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Nightmare Keep

“Welcome to Nightmare Keep, one of the most demanding adventures your players will ever experience. The challenges awaiting within these pages are intended for only the most skilled, courageous, and resourceful heroes of the Forgotten Realms. Novices are advised to turn back now.”

-Nightmare Keep, Pg. 3

Written by Rick Swan and published in 1991, Nightmare Keep is a high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Designed for 4-6 characters level 18-20, the module combines traditional dungeon crawling with an emphasis on deadly traps, puzzles, and a heavy dose of otherworldly horror for good measure. It feels like TSR’s attempt to create an adventure for 2nd Edition that is as iconic and infamous as 1st Edition’s Tomb of Horrors. Did it succeed?

Partially.

Nightmare Keep never developed the infamy of Tomb of Horrors, in fact I rarely hear it mentioned in OSR circles. That’s a pity, because it is a good adventure. I would even say that it does several things better than Tomb of Horrors. However it suffers from several flaws that hold it back.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and fortunately that’s the meat of the adventure. Something evil stirs beneath Woloverton Keep; an unknown horror that has already claimed the lives of several powerful adventures. As the characters enter its forgotten halls they find themselves trapped in the maze of Icelia, an ancient lich with far-reaching plans. As they descend deeper into the labyrinth the horrors around them grow more alien and horrific and the players begin to uncover Icelia’s plot; the labyrinth itself is designed to generate and absorb feelings of dread and suffering, emotions Icelia is collecting to fuel her unstoppable army of monstrous insect creatures.

Right there, I’m hooked. Nightmare Keep is a funhouse dungeon, but one with a purpose, and that makes it work for me. Plus, the madness doesn’t begin right away, instead it grows more and more as the party descends deeper into the dungeon.

Now let’s talk about dungeon design, which is very good. With this kind of adventure it would be easy to fall into a completely linear design, but Nightmare Keep avoids this. While it is certainly not an “open” layout, and it is meant to funnel the characters deeper, there are options on how the players proceed and in what order they face Icelia’s challenges.

The environments are beautifully creepy and there is as much of an emphasis on problem solving as straight up fights, perhaps more. The progressive changes that occur in the dungeon as the players make it further in is also an excellent idea and contributes to the atmosphere of horror. The original monster designs are also excellent, with the lichlings being an inspired monster. There is also a fun set of tables for random sensory and physical encounters, strange things meant to pump up the spook-factor.

Also worth mentioning is the beautiful artwork. The cover is by Brom and has a very Conan-esq feel to it. The interior art is by Valerie Valusek and Terry Dykstra, and it warms my OSR heart. The interior art is lovely and focused on dungeoneering. It would feel at home in an early TSR adventure, right alongside the work of greats like David Trampier.

The core of the adventure is solid and worth your time to check out. As to things I’m not a fan of? There is nothing that is a deal-breaker. It’s more a series of smaller issues that collectively hold the adventure back.

Let’s start with the map.

This is a fantastic map, beautifully rendered with nice flourishes. The use of color in the map is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is also functional, making it easier for the DM to chart the players’ course through the entwined dungeon passages.

However, it’s also impractical. Printed in a fold-out poster sized format, it’s too big to be easily used at the gaming table. A tiled format would be far more useful for running the game. The poster map is nice enough that I’d consider hanging it on the wall, but it’s also printed on both sides, so half of this beautiful work would be hidden. If Nightmare Keep was produced today with Kickstarter, they’d probably release it with a map book and save the poster map for a stretch goal.

Next there is the core of the adventure. While I’ve sung its praises, there are still a few things I’d change. Unraveling the secrets of the dungeon and Iceleia’s plans is a big part of the fun in Nightmare Keep, but while there are some hints provided along the way, they’re minor. The adventure relies on a massive reveal at the climax of the adventure. I’d rather see more solid clues spread out through the dungeon. The biggest reveal would have more punch if the players already think they understand the scope of the lich’s plan.

Treasure is surprisingly shy. Again, the adventure relies on a massive hoard towards the end, and it’s a treasure that the players may completely miss out on if they overlook something seemingly minor early in the game. I’d rather see more minor treasures spread out to whet the player’s appetite.

Now we get to my biggest problems, the framework for the adventure. In keeping with TSR’s objectives of the time, this adventure is solidly tied in to the Forgotten Realms. While you could move the core adventure to any other world, there are several pages of setup for the adventure that are tied to Cormyr. The setup also includes long stretches of boxed dialog from the king’s representative that make specific assumptions about the character’s motivations. This adventure is meant for the “good guys”, not battle hardened adventures out for loot and fame. It would be hard to reconcile the dialog as written for a party that includes evil or even neutral party members. You can come up with your own of course, but seeing several pages out of a 62 page module devoted to this makes TSR’s intentions clear.

This also ties in with my least favorite part of the module, the ending. Specifically, what happens if the party fails. While I appreciate that the game is designed to allow for a Total Party Kill, the epilogue falls prey to TSR’s commitment to keeping the status quo. Should the party be wiped out, their actions have still done enough damage to Icelia’s plan that it will eventually fail. At the time, TSR was committed to keeping control of how their worlds developed and encouraging gaming groups everywhere to share the same setting. If there were going to be changes to the Forgotten Realms, they wanted it to be due to events in one of their big boxed sets, or more likely one of their novels. Seeing this written in to the adventure annoys me and blunts the significance of success or failure.

In the end, none of these are major issues. Collectively they’re an annoyance, but there isn’t anything that can’t be discarded or adjusted to suit your preferences. Nightmare Keep may not have achieved the status of an iconic adventure, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at it. If you want a high level challenge for your old school game, it’s well worth your time to track down. I think it would also be an excellent candidate for conversion to Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Nightmare Keep is available in .pdf format from the Dungeon Masters Guild site (Formerly DND Classics), Drive Thru RPG, and RPG Now.

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Have you ever run or played through Nightmare Keep? I’d love to hear your stories about it.

 

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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There Can Be Only One

In 1st Edition AD&D there’s an interesting quality built into a few of the classes, where not only do they have a hard level cap, but the highest levels are limited to only a select few, with the ultimate level restricted to a single character.

For druids there are only nine level 12 characters, three 13th level archdruids, and a single Great Druid. For assassins there is only one level 14 guildmaster in any local area and a single level 15 Grandfather of Assassins.

Monks have the hardest, but most colorful, road of progression. There are three level eight Masters of Dragons, with only one master for each level after that. This proceeds all the way up to level 18 and the Grand Master of Flowers. This creates an interesting case where progression is limited sooner for monks, but they also have a higher final level cap. I’d love to know if that was a design choice or curious accident.

For a character to proceed into the higher levels they must replace a vacancy in the ranks, or they must challenge and win against the current holder of that level. These duels may not be fatal, and the losing combatant is reduced in experience to the lower level and may challenge up again once enough experience points have been earned. For assassins the duel may not be direct, as arranging for the assassination or other form of removal of the rival is also acceptable.

The result is some fun built-in plot hooks. It’s certain that the higher level members of each class will be keeping an eye on the up-and-coming rivals. Depending on the individuals involved they may seek to eliminate potential rivals before they get too powerful, or nurture them to be a worthy successor. I’m particularly intrigued by this for the monk class, no doubt because of my love for the Shaw Brothers films. I talked about my renewed interest in the monk class in this post, and the interest hasn’t waned over time.

I think it would be particularly fun, and appropriate, to have a party with more than one member of one of these classes. In keeping with the fine tradition of Kung Fu movies I’d think monks would be the most fun, but any of the classes would work. The players might start out like brothers, standing together against the world. What would happen over time, as they close in on those limited levels? Would they turn to bitter rivalry? Would they undercut each other? Would their rivals above and below seek to breed distrust between them? Or would they find a way to rise above it all?

And what would happen with the rest of the party?

FistOfLegend

If you’ve ever had something like this in your campaign, please let me know. I’d love to hear the stories!

 
 

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Crimefighters and Typos

In my previous post I talked about the game Crimefighters, published in Dragon Magazine #47. The time demands for getting it published resulted in some entertaining typos.

This one is my favorite:

“However, the actual historical conditions of this period have been played down in favor of the atmosphere presented in the pulp navels.”

Who knows what lint lurks in the bellybuttons of men? The Shadow Knows.

 

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Gaming, Pulps

 

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Crimefighters

“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.

MF-spy

 
 

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Why I will Never Get Caught Up

If I never bought another book, never checked out another thing from the library, never downloaded another e-book from Project Gutenberg, I’d still have enough reading material to keep me busy for a long time.

And things like this keep popping up, the Bundle of Holding has a package deal on Rocket Age by Cubicle 7.

Now, if this was just about having another sci-fi rules set, it wouldn’t be so attractive to me; I have enough of those to fill a supermassive black hole. But this bundle comes with sourcebooks and adventures. I love Flash Gordon-style sci-fi, I love sourcebooks, and I love reading adventures.

The only thing holding me back is that lately I’ve been reading fewer e-books, and I really am trying to conserve some cash. But there are still eleven days left for this bundle to wear me down.

If any of my readers have seen these books and care to chime in, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2016 in Gaming, Pulps, Science Fiction

 

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DS9: Elseworlds Edition

In my last post I talked about Star Trek: Deep Space 9. One of the strengths of DS9 is that it knew when to reference the greater Trek canon and when not to. That allowed them to have fun with old ideas, such as the delightful episode Trials and Tribble-ations, without getting bogged down in a history that is at best inconsistent. By keeping the main story arc more self-contained it gave it greater strength and weight.

Still, as Star Trek fans, it’s our Prime Directive to wonder what might have been. Given that it is April 1st, I thought I’d have some fun and throw out some of the story ideas that came to my mind. Who knows? They might make good adventure fodder for a Starships & Spacemen campaign. Or my next foray into Call of Trekthulhu.

As a side note, I don’t read fanfiction. I’m not averse to it, it’s just not something I’ve ever gotten into. However, if any of these ideas have turned up in fanfiction already I would be interested in reading the stories.

A Tangled Web: The Federation Alliance is outnumbered. Even with the Romulans entering the war, the combined forces of the Dominion and Cardassians is too large for the allies. To compensate, a diplomatic team has been trying to organize a joint fleet composed of ships from several smaller empires. Tensions are already high as they try to forge an understanding among Gorn, Ferengi, and Kzinti warriors.

Then the Tholians arrive.

Tholian technology and tactics prove to be so alien that they put their allies at risk, and their motives for participation are suspect. Why have they emerged from their jealously guarded isolation? And are they really allies against the Dominion?

Before you Go: Keeping with the “alliance seeking” concept, a Star Fleet ship is dispatched to seek aid from the First Federation, the child-like alien beings encountered in The Corbomite Manuver. The Federation and the First Federation have maintained distant but cordial relations since Lt. Bailey spent time serving on board one of their vessels. It is Star Fleet’s hope that they will consent to bring their powerful and hyper-advanced ships into the war against the Dominion.

The First Federation welcomes the Starfleet delegation, but are reluctant to provide aid. Their species is on the cusp of apotheosis, and soon they will begin the process of transformation. Once complete, they will leave behind the mortal realm and explore the universe as cosmic beings. It is the culmination of millions of years of development and they are eager to proceed.

The Starfleet delegation needs to convince them to delay their ascendancy in order to join the fight against the Dominion. Or, failing that, maybe they could be convinced to leave behind a few of their gigantic starships.

Doomsday Revisited: Their search for a new weapon has driven Star Fleet to a desperate gamble. They have thrown all their resources into reverse-engineering The Doomsday Machine. They have installed living quarters, a bridge, secondary systems, and bolted on controls that they hope will allow them to manually direct the planet-shattering vessel. However, they admit that they cannot completely understand the mechanisms and there are those who warn that the ship might revert to its original directives, complete with the knowledge of how it had been stopped previously.

Still, the Alliance’s lines are crumbling under the Dominion’s assault. Thousands are dying, planets are falling, and all that remains is to rekindle the Doomsday Machine’s blazing heart.

The Ultimate Reboot: A variation on this theme would be Star Fleet revisiting the M5 system, seen in the episode The Ultimate Computer. As bad as the loss of starships has been, the loss of veteran crews is even worse. Ships can be rebuilt, but training new crews to command them takes years.

Decades ago the original starship Enterprise was able to engage three Constitution class battlecruisers while under control of the M5 computer system. The system was scrapped after it malfunctioned and became an uncontrollable killing machine. Still, advances in artificial intelligence have made some think that corrections to the technology are now possible. Adding elements from positronic brain designs should allow for a new generation of M5 systems to be mass produced, complete with enough mental stability that they can be trusted to control starships once more.

Unfortunately, there are only two positonic brains available to the Federation, and Commander Data needs his. That only leaves his brother Lore’s brain…

Plato’s Grandchildren: A mysterious team of specialists arrive at Deep Space 9 and Dr. Bashir is called in to tend to their needs. The team wear sealed encounter suits at all times, with the exception of when they are in verified clean rooms. The reason for this is that their immune systems have been completely destroyed.

This is the result of massive doses of kironide, an element that grants them amazingly powerful telekinetic abilities. This is the same substance found in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, only more refined. The specialists are reaching the point where they can crack a starship open with their powers, but the toll it is taking on their bodies is destroying them.

Each of them is a volunteer, someone who knew the risks when they signed up, but the self-destructive process is difficult for the Doctor and the DS9 crew to accept.

Where Few Men Have Gone Before: Star Fleet has assembled a group with powerful ESP potential. This group will soon leave from DS9 on a specially designed starship. Their destination is the barrier at the edge of our galaxy.

In its first mission under command of Captain Kirk, the Enterprise made contact with the mysterious barrier. The results badly damaged the ship, but more importantly gave godlike powers to two of her crewmembers, people with a high rating for ESP potential.

The powers grew at an exponential rate, but their minds were overwhelmed by the transformation and their humanity slipped away. In the end they destroyed each other.

Now, faced with defeat by the Dominion, Star Fleet plans to replicate those events. With luck, the rigorous psychological training the volunteers have gone through should let them hang on to their humanity, if they survive the transformation. At least, long enough to win the war.

As a bonus, one of the team members would be played by John de Lancie, and recognized by members of DS9’s crew. Is this really Q? Is he observing? Sabotaging the mission? Or is this the birth of the Q Continuum?

————–

Well, those are my flights of fancy. What have you got? I’d love to hear more ideas.

Deep_space_9

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Science Fiction

 

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Star Trek: DS9

I finally finished watching Star Trek: DS9.

I always liked the show, but it was in a bad time slot for me and I never got around to watching the later seasons. Now, thanks to Netflix, that isn’t a problem. I can see why it’s such a popular show, with Trek fans of every flavor.

Even with Voyager fans! Which I’m told really exist!

I kid! I kid!

Mostly.

Anyhow, there are plenty of good episodes to rave about, one of my favorites being Sisko’s dream of being a pulp science fiction writer, but I also found tons of small moments that really hit home. These little things would let an episode punch above its weight class and caught me off guard. My favorite was when Sisko explains to Kasidy Yates why he doesn’t like going to the Las Vegas nightclub holosuite that everyone else loves so much. They have a brief but powerful conversation about race, history, and fiction, then went on with the rest of the plot.

That ability to tackle an important, timely social issue in a strong way, and not even make it the focus of the episode? That’s art.

Then came the finale. Quick warning, there will be some spoilers below.

SpoilerSpoiler

*Insert Rimshot*

The last several seasons revolve around the brutal war involving the Dominion and its allies against the Federation and its allies. The war drags on, lives are lost, ships destroyed, and ideals are compromised among the most noble members of the cast. Everything finally comes down to the Dominion’s last stand over Cardassia, which results in the slaughter of millions of Cardassian civilians in reprisal for the Cardassian military changing sides. It’s a long, emotionally tiring story and the audience can feel the toll it takes on the characters and when they finally do stand victorious, it’s a subdued celebration at best.

But there is a second story running underneath the main one, a war going on between the cosmic beings called the Prophets and the imprisoned Pah Wraiths, who are looked at as gods and demons by the Bajoran people. The chosen one of the Prophets is Captain Sisko, revealed to be the child of a Founder who had merged with a human host. The champion of the Pah Wraiths is Gul Dukat, a war criminal, megalomaniac, and one of the most wicked villains in sci-fi. Dukat further twists the already corrupt Kai Winn, high priestess of the Bajoran people, convincing her to help release the Pah Wraiths.

During the alliance’s final victory celebration Captain Sisko receives a vision and immediately runs to face Dukat and Winn, sacrificing his corporal body to defeat them and lock the Pah Wraiths away for all time.

At first, I was a little let down by this ending. It felt rushed because so much had happened behind the scenes or in short asides. But the more I think about it? The more I love it. The more I realize what a brilliant ending it is.

We have a grand clash of galactic empires, including the shape-shifting Founders who are looked upon as gods. We have drama writ large as planets burn and millions die. Lives are changed, societies are shattered, the history of two galactic quadrants will never be the same.

And yet, on the cosmic scale, it means very little. In the end, the war between the Prophets and the Pah Wraiths was a far more important conflict. Had the Pah Wraiths been victorious then the entire galaxy would have burned, regardless of which side had won the war on the prime material plane.

It was a war waged on another level of existence, fought by three individuals who could barely perceive the battlefield or comprehend the stakes. And in the end there is no one left alive who knows what happened. At least, not alive in the conventional sense.

Those are some serious Golden Age science fiction ideas. That ranks up there with the concepts in Doc Smith’s Lensman books.

Well done DS9. Well done indeed.

Deep_space_9

 

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