Sunday, December 6, 2009

Castle Dreadwyne

I'm currently writing an old school adventure module, as an exercise in game design and because I really love the older editions of D&D. I'm going to start putting up the bare bones of the thing on here, and while no one will read it, it'll still be nice to have up on the internet as a personal reference if, say, my computer crashes.


Ages ago, when the Elfin Kings still ruled these lands with little fear of mortal men, an elf king of the Winter Court had a castle built for him of the coldest stone, upon the highest mountain in the land. He summoned all sorts of evil spirits of chill and fear to that dread place, and commanded them to stand ever vigilant as his sentinels there. When the elves began to fade from the prime material plane, the winter-king disappeared into shadow.

But the spirits remain, guarding the treasures they were summoned to protect.

Castle Dreadwyne is an attempt to merge elements of both high and low fantasy into a classic dungeon crawl. It’s Jewels in the Forest meets The Hobbit meets Tower of the Elephant meets The King of Elfland’s Daughter. The three towns around the castle each have different folklore regarding the castle, some of it true and some not. Further, there are NPC’s in the towns who can either help or hinder the PC’s, up to and including following them into the dungeons with the intent to slay them and steal the treasure for themselves.

There is no base plot in this adventure, but there are plenty of elements present for individual game masters to thread one together, making the adventure location their own. Perhaps they’ll focus on Greeneye’s bandits, or the agents of the sorcerer Valagk Vurmus.


When the PC’s ask around about the castle, the GM can roll a d8 to randomly determine one of the local rumors to give the players, or just choose one that looks interesting. Note that the more the PC’s ask around, the more attention they draw to themselves, making their time on Dreadwyne Mountain all the more dangerous; while monsters dwell in the ruined castle, the greatest monster of all is a greedy man.

If the players get information about the “dragon” or the dwarves, it’s likely that the group at hand will hear of the PC’s, and will do their best to rob them of their riches, or use them to gain access to the castle’s treasure vaults, which they normally wouldn’t dare go after due to the unquiet frost spirits.

1. A cavern entrance into the castle exists (true- in fact, there are several, all of them haunted by the spirits of dark elves loyal to the winter-king)

2. The Winter-King still dwells in the castle (true and false- only the half-mad spirit of the winter king remains, locked in his throne room)

3. A dragon hunts the forests at the base of the mountain, and it has a good deal of treasure from the castle (false- there are bandits that use the story as both protection and a lure)

4. A band of dwarves is travelling through the mountains, and they have a map of the dungeon’s lower levels back from when dwarves swore fealty to the winter court (true- and the dwarves want the treasure!)

5. A strange figure comes into town from the mountain passes some nights, cowled in black, paying for strange trinkets and herbs with ancient looking gold (true- this is the necromancer, Cowl, who is currently pulling Greeneye’s strings)

6. A magician from Arlore is willing to pay good coin for magical tomes from Castle Dreadwyne, particularly any dealing with elfin winter magic (true- Valagk Vurmus’ lackeys, Tulluk and Bérwein, each level 2 magicians, are looking for hired muscle to take them into the castle, and while they won’t stab the PC’s in the back, they certainly will try and give them a raw deal)

7. A gorgeous elf princess is locked away in a mirror of ice in the castle, and will grant a wish to any who release her (true and false- it’s actually a banshee, and this legend has been corrupted over the years until the evil elf woman’s ghost is a benevolent damsel in distress)

8. An ancient dwarf-forged sword of cold iron can be found in the throne room of the castle, a weapon of old used to slay many summer princes (true)

People of Note

· Skalmog the Carved, a heavily tattooed monk living a hermit’s life in one of the mountain’s caves. A devotee of the Barbed God, Skalmog spends his days repenting for the sins of man by bringing horrific pain upon himself in an attempt to keep the Barbed God from stealing the souls of mortals. He still has some part of his fractured psyche intact, and will aid the PC’s, though not always the way they want; he is, after all, quite mad.

o Cleric 4

· Illak Spurneblade, a mercenary from Arlore. Illak is looking for good loot to pay for new soldiers (his last bunch got slaughtered during a fight between a petty lord and a hill giant tribe). He’s willing to help the PC’s, and then stab them in the back and take off with the treasure.

o Fighter 3

· Lady Tannessia, a half-elf priestess of the Emerald Prince, an elven deity whose popularity has grown amongst half-elves. Tannessia is a member of one of many half-elf “Gnostic” cults, melding elements of the original elven faith with the fleeting mortal wisdom of men. She truly believes in her cause, and is on the mountain in an attempt to bring Spring Eternal to poor, tortured soul of the winter-king. She is willing to work with the PC’s so long as they respect the tenets of her faith and help her exorcize the soul of the winter-king.

o Cleric 3

· Greeneye, a bandit. Named for the jade false eye he has, Greeneye is an enterprising bandit-king. Several years ago he sent some of his best “pree-tenders” into town to spread word of a dragon in the forests below the mountain. This keeps a good number of travelers on the roads Greeneye wants, and allows for a reasonably steady inflow of hot-headed youths with swords and fancy armor to sell back in town. Currently, a strange, cowled fellow has joined his rank, whispering encouragement to this lowly bandit lord, inspiring him to greater heights of debauchery.

o Fighter 4

· Cowl, a dark elf magician. Known amongst mortals as Cowl, his true name is Fiach em Mallach. He wishes to gain entry to the ruins of the castle, but long ago he fell out of the favor of the wicked and chill spirits of winter. He has of late begun to use Greeneye as a proxy, amassing more wealth for the bandits, and making them more daring, in hopes that he might get them to take the castle. If he discovers the PC’s, he will concentrate his efforts on them.

o Magic-User 5

· Valagk Vurmus, a sorcerer. Valagk isn’t in the area, but he makes his presence known through his lackeys, Tulluk and Bérwein. He desperately wants the magical tomes in the castle, and will get his way one way or another.

o Magic-User 7

· Bérwein, one of Vurmus’ lackeys. A specialist in identification spells, he is a snobbish know-it-all. He doesn’t want to hire adventurers, but as he is quite frail, he will begrudgingly hire the PC’s.

o Magic-User 3

· Tulluk, one of Vurmus’ lackeys. A defensive magic specialist, Tulluk is paranoid and overly cautious. He will accept whoever Bérwein hires, but he most certainly will not trust them.

o Magic-User 3

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My First Game

Some guys spent their teenage years scoring touchdowns and dating loose cheerleaders. Others spent theirs doing drugs and otherwise being edgy and flipping the bird to “the man.” I, however, wasted mine in basements pretending to be an elf. No, not a prancing little Keebler elf, but a manly, fey Tolkien-esque elf. You know, the kind that look like European supermodels with scimitars. Instead of studying for my SAT’s, I studied my Monster Manual, desperate to codify and memorize all the best ways to defeat, say, Green Slime. Gary Gyax, the creator of D&D was my co-pilot, and I’d written up a complete response to every error in Jack Chicks’ anti-D&D comic strip “Dark Dungeons.” I was, and still am, the penultimate geek. I can tell you the “true” authorial inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons, the facts of the infamous “Steam Tunnel” affair in the 80s, and I know what THAC0 is and how it works.

But how did I end up on this great throne of nerd-dom as this shining king of pointless trivia? It all began with my 6th grade teacher making us watch The Hobbit. Though inaccurate to the book in many ways (it is, of course, standard geek practice that I make such things clear), I didn’t know that at the time, and was immediately enchanted with the idea of dwarves, trolls, magical treasures, and ancient torch-lit halls of stone. Fantasy became my drug, and I was always jonesing for a hit. It was the perfect escape from my home life, a dark place where alcohol and a bi-polar stepmother dwelled, who tore me down emotionally every day. In fantasy worlds, you could pick up a sword and deal with your problem. In fantasy worlds, you could be a hero.

I began to buy Magic; the Gathering cards, and stole some of my brother’s Alpha release stuff, Magic cards that nowadays score a pretty penny on the internet. I played Zelda until my fingers bled. I practically died of joy when Lord of the Rings; the Fellowship of the Ring came out. And then, one day, I found D&D, totally destroying any chance I might have had at living a normal high school life and making friends that didn’t wear “Rogues Do It From Behind” t-shirts. From then on would I get odd looks from people in school hallways who overheard me use words like, “antediluvian,” “vorpal,” and “necromancer” in normal, everyday conversations.

My downfall was made complete on the last day of my 9th grade year of high school. I had discovered to my amazement that we had a Magic; the Gathering club, which was far more interesting than chess club (chess didn’t have swords or wizards) or anime club, which I was beginning to hate due to our president forcing us to watch the same boring cartoon every single meeting, because she thought it was “kawai,” or something. I scurried to the designated room when the last bell sounded, my meaty paws clinging to the plastic box that held my super rad black/red zombie burn deck.

After playing a few games of Magic, the group was about to disperse for a pizza party at the president’s house, where we would eat nerd-quantities of pizza (in other words, lots) and play video games. Offhandedly I asked if any of them played D&D, a game I kept hearing about. About five of them stopped dead.

“D&D?” Eric, the guy with the speech impediment, asked.

“Uh, yes. Dungeons & Dragons,” I asserted, worried that maybe these guys were all Jack Chick fans, and thought that D&D was some satanic indoctrination game that had real magic.

“Oh heck yes we play D&D,” Kevin, the huge bearded catholic guy, responded.

Thirty minutes later we were in Kevin’s basement, rolling dice and flipping through rulebooks. I was handed a set of plastic geometric shapes and a rulebook depicting a muscle-bound barbarian breaking down a door while an elderly sorcerer made devil horns with his hands that shot green lasers.

“What the heck are these little plastic things? They look like dice,” I asked, confused as all get-out.

“They are. That pyramid one is a deefore,” Kevin answered. He was going to be the Dungeon Master, and run the game for the rest of us. Essentially he was the director of our sword swinging, spell slinging improve-with-dice group.


“Four sided die. A normal six-sider is a d6, so a four-sider is a d4. You’ve got a d4, a few d6’s, d8, d10, d12 and d20 there. So, what kind of character do you want to play? Look here at the book. You can be a warrior, thief, priest or wizard, and there are subclasses of each type.”

I flipped through the book. My fingers danced across the pages, electrified with pure, undiluted geek energy. I was living the nerd dream. I was going to play Dungeons & Dragons. After five minutes of examining the various archetypes at hand, I made my decision.

“I want to play a wizard.”

“Nuh-uh!” cried Wan Di, the overweight kid with the Frodo Lives t-shirt. “I want to play the party’s wizard!”

Steve, the guy who brought his girlfriend, made a half-hearted attempt at joining in why I shouldn’t play a wizard, but his girlfriend quickly brought him back to why she wasn’t happy at the moment.

“Don’t play a wizard,” interjected the scrawny kid with glasses, Matt. “They’re totally lame at 1st level, you only get one spell and you can only cast it once per narrative-day. Also you suck at fighting, have only four Hit Points, can’t wear armor, and have no weapon proficiencies.”

“But Gandalf has a sword,” I muttered, crestfallen.

“That’s because Gandalf wasn’t a normal wizard, he was one of the Istari, a race of angelic beings who came to protect Middle Earth from… look, just don’t play a wizard if you want to live more than one round of combat.”

A gave a defiant look to my nerd-superiors. Shoulders back, I answered their years of experience with the stunning logic of an utter newbie.

“I want to play a wizard because I think they’re cool. Also I want to be an elf.”

I was met with the cold, hardened stares of older teenagers who knew what they were doing. They knew how to roll dice to make-believe that their thieves had successfully picked the pockets of high level paladins. They knew that to successfully damage a Lich you needed a sword that had a +1 or better enhancement modifier. I didn’t. I had no idea what was to come, I didn’t have any clue what lay ahead in the imaginary dungeons we would be delving in, moving through dark corridors and twisty passages all alike. I couldn’t possible fathom the mortal terrors I would feel as the target of a surprise attack from a Hook Horror. I had no clue that some types of golems were immune to magic spells. But damn it, I wanted to pretend to be a wizard.

Within the hour, I had a piece of paper detailing the abilities of my elven wizard, who I named Merlin 2. Merlin 2 met the world with snorts of derision and mutterings of scorn from my fellow players. This was a truly newbish act; naming a character for a game of D&D is incredibly important. The other players will be forced to spend their time referring to you by your characters’ name, and it really is hard to take the game seriously when, after having nearly died at the hands of a soul-devouring demon, and rescuing the multiverse from the beast’s foul plans, you have to refer to the pimply fat kid next to you as Sir Awesome of Win-town.

Kevin took a look at Merlin 2 for me, to make sure that he was properly done according to the rules.

“It says here that your Wisdom score is higher than your Intelligence.”

“Yeah, I wanted to be wise. Like Gandalf.”

“But wizards need a high Intelligence. It’s how they use their magic, through knowledge and memorization.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “but I want to be wise. Like Gandalf.”

“Why did you spend all your weapon proficiency points on num-chucks?”

“Because num-chucks are cool?”

“You’re a wizard. Leave the fighting to the fighters. Steve’s playing a fighter, and Eric’s rolling a paladin. Don’t worry about fighting. Except for Wan Di, he’s playing a thief, and he’s notorious for stealing stuff from other players and slitting their character’s throats while they sleep.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, taking back Merlin 2 and scratching out my precious, precious num-chucks and using the points I’d had to be effective with the lowly staff, most boring of all weapons.

Merlin 2 re-calibrated, we all settled down at the beat-up old pool table in bearded catholic guy’s basement, and picked out pewter miniatures to represent our characters. I took much longer than everyone else, as I couldn’t decide between the wizard with a staff or the wizard with no staff (who might later be equipped with some badass num-chucks).

Having chosen the little pewter guy with no staff, I started organizing my play space, setting my dice down on the table so that the highest number showed on top, so I could remember the difference between the d8 and the d10. I glanced around to see what everyone else was doing. Wan Di was looking through The Complete Book of Assassins for like the millionth time that night. Better watch out for him, I thought. Eric was sleeping. He did that a lot, I would find out later. Steve and his girlfriend were taking a break from arguing. She sat next to me, pouting fiercely. Wow, I thought to myself. It’s like she doesn’t want to be playing or something.

After a few moments, Kevin set up a big cardboard rectangle-shield with bad fantasy art on it, which had all kinds of tables and charts and numbers on his side to reference during the game.

“Ok. You’re all citizens of the Kingdom of Altheron, which is pretty big and just a generic fantasy kingdom. There have been rumors of a growing army of the undead to the East. Worse still, there are whispers that Vermiglash, the dracolich, has come back from the dead again.”

“What’s a dracolich?” I asked.

“It’s like a skeleton dragon that casts spells,” Kevin answered.

He narrated more stuff that I didn’t pay attention to. It’s like a video game, I though. Nobody pays attention during the opening cut-scene. When he wrapped up, we were informed that we had been recruited for the king’s army, and that the undead were invading. We set our pewter figurines up on the pool table, a mock battlefield of sorts, done so that we could have a better idea of who was where when a spell went off, or how far from that guy that one other guy was when he decided to attack.

And then the dracolich appeared. The other players cursed, wailed, rolled their eyes and gnashed their teeth. When it was their turns, they tried to run away.

Being a tactical genius, I ordered Merlin 2 to charge the enemy.

Merlin 2 was met with ensorcelled dragonfire.

“You take 32 points of damage,” Kevin announced after rolling a handful of dice.

“But I only had 4!” I cried.

“Well, then Merlin 2 is dead.”

I sat for a moment, quiet. The other players looked worriedly at me, unsure of what I was going to do.

“This game is awesome,” I laughed. “Gimme another character sheet.”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Old School vs. New School; Standing Precariously in the Middle

One of the most painful things a gamer can go through is having a fantastic gaming group fizzle and die. No, it wasn't infighting or a disagreement over anchovies and olives on our pizza that killed us. It was college. Since my college group shattered at the end of a slow, arduous and game-free semester (thanks to us all being too busy and transfering to other new colleges), I have barely gotten any gaming in whatsoever.

There was a brief lull in the horror when a friend and I discovered that, yes, Warhammer was delightful, and golly, we had summer jobs, and that meant paychecks that could pay for Warhammer books and toys. Then we realized that summer jobs also meant odd schedules, which all added up to only playing with our $200 plastic army men a handful of times.

Fortunately, when I got to my new college, there was a game group, and I joined their game of Vampire; the Masquerade, where I encountered edition-hate towards Vampire; the Requiem, which I prefer (due to more cohesive mechanics). This led me to dwell on the "Old School Renaisance" taking place amongst the fantasy gaming community, where else, on the internet.

First off, I love Dungeons & Dragons. All of it. Barring White Box, I more or less own every edition (I tend to lump all the Basic/Expert versions together, since, well, they're just different iterations of the same base rules suite). I cut my teeth on 2e, ran my first year-long campaign with 1e, tried my hand at rules-lawyering with 3e, threw that all out the window to get as simple as possible with B/E, went back to 3e because it was the only game in town, and fell madly in love with the weird Final Fantasy Tactics style of 4e briefly before making a complete roundabout back to 1e and then Shadowrun 4e. I may indeed have ADD. Which is rather fitting, and a pun I'm already regretting in the worst way but refuse to remove based on principal.

I understand the loyalty some people have to specific eras and editions. I really do. The sheer amount of game you can squeeze out of a single edition is amazing. Also, we are geeks. Geeks have loyalties. I've engaged in numerous debates over why Marvel Comics is the best ever and DC is made of stale pork rinds. But come on. Gaming is fun. I don't like to limit myself to individual editions, because I'm a busy guy. Also I have a poor attention span that I can and do attribute to Sonic the Hedgehog on Genesis and sugary cereal. But my point is that each edition of D&D does something different that I like.

I love B/E because it's simple. Sometimes I don't want to have to reference seven hardbound rulebooks to run a game. I love 1e because it's complete and delightful. It has a plethora of classes and races and magic items, and it's just a nice game. 2e I can easily lump in with 1e, because other than THAC0, which I actually kind of like after a peverse fashion, it really hasn't changed much from 1e that I can notice. Well, thieves get better skills, but whatever. I love 3e because it calls to each player to build and tinker with their character to make the destinct hero they want (mechanically, of course, because personality can be done with just the barest hint of rules). I love 4e because it lets you feel like a big damn hero, kick some goblin ass, and look good while doing it.

Granted, there's more to the Old School vs. New School argument than that. Style of play in terms of rules is a big issue. Older games made you describe what your character does, not just roll some dice. It lets you get into your character's head, and feel like yes, you really are in a rank dungeon populated by grim-faced horrors. New games, however, allow you to get bang for your buck by briefly describing an action, deciding if you fail or not, and getting on to the next room and kicking more ass and robbing more dead bodies of their gold like a bright and shining beacon of good.

I guess there's no real point to this post beyond my putting thoughts down on. I just feel that some people get so caught up in their loyalties to editions and eras and styles of play that they lose a little something; fun. Whatever you adhere to in your gaming, if you aren't having fun, you should step back and consider a new hobby. I've read too many posts on discussion threads where people rant and bicker and just sound like hollow shells of people who used to have a blast playing D&D, but got lost along the way after the release of a new edition or two. No hobby should consume you so much that what used to make you happy just makes you bitter and jaded and sneer down your nose at those who have different tastes than you.

In the end I have no authority on anything in gaming. I'm just a hobbyist. I'm probably more than a little wrong in my views. In the end, all that matters in gaming is fun.