Saturday, September 9, 2017

Escapism and Our Hobby

There's something else that Anthony Huso says in his foreword to The Nightwolf Inn (which I reviewed the other day) that resonated with me, in spirit if not detail. Huso writes,

This is the rule set that carried me through the tumultuous years of my youth when so many things I could not control had gone wrong. With these rules, I found a semblance of control and a sanctuary among dear friends. Here was a game I could relate to. It was a game of simulated struggle, with brutal consequences, where heroes died just as they did in the real world. But here also was a game where you faced those terrible trials together with friends and realized how important that was--to have good friends when you had little else. Then again, here was a game where the dead could be raised and those of righteous intent gained special power. How could I not long for such a thing? And so began my deep desire to master the rules of this admittedly complicated game.

Some vignettes from the memory banks. At the end of fourth grade, my beloved nana has a sudden catastrophic stroke, like a bolt of lightning shattering my extended family. Four hours of brain surgery have left her strange, with wild white hair, unable to speak, her body rigid and unyielding. My pop is distant and stern, a fundamentalist child of the depression. He's never cooked for himself or changed a diaper, but suddenly finds himself responsible 24 hours a day for the bodily functions of his wife of 49 years. Of their three daughters, my mother is the responsible one. So, even though we have no car, we make the three hour trip from NYC to Vineland almost every weekend for a year, riding the Greyhound. I haven't yet played D&D, but I'm already in love with it. In my lap is my brand new Monster Manual II. As we pull from the Port Authority garage, I read the entry on the Aboleth. In the momentary darkness of the tunnel, I sit entranced by the horrific splendor of the thing. I ask myself, what would be to play in the depths of the earth? How could you even get there, much less have adventures wandering around in miles of lightless caves? This seems to me a very different game than the one conveyed by a choose your own adventure battle against Bargle. I read ever entry in sequential order.

James Holloway

Another bus ride, years later. The great sixth grade summer of D&D has already come and gone, where I slept over at Nattie's house twice a week, applying liberal tinctures of ice water and standing over the air-conditioner to stretch the night to its limits. This time I'm reading Tunnels and Trolls, which I purchased out of curiosity at the Compleat Strategist because it looked so strange. I remember pouring over the weapon list, with all its exotic name, each mechanically distinguished in totally unbalanced ways. And looking at the Liz Danforth illustrations--the summoner who has just sacrificed a pixie, the warrior wearing a leopard skin, the hobbit battling a serpent by a burning brazier--all dripping with a sword and sorcery vibe that was so different from the art in D&D. My mom and I get out at the rest stop at Westhampton to use the vending machine, like we always do (favorite: Chuckles). When I get back on the bus, two boys are looking through my book and whispering to one another. They're kids who got on at the stop for the reform school, maybe on their way home for visit. They return the book, but I have a strange feeling, and don't feel comfortable reading it. I think it's partly guilt--why shouldn't they have Tunnels and Trolls? Maybe they need it more than me.

Liz Danforth
Later, not on a bus. I'm having a bad freshman year in high school. I got into a pattern of not doing my homework in junior high, but I could coast by because I was a clever kid. Now clever won't cut it, and I'm ashamed, so I start cutting classes, lying a lot, and hanging out with troubled kids. One day, two acquaintances, Loren and Matt, kids I know through mutual friends in the roleplaying scene, decide this is total bullshit. They take me by the arm after school and tell me I'm coming with them instead of going to hang out with the bad apples. For the next three years, we're inseparable. They play Rogue Trader and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 1E. They introduce me to the gritty British punk aesthetic. I play rat-catchers, roll on critical tables that result in lasting deformities, and lose myself for hours in Slaves to Darkness. They're artists, and they build exquisite houses and scenery from White Dwarf so that we can skirmish with space marines. I finally run a 40k roleplaying campaign by hacking WFRP, coming up with tables of careers, and rules for spaceship combat. They escape from a chaos tainted space hulk, steal a ship, and become smugglers like Han Solo. I learn from them to accept responsibility when I fuck up, and then, once I've climbed out of the pit of shame, to stop fucking up. 

Ian Miller
Now, I'm driving in a rental car from the Philadelphia airport to New Jersey, this time to be with my mother. I just finished my PhD, and after a tumultuous year on the job market, I have a good one year position. My wife is pregnant with our son. My mom has cancer, first kidney (slow) then pancreatic (terribly fast). Her apartment is too much to manage, so she's living now with her sister in Medford. I take her out, and we have long talks, and I try to get her affairs in order as much as she can manage, and watch TV with her when she can't talk. But I still have too much time on my hands in that little house, and I'm in no state to do philosophy. I read in the news that Gary Gygax has died. I find his death and the remembrances of him very moving; echoes of my mourning. I haven't touched a roleplaying game in a decade, but google leads me to  Grognardia, and from there to Jeff's Gameblog, Sham's Grog-n-Blog, and Huge Ruined Pile. They put me on to Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, and, best of all, Jack Vance. I read tales from Xothique, I read Red Nails and Goddess of the Black Coast, Pegana, and the Dying Earth books. I delight in Dunsany's fever dream worlds, in Howard's sword and sorcery escapades, in the wild picaresques of Cugel beneath the dying sun. I feel as though I'm mainlining the things that entranced me most in my youth, drifting to my young self like flotsam on the froth of the games I loved. Next I read photocopies of the little brown books, and the Gygax modules, Hommlet, Vault of the Drow, Tomb of Horrors. I want to play D&D again and better, as a grown up. It seems possible to me to return. My mother meets my son exactly once before she dies. 

Stephen Fabian
To say that our hobby is escapist is a cliche. While not without truth, it flattens everything. Was I escaping when I went with Matt and Loren? From what, to what? Was mourning Gary an escape? Or preparation for an unbearable reality? I'll give the cliche this much. When we play D&D we engage in elaborately structured pretense, imagining worlds together. Like poems, novels, movies, and even the architecture of philosophical arguments, we carry them around inside of us and dwell in them. Sometimes the world is hard, and there is solace in inhabiting them together.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Night Wolf Inn: A Review

The Nightwolf Inn is a campaign sourcebook by Anthony Huso for first edition AD&D. A strange inn with polished opulence has appeared at the edge of town. The place seems full of foreigners no one remembers having come through town. Inquiries from eager merchants reveal the rooms are available only for members of "the Excursionist Guild"; further confused queries reveal this to be some sort of secret society associated with the inn. With an apologetic smile, the concierge deftly pushes forward a neatly drawn up list, "Surely gentlemen, one of these other estimable local establishments will be up to your discerning standards."

But, if instead of fat merchants, a band of pell-mell miscreants should inquire, hardened mercenaries shoulder to shoulder with occult dreamers and jewel thieves, promptly a fee will be named and guild membership extended. For the inn is a deadly enigma, a perilous contest, a source of adventure and wealth without end to lure those hungry men and women who, while possessing rare talents, do not rate their own lives too dear.

There are two different sorts of adventure locale to be found in the Nightwolf Inn. The first are "the wilds" of the guest rooms. Guildmembers will be presented with a menu of rooms with intriguing names along with varying prices, often exorbitant, for a single night's stay. Within their rented suite they will find a small area with a bed and other furniture, and (usually) a remarkable item for use during their stay. The furniture exists in a safe zone superimposed on wilds that extend in every direction. For each room borders on another dimension just waiting to be explored.

Many of these room entries are quire good, briefly explaining the nature of the dimension, providing a description of the area immediately beyond the furniture, listing a few evocative adventure seeds, and providing an encounter chart. One room is in the belfry of a cathedral looking down on the streets of a perpetually nighted, demon-ruled city. The furniture in another rests on a swaying sea of green that is actually a biome on the top of an unimaginably vast forest. One leads to an alien archaeological dig, full of ancient horrors and mind flayer scientists; another to a strange swamp world that will suck travelers down to a tubular maze full of fetid vapors in the root system below. And so on. Some are gimmicky in a nice way, like a blank "Harold's purple crayon" world that the PC's can paint their way through. Others are drawn directly form AD&D's baroque planar mythology.

The other site of adventure is the inn itself. For, beneath the sun-soaked solarium, the tavern's rich menu, and the quiet competence of the staff, hints of something darker glister. It contains roughly three different dungeon sites for exploration: the the cellars, the area beyond a terrible black door, and the towers and rooftops. They are intriguing and deadly in a hardcore AD&D sort of way. Huso is a professional mapper, and all these areas, as well as the more mundane parts of the Inn are attractively mapped and lovingly described.  A clue that something very odd is going on lies in the fact that guildmembers are encouraged to explore the inn, and are told that they may keep whatever they find outside of the common areas.

This is a pretty map

The Nightwolf Inn exists in seven places in the campaign world simultaneously. When you exit the inn you return to wherever you entered the inn from. This means that the tavern of the inn will always be an interesting place to visit, with silk merchants and spice traders next to fur clad barbarians from the icy wastes, and whatever other weirdo cultures from the forgotten corners of your world. The existence of the Excursionist Guild guarantees from the get-go that there will be memorable rival adventuring parties a plenty, drawn from diverse cultures. This is all great fun, as it allows the DM to introduce delicious tidbits of meaningful flavor and world building without info dumps or massive encyclopedic information about the world. I mean, what better way to design a world organically than to start with rival adventuring parties from different cultures?

As players explore the inn and the wilds, and slowly progress through the ranks of the guild, it will become increasingly clear that the inn itself is a deadly puzzle to be solved for unimaginable gains. There is a gothic backstory, involving the hideous nature of the inn, the personal tragedy of its maker (now a lich), and the schemes of infernal beings. One nice feature of this campaign setting is that it somehow manages to combine delicious plane hopping madness with this rich gothic, almost Lovecraftian, background tapestry that can be unravelled by the players slowly. Solving the puzzle of the inn involves the use of black lenses across the wilds, and  trip to a cursed city buried in the stars. It's suitably metal and very challenging.

The Black Mirror: One Piece of The Puzzle

This product passes my very high bar of approval by delivering positive verdicts to the following questions: does a product make my mind spin with ideas? Do tables and adventure hooks begin to write themselves in my mind? Can I imagine running it with pleasure? Does it inspire a kind of longing to run it? Does it teach me something about what I could do in my own games? I'll tell you in a minute about how I would go about running it, what I would change, and so on. (I'm planning on using a toned down, less deadly version for the game I run for my son and his friends eventually.)

But first. This is not to say that the product is without problems. Indeed, part of my reason for writing this review is that this product is less likely to get the viewing that it deserves because Huso has put up some roadblocks. The first problem is organizational. There are some nice features, like collected maps at the back, handy tables, reference documents, and some player handouts, including tavern and room menus, which are all to the good. However, essential information is not presented in the book in a sequential order that facilitates a first reading. The backstory of the inn, necessary for understanding many keyed areas, is in an appendix, as is basic information about the guild. I was about twenty pages into the module before I realized that the heart of it was the dimensional wilds in the guest rooms. Luckily, this is easy to fix. Here's the order you should read the book in:

1. Foreward, Introduction, Basics of the Inn pp. 4-12 (stop reading at the key)
2. Joining the Guild 113-115
3. The Starry Curse and All the Secrets 153-157
4. Core NPCs and Staff 117-131
5. Then peruse the Wilds 83-112
6. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the 1st and 2nd floor common areas of the Inn 12-31
7. And finally, take a gander at the dungeons, including the Cellars 51-82, the Dark Passage 33-40, and Attic and Towers 45-49.

What Huso says in the foreword points to another issue, "You will see the creations of a teenage DM from the 1980s who hung on every word that proceeded from the mouth of Gary Gygax. And you will see those creations not as they were then, but tempered and polished by my 40-something-year-old-self, who has finally come full circle, finally returning to the table after many years of raising children, writing novels, and and doing other things. It is my sincerest hope that I have written something that Gary himself might look down on from whatever cloud he's on and smile."

Some traces of juvenalia remain that his 40-something-year-old-self clearly couldn't bring himself to temper, like an uber-powerful, super hot, half-elf bard npc called "Rain", and a manly concierge named "Jeeves Everbleed". But more to the point, this setting is written to be run with an (almost) strict by the book version of 1E AD&D pre-Unearthed Arcana. Almost all magic items and nearly all monsters are drawn from these sources.

On the one hand, it's fun to see what Gygax's masterpiece can do with all the bells and whistles. And since planar adventuring is the direction he was headed before his ouster from TSR, this setting has a nice decadent late Gygaxian what-might-have-been flavor to it. BUT there is something more than a little perverse about juxtaposing a setting with such an unshackled imaginative premise, pretty much built for a wild ride from the first session, with the strange by-the-book restriction on monsters included. I mean, there is some pleasure in seeing all the weirdos from Monster Manual II and Fiend Folio put in places where they actually seem to belong. But why go to the trouble of imagining the hell out of different dimensions and not imagine the hell out of the beings who live there?

On the other hand, this thing is in there, so that's cool

How Would I Run This?

The first thing I would do is take a look at the less expensive guest rooms that a lower level party could afford to visit (I, IV, VII, and X). The concierge will steer them gently away from IX as perilous, and will caution them about prematurely embarking on XVIII and XIX. For the four main starter rooms, I would write up mini hex maps for them, drawing on Huso's adventure seeds, supplemented by my own demented ideas. Of course, not all of Huso's pocket dimensions resonate equally with me. In creating my own dimensions, I would draw on planescrap for inspiration, and would doubtless give a weird reskinning to most of the MMII and Fiend Folio creatures in the encounter tables Huso provides.

I would run the inn and its dungeons pretty much exactly as written, because they're a lot of fun in a classic AD&D sort of way. I think this will provide a nice contrast with the more far out planar escapades provided by the wilds.

The second thing I would do to run this would be to decide what fictional seven locations the inn touches in the campaign. A name of the city or other region will suffice, along with a few sentences giving the flavor of the place. For example, "On the avenue of Thralls, city of Abishet, spice road metropolis. Slave trade, ecstatic drug cults." Or, "Outside the pilgrimage site to the ice womb of the Mother of Frozen Tears. Pilgrims are rugged hunters and tattooed berserkers of the icy wastes, but very polite."

The third thing I would do is figure out what rival adventuring parties belong to the Excursionist Guild. Huso has a great table at the end with 100 members of the guild, belonging to companies with names like "Graverobbers & Sundry", "Derelicts Anonymous", or "Crimson Leavings". This is a nice start. But if I were running this as the main focus of adventure, I would really play up the competitive nature of the Excursionists Guild. Rival adventuring parties would be the main factions and rivals, in addition to the inn master and his employees. I would write up seven or eight of these companies, at different levels of the guild, drawn from the six other campaign locations, and try to make them as distinctive and interesting as possible. This would be great fun, since coming up with rival adventurers is a joy in my experience. I would probably make the mystery of the inn a little bit easier to first get involved with, treating it as more of an open competition than a dim secret. I would make it a little bit harder to solve ultimately (not more deadly, just more pieces, and false leads). I would introduce several competing theories about what the mystery is and how to solve it, and assign these theories to different rival adventuring parties.

The fourth thing I would do would be to draw up random tables for the activities, successes and failures of the rival parties. This would cover when they were away from Inn, when they were off investigating this or that dungeon in the inn, or this or that guest room, and how successful they were. I imagine that the party will want to spy on other parties, and keep tabs on their movements--I imagine a lot of intrigue, shifting alliances, attempts at sabotage and so on.  Of course, a TPK for one of these groups will present an incredible (and perilous) opportunity to acquire their loot, and perhaps the knowledge they've acquired.

The fifth thing I would do is come up with a big table (or series of tables) for who is in the tavern of the inn, and events there. The bigger and more fleshed out these tables are the better. The inn is open to the public of seven different locations in the world, in addition to the rival adventurers in the Excursionist's Guild.

Finally, procedurally, the most important thing I would do in running the inn is make the players tell me in advance what they were going to do each session, falling back on Huso's written text to improvise where necessary. Eventually I would have enough material to be more or less ready to go without such forewarning, but in an interplanar sandbox, it would take a long while.

In Sum:

If an inter-planar sandbox with competing companies of rival adventurers set against the backdrop of a gothic mystery sounds neat to you, then you should definitely buy this. It's the kind of idiosyncratic, imaginative, product of love that only people with mad talents in a niche gaming community like ours can make. I think Gary's probably smiling.

You can get it here.
I will repost this picture of Gary as many times as I can get away with it

Sunday, August 27, 2017


A while back, I was thinking a lot about summoning. My complaint was that monster summoning spells in D&D were incredibly bland, and I proposed an alternative system that involves performing rituals out of black grimoires to bind specific entities. But besides monster summoning spells, you know what other spell ought to be incredible, but sucks in D&D and its variants? Find Familiar.

This fact has been well documented. As written in AD&D, having a familiar is pretty much just a way to boost your hit points. Besides this it gives on only some very mild bonuses to perception. In short, the effects amount to a bland buff. Also, a few special familiars aside, they are just generic animals: toads, cats, etc. This is unconscionably boring. Some more powerful and flavorful familiars have been proposed as fixes, for example by James Beach here, and in an article from Fight ON! #10 by James Smith. And then there's this flavorful table of animal familiars from +Tom Fitzgerald at middenmurk. But I hunger for something more. It occurred to me the other day that I might be able to appropriate some amazing older posts about summoning written by other folks in the blogosphere to save find familiar from the milquetoast hell in which it languishes.

When I first read them, I was fascinated a series of posts that create a summoner by taking a class and replacing its spell slots with summoned spirits. First, there's this post containing the basic idea, and this excellent post providing a list of spirits, both by +Jack McNamee  of rottenpulp fame. Then, following in his footsteps, there are some posts by +Mateo Diaz Torres of gloomtrain, the most developed of which is "but I repeat myself".

McNamee's idea is that for each spell slot you would have (as a cleric), instead of a spell you get to bind one spirit of the relevant level. These spirits generally do one or two things. The baby ifrit can light fires; the spectral hound can track infallibly and its howl causes fear; that kind of thing. You then command the spirits to use this power (or do whatever) at will by rolling command checks. Too many failures and you increase your chance that the spirit will break its bonds and run amok. Mack's list of spirits is evocative, and there are nice touches throughout. (Look at his rules for healing oneself by bleeding a familiar. Or the Dead King.)

Diaz introduces a new class, called "summoner". The summoner starts with a pact with a 1HD spirit who is able to cast a first level spell. Every time the summoner goes up a level, he can either increase the HD of a spirit he already has bound, tricking it out with more spell powers in the process, or go find a new fledgling 1HD spirit to bind in addition. The spirits are unique, scalable individuals. He presents two wonderful examples with the sort of setting specific awesome flavor I've been after. There's a bit of Shakespeare's Prospero and Ariel here, with the summoner binding named spirits, with whom he develops a history, and grows over time. But, of course, this is wedded to the demonic freakiness and unshackled imagination that gloomtrain everywhere traffics in. It's really kind of amazing.

While I have my own rules for summoning, I am wondering if we couldn't use the McNamee/Diaz approach to fix familiars. Find familiar already functions pretty much in the McNamee style. By choosing a spell you use only once, you effectively sacrifice one spell slot in exchange for having a permanent familiar bound to you. It's true that the slot you sacrifice is the less valuable spell known slot, instead of the more valuable spell per day slot. But suppose we wanted to ratchet up the awesomeness of having a familiar. Then it might make sense to require the sacrifice of the more valuable kind. (It also has a kind of logic in the shared bond you have with your familiar. You draw power from it, and it takes power from you.) The longterm relationship between a wizard and his familiar also lends itself to the kind of developing history that Diaz's unique bound spirits evoke. You should have a history with your familiar, perhaps a fraught relationship, and I like the idea of your familiar growing in power with you.

So what if the mechanics worked this way? In order to acquire a familiar, one must perform the ritual necessary to bind the familiar to you. (Some of these are widely known, others found only in certain moldering tomes.) This involves sacrificing a first level spell slot. When one acquires access to a new level of spell, one has the option to sacrifice a single higher level spell slot to increase the power of the familiar. To get to each successive step, you would have to have completed all the prior ones. So, for example, when I'm a second level wizard I sacrifice one of my two first level spell slots to bind a familiar. When I'm a fourth level wizard with 2 second level spell slots, I might choose to sacrifice one of these permanently to increase the power of the familiar I acquired by one step. This proposal would, in effect, allow one a la cart use of Diaz's summoner class. It would have a different mechanical basis than my summoning, since it wouldn't work via the use of a monster summoning spell. Ideally, it would have a different flavor too: it would be less calling on pacts with demons and cosmic horrors and more the sort of Prospero and Ariel thing.

Here are two examples. The first is an enslaved fairy familiar, influenced by McNamee's rules on bleeding familiars and his blight lamb, and especially by Jack Vance's Lyonesse books. The second is an ancestral spirit familiar inspired by James Beach's post linked above.

Enslaved Fairy

These familiars appeal to magicians with unwholesome appetites and meticulous habits. To acquire one, the magician must first craft a suitable habitation. This is usually a gilded cage of fine mesh bars, often decorated with doll's furniture (500-1000GP). Slightly larger than a lantern, it is often carried by a ring at the top, or over the shoulder hanging from a stick. The magician must also acquire one thing that fairies long for, such as delicate candied rose petals, or tears of laughter collected from a small child. He must also carry about his person something fairies dread, such as carpenter wasps, fiddler crabs, or heated needles.

The magician must then locate a fairy enclave. This is no easy task, as they are invisible to mortal eyes, and their location a closely kept secret. Near the enclave, the magician must situate the cage in a bucolic scene of great beauty that at once invites while nevertheless obscuring its confining nature. Placing the lure within, the magician then awaits his future familiar. Having secured a fairy, the magician must hasten away before alarm can be raised, or face considerable complications. Once at greater leisure, the magician may set about cowing the faery through firm application of the object of terror, until achieving an abject state of (temporary) compliance. At this point the captive familiar and the magician must mingle their blood to achieve a magical bond.

Freedom, Death, and Enmity

As the fairy moves through the stages of corruption and servitude, their relationship to captivity will change. At the early stages, the fairy will display pure hatred and fear of their master. They will escape at any chance. At later stages, when the magical bond is stronger and the fairy's corruption has progressed to a point where escape is no longer an option, they will still play malicious tricks, and sow unpleasant obstacles for their master. At its best, the relationship is one of dependence and spite. In some cases, even after a long captivity, they will bring ruin upon themselves for the sake of revenge.

Although the rewards bestowed by a fairy familiar are great, the escape or death of a fairy also represents a significant source of vulnerability for a magician. For Faeries are, being but slight creatures, not overly difficult to slay. Should this happen, the caster will lose the invested spell levels, regaining them, beginning with the 1st, at the rate of one spell level per session. A new bond cannot be formed with a captive for a year and a day.

Possessing a fairy is a vile transgression that marks one immediately as an enemy of all fairy folk. Should it come to their attention, fey will seek to free the captive and visit punishment on the magician. If a fairy should escape, the magician must take caution, for the reprisal will be terrible.

Powers of an Enslaved Fairy

Level 1: The enslaved fairy may produce either fairy fire or dancing lights once per day*. The fairy may also glow at will, illuminating as a lantern. At this point, the fairy is six inches tall HD1/2 AC5 MV3/15 Att: by tiny weapon (1hp) or spell-like ability.

Level 2: The enslaved fairy may either speak with animals or become invisible once per day. If the fairy's blood is drawn with a tiny syringe and consumed while they are invisible, the invisibility is transferred to the imbiber. Note that the bleeding causes 1d4 damage to the fairy (but never takes the fairy below 1 hp). As the bond grows stronger, the fairy grows to eight inches in height. HD1 AC5 MV3/15 Att: by tiny weapon (1-2) or spell-like ability.

Fairy, sans glamour
Level 3: The enslaved fairy may now either grow a toadstool into a spacious and exquisitely decorated abode (as Tiny Hut), or shrink someone (as reverse enlarge 5 levels higher than the magician) once per day. The magician may now also steal the fairy's glamour once per day, receiving +2 charisma for one hour and the ability to make a single lie utterly convincing. While bereft of their glamour, the enslaved fairy appears haggard and unappealing, like a toddler with the face of a drunken sot. By this time, the fairy has grown to one foot in height. Too large for a traveling cage, they are now usually kept on gilded chains. HD2 AC5 MV4/15 Att: By tiny weapon (1-3) or spell-like ability.

Level 4: The enslaved fairy may now bestow a curse of terrible luck on another (treat as Fumble) or bewitch the intelligence of man, calling up enchanted vistas (hallucinatory terrain) once per day. By this time, the fairy is two feet high, and has begun to take on a darker glamour. Should the fairy escape, they will suffer terrible withdrawal from the magical bond (save vs. poison or die). HD3 AC5 MV5/15 Att: By small weapon (1-4) or spell-like ability.

Level 5: The enslaved fairy may now summon a twisted unicorn from Fairyland at will to serve as the magician's steed, with a golden horn and milky black eyes HD6 AC2 ATT1-8/1-8/2-12 MV24 MR12. In addition, stealing the fairy's glamour now also allows the magician to sow discord between any two allies with whom the magician converses. At this point, escape seals the doom of the fairy and restraints are no longer necessary. The fairy is three feet high, with wings of black gossamer and dead eyes. HD4 AC4 MV6/15 Att: By weapon (1-6) or spell-like ability.

Level 6: The enslaved fairy may now either banish victims to the bewitched green hedge labyrinths of the Summer King (as maze) or, if the fairy knows their name, cause them to vomit forth their wits as a monstrous raven (as feeblemind) once per day. The fairy is now four feet high, and the gossamer of its wings begin to tatter. HD5 AC3 MV9/9 Att: By weapon (1-8) or spell-like ability.

Level 7: Once per day, the enslaved fairy may either reverse gravity or cause an object to vanish to fairyland (as Vanish), replaced by a perfectly shaped (momentarily!) simulacrum composed of clustered butterflies. At this point, the fairy's wings lie like a torn black cape from its back. Instead of flying, it may now stride through the air, and walk on walls and ceilings. It is now 5' tall, with a halo of darkness HD6 AC2 MV12/12 Magic Resistance 10% Att: By weapon or spell-like ability.

Level 8: The enslaved fairy may either call the enchanting music of the summer balls of the fairy court, which compels all to dance (treat as irresistible dance, 120' radius), or instill a mad and jealous love (mass charm) in those present once per day. When stealing the fairy's glamor, the magician may now appropriate the latter power, as well as the fairy's magic resistance. The fairy is now 6' tall with long and crooked legs like a deer. HD6 AC2 Magic Resistance 20% MV12/12 Att: By weapon or spell-like ability.

Level 9: The enslaved fairy may now call forth a doom of white roses once per week. Its snaking brambles and needled thorns grow outwards from a single seed at a rate of 100' feet per round, until reaching a desired radius up to 1000'. The doom will crumble buildings and break walls. Those swallowed by the surging thorns suffer 8d6 damage and are entangled. The enslaved fairy may also compel all those who enter into a bargain to execute the terms (as geas), but doing so places the fairy under a like compulsion. When stealing the fairy's glamour, the magician now appropriates the latter power as well. The fairy is now 7' tall, with eerily elongated features, and nails like iron needs. HD7 AC0 Magic Resistance 30% MV15/15 Att: By nails 1d12/1d12 or weapon or spell-like ability.

*When it says that "the enslaved fairy may do X or Y once per day", this means that the fairy may do one but not both of these per day. However, which of the two spell-like powers will be employed that day need not be decided in advance. This holds for the spell-like powers of theancestral spirit as well.

Ancestral Spirit

Not all familiars are drawn from the ranks of the living. To bind a spirit as a familiar, it must recognize in the sorcerer the bond of shared blood, the ties of familial sorrows and triumphs. In life the spirit must have had overweening ambition, a great unslaked desire that ties it to the earth, preventing its easy passage from the bright lands to Ushanpor, City of the Brass Sepulchre.

In preparation for the doleful performances that will bind the spirit, the necromancer must anoint himself daily with myrrh, and don the cerements of the grave, intoning in the Hymn of Opening the Sepulchres at the gloaming hour. If he is of the better sort, he must accustom himself to poring over family histories and genealogies, ferreting out old letters, gazing at dusty portraits, and most of all, lingering among the tarnished crests and moldy sarcophagi of his family tombs. If he is drawn from more humble stock, he may meditate on a simple object that has been passed down for generations--an anvil, clay pot, a sickle, or such--and wander amongst unmarked graves in the region where his family has dwelt. The spirit will seek him out in these melancholy perambulations. He will know that it is present when the temperature suddenly drops. At this point he must provide proof positive of his kinship by spilling a small quantity of his life's blood within a copper bowl. If the bowl is overturned violently, then necromancer in the presence of an unsuitable spirit, and must take precautions immediately to guard his life. If the spirit accepts, it will give an unnerving sign.

The DM must have some idea of who the ancestor was, including his chosen profession, and the nature of his ungratified ambition. The spirit will have been a remarkable individual in life, possessing unique talents, and a dangerous desire. Normally, this information will not be conveyed to the player. The identity of his familiar will be, for a long while, a mystery to him. You may roll on this chart if you like, or better yet, make something fun up.

Who is the Ancestral Spirit? (1d6):

  1. Disgraced, and cast out from the family for the murder of his brother, he rose through sheer strength of will from anonymity to lead legions of men into battle. He died ingloriously, with his breeches around his ankles. He is brutal and reckless, and holds his family (including the necromancer) in scorn. He wishes above all to draw the party into battle with implacable and awesome foes in order to win for himself the glorious death he was denied. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level fighter.)
  2. She was a great jewel thief who lost her life in failed theft of a priceless black diamond from the crown of Astyanax, the Lich King. She has irrepressible penchant for casual theft, including from her own party. She is spoiled but daring, and expects her family (including the necromancer) to cover for her crimes. Her great hunger is to carry through the bronze gates of Ushanpoor the black diamond for which she died. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level thief.)
  3. He was a zealot who untiringly preached his unwholesome faith. For the black crimes he committed in the name of his cult, he was rightly burned at the stake. His family members never speak of him, and are ashamed and afraid of his legacy. But there are some in the family who have secretly continued his work and await his return. He is dogmatic and evil, relishing open blasphemy and spurning eternal rest to continue his (un)holy work. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level monk.)
  4. He was a scheming merchant who sought endless wealth through unscrupulous means. He schemes always after filthy lucre and seeks revenge against the wealthy descendants of the merchant who poisoned him. He is a master of commerce and knows all the ruses and stratagems of the merchant's guild and others. He was either betrayed by a family member (if the family is wealthy), or by a clan that is high (and mighty) in the ranks of the merchant's guild. He is crafty and cruel. (When embodied, treat as a level fifth level merchant.)
  5. He was a scholar who worked to uncover hidden and terrible secrets. He was infected with white buboes by grave wrappings and lost his life on the verge of uncovering the terrible antedeluvian prehistory of man. He still hungers for arcane knowledge, and is desperate to reach the library vaults of the Yuan-ti, where the secrets he craves are kept. He is didactic and obsessive. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level sage.)
  6. He was a con man, with a love of the art. On the verge of pulling off the greatest racket of all time, he was hung for impersonating the prince. He tells endless tall tales, and will fleece respectable persons. He is dishonest but irresistible, and has a desperate desire to rule on the throne in a stolen identity. (When embodied, treat as a fifth level mountebank.)  

Killing the Ancestral Spirit

While in spectral form, the ancestral spirit cannot be harmed by weapons or (most spells). Even if slain when embodied, it will simply manifest again in a weeks time. The ancestral spirit may be permanently slain only through an exorcism spell. Should this happen, the caster will regain the lost levels of spells invested in the spirit, beginning with the 1st at the rate of one spell level per week. It will also vanish if it is ever able to fulfill its uttermost wish. For this reason, the ancestral spirit is likely to conceal the true nature of its desire. The ancestral spirit will likely remain to pursue its own agenda if the caster is slain. 

Powers of The Ancestral Spirit

To acquire each level of power, the necromancer must give up one spell slot of the corresponding level. The powers can only be acquired sequentially.

Level 1: The ancestral spirit may manifest spectrally once per day, either as the spell jarring hand or manipulate fire.

Level 2: The ancestral spirit acquires a permanent presence, serving as a perpetual unseen servant. Once per day it may strike terror into mundane animals (horses, dogs, and the like).

Level 3: The ancestral spirit may possess a willing subject for 1 turn, once per day. During this time, it may use the possessed body to perform the sorts of feats they could when living, but cannot use its other powers. The ancestral spirit may also fuse with it's master to speak in a voice that echoes across the lands of the dead (treat as speak with dead), or produce a spectral gust of wind once per day.

Level 4: The ancestral spirit may reveal horrifying vistas of the land of the dead (as fear spell) or instill a slavering servitude in corpses (as animate dead) once per day. They may also possess someone willing for 1 hour per day. During this time they may perform the sorts of feats they could when living, but cannot use their other powers.

Level 5: The ancestral spirit may now open a great door into and out of the land of the dead (dimension door) once per day. They may also possess someone unwilling once per week. An unwilling victim gets a saving throw vs. spells to resist. The possession lasts up to one day and during that time they may use the possessed body to perform the sorts of feats they could when living. During this time, the ancestral familiar cannot use their other powers. A successful exorcism of the ancestral spirit now requires two clerics.

Level 6: The ancestral spirit may now may now pull unwilling living beings to the land of the dead (as death spell) once per day. They may also inquire among the dead for forgotten lore, but will be absent during the duration of this inquiry (as legend lore spell).  Finally, they may possess someone either willing or unwilling indefinitely, although unwilling victims get a new saving throw once per week. While embodied, the ancestral familiar cannot use their spectral powers.

Level 7: The ancestral spirit may now shine the light of the necromantic moon into the lands of living, sapping the life and vigor of all those upon it falls (as Power Word Stun 30' radius) once per day. At this point, it may also use its full menu of spectral powers while embodied. An exorcism of an ancestral spirit must now be led by a cleric of twelfth level or higher to have a chance of succeeding. 

Level 8: The ancestral spirit may now control undead as an evil cleric of half the levels of the necromancer it serves. It may also raise dead once per week, although those who return will be strange, and their alignment evil. Those who are unwillingly possessed by the ancestral spirit now receive a saving throw only once per year. It now takes three clerics to exorcise the ancestral spirit, of no less than twenty combined levels.

Level 9: While embodied, the ancestral spirit may now drain energy levels by touch. Those slain by this attack become faceless wraiths under the control of the ancestral spirit, with a maximum number of wraiths equal to the necromancer's level. Faceless Wraiths HD5+3 AC4 Att: 1d6+energy drain Silver or magical weapons to hit MV12. In addition, the ancestral spirit may now summon a vast wall of corpses 30' area per caster level once per week. Exorcisms of the ancestral spirit must now be led by a cleric of no less than sixteenth level.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Son Works His Magic

On our vacation, my son Elias (age 8) has been working on a series of new classes and races for AD&D: half-ogre, half-troll, bomber, general, mage. (Actually, for Labyrinth Lord AEC if you want to pick nits.) They remind me of Arduin more than anything. More about that another time. For now, here are three sweet spells he wrote for the mage class.

Big Lock
Level 1
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
This spell creates a huge elaborate lock on a door. All attempts to pick the lock of this door are twice as difficult as they would otherwise be: for these purposes halve the thief's skill.

Level 1
Range: Touch
Duration: 1 hour per caster level
This spell instills persistence in hirelings. They receive a -2 on all morale checks for the spell's duration.

Level 2 [edited]
Range: 60'
Duration: Special
This spell creates an invisible chain that tethers the target to one spot. He will remain tethered until he manages to roll 5d6 under his strength.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Sir Tresken the Vigilant, Rest in Power

Sir Tresken the Vigilant was the first to step through Ultan's door, the first human in a century to travel from the waking world to Zyan, flying pearl of the dreamlands. During many expeditions in that twilight realm his exploits were daring and remarkable. On his first excursion he slew the corpulent sow, torpid mother of the malevolent white swine. Soon after, he raided the catacombs of the Fleischguild, liberating treasure from shambling horrors and guild butchers. Much later, he traveled to the true planar temple of their deity, Vulgatis, where he slew her demonic organisms with impunity.  Sir Tresken tracked down the location of the lost legendary hanging Summer Palace of the Incandescent Kings, the El Dorado of the dreamlands. And he recovered from the cenotaph of the Lady Shirishanu her legendary Petal Blade. It was with the Petal Blade that he cut down the Shadow Weaver, beloved of Azmarane, spinner of countless soldiers out of the stuff of darkness.

Sir Tresken also won the Twin Saddle of Vyanir, fashioned by Saint Garanax, the founder of his order, the dread Storm Riders. Garanax had used it to break the first of the war crows, leading them from the inverted White Jungle to the waking world. Sir Tresken followed in Saint Garanax's footsteps. Each traveled to Wishery from Rastingdrung through a shimmering door. Each served the same two mistresses. In the waking world, Tresken was the sworn servant of the Chatelaine of Storms, the witch queen from whom he drew his powers. But in Wishery, the Petal Blade bound him to the memory of the Lady Shirishanu, legendary poet-warrior paramour of the last of the Incandescent Kings. Had he lived longer Sir Tresken too would have broken wild crows and been the stuff of fairy tales.

At the moment he died, the Chatelaine was drinking her tea as she inspected the sample cakes of her pastry chef for the Festival of the Sybarites. Their long love-hate relationship was a source of constant amusement to her, and she was preparing a particularly acerbic remark about the quality of the lime icing when her hand began to inexplicably tremble. Tea spilt in a cascade down her damask gown, and her eyes darkened. For reasons she did not understand, for the first time in long years she became afraid, not of the present, but of what was to come. The carefully prepared retort died on her lips, and hastily approving the splendid cakes, she withdrew to quiet her nerves, feeling suddenly alone in the halls filled with fawning courtiers.

At that same moment, in Wishery, as Tresken's life blood poured from a mortal wound onto the dueling ground, the Petal Blade gave a keening cry, a wave of raw grief that burst upon all at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Fat Malichar burst instantly into tears, and even Nekalimon who hoped against hope that Tresken would be slain felt so sickened that he spilled the precious moonstones he was counting into the chasm below. The Petal Blade grieved on behalf of its mistress, and all of Zyan, for the waning of the hope that had begun to dawn in that hopeless place.

Sir Tresken died in the forty first session of our campaign. May he rest in power.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Zyan Below

At the bottom of the undercity, the offal sinks and great sewer river spill into Zyan Below. Here a fecund and ever blooming white jungle grows like a pallid reflection of the gilded towers above glimpsed in the fetid waters of a still pond. It springs from the base of the floating island downwards, a dense riot of immense fungal blooms, and thick snaking vines covered in flowers that look like the jeweled wings of insects. The place is the surreal nightmare of a jungle. The breast of a bird will open to reveal pale, trembling petals, on which its blind young feed with snaking tongues. The line between insect, animal, and plant is not respected.  Often, it is hard to tell where one living thing stops and another begins.

Zyan Below can be divided into four levels. Each level is represented by a hex map, composed of hexes one half mile wide and high. These maps are stacked one on top of another. While I cannot reveal the maps (alas!) since they are all in play, I can tell you a little bit about the levels, which are these.

The Brambles (Level 1)

A deep loamy soil is caked to the uneven bottom of the rock of Zyan. At the base of the great tree systems, enormous root balls burst from this fertile ground. From this firm anchor spring down the immense trunks that disappear into a black chasm below. In this dark wooded free-falling expanse, storm clouds gather, pouring forth occasional showers of stinking offal rain that feed the jungle below. After the lightless chasm of cyclopean trunks, the trees branch out into interconnected brambly thickets. In these nighted tunnels, the air is hot and dank, reeking of pungent decay. Fungal blooms are everywhere, and strange rotting plants that have the look of offal. Here on may find, among other things, the Cenotaph of the Lady Shirishanu, and the tempting mossy road that leads to the lair of the Empty Witch. 

The Depths (Level 2)

As one travels down from the brambles, a dim grey light dawns and fetid stink is replaced by a fragrance sweet and sharp. Here the white jungle blooms forth with the alabaster fronts of ferns, accented at bursts by jewel-like flowers, and clumps of unnatural fruit, oozing a milky sap. The sounds of life and death are everywhere, the buzz of insects competing with the staccato cries of strange birds, punctuated by the unsettling roar of alien beasts. Here life intertwined in lethal cycles that will devour unwary travelers. This is the living, beating heart of the jungle, in all its lurid glory. Here one may gaze upon the Emerald Pools, a massive waterway of pitcher plants that spill down to glistening ponds below, or brave ruined temples, now the roosts of lamia. It is here too that one may find the abode of the chittering masons, or the eerie valley of the flowers, where lies the wreckage of the Parapraxis, a fine vessel that once sailed the oneiric seas.

The Bright Groves (Level 3)

As one travels further down, the trees become thinner. Here, the air is bright, and a fresh breeze sways the leaves. Birds take wing, flitting amongst the luscious fruit and enchanting flowers. In this airy vertical forest, alien horrors slide up and down with frightening rapidity. The latticework is patchy, and broken, and travel here is difficult. Much of the fauna is floating or gliding, and it is here that the great lens plants can be found that channel the light of the Endless Azure Sea up to the Depths above. It is in these luminous groves that nobles built their pleasure grounds and swaying manses at the zenith of Zyan's power. Here one may find the legendary Summer Palace of the Incandescent Kings. 

The Dangling Isles (Level 4)

In a few places, the forest extends further still, penetrating the Endless Azure sea that surrounds Zyan on all sides. These dangling forest isles are buffeted by fierce winds and fogs of white downy cloud. Here, the strange aquatic life of the surrounding sea penetrates the jungle. Amongst blossoms of coral, flying fish move in the eddies of air, laying their eggs amongst thick swaying reeds. Potent artifacts washed up by the currents lie tangled in the groves here, which are stalked by strange beings born of the boreal winds that blow through the Azure Sea. The demons of the wind have their foothold here, including Bazekop the Prince of the West Wind, whose invisible towers can be approached across a slender crystal bridge. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Old School(s): Reflections

I want to make explicit some shared assumptions and practices of the people whom I play old school Dungeons & Dragons with online. I thought it would be useful to have this post here, as something I could link to later. Part of my point is the obvious one that "old school" means a bunch of different things that sometimes it's helpful to disambiguate. But my main point is that some things that some people seem to think are incompatible actually go together like peanut butter and honey.

I'm going to describe four different sets of things that I look for a game. I think these things are widely valued by all the people I play with and form the basis of a culture of google+ hangout gaming that is one of the best things about the OSR scene, but I speak for myself (obviously). To be clear, I don't mean to putting down games that differ from the ones I like. I rather mean to be making explicit a set of values that are realized in a certain community and a certain style of game. There are other values, different ways to weight the same values, and other ways to realize (some) of them through play.

Here's what I want from a game. I want an open world. Railroading is the pits. Adventure paths take all the fun out playing. The world should be the players' oyster. The whole glorious point is to see what unexpected things emerge when a group of creative people put their heads together in anarchic unscripted play. This entails that the dungeon master should strive to set up open-ended situations. There should be hexmaps, pointcrawls, location-based adventures. There should be encounter tables, treasure tables, carousing tables, what have  you. There should be factions, and schemers so that vectors of force move through the game to some extent independent of the players, which the players can then interact with in fun and unexpected ways. Rules should be structured so that players can make real and informed choices, often tactical. The whole point is to enable people to interact in meaningful ways with a developing environment.

This doesn't involve giving the players narrative control over the setting. The players play their characters. It's through the choices of their characters that the delicious chaos unfolds. They do not "help the DM write the story". No one is writing a story. Stories emerge from play and are not scripted, not scripted by the players, and not scripted by the dungeon master. If the player could just change some story element, this would actually take away from the sense that they are interacting with an independent world. There are no story elements, we're not thinking in terms of telling a story. As a DM, it's hard to emphasize how much fun all this is. The glory of setting up a situation in the full knowledge that you don't know what is going to happen, and then seeing it go in some unanticipated direction is almost an elemental pleasure.

William Hope Hodgson's vision was fucking weird 

Here's the second thing I enjoy in a game. It's not as important as the first thing, but it is important. I enjoy games that are fed by vaguely Appendix N sources of inspiration. (The list is open-ended and always shifting and reaches up to the present.) Let there be the cunning rogues of Vance, the opium dreams of Dunsany, the dying suns of  C.A. Smith, the pulp glory of Robert E. Howard, the freakishness of William Hodgson, the bleak metaphysics of Gene Wolf, and the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. With Vancian picaresque lies the aesthetic appeal of what initially appears the most hopelessly reductive equation of early D&D 1 GP=1 XP. This elegant equation at one stroke guarantees a game of low-cunning rogues who may, or may not, end up joining the rebellion if they want to.

The third thing I enjoy about the culture of G+ gaming is a heavy DIY approach. The idea is that you're not being fed some pre-packaged goods by a game corporation. It's a community of people who value tinkering, changing, innovating. We love the craft. Some of us are artists, others graphic designers, others writers, and so on. We love making our own maps, as nice as we can; we draw; we make miniatures; we hand produce zines; we build terrain. We constantly share ideas with one another, rules, settings, spells, items, maps, and so on. We're curious about what other people are doing, and take inspiration from all sides. There's a lot of teaching that goes on, and the spread of useful techniques and ideas.

How could you not love this guy?

Before he invented D&D, Gary Gygax spent his time building numerous different sets of rules for war games. Sometimes he built a set of rules for a single battle. And he didn't do it alone! He was at the center of a vibrant community, connecting whole groups of people who loved sharing their endlessly tinkered rulesets in newsletters. Those guys had to invent everything from the ground up, their own rules, their miniatures, their own terrain, their own sand tables. This is the kind of milieu and mindset out of which D&D emerged.

There are some consequences for rules, although not as much as you might think. They can be complicated, but they should be hackable. It can be fun to run a game straight, but it's usually more fun to tinker a bit. Complicated character builds and byzantine resolutions systems that are on the verge of falling apart if one gear is removed do not lend themselves very easily to this sort of thing. On the other hand, modular systems, and numerous sub-systems do. Potion miscibility. Thieves skills. Intelligent magical swords. Simplicity has its charms here too. There's something about stripping something down and building it back up that lends itself to clever innovation. But simplicity isn't necessary; AD&D is the default in my mind, and Call of Cthulhu's basic roleplaying chassis isn't exactly simple, but one can ring endless changes on it.

The fourth thing I want from a game, whether I'm the player or the dungeon master is a strongly imagined setting that is a joy to engage with. I want there to be mysteries. I want it to be full of wonder. I want to imagine things together that I wouldn't have imagined alone. I want it to be good and weird. I don't want to play in the Forgotten Realms. At its best Greyhawk could be weird at the margins (Vault of the Drow, Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun). But, to be honest, running AD&D straight from the implied setting in the Monster Manual, along with the Greyhawk Folio, is not going to cut it for me. I want a setting to blow my mind. I want Tekumel. I want HMS Apollyon. I want Kutalik's slavic weird. I want to play in Michael Raston's mutated jungles, or Gabor Lux's lurid science fantasy islands, or M. Diaz's Pernicious Albion, or to crawl through the Veins of the Earth. In the culture that I prize, this kind of lushly imagined setting is hugely valued. It's a consequence that one thing that I don't want are generic modules, supplements, etc. that can immediately be plugged into any campaign supposing only that it's a renn faire + orcs type of setting. Why would I want that? That's not the kind of game I want to play in, and that's not the kind of game I want to run. (I want things that are well-designed and usable, but not generic.)


Now, the main point I want to make is this. The fourth thing I want from a game stands in no tension at all with the other things I want from a game. First of all, it's connected to the love of Appendix N type books, since these are all wildly imaginative books that depart from known assumptions to present strange and lurid worlds. Second, a setting is not the same as a pre-scripted story. It's not the same as an adventure path. A setting is where a sandbox is located. It's the milieu in which open-ended adventures are to be had. It's the home of point-crawls, hexcrawls, location-based dungeons. It's the place where factions live, literally. Being interested in the setting of a game is not in any tension with numerous old school ways of playing. For example, you have learned something about locations on a hexmap. One of your reasons for wanting to go to point A in particular to do your extracting of precious metals is that it sounds totally badass and you ache to know what is going on there. In an open-ended tactical game, you want to know about a setting because it's useful information to make important decisions. Knowing about X will give you a leg up when trying to get faction Y to help deal with faction Z. But if the game world is amazing, then ferreting out the relevant information is glorious.

However, spurious arguments abound. I have heard it argued that having a distinctive and highly imaginative setting of one's own requires handing players a manual to read. The thought is that this takes away from the anarchic and gamist elements of play I mentioned in my first point by forcing the players to read a thinly veiled piece of gaming fiction. I have heard it argued that having a strongly imagined setting also makes it difficult to interact with the environment, because it removes the set of assumptions that allow the players to make meaningful choice.These are the kind of arguments people make when they've never seen a good DM handle a setting properly. Sure, it helps to make a bit of orienting material available to players in some digestible form, for example, a couple of blog posts. But it's also possible to learn about a setting entirely in game making meaningful choices all along the way.

Ultan's Door

For example, in the game I've been running now for almost two years, the players have a home base in a city in the Wilderlands. It's cute, with a pleasure cult and witch queen, but well within ordinary sword and sorcery type bounds. However, the game has mostly been played through Ultan's door, a door in that appeared under the stairs of a printmaker's shop. It has opened to the sewers and catacombs of Zyan, a flying city in the dreamlands. The players have learned about the strange world of Wishery through dungeon crawling, point crawling, hexcrawling, and faction play, all on the other side of Ultan's Door. I usually write a blog post about something after its been discovered in game. No one has to read it who was playing in the game, since they've already lived it, and perhaps burned it to the ground. Of course, context accumulates, as is vivid to me now that new players are joining in almost two years into the game. But context accumulates in any campaign that's lasted for a good spell.

Morals. Here are some different things we might mean by old school: (1) open ended adventure through meaningful interaction with an independent environment (no railroads, adventure paths, or story gaming). (2) drawing on some of the same literally sources, and their living inheritors, that influenced Gygax, Arneson, Barker, et al. (3) a DIY approach of making art, tinkering, innovating, in terms of rules, in terms of setting, in terms of game concepts, drawing, drafting, etc. I have mentioned a fourth thing that is not especially old school (or new school): (4) a desire for wildly imaginative settings. I have argued that (4) stands in no tension with (1)-(3) in the hands of a competent DM. To be sure, (4) does stand in tension with something else that also has a claim to being old school. This is: (5) Using some original and well-played game as is along with its implied or explicit setting, for example, AD&D with Greyhawk. This is obviously old school too. So what?