Why I Love TTRPGs

I’ve started running a 4E game using my Crusade Beyond the Door. The original campaign idea was to turn Stargate: Atlantis in a campaign framework: using magical gates the party would jump to a new world each week fighting the Nephilum menace some weeks while others solving local issues. Using the 4E build in power levels over time they would rise to challenge the Nephilum and save Creation Beyond the Door just as SG-1 defeated the Goa’uld and the Atlantis gang defeated the Wraith.

But my players got to the first world, defeated a party of nocturnal elf slavers (negative image drow: pasty white skin, black hair), secured the people in a new village, and defeated the revenge party of slavers. They also recovered the alternative Genesis that splits when the Nephilum lead the people beyond the Door and a second set of control rods (my DHD analog). They were all set for my expected end and returning to the city of giants.

But they didn’t.

Instead they decided they were protect the worlds beyond the door and they will protect this world. Instead of returning they have decided to build a castle at the local door (on the hill with the chalk horse carved into it) and train the locals to fight the slavers.

Oh, and in the grand tradition of the crusades a bunch of second sons are now going to have their own fiefs.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I play TTRPGs and not MMORPGs, CRPGs, or write my own fiction (well, I do the later but you get the idea). I had 30 levels of 4E mapped out roughly and now they won’t happen. While my events will happen in the background and change the world they may later go on to interact with for now we are playing a very different game. All because four people not the DM decided this was the way to play in my creation.

Right now I love my players…because even if their idea wasn’t mine I suspect the game will be more interesting because it is ours and not just mine. It is my world but their story.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

An Idea Has Been Eating My Brain

I came across this comment by the Trollgod himself via Grognardia:

Yes. My conception of the T&T world was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in.

Original Source

I think this could be the basis of a second alchemical proposal with three ingredients:

Rules: Pick a core rules set. You can use any game but only the core rules. Then add a single supplement for any game, not necessarily the one you are using.

Setting Inspiration:Pick the core book of your favorite fantasy setting. You may pick any setting but go for the core book/books. If you want Valdemar you get the original Heralds trilogy. For Pern, you get Dragonflight and Dragonquest. For Narnia you would get the four books with the Pevensie children. However, you’re not directly taking the setting but using it as an outlines: geography, character types, magic style, etc. You can also get characters and broad setting plot lines (wars, etc) from here.

Imagery and story types: Use one entire year’s output of your favorite comic company. From these get your imagery to describe fights, plots and motivations for NPCs, and even NPCs outright. Where the fantasy books provided your macro scale outline the comics provide your micro scale inspiration. For me it would probably be either 1977 DC or 1984 DC (I was always more of a DC fan), but you could do some minor or even indie company. The reason I say pick a year at a company over the run of one comic is there is more likely to be a distinct flavor to a given year than to a given comic, especially at the two majors.

For example, imagine your next Microlite20 supplemented with Testament game built using Narina (as above) with the DC 1984 run. Or imagine a Mutant Future game supplemented with Palladium’s After the Bomb that took its broad outline from Farmer’s Dark Is the Sun and the 1971 DC run (which brings in all of Kirby’s Fourth World among other things).

I think Jeff’s proposal was a brilliant idea. I think mine is pretty good, but I’d love to see others of you post formulas that you’ve used or just think would be interesting. Limited pallet is a powerful creative force. A sense of direction is as well.

Mentzer Dungeon: Setting

Last time out I selected a scenario for my Mentzer Dungeon. The next step is to select a setting. We are again provided with a brief list of possible settings but they come with no notes. In fact, while the scenario listing is about half a page the setting section is barely a paragraph. I suspect this foreshadows the coming influence plot would play in TSR modules. The handful general settings listed (and even the book admits there are plenty more) are:

  • Castle or Tower
  • Caves or Cavern
  • Abandoned mine
  • Crypt or Tomb
  • Ancient Temple
  • Stronghold or Town

That isn’t much to work with. Let’s look at what we have in the scenario and see if we can’t find some hints for a setting. The scenario is the party learns of a large reward to rescue a group of five kidnapped women who were carried off by subhumans into the wastes to the south. The women are actually slave girls being brought from the pleasure cities of the east by a local merchant for a brothel he planned to open. So, we need some kind of setting appropriate to “the wastes” and being inhabited by “subhumans”.

If we lookup wastes on Wikipedia we get essentially an article on garbage. However, heading to the disambiguation page we find wastelands as an option. Following up on that word we wind up on its disambiguation page. The very first entry is a definition, A landscape devoid of nutrients, soil and/or moisture; see also, overgrazing, slash and burn, deforestation, erosion, scorched earth. The second entry is about a concept in Celtic mythology, The Wasteland is a Celtic motif that ties the barrenness of a land with a curse that must be lifted by a hero.. Now we’re cooking with gas.

So, subhumans of some kind (we’ll leave the kind to the next step) have kidnapped slave girls into a land that is devoid of nutrients, soil or moisture and whose barrenness is the result of a curse heroes can lift. While the stereotypical idea would be a desert I want something more. It is times like these that random reading can come to the forefront.

Sitting in a draft post for this blog is an article about visiting a forbidden Japanese island. The island is basically a huge abandoned coal mining complex called Battleship Island. I guess taking that as inspiration moves us to an abandoned mine, but I doubt this is what Moldvay or Mentzer had in mind.

However, the idea of “the wastes” seems bigger than one island and an island per se seems out of place. I’m going to draw upon a second recent reading, the old Marvel black and white Planet of the Apes. With this we have an idea for the wastes, the forbidden zone. It is a barren land puncuated by a variety of ruins. One ruin, in particular, will be an old mining company town with closely clustered apartment and mining buildings. In a Traveler game they might border on being an arcology. The presense of the mine allows for some underground levels, but I think I’ll focus on one or two apartment buildings for now as the subhuman’s lair. For the surrounding wastes I’ll go with a grey, ashen land that has a faint bluish glow in areas at night, borrowing the Planet of the Apes forbidden zone more or less whole.

So, our adventure, before any maps are drawn can be summed up as:

You hear that a raiding party of subhumans has kidnapped women from the last caravan from the east as well as exotic luxuries imported by the merchant Pali. He has offered a reward for retrieving the women. He can tell you the subhumans tend to camp in a ruined mining town barely into the Wastes to the south and provides a map to it.

Tomorrow, we will discuss exactly who the subhumans are in Step 3: Select Special Monsters

Other articles in this series:

Mentzer Dungeon: Scenario

The first step in creating a dungeon in both Mentzer and Moldavy’s versions of basic is selecting a scenario. Here we already see drift from OD&D and even Holmes. The idea of a scenario at all is absent from The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures which merely provides a sample dungeon. Holmes does not provide guidance directing a scenerio, but does discuss the background of its sample dungeon.

Mentzer provides several scenarios with a brief description:

  • Recovering Ruins
  • Exploring the Unknown
  • Investigating an Enemy Outpost
  • Destroying an Ancient Evil
  • Visiting a Lost Shrine
  • Fulfilling a Quest
  • Escaping from Enemies
  • Rescuing Prisoners
  • Using a Magic Portal
  • Finding a Lost Race

My natural inclination is to go with the destroying an ancient evil. The description reads

The ‘evil’ is a monster or NPC, but the exact type is not known. It may have been deeply buried and reawakeed by recent digging, exploring, and so forth.

But I’m wondering if natural inclination is just another phrase for laziness or lack of creativity. So let’s brainstorm some other options.

Rescuing prisoners sounds like it could be interesting:

Valuable or important persons are being held prisoner by an evil group (bandits, orcs, a magic-user with allies, etc). The party may be hired, or may simply be seeking an announced reward. The party may be the guards for a person negotiating the ransom demands

Yeah, I like that one. Still, ‘rescue the princess’ is a bit cliche so what variants can we do. I’m still down with beautiful women captives in a fine Burroughs tradition. Actually, why not twist it a little and use the most reviled sword and planet series for inspiration, Gor. I really like Trollsmyth’s Slaves of Shkeen last month. So, the captives to be rescued could be slaves. Given my bent they’ll have to be slave girls.

So, here’s the setup. The scenario will see the party learning of a large reward to rescue a group of five kidnapped women who were carried off by subhumans into the wastes to the south. The women are actually slave girls being brought from the pleasure cities of the east by a local merchant for a brothel he planned to open.

Tomorrow: Setting

Other articles in this series:

Mentzer Dungeon: Introduction

This week I pulled the trigger on BCS Redbox and BCS Rebox Meetup. Our first meeting will be Sunday the 17th of April.

I don’t have anyone signed up but me. As such, I need to be ready to run something. While I have a ton of modules and such I thought, “since we’re playing Mentzer why not build a dungeon by the book.”

So, over the next week I’m going to try and pretend I’ve never done this before and design a dungeon step by step with random stocking of most rooms and all the other hallmarks of Mentzer’s procedure. For those wonder, the outline isn’t much different from Moldavy’s outline but the text is somewhat different.

For those who don’t have Mentzer handy the steps are:

  1. Choose a Scenario
  2. Decide on a Setting
  3. Select Special Monsters
  4. Draw the Map
  5. Stock the Dungeon
  6. Fill in the Final Details

My goal in this is two fold. First, I’d like to get back to basics and see if I can rediscover things I’ve forgotten, both in process and in response. Second, I’m hoping these posts will inspire those, especially those who have never designed a dungeon, to take the leap.

Other articles in this series:

Buried Treasures: Hellpits of Nightfang

If I was going to give a new Dungeon Master of any edition of D&D, yes even 4th edition, a module to say “hey, here’s how it is done” I have to admit it wouldn’t be from TSR. In fact, it wouldn’t even be a D&D module but a Runequest one. I’d hand him Hellpits of Nightfang by Paul Jaquays and published by The Judges Guild. Fortunately it is available as a PDF for under $3.


Hellpits of Nightfang details a three limestone sinkholes as well as the caves and tombs attached to them. The pits are the home of a pair of vampires, a pack of wolves and other assorted creatures. It has fifteen numbered locations. They are all named as well for added character. While the entire module is thirty-six pages long much of that is white spaced with lines for notes. Major characters (the two vampires and one wolf) each take about a page for stat blocks with note space while minor creatures run as many as five to a page. A very brief history of the two vampires as well as a hero’s tomb in the sinkholes is provided.

What makes Hellpits of Nightfang an ideal model for a new Dungeon Master? First, it is a quintessential location adventure. It has absolutely no plot. In fact, I can summarize the entire background in four sentences. Nightfang is a vampire so old his real name is forgotten even by local villagers. In life he was a priest of a death cult and sacrifices his victims to his god meaning he rarely creates vampires. The one exception was the ugly daughter of a local farmer he has turned and who is now his companion. The sinkholes also include the tomb of a local hero that floods now that the climate is wetter. That’s it. The only mention of anything beyond the pits is a local populace including at one farmer now short an ugly daughter. It is a prime example of creating something and let the player’s action define the story.

Second, Jaquays uses a standard format used previously in Snakepipe Hollow. It creates a much more open feeling than many TSR modules from the same time period. It demonstrates the difference between designed set pieces and more dynamic locations. While some might object to the amount of detail of this key format for a beginner I think adopting this format would be a huge help. It is a prime example of expert created rules that might stifle experts forced to use them but that provide a marked advantage for beginners.

Finally, the adventure has some interesting set pieces. Without giving too much away Nightfang has some interesting items and ways of using them you might not consider. The flooded tomb has a very interesting pool. There are also some interesting traps of a type I’ve yet to see in many OSR discussions.

All in all, this is an excellent adventure. While a classic location adventure it provides a lot of contrast to many modules. It is small enough to wrap your head around the whole thing and see how it is put together. I think it is an excellent first adventures for a new dungeon master, especially of the old school.