athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Well, it's happened. I can rightly be accused of corrupting the morals of the young, just like Socrates.

See, as our old RPG group withered due to player attrition and apathy, Amy and I happened to attend "Queenfest"--a party devoted to appreciating the music of the band Queen--thrown by one of our old college gaming buddies. This year it was at the house of a friend of his, and that friend lives in St. Louis. With his wife and their daughter, who has just turned 12.

So I'm now running a D&D (well, Swords and Wizardry) game with them and Amy...and (and here's the moral-corrupting part) Amy and I just gave Alex, for her birthday, copies of the first edition PH, MM, and DMG. "Here, kid. Here's something incredibly addictive. Never did *me* any harm!"

So that game:

It's set in Zak Smith's Vornheim. But the nice thing about Vornheim is, it's a city toolkit more than it is a city. So my Vornheim is way different than the D&D With Pornstars Vornheim.

It shares some features: the verticality, the important buildings built like grasping hands, the Cathedral and the Palace, with the square with the Well and the Wyvern in between them. It's on the River of Unfathomable Despair (Vornheim clearly needs some real estate agents for the nomenclature).

But beyond that....

So, let's see.

Street addresses are where you are on the street, counting up from where the street first leaves a bigger street more toward the river, and the number after the address increases from ground level. Posh is higher up. So, "6 Ironstar Way 1524", where Lady Stiella Görbler lives, is very posh indeed. Her tailor, Unvelt Ohn, is at 443 Toad Street 26: the garment district, but a pretty good spot.

Across the river is Goblintown. The human was sent to find out why many elves are disappearing to Vornheim, never to be heard from again. One of the elves came because the opportunities for scholarship were that much greater; one came because he can't marry his betrothed until he's a Person Of Importance in the Church Of Vorn; and the last one came because she was kicked out of her tribe for practicing black magic.

Which is another thing: I've gone the Lankhmar route, where clerical magic is white, and sorcerous magic is black, and all black magic basically involves making pacts with various demonic entities. Low-level spells are really no big deal. But once you start being able to cast heavy-duty spells, there's going to be a lot on the line.

We already have three competing religions: the Church Of Vorn, about which the acolyte's a little disillusioned now that he's come to the Big City and sees how wealth-driven and corrupt it is (my Church of Vorn? Catholicism with a cosmetic makeover; no celibacy and no male-only priesthood, though), the Titivillians, about which my players know nothing other than she's the demon-goddess of fleshly pleasures and scribal errors, and Our Lady Of The Thorns, responsible for the Thornbabies (Zak calls them Thornchildren, but I thought Babies was creepier), worshipped by one of the three elves in the party, and kinda-sorta based on The Lady Of Pain from Planescape, in that even her worshippers would really, really rather never meet her. She's a beautiful and very severe goddess. Druids--who, if we meet any in this game, are going to be my Scary-Ass Dead-Eyed Killer Druids--dig her.

We know that Görbler is a major benefactress of the greenhouse which serves as the cathedral of Our Lady Of The Thorns, down by the river (I'm playing it like the Gardens in Wolfe's _Shadow of the Torturer_, if that helps you place it). When my group was in there paying their respects, she came in, left an offering on the altar, and began taking cuttings from the poison garden. She took a shine to the innocent young cleric of Vorn (name: Palalladin, played by Amy, my wife) and has invited him and his elvish retinue to her dinner party (which is the subject of the next session).

The group also--since Palalladin decided to make a little coin shriving people in a bar--has found out about Zorlac's library, since they talked to someone who took a lot of money for stealing his master's copy of _The Clutching Cow_ and delivering it to Maarten Tull.

And in my Vornheim, the group has:
a) gone to Ohn's tailor shop, and gotten a quote of 450 gp for suitable clothing for the party. Which might as well be a million
b) gone to the secondhand shops and found three lemon-yellow satin Snuggies for the retinue, and a red zoot suit for Palalladin, and a half-elf tailor who will alter them for the party. They're just renting the suit, and Palalladin's longbow is the collateral for it.
c) paid a visit to Zorlac, who understood immediately what services the group was offering, in terms of book acquisition from the recalcitrant, and has opined that he sure could use a copy of "Anatomy of the Goblinoid Races", which was written by a Goblin scholar at the University within Gaxen Kane. Since the poor benighted goblins don't have the printing press, no more than a dozen copies are known to exist, and all else being equal, he'd like one of the five manskin-bound presentation copies, thank you.
d) Found that Görbler has been a widow for about ten years, and is known for i) taking a succession of younger, handsome lovers, who never last long, and ii) throws extravagant, themed dinner parties. One was entirely in utter darkness, for instance (Eshrigel was invited, although the players don't know this, and enjoyed a party where she could go maskless), and another one had all the guests given water breathing spells and was a fourteen-course dinner served and eaten underwater.

So play has currently broken off the afternoon before Görbler's party. After that (whatever may happen), the group is planning to try to attach themselves to a diplomatic mission to Gaxen Kane to get access to a book they can steal.

See, the goblins in *my* Vornheim...well, they don't walk on the ceiling. But there's a good reason that the way they talk sounds very backwards to humans. In short, the entire metaphorical structure of their society is based on the idea that down is good and up is bad (and if pressed, I intend to say that their language is like Latin or German where the verb goes at the end, as opposed to Common, which is pretty much English). Almost all of Gaxen Kane is belowground; the aboveground watchtowers are what you get sentenced to when you've really pooched your military career. The goblins in Vornheim? Really troubled sorts. Calling someone a "low-down dirty rat" is a high compliment in Goblin. The earth is the nurturing womb of the Goblin races (this may, or may not, be a metaphor), so dirty is holy. Rats burrow and dig and are sacred animals. Low-down speaks for itself. And the goblins consider all stone and metals rightfully theirs. The surface dwellers have those nasty-ass trees--why do they have to steal stone and metal from the Goblinish folk to build their buildings and make their tools? (If you're detecting some Baum Nomes here, yeah, you're totally right).

Vornheim and Gaxen Kane are at peace, though kind of hostile. Each has an embassy in the other. Vornish diplomats hate it there--in fact, most of the recent ones have been clergy of Titivilla, being punished for their heretical faith. But Vornheim buys mushroom wine, dried fungus, and spider silk from the Goblin Lands, and the Goblins import wooden furniture, textiles, and some grain from the human world. Walking--well, stooping at best, and crawling much of the time--in Gaxen Kane, for your typical adventuring party, is about as hazardous as, in our world, for your basic suburbanite to saunter carefree around North St. Louis or Detroit. It's not instant death, but the odds are good that, pretty soon, something unpleasant is likely to happen to you. To be fair, that's pretty much also exactly what happens if you're a goblin in Vornheim, and you wander out of your ghetto alone.

So far, we're having fun...but we've played two entire sessions with zero combats, which has been kind of weird for me.

[EDIT] Oh dear, he said, in some consternation. Prompted by a niggling little voice at the back of my head, I got down _GURPS: Goblins_--a volume for which I have playtest credit--from the shelf.

It appears that we are not actually playing D&D (or even S&W). Rather, we are playing _GURPS: Goblins_ with a variant ruleset.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
This is a response to Zak Smith's post:

Which is in turn a response to Steve Yegge's G+ post about Platform vs. Product at Amazon vs. Google:

This deserves more space and thought than it's gonna get here. One of these days, maybe.

I come to it from...well, OK, let's put it this way:
1) the group I'm leaving at work to go join Infrastructure was called Platform Engineering
2) I applied (unsuccessfully) for Google SRE
3) I've played D&D for more than 30 years (holy shit, he said, as the realization of THAT hit him)
4) I appear to be obsessed with collecting, reading, and often trying to play D&D variants.

So: D&D is *of course* a platform. It's an extensible framework for building The Awesome on.

The interesting discussion comes from what parts of D&D are Platform, and what parts are Product.

And, you know what? There's actually a canonical legal answer to that. That would be the d20 SRD.

Now of course that only really refers to Type III, but still, that's going to be a useful and not-wholly-inaccurate starting point. The Platform is everything that you could extend with the OGL.

Of course, that's way too big. The Platform as thus-defined contains a hell of a lot of Product. The way I currently like looking at this is the question "What Is The Essence Of D&D?" I remember several months, maybe longer, ago, reading someone's argument in the OSR Blogosphere about: "Six ability scores, saving throws, classes, levels, Vancian magic, abstract hit points, fantasy-melange setting" and probably some other stuff I've forgotten about.

Me, I'd say even that's too big a tent. I'd say that Microlite20 and, especially, Microlite74 ( are D&D...but they have 3 ability scores and no Vancian magic.

And then there are experiments like Terminal Space--or for that matter, Gamma World--that use the D&D Platform to do completely different genres. And given that GW and Boot Hill were TSR games, clearly Gary and Co., early on, saw D&D as a Platform.

The point is: whatever that irreducible core of D&D is is *definitely* Platform, not Product. Platformy bits go out at least as far as the borders of the SRD, although towards the edges it's mostly more Product than Platform.

To bring it back around: Platforms by their nature say, "Hey! Go make something cool with this." Products don't, although they may not discourage it either. The OSR, and gamers who dig stuff like the OSR (and, although it will make them vomit into their hipster goatees, I include Forgeites in this) inherently dig Platforms over Products. Sandbox play? Platform. Dragonlance? Product. Vornheim? Some of both. The Zoo? Product. The charts? Platform. The city itself...more Platform than Product.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Went and saw the Tom of FInland show at phd gallery in St. Louis this weekend ( -- go if you're in town and you don't mind Tom of Finland; there's some good stuff there).

I finally realized what I like about Tom of Finland and why it dovetails with what I was doing with Stiffy Makane. Namely, there's Tom on his art:

"In those days, a gay man was made to feel nothing but shame about his feelings and his sexuality. I wanted my drawings to counteract that, to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were. Oh, I didn't sit down to think this all out carefully. But I knew, right from the start, that my men were going to be proud and happy men!"

The thing I really like about Tom of Finland pieces is--and hang on for a second here--their innocence.

Yeah, I've thought about that noun and it is actually the one I mean.

These are sexual beings, happily engaged in indulging their lust, in a fantasy world in which there are no emotional or physical consequences for doing so. And that's pretty much the Stiffyverse as well (Carthage notwithstanding, in _Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis_), it's just that Stiffy is into girls too. (And fruits and vegetables). Now you certainly can make the case that this is a peculiarly male fantasy. I think you're wrong, but it's a case you can make.

So, that, in turn, probably helps to clarify why in _The Undiscovered Country_, the character portrait at the start is a fat, late-period, sweating Ron Jeremy (well, late-period for 2001--he's, ahem, even more so now), but after the player character undergoes Tantric Jedi Training with Space Moose he becomes--what else--a Tom Of Finland leatherman. Also you'll note that the highest rank you can achieve in *that* game is "Tom Of Finland", although it's also revealed that you have become Space Moose's Bald Dwarf.

So Stiffy--the ithyphallic Hermes--is simply another avatar of Kake. Not sure quite what to make of that yet.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
As part of the ongoing discussion at Cold Text Files I wanted to post the Jean Wells nereid from Lost Tamoachan.

Nothin' else to report.

Well, except that I got this picture signed by Jean Wells at GaryCon, and a bunch of other autographs all over the module. I'll scan those...sometime.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

Notes on Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Warning: this will be spoilery. If you haven't seen the original game, go over to


I'd like to begin by responding to the two fantastic reviews Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis got, and some of the less fantastic.

First, I want to announce to the world at large that the Grahams in the Unreal City were in no way intended to be an attack on Graham Nelson. Yes, the identical bankers (stolen from Martin Rowson's The Wasteland) are indeed all named Graham Nelson. Why? Why, to set up the Nelson's Column dick joke, of course.

Second: Emily nailed the Gate Of Ivory reference. Am I saying that Classical IF is a lie? Vergil had Aeneas come out of the Gate of Ivory. Myths aren't factually true, but that doesn't mean they're not good, nor that they're not necessary.

Third: Sam Kabo Ashwell got stuck on attempting re-use of the whale. How? Clearly that's a bug, but it is one that I don't see how to reproduce. Likewise with getting stuck three-quarters of the way through. How? Was it insufficient cueing of the moonmilk? Several of my testers struggled with that, and although I tried to make it more obvious, I don't know whether I succeeded.

Fourth: Again with the Ashwell: it's not that Julia. It's Julia from the Cranky Roman Family of Hans Orberg's Lingua Latina. Take a look at the link for a gentle introduction. Also, every other character in the game knows their slave Syra. Ask about her.

Fifth: I chose the Pompeii mosaic as the cover art before Graham revamped the Inform icon. My first cover image was, as Emily may have guessed, an ithyphallic Hermes; I toned it down for public release.

Sixth: to respond to Poster's blog post of May 15, I'd really like to know where the "homosexual monolith" is. As far as I'm aware, none of the other Spring Thing entries concern pole-smoking, donut-punching, or fudge-packing in any way. Did I miss something? Maybe The Cavity of Time is upsetting him. Anyway, I will console myself with the fantasy that my $123 is coming directly from Poster's $150.

Seventh: Speaking of, I'm totally thrilled that Sam Ashwell wrote The Cavity of Time. Also thrilled that he created those delightful Stiffy images. Thank you!

Eighth: I am a little peeved that my game got as many 1s as 10s, but I have no beef with Jimmy Maher's review. To clarify that a little: in my judging, a "1" is the worst possible game--a buggy, unplayable, subliterate piece of shit with no redeeming features. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis was a solidly implemented, grammatically-written, correctly-spelled piece of shit with no redeeming features, and as such, I think it deserved at least a 2. If memory serves, I gave "Cattus Atrox" a 3/10 for basically the reasons Jimmy gave MMA a 3: competently crafted, but absolutely unappealing to me.

Ninth: I will, however, confess embarassment that, as pointed out on IFMud, attempting to molest the library slaves gives you a "keep your mind on the game." That's a bug, all right.

Tenth: I really, really want Victor Gijsbers and Pissy Little Sausages to review the game. I'd like to know what they thought in some detail. I would also like Graham to play it, but, well, I already got one of the two people I thought would get most of the jokes but wouldn't play it to give it a whirl, and she liked it astonishingly well. So I'll try not to be greedy. But anyone who was thinking of writing a review--good or bad, short or long--I'd like to know what worked for you and what didn't, with as much specificity as you can spare.


My primary goal in writing Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, of course, was self-gratification. In that aim I clearly succeeded. I did, however, have some other goals in mind.

I tried hard to make the game fair. That is: there is supposed to be no way to make the game unwinnable that doesn't kill you off in fairly short order. If I failed at this, I want to know, so that I can fix it.

I wanted to make it newbie-friendly. At least, that was my initial goal. That is: there are no diagonal directions required, all conversation is ASK X ABOUT Y, and if there are any guess-the-verb puzzles (besides the really, really obviously cued ones), I want to know about it. The mazes aren't. The darkness puzzles are really not very difficult. Inventory management is intended to be a non-issue except in one particular section.

Now, that said, in the time between the game's inception and its completion, the state of the art advanced a lot. I don't have the user-friendly features of Aotearoa, for instance. I thought about adding some of these things late in the game's cycle, but I had already made up my mind to do a consciously old-school game. So: no status-line directions, no in-game map, no interesting-object syntax highlighting.

I wanted to make it less linear than my other games, and was only partially successful. The midgame is fairly open, but the intro and late games are on rails. I also overused the nothing-to-do-but-wait mechanic: the animal rides could definitely stand to be shortened, as could the player's capture that ends the midgame. I do kind of like the rowing mechanic (suggested, I think, by Andrew Plotkin). The endgame probably drags on too long, but, really, what else could I have done there?


Until I read Emily's review, I didn't realize that I had written a reaction to Curses. Of course, I had, but the funny thing is, I haven't replayed Curses in the last decade or so. The closest I came was dumping the text for something about Alexandria while I was writing that section. But...damn, it's undeniable that I was carrying around a whole lot of Curses in the back of my head.

The things I was aware of primarily thinking of were, in more-or-less-order:

  • The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, and a few of Eliot's other works. (Eliot is, of course, an enormous influence on Curses as well) And of course The Waste Land itself is the kind of virtuoso random-influences mash-up I wanted this to be (albeit, with more dick jokes in mine).
  • The Waste Land, by Martin Rowson. If you haven't seen this, it's brilliant. It's The Waste Land mashed up with The Big Sleep, more or less: Eliot viewed through the lens of noir detective fiction, done up as a graphic novel.
  • The Satyricon, Petronius. As Emily points out, the story's structure is straight-up Roman novel WTFery. I'm fine with it landing in the genre of Menippean Satire.
  • The Aeneid. Well, obviously. Also notice that I start the thing like an epic, in medias res, and tell the first half as a flashback. Not accidental.
  • The traditions of classical IF. What do you think the Gate of Ivory is about? But of course I was dicking, as it were, around with the genre conventions with the light source and the "mazes" (although the Ostian sewers are kind of a maze, they're a very simple one, and they actually match up very well with the town overhead).
  • Dungeons and Dragons, Gygax et al. The thing is rife with D&D riffs, in both obvious and non-obvious ways, and in part that's tied back to the classical-IF thing. Text adventures were, after all, among other things, a way to play something a lot like D&D without having to assemble a group of people and a big block of time.

I also had very clear visual images for most of the characters. I don't know why Persephone is played by Dolly Parton in a white satin dress, but she most certainly is. Rachel is absolutely Jennifer Aniston in her Rachel role. Most of these characters--the ones who are public figures, anyway--are listed in the credits.

Graham is correct in his surmise on Emily's review: "I dare say much of Mr Thornton's household and acquaintance can be found in Mentula Macanus, if we but knew it." Cerberus, to take the most obvious example, is the three dogs I had throughout most of the game's writing:Vinnie, Golem, and Ursa. You can see them as Cerberus here (Ursa is on the left, Golem in the middle, Vinnie on the right, as you face them).

All this, of course, is circling around the heart of the story: intertextuality. It's not just Eliot. There's some of Gene Wolfe, and a little bit of Borges, and some Stealth Nabokov. There are nods and winks to all sorts of classical and post-classical IF. And sometimes there's just a Symbolist rendering of whatever random shit came into my head, like Stetson's Stone Snail "Speedy", or deciding to add the chick from the cover of Eldritch Wizardry only make her a priestess rather than the sacrifice (haven't found her yet? You know what XYZZY does? Have you tried disrobing in the very first scene?).


I release the source to all my games. This one's no different. The code isn't pretty. In most cases that's my own fault, but then there are some things, like Pythonic indentation, that came along after the game was very largely developed. There are a lot of objects that should have inherited from kinds but didn't. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.

Also, the map. It was important to me that the map the game produced be usable without any further editing. It is, although this required some scrambling quite late in the game when Graham rewrote the mapper in 5Z71 (at least, I think that was the release).

Quixe is just plain cool. Thanks, Zarf.


There are two pieces of implementation I'm especially proud of. One is the ledger in the Hotel Metropole, and the other is the gaming table. At the gaming table, have you tried rolling 1d20 until you get a 1, as Stiffy? And have you tried taking your own figurine? The ledger I leave to you, gentle reader. Or you could, you know, read the source and see what I like.


Again, thanks to all my testers for bearing with me for so long. And thanks to Amy for putting up with this thing for so very long.


Gin Rosenkranz was one of my early testers and a good friend of mine, who died of cancer while the game was being developed. Vinnie, as mentioned, appears as the left head of Cerberus. I miss them both.


athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Yesterday was my turn to plan a training for Gateway Search Dogs, a group to which I belong. It's a bunch of people who train their dogs to find lost people. We're available for callout by local, state, or federal authorities; a lot of smaller police and fire departments don't have the resources to have their own search dogs, and they believe (quite probably rightly) that their money is better spent on equipment and training that's more generally applicable. So that's where we come in.

Anyway, I decided to do a scenario problem (we do a few of these a year, although most trainings are just those where the various dog handlers and ground-pounders tell the trainers what they want to work on, and the trainers set up those exercises). The setup was this:

Hank Riley, his buddy Jim Ireland, Hank's girlfriend Tiffany Turnipseed, and two other friends named Martin and Jason, had, last Wednesday evening, gone up to the TV tower at the top of Charbonier Bluff at the north end of St. Stanislaus Conservation Area, to drink beer and hang out.

After a few beers, a minor tiff ensued between Hank and Tiffany, and the party split up to go its separate ways; Hank was parked at the south parking lot, and everyone else at the east parking lot. The other four left hank with the last two beers at the TV tower.

Hank didn't show up at their usual Thursday night hangout, a local bar where they'd meet to play trivia. Calls to his cellphone went to voicemail. Friday morning, TIffany had begun to become a little concerned, and called Trader Joe's where Hank worked, only to find out his sorry ass had just been fired, because he hadn't shown up for work Thursday or Friday, and had offered no explanation. On her lunch break she went by the south parking lot and saw that his car was still there. She called the police, who called Gateway Search Dogs to work on Saturday morning.

So, given this setup, I presumed that the other people in the unit were expecting about a 2/3 probability that Hank, played by Stinky Sam (our training dummy in whom we often hide cadaver source), would be found dead of some misadventure at the bottom of a ravine or something, and about 1/3 that I'd have someone playing Hank, pretending to be injured, in a similar location.

But I fooled 'em.

Wednesday, I had gone to the park with my buddy Martin, and we had walked up to the TV tower, and then back down the trail to a place where there was a little opening in the underbrush, which opened out into a sheltered space big enough to stand up in, which had part of an old concrete culvert and some concrete slabs in it. We'd gone in there and hung out to get it all scented. I'd gotten a baseball cap and an empty cigarette pack from Martin.

Saturday morning, I started below the TV tower and left the following clues on the path between the TV tower and the little nook in the underbrush: a can of beer just below the fork that went off to the east parking lot, the empty cigarette pack by a big tree just off the path, the lighter on the path a bit farther down, and the second empty beer can where Hank had left the path. In the fairly tight wriggle from the path into the enclosed space, I'd left the baseball cap and an old cell phone, so the clues were reasonably reconstructable. Hank sauntered down from the tower, discarded his first empty, opened his second beer, stopped a bit farther along to pee on a tree, took the last cigarette out of the pack and tossed the pack, continued along down the path, had lost the lighter a few dozen yards later (I guess he put it into that tiny little right hand side pocket you have in jeans, only he didn't push it far enough down), and then came across lights and people-sounds in the woods off the path. He decided to go investigate in case there was another party there, finished his beer, dropped the can, and then headed towards the party, knocking his hat off and losing his phone in the process.

But what had happened then?

Well, the other stuff I put in that clearing Saturday morning was as follows:

A can of Red Devil lye
Four lithium AA batteries
A bunch of matchbooks with the strikers ripped off
Two 20-oz Gatorade bottles with a pinkish liquid and some sediment in them
A can of starter fluid
Some tubing
An empty milk jug
An empty styrofoam cooler

I also put Stinky Sam, dressed in clothes matching Tiffany's description of what Hank was wearing, with a buck knife in his chest, half-assedly concealed in the culvert pipe.

Thus the scenario was this: slightly drunk guy decides to investigate what sounds like a party. Stumbles into a bunch of people cooking meth. They stab him and skedaddle.

So it was a curveball: the group would think they were searching for a missing person, and would discover, instead, a crime scene. It's a crime scene that's depressingly common in the Missouri woods (well, not the stabby part, but the meth lab part).

I was very pleased with GSD's performance. We had seven searchers (plus me in the roles of Tiffany Turnipseed and Sgt. Frank Booth, North County Sheriff's Dept., and Amy as Jim Ireland), and two dogs, Moses and Cooper, so the search unit split into two teams and each one had the plan of starting at one of the parking lot, doing a hasty trail search up to the tower, and then regrouping at the tower and doing a grid search back down the hill.

I was with Team Cooper, with three actual searchers (two experienced (Janet and Kathy, Kathy being the dog handler), and one novice (John)). Since they approached from below, they didn't come across any of the clues I'd left. Cooper had been sticking pretty close to the trail, but as we got close to the lab, he went right and headed into the woods, with Kathy following him. I presume he smelled all the human scent that had pooled there, but of course it's hard to ask him.

At any rate, Kathy followed him in and then shouted "Cooper! Down!" Then she asked Janet to carefully come up to where she was and describe what she saw. Janet looked for about ten seconds and then yelled "meth lab! Back out the way you came!"

This was exactly the correct behavior. We're not trained to deal with crime scenes, and *definitely* not trained in hazmat situations. So the right thing when you find a meth lab is to retrace your steps back out, and call the cops. It wasn't until Team Cooper was regathered on the trail and Kathy and Janet had told Ron and me what they'd found that I told them it was a fake meth lab, and, in my "Sergeant Booth" role, that I had now made it safe and they could proceed, whereupon they found the body very quickly.

Then I had the other team, which had gotten up to the tower without finding much (since Hank hadn't gone that way), run the trail from the top, and they did a good job finding the clues that led them into the brush.

Anyway, the weird thing is that this was almost exactly like Game Mastering. Thus: D&D is good for public safety. You heard it here first. It was also very gratifying to hear actual fear in Kathy's voice: it apparently looked plausibly like a meth lab, and it wasn't until I 'fessed up that she and Janet knew it wasn't real.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So, another wonderful year.

I ran Bring Me The Head Of Frank Sinatra and had a good time doing so.

I also played in:

John Hershberger's run of Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage. I stepped on the teleport trap first thing, and the party idiotically followed me. So our dungeon crawl very quickly turned into a "get back to where we were". We did succeed in that goal, and we slew a (shadow) dragon and got rich off a couple trolls, so that was fun and successful. This was the first of many games where my obsession with scent was noticed; I acquired the name "Toucan Sam" for demanding to know what the airflow and scents from each passage were.

Jeff Talanian's Hyperborea. Weird Fantasy, Martian Apes, Lovecraftian Things. Fun game; felt sort of like S3, actually, in its fantasy-dudes-exploring-weird-sciencey-thingy vibe. I had a great time in Jeff's game last year, and I had a great time this year.

Bryan Skowera's Court of the Crimson King. Designed around the King Crimson song of the same name. Very, well, metal. Quite possibly my favorite game of the convention--I was playing a monk and thus WAY outside of my comfort zone, and I was very sorry to have to turn my character over to another player and leave to go play....

Tim Kask's GaryCon special this year, "The Sinister Secret of Sweetmeade Abbey". Fun exploratory game, although 12 players made it a little unwieldy even for OD&D. It was in a noisy location next to the door which kept opening to admit smokers and the arctic blast, so it was really hard for one end of the table to hear the other. We all got stung to death by bees. So it goes.

Then I ended up jumping in to the tag-end of some other game that had been going on. This was a late-Saturday-night everyone-is-drunk-and-exhausted dungeon crawl through a semi-collapsed mine trying to solve some mystery about some groups of competing miners or something. It got way silly. I remember we ended up cutting out the lungs and trachea of a grimlock to use as an air bladder to get through a flooded passage. It made perfect sense at the time.

Next morning: Joe Goodman running Dungeon Crawl Classics. Man, that was a blast. I'm a little proud in that my character voiced his suspicions that we were being set up, and Joe improvised the adventure on the fly to make that come true. Bravo, sir, bravo.

Sunday afternoon: I jumped in for a little while while my wife was finishing up her game in an Empire of the Petal Throne game run by Victor Raymond. I took over a guard NPC. We were delivering a message to a really scary sadistic archmage. The DM had played in Professor Barker's game for 20 years, so I was able to play a proper Apostolic Succession game of Tekumel, which was great. I don't think I or anyone I know can run it, because I just don't grasp the metaphysics or enormously-complicated society of Tekumel, and if I tried it would be just another Weird Fantasy take on D&D. So that was extremely cool.

I did get that copy of Lost Tamoachan signed by Harold Johnson, Jeff Leason, Jim Ward (a second time!), and, yes, Jean Wells! On the Nereid illustration! Scans later when I get around to 'em.

And, for you EC fans out there....

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So The Internets are all a-flutter with NERD RAGE because the Commonwealth of Virginia has banned D&D from prison.

Ostensibly because it mimics gang structure, with the DM as gang leader.

Well, obviously, the second half of that sentence is ridiculous. But the overall idea? I'm not so sure.

Is anyone going to claim that the Fundamental Narrative of D&D is anything but: a group of people go breaking and entering. Once inside, they divest the occupants of their possessions, usually by means of extreme violence?

And as for the gang structure, who here has a problem putting D&D classes on "Tank" and "Tiny" the muscle, "Fingers" the second-story man, "Face" the confidence man, "Doc" the medic, and "Crazy Eddie" the demolitions expert?


Dec. 31st, 2010 02:23 pm
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This one requires a little back-story.

About a year and a half ago, on the last travelling gig I did at my old job, I worked with a colleague a little older than I am, who, like me, had been playing RPGs for a long time. However, in recent years he's mostly moved on to other interests, and he mentioned that he had a box of stuff he would never look at again, most likely, and offered it to me if I wanted it.

I said that'd be great. And then we both mostly forgot about it.

Except that then I got home after visiting my parents this Christmas and there was a big box waiting for me.

For the most part, this box contains what you'd expect it to: a bunch of pretty interesting stuff, some of it semi-valuable. For the most part.

There's one item in it,'ll see it later. Anyway, I have offered to give it back, because, while we're certainly friendly, I don't know that this guy really meant to send me a Holy Grail.

So, here's what was in the box.

First: some 1st-3d ed. D&D books and 3d-ed modules:

A whole bunch of Polyhedron magazines:

Some other magazines:

Murphy's Rules:

A couple of really obscure items. If anyone knows anything about "The Finding Of Morillion" please tell me about it. "You Bet Your Life" is a tournament module from Michicon VIII.

Some classic Judges' Guild stuff; the first edition of the First Fantasy Campaign is pretty valuable:

A closer look at one of the items; third and fourth editions of this are cheap and common, but the "Collectors Edition" first JG edition, I haven't been able to find pricing for:

A copy of Chainmail, Third Edition, Fourth printing. Not particularly rare, but kinda cool:

And then there's the last item.

The one that I am honor-bound to return if the donor wants it back. 'Cause I really don't believe he knew what he was giving me. (EDIT: I do get to keep it!)

Because....well, really.

This was not one of the ones in the Acaeum's registry (I have since sent them a scan). I don't know why Jim Ward, who had nothing to do with this product, signed the cover (except, probably, that it was what the original owner had on him for Jim to sign at Origins 79). (EDIT: Jim Ward ran it for the man who sent it to me, so that's why he signed it. That must've been something.)

But yeah. Try to imagine the shock I felt when excavating that box and Lost Tamoachan appeared.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to me.


Jun. 26th, 2010 10:41 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So, today we did The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. For various reasons we had only three players (Rupert, Keith, and Amy), and, well, it's got three pregens.

We did it straight-up: two-hour time limit, AD&D v1.

This was complicated by a couple of things. First, as far as I can tell, there are only actually stats for Cair the MU/T. The other two, Myrrha and Rhialle, don't have stats. But you can reverse-engineer their levels from their to-hit charts in the module, you can surmise that Rhialle has a strength of 16 from his damage, and then you can have them roll up hit points based on their levels. Which is what we did.

The players took notice of the fact that it was a 2-hour game, and they took "the air down here is poisonous" very seriously, which was nice. In fact, without Aimee around, they played damn near perfectly, dashing through rooms, avoiding pretty much everything (they had a good conversation with the crab and crayfish, though), staying out of combat almost entirely (they fought the 11 zombies that weren't turned by Myrrha, which cost a lot of precious time, and the werejaguar, and at the very end, the amphisbaena). A lot of testing to see where the breeze, if any, was coming from.

However, they missed almost all of the cool Meso-American rooms and things. They just ignored the nereid and went for the door, and they picked up almost no treasure. Basically, they played it straight as a "you have two hours to escape". And I let them climb out the hole in the room with the amphisbaena, because even though the slope won't support them, because, well, the thief is damn good at climbing, and anyway, we had just less than two minutes left.

No party fatalities, although some bad wounding. Some good puzzle-solving, and quite a bit of caution. If Aimee had been there they'd all have died in the room with the giant hermit crab.

What I want to do now is have those three characters recruit a couple of others, and come in from the correct side this time, and do it as a straight-up exploration, in which they will hit all the squidgy horrors they missed when playing it as a dash for the exit.

The module itself...well, it's evocative. The set-piece rooms are very deadly, of course, and generally pretty unmotivated, but some of them are really nicely horrific. Xilonen is very Lovecraftian, for instance, and I really like Tecuziztecatl, the intelligent giant slug. You can run this straight for "this is one-weird-ass mythology, but it's trying to kill you, so you'd better take it seriously," but I can very easily see how it could also be run entirely gonzo. Which would be fun too.

It's a trap-fest, but it's surprisingly survivable if the players treat it as they're told to: touch nothing and get out as quickly as humanly possible. It's only when they start poking things that they get into real trouble.

The module itself cannot make up its mind whether to be a tournament module or a campaign module, and it suffers for it. Would stats for the pre-gens and having them separated into easily-trimmable pages have been too much to ask? The art's great. A lot of fine Erol Otus, and some good Darlene and Dee as well.

It's a good look at early AD&D (written for Origins '79), and is very Raiders Of The Lost Ark for something that predated it by two years. Worth taking out for a spin if you want to run something approaching Golden Age AD&D (I'd pretty much put D&DG at the end of the Golden Age; certainly, what came after it was on the downslope: much as I love me some flumphs, Fiend Folio isn't the same, and then, well, the wheels came off and we were in the Wonderful World Of Hit Point and Power Escalation when Unearthed Arcana came along).
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
"Central New Jersey After The Big Whoops" will be appearing in the next Fight On!.


Well, crap

May. 22nd, 2010 08:37 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
And there's the trifecta.

Category: heroes of my adolescence.

Frazetta, Dio, Gardner.

Woo hoo

Apr. 18th, 2010 11:08 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
I was one of the winners of the One Page Dungeon Contest, for "Best Post-Apocalyptic Goodness"!
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

More lucidly: I played something like 28 hours of RPGs with maybe 50 different people, some of them Very Big Names Indeed, and no one was a douche. I had a great time. I talked game design and sandbox vs. narrative and edition differences and stuff, and, you know what, no one got mad about it.

#1b: Not only are the Gygaxes actually human, but it turns out they're nice humans.

That goes for the Other Big Names. Frank Mentzer, Jim Ward, Tim Kask, Jeff Talanian, Joe Goodman, etc. The thing that I guess I should have realized but never really, really did: these folks really, really like playing games. And they are intensely fun to play with.

#1c: Oh, yeah, it also goes for the people whose names I didn't recognize

Well, we all came to GaryCon because, basically, we wanted to play some RPGs. Turns out that that, if you're not being an Internet Fuckwad, is a much bigger similarity than the Difference Of What Variant You Play.

#1d: At least ONE Catholic priest is really cool.

That'd be Father Brian (Graywolf), who was an excellent man to have holding off the skeletons while I bombarded the Sightless Serpent with fireballs.

#2: I wish I knew who Ken and Ida were.

Everyone else seemed to know them--everyone besides them that everyone knew I eventually figured out who it was (and, generally, which of their books I'd read/not read/loved/hated). But not them. Only I didn't want to look like a dumbass by asking.

#3: New Glarus Spotted Cow is really quite good.

#4: I now own (one of) Luke Gygax's copy of Gods, Demigods, and Heroes, signed by Kuntz and Ward, and by Tim Kask, who edited it...and I got Luke to write "Property of Luke Gygax" in it and Ernie to write "Ernie is king!" above that.

Luke mentioned that it might hurt the resale value. Like I'm gonna sell it. Pfah! That one goes next to my autographed Spawn of Fashan (yes, really).
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
From the very beginning of Clark Ashton Smith's June, 1934 story The Colossus of Ylourgne:

"It was widely thought, among the people of that vicinage, that his departure had been prompted by a salutary fear of ecclesiastical thumbscrews and faggots."

I bet I was supposed to think of the Inquisition, and not the Chorister. Ah well, sometimes linguistic drift brings out the ten-year-old in me. Pardon me while I wriggle and snicker.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

Cthulhu and the beholder are creations of my friend Tracy Jo Barnwell. The Flail Snail is a Victorian spoonwarmer augmented with pipe cleaners, toothpicks, styrofoam balls, and silver paint.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
....and my submission is in:

It's adapted from Bring Me The Head Of Frank Sinatra!, which I hope to have done later this year.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Magic Missile is overpowered. Which means I need to start doing more random encounter checks during the night. Our party tends to gun down monsters with MM and then spike the doors and sleep. Now, to some degree this is self-correcting, as the monsters will quite literally respawn in the Flesh Vats, but that's a pretty slow process.

Last session: the party killed Carlotta again and burned her apartments down--included a hilarious critical failure with a stake made from a crossbow bolt and Abbot Yorick's, um, mutilated corpse (to be fair to my players, we had established that Yorick and Carlotta had been lovers, so this wasn't entirely UNMOTIVATED barbarism) . The Assassin Vine was good and shocking to them. Then they waded slowly through the five Wight Barrows and rather cleverly zipped around the Dark Knight using Yorick's flying carpet. They're about to take on the Shadows.

Also, Amy remembered to use the Big Purple d30 for each of her mages, making MM even worse.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So, last time we played, the party had just descended from level four (Sewers) to level seven (Vats, Library Top) via a manhole in the sewers. Then family drama arose in our group and more than half the table had to leave to go deal with it.

So, yesterday we finally got back.

The hatch in L7 opens up to a very nonthreatening area: the YMCA, basically. There are showers, a cafeteria and a rec room. The cafeteria had a table of dwarves and two tables of gnomes, as well as the ubiquitous Spanish-speaking halfling line cooks and their kobold overseer (this is a running gag in the megadungeon: all the low-level food-service workers are Hispanic halflings, and all of their bosses are kobolds with Outrageous French Accents). The cafeteria also has an orc named Gladys, with rhinestone-studded eyeglass frames, working checkout. You get a plate full of brown glop, green glop, yellow glop, or orange glop for a copper. They were out of orange. They're always out of orange.

The dwarves were wearing miners' outfits. The gnomes were wearing green surgical scrubs.

The rec room has a dartboard, a pool table, a couple of chess/backgammon/checkers sets, a coin-operated beer tap, a fireplace, and some couches. It also had a deeply asleep orc, who shortly had "BALLS" written on his forehead and his hand placed in a bowl of warm water.

Then the party did some 'splorin'. They found the gnomes' apartments, and laid in wait for them. A little fairly unmotivated murder later they had a hideout on L7. A bit more exploring and they had found the Feasthall and kitchens, and, again, did some more murdering and now they have a More Different Hideout. About this time I stopped giving experience for randomly whacking low-level NPCs.

Then, having extracted a level map from one of their victims, they set off for the Flesh Vats.

Now, I had originally wanted to do this all Brave New World or Star Wars Bacta Tanks, with big glass cylinders and gleaming white floors and stuff, but I decided, instead, that there was a reason Gary-Stu used gnomes as his Flesh Vats staff: it's all fleshy and constrictive and you have to squeeze your way through it and everything's all covered in blood and eventually you find the cysts where the replacement creatures are growing.

The party made a halfhearted attempt at killing the vats with some flaming oil and some poisoned crossbow bolts, and although Ruby Red got her face singed by reopening the door while the fire was still burning and that part of the vats was convulsing, she did not encounter any of the Leukocytes, which I'm really looking forward to. They ignore gnomes, I've decided. (It gets very Fantastic Voyage in there.)

Then they took the stairs up to Level five; the stairs open into the Halls Of Bone, and a critical failure on a flaming oil toss later, the party headed back downstairs having killed only a few of the skeletons. A rest-up, a heal-up, and another foray later, they retreated in disarray with at least six skeletons left, and decided to take their chances on Level Six.

This opened out into the Dwarven Mines, where one Charm Person later the assayer was very helpful, telling them to avoid the pudding in the Big Room, and the general locations of Stonybrook Farms, with Mary the Medusa and Zeke the basilisk, the Troll Caves, Edgar's Tower, and the rumor that there was a back door to level five somewhere in the northwest corner.

So the party headed up there, figured out that it was probably somewhere in the rough 40' square that they couldn't get into, busted out their wand of Secret Door Detection, and went in through Aaron Diggory's crypt.

They read the inscriptions over the other 11 crypts, got properly weirded out, and headed up into the center of the Unholy Cathedral on Level 5. A brief but not dangerous fight with the gargoyles ensued, and then the wand was busted out to find the rooms they were sure were in the northwest corner.

This got them into Carlotta the Vampire's lair. I talked up the library and its contents of trashy vampire erotic novels. Then they went looking for the vampire, and very nearly got wiped out. Third-level characters--even six of them--have no business going toe-to-toe with a vampire, even a fairly weak one. However, Aimee's roleplaying (!!!) saved the day. She ran from the combat, back to the library, and told me, "I'm looking for that signed first edition of The Vampire Lestat." Well, one Mind check later--an easy one, because, you know, it's in a glass case all by itself set off with little skull candlesticks--she had it, and ran back to the combat (where two of five people were still standing), tossed the book into the coffin, and tossed some flaming oil onto it.

This caused Carlotta to take a break from slaughtering the party so she could dive on the book and smother the flames, which allowed the party to get enough good hits in that Carlotta changed into bat form (so she could take the book) and tried to get away.

And Aimee saved the day again: she had, clearly written down on her character sheet, the ogre-sized tube of lube she'd looted from Jack and Ennis, the cowboy ogres on L3. Which she squirted all over the bat, which dropped the now-slippery book, and the party actually managed to kill (well, "kill") Carlotta while she was trying to save the book.

I think I might have been overly nice with Level Drains--although they immediately take effect in a combat (and were enough to drive everyone they happened to unconscious), if you kill (or, uh, "reduce to zero hit points") the thing that caused them to happen, then you only permanently lose half the XP in your current level. Mainly because I didn't want to have to replay Levels One through Three again to let the party rebuild their strength.

Then the party found the abbot's kitchen staff, and were about to bust into his private chambers; at that point Amy was nodding off in her chair, so we decided to call it a night. Overall, this was six or seven hours of roleplaying. I had a good time (although it was exhausting), and we saw a couple of interesting-to-me points. #1, correctly incentivizing the players does work--once they realized that murdering NPCs wasn't helping them, they stopped. #2, random bits of stuff will assemble themselves into a coherent narrative if you just let your players run with the ball. I had no plan in mind for what the players might do with the ogres' lube, and I didn't really have much in mind for Carlotta's literary tastes, but Aimee's suggestions made perfect sense in context. #3, your players WANT to creep themselves out. We saw this with the Flesh Vats and the Twelve Named Crypts.


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