Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Remembering Dave Hargrave

In memoriam, I wanted to talk a bit about Dave Hargrave aka The Dream Weaver. Today would have been his birthday as he was born May 25, 1946. Most grognards know him as the author of the The Arduin Trilogy. They are, in order, The Arduin Grimoire, Welcome to Skull Tower, and The Runes Of Doom. For the uninitiated, Dave was way before his time in terms of contributions to role-playing games. Sure, modern game designers and players alike often criticize what seems like a bunch of house rules cobbled together. But what is important to remember is this was 1977, just a few years after the release of Dungeons & Dragons. This is the same year that Star Wars exploded onto the big screen! Dave was not only writing, but publishing arguably the first gonzo RPG material.

Arduin was the off the hook, kitchen sink of campaign worlds! Between the brutal critical/fumble charts, super-science, and unique fantasy elements, these little books were something special. At the time high fantasy similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle earth dominated the RPG scene. Hargrave took that foundation and turned it upside down…and then kicked it a few times. The take away from Arduin has and always will be, that mixing genres and being imaginative is a good thing.

Hargrave’s Arduin was the original 0-level funnel where characters would often perish in some gore-laden way. Dave, a Vietnam veteran, actually commented on Arduin mortality in Different Worlds Magazine #31 (1983):

I think that war is the ultimate stupidity, and that the one real drawback to most fantasy role-playing games, and wargames, is that the consequences of combat are never fully understood by the players. To swing a sword or fire an arrow is going to result in blood-letting, pain, and even death-it is all a game to be sure, but the intent of the players is still the same. Thus I have always tried (with my Critical Hit Chart and such) to forcefully bring home to the players that battle and battle results are always ugly and terrible.

Dave also commented in Different Worlds Magazine #2 (1979) that over 700 player characters had perished in his campaign. At first glance that may seem like hyperbole, but make that assumption AFTER you read through the Arduin material!

I first saw the wacky little digest booklets sometime in the mid to late 1980s. One of the older players in our gaming group had them on his book shelf. I remember very distinctly being enamored with them, as the lower production quality had an ancient tome vibe. As a teenage boy artwork like Shardra the Castrator (Google it) was the subject of endless laughing and jokes. It would not be until many years later that I acquired my own set of the trilogy. In terms of gonzo material it remains a wonderful source to mine ideas from.

Just like the Mountain Dew we consumed during all night game sessions, Arduin was the nitrous oxide of early role-playing games. Those of us who enjoy gonzo RPG material owe a big thank you to Dave Hargrave. Furthermore, self-publishers and fans of DIY material should really appreciate Dave’s work. Creating something with an electric typewriter and whiteout is just about as old school as it gets. So later today take out your percentile dice or Zocchihedron and roll a few critical hits for Dave!

Dave Hargrave's 1977 Critical Hit Table

For those interested in adding Arduin to their own collection, Emperor’s Choice has all the volumes compiled in a modern product line. If you are a fan of Arduin or interested in more information here is the link to the Google+ group.

"The ARDUIN TRILOGY contains the most innovative and challenging Adventure Gaming system on the market. The Trilogy is several hundred pages and handsomely illustrated. Each volume is crammed with new spells, monsters, treasures and character types; plus a definitive system of rules to satisfy the most demanding FRP enthusiast. Arduin is an "anything goes" system, whose only limits are the player's imagination!

The Arduin Trilogy is recommended only for those players with some experience in Adventure Gaming and looking for even more challenge and enjoyment. For novice players, we recommend the "Arduin Adventure" to learn the true path to fame, glory and adventure."

Copyright 1977 - David A. Hargrave - Grimoire Games

Monday, May 23, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Old Bone Grinder

Warning: Curse of Strahd Spoilers Ahead!

This past weekend the players in my Curse of Strahd campaign found their way to the Old Bone Grinder. Once a grain mill, it is now the abode of a coven of vicious hags. The hags are trapped in Barovia but are making the most of it with their baking hobby. The dream pastries they create allow Barovians to enter a near euphoric state of happiness when consumed. Practically addictive, when a family can no longer afford them the hags are willing to trade. The item used for these barter sessions are the Barovians’ children, which just happen to be the key ingredient in the dream pastries. The hags use the windmill's grindstone to pulverize their little bones into powder. For background people with souls are rare in Barovia. This causes the hags to prick children with a needle; if the child howls in pain, that’s a key indication that the child as a soul.

This terrible form of corruption is indeed horrid to contemplate. Adults are basically consuming their own children for a chance to escape the dread land for a short time. When the players piece all this information together they will likely be outraged and want to act. The problem with this approach is a coven of hags is not to be trifled with, especially for lower level characters. Our game session had one character death and nearly ended in a nasty TPK. Two of the hags are believed to be defeated and one is known to have escaped the area. Since my players will most likely be reading this post I will not definitively share what that outcome will be.

Hags and crones have been used for ages in stories to scare children, Hansel and Gretel being a tale most are familiar with. I love the inclusion of Morgantha and her wretched daughters, Bella Sunbane and Offalia Wormwiggle in the Curse of Strahd. In our session my friend Ike’s character had the windmill deed found in the Death House adventure. After ousting the hags from the windmill his arcane trickster attempted to use the deed to claim ownership of the Old Bone Grinder. A few arcana checks and makeshift ritual later, I decided it worked thus preventing the coven from entering the windmill for one year. I’m sure the hags will be perfectly fine with this change and won’t mind it at all!

This got me thinking more about the coven and their macabre baking sessions. Night hags enjoy tormenting dreams and sowing sorrow throughout the land. Surely the dream pastries cannot be the extent of their confectionery skills. Therefore please find below a few new delicacies to add to your own Curse of Strahd campaign.

Spiteful Strudels (1d6)

1. These pastries are filled with a rich sweet cheese which will satisfy the most demanding connoisseur. Unfortunately, the cheese is crafted using the powdered fingernails of a ghoul. A creature that eats one in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or become paralyzed. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.

2. This doughy pastry is filled with minced tree-ripened apples and has a tart flavor. Each apple was carefully chewed by a Night Hag and infected by their saliva. A creature that eats one in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or fall unconscious. It wakes up if it takes any damage or if another creature uses its action to shake the sleeper awake.

3. These flaky and savory puffs are filled with spinach and broccoli. The vegetables are grown using compost created with the rotting flesh of zombies. A creature that eats one in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or develop Flesh Taut disease. One day after infection, the creature’s flesh starts to become chilled and rigid. The creature takes a −1 penalty to checks that rely on dexterity. At the end of each long rest after the symptoms appear, the penalty worsens by 1. When it reaches −5, the victim has developed acute Rigor mortis and has their movement halved. This can only be cured with magic such as lesser restoration or heal.

4. These flavorful delights have a deep appetizing red color. Made with a blend of cherries, their tartness is carefully balanced with a sweet glaze. Unbeknownst to everyone the latter is created with the bones of hapless Vistani travelers. A creature that eats one in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or believe they are Vistana. They will dress in bright clothes; laugh often, and drink heartily. This behavior will gain the attention of the true Vistani, and the pastry eater gains disadvantage against their Evil Eye for 1d4 months.

5. These pretzel twists are covered in cinnamon sugar and are a favorite of Barovian children. The hags also sprinkle something far more sinister on top. Small diseased rodents are captured, dried out, and powdered. A creature consuming a pretzel twist in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or it can’t regain hit points except by magical means. Additionally their hit point maximum decreases by 3 (1d6) every 24 hours. If the hit point maximum drops to 0 as a result of this sickness, they die. This can only be cured with magic such as lesser restoration or heal.

6. These meat pies are lovingly cooked with delicious gravy and mouthwatering bits of venison. Semi-sweet sugar is sprinkled on top of the pies to balance the strong meat flavor. Unfortunately, the meat is not all venison, as the hags also include corpse flesh of those they murdered. A creature that eats one in its entirety must succeed on a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for one minute. For the duration they can see the memories of the dead they have consumed. Every round, before the effect ends, the target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or take 4d10 psychic damage. On a successful save, this condition ends.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Reliquary Relics

Warning: Death House Spoilers Ahead!

In the reliquary of the Death House adventure the PCs find a collection of unpleasant items. The cult was using these “relics” during their rituals. In the published adventure all the items are worthless and stored in thirteen niches along the walls. I decided that maybe that was true at the time, but the power of the Death House has altered them. The presence of the undead has a unique way of seeping into things. So below please find these "relics" presented as unique magic items of varying power level.

Reliquary Relics

01. A small, mummified, yellow hand with sharp claws (a goblin’s hand) on a loop of rope. Once on each of your turns as a bonus action, you can mentally command the hand to crawl up to 15 feet and interact with an object. The hand can perform simple tasks, such as fetching or grasping things. It has AC 15, 7 HP, and Strength of 8, and it can’t attack.

02. A knife carved from a human bone. Crafted from the thigh bone of a murderous Barovian, this vile tool now works as a compass. As an action, lay the knife on a flat surface and it will point to any undead within 30 feet of you. If there is multiple undead in different locations the knife will simply spin.

03. A dagger with a rat’s skull set into the pommel.
This weapon is considered magical but offers no bonus to hit or damage. Once per day the wielder may summon a Rat Swarm into service for one round. While this occurs the rat skull chatters and grinds its teeth constantly.

04. An 8-inch-diameter varnished orb made from a nothic’s eye. As an action target one creature within 15-feet. The target must contest its Charisma (Deception) check against your Wisdom (Insight) check. If you win, the eye allows you to magically learn one fact or secret about the target. The target automatically wins if it is immune to being charmed. There is a 10% cumulative chance per use of this weird insight that the orb crumbles to dust.

05. An aspergillum carved from bone. Any liquid placed inside the aspergillum immediately becomes a shadowy tonic. The living will notice a strange antiseptic smell, while the undead sense sweetness. Any undead within a 20-foot radius will be mildly attracted to liquid sprinkled from the aspergillum. They will casually seek out the euphoric odor so long as they do not see the living or have anything harmful occur.

06. A folded cloak made from stitched ghoul skin. This unholy garment is cold to touch and causes revulsion in those that see it. The wearer of this cloak gains advantage on saving throws against the paralyzing claws of a ghoul. In addition ghouls will regard the wearer with indifference but they must be extremely cautious.

07. A desiccated frog lashed to a stick (could be mistaken for a wand of polymorph).
This bizarre wand can be used a spell focus which has a unique ability. Once per day the wielder may command the desiccated frog to animate and a deliver a melee combat spell. The frog can dash 60-feet per round and uses the wielder’s attack rolls. If the frog takes any damage it’s immediately destroyed and reappears the next day on the wand.

08. A bag full of bat guano. This calcified excrement is magically imbued to explode in a cloud of yellow, nauseating gas when thrown. The bag contains 1d4 congealed balls of bat guano which work as the 3rd level conjuration, Stinking Cloud when striking an object.

09. A hag’s severed finger. This shriveled green digit is warm to touch and covered in perpetual slime and algae. Once per day the finger can change the owner’s appearance for up to one hour. They will appear as a bent old woman with sinewy arms and rotted green teeth. Their charisma will also be halved but they will gain the ability to breathe under water normally.

10. A 6-inch-tall wooden figurine of a mummy, its arms crossed over its chest.
This forbidden item was purchased in a faraway land and brought to Barovia. The owner of this figurine becomes cursed with bad luck and cannot part ways with the figurine. The owner of the figurine cannot gain advantage from any source. A Remove Curse (or DM created quest) is required to remove the bad luck and abandon the figurine.

11. An iron pendant adorned with a devil’s face. Inscribed on the back of this strange pendant is the name Acererak. The devil face has a large gaping mouth inside of which swirls a strange black energy. Anyone sticking their finger inside the mouth will immediately be surrounded by nothingness. The pendant is able to cast Darkness when used this way. There is a cumulative 10% chance per use that the pendant crumbles to dust.

12. The shrunken, shriveled head of a Halfling. This morbid fetish has eyes which dart to and fro when the living are nearby. As a bonus action once per day, the owner of the head can command it to sing songs about heroes of old. This causes all allies within an earshot to gain advantage on saving throws against being frightened.

13. A small wooden coffer containing a dire wolf’s withered tongue. This tongue tapers to a thin tip which is curved into a ladle-like form. When picked up a lapping sound can be heard and the tongue will pull the wielder toward anyone who is wounded. If permitted, the tongue will magically lick away wounds involving blood (DM adjudication required). This ability may be used once per day to heal 5d4 + 4 damage. The amount rolled may be split among multiple targets.

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The Mists are perfect this time of year. Enjoy your stay!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Macabre Escape

At the edge of this forlorn place we located an immaculate row home. Once a wealthy family lived there which committed damnable sacrifices. The choking mists forced us inside this sorrowful and malevolent estate. Within we found a life of luxury twisted with unsettling madness. This sentient abode tormented us until we found a way to depart its corrupted halls. The antiquity of the evil in that place seeped into our dreams. After some time we steeled ourselves for those waking night terrors. Unfortunately, the wrathful abode was not done haunting us. As if swallowed by a morbid oubliette, we have returned. I fear our prayers will go unanswered inside the macabre escape tunnel of the Death House…

I decided to test the water at the Dungeon Master's Guild with an adventure used in my own campaign. I really enjoyed the Death House, and thought it had more stories to tell. There is just something wonderfully creepy about a house which is sentient. It could be used as a nemesis all throughout a Curse of Strahd campaign very easily. Be warned, Macabre Escape is very dangerous, yet some encounters can be avoided by careful players.

Macabre Escape returns the PCs to the Death House. It can also be used as an addition to the original Death House adventure. As a living entity, the Death House revels in the torment of both the living and the dead. It has many secrets still yet discovered, one of which is the original escape tunnel built by the Durst family. This scenario has enough material for a complete four to six hour game session. Although designed with level 3-4 characters in mind, the Macabre Escape can be tweaked to accommodate higher level groups.

The door is open … What are you afraid of?