Role-players have always had a love-hate relationship with Random Encounters. Back in the day they were always used, but as the game became more advanced, the Dungeon Masters tended to do away with them. Recently, since the resurrection of the classic gaming style, many DMs have decided to include them in their play style once again. The problem that can arise now is that it is kind of a lost art.
Above ground, Random Encounters aren’t so hard to figure out how to handle. All you have to do is judge how long the party is going to be traveling, and then check the tables for the area that they are in. Below ground, however, is a completely different subject. While much of the time spent traversing wide open spaces is pretty much unaccountable for, each moment spent underground IS accountable. For this reason dungeon masters had to figure out ways of measuring time.
Time in 2e is measured in units of rounds or turns. For reasons of simplicity rounds are about a minute, sometimes shorter and sometimes longer but for purposes of tracking time we will always assume that they are a minute. Turns are roughly ten minutes. This unit of time is only usable during fights, but what about when they are exploring? Well, for times like this we must assume other things.
UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE OF MODULES
Typically, in modules which use random encounters, they will list how often that random encounters are to be checked. Often it tells you to check for random encounters ever turn, which is ten minutes. There is another thing which old-timers have taken for granted, and without this little clue about time keeping, you are in a world of confusion. This little known clue is that once a party enters an underground dungeon, or a building which is a big part of the dungeon, the units which we use are changed. Instead of time being abstract, we change this logic to Dungeon Time = real-time. This will float, and it really isn’t the same as real-time, but for time itself we assume that each session = 1 day in game time. Thus, wizards who run out of spells are out of luck until the next game unless they can convince the party to take them above ground, or back to town to let them rest and memorize new spells.
Now then, with this understood, if you would like, you can go out and purchase one of those cooking timers, or borrow your wife’s but for reasons of personal safety, it is best that we return it once we are done using it. If the module has dictated that we should check for random encounters every turn, then we set our timers for 10 minutes, and when it goes off, the players all go silent and look at you expectantly while you roll percentile dice for some reason which they may or may not understand exactly what it is for.
With that said, many factors can affect how often we check for random encounters. In combat which is either pre-set, or listed in the key, the moment that the players enter the room, we must subtract the number of minutes which has expired from the Random Encounter Check time.
As an example, we know that there are 4 trolls in the room which the party has just entered, we look at our timer and there is still 5 minutes left to the random encounter check. This means that we now ignore the timer and instead judge the number of minutes in rounds. Thus in 5 rounds we will check to see if a random encounter has happened.
OTHER FACTORS TO ADD INTO RANDOM ENCOUNTERS
The percentage listed (if we are going by percentages) assumes that the party is being quiet as possible. This doesn’t factor in noisy armor which we must determine how noisy the armor is if someone is an idiot and wearing full-plate armor in the dungeon. Perhaps a fair modifier to the percentage chance of attracting a random encounter is +25%.
Loud noises, such as bashing in a door, setting off alarms, or the loud clanging of weapons striking armor, and the yelling and screaming involved in combat is very likely to call attention to one’s location. These instances will increase a party’s chance of being discovered by a random encounter considerably! +50% sounds like a fair modifier to me.
You must always be aware of a noise level, bashing in a door worth 50hp takes time and makes a lot of noise. It also allows those on the other side of the door to prepare themselves and take appropriate action. A quiet castle will be on low alert as long as the party uses stealth and wisdom in moving around, but once it is discovered that the walls have been breached, all of the guards and monsters will be on high alert. This also factors into Random Encounters.
ALTERNATIVE METHOD TO RANDOM ENCOUNTERS
A way to cut down on the amount of dice that you are rolling is to change the way that you check for them. Many times a percentage number is given, but we can also use a d20. During our prep we assign which monsters we want to have running around our dungeon. The lower the number the more of these creatures will be running around. The mid-numbers, say 8-11 can be limited, if the party defeats these creatures they will be depleting the monsters from a limited supply which is normally found elsewhere in the dungeon level. Say a snake that normally can be found in room A43 on the Dungeon Key can be encountered randomly, if they kill it before finding its lair, then once they get to room A43 there will be no encounter in that room, also, if they already killed the snake in its lair, then there will be no random encounter. The higher numbers always represent No Encounter.
Another method of checking for random encounters, which is much easier then rolling percentile dice is to just use a d6 or some other die. Prior to play we must decide what is the base chance of having an encounter, say, 1-3 results in an encounter, and this number can float up or down depending on how the players are acting. Loudness or engaged in noisy combat will give the odds of an encounter to 1-4 or even 1-5 on a d6, but we can also improve this by allowing a thief to lead the party, making it 1-2 on a 1d6 to dictate encounters.
Use your imagination, but remember to keep it fair and logical. You can have all of the monsters on the Random Encounter list to be limited, or have them not have any effect on the dungeon population at all! Random Encounters are used to add depth and richness to the world, they can also be dangerous! Don’t be afraid to judge them properly, if a party has had the crap kicked out of them, they may be worth more to the villain alive then they are dead. An incredibly powerful party will cause fear, the random encounter could run away and alert those around them to the powerful parties presence in their lair. Just because something is random, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to make sense.
Apparently a lot of us bloggers are running the classic module "Temple of Elemental Evil", myself included. This is my very first true fantasy game that I have ever ran. Normally I've only DMed in the realm of Ravenloft, thus I am kind of struggling with the new ruleset. Of course I am also experimenting with things. My biggest change is that we are going to be using the training rules. Not for every level, as I feel that that is too excessive, however levels that grant the players either Weapon Prof. or a None Weapon Prof. will require training time and money.
We completed our third game last Sunday, and completed the Hommlet section of the Mod.. I had no hardcopy of this module, but painstakingly updated it to 2e by retyping the entire thing out.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
I have grown sick of CN alignments, my players are addicted to this one and it really throws a wrench in my games. I replaced CN with Neutral Evil to see how that goes. So far, so good.
Shannon is our only Fighter, and an elf.
Summer is trying out the Cleric class again, seeing if she can keep this one alive.
Ryden is once again playing a mage, he wasn't too thrilled with me about forbidding the Warrior/Mage subclass but I have always felt that that class should not be.
Kim is trying out the Thief class, she is new to the class and an inexperienced player. All of the above players are playing elves with the exception of my wife who is playing a human witch class which is also a first for the table. She is trying out the NE alignment, which to me is easier to live with then Chaotic Crazy.
The odd thing is that we've got 2 mages, I do not expect both of them to survive. Protecting one mage is hard enough, nevertheless trying to keep two out of danger.
I ran into my first problem early. I had granted my wife access to the spell of "Burning Sphere" and she became a one-man-gang. In the moathouse, she single handedly routed the thieves living in the uppermost section of the moathouse with a single spell. The leader instantly surrendered after all of his men were wiped out in just a couple of rounds. I was going to modify this spell, however she talked me out of it as she played the spell as written in the handbook, and it is balanced by the fact that she can only use it once per day. I am trying to stick as close to CORE as I can, and while I find that spell to be excessive, it is still Core. We decided that we'd have to really pay attention to room dimensions and where everybody was at, which is tough because I refuse to play with miniatures.
I, at first, questioned if the moathouse was actually a 1st level adventure, and once again I screwed myself. I had everybody roll a 1d6 with the two highest scores being started at 2nd level. Well everybody but poor Kim rolled a 6, lucky them. Thus all but 1 person became 2nd level just like that.
I think that they probably could had entered the moathouse insantly, however I wanted them to gain another level, or at least get close to 3rd before attempting it. I had them protect a wagon out of Hommlet escorting a child up to Verbonce and then bringing fresh supplies back into town as in my version I had the Thieves of the Temple completely cripple the town by not allowing anything in or out. The party did this task with no problems.
I'm not used to playing off of a module either. Many of the descriptions are so long winded I honestly don't know what to do about them and I think that I am going to ignore them completely. It is just that I'm used to having all of the facts in my head, and running off a script, while much easier in the Prepping Department, is much harder for me to remember to factor in. This is such an advanced story, remembering everything is very difficult for me.
I had the spies of Hommlet attack, punishing the hamlet for bringing supplies in by burning fields during the night. This forced the hamlet to admit the secret of the Moathouse and have the adventures go check it out. I had tricked them into hiring a spy to accompany them, as well as the father of a missing boy. Elmo the Ranger, their greatest ally in Hommlet was injured while fighting the fire, so he couldn't go with them.
The moathouse itself took two games to complete. They quickly completed the upper level of the moathouse, making fun of me because they tried to run away from a Giant Snake and I had it batter through the rotten door. My wife said that the snake was to much of a wimp to knock the door in, and I get razed by it to this day. Apparently my wife isn't scared of a giant snake, which I looked up in the module to determine its size, and it is only as big as a boa, but it was a Rattler that size! Not scary to my wife. Oh well, the snake still bashed in the door and sacrificed its life to give the party the XP I wanted them to have before heading downstairs.
The dungeon itself gave them some serious challenges but didn't overwhelm them like I thought that it would have. It took two games to complete, and Kim got a lot of use from her thief. I did change a few things on the fly, and gave Shannon a better sword because they were exploring very well.
The finale turned out really well, the bad guys were not overwhelmed like the ones upstairs, though the wizards kept the boss on the run, forcing him on defense at the first possible time. He was able to buy his life, and turned over a list of all of the spies in Hommlet.
The next game had the players track down the spies, the mole had escaped and was able to warn the others. They had believed that they had him charmed, he and the others holed up in the tradingpost. The players devised a method of getting them out so that they could be arrested, sending a local child over there to get some intel, however when he didn't return they realized that they had unwittingly given the badguys a hostage, which made the situation even worse.
They were able to breach the walls, save the hostage, and were even able to arrest one of the badguys! Next game they will make their way to Nulb, and I've got to figure out what I want to do there.
I have been tinkering with an idea; on one hand it is rather gamy, but it would increase the difficulty level of the game, and can help players become better then they normally would be.
In the past I have written about training and leveling up. Implementing the training rules does encourage the players to collect as much money as they can. While it does make the milieu economy meaningless, there are other benefits to charging gp to level up, namely being that the level up rate will be more evenly distributed.
First Edition had an interesting take on the leveling up process, one in which how the player acted and played the game determined how hard or how easy it was to level up. Now my idea takes that theory a bit further, I do want to see some competition going on as I find that when people compete with each other, they become better players for it.
My idea is to assign everybody a grade based on the player’s nightly performance. I will only pass out 1 of each high score, and I must pass out a very low score as well. The scores will reflect on how many weeks it will take the PC to level up, as well as how much they will have to pay. Now please understand that this hasn’t been play-tested yet, and currently it is just a theory, but it could be fun!
JUDGING THE PLAYERS
It is the DM’s job to track how the players are doing individually, and look for problems. Is the player properly role-playing his character? Is the wizard smart enough to use a magical item at a critical moment? Is the Cleric role-playing devotion to his faith? Is the thief fighting in face-to-face melee combat in the front with the warriors? Players some times chose to play the game to accomplish a goal that perhaps the character itself would be incapable of. If you offer the chance for extra gold to a thief, he should always take it! Wizards should always refuse to fight in the front, and Paladins will never guard a door when their fellow warriors are fighting in the front.
It is the DM’s job to look for inconsistencies. Is the ranger renting a room in the city? Is the Druid fighting plant-based monsters right along side his fellow players? We shouldn’t comment on it, but make a note of it to the side. Not to say that we shouldn’t let the players role-play their characters, but once they have chosen their personalities, such as a cowardly cleric, then it wouldn’t make much sense for him to run into combat later on down the line just because his party needs help. Let the player’s have their fun, but if they do it too often then it will cost them money and time later on down the road.
Many tables also have problems with how players conduct themselves. Are they argumentative, not show up regularly, or worse, show up late without calling first? All of this can also be factored into how the DM judges the players ability to play.
A scale of grading will determine how many weeks a PC requires to train based on his in game actions. Alternatively you can limit A’s and B’s to only one player per game. These grades should be assigned at the time that you give out XP at the end of the night.
A—Superior gaming skills = 1
B—Above Average Skills = 2
C—Average Player = 3
D—Weak Playing Skills = 4
DETERMINING A PLAYERS TOTAL GRADE
Once a player qualifies to level up, the DM must tally up all of his grades and determine which was most common. This way, an off night once in a while won’t affect your over-all score.
C should be average, but truly good players will have access to A’s or B’s. And truly bad players will get the hint that they need to improve. While it isn’t required for the D category to be used, I think that some tables might enjoy it being given out, especially if all of the players are equally good.
The base cost to level up is 1,500 gp per level, per week of training. This money is to pay the teacher, and pay for his time, supplies, expertise, tithes, whatever. Characters with a C or below must seek out an NPC of the same class and of a higher level to have them teach them. A character with a score of B or higher can opt to do independent study which may be a bit more expensive, but doesn’t require one to seek out a teacher.
No adventuring can be done while the character is in training, and if for some reason he must stop training, he must start over from the beginning and the money that he spent will be lost.
THE COST OF INDEPENDENT STUDY
Independent study still takes the same number of weeks of dedicated training, and training only. A place must be located which is suitable to accomplish the training, and the cost below reflects that.
FIGHTER: 1,000 gp per level/week
MAGE: 4,000 gp per level/week
CLERIC: 2,000 gp per level/week
ROGUE: 2,000 gp per level/week
A character can only level up once per training session. A 1st level character who has gained enough xp to level up to 3rd must first train and level up to 2nd level before he can level up to 3rd.
A character may still earn XP until he has collected enough to level up twice. At that time, no more XP can be earned until he spends the time and the money to level up.
Thus, Fran the Terrible, a 1st level Fighter, has collected 3,985 xp. He qualifies to level up to 2nd level, however he hasn’t been able to escape the hellish pit that he and his mates have been exploring. Killing a monster worth 50 xp, he’ll only get 25 of that, as it will push him into qualifying for 3rd level. All other XP is lost until Fran can surface and train to become 2nd level. After he is second level, he can either spend more time and money leveling up to 3rd, or go back down into the hole as a 2nd level fighter and keep earning more XP until he’s earned enough to level up to 4th.
NOTE ABOUT ENCUMBRANCE
If you plan on using this experimental rule system, you may want to let the encumbrance rules slide, a least in regards to transporting gold, as it will take a hell-a-lot of it to pay to level up.
On paper, this system looks kind of fun, and it is based on an AD&D rule found in the 1e DMG, all I did was make it a bit more competitive. I am interested to know if anybody has ever played under that particular leveling up rule, and how it worked. I suppose that in this day and age players will bitch because they want their damned level up right NOW!!! But why should they instantly get it? I mean many of my players laugh at a player’s ability in 4th edition to demand specific magical items from the DM, who says that Leveling up should be a freebee too?
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Help them with their self-esteem
Give the Gift that Keeps on Giving
Experience is a touchy thing. One in which each DM has their own system. I know back in my blasphemous days of ignoring any rule that required bookkeeping or math; we completely ignored the XP system. Anybody who played that day and didn’t croak gained a level, which was horrible now that I look back on it. We always started our characters at fifth level, but I don’t think that we played them very long, and never up to super high levels. I believe that I’ve only played one character that was above tenth level, but don’t quote me on that.
XP is a nice method of improving a character slowly. Unlike videogames, where a character gains levels really quickly, in D&D the characters are meant to be played long term. A good character can keep a player entertained for many many years, and the harder it is to build the character up, the more awesome the character becomes. I mean, who out there in computerland hasn’t sat back with fellow geeks and talked about the exploits of a few of their favorite characters? Is it dorky? YES! But it is still fun, and that is why we do it.
From 1st to 5th doesn’t take very long, however when you get up in levels it should take several games, and at super high levels it can take months of dedicated game play to gain a single level. This is offset by the fact that the game must change constantly. A DM has to be on his toes, and it can be very difficult to judge how much to throw at the adventurers that isn’t overly difficult, but isn’t too easy either. We get this through experience ourselves, and the best way to get this experience is by making mistakes until we get a feel for it.
Besides supplying challenging encounters, we must develop a method of rewarding the players. Now I’m not saying that players are greedy cusses always looking out for a cheap way to get a buck, but players are greedy cusses who are always looking out for a cheap way to get a buck. If they find out what you are rewarding for, and what you aren’t, then they will just focus on the almighty XP and toss all of the other stuff right out the window!
It is for this reason that we should keep our system of XP giving as mysterious as possible. While it is easier to just call out the XP gained from encounters once a fight is over, this can unfortunately program the players to think that Combat is the name of the game, and we really don’t want to reward this behavior. Just because a player kills a goblin, doesn’t mean that he automatically gets experience points for it. In fact, he may be docked! If the goblin has some information in his head which the party could had used, then this can be punishing enough, however if the goblin had no chance then the player who did it was just being a bully. This encounter will not only grant no XP, but ruin the PCs reputation as well. Once it gets out that the party is a bunch of mad bloodthirsty clouts, ain’t nobody going to parley with them, and may take their treasure and run if word gets out that the party is coming their way.
But I think that I am getting too far ahead of myself. The deal here is XP and how we judge dishing it out.
We need a way to record what everybody is earning, and it must be fast and accurate at the same time. What I usually do is keep a full sheet of paper next to me at all times. I write down all of the players names, and divide off most of the paper and use that for group XP.
For group XP I write down the number of XP earned per encounter, and I add it all up at the end of the game. Now if someone is late for a session, or made a surprise visit and decides that they want in on the game after you’ve been playing a while, then you need to draw a new section, this will reflect the new Group XP, because he shouldn’t have access to the bank which the others have collected.
Next to the players names, I tend to just record personal XP and number of times that they cast spells or use abilities or what have you. It is also helpful to record all of the hitdice of the monsters that they have defeated. This will be used for rewarding fighters.
Monsters are the #1 source of XP, and the players know it. Keep a sheet of paper close by to add up all of the XP earned from monsters, and don’t give it out until the end of the session, unless somebody is super heroic and can somehow defeat a monster single-handedly with no assist what-so-ever from anybody else. In cases like this it is best to just give them the XP that they had earned immediately.
Like I said above, not all monster encounters should bare fruit. Only grant XP for monsters that actually challenged them. If you think that the combat was too one sided then don’t give them credit for it. XP is supposed to be earned, not just handed out like beads at a parade.
Besides slaying monsters and finding loot, part of the game is discovering where to find the loot. They do this by discovering what their objectives are, and by completing them. Part of our prep should be locating the objectives and assigning an XP value to them. If a party isn’t completing objectives, or not into this aspect of the game, we can use these XP to let them know that they are being rewarded for discovering ways of completing them. Some objectives can be completed by the idea of one player, go ahead and call out the XP to him for figuring out a clue or devising a plan and let him, and the rest of the table, know what he is being rewarded for. If this isn’t a problem, then just jot down the value on a scrap piece of paper.
Objectives should be worth between 100-500 xp. The higher the level the players have, the more objectives that they’ll probably need to complete. Some objectives will be known, while others will be a secret. Say, saving a prisoner from a dungeon can grant big XP, maybe 10,000 for a noble who had gone missing.
Be inventive, and if you think that the party will gain something from it, go ahead and grant this XP immediately.
Players also earn XP on an individual basis for using their skills in an effective manner. Thieves gain XP from using their abilities, and also earn 1 xp per every 2 gold pieces earned. Now this isn’t to say that every time a thief climbs a wall that he gets 100 xp, only if he uses this skill to complete some kind of objective. A thief who picks a pocket just for the gold gets nothing, however if he knows that a guard has a key and he is able to lift the key from him, then he qualifies for the XP bonus.
Wizards get XP for casting spells, learning spells, and creating magical items. Clerics are much the same, with the exception that they get even more XP if the spell that they cast or the ability that they use is beneficial to their faith. This aspect could stand to be further explored, but that will have to be later.
Fighters can be kind of tough, and require a bit more bookwork. They get XP per Hit Die of the creatures that they defeat. For this reason we record all of the hitdice.
Class Action XP should always be kept secret and tallied up at the end of the game.
A good roleplayer should be rewarded. If a player really enjoys his character, he will be more then just an adventurer, but will have dreams and aspirations that are wider then just completing group objectives. If a player has set out some personal objectives, and he achieves them, he should be rewarded.
These kinds of objectives are completely up to the DM to determine their value. The harder something is to obtain, the higher the value should be. If it requires money, perhaps the suggestion for rewarding thieves (1xp per 2 gp) is sufficient?
Only thieves gain XP from money, at least in core rules. Now, the treasure listed in the DMG is all given an XP value, this is for constructing the item, and I also use it for NPCs. If an intelligent monster has magical items, I add the value to the monsters XP value, and it may (on my judgment) cause him to be a higher level then usual. I assume that the badguy was butch enough to acquire the item, thus he should be of a level that could survive the risk of obtaining it. No 0th level brigand will have a +4 Long Sword, he should be of a much higher level, else he is a poser with a dangerous toy, but then we go more into the story aspect of the game.
It is your judgment if you wish to reward XP for treasure, but me personally, I don’t do it. I have been pondering with allowing the players to purchase XP with the gold that they have earned; maybe 5gp to 1XP, but I honestly have never play-tested this theory, and I wouldn’t want to reward anybody for the same thing twice. This money would be spent to get training from a higher leveled, classed NPC, if there is one available.
Money and wealth has its own rewards, at least in my opinion. A rich party can use their money to buy specialty items and social standings, why folks feel this need to turn it into XP is beyond me.
This stuff is completely objective and open to interpretation. Mainly this is used to reward players for working on different areas, or for being a good player socially. If the player has a fantastic role-playing session that accomplishes a goal, give him points! If the party can talk their way out of a problem, rather then deciding it through combat, go ahead and give them all of the points for the enemy, plus a bonus. If the party did something quietly and preserved all of the lives in the place, as well as their own, give them a bonus. But Player points are more then that. It is also about behavior. If everybody at the table is being rude and obnoxious, reward all the persons who is not acting like this. If a player makes you laugh, go ahead and give him a small bonus. If you can think it, then reward it. A comparable bonus point is between 10-1,000xp depending on the situation. These are private points that you can either give out loudly or quietly depending on what you are rewarding. If a rules-lawyer went an entire session without second-guessing your work, grant him 200xp and let him know why he got the bonus, this might help him keep his opinion to himself.
END OF SESSION WRAP-UP
At the end of the session we tally up all of the points earned as a group and divide the number by double the players that you just ran. Thus if you have 4 players, you would divide the total points by 8. This is a bonus for surviving the game, granted if a player died during the adventure he does not get any of this bonus.
At this time you add up the entire group XP and divide it up evenly between the party. Then you add up all of the private awards which you haven’t awarded yet, and add that to the overall score. It is best to just give each player what he or she has earned at the end of the session. I usually have them add their 10% bonus themselves if they qualify for such because of a high ability score someplace.
XP POINTS & LEVELING UP
At low levels we need to be careful not to go crazy with the XP. A character can only gain 1 level per adventure, if you are playing with the core rules then all of the points above this are lost and they don’t gain any XP until they have had a chance to level up their characters. It is up to the DM to decide how level ups are handled, if they are using the training rules, then the players would need to surface and find a teacher to help him or her upgrade their abilities. I know that I only force training when a character gains a new Proficiency, and for non-warriors who improve their THAC0. All other stuff I assume can be learned out on the field, but the only time that I allow leveling up is at the end of the session. I find that this works best as a cool down. Leveling up can take some bookwork and I don’t want that to distract them from the game. This also gives them something to look forward to next game, which my player’s have always been verbally appreciative of. Whatever your system is, make sure that it works for you. If you are a new DM then keep it simple until you got that aspect of the game memorized, and then you can start keeping more detailed notes about rewarding your players.
I am also not above giving out homework at the end of a session. I’ll ask for histories, or something and grant XP for anybody who comes back on the next session with some of the information that I was looking for.
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My brain has not been agreeable lately, but it has been a while since my last post, and I don’t think that this fog will lift on its own, so I think that it is just time for me to write incoherent rambles and, hopefully, shake off some of this rust.
I’ve been Dungeon Mastering World of Greyhawk, which is a new step for me. I am used to running games exclusively in Ravenloft settings, true fantasy is a brand new step for my personal gaming. I have played fantasy settings, namely Forgotten Realms, which I never really cared for because of all of the baggage that goes with it. Too much information is a problem, and that problem also infected my Ravenloft setting, however not to the incurable extent that it did to the Realms. Greyhawk attracted me first because of the history of it, and second because its incompleteness. There is a lot of stuff left completely open, and I find that completely brilliant! Of course, by nature I am a horror junky, thus my Greyhawk will be much darker and mysterious then what was probably intended, however that is the beauty of the setting, isn’t it; The ability for the world to work for you, instead of the other way around?
I’ve never really been all that attracted to fantasy. When I was a kid I enjoyed Pierce Anthony’s Xanth series, I read many books from that world; and as a teen I got into the Death Dealer series, which was based on the art of Frank Frazetta that I really enjoyed, but I find most fantasy novels to be unreadable, else so big that they are overly intimidating. The Conan series was like that to me, I prefer hardbound books over paperbacks, and with large series such as Conan, it can be very difficult to find #1. I know that my wife has a couple of Conan books in her collection, but, like I said, I don’t want to read a series out of order.
I also really got into the Red Sonya comic book, it was both sexy and violent, thus my love for that comic is a given. Sex and violence are two very important aspects to fantasy fiction which is a must have for me. If there aren’t any naked hot chicks getting sacrificed to greedy and evil gods, I just don’t find anything all that fun about it! Which goes into another problem with D&D, and that is the refusal for most male players to ever play female characters. Why? That just doesn’t make much sense? Of course all of my females that I’ve ever played on a full-time basis were super sexed up cheesecake babes who wore the awesome chainmail bikini. OH YEAH!!! I enjoyed putting them into danger and seeing if they could get out of it. A private little bit of erotica at the gaming table, but I tend to do that with all of my characters. I have always found danger to be sexy, and D&D can really satisfy this need.
As a DM, I will admit to not putting any blatant erotica into my games, nor introducing any sexual relations within the game itself. I think that that aspect is just too predicable, and if a PC gets married or finds romance then that is just an open invitation to abusing the players significant other, besides, we do stick to stereotypes. Adventures are supposed to be unobtainable. We don’t role-play bathroom breaks, so why would we role-play other private moments? Besides, there is just something creepy about a group of guys sitting around a table in the basement and getting all romantic about stuff. That and half of my players are females, and they most definitely wouldn’t appreciate that . . . well, not in any serious way. I do remember some hilarious games between just us guys where we used one of those infamous SEXUAL charts that were just uproarious! Oh, you rolled a 1, you prematurely finished and the whole village will be laughing at you tomorrow. I suppose that you know a game is going south when you introduce one of those charts into the plans, huh?
Once the cruel breath of winter warmed up, I braved the rain and elements barely making my way south to a warmer, more humane climate. This journey was hellish at best, I had contracted some kind of bizarre illness from living in the filth of the giants which gave me itchy inflamed spots which burned in the rain, but I knew that if I were to survive, I would have to endure it. I some how managed to make it to the city of Rookroost thanks to a band of kindly mercenaries who aided me and tended to my terrible wounds. I was in sad shape, and stayed in a fine room in the city until I felt better, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Though scared from my ordeal, I finally set out once again into the dark neither-regions of unwanted and uncivilized lands of the humanoids.
I didn’t have to go far, following a road East, I took up camp near a roadside cemetery, which was reported by several travelers, to be haunted, however the evidence that they reported did not necessarily fit what I knew of ghosts, thus I thought that it would be worth my time to investigate it personally.
This cemetery was used during the great migration when the plague of burning fevers wiped out more then half of the pilgrims. Since that time it has just been used by travelers who have lost friends and loved ones. The cemetery is very basic, all of the buildings have crumbled and returned to the earth long ago, many of the graves are no longer marked, however recent additions can easily be identified. Entering the cemetery it is easy to know why the place is reputed to be haunted, the place has become infested by thorny bushes, poisonous nettles, and other horrid weeds, which chock the life from a place.
Bits of bone, burned wreckage, and charred metal fittings are not evidence of ghosts, but of raiders, and despite its forlorn appearance, all was not dead in this place, for keeping base in this roadside field of corpses and failure resided a small tribe of Bugbears.
It appears that my illness has made my duty all the more easy. The bugbears assume that I am a racial turn-coat, which will give them a higher status by keeping me on. I must admit that I do look the part. I had suspected that the humanoids would be more generous with me if they believed that I was as dark and as twisted as them. It also doesn’t hurt that I pay them in fool’s gold, a nice little spell I had learned from my master. I shall keep the spell active as long as I am here.
These creatures share characteristics of many different creatures, but for identification purposes, they resemble a cross between a giant goblin and a bear. On average, they stand over 7 feet tall, Males have yellowish brown skin, while females are much yellower; all bugbears are hairy, in fact they are born with it. Their hair is brown, a stone red, or a mixture of both. Their heads are unique to this race, they have a bear-like snout with a keen nose, and sharp teeth typical of carnivorous races. Their eyes are wild and deeply unsettling to gaze into, as they are green with red pupils, which are much more sensitive to light then our own eyes.
Bugbears carry weapons, however nature has given them curious hands; which are both human in shape however armed with the thick brutal claws of the bear. Their bodies are always in exquisite shape, which is typical for a society that dictates that only the strong survive. Bugbears are definitely predators, both physically and mentally!
They have their own language which is beyond a human's capacity to speak, as it is formed in a part of the throat which humans do not physically possess, thus the common tongue is beyond them, however they believe that our language is weak and that we are of lesser intelligence then they themselves are.
NATURAL FUNCTION OF THE BUGBEAR
I do not believe that these creatures are of nature, they are too out of place to be anything but an experiment gone terribly wrong. They serve only to kill, they are excellent hunters. Their subterranean fort made in the old catacombs below the cemetery is host to a grizzly sight, even by humanoid standards. While the bugbear hunts for food, he is incapable of not hunting, thus their lairs are full of corpses which have been gutted and hung to age. Besides humans, all manner of creature is on the menu: animals, goblins, demihumans, kobolds—it appears that the bugbear will eat anything which is smaller then it is, including their own children.
While all bugbears wear clothing, I have not seen any evidence that they themselves manufacture any of it, and it is a mystery to me as to where they get it, as all of them are too large for human clothing, and it is all of a style which I cannot recognize.
Bugbear’s do tend to weapons, keeping them sharp and clean, though this is rather mysterious since their natural weapons are formidable all in themselves, perhaps this is another example of mockery, such as is the case with Hobgoblins? At some point the Bugbear seen human society and simply chooses to copy it the best that they can, regardless of how much sense it makes.
The weapons of the bugbear are typically stolen, however they do possess the technology to construct their own, as well as to repair what they already own. Many of these weapons have been painted black, as has all of their armor. The only areas which aren’t painted are blades, nightly bugbear men sit around a roaring fire sharpening and repainting their arms while they chat.
The bugbear also seems to be artistic, they have their own music, and simple paintings which replace a need for a written language, however no bugbear seems to have any interest about things from the past, their art always talks about the present or their plans for the future.
All creatures fear this race, for obvious reasons; however there are a few exceptions. I know from my time with the goblins, that these two creatures can form an alliance, however this alliance must be shakier then I originally assumed, as goblin flesh seems to be more prized than any other kind of meat.
I believe that the only alliance which is in any way stable is the mysterious relationship they have with the Dark Elf, perhaps it was the drow which created them? While left to its own devices, all bugbears are fiercely independent, however this strong sense of self instantly melts away into one of servitude in the presence of such evil.
They hate everything and everyone. The only thing that keeps me alive is the fact that I supply them with money which they know not where it comes from. It is their greed which forms their greatest weakness. When they think that I am asleep they ruffle through my things in some vein attempt to find my unknown catch, they are obsessed with money, and gems, but more to the point, shiny objects! They will do practically anything to obtain it, and this place is built upon this idea, close to the road which they ambush and slay all victims. They take all of their treasure and burn the evidence.
THE BUGBEAR GODS
As far as I can tell, there are three deities which they observe. The most praised god to this tribe is Grankhul, the bugbear god of thievery. They have regular sacrifices in his honor, killing the victim, giving the poor hapless creatures soul to Grankhul and they feast on the flesh to celebrate.
A higher god which is common to all bugbears is the cruel Hruggek, a god of war, but not one as warlike as the Hobgoblin’s, but of the pandemonium and chaos which war causes. It would take years to study this subtle religion to gleam some sort of sense from it, but that would be time that no creature but the bugbear could hope to gain. I believe that this god has actual priests, or at least at some point they did, but it is very hard to tell working with old drawings on the cave walls.
It is also noteworthy to bring up one of my own inner-feelings. I believe that this tribe is hiding from Hruggek, perhaps if this is a true religion then the priests hunt and kill those who do not worship the proper god? One of the cave paintings has depicted a strangely dressed hobgoblin saint holding a human head, the next section clearly shows the same bugbear slain and the tribesmen running away . . . but obviously this could mean many different things, yet according to the tribal king, this refers to a prophecy of things to come.
While Hruggek could be a devil, the third god most definitely is greatly feared by the bugbear, it’s name is Grankhul, the god of darkness of fear! Any bad luck, death, or ill omen is seen to be the work of Grankhul. The bugbear does not worship this god for pleasure, but out of shear terror for what would happen if they stopped! This I find to be curious, as in my travels I have encountered much fear and superstition among the humanoid races, but it is the bugbear which actually identified it and gave it a name and a persona.
In dealing with religion, it is always to the present or future in which the myths are in regards to, never the past. As a race, there is much doom to the myths, they have learned how they as a race will parish, however they know not where they have come from, nor how old their race is.
Much mystery still haunts me in regards to these creatures. I have only my powers of observation to depend upon, but as far as I tell, all of the bugbears pay tribute to the tribal king, who in return gives them protection. This race is not as thriving as many of the others are, and they have themselves to blame. The only person who is allowed to procreate is the king, all of the other males serve him, and if they are caught with a bugbear woman, they are slain else forced to establish a bloody revolt.
Women who have a child tend to hide their newborns until they are old enough to present to the king, the king inspects them, making sure that they are his, if they are weak they are judged not of his blood and the child, as well as the mother is slain as well as the male whom the king suspects fathered it. Many times the mother presents only the strongest and healthiest of children, killing the weak ones themselves.
It is the women who raise acceptable children, there is no favoritism even from a child’s true mother, but all are brought up to understand themselves and what they are. By the time they reach maturity, they are already trained to except their rank in a complex social structure that I have to admit baffles me. How they chose who gets the choice cuts of meat, and divide up treasure amongst themselves eludes even my powers of observation and logic.
A revolt is truly terrible for everyone, but it does happen. A strong male can kill the king, and he doesn’t stop there, he kills all males who do not support him, and he always slays all of the king’s children who are not yet old enough to fight in the general ranks. This causes a chain reaction among the females of the tribe, those with child fight those without, and the social structure among the female bugbears change dramatically. Those who once used to be on top in the old harem are now on the bottom of the class and may never be allowed to breed again. This is the curse caused by marrying a weak husband who can’t maintain power for more then a couple of years.
OF MAGIC AND SCIENCE
While there is no priest in this tribe, I do believe that they exist. The spiritual leader is a shaman, a very wicked and manipulative thing. He is immune to the social pressures dictated by class, and he serves as a personal adviser to the king, as well as to everyone else. Much of his work revolves around double dealing his followers, casting curses for a price, as well as selling objects which counter the curse to his own victims. This creature has a collection of heads, these are the heads of former kings which he claims to consult and gleam occult knowledge from. In the event of a revolt, the head of the former king is recovered by him and hidden away where the current king won’t find it.
The spells of the shaman are not clerical in nature, but witchcraft and folk magic. His duties are to insure that the gods are happy, to observe time accurately, and to keep the tribe strong and healthy, yet he makes all of our most violent and terrifying leaches seem gentle in comparison.
DEATH & LIFE-CYCLE
These creatures, if they are allowed to survive past infancy, are rather long-lived, yet old age is unheard of. In a society were only the strong survive, venerable age is impossible. Those too old to function for the tribe or perform their duties typically leave, walking out into the wilderness where they are overcome by the elements.
In all other cases, the bugbear eats their dead. This is not done out of anger, but in ceremony. Mothers eat the young that they kill, believing that they are absorbing them back into themselves to try again with the same soul in a stronger body. Kings are devoured by their treacherous sons, great heroes are transformed into great feasts as it is believed by these creatures that by eating the flesh of their dead, they gain the powers of them.
In events of death by poison, or illness, the bodies are burned alive on a pyre before whatever aliment has a chance to spread, infecting the rest of the tribe. Sickness and illness is terrifying to these people, yet those with scars from such illnesses are held in the highest of esteems as they had the power to defeat it . . . of course this requires that you leave the tribe and suffer alone and without medications or potions of any kind.
Regardless of how this sounds on the surface, the bugbear is not suicidal and will never knowingly run to their own deaths, death is not worshiped such as it is by other races, and each creature places a high value on their own. As far as people, they may actually be more advanced then we are as far as understanding their own self-worth, however this can never be offset by their natural brutality for everything around them.
LAWS OF THE BUGBEAR
As mentioned before, it is the tribal King who controls everything. While inbreeding is common, and they do seem to be able to successfully copulate this way, obtaining new females is always a cause for war.
Money and treasure is always divided between the tribe in a way that defies my logic, theft is a high crime and all crime is punishable by either death or worse, expulsion from the tribe. Expelled bugbears must find some new means to survive, which they are highly social creatures so this is not preferred over death. Often expelled bugbears find each other and create new tribes but I have no evidence to support this outside of my own observations.
The king is a very wealthy creature, even by human standards! He gets the best of everything, and he rules with an iron fist. If he doesn’t he will be replaced, commonly the king will have an aid who is almost an equal to him, however if the aid is allowed to gain to much strength, then he runs the risk of being slain by him. It is up to the king to make the decision of if the aid is strong enough to support the tribe or not, if he is then his tribe will continue to live even after he is gone. Typically this aid is always the kings most favored son, which means that when he kills his father, he will be slaying all of his young siblings as well, and perhaps this is the key to understanding the complex hierarchy of the female harems, if they were kind to him when he was a child they will be seen in a better light then if they were cruel?
War is most common among the different bugbear tribes, and never with any other race. The spoils of war are greater wealth, new women, and more power to the king. A successful war will see all of the concurred kings belongings being taken, his children slain, his strongest warriors absorbed into ones own army, and the typical sense of glory which comes from defeating ones enemies. It is the people of the fallen king which suffers the most. All of their property is taken and they must start over again, which is forgiven as again, this race does not care about the past, only the present and the future. The defeat did not come from anything that you did, but from having a weak leader.
High ranking bugbears are always executed, but the common bugbear gladly pays the steep tribute as they are more assured to get a greater amount of the cut under the stronger lord.
For this reason, the bugbear throne is jealously guarded, while there is never any formal contact between the tribal kingdoms, each king is completely aware of all of the other kings standings and business’. If there is any hint that now would be a good time to strike, they always will.
In regards to all other races, they do not engage in any formal wars. They are predators who see others as just food, and while there is some jealousy in regards to human and demi-human social structures and desire for the land which they own, they lack the numbers to do anything about it, thus they rarely even try.
They will work as mercenaries if the king believes that a mission could be profitable, but this will be only for money, and money alone. The only employer who can safely depend upon Bugbear ranks are the Drow, and the drow alone.
THE BUGBEAR TRIBES OF THE REALM
It must be understood that the tribe in which I studied is one of the weakest, any attempt to study and learn of the more powerful Bugbear Kingdoms, such as those in the Bandit Kingdom or elsewhere in the world is simply to dangerous. The more powerful and successful a king is, the more aggressive that he must become. It is also my belief that there is a church of Hruggek, which is truly terrifying as to the implications that this means.
The bugbear is definitely intelligent, and possesses a social structure that may be even more complex then our own. If there is a true organized church that mirrors bugbear society then it would probably be in our best interests to discover it and do our best to raise it to the ground before it reaches a pentacle to rival that of the Temple of Elemental Evil, however I think that like the bugbear, deep down we humans ignore our past just as quickly as they do, which will, no doubt, serve to be our own undoing as well.
In the past, I've always used my laptop to type up posts while I was at work . . . where, um . . . I've got more freetime? Well, at least less kids bugging me for stuff like food, water, antidote for the poisons, you know, the usual whining stuff.
For the last two weeks, I've been working on improving the thing. It is rather old, and in the process I did more harm then good. It took forever to stabilize the damned thing, but finally it was in tip-top shape! For about 24 hours, and then the monitor fried out . . . sigh, I can't fix that.
Alas, I'm not sure how I am going to update this site until taxes come back and I can pick up a new laptop, YAY! Unfortunately that isn't until February. Expect it to be even slower around here, and I'm sorry for the inconvenience. BOO!!!!!!!
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 | | 2 Comments
October has always been my favorite time of year. I simply love Autumn, the scent of Fall always reminds me of happy times, but it is Halloween which in my house, is like those crazy Christmas lovers. Around here in never really ever goes away. Our house is decorated for Halloween year round.
Nothing says Halloween more wonderfully, then a day excursion into the Domain of Dread, or the 2e fantasy setting better known as Ravenloft!
Ravenloft was first brought into being in a module which features a gothic Vampire Hunt! A mysterious dark and foreboding castle inhabited by a generic Dracula!
A sequel followed, however this Modules was one of the worst pieces of trash that TSR had ever put out. It lacked everything which the former had, but let’s not dwell on the failures of Ravenloft, but on its good side.
The first box set was released for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and it was packed full of goodness! A huge map which greatly expanded the Domain of Dread, revealing that the lead character which we know as Straud was just a bit part in this land.
The Boxset contained pictures of some of the buildings in the realm, family portraits of major NPCs and their families, and other cards which were designed to help the DM play a game within its misty borders quicker and more effectively.
It also came with a great booklet which described each of the different domains of the Core, as well as giving a few ideas about how to build your own Isles of Dread! And, much like the original Module which inspired this world, there was a lot of experimentation going on on the part of the writers. THIS was a highly unique product, which not only showed you a brand new realm in which to have adventures, but presented its own, very unique set of rules!
As a teaching tool, this was very different! It taught us how to really modify a world and make it completely unique. Now, not all of these changes were “good”, or useful, this product was originally intended for short, one shot adventures, however it must had just kept growing and growing into a full fledged world by the time that it was all done.
It had it’s own unique effects on spells. Some spells no longer functioned as written, and a player never really knew what would happen if he cast something. This spell list was secret, the players were not supposed to know what changes had taken place, but some of the spells changed were required to keep a party alive! Most horribly effected were the priests spells. In the Domain of Dread, the clerics lost contact with their gods, and it was a mystery of who or what was granting their spells, or why they would change the effects. Healing spells no longer functioned and did terrible things to those who expected to benefit from them. Again, this rule is intended for short one-shots, however with all of the cool domains in Ravenloft, many DM’s wished to run campaigns full-time within the dark borders.
Ravenloft also had a unique look at evil. Evil forces were the norm here, not the exception. For the first time, the forces of good were the minority, while the forces of Evil had the final say in anything. The players were over-whelmed, and if they strayed to the dark alignment, then their bodies would suffer as the forces of Ravenloft consumed them. Evil acts caught the attention of the mysterious forces which ran this place, forever known as “The Dark Forces”. If somebody’s actions caught the attentions of the Dark Forces, then they would be rewarded, yet at the same time cursed terribly. This was strange and a really clunky mechanic at first. Again, this rule was established to add some mystery to one-shot adventures. To me, it also effected how I see evil in the game. Adding a Satanic Master of Evil to the world, as well as overlaying a sense of morality to the environment.
One of the strangest rule changes was the “Fear Check”, of course it became one of the most misunderstood concepts of the game, and all of these rules truly appealed to DM’s who had the nasty habit of being mean to players. Crappy DM’s loved it! It gave them even more power to hold over players who may not have had the option of finding a better Dungeon Master. However, for fair and smart DMs, it gave us a ton of tools which we could incorporate into our games to really get in and challenge ourselves, and our players.
Now, the original Boxset was a thing of beauty. On it’s own, it was full of ideas for adventures centered around ideas instead of hack and slash. The setting was the star, and it catered to role-players, vs. guys sitting around a table rolling dice. Combat was secondary, when it did take place, the encounters were with more powerful monsters, but fewer of them. Instead of fighting an entire horde of orcs, you were pitted against a mastermind, and you had to solve a mystery to uncover your true enemies identity if you hope to win.
Of course this simple concept was destroyed instantly once it got itself in the hands of too many cooks in the kitchen. The very first module presented for the new, expanded Ravenloft was one of the greatest Hack & Slash adventures ever put out by TSR, titled Feast of Goblyns. A two-edged sword right from the get-go.
Feast was definitely NOT a short, one-shot adventure, but so big that it could take months of full-time play to complete it. The setting was wonderful, and the adventure ran well, however it forced the DM to let many of the secret spell effects to slide, as a healer was definitely required company! Later modules also required a healer on call, however in the core book, it crippled them. Not very good planning, and if we overlook this spell mechanic, then why not overlook others?
Feast also started an idea which led into other modules. Those folks at TSR were always figuring out ways to make money with providing inferior products, which was stupid, because as far as Accessories go, Ravenloft had some of the best! The Van Richton Guides were superb, and could be used system neutrally to really flesh out monsters and make them do what you want them to do. Werewolves, Vampires, Ghosts, the series went on and on and featured some of the best writing to ever come out of the TSR sweatshops.
Also released for 1e was a second boxset which was both cool and full of crap. It came with some cool toys, a deck of Tarot Cards and a set of dice which a DM could either use to stack the deck or, if he had a huge set, could use them to dictate the adventures themselves.
The Tarot deck, I apologize, I am writing from memory alone, I can’t recall the exact name of the cards, featured some excellent art, each card having its own unique picture, something that not even most real Tarot Cards have! Even for Tarot Cards, this was a really unique product. I guess that they used them in an issue of Dragon Magazine to present a new cardgame that could be played with them (bah!)
Along with the toys for divination, it came with some little booklets, most of them junk, but a few were cool. Ideas on creating Curses, Straud’s Spellbook full of unique and never before seen spells which, honestly, were crap that only a vampire who wanted to impress people would use. Secret Societies of the realm, and some other book which included modified rules for running psionic characters, which worked excellently for lining birdcages as long as the cover was removed first.
Once the 2nd Edition books were released, Ravenloft really didn’t need to be edited to suit it. All of the changes which it made to the 1st edition rules were also easily compatable with the 2nd Edition, however this didn’t stop TSR from wanting to repackage it to make more money. The Redbox combined the two 1st edition boxes into one product. You didn’t get the divination dice, but you got the tarot cards. It also removed many of the cards, which made the original box set so cool, but hey, the product was usable!
It was during the Second Edition which much of the work that destroyed the setting took place. Now don’t get me wrong! This is where I personally walked into the hobby. I wouldn’t had started a 2e blog if I didn’t have a deep love and respect for the time period. I discovered the original box set just prior to the release of the red box. It was in the clearance isle and the owner of Dragonslair wanted to clear it out to make way and discounted it heavily. We gamers love our good deals don’t we!
My problem isn’t with the setting, but with the modules. They were horrible! A few were good, it destroyed my game with a problem that I couldn’t put my finger on for years. It gave me big and bad NPCs to play with, and instead of centering the game around the players, I wrote them for NPC’s. BAD BAD BAD!!!!
The original boxset, and the red box are perfect, stand alone products. They are much in the spirit of Greyhawk, were they present nothing but ideas to a DM. This is the world, and it is now in your hands to do with as you will. It had mysteries for the DM to solve, and tons of hints to inspire brand new games and themes. GOOD STUFF!
Many of the Accessories covered topics which just didn’t fit in well with other settings, but could be used to put Vampires that drained blood instead of levels in Dragonlance, Infect players with lycanthropy in Dark Sun, or add a Demon mastermind to Forgotten Realms. The point was that the accessories were about themes and inspired the reader to rethink different aspects of the monsters which they used regularly, and add a sense of class to them which the Monstrous Manual didn’t have the space nor the resources to add.
It also inspired 3 new Monstrous Compendiums, the first being the best, the second being nothing but even more NPCs to drop into your world, and the 3rd a bunch of high level and very dangerous monsters.
While the accessories were great, other forces were working against it. Modules revolved around either NPC’s or the greatest disaster to ever infect a setting. Again, all of the failures resulted from the original concept of Ravenloft, which was exploration and experimentation, however it didn’t go into directions which were all that entertaining. Again, only a few of them were One-Shot adventures. Most were outright abusive to players, the craziest ideas involved killing them fast and bringing them back. In The Children of Adam, the characters are slain and brought back as Flesh Golems. In the finally to the Grand Conjunction storyline which crushed the Domain of Dread forever, and took it away from the DM, the players were again killed quick and woke up as disembodied heads in the castle of the Demi-lich lord Azalin, where he sent you over and over into the past as you possessed people and witnessed the fall of Straud over and over again until you accomplished the goals set out by the lich in a scene that is a pure nightmare to DM.
Now the theory behind Ravenloft is brilliant. It is without borders, and it expands and grows and drifts in the Astral Plane. New lords are created, and those evil enough join the core, while minor Dark Lords drift in isles and clusters around the core. If a Dark Lord is destroyed, then either the land seeks a new Dark Lord within the domain, or ceases to exist.
This experiment is a success, in my oh so humble opinion. There are areas where you can have straight, balls out Dungeons and Dragons sessions, and there are areas where that are highly specialized to achieve a specific flavor of a game. I literally took different worlds and pieced them together in a way that was a Dungeon Masters dream to work with. A countries neighbors are not just a different language, or culture, but of a different time-period and level of advancement as well. BRILLIANT! How does this effect trade? How does this effect later races from interbreeding? How do higher societies treat neighbors who are so technically different from themselves? It invited wars, the Dark Lords bickered with one another, the people themselves were incredible, and it was fun to figure out how a society like this would function, but the beautiful thing was that the Ravenloft Setting Handbook let you answer these questions and more on your own!
Enter the Nightmare of published adventures purposely altering the map itself, giving the Dark Lords even more power and making them not just Super-NPCs which break games, but also making them indispensable. It also killed Super-NPC’s which maybe you liked, and wanted to explore more?
It gave you so much information that it made the Death of Straud sound like so much fun that it just screamed to be written, however at the same time, it forbid it from ever happening.
You’ve got the grand conjunction which resulted in the destruction of half of the core, a prophesy which started fulfilling itself right from the get-go with Feast of Goblyns, and is present in all of the great Ravenloft Modules, but it goes some place that takes all of the cards away from the DM, and places the winning hands firmly in the grip of TSR. What destroyed Dragonlance began having the same effect on Ravenloft, what with all of the Novels hitting the shelves, and Modules that did nothing but break campaigns.
To me, a module should be able to be laid over the top of what you are doing, to give the DM a break from writing his own material, and the Ravenloft modules made this impossible. They dictated and required too much from the DM. It shatters all plans, and requires so many specific things just to run properly. Many were written badly, or didn’t even bother to disguise the fact that it was a railroad job from hell. They also were hard to run, not only did you have a separate spell list from any other campaign setting, but you also had the weird ideas that might look good on paper, but in the end required much more paperwork on the DM’s part then if he had just written his own material, which in hindsight, I should have!
I think that for ever good idea that Ravenloft had, the horde of cooks in the kitchen present three bad ones, and fans were no better really. Or at least that is what the bigwigs of TSR would have you believe. Folks debated about what is Gothic terror, and if you don’t run it this way then you are doing it wrong and might as well just be running a normal campaign! I suppose that all settings featured a few noisy, obnoxious, pig-headed, elitist fans, after all, tis the nature of the hobby, right? The domain of Darkon, the largest and coolest Domain was wiped out, an experiment which not only killed everybody in the domain, including the PCs, but allowed the PCs to create and come back as forms of Undead Monsters! PC Vampires? Really? Now on the serface, you might be saying COOL! But at the table, and in play, there is a reason why Monsters aren’t Player Characters, once you are identified as such, the amount of games which you can now play are severely limited. How do you challenge a Vampire? Maybe it would make for a fun 1 shot, but again, they put out an entire box set on the subject which destroyed a damned cool lord that many true fans of the setting really didn’t want to lose. It also took all of his history and personality and replaced it with an empty Grim Reaper character with no personality what so ever. Now that might confuse folks who have never played the game. They’re probably saying GOOD! But the Demi-Lich could really inspire more stories then even Straud could! He was an interesting character and an example of just how far you can go with something as basic as a Lich.
ENTER THE GOTHIC EARTH
Getting away from the problems of Core Ravenloft before I suffer total brain failure and fall off my stack of soap boxes, a new experimental project was released, one that was largely ignored at the time but in recent years has become almost a cult hit with players.
This Box Set was WAY before it’s time. It was originally hated because it was so different. What it essentially did was take the rulebook and totally threw it out the window. All of the D&D classes were reworked and redefined, even the list of supplies and mechanics for combat were rewritten to cater to factor in guns.
Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death placed players in the world of Count Dracula, Dr. Jeckle & Mr. Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes, just to name a few. It was a brilliant mix of fiction and history and unlike the core rules of Ravenloft, this setting was kept untouched. A few magnificent Accessories were published to help flesh out the time period, but other then that the box set stands alone. It contained a world map, and a poster with calanders dating from 1890-1899. It contained the Rule book which is complete enough to get a game up and running in an hour or two, and 3 short modules that you can either run or easily modify to fit your personal needs. While it was taunted at the time as ANTI-D&D, today, this is a refreshing and unique kind of game which is honestly ripe with unique possibilities and fresh enough to keep even the most die-hard player guessing and having fun in a totally new way.
THE RETURN TO THE DOMAIN OF DREAD: Death Rattle
Just before the thing wrapped up, the last great Ravenloft book was released. It was a hard-bound titled “Domains of Dread”. This book was a godsend! While it updated the map, the map itself wasn’t published with the book. It was made to replace the boxsets but it failed at this job, the map was unreadable due to it being printed way to dark, and on such a small scale that you really couldn’t do much with it. What changes were made were improvements! The modified spell list was finally altered to one which was more expectable, and would actually function as is. It also added mechanics for Dark Powers checks, as well as improved the mechanics of Fear Checks and Madness Checks in a way which was much clearer then the original incarnation.
It updated all of the Dark Lords, and finally offered pictures and stats for ones that didn’t get much attention before. Besides the map, it made the setting better, and stronger then before, but it also allowed the DM to do something that he’s never been officially allowed to do before, CREATE PC’S WHICH WERE NATIVE TO THE SETTING! Awesome! Why, this almost makes the loss of Darkon forgivable . . . almost, but not quite.
3E, THE COFFIN NAILS
3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons did not interest me. It was too different, and I never was willing to go there. The Setting of Ravenloft did make the jump to the 3rd edition, however it was never as glorious or as rich as the original 1e box set. It was reduced to a few overpriced pamphlets which gutted the world to cater to the new mechanics.
Overall, Ravenloft as a setting had a good run. It had its ups and its downs. It had its triumphs and its faults, but after all of these years, most of the folks who had the fortune of playing with the system have fond memories of it, I know that I do! For better or for worse, it taught me how to DM, and it has given me a style which I and my players seem to really enjoy. I did have to find its faults to identify my own failings, and attempt to eliminate them . . . well, as I can identify them; but overall I feel that Ravenloft has left me stronger then what I normally would had been had I only played standard AD&D.
Today I’d like to talk about describing stuff. Scenes can be difficult, and storytelling isn’t easy. The secret is to be quick and brief, but choosing your words carefully to put just the right things into the player’s imaginations so that they can all color the world in roughly the same way and see the same things.
I find that most modules are too wordy, and these huge text boxes need to be trimmed down and summarized considerably so that we don’t get ignored, and we need to resist over describing things because, for one, players loose interest in such things, and two, we don’t want to fill their heads with gibberish. The human mind can only hold so much information, and if we bog it down with too much information then we’ll get lost. I’ve had characters put too much stock in facts that really weren’t important, and I’ve had them become so lost that they can no longer remember what in the hell the goal that they were supposed to be accomplishing even was anymore.
Coloring things is simple. The quicker that you are at doing it the better. Say that I describe a room to you, I can go all crazy and describe everything right down to the shine on the couch, but is that really necessary? Probably not! We’ll just want to put the idea of what this room is used for in the players heads, and let them fill in all of the empty spaces themselves. They can also learn more about the things by asking questions.
You open the door and see a 25 x 25 foot room dominated by plush furniture constructed of well-lacquered wood, the room smells of lavender. Many pictures hang on the wall.
PLAYER: Is there anything of interest in this room?
On a small table, next to a sitting chair is a reading lamp and a book.
Player: Anything else?
A curious cabinet is all by itself on the west wall.
Player: Anything else?
And from there, these guys can explore the rest of the room. People who just assume to much are going to miss much, but this is the way of life too isn’t it? Most folks, when they walk into a room, don’t even bother to look around. Five minutes later, if asked to describe the room their answers aren’t going to be all that accurate, if they can tell you anything about it at all.
Basically, what we want to do is describe what a space is used for, and then the things that are found within the space that might be useful to adventurers. The best advice that I can give you, is to be observant yourself. What is the first thing that you notice when you walk into a space? Is it the loud ticking of a clock? Maybe a scent? Is it visual or is it something else? Scents are dramatic while sounds are more easily ignored, however once we leave a space we will miss the sound of white noise that a particular room created. Pay attention to this. Most visuals aren’t emotional, however scents and sounds are; and they both bring an emotional response.
The fun part is that we get to describe fantasy settings, or places that never existed. What would a goblin cave small like?
Well first off it would smell like dirty bodies, as goblins don’t bathe. They also don’t have plumbing so the smell of bodily waste would be an indicator that that is what a particular room or cavern is used for. What can one find in a cavern like that? If you dropped a coin or something, would you pick it up, or bother looking for it? Perhaps there is some treasure in Poop caves, but getting too it would probably not justify the risk . . . nor the smell. Perhaps a goblin tribe counts on this, and it is this place where the goblin’s hide their horde of stolen booty?
Goblins also must eat, and they are pigs about it. Do they cook? If so, they need a space to keep food and utensils to cook with. They may have procured an oven, but they might not know what to do with it, it might not be ventilated properly so whenever the cooks start it up the entire cave fills with noxious wood smoke and ash which sticks to everything, and if they are using coal, then it will be even worse! This adds color, but we needn’t bother the PC’s with this stuff unless they specifically ask what the source of this ash or smoke is, but once they discover the cooking cavern, the oven will definitely be out of place, and probably the cause of a giant mess since the goblins wouldn’t really ever clean the thing, and just scrap the hot ash and partially burned fuel right out onto the floor in front of it.
The eating area won’t be much better, the place would be covered in bones, inedible chunks of gristle, and other stuff which the goblins don’t care to eat. Perhaps dry, and withered eyes shrunken by the heat, stray fingers and toes or other things which don’t have much meat on it. This room would be filled with horror and what would that smell like? Rats would have a heyday here, as would lots of parasites and insects which feed and breed in filth. Broken pottery filled with living fuzzy molds which may or may not be infectious if it is touched.
The deal that you want to accomplish, is to bring the spaces to life. This is where we DMs are allowed to become story-tellers. We can use the five senses as foreshadow, or in layman terms, giving hints of things to come.
We can look at the map on Prep day, and study it. What noises would be generated by this thing? During the day we would tend to ignore everything but what is in our own general area, but come time to camp, deep in some underground labyrinth of endless hallways and monster infested corridors, our minds expand and we would hear EVERYTHING!
The underground lake with a monster in it would generate sounds as it catches a lone orc for dinner. Perhaps the pine supports in the dwarven mine section are creaking and shifting under the tremendous weight that they are forced to endure? Natural caves are caused by water carving paths in the rock, drips and damp drafts are constant. Then we have the sounds of the master race underground. The fighting, the yelling, the nightmarish grumbling as they make their rounds . . . and of course, if the party is being too loud, then they can be heard too!
Spirits are also fun to throw in. Nothing strong or formidable, nothing powerful enough to even pose a threat to anything, just little things to keep the adventurers on edge. Chains rattling down a hallway, a disembodied sigh or a few meaningless words uttered in the darkness. Critters can also sound bigger in the middle of the night, a mouse could get inside of a pack and look for food or some bedding. We should fill up the time spent resting with some kind of color, even if it isn’t combat.
Have fun with descriptions, be colorful and be aware of your own senses and how your mind works. What does your living space look like? Perhaps your favorite spot in the house? I know that mine is the leather chair down stairs. Its got a forever full ashtray, a bowl of candy, and my remotes right there, as well as a book or two. My wallet is sometimes there if I’m planning to come back soon, and if I just left, there is usually a cigarette butt smoldering in the ashtray. I suppose that that is helpful foreshadowing too. Signs of life, is a room empty? How long has it been so? Does it look like the occupant has just left or will be back soon? All of this can be colored in with a little ingenuity on your part. It may not be outright apparent, a person who just steps into my living space may not notice the smoldering cigarette right away, only after they look at my little coffee table will they catch it; how they feel about it depends on their intent.
The undead can be a tricky thing to describe too. We want to fill their worlds up with evil. Things of gloom. Few creatures can tolerate them being around, creatures like rats, owls, and ravens would not only be present, but possess a very brave and bold front. There should be an oppressive weight upon everything until the undead creature has truly been destroyed, and once this happens, then, and only then will life and light return to the area. Walking from a crypt would reward you with a sunny day, and all of the birds chirping and singing and carrying on. It should be in stark contrast of how the cemetery felt on the way in to perform this grim task. Evil corrupts, it stains and taints everything that it touches, and this should not be forgotten.
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