Sunday, May 19, 2024

Mini-Mods of Classic Adventures

Here's a list of those who have taken the mini-mod challenge, adapting a classic adventure into a five-room dungeon. 

B1: Keep on the Borderlands

  1. Sean Wills' map
  2. Mike Desing's attempt (modifying Sean's map)

I Challenge - YOU!

I am officially throwing out a design challenge to the entire Internet (yeah, the WHOLE THING. It's going down for real). Earlier, I toyed with the idea of creating five-room dungeons that were adaptations of classic adventure modules. Sean Wills threw together his idea, and then I countered with a write up of my own that modified his original design. The result is... kind of awesome. 

So, here's the challenge: I challenge YOU to take a classic adventure module and re-imagine it as a five-room dungeon. The trick - as far as I see it - is honoring the 'greatest hits' and vibe of the original within the minimalist format of the five-room dungeon.

When you're done, add a link below, and I'll keep a master list of the entries. You can post it to your blog, create a Google Doc, or do it as a release that you charge like a million dollars for (you only have to sell one, right?). I'll link to the page on drivethru or your vendor of choice. You can stat it up for your favorite system, or leave it system agnostic.

And, by the way, we can NEVER have too many tombs of horrors. Or horrific tombs. Or tombs of many horrors. You get the idea.

Mini Mod: Chaos Caves

So, Sean Wills shared his idea for adapting the Caves of Chaos as a five-room dungeon... 

In looking it over, I loved what he was thinking. I re-arranged a bit, putting larger 'entry' caves at the southeast and southwest. Edit: And this is now an official challenge.

1. The southwest cave is in turmoil, as the goblins (south) have rebelled against the hobgoblins (north) and they are in the middle of something of a detente - the goblins are negotiating rights as 'freed servants' to the hobgoblins. A hot spring (west) dominates this cave, and a fissure has formed that keeps the two sides apart except for a narrow footbridge. The hobgoblins are likely to let outsiders attack the goblins, since weakening their forces might dampen their revolutionary spirit. A dead ogre is on the south side riddled with hobgoblin arrows; the goblins recruited him by promising gold and saying Bree Yark, and it didn't go so well for the ogre.

2. On the eastern side, a large tribe of kobolds (who have until recently been at odds with the goblins and hobgoblins) dwells here. They captured an owl bear and thought it would be a help, but it kept eating them, so they've locked it in area 3. The stairs entering the cave have a simple trap.

3. The owlbear is rampaging around the chamber constantly, breaking walls and causing a section of plastered wall in the northwest to crumble, revealing an entrance to the hidden temple. The side of the door facing him is covered in sharp stakes, which has kept him from just breaking it down.

4. When the temple was originally buried, a minotaur was charmed to stand watch over the entrance. It continues to roam its maze filled with traps for the unwary. The entire maze is filled with thick mists that have entered from area 1. Each of the letters represents a trap (although the minotaur himself may be in any of these locations instead of a trap).

5. The temple proper has been discovered by a young necromancer, who has paid the hobgoblins to let him pass, navigated the maze, and has begun a ritual to raise a dead demon. He has a few skeletons with him for backup. 

Classic Dungeons Into 5 Rooms

As another random idea I had that I will probably never do, I thought it would be interesting to take classic modules (I was thinking at the time of G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief) and convert them into a 5-room dungeon mini-adventure for Hack'D. There's something that really draws me to this idea - the whole minimalism and distillation of it. I mean, it would be likely to start limitless debate: what five 'encounters' are the most iconic for that module, and how do you then translate these into the five rooms? For G1, there has to be a great hall where a bunch of giants are meeting. There has to be a cloakroom where giant guards are napping. There has to be a dungeon where orcs are being held prisoner... but what else? What other areas would HAVE to be in it? And then, how do you structure this in such a way that it honors the 'flow' of the original adventure? Is it possible to get it down to five?

Could this even be done? I mean, what about White Plume Mountain? Tomb of Horrors? Heck, the Caves of Chaos? Is it even possible to distill these adventures down that far without losing what they originally were?

Part of the challenge of Tomb of Horrors (for instance) is just how many different dangerous obstacles there are... it is the sheer volume of traps that makes it the meat grinder it is. Each 'room' in the five-room dungeon would therefore need several obstacles to overcome. For example, the entry would have three halls as options, and two of these are deadly traps. Maybe this could be expanded to five... so you could right away build a whole bunch of dangerous traps into the first encounter area, and that echoes a little bit of the scale of danger of the original.

This kind of design challenge checks all the boxes for me. I like echoing iconic and classic as much as possible, and is it very, very tight. The entire thing would fit onto the front of a sheet of standard paper (map and five keyed encounter areas). 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

To Key Or Not To Key...

I've gone through the map of Moridis Halls and just added some 'greebling' as LEGO peeps would say - little details and noodling that make the whole thing look a little more lived-in. I also added a few doors and curtains and stairs for variety. In the process, I went back a step and worked with the version that had no key, and then I was going to layer the keyed level back over it... but...

I'm thinking of only keying the areas that I'm going to actually have an entry for. This would mean that only 30 or 40 areas would have a number, and the rest would be left blank, for GMs to fill in. I like this because it clearly shows the areas that you'd have to look up. The drawback to me is that, over time, it would be hard to keep track of what happened in what area. "You fought the skeletons in the room 3 rooms up and one over from area 17" is harder to keep track of on the GM side. However, keying only the areas I'll be 'officially' filling makes for a cleaner overall presentation and simpler use at first, so that's what I'm going for. 


More Thoughts on Megadungeon Design and Pandering

I almost went on a little bit of an old man get off my lawn rant about the re-envisioning of the classic red box warrior - she's been a woman the whole time! I was going to do a very snarky re-imagining of the image I've been using from the inside cover of the BX 81 red book that says the dwarf is really a girl... and everyone else has had gender re-assignment. But I decided it was not worth it. 

For the record, I teach middle school. I have a LOT of students struggling with their identity and gender, and this is a genuine thing that people do go through - it is real, and it is important. Furthermore, I have cast girls in boy parts because the text supported it - I think that the character of Mercutio is CLEARLY in love with Romeo, and Romeo doesn't get it. I think this is more powerful for an audience if a girl is in the role; it also makes Tybalt more villainous later on. It's aligned with Shakespeare's initial intention for the role; it honors the original work in a modern context. 

However, saying that the classic warrior of 40 years ago was really a girl THE WHOLE TIME is not being inclusive - it is pandering. There is NO way that Larry Elmore was thinking "I want to make this character just barely vague enough that it could be a girl". No. Mr. Elmore was envisioning a man, and crafted a man. There's nothing to interpretation here. It's just making a change to get some clicks and maybe some street credit with a specific community of gamers. It in no way honors the history of the game or the intention of its forebears. It makes me want to play games from Hasbro less, because it's not about the game anymore.

Okay. I guess I did my old man rant anyway.


I have been going through other games I've designed and been reviewing for ideas I can take and adapt to Hack'D. One of the things I came across was my introductory dungeon for Tales of the Splintered Realm. It is my 'best' dungeon design to this point; it has several keyed areas that are interesting encounters (along with 'how to' descriptions for the ways to use these things in play), along with suggestions for stocking the rest of the dungeon and the unexplored rooms. It's both a starter dungeon and a tutorial to running dungeons - but the way in which it is structured dramatically increases its replay value. It's suggested to be the starter level to a larger dungeon complex - you always start here, but can go a lot of other places.

I really, really liked reading through it, and I saw the many benefits that came from this design approach. It is not the approach I have taken with the Halls of Moridis; as I have played through, I've made sure that each room is fleshed out in some way, and I have left very few empty rooms along the way. I'm toying with the idea of going back and re-imagining this complex from that perspective. I haven't published anything yet, and it's all my notes, but I think as I conceptualize this dungeon going forward, I might scale back the number of keyed entries to fewer than half of the total areas, and let GMs have a go of what's everywhere else, giving a lot of suggestions for how to conceptualize things. This would also increase the replay value, since each area gets a lot more opportunity for 'resets' between delves.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Random Gameplay Thoughts and Strength in Numbers

I kept thinking this weekend that Hack'D & Slash'D doesn't really play the way I remember D+D playing... it plays the way I remember wanting D+D to play. That doesn't suggest for a second I think it is a better game... just that it's better from the perspective of 11-year-old me (my target audience).

I realized, in the midst of these realizations, that I don't actually know how D+D plays anymore. I have not actually, you know, played D+D since 3rd edition, about 20 years ago. Sure, I have fiddled a little with 5E, and I think I've been through an hour of gaming with it here or there, but I really couldn't tell you what the gameplay experience is like now.

I presume that one of the discoveries I made this weekend holds true for modern D+D as well: numbers are better. My team generally didn't struggle too hard with more powerful foes who were on their own, but when they were outnumbered (even by weaker foes), they suddenly had trouble. The more dice I am rolling each round, the more likely things are to go bad. While that seems reasonable, I would think that a battle with a level 3 spider would still be harder than a battle with 6 shadelings. The reality is that the shadelings have to be defeated one at a time, and they are getting a total of 12 attacks per round. When I roll a few 12s (which I did), those are suddenly dealing 3 hits a swipe, and the damage can pile on quickly. If the spider misses with its bite attack in round 2, it's going to have to withstand an onslaught from the whole fellowship before it gets to go again... if it lives that long.

The other 'benefit' of having larger numbers is that it changes the strategy. Twice, there were powerful spiders with a number of minion allies; Galavar (the caster) would start with sleep; he would neutralize as many of the minor threats as he could so that they couldn't start issuing death by a thousand paper cuts. It was an important strategic choice, and it was a meaningful choice he had to make in the moment; he could hit the boss with a big spell, or he could knock out a bunch of minions at once. 

And while I've always known that actual play matters more than theory, I have to say that ACTUAL PLAY MATTERS MORE THAN THEORY. I am finding all sorts of cool little nuances to the game that I didn't necessarily plan, but which are baked in anyway. I'm finding opportunities for new tags because things come up where I go 'it would be cool if right now I could do x'. 

When Unearthed Arcana came out, I could feel in the pages that Gary had actually played a lot of this at his table. It was an organic expansion of the core rules, even if it was a little esoteric in places. I mean, how often are you really engaging in mounted combat during the dungeon crawl? For me, the Hack'D & Slash'D companion is giving me the same vibes. I like that I'm in no hurry to get anything done... I can let the book grow organically, so that when it's done, it's all genuinely useful additions to the game, not filler I created to get to a page count.

And that, by the way, is one of the other thoughts I had. Hack'D is not really marketable, because it is designed to be exceedingly economical in terms of space. I really cannot justify expanding it to the 256 page full-color hardcover, because a spell takes two sentences and I can fit eight monster stat blocks on a 6x9 page. At standard book size, even with plentiful illustrations, I would be hard-pressed to get more than 48 pages of monsters... that would be several hundred monsters. 

But, selfishly, that is probably why I keep working on it. In the past, I sit down to expand a game I've worked on, and I find myself flipping through the book for fifteen minutes trying to make sure I've made all the numbers line up. With Hack'D, I can create a monster stat block in a minute or two, and I'm confident it is playable. It allows me to continue to make a minimal investment of time to get a significant return on that investment.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Fanatic Four: Report 4

First, some design notes:

I knew that they were crossing the bridge, and there had to be something on the other side that they didn't like, and which didn't like them. I thought that this would be a good place for spiders. Then I realized that I have four gates (areas 41, 43, 44, 46) that I haven't decided what to do with yet. I combined the two, and decided that those are four gates to four pocket realms. One of them (we'll say 43, since it's closest) is to a pocket realm of shadow. A bunch of spiders came through, the gate closed again (it opens and closes on the whims or Moridis - but the fellowship at some point may be able to get a key or password or spell to open it). The spiders came through, got stuck, set up a little fortress, and started scheming. Okay then. Their entire abode includes areas 26-31, with a trapped hallway they've set up at 23.


I added a door to 22, since I decided that the goblins have locked a gibbering mouther in this room to provide a barrier against the spiders (who still crawl in through other ways). The mouther had come in via the waterfall a while back, and they managed to fish it out of the pool and wrangle it into this hallway (after losing a few goblins in the exchange). The fellowship was not able to recover the key (no idea where the bugbear had hidden it), so they had to force the door open. Indar is immediately overcome by the wailing, but the others move on unimpaired. The whole group is badly injured in the battle, and they have to rest. 

They move into 23, the fog-filled hallway. They've got a bad feeling about this (rightully so), but then remember the levitation properaties of the roots growing in area 16. The could levitate through the chamber - or even better, bypass it altogether by levitating across from 19... they could go to the bridge and into 25, or directly to the webs at 31 and cut their way in through the back door to the main chamber. This would be tricky... but it's the path they choose.

And things then went totally off the rails. The arachling heard them and set a trap, which they walked right into. They ended up sandwiched between the arachling and an addercap (that it had called to help), with 7 cellar spiders as well. A sleep spell helped, and Alari's use of a glimmering weapon on Firik's hammer offset the lost edge from darkness, which was huge. By the end of the battle, Firik was the only one standing with 3 hits remaining (all the others had dropped), and the addercap and three cellar spiders failed a morale check with a 1, so they fled. This gave Firik 5 minutes to figure it out. He grabbed the amulet from Indar and yelled an order across the water for the goblins to eat some of the root and come to their aid. A minute later, 13 goblins were gliding across the chasm and floated in to provide aid. Firik had pulled apart the nest to find 2 healing potions, the spider blade, and some coins. He had five minutes to rally the troops, and between the two healing potions and Alari's magic, the team was almost at full by the time the spiders returned.

They picked a corner of the room to defend, putting the archer and mage at the back, with a rank of goblins and the two fighters up front. They made short work of the 9 cellar spiders, 2 addercaps and 1 tomb spider that arrived, cutting through them in about three rounds with minimal damage.

They charged on through the level (since only 2 goblins had died, the goblins were very hyped), and arrived at 28, where they faced the vault spider and its 2 assistants, and they ripped right through it (in 2 rounds) without suffering any damage.

The eggs they find are given as a reward to the goblins, who begin eating heartily, and start gathering them for later. The fellowship searches to see if they find the secret door in 27. They all fail, but one of the goblins finds it as they are scouring the level, and points it out. That will be where they go next. They also use fire to burn the two swarms of spiders in the temple area (26), burn all webbing, and recover the silvered spider statue from the altar. All told, for this section they earned:

43 gold and 5 silver in wealth
2 potions of healing (already used)
Boots of spider climbing (going to Indar)
The enchanted longsword vs. spiders (going to Alari)
They found 2 healing potions in a silvered chest as well.
52 XP (so 13 each; but for Galazan this doubles to 26).

In the interim, I also realized I never used the number 20 on the key... so I still need to add that number somewhere. Oops. Probably will use it for the eastern bridge over 25.


Analysis of XP:

Okay, this feels like enough to have earned level 2, but they are still only one third of the way to level 2... this is one of the things I struggled with in building the game. Because it only has six levels, I want progression to be slow, because otherwise the game is over in a flash. Right now, I have progression at x3... but if I bump things back a tier, I would end up with going to level 2 @ 30 XP, level 3 @ 100, level 4 @ 300, level 5 @ 1,000.

They have gone through quite a bit of dungeon and had several experiences. They've learned a lot. They have been battle tested, and taken on a variety of foes. They have explored about 20% of the dungeon... so if this pace of xp was to continue, they would end the whole level having earned somewhere around 150 XP. The threats deeper in will be more significant, so it's not unreasonable to round this up to maybe 200. They should, without a doubt, finish this level well into level 3. The revised XP progression above puts them on that path.

I'm going to house rule that now, and revise the tiers for level progression. This means that all characters move to level 2, and are ready for greater challenges... which is good, because there's a dragon not too far away. 

Alari will take the point in Mind. She now has hits 14.
Indar will take the point in Reflex. He now has hits 14.
Galazan will take the point in Mind. He now has hits 10. 
Firik will take the point in Might. He now has hits 28 (!). He is going to be hard to take down.

Hack'D & Slash'D FAQ

Q: How does poison damage work? What does a resist indicate?

A: A character can only suffer 1 poison effect per round. A successful might check ends that poison effect entirely; you get a new might check every round. So, a poison that deals 3 damage per round for 3 rounds allows a resist in round 1, round 2, and round 3. If the check is made in round 2, no check is made in round 3 (since the poison has ended). Once the check is made in round 2, that character is able to be poisoned again.

Q: How hard are secret doors to find?

A: Secret doors should require a mind (sense) check at -1 edge to find. Concealed doors should require a standard mind (sense) check.

Q: Can you taunt foes to get them to pay attention to you?

A: I resolve this as a free action, requiring a mind check. As you are attacking, you yell at a monster to get its attention. If successful, you draw its focus. If not, I roll randomly to see who the monster goes after. You can try again every round to draw its attention from others. 

Fanatic Four: An Interlude

This isn't a proper session, since I just worked out the logistics of what transpired during their time in the Bazaar of Untold Lands, but here's the summary...

They did a major gear upgrade. They largely liquidated their starting gear and upgraded across the board in terms of weapons and armor. They should be a little more effective now.

They met Moridis! She approached them, and talked to them about being the newest visitors to her halls. Alari succeeded with a 10 on the mind check for influence. She encouraged them to each take a roll of the Dice of Fate. I decided that Alari would decline: she has faith, is much older (as an elf) and has a more direct purpose. The other three, being vagabonds that the world has already buffeted around, see the opportunity here and would take it. Moridis has a very positive reaction to this (she is impressed by Alari). She decides to bequeath upon her an object: the warlord's ring. It grants +1 edge to melee attacks. She wishes them well against her progeny, and departs.

This makes the team the talk of the Bazaar, and leads to dinner with the Vile Watcher Uthisar, who is trying to gather information on them. I decide it is possible he will send assassins to have them murdered, but he decides against it (the dice told me so), and decides to bide his time and wait. Maybe this group will somehow weaken Moridis, and he is willing to wait and see.

Time to roll... here are the results:

Galazan rolls [11,10]. That's a somewhat mixed result, with largely positive outcomes at a high level. The 11 is a minor setback: in this case, he loses all of his earned experience to this point (reset to the beginning of the current level). However, he will receive double XP from this point forward.

Firik rolls [12/2]. That's a very positive result. He gets a permananent +1 to hits, and he will regenerate 1 hit per round forever. Dang.

Indar rolls [12/12]. No. Frickin'. Way. Okay then. I had already decided that this would be a permanent +1 edge to all checks forevermore.

I seriously had a little personal trepidation about rolling this, because I'm committed to getting this team to at least the dragon's lair in 63 for the iconic cover image... and getting gimped right now would have made that process less fun. Galazan is going to zoom through levels (so he'll be full on Gandalf before long), and the other three all have made significant upgrades to their combat capabilities. 

I am going to update and re-print their character sheets so I have all this information correct, and then I guess I'll get back to delving!

Last thing... they track down the amulet of goblin rulership that Xixal really wanted. It's 100 gp, so they don't have that cash... Indar asks if he can dice for it (2 dice vs. 1), since he gets that permanent +1 edge (so this makes it a straight 2 dice vs. 2 dice roll, total score wins). He puts up the entire cash of the team and rolls. It's a tie at 17 all. They roll again and he wins (21 vs. 12). They have the amulet... now to decide what to do with it.

Indar kind of likes the idea of ruling over goblins... and taking out his competition for the job. Alari is not in favor of this deception, but is convinced that having this amulet in the possession of the 'good guys' is better than having it in the possession of an evil humanoid who could use it to raid nearby lands. She ultimately has to concede to his point.

I decide that this counts as a level 2 encounter, so each earns an additional 5 xp (so 10 for Gal). This puts Gal at 10 total, and each of the others at 19. 

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Fanatic Four: Report 3

I warned you I was going to do a bit of gaming this weekend... my four characters have continued to explore, defeating the three ghouls in areas 17 A, B and C. They then crawled through the tunnels (making short work of the three rats) and into area 14. They attempted to drive back the ant swarm, which summoned the myrmidon ant and then the gnome shadow-touched ghoul. They managed to defeat all three with relative quickness. They could not figure out how to get through the narrow tunnel in the wall, so moved on to the south. Firik caused the mold of maddening to emit spores, which put him into a battle frenzy. Alari was able to draw his attention (and defend herself with her shield), while after a few tries Galazan was able to use a sleep spell on him. They burned the mold, explored area 12 (freaked out by the sounds from below) and then prepared to enter the Bazaar... which is where I'll pick up next time. 

They have thus far (in total) earned:

55 xp (so almost 14 xp each)
60 gp
23 sp
144 cp
A suit of enchanted studded leather armor
A cloak of befouling
A level 2 deeping spell scroll (from a silvered chest)
And they found a few days' worth of good food in a silvered chest

They are only 14% of the way to level 2, which feels like pretty slow progression. They haven't fought that much stuff yet, and they should start picking up the pace soon enough. They have a good amount of gold to upgrade their weapons and gear a little bit, so that will help, too.

I'm pretty sure that each is going to roll the dice of fate, and that might change the game dramatically. We'll see...

A Meditation: Encounter Designing

I am going through and fleshing out Moridis' Halls, building it one encounter at a time. However, what's happening is that it is logically and organically growing upwards and outwards as I go. Here's a snapshot of the process so far...

The initial entry area was a small temple complex that abuts to some natural caves. The temple was easy... and a straight line. Entry > preparation room > temple proper. The temple was populated by zombies worshipping an altar, the altar had a small magical thingy to it, and the entrance was being overrun by natural flora and fauna that were creeping in. Easy so far.

Then I decided on the middle cave - it is inhabited by some goblins. Fine. The next step was the game changer - how do they interact with the temple? Hmmm. Well, I decided this is a source of tension. The rank-and-file goblins worship there and want to give offerings, but their boss, who is a bit smarter and a bit cynical, resents having his money go sit in a bowl for zombies. Hmm. Then I asked that question for the next encounter after... how does he interact with the passage to the right? (A natural pool below a cliff facing). Again, similar answer - the goblins also worship what is there (a ghouled giant snake), and keep throwing his money over the side to appease this 'servant' of their god. Adventurers become an ideal way to maybe solve all of his problems. Now, he's more motivated to parlay with the fellowship rather than kill them, and just like that I have a complex dungeon crawl going. 

The final piece was to give him a long-term goal. He wants a magical amulet that is for sale in a strange place. This then lead to the creation of the Bazaar of Untold Lands (which is modeled on the flea market in Buffalo we used to visit on weekends when I was a teenager). This is set inside a tessaract, and it interacts with dozens of worlds, meaning that it truly is a Bazaar of strange and wondrous stuff. This can now be the centerpiece of the campaign, and the centerpiece of the dungeon. This is where you go to make deals, interact with powerful NPCs, and even meet Moridis herself. Everyone (except Moridis) is bound by a 'no violence, no magic, and no thievery' clause that results in instantaneous banishment. Now a 'beholder like' monster can be there, just chilling, and the heroes can encounter it at level 1. They can think about how to maybe lure it out of the bazaar some day to kill it, and maybe to invade its native realm by some other means, but for now, it's just there hanging out and they can talk to it. Moridis herself can stroll about. I can float out magical items that the heroes want, and set weird prices for it: Oh, you want the sword of the third army? Fine. It will cost you ten dragon eggs. Now... back to the dungeons to find some dragon eggs. The bazaar itself serves the same function as an inn (in many ways), but it's supernaturally transposed right into the dungeon. If somehow the heroes could get magic that allows access to the other realms it connects to, they become multiversal globetrotters with a specific entry and exit point being the Bazaar itself. 

I love it. And these few things then opened the door to the rest of the dungeon. Because Moridis sometimes travels about, she might also interact with the fellowship, even at level 1. Then I realized the purpose of level 1 - it is where she has cast off her 'failed' progeny. Three young dragons are here, all dealing with rejection by their mom in different ways. They are spread about the dungeon. Moridis is fine if the fellowship kills these dragons - she actually would like these 'weak' children of hers to be tested. Maybe they can prove worthy... or receive the death they probably deserve. No skin off her nose. The three dragons (and their lairs) become the centerpoints of the rest of the dungeon. So, I went to the map and popped in a rough outline of those three encounter areas. Now, I can organically build the dungeon around those areas in the same way. I've got some of the big-picture stuff worked out, and can add nuance and detail as I go.

You can follow the development of the dungeon in this living document, which I update as I adventure through the dungeon. I fugre that once it's done, I might publish the book as a supplement for the game.

In the same way, as I create monsters, magic, and rules in exploring the dungeon, I'm updated the Hack'D & Slash'D Companion, which would also see publication once it hits 48 pages or so.

Both projects have a ways to go, but it's fun working on them the way I am. 

Parenthetically, the iconic encounter from the inside of the BX rules will be happening in area 63. I'm really looking forward to that encounter :)

Fanatic Four: Report 2

Continuing their exploration of the Halls of Moridis, the fellowship was met at the entrance (after healing) by a goblin servant who spoke only one phrase in the trade tongue, "Xixal seeks parlay". They were escorted before Xixal (area 19) who they negotiated with (via Galazan). They learned of the temple (21), and of the ghoul snake Bitu (area 24). They agreed to destroy the snake and recover its treasures while Xixal took his goblins (and his loot) on a pilgrimage to the temple. The heroes made short work of the ghoul snake, getting several 12s. They also got very lucky in their checks to find its treasures, and recovered everything from its pool. They returned to Xixal, who was glad at their success, and asked them to travel to the Bazaar (area 8) on his behalf, and try to barter for the amulet of goblin leadership that he covets. They were 'allowed' to use the treasure they had recovered from Bitu's pool to negotiate. 

They set off and made it to area 12, where they were set upon by 7 shadelings. This should have been short work; it was not. The shadelings nearly killed both Alari and Firik, but thanks to Galazan's consistent damage from his cantrip, they were able to prevail. They had to retreat to area 16 to rest and recover before continuing onward, especially since Alari rolled a natural 1 when trying to heal herself, and has therefore lost magic access for the day. 

They have thus far (in total) earned:

28 xp (so 7 xp each)
20 gp
23 sp
144 cp
A suit of enchanted studded leather armor
A cloak of befouling

Friday, May 3, 2024

Fanatic Four: Report One

As I play, I am updating a few documents...

The Hack'D & Slash'D Companion is getting more game materials. I've added quite a bit since the last update. I used the Singing Spiders from this for area 16.

Moridis' Halls is a work in progress; some of the information in this document already needs revision, but I'm adding keyed areas as I explore them. In this session, I moved through areas 16, 18, and 21 (in that order). 


The heroes entered at 16, but realized the illusion of the spiders. After a brief battle, the heroes easily dispatched the spiders and recovered a little bit of gold from their lair.

They explored area 18, and Galazan was able to identify the magical cloak. He took it in case he wants to cause flowers to wilt or some good cakes to mold over. He's vindicative that way.

Moving into area 21, the poop hit the fan. They failed to sneak up on the zombies (there were six of them, so it's a tough enounter for a level 1 group as is). The zombies pretty quickly dropped Firik to -3 hits, and Alari failed her healing spell. Indar and Galazan were holding their own, but were overwhelmed. Galazan used his alchemist's oil, and luckily hit the four that remained at that point in the battle. The heroes fled (Alari made her might check to pick up Firik so they could run), and they made it back to the exit (south of 16) with burning zombies in pursuit. The zombies finished burning to a crisp in the entry as the heroes recovered outside. 

They have earned: 

16 xp (4 xp each)
14 gp
A cloak of befouling

Weekend Plans

I finished work for the week, came home, mowed the lawn, and took the dogs for a walk. Grace and Mary are out of town at a diving camp, so it's just me and a good chunk of time. Here's my weekend plan... going to go full pencil and paper RPG on my dining room table. I made character cards, found my big printout of the map of Moridis' Halls, and am going to start working my way through the map. I'll post as I go...

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Fighter/Thief/Magic User

One of my ideal characters back in the day was the fighter/thief/magic user. I wanted to level up one of those, but the reality was: 1) XP progression was abhorrent and 2) the abilities never really synergized. I mean, depending on the rules, you couldn't wear fighter armor - EVEN THOUGH YOU WERE A FIGHTER. In practice, it just wasn't very much fun.

But now I write my OWN games, so if I want to create an uber OP character, then I can - AND YOU CANNOT STOP ME.


That said, I do think there is a way to realize this archetype without breaking the game, and without doing too much wrangling with the rules. As for traits, it would have to be a 2/2/2 distribution, which right away limits it a little bit. That alone becomes an equalizer - you're a 'fighter' with half the strength of a comparable fighter, so you're already dealing less melee damage. You're a 'thief' with less accuracy... same thing for magic user with less INT. It already self-balances a little.

As far as tags, I know that I have to take mystic with common magic, and I've really got to pick up arcane too to be a mage. So, that's two of my four slots. Thievery seems more important than stealth (and I can still try to sneak without having stealth - I just don't get the bonus edge). Now... about the 'fighter' aspect... here are my options:

Brawler is +1 to damage with melee. That's okay.

Two Weapons, taking the shield as the second weapon (not a bad option at all).

Warrior is +1 to hit with melee. That's solid.

In building the rules, I assumed that warrior would be the go to (+1 to hit is a big deal), and that the +1 damage from brawler would be the second tag you select as a warrior. It separates the true warriors from the hybrids (in my mind). 

I could go fancy and take weapon specialist, but that in and of itself seems counter to my character concept; a jack of all trades who also happens to be a weapon specialist? Hrmmm.... don't think so.

With my 12 gold, I have to take a tool kit (3) and a short sword (4), which leaves me with 5... so either leather armor or a shield. Leather armor seems like the more obvious choice... Statistically speaking, the leather amor gives me a 4 in 12 (33%) chance of making an armor check, while the shield gives me a 44% chance (both becomes 55% which is really good for leather and a shield). I'm going with the shield!

He's going to be a moon elf, because he is.

Garvadon, Moon Elf Seeker

Armor 0; Hits 7; Move 40'; Shortsword (3)

Traits:    Might 2; Mind 2; Reflex 2

Tags:     Mystic (Common, Arcane); Thievery; Warrior

Gear:    Shield; Shortsword; Toolkit  

His signature spell is going to synergize the weapon and magic:

Glimmering Weapon (1). As a free action, check level to empower a weapon you touch to receive +1 edge to attacks for 1 minute.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Random Hack'D Thoughts

Two completely unrelated ideas for Hack'D...

New Tag: Weapon Specialist
When using your preferred weapon type (ex: axes, swords, spears, bows), you force foes you strike to suffer -1 edge to armor checks.

I like this because it doesn't mean you deal more damage; it means you are more likely to use your weapon to bypass enemy armor. This is a great tag to differentiate different warrior types, or to make your warrior more powerful as you grow. I could probably have a comparable magic specialist tag that forces foes to suffer -1 edge to resist your spells of the type. I'd have to get clear in defining the 'types' that this means, however. Right now, 'types' of magic are pretty loosely defined (which I like), and this would require a greater level of clarity on that.

Thought the Second: Moridis' Halls

I had been conceiving of Moridis' Halls as a sort of 'catch-all' dungeon unified only by a single primary adversary who oversees the whole. However, I recently was thinking about re-framing it entirely as a modified Temple of Elemental Evil around dragons - there are four (or so) dragons living in different sections that don't get along, and their factions are battling each other. These are tied to the elements. However, killing them all (or collecting something from them all) would access/raise/summon their parent, a many-dead Tiamat type of dragon (Moridis). This gives me at least three or four primary elemental factions (minimally frost, flame, storm) with their primary followers, as well as a second tier of those trying to take advantage of/play multiple sides of the conflict. This, conceptually, improves the dungeon significantly, and helps me "see" it more clearly. Right away, I re-framed that western entrance to a small holding of dwarves who have one of the dragons in chains... one of the earliest encounters would involve the dwarves (along with the fellowship) trying to prevent the dragon from breaking free of its shackles and killing them all - this would allow a low-level party to have an encounter with a dragon (the dwarves would do most of the heavy lifting) and would set the campaign in motion; either the dragon dies and they get the first of several items they need, or the dragon gets away and they have to chase it down deeper in the dungeon somewhere. Either outcome propels them deeper into the dungeon. 

I also see synergy between this and a fortified town of men (Fort Grymwater) that claims to be allied with the nearby elves, but which actually supports some of the factions below. This would give the PCs an ally in the keep (the elfin envoy who resides in the keep with her small entourage) but would mean that there is danger both above and below, and there'd be quite of bit of intrigue hard baked into the setting. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

The Classics Campaign Idea Drop

I don't know why this is making me so giddy, but the more I think about this classics campaign, the more I like it. Here's how it's framing out so far... it's a huge quest to put together the Sword of Vengeance, which is the only object that can finally slay the demilich Alazar. His return would blanket the world in darkness, so it's kind of important that he's stopped.

Level 1: One Adventure

A1: The Frontier Fortress and the Dens of Discord. The heroes travel to fight some humanoids, delve a small shrine of chaos, and find out why an apprentice was sent here. Clues lead them to the House of Halazar.

Level 2: Two Adentures

A2: The House of Halazar. Halazar, who was the apprentice to Alazar, has risen from the dead, and his book holds secrets to Alazar's return. The heroes must travel through this mysterious house half hidden in the swamps and recover the book, which also contains clues on finding the rest of the sword.

A3: The Slavers of Reverie. The grandson of Alazar has taken on a role as slave master of Reverie. The heroes must travel to Reverie, infiltrate the slave group, and slay the leader. As the only living person in the bloodline of Alazar, he possesses the hilt of the sword. They learn of a distant land, the Desert of Despairing Souls, where the rest of the sword is in possession of a powerful genie that rules that land. 

Level 3: Three Adventures

A4: Stormwrack Island. On the way to Stormwrack Island, their ship is sunk in a cataclysmic storm, and they are marooned on a lost island inhabited by dinosaurs. The ancient people here have a magical skiff that they will need to earn through their help against a dark foe hidden in a jungle temple.

A5: The Desert of Despairing Souls. The heroes travel to a distant land to defeat three lesser efreeti (each entranched in a far corner of the desert)  to recover keys to free the greater genie who rules this realm. He will grant them an item that will allow them to slay Alazar: The Hallowed Sword of Vengeance. He also gants each hero one wish. He tells them also that three other powerful relics, which can be used by the other members of the fellowship, have been hidden in Greyspire Mountain, and he will send them there...

A6: Greyspire Mountain. The heroes travel to a mountainous complex where three hallways lead to three great treasures - and to a variety of strange challenges.

Consequently, they end level 3 each in possession of a powerful relic.

Level 4: Four Adventures

A7 (?): Hall of the Hill Giant Lord. The heroes travel to the hall of a hill giant lord who acts as the gatekeeper for a passage into a series of realms of shadow.

A8 (?): The Web of Secrets. Delving into an a pocket realm ruled by a spider demoness, the heroes must attempt to recover the soul gem of Alazar and pass to the even darker lands beyond. The spider demoness stands in their way. 

Need two more here... maybe inspired by Temple of Elemental Evil? Not sure... but I have lots of time to get there.

Level 5: One Adventure

A11: In the ultimate campaign adventure, the heroes delve the trap-filled and haunted tomb of Alazar the Demilich which sits at the frontier of the thirteen hells, attempting to put him to rest once and for all. This would no longer have the 'get out of jail free' option - characters who die here stay dead.

Buckler's Keep

I thought that since I'm riffing on the Caves of Chaos, I had to riff on the Keep on the Borderlands. However, I wanted to give it something to make it a little different and memorable. It started with the inn - I decided that this inn (5) would be a stables on the first floor, with the inn on the second and third floors. Then I started to think about how important stables are to this keep - and then I thought of centaurs. The keep is jointly held by a group of centaurs (who actually are the power here) and humans who have made an alliance with them and have established this is a point of trade between the two cultures. The 'theme' of the whole place then is horses. The temple (4) is to the goddess of travelers (Roma) who is a patron of both travelers and centaurs (and which welcomes travelers of all faiths to visit and take refuge). The treatment of horses is very important here. The Thane is a centaur named Ganar, while the Captain of the Watch is a human, a representative of Fort Misteldawn. All buildings are both centaur and human accessible. There are about a dozen centaurs and 30 humans permanently dwelling here. 

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Dens of Discord

The first adventure in my 'classics' campaign is going to be a stop in the Dens of Discord. Among several cave complexes is hidden a shadow temple, where an acolyte is attempting to restore a demon lord to life. The fellowship is going to go exploring! The areas include:

  • A gully where a natural stream courses southward. Some giant ants live here.
  • A series of halls (west) that were built as a stronghold by dwarves centuries ago but now are held by goblins.
  • A natural mine complex the dwarves used that is now held by kobolds (to the east) - the kobolds and goblins really hate each other.
  • A water-filled series of caverns where troglodytes consume magic mushrooms.
  • An upper natural cave (northwest) where a one-eyed ogre lives, who collects 'taxes' from the others.
  • A hidden temple complex (northeast - through a secret door connected to the troglodyte halls) where the acolyte and some zombies are attempting to return the demon lord to life.

This is obviously not-so-loosely inspired by the Caves of Chaos. Clearing these caves and defeating the acolyte is enough to bump a fellowship from level 1 to level 2.  

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Willingham's Fellowship

This afternoon I was thinking about the 80s and gaming and the perfect campaign I never go to run. Then I was thinking that, instead of writing some new adventures, I could just take the most iconic elements of classic adventures, and re-create them in my game. And then I thought I needed a team to take through these, and decided that (to my mind) the most iconic team is the one inside the cover the BX ‘81 rules. Here’s the image (that I’ve attempted with very little success to recreate several times), along with stat blocks for the characters, from left to right… 

Firik - Failed Dwarf Smith

Armor 1; Hits 12; Move 40’; Hammer 4; Sling 1

Traits: Might 4; Mind 1; Reflex 1

Tags: Brawler; Fortitude; Warrior

Gear: Leather Armor; Light Hammer 3; Sling

Alari - Hopeful Frost Elf Templar

Armor 2; Hits 7; Move 40’; Dagger 2

Traits: Might 2; Mind 3; Reflex 1

Tags: Guardian; Mystic (Common, Light); Warrior

Gear: Dagger; Leather Armor; Shield

Andar - Rebellious Human Archer

Armor 0; Hits 7; Move 40’; Bow 3

Traits: Might 2; Mind 1; Reflex 3

Tags: Archer; Rapid Attack; Sharpshooter; Thievery

Gear: Hunter’s Bow 3

Galazan - Drunken Human Mage

Armor 0; Hits 6; Move 40’; Quarterstaff 2 

Traits: Might 0; Mind 4; Reflex 2

Tags: Lore; Luck; Mystic (Common, Arcane)

Gear: Quarterstaff 2; Alchemist’s Oil (1 flask) 

The idea is that the three males are struggling, and the elf is on a mission to redeem them. A dwarf who failed at smithing, a bowman who got kicked off the guard for insubordination, and the former apprentice mage who developed a drinking problem in his teens and after 40 years finally put the bottle down. 

Their first stop: A variation on the Caves of Chaos. Eventually, they are fighting this dragon, and it is going to look like this.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Mimsby Page 2

I got page 2 done... this is a pretty good example of the direction I'm thinking with this overall.

Parenthetically, I had the first three panels done, forgot to save it, and the Paint crashed and I lost it. I was glad, because I ended up changing the perspective for the image, and it ended up much stronger as a result.

I probably spent about two hours on this page... so that's not a bad time /workflow relationship.


Thursday, April 4, 2024

E is for Elements

In the POEM organizer, E stands for literary elements. I don't mean to flex, but my plan is to basically use as many as possible as often as possible. I know that this is going to be chock-full of irony, symbolism, metaphor, alliteration... conflict... characterization... and foreshadowing. Lots and lots of foreshadowing. Oh my goodness the foreshadowing. 

It's going to be a bit much.

I also know that one of the things I'm going to do a lot of is repeated images and copy/paste of drawings. I'm not doing this to be lazy - I'm doing this for pacing. I am not charging per page, so I get to do whatever I want. I want a lot of quiet moments - and that works best when I make the reader look at the same image a few times (with some minor changes) before shifting. You can already see that in play at the top of the page below.

Here is the work in progress of page 2...



Wednesday, April 3, 2024

O is for Organization

Okay, I’ve set up my purpose… let’s talk about organization. I know that it’s a long-form graphic novel, so that’s kind of done. But, on the micro level, we’ve got the page. 

Aye, there’s the rub.

I’ve got two sorts of extreme opposites in my head. At one extreme is the manga ideal - the page has 2-3 panels on it, and you keep turning pages. At the other far end is the Prince Valiant model - a page is this meticulous, densely-packed wonderland of rich detail. A third force playing upon my mind, and which is sort of hard-wired in there now, is the Barks model of top and bottom tiers, with a default of six panels per tier. You end up with these huge pages with lots of moving parts, and stories that have a breathiness to them, but also this incredible pace.

The Barks model is the most restrictive - part of the creative challenge is how you tell stories and find variety within this framework. It’s sort of the same creative challenge as creating a four-panel comic strip; you always have these four panels to work in. It’s part of what made Calvin and Hobbes so wondrous - he forced himself to work within the approved formats (which are quite restrictive), and Watterson still did these incredible flights of fancy and departures from what’s come before, even though he never messed with the basic structure of the thing.

All have positives. Going back to my purpose: I want to spend time in the story and let readers linger in it. The idea of only a few panels per page is out - goodbye Anime-inspiration. 

But the default assumption - that I at least want the opportunity for this thing to grow and evolve and become something huge - means that I am best suited to leaving the structure fairly open-ended at this point in regards to comic pages. In short, I’m going to go with the standard comic book page format - it’s a blank 2x3 area that I fill with the story as it best fits. This might be splash pages, or it might mean fifteen tiny panels. 

The macro then (in terms of organization) becomes the length of the thing. I have frequently, and much to my chagrin, obsessed over page counts. I have spent far too much time and energy trying to determine the ‘ideal’ page count for a chapter, story, novel… I start thinking in numbers, which is never great. I suddenly think about organizing in 10 chapters of 16 pages each, every three chapters serving as a story arc, the first chapter as a prelude, and the entire text fitting neatly into 160 pages (which would be perfect as a physical book - let’s go on Lulu and start designing the book right now).

Oh, that cart should be BEHIND the horse. Silly me.

Back to Dave Sim. I had SUCH deep admiration for his ability to say around issue 50 that he’s going to go for 300 issues, and that each is going to be exactly 20 pages, and then to actually DO that. Just remarkable.

I cannot do that. I’d love to. Not me.

I was in Barnes and Noble the other night, and was flipping through the collected Jeff Smith’s Bone. I mean, that’s basically what I intend to do (or thereabouts). Full disclosure: I’ve never read much Bone (I think I have read maybe 10 issues). It would be worth grabbing a copy and reading it to see what he is up to, and at least make sure I don’t outright plagiarize without meaning to.

However, I could see his technique in ways I could not when I was looking at his books 20 years ago (wow… it’s been a while). It was much looser and simpler than I remembered - I could see how his process probably worked - and he was ripping through pages. I would be willing to bet he rarely did more than a rough cut of backgrounds, and then went right to town with his pen. He relies very heavily on silhouettes and bold lines… it’s a very stark black and white, while my art has evolved into this grayscale hybrid thing that I’m not sure what it looks like anymore. I also see how getting the most out of simple tools (a stylus on my beat up old Surface Pro and Microsoft Paint that keeps getting worse instead of better with each update - seriously, just go back two updates and leave it that way forever).

So I tried that - if I spent about an hour on a page, would I be able to come up with something I was satisfied with? Here’s what I ended up with (showing my process of blocking in the basic shapes and then going right to fills and gray washes). This isn’t done - I still have some dialogue to add and might spend a few more minutes throwing in some noodly work, but it’s pretty far along.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Back From The Dead (or something)

Ahem. Well this is awkward.

Look, it’s not you - it’s me. I’ve been distant. It’s just. I’ve had a lot going on. You know?

But seriously, I’ve had a lot going on. I directed the fall play and the spring musical, and then I just kind of went into a stupor for a month or two as I have recovered. And now I’ve recovered. I guess. But also, I use this blog to talk about my creative process, and I’ve had no creative process to talk about. I mean, the play and the musical were very creative endeavors, but the whole process was about being there and collaborating. It’s a fundamentally different process. With the blog, I post things I don’t have people to collaborate with, and this becomes a form of collaboration in lieu of meeting with the vocal director or set designer…if that makes sense.

Also, it’s April 1, which is usually when I get the idea for my big summer project. But the thing is that I’m kind of burned out on some of my go-to sources. Star Wars is pretty meh right now for me. Same with superheroes.

But I never really burn out on fantasy. I’ve been looking over my rules and expansion materials for Hack’D, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d want it to be. I went through the various sourcebooks I started last year (links are over to the left there under Hack’D resources), and there’s not much to change, although there’s a lot of room for expansion. I’ll probably tinker with those a bit this week… so I already knew that whatever project I might do is not going to be a new RPG. At this point, I’ve written the RPGs I want to write. Hack’D is the mousetrap that I wanted to make for four decades. So, it would seem that I have nothing left to prove.  

But I also sort of got dragged back into being at least marginally creative in this realm - I forgot that I promised several months ago to contribute to a jam comic book a bunch of small press comic guys like me are making. I’m not on FB, but my wife is, and everyone thinks it’s me, so we just go with it. She got a message that basically said, ‘hey, is your page done? It’s due tomorrow’, and she was like ‘do you know what this is about?’ and I was all ‘oh poop’.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I knocked out a page, and it was both more fun and more relaxing than I expected. There was zero stress involved, and I just noodled away on it until it was done. I have no idea how long this took. An hour? Two? I lost track of time. I started it on Saturday morning, and I figured I would just keep working on it until it was done. Here it is…

Why am I talking in circles? Um… because that’s how my creative collaborative process works. But also because I’m getting to a point. I think. I have historically beat myself up for not finishing projects I start - because I start a LOT of projects that never get done (see my Cupcake Scouts story from last summer). 

So, I have an idea for a project. It would never get done. Or, at least, it would probably never get done. It’s a huge LOTR level fantasy story, but in graphic novel form. I figure that I can use the blog to brainstorm this until I get bored and give up 127 words from now, or in a week, or a year, or maybe twenty-eight years from now when I complete the last page of a 7,452 page epic beyond the scope of anything anyone has ever attempted. 

Probably not that last one. Dave Sim did 6,000 pages of Cerebus, so the bar is set pretty high.

Okay. I figure that I’ll use the blog for the next bit to set some foundation. I have created a process that I teach to my 8th graders, so if it’s good enough for grade 8, it’s good enough for me! We use an acrostic for ‘poem’ (very clever, I know) to both analyze creative writing (primarily poems) and to compose them. Here’s the idea:

- P stands for purpose. Why did the writer sit down to do this thing anyway? What’s it ‘about’? (not plot necessarily, but big-idea wise). It might be to describe a sunset, or to share a moment with a friend, or to apologize for something the writer did wrong. 

- O stands for organization. How is this thing even set up? Does it follow any established rules or structures? Is it highly-structured? How so?

- E stands for elements. This is things like symbolism, irony, figurative language, setting…

- M stands for message. What is the author trying to say to us through the work? What’s the ‘theme’ of the thing? You have to see how the other three work together to get to this one. 

So, I’m going to just do P for now, and stew on the others for a bit. My purpose is to compose an extended, grand fantasy narrative in graphic novel form. It has to be ‘big’ enough in breadth to include anything I’d want to put in there. It’s a story you would spend time in. 

Related: I’ve often thought of pacing from an ‘as fast as possible’ sort of philosophy. I generally want things to MOVE. When I direct, I’m looking to pick up the pace, to cut anything that slows down the action, and to drag the audience from event to event. When I’m creating comics, I want to have a lot of ‘story’ on each page. I suppose the operative word would be ‘tight’. The purpose for this is just the opposite. I want it to feel like building a huge LEGO set - I know it’s going to be a slow burn, and I spend a lot of time sitting and marveling at the small engineering feats as they happen. Some of my favorite LOTR movie moments are the small moments where characters are just sitting and eating breakfast or tying their shoes or whatever tiny thing is helping to build the verisimilitude of this fantastic world. So my purpose would, from a creative perspective, be to spend time in this world. “Getting things done” or “keeping it moving” would then run counter to my basic purpose. I want to Samwise Gamgee this mother.