Monday, November 23, 2015

Mystara Monday: AC2 - Combat Shield and Mini-adventure

This week will likely be a short one, like the item we're taking a look at. AC2 is a DM's screen for the Basic and Expert rules and includes a short (8 page) booklet containing a short adventure that can be dropped in pretty much wherever the DM likes.

None of these monsters appear in the adventure.
Not even cut-rate Man-Thing

The combat shield is a pretty standard example, though a little boring for the players. Where later screens typically have art across the entire screen, this one only has the cover art. The middle part is the back of the item and has the typical back-cover blurb, and the final third has experience tables for all the character classes.

Okay, there is this little picture of a halfling running like mad.
The interior has all the typical tables; saving throws, to-hit rolls, rolls to turn undead, and so forth. Nothing special, but always useful to have at a glance. I'm not certain if this was released before or after the Companion rules set (which covers levels 15-25). Saving throw, hit roll, and thieves' skill tables go to level 25, so they must have had at least some of it ready. Other tables however, such as character levels, stop at 14. That may just have been for space reasons though.

The included adventure is titled The Treasure of the Hideous One and is a short wilderness adventure, written once again by David Cook, which leads the party into a swamp near the town of Luln in search of a treasure rumored to have been found there a century before. Luln is located in the westernmost part of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and mention is made of a 'Duke Stefan the Hermit' who was ruler 100 years ago. This gets retconned in later works, where it's established that the current Duke Stefan is the founder of the Duchy.

The way to the treasure takes the party through a few encounters including a vengeful ghost from a previous expedition and a group of bandits with a rather clever plan to ambush and rob the PCs. The treasure itself is found on an island inhabited by a vampire and a tribe of cay-men. Cay-men are a new monster in this adventure, one foot tall lizard men who live in a small village of dirt mounds. Much like the rakasta and aranea from The Isle of Dread, the cay-men show up again in later modules and are a uniquely Mystaran race. Eventually they even were given stats for use as PCs, although they were sized up to 2 foot tall by that point. I prefer the 1 foot tall version, as the idea of tiny lizard tribesmen with spears amuses me greatly. An adventuring party of nothing but cay-men would probably be very interesting to build a campaign around.

It's not a long adventure, but it is a well-written one with encounters that are more interesting than the typical "here's some monsters kill them" that we were used to at this point. There are a number of opportunities for player intelligence to factor in, and even if the DM doesn't want to run the overall treasure hunt the encounters would be pretty easy to drop in elsewhere with little modification.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X5 - Temple of Death

This week we have part two of the Desert Nomads module series, adventure module X5: The Temple of Death. This adventure is a direct continuation of the previous one, picking up at the entrance to the Great Pass which leads from the Sind Desert into the land of Hule, where the Master reigns.

Bright red crab-pincered elephant monsters absolutely
appear in this module.

Where the previous module's Sind was inspired by Hindu mythology, this module is a bit reminiscent of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle. Hule would not seem out of place in the Dreamlands, and a couple of the new monsters have a distinctly Lovecraftian feel to them. The hideous elephant-thing on the cover is a malfera, which is described as being native to 'The Dimension of Nightmares'. This module also introduces the Spectral Hound which is basically a Hound of Tindalos and hails from the 'Dimensional Vortex.' For now that just means they're extra creepy and unnatural, but the Immortals Set will eventually work the Dimension of Nightmares and the Vortex into a cosmology unique to Mystara.

The bite of a spectral hound can cause a character to fade from reality entirely.

The first portion of the adventure covers the trip through the Great Pass. As with Master of the Desert Nomads there are encounters to be used no matter which way the adventurers travel, but there are also a number of placed encounters including a fake dragon head being used to guard the entrance to the pass, a tribe of geonids (small creature which look like boulders), and a mammoth that falls from the sky and has a chance to crush a character (a roc dropped it). Also there's the Well of the Moon. The Well has a number of powers, but the most fascinating is that on nights with a full moon a ladder of moonbeams appears and the characters can climb it to reach the Kingdom of the Moon. Said Kingdom is left to the DM to create and the module states "If you do not want the players to go to the moon, you may ignore this power." It seems to me that travelling to the moon might get the party a bit sidetracked, but what do I know?

Once through the Great Pass, the part reaches Hule which is rather dark and unpleasant. Hule is described as a hagiarchy, ruled by "holy men." The Master is the ultimate ruler, watching over things from the Temple of Death. A group of secret police called the Diviners search for criminals, both of the traditional sort and those guilty of having "wrong thoughts." It's portrayed as a fairly functional country on the whole, although one unwelcome to free thought.

As their mission is to seek out the Temple of Death, it's assumed the adventurers will do that and attempt to find and destroy the Master. If they investigate enough, they can piece together bits of information telling of a holy man named Hosadus who is connected to the Master and may even be able to determine that they are the same person. The Master is actually an avatar used by Hosadus to rule over Hule while his real, ancient and scarred, body lies in a casket in the Temple's mausoleum. To truly destroy the Master the party will have to find and destroy the body of Hosadus. It's possible, though unlikely, that the party could avoid having to face the Master entirely if they figure this out early enough.

Temple of Death is a solid module that presents a challenging foe as well as a new country that can be connected to the existing maps of the Known World (it hooks on west of the map from module X4), and adds a lot of fascinating elements to the cosmology of the world. Hule is also described in sufficient detail to give a good DM a base to work on to use it as a setting for more adventures. It's not surprising at all that Hule and the Master get revisited in a later module, as this one and its predecessor were very well received.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X4 - Master of the Desert Nomads

This week we're returning to adventure modules with a well-loved classic, David Cook's Module X4: Master of the Desert Nomads. This is actually the first half of a two-part adventure which is continued in module X5. There's also a sequel adventure, Red Arrow, Black Shield, which was written a couple of years later, albeit by a different author.

While the party can fight a juggernaut in this adventure,
it's a really terrible idea.

Master of the Desert Nomads was published in 1983 and adheres pretty well to the formula of previous Expert level modules; wilderness adventure punctuated by a few dungeon crawls. In this case the wilderness is the Sind Desert, a massive wasteland west of the nations shown in the world map included in The Isle of Dread. A great army has been making its way through Sind intent on attacking Darokin (here simply referred to as the Republic) and the PCs are assumed to have answered the call for mercenaries to help fight. After reaching a village near the front lines, the party are charged to find the Temple of Death far to the west and destroy it.

To reach the Temple of Death, the party first has to find the Great Pass; that's the focus of this module. The party must sail a raft up a river and through a swamp to reach the desert. There they have the option of joining a caravan to head west, or trying to go it alone. Eventually they should reach the monastery which guards the pass and will have to deal with the creatures which have taken over the monastery and masquerade as helpful monks to lure in travellers.

Also they will encounter a nagpa, which is totally
not a skeksis why would you even think that?

Unlike in The Isle of Dread, where each wilderness encounter was keyed to a specific hex, the encounters in this module are to be used when the party is in the appropriate terrain without concern for their specific location. Given the size of the wilderness map provided, this is pretty much necessary. The party isn't expected to exhaustively explore the area, instead they have a destination to reach and are expected to be focused on that.

Sind is a barren waste, but the adventure does imply that it was populated at some point in the past. Many monsters in the adventure are drawn from Hindu mythology such as the juggernaut, and the bhut (here a sort of were-undead that seems human during the day but sprouts fangs and claws at night and attempts to eat human flesh). The overall impression is that the culture that once existed here was based on that of India, but not a lot of detail is given. Eventually, nearly a decade later, Sind would be expanded on in the Champions of Mystara boxed set and established as being a current nation on the border of Darokin. For now though, we're not given any reason to believe that there's any civilization here.

This adventure was the one that taught me more than anything about the dangers of railroading your party. As written, the adventure states that an NPC near the beginning will cast the quest spell on a PC to have them seek and destroy the Temple of Death. The player of the PC in question was a bit annoyed by that and was adamant that, while they would go on the quest, they would then come back, find the NPC, and beat him senseless. Seriously, unless your players are just being contrary they'll probably go on the adventure. If they won't, trying to force them will not make things any better. It'll just make them ornery.

Next week we'll take a look a the second part of this adventure, Module X5: Temple of Death. We'll find out what's actually going on with the Master, explore the land of Hule and learn why it's not a nice place at all, and meet a few new monsters including what are bascially the Hounds of Tindalos by another name.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mystara Monday: AC1 - The Shady Dragon Inn

This week we've got a little change of pace from adventure modules. Starting in 1983 TSR published a series of 'Game Accessories' that ran the gamut from character sheets and Dungeon Master screens to collections of spells and magic items. Today we've got the first of these, AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn, written by Carl Smith.

Adventurers in their natural habitat

As the cover advertises, this is primarily a collection of pregenerated characters for use in your campaign. 73 of the characters are humans, divided between the four human character classes and another 32 are split up between the demihuman classes (remember, this is the D&D ruleset, so dwarf, halfling, and elf are classes as well as races). Each character is presented with a name, stat block including attribute scores, alignment, level, saving throws, and hit points, height and weight, armor and weapons, spells known (if applicable), and a short biography. There's also a lineup for each character class drawn by Jim Holloway. Of note, the dwarf lineup includes two dwarf women, both of whom have short beards. So as of this product, dwarven women in Basic D&D are bearded.

Handwritten notes courtesy of the previous owner

Characters range in level from 1 to 14, which was the limit of what the rules supported at this point. Each one only gets a paragraph of description, but that generally includes a couple of interesting personality traits or bits of history to make them stand out. For instance the dwarf Leo Leopard-Bait "hates wealthy men" and "kicks cats when he gets the chance." Zarkon the Blue "brags too much, and sometimes makes promises he cannot keep." It's enough to make each character distinct and to give a good DM something to build on when using them as NPCs.

The Shady Dragon Inn itself is also presented as a foldout map sized for use with miniatures. Handy if you plan to use the inn as a base of operations for the PCs, especially if the odd tavern brawl breaks out on occasion. A short description gives a rundown of the owner and employees (all drawn from the pregens), prices, and the general state of the inn. Again, it's fairly terse but enough to serve as a base to build on.

Finally, there are a few more characters presented here that I haven't mentioned yet, under the heading 'Special Characters.' In 1983 a licensed line of action figures hit the shelves; although the figures were marketed as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, D&D stats for them (including a few characters whose figures were never produced) are presented here. Most importantly this means we have D&D stats for the evil WARDUKE.

WARDUKE's contract requires that WARDUKE's
name always be printed in all caps.

As far as the development of Mystara, nothing here really contributes to the setting. Some of the characters do show up as pregens in future adventure modules; I know that X6: Quagmire! is one of those. Apart from that none of them enter into the ongoing setting that I know of. The Shady Dragon Inn does make an appearance in the Tower of Doom arcade game in a town in Darokin. That's as close as it comes to being made canon in the setting.

This is an accessory I really wish I had had when I was running D&D regularly. Coming up with NPCs on the fly, especially good names for NPCs, has always given trouble so a list of ready made characters to fall back on would have been useful. There are quite a few in here that I'd love to use in a game some time in the future. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Repairing the Curse

After being somewhat negative about Curse of Xanathon in my latest post I've been thinking a lot about how I would fix its problems and run it in a game. I feel like, despite its flaws, there's a good adventure in there that doesn't really need a whole lot of modification to use. I rarely run published adventures exactly as written anyway; even the best will need some tweaking to fit smoothly into an ongoing campaign.

Step one, in my opinion, is to establish some of the NPCs ahead of time to give the party more of a reason to get involved. We've got a few options here, and should probably use multiple.
  • Duke Stephen - The Theoden in this story. The entire adventure revolves around his strange behavior and trying to discern the reason and a way to cure it, so it's probably a good idea to introduce him ahead of time. The adventure is written for a level 5-7 party, so we can pretty easily get the PCs to Rhoona a level or two early and have an adventure or two using it as their base of operations. Having Duke Stephen portrayed as a fair and approachable ruler makes it clear that something has changed. Maybe have the Duke hold a feast to celebrate the groundbreaking of the new palace the dwarves are constructing for him.

  • Draco Stormsailer - The Grima Wormtongue. Draco is a former pirate and the current captain of the guard. He's also the obvious villain of the piece, yet the PCs don't actually encounter him until the very end of the adventure. Instead, let's have them run into him once or twice before the adventure. Play up his arrogance and comfort in his position. Possibly have him harass a PC rogue and try to shake him down with threats of prison. Give the players a reason to want to see Draco taken down.

  • Xanathon - The Saruman. I like the idea of Xanathon's part in this being entirely hidden from the PCs until they've uncovered evidence otherwise. Let them assume Draco is behind this on his own. Establishing the Temple of Cretia as doing good works in the city would be good. Perhaps have Xanathon be the questgiver for the adventure before this one, so the PCs can meet him and know him as a kind and compassionate man. Of course he had his own reasons for getting the pesky adventurers well out of town, but they don't know that.

  • Eric of Forsett - The high priest of Forsetta. First, let's drop his level a bit. Instead of not doing something because 'it wouldn't be lawful', it should simply be beyond his capability to take on the forces at play here. Also, cut the cryptic act. If he gets involved at all, it should be as a concerned citizen who has been approached by members of his flock who have suspicions about what's going on. It would make sense that members of the Ducal Guard would worship the lawful god in town, so have one of the younger and more idealistic guards come to Eric with his concerns. He could then introduce the guard to the PCs in hopes that they can help.

  • Grimmvat Stonebreaker - A dwarven stonemason. He shows up at the beginning of the adventure to get angry about the decree banning dwarves, and that's pretty much the last we see him. He's a good NPC to have the PCs meet earlier in their career and befriend. If one of the PCs is a dwarf, perhaps they're distantly related. Again, getting the PCs attached to him makes it more likely they'll want to help.

Maybe a less obviously evil symbol for Cretia while we're at it?

Next, what to do about the barracks section of the adventure? As written, the PCs are expected to fight their way through 50 or so guards to find Draco's office and search it for clues. My first thought is to just ditch the fighting part entirely and replace this bit with more investigation. That does cut a fair bit of treasure and XP from the adventure though. My solution, then, is to simply move the whole section. Let's say Draco has been slowly recruiting mercenaries over the past few weeks in preparation for his planned uprising. That works better with Xanathon's plans in any case, as he's hoping for a civil war that will weaken everyone; that only works if the Duke has a sizable force still loyal to him. In fact, let's have the highest level of the mercenaries be Cretia-followers who actually serve Xanathon and would betray Draco at the appropriate time.

So the PCs investigation will lead them to a derelict fort a ways outside of town where the mercenaries are being housed. We'll need to rewrite / cut a few of the encounters that only make sense in a guard barracks and maybe change the map up a bit, but mostly the encounters can be run as written. Instead of a note that spells out the whole plot, we can seed a series of more subtle clues as we go along. A larger than expected number of mercenaries with symbols or tattoos of Cretia perhaps, A payroll chest full of Ethengarian currency. A note alluding to a secret meeting at the temple of Cretia. If the players haven't decided the Temple of Cretia is their next stop by the time they reach the final room here then we can drop the obvious clue on them, but in most cases I wouldn't expect it to be necessary.

The Temple doesn't require much in the way of changes. I would allow the PCs to enter Xanathon's study while it's empty so they have some time to search it and notice the clues pointing to the shrine in the mountains before having Xanathon discover them tossing the place. Also, I'd cut the 'riddle' he tells them because really, if that's not on the evil overlord list it  should be. "I will not taunt the heroes with riddles that reveal my one weakness." Realizing that he can't be harmed combined with awareness of the shrine should be enough to point the players in the right direction. If it's not, I suppose we can have the Spuming Nooga come to them in a dream and show them the way.

I am INVINCIBLE! Let me tell you how!

Beyond this point, we can pretty much run the adventure as written. The shrine is populated by evil creatures and undead like any good dungeon, and the palace is mostly empty until the PCs find Draco and confront him. With just a few changes we've gone from a questionable mystery that repeatedly hits the PCs over the head with the clue-by-four to something that might actually surprise them. The core of the adventure was solid, the trappings just needed a little changing up.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X3 - Curse of Xanathon

It's time again for a look at a bit of D&D history. This week we've got another Expert level adventure, X3: Curse of Xanathon, by Douglas Niles. This adventure takes the party to another new area of the map, the Kingdom of Vestland, along the northern coast.

This scene will only occur if the PCs go the wrong way.
This is somewhat emblematic of the adventure as a whole.

The adventure takes place in the town of Rhoona, ruled by Duke Stephen (no, a different Duke Stephen). Rhoona is a decent sized town located on a fjord near the border with the dwarven nation of Rockhome. As such, there's a sizable dwarf population, many of whom have been employed by the Duke to construct a new palace. There is also a growing population of immigrants from the Ethengar Khanate.

The Ethengarians have brought their religion with them and have recently constructed a temple to their god, Cretia who is mysterious and strange and not at all evil at all, no really. This being early D&D, we need one church for each of the alignments. Cretia fills the Chaotic slot; in addition we have the Lawful Order of Forsetta and the best neutral church ever imagined, the Temple of the Spuming Nooga. The Spuming Nooga is worshiped by fishermen and sailors, takes the form of a giant spouting whale, and is the only one of these three that is neither evil nor an idiot.

As the adventure begins, the party are in a tavern (take a drink) in Rhoona and have learned that the Duke has recently been issuing strange decrees. First he declared that all taxes must be paid in beer, causing a beer shortage which has the dwarves in particular even crankier than normal. Then he declared that all horses must be ridden backwards while in town. A herald then announces the latest decree, that all dwarves are now banned from town. Any found within town after an hour has passed will be arrested, shaved, and stretched on a rack.

This gets the dwarves in the tavern in a bit of an uproar and one dwarven stonemason (who is wearing plate mail and carrying a battle axe because dwarves? I guess?) starts going on about how Draco Stormsailer, the captain of the guard, behind all of this. If the PCs approach him, he'll tell them there've been strange people hanging around the guard barracks and that someone should check it out. If they don't the high priest of Forsetta, who is hanging out disguised as a beggar, will whisper a cryptic clue as he passes. Apparently he has a good idea of what's going on, but can't take any action because he's lawful. And somehow that means he can't oppose an attempt to undermine his lawful ruler by dark magic, or something. I think Niles seriously misunderstands the definition of lawful here.

What's going on is that Draco is attempting to foment rebellion against the duke so that he can depose Duke Stephen and take his place. He's aided in this by Xanathon, the High Priest of Cretia, who has cursed the Duke with something similar to a feeblemind spell. Since Cretia aided him in inflicting the curse (as opposed to most cleric spells?) it can't just be removed in the normal fashion, an antidote is needed. Guess who has that? Also Xanathon is entirely invulnerable because Cretia stuck his soul in a diamond which is hidden in a shrine up in the mountains. Also, also, Xanathon is actually serving as an agent of the Khanate trying to weaken Rhoona so the Ethengarians can swoop in and conquer it.

The adventure, then, consists of five parts. First up, go to the barracks to try and find out what the hell's going on. The adventure basically assumes the players just start murdering their way through the guards to get to Draco, which seems a bit unheroic? Apparently directly opposing a villain is 'unlawful' but sending a bunch of dudes to kill all the towns guards is allowed? The adventure even makes it clear in the background that most of the guard, while loyal to Draco, have no idea what he's up to. Once they've reached Draco's room, the players find that he's not home, but he left an encrypted note on the table and a Helm of Reading Languages and Magic in a chest nearby.

Also, isn't it super cool to be evil like you and I both are?

While the adventurers were busy with that the Duke has outlawed fire, because it makes the sun jealous. With the evidence they now have, its presumed the players will go to the Temple of Cretia next to confront Xanathon. If they don't, the priest of Forsetta will get cryptic at them about it again. Fighting their way through a bunch of evil clerics, they will find Xanathon only to discover that he can't be harmed! He's super arrogant and riddles at them about it, as well as having a map on the wall with a big red mark where his super secret soul diamond is being kept. If the PCs are smart, they jump out the handy window and run like buggery. If they're not, he bludgeons them to death one by one with his mace and laughs.

Assuming the adventurers got a good look at the map while Xanathon was beating on them, they should now travel into the mountains to find the Shrine of Cretia. On the way out, they hear that the Duke has declared that meat is for horses now. There are a couple of paths once they get near the shrine; one leads to the chimera from the cover, the other to the shrine. The shrine is a short dungeon with fairly typical monsters; a bunch of various undead, some ogres, gargoyles, so on. At the end, guarded by a spectre, is the diamond. The players might think they need to destroy it, but no, they need to take it back to Xanathon. Once it's near him, he'll be vulnerable.

Now that they have the diamond, the adventurers can take out Xanathon, recover the antidote, kill Draco, and restore the Duke. He is, of course, grateful and rewards the PCs. How he plans to keep the peace since his entire guard force was brutally murdered is not detailed. Maybe he hires the dwarven army that are coming to burn the town after he apologizes to them.

As I already said, Curse of Xanathon is disappointing. There are the bones of a good adventure here, but the execution is just terribly ham-handed. The basic idea of an agent from another country trying to foment rebellion by cursing the ruler is good; there's a definite Grima Wormtongue vibe to that. Duke Stephen could be used as a patron for the adventurers in the future since he owes them big. I feel like there's a lot work needed to bring the adventure up to snuff though. Also, it needs more Spuming Nooga.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X2 - Castle Amber

Today we're having a look at the second of the D&D Expert level modules, Module X2: Castle Amber, written by Tom Moldvay. X2 is a weird module both in style and content. In many ways it's similar to Gary Gygax's later Wonderland-inspired Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, drawing both directly and indirectly from multiple literary sources including Zelazny, Poe, and most strongly, Clark Ashton Smith. Castle Amber also introduces a character who goes on to become incredibly important to the ongoing Mystara setting, Etienne d'Ambreville.

That's a 100 foot tall colossus formed of corpse flesh,
just so you're aware.

Castle Amber is split between a dungeon crawl (through the eponymous castle) and a more loosely describe adventure through the lands of Averoigne. Averoigne is described as a province of an alternate earth, based on the French province of Auvergne. Averoigne was the setting for a number of stories by the writer Clark Ashton Smith, four of which become mini-adventures in this module. Before reaching Averoigne, however, the adventuring party must brave Castle Amber and make it out intact.

The Amber family were originally the d'Ambreville's of Averoigne until they were forced to flee across dimensions and found refuge on Mystara in Glantri, a magocracy briefly described in The Isle of Dread. Being a family of powerful mages, the Amber family rose in power to the point that the head of the family was made a Prince of Glantri. The seventh Prince of the Amber family, Stephen Amber (or Etienne d'Ambreville) was one of the most powerful mages in history. Then the entire family and their mansion (Castle Amber) vanished. That was over a century ago.

The party goes to sleep one night on the road and wake to find themselves in the foyer of Castle Amber, penned in by a choking mist that prevents their leaving. To escape, they have to explore the mansion, encountering numerous members of the Amber family of varying levels of sanity, and ultimately find a gateway that transports them to Averoigne. In Averoigne, more adventuring is required to find a way back to the adventurer's home world.

The first of the Amber family the players meet is Jean-Louis.
He likes to put on boxing matches using artificial people.
He's one of the relatively sane ones.

Many of the encounters in the mansion draw from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, with clear references to Hop-Frog and The Fall of the House of Usher for example. Many of the Amber family have been cursed in some manner, often transformed into animal men. Even the encounters with normal monsters tend to be written in keeping with the off-kilter feel of the mansion, such as an ogre who killed Janette d'Ambreville and has been enchanted to believe it is her.

Also there's a woman and a unicorn sleeping in the garden.
Spoiler: She's a gold dragon. Don't touch her chest.

In the course of exploring the mansion, the party can learn that the family was cursed when Prince Etienne was murdered by his brother, Henri, and Henri's wife, Catharine. To escape, they will have to travel to Averoigne through a portal in the castle dungeon and find Etienne's tomb. This leads to the second portion of the adventure where the party must explore Averoigne to find four magical items which can be used to summon the tomb. Each of those items is a reward from a short adventure drawn directly from one of Clark Ashton Smith's stories.

On reaching the tomb the party discovers that Etienne is not truly dead, but was trapped within his tomb waiting for the adventurers to free him. He teleports them all back to Glantri, resurrects up to four characters that died during the adventure (there are a lot of save or die opportunities in this module), gives everyone a magic item, and vanishes. Adventure over.

This is a module that I've never had the opportunity to run, but have always wanted to. In a lot of ways it feels like something that might better fit in Ravenloft than Mystara; it has a gothic weirdness feel throughout that would be right at home in the Demiplane of Dread. I'd probably modify the hook so that the characters are actively seeking the home of the Amber family so that it's less of a railroad, and I'd definitely want to turn a lot of the save or die encounters into less fatal punishments. Overall though, it's a really neat module with a lot to recommend it.

As I mentioned before, Etienne becomes a key player as Mystara develops. We'll see that more in depth when we get to the Glantri Gazetteer and later the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set. In short though, after being freed from his state of living death he goes on to ascend to immortality through the use of the Nucleus of the Spheres, a nuclear reactor buried deep beneath Glantri in the remains of crashed spaceship. Mystara can be weird, y'all.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X1 - The Isle of Dread

It's time to explore one of the most famous D&D adventure modules of all time, and very likely the single most played adventure module ever, Module X1: The Isle of Dread.

Originally published in 1981, The Isle of Dread was included in every Expert Rules boxed set as an introductory wilderness adventure. The copy I have is the second version, revised to match up with the Mentzer revision of the Expert Rules. Mostly this involves a number of monsters being replaced due to being left out of the new rules (giant squids were replaced with water termites, a sea dragon with a hydra, and so forth.)

At its core, The Isle of Dread is an adventure inspired by Skull Island from King Kong. The party come into possession of pages from a ship's log describing the discovery of a mysterious island, the natives of which live on a small peninsula separated from the main island by a massive protective wall. The natives claim an ancient city in the center of the island holds great treasure, and the adventure assumes the lure of both exploration and profit will be enough to get the players hooked (a reasonable assumption.)

I suspect every D&D player above a certain age
recognizes this map.

On reaching the island the party finds an island of jungles and hills populated primarily by giant animals and dinosaurs (no giant apes, however.) The adventure itself consists of exploring the island, fighting monsters for their treasure, and ultimately reaching the island's central plateau where a temple ruin provides a short dungeon delve. It's less about the individual encounters on the island and more about the overall feel of exploration in uncharted wilderness far from civilization.

The Isle of Dread is also the adventure module that first provides a map of Mystara (though it's not called that yet, the map is simply of 'The Continent') and details each of the major countries shown on the map. One full page at the front of the adventure consists of a paragraph or two for each country, and is where things are established such as Glantri being a magocracy, Darokin's status as a merchant republic, or the Heldann Freeholds' resemblance to ancient Ireland. All of this information would be expanded on in later adventures and in the Gazetteers, but this is where it all started.

It's not even the Known World yet at this point.

A number of important creatures are introduced in this module as well, including nearly a dozen dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, including giant ground sloths and giant elk. There's a definite 'land that time forgot' feel to the whole thing. Also, a few new sentient races make their debut here, such as the aranea (giant spell-casting spiders), the phanaton (halfling-sized racoon / flying squirrel people), and the kopru (evil amphibious beings with mind control powers). This is also where the rakasta, a race of cat people, first appear; they go on to become an important race in Mystara, with other rakasta tribes showing up elsewhere in the world, as well as on the moon. Not the one you can see, the invisible moon. The moon rakasta ride flying sabertooth tigers and are patterned on feudal Japan. Rakasta are awesome, is what I'm saying.

I'm pretty sure this is the adventure I've run more than any other over the years; I can think of at least four separate campaigns that have visited it. I actually made a point of not using The Isle of Dread at level in one campaign since I knew many of the players had experienced it already. Instead I planned to have the party visit it much later, well after it had been discovered and explored by others. In more than one campaign players have planned to claim the island and make it their domain once their characters were high enough level and sufficiently wealthy to build strongholds.

Next week we'll move on to Module X2: Castle Amber, one of the weirdest adventure modules you'll ever see, and another that turns out be important to the development of Mystara. Also, part of it is set in France.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mystara Monday: Expert Rules

I had originally intended to continue on to the next of the B modules this week with a look at Module B6: The Veiled Society. As I worked on the post, however, it became clear that I was going to be talking about a very important step in the creation of Mystara out of order, and that we really needed to start moving chronologically if things are going to make sense. So instead we'll be looking at the Expert Rules Set this week, and the establishment of Karameikos as the core of the Known World setting that would become Mystara.

We've already seen that the Basic Rules went through three major revisions in its history. The Expert Rules similarly have two distinct versions; the differences between them are mostly minor, though very important when it comes to the history of Mystara. The original Expert Rules were written by David "Zeb" Cook as an extension of Tom Moldvay's revision of the Basic Rules in 1981. In 1983, Frank Mentzer revised both rules sets and then continued into the Companion, Master, and Immortal rules (all of which we'll get to eventually). As with the Basic Rules, the Mentzer revision is what I have.

With more beautiful Elmore art.

Instead of separate player and DM books, the Expert Rulebook is a single 64 page book. The first 20 pages are the player's section, including character advancement information up to level 14, new spells, and some new information related to wilderness adventures. The remainder of the book is the Dungeon Master's Section, and that's where the real magic is. The Expert rulebook is where rules for wilderness travel were introduced, along with rules for player strongholds and more in depth guidelines for running an ongoing campaign.

Strongholds were a major fascination for me when I got my hands on this book. Each class could build a stronghold of an appropriate type once they could afford it (and in most cases once they were a high enough level.) Fighters and clerics could build a castle, mages could build a tower, and thieves could build a hideout. Rules for construction times and costs were included in the DMs section, and I spent hours sketching out strongholds and figuring the costs involved in building them. Yes, even in the early days of tabletop gaming, player housing was absolutely a thing.

Wilderness travel was a huge addition to the rules, as the Basic Set and B module adventures tended to gloss over how the party went about getting to the dungeon they were invading. The Expert Rules introduce detailed rules for travel times, random encounters in the wilderness, and two and a half pages focused entirely on ocean travel. The X series modules took great advantage of that, as we'll see in coming weeks.

Most importantly, however, at least where Mystara is concerned is the map of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and associated 'Sample Wilderness and Human Town' section. This section, added in the Mentzer revision, gives us our first look at Karameikos and a basic rundown of its towns and important persons. It's here that we first learn of Duke Stefan Karameikos, ruler of the Grand Duchy. It's here that we are introduced to the evil Baron Ludwig von Hendriks and his Black Eagle Barony (though it's not yet explained why Duke Stefan allows such a villain to prosper). And it's here that we are given details about the small town of Threshold, where adventurers come from.

Also, it's ruled by a name level cleric. Don't mess with Threshold.

Among other things, the information about Threshold reveals that Bargle the Infamous took control of the ruins from the adventure in the Basic Rules while spying for the Black Eagle Barony. A page and a half of various interesting adventure hooks are also provided. For example, Ian, the blacksmith's son, has opened a museum where he displays taxidermied monster heads. "Many interesting bits of information can be found at the Museum of the Smith's son, Ian."

Along with the Expert Rulebook, the Expert Rules set also came with another set of dice (again, stolen from me twenty years ago) and a copy of the other contender for best known D&D adventure of all time, X1: The Isle of Dread. That's what we'll be looking at next week, where we'll visit the D&D equivalent of Skull Island and encounter so many dinosaurs. Also, evil mind control salamander guys. Seriously, they're the worst.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thalen Reads Little Fuzzy

Because if the Fuzzies are sapient beings, the Company's charter is automatically void. - Gerd Van Riebeek
This week we're having a look at a science fiction classic from 1962, H. Beam Piper's Hugo nominated novel Little Fuzzy. Far from the high tech starship filled fare that some fans seem to think science fiction used to entirely consist of, Little Fuzzy is a story of corporate overreach, legal maneuvering, and the question of just what defines sapience.

The story of Little Fuzzy takes place on the planet Zarathustra, a Class III uninhabited planet wholly owned for some years now by the Zarathustra Company, a corporation which has profited greatly from the riches of the frontier planet. Prospector Jack Holloway returns home from a days work to find a small furry humanoid creature has wandered into his hut. Befriending it, Jack takes to calling it 'Little Fuzzy' and adopts it as a sort of pet. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Little Fuzzy is much more intelligent than a dog or cat. He and his family show many signs of being sapient, and the question of their sapience is central to the story.

If Fuzzies are sapient, that means that Zarathustra is not a Class III uninhabited planet at all, but a Class IV inhabited planet. This would make the Zarathustra Company's charter null and void. Unsurprisingly, the higher-ups in the Zarathustra Company are horrified by this thought and decide to do their utmost to suppress and discredit any evidence of Fuzzy sapience.

Little Fuzzy is a book with hardly any physical conflict whatsoever; apart from one extremely important moment, all of the fighting over the fate of the Fuzzies and of the Company's charter takes place through legal maneuvering and sneakiness. At times I thought the Company was being overly sloppy, but when you consider the degree of effective omnipotence they've enjoyed in Zarathustra it becomes more believable that they would underestimate the abilities of a septuagenarian prospector and his friends.

Although the concept of space colonization is integral to the story, advanced technology is hardly in evidence at all. Apart from the veridicator, a high-tech lie detector, future tech is mentioned in passing if at all. Jack's rifle, for instance is not described as any more advanced than a typical real-life hunting rifle. Character interaction is what matters here, not fancy imaginary thingamajigs.

I can't recommend Little Fuzzy enough; this was a great book with enjoyable characters, a couple of clever twists, and some fascinating philosophical questions at its heart. You should absolutely read it, especially as it's in the public domain. See for yourself the fate of the Fuzzies, and the planet Zarathustra.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Giant Robots and Elder Things

Yesterday I was made aware of not one, but two Kickstarters that are entirely relevant to my interests. They're already both funded, but since stretch goals are a thing and in one case a stretch goal is the thing I really want, I'm sharing them with you. Do with this information as you will.

Do you want to drive an Atlas?

First up is BattleTech. The guys who made Shadowrun Returns want to make a turn-based BattleTech game for the PC. Do I really need to say more? BattleTech is the granddaddy of tabletop giant mech warfare, and it's an IP that's been missing from video games for years. We get some Mechwarrior stuff sometimes, but BattleTech is about the mechs, not the pilots. This one's a little weird as the base goal is just to create a skirmish game. A single-player storyline is unlocked as a stretch goal at $1,000,000 and PvP is the $2,500,000 stretch goal. The Kickstarter is only about $20,000 short of that first goal as I write this, so I think it's safe to assume it'll be reached. As for PvP, meh, I don't need it to be happy. $25 gets you super awesome mech combat from a team who have shown that they can do amazing things with classic gaming IPs.

Do you want to lose your mind?

Second, we have Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game. If you already know Call of Cthulhu there's a good chance that you know what Delta Green is, but for those not in the know Delta Green is a tabletop RPG that basically lets you do Majestic 12 for the Mythos. Where Call of Cthulhu investigators tend to be a rag tag bunch working on their own a Delta Green group will consist of federal agents, government backed scientists and the like. We're not just talking FBI, CIA and the like either. My first (and favorite) Delta Green character was a US Fish and Wildlife agent who encountered some really weird wildlife.

Delta Green originated as a Call of Cthulhu setting; this Kickstarter is to publish a stand alone Delta Green rulebook. $20 gets you an electronic version; $50 gets you the hardcover. I feel pretty safe kicking in to this one since it's the original creators of Delta Green running it, and they have plenty of experience with crowdfunding.

These are the sorts of Kickstarters that make me happiest; proven teams resurrecting games and gaming systems from years past. Now I just need Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford to get on that Star Control Kickstarter I've been desperately hoping for. That would be amazing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Final Thoughts on Tron 2.0

The most recent episode of Aggrochat was our discussion of Tron 2.0, which I had picked as our Game Club game for September. As it turned out, only Kodra and I finished the game, but everybody at least played far enough to form reasoned opinions and we had a good discussion about the game and about the evolution of the FPS genre over the past decade.

Overall I feel like my memories of Tron 2.0 weren't terribly inaccurate. There was a definitely a bit of nostalgia coloring them, but the annoyances I ran into were mostly things that I remembered from playing it when it was new. I do feel like playing Tron 2.0 and Wolfenstein: The New Order back to back highlighted a number of the changes that have taken place over the years in the genre.

Programs can get bored and fidgety too.

There were little things like using the scroll wheel for weapon zoom instead of the right mouse button, but also things that were still common in FPSs a decade ago that no longer are, such as jumping puzzles. There really weren't that many of them, but it's telling that jumping puzzles where what ended up making a couple of the others call it quits. Jumping accurately when you can't see your feet isn't easy. There's a reason you don't see it come up as much in modern games (Portal being the main exception that comes to mind).

I still think the mechanic of memory for your subroutines (weapons, armor, and general power ups) which changes when you enter a new system is pretty clever, especially combined with the ability to upgrade subroutines to both make them more powerful and make them take up less memory space. It's a little disappointing though that you don't get access to some subroutines until it's too late to reasonably upgrade them and use them properly.

Overall, I feel like Tron 2.0 remains a game worth playing both because it's fun and has an entertaining story, and for a look back at the kinds of experimentation that were being done in the FPS genre 12 years ago. I only wish it had a gotten a sequel that could have really polished the systems and made them all fit together just right.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module B5 - Horror on the Hill

This week we're taking a look at Dungeons & Dragons adventure module B5: Horror on the Hill, written by Douglas Niles and published in 1983.

Douglas Niles is probably best known as a novelist who has written quite a number of books set in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms campaign worlds. Early in his career with TSR he also wrote a few adventure modules for the Basic ruleset, one of which we have here. Horror on the Hill seems transitional in a number of ways. Most obviously it's the first of the B modules that uses the updated trade dress that I grew up with. It's a minor thing, but this is the design that immediately screams 'Basic D&D' to me.

This is also a module that attempts to be more logical in it's progression and throws a twist in midway that the players might not expect. We're still looking at a situation where the party's reason for going on the adventure is mostly 'there's loot in there', but the DM could easily have a minor lord or the like send the party to investigate rumors of a massing hobgoblin army and deal with the problem.

The adventure claims to be for 5-10 characters of level 1-3. In all honesty, I wouldn't run this adventure for level 1 characters. Entirely apart from the logistics of having 10 players at the table, an encounter that challenges 5 level 3 characters might be defeatable by 10 at level 1, but some of them will almost certainly die. One encounter fairly early in the adventure is with a pair of ogres. Ogres! It'll likely take a party a couple of rounds minimum to take them down, and one hit from an ogre can kill any level 1 character with a good roll. I may speak from experience on this point.

The adventure has the party hiking up 'The Hill' to find the ruins of an abandoned monastery which has been taken over by a band of humanoids led by a hogoblin king. After defeating the king, the party is intended to fall victim to a trap door which drops them a few hundred feet (via a chute, so no falling damage) into caverns beneath the monastery where they have to find their way out. The only escape ultimately leads through a red dragon's lair.

The Hill is an overgrown wilderness with a few caves inhabited by various creatures (giant bats, ogres, Neanderthals) and some outdoor encounters with killer bees, giant ants and the like. There are also a pair of old women living in a little shack that is much larger on the inside than outside.

We're just innocent old grandmothers, dearies.

The players might expect evil witches, and the women are in fact level 6 spellcasters, but they're only interested in making bargains. If you have players who like to rob or kill non-hostiles, this may be the end of the party right here, these old women don't mess around. Trying to cheat them after a deal is made will also have them chasing the party wherever they go to get what's owed them. As long as the party deals square though, they can be a good source of intelligence and resources.

The monastery is a good adventuring location with an aboveground area and a dungeon below where the hobgoblin king resides. There are enough goblin, bugbear, and hobgoblin forces throughout that clever play or multiple sorties will probably be needed for the party to make their way through. Once the party starts to make their way out, they fall through a trap triggered by the king's empty throne. Or at least they're meant to; this seems like the sort of thing that requires a DM caveat to make everybody fall victim, and could result in cranky players since they didn't have a chance to avoid the trap.

The caves below the monastery are a fairly typical cave type dungeon, with the more random sorts of monsters that those tend to have. The adventure does make note of the fact that creatures here are mostly ones that have become trapped there over time and that they are all in a state of crazed hunger, having survived mostly on rats. No options for diplomacy here.

At the end, the party has to make their way through the lair of a young red dragon to escape. This encounter would absolutely murder a level 1 party; I just don't see any way around it. Even a higher level party would have trouble. There's no option as written to avoid combat either. The dragon is willing to talk for a while, but will attack if the party tries to leave or when he gets bored with them. If the players remember the dragon subdual rules though, and manage to do so they'll have a dragon to take with them. And those old ladies they met would sure love to have their own pet dragon...

On the whole, Horror on the Hill is a pretty good module as long as the DM is either okay with some character death or can tweak things a bit to be a little more fair. It's a step in the evolution towards more logical adventures where things fit together in a sensible way. We still haven't reached the truly story-driven adventures of later years, but we're getting there.

Next week we'll be having a look at a truly different adventure module, B6: The Veiled Society. Not only is this the first city adventure we've seen, it's a city adventure set entirely in Specularum, capital of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Political intrigue and secret societies await!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thalen Reads The Dreamstone

They will not be wise, who set foot in Ealdwood. - Arafel
This week we take a look at a fantasy story with roots in Celtic mythology. The Dreamstone, by C. J. Cherryh, centers around the last remnant of Faery upon the earth, and it's guardian, Arafel, the last of the Daoine Sidhe.

This is actually the first of Cherryh's books I've read. She's been on my list of authors to try for a while, and I do still intend to get to some of her more famous works in the future. Based on what I've read here, I expect them to be a good read.

The Dreamstone is another of those works which combines multiple previously release works into a full novel. In this case we have two parts which are connected primarily by location and the presence of Arafel. The course of the novel spans some decades and most of the mortal characters from the first section of the book are years dead when the second section begins.

In an unnamed kingdom somewhere in the British Isles (most likely somewhere in modern England near the borders of Wales) a rebellion against the rightful king has recently succeeded and the former lord Niall, who remained loyal, flees his enemies. Taking shelter in the Ealdwood, he draws the attention of Arafel, last of the Daoine Sidhe, who refuses any direct aid but guides him to a protected valley where those who are lost can find refuge.

Years pass, until events lead Niall's villainous cousin Evald to invade the Ealdwood and come into conflict with Arafel. When word of Evald's death comes to Niall, he leaves the valley to retake the lands his cousin had usurped from him. He marries Evald's widow and accepts her son as his own heir.

Decades later, Niall has died and his heir rules in Caer Wiell. The old king's heir has come of age and has launched a campaign to retake his throne. After a great battle is won, a messenger is sent to warn Caer Wiell of enemy forces come to try to take it in an attempt to hold it against the king. His path takes him into the Ealdwood, where he meets Arafel and ultimately brings her to the aid of Caer Wiell, though not without cost to himself.

The Dreamstone is a book that focuses on one small area while great conflicts occur in the background. The old king is already dead by the time the book starts, and we barely meet his heir many chapters later. The kingdom and its fate isn't what matters here; this is really the story of Arafel and her somewhat unwilling part in the human conflicts near her home. Elves in this book are very much in the classic Fair Folk vein; mischievous and given to stealing people away to Faery (though not, in Arafel's defense, from any real malevolence.)

The Dreamstone is also a quiet book, mostly concerned with character interaction and the intrinsic conflict between man and elf. There is a battle near the end of the book, but it's secondary to the conflict within the messenger who convinced Arafel to aid them, and the conflict within Arafel herself regarding mortals and her place in a world where Faery has nearly withdrawn entirely. To anyone with an interest in Celtic mythology I can recommend this as an interesting take on the concepts.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Romani Ite Domum

I feel like I just keep talking about Fallout, but that's what I've been up to so what are you going to do? I decided to advance the main story a little bit last night, so it was time to head into Legion territory and have a chat with Caesar.

From encounters with his men, you might assume he's an asshole.
But when you meet him, you realize he's a GIANT asshole.

On the bright side, he caught Benny for me so I was finally able to put a bullet in that two-timing rat fink's skull. Even so, I absolutely intend to come back later and kill every member of the Legion I can find at Fortification Hill, up to and including Caesar. I'll probably bring Boone with me for that, I imagine he'll enjoy it.

I was a little disappointed that the game didn't give me the option of tearing apart Caesar's philosophical arguments. I've got a 9 Intellect, you'd think that would be sufficient to tell him that no, I fully understand the concepts of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and also he's a self-aggrandizing fascist hypocrite. Yes Caesar, please explain to me how the NCR is falling apart because it was a cult of personality centered around President Tandi, and how what you're creating is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT NO REALLY. I'm all ears.

What's that, game? You want me to shoot every Legionary in the head?
Well, it'll be tough, but I guess somebody's got to do it.

Apart from the Legion being entirely awful though, I'm liking how it's not entirely clear who's best to ally with for the main storyline. The NCR are solid guys, but they're expanding far too fast. Backing Mr. House means an independent New Vegas which seems like a good option, but he's got that whole smarmy Andrew Ryan vibe going. Or I could try to replace House and take over Vegas myself; tempting but I worry that outside forces might think that House's death means they could try and take the city.  No matter what though, Caesar's gonna die.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Nostalgia is a Hell of a Drug

Fallout: New Vegas continues to dominate my gaming time as I continue my adventures in the Mojave. At this point I've hit level 24 and the main storyline has me going to meet Caesar (not to self: bringing Boone to this meeting is probably a BAD IDEA). Mostly though, I'm running around doing side missions, and in doing so I found someone whose presence in the game made me incredibly happy.

They even got Michael Dorn to voice him again.

Marcus was one of my favorite companions in Fallout 2, and seeing him again, even just as a regular NPC with one quest to offer, was awesome. All of the references to the first two games that show up in New Vegas are like that to some degree; it's enough to give me the urge to break out the original Fallout once I'm done with New Vegas. Even though I know that going back and playing them might be a bit rough given their age.

Playing Tron 2.0 again has had a little bit of that. I still enjoy it, but I know a lot of that is because I love the original movie, warts and all. There are a lot of aspects of modern FPS games that simply didn't exist yet in 2003, and it can feel weird and a little clunky not having them. Control standards have changed over time too so I had to relearn, for instance, that the mouse wheel zooms in, not the left mouse button.

I'm hoping there'll be some good discussion about how things have changed over the years when we talk about Tron 2.0 for this week's podcast. I have to admit I'm a little terrified that nobody will have played beyond the first couple levels and everyone will have hated it. I just can't divorce my view of the game from Tron as a whole, so I worry that folks without that attachment just won't get into it. I guess we'll find out this weekend.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module B4 - The Lost City

This week we'll be taking a look at Dungeons & Dragons adventure module B4: The Lost City. Written by Tom Moldvay (also responsible for first revision of the D&D Basic rules) and published in 1982, B4 is a bit more ambitious than the previous B modules. The pyramid is a multi-level dungeon much like those previously seen but this adventure also presents a fairly detailed backstory for the pyramid and the underground city below it, NPC factions for players to ally with (or come into conflict with), ideas for further adventures using the setting, and an evil false god to serve as a challenging final fight.

The adventure takes place inside an ancient step pyramid found when the player characters become lost in a forbidding desert. The module doesn't concern itself much with how the characters come to the desert, simply stating in the background that they had joined a desert caravan that became lost in a sandstorm. Lost and desperate, the characters enter the pyramid in the hope of finding a means of survival.

The pyramid is all that remains intact of the city of Cynidicea, once the capital of a desert kingdom. While building the pyramid, workers uncovered the lair of a hideous monster, Zargon. Unable to kill the monster, the rulers of the city began sending criminals into the pyramid to appease it. Over time a cult arose around the monster, supplanting worship of the city's three traditional gods. The civilization decayed and eventually, when barbarians overran the city, fled underground below the pyramid. There the descendants of those Cynidiceans still live, now adapted to underground life and spending most of their days in a hallucinatory state.

It's possible for an adventurer to be transformed into a three foot tall
mini-Zargon. Yay cursed magic items.

Possible antics of the Cynidiceans the adventurers encounter can include trying to warn the adventurers of the invisible snakes on the floor and showing them where to walk to avoid them, 'recognizing' an adventurer as the lost ruler of Cynidicea and smothering him or her with attention, or following the adventurers around carrying boards until something is killed and then building a coffin for it and demanding payment for the service.

Some relatively normal Cynidiceans make up three factions each dedicated to one of the old gods of the city. Each faction is devoted to trying to restore the worship of their patron god and to save their society from its decay. None of the three trusts the others however, so they fight much more than they cooperate, even in the face of Zargon's evil. The adventurers can ally with these factions and try to assist them in their goals.

The adventure as written is a 10 tier dungeon, though only the first 5 tiers are fully detailed. Quite a lot of the encounters in this part of the pyramid are with undead or vermin as you might expect. From tier 6 on the rooms are less detailed and the encounters are more difficult, honestly rising above what's reasonable for even a level 3 party. It's clearly intended that the party have reached the Expert levels (4 and up) and by the last few levels they're encountering creatures such as vampires, a chimera, and a 9 hit die blue dragon. These levels also seem less planned with monsters seemingly chosen at random to populate the various rooms, each with their own individual treasure hoard.

This dwarf is way too excited about being
stuck in an ancient pyramid.
The Lost City continues the shift we saw begin in Palace of the Silver Princess towards adventures that are more than just a dungeon full of monsters and treasure for the adventurers to kill and loot respectively. Where the story was mostly just on the surface in Silver Princess, here it's worked more directly into the adventure, with ways for the players to learn more about the past of Cynidicea and become involved in long term efforts to halt its decline and even attempt to restore it. Adventure ideas are even provided for after the pyramid is fully explored and Zargon is defeated dealing with such matters as cure the Cynidiceans permanent hallucinatory state, wiping out Zargon's cult followers and ensuring he doesn't rise again, and attempting to restore the royal line. This one module could easily be made the basis for an entire campaign set in and below the pyramid.

Next week we'll keep on going with a look at adventure module B5: Horror on the Hill. Find out just what's so horrific, and why bargaining with kindly old grandmothers can be perilous indeed.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Thalen Reads A World Out of Time

I thought I was ready for anything, but this-- - Peter Corbell
In the year 1990, give or take a few, a man dying of cancer had himself frozen in desperate hope that he might be revived and cured in the future. 200 years later he awakes to find himself in an entirely new body, with no rights or property, force to work off a debt to the world-wide totalitarian state that revived him. So begins Larry Niven's 1976 novel A World Out of Time.

I've read a fair bit of Niven's other works, particularly the ones set in Known Space such as Ringworld and short stories collected in Neutron Star. This book is recognizably Niven, but noticeably different from those other works. Most noticeably there are no aliens involved at all. All the characters are humans, though there is the 'man out of time' element to make things seem alien to our protagonist.

Speaking of the protagonist, Peter Corbell is unlike your typical space hero. We never learn all that much about his past; he was married and had children, was an architect, and enjoyed to travel. That's pretty much everything we find out. His new body is even more of an enigma, a man who committed some crime against the State and had his personality wiped because of it. We do learn that Corbell is the fourth personality to have been placed in this body, the others didn't work out. Corbell is never portrayed as particularly impressive physically or mentally, he mostly makes it through the story by being more useful alive than dead.

For that matter, we learn little of the State that rules Earth in the year 2190. We know it's world-spanning and has begun looking towards planetary colonization to secure humanity's future. We learn that it holds a monopoly on the generation of energy on Earth, and thus all of its citizens are wholly dependent upon the State for their needs. It's heavily implied that the human population has skyrocketed over 200 years and that privacy is a thing of the past.

The state of Earth in 2190 is really only important as the springboard that propels Corbell into the real story. The job assigned to him is that of 'rammer', he will pilot a Bussard ramjet in a centuries long mission to seed a number of planets with algae in hopes of converting their reducing atmospheres into oxygen atmospheres suitable for human life. Once on his way, however, Corbell changes course and heads for the Galactic Center in hopes of using the time dilation aspects of relativistic speed to return millennia later when either the State has fallen or colonies might exist and have broken away. Ultimately a desperate attempt to return before the ship breaks down (it wasn't meant to maintain the speed Corbell needs for such long periods of time) results in a slingshot around the galaxy's central black hole, returning him to Earth 3 million years later.

In 3 million years the solar system has changed quite a lot. The Sun has expanded and is hotter (more than it should be), Earth now orbits Jupiter which is itself generating more heat than it ought, and the majority of Earth is parched and uninhabitably hot. Corbell arrives on this massively changed planet to find that civilization rose to technological heights, then fell leaving only the Antarctic continent inhabited by immortal prepubescent boys and a small population of men and women who are left to age normally for breeding purposes.

The gender politics of this story get kind of weird; Niven portrays a world where a form of immortality was discovered that only works prior to puberty and arrests one's aging at that point. Without sex to hold them together, the genders split into Girls and Boys with the Girls holding control over the sky, and thus space travel and weather while the Boys held the majority of the land. At some point the two sides went to war, resulting in the annihilation of the Girls and the Boys controlling what remains of Earth. Corbell's main goal after coming to this changed Earth becomes a search for a legendary form of immortality that worked for adults but was limited to only the elite.

A World Out of Time was an enjoyable enough book, but I wouldn't call it one of Niven's best. For a new reader I'd recommend his short stories or Ringworld as a better place to start. The coincidences necessary to move the story ahead (though somewhat explained eventually) strained my suspension of disbelief and, more importantly, none of the characters were particularly likable. If the book had ended with Earth's destruction I wouldn't have been particularly sad that any of the characters had died, and it might actually have been a more satisfying conclusion than what we actually get. There's plenty of interesting stuff throughout the book, but it just doesn't all come together quite right to make a satisfying whole.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Predictions for Heavensward 3.1 and Beyond

So this weekend we will be getting some sort of update regarding the next content patch for Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward. Most people are expecting to get a release date, and we will presumably find out more about the new raid and so forth. In the spirit of my previous prediction, I'm going to spin some wild theories about where things are going to go from here.

So first let's take a look at my previous prediction. I theorized that we would be facing the Scions in tempered form and collecting dark crystals after defeating them. Well, we've rescued one of the missing Scions now and, while definitely changed by the process, Y'shtola was not tempered and we didn't have to fight her. Also, rather than collecting new crystals the initial story had us restoring our connection to the existing crystals over the course of our adventure.

Getting lost in the Aether gives you a kicky new hairstyle. Who knew?

That said, we still haven't found out what Urianger and Elidibus were talking about and we still don't have any clue to the fate of the remaining four Scions. Also, the Warrior of Dark appears to be entering the fray at Elidibus' urging. So where might things go from here?

At first when faced with a new female Ascian (Igeyorhm) in the Heavensward story, I thought the body she had possessed might be Minfilia. Especially when our old friend Lahabrea showed back up at her side, consdering he was using Thancred as his body last time around. In the end though, we killed one of them and Thordan took out the other and neither body remained afterwards. I can't imagine we just unknowingly killed Minfilia and Thancred without realizing it afterwards, so I have to assume the Ascians were using some poor nameless saps who don't matter enough to leave corpses when killed.

At this point I'm expecting us to track down one more Scion per content patch. I would expect Minfilia to be the last of those given her leadership status. I'm guessing Thancred will be rescued in 3.1. First, Y'shtola's cast Flow in an attempt to rescue Thancred so now that we have Y'shtola back that gives us a link to follow to try and find Thancred. Second, Y'shtola and Thancred seemed to get less development in the Realm Reborn story, so bringing them back first and second gives us opportunity to work them more one on one without the others around to steal the limelight. Finally, an FFXIV event went live last night in Record Keeper featuring two of the Scions as recruitable characters. Those two Scions? Y'shtola and Thancred. Using Thancred there makes me believe they'll bringing him back into the game fairly soon.

He's back baby.

I still expect Dark crystals to come into the story in some way. At this point I'm guessing the Warrior of Darkness has a similar connection to Dark crystals of Zodiark as we do to the Light crystals of Hydaelyn. It's worth noting that the concept of the Warriors of Darkness originates in Final Fantasy III and you didn't fight them, you sought their aid against the Cloud of Darkness. We still don't quite know what Elidibus' deal is; he hasn't been as belligerent as the other Ascians. It's entirely possible that there's some greater awful out there that will need our combined effort to defeat. If that's the case I would expect that to be the final big fight of the expansion.

Finally, we still don't know what sort of deal Urianger and Elidibus have made. I still suspect that Moenbryda's death is going to have repercussions. It has occurred to me that Elidibus may be trying to offer Urianger a similar deal to what was offered to Tiamat. I just don't see Urianger falling for it. Perhaps he'll do something ill-advised thinking he can outsmart the Ascians? While considering Primals we haven't yet seen in FFXIV I did think of Brynhildr from FFXIII. I suppose it's possible Urianger could end up creating her in an attempt to bring back Moenbryda. Primals usually retain the name of the being they mimic though, so I don't know. If they did use Brynhildr I'm sure they'd heavily redesign her to better fit the FFXIV aesthetic.

I would expect less Transformer, more valkyrie.
Finally, I fully expect us to end up going to the moon. Possibly that will be a later 24-man raid after the one going in this patch that takes place on the Void Ark. The Void Ark seems like a reasonable method of transport to the moon. 24-man content is usually fairly divorced from the story content though, and with the moon seeming to be linked to the Ascian threat and the Warrior of Darkness I would expect it to be part of the main storyline. Maybe Cid's next fabulous invention will be the Lunar Whale. That would be pretty fantastic.