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One Million Mummies

More news from Egypt!

“The remains of a child, laid to rest more than 1,500 years ago when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was found in an ancient cemetery that contains more than 1 million mummies, according to a team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.”

-Live Science, Dec. 16th, 2014

So first we have the Cosmic Amulet of Tutankhamen, then the colossal statue of Amenhotep III, and now the burial ground for one million mummies.

Those of us who play Lamentations of the Flame Princess know how this story will end.

I should add that the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities is disputing some of the researchers’ claims.

“There is indeed a site that contains many corpses and bodies wrapped in a thick textile,” Khalifa said. “But these number in the tens of thousands, maximum.”

-The Raw Story, Dec. 16th, 2014

Only in the tens of thousands. That’s… only mildly comforting.

Lich

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2014 in Cool Stuff, History, Spooky Stuff

 

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The History of the Kings of Britain

I’m back!

Last week was family vacation time for me. It was Thanksgiving Week for those of us in the U.S. and when I wasn’t eating tons of food I was catching up on my reading. One of the books that I devoured was The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and what a fun read it was.

To any readers in Britain, my hat is off to you. The legendary history of Britain is far cooler, and bloodier, than I ever realized. It’s an epic full of treachery and mysticism where nearly every page is filled with battles involving thousands of warriors soaking the fields in blood.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a religious figure who lived in the 1100’s and was most likely Welsh. His two most famous works are The History of the Kings of Britain and The Prophecies of Merlin, which at some point he combined into the former work to act as a bridge between the reign of King Vortigern and the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, setting the stage for King Arthur’s rise. Geoffrey does not claim authorship of The History, rather he claims to have translated it from, “(a) certain very ancient book written in the British language,” which he received from Archdeacon Walter of Oxford.

One of the first things to be clear on is that the British Geoffrey is talking about are either the Welsh or those who settled in what became Brittany. Everyone else is a foreigner. Normans? They don’t enter into the story. Celts? They’re newcomers that the British gave Ireland because it had been uninhabited since the giants vanished. Picts? They’re barbarians from the continent. Saxons?

Geoffrey of Monmouth had a lot to say about the Saxons. None of it particularly nice. They’re the well-spoken version of Orcs in his history of Britain.

Did I mention that Geoffrey was probably Welsh?

According to legend, British history began with the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans settled in Greece, where a boy named Brutus was born. Brutus is banished after he accidentally kills his father, so he and his followers set out on an epic journey to find a new homeland. Along the way they end up fighting many battles, finding more Trojan survivors, and eventually coming to a mysterious island whose population has vanished. In the ruins of a city they find a temple to Diana, who gives Brutus a prophecy of where he may found his kingdom. Following Diana’s guidance, Brutus and his followers sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic, sailing north along the Gallic coast where they find even more Trojan survivors and hear of a wondrous and fertile island called Albion, which matches the description of Diana’s vision. Brutus leads his people to Albion where they defeat the giants living there and establish the city of Troia Nova, which would later become London. Brutus becomes the first king in this new land and his people take on his name and becoming the Britons.

 The Brutus Stone located in Totnes, England, is said to be where Brutus first set foot on Albion’s soil. Given its distance from the coast Brutus must have had long legs.

From this fantastic beginning Geoffrey spins tales of kings of great power and nobility as well as those who are petty and duplicitous. Giants and dragons lurk in the early tales with visions and prophecy enough to please any fan of the Greek legends. King Leir’s story is here, writ large and bathed in blood. The brothers Belinus and Brennius battled each other for the throne but later united to oppose the might of Rome. The brothers sacked the Eternal City, Belinus returning to the kingship of the Britons while Brennius stayed and ruled Rome with an iron fist. Doomed Vortigern, who discovered the boy Merlin. Vortigern played for power, rising to the kingship through treachery and murder, only to watch his kingdom crumble. In the end his name was cursed by both Briton and Saxon and he was burned to death in his fortress tower. Following him came Aurelius, Uther, and finally the glorious reign of Arthur. King Arthur, who ruled an empire of 30 kingdoms, who destroyed the forces of Lucius Hiberius, Emperor of Rome, and who would have worn the imperial crown had he not been forced to turn back by the betrayal of Mordred and Guinevere.

Geoffrey’s Britain never recaptures the golden era of Arthur. Civil wars, betrayals, invasions, and crimes that turn god against the Britons cause the fall of the once-great kingdom. Finally a plague ravages the land so severely that almost every inhabitant is killed or flees. When the plague subsides it is the Saxons who return first, growing ever more numerous and powerful. A few British kings still rise up to stem the Saxon tide, but the time of true British rulership is at an end.

Fans of Thomas Malory’s romantic Arthurian tales will be surprised at how different these stories are. There is no Camelot, no round table, no Sir Lancelot. Kay is not Arthur’s ill-tempered step-brother, but his trusted seneschal and a leader of great renown. Bedivere is Arthur’s cup-bearer and most famous warrior. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is most recognizable, being as strong, courageous, and hot-tempered as his later portrayals show. King Arthur himself is quite different. There is no Sword in the Stone or Lady of the Lake in his story. He is a less romantic figure, but in many ways a mightier one whose empire is far more vast than it is under Malory’s pen. The biggest difference is Merlin, who plays no role in Arthur’s life but is a major figure in that of his three predecessors.

The History of the Kings of Britain is a delightful read and full of inspiration for any gamer, particularly those of the Old School Renaissance. In upcoming posts I’m going to look at a few aspects that I found particularly inspiring for use at the game table. This is a brutal history of poisoned cups, burned cities, and armies tens of thousands strong.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2014 in Books and Comics, Fantasy, Gaming, History

 

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Curses!

Last game session my character dodged a bullet in the form of a curse. A very cool curse.

My character is a cleric of Rosartia, a deity described in the outstanding free book Petty Gods (an OSR resource worthy of its own post). Rosartia is the goddess of finding and hiding magical items, keeping them safe until they are needed.

If ever there was a suitable patron deity for adventurers…

Not long ago our party said, “screw level appropriate encounters!” and signed on to clear several wyverns out of an abandoned fortress. The keep turned out to be haunted, with an interesting history that emerged through exploration (an OSR trait worthy of its own post). There were losses among PCs and followers but in the end we cleared the wyverns, lifted the curse, and made off with a tidy bit of treasure. This included a frost brand sword that my cleric recovered from the undead lord of the castle.

The sword was a particularly good one, doing an extra 1d6 damage on every hit. That should have been my first clue that it was more dangerous than it seemed. Power never comes without a price and that’s a hefty amount of power. Yet I was oblivious and made good use of the blade. I relied on it heavily during one adventure in particular where, upon stopping the attempt by three evil cults to form a new dark pantheon, a saint appeared to my character and blessed the sword, removing its curse.

At which point I said, “curse?”

The DM then revealed the blade’s curse and the trigger that would have enacted it. The curse itself is wonderfully horrible, but the trigger was what sold it as particularly creepy.

The curse was tied to the haunting of the castle and the tale of cannibalism that formed its history. If the curse had been triggered, as described by my DM;

“That night, you would have dreams of killing children. You wouldn’t find these dreams unpleasant at the time of dreaming, so it wouldn’t interfere with your rest or ability to recover hit points through rest. However upon waking, the PC would be allowed to role play their own reaction to the dreams.

After that night, the PCs had a week to either kill a child with the sword or have Remove Curse cast upon them before things got worse.

During the second week, the PC would require twice as much food to avoid the effects of starvation. During the third week, the player would require three times the amount of food to avoid the effects of starvation. And the amount of food would also keep increasing.”
There were only three ways to end the curse; a Remove Curse spell, death, or the killing of a child. Removal of the curse wouldn’t remove it from the blade, it just made it dormant until triggered again.

The trigger was the second wonderfully horrible thing about the sword.

“To activate the curse, you had to roll a 16 during an attack roll.”

In other words I was playing Russian Roulette and I didn’t realize it. This is what sent a chill up my spine, even though the curse had been banished from the sword. It’s the nervousness you get when you realize something Very Bad just missed you, that sinking feeling when something you trusted turns out to have been ready to drop you into the void. In that moment I wasn’t thinking about how the curse had been lifted, I was wracking my brains to remember all the die rolls I’d made since finding the sword. I was acutely aware of several 17’s I had rolled in that game session.

It didn’t matter that I was now safe. My imagination was captured by what might have been and even in escape it had left its mark. My cleric will still pick up any magic item he can get his hands on, but there will always be a hint of trepidation involved. Is this item all it appears to be? Or is it a ticking time bomb.
That’s the brilliance of this curse.

What if I’d discovered the curse ahead of time? Would I have stopped using the sword or would I have risked the curse? Magical weapons are rare in our game. A magic weapon that does another 1d6 damage is powerful. Powerful enough to change the course of a fight and we have faced desperate odds on many occasions. Add to that the divine mandate from my deity to recover and safeguard powerful magic items, and there is little chance that I would have discarded the weapon. At best it would have sat in its scabbard, slung over my back while I used another weapon.

Waiting.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in Gaming

 

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House Rules – Spellcasting

One of the things that classic Dungeons & Dragons receives a good deal of criticism for is its magic system, and rightly so.  On the one hand I love the wide variety of the spells, but on the other hand the memorization system is highly limiting.  Having read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories I have more appreciation for this approach now, but still the allure of playing a spell caster is in the casting of spells, and the limits of spell memorization detracts from the fun of playing a wizard or cleric, especially during the early levels.

This is one of the areas where I can sympathize with newer editions of D&D, though they take it to the other extreme and make casters more like superheroes than spell casters.  I want magicians to have the ability to cast more spells, but I also want there to be a definite cost and risk involved.  For most classic D&D settings magic should have a price and casters should have to weigh their choices carefully.

To that end, here are the house rules we use in our Lamentations of the Flame Princess game:

Recasting Spells:  It is possible for a wizard or cleric to recast a spell previously memorized but already cast.  The spell must have been cast within the last day and there is a price to be paid.  For a wizard, the effort of recapturing the mental and metaphysical energies of an already cast spell is taxing and they take 1d4 points of damage per level of the spell.  Clerics suffer the same penalties, but in addition they may incur the wrath of their god.  A cleric who recasts a spell faces a 20% chance that they will receive one fewer spell from that level the next day.

Wizards may not attempt to recast a spell a third time, the energy being scattered too far.  Clerics may continue recasting, but the chance of incurring divine anger increases by 20% each time.  Incurring divine wrath for these repeated castings carries the risk of receiving no spells at all the next day, for the cleric is meant to spend a full day in atonement.  At the end of the day of atonement the cleric rolls again to see if their deity has forgiven them.  

A spell caster may still memorize a spell more than once and doing so will avoid the recasting penalty.

So far this system of recasting spells has served us well.  A few times it has aided the party, several more times the option was considered and discarded for fear of the price.  It’s that debate over the risk that I enjoy with this method.  It remains to be seen how well it holds up at higher levels, where a magic user may have fewer qualms about dropping 1d4 hit points to recast a Sleep spell.  We will see.

Another aspect of spells that is a staple in fiction, but which is poorly reflected by the classic D&D rules, is the casting of powerful magic through rituals.  Scrolls help with this and powerful spells on scrolls can be the goal of an entire adventure, a concept I like quite a bit, but this still doesn’t capture the feel of a magician standing before a spellbook and performing great magics.  Or the lowly apprentice attempting mighty deeds from a grimoire recovered from a forgotten vault.  AD&D allows for casting magic from a spellbook, treating it the same as using a scroll and risking the destruction of the entire tome, but this doesn’t capture the feel of ritual magic.

To better emulate this we have the following system:

Ritual Casting: A spell caster may use a ritual to cast a spell that they do not have memorized.  This process will also allow them to wield magic that is beyond what their level allows.  If the spell is beyond the caster’s level, then an additional sacrifice of 1d6 hit points must be made per level of the spell.  This sacrifice may be made by the caster, by sacrificing a living being, or spread out among other participants in the ritual.  There may be no more participants in the ritual than half the caster’s level, including the caster, and they must all participate for the entire ritual.  

The process requires suitable ritual tools and takes one full turn per level of the spell.  If the caster or any participant is interrupted during the ritual it will spoil the entire ceremony.  If the ritual is over half completed, the disruption will have a a detrimental effect on the caster, at minimum the damage of the ritual will be vested upon the caster.  A sacrificial being is considered a participant and can disrupt the ceremony themselves unless charmed, drugged, or otherwise restrained.  

Details of the ritual, including if a sacrifice is permitted or not, and the nature of the victim (animal or sentient), are at the discretion of the dungeon master.  

So far the ritual magic system hasn’t come up in our game, so it remains to be seen how well it will play out.

Both rules are perpetually works in process, but work towards the goal of increasing the flexibility of spell casters while adding an edge of risk to using their reality-altering powers.

Do you have any favorite house rules?  Particularly for magic, but I’d love to hear any other systems you’ve given an overhaul.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2014 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics

 

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Mixed Blessings

Good news!

One of my readers has been inspired to use material on my blog in his game.  It’s always so cool to get that kind of feedback and know that something I wrote had a positive impact for one of my readers.

Unfortunate news!

It was my own dungeon master.  It’s an interesting experience being the architect of one’s own possible destruction.

Actually, it was pretty damn hilarious and warmed my OSR heart.  Well played DM.  Well played.

I can’t go into details yet, because some of our players didn’t make it last night and we want it to be a surprise.  New characters haven’t been rolled up yet, but let’s just say I’m keeping a blank sheet and my dice close at hand.  Feel free to speculate on which post lead to our undoing.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Gaming

 

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Musings on Shields and Power Creep

Our go-to OSR game has become Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it’s been a delightful romp back into the early days of the game.  The dark nature of Lamentations also sits well with a bunch of veteran Call of Cthulhu players like ourselves.  We’ve made a few tweaks to the rules, it wouldn’t be a proper old school game if we didn’t fiddle under the hood, but for the most part we’ve stuck close to the rules as written.

This also means that this is as close to a Basic edition Dungeons & Dragons game that I have been part of since the early 80’s.  I started with the Basic and Expert sets but transitioned to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons within a couple years and didn’t look back until the Old School Renaissance began.  Now with the benefit of hindsight it’s interesting to see how the game’s evolution in some areas had unexpected consequences in other areas.  In this specific case I’m going to talk about shields.

From the classic image of knights in shining armor, to viking raiders, to the artwork of original D&D, the image of fighters and clerics has included shields.  Yet as ubiquitous as the shield is in imagery, it’s a piece of equipment that has always seemed underpowered in AD&D.

Consider what you’re trading off for a measly +1 to your armor class.  That second hand could be used to hold a light source or allow you to probe for traps with a 10′ pole.  Or you could carry a second weapon, especially if you’re playing a ranger.  Or you could choose to wield a great sword, spear, or pole arm and pick up the extra damage and weapon reach.

Conversely, how much benefit does the shield give you?  The value of the +1 AC pales against the to-hit bonuses based on high strength scores, weapon specialization, and double-specialization.  A fighter with 17 Strength and double-specialization will get far more benefit using a bastard sword than a weapon and shield combination.  This imbalance is further widened by the treasure found in many official adventures, where +1 weapons appear with such frequency that they lose all sense of wonder.  At the same time, magical shields were rare in the published adventures.  I suspect that this imbalance is related to the number of creatures that require magic weapons to hit, which appear with greater frequency as players level up, making magic weapons a de facto necessity.

This deficiency never sat well with me.  It’s at odds with both the imagery of a fighter and the real life benefits of carrying a shield.  Then I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism and took up fighting and gained an even greater appreciation for shields.  The result was various house rules to “fix” the problem.

The most successful solution I came up with was a proficiency in shield use that allowed a fighter or cleric to forgo their +1 AC in favor of a parrying maneuver with the shield.  The number of parries was based on the size of the shield; one for bucklers, two for regular shields, and three for war shields.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did restore value to using a shield.

What I never understood was why the problem exists, until I got back to basics with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Strip away weapon specialization, make strength bonuses less common, and make magical weapons with to-hit bonuses truly rare treasures.  Suddenly a +1 to AC becomes valuable again.  Add the combat rules specific to Lamentations, where only fighters improve their to-hit chances, and it drives home the value of any AC bonus you can get.

I suspect that a lot of the power creep introduced in AD&D was intended to close the power gap between mid-level fighters and magic users by helping fighters shine more in the front line of battle.  But by focusing heavily on offense the iconic tools of the armored knight’s defense were short changed.

With a better understanding of how the imbalance came about it’s easier to inject value back to the shield through adventure design.  It’s also an excellent demonstration of how seemingly small changes can build up and have unexpected consequences.

Am I the only one who obsesses about shields?   Have you found other ways to make them more valuable in your games?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

My old, faithful friend.

My old and faithful friend.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming

 

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Zombie Jamboree

Zombie love is at an all time high, once again proving that gamers are ahead of the cultural curve.

Geeks, represent!

And when you’re going to fill out your army of undead, the zombie is an excellent choice.  Zombies are also flexible and easy to tailor to your specific gaming genre.  Modern day games have zombies born of disease who propagate through their bite, in fantasy they are the creations of necromancers and the children of the demon-lord Orcus, and when it comes to horror the classic Voodoo zombie is hard to beat.

But why stop there?  Here are some variations on the zombie theme that will help keep your players guessing.

1. The Conqueror Worm – The Fiend Folio introduced us to my favorite of the official zombie variations, the Sons of Kyuss.  “These ghastly undead appear as animated putrid corpses with fat green worms crawling in and out of all their skull orifices.”  The description goes on to tell of zombies that will pummel you to death, if you are lucky.  If you are not lucky a worm will leap from the Son and land on the hapless PC, burrowing into their skin like a rot grub, then bore its way to the victim’s brain.  “If the worm reaches the brain, the victim becomes a Son of Kyuss, the process of putrefaction setting in without further delay.”  The rules allow several opportunities for the victim to destroy the worm, both while it is burrowing into his or her skin and through spells while it works its way towards the victim’s brain.  But the player needs to think of these measures and carry them out, most likely at the same time the battle is still raging with the Sons.  Frantic terror is the result.

Sons of Kyuss are truly horrific beings that can bring all new terror to the classic zombie horde.  A good way to use them is to mix one or two in with a mob of regular zombies, which will have the added result that your players will never take a mass of shambling corpses for granted again.

2. A Fungus Among-Us – Another zombie creation trope is one that relies on fungus, spreading their infection through spores.  This is a popular one for modern day and science fiction settings, which is appropriate since scientists have discovered a gruesome real-life zombie fungus that thankfully only attacks ants.  At least… for now.  Again the Fiend Folio provides us with an excellent example with the yellow musk zombie, created from the pollen of the yellow musk creeper vines.

Fungus zombies also prey on our fear of airborne pathogens and open the potential for chemical weapons.  This is a great way for an evil mastermind to terrorize the populace, be it a wizard, mad scientist, or pulp alien invader.

3. Mind over Matter – Mind control is another staple of fantasy and science fiction and it makes a great tool for zombification.  Mind controlled zombies may be created via hypnosis, such as subliminal messages in film or backmasking in music, or direct mind control from a powerful psionic being.  Mind Flayers are good candidates for this, but there is a different kind of horror that comes from a powerful mind that lacks intelligence.  Unleash a telepathic creature who is capable of mass mind control, but whose motives are animal in nature; safety, food, reproduction.  The result would be something like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

4. Exorcise Routines – A variation on the mind control theme is divine or demonic possession.  Clerics of an infernal being capture subjects and enslave them to diabolic spirits who take over their bodies.  These slaves range out in hordes to capture more victims and drag them back to the demon’s temple.  When the cult has created enough thralls the demon will be unleashed on the world.

This breed of zombie should be imbued with a sinister cunning.  Because they long to increase their numbers they will attack from ambushes instead of the traditional zombie wave attacks.  They will stalk and surprise travelers and isolated communities, leading to the players entering empty villages that show signs of recent habitation.  “They mostly come at night.  Mostly.”

5. All that Glitters – This breed of zombie is a trap conjured up by a necromancer of especially insidious nature.  The party will encounter a zombie whose eyes have been replaced by diamonds.  After dispatching the beast the party will likely follow the standard, “loot the bodies,” procedure and pry the jewels from their sockets.  Then the curse begins to take effect.

Anyone in possession of one of the gems must make a saving throw each midnight or lose 1d10 HP.  If the character possesses two gems, two saves must be made.  If someone dies while possessing a gem they will be reborn as a zombie, their own eyes having hardened into diamonds.  The curse is on the gems, so disposing of them or casting Remove Curse on the diamonds will solve the problem.  Anyone killed by one of these zombies will likewise be transformed.

If the players sell the diamonds they may have a nasty surprise waiting for them the next time they visit town.

For a cyberpunk twist on this, replace the diamonds with a valuable skill chip that rewrites the user’s brain and writes itself to any other skill chips slotted by the victim.  Bad luck choombata.

There are plenty of additional ways to come up with new breeds of zombies and if you have ideas I’d love to hear them.  Two rules of thumb to keep your creations zombie-like are;

1) Zombies are mindless.  They may have an innate cunning or be guided by an external intelligence, but the zombies themselves have no will.

2) There is some method of spreading their numbers, a threat that the players and populace will join the shambling ranks.

 

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Favorite Edition

Day 7 of the 30 Day Challenge from Polar Bear Dreams and Stranger Things.

Today’s question:

7. What is your Favorite Edition?

I don’t have a favorite edition, but I can narrow it down.  One of the strengths of Dungeons & Dragons has been the ability to pick-and-choose parts from different releases, allowing a DM to create a mosaic of rules that best reflects what he or she wants to convey.  With very little effort you can pull ideas from the Little Black Books all the way to a 2nd Edition Complete Handbook and strap them onto a 1st Edition AD&D game.  The explosion of the retro-clones that have come from the Old School Renaissance is a direct reflection of that versatility.

This is one of the many things lost when Dungeons & Dragons entered its 3rd Edition.  The terms were the same, but the language had changed.  3rd Edition was still recognizable as a descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, but evolved in a very different direction and no longer part of that tapestry of interchangeable rules.

Currently I’m running Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which cleaves close to Basic D&D as viewed through a weird and horror-filled lens.  It evokes the stark, grim atmosphere I want my game to have while incorporating rules tweaks that I like.  However I’ve pulled in elements from the Basic and Expert sets and make frequent use of my 1st edition AD&D books.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2013 in Gaming

 

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