Thursday, May 18, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Gaming Unplugged

http://www.gamescience.com/?AffId=3UNPLUG definitions.
disconnect (an electrical device) by removing its plug from a socket.
remove an obstacle or blockage from.
relax by disengaging from normal activities.

Looking that those definitions, I can’t help but to think back to simpler times. Back when the phone was attached to the wall, and NEVER in anyone’s hand all the time. In 2014, Android users combined looked at their phones one billion times a day, according to Google I/O’s keynote! Fast forward to 2017, and I’m sure those numbers are even more staggering. So how do we detox from this smartphone addiction? Well, one great way is to unplug for a few hours and play tabletop games!

Smartphones at the game table are a pet peeve of mine, and unless someone needs to be on call, not permitted. How can you possibly be immersing yourself in the tabletop experience if you are surfing social media? It reminds me of a friend who went to Disney with another family. He explained how the oldest daughter spent most of her time posting selfies. It was more important to let everyone know what she was doing, rather than to enjoy the experience herself.

I found all the pictures below at 2warpstoneptune, and thought they were perfect. Do me a favor and look them over for fun and nostalgia. But most importantly, what device is missing?

1978

1981

1982

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

No smartphones! I’m sure someone might say, “well duh, they were not invented yet.” If that is your retort, then I will suggest you have missed the point of this post entirely. The gamers at these tables are experiencing the session together, role-playing, and having a blast. They are not allowing a voluntary, external source to distract them. Look, no one can accuse me of being some crusty old guy that does not like technology. I use my smartphone liberally, and post on social media platforms all the time. But when I play a tabletop game, I like the escapism, and everyone unplugged.

In my last post, I was a 10-year-Old Dungeon Master, I spoke about recapturing your imagination. Being willing to put down your smartphone for the majority, if not all a game session, will help with that. You must make time for yourself, free of external distractions, as an adult. It’s great that someone posted a picture of their favorite pizza slice on Facebook, or a new meme appeared on Twitter, but how does that pertain to your tabletop experience? The essential point is it can all wait until a break, or after the game session.

In all honesty, I think we are seeing a renaissance of sorts in terms of being unplugged. People really need to interact in a face-to-face social setting. That is why we see so many tabletop related Kickstarters, and even a new convention in Philadelphia this November, Pax Unplugged. By the way, I will be there, and maybe even running a game session. That said, your smartphones may need to make a saving throw!

But it’s just not us that needs to learn how to do this. Everywhere I go tweens and teens have their faces buried in their devices. Pull your kids away from the smartphone abyss occasionally, even if they protest, for some tabletop gaming. The adage of “everything in moderation” could not ring any truer. In my professional career, I see 20-somethings that have virtually no ability to articulate themselves in a face-to-face setting. But they sure can fire off emails all day long! Just a theory, and anecdotal at best, but I bet that has a something to do with not unplugging enough.

So get out there for some fun tabletop when you can. Gaming unplugged need not just be a throwback, it can be all the time!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I was a 10-Year-Old Dungeon Master

It was the summer of 1984, and I sat at the dining room table writing. Ironically in the background, the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts played on the television. My imagination was on fire since later that day I would be dungeon mastering some neighborhood kids. I was staying at my grandmother’s house in Philadelphia, and these were new players. I had just started reading Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon, so of course that inspired me to make a similar scenario. With some graph paper and a pencil, I toiled away filling rooms with monsters and traps.

My grandmother had an ornate dining table, with metal studs on the legs. The tall chairs that complemented it seemed like something from Hrothgar’s mead hall in Beowulf. One of my cousins walked by and suggested I look at the National Geographic magazine she just finished reading. It had an article about exploring a 140-year-old ship under arctic ice. This was a great stuff. It seemed like all around me there was high octane imagination fuel to inspire my games. Everything about Dungeons & Dragons was new, and there just was not enough hours in the day to play it!

Fast forward several decades, and countless players are trying to recapture those early days. You know the ones where you played all weekend long in a Mountain Dew induced stupor? When there was no internet, and RPG information came from print magazines or the local hobby shop? Most importantly, when YOUR imagination was the primary force behind the game. Sure, there was outside influences, but nothing like the media overload of today. In those early days of the hobby we were less connected to the world, but maybe a tad more connected to our own creative process.

For years now players have tried to re-capture those early days by dusting off older editions, making retro clones, and soaking up any nostalgia they can find. While those things may be helpful, I would suggest it’s only part of the solution. Social media is replete with articles, opinions, and even entire web series dedicated to watching people play Dungeons & Dragons. There is certainly value in all these things, but it may not be the medicine you’re looking for. Instead you really need to go back to basics, to simpler days when your own imagination did the heavy lifting.

So, you’re a busy adult with a family or maybe a career that is demanding, or worse both! It’s hard work trying to make it to scheduled games and even harder to design them. You look to blogs like this one, and other places on social media for inspiration and ideas. Then it becomes easier just to play in someone else's imagination entirely, and soon the game sessions don’t have that “magic” anymore. Hmmm, it must be the edition, or maybe you’re just tired, or perhaps you have just outgrown this silly game?

All of those are wrong! You just need to make time for your 10-year-old self to fire its imagination back up. You cannot allow yourself to become so saturated with outside influences that you can no longer think for yourself. Now I’m not suggesting you stop being inspired by the works of others. Liberally steal ideas from everything and make them part of your sessions or character! But if you want to head down the path of the old days, you absolutely need to re-kindle your own imagination. This could be while you’re driving in your car, enjoying your morning coffee, or just a walk through the park.


Every time an idea pops into your head jot them down! This could be on a 3x5 card or via an email you send yourself. Don’t let that fire burn out! Eventually you will have enough imagination fuel gathered to start your engines. You know, the 10-year-old engine that was full of wonder and approached the game wide-eyed at every turn? Sure, we will probably never get those days back fully, but damn we can try. Like most things, role-playing games benefit from everything in moderation.

Do your best to balance using the material of others with your own. As kids playing the game, we HAD to make stuff up. An allowance alone did not pay for many game books or modules. Now as an adult, you may be bankrolled to purchase anything you want. My game closet is evidence of that alone, but I still use the material as inspiration. I have never allowed myself to be completely pulled away from home brewing RPG material.

In closing, remember that Dungeons & Dragons is about sitting around with some friends and using your imagination. As an adult, I find the creative and playing process just fantastic escapism. I love nostalgia as much as the next player, but the continued experience of the game is much more satisfying. These tips may not work for everyone, but they have kept my RPG engines running for decades. Now that my own son is a 10-year old Dungeon Master, I see the process starting all over again. Wow, what awesome adventures await him and his friends!

 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Need a Dungeon Master?

So, you want to play D&D but there are no Dungeon Masters in your area. There are plenty of characters all dressed up with nowhere to go? Then it’s time to become the Dungeon Master yourself! For many people, just the idea of taking on this responsibility causes anxiety. I will be honest with you, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to step into that role for the first time. Studies have shown the only thing people fear more than their mortality is public speaking. Sure, you may be DMing for friends and family only, but it still involves putting yourself out there at the head of the table.

I’m here to tell you that none of that should dissuade you. Without a Dungeon Master the game simply cannot be played. Someone must be the organizer and do all the creative work to make the game come together. This is what happened when I was ten-years old, and I had no idea what I was doing. But let me tell you, wow was it fun! Thinking back to those earlier days, one of the reasons for my success was because we played with only a shadow of the rules.

A common theme I see in other blog posts about Dungeon Mastering is, “you must be an expert on the rules”, and I’m here to tell you that is a load of crapola. Please don’t let that stop you from taking up the Dungeon Master mantle. Without getting into edition wars, I recommend using a more rules light system for first time DMs. This will allow you to hand wave things more often. An important skill of a good DM is making rulings, not looking up rules. Furthermore, if you have a rules lawyer at your table, they are effectively disarmed in a rules light RPG.

Systems with complicated combat, or voluminous character options can end any fledgling DM’s career. Trust me, you have enough to keep track of with the adventure being played to worry about that sort of minutia. If those sorts of things appeal to you, they can always be re-visited later when you are more seasoned as a DM. Dungeons & Dragons is foremost a collaborative story-telling game. If you want work on an early skill, that is the one to focus on. Anyone can use charts, measurements, and roll dice. The ability to become any NPC, describe the environment, and shoot from the hip is what sets the great DMs apart from the rest.

Another valuable lesson I learned over the years is different personalities affect the ebb and flow of the game session. The one to be on the lookout for is akin to a jury foreman. They speak the most, are usually veteran gamers, and will play the session for everyone if permitted. As a fledgling DM, this personality may confound or exasperate you and the other players.

The best way to handle this situation is by establishing good DMing habits early. There will also be quiet or timid players at your table, or just less aggressive players then the jury foreman. It’s imperative to get into the habit of going around the table to ask everyone what their characters are doing. Don’t let the jury foreman speak out of turn, or rush other player’s decisions unnecessarily. Everyone deserves the spotlight, and it’s your job as the game referee to make sure that happens.

Foam dice make good stress balls...or objects to toss at players!
The final thing I would like to offer some advice on is criticism. Over the years, I have gotten into the habit of asking everyone what they liked or disliked after a session. It’s a good idea to take the temperature of your group occasionally to make sure everyone is on the same page. For the most part after several decades now I have found this information invaluable. However, occasionally someone will feel the need to offer unproductive DMing advice. Interestingly, the source is usually someone who has never sat behind the DM screen in their life. Or alternatively, you can count on two hands the number of times they have.

Don’t let these experiences frustrate you into giving up Dungeon Mastering. I will tell you now it can be a thankless job, but you are very much needed to keep the hobby alive. Just look at any of the big game conventions for evidence of DM demand. Every year they are scrambling to find people to run games. Why? Because it’s much more work than just sitting down to play the game. As a DM, you are the coordinator, designer, production crew, and ALL the supporting characters.

If story and world building appeals to you, Dungeon Mastering is something you should try. The early stages of your DMing career will have some bumps in the road. But like anything in life, with a little perseverance the experience is very rewarding. Don’t let any of the potential issues I highlighted keep you from running a game session. Rather be on guard for them, have fun, and keep the hobby alive!

If you are a veteran player who reminisces about the days of old, why not take up the DM mantle? I love talking about games sessions from decades ago also. Old characters are like friends and we speak of their adventures with fondness. That said, there is plenty of time for new stories and your player experience make you perfect for Dungeon Mastering. Don’t just read about RPGs on social media, get involved again!

Also, if you are that veteran player attending a session with a new DM, take it easy on them. Don’t be a hindrance or take advantage of their lack of system savvy. If you truly want to have regular sessions to play, then being supportive is very important. This is especially true in the public game arena, where the RPG trolls sometimes crawl out from under their stones. Don’t let a troll sour a fledgling DM into potentially quitting the practice all together.

Dungeon Masters, we salute you! Thank you for running the game on behalf of the countless players out there. Remember relax, and don't sweat the small stuff. You will make make wrong decisions, blunder rulings, and misread your group occasionally. All that matters is that everyone had fun, because that is what this wonderful hobby is all about!


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Surviving the Tomb of Horrors

While looking through my copy of Tales from the Yawning Portal I felt compelled to blog about the Tomb of Horrors. Well here is the bad news, you probably won’t survive! There are some things you need to consider before sitting down to play the Tomb of Horrors. All those old-school vibes you hear us grognards grumble about? They will help you have a positive experience!

For this adventure, you need to think beyond the four corners of your character sheet. Modern D&D does a good job of trying to portray a character’s abilities and life experiences through game mechanics. However, with the Tomb of Horrors, the players cannot just rely on that fail safe.

Instead you must really take in the environment and use your wits to explore it. Ask questions, lots of them. The Tomb will test the mettle and patience of most players, since you cannot hack-n-slash your way through it. The latter is a consideration you must marinate on as a player before attending a session. This is an adventure of restraint and creativity on the part of the players. Suddenly mundane items modern players like to poke fun at, like a 10’ pole, have immense value.

The Tomb of Horrors always makes me think of the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones, using a regular item like bag of sand, switches it for the golden idol. He has arguably made his dexterity save to accomplish this, but alas it does not matter. A whole series of traps are initiated as a result interacting with the idol. This is the sort of experience which can happen in the Tomb of Horrors. Employing the same strategy will not work in every room or passage. You really need to expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst, as it’s around every corner.


Be forewarned, the Tomb of Horrors is like playing a game of dungeon roulette. I would suggest experiencing it as a one-off or “what-if” adventure if you use regular characters. This way if a long standing favorite character is lost, it does not really count in terms of the continuity of your campaign. Even Gary Gygax himself on this EN World posting from 2006 warned against using favorite characters:


So, what does it mean to really survive the Tomb of Horrors? In my opinion, any expedition into the tomb which results in exploration and the characters leaving is a success. We could probably count on two hands the number of players who have legitimately defeated the tomb over the years. I’m sure social media will have some boasting now that Tales from the Yawning Portal has unearthed the Tomb again. A DM wearing kid gloves or heavily home-brewed characters do not count! And quite honestly, if that is what it takes for a group to defeat the tomb, they have entirely missed the point.

The Tomb of Horrors is the final resting place of an incredibly powerful being. It does NOT want anyone or anything robbing its treasures, even in undeath. The tomb can be a deadly meat grinder that to some extent does absolutely rely on your skill as a player. Sure, that style of play may not be for everyone, as it’s a departure from heavy dice rolling to explore the game world. Instead, using your ability to observe, experiment, and think about the environment and the tools available to your character is best. For all you D&D greenhorns out there, trust me, it will make you a better player.

Know you well adventurer, that survival is unlikely, but should you succeed the bards will sing your tale!

Tales from the Yawning Portal excerpt.
 

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!