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.