More Black Ziggurat action!

I haven’t had enough free time lately to do full actual play writeups, but here are some highlights from the last couple sessions:

  • A room containing a pool of bubbling, viscous, lavender liquid.  Suspended on a pulley system above the pool is an empty rectangular metal cage.  Lining the walls of the room are waist-high tables, some of which are marked with old rusty reddish-brown stains that may have been blood.
  • Several impassable doors with card-slots in the adjacent wall.
  • After fighting off a vicious gang of mutants (and capturing a stun ray pistol), the party investigated a large cylindrical apparatus with four wired-up brains floating in separate tanks — a technology which Dirjin observed to be nearly identical to the “think machines” built by Illithids.  The party opted not to tinker with or destroy the machine for the time being, but to continue exploring in hopes of finding some clues about its purpose.
  • A large chamber, dominated by a shallow sandy pit with a pond at one end and some rocks near the center.  In five places, steps lead down into the pit.  Surrounding the pit are twelve statues of robed figures, all with cowled heads bent attentively toward the center.  Closer observation reveals tiny, ant-sized boats sailing on the pond, a cluster of tiny buildings on the shore, and a tiny castle perched atop one of the rocks.  A high-pitched horn faintly rings out at irregular intervals.
  • A passageway and room constructed of grey fibrous filaments that seem similar to spiderwebs.  Inside the room is a low dais with a pedestal set in its center — a gateway chamber, upon further investigation.  The pedestal contains a complete set of petroglyph tiles and a card-slot.  Elvira remembered the proper arrangement of tiles that led from Greenwax to the frozen plain, but the party doesn’t know the arrangement that will open the way back to Greenwax (if such is possible.)
  • An unusual hallway, smelling of earth and loam, with rough flagstones underfoot and walls and ceiling covered with twining vines and creepers.  Midway down this passage, the cautious adventurers notice the gleam of metal in a gap in the greenery.  Vigorous work with axe and blade clears away the vegetation to expose an old sliding door; further careful examination reveals a trap designed to spray the victim with some kind of liquid.  Deactivating the trap, the door is opened to reveal a dark passageway and an ascending stairway.



Into the Ziggurat!

Report from the 4/14/16 lunch-hour session.

The party left the Traders’ Mound and headed back to the roadside stone platform where they came through the one-way Gate, in hopes of finding some clue that would enable them to return to their own world.  The spell of protection laid upon them by the svirfneblin was of little comfort, and few of the adventurers had any real enthusiasm about entering the Black Ziggurat.  Not finding anything, they pressed onward, with the faint hope that the ominous structure looming in the near distance contained not only the answer to the mystery of their missing patron, but also a return Gate to the undercity of Satur…

Arriving at the Ziggurat unchallenged, the party ascended the wide main stair, flanked on each side at regular intervals by squared pillars capped with domes of smoky gray quartz.  The double doors at the head of the stairs was tall, twenty feet or more, and of a flat black metal.  Mixit, one of the warriors, stepped forward to knock; she felt a pricking at the knuckle as her hand contacted the door, and the doors swung silently inward.

The vast entry hall was dark.  As they carefully made their way into the chamber, the party’s light sources revealed doors in the east and west walls, two 5′-diameter holes in the floor spaced 40′ apart, with a facedown human corpse between them.  The group’s curiosity was piqued by the corpse’s accoutrements: grey mesh-looking suit, metallic belt, and a strange tubelike device.  The cause of death was a crushed skull, which Yee Mun (who had some training as a healer) determined to have been received by falling from a great height…

As the party looked up towards the high ceiling, from out of the darkness swooped two spindly, bat-winged creatures with blank visages and barbed tails — Nightgaunts!  One of the nightgaunts grabbed a surprised Aseret and proceeded to hoist the warrior up into the air.  Mixit narrowly dodged the other’s clawed grasp, and the fight was on.  The party managed to slay the unburdened nightgaunt, which swooped to clutch with claws and lash with barbed tail, without much difficulty.  Aseret, on the other hand, struggled mightily in vain to free her awkwardly-pinioned arm so to swing her torch at the creature’s featureless face.  Yee Mun concentrated and cast a feather fall spell on Aseret — just in time, as seconds later the remaining nightgaunt released the warrior.  Rather than tumbling to a messy doom below, Aseret floated down.  Seeing the death of its companion, and possibly perplexed by the unexpected behavior of its prey, the nightgaunt retreated up into the dark recesses of the ceiling.

When it seemed clear that the nightgaunt wouldn’t be returning soon, the party warily turned back to their examination of the human corpse’s items.  After some careful experimentation, the party divided up the mesh armor (soak 2), force-field belt, flame projector, and boots, resolving at the next session to examine the two holes in the floor.


Strength 2, Agility 2, Mind 0, Lifeblood 10
Brawl 1, Defense 1, Armor 2 (leathery hide)
Attacks: Claws (+3, grapple/lift), Barbed tail (+3, damage 1D)
Traits: Flyer, Stealthy

The Black Ziggurat beckons…

The PCs have been searching for their missing patron, the sorcerer Ghaelus, who disappeared while searching for the Black Ziggurat — yes, THAT same unspeakably-ancient, multiversal, dimension-shifting fortress/entity.  Well, in last week’s session the PCs found a Gate (one-way, though they didn’t realize this at the time) leading from the undercity of Satur to a frozen plain on a dying world.  Several miles from their point of arrival was a massive pile of dark stone, the Ziggurat itself.

They encountered two travelers on the road in a wagon drawn by two furred ice-lizards.  Dirjin, a githzerai, and Hexil, a phraint, offered the shivering travelers passage in their wagon to a nearby svirfneblin Trading Mound.  Gark, the Mound’s leader, provided the PCs with food, warm clothes, and some more information about the Ziggurat’s manifestation on this world:

“In its own way, the Black Ziggurat is responsible for the slow death of our world.  Many years ago, to appease their dark gods and their own hunger for power, the wizard-kings of the earth went to war.  The Black Ziggurat – as you may have seen its cursed pile on the plain above – was the focus of their struggle, as each vainly believed that mastery of the Ziggurat would enable supremacy over his rivals.  To this end, they pursued dark sorceries that drew upon the power of the sun to create mighty engines and weapons that ravaged the planet and depleted the sun’s essence beyond a critical point.  Every year now, the light grows weaker.  Winters are longer and harsher.  Crop harvests yield less.  The surface dwellers are struggling to survive – perhaps we dwarves have it easiest, being already conditioned to subterranean life.  When the sun finally dies and expends its last rays, so will be extinguished the hopes of all who live on the surface.  We who live below may yet live on for a time, drawing warmth from the depths of the earth and sustenance from our traditional food supplies; even then, though, we must face eventual extinction as the planet cools into a ball of ice.  This is the future our diviners have seen, and the reality we face, barring the return of the Builders who created this world.”

“The Black Ziggurat is, at its core, a living talisman that feeds on dark energies.  It radiates promise – of wealth, power, pleasure, knowledge, security, whatever one desires – and drains those who enter of their spirit.  If you go there, you will need wits and weapons to defend yourselves from the physical dangers therein, but more importantly you will need powerful protection from the Ziggurat’s innate magic.  Do not tarry overlong, for as the wind and water wear away the stone, even the strongest incantation can be weakened over time if enough force is exerted against it.”

The PCs passed the night in the mound and underwent a ritual of protection by the svirfneblin geomancers.  Arioka, the elf archer, traded her hourglass for a vial of powdered fungus with potent soporific properties which, when mixed into a paste, could be applied to arrowheads as a sleeping-poison.  The party then climbed into the wagon — Dirjin and Hexil decided that, for the time being at least, their interests lay with the party — and set off towards the Ziggurat.

lunchtime library game update

Wow, I guess it has been since I posted anything here…

My weekly lunchtime game at work is still going strong.  Not long after finishing the “Temple of the Lizardmen” adventure (3 sessions or so), I decided (with the group’s approval) to shift back to Barbarians of Lemuria from D&D 5e.  My main reason was that, given that we have less than an hour of time together each week, I didn’t want to deal with the time-suck of walking each player through their class options when they hit 3rd level.  So we’re back with “BXoL” and are plugging right along.  I’m delighted to report that the campaign has taken a science-fantasy turn (psionics from Barbarians of the Void and mutant creatures/plants from Barbarians of the Aftermath), now that the PCs have been gated to another planet and are about to enter the Black Ziggurat…  If I have time, I’ll try to post some after-action reports again soon.

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.