Playing Like it's 1973

We wrapped up the Second Season of Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death, and we can now get started on a project that I have been really looking forward to; our own world! If Gothic Earth has taught me anything, it is that it is incredibly easy to create your own spaces. not to mention that it is more interesting to DM because I'm not even sure what is out there.

The biggest change to this game will be the ruleset. It is no secret that there are things in AD&D that I just don't like anymore, and through talking to some of the original players I have found the basic source materials that AD&D was based upon and use that instead. So, we'll be using mostely original Dungeons & Dragons and homebrew it on a need to basis. I want a game that is more Dave Arneson than Gary Gygax, but less tongue in cheek.

I am shooting for a classic game where the players don't know the rules. The more I examine systems, the more I notice the players basing decisions on game facts rather than their own imaginations. I've done my best to weed this kind of metagaming out of their thinking; you know, not limiting them to the character sheet. Is it too late to bring back that sense of wonder and amazement after 30 years of AD&D? I think so.

The TSR Code of Ethics

An interesting article has popped up over at Shane Plays about how TSR had a "Code of Ethics" that might be of interest to you. Go ahead and pop on over there and give it a read, I'll wait here.

Oh! You're back!

The whole time that I was reading that, I kept getting images of all of the times that they broke those rules. Ultimately, the documents are worthless, or were they? Sure, they broke a rule here or there, but I can only think of specific examples. For the most part, they DID keep to this Code, and they did so at their own peril.

This goes back to the Satanic Panic, so they say, but what really happened was that TSR wanted to bring their product to the mainstream market. What they did had nothing to do with "Keeping Children's Minds Safe", the very idea of a normal someone suddenly losing their mind and identity to a game is insulting. This wasn't done to make the Pope happy, this was done to make INVESTORS happy. Investors who had no idea what in the world that this product was, but they weren't going to let a little thing like that get in the way of wanting to control it.

The Golden Age of Dungeons & Dragons, back when D&D was Pop Culture. Back when it was a set of tools and rough ideas which you the user used to create your own adventures and told your own stories. Those days were gone. Now TSR was into telling you what the stories were, and they were safe, sanitary, and bland . . . unless of course, that got in the way of TSR's profits.

TSR controlled the monologue, and they have always done this well. Heck, they convinced us that 2e was a new system that was even better than the OLD crummy AD&D, when it was just the same system but clamped down tighter so that they had better control of the product. I'm not even convinced that 2e could really even stand on its own; during my games, I've always got to go back to 1e because it was just more fun! How many 2e books do you need to do the work of the 1e DMG?

Yes, yes. I know that this is a 2e Blog. I enjoy the rules, but that doesn't mean that I'm drinking the Kool-ade and liking it. Whenever you spend time with these products as we do, critical thinking is crucial, and I don't always like what I see.

Like many users at the time, I was addicted to modules. TSR had me believing that it was just too hard to do this myself, and that I didn't have time, or that my work just couldn't compete with the fine Professionals at TSR. I was a sucker. TSR didn't want you to see how easy it was to do it yourself, so instead of spending hours writing my own material, I'd spend days fixing their modules and tailoring them to fit my group. Some of the things on this list I changed, but looking back, it wasn't much. Somehow they managed to get me following this code as well.

That said, if one thinks about it, this code defies the very nature of Role Playing Games. It defies what it is that we do. We are talking about a medium where anything can happen, and the possiblities are endless. What if we just don't care that the hamlet has problems with trolls, they don't have to live there, and if trolls are making things dangerous, why risk my character on protecting these fools who want to live out in the middle of troll country? Why would I want to kill all of those goblins when I can enslave them all and have my own army? This NPC who invited me into his house and is described in detail is no doubt the villain, why not just kill him now while he isn't expecting it? Then you've got the DM that says, That isn't the way that the story goes! But isn't that the whole point behind the game?

Further Reading:

Trollsmyth: Abandoned Territory

Can World Building turn into a huge Red Herring?

Hey there Party People! Just popping in to say that I'm not dead, though we did have to cancel the last session because of the Flu, which was a bummer.

So what have I been up to while not updating my blog? Well, I've been prepping. Been second guessing myself a lot as well. I've got my major notes but I've noticed that I spend a lot of time crafting things that ultimately serve no purpose other than to expand a culture or project color. Things should function on multiple levels, aesthetics are good, but not when they distract away from ideas. I think that I kind of overwhelm my players with unintentional red herrings.

That said, I am working on tightening my focus, at least when it comes to preparing my notes. I know as a player I always hated blank worlds. I can't tell you how many times I played and the world was just too bland. I may had gone to the opposite spectrum. Designing an entire session based on just getting to know a foreign environment. Is that boring? We only get to play every forth Saturday, I really need to keep things moving.

Gothic Earth Session 14: The Hot Winter

Last nights game was all about movement. The party got out of Switzerland and their search for Fu Manchu and the Sacred Spirit Blade has finally had a break; George Weathermay discovered that the artifact had been sold in an auction in Egypt. Boarding a pleasure cruise, they sailed to the Far East, and all feel that they were led by their nose by the Celserial Order of the Si-Fan, but what are they to do?

The trail has taken them across the world into the exotic jungles of British Controlled Burma where they will find themselves learning more about their enemy than they probably want to.

 I love movement! It is a big part of the game. The game was liner, we had skipped October, tis a busy month, I didn't even have time to blog, and the writing time that I did have was spent researching and prepping.

You never know what your players are going to do, but I was shocked when they told me when their boat landed at Morocco, their first port, that they were just going to spend their time on the ship and not leave. WHAT?!?! Who does that? I had even posted some cool films of Tangiers on our Communications page to get them wondering why it was there, and they watched them; but, "we've decided that we are staying on the ship and relaxing." I told them they can relax in Tangiers so that they could find the clue and we can play this game.

I had written a murder mystery for them as well, but they weren't feeling it, so I didn't push it. They were interested in the main story arc, THANK GOD! A twisting and turning web that has them wondering what is going on, and a return to the true campaign.

I hope that they enjoyed their break this game, it is always calmest before the storm.

Speculation on the Wargames biggest influence on D&D

There are camps in the RPG community, those that prefer to campaign, and those that don't. Where did the idea of campaigning start? The answer is that its roots go back to wargames, and I can see how this came to be.

There are two kinds of wargames: your standard single games, one and done, and then there is a much more difficult game which is the campaign. In the campaign, you've got to preserve your troops as those who survive will be moving on to the next game. It changes the way that we play completely! But, why do we do this?

I was playing a WW2 game, and I saw that the enemy was going to take a city. My best course of action was to withdraw and move as many units as I could to a more defensible position. It didn't look good, I had made a mistake and my opponent was capitalizing on it. He was going to overpower my major artillery and take it all away if I didn't play my cards right. I was looking at a losing game.

Enter the 3rd Infantry. These guys were tough, I knew that but I had to sacrifice them to get my tanks and less tough infantry out of the area, so I ordered them to hold their ground for as long as possible so that I could move the majority of my forces back behind a river. I didn't know how long they could hold it, but if I didn't I was definitely loosing everything.

It was at this point that something extraordinary happened. The 3rd Infantry held. They were blasted by everything that the enemy had, but through lucky rolls and fate this piece not just held its position, allowing me to retreat without taking losses, but it was destroying the enemy. I was even able to get the 3rd Infantry out of there as well, once their job was done I was amazed. It was so much fun watching this take place. Once I got them out of danger I moved them behind my lines and didn't ask any more of them. They were very beat up and another attack on them would have wiped them out. I felt something for this unit. Even though this was just a game, something in me felt proud in that little marker. It became more than just a marker, it had guts and stamina that I had never seen before.

I ended up wining that game, all because the 3rd Infantry had done their job. I enjoy this game and played it again but the 3rd Infantry was no longer the stoic band of heroes that it was during that game. Even in winning that scenario they were gone at the end of it, never to appear again. I still treat that piece with reverence though. I remember what it had done as if it was a real thing.

You see this in wargames. Specific pieces do something that is so surprising that they become important to the player. We want to know more about them, and a story took place. We use them again and again! When we are playing a campaign, that specific band of heroes can continue. We'll treat them differently. For me; even though my tanks did more damage, the 3rd Infantry was still my favorite.

I am sure that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax felt the same way about specific members of their forces. They became more than just a painted piece of lead, this piece did great things once! What if we could break that group down and play them individually and that is the point of the game? We can learn even more about this unit! That sounds like fun! And it is, we call it D&D.

I myself prefer campaign style, especially when it comes to D&D. No one-shots, I want to see my character succeed against bad odds, to fail on his own terms, to be more than just a cardboard counter, a little lead sculpture, or a collection of digital 1's and 0's.  D&D allows this to happen in a way where even folks who never had an S.S. Panzer  Division tear into their enemies like an unstoppable monster.

Gothic Earth: Session 13 (Ding Dong)

I had gotten some excellent advice from our friend Scott Anderson, I had designed an overly precise flaw to the dungeon, and none of us were really paying attention to the game. So, we had to back up. I asked my players what they wanted to do, and told them what my thoughts were. Most of the last game wasn't a total loss, we did good work! We decided to back things up to just before the party left the elevator, the relic of Sebaldus gave everyone a dire warning of what lay ahead.


I also had to correct some mechanical flaws that have crept into the system. Masque of the Red Death, I don't feel, was designed for higher levels of play. I don't think that the designers ever thought that folks like us would be playing it long term.

If I could go back to the beginning I would have blended the two spellcasting classes into one class, and added psionics as a fourth class. Mystics are just too limited in what they can do, and they are reduced to spell work because if the bad guys are able to close, folks are going to die. To correct the problem I have abandoned the Priest Sphere system and allowed the player to pick spells based off of role-playing rather than the very limited system core to Masque rules. The altered casting times still apply! But the system for acquiring spells doesn't work. To give the player an offensive option I also gave her a psionic wild talent, which play-tested fine.

With combat, I had to drop the Rate Of Fire as it applies to firearms. As it sat, a random encounter of eight 0th level bandits who got the jump on the party, all of them having 6 shots apiece, would TPK even our 8th level party in a couple of rounds, which won't work, so I reverted back to Core rules of 3/2 for fighters and one shot for everyone else. I've got a PC who has a trick shooting proficiency, I let him fire into melee with no penalties.

The AC issue (everyone's base AC is 10) was addressed by reminding them all that AC floats, it improves with taking cover and using your environment. On my end, I had to apply this system to my creatures.

These changes all improved the game. Combat was much swifter and more fair for everyone.


This dungeon was my own design, because of events outside of the game which was beyond our control, they were all killed. We went back to the beginning of the 9th dungeon level, and I let everybody know that this was it. No takebacks. The party could not leave this dungeon, and they must finish tonight. If at the end of the night they still haven't slain the Belalp witch, they lost. She escapes and entombs them all in the dungeon and the game is over.

The players had taken over the elevator and made it secure. Two players were unable to attend the game, their characters controlled the elevator and guarded the supplies that they had so the active party was unencumbered.

Play Begins

The players went back up to the main dungeon and systematically cleared it out and found some nice weapons and armor that I had placed up there. I had hidden some Drow Platemail+5 as well as a Drow Longsword+5. Both of these items helped immensely and disappeared as soon as they left the dungeon.

I had wanted to take away their guns, this tomb hasn't been opened for a thousand years, everything except for the witch is dead and cursed, mostly ogre skeletons and zombies, and another section for the huge undead giants. Guns were pretty worthless, but I had old-fashioned arms scattered around to deal with them. The trick was to increase your AC. We had four players show up for this session and the game was well balanced, tons of XP to go around nice treasure, and the player who had put on the Drow armor and was a tank managed to find a huge spider which she rode around the giant section of the dungeon.

One player did end up dying, the victim of a giant banshee, but she was resurrected before she turned into an undead herself. It was a dangerous place and I expected some fatalities. By searching the dungeon before taking on the 9th level they were ready to take on that dangerous stuff.

Right out of the elevator, on the bottom level they had to face an entire unit of lawful monster skeletons who fought like centurions, it was a brutal battle and this time they were more evenly matched. It was still a long encounter, powerful undead fighters who were also very difficult to hit. The party figured out a way to punch a hole into their defense and managed to control the pace of the fight. It wasn't just a dice-fest either, which made things go more smoothly and we all enjoyed it more.

Finally, they fought their way to the Witch and after a long tricky battle she tried begging for mercy and they promply executed her. They had control of the dungeon and it was getting late so we decided to skip the battle with the undead centurions, choosing to quickly summarize it, the skeletons would have done the exact same thing, and offered no challenge.

They fetched the Relic, this time the witch was dead so the Demonic god was weaker and Sebaldus had a chance of defeating it . . . a 25% chance, but since the witch was dead, the party could still escape if Sabaldus lost. I had them roll the dice. They needed a 75 or higher to defeat the devil: they rolled a 76. Sebaldus destroyed the sentient idol, breaking the curse on the land and finally defeating this dungeon.

Sebaldus rewarded those who showed up in different ways. The Cleric was granted the Wild Talent, The Gunslinger was given more strength, the German Spy was granted Dexterity, and the Explorer was given the ability to know Latin.

The fun that we all had from this session more than made up for the last session!


This was my most ambitious game design. It incorporated a lot of OD&D principles, and while the initial prep for it was intense, there was virtually no prep once we started playing it. The entire scenario lasted us seven sessions.

It featured two separate dungeons; a mine and a witches lair, both reset themselves in a way that they could always be explored and offer challenges. We didn't finish the mine section, it had one more scenario hidden in it which was never triggered. 

Overall, it offered something for everybody at the table. A very difficult mystery to solve, a living world to interact with, tons of NPCs which were fun to run, and enough XP to bring the regular players up to level so they can take on even more grueling challenges ahead, as I now think that they are ready to get back on the trail of the main campaign villain, Fu Manchu. So! It is off to London, which I will write and maybe play with some Play-By-Post via Facebook. We are skipping the game for the month of October, and opting to have a Halloween Party instead.


Gothic Earth: Session 12 TPK

Well, last weeks game had some major issues and ended up falling apart. Technically, everybody died, but there were things going on beyond our ability to control. It was horrible. Nobody had their thinking caps on and this is a very hard game. I knew that from the beginning. Whenever something like this happens, you learn a lot, and we did.

Lets back up. We took a month off and are playing twice this month, this being the first session to make up for August. I had beat them down with a dragon, and their characters needed time to heal up. This gave us a week where they just stayed in their cabin, and I really don't like that much missing time, especially since this campaign will only last for 10 years of in-game time. To fill the gap I wrote some fiction.

There were things that I wanted to recap, and game elements which weren't being utilized, such as the mystics tarot cards. I never wanted to shut the game down for the time it takes to focus on divination, not in real-time anyway, so I took the opportunity to do that. Providing hints, and clues and basically telling them that it is time to move. They are transporting the bones of Saint Sabaldus, he is their knight, but there is a dark knight as well, and the party can't fight him, Sabaldus has to.

I also revealed that there were three parts, the Dragon, the creature in the mine, and the Witch, these were all connected, not separate at all, but one big problem. In order to tip the scale in Sabaldus's favor they had to eliminate at least one of these targets.

I also decided to bring the character who died last adventure back to life. I have never done this before, in all my years of gaming nobody has ever been resurrected. It was a pointless death, but I also had the Holy Relic. The character had served the town, so the town served her. They fetched her body from the canyon and returned her to the party where Sabaldus gave her back her life. In exchange for this, they lost the girl that they had saved to the witches. This also speeds up the clock, once she is made a witch they will form a coven, and this will allow the ancient witch who is imprisoned under the church to escape.

I introduced a new character as well, a German Detective who has been hunting them ever since they left Germany with the artifact, he showed up with a ton of men and they have now taken over the village of Belalp, and they arrested Van Helsing, so he is off of the table as well.

At that point, we began the game. Everybody really loved the story, the player who had died was jazzed as I had told her to keep this to herself, she rolled her Resurrection survival and passed it. Then they cleared out of town taking the artifact with them.

I thought that they were going after the dragon, they almost killed it last time, and it is injured still; I'd figure that they'd go finish the job. They didn't, instead they went right to the Tomb of the Witch, and broke the seal. There was no going back now, the Witch was officially loose.

This specific dungeon was the hardest thing that I have ever drawn up. It hasn't seen a living soul since Father Sabaldus trapped her in there back when he was alive. Inside is a living nightmare, those who followed the Witch Kevra were entombed as well, and a war over supplies raged inside until every one of them were dead. This war repeats itself over and over again. Even the dead here cannot be slain, the curse always brings them back.

Somehow, I don't know how they do it, my dungeons are always mazes, but they always seem to stumble right where they need to go. The nastiest trap in the place, they figured out. An elevator which must be locked at the bottom, it goes to the Witch's chambers, and she controls the undead to lower the elevator if she wants to. If the players don't pay attention to this elevator, they will be the ones who are entombed down there as it is the only way in or out.

So, the players fight their way to the witch's chambers, and find an evil sentient statue of some forgotten pagan god, it is casting spells, and the witch appears but gets blown away. The players take the Relic into the room, Sam knows that this is where the artifact belongs, and then the war begins, the horror of true good vs. evil, but since they didn't really kill any of the beasts party (the witch, the dragon, and whatever is haunting the darkness in the mine) Sabaldus can't win. I am describing this battle of light and telling them that it is getting darker and darker and they aren't doing anything about it. They are just sitting their listening to this. Finally I just shut down the game.

We've been playing this game for almost a whole year. Everyone was distracted and having difficulty. They didn't understand what was going on, I thought that it was obvious, but was wrong. A couple of the players were loving it, it is harder than hell. The Wizard didn't show up to play, so they had no offensive spells. We also figured out that the Mystic is unbalanced and unplayable at the level that she is at. When they designed the Masque of the Red Death box set, it was meant for a one shot adventure, but we've been playing it long-term. She is not a normal cleric, and is so restricted in her spells that all she is is a medic, and she hated it. We talked after the game and decided to grant her an offensive psionic power which hopefully will give her character that little boost that she needs.

I felt like a failure. I take things personally, I do! I did make a big error during the game. I couldn't find the stats for the ancient witch, it wasn't on my stat block sheet, instead I had placed it right on the Random Encounters sheet and had forgot, so I improvised. She had a Fake Kevra, which I ran, but I gave it way too much power, and hit one of the fighters almost killing him instantly. Afterwards I found my mistake, so there is that.

I offered two options: We could either hold the game where it is at, or we could reboot it from where the PC resurrected. So far they have opted to hold, they returned to the elevator and locked it between floors so they are safe, but I told them that there is only one path to win the scenario. They have to kill this witch tomorrow. If they flee, they'll be killed. With all of the bumbling they did end up cornering both themselves and the witch, but with the injuries that they have, they are in a very tight spot.

I feel like a cad for stopping the game because of TPK. We've got a character who has no hp left, a high level cleric who is helpless in a pit of the undead, a fighter who can't enter the Demon room, and another fighter who was charmed by the statue and is now working for it. Only the thief of the party is unharmed, and they hope to kill the witch in her own domain. Personally, I think that they are doomed if they follow this path.

I don't know. I didn't give them any XP because I was angry, but calmed down during the post game discussion. There are lots of reasons why the game collapsed, but it still feels cheap. I am not willing to take it easy on them in regards to fighting the witch. That would be a huge disservice to them. Like I said, the majority of the players were cool with the difficulty level, but we all agreed that we weren't mentally in the game as the game required us to be.

What would you do?

Do you think that it was wrong to not TPK a party for one off night? It was many factors: my bumbling, bad dice rolls, and caring for a player who was not able to play. I have no problem TPKing early games, but we've been playing these characters for over 10 years, they got us back into the hobby. I can't do that to them.

Bad games are a bummer!


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