Saturday, March 31, 2012

Random Encounter 3: The Secret of Kopao Cave

This is a location based encounter. It is inspired by the article "Last of the Cave People" by Mark Jenkins in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic. In the article, Jenkins and photographer Amy Toensing follow the Meakambut , the last of the nomadic cave dwellers still residing in Papua New Guinea. It is an interesting article and I encourage you to seek it out; however, as a disclaimer in this encounter I portray the nomadic cave dwellers as antagonists. This is fantasy and in no way am I proposing that the Meakambut are a savage people. In the article, Jenkins does make mention that the Meakambut do believe, and are terrified of, sorcery. At one point, he fears for his safety as a member of the Meakambut led him to a cave sacred to them called Kopao and told him the secret of the cave. That night John, the member of the Meakambut tribe that led Jenkins to Kopao and told him the secret of the cave, had terrible dreams. In his dreams, his ancestors were angry at him for telling the Meakambut's secrets to a white man. That morning, a member of the tribe fell terribly ill with pneumonia. Jenkins feared that if the ill member were to die, he would be blamed. That story is the kernel for this random encounter.

This encounter takes place in a jungle environment. It can be run as an outdoor adventure, perhaps a hex or two, or several must be explored as the exact location of Kopao Cave is not known. Random encounters with jungle beasts are possible. I myself am always fond of Robert E. Howard inspired giant snakes, not to mention savage apes. Of course the less mundane critters from your favorite monster manual could always be added. The tribes that live in the area do not welcome outsiders. The subsist from hunting and gathering. The intrusion of outsiders can disrupt their hunting and gathering by either killing game or scaring it away. In either case, they are very protective and will deal with all outsiders. They prefer not to attack openly; instead, they will rely upon their superior knowledge of the area and set traps for the party, or attempt to lead them into dangerous areas. If they must attack, they prefer to do so from high up in the jungle foliage. They are experts at camouflage, and their weapons of choice are poisoned tipped javelins and darts. If forced into a face to face melee, they wear little armor, but do make use of small wooden shields and long curved knives of bone (which also may be poisoned).

The characters have heard stories whispered that amongst the nomadic jungle tribes, there is a sacred cave with a secret. If time and resources are spent discovering what this secret is, they will find vague creation myths. Basically, the tribes of the area believe that they were "birthed" from Kopao cave and that it is a conduit which leads directly to their gods. They do not frequently visit the cave, but do take the skulls of honored members of their tribes there to be put to rest. This is an honor. Rumor is, that these honored members (chiefs and great warriors and hunters) are put to rest with valuable treasures. What these treasures might be is up to the DM, but rumors of gold and relics should be discovered to entice the players to find Kopao cave.

Kopao cave should not be easy to find. Much exploring must be done. Even when the location is discovered, the party must make a dangerous climb up a vertical face that even thieves will have a hard time with without the proper equipment. Of course the tribes of the area set traps for the unwary as safe guards.

Entering Kopao cave, the players hunch under a low overhang that only halflings will not find uncomfortable to enter. Within, they are greeted by a gantlet of skulls, most of which are green with age, but others appear more recent. Past the skulls are numerous hand prints stenciled in blood. The hand prints are the first indication of the true secret of Kopao cave. Once a year, the tribes select one of their best hunters as a sacrifice. He is brought to the cave. As an honor, he is cut, then dipping his hand into a saucer of his own blood, he makes his mark amongst those of the past sacrifices. This honor completed, the ritual begins and he is sacrificed to appease the dwellers of the cave. There are indeed treasures left beyond the hand prints, these too are left to appease the dweller of the cave. Here the players will find large feathers, the hollow avian bones of which are full of fine gold dust and capped with a gum made from the sap of trees. There are also garments spun from fine fabrics and favored weapons, some of which are magical. These are there for the taking, if the players can deal with the dweller first.

What is the dweller? Think Lovecraftian. Kopao cave is portal that leads to another dimension. Luckily, it is weak and the dweller can only enter from its dimension no farther then the cave. There is a large crack in the ceiling. It is about twenty feet long, and three hand spans wide. From this crack, an odor is noted. An odor reminiscent of rotten fish, but not overpowering. It is as if dead fish were stuffed into the crack, left for a few weeks, then removed a week ago. Magic-users and elves get an uneasy feeling in close proximity to the crack. Their stomachs feel queasy and they find the hairs on the nape of their necks stand up, they may also get goose bumps. The closer one gets to the crack, the cooler the air temperature becomes. Standing right beneath it, the air is so cool, one shivers. A darkness in noticed within the crack. Torches and lanterns will not illuminate it, a light spell does not even penetrate it. Voices are heard from the within the crack. Whispers in a language that none can fathom. The hushed whisper increases into a present drone. Finally, a tentacle slithers from the crack, followed by another. That is when the darkness radiates from the crack acting as a Darkness spell.

Now is when the characters, if they are smart, run. I use insanity rules in my games, and would require sanity checks. If they stick around to fight it out, they most likely will perish. They should be able to grab some treasure and run before all hell breaks loose.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Adventure Idea -- The Hunger Games

My daughter has been begging my wife and I to read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games for a long time now. She was excited about the movie coming out and was disappointed that I wouldn't be in town to see it with her opening weekend. To make up for my absence, I borrowed her copy of the book for my business trip and promised to read it.

I finished tonight and found it an enjoyable read; however, this isn't a review. From the get go, I was reminded of a Dungeons & Dragons session I ran when I was in the seventh or eighth grade that had a strikingly similar set up.

I was twelve when I first started out as a dungeon master, and I quickly earned a reputation for killing characters. It was a badge of honor for me at the time. I strove to come up with novel ways of pitting my players characters against great odds. I didn't kill them all, but most. To this day, I've never actually killed a player, just their characters.

In the session I ran, I had my five players start out as convicted prisoners that were sentenced to death. Their captors gave them one chance at life. They were set loose in the dungeon via magic portals. The dungeon belonged to a powerful wizard. They were told that only one of them was allowed to make it out alive, but that person would not only earn his freedom, he would also be allowed to keep whatever he recovered in the dungeon. Of course the dungeon was stocked full of nasty monsters and even nastier traps. I had decided that whichever character made it to the end of the dungeon would be faced by the wizard and a small army of minions. The wizard would demand whatever valuables the character had recovered. If he cooperated, he would be allowed to live and leave naked. Yeah, I was not a nice DM, and I'm not sure why anyone ever wanted to play with me, young bastard that I was.

The five of them were not alone. I set loose ten NPC's with them, each of which had the same deal as they. All of the fifteen were set loose at different points in the dungeon. As I remember it, one of them was quickly attacked by a group of three NPC's that had decided to join forces. Witnessing this, the remaining four decided to gang together and started NPC hunting. This lasted for a bit, until one of them, a thief, back stabbed a fellow player character.

At that point, all hell broke loose. In the end, none of them survived as I cheated. One of the NPCs was actually a devil polymorphed into the form of a human. When he was encountered, well, it didn't end well for the remaining two players that met up with him.

In retrospect, it was a juvenile concept, but sometimes juvenile is good, dirty fun.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Game of Thrones, Yearning for Birthright

About a week ago, my wife and I power watched season one of A Game of Thrones on Blue Ray. My animosity towards George R.R. Martin aside, I enjoyed the season and found it refreshingly tighter then the books.

However, this is not a review. AGoT has been reviewed to death. Watching the series made me yearn to once again play Birthright.

For those not familiar, Birthright was a setting published by TSR in 1995. In the setting, characters were rulers of domains (this was possible even at 1st level!). There was much political backstabbing (at least in my campaigns) and of course war always loomed.

I really got into Birthright at the time. It is the only setting published by TSR that I ever used in my campaigns and I used it for several years. One of the attractions for me was that the characters each had a bloodline that was derived from a dead god. There was a war of the gods many years ago in which all the old gods perished and new gods rose in their place. However, not all of the old gods power was transferred to the new. A fraction of it (a lot in godhood terms) was transferred to their followers. Some followers had only trace bloodlines, while others had great bloodlines. It was possible to increase ones bloodline by killing another blooded character, giving the game a very Highlander appeal.

The game was originally designed for 2nd edition AD&D, and this was the system I usually ran it with; however, I once played a GURPS (3rd ed.) version of the game, and a dedicated online fan base put out a 3rd edition D&D version that I used for a year or so as well.

I have, to the best of my knowledge, every expansion ever published for the setting. I haven't had an urge to play it in years. For the past ten years, my game of choice has been Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and when I do play D&D, it is an old-school version. I've played with both the BECMI Cyclopedia rules and Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game.

But damn! Watching Game sure makes me want to pull the Birthright material out of storage and maybe convert it to Basic Fantasy Roleplay, or for kicks, use it with 2nd ed. AD&D (although my 2nd edition games were mostly 1st edition games with a few good ideas from 2nd ed. thrown in for flavor).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons, Edition Too Much

I haven't read much about the looming newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I stuck with the game up through 3rd, but decided to get off the bus with the announcement of 3.5. My reason? Too many editions.

Consider, the game was created in 1974. That game, now commonly referred to as Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), did go under revision with the publication of the J. Eric Holmes edition in 1977. That same edition did get minor revisions (but not new editions) with the subsequent Tom Moldvay 1981 edition and the Frank Mentzer 1983 edition.

The largest edition change came with the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with the publication of the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manual between the years of 1977 and 1979.

So as can be seen, there was change early in the hobby. Within five years of original conception, the game underwent three revisions and one edition change.

However, the next edition change was not seen until 1989, with the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons second edition. AD&D1, was given 10 years shelf life before being canned. AD&D2 reigned for eleven years before D&D3 was published in 2000.

But since then, new editions crop up too often. 3rd edition was quickly canned and replaced with 3.5 in 2003. That was my warning sign that it was time to get off the bus.

And I am glad I did. Five years after asking its players to ditch the rule books they had bought only a three short years earlier, Wizards of the Coast published 4th edition in 2008. Now in 2012, they are play testing their latest edition (which their marketing guys are smartly calling D&D Next).

A new edition every approximate five years? No thank you sir. That is Edition Too Much. I will stay off the bus.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bygone Golden Days of Gaming

I miss running a regular game. I've enjoyed the board gaming I've done lately, and if I never am able to run a regular game again, I would be okay as long as I could at least occasionally play a good geeky fun board game such as Arkham Horror, any of the Catan games, the occasional game of Zombies! and have the ability to try out new games every now and then.

However, I will always have the longing to run a good, long roleplaying game.

The problem is, whenever I start one and get into it, and when I am into it, I am REALLY into it (I have taken sick time from work before, just because I had a good idea I wanted to prepare for that night's game). The problem is my career is demanding, and by demanding I mean I travel lots.

I have looked into other options, Google+, Fantasy Grounds, Skype and such, and those are options, but the problem is I travel in Alaska, and take it from me, the Internet coverage in AK is spotty at best.

The same thing always happens, I get a good game going and going strong for a month, maybe two, playing once a week. Then, I have to travel. First, my group and I will miss one session, which becomes three, then a month, then several months. Whenever I try going back to that game that was so strong when I left it, it just isn't on fire in my head anymore. I think the same is true for my players.

There is no point or moral to this post, and I've made other posts like it before. Sometimes, I just need to vent. I miss my golden days of gaming.

Disney's "John Carter" Not this Generation's "Star Wars" -- Review

My family and I finally had the chance to see Disney's John Carter this past weekend. While I enjoyed it, it was not the Edgar Rice Burrough's tale that I love. Several seemingly small changes were made; however, these "seemingly small changes" added up to a story that was not A Princess of Mars, nor the characters and world created by ERB.


Please stop reading here, if you do not wish to know some spoilers.

After viewing the theatrical trailers released prior to the movie hitting theaters, I was apprehensive walking into my favorite mega-theater-complex. There was a scene in one of the trailers in which it is mentioned that if John Carter doesn't stop the threat that is menacing Barsoom, that Earth will be next...Huh?, I thought. I don't remember any universe shaking threat from the first three books that were a potential threat to the universe, so what is this about?

However, what really raised my hackles was the phrase spoken during a television commercial for the film: THIS GENERATIONS STAR WARS! I have heard this moniker attached to too many science fiction films over the years, and they always fail to deliver. There will never be a "this generations Star Wars", not even the three prequels made by George Lucas himself measured up as "this generation's Star Wars". Please Hollywood, stop making promises you can not deliver upon. I tried to stay objective and to quiet the nagging of this statement in the back of my mind while viewing the film. I thought to myself, "don't let a bogus Hollywood marketing scheme cloud your vision". I feel that I succeeded.

As I mentioned earlier, there were several small changes made to ERB's original story for the film that I did not approve of; understand, that I am not THAT GUY. You know THAT GUY. THAT GUY insists upon absolute purity to his favorite story whenever it is switched from one media to another. THAT GUY is still pissed that there was no Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings movies. I recognize that when one of my favorite stories is made into a movie or adapted to comic book format, or any other type of media other than its original conception, it will be based upon my favorite story, and most likely not a strictly shackled reformatting for another media medium. Some things just don't translate well from the written page to the large screen, it is a fact. Also, some stories are so lavishly long, that cuts must be made; for instance, the cutting of Tom Bombadil from the LotR does not change the over reaching story line.

These are not the types of changes that I am here after complaining about. So, at the risk of being THAT GUY, here we go...

First up, the character of John Carter, as presented in the movie versus the character presented by ERB is not the same. The John Carter created by ERB is brave, chivalrous, decisive, honest to a fault and craves combat. Yes, he is written like some sort of impossible man, but this is what makes him special. He is everything most boyhood fantasies dream about one day becoming and that was the point. ERB's Carter is even seemingly ageless! Burroughs goes out of his way to make him more than human; however, Hollywood does everything possible to make Carter more human.

The Captain Carter of the movie is a survivor of the Civil War, he fought for the South, and while he survived, his wife and daughter did not...wait?...what?...yes, I said "wife and daughter", you know, the wife and daughter that ERB never made mention of, but Hollywood felt compelled to add to make the character of John Carter more sympathetic and human. Furthermore, the John Carter of the movie, re-imagined as a war ravaged loner haunted by the death of his loved ones, wishes to be left alone so he can find the fabled lost gold of the Spider Caves (another slight alteration made for the film). He seeks the gold of the spider caves not out of a sense of adventure (as ERB's John Carter would have), but because he wants enough gold to live his life out in comfortable solitude (which, I must admit, is a sentiment ERB's John Carter might share). Both ERB's Carter and the Carter of the movie are good in a fight, but ERB's Carter is amazingly good in a fight and seeks the thrill of combat, while the Carter of the movie is good in a fight, not amazing, the Dejah Thoris of the movie is seemingly his equal, and I got the sense that while he wouldn't back down from a fight, he does not crave combat in the same way Burrough's Carter does; however, I must make mention of one very Burroughs like scene in which Carter fights off wave after wave of enemies.

The other slight alteration made for the film, I all ready alluded to. In the film, the Zodangans have been given the 9th Ray, which makes them a threat to all of Barsoom. The 9th ray was given to them by the Therns, which for the movie have been given magical like powers and it is assumed that they have travelled across vast distances from world to world, shaping those worlds to their liking while hiding in the background. This change, I believe, was made to give the film an epic feel. Burrough's A Princess of Mars was not epic. The story is more episodic and there is no arch villain of the book. Later, in the subsequent novels The Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars, there are presented arch villains in the guise of the Therns and their false goddess Issus. I can understand why it was believed that having an overall bad guy would appeal to the modern movie goer, so this sin, I forgive.

There were several other changes, but overall I did enjoy the film. No it is not this generation's Star Wars and it was not a faithful adaption of A Princess of Mars, but it never promised to be the later; however, it was an enjoyable film. I will purchase it on Blue-Ray when available, and I am willing to see any sequels.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Class as Caste in Classic Dungeons and Dragons

I've read this series of posts by Greywulf before on why he feels the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia is the most awesome version of the game ever published (this being an opinion I share); however, ever since re-reading them yesterday, I have been putting much thought into his concept of "Class as Caste" and how it might be used to add flavor to a campaign setting.

If you haven't read Greywulf's posts, please do so. But for my purposes, I will quote what has been causing my gaming gears to turn lately (the italics for emphasis are mine own):

In the Rules Cyclopedia we have Fighter, Thief, Magic-User and Cleric – all of whom are Human – and the demihuman “classes” of Elf, Dwarf and Halfling. In our campaigns we say that humans undergo a Casting ceremony while still a child (at birth or later, depending on religion and culture), and their path in life is revealed. The D&D human Classes are the character’s Caste, and wars have been fought over a child being Casted a Thief to a long line of noble Fighters. The other races have no such ceremony – an Elf is just an Elf – and are bemused by human’s pre-occupation with pidgeonholing each other. In many cultures, ordinary folks can’t afford the Casting ceremony (unless a kindly Cleric offers it for free), and end up as castless Commoners, shopkeepers, etc.

For me, the class as caste concept is an intriguing basis for a campaign. What kind of world is it that has "Thief" as a viable social caste? I think, if I were to adopt something along these lines into one of my games, there would be guilds associated with each caste that a character could join, and probably should unless he wants to be an outsider in his own caste.

In most cases, this makes a lot of sense. Many campaigns have Thieves Guilds, and having a Wizards Guild and a Warriors Guild is not uncommon. In some cases, the guilds would not be called or considered as such. For instance, Clerics would belong to a Cult, Temple or Church and Wizards might belong to Universities or Colleges with each college of magic having its own branch. Again, this is nothing new to most gamers. I can think of several game worlds off the top of my head that have organizations such as these in place for players to have their characters join.

In the case of some zero-level NPC's, they may not belong to a guild and are in fact caste-less. Farmers and barmaids for instance might not have a caste; however, I believe in a society that places so much emphasis upon a caste system, there would be guilds set up for even the zero-level NPCs. I can envision several guilds being in place for farmers, slavers, merchants, prostitutes and town watchmen, just to name a few. Aristocrats would belong to a line of families, that again like Clerics and Wizards "guilds" may in fact not be called as such, but would work much the same way.

In such a caste driven society, the importance of belonging to something is paramount to identity. For example: "I am Graven of the Warriors Guild", "I am Celina of the Comforters Guild" (Comforter being a polite term for prostitute), "I am Benjamin of the Agriculture Guild", etc. etc.. A further identifier could be what level the character is.

Once upon a time, when I was a pre-teen gamer, my group got into a heated argument about levels. Some of us believed that what level a character is was meant to be background noise; in other words, a simple rule mechanic illustrating how powerful any given person is. Others of us believed, and I was in this camp, that since name levels were provided for each level (and here I am referring to first edition AD&D) that each character was aware of what level he is. For clarity, I will post those levels from the AD&D first edition Player's Handbook for those that don't know what I am referring to (and I include only the four "basic" human classes offered in Classic D&D):

1: Acolyte
2: Adept
3: Priest
4: Curate
5: Perfect
6: Canon
7: Lama
8: Patriarch
9: High Priest
10: High Priest (10th level)
11: High Priest (11th level)

1: Veteran
2: Warrior
3: Swordsman
4: Hero
5: Swashbuckler
6: Myrmidon
7: Champion
8: Superhero
9: Lord
10: Lord (10th Level)
11: Lord (11th Level)

1: Prestidigitator
2: Evoker
3: Conjurer
4: Theurgist
5: Thaumaturgist
6: Magicician
7: Enchanter
8: Warlock
9: Sorcerer
10: Necromancer
11: Wizard
12: Wizard (12th level)
13: Wizard (13th level)
14: Wizard (14th level)
15: Wizard (15th level)
16: Wizard (16th level)
17: Wizard (17th level)
18: Wizard (18th level or Arch-Mage)

1: Rogue
2: Footpad
3: Cutpurse
4: Robber
5: Burglar
6: Filcher
7: Sharper
8: Magsman
9: Thief
10: Master Thief
11: Master Thief (11th level)
12: Master Thief (12th level)

I like this concept coupled with Class as Caste. Thus now one might introduce himself as "I am The Footpad Collin of the Thieves Guild" or "I am Magrill, Hero of the Warriors Guild". From these two examples, we know that Collin is a second level thief and that Magrill is a fourth level fighter, or at least that is what they claim to be. There would be no stopping someone from lying about their caste, but I think such a crime would be a serious one in a society that takes caste so seriously; however, buying one's way higher into a guild would most likely be an acceptable practice. Therefore, if Magrill has not paid his dues, while he may mechanically be fourth level, as far as the Guild is concerned, he might still be considered "Magrill, Veteran of the Warriors Guild"; thus, the dungeon master has a good way of eating up some of that extra gold that his players have lying around. If a player wants to be able to use his new name level, he must pay to do so. 100 gold pieces per level sounds reasonable. Of course, a social power hungry player that wants to quickly climb the social ladder could easily buy a name higher then that which he should actually be.

The system must be played with, in my mind "The Arch-Bishop Draven of the Cult of Entropy" sounds better then "Draven, Arch-Bishop of the Cult of Entropy", but others may disagree. Also, it is a stretch to say that every 10th level magic-user is a Necromancer, but what if it's not? Meaning, what if to advance through each level, a magic-user must concentrate his studies on a different branch of magic for each level? Thus every 10th level magic-user is a necromancer. That is a thought that may be worth plumbing itself for ideas.