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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.

fa2

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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A Familiar Addendum

An interesting idea has come to mind, following up on my post about familiars:

“At 10th Level (Master Thief), thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of clerical, but not druidic, nature.

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 27

With the right scroll, a Master Thief could have a familiar! Given the abilities of the familiars in 1st Edition, they’d be more advantageous to a thief than a magic-user. And if they managed to roll a special familiar? A 10th level chaotic neutral Master Thief with a pseudo-dragon!

How did I never think of this in my Monty Haul days?

And we can extrapolate this even further:

“Tertiary functions of assassins are the same as thieves. They have all the abilities and functions of thieves; but, except for back stabbing, assassins perform thieving at two levels below their assassin level…”

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg 29

A 12th Level Chief Assassin with an imp for a familiar…

 

 
 

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A Familiar Problem

There is a segment in a recent episode of Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff discussing how to make a magic-user’s familiar more interesting. It’s a good bit and it has me reconsidering their use in Dungeons & Dragons, however a glance at the spell description in 1st Edition reminded me why we stopped using them.

On the plus side, familiars give magic users a few perks. These include serving as a spy for their master and the ability to converse with the magician. I’d thought that a telepathic link existed between them as well, but this isn’t part of the 1st Edition spell. There’s also a 1 in 20 chance that the player will summon a special familiar, the type being determined by the caster’s alignment. These are the really cool and useful familiars and include creatures like pseudo-dragons and imps.

Possibly the biggest benefit from a familiar is that they add their hit points to the caster’s, which is excellent for a low level magic-user. However this is also the biggest danger, because of what happens if the familiar dies.

“Normal familiars have 2-4hit points and armor class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.). Each is abnormally intelligent and totally faithful to the magic-user whose familiar it becomes. The number of the familiar’s hit points is added to the hit point total of the magic-user when it is within 12″ of its master, but if the familiar should ever be killed, the magic-user will permanently lose double that number of hit points.”

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 66*

So the death of an AC7 creature with three hit points means the magic-user will permanently lose six hit points.

Ah… yes. That would be why our casters stopped summoning familiars.

I was curious if 2nd Edition AD&D did anything to fix the problem. The spell’s entry is almost twice as long and adds a few extra benefits.

“The wizard receives the heightened senses of his familiar, which grants the wizard a +1 bonus to all surprise die rolls. Normal familiars have 2-4 hit points plus 1 hit point per caster level, and an Armor Class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.).”

“The wizard has an empathic link with the familiar and can issue it mental commands at a distance of up to one mile.”

“When the familiar is in physical contact with its wizard, it gains the wizard’s saving throws against special attacks. If a special attack would normally cause damage, the familiar suffers no damage if the saving throw is successful and half damage if the saving throw is failed.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

That is a little better; the benefits are boosted, the extra hit points are nice, and the saving throw certainly helps. This flavor of familiars is more useful for a low level wizard, however it’s still going to be a liability once the magician starts facing things like dragon breath and fireballs. No problem, once the caster reaches those levels they can leave their familiar at home. Right?

“If separated from the caster, the familiar loses 1 hit point each day, and dies if reduced to 0 hit points.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

Okay… so that’s not an option. Well, on the plus side, in 2nd Edition you don’t lose twice the familiar’s hit points when it dies. However,

If the familiar dies, the wizard must successfully roll an immediate system shock check or die. Even if he survives this check, the wizard loses 1 point from his Constitution when the familiar dies.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

In the end, 2nd Edition familiars are less risky to have than their 1st Edition counterparts, but the benefits still don’t match the danger. Also, they did away with the special familiars, removing the chances of a really useful sidekick.

The idea of familiars is cool and suitably thematic for a magic-user, but their implementation in early D&D doesn’t justify the risk. There should be risk involved, but it needs to be something more balanced with the rewards they provide. I’ve been considering the following for my games:

  • The familiar is able to communicate telepathically with the magic-user.
  • Once per day, the caster can telepathically “ride” their familiar. This allows them to see, hear, and smell what the familiar can. The magic-user can also cast a spell through the familiar. This action cancels the link for the day.
  • The familiar adds to the magic-user’s spellcasting. The magic-user can memorize one additional spell per spell level available to them.
  • The familiar’s saving throws are equal to the casters.
  • Familiars and their magicians are linked and share a common pool of hit points. Attacks directed at either target will damage both. This is not limited by range, so a captured familiar can be used to torment the caster, like a Voodoo doll. Area of Effect attacks that catch both targets do not do double damage.
  • The death of a familiar causes the caster to make an immediate Save vs Death Magic or die. If the save is successful the caster loses one point of Constitution. (Alternately, roll randomly to see which attribute loses a point.)

This is still a work in progress. My priorities are:

  • A familiar should provide significant, thematic benefits.
  • A familiar should provide a risk to the caster, one that will make a lasting impact on the character but not out of proportion to the benefits they bring.
  • The familiar should work in tandem with the spellcaster. The mechanics should promote a partnership beyond that of a pet or henchman.
  • Things that help spellcasters cast more spells are good things.

Do you use familiars in your games? Have you revamped them? I’d love to hear stories. Also, I have no idea how D&D handles familiars in editions after 2nd, so I’d welcome any information on that.

Familiar

*For those not familiar with 1st edition AD&D, 1″ equals ten feet indoors or ten yards outdoors.

 
 

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Survival in Stonehell

It’s been a busy week, so I’ve been neglecting the Belfry, but I wanted to pop in and leave a game update.

When last we left our intrepid adventurers, they were lost on the 2nd level of Stonehell, somewhere in the Reptile House. They managed to rest up and regain spells, then deliberated on what to do next.

They decided to try and make their way back up the slide, determining that it would be safer to brave the climb than the unknown dangers, and hoping that the zombies were not still waiting above the pit. So they sent the thief on up, armed with determination and a lot of rope.

As luck would have it the zombies had indeed returned to their crypt, but while hauling people up they did have an encounter. A kobold work crew, moving as silently as possible, came in to check on the pit. The party has learned enough about how Stonehell works to understand the kobold’s role, did nothing threatening. Looking at the tools the kobolds were carrying, they realized that the work crew was there to reset the pit trap. But because the party did nothing hostile they were happy to wait while the adventures pulled the rest of their friends up. The cleric of Set, who speaks kobold, was even able to share a (quiet) laugh at their predicament. They asked for the shortest directions to reach Kobold Corners, and the work crew obliged, giving them instructions that would bring them to the back door.

The kobolds neglected to mention the locked gate. Not for any nefarious reasons, mind you. It just didn’t occur to them to mention it. The party thanked them and moved off down the quiet corridors, leaving the kobolds to their work.

Their next surprise came when zombies in hidden crypts began breaking through the walls on either side of them. The team made a run for it, looking over their shoulders long enough to see a dozen or more zombies stumbling into the corridor. What followed was a wonderful chase through darkened halls; doors were barricaded and beaten down, wrong turns were taken, pitfalls were overcome, and they had an encounter with a mysterious madman who they believe to be a necromancer.

The finale of the chase had part of the party throwing all their weight against an unlockable door with the entire horde pushing on it, while the thief and elf frantically worked on the locked gate. They popped the lock, jumped through the gate, and slammed it just as the zombie horde burst through.

It was glorious.

After that they had an audience with the head kobold, Trustee Sniv, and made a generous contribution to his coffers to compensate for the disturbance. After that Elf the elf made his booze delivery to the bar, followed by a few drinks, and then they retired to the inn to get some rest. Several of the characters were seriously injured and the chance of sanctuary was very welcome.

The party has several choices to make in the next game. The thief, blinded by the Wheel of Fortune in their previous delve, now wears an enchanted scarf over her eyes that gives her sight. It was given to her by a masked sorceress known as The Veiled Lady, who has tasked her to find a lost magician’s laboratory, hidden somewhere near Kobold Corners. It seems likely that they will begin their search for it in the next session, but I’ve learned not to take anything for granted with my party.

Ossuary_(909213294)

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming

 

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An Ever Changing Land

I’ve noticed a pattern that shows up a lot in folk tales, legends, and other stories in that style; a hero goes wandering not far from home and stumbles across a mysterious castle, manor, or some other mysterious structure. The location invariably becomes the source of adventure, often as home to some unearthly being or powerful wizard.

What strikes me as odd about this is that castles and fortresses are important landmarks. They confer control of an area, provide wealth to their masters, and are significant to life in the region.

In the case of the peasant-hero, the mysterious castle is understandable. It’s easy to explain that a peasant hasn’t traveled extensively, especially into woods or mountains where danger and the unknown abound. I am reminded of the scene in Fellowship of the Rings where Samwise takes his first step outside of the Shire.

However it makes less sense when reading about knights and nobles. It would be their business to know the people and strongholds of power that surround their world. It’s hard to believe that there would be a castle within a day’s ride of Camelot that an Arthurian knight wouldn’t know about.

Unless their world operates on different rules than ours does.

A common theme in early Dungeons & Dragons, and the Appendix N literature that inspired it, is the conflict between Law, represented by civilization, and Chaos, represented by the wilderness. Settlements are sanctuaries from the unpredictable and unearthly. Perhaps not safe, but their dangers are mundane and rational. Incursions of chaos into a city, through monsters or witchcraft, are treated as abnormal and cause fear in a different way that simple crime or political intrigue.

The wilderness is unpredictable, it shifts and changes when you aren’t looking. Paths in the woods lead to different places in the darkness. Forgotten groves may be both ancient and new at the same time. Those who ally themselves with Chaos may find that they can raise a castle from the darkness, to serve as a base of power or snare for a knight errant.

Through this lens the world becomes a shifting and unpredictable place. Castles, caverns, even entire dungeons may spawn in the dark places of their own accord, or by the will of powerful beasts, cunning Faeries, or sinister wizards. Rarely traveled paths may never lead to the same place twice and abandoned places may vanish entirely as memory of their existence fades.

In contrast, settlements impose order on the world. As they grow they become islands of stability, and well traveled roads become the framework on which Law fences off and restricts the spread of Chaos.

In this world brigands become the unwitting agents of Chaos, for when people fear to use the roads, the realms of Law become disconnected. Road wardens and Templars become paladins of Law, and settlers are the very seeds of Law who must be protected and nurtured.

Even the traditional “Murder Hobo” adventurers would be the unwitting minions of order, for as they plunder the wealth of dungeons and slaughter monsters in the dark places they open up new realms for settlement. No matter what alignment these adventurers claim, they serve the greater cause of Law by blazing trails into the heart of Chaos and opening the way for others to follow.

It would be fun to run a campaign that mixes the multi-generational feudal setting of Pendragon with the macabre sensibilities of Solomon Kane, where the true nature of the world is kept hidden from the players. Over time the characters and their decedents would discover the truth of the world, and how seemingly mundane events are vastly important on the cosmic scale. It would be fun to see how a group of characters would react, especially as they realize that those who know the truth can influence the universe.

Would they form knightly orders to spread Law? Form dark cabals to unfetter Chaos? Or create secret societies to hide the knowledge that reality is a malleable thing?

And my gaming bucket list grows ever deeper.

KingArthur

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming, World Design

 

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Return to Stonehell

With the holidays behind us my gaming group decided to get back to some serious dungeon delving, so it was back to Stonehell!

This is the third expedition into the dungeon for my players. Their previous trips were before Christmas and they went very well, included some delightfully harrowing encounters, and were chronicled in a previous blog post that was eaten when I went to save it. Suffice to say that they have explored most of Hell’s Antechamber.

The party has a new member, my ten year old daughter who was very excited to play Dungeons & Dragons / Labyrinth Lord. We got out the dice and rolled her up a character, a magic user with horrible stats for constitution and charisma but excellent wisdom and intelligence. We determined that she’s a frail, foul tempered witch type, a role my daughter was disturbingly eager to play. Especially when she found out that she could be evil. Petunia the Witch and the cleric of Set are getting along famously.

It’s fun to see how players’ actions can change a DM’s plans. I have a table of events that could happen for each session. I roll once per session to see which of them, if any, will come up, but actions by the players made me decide to have several show up at once.

First there is the thief who was blinded by the Wheel of Fortune on their last foray. One of the encounters I had planned was for a sorceress to contract with the party to find a certain location within Stonehell, bring her the information, and first pick of anything discovered within. This would only come up after the party had survived a couple of sorties into Stonehell, as she would only treat with adventurers with a proven record. The sorceress provided the thief with a silk scarf that allows her hazy vision when worn over her eyes like a blindfold. The thief agreed to the sorceress’ deal, without discussing it with the rest of the party, and the sorceress’ halfling aide will be remaining in the village to receive reports on their progress.

The sorceress is known as the Veiled Lady and is covered head-to-toe in elaborate Byzantine robes and wears a mask of beaten gold. The party knows nothing more about her, though they can guess she comes from Fever Dreaming Marlinko. I’ll be interested in seeing how her relationship grows with the party. Assuming they survive.

Then the elf, named “Elf”, decided that he wants to learn the kobold language. He began asking around the village. This triggered another encounter I had on the list. A merchant is trying to get several pony kegs of liqueur to Kobold Corners, somewhere on the first level of Stonehell, but his hired guards never arrived. He agreed to teach Elf how to speak kobold if Elf would transport them and come back with a receipt from Yik-Yik, his kobold client. The party was already planning on heading there and has a line on its location, so Elf agreed. He purchased two dogs to serve as pack animals and a puppy for the blind thief, suggesting that they could raise it to be a seeing eye dog.

The thief was not amused, but she does like the puppy.

After that it was back to Stonehell. Outside the gatehouse they met the encounter that I’d actually rolled for this session, a group of armed guards with caged carts, camped casually outside the ruined gatehouse. They greeted the party and began making wagers on if they’d see the adventurers again.

It turns out that the nobles of Marlinko will buy slaves and convicts and send them into Stonehell. If they survive and bring back sufficient treasure they can win their freedom, but really it’s so that the nobles can bet on how long they’ll survive. The guards told the adventurers that the nobles use scrying devices to watch their hapless slaves inside the dungeon. The adventurers were told that if they encountered the slaves inside it would be fine to kill them, but to make it look good.

Returning to the dungeon’s depths they first stopped off to chat with “Rocky” the stone oracle. Then they were off to find Kobold Corners. On their previous expedition they’d had a bad encounter with the orcs, so they decided to cut through the undead-filled Quiet Halls.

Along the way they were ambushed by a number of skeletons, who gave the adventurers a good beating before finally being dispatched. While the party was recovering and taking stock, Elf located and opened a secret door. Peering inside he saw a crypt, and rising from the burial niches were zombies. Lots of zombies.

Elf slammed the door, ran past the party yelling, “Time to go!” and headed down the south passageway, where he promptly fell into a covered pit trap.

This was no ordinary pit trap, instead he found himself (and his dogs) tumbling down a slide into the next level of the dungeon. The party, seeing the zombies shambling out from the secret door and now blocking them from the room’s other entrance, decided to take their chances following Elf and slipped down the pit to the slide and off into the darkness. Everyone survived, though one of the pack dogs died in the fall.

The party is now in a dangerous situation. They have time to catch their breath, but they’re lost on level two. They’ve debated trying to climb back up the slide, but are not sure how far down they’ve come nor if the zombies are still waiting for them. They’ve explored enough to have discovered the temple of Yg, a primordial serpent god that the cleric of Set knows is older and not agreeable to his own deity.

And that is where we left things. The players realize that they could be in real trouble, but their luck and cunning has seen them through tight spots before. If they play things right they may yet see the light of day once more.

And if not? Well, I have spare character sheets.

Rocky

I found our “Rocky” oracle at Wal-Mart in the fish tank section.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming

 

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