Monday, October 26, 2015

Session Report: I6 Ravenloft

With Halloween still upon us I thought this post may be helpful for those planning their own Ravenloft excursion this month. I6: Ravenloft is gothic horror classic and my favorite of all the early AD&D published modules. Every October I run the adventure because it has such wonderful replay value. The main villain, Count Strahd von Zarovich has the classic yet tragic story of a fall from grace. As a vampire who is hundreds of years old his motivations can be different every time you play the adventure. Additionally, castle Ravenloft itself is so voluminous it’s impossible to explore in one game session. This makes it absolutely perfect as a Halloween one shot every year.

Always wanting to mix things up, I created a situation this year which was a mash-up an existing motivation and something new. For background Strahd once loved a woman named Tatyana, who rejected him in favor of his younger brother Sergei. On Sergei and Tatyana's wedding day Strahd murdered his brother and the grieving Tatyana jumped from the walls of Ravenloft to her death. Hundreds of years later in the small town of Barovia dwells a woman named Ireena Kolyana, who is basically a reincarnation of Tatyana. Strahd in the madness of his undead curse still loves Tatyana and wants Ireena to be her.

Traditionally the player characters are drawn into this adventure when they arrive in Barovia and learn Ireena has been bitten twice by a vampire. One of the published motivations of Strahd in I6 is: Strahd will attempt to charm all of the PCs, and make them attack Ireena. When they attack, Strahd will swoop down and save her from the PCs. Strahd hopes that the rescue will turn Ireena's heart to him. He wants Ireena to love him willingly rather than by force.

My twist this year included this motivation as part of my story. First I wanted to design some dark and gothic characters for the players to pick from. I have enjoyed the game Darkest Dungeon and thought the character types in the game were a great source of inspiration. Using the 5E ruleset I created a Bounty Hunter (ranger), Grave Robber (rogue), Mortician (rogue/wizard), Exorcist (fighter/cleric), Leper (fighter), and Plague Doctor (cleric). After tweaking their backgrounds a bit I had a cadre of gothic characters fit for a night of Ravenloft.  I also used the character images from Darkest Dungeon to make table name cards for the players.

My friend Tom was driving about six hours to attend the tabletop session so I decided to make his character the de facto leader of the group. He played the Bounty Hunter and had a career altering mark to collect in the lands of Barovia. Knowing of the darkness that is prevalent there he gathered his associates to ensure success. The bounty was a man named Lief and apparently the burgomaster of Barovia knew his whereabouts. Why his client wanted this man and was willing to pay so much money was never revealed. In I6 Lief Lipsiege is actually an accountant who has been in the service of Strahd for years.

For my session this year Lief was changed to a vampire spawn traveling the land in the disguise of a Vistani gypsy. The bounty was an elaborate setup to draw powerful opponents into Barovia so Strahd could complete his goal of “saving Ireena”. Without outsiders there is little in the way of challenge for a 400 year old and very legendary vampire. The players arrived on the outskirts of Barovia and stopped at an inn for a hot meal and room for the night. A stranger (Lief) appeared and delivered them a forged letter from the Burgomaster asking for their help in Barovia. This was curious to the players since they were already heading there. The real letter was in the hand of a man who perished a week earlier at the hands of Strahd’s creatures of the night. This was actually the first tip off that something was very much afoot and not right. For my story Strahd was concerned news may have spread to the outlining borders that he was a vampire. He could not risk losing his opportunity to impress Ireena and wanted ensure the heroes actually came.

The players would eventually find the actual letter after crossing over into Barovia. But unfortunately they also became aware that the strange mists prevented them from leaving. I usually try and design props for special game sessions but had time constraints this year. However I was able to create both the letters which consisted of printing them on my inkjet and aging the paper. I used a technique which has never failed me for years. Liberally wet the paper and dissolve instant coffee on it. Let the paper marinate in the instant coffee for darkness and then drain. I then bake the paper in the oven at 350 until it dry’s and curls and then have awesome looking (and smelling) parchment props. Tactile props can really add atmosphere to your game if not overused.

The players enjoyed handling the letters and comparing the differences in real time. And the fact that they appear as they would in the game really adds to immersion. In terms of other props I also took some old six sided dice and splattered them with red paint to appear bloody. These twelve dice were part of the Dark Inspiration pool. I then placed them inside a gothic looking bowl right in the center of the game table. At any time during the session a player could use one to increase an ability check, saving throw or to hit roll. The catch was for every dark inspiration die used one had to be given to the Dungeon Master. Dark powers are tempting but alas they come with a price!

Soon the players made their way into the forlorn village of Barovia. Here they would meet Ireena, a priest who was protecting the village with nightly prayers and learn the burgomaster was indeed dead. Using magic and elbow grease they helped to rebuild the church some but were stopped by the attacks for Strahd’s night creatures. Strahd himself pounded on the Wizard Locked doors and not much sleep was had by anyone. In the morning the players accompanied with Ireena set off to find a camp of Vistani gypsies who apparently knew where Lief may be.

Eventually the players would learn Lief was inside Castle Ravenloft and they would strike a deal with the Vistani. One of their own, a women named Helga was Strahd’s captive. If they would liberate this woman the Vistani would provide them with the secret of parting the mists and escaping Barovia. With Lief and Helga potentially in the same place they headed to the imposing castle. Once inside they had dinner with Strahd (or his illusions) with one player chomping happily on grapes which turned out to be eyeballs!

Their adventures inside the castle eventually led them to a sweeping staircase filled with portraits and murals. The images were blurred and writing smeared or scratched. The Mortician decided to use his Mending cantrip to clear them up a bit. Unfortunately the first one he repaired was the painting of Sergei to which Ireena recognized and read his name out loud. To this point the players had not encountered Strahd but I placed an hour glass on the table. They had no idea what this meant but it was my timer for when he would make his first appearance.

When this incident occurred it only had about five minutes left and I decided Ireena being exposed to the painting would enrage Strahd. So he dropped down from the rafters and smacked Ireena right off the landing. She fell over 70’ to her death below on the stone floor similar to Tatyana’s fate so long ago. The first battle did not go well for the player characters as the Exorcist became the subject of Strahd’s anger and also perished. After a few moments Strahd withdrew with a diabolical laughter. His plans ruined he would now toy with these men and woman with a game of cat and mouse.

Soon the players would also find Helga who unbeknownst to them was a vampire spawn. Not caring any longer about the bounty for Lief they began to flee Ravenloft with Helga. Half way out of the castle she attacked as the sand in the timer was getting dangerously low again. The tension created by the hour glass along was music from Dracula Untold was palpable. Right after defeating Helga the Bounty Hunter opened a door and Strahd was standing there.

The second battle was a great example of sound strategy and epic dice rolling. Using the Mold Earth cantrip the players excavated the ground beneath Strahd. Unfortunately he grabbed the Bounty Hunter and started biting him on the face. As the players attacked Strahd he floated in the hole and used his legendary actions to press his attack on the Bounty Hunter. Amazingly the Bounty Hunter rolled two natural 20s on his turn and took Strahd’s life total down by 75% just with his attacks! A well placed sneak attack with a magic shovel from the Grave Robber and some radiant damage from the Exorcist had Strahd on the ropes.

The Bounty hunter then died the next round as the Mortician cast Earth Bind on Strahd slamming him into the ground over 30’ in the room below. This was enough to make him form into mist and return to his resting place. The players then gathered themselves and proof of Helga’s demise and ran out of Ravenloft castle. The Vistani were saddened by the news of Helga but kept of their end of the bargain. Soon after the player characters crossed the borders of Barovia with use of a special elixir and never looked back.

Obviously, I did not include all the details of our 8 hour game session but I think I gave a good flavor. The foundation I believe in running I6 is the gothic horror element of it. The story needs a slow build up to the point where they player characters encounter Strahd. In traditional gothic horror there is a pervading sense of uncertainty coupled with usually a nearly insurmountable foe. This was my eleventh Halloween season running this adventure and Strahd has most of the victories. This year the player’s legitimately won and can wear that badge of honor with pride. When Strahd became mist there was a round of hi-fives all around the game table.

In a decade, only once has Strahd been staked in my game sessions and that occurrence will continue to be a rare very instance. Defeating Strahd in my opinion should be surviving him and stopping whatever his immediate machinations may be. Strahd will always be a name that strikes fear in the players which gather around the table in the Game Tavern. After all he is ancient, he is the land, he is Strahd…

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future

With today being Back to the Future Day I could not help to reflect on 1985 versus 2015. Certainly role playing games have come a very long way from the witch hunts of the 80s. Now just about every facet of pop-culture phenomena has been touched in some way by my favorite game, Dungeons & Dragons. Back in 1985 I had been playing the game for a whole two years at that point. I definitely considered myself a seasoned dungeon master and wish I had some Polaroids of those early sessions. After all we were playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons unlike some of the kids in the neighborhood!

I did manage to find a few of my old adventures scribbled on graph paper and jammed into a Trapper Keeper. How anyone survived those games is beyond me as they were loaded with every horror imaginable. Below is a 1985 clipping from Newsweek which really gives a glimpse into the ridiculous fear D&D generated:

Back to the Future, we now know all that fear was completely unfounded and that role playing games are wonderful creative outlets. Other benefits include social interaction, teamwork, problem solving and mathematics. In fact role playing games are absolutely wonderful for kids! For adults role playing games allow us to exhibit skills we may not otherwise tap into on a daily basis. Things like leadership, project management and logistics. But most important of all is gathering with friends and family to help tell a story and use our imaginations.

In Back to the Future II Marty McFly read a paper which forecast certain things about 2015. Interestingly some of the predictions back in 1989 were correct about the future. So I thought what would a Dragon Magazine cover maybe look like if they added it to the movie? Hopefully this generates a chuckle of two for some of you today…and remember as Doc Brown said, “Your future is whatever you make it – so make it a good one."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Another D&D Movie

So the new Dungeons & Dragons movie will be moving ahead because of a settlement agreement. Admittedly I’m excited about this news but will reserve the right to make a saving throw once we learn more about it. Exploiting the geek culture has been really rampant the last few years. Big companies have realized there is lots of money to be made and now everyone wants “geek cred”. The problem is those of us that have always been here can sniff out a poser faster than you can roll a D20. Forbes had a great post called Fake Geek Girls Go Away a few years ago that was right on point.

That remains my biggest concern when something as big as Dungeons & Dragons comes back to the big screen. I know Hasbro is involved but honestly that can mean many different things. Will actual players of the game be consulted and utilized? Will it be screened by those of us that were rolling dice and exploring dungeons before it was cool? Or will it helmed by yet another director and group of producers that think they are in touch with the RPG culture? Having the poser geeks running things behind the DM screen will be another recipe for disaster regardless of what their cinema credentials may be.

There has been some recent stir about Vin Diesel possibly being involved in the movie. While I think that would be the icing on the potential awesome cake it does not excite me on a granular level. What would excite me would be the approach Wizards of the Coast took when designing 5th edition. They polled the community of real players and actually used the feedback provided. Quite honestly, even if they never used ANY of the feedback it was a smart marketing strategy. And if anything it put their internal ideas to test against a much bigger think tank, i.e. the public.

Even though I highly doubt Hollywood would ever use a strategy like that I think it’s a missed opportunity. The previous Dungeons & Dragons movies were dismal in so many ways it was almost laughable. I just cannot imagine spending millions of dollars on a project without completely understanding the game and its fans. Many people want to be part of the geek renaissance but their true investment in the culture is only skin deep. Sort of like the guy who was trying to convince me he had the same Game of Thrones shirt. I had to ruin his day and explain I was actually wearing the Dungeons & Dragons ampersand.

What are your thoughts or hopes for the new Dungeons & Dragons movie?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Character Sheets

When I think of old school D&D images like the Red Box, light blue dice, crayons, and character sheets come to mind. Specifically the green colored basic sheet and AD&D goldenrod colored sheet. I can still see the eraser hole in the hit point box on my first green sheet. Back in the early 1980s I could not just run off an endless supply of character sheets on my printer. Official character sheets were like gaming group treasure!

At one point our supply was so limited everyone just used notebook paper. If your character survived to 3rd level you were permitted to use one of the coveted green sheets. The former became a badge of honor in our little gaming circle. The theme of character sheets adding to player credibility was taken a step further when we moved onto AD&D. I mean come on after all this was ADVANCED D&D we were talking about!

If you had a character on a goldenrod sheet that meant you were clearly a veteran player. At ten or eleven years old most of us could not even navigate the Gygaxian prose of the AD&D books. When I think back to all of this now it gives me a good chuckle. But alas, that was the logic of a bunch of kids learning the game together over what seemed like an endless summer. 

A few years later we would be making our own character sheets and printing them with a Dot Matrix. Back then we called our heavily house ruled version of the game ID&D for Improved Dungeons & Dragons. I think some of the grognards in my circle may actually still have a few copies. Nowadays there is virtually any type of character sheet you could dream up available for download. Mad Irishman Productions made replicas of the green and goldenrod vintage sheets. They are available for download in PDF on their website below:

Download AD&D2 1st Edition Character Record Replicas (2 pages, 804 K) 

So thinking back on this Throwback Thursday which of the old school character sheets are your favorite?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Side Trek: Haunted House

Haunted houses have captured the imagination of people around camp fires and Halloween gatherings for years. Every family and group of friends has their own stories to tell about strange occurrences that may have been supernatural phenomena. As a kid I can recall many abandoned and creepy houses that my friends and I found in the woods. At least one of those times several of us thought we saw some pale face staring back at us from an attic window. During October game sessions I think players are expecting the DM to whip up something scary. So below please find a side trek to add to your seasonal tool belt of horror. 

This house once belonged to a family which retained a gypsy to conduct a séance. They wished to make contact with the other side to determine if the house was haunted. Strange things had been occurring in and around the home which caused some significant injuries. One family member had fallen from a ladder but reported they were actually pushed off.  One of the children became lost in the woods and nearly drowned in the nearby river before being discovered. The child’s story was she was lead to the river by a nice old lady.

The gypsy was well regarded and arrived to work as a medium with the help of her Ouija board. Legend holds that whatever malevolent spirit indeed haunted the house became enraged when the séance began. The poltergeist possessed the body of the gypsy and violently attacked the assembled family. What became of them still to this day no one can say but the house has been long abandoned.

Player Hooks (1d4)
1.    The player characters learn about the haunted house while frequenting a local tavern. Use some of the background information mixed with false rumors.
2.    After traveling for several hours and exhausted the characters decide to seek shelter from the rain in what appears to be an abandoned house.
3.    One of the characters was related to the now deceased family of the house. While passing through the area in-between adventurers they decide to visit.
4.    The player characters are hired by the nearby village to clean the house of the evil spirit which dwells there. Again use the background information to fill in the story.

The Home: dilapidated condition; broken glass underfoot; odor of decay; strange air pressure; oppressive darkness. When the characters venture inside they find dried brown splatters of blood everywhere. The only remaining objects inside are a table and six chairs which appear untouched by weather or time. Lying atop the table is a flat board with the letters of the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9; the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners, “goodbye” at the bottom. A tear dropped piece of wood lays atop the board.

Note: Any player character touching the Ouija board will automatically summon the poltergeist. They along with any companions will be instantly teleported onto the chairs around the table. Unable to move or leave the chairs, they will be compelled to engage the poltergeist with the Ouija board.

Game Outside the Box: You will need a real Ouija board for this part of the adventure to work correctly. Just a quick Google search and I found plenty that are relatively inexpensive. The poltergeist will answer as many questions as the DM will allow the characters to ask. As long as the players are having fun I would continue the exercise and really get the hair on nape of everyone’s neck on end. 

My suggestion is conduct the séance by real candlelight and maybe include some very faint haunting music in the background. When an opportune time presents itself a sudden outburst from the DM should really startle the players good. This could be either role playing the poltergeist or demanding initiative rolls be made!

The poltergeist still has control over the corpse of the long dead gypsy. Through the use of dark eldritch magic it has been preserved so the poltergeist has a physical host. The poltergeist uses the question time around the Ouija board to evaluate a potential new host among the player characters. The characters should have to make a very difficult Wisdom check to break free of the magic hold. If successful they regain control of their bodies in this order:

Round 1: Head
Round 2: Upper extremities
Round 3: Lower

The poltergeist will appear as the horrific corpse of the gypsy woman complete with a sickening pallor and terrible evil eye. The former will be used by the poltergeist to cause necrotic damage in a 20’ cone to anyone who tries to stop it from possessing a target. If the player characters destroy the corpse host the poltergeist will abandon the area and return another day. In terms of statistics match the encounter to the level of the party but make sure it’s a tough fight. 

New Magic Item

Ouija Board
This strange board was crafted from a petrified tree found in an ancient graveyard. For some inexplicable reason the spirits of those which have perished violently in life are attracted to it. Legend holds using the Ouija board is extremely unpredictable and often dangerous. The Ouija board allows the casting of Speak with Dead and Augury each three times per day. Alternatively use a real Ouija board and use the results as part of your story and role playing. Tormented spirits will seek out the owner of the
Ouija board wherever they may travel. 
This beautiful Ouija board can be found at on Etsy.

If you enjoyed this post and are looking for more Halloween inspiration it can be found in Tales from the Game Tavern. The theme of issue one is Halloween and there are plenty of additional adventure seeds and material to make your October games memorable!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Witch's Bookshelf

Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. Now I could drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look upon.

~William Shakespeare

While looking through all the décor at various craft stores my eyes are always drawn to the faux books. All sorts of great titles exist on the spines such as venomous potions, spells & incantations, hexes and curses. While the most infamous of all witching tools remains the cauldron, what about all the magic knowledge used in conjunction with it? D&D players love to explore the environment around them and being ready with filler material is important. Witchcraft is such a great topic for Halloween inspired game sessions I wanted to make a new table for everyone to use.

The books below and the powers or banes they grant should not be considered standard. Spells which remove curses or disease should be ineffective. Instead use these books as adventure seeds or a jumping off points for a quest. When digging through a witch’s library adventurers should be wary of what may become of them when dealing with forbidden knowledge.

Witch’s Book Shelf (1d4)

1. Libro Venenum: This vile text is filled with pages of aged papyrus and wrapped in dried lizard hide. Translated it proclaims to be the Book (of) Poisons and must be handled with absolute care. Anyone attempting to read the book must make a difficult constitution check or take 10d6 poison damage. A successful roll grants temporary insight into the long forgotten art of toxic magic.

A spell caster may add 1d6 poison damage to any offensive spell they cast. This effect lasts for 24 hours and may be repeated with a successful constitution check on subsequent days. Every use of the book is accompanied with a cumulative 10% chance of developing large green boils. These are filled with toxic puss which may erupt as determined by the DM. An eruption causes the permanent loss of 1d4 hit points to the afflicted. Additionally anyone within 15’ must make a difficult constitution check or take 5d6 poison damage.

2. Folio Malevolence: The spine of this book is crafted from the bones of tormented fairies. The pages are all exposed with no actual cover and emit a foul odor. Upon close examination one can see skin has been stretched and matted onto the parchment. The runes on these pages make the reader feel uneasy and waves of hatred flow over them. Good aligned characters will feel immediate aversion to the text.

The dark power of the book will grant a cursed boon to anyone who completes reading it. Ask the player to list on a piece of paper the four things their character dislikes the most. Then in that order while filled with seething hatred their character will seek those four choices out.  Nothing else will matter to the character but their malevolence will make them stronger. When dealing with the items on their list they may re-roll any D20 attempt but must keep the new result.

3. Malleus Maleficarum: This tome was created to condemn the practices of witchcraft. Translated it means the Hammer of the Witches and is brimming with theoretical and factual information. Powerful witches usually study the volume to learn the best way to defeat rivals and protect themselves. Because of this some adventurers will brave the lair of a witch just to find a copy of the legendary tome. Stealing a witch’s copy of the Malleus Maleficarum however will draw the ire of entire coven.

If anyone studies this witch hunting treatise, taking a minimum of three days, they gain a permanent bonus of +1 to attack or defenses against all witches. This magic may only be transferred 1d4 times before the book crumbles into a pile of dust. The dust however is also an effective tool to be used against a witch. If mixed with holy water it creates a paste which can be smeared on weapons. This causes an additional 1d6 holy damage to a witch for one attack.

4. Opuscule Covetous:  A small notebook created with haphazard pieces of vellum tied together with gold wire. If the pages are spread out they appear to be covered in numbered pictures. Anyone who puts the pages in the correct order will see the drawings magically animate. The story they show will be rapturing and include scenes of immense wealth and decadence. Those viewing will be intoxicated with avarice and immediately desire the treasures presented in the story.

Unbeknownst to the cursed readers this is an elaborate trap set by a witch. What appear to be treasures are actually items the witch herself desires but cannot obtain. Examples would be a holy item wished destroyed, a newborn child or perhaps a lock of hair from a person pure of heart. No matter what the item they will always appear as something else to the afflicted character. The curse will cease once one or all of the items are obtained and presented to the witch.

If you enjoyed this post and are looking for more Halloween inspiration it can be found in Tales from the Game Tavern. The theme of issue one is Halloween and there are plenty of additional adventure seeds and material to make your October games memorable!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Remembering Dave Arneson

In memoriam, I wanted to talk a bit about Dave Arneson. Today would have been his birthday as he was born October 1, 1947. Best known as one of the co-creators of my favorite game Dungeons & Dragons, I will not be exploring his departure from TSR during this post. Rather I just wanted to celebrate his contributions to the gaming industry because they are important.

Dave’s love of games really took off in the 1960s when he attended the University of Minnesota. Historic miniature war gaming was his regular hobby, but it was about to change dramatically. Dave was very interested in having individual war game models learn from their experiences in-between battles. This desire to develop one model, instead of the entire military unit, was a great example of the earliest stages of role playing games. Dave put these concepts to test in his campaign world named Blackmoor.

Soon Dave met another gaming enthusiast named Gary Gygax at Gen Con in 1969. Their amazing collaboration would go on to create the wonderful pastime that so many of us enjoy today. 1974 marks the year that famous little white box appeared, which would change tabletop gaming forever. In 1975 Supplement II: Blackmoor was released with a forward by Gary Gygax. In the former Gary goes on to say that Blackmoor is the “oldest and longest running Dungeons & Dragons game”.

In the years after leaving TSR, Dave continued to publish more role-playing game material and taught classes at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. In 2010, Full Sail University dedicated the student game development studio space as "Dave Arneson's Blackmoor Studios" in Arneson's honor. Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online added an in-game memorial altar to Arneson and also created an in-game item named the "Mantle of the Worldshaper". 

Admittedly, for many years I had no idea who Dave Arneson even was. As a young player cutting my teeth on BCMI and eventually AD&D he was just not on my radar. But as I grew older and the history of the game started to fascinate me I eventually learned about Dave. Ironically sometime in late 2001 when the MMORPG explosion occurred I was playing Dark Age of Camelot with one of his students. Every time he had a chance this student heaped praise upon Dave’s name as a professor. 

At the time I thought it was cool he had one of the co-creators of D&D as a teacher. Now so many years later my only regret was not listening more closely to those stories. If anything that experience is a constant reminder to me that the old guard is slowly passing on. It remains my sincere hope that we as a community will continue to seek out as much gaming history as possible.

So later today maybe take a stroll through Dave’s Lake Gloomey to the Temple of the Frog. Just remember to bring your favorite D20, because Dave will almost certainly be asking you to roll for initiative!