My physical copy of Stonehell just arrived in the mail!
I’ve been enjoying the .pdf copy so far, but now I’ve got the physical to add to my collection. Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell now takes its rightful place among my megadungeons.
One of the fun things about running Ravenloft again was that I got to revisit AD&D’s character creation rules for the first time in years. From this I learned, or re-learned, quite a few things.
Because the game started with only four players I pre-generated the characters on the high end of the level range for Ravenloft, giving them all 100,000 XP. This put the characters at level seven or eight. As I expected the fighters and clerics were seventh and the thieves were level eight, but I was surprised to see that magic users were also level eight. I’d expected them to also be level seven, but it turns out that the experience curve for magic users shifts after level six. Instead of gaining levels slower than fighters, high level magic users advance noticeably faster.
Multi-classed characters also surprised me. When we first started out, all around 13 years old, we didn’t really get how multi-classing worked. Having different rules for multi-classing spread out over the Players Handbook and the poor quality of the index certainly didn’t help. (In 1st edition the Dungeon Master’s Guide held the index for both the DMG and PHB, and it’s not very comprehensive.) So we rarely created such characters and we were quite happy with single class characters.
In 2015 we have the power of Google to help us. For the first time I can say that I understand how multi-classing and dual-classing works. One of the misconceptions we had was that multi-class characters would fall behind single classed characters, but in creating several of them I found them to be about one level lower than their single class counterparts. I even realized that for 100,000 XP you could create a decent 1st edition Bard, though I decided not to create one of those oddities for this game.
The multi-class rules also gave me some insight into how racial level limits do work out as a game balancer, at least in a game designed for characters to max out in their teens. However I still find them distasteful both from a thematic standpoint and from a game play standpoint. For the fighting classes the rate of advancement should keep the gap from getting too extreme between a level capped demi-human and a human character, and the difference in hit points and tables isn’t so drastic that magic items can’t balance things out. It’s a bigger issue for spellcasters, as many more powerful spells will be blocked out of their reach. It would also seem to block them out of the iconic high level modules, like Tomb of Horrors. I should look at the pre-generated characters for those modules and see if there are any demi-humans on the roster in those adventures.
I also took a fresh look at the monk class. Now, I’ve never been a fan of the monk class; it doesn’t seem to fit with the implied settings of AD&D and I strongly suspect someone was watching too much of David Carradine in Kung Fu when they decided to include it in the Players Handbook. However I’ve been watching a lot of Shaw Brothers movies recently and figured I’d give it a look. What I found is that the class looks much more playable than what I remembered from when I was a kid. While monks have lower hit points than other classes their wide variety of powers and abilities does help make up for it and their innate armor class and hand-to-hand attacks are not insignificant. Add in a few magic items and a 1st edition monk should be able to hold his or her own with the other core classes. It left me wondering why I thought the monk class was so under-powered back when I was playing AD&D regularly and I think it’s largely because we played in a “high magic” world, where characters had a lot of magic items and in that setting the advantages of a monk are blunted while their weaknesses are accentuated.
Heh. “high magic”. Okay, I’ll be honest; back in our early gaming days we were completely Monty Haul. We even joked about it, saying that people needed to make a saving throw vs blindness if anyone cast Detect Magic on the party. Occasionally we’d decide to take it down a notch and run games where even the humble +1 sword was a weapon to be treasured, but sooner or later power levels would creep back up. When I started playing again as an undergrad my group used a more measured amount of magic, but by then the image of the monk as underpowered was set in our minds. Besides, if we wanted to do a martial artist we had our copies of Oriental Adventures to draw on.
None of my players decided to take the monk out for a spin for Ravenloft, but it’s given me the desire to get one out in the field and see what they can do in actual play.
Since I started playing D&D again with the OSR movement I’ve been playing retro-clones of Basic. This was my first re-visitation of AD&D and it was a lot of fun, both to generate the characters and to run the game. I’ll be starting up a new campaign soon and for that I’m going back to a basic game using Labyrinth Lord with some imported rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I can definitely see myself running or playing another AD&D or OSRIC game in the future.
And now that I think of it, porting the monk class into a basic game would be a snap. Heck, Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion includes a monk class…
This past Sunday our intrepid adventurers continued their mission to destroy Strahd von Zarovich, or failing that to light as much of Castle Ravenloft on fire as possible.
As it turns out, they were successful on both counts.
We had a fifth player join us at the table, running a dwarven fighter/thief, and I ruled that he was a prisoner they rescued when they blew up the witches coven at the end of the last session. With their new friend added to the marching order, the Sunsword restored, and Strahd’s history revealed from the Tome of Strahd, the party descended from the towers back into the heart of the castle.
The players were again in fine form, with good rolls, excellent role playing, and creative solutions that on more than one occasion caused me to stop and think. They continued their pyromania plan and soon the central keep was ablaze, and they were very successful at finding hidden things, including secret doors that lead them to Strahd himself. Along the way there were several notable encounters.
The magical portrait was a fun annoyance. This was closely followed by a potentially disastrous encounter with two wraiths, but the Sunsword, the magic-user’s Magic Missile spell, and some marvelous rolls ended the fight quickly.
The most creative moment was when the Fair Gertruda fell to a venomous spider’s bite. The magic user was under the effects of a Potion of Gaseous Form and asked if she could force herself into the Fair Gertruda and perform CPR by moving in and out of her lungs. This was such a strange and unique idea that I went with the Rule of Cool. I checked to see how much longer the potion would be in effect (reforming inside her would be… messy) and came up with how many rounds she’d have to do this before I’d give The Fair Gertruda another saving throw against poison. It all worked out and the magic user saved the Fair Gertruda’s life.
The funniest moment was when the party discovered the secret door in the back of the roaring fireplace. Rooms outside of the study were burning and the carpet within the study had also caught fire, meanwhile a group of gargoyles were smashing their way through the door to get to the adventurers. The Fair Gertruda stumbled upon the mechanism to open the secret door and the party decided that a hasty retreat was in order. The human thief and the dwarven fighter/thief both nimbly leapt over the fire without being burned, right into the fake treasure room. The magic-user was next to try…And she failed, falling flat onto the fire and taking a good amount of damage, her robes catching fire. The heroic Landsknecht took this opportunity to hurl The Fair Gertruda over the area shielded by the magic-user’s body and to safety. The lawful evil cleric, in plate mail, then used the magic-user’s body as a bridge to cross the fire. This did more damage to her, grinding her into the coals. Finally the heroic Landsknecht lept across the gap… and failed his roll, landing full onto the magic-user’s back. In chainmail. This did even more damage to the magic-user and almost killed her. It also caused us to take a break due to laughing so hard.
I ruled that the gargoyles had stopped breaking through the barricades and were now laughing and mocking the players. The adventurers finally managed to drag everyone to safety beyond the flames, shut the secret door, and pour a lot of healing magic (and the Landsknecht’s spare clothing) onto the somewhat upset magic-user. Just in time for the thief to fail his Remove Traps roll and release a cloud of sleeping gas.
Ravenloft, where sometimes you’re in a Hammer Horror film and sometimes it’s a Tex Avery cartoon.
The most epic moment was their confrontation with Strahd, whom they discovered in his hidden treasure vault when the Sunsword began glowing while they were in the belfry outside. The plan was for the Landsknecht, Sunsword in hand, to lead the charge and take Strahd head on. The cleric and the human thief would back him up, while the magic user and the dwarven fighter/thief used Potions of Invisibility to get in position behind the vampire.
Plans made, potions quaffed, the door was flung open and the Landsknecht bellowed his challenge. Strahd turned to face him and used his Charm powers to take over the Landsknecht’s mind, commanding him to defend the vampire against his fellow adventurers. The cleric held his action while the thief used his magic throwing dagger to attack Strahd, failing his attacks but drawing the Landsknecht’s attention. This worked out well, as the thief’s Displacer Cloak allowed him to keep their mind-controlled ally’s attention while keeping him safe. Strahd lunged at the cleric, but rolled a one on his attack and stumbled. The cleric struck Strahd with his magic hammer Thundercrack, doing almost maximum damage, and unleashed its power to make everyone within 20′ Save or be stunned for 1d4 rounds. Several players were stunned, but more importantly so was Strahd. Only for one round, but that gave them an opportunity. The dwarf had made his saving throw and was now behind the stunned vampire. He made his attack to backstab Strahd, and rolled a natural 20.
The room filled with cheers.
He then rolled maximum damage! x3 for the backstab, x2 for the 20, plus the damage already done by the cleric and Strahd von Zarovich’s head went bouncing across the piles of gold.
Victory! An amazing win. The players were elated.
They then proceeded to stake the corpse, douse the head and body with holy water, smash the head, and light everything on fire.
One thing that struck me was how happy the players were even though the final fight didn’t take long. It proves that every boss fight doesn’t need to devolve into a long slugfest. The players knew how dangerous Strahd was, they knew what he’d done to their dead comrade and the evidence was all around them. Solid planning on their part and some really amazing rolls gave the final fight the same sense of being epic that a drawn out battle would have.
I haven’t run Ravenloft in years and it was great to revisit this classic module and it was even more fun since most of my players were unfamiliar with the adventure. It was a great way to celebrate Halloween. The only challenge left to me is deciding what to do next year.
Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell is on sale now at Michael Curtis’ Lulu.com site and contains the final five levels for his wonderful megadungeon. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. The first volume, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, captured my imagination when I first saw it. The layout is a very user-friendly style that borrows from the OSR’s One Page Dungeon concept, striking a great balance of content without becoming unwieldy. This is my kind of dungeon, that mixes the fantastic with the logical, with the story of Stonehell unfolding through exploration, always just beneath the surface but not controlling the game. I cannot wait to crack open the new volume and see what waits below.
On Curtis’ Lulu page you can find both volumes of Stonehell in print and .pdf versions, as well as a free sample of the first level and a free expansion. There’s also an inexpensive .pdf with additional adventures in and around the dungeon. You can find it all here.
In honor of Halloween I gathered a few friends together to venture into the classic Ravenloft adventure.
No box set, no overly complicated demi-plane, just the original stand-alone module I6 Ravenloft by Tracy and Laura Hickman in all it’s vampiric glory. It’s a wonderful module that I haven’t run in many years, but re-reading it brought back fond memories of the blood-soaked halls and the night terrors faced by past adventurers.
With four players, most of whom have never played 1st edition AD&D, I decided to pre-generate a selection of high level characters to choose from. This also proved to be a fun exercise for me, and once I covered the core character types I branched out into a few mutli-class and sub-class options. (More on that in a later post.) I left the character details for the players to flesh out and that also proved to be great fun, as they were quick to let their imagination loose. Selected for the adventure was a chaotic good human magic-user, a neutral good half-elven cleric/magic-user, a chaotic neutral human thief, and a lawful evil human cleric.
Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the lawful evil cleric is under contract.
The hook for the party was that the king of a nearby land was alarmed that the realm of Barovia seemed to be expanding. Packs of wolves and zombies had attacked villages and most troubling of all, the circle of mist surrounding Barovia was expanding. The king had sent a company of his royal guard to deal with the threat, but none had returned. In desperation he turned to a group of adventurers promising them wealth, name fame, and lands to form their own dominions in.
The adventure went well and I did my best to play up the hammer horror film feel of the game. Not far past the gates of the road to Barovia they found the corpses of the king’s men hanging from trees on the sides of the road. The group spent a good deal of time in the village, trying to learn all the information they could and seeking allies, while also trying to protect the burgomeister’s daughter from Strahd von Zarovich’s dark embrace. They did manage to gather some valuable intelligence, aided by creative use of the Speak with Dead spell, but at a high price.
On their second night in the village, the half-elven cleric/magic-user decided she would stay in the chapel with the priest in order to witness the parade of ghosts that happens before dawn. The rest of the party decided to stay in the burgomeister’s manor again, to continue protecting the daughter. The night before voices from outside had attempted to get them to open the way, including temptations for the evil cleric, and the pitiful pleadings of a little girl who was apparently killed by wolves when the character on watch wouldn’t let her in.
With the party split Strahd decided to attack the lone adventurer. His agents caused the bell of the chapel to ring, then come crashing down into the main hall. This was followed by a wave of rats, advancing on the frightened priest and the half-elf. She unleashed burning hands on the rodent tide, but there were too many. Grabbing the priest she smashed through the window and fled the burning church, a cloud of bats dropping to assail them as they dashed through the night. She heard the priest scream behind her, but the bats clouded her vision too much to see his fate. No door opened to her frantic banging and no trick or spell she pulled could stem the wave of vermin. Towards the end she realized they were herding her to the manor. She did bang on the door, but instead of asking to be let in she screamed, “Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain!”
Inside the manor the cleric cast Hold Person to stop the thief from opening the door, while outside a great bat flew down and changed into Strahd himself. The party was forced to listen through the door as the vampire beat the half-elf to death and carried off her body, and we had our first character death before they reached the castle.
It was glorious.
The rest of the night went well, with several more moments that were epic, horrific, and absurd. They met another adventurer, a flamboyant knight errant of the Landsknecht on his way to test his luck in Castle Ravenloft, who went on to find romance in its haunted halls. They faced the undead corpses of their dead friend and the little girl. They killed the Heart of Sorrow and restored the Sunsword to its full power. They lit many things on fire.
The night ended when they blew up most of one of the central towers, taking out a coven of witches in the process and sending their cauldron hurtling through the night sky, presumably to land somewhere in the village far below.
As night in the real world beckoned we decided to end the session there. The party has gained some powerful advantages but Strahd still prowls the castle halls. To win their freedom the adventures will have to destroy him and cleanse the evil in Barovia.
I had a blast running Ravenloft again and the players were in a fine groove. The player making her generic human fighter a dashing Landsknecht and then romancing the swooning Gertruda was my favorite flight of fancy. This was followed closely by the lawful evil cleric of Romney, God of the 1%, who made a point of pontificating at every chance. Even the character death was delightfully harrowing and gruesome, just perfect for an October adventure.
We have plans to finish the game this weekend, so stay tuned as we see if any of the adventurers will get out alive.
My hardbound copy of Petty Gods has arrived!
And it is glorious.
Petty Gods is a collection of deities who are not your A-list beings. These aren’t your gods of Death or the Sun, instead you’ll find Glorfall the God of Academic Arguments, or Manguaca the Goddess of Alcoholic Stupor. But don’t discount these beings, because you never know when the blessings from such a deity will come in handy. I love this concept and it has a long tradition in history. Many societies are filled with minor divinities whose blessings are invoked to help in day-to-day life, and not just among polytheistic religions. I was raised as a Catholic and the church has a patron saint for just about everything.
This book is one of the real triumphs of the OSR movement. The idea began with James Maliszewski over on Grognardia and was later picked up and run with by Greg of Gorgonmilk fame. The concept was a professional quality sourcebook with content crowd-sourced by the OSR community and provided “at cost” to gamers. Every entry, every piece of artwork, donated by OSR fans and put together by Greg into a fantastic product as a way to give back to gaming.
The very concept is wonderful. The execution has been spectacular. The final product clocks in at 378 pages and is filled with high quality artwork, tons of deities, servitors, spells, and cults, and it’s all contained in a book worthy of sitting on the shelf next to anything put out by a major game company.
All done for the love of the game.
I’ve had a .pdf copy of the first, shorter release of Petty Gods for quite some time and it’s seen use at my table. These minor deities are just the thing to add flavor to your game, be it through shrines or when someone needs a colorful epitaph to shout. When I was looking for a deity for my cleric I reached for Petty Gods and found Rosartia, Goddess of Things Long Forgotten, whose cult tracks down magic items of great power and hides them until they are needed. She was the perfect choice for an adventuring cleric and has become a regular religion in my game world, even making the jump to becoming a secret society in my Stars Without Number game.
Petty Gods is a product that every gamer should get their hands on; it’s fun, it’s useful, it’s high quality, and it’s free or at cost. You can find it in several forms:
The original Petty Gods booklet is a free .pdf and its compact form is nice even if you also get the expanded version. You can download it here.
The Revised and Expanded .pdf can be downloaded from RPG Now. This is the full product with all the entries and artwork for free.
And to Greg from Gorgonmilk and everyone who contributed and helped give this product to the community, thank you.
(blows dust from the belfry)
This past weekend my amazing wife and I celebrated our anniversary in our usual way; we picked a state park and slipped away for a weekend of hiking and relaxation. We’ve been doing this for a number of years now and this is the first time we’ve gone back to a park we’ve previously visited. The camp is Carter Caves State Park in eastern Kentucky and it offers several lovely trails, plenty of flora and fauna, and a number of cave tours.
There are also plenty of stories to be found, and where you find stories you find adventure seeds.
This early in the season they only have two of their cave tours open. One of these is the Cascade Cave, which is also one of the longest tours and features large chambers and impressive geological features. Cascade Cave is several miles from the park’s lodge and was originally privately owned, with people touring the system since the late 1800’s. This is an active, living cave system with formations still growing and water in abundance.
In the early 20th century the owners of Cascade Cave sought to take full advantage of the system as a tourist destination. First they excavated the entrance, which previously required people to crawl to reach the larger chamber beyond. This larger domed chamber they dubbed “the ballroom”, and making good on the name they would hold dances in it. During prohibition the ballroom took on another role, becoming a subterranean speakeasy.
During this era there was fierce competition to put on the longest and most impressive cave tour. The owners of Cascade realized that the system extended far beyond the Ballroom, so they carried out further excavations. Their efforts succeeded in opening up a much longer system of tunnels that include many beautiful features, including a section where the river flows in and continues to carve out the rock to this day. Occasionally the competition would take a dark turn, with cave owners hiring toughs to break into their rivals’ caves and commit vandalism, carving graffiti into the walls and shattering millennia-old formations, and there is some evidence of this happening in Cascade.
The owners also built a lodge on the surface, directly above the caverns. They sunk a hole down to the cave to use as a ventilation system. By opening up the connection they could draw up the cool air from the cavern, providing natural air conditioning to the lodge. They also sunk a pipe down through the same hole, which they used to pump sewage from the lodge through the cave and straight into the river.
They made one further attempt to expand the Cascade Cave tour, having realized that there were even more tunnels reaching deeper into the earth. However this time they used dynamite and the results were not what they’d hoped. Instead of opening the tunnels they caused a massive collapse, burying the deeper caverns for all time. It was a terrible mistake.
Or was it?
“they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”
-Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
To the gamer’s mind this all makes perfect sense; opportunistic people delving into closed caverns, holding drunken revels in subterranean chambers, building a hall above the underworld realms and making use of it in such a crass fashion. All they need to do is name the lodge “Heorot” and we have the setting for a modern-day Beowulf.
Were the vandals really sent into the caverns by a bitter rival? Were they cultists out to shatter ancient seals that kept something imprisoned? Or were they incautious adventurers who came to stop the terrors from being unleashed; adventurers who tried and failed, then disappeared leaving no trace except for a disturbingly suggestive set of flow stone formations that an old guide swears weren’t there before. Was the misadventure with the dynamite really an attempt to open the deeper caverns? Or to seal in some subterranean horror, woken from the depths by people venturing too far beyond the sun-lit world.
That’s for your players to find out.
It has arrived!
And it is beautiful.
Barrowmaze Complete is finally mine!
Barrowmaze has long been on my want list. When they announced that a complete edition was on the way I decided to wait for it, but wasn’t able to jump on the crowdfunding campaign. So I have been patiently waiting for it to hit the retail market. I picked up the PDF/Print combo, which is currently a really good deal, and have been reading through it on my iPad. Now I have the physical copy in hand and it is glorious.
I need to do a proper review once I’ve finished the book, but right now I’ll say that I like what I’ve read. This megadungeon takes the classical dungeon crawl approach and injects innovative ideas that really brings the dungeon to life.
Or perhaps “unlife” is the better term.
It’s also a beautiful book, filled with illustrations that fire the imagination and bring home the OSR sensibilities.
Barrowmaze Complete now joins the ranks of my megadungeon arsenal.
Truly a fearsome collection, printed using the tears of countless adventurers.
“Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prowl the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims.”
-The Secret of Bone Hill, front cover
If you ask an old Dungeons & Dragons player what module best represents the game you’ll get plenty of answers. For many it’s The Keep on the Borderlands, home of the iconic Caves of Chaos. Others will say In Search of the Unknown, or The Village of Hommlet, or maybe even Tomb of Horrors. These are fine choices, but for me the answer is module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.
Written by Lenard Lakofka and published in 1981, Bone Hill has a dose of everything a D&D party could want. The module is designed for 2-8 characters from levels 2-4, which makes it suitable for adventurers with some experience under their belts, looking to face bigger challenges. It provides a modest sized wilderness area with several different locations containing both random and set encounters. There are some dynamic threats for the DM to use, such as a group of brigands and a pack of gnolls, and places weird and fantastic that may provide aid instead of danger to a party that minds its manners.
There is the town of Restenford, which is well mapped and completely keyed out, rivaling the village of Hommlet for completeness. All the townsfolk, including the inhabitants of the baron’s castle, are given names and stats. Only a few are given descriptions beyond this, but it’s easy to build motivations on top of what the Dungeon Master is given and if the DM is inclined towards intrigue then it won’t be hard to incorporate into the lives of the townsfolk. Restenford is an archetypical D&D fantasy town, mostly human with a smattering of other races living alongside them. Magic is also not too uncommon, with several magic-users living within the town and more than one person armed with low powered magical weapons and armor.
Then there is Bone Hill itself and the ruined castle looming over the countryside. There is a good mix of standard and new monsters lurking within its depths and two factions that have an uneasy coexistence. This is a well realized dungeon site, not very large but well thought out and stocked with a generous amount of treasure for those who survive its dangers.
The module also uses plenty of old school concepts in its design. Most importantly it makes no assumptions about the party’s motivations, beyond that they seek adventure. There are no quest givers with exclamation marks hovering over their heads, waiting to tell the players what needs to be done. It is up to them to explore Restenford and its environs and it is up to them to unearth the stories that will lead them into danger.
That’s not to say the adventure doesn’t give them some direction. In true old school fashion Bone Hill has an extensive list of rumors that the party can hear during their interactions around the town. How much they can trust those rumors is another decision the party will have to make and a wise group will be cautious about what they believe.
One related detail that I enjoy is that a few of the illustrations depict scenes from the rumor table that are not true. It makes me wonder if these rumors are based on things that happened in the author’s gaming group.
There are two other details that I appreciate about The Secret of Bone Hill. The first is that the castle of Restenford is completely mapped out and keyed, with rumors around the town that the ruling family’s wealth is secured within. As I mentioned, the module makes no assumptions about the adventurers’ motivations and the castle is not simply a place to go and receive quests from the baron and baroness. A group may prefer to try their luck at robbing the castle instead of risking the horrors of Bone Hill.
The other detail I love is found at the ruins on Bone Hill. The history of the ruined castle is not told within the module, but a lot of its story can be discerned from the map and the location descriptions. The remains of siege engines can be found outside of ruined walls. There are areas that show substantial fire damage, including burn circles marked on the map. Many skeletal remains can be found around the siege engines and within the courtyard, telling of a fierce battle between bugbears and humans. We don’t know the details, but the clues to the castle’s history are compelling, all the more because they are told through what the party sees and can deduce.
If there is one criticism I have it’s that the main threats lack an element of the fantastic. There is no dragon, no demon lord, no alien monstrosity that strikes terror into the players when their characters come face-to-face with it. Nothing that is epic by its existence alone. This can be remedied by developing the personalities of the intelligent villains and making them a more aggressive threat to the characters and the region.
Of course, you can also add a horrifying threat of your own.
The Secret of Bone Hill encapsulates what I think of in old school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a small sandbox where low-to-mid level characters can make their own way, free from any expectations beyond their thirst for adventure. There are mysteries, there are opportunities for role playing, there are unforgiving threats, and a wealth of treasure to be discovered.
The Secret of Bone Hill is available in .pdf format on dndclassics.com. Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.