Tuesday, January 19, 2021

D&D: Let's design a castle siege!


So my group of players who are working their way through Rappan Athuk are about 2-3 sessions from a mass combat battle at their precious castle they've been working on throughout the campaign. Did I mention how much of this campaign has turned into a homebrew hodge-podge? Anyways, I need to work up a system for the likely castle siege that is coming. I do have access to the Strongholds & Followers book released by the Matt Coleville group, so I will be borrowing a lot from that as well as we dive in.

So the first order of business is to give my players, who are all 9th level at this point, some followers and troops that have come in support of their cause and claim to the area here west of the Forest of Hope. The Strongholds & Followers book provides a handy table specific to each class. I may skim or filter this a bit to allow for each of my players to get actual troops where some of the results are merchant and adviser type persons. Based on the amount of money and they have spent upgrading this castle through the campaign I've been tracking the progress, so I'm going to allow each of them 3 rolls on the table. That should give them a fairly healthy roster on top of the 10 guards and captain from Zelkor's Ferry, plus any of the town's citizens get pressed into service of defense of the castle as well. 

Now how should we run the lead up to the actual battle itself? I'm thinking it will take the elvish warships roughly a week to sail down the river channel towards the area surrounding the keep. Once the players resolve some in town encounters and roleplay recruiting local allies to their cause, they should have some time to prep the castle and / or harass those who seek to unseat their rule. To that end, I am going to setup a victory point tally based on the actions, wins and losses incurred during the entirety of the conflict here. 

This is a rough draft, but let us see what that looks like:
  • Base Castle >> 5 points
  • Castle upgrade 1 >> 5 points
  • Castle upgrade 2 >> 5 points
  • Castle upgrade 3 >> 10 points
  • Scouting the enemy forces >> 5 points
  • Disrupt the enemy supplies and camps >> 5 points for each successful attempt
  • Additional defenses and planning added to the castle >> 3 points
  • Player forces winning a stage of the battle >> 10 points each (planning 3 of these in total)
  • Player characters winning a set piece encounter >> 15 points each (planning 3 of these in total)
The player forces are mostly covered in the Stronghold and Followers book, providing base line stats which I will have to draw for the group and the enemy forces. I'm thinking this will be an encounter running parallel to the characters encounters. 

So what gives the characters victory? I'm going to say they need to get to 100 points during the week leading up to and battle itself. They will start with 25 points based on what they spent and upgraded to the castle so far. Not getting to 100 points will not spell defeat, but that would mean a margin of success with conditions. That could include damage to the castle, loss of life to the soldiers, followers and citizens being harbored within the castle. I expect my players to win out, but I want it to feel close, bloody and dangerous. That being said I need to work on what I plan for the set piece encounters for the group....with back to back encounters this could be dicey for them, but that is the fun of it. I'll make another post once we've cleared this part of the campaign and report back on what worked and didn't. For now the players seem excited and I've let them start to meta plan what they hope to do leading up to it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Coronavirus and TTRPG


"It's been a helluva year"....I know a lot of us can say that as we now venture into 2021 fresh, full of hope that will undoubtedly be crushed soon enough. My full-time job has now fully transitioned to working from home as I spend part of time helping my 1st grade daughter with her virtual school lessons. It has been a big adjustment and one that I still struggle with daily at times, and these times have also spilled over into my hobbies as well, namely table-top RPG's or as you folks may know of it as Dungeons and Dragons.

Prior to the events of 2020 my play group had already made the transition over to virtual tabletop play, mostly through the application of Roll20, which has I've become more familiar with the system have grown to enjoy for it's ease of use and accessibility for my players to enjoy as well. There are a couple of drawbacks, but I'll touch on those in a bit. This move to virtual tabletop was mostly spurred by a couple of the members moving further away, but now we can much more easily schedule our game sessions and play in our pajamas if we want to. I do miss the beer and pizza though.

As the lockdowns were set in place, along with travel and just leaving the house in general discouraged. I found my free time open up bit by bit, what was a rotating schedule of my Rappan Athuk game one week followed by Rise of the Runelords (where I'm a player) the next week. Over the last half of the year, I began running a second group through Tomb of Annihilation (5E) along with adding another game where I'm a player in a homebrew 5E campaign. Despite my wife's complaints my TTRPG gaming doubled over the past year. 

Another change was in how I engaged with the RPG content. I have always been a "read the book in my hands" person, but I now strive to pick PDF's of anything I'm using or running in my games as well. For one it makes conversion and setup in Roll20 that much easier and with a multiple monitor setup I can easily reference material as I'm running it using the virtual tabletop. I still love the physical books and my collection is extensive, but pretty soon I'm going to need a bigger hard drive for all of the virtual content now.

As much I love Roll20 and some of the cool features: dynamic lighting, auto math / macro's and the customization with the art and tokens; it is a lot more work for a DM. With my in-person games, most of the times I would think over the session while walking the dog that afternoon and just show it up and run it. Now my setup is fairly intense if the module isn't preset as some of the WoTC modules are in Roll20. For Rappan Athuk, I have to source or purchase copies of the virtual maps, load them, draw the dynamic lighting if needed, custom monsters setup if not accounted for in the SRD, custom part added to tokens and then I start to add in my creative juices. It is quite a bit more work, but when it works, it is certainly great and easy to use in session.

All of that said, the hobby, at least for me is still going great. My friends and I are still having some great game sessions making memories and stories to live on forever. I hope the same is true for many others out there as well.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Rappan Athuk: Campaign Updates, part 2 (5th edition)


So it has been a wild few months, hope everyone survived the holidays as we now enter the dystopian days of 2021. My group has been continuing their journey in our Rappan Athuk campaign and we're roughly 15 sessions in as I type this next blog post up. When we left off the group was taking some R&R in the small town of Zelkor's Ferry which has served as their home base throughout the campaign. They have recently funded to have a nearby castle rebuilt and made livable, but the working staff and supplies have not yet arrived to make that possible. 

I had updated the bounty board in town to provide some more choices for the group, one of those for the group to delve further into Rappan Athuk and drive out any Orcus cultist...can't say I didn't try to get them in there. They took the hook to search out a troll lair on the neighboring marshes north of town. Heading into this encounter, I was a bit worried. There was nearly 20 trolls living in the lair and they were leaded by an arcane casting shaman that was CR7 by the 5E standards. I must compliment the group here as they really were organized and strategic, bottlenecking the trolls even as they were slowing encircled. Finally dealing with the shaman as the HP totals for all member were getting dangerously low. I did hold back a bit here, not sending all of the trolls at once and the encounter balance turned out to be just right. Once the shaman had been dealt with, they were able to to intimidate the rest of the remaining trolls into scattering back into the marshes. Nice work team.....also, the conversion for 5E on Rappan Athuk is basically still working with 3rd edition treasure totals and well they definitely got hooked up here. A subject for another day, but I really hate how 5E does treasure and magic items anyways.

Scratch one off the list, next up is a gang of kobolds led by an ogre. The group is all roughly level 7 at this point and this whole encounter was a joke. A few fireballs and some diplomacy and the group was sit to collect some more castle funds. Following this, I had set a few set piece encounters as the agents of Orcus are slowly pushing to the surface as the group continues to ignore the threat there. One of these encounters was quite large and again I underestimated the overall striking power of my players. 5th edition players are super heroes, they are so pushed in this edition I'm really not sure why I continue to play it, but again a subject for another day. 

Some of the kobolds had given a lead on a group of goblins occupying a nearby fortress that just so happens to be one of the many surface entrances into Rappan Athuk. Once the group had driven off the Orcus minions for now, they decided to take on the goblins. A series of encounters as they marched their way through the fortress did not prove to be too taxing. They managed to take one of the goblins prisoner before a few of the others could flee to their city deep within Rappan Athuk setting off a dead fall to block the passage behind them, this though opened a side passage to lvl 3 and the purple worm nesting grounds. The group briefly explored here before getting cold fight and returning back to the fortress. I was sad, as there are some really memorable encounters to be had on this level....but alas....I'll just have to continue to homebrew way to kill my players on the surface.

Between sessions, I gave each of my players some private motivation to further plumb the depths of Rappan Athuk. The groups druid took the bait and ran with it. Seeking a means to expand his growing power (Circle of Fire druid), which is pretty busted already, he started receiving whispers from an unknown beings prisoned on a connecting level to the goblin fortress. This level just happens to be full of lava to go with the fire theme and there is a real nasty monster here that I've tacked on a magic item to drop from should they encounter and defeat it. Much of the lava level is fairly mundane, a trapped bridge and friendly fire giant that just wants to fish for the lava carp that swim nearby, and of course the alien princesses being prisoned. The group finished the last session having just discovered the river of lava flowing through this deep layer and the druid had wandered off, the magmamoid monster surging to his location....will they survive? Probably, because 5E player characters aren't supposed to die apparently...but I'll keep trying, until next we meet!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

What does the OSR mean to you?


When the open gaming license was made public back in 2000 by the Overlords at WoTC, the intent was to open up content to be published by 3rd party publishers, thus expanding the options for the consumer and driving the sale of those officially published books into more homes across this great land of ours. But, there was an unforeseen consequence of this. The OGL also opened the doors to the previous editions of the game, sparking would would become the present day OSR or Old-School Renaissance (Revival by some).

Since this time we've seen a number of retroclone rule sets published for the B/X, AD&D, Basic, Holmes and AD&D 2nd edition rule sets. Some of these really pushing the boundaries of rules-light content and revamping those official published rules into clean and much more usable versions. There is an ice cream flavor for all here...from the crunchiness of Dungeon Crawl Classics with tons of tables and random effect rolls, to Blackhack and Into the Odd which simplify rules down to almost pure narrative play.

With all the diversity of rule preference, there starts to form this question as to what is the OSR really? I can't speak for others and I certainly don't intend to, this is just my personal opinion. For me, the OSR is a feeling. It is not a ruleset, though some rules are more conducive to this feeling than other. It is not even a genre or setting, even though there is a vast array of these now available to the OSR consumer. It is that first D&D basic character, rolling it up at my friend's house one summer day...a Neutral alignment Fighter, Lance Warlend; if he lives long enough he can be titled a knight....I like this, this is the character I want to play. We venture into the dungeon, this abandoned castle on a lost island, dinosaurs wonder the wilderness, those seem dangerous, best to stay in this castle. Rooms explored, goblins slain, the last room has this large creature I've never heard of...a bugbear....three of my companions are dead, it is me and the bugbear, my hit points are getting low.....somehow the dice finally break my way, a hit, it goes down. In the chest is a flaming sword, holy shit, I'm so pumped, my heart is racing! I'm twelve and I've just had my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, I'm now hooked for life.

The above is the OSR for me, well, getting back to that experience...it was the art in the D&D Cyclopedia that I was flipping through trying to grasp the rules, it was the grid map of the island and then the castle with all of the goblins that my friend had drawn up by hand, it was the high risk my character was under exploring for a way out and eventually overcoming by the skin of my teeth. Trying to recapture that feeling of wonder and adventure I experienced those many years ago, that is what defines the OSR to me. I love many of the published works, adventures and settings to come out of the community, but there is no one definition for what the OSR is, it is different for all us. By my definition it is not limited to a ruleset, the famous black and white art that defined the era. OSR could be at any table played with any rules if one wanted to be so.

So what does the OSR mean to you? 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Rappan Athuk: Review and Thoughts


Rappan Athuk: The dungeon of graves. Published by Frog God Games and formerly Necromancer games in its original incarnation. I'm currently running my play group through this big beast of a module...err....megadungeon using the 5E ruleset. Rappan Athuk was originally released for the 3.5 ruleset as three separate volumes detailing the multiple levels of this expansive dungeon and surrounding area. It has since seen compilation volumes with the newer editions of the game: Pathfinder, 5E, along with a Swords & Wizardry (Basic) version. Much of this review will be in regards to the 5E version of the module, but much there is little difference in the different releases outside of the mechanical elements presented within.

For starters lets touch on some legend surrounding this module, it is deadly and it is big. Deadly in 5E is not something typically associated, and for the most part I would agree, the 5E version of Rappan Athuk is not nearly as deadly as the other iterations, but there are some definite "oh shit" moments throughout, I'll touch on this a bit more later. And yes it is big, like, there is so much in here from the wilderness region and small town, to the different bandit groups plaguing the region, and that is all before you get to the literal 50+ dungeon levels presented within. This is a pricey book, but you are getting years worth of content and I imagine no two campaigns run would be the same given the very sandbox area to play in.

The setting centers around a small hamlet deep in what is apparently BFE (very remote) of the Frog Gods Lost Land setting. The backstory presents that several hundred years ago the fleeing army of an evil city named Tsar, known worshippers of the demon god Orcus, had been driven to the area around Rappan Athuk called the Forest of Hope. The alliance of good had defeated them at the city and were in pursuit to drive out the last vestiges of evil, though neither army was ever heard from or seen again. Now hundreds of year later, rumors have begun to abound of the lost levels of Rappan Athuk deep under this region, only the hamlet of Zelkor's Ferry providing any bit of civilization in the region persists, but adventurers and treasure seekers flock to the area for riches or more likely...a quick death.

The dungeon levels themselves are not thematically connected....there is a goblin city, a vampire level, a lava level, a forgotten chamber of the elder beast level....there is a lot going on here, but it kind of works. The inter-connectivity to this place is insane, there are a number of entrances to various levels throughout the wilderness region and each level has multiple means of egress which lead to varied levels. Take the underground river to this level, drop down this random hole to another, really awesome and not linear at all for multi-level dungeon. If your players aren't careful they could easily stumble into something well beyond their level, but I really love it. In my home game, my players virtually terrified to venture into the dungeon levels, let alone get lost in there. The tricks, traps and puzzles are really great and varied, you can tell the FGG staff are big fans of the Grimtooth series as some of these are pretty diabolical...oh you want an example...ok, how about the sloping passage that fills with water and pushes the party into a massive spinning fan! There is also a TPK trap located close the main entrance of the dungeon itself, the players could vary well die before they even set foot in.

The over-arching theme of Rappan Athuk is dealing with the coming and goings of Orcus and his minions. If your players are lucky enough to survive, there is enough content to push them to max level and possible encounter with the big guy himself. Many of the set piece encounters are epic and extremely challenging, character should be expected at any given time, but that sense of danger and escalation should really push your players into engagement. There is also an included full bestiary of all of the named and custom monster encounters, really glad to see this included and stated out.

So, what could be better? Like many of the other FGG volumes it is verbose, like holy hell there is a lot in here to read and dig through. Certainly not an easy tome to run. It is not just the backstory and narrative add-ons for the levels, but just the exposition within rooms themselves is a lot to dig through in the heat of running the game. The editing, dear god the editing, I really didn't realize how bad it was until I began to manually load my game into Roll20 for my players, but references to connecting levels are wrong throughout, whole panels are missing on certain levels, room descriptions are crossed up or mislabeled. There were times I had to put the book down and just draw out the connections or room descriptions myself, this shouldn't occur in a $100 book.

Many of the generic and random encounters are just hordes of enemies of lower CR value, I guess the intent was to overwhelm the PC's, but this doesn't work as great in 5E as it did in earlier editions, plus it tends to bog down the game a bit with unnecessary combat that is not advancing the plot or player agenda. I still have not figured out why they placed the hub location, Zelkor's Ferry, so freaking far away from the main entrance to the dungeon also. It really discourages the typical adventure jaunt, as written, it is over 20 miles away and across a river....there is a lot to do in the wilderness areas, but the heart and soul of this module is set within the dungeon proper, it should have been situated a bit better in my opinion. One of the key aspect of any megadungeon are factions, you won't really find these here unfortunately. Another minor gripe is getting going with the module from level 1. This somewhat fixed with a satellite dungeon located near Zelkor's Ferry, but this turned the first several sessions of my campaign into a more homebrew wilderness adventure. It has been fun, but I'm running off the cuff more than I would like as I really want my players to cut their teeth in the dungeon levels...just DM problems here, ignore me.

Lastly, let me quickly touch on the art. The 5th edition conversion for this book upgraded all of the art to full-color with several new full page art pieces. It's good, but there are some odd choices like using random map snippets to conclude chapter levels. I mean, it serves no purpose unless they were trying to drive up the page count. I much prefer the black and white art found in the previous editions (Pathfinder and S&W) it was really fantastic and set the mood for this module perfectly. 

Allright, so is it really worth it? I mean, this is a pricey tome...yes, gripes aside which are somewhat common with many 3rd party publishers, there is some really amazing stuff presented here. If your group is open to running games using a non-5th edition system, find a copy of the S&W version and run it using B/X or the fabulous Old-school essentials version of the game. Some of the encounters, creatures and levels to be explored are really incredible, looking at you poop monster. Is it the best megadungeon, no, but it is really good and follows the lineage of the 3rd edition tough as nails era of the game. My group has been having a really good time with it so far, with the added elements I introduced for my game, but there have already been several notable memories had and I'm looking forward to many more!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Barrowmaze: My favorite module...ever.

Barrowmaze is a self-published megadungeon from Greg Gillespie, originally published in 2012 for the Labyrinth Lord B/X retroclone rule set. It has since seen a revision with Barrowmaze Complete from a successful Kickstarter along with a conversion to the 5E ruleset. I first became aware of this adventure after I returned to the hobby in 2013. Back then I had no concept of the OSR jumping back into playing Pathfinder at the time, but boy oh boy when I got my copy of Barrowmaze Complete not soon after, my world was changed.

Barrowmaze centers around the rustic backwater town of Helix located in a far flung duchy. South of Helix are the Barrowmoors, multiple burial mounds nestled in a swamp a few hours from town. Somewhere within these mounds rests Barrowmaze, a forgotten and ancient labyrinth that houses multiple catacombs and crypts, the engine of this adventure is that something is driving the dead to rise from the crypts, something of power which has brought numerous rival adventuring group, along with competing factions into play. There is a lot to work with here for a DM.

I'll do my best to avoid spoilers, but there are numerous factions at work, along with the grand undead theme (a favorite D&D enemy of mine), all posted in a familiar and believable setting. It just feels so real, the atmosphere that is conveyed by Greg Gillespie is just outstanding: I love the mood of the darkened-quiet halls full of treasure, surprise and danger. What really bowled me over was the art....my god, this takes me back to my childhood growing up reading and playing the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (BECMI) version of the game. It is just so fantastic and really brings this module to life, along with illustrations to show your players, just the chef's kiss of amazing. Really you have to see for yourself, my words as a DM will never do justice for what I can show my players with the fantastic art included here.

There is also a lot to work with in the regional setting. Two smaller towns and larger city are detailed along with important NPC's, particularly those located in Helix, again art is included here. Some of the references and names are a bit tongue-in-cheek with some notable pop culture references, but I am buying all of this. My players tend to do this on their own with anything I've created and it will only help to make the NPC's more memorable and bring personality in play. Unique treasures abound as well once the players start to plunder the crypts, including runic tablets which serve as a deck of many things type of occurrence should your players stumble across those. Gillespie also included unique spells, magical items along with a full bestiary with each creature getting art, take note literally every other D&D publisher, this is how it is done. Art is all top notch and in theme throughout the book, this was clearly a work of love and passion and it pays in spades. I should note that some of the general monsters included can be found with use of the free Labyrinth Lord companion available through Drive-thru RPG.

I've had this book on my shelf for several years now, having read and reread it on multiple occasions. My greatest crime as a DM is not running this for my group yet, but....there is still time....talking my players into running this using Labyrinth Lord or Old-School Essentials is a different matter, but I suppose that gives me a reason to pick up the 5E conversion of this really outstanding book. Greg Gillespie has followed produced a couple of other modules along the same line as well: Forbidden Caverns of Archaia (a Keep on the Borderlands homage) and Highfell: The Drifting Dungeon. Both are equally great and follow a different theme unique to the respective book. For now, though, I'll continue to secretly load Barrowmaze into Roll20, sooner or later my players are going to find it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

What do your player's want? Well....everything.


I recently did an informal-fun pole with my D&D group. It was mostly to gauge interest in what to run following our current campaign, Rappan Athuk. I included some questions that hit on what they liked as a player and how tended to play their player characters and the results were pretty interesting.

We all know that each player has different goals, expectations and points of enjoyment through play. I've seen several videos and breakdowns from other sources that are much organized and articulate than myself, but to generalize there is the power-gamer, the role player, the story driver and the anarchist. I can safely say that my groups that I run and play in consist of all of these and probably others I've failed to include. So what is a DM to do, to keep his or her players happy and engaged. Well the best thing is variety in your game...Be sure to have those roleplay conflicts to engage those players, this can be done even within the party with competing interest. Include to difficult set piece encounters where strategy and character build wins the day. Have a world of dangerous and interesting things for your players to explore and engage with....I'm off topic, this isn't really a how to DM tutorial, let us get to those results to illustrate that my and likely your D&D group is diverse in their player styles.

1. The first question is pretty broad beyond just setting. The two highest voted items though were D&D High Fantasy and Futuristic / High Technology (Star Wars). I don't think this is really a surprise to anyone currently playing the game, players these days like the high fantasy, tackle anything type of games.

2. The next question was in regards to the style of game preferred. Again, the results lead into what the newest crop of players enjoy which is the adventure part / over-arching story campaigns where the DM directs things a bit more as opposed to relying on player agency.
3. The third question was more specific to preferred setting. I think this again shows the influence of the pushed Forgotten Realms in 5E. I'm not complaining as someone who grew up on Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings Books though.
4. Next I asked straight, which rule system do you prefer. I should note that our group has played everything from B/X D&D to Pathfinder, D&D 5E, Call of Cthulhu and even some Dungeon World. Again, 5E signs through with ease of use yet allowing for some character customization.
5. Now we come to the more interesting questions in regards to actual character play. First up is the morale / alignment question. My group for the most part plays the hero part and no complaints, this is the type of group I prefer to run.
6. The next question is probably my favorite because it shows exactly what this blog post is about. Variety in games for the diversity of the player types. My favorite bit though is that everyone mostly loves dungeons....so does your DM.
7. The question on races. The results here may be a bit skewed based on how I run more grimy low-fantasy games, but human is always an excellent choice for your character race.
8. The last question again shows the variety of player driven approaches. My group is consistent with the hero / do the right thing approach which I honestly adore, I wouldn't trade these guys for anyone.
So what do you think? Would your group say the same, how would your results differ? My players all mostly joined into the hobby with the dawn of 5th edition so the responses certainly reflect that above. That being said, I do not doubt that within each play group you can single out the different player types, so run your games accordingly.

Recent posts.

D&D: Let's design a castle siege!