Monday, September 25, 2017

Two Years Through Ultan's Door! (Zyan Between)

Today marks the two year anniversary of the first session of my dreamlands campaign Through Ultan's Door. It was two years ago to this day that a Storm Rider paladin, a red-skinned Altanian thief, a merchant cleric of the spider god Nepthlys, a midget named Failure, and an obsequious torch-bearer named Selwin crowded into that small space under the stairs in the back of Ultan's print shop. There they passed through that improbable cerulean door, leaving the waking world of the Wilderlands of Ruined Ghinor for the undercity of Immortal Zyan, the flying pearl of Wishery.

Our 50th session is scheduled for this Thursday! So far eighteen different players have joined in the adventure, playing a total of twenty three characters. Zyan has snatched life from five PCs, including the Storm Rider and the merchant priest, and more than a dozen hirelings, including Selwin, who managed to climb all the way from nothing to become a second level fighter, before was slain by the defenses of the legendary hanging Summer Palace.

Since I've posted no play reports here (I save those for the game's G+ community), I thought I would take this occasion to say something about (part of) the campaign. This is also a preview of some of the material I've been developing, which, I promise, one day will be yours if you want it.

I divide Zyan into three parts. First is Zyan Above, the flying city that rests atop the rock of Zyan. It is a cursed and decadent city of the dreamlands, surrounded on all sides by the howling winds of the Endless Azure Sea. Below that is Zyan Between, the sewers and undercity of interconnected catacombs, temples, and guild holdings, a few still in use. Further down hangs Zyan Below, an inverted white jungle of fungal blooms, springing from the bottom of the rock of Zyan. It is a deadly wilderness crawl, consisting of four stacked hex maps. Taken together, Zyan thus consists of the three main modes and locales of old school play: a city crawl, atop an underworld full of dungeons, atop a wilderness hex crawl through an alien jungle.

Although the campaign has a strong setting, I have tried to run a completely open world, using the 1 GP=1 XP rule as the normal motivator for scumbag adventurers. Many hooks have been dangled, and the party has taken some, and passed up many others. For example, the party has long (for 20+ sessions) had an easy path available to Zyan Above. However, their attention has been elsewhere, pursuing lucrative and pressing leads in the white jungle. In the last session, they declared, to my immense delight that they would not enter Zyan Above until they could do so as kings. They learn constantly of the city, but always through its echoes. It is as though Zyan were constructed out of a combination of hearsay, old Piranesi prints, snatches of poetry, ancillary archaeological sites, and images seen in a funhouse mirror. (How else would a city be built in Wishery?) As a result of this open play, the player's actions have upset the balance of several factions, and brought a trail of consequences I could have never have predicted. Things are, at the moment, balanced on the knife's edge. Which is a good place to play D&D.

This is a point crawl map of Zyan Between, insofar as the players have explored it. The solid lines connecting the points on the map represent spatial connections along cardinal directions between locations, usually with nominal travel times. So, for example, the Chasm is just at the southern edge of the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Guild, and right across the chasm begins the Apartments of the Guildless. 

However, this map also contains what +Beloch Shrike  has called "flux spaces",  massive underworld environments that PCs move through in an abstracted fashion. There are two of those: first the sewer river that winds from Zyan above, down through the undercity, to spill ultimately at the Great Falls into the white jungle, and second the Apartments of the Guildless, a Red Nails style wilderness of arcades, courtyard, apartments, and stone garrets that sprawl in all direction. To move along one of these flux spaces to the next node involves making two encounter checks. If an encounter ensues, I roll on two tables. The first gives the lay of the land, setting the scene for the encounter in these massive environments. The second is a big old encounter table that includes monsters and NPC, found objects or locations, and events. So, for example, if the part is moving through the Apartments of the Guildless south to the Lunar Caverns, I roll two encounter checks, and if I get one I roll first for where the encounter happens (e.g. "A sunken arcade with walkways to abandoned rooms above. It is dotted with planters choked with strange black vines"), and then for what the encounter is (e.g. "A band of mute guildless mold foragers, leading their eyeless hounds on frayed leashes.")

The map also contains two kinds of connections between different levels. One is the shaft that leads down from the chasm ultimately to emerge from the side of inverted Mount Drethi in the second level of the white jungle in Zyan Below. The others are the stairs that lead either up from guild holdings to emerge in buildings located in different neighborhoods in Zyan Above, or down from the great falls to the pagaodas of the hanging merchants in the first level of the white jungle. Also shown on the map are five dimensional portals in the Temple of the Archons that lead to spaces holy to the strange deities of Zyan.

The Dungeons

The Ruins of the Inquisitors Theater

Ultan's door, the sole point of connection between the waking world and the dreamlands, opens into the ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater, the first of the dungeons to be explored by the party. This was once a holding of the Inquisitor's Guild, worshippers of many-headed puppet queen Afatis, representatives of the crooked and baroque law of Zyan. It contains, among other things, a sacred punishment theater for the inquisitor's terrifying and exquisite puppet shows. When Ultan's door first opened, this theater was a nest for a great mother sow of sinuous white swine.

The Lunar Caverns

If one wanders south through the apartments of the guildless, eventually one will stumble upon a massive door of beaten copper. On it is the image of a woman wearing a crescent crown. At her breast suckle old bearded men who clutch their stomaches in agony. Beyond these doors the dreamlands of the moon predominate. Here, flora and fauna from the fancy of moon dwellers grow. The Armigers (moon knights) stand constant watch over a black seal they set long ago to imprison a lunar demon.


The Churning Gate

Merely cross the sewer river form the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater and one will find a strange gate. It is an archway carved from green stone. The top of its arch is decorate with the torso of a woman wearing a blurred mask with four arms. Within the arch, a lone figure is suspended, one of the wretched guildless who decades ago drew too close to the gate's dangerous weave. He is spread out in space in constant frozen movement, like a living futurist statue. Beyond can be seen an immense corridor of green stone, carved with flowing geometrical forms.  

Catacombs of the Fleischguild

Travel downstream on the sewer river from the ruins of the inquisitors theater, and you soon hear a buzzing and be greeted by a charnel stench. If you press on, you will reach the chum spouts, where effluvia from the endless sacrifices of the sacred butchers of the Fleischguild pours into the sewer river from the mouths of grotesquely carved heads. Between these gruesome spouts, two sets of narrow stairs lead up into the catacombs where the carvers and flayers of the fleischguild are interred. These halls are guarded by the gory dead, and by butcher's traps and organic witchery for which the Fleischguild is legendary.

The limbs of the fleischgeist are held together by viscera magnetism

Temple of the Archons

Travel further down the sewer river and the waters rise higher. A host of lurid toads have secreted a nest of sacs in the echoing cavern and dammed up the river with slime. They extract tribute in flesh from those who wish pass through. At the back of their flooded cavern, improbably high doors rise. These lead into the long abandoned temple dedicated to the Numinous Game, the inscrutable contest of the opposed Unrelenting Archons, alien deities of the queer Zyanese religion. In a sunken area in the center of the temple, stands an enchanted wooden replica of Zyan Above, the board across which their game is played with human lives. Shrines to each of the five are ringed about the perimeter of the temple. Each of these shrines is itself a gate to a space sacred to the relevant Archon. Our daring adventurers have opened only two of these gates. One leads to the lair of the Weaver of Shadows, beloved of the Archon Azmarane, who plays his occult web like a harp, spinning from its resonances shadows to slay his prey. The other leads to the True Temple of Vulgatis, a demonic interplanar church dedicated to the archon of unseemly and fecund growth.

The Weaver of Shadows, Beloved of Azmarane


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Escapism and Our Hobby

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

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

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

James Holloway

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Night Wolf Inn: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

This is a pretty map

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

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

The Black Mirror: One Piece of The Puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Would I Run This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Sum:

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

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