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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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The DragonDex

I came across this nifty resource today.

The DragonDex is an exhaustive index of every article in Dragon Magazine, from issue #1 to issue #359. That’s an impressive feat!

In addition to the total index there are sub-indexes that will help you narrow your search. Of special interest to me is the Adventures list and the Fiction list looks fun. There are two lists that I’m surprised not to see, most notably a collection of the various PC and NPC classes presented in Dragon, but those would be easy enough to parse out from the master list.

Hats off to the creator for this handy resource.

*UPDATE* The character classes are broken out under a heading in the master index! Hat-tip to the author for the correction!

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Gaming

 

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The Halls of Beoll-Dur

The Halls of Beoll-Dur is an adventure printed in issue #41 of Dragon Magazine, September of 1980. Four authors are given credit; Dave Luther, Jon Naatz, Dave Niessen, and Mark Schultz. It is designed as a mid-to-high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where, “it is essential to the success of an expedition that most, if not all, party members be 8th level or higher.”

Adventures are some of my favorite gaming features and I played or ran quite a few of the ones that saw print in Dragon. So it came as a surprise to learn about The Halls of Beoll-Dur, an adventure I had not known about until recently. Issue #41 was before I’d started subscribing to the magazine, but I’d made a point to get my hands on old issues, especially if I heard they had adventures in them. Fortunately I have a copy of the Dragon CD archive collection. Thus after over 30 years I have had the chance to delve into the pages of this adventure.

“You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-Dum, shadow and flame.”

-Saruman the White

There are a lot of things I like about Beoll-Dur, both as an adventure and from a design standpoint. The influence of Tolkien is heavy, from names like the dwarf cleric Duinor and the stronghold’s name of Beoll-Dur, to the setup for the adventure itself.

Beoll-Dur is a large dwarven stronghold dug deep into the heart of a dormant volcano. It was founded as a training site for dwarven clerics, where they could learn and pray in isolation form the outside world. All went well for the temple, until the volcano woke up.

Fissures opened, ripping a crevice through parts of the complex and opening a passage to the lair of Searazul, king of the Salamanders. The fiery warriors stormed up into Beoll-Dur and though the dwarves fought bravely, they were overwhelmed. A few survivors holed up in a hidden chamber, eventually tunneling their way to freedom, while the high priest Duinor and his chosen clerics made a last stand. Duinor’s spirit lives on in the complex, holding out within a divine sanctuary in the hopes that one day the halls will be delivered from Searazul’s grasp.

It’s a great setup for an adventure, with equal parts Moria and Erebor at its foundations.

“Oh I do love maps.  I have quite a collection.”

-Bilbo Baggins

One of the first things I do when reading an adventure is look at the map. Like mister Baggins I do love maps, and if the map appeals to me it’s likely the adventure will too. The map of Beoll-Dur does not disappoint.

The design is aesthetically pleasing, hand drawn by someone with skill but just rough enough that it feels less like a professional module and more like a very well done home adventure. Instead of the usual blue or black fill for solid space, Beoll-Dur’s map uses a hash pattern very similar to the wonderful maps being produced today by Dyson Logos. There are some nice artistic flourishes and I’m fond of the script used for the text, though it doesn’t work as well for the numbers in the room keys.

The layout of the complex is nice, not too spread out and not too cramped and the structure makes sense for a location that was once inhabited. You can tell a lot about the dungeon just from the map and a lot of thought went into the layout here.

“If there is a key there must be a door!”

-Fili

The upper two levels of Beoll-Dur are a nice mix of realistic and weird encounters. There are temples, lecture halls, dining chambers, recreation, and bedchambers fitting to a population. Then there are stranger things; imprisoned monsters waiting to attack, strange places where elemental magic has crept in, hidden magic chambers, crypts and tombs for the honored dead, and a massive boiling pool that erupts into an enormous geyser. In the center, running between the levels, is a great crystal column where the spirit of Duinor resides, forming an area of sanctuary for those who would aid his beloved stronghold.

But only if they prove themselves worthy of his aid.

The deepest layer holds the chambers of King Searazul and his salamanders, where his elite troops train and his council prepares gateways to other planes of existence. It’s easy for a dungeon master to see Searazul’s halls as the beachhead from which he plans to carve out a domain of fire on the prime material plane.

In fine old school form, there is a lot of exploring to do. Many rooms are empty of monsters. Some hold puzzles, some are deadly traps, some give clues to the history of the site.

And there are secrets. Many secrets. The party that doesn’t search for secret doors will miss a great deal within Beoll-Dur, something which I have an appreciation for. There is a great deal of treasure within the halls and most of it is hidden.  Players will need to work to find it, but for those who do a fortune will be theirs.

If they survive.

“The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun.  Go back to the shadows!”

-Gandalf

I like that they used salamanders as the primary adversaries. They’re not monsters I see used very often. They give an infernal feel to the adventure without resorting to more common demons and devils players are used to fighting. Other fire related menaces arise as the party delves deeper into the halls, including the atmosphere itself. Those without fire protection will suffer from the increasing heat, though Duinor will offer some protection to those who pass his test.

The design of the module is interesting, with a few features that are atypical for traditional D&D adventure design. The adventure goes straight into an “Instructions to the Dungeon Master” section instead of an introduction. The history of the site is given in straightforward text, without the flowery language usually used for backstory. Though it is no less evocative for the lack of purple prose.

A very interesting design choice is that individual rooms are not always keyed. Instead a central room in a section is numbered and the description covers the main room and the surrounding chambers. For example, a single entry covers the dining hall, the kitchen, and the officers’ mess. In another location three hidden treasure rooms share a single numbered entry.

The descriptions themselves are concise with enough information to let the dungeon master build upon. The effect has more in common with the OSR’s one page dungeon design or the descriptions in Stonehell Dungeon than with anything TSR is known for. I’m sure that this style was used because of the space limitations in Dragon Magazine and it allows the authors to cram a lot of material in a short amount of space. The adventure is 16 pages including the maps.

The Halls of Beoll-Dur is an excellent example of old school adventures. It’s fun and interesting to read and will provide a good challenge to any adventuring party. I’m surprised at how long I remained unaware of this adventure. It should receive more attention within the OSR circle and is worth your time to track down.

Have you run or played The Halls of Beoll-Dur? I’d love to hear stories about how the adventure went.

Salamander

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2014 in Dungeon Design, Gaming, Reviews

 

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