Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tomb of Horrors an Analysis Part one: Introduction

Look at me I thought I knew it all.

If you have poked around here on my site, you may already know I have been in gaming a long time. At some point in the 80’s, after playing a lot of D&D, I couldn’t swallow what TSR was producing anymore. So I played Chill and Mach and eventually went underground to do my own thing. Last year I decided to rejoin the RPG community by contributing online. Certainly very different than pinning a notecard on the bulliten board of the local game store. Having been under a rock for over a decade meant learning that OSR stood for Old School Renaissance, not Odor Stain Remover. So here we are.

There is a lot of really good crap out there. One thing in particular that has resonated with me is Courtney Campbell’s Quantum Ogre series, which addresses the concept of “Player Agency”. Stripped down “Playgency” means the Game Master presents situations which allow for the players to make meaningful choices. As a game designer this is the proverbial double edged swordinga: On the one hand the game experience gets cranked way up, on the other there is more work that must be done by the Crypt Lord to be prepared when players “Go Off the Edge of the Map”. It’s funny, I’ve always been an OTEofM guy, but I’m terrible at on the spot improvisation. It’s stressful, saying “…”  to 6 overexcited players staring at you. I have always designed my adventures with no particular solution in mind. Instead, I would make sure I understood the logic of the place, so I could roll with whatever the crypt openers would throw at me. This garners two main benefits: 1) The physical creation/description could be kept to a minimum and 2) It was wayway more fun not knowing how the players were going to crack it. In the long run it was always more cost effective to create my own adventures because it took me almost as long to assimilate the essence of a commercial one in order to run the game properly. I know, bla bla bla.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good exercise to strip down a well reviewed/classic D&D adventure and look it at it through the lens of Playgency. As it happens the very first commercial adventure I played as a player was Tomb of Horrors (bum-bum-bwaaaa)! I would have been (thinks for a moment) 15 at the time. I ran this character:

Galandriel raised a few eyebrows in our TTMKKK (Total Teen Male Kill Kill Kill) group at the time. My best friend was playing “Roc Hard”, so I don’t have to spell out why choosing the weakest class (Monk) and playing a female character was kinda out there. I had been playing D&D a couple of years, but only as Dungeon Master. If memory serves, I was asked to join the group as they were having a devil of a time dealing with the puzzles and traps. Through shear luck I had created a character optimised for the Tomb.

Anyone checking my character sheet will have noticed that Galandriel weilds a Scimitar, which is outside the official rules of the game. We never gave modding the system a thought back then, it just seemed obvious that you had to bring your own ideas into the game in order to make it function. I mean, have you ever read the section on psionics? To me sections like this in the DMG existed only to reinforce the idea that the game was basically broken and you had to fix it. In fact that was the whole point. Rules? Those are for guys in suits. But I digress.

My memory of playing through the Tomb is a good one. We loved the illustrations (which are totally badass) and eventually figured out how to laser the doors made out of precious metals into chunks so that we could turn them into cold hard xp. It is interesting now to read comments posted online about the module, many speak to it’s reputation as a “meatgrinder” and a lot of people I suspect who play it prepare themselves based on this foreknowledge. All we had was the front cover art and the words of our 15 year old Dungeon Master. The Demi-lich looks a little like Jerry Lewis on the front cover, I’m not sure what we thought we were up against based on this. It is important to note though, content was at a premium, so if you had something, you used it.

Tomb of Horrors an Analysis: part one is not unlike the start of the module itself, hacking along 340 feet of featureless cliff face looking for a way in. “Oh, look double doors….let’s go see what’s behind them…” 

Join me next time when we put the "anal" in analysis by mapping the entire adventure as a decision node flow chart.

BTW, I recommend C. Campbells blog: Hack & Slash. See link on sidebar.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Name: Orbo the Great
Physical: 52 year old Hume.  Talks like Carl Sagen.
Profession: 7th grid Arcanist "Mastermind".
Highest Stat: Cerebral Energy/27.
Lowest Stat: Muscle Power/10.

Greatest Accomplishment: Discovery of the Cubist Rift.
Greatest Failure: Trying to "fix" the Warf race.  Lost the top of his head during a rectal port miss-fire. Effort backfired causing enlargement of every extant Warf's nose.
Current Status: Rumored to be running "Emporium O" in Crack Town.

Areas of Knowledge: Small Shiny Things, Arcanist Rune Addresses and How Things Burn.
Oddest Thing Carried: 20 ounces of dead cat.
Played By: Ro 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hack & Slash Compendium Volume 1 Review

Recently I purchased Yoon-Suin and the three volume set of Hack & Slash from Lulu in print form.  I have just finished assimilation of  H&S volumes 1 and 2.  Here are my thoughts regarding the ideas presented by C. Campbell.   (I will talk about Y-S at a later date).   It may come as no surprise, if you have looked at anything on this site, that I am a big supporter of unique content that undermines the power mad game corporations.  Once those pesky stockholders are factored in,  the PMGC’s want you mainlining their officially approved rule books, adventure products and consuming other merchandise, such as novelties, soft goods and anything else an appropriate logo can be slapped on. Ahem, I digress.

Hack & Slash Compendium 1 set me back $5.59 (I used a coupon.  In other currencies that would be 5 Copper pieces, 1.5 Starbux or .01 Talons). It measures 8 x 6 and is 62 pages.  Most, if not all of the content is compiled from Courtney Campbell’s blog:  Overall I found Mr. Campbell’s ideas to be exceptionally useful in focusing similar ideas of my own on making my game better.  For clarity I have broken up my review into three categories, Theoretical Junk, Inspiring and Specifically Useful:

Theoretical Junk: Gamers delight on the exposition of theoretical concepts that are the so-called essence of RPG gameplay.  Usually after the 3rd word I’m thinking about an itch on my back or wondering if forgot to close the garage door.   However, Courtney’s discourse on Pages 2 through 29 not only held my attention but were extremely useful in refining my own ideas on making my group’s collective RPG experience better.  There are many useful ideas here, the most important is Player Agency.  In its crudest form the GM presents situations that allow for the players to make meaningful choices.  This means they are able to short circuit the standard format in which most adventures are run. They could pull off circumventing a powerful boss and avoid that classic epic confrontation, looting a dungeon through a backdoor (thus avoiding your cleverly designed traps) or totally messing up your well planned story arc.  It can be frustrating to see work that you have done seemingly wasted, but I have learned the players will have the best time when the stakes of the game are real.  Knowing that players may (and hopefully) will do the unexpected means you can plan for it by altering the energy you put in up front.  I’m sure I have already done this subconsciously, having Campbell’s ideas on paper refines my strategy. Specifically for my design process what this means is: I will now consciously factor in the ability for players to make multiple informed decisions during the game. I'll let their choices compound to form its own organic “story”. Right now it sounds like more work for me, but I’m Ok with that.  The payoff of an exceptional game is worth it.  There are many other good ideas here as well, one that as a game designer that I liked in particular was “games are collections of interesting choices”.

Inspiring: On pages 30 - 60 are 17 new player backgrounds.  These are written for one of the many “e’s” of Deeandee.  Having written my own fantasy game as it’s nemesis, these plug and play mods are not instantly useful to me out of the box.  However, the content contained in these backgrounds can be appropriated and modified for my own use.  In a roundabout way this is good, it pretty much forces me to think about the game and come up with new content.  It just means I can't sit back in my stratolounger and have game mods fed directly into my veins.

Specifically Useful: As noted above, nothing in H&SV1 is specifically useful in that I can flip open the book and use it during one of my games.  This is not a criticism, it has to do with the nature of my particular game beast.  For those of you swine out there still playing Deeandee, there is much here that can be plugged right into your gaming experience.  I have found that having interesting matrixes to generate player information from is very useful.  H&SV2 is mostly about Treasure, so that tome is specifically useful to me, as I can practically use items right out of the book during the game.  But, more on that one next time.

All in all on a scale of 1 - 10 I would give H&SV1 a 10 for it’s usefulness to me.  It is more important for me to understand how to create better experiences than to have specific mods that I can plug directly into my game.  Cheers!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Death, Towering and Inferno is now here!

The Adventure I created and ran for Gary Con VII (2015) is now finished and ready to BURN!  25 pages of pithy drama.  Plays in 4 hours.  Complete adventure with 3 new Creeps and 8 pre-generated Crypt Openers.  Great for morticians looking to make a few extra bucks!

...or in Swag product.  Enjoy!


A Teleportal is a quasi-mystical gateway that will transport creatures/objects to some predestined location.  They start out as seeds and are planted in an ornate vessel (urn, pot, jar) filled with transdimensional peat. As the seedling grows (in 4-16 weeks) the destination, in the form of Quadranulic Muttering must be whispered to the plant for one Gar-nuta each day. Once matured the Teleportal springs from the vessel in an ornate spiral of micro-rune text addresses, about 8 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. These characters slowly emanate from the soil and travel around the spiral until they disappear in the destination vortex in the center. Those studied in the art can look at the info stream and make an informed guess as to where the portal might lead. Teleportals can transport anyone/thing that enters in the vortex to the preset target destination. This happens as soon as the creature/object comes into contact with the center of the spiral. The player will be pulled into the ether and for one Nano-instant have their molecules stretched between both nodes. A Na-nuta later, their atoms are recombined at the target destination. There is a .001% chance that objects passing through are assembled backwards. Note, objects larger than the TP dimensions are affected, they are condensed as they are sucked in. Some teleportals simply purge their travelers at a preset destination out of thin air, others are connected to another Teleportal allowing two way travel.