Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish

Since the untimely demise this year of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, and thus the three decades of games that it spawned, one might have expected the edifice of fantasy wargaming to crumble away without its keystone to hold it together. After all, many (myself included) were introduced to fantasy gaming through Warhammer and would have never known roleplaying games or wargames without it. Even though Warhammer was itself first inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, it somehow became both unique and iconic of the gaming hobby, sporting a well defined aesthetic and ethos, a rich background setting that always came to the fore and largely consistent design principles (even between diverse spin-off games). In short, Warhammer was an institution and a tradition, which, although it had certainly evolved over time, evinced remarkable affinities to its earliest versions and indeed its earliest inspirations.

So recently I took it upon myself to survey the field after the solemn dirges for lost Warhammer had faded to a hush. I admit that I was a little surprised by the results. Instead of a dearth of fantasy games, I found the burnt remains of Warhammer had engendered the soft shoots of life to spring up, with many new games eager to grow out of the shadows of the votive offering of Warhammer Fantasy. In many cases, these games seemed to both honour the old and in many ways also break from tradition, particularly by trending towards quick and simple gameplay. While making appeals to Warhammer’s principle aesthetics and form, such games cut dramatically away from the crunch and complication for which Games Workshop has always been known (for those that missed it, the last edition of Warhammer Fantasy was as thick as a telephone book). In this way, Mantic Games’ Kings of War kept the rank and file troops but dropped the combat and casualties of individual models, just as Osprey’s Frostgrave kept the team-skirmish scale of Mordheim but entirely dropped the tables and charts for a simple 1d20 resolution system. While I appreciated the strong sense of aesthetic continuity with the past in each of these games, I also felt that the rules were too simplified, too streamlined to really harken the feeling of traditional games.

It therefore caught my eye when I came across Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish, the new game by the eponymous Otherworld Miniatures. If you are unfamiliar with the company, Otherworld has pride of place among miniature companies for manufacturing figures with an unabashedly “old school” style, so much so that their sculpts are perfect representations of the original AD&D Monster Manual drawings. Would Otherworld Miniatures’ obvious care and concern for old school aesthetics result in an even stronger sense of gaming tradition in this new ruleset?

Well, at first it was difficult to find out. Extremely difficult. In fact, so much so that I would level the charge at Otherworld Miniatures for poorly handling their own game. For example, the blurb on the Otherworld Miniatures website still advises that the rules will be due out on the 19th of August. (It is today December 27th.) More importantly, the company has released extremely few details about the actual inner workings of the game… no quick start rules, no rules explanations… not even a PDF preview. Likewise, the independent “reviews” so far available are of the noxious “right, got this game, had a go, was a bit of fun, yeah?” type that offer frustratingly little insight into the game itself. All of this was made especially difficult since the only places that sell the game are seemingly in the UK (although this may change in the future, one might think that four months is time enough to send the game over the pond to some American distributors). Worse still, there are hushed rumours in dark corners of the internet that one can purchase (if brave enough!) the game as a PDF, although this is not mentioned on the Otherworld website or their Facebook page. Indeed, one must rap the correct number of knocks on the door to “,” a bizarre website that introduces itself as some strange combination of Etsy and Patreon. Again, there is no official endorsement of this website, so I suppose the PDF that I purchased from there was not actually sanctioned by Otherworld Miniatures, but by some petty thief with a stolen file and a dream.

Right, so enough complaining, what in the world is this game like?

Building your “Faction”
Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish (henceforth, “Otherworld”) is a skirmish wargame based on the action:engine system at the heart of Crooked Dice’s game 7th Voyage. You build a small “faction,” paying gold pieces for each warrior, who is described in game terms by abilities, attacks, special powers and seven stats (speed, defence, hits, strength, agility, intelligence and morale). There are three different levels of warriors, including legends, companions and minions. The former are the most powerful characters that lead your party, while companions are second-rate heroes and minions are simple followers (a distinction not dissimilar from Frostgrave’s wizards, apprentices and soldiers). Interestingly, you can build your army as you please, and while your warband is called a “faction” in the rules, there are no real “factions” here at all. Instead, the book gives you a long list of legends, companions and minions from which you may pick and choose freely, with only one small caveat: legends and companions both have alignments (good or evil) and you cannot mix alignments in the same party (minions have no alignments). Otherwise, there are no hard rules about faction composition or size. You could play a game with one model versus one or more enemies (one of the minion options includes a Dragon… I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest), or you could play with very large hordes. There is no maximum or minimum count for the three types of warriors (legends, companions and minions), so you could potentially create the backstory that your group of legends is lead by the Beholder (*ahem* Eye Tyrant) minion that is mind-controlling them. Or maybe by a lowly townsfolk mayor, who cannot fight well but is their rich employer? Or maybe you have a group of fresh-faced companions, out on their first adventure? Or maybe you just have a clan of troglodytes and leave it at that?

Each of the legends gets a full page with a line art illustration from the terrific Paul Gallagher; basic statistics, abilities and attacks; and a special power unique to their type. The “good” legends in the book are: Blessed Crusader (a paladin with the ability to heal and turn undead and demons), Daring Rogue (a thief who may pickpocket), Enigmatic Enchanter (a magic-user with an innate magic missile attack) and Valiant Warrior (a fighting-man who can attack all enemies within reach). The “evil” legends provided include: Callous Corsair (a rogue who may set traps), Immortal Fiend (a demon-possessed warlock who gets stronger when wounded and can flood the enemy’s mind with dark thoughts), Merciless Warlord (a berserker chief) and Sinister Sorcerer (a sorcerer that can injure himself to boost spells and may conjure a defensive barrier). Each of these legends has a base cost of 50 gold pieces (“gp”), which you may increase by either buying higher statistics (you also get an initial pool of 3 points to increase your statistics without cost), by boosting or buying new attacks (essentially weapon proficiencies) or by purchasing magic items. Oddly, the ability to purchase magic items is not granted; rather, you must take the magic item ability a number of times equal to the magic items you wish to purchase. Not every legend has this ability, but each legend may choose three extra abilities without cost when they are hired (and more abilities can be earned by taking “disadvantages”—a kind of negative ability which penalizes the character in some way). In total, a fully upgraded legend would probably be in the range of 70 to 80 gp.

Apprentices are, as you might expect, weaker heroes and cost a mere 25 gp each. They have the same options as legends, but they are generally fewer or weaker bonuses (for example, only two points for stat increases and two extra abilities). The good companions include Aspiring Acolyte, Brave Burglar, Wandering Minstrel and Wild Ranger, while the evil companions include Cruel Conjuror, Monstrous Myrmidon, Savage Slayer and Wretched Priest. Each has a special quality much like the legends, but generally weaker and more tuned towards a supporting role.

Minions are the lowest rank of warriors in your party and have the same sort of abilities, attacks and stats as legends and companions (most, but not all minions, lack special abilities). One minion in your faction can be upgraded to be a henchmen, which gives them a boost in stats and abilities to make them nearly as powerful as a companion. The list of minions is dizzying and includes (perhaps unsurprisingly) entries for seemingly every model produced by Otherworld Miniatures. Here you will find your classic hirelings, humanoids, beasts and dungeon vermin, monsters, undead, devils and demons. Regardless of whether your heroes are good or evil, you may cherry pick from this massive list to customize your warband. Otherworld also took a different approach to upgrading minions that gives them a unique feel—while legends and companions pay to upgrade their stats and abilities, minions pay to upgrade their equipment and type. The latter might include upgrading one of your Bugbears to be a chieftain or it might be upgrading your hill giant to a stone giant or your giant snake to a constrictor or a viper. Each upgrade allows you to tweak the feel of your warband without utterly transforming the unit types. With a total sixteen hero classes and seventy-four basic minion entries (almost all of which have further upgrade options), you do feel there is enough room to make an interesting warband (in comparison, Mordheim had 49 entries of henchmen and heroes, while Frostgrave has 15 soldiers and 10 wizard/apprentice types).

One last note is worth making about minions. Minions include both summoned/animated models as well as wandering monsters, both of which begin the game off-table until actions or events bring them into the game. The latter group are especially interesting, and include models that the defender (and only the defender) can bring into the game during a scenario and place near an “adventure token” (very similar to the treasure tokens that are the victory objectives in Frostgrave, but much more of a randomized event that could represent treasure, a trap or a wandering monster). This is a very clever mechanic that both simulates a dungeon delve in the middle of a competitive wargame, while also furnishing a potentially useful mechanic for a future campaign system (perhaps weaker warbands could compete against stronger ones by gaining free purchases of wandering monsters for the duration of the battle, much like inductions in Blood Bowl). Wandering monsters are a clever feature of the game that ooze theme, create a nasty surprise for a greedy opponent and open the door for future campaign play.

Playing the Game
The game plays out over a number of turns in which each player has the opportunity to act with some (but not all) of the models in their party. The turn sequence is simple, comprised of only four steps: determine initiative, first player acts, second player acts, resolve end-of-turn upkeep. Despite the derivative nature of the turn sequence, Otherworld does make a few interesting diversions from the customary wargame experience. For instance, the initiative roll (each player rolls a six-sided die and the player with the highest roll gets to act first) also doubles as a mechanism to determine fate points: little bonus tokens that are very useful to either boost die rolls (even after they are rolled) or purchase additional activations. Considering that all rolls in the game use six-sided dice, a +2 added after the roll for a couple of fate tokens is a pretty significant thing. The number of fate points available each round is the difference in the initiative rolls, split evenly between the two players (a slight advantage going to the winner here, as odds are rounded in his favor). Fate tokens provide an interesting way to make the game more dynamic and make things happen that might not have otherwise happened. That said, you usually will only have one or two of them and you can not bank them between turns.

In your action phase, you gain a number of activation tokens equal to half the number of your warriors on the table. Each activation token is first assigned to one model and then you may resolve two actions for each activated model in turn. It may seem odd that you can only activate half of your warband in any turn, but this does tend to create some tension and hard choices about what you want to accomplish in a round. There are also a few ways to get more activations, including the aforementioned option of spending two fate points for one extra activation (somewhat expensive, and you may want to keep your fate points to boost die rolls later on instead) as well as activating legends, companions and minions with the leader ability. When your models do act, they may take up to two actions, including moving, aiming, shooting, attacking in melee or performing some other, special action (such as casting a spell). They may even choose to take the same action twice, with the exception of shooting or aiming. In addition to this, there are a number of “free” actions that pop up at different places in the rules, including opening doors, dropping items and making a “free” attack of opportunity.

Models are free to move in any direction (with the usual penalties for terrain), although the final facing of a miniature is important for flank attacks and so on. Most models move a default of six inches, although some (such as the Ooze) are as slow as two inches while others (like the Purple Worm) move at a rapid eight inches per move action. If you move into contact with an enemy that was at least three inches away at the start of the activation, you are counted as charging and gain a “free” attack at -1 to hit (in addition to any normal attack you make with your second action). Other movement options include jumping, going prone, climbing, falling (!), swimming and dragging another model.

Most of the die rolls you will make during the action phase are either attacks or statistic tests, and this is where the game seems to take the most cues from Warhammer Fantasy or Mordheim. Each warrior has a number of attack options in their profile which correspond to different weapons (for example, the Hobgoblin has brawl 4+ and spear 4+, but may be upgraded to also have a bow 5+ or exchange the spear for an axe 4+). When you shoot or make a melee attack, you choose one of your weapon attacks and roll a die. If your roll is higher than the number in the profile, modified by a short list of ten situational modifiers and any status conditions on the model, then you hit (a result of “one” always fails, regardless of modifiers). If the hit is successful, you will roll for damage (unless a melee attack is used to force back or knock down the enemy instead). Damage is determined by a die roll on a chart that is functionally identical to the Warhammer Fantasy “to Wound” table. The default target is 4+ on a single die to inflict a point of damage (i.e., a wound), but this target is modified up or down for each point of difference between the attacker’s strength and the target’s defence (like Warhammer, bows and crossbows have their own strength value). If the damage roll is successful, the target loses one hit point and, if this was the last hit point, the model falls and will become a casualty if their hits are not restored by magic or other means before the end of the turn. Hits can be negated by certain abilities, including “equipment” abilities like light armour (6+ save), heavy armour (5+ save) or shield (6+ save alone, or +1 to other save rolls). Note that the vast majority of minions do not have access to the armour abilities.

Climbing, swimming, reading scrolls, testing morale and perhaps countless other odd situations call for a statistic tests. To make this test, you compare the relevant statistic (usually strength, agility, intelligence or morale… I could not find any tests for speed, defense or hits) to a table that is largely similar to the ranged “to Hit” table from Warhammer Fantasy. For example, if you have the rather average stat of 3, you need to roll a 4+ to succeed on the test. Opposed tests (such as breaking from melee with an enemy) can be made by each player rolling a die and adding the relative statistic (in this case, agility) with the highest roll winning. Much like Mordheim, morale tests are called for when a model is all alone, near a feared enemy or whenever your faction has lost half or more of its models. The latter test is only taken by the companion or legend with the highest morale in your party during the end phase, thus giving an edge to factions that include those warriors, and failure results in a dice roll of your models disappearing from the battle as they lose their bottle.

Finally, the magic system is also vaguely reminiscent of other games as well. To cast a spell, a model must take a special action and roll one or more of their casting dice (they have a number of these equal to their Magic ability rank, usually two or three at most). If the total, plus their Intelligence statistic, is greater than the casting difficulty number of the spell (these range from 8 to 16, with 10 being the most common value) then the spell is successful. If any die result shows a “one,” the magic user may not take any further actions that turn, as he is drained from the attempt. The odds of a successful casting might seem harsh, since even a legend-level spellcaster will only have Magic 1 and Intelligence 4 by default, but the odds can be improved by spending a special action to chant (+2 to the casting roll) and by using fate points. Even then, I think most wizards will allocate some of their free ability slots and even take a disadvantage or two in order to boost their Magic ability rank a few times. This is also significant, since you can only choose a number of spells equal to your Magic ability rank. Disappointingly, there are only a mere 18 spells to choose from, at least four of which have to do with summoning or banishing creatures (and are thus mechanically similar) and only one spell that actually does damage (although recall that the Enigmatic Enchanter has an innate magic-missile ability which does not require the magic rules to use).

Creating a Scenario
While you could simply plop the models on the table and have a brawl, Otherworld comes with six generic scenarios (or “encounters”) that you can play with little preparation, as well as an amusing “barroom brawl” introductory battle to learn the rules and three more narrative scenarios to showcase more story-driven gameplay. Each encounter describes an ideal setting, the deployment of the forces, victory conditions and any special rules that will be used. These rather typical scenarios include battle (essentially capture the flag), escape, race (a treasure hunt), skirmish, slay (an assassination mission) and steal. The potential of the scenarios, and the possibility to create homebrewed encounters, is greatly elevated by the use of adventure tokens and the adventure deck. Eight or more of the former are scattered about the battlefield by the defender and represent unknown prizes or perils. Only certain models in the attacker’s faction (those with the Treasure Hunter ability) can reveal and secure these tokens, and they must spend a special action to do so. Thirteen of the thirty-two adventure cards, or approximately four in ten, are devoted to wandering monsters, another four cards are traps (pit, spikes, swing log and poison), nine are treasure cards (essentially victory points) and the final six cards are split between attacker and defender special cards (which provide a one-time bonus when they are played). The latter are designed to be lighthearted “in-jokes” about roleplaying, but a few of them made me roll my eyes (“Chainmail Bikini,” for example). While the function of these cards is still fairly modest, the possibility for expansion they offer is appealing. For example, you could include one or more cards tied to certain events in a homebrewed scenario, or you could replace each treasure card with a random magic item card. A number of cards could be included to represent undead rising from their shallow graves to attack the nearest model regardless of whether they are the attacker or the defender. Perhaps some cards might represent the satchel charges that the attacker needs to gather to demolish the castle wall and end the siege. The room for development and expansion of this clever little rule will be very interesting for scenario and campaign designers.

Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish shows a lot of promise. The rules are simple but feature great room for customization and the developer has announced a manual of monsters supplement to expand the game further. (One can only hope that a full set of campaign rules are not far down the path as well.) The downsides to the game, at least for some, will be how much it derives from other games (such as Warhammer Fantasy). There is nothing particularly new in the attack and wound procedure, or even in the way morale or magic works. That said, there are some new ideas here, including the rules for activation and the adventure deck and tokens, and certainly the immediate familiarity will be a positive factor for many gamers. Even for new players, the core game is extremely simple and intuitive and can be picked up quickly. Because the core game mechanics are so simple, however, Otherworld adds detail by focusing on special rules… a lot of special rules. In fact, there are eighty four abilities to keep track of, six conditional statuses (dominated, immobilised, on fire, scared, stunned and weakened), twenty eight magic items and forty seven weapon and bestial attacks (with seventeen weapon effects). In this sense, the game is very much in the line of later Warhammer Fantasy games, where troops were largely distinguished from each other by their special rules. Unfortunately, by centering the most interesting mechanics of the game around special cases, a game of Otherworld will likely be an experience in page-flipping for a long time before the players acclimate to the rules.

The warband construction system, on the other hand, is both a blessing and a curse. By lacking a clear feeling for distinct factions, and by lacking a setting for the game, players may have a hard time getting interested in the game enough to invest in it. At the same time, the flexibility of the party building rules means that you have total access to everything in the game and are not restricted to playing one race or kingdom. You could have a motley group of good heroes who raise dead and keep company with ogre mages and a group of orcs. If you wanted something more believable, you could always just play a tribe of kobolds with a pet rust monster. This inherent flexibility leaves the burden on the player to create his own backstory, instead of selecting from a list of iconic forces within a clearly articulated fantasy world. Lastly, the latent creativity of the open faction design tools are hampered somewhat, as a player that chooses only minions is missing some key elements of any successful party, including the ability to take morale tests when casualties start to mount and, quite often, the Treasure Hunter ability which is required to access the significant adventure deck side of the game.

At the end of the day, Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish feels very much like a sandbox skirmish game. It is great if you have gobs of miscellaneous figures and can run it in a semi-competitive, semi-cooperative fashion with homemade scenarios and campaign play (although the latter is currently missing from the game, a good gamemaster could quickly cover the essentials). Ultimately, this is one of the funny things about the game. Otherworld is a wargame that is really begging for a gamemaster… it does not need it absolutely, but it feels like it works better with players trying to tell a story more than deploy a winning strategy. It is a game that lacks overt roleplay elements and yet feels more at home when they are restored. After all, if you are allowed to use the entire palette of creatures and heroes, and the game expects you to fill in the blanks and tweak the play experience to your liking, why not go all in and gambol in the narrative elements?

Despite the game's flaws (some of which are ironically also its strong points), Overworld Fantasy is worth a close look. It is a gorgeously illustrated and professionally laid out work, with beautiful line art flourishes from the unbeatable Zhu Bajie and characterful heroes from Paul Gallagher. While the rules are clear that you do not need them to play, Otherworld Miniatures are attractively displayed in action-packed diorama photos throughout the book and certainly provide plenty of inspiration for collecting and painting. The game looks to be well supported, with token, card and dice packs available now and new supplements on the horizons (including a reference to future "published encounters"). There is certainly plenty of room to expand, and the scant mention of using square grids instead of rulers to play (in order to take advantage of the Dwarven Forge terrain seen in several dioramas) suggests that Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish could become the new go-to game for Warhammer Quest fans. Will it overtake the other options out there, including the popular Frostgrave? For those who want more crunch and more options, it is perhaps already more suitable than Osprey's game. For the rest, it is worth waiting to see how the game is expanded in the near future.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Return to Castle Frobozz, Part II

The second part of the story actually misses an interlude (unfortunately lost to time), wherein the first band (including Pavel and Winfred) find a dastardly machine room, battle some hooting blue-painted cavemen (one of whom is beguiled by a charming spell), lose a hireling and promptly disappear down a chute. These two continue to have adventures in the Netherdeep, meeting a disgustingly hirsute Ogre bandit-sultan who makes his living by raiding the caravans that ply the underground highways, learning more about Princess Velouria's descent into the deeps, and delving deeper into the earth to discover a mining outpost run by the Evil Men of Kau'kawthar (along with their demon-worshipping, werespider Drow allies). Meanwhile, the remaining party (and the hirelings of the aforementioned duo) are left in the dungeon proper, where they murder another player character (after a week of his inactivity) and discover the entrance to a muck-filled Troglodyte burrow...

See also Part I.

After bravely tiptoeing past a sleeping dragon and losing track of original party leaders, the troupe of dungeon delvers blunders forth into further and greater peril veiled within the Glittering Cavern...

Your eyes adjust to the grandeur of this cavern, set with a canopy of shadowy stalactites, glittering minerals and faintly luminescent lichens and moss. This gallery extends far to the west, and features several distinct zones. To the Southwest, natural stairs climb up the cave wall to a cliff overlooking the chamber. To the West, the terrain descends into a dell of bulbous, mammoth mushrooms. To the Northwest stands a plateau of splendent, shimmering pools amidst a thick forest of stalagmites.


There is a BARREL here.

TOECUTTER immediately trots over and inspects the barrel, oblivious to the natural wonders around him.

Prying open the lid reveals around 20 gallons of dried apples, halved.

SCUNTHORPE reaches in the barrel and grabs a couple halves of apple. After tossing one to ZUGG, he bites into his half. "Those mushrooms don't look very inviting, but if we have any chance of meeting up with the others, we must venture down. But a view of what's to come would be helpfull" At that, SCUNTHORPE begins towards the stairs SW, tossing the half eaten apple aside.

TOECUTTER looks mildly dissapointed for a second; he then fills a small sack full of dried apples and begins to follow SCUNTHORPE down the stairs.

Buried halfway down the barrel of apples is a gnarly twig, singed at one point with a leather wrapped handle on the other.

TOECUTTER pockets the backscratcher before leaving.

• TOECUTTER gains 100 xp! [Haha, this amuses me]

From this vantage point, much of the southern Glittering Cavern opens up before you to the shadowy illumination of your torch. Below you, a veritable forest of towering mushrooms wobble intermittently to the north. To the west of this vale, a shimmering, cerulean light can be seen. To the northeast, stairs descend down into the Eastern Glittering Cavern. The narrow ledge where you stand is slick from the condensation of this damp chamber, making footing treacherous. The wall is marked with deep gouges and cuts. At the very end of the tapering ridge lies a small opening in the cave wall.

The exits are IN or NORTHEAST.

There is a SHANE here.

Jealously eyeing the stick TOECUTTER just picked up, SCUNTHORPE comments "Good find, me thinks that's a wand." And at studying the wall says "These gouges speak of grand fight that took place here. I would guess horrible creatures from below were literally clawing their way through this passage. If true, there's likely something of value through there, and something nasty waiting below. But I still feel the best way to find the others is to continue down. What say you, party?"

Snapping out of his hypnotic stupor, SWALKHI replies, "I says I don't like the notion of mucking about under a mushroom forest -- I say we follow that shimmer to the west."

Before moving on from the Narrow Precipice, SCUNTHORPE pauses for a moment to study the other members of his party. "DONIVAN. SHANE. What say YOU? You have been following blindly and dumbly since you joined this quest." At that, with a quickness no one would have expected from the spell-caster, he spins around to the back of SHANE and draws his dagger to the mercenary's throat. "I suspect you to be a construct of evil. Give me any indication that I am wrong and you will have my apologies, otherwise you will have the taste of my blade in the back of your throat."

[What follows next is a pause both awkward and long (a full week out of game).]

"Just as I thought, I release your cursed spirit." The words were still rolling off SCUNTHORPE's tongue as his dagger slid through SHANE's throat. As the body falls limp to the ground, SCUNTHORPE shouts "DONIVAN!" as he turns and forces his body against the cave wall. SCUNTHORPE holds the point of his blade firm against his chest. "Will anyone speak up and prevent me from releasing this one as well?"

TOECUTTER enthusiastically munches on a couple of apple halves as this all goes on. "Not to interrupt a good murder spree or anyfing, guv," he says mid bite, "but is 'at really nessesary?"

SCUNTHORPE pulls back from DONIVAN at TOECUTTER's words, and sheaths his dagger. "Oh my, I believe these caverns are starting to play with my head." He looks down at SHANE, "Don't think he'll be forgiving me, but perhaps we should leave this incident behind us. ZOTT, AUGUST, EVANDER, you're not too outraged by my actions to continue on this quest, are you?"

"Oi boss," says ZOTT, "AUGUST is dead, right?" EVANDER and ZOTT eye SCUNTHORPE nervously...

Looking rather embarrassed, SCUNTHORPE allows "Of course. These caverns are most certainly affecting me detrimentally."

"Right... s'pose SHANE won't miss this now..." TOECUTTER removes SHANE's Plate Armor and dons it, careful to wipe up the blood. He also takes SHANE's rations and coins. He drops his own Leather.

SCUNTHORPE peers into the opening in the wall. "For my own sanity, it is time I moved on." At that, he goes IN.

TOECUTTER follows SCUNTHORPE (for lack of anything better to do. Also, I think SCUNTHORPE has the light).

Spears hoisting thick proto-human skulls stake the entrance to this natural cavern. Deep scratches in the wall trickle with water from above, gleaming in the torchlight. Against the western wall looms a large, hideous idol: a squat, toad-like creature with its left eye shut and a gaping grin lined with serrated teeth. The open right eye is a gaping socket, damaged and cut around the lid. The false god holds out its left hand, upon which someone has placed a golden rock. The cave continues deeper to the SOUTHWEST.

The exits are OUT or SOUTHWEST.

There is a SCUNTHORPE, a DONIVAN, a SWALKHI and a TOECUTTER here. There is an IDOL here.

SCUNTHORPE cautiously approaches the idol for a better look, making sure to watch his step. He tries to look into the statue's mouth, and also at the golden rock.

There is a shallow space within the toothy maw, perhaps large enough to fit a single hand... The hole apparently continues deeper, down the IDOL's throat. The golden rock has apparently been placed here recently, judging by the lack of slime and cave lichen on the stone. It looks to be the texture and shape of a piece of shale, perhaps a pound in weight, only it has been somehow transfigured into gold.

SCUNTHORPE steps to the side of the statue, well out of way of it's mouth. He pulls a gold coin of his own out, and quickly as possible attempts to snatch the rock away, replacing it with the coin.

SCUNTHORPE gains GOLDEN ROCK. Somewhere in the distance, a giant boulder is released and nearly crushes a man in a hat.

SCUNTHORPE, after seeing nothing happened, pockets the GOLDEN ROCK along with his gold coin. He searches the ground for rock, and once found places it in the idol's hand.

The IDOL continues to give its listless, meaningless stare at the interlopers. The rock remains... rocky.

SCUNTHORPE picks up the rock, and places it into the idol's mouth. He also tried to place the Golden Rock in the empty eye socket.

Other than the continued humiliation of this blasphemous icon, nothing outré appears to happen.

Mildly disturbed by the looming shadows and statue of what might be an eldritch god from beyond space and time, TOECUTTER lights up his own torch. He then investigates the scratches in the walls, trying to determine if they are natural or... something else.

From his years in the Greyhawk sewers, TOECUTTER instantly recognizes these to be claw marks. Maybe a territorial sign, or a count of some gruesome deed?

SCUNTHORPE shrugs his shoulders, giving up on the frustrating IDOL. He continues on down the cave to the SOUTHWEST.

TOECUTTER readies his club for a fight; he then follows the (probably mad) mage into the darkness.

A stinking green haze curls about the floor of this room, barely concealing the muck-filled depressions and clusters of variously shaped and sized eggs. Every surface of this choking cavern is covered in an acidic filmy substance which burns the skin but doesn't seem to impede the vibrantly coloured colonies of algea that cling tenaciously to every crevice. Tip-toeing around the narrow spans between craters leads to the centerpiece of the room, a single massive egg that bobs lazily in a hole filled with slimy water. To the East, a low opening leads into darkness. To the South is a winding tunnel. The passage to the Northeast leads back to the Idol.

The exits are NORTHEAST, EAST and SOUTH.

There is a SCUNTHORPE, a DONIVAN, a SWALKHI and a TOECUTTER here. There is a GIANT EGG here.

Suddenly, two shapes on the ceiling start to form. Dropping down before you reveals two gruesome Troglodytes! The foul creatures charge at you, surprising you with their assault!

Surprise is 1d6: 1, Initiative is 1d6: 1

Round 1!
The party is surprised, and will go last (for the rest of the battle)!
• An odious Troglodyte slashes at SWALKHI (2d6-2: 4) with its claws, slashing him for (1d6-1: 0) damage! [No damage, but the scrape may become infected if a barber-surgeon doesn't tend to it soon.]
• A toothy Troglodyte snaps at DONIVAN (2d6-2: 8) with its maw, but gnaws futily at his leather jerkin!

The PC's may now act...

SCUNTHORPE lets out an audible shriek at the appearance, and appears stunned for a moment. Fortunately for him, his retainers are quick to act.
ZUGG throws a dart at the odious Troglodyte (2d6-1: 9), which slides off the creature's slimy scales!
ZOTT slashes at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6-1: 7), but is repelled by the creatures foul stench!
EVANDER backs up his friend and attacks the toothy one (2d6-1: 7), but jabs ineffectively at the creature's spongy carapace!
---i don't know what weapons they carry, could you please put in the rolls for me? [They are spearmen, if I recall.]

TOECUTTER shoves past the mage and bashes the odious Trog [2d6: 8], but the attack bounces of the creatures lumpy hide!

Round 2!
• An odious Troglodyte turns on ZOTT, slashing at him (2d6-2: 8) with its claws, but is parried by the able spearmen.
• A toothy Troglodyte charges at ZUGG, snapping at him (2d6-2: 3) and sinking its fangs into the Neanderthal for (1d6-1: 5) damage! ZUGG goes down!

The PC's may now act...

Annoyed, TOECUTTER strikes the odious trog again [2d6: 9], grazing the Troglodytes bulbous shoulder ineffectually.

SCUNTHORPE tells his men to "Hold Fast!" ZOTT obeys and strikes at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6-1: 9), as does EVANDER (2d6-1: 9), but are repulsed by the monster's stench!

Round 3!
• An odious Troglodyte claws at ZOTT (2d6-2: 5), connecting with his neck for (1d6-1: 1) damage! Blood sprays out of the poor hireling's neck as he hits the ground unconscious!
• A toothy Troglodyte advances on EVANDER, flailing with its razor sharp talons (2d6-2: 2) and howling madly. The young spearmen is caught across the chest for (1d6-1: 4) damage, and falls to the ground unconscious!

The PC's may now act...

SCUNTHORPE firmly grips his staff with both hands, and swings it at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6: 10), who easily avoids it. He calls out to TOECUTTER, "The wand! Use the wand!"

"The wot?" (Yep, the mage is bonkers!) TOECUTTER swings yet again at the odious trog [2d6: 7], but is driven back by the creature's fetor! [Time for a plan B, I think!]

Round 4!
• An odious Troglodyte turns on DONIVAN (2d6-2: 0), sinking his fangs into the little halfling's backpack for (1d6-1: 0) damage! [The Troglodyte looks surprised to not have delicious halfling flesh in his gullet, as the contents of DONIVAN's pack start to spill out over the floor.]
• A toothy Troglodyte claws at SWALKHI (2d6-2: 8), but is parried by the able dwarf!
• An iron spike falls out of DONIVAN's backpack onto the floor!

The PC's may now act...

"The gnarled stick you found in the barrel of apples. Me thinks it's a magic item," SCUNTHORPE replies as he swings wildly with his staff (2d6: 10), easily missing the toothy Troglodyte.

"Yer daft - 'at's a backscratcher if I ever saw one!" TOECUTTER clubs the odious trog [2d6: 4] for [1d6: 3] damage, and maneuvers to fall back next round! The creature is momentarily dazed by the blow, but comes to and continues its attack.

Round 5!
• An odious Troglodyte turns instead against TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 6), raking its claws across his armour.
• A toothy Troglodyte continues his assault on SWALKHI (2d6-2: 4), grabbing his shoulders and chomping into his head for (1d6-1: 1) damage!

The PC's may now act...

"Ugh. Dwarves!" SCUNTHORPE explains in exasperation as he looks over his fallen retinue and strikes out at the toothy Troglodye with his staff (2d6: 7), but swings wide!

"RIGHT! Get off tha li'l one, ya git!" TOECUTTER tries to distract toothy troglodyte with a blow to the melon [2d6: 3] for [1d6: 5] damage, buying time for SWALKHI to get out of the way! TOECUTTER's cudgel bashes the slimy lizard's noggin in, causing its rubbery hide to collapse to the cave floor with a wobble! (BAM!!! -J) [Bam indeed!]

Round 5!
An odious Troglodyte looks in shock at its fallen submissive (2d6: 5) and howls in primal rage at TOECUTTER!

• An odious Troglodyte claws at TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 3), but is desperately held at bay by TOECUTTER's shield!

The PC's may now act...

TOECUTTER grins ferally and counterattacks [2d6: 7], but his swing is batted aside by the furious Trog. [Should I wait a little more for Scunthorpe?]

SCUNTHORPE jabs at the remaining Troglodyte ineffectively with his staff (2d6: 9).

Round 6!
• An odious Troglodyte continues to claw futily at TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 5) from behind his shield.

The PC's may now act...

"Offa my kit!!!" TOECUTTER bashes the trog with his shield edge [2d6: 5] for [1d6: 4] damage! The odious Troglodyte takes the shield-bash in its maw, stumbling back with fewer teeth before collapsing to the ground unconscious.

SCUNTHORPE flails at the Troglodyte with his staff (2d6: 11), but swings wide as the creature staggers back and falls.

The enemy has been defeated! The PC's may now bind other characters' wounds (restoring d6-1 hits, once per injured person), explore the room further or otherwise act.
• TOECUTTER gains 400 xp!

SCUNTHORPE , although unharmed from the battle, looks quite dejected at the cost of it. He kneels by each of his fallen retinue one by one, to bind their wounds. First ZUGG for 1d6: 4, then ZOTT for 1d6: 3, and finally EVANDER, healing him for 1d6: 2. (oops, forgot about the -1. it is corrected on their character sheets)

SCUNTHORPE then turns his attention to the fallen foes, searching them over thoroughly.

The Troglodytes have nothing but slime and offal on them. The brained Troglodyte is quite dead, but the odious Troglodyte is still breathing.

TOECUTTER pokes his head (and torch) into the opening to the east, hoping for a better view.

The light from the torch reflects off a thick fog in the eastern chamber. The party will have to effect ingress to establish a more accurate survey.

"Hey, fellow," SCUNTHORPE says to TOECUTTER, "if your aim is not to use that back-scratcher, as you call it, perhaps you would care to sell it. Name your price."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Labyrinth Lord Character Sheet

A quick update, I have created a completely derivative Labyrinth Lord character record sheet, which can be found here. Many thanks to Mike from Fear No Darkness for the original design (which merges the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Colouring Album with the original Basic D&D character sheet). My sole contribution to this excellent sheet is to replace the low-resolution images with vectors (years in the printing industry has made me a pixel snob), as well as to remove some extra information on the reverse of the sheet and to add another doodle from the colouring book. I've slapped the Labyrinth Lord moniker on top of the first page in preparation for an upcoming campaign, but this could be easily modified if you are playing the original game.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Weighing Wealth, Weighing Words

At my table, I have preferred a simple encumbrance system based on the ancient stone weight measurement, where one stone is equivalent to 14lbs. Recently I noticed that the Adventurer Conqueror King System also prefers measuring by stone (albeit at a slightly different conversion—the historical stone changed in value over time), which inspired me to flesh out my encumbrance system in more detail.

Like others before me, I prefer to keep a ratio of 1,000 coins to one stone, so that there are 72 coins per pound (incidentally, I do not use pounds for any measurements in the game). This is closer to ancient treasure caches like the Frome Hoard and steers clear of the implied chunky coins of Dungeons & Dragons. From this basis, I permit each character to lift up to their Strength characteristic in stones, which comports closely in effect to later editions of the game (so that an average Strength 11 allows one to carry 154 lbs). However, moving at any more than a shuffle requires that the carried weight also not exceed the character's Constitution (representing their stamina). Furthermore, acting carefully (such as climbing, walking along an edge or fighting) requires that the load also does not exceed the character's Dexterity. To maintain balance, the hero has the option to drop everything in hand or risk falling otherwise. Thus, a character with Strength 12, Constitution 9 and Dexterity 14 could carry 12 stones, but could only move normally if this burden was reduced to 9 stones (the lowest of Strength and Constitution). Likewise, the hero could only fight if the burden was 9 stones (as acting carefully takes the lowest of all three scores).

Within this system, I tend to handwave equipment weights. I generally rule that light adventuring gear (clothes, a bedroll, backpack, candle and so on) only weighs two stones, while more extensive gear (torches, iron spikes, rope and so on) would increase this to three stones. Each weapon and all of its ammunition (beyond a dagger) is one stone each, as is a shield. Armour is typically one (AC 8 to 7), two (AC 6 to 5) or three stones in weight (AC 4 to 3). As mentioned earlier, each bag of 1,000 coins is another stone of weight. Everything else is made up on the spot, perhaps using Vornheim's syllable-counting system for heavy items (i.e., a "chest of trea-sure" could be four stones).

Addendum: While developing the system I had informally used at my table, I noticed that these same rules might be used to cover something entirely different as well: the tense diplomacy and maneuvering of social interactions. Here, a player will make a reaction roll of 2d6, modified by any Charisma adjustment. The referee then listens to the player's attempt to roleplay the encounter and secretly rolls a polyhedral die based on the roleplaying and the hidden disposition of the other party (normally a d6, but this could be a d4 for an accommodating stranger or a d8 or worse for a hostile group). Adding this disposition die to the adjusted reaction roll, the referee compares the sum to the speaker's Charisma score: if the result does not exceed the score, the party is not immediately hostile. Then, if the player attempts to maneuver or trick the non-player characters, this same value is similarly compared to the Intelligence of the spokesperson to see if he or she gives away the ruse. Finally, if this sum also does not exceed the Wisdom of the speaker, the player can pick up some subtle hint in the opponent's speech that gives clues to something they did not intend to reveal (but only if the Charisma eased the first contact and the player did not fail an attempt to trick or deceive the opponents). In this way, such a tense encounter would be based on both the roleplaying attempt and the scores of the character, so that each party would have a spokesperson. At the same time, such encounters would always be a gamble because the players only had half of the information and the disposition die result that completed the negotiation score would be hidden.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Thieves' Guilds of Minaria

The poor thief has been the subject of many debates and contentions since his incipient introduction in Supplement I: Greyhawk. The most common complaint falls upon the low starting ability of the thief class. It is true, with most special abilities starting at 10% to 15% chance of success, the thief can hardly feel "special," but is instead discouraged from risking his neck on his dubious skill set. In fact, these scores only improve to an even 50% somewhere around 7th level in most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, when the thief's fighter and magic-user compatriots are well on their way to obtaining the defining features of those classes. The other common grievance is that the thief class is either unnecessary or even inimical to a proper Dungeons & Dragons play experience. When the thief was introduced to Original Dungeons & Dragons, he largely co-opted and made exclusive certain adventuring abilities that all dungeon-delvers had previously shared. Common skills such as climbing, trap-finding and lock-picking were suddenly the sole prerogative of the doughty thief, who seemingly had no other function in the game than to encompass all of the competencies once enjoyed by the original adventurers. Instead of stealing treasure, thieves had stolen adventuring proficiency from the other characters.

Feeling the acute loss of fundamental dungeoneering capabilities, some referees qualified these "new" thief skills with the superlative: as Robert Fisher suggests, perhaps all classes can move quietly, but only thieves can move utterly silently. Yet, this approach does not address basic skills like lock-picking or trap-finding—talents that adventurers previously benefited from but were now bereft of. It also did not confront the relatively low chances of success of novice thieves, which rendered their skills prohibitively futile. Other house rules diminished the great difficulty of these dice rolls by granting significant bonuses for easier challenges—a rusted lock or a crude trap door, perhaps. This latter method only solved the clumsy low-level thief by effectively ignoring the rulebook, creating a balanced skill progression where a thief always faced challenges relative to his skill and therefore had comparable chances of success regardless of level (perhaps the very antithesis of early Dungeons & Dragons).

So what is to be done about these dual problems—the loss of common adventuring abilities from other characters and the relatively ineffective ability of the low-level thief? In Minaria, thieves are a vital part of the party, and any party that enters the dungeon without at least one or two in tow is in severe danger. Of course, any character has the same ability to explore the tricks and traps of the mythic underworld—I listen to their descriptions, look at their character sheet and then let them try their luck on a single polyhedral die (perhaps 3 in 8, or 5 in 12, or 2 in 6 and so on). I will even let the player pick her favorite lucky die and then adjudicate the odds for that die type. This approach demands that the referee give a clear description of the terrain and the player gives a clear description of her action, but this action is open to any and all characters (thieves included). However, if the players cannot figure out the trap by asking questions, or if they get a close guess but botch the roll, only the thief has a second layer of defense. Here, the thief's training and skill competency kicks in, and after failing the earlier attempt the thief can make a free, back-up saving roll on the Thieves' Abilities table. These bonus odds are on top of the regular effort, and are a second chance that can rescue the party regardless of whether they have figured out the trap. Played a different way, the party can skip the initial roleplaying and just have the thief roll the ability check. If this is successful, the trap is automatically described and bypassed and the adventure continues without pause. If this fails, the party must take a closer look at the trap and roleplay their attempt to manually disarm it.

At later levels, when thief skills become very high, it is likely the party will increasingly rely on the latter method—making initial recourse to the thief skill to see if the roleplay element can be dispensed with and more exciting parts of the dungeon can be accessed more quickly. At earlier levels, however, the party will enjoy the grittiness of dealing with traps and tricks more directly. Still, all characters should have a chance to open locks, remove traps, pick pockets, move silently, climb sheer surfaces and hide in shadows, at least when they describe a reasonable strategy and have character scores to support it. When the dice turn against such dungeon-delvers, however, thieves have a second chance to catch their fall. Sometimes, the narrated attempt will be unreasonable, and the referee will simply have to say No. Even when such practical constraints limit normal classes, though, thieves should still get their chance to snatch victory from defeat. By allowing thief skills to operate like an extra safety net for dashing heroics, thief characters are encouraged, not discouraged, from using their abilities.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Money-Changers of Minaria

Dealing with coin has always been one of the most utilitarian exercises in any Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It is a necessary evil that all referees and players engage in to translate conquest into capital. It is also one of the facets of the game that most stretches the imagination and suspension of disbelief, raising thorny questions like "why should all coins have a constant universal value across the entire expanse of the Known World?", "why are coins always evenly divisible into lesser or greater coinages?" or "why should these ancient coins from the dungeon still have currency back in the town?" The implication is that the fantasy setting has achieved what took Europe to the last years of the 20th century to figure out—a stable, universal currency system.

Of course, there are many different ways that game designers have tried to complicate the picture. Medieval fantasy markets might be tempered by inflation tables, availability charts or conversion rates. A referee might declare that each kingdom has its own coin mint and may not accept coinage from opposing lands. Applying any of these methods in an actual campaign quickly proves both highly complex and ultimately ineffective. It misses the point, after all. We are still dealing with the unholy triumvirate: Copper, Silver and Gold pieces. (Or is it the gruesome five: Copper, Silver, Electrum, Gold and Platinum?) No matter what additional layer of complexity you add to your campaign economy, you are still dealing with the universal basic building blocks of wealth, which convert dungeon triumphs to points of abstracted "cash" or "wealth."

In Minaria, everything works a little differently. You don't delve into the earth to plumb it for copper pieces and gold coins. Instead, you emerge (battered and shaken) with 1,350 coins from the lost Cisterian empire. Or perhaps you return from the Bugbear lair with the Duke's own personal treasure—some 560 shiny pieces of lucre. Here we find no generic points of wealth, but coinage with a story attached to it. As the greater part of Minarian society operates on barter, the heroes will need to find a buyer for their precious take, which is to say that the coins themselves do not necessarily hold inherent value as currency. Inn-keepers and armourers can do little with such moneys as they rarely take payments in specie, and flashing strange coinage around would likely raise the immediate and unwanted attention of the local Duke or Baron. Rather, the protagonists are well-advised to seek a local money-changer; someone who will buy the storied cache in exchange for credit in the local town, city or region. Once the heroes have successfully laundered their fortune, they will have full financing for their extravagant lifestyle and material acquisitions. For example, the players return with 800 tarnished silver coins of southern Kushite origin. After some negotiating, the major money-lender in the city agrees to purchase half of them for 220gp in credit, good throughout the province. This credit advance is probably in the form of some local currency (or perhaps a standing tab, or even an endorsed cheque)—a detail that is given a considerable amount of handwavium to gloss over the trivialities. Importantly, however, this credit does not carry over into different regions, meaning the protagonists would be wise to only sell what they need to of their hard-won treasure.

What does this actually do differently than the traditional copper piece, silver piece and gold piece system? Firstly, it introduces a level of mystery when the treasure chest is opened and the gleaming treasure trove is seen for the first time. Secondly, it further requires a little haggling when it comes time to pawn the riches off (which allows more referee control and even future adventures, if the party decides to sell the coins at a neighboring kingdom instead of locally). Thirdly, it gives each treasure a story of how it got there (and certainly the Baron will demand his coins back after the party recovers them from the sunken wreck). Finally, it ties wealth to the locale, without requiring the referee to adumbrate an entire global economy to explain why.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Return to Castle Frobozz, Part I

Perusing the archives of Erelhei Cinlu today, I have discovered that the reports on the death of one of my online campaigns have been greatly exaggerated! So as to share these broken fragments with the wider readership, I have elected to publish them here. They will not always make perfect sense, mind you—there are certainly pieces missing from the puzzle. But with a bit of imagination, one should be able to trace the tale of these doomed underground intruders. So begins...

And so our story begins with the two dusty pilgrims, Pavel and Winfred, huddled in the dark corner of the Outs Inn of Greyhawk, early one autumn morning. Faces beset with dark looks, the wayfarers glower down into their cold, greasy gruel. They are alone in the tavern this morning - a silent ceasefire exists between them which has even scared off the normally jovial Hrothgar from his perennial post at the bar.

Oh what cruel fate! Only a couple days ago, the travelers were finishing the last leg of what had been a lovely pilgrimage. Certainly the ancient ruins had their distinctive allure, and all had looked forward keenly to seeing the fabled walls of Greyhawk - rumored to be the oldest settlement in the Known World, and once the high seat of the famed Emperor Ygg Son-of-Arne. But it was the company these two grim wanderers now mourned; had it only been two days since seeing that bright gem, Princess Velouria?

Certainly the motley group of pilgrims found it unconventional to be accompanied by such royalty at first, but soon the young and beautiful princess had won each and every traveller's heart with her peerless melodious singing and other winsome affections. By the end of the journey, the troupe had already begun to set upon each other with challenges and dares to prove themselves before her lashful eyes.

But tragedy struck that final night, just shy of the gates of Greyhawk, when a mysterious figure attacked the caravan. Clad all in black, the transgressor knight, who went only by the moniker "The Dark Lord", defeated the tourists one by one, until only he remained standing. Sweeping up the princess from the bed of daffodils she had daintily feinted into, the Dark Lord gave the woe smitten party one more severe reproach before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

Two days later, all that remained of the band now sat mutely in this bar; the hours of quarreling and lamenting long since passed. Of the other companions, some had gone mad with distress and dispersed in random directions, while still others had vowed to rescue the fair maiden and headed up the thick forested mountain towards the mysterious fog-decked Castle Frobozz, which the Dark Lord had indicated was his home. Of this last group, none had returned and, by all legends of the Castle, no return should be expected either.

Perhaps all is lost, and there is nothing left but to return home in shame. Surely, the chance for adventure, reward and glory is behind you now, and even worse - a chance at the fair damsel's hand! But what is this note here, stamped in a strange seal, that flutters lightly on the table? Was that here when you came down this morning? Has it always been here?

Of all the establishments in Greyhawk, the Outs Inn is notable for achieving the most impressive amount of grim and dreck. Normally deserted, this dilapidated watering hole would be considered abandoned if not for the stalwart presence of its owner, Hrothgar the Dwarf. Despite the bleak setting, the curious creature is surprisingly friendly and outgoing, and happily welcomes you to "the finest" (and, indeed, only) "tavern outside the city walls!"

Exits are UP or OUT.

There is a NOTE here, there is a HROTHGAR here.

PAVEL stops a moment from eating his slop. He notices the note. He notices WINFRED noticing the note. He tries to grab it first.

WINFRED groggily rubs his eyes, trying to shake the effects of the previous night's ales. He notices a note on the table and wonders if perhaps it was misplaced and there would be a reward for its delivery. He looks to his coin purse, noting he has only four gold remaining. In the moment of distraction PAVEL grabs the note.

Admiring the strange seal once more, PAVEL notices the stylistic "A", embossed in the shape of a warped star with a flaming pillar in the middle. Breaking open the parchment causes the seal to crumble into several pieces. Within is a short poem followed by a crudely drawn map:

"The fog recedes,
the true treasure of the dungeon,
it is yet to be won,
to it a winding path leads…"

The map roughly shows an ascent up the eastern side of the mountain, upon which sits the gloomy Castle Frobozz from which none return. The path stops halfway up the mountain at a circular symbol.

WINFRED looks up at the sound of the seal on the note being broken. “Friend Pavel,” he begins, craning his neck to get a look at the note, “ the unfortunate events that have transpired on this pilgrimage have clearly worn on us both. Let us start our friendship anew with the search for... whatever it is that note you have here is about. Two honorable men such as ourselves traveling together shall surely overcome challenges that one alone could not.”

PAVEL gazes across the horizon of the letter at his friend. It's a cold stare. He glances down at the letter, "You better take a look at this then," he says tossing the letter across the table. Scowling, he heaves some slop into his mouth and continues with his breakfast.

WINFRED looks the note over. "Strange," he mutters. "Hrothgar, did you by chance see who left this note here?"

Having failed at being inconspicuous, the wrinkly dwarf looks up from his work of wiping down a single swath of the otherwise grimy bar.

"Nae, boppins!" he replies, before hopping down from his stool. You trace the peak of his bent felt cap bobbing behind the bar until the puppet finally appears around the side. He pads up to the table, bells clinking on his soft shoes, draws close and palms the note in his stubby fingers. You can't help but notice that the foul homunculi stinks worse than the docks on Yob's Day, a festival dedicated to the rotten fish-god worshipped by the inbred peasants of this area.

Pulling out a pair of (likely pilfered) spectacles, HROTHGAR pretends to read meaningfully for a moment, before his beady eyes settle on the crudely drawn map and grow wide with fear.

"Well ta first part is a recipe, methinks. Yep, butter'd chicken." it says, licking its slimy lips. "But ta second part, that'd be a map of the Castle Frobz. No'uns ever come back from that fog I tell you! It eats men alive! If only for a chance at the castle gates, the treasures indwelled are said to be beyond imagination!"

The scurrilous tramp goes on to do what dwarves perhaps do best, and tells a mesmerizing tale of spectacular riches and wealth that would make a sultan swoon; seas of golden coin, ruby encrusted pillars, the finest jewelry and ornaments and priceless works of art abound. Half the morning must have passed before you snap out of the charm (coins still dancing in your mind); the drizzly weather outside gives no indication, but you can judge the lapse by your gruel, which has separated into thin tinny water with fatty solids that float near the top. Your stomach grumbles in protest, as the loathsome wretch concludes "But this I've never seen, a passage up the eastern slope? B'ware young boppins, those hills are rumored to be full of nasty warrens."

Recalling your childhood lessons that dwarves indeed live under mounds of dirt, you decide to take such a warning with some thoughtfulness.

With the conclusion of the dwarf's tale WINFRED collects his things. "Perhaps it is time we moved on Pavel," he whispers in a hushed voice, "I doubt this dwarf will be of any help."

WINFRED goes OUT and takes a look around.

PAVEL nods, "I will be needing some supplies I suppose. We may also want to recruit a peasant to carry our goods and absorb any arrows destined for our chests." He gets up from his table, leaving a few coppers on the table and follows WINFRED OUT.

As the PAVEL exits, HROTHGAR pads up to him and stuffs a small, leather bag into his hands. "If ye are thinkin' of going to Frobz, take this, I beg ye! Me mutter told me to use it if I ever came across a deep creature; but dun'nae use it on anything else! Only the deep ones!" Opening the pouch reveals a handful of granola.

PAVEL appreciates the gesture and nods to HROTHGAR on his way out.

Waiting until PAVEL and WINFRED have left, SCUNTHORPE approaches HROTHGAR, and says "A couple more pints for me and my friend," pointing to SWALKHI in the corner. "You've got a fine establishment here."

SWALKHI walks up to HROTHGAR and SCUNTHORPE. "Aye, sir -- good to see a brother dwarf with his own establishment in such a far flung land. Are there more of our folk hereab

The road here is well worked by wagon wheel and foot traffic alike, so that deep ruts have formed in the slop and filled with the morning's rain. This is western road that leads from Greyhawk out to the lands of Westmark. Before you stands the shabby Outs Inn, run down from years of neglect. To your EAST lies the Western Gate of Greyhawk. To the NORTHWEST, the road climbs up into the thick pine forests and disappears around bends in the brambles.

Exits are IN, EAST or NORTHWEST.

There is a SIGN here, there is a GROUP of MERCENARIES here, there is a CONDOTTIERE here.

PAVEL nods to the MERCENARIES, tipping his hat to them as he approaches.

"Allo guv'nah!" the broad mustachioed CONDOTTIERE says, stepping forward and pumping PAVEL's hand mercilessly. "My Landsers are the best in the business! We've just come arrived with the caravans from Westmark. The pikes of the Black Band are the sharpest in the Known World, and for a modest fee they can shore up your battle lines!"

WINFRED reads the sign.


WINFRED turns from the sign and approaches the MERCENARIES as well. "So my good man, how much is it to hire one of your pikes?"

"Merely 5 coin a delve or per week, whichever comes first! Payable in full ahead of time to my persons, of course," replies the CONDOTTIERE.

"Are they hardy men for that price?" asks PAVEL. "We're going to the castle Frobozz. We don't want no turn-coats adventuring with us."

"These lads are Westmarks finest!" cries the CONDOTTIERE, "I haven't heard of this Castle Frobozz, but I can attest no member of the Black Band has ever turned heel while their charismatic captain still stands. Treat them well, pay me promptly, and you can be assured of their service."

WINFRED turns to talk to PAVEL out of earshot of the mercenaries. "I am willing to hire one of them, or rather I would be if I weren't so short on gold at the moment," he says looking slightly embarrassed. "I you could lend me a gold coin I will gladly repay it at the first opportunity. If there's even a fraction of the treasure HROTHGAR claims we'll need help to carry it all."

PAVEL waves off WINFRED's concerns. "It is of no consequence, friend. I was planning on hiring two or three. Three would leave me tight to purchase rations for the journey."

"Hire however many you feel would work best, PAVEL. You will be reimbursed for your trouble from the treasure." WINFRED purchases 4 days rations.

PAVEL returns to the CONDOTTIERE and requests the services of three mercenaries, and is granted the service of young AUGUST, ZOTT and EVANDER. PAVEL purchases 10 days worth of dried trail rations for the road. "I believe we have what we need. Unless there is anything else that you require, WINFRED, I suggest we make haste."

WINFRED finishes his purchases. "I'm ready when you are."

PAVEL nods and leaves NORTHWEST with WINFRED.

The thick pine trees converge on the Westmark Road here, veiling the way in an eery silence and gloom. Down the hill to the EAST, the rotting patched roof of the Outs Inn is visible; a thin silvery line of smoke drifting lazily from its badly leaning brick chimney. Beyond that, the grand City of Greyhawk unfolds on the narrow escarpment overlooking the wind licked Great Sea.

To the WEST, the road continues deeper through the forested hills to the sundry counties of Westmark. To the NORTH, the crumbling remnants of a decrepit bridgehead over a small stream mark the beginnings of the Old Castle Track which leads to the haunted Castle Frobozz. A menacing fog looms that way. To the NORTHEAST, a barely noticeable deer path leeds across the stream and around the eastern face of the mountainside.


PAVEL remembers the map and points out the deer path. "I believe that is the direction we want to go."

WINFRED also remembers the map. "Yes, I do believe you are correct, PAVEL."

PAVEL heads towards the deer path, leaving NORTHEAST.

The forested mountainside tumbles down into a sheer precipice here, dropping hundreds of feet into a distant estuary below. An old deer trail clings tenuously to the fringe of the rocky crag, leading SOUTHWEST down the face of the mountain or ascending WEST directly up the heavily forested slope. From this vantage point, the eastern ends of the Known World open up before you, revealing distant squalls out at sea and the wooded wilderness of the mountainous Eastmark seaboard.

Exits are SOUTHWEST or WEST.


A small grotto cuts into the mountainside here; a low entrance leading down into the darkness of the earth. Before the portal, a small dragon is curled up on a pile of dirt, leaves and bones. The glint of tarnished golden treasures gleam dimly from the refuse. There is an air of melancholy here. An old deer path leads EAST down the mountainside. To all sides, the menacing fog looms, yet strangely does not reach the trail or cavern opening.

Exits are IN or EAST.

There is a DRAGON here, there is a TREASURE HOARD here, there is a DONIVAN here.

PAVEL halts and raises his fist above his head, signaling everyone to be silent. He waves over WINFRED and points to the DRAGON. Carefully, PAVEL whispers into WINFRED's ear, "Know ye much about dragons, friend? This looks to be the route by which the map wishes us to enter the castle."

WINFRED nods. "Lets try to get by as silently as possible."

Approaching the dragon reveals that the wyrm is apparently midst forty winks, and slumbers peacefully on its precious take. It is a lissome creature, with slender features covered in brilliant emerald scales, perhaps the weight of a horse and some half dozen paces long from nose to tail's tip.

DONIVAN peers out from the underbrush at the two adventurers he has been following since he overheard them talking of treasure while hiring mercenaries near the city gates.

[Assuming Pavel and Winfred continue past the dragon down into the earth, follow below. Otherwise, continue here as normal.]

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

There is a PAVEL and a WINFRED here.

PAVEL takes out a torch and his flint and steel from his back-back. He lights the torch, being mindful to keep an eye over his shoulder towards the direction of the dragon.

To Be Continued...


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