Author: Jason Lutes

Discovering Dungeon World

Since discovering DCC RPG, I’ve been wandering from one modern rpg system to another, buying pdfs here and there, sampling the field to see what looks good. I’ve been running a Pathfinder campaign for over a year now, and in that time I’ve grown… disenchanted with D&D 3.5. Too many rules, too many exceptions, to much need to look stuff up when you just want to be playing. So I’ve been wanting to see what else is out there, and how current rpg design might address my issues with Pathfinder.

I got excited about FATE Core, since it streamlines the overly-detailed system used in Spirit of the Century, and ordered the hardback. It’s a tight little package that does a great job of boiling the FATE system down to its, well, core, but even in its currently concise form there’s too much jargon for my taste (“aspects,” “compels,” “boosts,” etc.). What I love most about FATE is how much say the players have in the game world, but the language is off-putting. I don’t think the designers of FATE could have done anything differently — when you create a new system, you need new terms to define it — but I was looking for something that I could grasp quickly, and, more importantly, a system I could communicate to my players in 5 minutes.

Enter Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel; a “hack” of D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World that reframes those rules in a classic D&D context. Here appeared to be what I was looking for: super simple rules that put story before mechanics, instead of the other way around. I read the pdf, session reports, and some great tipsheets about how to run the game. I also bought the pdf of Apocalypse World and read that, in order to understand the origins of the system, and laid my hands on Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a pulp sci-fi hack of DW by Johnstone Metzger. In my worm’s-eye view investigation of what turned out to be one of the hottest indie titles of 2012/2013, I was delighted to discover that the creation of DW was inspired in part by Tony Dowler, an old Seattle acquaintance. Tony is an incredibly creative guy and a total mensch, who helped me playtest early versions of my pulp adventure boardgame, Thrilling Tales of Adventure! His involvement in DW was the synchronistic straw that broke the rpg camel’s back — I had to try the game.
And so, on an off week when two of our Pathfinder players were AWOL, we did. An account of that session will follow, hopefully within the next few days.  

Campaign Setting: The Village of Hovick

I’ve been fleshing out some of the world for my current DCC RPG campaign using the methods outlined here. This has been happening concurrent with our weekly play sessions, and since the PC’s would be heading back to civilization after the first adventure wrapped up, I had been wanting to get a handle on Hovick, the PCs’ “village of origin.” I had some notes about the heroes’ welcome they would receive upon their return, and the family and friends with whom they will be reunited, but I really wanted a clear idea of the village itself. I enjoy winging things, but I am also a stickler for immersion and verisimilitude, and I didn’t want Hovick to feel like a generic D&D village (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m a cartoonist and illustrator by profession, but I hadn’t drawn a map of a pseudo-medieval village since my days in high school, so I was a little rusty. But after thinking about it a lot and sketching a little, the old instincts came back. I realize now, in retrospect, that big two things affected my imagining of Hovick: the settlement maps from the Hârn rpg, over which I pored endlessly back in my high school days; and a class on city development that I took during my junior year at art school. Hârnmaster, as the rpg system was called, was nearly unprecedented at the time in its detail and realism, and the maps, such as this one, reflected those qualities. The class on city development was great because it gave me a basic understanding of how human settlements were founded, and how specifics like geography and access to resources influenced their development over time.

From the regional-level worldbuilding I had done, I knew that Hovick was a fishing village on the eastern shore of Blacksalt Lake, that it was near Wildthorn Wood (where my group’s first adventure, Harley Stroh’s Halls of the Minotaur, was set), and that it was roughly 60 miles from the provincial seat of Assalom’s Rest, to the east.

Starting with this basic info, my next step was to use Chaotic Shiny’s city generator to create some flavor hooks. By “hooks” in this case, I mean generator output that strikes me as interesting or applicable for one reason or another. When using generators like this, I keep the subject (“a fishing village”) in mind while glancing through the results, writing down anything that my brain catches on — anything that I respond to at an intuitive level — and discarding the rest. In this case, I’ve since misplaced my original notes, but one thing I remember from the output was the line “Buildings: resemble insects.”

How can the buildings of a pseudo-medieval human village resemble insects? I don’t know why I latched onto that one, but I did, and the first thing I thought of was that the huts of the fisherfolk could be clustered along the shore of the lake like grubs or larvae. Modest, rounded daub-and-wattle huts. Not very insect-like in the end, but a nice visual that helped me start to see the village.

Next, I thought a little bit about why the village exists. It’s a fishing village, so fishing is the primary form of industry. Is it just subsistence fishing, or do Hovick’s fisherfolk play some part in the larger economy? I feel like it would be good to have some connection to Assalom’s Rest for story purposes, so let’s have a trade relationship between Hovick and The Rest (as I now decide the locals call it). But Assalom’s Rest is a port town, in all likelihood with its own fishing industry, so why would they want more fish? I decide that it’s not the fish per se, but the particular flavor of the salt in Blacksalt lake that sets the fish of Hovick apart. In fact, at some point an enterprising trader from The Rest came to Hovick and established a facility for salting and smoking fish to sell at market; and, more lucratively, to process and package “blacksalt” itself as a luxury spice.

So that’s the anchor: Hovick started as a subsistence fishing village, but now it exports smoked fish and blacksalt, via a weekly trade mission to the Market Quarter in Assalom’s Rest. You can smell the smoked fish from within a mile of the place. And this sensory detail calls back another line from the city generator’s output: “Famous for: an abundance of cats.” Indeed. Another great setting detail to give the village some character.

So with a pretty basic idea, it’s time to start sketching. Unless a more important geographic feature is demanding attention, I almost always start with the bodies of water, so the shoreline goes in first. Next, I think about fresh water sources. The lake is salt water, so there has to be a different source of fresh water, or no settlement would exist here. Looking at my regional map, I see there are no major rivers in the vicinity, so the water source is going to be smaller, let’s say a big stream coming out of the Thornwood to the southeast. That gets sketched in next.

Most settlements grow up right on the fresh water source that they depend upon, so working with that idea I choose an area on the stream but close to the shore, where the fishing needs to happen. Draw in where the grub-like fishing huts will be arrayed, at a point where the shore comes in a little, and then rough in where the town center will be, closer to the fresh water. Then I draw a road from the town center off the map to the northeast, toward the biggest regional settlement, Assalom’s Rest, and dub this thoroughfare Asslaom’s Road; then a secondary road to the fishing center (“Fisher Beach”), and from the fishing center to Assalom’s Road. Those would be the main routes, the ones most heavily traveled: provincial capitol to village center, village center to industrial center, industrial center to provincial capitol. Other roads will build off of that main triangle.

Is Hovick fortified? My mental image is of a pretty small place, and there are no military threats in the area, but I remember that in the introduction to the first adventure, I told the players that the minotaur had smashed in the village gates. So I guess it is fortified. We’ll say against potential monster attacks, since Hovick lies on the outer edge of Bramic civilization. Everybody loves a palisade. Sketch that in. It’s too big, tries to encompass too much. A palisade that big is beyond the means of a small village to maintain. So I scale it back, leave some stuff outside the walls. Put a gate where the main road comes in, obviously, but that means adjusting my underlying road triangle so the road from Fisher Beach passes through the gate instead of going straight to the village center; but that’s great, that’s the kind of shift that starts to make a place feel organic. Another gate leading to the saltery and smokehouse, which have been left outside the walls. And a third gate to the south, to allow more direct access for woodsmen and trappers heading into Wildthorn Wood. What happens to people who live outside the walls if there’s an attack? They run inside. Make sure there are direct paths to the gates from any populated area.

Because a couple of the PCs started the game with holy symbols and some degree of religious belief, I had already come up with Arimar, God of Peace and Truth, and had decided that he was the primary deity of Hovick. A temple is obviously a big focus, so I put it right at the head of the main road, where it ends in the market square. Arimar’s symbol is an oak leaf, so I guess his adherents like oak trees. Let’s put a nice semicircle of oaks around the back of the church. Hovick is too small to support any other temples of size, but I place a shrine to Assalom (God of Travel, Trade, and Good Fortune) at the main gate, and decide that all Bramic cities have shrines to Assalom at their most well-traveled gates. The only other deity actively represented in Hovick is Jeneva, Goddess of Strife, Sorrow, and the Sea, but she is worshiped in private by the fisherfolk.

I also put the town hall on the market square, and some other buildings I’ll sort out later. In fact, I pepper the streets with buildings of varying shapes and sizes, planning to assign some of them functions later on.

When horses are a the main form of transport after foot travel, there need to be sufficient facilities for the horses, and they need to be conveniently located for people coming and going. So I put an ostler right inside the main gate (now called Assalom’s Gate, in a stunningly creative move) and another one outside, on Assalom’s Road. Boarding horses there will obviously be a little cheaper, since it’s not protected by the palisade.

At some point I decide that a mill was built on the stream, and the building of the mill led to upper and lower millponds, so I add those in. The lower pond is where the villagers do their laundry (on flat stone slabs brought in for that prupose), and the upper pond is tapped for the main well, located in the adjoining square.

By now I have a refined sketch of the village and immediate surroundings:

At this point I switch over to my notes and start to write down some stuff about the village’s history, riffing on ideas that have bubbled up over the course of sketching the map. After I do that for a while, and I feel like tackling the map again, I scan it it into Adobe Illustrator and start to play around with drawing stuff. I own Campaign Cartographer 3, but the learning curve is too steep for me, and I have gotten too frustrated too many times to want to try to use these days, when my time is at a premium. I’m somewhat familiar with Illustrator, though (mostly by using it professionally, and in the creation of a pulp adventure board game), and although I’d never used it to do much drawing, I wanted to see if it would work.

After a little experimenting, I had he water and roads drawn in, and had created a tree “brush” that I could use to start laying in the forested areas.

Some more experimenting with the pencil tool, and outlines and fill, and I had a pretty good system down. Here’s what the final product looks like:

I am continually finding things that need fixing (for instance, the residents of Fisher Beach probably need a more accessible source of fresh water), but overall I’m happy with the current state of things. The PCs have a clearly defined home base, at least until they pull up stakes and move on from their humble origins, and I now have a firm grasp on why the place exists, who lives there, and the basic socio-economic situation.

If you’re curious about any of the details, you can read the Google doc I’ve created to develop Hovick in detail. It’s still very much a work in progress, but feel free to use the village in your own game, if you’re so inclined.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 5

In which the funnel comes to a close.

Gareth looks to the rest of the group for confirmation, then takes a step and kicks the double doors open. Sure, he’s a little guy, but I allow him the dramatic entrance instead of asking for a STR check.

They peer into a hazy, nearly octagonal room, the ground floor of the last of the citadel’s towers. In the center is a blazing firepit, full of debris and shards of timber, black smoke billowing up into the rafters. Something moves on the far side of the pit — something big. The ground shakes as a huge hoof stamps the flagstones. Out of the haze it comes from the far side of the room, 10 feet tall and full of fury, shaking its massive horns side to side, wielding an iron greatsword with one hand. A badly damaged scale hauberk hangs off of its muscle-bond torso, and Gareth can make out the broken end of a blade imbedded in the creature’s chest. Its body below that point is covered in thick, dried blood.

The bull-man reaches into the fire with its free hand and pulls out a flaming timber, then opens its mouth and lets out a mighty bellow that sends a shudder through the party.

Illustration by Doug Kovacs.

Initiative is rolled: Esma, Minotaur, Oswald, Perry, Gareth, Thelma, Finmunni, Daisy, Sigbert, Durwin, Wilfred.

Esma, in the front rank, charges boldly into the room to within 10′ of the creature, spins Pierce’s fishing net over her head, and tosses it. The minotaur has AC 16 and she rolls a 17, landing the net across its head and horns, obscuring its vision. Entangled!

Enraged, the creature takes a step toward Esma and swings its greatsword at her head. The greatsword is +6 to hit, does 2D6+4 damage, and Esma’s AC is 10. But the minotaur rolls 1D16 instead of 1D20, because it’s entangled. I roll the minotaur’s attack in full view of the players: a 1.

I know the DCC RPG rules say that enemies don’t have to play by the same rules as the PCs, but at my table if the dice can screw over the players, they should have the potential to screw over their enemies as well. Plus, I love unexpected turns of events. So yes, the minotaur fumbles.

Even though the scale mail it’s wearing is damaged, I rule that it still restricts movement, so it has to roll 1D12 (for moderate armor) on the fumble table. I roll a 7: “You drop your weapon. You must retrieve it or draw a new one on your next action.”

Esma ducks under the heavy iron blade and it clangs mightily into the stone wall behind her, with such force that it is jarred out of the bull-man’s hand. It bounces back onto the floor and slides to the far side of the fire pit. A whoop goes up. He’s entangled and he just lost his weapon!

Perry runs in, around the firepit to the creature’s rear flank, takes a stab with his spear, and misses. Oswald, Thelma, and Gareth rush into the fray, weapons swinging, but between the haze and the minotaur’s tough hide, all three miss. Finmunni finally scores the first hit for the team, cracking the creature in the knee with her hammer for 5 hp (1D4+1), eliciting another enraged roar. Durwen follows up with another miss. It’s such a mob in there now that there’s no room for the other four PCs to get close.

Top of the order, Esma takes two flasks of acid (obtained earlier in this adventure from the wizard’s lab) off her belt and throws them both at the same time. I use the two-weapon fighting rules to figure that out: her AGI is 12, so her main hand attack will be at -1D, and her off hand attack will be at -2D. She rolls a D16 and a D14 against AC 16 — no surprise, the flasks bounce off the minotaur and smash onto the stone floor, adding sulfuric fumes to the mix. Hopefully, Esma has just learned something useful about two-weapon attacks.

The minotaur, a mountain of fury now staggering from the blow to its kneecap, puts its head down and tries to gore Finmunni. It’s still at -1D for having the fishing net around his head, and Finmunni’s AC is 16 (10 + 2 for AGI + 3 for hide armor +1 for thornling buckler), but it does get a +8 to hit with its horns, so it has about a 50% of scoring a hit for 2D4+4 points of damage.

I roll a 5. The minotaur snorts in outrage. I’m pretty sure it’s directed at me.

Wilfred strides into the fray with his greatsword and slashes the minotaur across the torso for 8 hp, ripping through its ragged scale mail. The beast is completely surrounded by six other PCs, but they all miss their attack rolls.

Esma spends her action readying her spear, and the minotaur spends its action ripping the fishing net angrily from its head.

In a whirl of glancing blows, smoke, acid fumes, and confusion, no one manages to land a solid hit except Sigbert, who swings the thornling witch doctor’s morning star and rolls a 20, then 1D4 for a 4 on the crit table, to smash the same knee already bloodied by Finmunni, for 1D6+1D4+1 for STR = 9 hp of damage. The minotaur only has 6 hp left, out of a total of 28! And the crit result indicates that it will suffer -2 to its next attack roll, plus -10′ to its movement rate.

But those things won’t even come into play, because at the top of the next round, Esma raises her spear with both hands and plunges the tip deep into the monster’s lower back, piercing through into its vitals, for 7 points of damage.

The bull lord lets out a last, disbelieving GRARRGHL before toppling over into the firepit in a burst of embers that sends sparks flying and the PCs stepping back to a safe distance.

Esma says, “Ha!”

Everyone looks around at each other, and Oswald says, “Hey, isn’t this what we came here to do? Did we do it? We did it! Yeah!”

They defeated the module’s final enemy without taking a single point of damage.

W T F

I actually don’t have any problem the way it went in the end. It makes sense that the flipside of the funnel is that, if the players can manage to bring 10 PCs to the final battle, they stand a good chance of overwhelming a single foe by sheer numbers. It helped that, in entering the dungeon via the underground stream, steering clear of the thornling warrens, and avoiding any areas that looked too dangerous, the PCs actually only explored about 40% of the total module. As a result they missed a heck of lot of loot, but they also faced far fewer threats than they would have faced if they had taken a more direct approach.

At the end of the session last week, we left things with the minotaur dead and his quarters ransacked (for a whopping 311sp, 25gp, and 6 bloodstones @ 30gp), but the PCs are still at the top of the spire. This week I may just skip over the descent and let them get back to Hovick, so they can experience the thrill of reaching level 1, or we may play out their descent back through the spire.

But in any case, I did read the great closing paragraphs that Harley wrote for the module aloud to my players (edited slightly to suit them):

The citadel stands in silence, the corpse of the Bull Lord is at your feet. You and your companions began this adventure as frightened commoners: swineherds, woodsmen, and fisherfolk. How long ago and far away your old lives seem. Now your weapons are bloodied, your eyes have stared into the heart of evil, and your scarred bodies bear testament to the ordeals you have overcome.

Now you stand as champions.

Looking down from atop the high citadel, the land stretches out before you, wild and mysterious. Dark valleys, rolling dales, and high mountains: a world of adventure. A raw fire burns in your belly, a hunger for danger, triumph and rewards, hard won. Grinning, you shoulder your sacks of treasure, tighten your grip on your weapons, and step into a new life.

Isn’t that awesome? What a great way to kick off an adventuring career. I wonder who’s going to die next.

I will continue to post about the careers of he Heroes of Hovick and the gradually-developing land of Bramica, but be warned that I may not be able to maintain the level of detail I put into the session reports of this first adventure.

Thanks for reading!

MAY ARIMAR BLESS THOSE WHO FELL TO THE FUNNEL:



Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 4

In which a little bat-winged man leaves the party.

Before our intrepid crew proceeds, I ask everyone to choose alignments for their characters. I like waiting until the end of the funnel for folks to choose alignment, but skimming the module text for this next section reminds me that there will soon be some alignment-specific features in play.

THE LAWFUL


Perry is a town watchman and he started out with a holy symbol of Arimar, God of Peace and Truth, so it lines up. One of his random character traits is “boring,” too, which is of course true of all lawful folk (I kid).

Sigbert started off with the “helpful,” and has behaved in line with that throughout the adventure. He even tried to befriend Horpt after the homonculus threw acid at him.

Durwin rolled “lawful/religious” as a starting trait, so his alignment was pretty much determined at the outset, and he has been played accordingly. We have a devout Cleric of of Arimar in the making here, even though he only has a 7 Personality.

Finmunni is lawful, as demonstrated over the course of the game by her fairness, methodical scrutiny of all things architectural, and concern for her fellow villagers. She loves gold and gems, but always divides the spoils fairly.

Daisy is the good daughter, raised by her parents with discipline and love before they passed away. Which gives me an idea for her NPC sister being the “bad daughter,” to be interacted with upon the return to Hovick.

THE NEUTRAL

Oswald is dark-skinned, and is an outsider to mainstream Bramic culture (either descended from immigrants or a first-generation immigrant himself, tbd). He doesn’t trust the dominant power structure, and is suspicious of the motives of people around him, but is not a bad buy by any means.

Wilfred has been relatively quiet over the course of the adventure, defined mostly by occasional flirting with Daisy and stroking his weaselly moustache. He has acted neither selfishly nor selflessly, so he’s right there in the middle. And also looking like a good candidate for a Thief.

Esma is the closest we have to a chaotic character (although Gareth is a close second). She treated her pigs cruelly early on, and has repeatedly called for the execution of Horpt, but she hasn’t committed any acts that could be called truly chaotic. She is indifferent to the laws of society, abiding by them as much as she needs to, but believing herself smarter than any fool who makes or enforces rules (despite being illiterate).

Gareth is self-confident and proud, despite his diminutive stature, and maybe has a little bit of a Napoleon complex. He thinks of himself as above the law, because laws are for the weak-minded, but he’s not power-hungry.

Thelma is “hot-tempered,” as per an initial trait roll, which leads her to bridle against any external limitations, grow impatient with others, and charge into battle. But she does not savor blood. At least not yet.

After alignments are resolved and recorded, the party steps through the circular portal into the entry hall of the citadel. The hall is 20′ wide and 35′ long, dimly lit by sunlight reflecting in from the courtyard, with doors to the left and right immediately within the entrance. The description in the module reads:

A thick rug molders on the floor, and the scent of rot hangs in the air. The far end of the hall is decorated with a bas-relief that stretches from floor to ceiling. The relief depicts a human head adorned with ram’s horns and serpent’s fangs. The head is thrown back, as if about to roar in triumph.


The walls of the trophy hall are decorated with heads – human, elf, halfling, and dwarf. The preserved heads watch the hall with dull, dead stares.

Before venturing too far into the hall, they turn their attention to the right-hand door. Sigbert examines the door carefully, and there is in fact something to notice. He makes a DC 15 INT check and rolls a 17, -2(!) for his INT Modifier = 15. He notices a crack in the stone lintel, and calls it to the attention of Finmunni. The dwarf stonemason applies her professional knowledge to this sign of structural weakness, specifically asking if she can deduce the extent of the crack’s effect on the surrounding masonry. She rolls a 20, and I tell her that the wall above the door will likely collapse if the door is opened, but the structural impact does not appear to extend beyond that area. Finmunni warns everyone against opening the door, and they all back away, respecting the dwarf’s wisdom. The left-hand door is similarly inspected, but nothing untoward is discovered.
Oswald begins moving cautiously toward the bas-relief at the far end of the room. Figuring he’s worked out a new, if decidedly unsexy trap-detection technique, he proceeds by tossing firewood onto the floor in front of him as he goes. At this point, even though there are no pressure plates to discover in this room, I decide (keeping it to myself) that they got lucky with the rust gas trap, and most pressure plates in their future will need to be triggered by something heavier than a 16″ long hunk of maple.
I have them show exactly where they are moving on the graph paper. Sigbert is following a few steps behind Oswald, with Horpt perched on his shoulder, while everyone else remains near the entrance.  
The creepy bas-relief head is, of course, more than just a bas-relief head. It’s a representation of  the chaotic Beast God Ngraugl, once worshiped by the citadel’s original inhabitants. And it’s also a trap that triggers as soon as any lawful character moves within 15′ of it. So when Sigbert reaches that threshold, the face’s mouth suddenly opens with a terrifying groan, revealing an endless black void, and everything within 15′ begins to get sucked into it by a powerful force. Oswald and Sigbert both have to immediately make DC 15 STR checks or get sucked 5′ closer to the void. Oswald fails, and gets pulled right up to the gaping maw. Oswald succeeds, and resists the pull. Horpt digs his claws into Sigbert’s shoulder and flaps his wings against the pull. Three pieces of firewood get sucked off the floor and into the void.

Oswald asks if his spear is longer than the mouth is high. It is. Grasping the spear with both hands, he holds it vertically in front of him, hoping it will keep him from getting sucked in, and tries to step away, but fails the DC 15 STR check to do so. Durwin moves quickly into position just behind Sigbert and, holding the coil of silk rope, hands Sigbert one end of it. Finmunni runs up next to Durwin to assist with anchoring the rope. Sigbert tries to step outside the range of the suction, and makes the STR check. He lets the rope play out through his hands, drawn through the air by the vaccuum until the end of it is within reach of Oswald.

Oswald needs to make another STR check to resist the pull, and this time he succeeds. He decides to try to grab the end of the rope with one hand, and I tell him to make a STR check to keep the spear from getting sucked into the mouth. He makes it, grabs the robe, and wraps it around his forearm.

Then, something totally unexpected happens. Characters have been taking actions in turn around the table, with those on the safe side of the room just waiting to see how everything turns out. But this time around the table, Esma‘s player says, “Is it Esma’s turn yet?”

“Yeah, you want to do something? What do you want to do?”
“I try to grab Horpt and throw him at the mouth.”

Shocked silence. Looks of befuddlement and disbelief. A nervous laugh. Sigbert’s player is wide-eyed.

“Okay, make an attack roll to grapple Horpt.” Esma makes it, and says she’s just pulling Horpt off of Sigbert’s shoulder and letting go of him, allowing the suction to do its work. I rule that that is one action. But I also allow two chances for Horpt to avoid certain doom.

First, he gets a STR check like Oswald and Sigbert to resist the pull. Monsters don’t have full stats in DCC RPG, so I apply his Fortitude modifier of -2, and let Sigbert’s player make the roll. He rolls a 6. Since Horpt is so small, I say he’ll be pulled into the void instantly, instead of just 5′ closer each round, but he has one more shot at survival: If Sigbert makes a Luck check, Horpt will hit Oswald on the way out, giving Oswald a chance to grab him.

Strained silence as the D20 is taken up. Sigbert notes that his Luck is 9. He rolls an 11.

Horpt disappears screaming into the void.

“He was going to betray us! He was going to give us up to his Master!” Esma shouts over the roaring wind.

Sigbert recovers enough to drag Oswald free of the suction zone, with assistance from Durwin and Finmunni. As soon as Oswald crosses the threshold, the maw snaps shut with a boom that echoes through the chamber.

There is real tension at the table. Everyone else had become attached to Horpt, and they are shaking their heads at Esma’s player. But it was in character for her to do what she did, and it was an awesome, dramatic turn in the story. Over time I believe everyone will appreciate what the player did here, but if Esma ever needs anyone’s help, she may find herself surrounded by reluctant companions.

After everyone recovers from the shock (though not from the tension), they open the door in the south wall. It reveals a smallish chamber lined with six mosaics, each of different beast-man (you know the drill by now): dragon-man, lion-man, horse-man, hawk-man, snake-man, spider-man. Below each face is a stone basin stained with brown residue, and in front of each is a stone bench.

Thelma enters the room, and I tell her that she feels the ground vibrate slightly. She hears a distant rumble, somewhere to the southwest. She notes that the trail of blood continues on the floor here, and that it leads in that direction.

The PCs examine everything and test various aspects of the room for traps or hidden functions, and come up dry. Finmunni inspects the basins and determines that the residue is from burning oil. They have no oil to burn, though, and although they briefly consider burning some of Thelma’s straw in a basin to see what happens, they decide not to. Each beast-man mosaic has a special effect that is triggered by burning oil in its basin (including, in one case, opening the secret door to room 3-10A, which contains magical artifacts), but the PCs will never know what those effects are. They write off the room as some sort of worship space and move on.

They enter a connecting passageway, dark enough to force the lighting of a makeshift torch or two. A rancid smell fills the air. On the wall opposite is a wooden door and, further down to the left, an open doorway framed by an elaborate bronze arch cast in the form of two dragons facing each other, heads entwined and pointed down toward the floor. Another rumble, accompanied by what sounds like a snorting exhalation, is heard coming from somewhere beyond this archway.

Oswald inspects the archway and surrounding floor, and discovers what looks like a pressure plate directly under the arch. He warns everyone to watch their step. Sigbert, ever helpful, takes up position next to the arch to remind anyone who comes near. Two party members venture through the wooden door and up a crumbling stairwell beyond to emerge onto the collapsed second floor, which is open to the blinding sun and elements. A cursory search of the rubble-strewn “roof” turns up nothing of note, so they return to the interior of the citadel.

One by one, with Sigbert assisting (and looking the other way as Esma passes), the members of the group step over the pressure plate and through the arch. They find themselves in a dusty chamber that is slightly warm, the only other exit being a set of double doors in the south wall, from which the rumbling and snorting now clearly emanates. The blood trail leads to these doors.

Weapons are readied and the companions organize themselves into ranks as best as they can manage, given the close quarters. Gareth puts an ear to the door and hears the crackle of a fire and the shuddering, labored breath of some great beast. Everyone agrees that the bull-lord — the object of their quest — must lie beyond.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 3

In which great caution proves its benefit.

Finmunni throws open the trap door, startling Gareth, Sigbert, and Esma, who spring to the ready, weapons drawn. Horpt the homonculus flies up into the roofing beams for safety. Then, jubilation as old friends are recognized and reunited. Everyone piles out of the chimney, panting and sweating, and the trap door is slammed shut to prevent any accidental falls into the 500′ deep shaft.

As the new arrivals take in the astonishing view from the tower’s arrow slits, and waterskins an food are passed around to those who are famished, Gareth outlines the situation: a wooden bridge arcs away from the double doors on the west side of the tower they currently occupy, crossing a 40′ deep rocky chasm. There’s a stone gatehouse on the other side of the chasm, the entry of which is blocked by an iron portcullis, the bars of which have been bent apart to allow something big to climb through. “Oh, and watch your step near these double doors, because there’s a tripline — see here? — a foot off the floor. We don’t know what it does, but let’s not mess with it.”

Horpt shyly rejoins the group, flapping down to land on Sigbert’s shoulder. Sigbert explains the little winged man’s presence to the newcomers, and Esma interjects that it can’t be trusted — “It’s “Master” is out there somewhere, and as soon as that Master shows up, this evil thing will surely betray us!”

Shifting attention from that tense exchange, everyone agrees that the bent portcullis must be a sign of the bull lord’s passing. The wooden bridge looks in rough shape, worn, weathered, and rotten with the passage of time, but it’s the only way out of the tower besides back down into the thornling warrens. A plan is concocted to pass safely across the bridge.

One end of the silk rope is tied around Horpt’s waist, and he flies out through the double doors, above the bridge, as Sigbert plays out the rope behind him. Suddenly, a great shadow passes over the homonculus, and everyone looks up to see the silhouette of the great eagle against the sun. Horpt hurries along to the other side, either unnoticed by or beneath the attention of the giant bird of prey.

Horpt passes through the portcullis, around one of it’s vertical iron bars, and flies back across the bridge. The tail end of the silk rope has been tied to the hemp rope, so as the PCs reel in the silk, it is replaced by the stronger hemp. Soon, they have a double rope line stretched between the portcullis and one door of the tower they occupy, where it is firmly secured. Horpt reports that there is a heap of rope piled up just on the other side of the bridge, blocked from view by the arc of the bridge itself.

Gareth is the first to cross, using the hemp rope for stability, and trailing the silk rope, which is tied in a harness about his torso. I ask him to make a Luck check to see if the bridge holds, and he fails; a plank gives way beneath him. Given their safety precautions, I’ve conceived of the bridge crossing in three steps: Luck check to see if part of the bridge collapses underfoot, then a DC 10 Reflex save to keep a hold on the guyline, then a DC 15 Reflex save to keep from smashing back into the base of the tower (and taking 1D6 damage) when the safety line swings back. Gareth makes the DC 10 Reflex save, keeps his grip on the guyline, and makes his way across to the other side.

He examines the heap of rope that Horpt mentioned and sees that it is really thick, about twice as thick as the party’s hemp rope. He starts to unwind it, figuring it will make an even stronger guyline, and discovers that it’s actually a rope ladder, secured to an iron ring set into a flagstone. Interesting. He and Sigbert discuss this discovery across the windy gap, and they revise their plan. After 10 minutes of tying, untying, pulling, and retying, they’ve replaced the double line of hemp rope with the rope ladder, hoping it will somehow provide a safer crossing.

To make things go faster, and taking into account their attention to detail for this obstacle, I now tell them that each PC just needs to make a DC 5 AGI roll to cross the chasm safely using the rope ladder and safety harness. Everyone makes their roll except Daisy, who slips but recovers, and Oswald, who has the heaviest and most unwieldy load (his big sack, slung across his back and secured with some jury-rigged strapping, full of firewood and the chest containing the pewter-bound “book”). He recovers also, but I rule that the sack slips off his shoulder and hits the bridge, the last blow that it can sustain. The remains of the bridge collapse into the chasm as Oswald clings frantically to the rope ladder, his sack now hanging beneath him. Struggling against this weight, he makes it to the far side without losing any belongings. All told, this cautious crossing has taken up a little over an hour of in-game time.

Meanwhile, Gareth has been examining the gatehouse entry and portcullis. He has noticed a trail of blood leading from the place where the rope ladder had been piled, through the portcullis, to the right-hand wall of the entry passage, and from there out into the open, sunlit courtyard beyond. He figures that since the trail of blood hugs the right-hand wall, he should too. Once Oswald is safe on the gatehouse side, Gareth climbs through the opening in the portcullis and carefully follows the trail to the edge of the courtyard, which he scans for potential danger.

After catching his breath, Oswald decides to check the floor of the gatehouse entry for good measure, He unburdens himself of his heavy sack, and pulls out a couple of hefty pieces of firewood. Then, he starts tossing the firewood through the portcullis onto the floor beyond, in order to test for traps. Gareth, realizing what Oswald is doing, and seeking to avoid any potentially dangerous results of such reckless behavior, moves quickly out from under the cover of the gatehouse entry.

One of the pieces of firewood hits a pressure plate disguised as a flagstone, and a rust-colored mist issues with a hiss from some hidden outlet into the entry hall, filling the space between the portcullis and the courtyard. Gareth was smart. The PCs can only speculate about the properties of this gas as they wait for it to settle and disperse, but I know that it was created from the glands of the rust monster they found dissected in the totem cave, and that it could have destroyed any metal on the person of anyone caught within.

Once the gas settles, everyone climbs through the portcullis, and the party emerges into the courtyard. Ahead stands the main citadel, the upper floors of which appear to have collapsed over the years. To the north and south loom 30′ tall round towers, cracked with age but largely intact.

The trail of blood leads up to the main entrance to the citadel, which draws their attention immediately: the door is a great stone disc, some 12′ tall, encircled by a line of solid brass that, in striking contrast to the rest of their surroundings, could have been polished that morning. Carved into the door are six pictograms, depicting six animals: dragon, lion, horse, hawk, snake, spider. Gareth immediately recognizes these symbols as matching those on the golden scepter he found in the totem cave.

But before the adventurers attempt to breach this door, they spend some time checking out the courtyard and towers. Sigbert dispatches Horpt to the top of the north tower, and he returns quickly to report that the tower is open at the top, “full of webs,” and that “something lives there.” He doesn’t know what, but he saw movement in the darkness that caused him to flee. The party moves close enough to see that the ground-level entrance is an intact wooden door, framed by a stone carving of a spider presiding over three webbed victims. No one wants to investigate further.

The south tower is similarly open at the top, its interior floors having collapsed, and is full of branches, debris, and in some cases what look like entire dead trees. Its agreed that this is probably the nest of the giant eagle, and should not be disturbed. Scanning the skies anxiously for sign of the great bird, they return their attention to the disc-shaped portal.

Gareth considers ways in which the door might be opened, and suggests that perhaps the symbols must be touched with the scepter in a particular order. He’s too short to reach any of them, however, so he hands the scepter to Sigbert, and asks him to touch the horse symbol with it. Sigbert obliges, and with a shuddering rumble the disc separates down the middle into two half-circles, each of which rolls out of sight into a recess in the citadel wall. Easier than expected!

The party peers into the darkness beyond.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 2

In which items of value are inadvertently devalued. 

Brands are struck, and their feeble light illumines a circular chamber, near the center of which is a stone statue of an elf maiden holding a large urn at her hip. Water pours out of the urn and into the channel cut in the floor, which runs to the slot in the north wall and thence down to into the caves and tunnel the PCs just traversed. A careful examination of the statue determines nothing unusual; it appears to be an elaborate outlet for a natural spring somewhere beneath the chamber.

The group moves down the passage to the east, toward the glowing red light. They see the fallen bookshelf, and books and papers scattered everywhere. Perry examines the three pools and decides he’s going to test their effects, so he grabs three random books off the shelves and drops one book into each pool. I ask him to make a Luck roll, to see if he accidentally grabs one of the six things you can find if you search this room, and he rolls a 20. Rolling a 20 on a luck check has to be really bad luck, right?

He drops one book in the red pool and nothing happens to it. He drops another book in the middle pool, and nothing happens to it. He goes to drop the last book in the acid pool, and just as it leaves his hands he notices how the cover appears to have been tooled from some kind of scaley hide, how it is inscribed with golden runes in intricate patterns, how it feels pregnant with untold power. But it’s too late: the heavy tome plunges into the acid bath and is rendered useless in a storm of fizzing bubbles. There is much groaning and forehead slapping. From my description they get that the book was probably something valuable, but they don’t know it was a wizard’s grimoire that would have been the perfect foundational text for any budding wizard in the party.

Finmunni searches the room and discovers Sigbert‘s discarded, acid-eaten shirt amongst the debris on the floor. Their friend came this far! There is hope that he still lives.

Meanwhile, Durwen and Wilfred find the alcove, and notice that the two curtains meant to conceal it are drawn back. They speculate as to the presence of some sort of secret door. Perry takes the cue and begins pulling things off the shelves, thinking one of them might be a hidden trigger for the door. I have him make a Luck roll again to see if he finds one of the five remaining special items. He rolls another 20. I tell him that he goes to pull out a book and tugs on a piece of vellum next to a book instead, with such force that he tears it in half. It’s a translucent sheet covered with translucent, inscrutable writing. Perry shrugs and drops the pieces to the floor. Unbeknownst to him, it was a scroll of Eel’s Grasp, a custom wizard spell.

Durwen and Wilfred locate the stone that triggers the secret door, and it slides back to reveal a dusty stairwell, running up to the west and down to the south. Before they step out, however, Oswald gives the room one last once-over, wondering if there is anything that has escaped Perry’s inadvertent destruction.

He rolls a 16, and I tell him that, under a heap of miscellanea, he finds a massive square book, about 16″ x 16″ and 6″ thick. It is bound on front back, and sides by heavy pewter plates, hinged on one side, and secured with an intimidating lock. It’s icy cold to the touch, coated in a thin layer of frost, and engraved with an intricate ice crystal pattern. Hm.

Durwen happens to have a set of thieves’ tools (random starting equipment), and tries to use them. I grant that in his work as a tanner he uses fine tools to scrape and clean animal carcasses, so I allow a skill check against the lock’s DC of 20. He rolls a 19, +1 for his AGI,  and opens the lock. Oswald tells him to set the book on the floor, and everyone stands back as Perry uses his spear to flip open the cover.

The sound of howling wind issues from the open “book,” and a few scraps of loose paper on the floor are immediately sucked into it. The pull is strong, but not irresistible, and a few of the PCs take a step closer to peek inside. It’s like a window into a dark night, through which flurries of snow whip with great speed. They feel the freezing cold and howling winds of another, distant world. Perry levers the book shut, and everyone ponders this unusual discovery.

“Might come in handy some time,” says Oswald. He cuts a couple of strips of cloth from Sigbert’s old shirt, uses one to pad the lock (in order to keep it from locking inadvertently), and wraps and ties the other around the outside to hold it shut. Then, he carefully places the book into his chest (inherited from Colby the Butcher), and places the chest back in his burlap sack.

Durwen steps out into the stairwell and inspects the floor for signs of anyone’s passing. He picks out three sets of footprints heading up. The consensus is to follow them, since that’s clearly the way their friends went, but Finmunni wants to investigate the chamber she sees down the stairs first. So she, Durwen, and Oswald cautiously descend.

They step into a chamber that seems to have been untouched for ages. In the wall directly opposite is a closed wooden door set with an iron ring, but what captures their attention are the two humanoid skeletons, one dangling in each of the near corners of the room. They are wearing armor and holding swords, and appear to be suspended from the ceiling by wires. Closer inspection reveals that their bones, armor, and weapons are completely fabricated from papier-mâché; they’re oversized puppets. The wires holding them up run to a central pulley mounted on the ceiling, and then into the wall above the door.

Oswald ties the end of the rope to the iron ring, and returns to the side of the room opposite the door. The three companions take hold and pull. The door pops open, and as it does so the puppets leap forward in a clatter of limbs, weapons flailing, toward the open doorway, before reassuming to their limp attitude. Finmunni crosses to look through the door, and sees a set of very stairs descending away into the darkness. They surmise correctly that this bizarre puppet trap was designed to startle intruders into falling down the stairs. They count themselves lucky to have found their way in through the back door of this dungeon.

Despite the protestations of her comrades, Finmunni decides to take advantage of her dark vision and explore a little further on her own. She creeps down the steep stairs to a corner, and peers around. 10′ ahead, the stairs reach a level floor, which gives way to a dark chasm before continuing on the far side. The chasm is thick with webs, enough to discourage her from proceeding further. She turns back.

Finmunni, Durwen, and Oswald reset the the skeleton puppets by pulling them back into their original positions, figuring that if the dog men ever decide to come after them, they’ll get a nice surprise. The skeletons click into place, and the three return to the rest of the group.

At the top of the stairs, they find the iron rungs that ascend into the chimney. Everyone packs up their belongings, and Finmunni leads the way up.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 1

In which a wooden dragon refuses to yield its secrets.

Our group of seven is arranged around the stairs leading up from the totem cave, weapons at the ready, waiting to ambush the dog-men when they enter. Perry takes up position in full view, his back to the stairs, pretending to inspect the dead witch doctor in hopes the enemy will take the bait. Unfortunately, Oswald is not quite out of sight when the first creature turns the corner into the stairwell, so the thornling freezes for a split second, lets out a frightened yap, and retreats the way it came. There are grumblings about Oswald’s oversight.

The yapping and howling of the thornlings is audible and frenetic; they are clearly having a heated argument. As the PCs try to formulate a new plan, they hear a deeper, barking growl that silences the other voices and speaks with commanding authority. I have decided that the surviving members of the thornling honor guard went to summon their king, who is enraged at the presence of intruders. But he will not risk leading the attack himself, so he berates the honor guard to mount an assault on the beach. All the PCs hear is growling and barking, but I play through it in my head so I have a clear idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. Due to previous deaths, there are 5 members of the honor guard remaining, and those now obey their king’s command and charge down the passage toward the stairs.

The PCs have been busy, though, throwing a dead thornling and half a dozen pieces of Oswald’s firewood onto the stairs to create an obstacle. The first enemy rounds the corner, sees the pile, and jumps over it, making a DC 10 Reflex save to do so. Snarling, it lunges at Thelma with its crude spear and hits for 1D6 damage, which I roll in full view: a 1. The spearhead grazes her side, cutting through her jerkin and leaving a nasty gash.

The next thornling leaps the obstacle and lands between Thelma and Wilfred, jabbing at the scribe and missing. More thornlings would follow, but there is no room to move forward onto the crowded beach.

I can’t remember who lands the blows, but surrounded by seven villagers, the two engaged thornlings don’t stand a chance, and quickly go down. When the first one dies, I roll to check morale, and the honor guard maintains its resolve. The third thornling vaults the obstacle, manages to keep its footing between its brothers’ corpses (success on a DC 5 Reflex save), and thrusts its spear at Finmunni. A miss. Thelma takes it down with a critical hit to the eye socket from behind, and is forced to pause for a moment to put one foot on the creature’s head so he can use both hands to yank the axe back out.

Three dead members of the honor guard is more than half their number, so I make another morale check, and they fail. There’s the sound of scrambling back up the passage as the last two retreat, to be met by the incensed bellowing of their king.

Quickly, the PCs strip the dead thornlings of their bucklers, and Finmunni recovers an intact suit of hide armor, which she dons. Thanks to being small of stature, and thus able to wear thornling armor, Finmunni and Gareth now have AC 16 and 15, respectively; not bad.

Oswald and Wilfred pick up the thornlings’ bodies and throw them into a heap at the top of the stairs, placing the witch doctor’s corpse on top. Thelma takes a sheaf of straw out of her pack and stuffs it under the pile, and Oswald uses his brand to light the tinder. In short order, the sickening stink of burning flesh and fur drives the PCs away from the stairs, and flames rise from the gruesome pyre. Oswald and Thelma set about making a couple more makeshift torches from her straw and his firewood.

While the rest of the group prepares to defend against another potential assault, Durwen takes one of the brands and explores further upstream, searching for an alternate route, until he finds the sheer wall and the waterfall that courses down it. Scanning for the source of the waterfall in the darkness above, he holds the brand aloft, and the faint firelight reveals the edge of the slot from which the water emerges.

Meanwhile, Finmunni sniffs the cold cave air and detects the warm scent of gold. She follows her nose to the foreboding dragon totem, but is reluctant to approach closer than 5′, since it emanates an unnatural cold and fills her and all who come near with a terrible feeling of dread. She asks Oswald to tie the silk rope into a lasso, and they toss it over the head of the totem, managing to pull it tight across the dragon’s open mouth (DC 15 AGI check). The rocky bed of the stream is slippery, so they back up to get better footing on the beach. Thelma joins in. I don’t tell them, but I decide they have one shot at a DC 22 STR check to pull hard enough to break off the top of the totem. Finmunni rolls a 20, +1 for her STR, +2 for the assist (+1 per assisting PC, to a max. of +2), = 23. The totem cricks, cracks at the base, then topples monumentally into the water, making a huge splash.

Wilfred, Daisy, and Perry are still gathered as close to the stairwell as they can manage, given the choking stink of thornling barbecue, weapons at the ready, but there is no sign of the opposition. The foul black smoke from the pyre is being drawn out the passage from which the thornlings made their attack.

Finmunni, Oswald, and Thelma pull the totem to shore and drag it up so that it lies flat on its back. The PCs are unaware that there are three pressure plates running down the spine of the totem: pressing #1 triggers a magical illusion of a black dragon attacking; pressing #2 opens a secret compartment containing 14gp, 137cp, a pot of poison, a healing potion, and a magical pearl; #3 triggers a poison needle trap. I decide that each time they move it with its spine on the ground, I will ask for a Luck check to see if one of the pressure plates is accidentally triggered. When they move it onto the beach, the Luck check is failed, so nothing happens.

First, they examine the head and eyes for buttons, latches, etc. I ask for some red herring rolls, and tell them they find nothing unusual. Thelma and Oswald use their axes to hack off the totem’s lower jaw, looking for treasure in its head. Nothing. Finmunni walks the length of the totem, sniffing, and I tell her that the smell is strongest in the middle, but she can’t pinpoint it further. Thelma and Oswald begin hacking into the belly of the totem, and each time I ask them make an attack roll against AC 12. Their axe heads glance off a few times, they get one hit that does 3 hp (“You knock out a wood chip the size of your hand.”), before they decide to abandon the task (the totem is about 3′ thick).

Much grumbling and frustration as they lever the wooden dragon back into the stream (failing another Luck check to accidentally trigger one of the pressure plates), in an effort to put some distance between themselves and the cold aura of doom emanating from the thing.

Still no thornlings. It’s agreed that they are most likely lying in wait. Durwen reports in on the waterfall, and everyone sloshes to that end of the tunnel. Perry ties one end of the silk rope to his spear and hurls it up at the slot, rolling a 20. It goes through, and upon being pulled back wedges across the slot, creating a climbing anchor.

Durwen hands someone his brand and scales the slippery wall (DC 12 AGI check), pulling himself through the slot into the pitch black chamber at the top.

The Tramp

This entry originally appeared on my previous blog, back in 2008. I’m reposting it here for other DCC RPG fans who might have a similar appreciation for the man it is intended to honor.

The impression left on me (and hundreds of thousands of my geeky peers) by Dungeons & Dragons was indelible. Ironically — given all of the Satanist paranoia at the time — D&D was my salvation from the soulless suburban wasteland where I spent my teen years; it not only inspired my friends and me to heights of imaginative collaboration, it empowered me to be a creative person. Without Gygax & Arneson’s strange vision, and the love of games and improvisational storytelling that it instilled, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the cartoonist and teacher I am today (for whatever that’s worth).

Perhaps the most indelible aspect of all those books and modules was the art. All of the images in the AD&D publications that I owned in the 1980s — especially the ones in the Monster Manual — are etched into my brain. In a fit of nostalgia after Gygax’s recent passing, having not looked at the TSR library since I left home for college in 1987, I bought all the old rule books off of Ebay so I could run some of my students through the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Leafing through these tomes was like looking through an old yearbook filled with the scrawlings of a madman: page after page of familiar faces surrounded by Gygax’s strangely antique prose and table after possibility-laden table. Those familiar faces, though — the Owl Bear, the Mind Flayer, the Catoblepas — are the things that have never left my head. Whether it’s one of the amateurish, Peechee-worthy dragon portraits of David C. Sutherland III, or the definitive renditions of Cthulhu creatures by Erol Otus, the summary of Armor Class, Hit Dice, and No. Appearing might as well read, “Have a great summer vacation! K.I.T.!” I love all of these old drawings, without exception, and didn’t realize how much I had missed them.

I love them all, but some more than others, and the best ones are all by the same guy. David A. Trampier, who signed his drawings either “DAT” or “Tramp,” was (with all due respect to his peers) far and away the most talented of all of the artists who ever worked for TSR. His pen-and-ink drawings were fully-formed and beautifully precise, as if the imaginary creatures and scenes they depicted had a long visual history, when in fact they were being realized on paper for the first time by his hand. Sure, there had been folk renditions of the Rakshasa, the Ki-Rin, and the Minotaur, but in Trampier’s hands they took on an archetypal solidity, and he made real such fits of Gary Gygax’s imagination as the Ankheg, Black Pudding, Intellect Devourer, and Thought Eater. Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater? Gary, do we really need two monsters that dine on psychic energy? Well, if the Tramp is drawing them I’m not going to complain, especially if one is a quadrupedal glowing brain and the other is “a sickly gray, skeletal-bodied, enormous headed platypus to those who are able to observe it.” Thank you, David Trampier, for being able to observe it.


Left to right: Basilisk, Wererats, Medusa, Fire Giant.

Trampier dropped out of the gaming scene in 1988, two years after I graduated high school, an event marked by the abrupt halt of Wormy, the beloved comic he drew for Dragon magazine. Payments sent to his last known residence were returned unopened, and further investigation revealed that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Some presumed him dead, but the great game designer and cartoonist Tom Wham, Trampier’s brother-in-law, believed him to be alive and well and living somewhere in Illinois.

The photo at the head of this post is from a February 15, 2002 article in the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern illinois State University. Even without the confirmation of Gygax and Wham, who say that the man pictured is in fact the Tramp, you can tell it’s him: he looks just like one of his drawings. After the article ran, people began tracking him down, but he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone. For whatever reason, he left the gaming world behind and now wants nothing to do with it, which somehow makes me respect him even more.

You probably don’t remember me, but I was the guy who pored over your drawings between classes in the quad, lying on the grass behind my best friend Eric’s house during summer vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep because my imagination was running wild with the possibility of imaginary worlds.

Thanks for the memories, Tramp.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 5

In which the undertaker is taken under.

Our group of nine climbs back up the slope from the stone dock, leaving the Lake of Mists behind. Shortly, they arrive at the treacherous ravine, and are dismayed to see Colby‘s corpse again, lying on the wet rocks below, now buzzing with flies. Looking up and down the ravine, they deduce that downstream, to the west, the water must empty into the Lake of Mists, and upstream they see the spire rising above the treetops. So instead of trying to cross back the way they originally came, they decide to descend into the ravine and move upstream.

They take such care arranging a rope-assisted descent that I waive the ability checks and tell them they are all standing on the rocks alongside the stream in short order. Stillman leads the way upstream.

As they are rounding a bend, they hear growling from above and behind them, and they stop their march to assume defensive positions. Two thorndogs come into view, racing along the top of the ravine on the north side, passing, and disappearing out of sight upstream. The group remains cautious, with half of its number scaling the south rocky wall to see if anything is chasing the dogs. After a few minutes, nothing unusual is detected, so they continue on their way.

Around the bend they find themselves at the foot of the spire, and in front of the cave mouth from which the stream spills. The players discuss their position in character, pretending they don’t know that the other PC group entered the cave the day before, and decide to search the base of the spire for other points of entrance.

They leave the ravine and move along the stone face until they reach the dragon-mouth entrance. It looks too spooky and dark, so they bypass it and continue exploring, soon finding themselves between a rock and a thorny place — a single-file procession squeezing between the sheer wall of the spire and the threatening vines of the forest.

A howl goes up from close to the south, and Stillman, still in the lead, stops. Thorndogs have picked up their scent. Other howls answer from the east. Some panicky words are thrown around, and the group starts to shuffle back the way it came.

Stillman’s attention is diverted to the sound of something rapidly approaching from the east. He turns, scooping up one of his pigs from underfoot, in time to see the mangy thorndog sprint into view, racing towards him with its fangs bared. Asking for forgiveness, he hurls the pig in front of the dog as it nears. I give the dog a DC 10 Will save to avoid taking the bait, and the dog makes it, leaping over the terrified pig and right for the irresponsible swineherd. Stillman staggers back and cries out in pain as the dog’s teeth sink into his left leg below the knee for 2 hp of damage.

Durwen, next in line, picks up Stillman’s other pig and hurls it directly at the dog, but misses. Both pigs run squealing for their lives, threading their way between the legs of the adventurers, frantically fleeing the scene, never to be seen again. Stillman tries to strike the dog with his staff, misses, backs up screaming into Durwen as everyone moves as quickly as they can back toward the front of the spire.

The dog releases its grip on Stillman’s leg and goes for his throat, ripping his cry for help into a strangled, wet gurgle. Durwen, sweating profusely and terrified, turns and runs for his life. Luckily (Durwen makes a Luck check), the dog pauses to dine, giving him time to escape.

Illustration by Stefan Poag.
They find themselves back at the dragon’s maw. Milling about nervously just outside, everyone peers up into the dark. Devon, specifying that he is scanning the stone steps that lead up to a set of double doors, makes a DC 15 INT check and notices an ‘X’ struck in charcoal on the seventh step. Finmunni peers up at the roof of the maw, trying to discern anything unusual above that step. She makes a DC 15 INT check, and doesn’t notice anything about the roof, but does see two figures lurking in the shadows at the top of the steps. Why didn’t she see them with her darkvision? I rule that the bright sun outside the maw interferes with her ability to see in darkness (phew!).

She tells Oswald to chuck a piece of his firewood up at the top of the steps (?!), and the anxious woodsman obliges. I ask for a Luck check to see if he manages to hit one of the figures, and he fails. The figures respond to this provocation by firing crossbow bolts out of the darkness. One of them whizzes by Durwen’s head; the other strikes Devon dead-center in the chest, forcing out a wheeze and dropping the incredulous undertaker to his knees, eyes wide open, heart thumping out its final, erratic beats.

Everyone breaks and runs to the north, but Durwen has enough of his wits about him to yank the greatsword from Devon’s hands before he takes off after the others, invoking the mercy of Arimar over and over.

They reach the cave mouth and scramble up as quickly as they can. Everyone makes the DC 5 AGI check to climb the slippery rocks, and they dash splashing into the darkness of the underground stream until they are a good 20′ inside. There’s a brief pause to catch breath, and figure out how to light their way. Oswald uses his hand axe to hacks a wedge out of one end of one of his sticks of firewood, and stuffs a couple of handfuls of Thelma‘s thatching straw into it. The straw is lit, and burns well enough to catch the piece of firewood. This makeshift light source is passed to Perry, at the head of the group, and they continue sloshing up the narrow tunnel.

After ducking under a stalactite, Perry is confronted by the head of Hunwald, impaled on a wooden spear thrust into the streambed. The old watchman pauses, but remains expressionless as he moves past. The others are horrified by the sight of their former companion, and have to shake off paralyzing fear before sidling by this gruesome warning. Durwen makes the sign of the oak leaf as he passes, averting his eyes from what remains of the dead herald.

There are no thornlings in sight on the beach or near the dragon totem, but there are signs of a fight on the sand, and some sort of mound covered with a crude hide blanket. Perry leads a cautious approach out of the water, and the seven villagers gather in a semi-circle about the mound at Thelma’s instruction, preparing to yank back the blanket and kill whatever it conceals.

Suddenly, a thornling appears at the top of the stairs to the south, rounding the corner with a spear in one hand and an armful of what looks like expensive red cloth. It freezes at the unexpected sight of seven more interlopers. Initiative is rolled.

Durwen, at the top of the order, dashes straight up the stairs, holding the greatsword straight and low, and drives the silvered blade right through the creature’s small ribcage. As he yanks it back out, the thornling lets out a final half-howl and pitches forward onto the stairs, dropping the spear and bolt of cloth.

Thelma yanks the hide covering off of the mystery mound, revealing the corpse of the witch doctor. There is some speculation that the bolt of cloth was being brought as a fancier shroud for the dead spellcaster (true).

Howls echo through stone corridors; Durwen retreats to the beach, and the party arranges itself in a semi-circle around the stairwell. The pitter-pat if thorny paws grows in volume. Nervous glances are exchanged. Hands are shifted on weapons for better grips, in anticipation of what is to come.

May Arimar bless Stillman the Swineherd and Devon the Undertaker, whose fates aligned with misfortune. Stillman, who in his final moments abandoned his responsibility to his herd and fell prey to a twisted dog; Devon, struck through by a thornling’s crossbow bolt without ever having a chance to swing his sword.

 

Here ends the second session.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 4

In which the players feel like they are stuck in Zork.

As the sun dips below the western horizon, and the sky over the Thornwood shifts from blue to rose, Oswald the woodsman awakens to the sound of laughter. He sits up, rubs his eyes, and looks around. His eight companions on the Isle of Mists are also beginning to stir, emerging from a six-hour enchanted sleep (the length of which was dictated by a roll of 1d6, as per the module’s instructions). Oswald hears the laughter again, and surveying his lush surroundings, catches a glimpse of two female figures gliding through the mist to the south. He hops to his feet and gives chase.

The figures are lost to the mist, of course, but following their laughter leads him to the south shore of the island, where he is surprised to see a delicate silver bridge rising in a graceful arc and leading away across the waters of the lake. He is surprised because the bridge was definitely not there when he had scouted that side of the island earlier.

He hollers for the others, and they gradually gather at his location to observe this strange phenomenon. There is some fearful discussion of elfin enchantments, and what might happen of someone set foot on the bridge, interrupted by the impetuous Thelma, who strides down to the water’s edge and up onto the bridge. She gives everyone an irritated glance over her shoulder, and, one by one, they follow.

The bridge delivers them to a peaceful glade on the far side of the water, high with green grasses and thick with bluebell flowers. A semi-circle of towering old-growth oaks encloses the glade, somehow protecting it from the encroachment of the thorny vines that choke the rest of the Thornwood. In the center of the clearing stands a striking statue of a woman, carved of white marbled stone. Closer inspection reveals her pointed ears, which provoke some murmuring about her heritage. Her hair is elaborately braided, and she wears a long robe. Curiously, she holds one arm extended before her, palm up, as if holding something, and her blank stone eyes appear to be focused on that open palm.

It doesn’t take long before the party tries to put things in her hand. Coins, single, stacked, by the purseful, weapons, flowers, grass. It goes on for a good 20 minutes of real time, reminiscent of nothing so much as being stuck in a text adventure game wherein every combination of inventory item and location detail must be exhausted. For naught. Something does in fact belong in her palm, but that thing is in the possession of one of the thornlings who absconded into the thornling lair with Osric‘s body.

Eventually, now well after dark, they give up, start a fire, and sit down to a meal in front of the statue. Colby’s salted beef is sliced up and passed around, and with a little encouragement Daisy opens her cask of ale, which is swiftly depleted. Between the eating and drinking, some speculate on the fate of the other group. Some stare into the fire pensively, others wander the glade and look up at the vastness of stars in the spring sky. Despite the circumstances of their coming to the Thornwood, they feel peaceful and relaxed in this place.

After this pleasant repast, everyone starts packing up to head back to the island, but just as they’re ready to go, they hear a cry from Thelma: the bridge is gone!

Sure enough, the silver bridge has disappeared as mysteriously as it came. What strange magicks are at work? Some of the villagers voice distrust of this place. Soon enough, Stillman volunteers to swim back to the island through the mist, and Perry and Durwin tie one end of the 50′ of rope around his waist as a safety line. He dives into the cool water of the lake and swims out into the mist-filled darkness. The island should be about 20′ away. After a few minutes of swimming, all 50′ of the rope have been played out, and Stillman is nowhere near dry ground. He turns back.

He climbs back ashore at the glade, reports the lack of island, and the three men stare out into the mist, shaking their heads. They return to the rest of the group with this disheartening news. It’s agreed that, come morning, if the island is still being withheld by some eldritch enchantment, they will try to wade along the lakeshore back in the direction they came from. Watches are assigned and everyone beds down in the grass.

Oswald is again the first to wake to the sound of laughter, this time distant and fading to a memory even before he opens his eyes. The first rays of the sun are just touching to tops of the trees, and when he gets up he sees that the mist at the water’s edge has withdrawn to reveal the silver bridge, returned. Hurriedly, unsure of how long it will remain, he alerts his companions and starts gathering up their belongings. With some still rubbing sleep from their eyes and yawning, the nine stumble out of the glade and back across the Gloaming Bridge to the Isle of Mists, perhaps never to solve the mystery of the white lady.

Back on the island, once everyone has gathered their thoughts, Finmunni thinks to ask if she can smell any gold or gems. Now, I don’t know how the rest of you are playing dwarves at level 0, but their unique olfactory ability seems like it should be innate to me (as opposed to learned at level 1), so I’ve been allowing 0-level dwarves to use it. It is pretty powerful, though, so I do require that a dwarf must specifically state that she is smelling for gold.

I inform the dwarven stonemason that she smells something to the northwest, and her nose leads her into the high reeds along the shore. There, with assistance from Devon the undertaker, she uncovers the remains of a wooden longboat, half sunk into the mud. A search of the aged craft turns up nothing of interest, but face down in the reeds alongside is a skeleton, clad in embroidered cloth and clutching a greatsword with a silvered blade and golden hilt. Finmunni contemplates what it would take for her to use this blade, but I rule that it’s too unwieldy for one of her stature, so Devon (he of STR 14) eagerly snatches it up and takes a few practice swings. 1d10 damage! Holy crap!

Meanwhile, Durwin has climbed one of the fir trees at the center of the island to see what he can see. From near the very top, over the thick mists that cling to the island like cobwebs, he can see the stalwart oaks of the secret glade, but aside from them only the twisted trees of the Thornwood, spreading in all directions. To the southeast, thrusting up from the treetops, is the stone spire that is the object of their quest; they have journeyed far astray. Little does Durwin know that, even as he scans the fortified keep high atop the crag, his eyes pass over Gareth, Esma, and Sigbert, hidden from view by stone walls and several hundred feet of distance.

Back in the direction they first came from, he can make out the pale fires of the braziers on the dock, still burning. He climbs back down, sticky with fragrant sap, and tells the others that the fires appear to have remained lit since their initial passage to the island. Perhaps they can return by way of the “path” that allowed them to walk on water?

Everyone gathers at the eastern shore and forms into a single-file line. Oswald takes up the rear, tasked with making sure no one strays from between the two flames, which are clearly visible even through the otherwise opaque mist. The group proceeds carefully back the way they came, marvelling at the feel of the water underfoot as they stride back across the lake.

As Oswald, the last of them, steps onto the stairs that lead up to the dock, the brazier fires go out, and he feels his trailing foot briefly break the surface of the water. Standing on the dock, everyone takes one last look at the otherworldy Isle of Mists before turning to their next task: the spire of stone and whatever it may hold.