Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: RPG Coasters 2, Cthulhu.

Alexander Ingram has just launched his second RPG Coasters Kickstarter! The theme this time? Cthulhu. For the uninitiated, the name is pronounced in some circles as kuh-THOOL-hoo. Now be careful when saying that to loud, as it may awaken H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder One from its eternal madness. That said, per mythos the human tongue cannot accurately pronounce it anyway.

The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the February, 1928 edition of Weird Tales. The creature was an elder god held inside a sunken city named R’lyeh, which featured bizarre, non-Euclidean architecture. Fast forward to 2017 and this sort of material is a wonderful playground for role-playing games. When beings such as Cthulhu threaten to break free of their cosmic prisons, investigators and adventurers must put a stop to it! Well that is what the GM tells you anyway, before your character becomes a blithering idiot from cosmic madness.

“It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

With that background, Lovecraftian novice and veteran alike can appreciate this new RPG Coasters theme. I love to review cool gaming swag, and these gorgeous coasters stand apart. Full disclosure, Alex sent me this set to review ahead of the Kickstarter launch. So, consider this a sneak peek if you are marinating about pledging. These are identical in construction to the fantasy themed coasters which I reviewed here. If you want to see how the coasters match up to different types of drinking vessels, I encourage you to visit that link.

Alex does all the work personally on these coasters in his basement workshop. The coasters are offered in beautiful hardwoods of Cherry, Hard Maple, and Black Walnut. The latter seems to really make Cthulhu pop on my sample Keeper coaster! These same materials were offered and delivered in the first RPG Coasters Kickstarter.

“seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call Of Cthulhu

One of the things that really jumped out at me with this new set was the level of detail. The coasters and all the artwork on them are CNC (computer numerical control) routed by a several machines Alex created in his shop. The Antiquarian coaster may be my favorite since it contains an interpretation of Lovecraft’s own sketch from 1934. For reference, the etching on the coaster is about an inch tall!






If you are fan of Lovecraftian horror, these coasters are the perfect conversation piece for your table. As seen above, available now are the Antiquarian, Criminal, Keeper, Parapsychologist and Private Eye. The full set, not including the stand, is a $40 pledge. The stand is an add-on for $10. Maybe you just want one coaster to fend off a wayward Shoggoth? There is a $10 pledge level for a single coaster! Below you can see some of the artwork waiting to be unlocked from its eldritch prison:


I’ve had RPG Coasters in the Game Tavern for over a year now. Everyone that visits comments on how cool they are, or inquiries about where we got them. Not only are they epic gaming swag, but they are pieces of furniture. The holidays are still far away, and the Kickstarter looks to deliver before then. Why not surprise that relative or friend that has everything? Or just treat yourself to a glass of bubbling madness on a Cthulhu RPG Coaster!

“Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.”
In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu





Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Be Kind, Please Rewind

Don’t worry as I’m not referring to the Blockbuster VHS tape motto from yesterday. Rather to think back to when some of us started playing Dungeons & Dragons, so long ago. You know, those early years when the game was new, and we were still learning as we played? With that foundation in mind I wanted to talk about something that really irked me this past weekend. At first I wasn’t going to follow-up on the event, but it just keeps gnawing at me. What could it be? How about a very young DM being pushed around by some older players.

For background my 10-year-old son and I decided to visit all the local game stores, and do some shopping together. Now an avid gamer, it’s great quality time together with my son, who admittedly is still wide-eyed when it comes to role-playing games. One of our stops landed us in a store which had several Adventurers League games going in the back room. While browsing the miniature racks, I could not help but overhear the session being played right next to me.

The table was being run by what appeared to be a very young tween (maybe 12-13). The players were in their 40s based on appearance alone. Our young DM is describing what a temple room looks like, to which one of the players obnoxiously makes a sexual reference. The latter is never appropriate in a public game, but that is the subject of another post. Soon thereafter a combat ensues in which the real problems started.

As soon as initiative was rolled, the older players at the table took every opportunity to quote rules and mechanics nuances. It was not done in a helpful way at all, but rather a chiding manner, which quite honestly, I found offensive. Exasperated and literally ganged up on, our young DM caved and went with the crowd at every turn. At one point my son looked to me quizzically and said, “why don’t they just let him DM?” It was that question that hit the nail right on the head in terms of this event unfolding before our eyes.

I could empathize with this young DM, since my time behind the screen started when I was ten years old. Very quickly my player circle exploded, many of which were seniors in high school. Some of those early sessions were rough with the older kids trying to exert control. That said, I learned to establish rule zero if I was going to maintain any semblance of order at the table.

When DMing in a public venue it’s even harder since you never know what sort of personalities may show up to play. A DM already needs thick skin, and the ability to deal with many different idiosyncrasies. Now add to that being potentially decades younger than the players at your table. Why is this important? Because it’s going to start to become more common place around gaming venues everywhere. There is a whole new generation of players growing up in a time where role-playing games enjoy a popularity never seen in the past.

But as always there is a shortage of game masters, regardless of the system. Putting yourself out there, in the public to run a game session, takes a tremendous amount of courage. Some people are just naturals, and others take the role out of necessity. Some players, myself included, prefer to make a world rather than just one single character. Whatever the reason may be, there is a whole cadre of new Dungeon Masters coming up through the ranks now. The older generation of players and DMs alike need to be supportive, and help grow the hobby. Admonishing a young DM for not being a rules encyclopedia, and embarrassing them publicly helps no one.

DMing is arguably a thankless job sometimes. You are the director, production crew, all the supporting characters, and ultimately the organizer. Ironically over the years I have found the players most critical of a DM have spent little to no time behind the screen themselves. It always reminds me of my children’s sporting events. The parents which are barking and being the most obnoxious are usually the ones that never played a sport themselves.

If a young DM has their enthusiasm lessoned by bad public experiences, chances are they will eventually hang up their hat. Or alternatively, they will switch to only home games with friends and family. Either way this is not good for the hobby, and older players need to be mentors when afforded the opportunity. Sure, all the memes like “I have dice older then you kid” are funny, but where does that ultimately get us? I think sharing the love of this awesome hobby, and helping to bring new players and DMs up through the ranks is much more important.

Before leaving the store that day I found that young DM outside opening a tube of dice he had just purchased. I spent a few moments offering some advice and directed him to my blog. But most importantly, I thanked him for being a Dungeon Master, and encouraged him to keep forging ahead. He was very receptive, and seemed genuinely uplifted by our short talk.  Who knows, he could be the next great fantasy writer, a game designer, or perhaps a DIY publisher someday. Or maybe he will just continue being a DM, because another gamer took the time just to say thank you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: Demon Idol Dice Cup


Today I received arguably one of the coolest pieces of game swag I own. This is a custom-made leather dice cup by Foster Leathercraft. This cup is an alternative to a dice tower or tray since you can roll the dice into the lid. As you can see the front has an interpretation of the Trampier artwork from the original AD&D Player’s Handbook. The latter just happens to be my favorite Dungeons & Dragons illustration of all time! Then as if it could not get anymore metal, the lid has the infamous Green Devil face from the Tomb of Horrors. This is more then a dice cup, it's a conversation piece full of nostalgia and Dungeons & Dragons history.

On top of all the coolness factor, this is a very well-constructed item. The design features beautiful stitching, vibrant colors, and just screams Dungeons & Dragons. Even the ruby eyes of the Demon Idol are riveted into the leather, as well as the keeper handle. The cup measures approximately 3.5" by 3.5" and the keeper strap is optional. If I could change one thing it would be to make the cup slightly bigger. That being said, it can easily hold several sets of dice as constructed now. Please find below more pictures of this awesome gaming accessory. I can hardly wait to unleash its power on the players during our next session!

A close-up of the Green Devil Face lid.

A close-up of the Demon Idol design work.

Here you can see the stitch work on the leather.

The bottom of the cup complete with Foster Leathercraft rune.

The eye and keeper rivets inside the cup.

An example of a dice set inside the cup.

Comparison of the art with the AD&D PHB.

Size comparison with a D20, D30, D100, & D120.

Example of dice rolled into the lid from the cup.


This is a dice cup any seasoned adventurer should consider adding to their equipment list. Foster Leathercraft offers other leather goods and is more than capable of doing custom work. Please visit their Etsy store to view more fantastic gaming accessories, or perhaps order your own dice cup!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Stranger Things: Giant Spider

So, last night the Stranger Things season 2 trailer aired during the Super Bowl and left all sorts of questions. As a D&D player all I have been focusing on is the massive spider creature. I quickly took to Twitter and G+ to see what fan theories everyone had before developing my own this morning. I started to think about the Demogorgon and Thessalhydra from season one. Both creatures arguably have Greek origin and carefully avoided the intellectual property minefields of Dungeons & Dragons.


The creature depicted in the trailer sketch, and inside the Upside Down looks very arachnid to me. I can count eight legs, yet there appears to be a head looking down with a large tuft of hair. This immediately makes any D&D player think of Lolth, the evil spider goddess. Or could it be a variation of Arachne, the Greek goddess turned into a spider? If the Duffer Brothers wanted to use a Lolth like entity for the D&D games played by the kids, Arachne certainly does that nicely.



Obviously, the lore of the Greek Arachne does not totally fit the show, but I don’t think that necessarily matters. If you recall it almost seemed as if there was web like material within the Upside Down in season one. And what about the egg sac that Chief Jim Hopper stops to look at? In the very least it would seem that the appearance of this spider like creature is no coincidence.



What do you think the giant spider creature is? I always find it fun to take what clues we have and theorize together. I cannot believe we must wait until Halloween to find out!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Side Trek: The Winter Garden

While staring out at the falling snow a week ago, this idea started to brew. I have always been fascinated with faeries, which can be used to great effect as a campaign boogeyman. Especially when you consider the colder months are often associated with death. What if in desperation the PCs were forced to seek refuge at the crossroads of the fey? Or maybe one of the characters has experience with these winter gardens and seeks one out. There are many adventure seed doors which can be opened with this side trek. So enjoy…and dress warmly adventurer, otherwise you may need to find a winter garden!


Winter Garden

Old rangers tell stories of their existence, and secluded druid circles whisper about them. A winter garden is a location where the boundaries of the prime material plane thin. They are a crossroad into the world of the fey that may bring solace or doom. Winter gardens usually occur do to some magical phenomenon or the vile intent of their creator. They are typically an oasis compared to the harsh conditions around them. These small pockets of the fey world normally do not last longer than half a day.

A winter garden is normally idyllic in appearance and may even have certain ethereal qualities to it. Depending on the type of faeries that care for the garden, this may all be an elaborate illusion. As most learned sages would explain, this is the inherent danger of seeking refuge in a winter garden. However, travelers suffering from hyperthermia, or trying to escape some predator are often willing to take that risk.

Rangers and mountaineers often use frozen bodies as landmarks when navigating. That said, new bodies found which appear shriveled and withered are avoided. These unfortunate souls are believed to have fallen victim to a dark winter garden. This visual omen has caused entire villages to pack up and move a great distance away. For these reasons, if planning an expedition to the cold north it’s often wise to hire a skilled guide.

Types of Winter Gardens (1d4)

1. This winter garden is comfortable and enchantingly beautiful. Not only is it picturesque, but also functions as a Ring of Warmth for up to eight medium sized creatures. Those inside can see out of the pocket as if peering through a frosted window. No creatures of evil alignment may enter this winter garden as it’s maintained by good faeries. But the fey are fickle, and use of their garden does come at a price. If not offered some sort of magical restitution, the faeries will attempt to use a Geas spell to gain one.

2. This winter garden is more of lair and contains a large ice cave. Those passing through into this fey pocket will notice tufts of white hair, crumbled bones, and ursine odor will assault their senses. A very used fire pit also completes the area, which includes stacks of chopped wood. A low rumble can be heard from within the ice cave and the temperature here is just hospitable. The inhabitant of the cave is a terrifying fey which appears as a massive polar bear. Good role-playing or high Charisma based rolls should be made to share this garden. Otherwise the PCs will be asked to leave…once!

3. This winter garden is a crumbled ruin, its remnants covered in slick ice. Dead trees with twisted limbs reach for the sky in poses of sadness. Everywhere the snowy ground is punched with hundreds of small footprints and the red stains of blood. The area is oddly steamy, so much that the temperature immediately warms anyone passing into the garden. This is how the Redcaps who maintain this garden like their victims, thawed and easily drained of blood. Anyone fleeing the garden will be pursued for up to a mile by the Redcaps if they are lucky enough to escape.

Note: If playing 5E D&D, statistics for Redcaps are available in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. If you prefer a more system agnostic or OSR approach, Redcaps are detailed in Tales from the Game Tavern issue #3.

4. Perhaps the most coveted of all, this winter garden can show imprints of the past. It usually manifests as an open clearing with a ring of low stones. Within the pocket the harsh conditions of the winter are repelled completely, and it exists as a nice Autumn day. The faeries who maintain the garden will exchange one vision of the past for one sacrifice by the PCs. The latter may include a coveted possession, a lock of hair, or a favor they will owe the fey. The vision can be from anywhere in the surrounding area (2x2 mile radius) within the last 100 years. The visions never last more than one round as the fey voraciously seek new sacrifices.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Curse of Strahd: Amber Temple Addition

Greetings adventurers! I have finally awoken from my blogging slumber. The past few months I have been involved in a professional commitment which has gobbled up most of my waking hours. That said, I did etch out some time this past weekend to run our Curse of Strahd campaign. With minimal preparation on my side, I wanted to run a more traditional exploration adventure. If you do NOT want to be spoiled, then stop reading NOW!

The last time our group gathered they had explored most of the Amber Temple, high in the Balinok Mountains. This was a challenging session between the constant Flameskulls and evil vestiges (remnants of dead, malevolent entities) that kept calling to them. The latter were hidden away in the Amber Temple by a group of wizards, who would later turn against each other, driven mad by the evil vestiges. One however remained, who was now a forgetful lich named Exethanter.

The dark vestiges within the Amber Temple are said to have granted Strahd his immortality and powers. They managed to tempt the curiosity of the players in my campaign, and several of them accepted dark gifts. My wife’s character, a fey-pact warlock became chaotic evil after accepting a 22 charisma! Now an NPC, she willingly took a black carriage ride to castle Ravenloft at the beginning of last weekend’s session. Will she return to hamper the PCs...we shall see!

I really liked the idea of Exethanter and wanted to expand upon him. In the published adventure, it clearly states: The lich has no alliance with or animosity toward Strahd, and no interest in challenging Strahd for control of Barovia. So, what we are left with is forgetful lich that just wants to guard the Amber Temple. He will also talk about the powers which are hidden away there if prompted.

This made me think immediately of a favorite old adventure of mine from 1985: Into the Forgotten Realms, by Ed Greenwood. It was published in Dragon magazine #95 and detailed an old wizardry school with a crazy lich named Azimer. To quote part of the adventure text: Azimer will at first greet the characters in a brusque manner, demanding (in a ghastly whisper) to know where the characters have been, why they haven’t been studying their spell books, and scolding them for not seeming to care about how important their work at the school is. He will then get up and become more friendly and patronizing, continuing to treat the characters as favored pupils in his magic school. And calling them by the names of magic-users long dead who lived at the school.

This seemed like a perfect mash-up to use with Exethanter, who still could open a portal to his old magic school. When role-playing Exethanter I switched between a forgetful personality to suddenly back to the headmaster of a wizardry school. This made for some hilarious role-playing opportunities during our game session. In our campaign, the legendary Sunsword was inside Exethanter’s old school of magic. It was left there by another group of adventurers who were seeking other items to defeat Strahd with. Unfortunately for the PCs, one of Exethanter’s old faculty members Khazan was still there.

For background, The Sunsword is a unique blade once possessed by Strahd's brother, Sergei von Zarovich. Strahd employed a powerful wizard named Khazan to destroy the weapon after Sergei's death. Khazan appears in other parts of the Curse of Strahd, but I decided to use him inside the school of wizardry. Utilizing my freshly minted Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I decided he would be a Bodak with some spell casting ability.

Into the Forgotten Realms was perfect source material since the setting is an ancient school of magic. It was originally a tournament module for the AD&D game which was used at the GEN CON XVII Game Convention in August 1984. The players had a good time exploring the school and the few combats we had were memorable. I replaced the Grell in the adventure with a ghostly Beholder, and tossed in a few Flameskulls for good measure.

The original adventure, much like the Amber Temple is a trove of magic items. That said, any DMs considering its use may want to modify things a bit. During our session, the PCs recovered the Sunsword and a strange hand (cover of the adventure), which may be the earthly remnant of some deity. Or perhaps it was just the next afternoon snack for Khazan?

In closing remember that when you run any of the published campaign books don’t be afraid to change or add things. Ultimately the story belongs to your group, and whatever direction will lead to a fun time at the table is most important. As with all things the books are just guidelines, so expand and create as much as you wish!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Horror of Strahd's Power

This past weekend one of our regular groups gathered for our Curse of Strahd campaign. The characters are all level five now and had just finished up with the Wizard of Wines scenario. They had been planning their next moves, which included delivering wine to Krezck and taking on Yester Hill. I will not go into much detail on those places as not to spoil things for those still playing. We gathered for our game session sort of at the last minute, so I was not as prepared as I would like to be.

I decided to spend the night showing how powerful Strahd was to the group. By level five the legendary vampire should now be taking interest in the adventurers. They have interfered with his plans for Ireena, and perhaps even defeated some of his minions by now. Strahd, being ancient does not feel threatened yet, but perhaps is experiencing exhilaration for the first time in ages. He likes these new playthings and will test them to see if they are worthy opponents or maybe even servants.

Because of life and summer conventions this campaign was on hiatus for a bit. So rather then get wrapped up in the story to much this was a good opportunity to shake off the rust. The adventurers found themselves back on the Old Svalich Road when a light rain began to fall. In the distance through the fog they found an old cemetery and church they could use for shelter. The cemetery was completely churned with tombstones and coffins protruding in twisted ways. This description caused some immediate jokes around the table like, “what could go wrong” etcetera. That said, their investigation of the immediate area proved to be rather benign save some howling wolves in the distance.

This is when I decided to have Strahd’s black carriage make its first appearance. The tenebrous transport, pulled by snorting horses pulled right up next to the cemetery. The door swung open and out stepped Strahd to the immediate pale faces of the players (and probably their characters). The vampire lord walked over to the two female characters (one with red hair like Ireena) and immediately tried to charm them. Amazingly the players rolled an 18 and a natural 20 for their Wisdom saves. Even when this failed the sweat on their brows continued to flow. Strahd explained to the group that “Ireena was his and they should remember that.”

Strahd then turned his attention to the group’s cleric, who rolled a 4 and failed his save, thus becoming charmed. Strahd allegedly handed him an object and explained he wanted him to drop it in the cemetery when he left. This was nothing more than the first show of power since Strahd gave nothing to the cleric. Strahd then departed, and the group decided to attack the cleric for fear of what may be in his hand. As he walked toward the cemetery with his placebo item he nearly died from the assault. The characters felt terrible afterward for succumbing to this fear.

When the dust settled Strahd’s laughter could be heard throughout the area as the cemetery began to rumble. Before their very eyes, the PCs watched as the earth congealed with casket and tombstone forming into monstrous creatures which attacked them. These Gravestone Elementals turned out to be quite a challenge for the group. I mixed an Earth Elemental with a Shambling Mound in terms of statistics as follows:

Gravestone Elemental
Large elemental, neutral
Armor Class 17
Hit Points 126 (12d10 + 60)
Speed 30 ft., burrow 30 ft.
STR 20 (+5)
DEX 8 (-1)
CON 20 (+5)
INT 5 (-3)
WIS 10 (+0)
CHA 5 (-3)
Damage Vulnerabilities thunder
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison, lightning
Condition Immunities exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages Terran
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)
Special Traits
  • Earth Glide: The elemental can burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone. While doing so, the elemental doesn't disturb the material it moves through. 
  • Siege Monster: The elemental deals double damage to objects and structures.
  • Lightning Absorption: Whenever the gravestone elemental is subjected to lightning damage, it takes no damage and regains hit points equal to the lightning damage dealt.
Actions
  • Multiattack: The gravestone elemental makes two slam attacks. If both attacks hit a Medium or smaller target, the target is grappled (escape DC 14), and the gravestone elemental uses its Engulf on it.
  • Slam: Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (2d8 + 5) bludgeoning damage.
  • Engulf: The gravestone elemental engulfs a Medium or smaller creature grappled by it. The engulfed target is blinded, restrained, and unable to breathe, and it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw at the start of each of the elemental's turns or take 13 (2d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage. If the elemental moves, the engulfed target moves with it. The elemental can have only one creature engulfed at a time.
These statistics are just what I whipped up quickly for my game session so feel free to adjust them for your own campaign. I considered also allowing them to pull tombstones from their bodies and use them as missile attacks. This never came up since the battle immediately turned to a vicious melee. A few well-placed Thunderwaves turned out to be a big help by the group’s wizard.

I enjoyed running these encounters to show the group the level of Strahd’s power. The vampire himself never lifted a finger, yet caused so much mayhem. We all want to believe we have agency over our own choices and destiny, yet Strahd almost forced the group to dispatch one of their own. Then with another display of power or perhaps force of will, Strahd commanded these elementals to destroy the group.

I think introducing Strahd into the campaign is perhaps the most difficult thing for any Dungeon Master. Most of these early encounters probably end up being a combat, which I would argue is incredibly boring. A big part of gothic horror is suspense and nerve wracking build-up. Having Strahd working in the background using his servants and various mind compulsion is terrifying. It creates an atmosphere of dread and keeps the players on their toes. Furthermore, it puts the players on notice that this is a villain who is much more than statistics on a page!