confusion, a regular feature not unlike Sage Advice that clears up various rules questions. Firm rulings were actually crucial to the whole notion of RPGA play, something that seems familiar today to participants in Pathfinder Society or the Adventurer's League. Nothing too revolutionary here: questions on max/min MU spells due to intelligence, humanoid armor, paladins and lycanthropy (they can be affected as it is both a curse and a disease), and the weight of magical armor.

Then comes part one of a fascinating interview with Gygax. This is smack-dab in his ultra-fiesty period, which found him berating game reviewers and designers in Dragon and lashing out at houserulers everywhere. I love Gygax. I never knew him, and can't really pretend to understand his motivations, but it always feels to me when I read interviews with him from around this time that he just wasn't that happy. I don't mean clinically depressed or anything. I just think the incredibly rapid, massive success of the game would be a lot for anyone to handle. Being a CEO of a multi-million dollar company all of sudden and trying to adjust to being a "businessman" can't have been especially easy. One would also have to be pretty damn self-actualized for all of that success not to effect their ego as well. You often see him say things about how little time he had to write or play games, and his tone had sharpened considerably from the hippy free-for-all philosophy of the LBBs. So here we get quotes like, "One of the reasons I was able to [focus on AD&D design]...is that I felt that a game was needed that would have more control over its audience, and one that was going to have more uniformity of play." This, of course, fits with the RPGA perfectly. The interviewer (Mentzer?) also notes that Gygax gets "testy" during the end of the interview, and that he will have to come back for a part two. Anyway, I am not making a judgment about the man. I love him and am thankful for him every day. His attitude made for some great reading around this time, so I am not complaining.

We move on to a list of Boot Hill stats for western movie and TV stars. Clint Eastwood's stats come out on top. I think I have seen this same list in Dragon; can't be sure. Pretty cool though.

Notes for the Dungeon Master is next, a regular feature, this particular one containing little trick and trap tidbits for DMs. Nothing too inspired, save for the idea of a henchman who gets a case of the hiccups in times of stress.

There is a preview/review/advertisement for Fight in the Skies, a game I have never seen nor played, and do not expect to any time soon, so I skipped it.

Merle Rasmussen pens an "open letter" to Mentzer promoting Top Secret.

There is a roundup blurb about that year's GenCon South (held in Jacksonville, FL) tournament results. A highlight was said to be a game on the "world's largest sand table": the beach! Apparently they played a large outdoor game of Tractics. That would have been cool.

Next, Jim Ward provides a little insight into the thought process of the design of Gamma World. It is interesting. He addresses questions he gets about the game, plugs Legion of Gold, and mentions that he is currently working on a Metamorphosis Alpha rewrite.

The issue ends with a Tom Wham comic, Rocksnoz in the Land of Nidd. You can't help but get nostalgic seeing his familiar, zany drawing style. Yes! I got to use the word zany!