Thursday, March 16, 2017

What I want from a DMG

This is a few years overdue but, inspired by nothing in particular, I've finally decided to ponder a few different reference tomes written specifically for the guidance of Dungeon Masters, referees, Game masters, and their ilk.  In addition to the original 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide, I've reviewed the Hackmaster Game Masters Guide, C&C's Castle Keepers Guide, as well as some non-DM specific works such as the DCC RPG rulebook and S&W Complete because they purport to include DMly--as well as playerly and monsterly--information all in one comprehensive tome.
Listen up Trollords.

Without further ado, here are a few things that I think make for a good DMG:

Tables, lists, charts and graphs.
I want easily digestible visual data.  Information must be presented in the most visually consumable method possible.  Text should be limited to a sentence or two whose purpose is to support a nearby table, graph, diagram, or illustration.  Perhaps a paragraph or two here and there to introduce concepts and such, but the make the paragraphs short and keep them to a minimum. Anything more than ~5 or 6 sentences and you've lost me.

A few essential Types of tables to include:
  • Random dungeon generation
  • NPC generation -- including personality traits
  • magic item generation -- as in creating magic items not listing pre-fab items
  • spell generation -- ditto
  • monster generation -- a la DCC RPG.
Though of course potential DMG authors should not limit their table-generating activities to this small sample.

Adventure narratives.
Every now and then you're going to want to write up an example of your game in action. The best way of doing this is a cool adventure narrative written up in easily digestible screenplay format, not as paragraphs of undifferentiated text.  And they must be entertaining. Throw in a little table chatter among the sample PCs for good measure. 

DM: As you round the corner your torchlight reveals a generic dungeon corridor, 10' wide and high, with a poorly mortared flagstone floor continuing off into the darkness. Same marching order?
Gamer 1: Yes, Guthouse Barrelboy and Buttout the were-elf are in front with Blotto the monk and Bluetooth the wizard taking up the rear.
Gamer 2: [sotto voce] Just the way they like it.
DM: None of that, now. How do you proceed?
Guthouse Barrelboy: I tap the floor with my 10' pole.
Gamer 2: More like 10 inches.
DM: If that's a dick joke you might want to reconsider it. Gutboy, you tap around the floor, nothing happens.What next?
Buttout: I walk down the hall.
DM: You make it about 20 feet before you step on a flagstone that sinks slightly into the floor.
Buttout: Oops. Sorry gang.
DM: A fusillade of arrows comes whizzing at the party from behind. Everyone in the back row save vs. traps.
Bluetooth: Buttout you asshole, if you kill my character I'm gonna' -- 17! Nice!
Blotto:  Fuck. I rolled a 2.
DM: Well done Bluetooth, you take no damage but Blotto, [Rolling dice] two arrows rip into your hindquarters--shut up Gamer 2--for... Oh dear, 11 points of damage.
Blotto: Cocksuckitall. I only had 8 hit points.
DM: Roll a save vs. rolling-up-a-new-character at -3.
Blotto: grumble grumble. I got a ... 20! Sweet Nelly, I'm alive!
DM: [Sighing] Blotto the monk is not quite dead, but he is incapacitated. Do the rest of you want to waste your healing on him so soon in the dungeon or would you rather go on without him?
Blotto: C'mon DM, what the hell did I ever do to you?
DM: You rolled up a monk, that's what you did. What kind of A-hole plays a friggin' monk?

and so forth.

Sample Dungeons
As with tables, the more of these the merrier. Preferably they're short and sweet with, say, 20 encounters or so, maybe 4 or 5 pages of text and a map taking up ~half a page. Also awesome if you can drop just enough background info--name a nearby tavern or town for PC use, an intriguing NPC or two--to allow the DM to use it as the basis for creating his own setting. Or, if you're feeling particularly crafty, surreptitiously link it to a module you're publishing concurrently.

And some things that doesn't make for a good DMG:

Essays, treatises and manifestos
Let's face it, longwinded essays in RPG rulebooks are the equivalent of a comb-over for game designers futilely attempting to hide their lack of table-creation skills. Sure Gygax included some verbose essays in the original DMG but he gets a pass for a few reasons:
  1. back in '79 DMing was a fairly new occupation, one which he'd been doing for longer than anyone... who wasn't Dave Arneson.
  2. there was no internet, and therefore new gamers could not fall back on the accumulated wisdom of 721,846 bloggers to figure out how to run a campaign. 
  3. he's Gary Gygax.  
Nowadays, game designer folk need to stop pretending that their off-brand RPG is going to be anyone's first entree into the genre.  Even if, by some tragedy of fate, your tome does wind up providing the medium for some poor slob's induction into advanced geekdom everyone who can buy a book can navigate the internet; direct those interested in your bizarre take on world creation (Rivers flow toward the equator(?) because of gravity(??)) to your freakin' blog and make with the tables already.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Quag Keep Addendum

Commentor Mark pointed out that I failed to mention items regarding Loice in the good ol' Quag Keep Companion, which inspired me to have another sift through Norton's tome in search of other goodies that I failed to mention. I'll add these to the actual Companion, but thought I'd draw attention to them here for those Quag Heep completists out there. Without further yada...

Brethern A band of mercenary-adventurers responsible for armed incursion into some of the most notorious regions of LoG in search of legendary treasure hoards.

Standard of King Everon Banner of the aforementioned monarch, last king of Troilan. Under this banner, Everon led his people against an invasion but was overwhelmed and met his end on the field of battle. At his death, the land of Troilan sank into a mire into which his banner was lost. Just as the meadows of Troilan sank into a dismal swamp, its people morphed into a lizardlike breed which holds drylanders with contempt. This item was captured by a group known as the "Brethern" [sic].

Loice, Mirror of This artifact of the great queen Loice is a flat stone of a shimmery, reflective rock that is said to have mystical properties. As with the Standard of King Everon, it is said to be lost in Troilan Swamp, though a group of mercenary adventurers known as the Brethern claimed to have acquired it in recent years.

Loice, Spectre of The ghostly embodiment of Loice, legendary queen of Troilan who reigned over the land before it sunk into a swamp, is said to rise from the mire and command its denizens in defence of her soggy domain should it be threatened by outsiders. (#)

Wild Coast Stretch of shoreline noted for its wildness above which Lichis the Golden and Ironnose fought for a time before plummeting into the sea. See Harrowing of Ironnose. (#)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

d12 Underwhelming Magic Items

  1. Hobnailed Boots of Hiking
  2. Multiple Medallions of Machismo
  3. Deck of Several Things
  4. Libram of Illegible Instructions
  5. Lyre of Dissonant Jamming
  6. Manual of OSHA Dungeon Safety Standards
  7. Maul of America
  8. Ice Skates of Single Lutzing
  9. Mirror of Judgment
  10. Incense of Hemp Concealing
  11. Neosporin's Ointment of Antibioticness

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas from the Borderlands!

Ho Ho Ho!
Back in Christmas '82, my artsy aunt gave me a big ol' box of colored pencils which I promptly put to use attempting to recreate the famous image above.  I won't say I did a very good job of it--I'm a tepid draftsman on my best day, but adding color to the mix exacerbates my illustrative shortcomings twelvefold--but ever since then I've associated Erol Otus's famous drawing of the KEEP with the Yuletide season. Besides the experiential reasoning, that party of adventurers on the road elicit a feeling of homecoming for me. Perhaps they live in Tennessee and they are headin' for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Autumn at the Moathouse

View from the moathouse.

Back in October I spent a weekend in Hommlet with my family and took the time to hike out to the moathouse. It's not in good shape, just a weed-strewn pile of rubble at this point; even the giant frogs have abandoned the place. But the larch trees are still prevalent and were in full fall splendor so I snapped this photo from the crumbling remnants. I was standing on what would have been the bastion in the northeast corner looking out over the swamp.

Since a lot of you have been wondering about Gygax's affinity for larch trees--aka tamaracks--I thought I'd share this photo; the larches are the orange-ish trees beyond the cattails and reeds. Their fall color is typically more yellow than this in my experience, but I suspect that there's still a fair amount of elemental evil in the soil around there that's causing this coloration.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Loquaciosness of Hommlet

"Hey Coverdale, 'loved you in Whitesnake."

Last week my longtime nemesis Patrick of Renovating the Temple fame dared slander Hommlet, and called me out in so doing. You don't need me to tell me that the poor fellow is delusional, but he does raise a point about the verbosity of Gygaxian prose; or at least I think that was the point he was making. The dude can certainly veer to the prolix. As evidence check out the first three sentences from the background of T1:
"The Village of Hommlet--Hommlet as it is commonly called--is situated in the central part of the Flanaess, that portion of Eastern Oerik which is known and "civilized." The village (actually hamlet-sized, though local parlance distinguishes it with the term "village") is located some 10 or so leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc. It is at a crossroads." --Gary Gygax, T1 Village of Hommlet
That's a whole lot of words--60 to be exact--for very little information.Compare it to the following sentence:
"The village of Hommlet is located at a crossroads some 10 leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc in the central Flanaess."*  --Dicerod the NunChucker, This here blog.

Pretty much the same amount of information in 67% less words. And we pass the savings on to you, dear reader.
*Is Flanaess really spelled with two esses**? I've always spelled it with just one. 

**And how do you write out the plural of "s"?

That said, there is a certain genius in the way he divulges information in his dungeon write ups--or at least in V of H. Though he takes the time to describe the homes and occupations of everyone in the village, except on rare occasions he doesn't bother telling us the interconnections of the villagers though certainly such a small, isolated populace must be rife with cliques and extended families and the various rivalries and feuds that these sorts of groups tend to engender.

As I've mentioned before, he also fails to indicate any sort of social rift that might occur between the native, tree-hugging farmers and the yuppie, hat-wearing newcomers. Indeed, one gets the impression that the locals are glad to have their company. Sure, having a tailor in town is a boon--though his obsession with knives and crossbows is a little creepy (see below). And sure people probably feel safer with that castle going up on the hill than they did couped up in the Elder's pigsty. But you start to throw newfangled religions into the mix, noses are going to get bent out of shape. For evidence, see the Old Testament, Northern Ireland, the partition of India, Palestine, the Spanish Inquisition, etc.

As evidence of EGG's disdain for tying down the narrative of the village, he doesn't even bother telling us what the various evil cultists are up to beyond they're desire to monitor and disrupt the PC's endeavors. Rannos and crew are tasked with aiding "any and all evil creatures who come in Temple service," not too specific, eh? Furthermore, it's not made explicit whether any of the town-based cultists has any knowledge of Lareth or vice versa.

Likewise, we learn that Zert, 2nd level fighter who resides at the 'Wench, is "actually a spy for the temple" but has no agenda other than screwing with the PCs, regardless of whether they go to the moathouse or not. He doesn't know about the traders so obviously he isn't taking orders from them; at least not directly anyway--we are informed that they know about him. Presumably he doesn't know about the spy working on the castle either, as that dude reports to the Rannos crew. Is Zert aware of Lareth and his cronies under the moathouse? Is he aware of the moathouse at all? Or is he just a free radical tasked with sowing chaos wherever he deems it worthy of sowing?

Similarly, we don't know what the relationship is between the bandits up in the moathouse and Lareth's shock troops down in the basement. It seems catastrophically unlikely that Lareth would be unaware of the bandits's presence even if he (or she) isn't the smartest "dark hope" that Chaotic Evil could hope for. Do they work for him? Did they just wander on the scene or did he set them up in their sweet digs? Gary is mum on the topic.

Despite all that we don't know, we do know a lot of unique details that allow us to sew a tapestry of intrigue all our own. For instance,
  • The tailor, a frail man worthy of only 2 hit points, attacks as a 7th level fighter when firing a crossbow or throwing a knife. We can reasonably assume, therefore, that the door of his outhouse is riddled with knife-holes and that he can frequently be seen carrying his crossbow out to the woods for a little practice.
  • Calmert, officiant at the Temple of St. Cuthbert  "... is anxious to give a sum to the builders of the fortress under construction, and although it would seem otherwise, most of the miscellaneous money he collects for 'the church' from characters will go to wards building the castle." Does he have some secret knowledge of the ToEE's return that is spurring on this need to fund the castle? Or has Burne put some sort of geas or charm on him? Does he believe that Terjon and/or Y'dey might not approve of supporting the castle construction? What might that reason be?
  • Rannos Davl has a scarab with the letters "TZGY" inscribed on it which 1 in 5 sages will recognize as a "pass" of some kind used in the Temple of ED. What do the letters refer to? Remember, when this module came out in '79 no one had ever heard of Tsuggtmoy, and even if they had, there's no reason to assume that the two are connected. I mean, is it really all that wise to have an abbreviation of a demoness's name written on your secret hall pass?
  • Also, are we to believe that it is just a coincidence that Rufus also has a scarab?
  • When Rufus reaches 8th level (he's currently a 6th level Fighter) he has instructions to "return to Verbobonc for special service in the Viscount's behalf." What sort of service are we talking about here?
All these tidbits, and a few others, can be easily ignored or glossed over with banal explanations without influencing the outcome of the adventure in the least... or they can be used as the stepping off point of bizarre and elaborate conspiracies. That openness to interpretation is the genius of Hommlet, allowing the DM and players to use the details of the module more as signposts indicating where adventure may lie, but ultimately the players can cut across the landscape in whatever direction their imaginations took them. By the mid 80s, TSR's authors had learned to close these sorts of loopholes into tidy narratives that encouraged the PCs and DMs alike to stick to a narrowly defined course of adventure. Almost like a railroad.

I suspect that some of these loose ends and tidbits are the product of Hommlet's unique development as a module; as you'll recall, Gygax modulized Hommlet based on his experience running his chums through the adventure. This gives the module a degree of richness, as the NPCs have actually interacted with PCs; there's a history on which to base their personae. It makes for a very lush setting without handcuffing the DM or boring the reader with a static story line that they are expected to follow. Obviously, every group of players is going to make the module their own in some way, but no module encourages this sort of free-range action as well as Hommlet. With the possible exception of Restenford.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

4th Edition Hommlet: Bowdlerized for your viewing pleasure

So Reader Rick tells me that there's a 4th Edition D&D version of V. of Hommlet and he's hoping I'll rail into it for him. Since I'm pretty hard up for new material around here--as evidenced by my post-count for the year--I'm jumping all over it.

The Down Low
Hommlet? Is that you?
Back in 2009, the TSRs of the Coast sent out a revised-for-4th-edition-D&D Version of Hommlet to members of their D&D club. A few years later, that module was reproduced in Dungeon Magazine #212, which also happens to be the area code for Manhattan; coincidence? Anyway, thanks to Rick for helping me secure a review copy of the original, bookclub version of the module. 

Those unfamiliar with Gygax's original T1 may find this illustrated summary helpful, if not amusing.

Before we go any further, I'd like to point out that this is the closest I've ever come to a 4th ed. Big D product. My first impression: it looks an awful lot like Magic The Roleplaying Game. The statblocks are set up like a Magic the Gathering card what with the named attacks, the odd titles and creature types; "Zombie drake attacks with flying and lifelink!"

But I'm not here to review 4th Ed. Dung & Drag, I'm here to tear off a piece of Latter Day Hommlet and chew it up. So here we go...

General Impression
First, the artwork. The cover photo clearly was selected at random from a pile of fantasy clip art as it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Hommlet; maybe it's Minas Morghul? But later on there's a cool picture of a giant, bloated frog outside the moathouse, which, in my opinion, is the iconic encounter of this module; I fully approve. And there's Tramp's classic birds-eye view of the moathouse from the original, 'nuf said. The bookclub version also has extensive, large scale plans for the moathouse and other locations; these are not included with the Dragon Mag version. I assume these are for use with miniatures or counters or something, since small scale plans are also provided.

Moathouse Roll Call: Giant Frog? Present.
The village description has been reduced to a few notable locations: the Inn, Temple of Pellor (who?), Trader's Establishment, etc., and denizens: mostly the occupants of the notable locations, while the rest of the town has been reduced to single word descriptions such as "Brewer," "Farmhouse," "Herder," etc. This contrasts sharply with Gary's original, wherein even the least significant locations in town got 10-15 lines of text describing, at the minimum, the structure, its occupants, their occupation, religious views, notable combat acumen, as well as the location and quantity of treasure they have inevitably stashed somewhere on their estate. Leaving out these details is going to make the DM's job a lot harder when the PCs decide to "clear out" the town (rather than / after they've tired of) the moathouse. Not showing a lot of foresight there, Wizards.

Over at the moathouse, the update is a fairly straight cover version of the original. The monsters have been updated for the current version of the game which is to be expected. And even though they failed to update the map of the dungeon level to make room for the last pair of zombies, they did at least get them all inside a cell. Sadly, the treasure is assigned in random "parcels" which apparently was a thing in 4th ed. D&D, no? I say sadly because the treasure in the original helps establish a link between the moathouse and the DMG sample dungeon, removing it isolates this version even further from the source material.

Since the greatest degree of variation appears, at first glance, to be in the village rather than the moathouse, that's where I'll focus for the remainder of this here review. Perhaps I'll delve into the moathouse some more in a future post. Anyway... 

The Village
Probably the most significant change in town can be found over at the Church of St. Cuthbert, now described thusly: 
"Ostensibly dedicated to Pelor, this temple welcomes worshipers of any good or lawful good deity."
That's right, Y'dey and Terjon no longer dispense the obtuse wisdom of St. Cuthbert. Rather, they labor at the temple of a deity who is made of toast so milquey that the clergy's primary job is apologizing to parishioners for running out of gluten free communion wafers. And since the villagers no longer get their 15 lines of infamy--and thus their religious affiliations are undeclared--none of them is required to attend his tepid temple. Hoser.

I know nothing about Pelor--I assume he's the patron of something incredibly insignificant like elbow-patch-less tweed jackets or low-VOC mayonnaise--and the module provides no insight into the values his cult adheres to other than their openness to non-adherers. Contrast this with T1 where Gygax lays the groundwork for the hardheaded and venal doctrine of Cuthbert--if you visit the Church of Cuddy, the clergy won't even acknowledge your existence until you toss a few gold pieces in the ol' collection basket. Hommlet sure seems a lot less interesting with Pallor around. Why did they change it? Did they lose the rights to Ol' Cuddy in the divorce? Did Pellor the Homogenized somehow mastermind a hostile corporate takeover?

Here's a summary of other changes from the original. Many are innocuous, others not so much, and some, dare I say it, might actually represent an improvement on the original.
  • Gary's pedantic and pointless distinction between villages and hamlets has been removed from the background. I admit, I've always found this trivial tidbit to be inordinately annoying but now that it's gone I miss it.
  • Spugnoir, 2nd level MU and resident of the Inn, has changed his name to Spugnois--which is too bad because that doesn't rhyme with Guy Noir. 
  • Furnok of Furd is now a dwarf.
  • Kobort the Moron and Turuko the Malcontent, roommates at the original Welcome Wench, have made their way to the cutting room floor in the updated version.
  • So has almost every other villager including the likes of Black Jay and the family of infidels with the bossy but attractive daughter that lived by the mill. 
  • The village elder is now a woman named Hesta. 
  • Calmert reprises his role as officiant at the temple but rather than secretly diverting church funds to the construction of Rufus & Burne's tower, now his point of interest is that he's hot for a barmaid over at the 'Wench. 
    • The PCs get bonus XPs if they pass a note to the barmaid during study hall on Calmert's behalf. This juvenile set up is in keeping with the church's change in denomination from St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel to Pelor the vacuous glow worm. 
    • There are maybe one or two other innocuous side quests such as this planted in town; it's all very reminiscent of 90s computer games.
  • Rufus and Byrne's castle is being funded by unnamed "royalty" rather the than the Viscount of V'bonc and the Arch C. of Veluna as in the original. Not very significant except perhaps in establishing that this Hommlet is only precariously linked to the World of Greyhawk.
  • There's a shrine to Avandra on the edge of town. Mysteriously, there is no priest or following for this deity in Hommlet. The Ostler at the 'Wench has his staff maintain the shrine, which I suspect is done more out of civic pride than devotion to Avandra, otherwise he'd tend to it himself, no? The shrine adds a bit of mystery, which I appreciate.
  • Dannos Ravl still has the TZGY scarab, but its significance is distinctly left to the DM--it is no longer necessarily a pass to the T of EE. Nor do 1 in 5 sages understand its significance.
  • Rannos Davl and Gremag are much more amiable characters than they were under EGG's regime, which is smart. In T1, Gary portrayed them as such unlikable dickheads that no one would ever bother to deal with them, which is not very good for business if you're a merchant trying to make a living and possibly even less good if you're a spy who's trying to gain the trust of the locals.
    • Aside: Rannos Davl is obviously another near-anagram for Dave L. Arneson--as you may recall, one of the giant chieftains in G1 was named "Nosnra." But the best I can make of Gremag is Mare Gg which could maybe possibly be an abbreviated pseudo-anagram for Mary Gygax, EGG's first wife. Or maybe it's "Gamer G," a reference to Gary himself? Or maybe it's just Gremag, a cool sounding name.
In Conclusion...
The whittling away of many (most) of the details in town certainly makes 4th ed Hommlet a less lush setting than the original, removing the nooks and crannies that crazed loons like me--and, if you've made it this far, likely you as well, dear reader--thrive on, sinking the talons of our imaginations into them, kneading and prodding until we've rendered a more fully formed image in our minds. But most people who've gone through T1 never put most of the village into play, so they're not likely to notice the lack of information--other than the demise of the cult of Cuthbert of course.

As an adventure for your gang to go through on the odd Friday night, does it suck compared to good ol' T1? That's not really my area of expertise but I would say that the new version is so close to the original in terms of actual action that any attempt to malign it on these lines would likely risk smearing Lord Gary's original as well. I think for 96.83% of people, this is likely a perfectly adequate rendition of a classic. Where it differs is in the softening of the details, and for me, and others who like to obsess over minutiae, the new version's glossiness is a strike against it.