O5R Wilderlands: Temple Lair of the Lizardmen, part I

[I highly doubt any of my players are reading this, but if you are — stop here!]

I’ve spent the last few sessions of our weekly lunchtime 5e game building up to the module “Temple Lair of the Lizardmen” from Judges Guild’s Book of Treasure Maps II, and as our session gets underway, the PCs have just arrived in the ruined village of Vandain (re-positioned to map 11, hex 0903 for those who are interested.)  The current PC group consists of:

  • Benji, Halfling Rogue 2
  • Mixit, Human Fighter 2
  • Aseret, Human Fighter 1
  • Arioka, Elf Ranger 2
  • Yee Mun, Elf Wizard 1
  • Elvira, Elf Wizard 2

Granted, most of my players are pretty new to the game, but they have all acquired to varying degrees the “caution-almost-to-the-point-of-paranoia” trait common to old-school dungeoneers.  In previous adventures, they have handled themselves quite well, making wise and clever decisions.  Not so this time…

Before leaving Southwatch Tower and boating down the Muddy River to Vandain, the PCs knew to be on the lookout for a band of lizardmen of unknown size, which has been attacking caravans and travelers in the region.  There are clear indications on the PCs’ treasure map that indicates the location of “watchmen” (and, more generally, the presence of lizardmen) in and around the ruined village.  With all this information, what do they do?  They walk across the open marshy ground towards Vandain like tourists, blundering around enough that the lizardmen are eventually alerted to their presence.  No scouting, no sneaking, nothing, despite traveling into town from the north (where their arrival by boat is undetected) and observing from distance “a humanoid form move between the buildings.”

Surprise, surprise, the PCs walk around the corner of a building right into an ambush.  Spears thrown by the two lizardman sentinels hit their (randomly-determined) targets, the two party wizards.  One of the lizardmen immediately retreats to raise the alarm back at the lair, and the other follows his two guard crocodiles into the fray.  When the dust settles, one crocodile is dead, two PCs are incapacitated and making Death Saves, and the remaining foes are bloodied and retreating.

The PCs hastily stabilize their unconscious comrades and drag them into the furthest-outlying ruined building.  As our 1-hour session draws to a close, the players ask about using Hit Dice to recover lost hit points.  I explain the rules about Short Rests (1 hour minimum) and Hit Dice, and offer friendly warning hints to the effect that holing up to camp here at this time may not be the best idea!  Despite my attempts to dissuade them, they decide to spend an hour in the ruined building.  As the players will find out next week, it only takes about 5 minutes for the quick reaction force of 5 lizardmen to reach the scene of the melee, and a couple more minutes to follow the path of bloody, bent marsh grass (through which the wounded PCs were dragged) to the party’s location…


Some additional thoughts:

  • The players were lucky that before the session, I referenced the Monster Manual and magnanimously downgraded the original module’s Giant Crocodiles (9d12+27 hp!) to normal Crocodiles (3d10+3 hp).  It really would have been curtains for them…  On this note, I’m really not a fan (so far) of the across-the-board hit point inflation in 5th edition.
  • I had good dice and the players had pretty lousy dice for most of the session, which always makes a difference.
  • My gripe about inflated hit points aside, combat pretty fast, easy, and fun.  I’m really thankful that 5e did away with all of 3rd edition’s fiddly rules for Attacks of Opportunity, which was one of the things that very quickly killed 3e for me.
  • I don’t pay too much attention to Challenge Ratings.  Put stuff out there, provide the players ways to gather information, encourage good strategy, tactics, and clever play, and, if they still run into something too tough, remind them that “running away to fight another day” is always an acceptable option.
  • Finally, on a related note, if players blunder around without thinking, let the dice fall where they may…

5e–>OD&D riff: Hit Dice as non-magical healing

Driving home from work today, I got to thinking about one of the elements of 5e that I particularly like: the way PCs can strategically spend Hit Dice to regain some lost hit points.  Part of this stems from my preference for cleric-free D&D (and cleric-free FRP gaming in general), and partly because there is no regular cleric in my lunchtime 5e game, as our cleric player has been frequently absent due to schedule conflict.

My drive-time thoughts today were about possible ways I could tweak that rule for OD&D — still my favorite incarnation of the game — and I think I’ve hit upon a potential house rule that’s worth testing next time I run a game with the little brown books:

During a short rest (of minimum one uninterrupted hour), Player characters and monsters may spend Hit Dice in order to recover an appropriate number of hit points (i.e. spend 2 Hit Dice, regain 2d6 HP) up to the character’s normal maximum.  Hit Dice thus spent may not be recovered until the character has completed a long rest (of minimum six uninterrupted hours.)  Furthermore, a character who thusly spends Hit Dice attacks at his or her current Hit Dice until the spent HD are recovered.  Example: Borg, a 4th level Fighting-Man, is badly wounded in a fight.  The party takes a short rest, during which time Borg’s player decides to spend 2 HD (and recovers 2d6 HP.)  Until Borg can complete a long rest, he makes all his attacks as a 2nd level fighter.

I think it’s kind of cool in that it offers another resource to manage and additional risk to weigh.  If I’m badly wounded, and the party isn’t close to the dungeon exit, is it worth burning these Hit Dice to give me some extra hit points in case we run into something unexpected?  Hard to say for sure though without testing it out in play.  Unfortunately, HD are no longer tied to combat the way they used to be, so I can’t try out this house rule as is in my 5e game.

Happy birthday, Caress of Steel!

On September 24, 1975, Rush released their third album, Caress of Steel.  Poorly received, it was nearly their last album — the supporting tour was dubbed the “Down the Tubes” tour.  As the story goes though, the great band went back into the studio, recorded 2112 as their swan song, and ended up saving their career.  I like just about all of Rush’s 1970s discography, but I would say Caress of Steel is my favorite Rush album (closely followed by Hemispheres.)

I first heard Caress of Steel in 1993 as a senior in high school, but it wasn’t until college that its favored position solidified, due to its mix of progressive rock and hard rock and resonant lyrics: specifically, the epic fantasy of “The Necromancer,” the protagonist’s quest in “The Fountain of Lamneth” — whose search for meaning in adventure, romantic love, and Bacchic excess both mirrored my own life in that season and brought to mind some of Solomon’s musings in Ecclesiastes — and the mellow, nostalgic “Lakeside Park.”

Still a fantastic album that holds up 40 years later!


Joining the O5R

Two bookstores have recently closed in my town, leaving Ink Spell (my favorite, and the home of the Bookstore Boys) the last one standing.  After one of the clerks told me that the D&D Starter Set has been selling so well they can’t keep it in stock, I decided that one way I can support them is to get back into running pick-up RPGs there — specifically, 5e, in hopes that it will encourage sales of the core books.  I had been on the fence about 5e for a while; the Basic Rules PDFs looked promising, but I had been reluctant to pay the hefty price tag to get my hands on the core books.

With a new sense of purpose, I picked up the PHB, DMG, and MM.  Based on my initial perusal, I’m excited.  The books look and feel great, and I really like what I see so far.  Thanks to my extended time spent with Barbarians of Lemuria, “new-school”-isms such as Inspiration points, Advantage/Disadvantage, and Traits/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws don’t bother me a bit.  I’m also very pleased to see that Feats are optional (they will be disregarded), and attacks of opportunity, the fiddly bit that killed 3e for me, are blessedly absent.

I’m definitely looking forward to running some sessions for the Bookstore Boys and my lunchtime library group, especially once I get my hands on the 5e Primeval Thule Campaign Setting I backed on Kickstarter.  It will be fun to get my hands dirty and tinker with the rules to suit my old-school tastes; it’s nice to see that there are plenty of like-minded folks already blazing trails

D&D 5e Appendix E: initial thoughts

It was nice to see an inspirational reading list included in the 5e PHB, Appendix E, but I found its contents mildly disappointing.  It’s only one page long, so of course they can’t include everything, but I have to wonder about some of the choices they made.  It was a grand gesture to include Gygax’s Appendix N from the 1978 DMG, but did they really need to include all of it?  People have been wondering for years why certain authors were included in the first place.  Why should anyone take the time now to track down the long-OOP S&S anthology Swords Against Darkness III?  Why that one and not the others in the Swords Against Darkness series?  Not to say that Gygax’s list should be edited, but some brief annotations would be extremely helpful to newcomers to the game, even if it meant expanding Appendix E to two pages.

The added material feels hit-and-miss, and is similarly in desperate need of annotation.  Although there are some additions that I was delighted to see (Alexander, Hodgson, Cook, Wolfe) and some unfamiliar names that I look forward to investigating, there are a few additions and noticeable omissions I found puzzling:

  • How on earth did Stephen King’s wretched Eyes of the Dragon make this list?  Did someone unearth an awesome alternate version that I somehow missed?
  • Why include the mediocre Shannara series (yes, I’ve heard it gets better after the original trilogy) but not the very entertaining and obviously-D&D-inspired works by Raymond Feist (Riftwar series, Krondor series) or Elizabeth Moon (Deed of Paksennarion)?
  • Doorstop epic fantasy series have been in vogue for quite a while now (for better or worse), so on that level I understand the inclusion of stuff like Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones.  The glaring omission in this category is Steven Erikson’s excellent (and complete!) Malazan Book of the Fallen, which feels much more “D&D” than the other two — understandably so, since the world was originally Erikson and co-creator Ian Esslemont’s RPG setting back in the 1980s.
  • Given the generally-politically-correct tone of the Players’ Handbook, I’m a little surprised that there aren’t more “non-Western” fantasy settings represented.  Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a nice addition, but why stop there?  Whither Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, Milton Davis’ Changa stories, and other ancient-African-inspired “Sword & Soul” tales?  What about Jessica Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen series or other Asian-inspired works?
  • Props to the writers for only including two entries for actual D&D novels (Salvatore and Hickman/Weis), three if you include Norton’s unofficial Quag Keep.  The absence of Gygax’s Gord the Rogue novels is disappointing, which were IMHO far more entertaining.
  • It is unfortunate but not altogether surprising that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books didn’t make the Appendix E cut.  Although they are often (wrongly) dismissed as unimaginative Christian “allegories” for children, Oakes Spalding astutely notes that, based on the monster lists found in OD&D vol.2, the “default” D&D campaign setting has a lot more in common with Narnia than with Middle-Earth.

I could go on, but to what end?  As I contemplate the difficulty of the unenviable task of creating Appendix E, I’m struck by the notion that it’s really kind of odd.  A lot of virtual ink has been spilled in the past few years about the “sources of D&D,” examining the Appendix N material to see how those stories informed the development of the game.  For example, Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions?  The Paladin class and alignment.  Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books?  Alignment, intelligent swords.  Tolkien?  Hobbits and ents (halflings and treants, post-C&D.)  Vance?  The magic system (kind of) and some magic items (Ioun stones, etc.)  Which leads me to wonder: if, hypothetically, one of Gygax’s motivation for the inclusion of Appendix N was to provide insight into the game’s design decisions, what’s the point of 5e’s Appendix E?  “Here are some cool fantasy novels we dig, but don’t ask us which one has tieflings in it.”  It makes good sense to prepare an inspirational reading list for a new D&D setting, but to do so for a new edition of the rules seems unnecessary to me.

managing the one-hour game session

As we move towards the fifth session of the library game, I already feel like I’m getting better at managing the one-hour game session.

1. Be physically prepared.  My kit doesn’t fit in a cool retro lunchbox, but it’s all together in my office and ready to go 5 minutes before the session starts: rulebook (which, ideally, I won’t have to open), dice, mat, mat-cleaning towel, minis, Binder of Important Papers (character sheets, ref sheets, maps, adventure notes), and writing-utensil pouch.

2. Be mentally prepared.  In addition to basic adventure prep, consider the time and drop-in nature of the game:

  • How much can I reasonably expect to accomplish this session?
  • If a new player attends, what is the best way to integrate them into the ongoing campaign?
    • provide pre-generated characters

3. “All killer, no filler.”  Emulate the inspirational pulp greats (Howard, Burroughs, Leiber, et al) and keep the action flowing.  Briefly summarize the action up to this point, set up (or re-state) the PCs’ current goal, and get going.  It continues to be something of a challenge to find the sweet spot between the pulp approach (PCs start the session at the adventure location, travel to and from is hand-waved) with the Wilderlands’ default “getting there is half the adventure” hexcrawl style, but I think I’m gradually getting there…

4. Communicate with players out-of-session.  As the players become more seasoned, I really do hope that the Wilderlands will be more of a sandbox where their decisions drive the action.  In no small part, the realization of this goal depends on me providing them with rumors and adventure opportunities.

More on this subject as I continue to gain experience and reflect.

when it rains, it pours?

California still desperately needs water, but at least I can be glad that one drought — my gaming drought — seems to be ending.  The library game is going well, and other gaming prospects are on the horizon.  BB and I are planning to resume again soon, perhaps with a few more players — not sure if it’ll be BoL, Star Wars d6, or something else (Dicey Tales/Hollow Earth Expedition, perhaps?)  Finally, a friend from church reminded me today that he and his fiancee are interested in trying tabletop RPGs, possibly this coming weekend when they come over for dinner.  I haven’t had time or the open schedule to get together with the Bookstore Boys, as Sundays are taken up with church and family time, but I’m sure they would be up for more adventure too…

Dry spells are tough, but they sure make me appreciate the times when gaming opportunities are plentiful.

Library Wilderlands game, 3rd session

Bartolo is a prosperous halfling merchant who deals in beeswax- and honey-based products, the most popular of which are Bartolo’s Green Candles (known throughout the region for both their distinctive jade color and insect-repelling properties*.)  His family also owns and operates the Honey Drop Tavern in northern Greenwax, which is where his son approached the four PCs with a job offer: protect a cargo boat traveling up the coast to Fort Axilar, a trading post on the Axilar River delta.  There, its captain will meet with Bartolo’s partners, a primitive tribe of golden-furred halflings, to trade for a new supply of potent wax and honey (harvested from ferocious, giant jungle bees by mysterious apicultural methods known only to that tribe) and return to Greenwax with the cargo.  The PCs were warned to be on guard against pirates, who, in addition to seizing cargo, will commonly carry off prisoners to sell in the flesh-markets of Antil to the north.

The journey was uneventful for the most part, but as they drew near their destination they saw smoke rising from the delta — Fort Axilar was under siege!  As the captain urgently sailed to the beleaguered outpost’s aid, two longboats filled with armed pirates raced out to intercept them.  Dodging a hail of arrows, the PCs managed to cripple one of the boats with a well-placed arbalest shot, but the other reached the ship.  A gang of savage-looking human, lizardman, and ape-man warriors swarmed aboard and the melee was joined.  For a time, the two sides seemed evenly matched, but the battle turned when the human sword-maiden Mixit carved a path of bloody ruin through a half-dozen of the enemy.  The spectacle thoroughly demoralized the remaining pirates, who beat a hasty retreat.  When the ship reached the Fort, the battle was over.  A larger group of mixed-race warriors had been repulsed, but not before they caused great havoc: some dead, many wounded, buildings burned, captives taken, and treasure — including the new stores of wax and honey — seized and carried off into the jungle.  A war party is being assembled by the fort’s commander to pursue the raiders into the jungle, and the PCs were offered a share of the spoils for their assistance.

A few post-session thoughts:

  • The first half of our lunchtime session was taken up with converting characters to BoL and explaining the basic mechanics of Attributes, Careers, the Task Roll, Boons & Flaws, and Hero Points.  I was expecting this, and decided to use the remaining time to set up next week’s adventure.  If we have additional players show up, their characters can either be survivors of the Fort Axilar battle or sailors who volunteer for the war party.
  • I realize that, much as I enjoy improvising at the table, I’m just not that good at creating cool names on the fly.
  • Before next session, I need to create a player aid for how to use Hero Points, as it’s one of the few things everyone needs to remember that isn’t on their character sheet.
  • As ideas unspool about where this adventure is going, I find myself thinking back to a sadly-short-lived plan to run Dwellers of the Forbidden City with BoL

* Bartolo’s Green Candle: Made from the wax of giant jungle bees and subjected to secret alchemical processes, this candle will, when burned, give off a pleasant fragrance that will repel insects in a 10′ radius.  The candle must be burning to have this effect.

Library game, 2nd session – post-session thoughts

Thursday was the second session of my lunchtime Labyrinth Lord game, attended this time by five players (all from Tech Services, for those keeping track.)  The PCs were hired by Ghaelus, a member of the Archivists’ Guild, to retrieve the skull of Krelek, an Orichalan sorcerer and sage, from a tomb on the outskirts of the barrow field. Ghaelus’s ultimate goal was to gain access to Krelek’s personal library, located somewhere in ruins of Satur, in hopes that it might contain the crucial information to confirm Ghaelus’s hypothesis: that the ruined city of Satur was built upon the ruins of an even older civilization.  Ghaelus planned to use the skull to commune with the dead sorcerer’s shade in hopes of procuring the words of power that would allow passage through the magical wards and defenses of Krelek’s manse.  Equipped with a charm to preserve them from the most potent of the tomb’s magical defenses, the PCs braved the barrow field again.  In our one-hour session they fought skeletons, disarmed mundane traps, battled an animated statue, and found the secret antechamber containing Krelek’s sarcophagus.  The party returned to Greenwax with the Skull and two treasures: a gem-encrusted dagger worth 200 gold pieces and a silver bloodstone ring which, when properly inspected, proved to have been enchanted with a minor defensive charm to protect the bearer in combat.

By all accounts we had fun, and the players are looking forward to more.  This time we only played for about an hour (which started late due to two new players having to roll up characters), and one of the players had to leave before we finished.  I did manage to finish the prepared adventure in the time we had, but it definitely felt a little rushed.  Following the session’s end and my subsequent conversations with several players, I’ll most likely be switching systems from Labyrinth Lord to Barbarians of Lemuria.  (Hmm, there seems to be a pattern developing here!)  To that end, I’ve already started cobbling together my “Barbarians of the Wilderlands” document.  I have little patience for tracking experience points these days, and I also think that, for players in a casual pick-up game, there’s something gratifying in having one’s character receive experience points at the end of a session and be able to spend them immediately to improve in a certain area.

My intent has been for this to be a drop-in game, that whoever wants to play is welcome.  Given that we only have an hour or so to play, character creation for new players — which in either LL or BoL is relatively fast — is a huge time-sink.  To minimize this, I’m considering a couple options:

    1. Have a stack of pregens handy for people who drop and just want to try the game.  At some point, players who prove to be regular attendees can choose to either continue with their pregen character or create a new one.

Have a regular cast of pre-generated characters that all the players can choose from.  If new player A plays Krongar the Mighty in an episode and doesn’t show up for the next session, new player B could take over that character for that session.  A benefit I see in this approach is that I wouldn’t necessarily be constrained to one hour for the adventure — we could potentially end the session with a cliffhanger and pick up the following week without having to deal with new characters.

One of the aspects of old-school D&D play that I want to retain in this game is the emphasis on exploration (and related importance of resource management), which doesn’t really mesh with BoL’s default style of over-the-top heroic action.  Yora’s BXoL houserules for treasure and encumbrance have been very helpful in this regard.  Heroes of Hellas has provided some additional food for thought, specifically regarding Kleos (as a potential way to model “leveling up” and rising in social stature) and adding followers.  More on this as I tinker…

back to the Barrowmaze

Last week, I ran a lunchtime Labyrinth Lord adventure for three brave coworkers (two of whom had never played a tabletop RPG.) This introductory game met with considerable enthusiasm, and at the end of the session the players expressed interest in continuing. Looks like I may have a regular game group again, albeit one that can only play for an hour or so at a time…

I decided to use the trusty Barrowmaze for the intro session, this time set in the Wilderlands (Necromancer Games version.)  The PCs were hired by a nobleman from Lenap to find his wayward son, who was heading to the barrow fields north of Greenwax and the ruined city of Satur (map 11) with a party of adventurers and treasure hunters.  With their small retinue of hirelings, the PCs — a human fighter, halfling thief, and halfling cleric — explored a section of the underground labyrinth, fought some stirges, discovered the grim fate of the nobleman’s son, and made it back to Greenwax to tell the tale.   There were surprisingly no casualties, due in equal parts to player paranoia caution and the lack of wandering monsters rolled.

Greenwax has for some time seemed an ideal starting point for me in the Wilderlands, based on this bit of descriptive text in Book II:

Treasure seekers come to Greenwax to explore the nearby ancient ruins of Satur, a once-great city of the Orichalan Dragon Empire, though few return successfully.  North of the ruins are many burial mounds. To the northwest about three miles is a tree said to be as old as the seas. The region’s druids hold this tree holy.

Tons of adventure potential within 2-3 hexes.  Evil wizards, Orichalan cultists, monster factions within the ruins, druids to the north, cultists in the Barrowmaze.  Should PCs want to stretch their sea-legs, Greenwax’s port location provides easy possibilities for fighting pirates or Sinbad-style voyages of exploration.


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