Monday, May 3, 2021

I Failed My GM Roll Last Session

Goblin Livery
Behind the GM screen last session (April 13), things did not go well. I failed my GM roll to run the game. Once the players got into the goblin outpost, nothing went as I planned and it was mostly because I didn't just follow the damn outline I wrote. I cut out a bunch of stuff on the fly late at night so we could make it to the "checkpoint room." It didn't go well. 

"Excuses, excuses," I know, but we didn't get to the heart of the matter until the final hour, and we didn't get to the goblin chief, Gore Blood, until the last half hour. The gears in my brain were already gridding to a halt by then. 

Other than being too deep in my cups, I had three problems. One of the problems was technical. The dungeon isn't yet formatted for use at the table. Combined with all the PDFs I had open, it got really chaotic. At the very end of the night, in frustration, I just gave up and flew by memory—only to forget everything. When I'm tipsy and brain dead, that's when I need a well-formatted dungeon the most! 

Two: the players weren't meant to stand before the chief the first session they arrive at the goblin outpost—they were meant to bypass him. Several reasons for that, but primarily, it's too much sensory input all at once with everything else going on in the game. Too much GM exposition. Too long on the rails. Too many complex room descriptions. Too many significant NPCs introduced all in a line.

Gore Blood and his shaman, Skin Carver, have this whole "Jabba the Hutt and Bib Fortuna" thing going on. The shaman isn't meant to lead players to the goblin chief—he diverts them away. ("Pay Jabba no bother.") There's a quick scripted "cut scene" where Gore Blood bites off an orc's nose and tells him "apology accepted." That's when Skinny is suppose to warn the players that now is not the best time to see the chief and lead them away.

Having Gore Blood introduced only by description of ruthless, bloodthirsty action in the distance builds tension. Introducing him along with multiple other NPCs at the very end of the night? Not so much. 

Also, I learned in-play that I needed to have a different "voice" to use between Skinny and Gore Blood, other than "gruff orc." Gore Blood has a demonic reverberation that I cannot mimic, of course. So, as-written, the voices are different, but when spoken in role-play, not nearly enough!

As for the biggest stumbling block I faced, I told my players a long time ago that I didn't know what I should do, as a GM, if they killed goblins yet also lost a certain item: Spider Teeth's totem, a giant rat skull with three eyes. I never decided. I waited until the moment of truth, hoping beyond hope that I would have a creative epiphany—but I just didn't have it in me. Not that late at night.

The totem is actually a headdress, but for the players, it's a "get out of jail free" card. The totem was something the goblins wanted, badly, and they would have forgave the players for killing goblins in exchange* for it. Trouble is, the players lost it in battle in a previous session, so the goblins already had it (I forgot to mention Skin Carver was wearing it). How the second level is written: 

  1. Players pay 1 sp each to pass goblins. 
  2. Players bypass goblins through the "sewers." (There's also a secret passage.)
  3. Players try to kill their way through goblins, fail, but trade their totem for their lives.

Players tried a forth option I didn't consider: Kill goblins, then knock on door without the totem . . . 

I didn't want to have the chief sentence all the the players to execution right after they decided to knock on the door to the goblin outpost. Instead, I basically had Gore Blood pronounce them guilty of murder and give them life in prison. It was the best I could do, all things considered. 

They were headed for the jail cell anyway as they have a treasure map to it. It's the second-level checkpoint and I wanted them to reach it. So, we got there, but we didn't get there how I would have liked.

Oh, well! Players and I had fun for the most part! It was a good session, just not the best from my side of the GM screen.

All this means is I'm going to try to make our next session the best we've ever had! 

Thanks for reading!

* Why not just kill the PCs and take it? Spoiler alert: the goblins are kinda doing this whole Hiroo Onoda thing. They are still wearing the livery of their fallen empire and following their interpretation of a long-forgotten treaty from the Goblin Wars. Having heard no different, they're still operating under a truce. In reality, the armistice ended more than 40 years ago. Gore Blood's mowhawk is white from old age. He's the equivalent of a Viet Nam War soldier who doesn't know it's over.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

One Year Anniversary

Got about five minutes left to post. 

Play-testing a dungeon. It's going really well. The OSR Pickup Games discord server is flourishing. 

Here's looking forward to another year! 


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ring of Stigmata

Ring of Stigmata: A rusty carpenter's nail bent into a coil, the tip of which is twisted around its square head to form a crude center stone. Once per day, it can cause a victim within 60' the stabbing pain of having a nail driven through any or all of their hands and feet. The agony of crucifixion ruins concentration and causes victims to drop whatever they are holding. Timed right, it can make victims think they stepped on an object sharp enough to puncture their sole. The pain is severe, but lasts only an instant. Left lying on the ground, it acts as a caltrop, but does no actual damage. The first time it's used, the wearer will suffer the same affliction as the target. The wearer must then also save vs. Poison or contract tetanus: 1d4 weeks of incapacitating muscle spasms.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Year in Stonehell Dungeon

I've served a lot of time imprisoned in Stonehell Dungeon's subterranean corridors. The last nine months of my stint was as Dungeon Master. Before I started running it, I was thrice a player at different tables, the first of which was also my first OSR experience ever. I've now ran it as an open-table game for twenty five sessions.

I've served my time in Stonehell Dungeon.

People ask me how well I like Stonhell Dungeon. They also ask about my experience running an open-table. Perhaps someday I'll make a post about game mastering for an ever-changing pool of thirty players (so far), but this post is mainly about Stonehell.

However, running it as an open-table dungeon has a profound influence on my opinion. It colors my every sentiment, both good and bad. 

There's a lot of both; good and bad. 

I chose from between three ways to start my campaign. In order of my personal preference back then: Keep on the Borderlands, Barrowmaze, and Stonehell. So, Stonehell was my third choice. 

I tried the Keep first. Its dungeon, the Caves of Chaos, was just a tad too vanilla and too simple for my taste. If Gygax had at least given names and a line of description to his characters in the town and castle—or even just the most important ones—it would probably be our campaign's home base today. Alas, he did not. 

Barrowmaze was a little too verbose for me to disseminate before my attention span faltered. Right or wrong, I felt like I had to read it all to run it, and I just didn't want to invest that much time and effort. Not back then, starting my first OSR campaign, anyway.

With Stonehell, I didn't feel I had to read anything to run even the first session of it. At the same time, I knew I could run it drunk, sleepy, and distracted—not uncommon states of mind for an evening beer-and-pretzels game over the Internet. That level of ease of use at the table is hard to beat.

I wanted something simpler than Barrowmaze, but not so simple as KotB. Stonehell struck that perfect balance. It was just right

But it wasn't just right for running as an open-table game.

Treasure was way too "feast or famine." To mitigate some of that, I used a "silver standard" (1 sp = 1 xp; book prices in silver), effectively multiplying all treasure's value by ten. I also wrote a +1 weapon into practically every haul. Beyond that, I added a lot, no different than every DM's review of Stonehell I've ever read. 

The core issue I have with Stonehell Dungeon as an open table is that there isn't enough bait to entice players to explore the levels. 

Without deviation, players—myself included—were compelled to go deeper rather broader lacking any good reason not to do so. Stronger monsters as gatekeepers doesn't cut it; even the most inexperienced dungeon crawler expects the risk to increase with the reward as one goes lower in the dungeon. 

I can say both as a player and as a DM, it's my opinion that the dungeon is not well designed for a straight-down approach, and I don't mean because of challenge. 

The experience is rather bland. Take the stairs from 1A to 2A and there's not even much of a scenery change. Same with 3A. It doesn't feel like you're delving deeper. Monsters get a little harder, but like I say, that's just not enough on its own to do it.

Since it wasn't designed with enough bait on the hook to get players to explore levels horizontally before descending, it should have been better designed vertically. Delving to lower levels should have been more mysterious, or threatening, or . . . something. 

From my perspective as a player, and from what I've learned running Stonehell, Barrowmaze does a far better job for an open-table game. I've played about five sessions in Justin Hamilton's Sunday night Barrowmaze campaign on the OSR Pick-Up Games Discord server. 

I could immediately tell I chose poorly when I picked Stonehell over it. 

It has several "barrows," each that serve as a mini-dungeon. Explore the overworld a little, breach a barrow, plunder its gave goods, maybe solve a puzzle or whatever, then go home. End of session. 

That is an ideal setup for an open-table. You hit all your bases almost every game with few lulls of exploration "filler" sessions between scores. Perfect!

What does this mean for my current Stonehell campaign?

If you can't tell, I'm dissatisfied with Stonehell for an open-table campaign, so let me come right out and say it. It's an amazing masterpiece, wonderfully written, easy to use at the table, and filled with a ton of fun and interesting things for players . . . but it's ill suited for our campaign. I've had a ton of fun game-mastering Stonehell Dungeon, but I'm ready to move on to something different. 

As a year-end review of our campaign, let's get it out of the way first: out of twenty five plus sessions shared by about thirty players, three were pretty bad. One of those was really terrible: the night we got lost exploring on the second level, but nothing really exciting happened. Blech!

By far and wide margin, most nights were "pretty good." You know, nights where everyone had fun and shared some laughs and we were glad we all played. Good times. 

However, six or seven sessions were truly epic. They were the type of session I can say, "This is why I play D&D."

  • Ingrid the Dragon Slayer losing her arm in the battle against the giant undead cobra, the heroics to save her, and the tragic death of our campaign's first dwarf just steps from the exit. 
  • Keri the Kingslayer earning his title while fighting beside his comrades against the orc chief and his tribe. 
  • The intense battle with the water weird in the enchanted fountain that no one ever revisited the whole rest of the campaign. 
  • The existential room where the doll was first discovered and later encounters with it. 
  • The rise and fall of the party's alliance with the Neanderthals and all the bloodshed it caused. 
  • The heartbreak of the "TPK minus one." The slow, agonizing death of every PC and hireling while ascending the stairs to the exit . . . with the greatest treasure trove ever plundered from Stonehell in their grasp. Ouch. 
  • The ire of the medusa Lachesis and the illusions of her sorcerer. The courage the party showed when defying both. The victory of their first clash. The vengeance they won. 
  • Storming the barbican in a wild, full-frontal assault. Not only surviving, but taking it. All the courage, wit, and luck that epic feat required.

I'm terrified I'm going to forget someone, but off the top of my head, I can recall very fondly characters played by Erika, CC, Josie, RandomWizard, Rosencrantz, King, KingPenta, Pralec, StarBorneHero, Lukas, Graytung, directsun, Modest Mace, and Ragnar. That's only fourteen, so I'm sure I've left someone out! Sorry! Remind me!

Overall, it's been a fantastic campaign. I've had so much fun, so little stress, and met so many great players who, through time, I've learned are interesting people I'm very glad to know. 

The good news is, most of the complements I've heard my players give Stonehell are archetypal features of any good megadungeon. The aspects of our campaign to which they seem most attached can be transplanted seamlessly as we move forward. 

It's my hope The Undercrypt will be a fun, interesting and challenging multi-level dungeon designed specifically to be played as an open table. That means having several challenges that can be resolved in a single session.

I've been saying it for a few weeks now, but I'm still writing town, which for us will take the shape of the Keep on the Borderlands.

Stonehell will remain in our campaign world. It will physically replace the Caves of Chaos for which it shares a striking geographic resemblance.

The Undercrypt will be located on the same overworld map in the area designed for DM use, the Cave of the Unknown. 

Players can choose where they want to go on a session-by-session basis. 

I hope to see many returning faces after our month-long hiatus. I'm also excited to meet many more new people in the year 2021!

Looking forward to playing again soon! 

— Richard "Stripe" Sharpe

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

TSR's DragonStrike in 1993

DragonStrike Instruction Booklet
Recently, I read mention of DragonStrike, describing it as a flaming disaster. No doubt, financially, it probably was just that; we're talking about early-1990's TSR, Inc., here. That corporation no longer stands and memories of it mingle with controversy.

I loved DragonStrike as a 12-year-old child in 1993 and so did my friends. DragonStrike, along with HeroQuest ('89), is what got me into table-top role-playing games. Here I am, 27 years later, still running games—an open-table Stonehell using B/X, currently!

As a card-carrying member of the target age group for that product during the time it was released, I thought DragonStrike was awesome. Wonderful. Amazing. And, I'll be happy to objectively defend it as a great product.

It's anecdotal, of course, but it did a far better job at getting my young friends and I to play D&D than the Black Box ('91) or Rules Cyclopedia ('93) editionThe AD&D 2nd Ed. Players Handbook ('89), Dungeon Master Guide ('91), and Monstrous Manual ('93) were also on the shelves. Dragon Mountain ('93) looked so cool!

But I digress.

DragonStrike was a fantasy board game and100% complete role-playing system.

That's right, DragonStrike was  a role-playing system. It was a good one, too.

However, before discussing DragonStrike, one must first recognize its predecessor, the far more successful and popular HeroQuest fantasy board game. If it weren't for HeroQuest, there would be no DragonStrike. DragonStrike, like DragonQuest ('92), were both attempts to cash in on HeroQuest's success in 1990 and '91.

My God, I loved HeroQuest. Those miniatures! The little dungeon furniture! The pure and simple, almost platonic experience of a dungeon delve! It was very similar to a Rogue-like video game in board-game form.

HeroQuest was a fantasy boardgame, like DragonStrike, but it was not a role-playing game. One picked a character (Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf, Wizard) and chose a name, but the player wasn't making anything but tactical decisions. If HeroQuest is an RPG, then so is the video game Gauntlet ('85).

DragonStrike Instruction Booklet, pp. 20-21
The DragonStike rule book told players to imagine the fantasy world of around their characters, represented by playing pieces on the board, and to interact with it. That included speaking in-character with monsters and non-player characters. That's where I draw the the thin, fine line between "RPG" and "not-RPG."

Furthermore, players were told to try anything they wanted to solve problems: swim the river; swing across the pit; push the burning candelabra onto the table and hope it catches fire.

This is the heart of OSR to me: don't let the rules constrain your imagination. On paper, the rules are very simple, but they work just fine in actual game play. We had fun playing!

We were doing all the OSR stuff in all the OSR places. DragonStrike had four colorful, well-made game boards: a castle; a cave; a city; and an outdoors map that included a rocky high place, a forested area, a plains area, and a river with a bridge crossing it.

The castle could be used for any standard dungeon delve area, like a tomb or whatever. I even used it as a sewer. The city board was wonderful! We played out many town-based sessions in it, even including ones with no combat—pure role-playing. Tons of escort missions, fetch quests, and seek-and-destroy missions in the wilderness. All that said, we probably used the cave board the most.

Yes, there was a cheesy, campy VHS video packaged in the box with the game. It's mocked decades later by people who never played the game and weren't the target market audience anyway, I'll wager.

I recognized it as childish and comical at age 12, but (thankfully) the video was a completely separate part packaged with the game, not at all required to play. DragonStrike is not at all a VCR board game like, say, Nightmare ('91).

I never showed it to my friends, partly because it was so silly, but more because I just wanted to get right to playing the game, and play it we did! We all had a blast!

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Caller Isn't Captain

Instead of captain, I'm going to liken the spot of caller to the party's communications officer. If this were a Vietnam War movie, the caller would be the soldier with the telephone backpack calling in to headquarters during a battle.

The caller's primary goal—the entire purpose of there even being a caller position in the first place—is to move the fun and action forward. To go from "talking" to "doing." The caller does so by quickly and concisely relaying the party's actions to the GM.

"Quickly," meaning promptly. For example, if the party comes to a door, the caller should immediately (no prompt needed) say, "Thief listens at the door. If he hears nothing, Fighter tests it. If it's stuck, Fighter kicks it down. We're all standing in formation, ready for combat."

A door is routine. The caller should already know the party's actions from several past examples. There's no need to ask anyone what they do, because we've already done this many times. The caller is stating the obvious—not making "command decisions."

As for picking the correct path, that should fall under the routine as well, or it should have been previously discussed, perhaps with the party's mapper. If there's truly a fork in the path with no significant difference, then the caller simply picks one or the other; not because he or she is "in charge," but because discussion would only slow down play.

In regard to special challenges like a symbol puzzle (or whatever), the caller should quickly "pass the conch" to the appropriate player of a character who's best suited for the job. The best callers are those who help the DM make certain everyone gets a chance for as much time in the spotlight as possible.

Once a good "standard operating procedure" is established in a session (often during the phase where marching order is determined), that should take care of most common dungeon situations. If a caller thinks the party should take special care ("We look up at the ceiling for giant spiders"), then by all means tell the GM, but any player can voice such concerns.

From one caller to another, it's a numbers game: the more rooms the players toss, the more treasure they'll find, and that's our entire goal in the game: get treasure.

A good caller knows the difference between minutia and what's critically important to the players' survival. Discuss only the latter, and even that should be brief. Make your plan without over-analyzing the situation (often resulting in "analysis paralysis"), then execute it without second guessing yourselves in the middle of doing so.

The best callers do all of that with one thing in mind: move the fun and action forward as quickly as possible. Let's not just talk about it; let's do it!

All this talk about the caller not being the party leader by default isn't to say that the caller should't strive to be such! The best callers are good leaders!

However, the best leaders do not have to be the caller!

"Leader" is a social position, not a delegated power.

Here's bonus tip from one caller to another: sometimes, the dungeon is set out like a puzzle—but the pieces are spaced far apart. Don't spend too much time on one piece. Sure, give it a good once-over, but be quick to move on and leave it for later. More often than not, later in the dungeon, it becomes apparent where that piece fits in the puzzle.

For example, the classic stone statue missing a head. You can search it up and down, pull all its fingers, set a freshly-disembodied orc head atop its shoulders—do ALL the THINGS—and never figure out why its there. In fact, it may not even have a reason! Maybe it is just junk! Then, down on the next level, you find a statue's head. Now you know where it goes, but there's no way you could have "solved" the "puzzle" earlier.

The name of this blog is Blood or Treasure. That's the metric by which I weigh every decision I make as caller: risk or reward?

As a caller, I found myself asking, "Blood or treasure? Will this course of action ultimately result in chance of harm (blood)—which I do not seek—or will it lead, directly or indirectly, to treasure?"

Of course, everyone knows that sometimes we will have to fight or face danger to win our treasure. In that case, the answer to the question, "Blood or treasure," is "Both."

That, dear readers, is the best answer!

Monday, May 18, 2020

What is 'The Undercrypt?'

There are a number of reasons why I'm running an open-table Stonehell campaign right now.

Stonehell is dead simple to run. I want to meet new people and game during the summer, but I won't have a whole lot of time for RPGs—nothing like I do in the winter. Running Stonehell with B/X requires essentially zero prep work. As close to it as it's going to get.

Stonehell is highly popular among the OSR—I knew it would (eventually) draw plenty of players to an open table. Since I don't have an OSR gaming group, I'm throwing a wide net. The more the merrier!

As I've said before, I took more than a year off from game-mastering to play in OSR games. Now I want to get back into running games. At the same time, I've always wanted to both game-master a published module and an open table, neither of which have I done before.

Running an open-table Stonehell campaign with B/X checks all those boxes!

The last reason I'm running Stonehell is because it will be an inspirational experience for the town-and-dungeon adventure module I'm writing, The Undercrypt. It's basically "Stonehell, plus a town, plus a hexmap," much like Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet. Barrowmaze is probably similar on paper, from what I've read—but at 260 pages, it's way bigger than my plans.

The Undercrypt is a multi-level dungeon. It's the underground tombs and catacombs beneath an ancient, sprawling cemetery. It's set up just like Stonehell—four 30' × 30' quadrants to a level. Four pages to a quadrant: two pages to set it up, one page for the dungeon map and tables and one page for the key. Four levels is 64 pages.

The hexmap is of the necropolis the Undercrypt lies beneath. It's really big. It has a pond, a garden, a cedar grove; slough; a hedge maze; a statuary; a public columbarium; pool and fountain; hundreds of mausoleums, obelisks and cenotaphs; multiple different grave yards with thousands of tombstones and markers; a ruined cathedral . . . all sorts of stuff. I don't know how big the hexes will be, but certainly not six miles. Perhaps 60 feet.

Town (actually a manor) carters to travelers passing through to bury their dead. People from all over bring their dead to the necropolis. There's a legendary hero-saint buried in the Undercrypt. As long as he rests there in peace, no undead will rise.

There is no one "scripted" event that threatens his rest, but players have the opportunity—for example, if they rob his sarcophagus. It's on level 1. It's not particularly challenging to reach and isn't specifically guarded. He's interred with his sword +3, plate armor +2, and shield +1. Oh, and magic rings. And a medallion with artifact-level power. None of it is said to be cursed—unless you count the fact that if stolen the whole place will descend into infernal hell.

Bandits stalk through the wilderness near every road waiting for a pomp funerary procession to bushwhack. Grave robbers perch among the tombstones waiting like vultures. There's an invasion force of pig-faced orcs pouring through a portal deep within the caverns below the Undercrypt. The black banners of an infamously-ruthless mercenary company fly above the tents of a camp not far from town. Cultists and necromancers—not all of whom wear black hooded robes and wield kris daggers—seek to usurp the Undercrypt's arcane and esoteric secrets.

The hero-saint's militant order guards the necropolis, but their number are few and thin—especially with the goblin war raging on the borderlands. No one is allowed to enter the necropolis without permission—and that's only given for funeral services. The punishment for trespassing is harsh. The punishment for grave robbing or tomb raiding is death.