Thursday, October 23, 2014

GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With series is complete

In case you missed any of these - here is the whole "GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . " series of Daily Illuminators from SJG's website.

GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Sean Punch
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Phil Masters
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . David Pulver
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Peter Dell'Orto
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Matt Riggsby
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Bill Stoddard
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Hans-Christian Vortisch
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . Kenneth Hite
GURPS Fourth Turns 10 With . . . PK

There is a whole thread about this on the SJG forums, too, but I reproduced the links above for your convenience if you missed any. It felt good to be part of that select group.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade

Part 2 of a 5-part look at the Slavers series.

Here is my review of A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity.

For my reviews in general, please check out the reviews page.

A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade
by Harold Johnson with Tom Moldvay
Levels 4-7
40 pages, including one page of maps, plus maps inside the cover
TSR 9040

A2 is the second in the Slavers series of adventures for AD&D. Like the rest of the series, it was originally a tournament adventure. Also like A1, it seems to have been two rounds - one above ground, one below.

It takes place in and under a stockaded keep. The setup is that the group found that this fortress is a front and a way station for slavers, not just, er, innocent caravans of evil humanoids going through a dangerous land. The group is tasked with finding out what's going on there, and to find out the next step on the path that leads to to the nefarious slave lords.

Once again, an escaped slave gives you a way in - a slave climbed out of the gatehouse's second floor via a rope of rags, and as the escape wasn't detected the rag is still there. The lack of aggressive patrolling (or cleaning, or housekeeping of any kind) is blamed on the humanoids being pretty lax about security. Either way, done by the tournament, you get right up into an abandoned section of the gatehouse and then need to work your way into the keep proper. The tournament basically bypasses one of the big problems with a fortress - it's not meant to let you access the interior easily.

From there, the party has to deal with a number of monsters, lots of guards, the usual traps and set-pieces that this series features prominently. Like A1, you get a lot of excellent traps and very tactically interesting set-piece battles. One thing I forgot to mention in my review of A1 is that they give zoomed in tactical maps of those set-piece battles, so you can see exactly how the various combatants are arrayed from the start (and, possibly, show to the players to make it even more clear.) The foes use the terrain and special weapons and combined-arms tactics well. None of the big fights are solvable with just a single fireball and some good damage rolls. A few come with pre-determined starts and unavoidable NPC actions, though, which can be annoying. But not all of them, and tactically clever players versus tactically clever foes using their surroundings to give them home field advantage can't help but be fun.

The traps as equally good, and make sense in a fortress - they're generally manned traps, or ones you can see being a minor annoyance to the occupants but a major problem for unprepared attackers even if they're careful and wary. Traps backed by troops is the norm here.

The evil leaders in the adventure are given just enough development to make them stand out and interesting. Markessa, the mad scientist-wizard (and yes, there is an owlbear nearby - it's the zeppelin and monocle of magic-using mad scientists), a blind swordsman, disguised monsters, named weapons (even if non-magical) - there is a lot of flavor here. The leaders are also described in a special section up at the front of the module, too, making it easy to know who you'll need to deal with if the adventurers make repeated delves. The strategy of the fort to repeated attacks is also covered, as is what they'll do with you if you surrender (my advice is - don't.) It is sadly lacking an overall roster and notes about reinforcements, something that would be extremely valuable to a GM trying to actually deal with multiple delves without a lot of prep time in between to figure out who is left and where they go.

Also, the adventure comes with four new monsters - weirdly out of alphabetical order (Phantom, Boggle, Cloaker, Haunt.)

"EXAMPLE VI: The party discovers a fortress and attacks."
- Gary Gygax, The Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 105.

Ever wonder what fortress the DMG is talking about?

It's very possibly the one in A2.

The expanded, non-tournament version is much more lethal. In the tournament foes won't pursue and an alerted fortress merely triggers a few (admittedly nasty) traps, and the fortress is reduced to a narrow path of set encounters. In the expanded version, there are more guards, more encounter areas, wandering monsters (including strong patrols), and pursuit will be active. So there are more enemies, more places to deal with, and they are more alert and more active. Not only that, but a few minor encounters in tournament play (like an haunted section of the fortress) are expanded to be full, and quite dangerous, encounters.

In short, the fortress is bigger (more areas to explore), had more active occupants, and what is there is often more directly lethal and complex.

There are some very cool encounters, too - a madman, slaves, the "caveling" cast-offs of Markessa, and more like that. There are some ways to bypass the traps (since the occupants might need an easier way around), and some chances to avoid combat. A few folks will live an let live, if you do so first. Others will actually ally with you, including some (at first) seemingly unlikely ones.

It all makes sense together, and it's a very cohesive fortress with a lot going on in it.

But generally, a group of 9 3rd/3rd-6th level tournament adventurers can handle the tournament portion, but no way that same group will handle the expanded fortress.

War Stories

For most of the reasons aboven, this adventure was one my players never cleared. It was just too much for the levels and their numbers. No one even got down to level two, few people got far into level one. Considering the age of the guys I was playing with at the time I ran this, it's not a surprise. Mostly people dithered around on the upper levels, alerted guards, got shot up, ran away. No one really got interested in continuing the adventure.

This was also the place where Playing D&D with Juvenile Delinquents happened.

In fact, when I later ran the slaver series, I just skipped this and went right to the later bits.

This isn't to say it's a bad adventure. It's not. It's just that the numbers make it so lethal, the setpieces are so dangerous, that you probably can't get through it at low levels. I'd use this - and I have used pieces of it! - but it's a rough module for its supposed actual use unless you run it strictly as a two-part tournament run. As a ready-to-go evil fortress with secret horribleness underneath it, or something to mine from, it's excellent.

How is it for GURPS?

Like a lot of AD&D modules, it's not bad, but you'll need to adjust the numbers or raise the power level of the PCs. A fortress in GURPS is going to be extremely lethal instead of merely lethal like in D&D. But the set-piece fights and traps will be possibly more interesting since both sides have so many more tactical options. You just need to be extremely careful running this "as written" but with GURPS because of the sheer number of foes. A smart party will sneak in a back way, if they can, and get out - or bring an army and lay siege to it. A straight-up assault is likely to fail. And as usual with AD&D modules, the opponents need a little more access to magical support to prevent simple spells from being win buttons - but not all of them. The leaders generally have some magical support, and unlike many adventures they don't fight one-on-many.

Overall: Good stuff. The art is excellent, too. Better for plunder than run as written for the levels listed. But for those of you who eye the Keep on the Borderlands and think it's better to plunder the Keep, well, try this stockade on for size.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dying in Traveller chargen, analyzed

I really enjoyed reading this post:

Traveller And Dying Before You Play

For what it's worth, back in the day we generally:

- skipped the death roll
- treated the death roll as "injured and left the service"
- fudged the death roll

I'm not sure how much we really did of the whole dying in chargen thing. It seemed odd. It made for a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, rolling up guys I'd never play. But at the same time I think it had zero effect on our actual rolled up and played characters.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Secret GURPS Project: Into the finishing first draft edits

This past weekend I finished my "specifics" editing on my draft. Pretty much, this means that all of the "this should be 7 points, not 6" or "You got this wording wrong" or "these aren't in alphabetic order" or "the page reference is to page 21-22, not just 21" kind of edits are done.

Now, I'm re-passing through the draft for the general errors - formatting errors, Rampant Capitalization, missing page refs, ensuring alphabetical order, etc.

So it's coming along nicely. Lots of very specific and extremely sharp comments by Sean Punch have helped immensely, and the draft that goes up for a larger review will be much better for it.

The general edits begin right now, so it's post this post and get back to the GURPS mines to chip out more quality formatting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DF Felltower Languages

So what languages do I have in my DF game?

I've studied linguistics, but what I find fascinating about languages would bore my players, so none of that shows here. It's purely color, and it's surprisingly easy to get good at languages in Felltower. It's mostly grossly simple stuff.

Common: The main language of the area. Not actually called Common but I haven't named it. It surprisingly matches English word for word. Odd, that. Alphabetical writing.

Dwarvish/Dwarven: A defunct language. It's like Yiddish in East Coast US English - it's not a language so much as words that pepper speech. You can learn it and use it, especially to read older dwarven books, but it's not a common means of communication anymore. Might be worth schlepping a Dwarven dictionary with you, but it might not. Only your dwarven grandmother uses this anymore, and whichever thing you call it - Dwarven, or Dwarfish - is the term she doesn't use and it breaks her heart to hear you say it that way. Rune-like writing.

Elder Tongue: An old language, out of current use. Used back in the day by evil wizards, ancient scholars, and still used today by ancient beings, usually of great evil. Not a great way to impress your local clergy, who might report you to the Inquisitors if you walk around showing you know this. Of course some Inquisitors will know it well, to better fight their enemies! Ancient magic books are often written in this language. Wizards sometimes (okay, often) learn this in its written form only, to read forbidden texts and learn dark secrets.

Elvish: A lyrical, beautiful language, with lots of gentle and extended sounds. Used by elves.

Goblin: A fast, liquid language - tonal, like Mandarin. Fluid script, like Thai, Arabic, or Burmese. Used by goblins, largely, and some humans who trade with goblins.

Gnomic: The language of gnomes, this is a very difficult language to follow, deliberately obscure. It's full of ambiguous terms and pithy aphorisms and maxims and sayings, none of which are really clear. It almost seems like gnomes are trying to not communicate with you. Or each other.

Halflinglish: Another "dead" language. Mostly its terms survive in halfling speech in Common much as dwarven terms are used in dwarven speech. Its written form is very obscure and mostly shows up in cookbooks, housekeeping advice books, and halfling mafia coded messages.

Molotovian: The dialect of common spoken in the troll-plagued east.

Orcish: A harsh, guttural language that has more swear words than any two other languages combined. Mostly used by orcs, ogres, trolls, and other folks who socialize with orcs. The written form is crude but workable.

So far, that's it. There are hints of other languages, and some races clearly speak their own, but they haven't been named or described yet. No one knows what the six-fingered beings speak, for example, and no one tried to talk to the lizardmen (who have civilization but lack telepathy, so they must have some kind of speech.) Lots of underdwellers use one or more of the above. Gargoyles often speak common, for example, although it's not clear why. Others use Orcish or Goblin, depending on who they hang out near.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity

I finally had some time to get back to reviews. Recently the A-series of modules came up in a discussion about capturing PCs by fiat. So I re-read that quickly and then decided to get right onto reviewing the whole series. Unlike the Giants series, these are long - the entire G1-3 is not much bigger than A1, so I will do each A-series module in turn.

I also have - and ran - A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords. However, although it includes modules 1-4, it also changes substantially how you approach those adventures and fills in things in between. Since they are fairly big changes, I decided I should deal with that supermodule in its own post.

A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity
by David Cook
Levels 4-7
24 pages plus maps inside the cover
TSR 9039

A1 is the first of a four-part series of tournament adventures. According to the module, the original tournament was split into two rounds:

- One round of exploring the upper works, and discovering the way into the sewers.

- One round of exploring the sewers, and eliminating the boss slaver and finding the clues that lead to A2 The Secret of the Slavers Stockcade.

The released adventure is much larger, with an expanded upper works and a much-expanded sewer level with multiple connections up and down between them.

The setup for the adventure is simple - the disorganized lords along the coast have long tolerated the raids of yellow-sailed slave ships, or bribed their way out of them. Recently, the slavers have grown more bold and aggressive and burned villages and ignored agreements. Instead of sending a fleet, they decide to send a few parties of adventurers [tournament setup, right there] to try to infiltrate as potential slave buyers and backtrack the slaver's bosses.

The PCs show up at the ruined city of Highport, set in the Pomarj of Greyhawk. The city is inhabited by humanoids and half-humanoids, and visited regularly by slave traders and outsiders. So they can easily slip in and into the secret back door of the slaver's Highport headquarters, which was revealed by an escaped slave before they left on their mission. The lax guards don't really notice the intrusion.

The module puts a lot of effort into wandering monsters in the ruins, along the walls, etc. - none of which matter at all in tournament play. It only matters if you chose to run the game without the players getting secret inside knowledge to let them get into the place, or didn't allow them smoothly sailing through the ruins of Highport. If you follow the same setup for non-tournament play, the additional detail isn't worth very much. I did like that there is a "Wandering Monster Roster" - as you kill them off, you cross them off, and there is a limit to how many giant crocodiles or half-orc cleric/assassins you can just blunder into. As well, it's made clear that any human-led slave buyers you run into will simply try to deal with you, not fight you, as they aren't there for that at all.

The adventure overall is very good.

It's well written, although often fairly dense - no encounter is just a statline, and even empty rooms get some text and explanation. The box text is clear and doesn't commit the crime of telling you what you do or starting interactions - it's purely descriptive and covers what you can see, hear, and smell.

There are some clear instructions for what happens when PCs try interesting tactics, too, to disable traps, use noxious materials as weapons, and so on.

Not only that, the setting itself is pretty cool. The ruin is clear, and often the PCs are wading through water, dealing with burned-out rooms and timbers, plants grow down into tunnels, and so on. It's a creepy place that feels like an undermaintained sewer under a ruined building turned fortress. Everything in the adventure, including the choices of monsters, supports that. Some monsters are interesting choices (this adventure features dopplegangers at several points, for example) but all make sense. It doesn't feel like a random funhouse but rather like an active yet badly maintained slave pit.

Additionally, many of the fights are tough. Foes use cover, flanking, trickery, special weapons, weapon mixes, and sheer numbers to challenge you. That's even before you get to terrain and special monsters. Several of the fights are potentially overwhelming for even a fresh party but come well after you've had a chance to get worn down. None of it seems unfair, just hard. The tournament version, of course, cuts many of those out. In the tournament version, you get all of the set pieces but not as many foes to deal with. In non-tournament play, you'd almost want to err on the high side of levels and numbers to deal with all of the extras you simply can't avoid unless the GM makes some unreasonably PC-friendly decisions.

As I mentioned a few times, this was a tournament adventure, and expanded for publication. In the tournament, the fact that the upper works is one round means you can't really have half of it unlikely to get explored. As a result, the connection between the two halves of the upper works is simple - there is a small bit of underground passageway you can follow from one to the other. In non-tournament play, that small bit of passageway is expanded into a large encounter area with active and dangerous foes and a connection to the slave pits themselves. In other words, it's easily possible - and in fact, if resource expenditure is even a small concern - to avoid half of the upper works. This is both good and bad. The good is that it means the dungeon offers some real choice, and it's not purely linear. The bad is that generally half of the upper works is ignorable, is better ignored, and takes serious exploration to get to without much reward for doing so besides some assorted loot and hard fighting. As my war stories section will go into, no one did that exploration in my two sorties into this adventure.

The adventure also includes two new monsters (the Aspis, an insectoid race; and the Giant Sundew.) It also has the original tournament scoring, which interestingly placed a higher premium on rooms explored than PC survival. Better to clear the place with high casualties than the not clear it, which meets the mission description well. There are also nine tournament characters, ranging from 3rd/3rd level to 6th. They had great names, like "Ogre" the human fighter with 18(56) STR, Dread Delgath the magic-user, and Phanstern the illusionist.

The illustrations are all by Diesel LaForce, Jim Roslof, Bill Willingham, and especially by Jeff Dee - who did the cover and several excellent interior pieces as well.

War Stories

This module is special to me in that it's the only Slave Lords adventure I ever went on as a player. I ran a solo 6th ot 7th-level Archer (from Best of Dragon Magazine III). I pretty much snuck in, went down the sewar levels, ran around fighting aspis for a while, and then fled the dungeon. It was fun, especially when I was pretty much lost and being chased. I never completed the adventure, but it didn't matter.

Years later I ran this on its own, as supposedly part of the A1-4 supermodule, but I used the setup from the original. My players went in the back way and right down to the sewer levels and cleared much of it out before a disastrous fight got them all captured or killed. The couple of players who decided to keep playing were okay with being slaves for a bit, and it lead to a whole different (and pretty amazing) side campaign. I do also remember running this for my Elementary School group, but nothing beyond that - I just have vivid memories of using some critical hit rules in an early setup fight for it. It's possible the campaign ended before they reached A1.

In neither case did half of the upper level ever matter. Something that was unavoidable and the whole point of the upper level in the tournament, by dint of the changes to the map, was actually hard to encounter. Like I said above, this is good and bad. I kind of feel bad about it, because you miss some awesome set-piece fights there and some trickery and nastiness - all of which, once defeated, makes for great adventuring stories. Bypassing them entirely, not so much. I don't think my players even knew they missed anything.

I like so much about this adventure's set-pieces - cool tricks to introduce reinforcements, use of cover, special weaponry, tricky battlefields, reinforcements, trickery (which is detectable if you play well), and special foes. I deliberately crafted a section of Felltower (the Flooded Prison) to use the sunken slave pits and fighting along the narrow tops of the cages in my current game.

Overall, a good adventure either as a whole or to plunder from.

If you like this review, you might like the consolidated Reviews page.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Guide to Medieval Coins (free stuff)

One of my friends sent me a link to this - it's a free PDF on medieval English coins from 1066 until 1544.

Lots of detail on the inscriptions, many pictures of coins, and good inspiration for your own coinage in your own games!

Introduction to Medieval Coins

Here is a straight link to the PDF.
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