Monthly Archives: December 2013

Enhancing the Ancient Lands

I am starting a new campaign set in the Ancient Lands tomorrow, and as so often I find myself a bit doubting about the setting really being something different and not just another case of generic european middle ages fantasy. So kind of as a last moment effort, I sat down once more, going over notes to remind myself of some special features I’d fallen in love with over the last years.

  • Giant Fungus Trees: These are the one big thing that really makes Morrowind look very different from any other well known fantasy setting, even those of the other Elder Scrolls games set in the same world. Of course, it’s not an original idea now, but I think by including them, it’s adding a certain look to the setting that is still rare.
  • Magic Ponds and Wells: I like the idea of water being a substance with inherently supernatural traits. As the Japanese say, water is the only substance that can clean itself. It evaporates at the ground and when it returns as rain, its perfectly clean and unsoiled by anything, which is the reason it’s so important in cleansing rituals. In Warcraft III, the night elves can build Moonwells that replenish the health and mana of nearby units, and there are also natural magical fountains found throughout the world. The spring in Treebeards house in the Lord of the Rings would be another example. Given that the spiritworld plays a prominent role in the Ancient Lands, magic springs seem right in place as locations of strong magical power, which I prefer a lot over ley lines and the like.
  • Large Insects: Giant Spiders are one of the most generic fantasy creatures and giant beetles, centipedes, and scorpions are also quite common. Much more rare is the use of domesticated insects. Dark Sun has them, as the world isn’t very hospitable for most mammals, and again, Morrowind has giant long-legged beetles as transports in swamps and other difficult terrain. Not quite sure how to implement such things in the Ancient Lands, but it’s something I want to come back to and give some more thought.
  • Giant Lizards: Dinosaurs in fantasy are always a difficult subject. They don’t feel a lot out of place in cavemen worlds, but usually people tend to feel that they just don’t belong into a world of knights and wizards. However, the Ancient Lands is not such a world, but one of barbarians and witches. Outright using dinosaurs still doesn’t feel right to me, but there’s a middle ground here. Instead, I am going with large reptiles that are very similar to dinosaurs in all respects, but not actually based on real species. Crocodiles and comodo dragons are still existing species, and many extinct dinosaurs had an anatomy not much unlike rhinos or cattle. I created two new creatures some months ago, which really were just a bison and a camel with a different appearance. A feathered deinonychus might look a bit strange to people who grew up with dinosaur books from the 90s, but I think it makes a cool fantasy creature. I think they make good replacements for bulls and horses in the southern jungle regions of the Ancient Lands.
  • Limestone Karsts and Sinkholes: While not exactly rare in Europe and North America, large areas of limestone erroded by water has formed amazing landscapes in many parts of Southeast Asia, that actually look quite unreal and fantastic if you’re not commonly used to it. Particularly in coastal areas you get this massive monoliths rising out of the water at vertical angles, sometimes riddled with caves and forests growing on top. A bit inland, you get huge mazes sretching out of sight into all directions. It’s a natural and not that uncommon landscape feature, but one much more exotic than meadows and marshes.

These are not things that are going to feature in any significant way in the first adventure of the new campaign, but by mentioning these things every so often while describing what the PCs are seeing, I am hoping to get the players to see the world as more than just Europe with orcs and dragons.

Did Vancian Spellcasting have its origin in wargames?

A thought just came to me, while I was wondering once more why D&D has this very strange system of spellcasting known as Vancian casting.

And it occured to me, that the system of having to select your loadout of spells in the morning and being unable to use them again after they have been cast would make perfect sense if you are thinking of artillery in a wargame. An artillery unit would have to carry a limited amount of specialized amunition with them and once it’s fired they would have to wait for resupply to regain their capacity to fire. In the same way, changing loadout would also require waiting for resupply or returning to base. Not being familiar with the very old editions of D&D, I read something about PCs apaprently not even being supposed to rememorize spells while on an adventure and expected to do that when safely back in town for a couple of days.

Since D&D has its root in wargames, it seems entirely plausible to me that Gygax was already familiar with such a system and found a rough analog for spells in Vance’s novels. And from what I’ve heard (never read them), spellcasting in Vance’s novels isn’t really like spellcasting in D&D either. Just similar.

In any way, I vastly prefer my highly beloved spell points.

Fantasy Safari: Fiend Folio (AD&D 1st Edition), Part 1

This time I am starting with Fiend Folio for AD&D 1st Edition by TSR, 1981; 89 pages of monsters.

FiendFolioCoverProbably the most famous and most highly regarded monster book there is. Even I, who never had huge praise for AD&D and consider lots of old D&D monsters to be just rediculous and dumb to a degree that it isn’t even funny, have to admit that this book is really quite amazing. I am a huge fan of monster books of any game and any edition, and I have to kind of admit that in the last 32 years, there hasn’t really been any book that has surpassed this classic in the amount of brilliant new creatures it contains.

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Help! Starting a new nonlinear campaign

Earlier this week I mentioned between classes that I’d really like to play an RPG again. And as luck has it, my friends all got quite excited about the idea. Only two of them have actually played any games before, but all the others are also quite enthusiastic and so I know have 6 players already and a good chance that this game will keep going for two or three years. The kind of opportunity every small-time GM would wish for.

I’ve decited to ditch Pathfinder and instead go with Castles & Crusades, which is much easier to learn, faster to play, and allows much more freedom because preparing for multiple possible outcomes requires much less time and work, and I can even make up things on the fly. However, having always run rather linear games in which there was a clearly structured sequence of setpieces, I don’t really have any experience with planning a much more open-ended campaign. While I like the possibilities of sandbox games, I don’t want to make it a hexcrawl, but instead provide an interesting starting situation in which the players are free to take sides and steer events towards and outcome that is in their favor. There probably is a huge amount of information out there on the subject and reports of campaigns that people actually ran, but finding those is the difficult part.

If anyone has any pointers towards articles, campaign reports, and similar sources, it would be hugely appreciated if you could share the links in the comments.

That’s no ordinary rabbit!

I got this idea watching a video about Machine for Pigs a few days ago, in which the primary enemies are pigmen. For some reason it got me thining about werwolves, probably because a half-man-half-pig is similar to a half-man-half-wolf. However, one is a person afflicted by a disease that makes him turn under the light of the full moon and invulnerable to anything but silver, while the other is an alchemically warped hybrid of two creatures that doesn’t have any of these special traits.

With a werwolf, you know exactly what you are dealing with. You know what caused it, what triggered it, how the creature behaves, and how to kill it. But while a pigman might also stalk the night an brutally tear its victims to pieces, you don’t know anything about its behavior patterns and how it can be killed. And that’s the key to making horror monsters. Fear is essentially a response to not knowing how to respond to a dangrous situation. When you understand the danger, you can deal with it in a safe way, or at least get yourself out of harms way. You are in control of the situation, so there is no reason to fear.

So when it comes to creating or using horror creatures, it’s vital that the players do not know what they are dealing with. And I think it might be even more effective if the players think they know what they are dealing with and that they are in control of the situation, only to have them realize that the weapons and protective items they brought don’t do anything against the creature. Right now, I really want to make a short adventure in which an unseen creature attacks people during nights of the full moon, leaves behind mangled corpses, and is only seen as a shaggy bipedal shape that jumps in great leaps over roofs and walls. But then it keeps attacking even after the full moon has passed and its entirely unaffected by silver and wolfsbane. Which the players will only realize once they sprung their trap and have the beast cornered.

Reading the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Ask anywhere which older RPG books (pre-2000) are among the best and you are pretty sure to get at least some people praising the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. I flipped through it a few times but never saw anything that looked even remotely interesting. Now I’ve been running D&D games for well over a decade and already know quite a bit about the basics and actual experience, but I think most people who recommend the book have been doing so for much longer than that. Could be pure nostalgia speaking, or there are actually some interesting sentences to find under the generic sounding section lables.

So I am going to bite the bullet and start reading a 200+ pages long book that doesn’t look appealing to me to any degree. But while large group of people can still be entirely wrong, they usually are not. Let’s see what I’ll find in these pages.

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Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I saw the movie yesterday and prior to it I really didn’t know anything about it other than it was based on a novel, which in turn is about a man from Earth ending up on Mars and having great adventures, and that it includes the green martians, which have obviously been adapted into AD&D as three-kreen. Actually, the whole thing looks like it was the inspiration for 80% of Dark Sun.

johncarter-redposter-fullOppinions about the movie seem to be quite mixed. I’ve heard and read that it’s both a quite good movie and a rather crappy one. But Dark Sun is awesome and so are Conan and Cthulhu, which originated in the same cultural environment and period. So I went to watch it anyway, but not expecting much. If all I would get would have been some pretty visuals that provide me with a few inspirations for my homebrew setting, it wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time.

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Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2

Starved Ones are basically zombies or ghouls who are constantly decaying at a relative rapid rate, losing 10% of their hit points every day. They regain their full strength and can regenerate decayed or lost body parts by eating the matching parts and organs of a dead creature. However, the newly regrowing organ will have the appearance of the organ that was consumed, not the form of the originally lost parts.
There’s some potential here, but I think how scary they will actually be depends a lot on the GMs imagination for what kinds of corpses the starved ones are feeding.

Tentacle Spawn are rather weak demons but tend to appear in large numbers. They are not actually individual creatures but rather just the ends of tentacles of much more massive and horrible beings from beyond this world, which often come grasping through portals much to small to allow the passage of the abominations entire body. I think they are making a great addition to encounters with evil sorcerers and the like and are more part of a dangerous environment than actual enemies themselves. Still, treating them as individual creatures would probably make a good job to make them appear as real threats.
The Black Spawn of Jullah (see part 1) serve as conduits to the realms of otherworldly horrors and can let tentacle spawn burst from their bodies.

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Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1

I love monster books. To me they are clearly the greatest thing about RPGs. Most of the books I have are monster books, many even for games I don’t play. But when I flip through them, I often just look at the illustration and read the first few lines of text before I get bored with a creature that seems completely uninspired and overdone, and continue to the next one. But occasionally, there are creatures that are actually quite interesting and unique if you really give them a chance. And sometimes their greatness is immediately visible from the first second.

Over the next weeks, I want to return to many of the old monster books that I’ve pretty much forgotten about, and maybe occasionally pick up some new ones, to go hunting for rare and exotic creatures that you rarely get to see.

Conan - Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Conan – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Today, I am starting with Conan d20 – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age by Mongoose Publishing, 2008.

The Black Fiend is the first creature in the book which actually is somewhat interesting. A black fiend is a roughly human-shaped demon that can pass for a human at a distance and in the dark, but has horns, claws, fangs, and pointed ears, that clearly mark it as a monster. They prefer to stay in darkness and often wear dark cloaks and hoods to hide their demonic nature from casual observers. They are not particularly powerful, but very stealthy, which makes them good assassins, and also have a great talent for sorcery, and many are spellcasters who can be summoned to learn rare and exotic spells from them. I think it’s the combination of being both an assassin and spellcasters, that makes the black fiend a bit more than just another demonic looking man.

On the first look, the Black Spawn of Jullah are just another type of large demon that look like large black apes with fur that seems to be permanently soaked in blood. As servants of the ape god, they can produce a roar that will summon large numbers of actual apes from the surrounding jungles to attack their enemies. An even weirder trait is their ability to use their own bodies as a kind of portal to hell, allowing tentacles and tendrils of some hellish abominations to burst through their bloody fur and grasp and bash at their enemies.
The black spawn looks like a generic evil ape, but I think figting one of these will actually get quite frightening to players when they suddenly find themselves swarmed by large apes from all directions and the tentacles burst from the beasts bodie. I think I want to use these ones in my campaign.

A Bodiless Slimer is a demon made of almost insubstential slime that is also entirely invisible. They are very hard to detect and to injure and can also use a breath of flames in addition to their normal attack of grappling and choking their victims. Before a fight, they use a kind of subconscious telepathy to demoralize their enemies. These could make for interesting encouters, but the creature itself is rather bland. Continue reading