A few years back, I toyed briefly with the idea of the Forest as Mystic Otherworld as a variant on the “Dungeon as Mythic Underworld” trope beloved of many in the OSR (myself included.) Real life (and an unfortunately-timed bout of gamer-ADD) made short work of my project, and the idea languished.
Fortunately for me, other, more creative folks have nourished similar ideas. I recently acquired the first three issues of Wormskin, the official ‘zine of DOLMENWOOD, a mythical forest sandbox setting created by Greg Gorgonmilk & Gavin Norman. I’m mostly through the second issue, and I’m thoroughly enjoying these glimpses into the strange wood and its weird and wondrous flora and fauna. Very inspiring stuff…
Now to get it onto my table!
Back at the Rusty Shield, the party talks with Yorus, Linnek’s contact in the criminal underworld. Learning that Linnek is calling in his favor, Yorus agrees to procure a map for the PCs (showing them the route through the undercity from the Rusty Shield to the edge of Natchai territory), and to come back in a few hours to get it.
In the meantime, the group heads up to the north part of town so BENJI can talk with Telgus the Scholar. Telgus shows Benji a strange artifact that recently came into his possession, a 2-foot-long stick that looks like ancient, frozen driftwood covered with strange protrusions. Purchased from a caravan merchant, who claimed it had been found in an area of the Starrcrag Mountains once known for its gold and sapphire mines, the item has mystified Telgus and his Guild fellows. Benji’s task is to investigate the source of this artifact and see if he can find others like it or clues to its origin.
Returning to the Rusty Shield, the group claims the map from Yorus, who warns them of bandits and monsters that roam the undercity, and sets off to brave the depths and rescue Yasmeena from the Natchai…
The first major obstacle on their journey through the undercity is a broad, slow-flowing canal that is missing its rope bridge, which has fallen down on either side. Shadowy forms swim in the slow-moving, murky water, and over the dull drone of flowing water the party hears croaking sounds that echo weirdly through the enclosed space. As they work to find a way across, two froglings climb up the far bank and shout “give us food,” “give us the small one” (pointing at Benji), and so on… Distracted by their interactions with the pair of creatures, the adventurers don’t notice more of the froglings stealthily climbing up on the near side — the party is flanked on both sides!
A summary of the last few library sessions:
Arriving in Viridistan, the party set off to pursue their business in the city, knowing that Voort’s business would keep the Dart in harbor for a week or so.
- A ragged young woman begged the PCs for protection from her pursuers, a group of armed thugs led by a sinister, green-skinned man in crimson-and-black robes. The PCs opted not to fight (fearing the intervention of the city guard), but before the maiden was carried off she asked the PCs to tell her father, LINNEK THE SMITH, that she was still alive. The group learned that her captors were of the Natchai — followers of Natch Ur, the chaotic evil “god of deep earth” whose worship demanded human sacrifices, and decided to do what they could to help free the girl from such a grim fate.
- A visit to the Archivists’ Guild yielded little information about the Black Ziggurat or their erstwhile patron Ghaelus. Hoping to join the guild, BENJI scored well enough on the initial written examination to reach the next stage — a field mission. He was told to visit the scholar TELGUS, whose villa could be found in the northern part of the city.
- The group hired an urchin to lead them through the Maze (a labyrinthine slum) to Linnek’s shop. Unfortunately this particular urchin was not trustworthy, as he led them into a blind alley where they were accosted by ruffians. A fight broke out, in which one of the would-be robbers was killed. YEE-MUN created an illusion of a dragon that soared over the alleyway, which not only scared away the remaining robbers but also caused a panic in the streets. Aware of their criminal behavior (fighting and “unlawful use of magic”), the party took advantage of the chaos in the street to flee the scene.
- After finding the shop, Linnek thanked the party for delivering the message. Lamenting his daughter Yasmeena’s fate, the smith was grateful for the group’s offer of aid. To help them, he directed them to Yorus, a thief who owed Linnek a favor, who could draw them a map of the route through the undercity to the territory of the Natchai, where they would hopefully be able to rescue Yasmeena before it was too late.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve had two separate groups/campaigns going at once. The lunchtime game is still going strong (sorry for no recent updates — busy busy!), and I recently added an OD&D game for some local friends from church. We had been talking about D&D off-and-on for nearly a year, and we finally managed to schedule some table time. None of the players except my wife had played tabletop RPGs (although most of them have experience with MMOs and CRPGs), but everyone took to the game pretty fast and now they’re hooked! I’ve run two sessions for them in the past two weeks (reports of which are here), and by all accounts the players are hankering for more. They really like the open-ended nature of the game and the ability to really get creative in exploring and problem-solving.
When prepping for the new group, I knew I wanted to use the Wilderlands setting, but it took me a while to decide on a location. After studying a few maps (Tarantis and Barbarian Altanis in particular), I ultimately chose to start the action in Greenwax, the same place where the other group started. There were a few reasons for this:
- Time. I didn’t have much free prep time even before this group started, so I need to maximize what I have.
- Player group. As with my last two campaigns (Ink Spell and my current library game), I don’t know yet how stable the group will remain or how frequently players will come and go; with “cloud” games like this, it’s definitely best to have a stable base of operations with a variety of options for episodic adventure.
- Adventure options. Greenwax has plenty of options for episodic adventures. Just from the map and box set description, there’s the Old City of Satur right next door, the field of barrow mounds just to the north (perfect place for the Barrowmaze), the Ancient Tree, Mad Devil Jungle, and so on.
- Overlap. I’m curious to see how the two PC groups operating in the same region will affect each others’ adventure options, as rumors are determined to be true or false, tales of the other group’s exploits filter through the taverns, and so on.
Looking forward to seeing how this all develops!
Musical digression: Apparently there’s a genre of black-metal-influenced electronic music called “dungeon synth.” According to the Dungeon Synth Wiki:
Dungeon synth is a genre of music characterized by its strong use of atmosphere and melody to create a sonic reality usually pertaining, in concept, to the fantastic or historical periods. The genre draws influence from the Dark Ambient music genre, while encompassing musical structures that are relatable to medieval and folk music. Many artists within the genre have been known to draw inspiration from a variety of other musical styles such as film music, video game music, and classical music.
To each their own and all that, taste is subjective, bla bla, etc., but after listening to about a dozen artists randomly selected from the wiki list, I can confidently say that Dungeon Synth music does not transport me to an alternate fantastic or historical sonic reality. If “atmospheric” simply means using lots of minor keys and occasional nature samples (especially rain) and bestowing your work with Lovecraftian/Norse Pagan/fantasy-themed titles and art, then I guess it’s pretty atmospheric.
The generally simple harmonic progressions are “relatable” to folk music, but how the musical structures of Dungeon Synth are “relatable to medieval music” is a total mystery, since I haven’t heard any chant, dance forms, or musical techniques that were, you know, actually used by medieval composers… The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are OK, but pretty forgettable, about what I’d expect to hear on a SyFy original movie soundtrack. That said, what really grates on me about this music is the common use of some of the cheesiest of cheesy faux-orchestral timbres (flutes, oboes, horns, strings, percussion) that I’ve ever heard, straight from a circa-1996 Casio keyboard soundbank. I get the impression that this is part of the aesthetic; fans of Dungeon synth expect cheesy 1990s synth-orchestra sounds, sort of like how “chiptune” fans expect everything to sound like lo-fi 8-bit video games from the 1980s. Maybe there are some rogue Dungeon Synth composers out there who defy the aesthetic by incorporating actual medieval musical structures and techniques and using high-quality instrumental samples. If there are, I’d really like to hear them because I might actually dig that stuff.
Again, it’s all a matter of taste. I’ve reluctantly passed on albums by bands I normally enjoy only because I didn’t like the snare drum, cymbals, keyboards, or other sounds, so I’m not just nitpicking to be mean. Given the genre’s fantastic bent, I can only assume there are significant numbers of D&D players in that community who are inspired by dungeon synth. If so, that’s cool — don’t let me pee in your cheerios. Surely there’s music I listen to that someone else would find ridiculous or objectionable…
It’s always interesting to see how other folks try to combine elements of BoL and OD&D. I haven’t seen the finished version of Simon Washbourne’s recent BoL Hack, but I confess to being somewhat disappointed with the draft I read — there were some good ideas, but ultimately the rules come down too heavily on the BoL side for my taste. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of running D&D-style hex-and-dungeon-crawls with BoL, tweaking the rules in places to better accommodate the resource management elements essential to that playstyle. On the other side, at times when the OD&D itch simply must be scratched, I find myself wanting to incorporate certain BoL-isms. The foremost of these is the simple, flexible Career system. My take on BoL Careers in OD&D is pretty straightforward:
Each character (Fighting-Man or Magic-User, regardless of race) begins with two Careers at Rank 1: one for background (upbringing) and one for profession (immediately prior to adventuring.) If the character’s prime attribute is 15+, he may choose a third Career at Rank 1. Consideration of character attributes should factor into the player’s choice of Careers. (For example, academic careers such as Scholar and Alchemist are poor choices for an illiterate Fighting-Man with INT 5!)
Partial Career list: Alchemist, Artificer, Barbarian, Beastmaster, Beggar, Blacksmith, Craftsman*, Engineer, Executioner, Farmer, Healer, Hunter, Merchant, Noble, Performer*, Priest, Sailor, Scholar, Soldier, Thief
As per the BoL rules, these Careers are fairly abstract representations of skill groups. A Thief character would know how to case targets, use stealth, pick locks, disarm small traps, pick pockets, fence stolen goods, etc. Careers do not influence the character’s combat abilities except in rare special circumstances (i.e. a PC would only add his Soldier career if fighting in formation with a unit of Soldiers)
*For vague careers such as Craftsman and Entertainer, the player must choose a specific discipline, i.e. a Craftsman might be a carpenter, brewer, bookbinder, shipbuilder, etc., and a Performer might be a musician, storyteller, singer, dancer, acrobat, etc.
Task rolls using Careers are made using 2d6, adding the Career Rank and other relevant modifiers (difficulty, pertinent attributes, etc.) and consulting the Reaction table (2 = very bad, 3-5 = bad, 6-8 = uncertain/mixed, 9-11 = good, 12 = very good)
Career Ranks do not increase as the PCs gain levels. If a character wants to advance in a Career, he/she needs to train in that skill. This requires regular practice and study over a prolonged period — usually a number of months — and also usually requires some financial investment for tutelage and/or materials. At the end of the training period, a Task roll is made to determine whether the PC successfully gained the next Rank.
The latest from my library Wilderlands game:
An entire session was spent on the battle on the think-machine plateau in the Ziggurat’s entry level. Standing between the PCs and their objective — the gateway platform that would enable their escape back to the undercity of Greenwax — stood a formidable gang of enemy melee fighters (clones of Mixit and Aseret, the party’s two fighting-women) and two flying, armored security bots that fired paralytic darts and beam weapons. Despite some early confusion on the part of Aseret and Mixit (due to fighting foes with their likenesses) and paralyzed ranged fighters (who had to be healed with antidotes), it seemed that fortune certainly favored the party in this encounter — there were a few wounds, but no one pushed close to death. The group’s secret weapon in this encounter turned out to be Hexil the Phraint (temporarily under the control of our new player), who used his prodigious jumping ability to attack security bots in mid-air with his two-handed sword.
After some discussion, the group decided to make for the gateway platform with all haste — no time to rest or fiddle with the think-machine any more, for fear that reinforcements may be en route. They managed to reach the platform, place the petroglyph tiles in proper sequence, and teleport back to the chamber in Greenwax’s undercity.
The following session found the party safely back in their rented house in Greenwax, at which time the party learned that they had been absent for two months. During that time, tensions between Rallu, the City-State of the Sea Kings, and the ascendant merchant power Lenap, have increased dangerously. There have been several naval skirmishes along the shipping lanes just south of Greenwax, and concerns about escalation have caused some merchants to consider alternate trade routes. Compounding Greenwax’s trade woes, strange weather along the Antillian Peninsula’s western coast (near the Palsaith Forest) has been causing shipwrecks and affecting a well-travelled shipping route from Viridistan.
The group checked in with their friend Nial Voort, captain of the Dart, at the Sea Devil Saloon. Voort shared plans to sail for Viridistan in approximately a week’s time, once repairs to his ship have been completed; he plans to take the Antillian route, and offered the PCs passage if they lend their arms and magic (he has a favorable attitude towards the PCs, who on an earlier voyage had repelled an attack by shark-men and magically warded off some strange winds.) The PCs agreed, and sought other engagements for the week.
They went to visit their old friend Bartolo the halfling in his upstanding establishment the Honey Drop Inn, who offered them some short-term employment: to head north into the Mad Devil Jungle to harvest and bring back wax and honey produced by a certain local breed of carnivorous green jungle bees. Dangerous work, for sure, but reasonably profitable — 50 gp per barrel. Bartolo agreed to provide a wagon, barrels, and draft animals for the trip. The party estimated that it would take a total of three days travel and two to three days to collect the honey — they would be cutting it close to get back to Greenwax in time, but they agreed to help their friend Bartolo, whose operation was short-handed after one of his regular crews had a bad run-in with some bees… Having stocked up on poison antidote and insect-repellent candles, the party was now ready to enter the jungle.
I’ve been reading a bit lately on the webs about Free Kriegsspiel and ways referees handle the fog of war in their games, which naturally got me reflecting on my own refereeing.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard players, when determining what their PCs will do in a combat against a group of foes, ask one of the following questions:
- “Which one looks like the leader?”
- “Which one looks the toughest”
- “Which one looks the most injured?”
In the swirling chaos of combat and limited visibility of the fog of war, how would one really be able to determine the answer to any of those questions? I confess that I haven’t always been consistent in my response to these questions, but I think that I’ll do something like this in future BoL sessions:
If the PC is in an advantageous position to make that kind of comparison, he/she can make a Mind roll and add career ranks in Soldier, Mercenary, or Gladiator to make a successful judgment.
The Phraint is an insectoid creature from David A. Hargrave’s marvelous Arduin Grimoire. Emperor’s Choice has an excellent description, upon which the Phraints in my campaign world are closely (but not perfectly) modeled.
All Phraint PCs have the following Traits.
- Natural Armor (B): Phraint chitin is as hard as plate armor, providing 4 points of damage reduction.
- Jumping (B): Phraints have the ability to make prodigious leaps. Base distance is 15′ vertical and 25′ (running start), with an additional 5′ for each point of Strength possessed by the phraint.
- Keen Sense (Smell) (B): The insectoid phraint olfactory system is highly evolved and able to discern a wider spectrum of scents than humans.
- Can’t Lie (F): as per BoL: Mythic
- Cannot speak (F): Phraints are unable to formulate the sounds of human speech, but are able to communicate with other intelligent lifeforms through a limited form of telepathic sending (targets must be visible.
- Emotionless (F): Phraint minds are logical and incapable of feeling or understanding emotions.
- Outcast (F): The vast majority of Phraint PCs will be outside normal phraint society — outcasts or rogues who, for various reasons, have left their hives for a life of adventure.
Preferred weapons: two-handed sword, javelin
Common careers: Laborer, Mercenary, Gladiator
Our session started late this week, but the PCs seemed to make some headway in finding their way back to Greenwax.
Exploring the secret passage branching off from the vegetation-covered hallway:
- In an adjacent passage they found two corpses who apparently killed each other in a shootout: an android and a human wearing a brown leather jacket and broad-brimmed hat. A quick search of the android’s body yielded a boxlike weapon that fired small silver bolts, extra bolts and a yellow-striped security access card. The human had a revolver in his hand and an old rotted whip on his belt. Benji was attacked by a rot grub during the search; after its messy removal from his arm (and its subsequent bandaging), the corpse’s satchel turned up extra bullets for the gun and a small golden idol.
- The spiral staircase ascended over 100′ and terminated at a small landing and a sealed door. Adjacent to the door was a card slot with a red horizontal stripe above it. Access denied…
Returning to the main hallway, the PCs used their security card to access the quad-brain think machine. After some experimentation, they managed to retrieve the petroglyph sequence that would enable them to return to Satur/Greenwax via the gateway platform. As they stood weighing their options — to continue exploring the Ziggurat in search of finding Ghaelus and “great weapons” to aid Dirjin’s people against the Illithids, or return to Greenwax before the Svirfneblin’s protective enchantment wears off any further — they were interrupted by the sound of booted feet. Coming up the stairs towards them (from the direction of the gateway platform) was a war party that, so far as the PCs could determine, was composed of melee-weapon-wielding clones of Aseret and Mixit, the two fighters who had fingers pricked by the Ziggurat’s double doors… How many clones are there? Are there other creatures with them?
Looking forward to playing out this encounter next week!