Apr 14, 2014

Magical Weapon: Zahnsaugen

The Zahnsaugen is a double-bladed +1 dagger. The blade is an off-white enamel-like material set in an iron hilt. The blade can absorb any blood with which it comes in contact. Once nine pints of blood are absorbed, the intelligence stored within the blade wakes and begins to converse with the wielder. The voice is an elderly male, and is, at first, faint. Only by holding the blade close to one's ear can the listener understand.

The voice explains that it was once an Elven sorcerer who, at the end of his long life and terrified of looming oblivion after death, magically transferred his essence into the blade. Unfortunately, the only way for him to do this was via a spell that required blood. Once transferred to the blade, the Elf's eldest son was supposed to use magic to resurrect him in a new body. However, the son betrayed his father. He locked the dagger in the family vault and soon it was forgotten. Many years later, a group of thieves stole dagger and it entered general circulation.

The voice encourages the wielder to make additional blood applications. He promises riches and power if they aid in his resurrection. As more and more blood is applied, the blade slowly grows longer. After an additional 9 pints of blood, the voice becomes considerably stronger. After another 9, the blade is long enough to be considered a 1d6+1 sword.

After another 9 pints, the wielder can activate the "Eye of the Elder" once per 24 hours. By holding the hilt against their forehead, a glowing eye opens in the sword's hilt. The wielder is granted x-ray heat vision for one turn; they can see any heat source, even through walls, within 30 feet of their location. After another 9 pints of blood, the blade is long and heavy enough to require two hands and is now a 1d8+1 greatsword. At this point the wielder can also activate a charm spell using the sword once per 24 hours. During this process, the voice continues to grow in strength and will offer its intelligence to help the wielder in whatever way it can. It also continually requests assistance in its resurrection.

Once the weapon has grown into a great sword, the voice begs the wielder to take the weapon to the ruins of the Elven family castle and plunge the blade into the soil at midnight under a full moon. If done, the blade dissolves into the ground, mist billows from the ground, and a powerful vampire rises from the earth. The voice has been lying to the wielder all along. It was not an elderly elf that voluntarily transferred his essence into the blade, it was the forced banishment of a chaotic vampire. The vampire demands that the character swear allegiance, otherwise he will try to kill the astonished former wielder.

Using Zahnsaugen in Your Game
The Zahnsaugen can mark the beginning of a new adventure for your players as they apply more and more blood, eventually returning to the castle ruins and facing the vampire. Or, the players can do research on the blade, learning more about the elven family, essentially attempting to unravel a mystery. Or, the Player Characters can simply use the blade as a weapon, continuing within any other adventure. The GM doesn't have to keep exact track of the blood volume applications, they can instead choose to reveal certain characteristics at naturally interesting moments in the game. However, if the Player Characters choose to investigate some of the voice's claims, they may discover some of the following information. The information is presented in ascending and accumulating accuracy and detail, as such it could be useful as a table.

1. The Elven family is not in any local records.

2. The Elven family is not in any local records, but is known, by name at least, by a local old man who recalls the name and associates it with a castle ruin, but can’t recall the location.

3. The Elven family is not in any local records, but is known, by name at least, by a local old man who recalls the name and associates it with a castle ruin, but can’t recall the location. He does, however, provide an old scroll in elven. Partially deciphered, it reads “[this part destroyed] stood against evil and fell”, but it’s an old script and translation is difficult.

4. The Elven family is not in any local records, but is known, by name at least, by a local old man who recalls the name and associates it with a castle ruin, but can’t recall the location. He does, however, provide an old scroll in elven. Deciphered, it reads “[this part destroyed] stood with evil and fell”.

Apr 5, 2014


A couple of months ago I released The Big Book of Spiders.  It's a Labyrinth Lord supplement with a bunch of spiders and spider-inspired stuff.  Since publishing, I've tried to focus on a few follow-up projects, but I haven't accomplished much substantial material.  Right now, most of the work I have accomplished is the insubstantial creative kind.  I mull over ideas and rationale.

For example, my next adventure might involve a big castle built on a cliff and over a dungeon, but I need to figure out why.  Not because of Gygaxian realism or the need for my adventures to be realistic and reasonable (because they are usually far from that), but because such a brainstorming process is often how I come up with original ideas.  Once I understand the reason behind something, I can then brainstorm other elements such as traps and monsters in a fairly straightforward and quick process.  At least, sometimes it works out that way.

I have the original "something" done.  I also have the "something else bad" fully mapped out and there are a few ideas about the "something dangerous" in the castle, but I'm drawing blanks on the "something else really bad" lurking underfoot.
Here is my thought for the next adventure.

Another reason I haven't been able to move forward is because my mind is, for some strange reason, still wrapped up with spiders.  I've been drawing spiders and thinking about some of the characters from Big Book.  I'm wondering what they're up to now and how they're dealing with the death of Vermista.  In the bigger scope of Verloren, I don't think it matters much, but maybe it's a pebble that causes a lot of eventual big waves.  Maybe.

I might just have to travel back to Verloren and check on the fallout at the Voras manor.  I'm also wondering where all the spiders have gone to.  Have the Seelessen noticed an increased arachnid presence yet?  Are more eggs hatching yet?  These are the questions bouncing around my mind that are stopping me from moving on, so maybe it's time to go back.  I keep seeing spiders in the shadows and it makes me wonder if there isn't something more to their presence than I originally thought.

I've been doing some art for a new OSR project that I am not at liberty to discuss, but it's also kept spiders on my mind.  Here are a few sketches that didn't make the cut, but may be reworked for my next project, if, indeed, I pursue an arachnid future.
I sometimes like symmetry.  However, I'm not happy with the jaw yet.

Given a pitch black background, this one might work...

I'm currently inking before shading.  Not sure I like the perspective.  I may
crop later on.

Mar 28, 2014

Ace in the Hole

I've not yet been able to cajole my wife into playing D&D.  The nerd factor is, I suspect, the primary reason for my failure.  Indeed, the nerd factor is a huge component of our hobby, but is a surprisingly rare blogging topic.  Even though nerd culture such as superhero movies, and comic books to a lesser extent, have gained mainstream acceptance, the tabletop roleplaying game remains mired in negative connotations.  Changing this will likely be a difficult and long-term endeavor, but wholly worthwhile.  In this post I provide several reasons in support of why tabletop roleplaying games are beneficial, and outline a few ideas as to making it a more socially-acceptable pastime.  In the course of this post, allow "D&D" to represent tabletop roleplaying games as a whole.

To clarify the issue by comparison, look at the game of poker.  Poker has a long history as a popular, if not masculine, game.  Card games may have began as low-class entertainment, but it grew in acceptance when aristocrats began to play.  Later on, cowboys, living on the edge of life and death, regularly played poker while chomping cigars and downing fiery shots of rye whiskey.  They would occasionally leave the card table to repel a savage attack, defeat criminal gunslingers in street duels, and impress the local amorous showgirls.  To this day, poker retains flavors of this past.  It is still common practice for men to have poker nights, often descending down into their man caves to play.

D&D is young compared to poker and similar card games.  While roleplaying games have gained world-wide popularity in its forty-some years of its existence, it has never shaken free of its nerdiness.  Even though it has shrugged off the ridiculous Satanism scare from several decades ago, the nerdiness remains attached to this day.  How can such a bond be uncoupled?

Before I attempt a plan for change, I'd like to first show that such a goal is worthwhile.  There are many potential benefits for a world in which D&D is both a popular and acceptable pastime.  D&D is inexpensive, or at the least, it can be inexpensive.  Players don't need costly equipment or lots of room.  D&D can also encourage teamwork rather than the straight-up competition of games such as a poker, football, or soccer.  Even the relationship between Game Master and player need not be adverse.

D&D gives rise to narrative and general creative synthesis.  At the end of a poker match, one player has a tangible reward.  Perhaps all players may even develop poker skills.  However, at the end of a D&D game, there is a story.  Characters are developed, histories deepened, and the players develop problem-solving and communication skills.  Some players may be inspired to write fiction after a D&D session and the game itself provides ample material.  Another player may be inspired to construct new game rules.  Still other players may begin writing new adventure modules.  The potential creative output at the end of a D&D game is far superior to that of games such as poker.

D&D brings people together in cooperation instead of competition.  One need look no further than Google+, FLAILSNAILS, and blogger networks before seeing disparate groups united under an interest in this game.  My own publications, for example, sometimes sell better in countries other than my own.

D&D is just as acceptable for middle school students as it is for middle-aged mothers.  Imagine a world in which retirement communities feature frequent D&D sessions, where elementary math teachers use the game in class to both develop math fluency and generate writing prompts.  Imagine geology classes in which student interest in D&D is the hook by which they learn geography skills.  All of this and much  more can be our future if D&D is uncoupled from unnecessary, but pervasive (and some would say perverse) negative connotations.  Imagine D&D clubs rising, once more, into, not only existence, but popularity.  Dare to imagine the prom queen passing over a quarterback and instead accompanying the president of the school's D&D club to the prom.  Perhaps laughing at propositions such as this is part of the problem.  Instead of laughing, why not work towards bringing such dreams into reality?

But how?

One way is for figureheads to spearhead a change.  More stars such as Vin Diesel may prove monumental in taking D&D out of mom's basement.  Another way is to stop apologizing for, and even acknowledging, the nerdiness.  For years when visitors saw my gaming collection in my library and asked what it was, I often started with "I know it's nerdy, but..."  I don't do that anymore, but it took time and willpower.  Now I don't hide, apologize for, or even acknowledge a nerdiness connotation.  Instead, I explain what it is and why it's fun without even a hint of apology or embarrassment.

Think about it, what is intrinsically nerdy about D&D?  Nothing!  Is it nerdy to read, remember, and perform computations with fluency?  Is it nerdy to cultivate imagination or practice problem-solving?  Is it nerdy to write fiction or develop a social network?  The primary reason that people say D&D is nerdy is because our culture has (erroneously) forced such a loaded concept.

Another way to change the connotations surrounding D&D is to take D&D out of the basement.  I'm speaking both metaphorically and literally.  I mean to play publically, to talk about it with non-gamers and to play in public places such as pubs and libraries.  By eliminating embarrassment and putting D&D more often in the public eye, the negative connotations may begin to fade.

I started this post with my wife rejecting D&D because, in large part, of the nerdiness connotations.  However, when my childhood best friend recently flew in to visit, he and I played for five hours on the kitchen table over several days.  We played in the afternoon and in the evening.  We played over breakfast and after dinner.  We played while my daughter did ABCMouse and my wife cooked.  Normally I play either in the basement or at a friend's house, i.e., away from my wife's eyes.  This time, however, not only could she not ignore her husband's pastime, but she also couldn't help herself from involvement.  She would chime in trap solutions when I thought she was tuning me out.  She would provide advice on combat tactics and would ask why I said something as a Game Master.  I even caught her reading my Game Master notes over my shoulder.  This tells me that things can change.  This suggests to me that D&D is not necessarily confined to the shackles of nerd culture.  It may be difficult and time-consuming, but D&D can become, not only socially acceptable one day, but socially advantageous!

Mar 25, 2014

A Great Game & Heavy Heart

My childhood best friend flew in from China to visit for a few days.  He also brought his eighth-grader son.  Since he and I grew up playing roleplaying games, it was only proper to roll a few die.  To that end, I got out a copy of Extra Stout and ran it via Labyrinth Lord rules.  Not only was the game a blast, but we had a chance to both reminisce about games past and show the next generation how much fun old-school games, let alone tabletop roleplaying games, can be.  I was thrilled when my friend's son asked to play again the next day (I think he may be hooked).

Even though our friendship goes back thirty-some years, I didn't pull any punches with either my friend or his son.  The first run resulted in a total party kill before they even reached the primary monastery destination.  Oh well, so goes the game.  His second run was far more successful.  Most importantly, there was a lot of laughter, a few tense moments of violence, and many mysteries solved.  My friend is a truly excellent roleplayer; he gets into character, has fun, and rolls with the punches.  Plus, he's patient when I lose my train of thought.

Later on, I took him to my regular Monday night gaming group in which we are currently playing Shadowrun 5th edition.  Even later in the evening, sitting around the fireplace in my living room and drinking beer and wine, we casually chatted about our favorite games and D&D boxed sets and not having enough time or players to run favorite adventures more often.  Oh well, so goes life.

I saw him off with a very heavy heart this morning.  I've always considered him my best friend and I already miss him terribly.

Mar 17, 2014

How I Illustrate

I enjoy making my own illustrations for my games.  It's not an ego trip, but a pleasurable activity.  The illustrations have a distinct look; they're dark and highly contrasted.  I've had a few Constant Readers ask how I create my style, so I thought I'd walk you through my process.
I start by sketching the basic skull or body.  In this case,
I want to create a close perspective of a male elf face.

I doodle and erase a lot at this stage as the features
slowly come into focus.

Then I save the sketch as a picture and layer
underneath my pen.  I also make the sketch lighter
in color, so that I can trace the contours.

Using a highlight pen set to gray with a
wide diamter, I fill in by hand.  To create
a layered shadow look, I'll go over the shading
several times.

I then simply delete the underlying sketch and add
any small details that tickle my fancy.  Another nice aspect
at this point is that I can layer in other pictures if I so desire.
I can also change the background and play around with different
shading techniques.

Mar 15, 2014

The ABCs of the OSR

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to define "OSR" within the gaming genre.  Does it mean "Old School Renaissance" or another term somewhat synonymous with Renaissance such as "Rebound", "Redo", or "Revival"?  Does it mean "Obscure Systems of Roleplaying", or perhaps "Opinionated Self-serving Retrophiles"?  Ouch, that one hurt a bit.  Sorry.  Or maybe it means "Optional Systems for Ruling" or "Ominous Satanic Rituals".  D&D is, after all, Satanic you know.  What if, instead of limiting ourselves to a three-letter acronym, we employ the entire English alphabet?  Actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea.  Come along with me on a journey through the ABCs of the OSR.

A is for "Attribute-driven mechanics".  A lot of OSR games shun long lists of skills and feats in favor of using your basic attributes to get the job done.  It's a lot simpler to understand and keep track of such a system.
B is for "blog".  Grognardia, D&D with Porn Stars, Jeff's Gameblog, and Tenkar's Tavern all show that bloggers have played a key role in OSR history.  Perhaps, even, with its development.
C is for "cartography".  Most gamers in the OSR love to make maps.  Even if they don't draw aesthetically advanced rooms, dungeons, and caverns themselves, they, at the very least, highly appreciate them.
D is for "Do It Yourself".  There is a strong streak of house-ruling and homebrewing in the OSR.  Part of it is likely derived from habits created back in them olden days of yore when our choices of roleplaying game was OD&D or... OD&D.
E is for "edition wars".  Yes, I am a veteran of a few of these nasty altercations.  I have survived, mainly because I retreat to Switzerland just as fast as my little furry hobbit feet will carry me.  OK, even if I don't participate, myself, the OSR provides a powerful counterpoint to games such as D&D 4th edition and in so doing gives itself an identity.
F is for "Flexibility".  No, I don't mean roleplaying yoga.  Well, maybe I do.  I mean the willingness to mix and match genres and sources of literature in our roleplaying games.  I mean having the ability to adopt, reject, or modify rules.  I mean creating systems that encourage gamers of (slightly) different editions to play together *cough* FLAILSNAILS *cough*.
G is for "Gary Gygax".  Period.  Oh wait, I already typed a period.  Darn.  I just ruined the effect.
H is for "Henchmen".  The concept of multiple henchman has really faded over the last few decades, but its a strong part of the OSR.  Most old school editions included henchmen rules because, well, we kind of needed them for the same reason we needed a ten-foot pole.  Darn!  There goes the "T" I was going to use, time to think of another one before I progress much further beyond...
I is for "Improvisation".  I thought about getting all hoity toity and talking about abstract concepts such as "immersion", but decided that, at our core, members of the OSR prefer unscripted adventures.  The Dragonlance games are often vilified, for this very reason.  In fact, someone who did just that is coming up next...
J is for "James Maliszewski", the once prolific author of Grognardia.  If you search "OSR RPG", you won't have to read long before you see several citations.  However you feel about the man (more on that below), you can't discount the impact he's made on the OSR.  Speaking of which, that brings me to...
K is for "Kickstarter".  It's only been around a few years, but it's made a big impact, arguably both positive and negative, on the OSR.  All you have to do is look at the fiascos of Dwimmermount, Far West, Myth & Magic, or Quantum to find a black hole of negativism sucking in an ever-widening pool of potential investors.  Just kidding about it being all bad.  A lot of great OSR materials have come out of Kickstarter including high levels of art that would have likely been impossible without it.
L is for "Labyrinth Lord".  Sure, sure, a lot of you are gonna want me to cite Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it is a great game.  I own it and love it.  However, Labyrinth Lord is the first emulator I found, printed, ran, and started publishing under.  It holds a special place in my heart and on my shelf.
M is for "megadungeon".  They don't make sense.  They're impossible to "solve".  They're challenging loops of sometimes randomly stocked rooms full of dust and rats and coppers.  But we love them.  We still love them.
N is for "never say no".  It's a basic guideline for a lot of excellent OSR GMs.  It's a common philosophical thread with old-school roots.  It's also the motto of a prostitute I once met in Las Vegas, but that's another story for another alphabet, so let's move on to...
O is for "Open Game License".  The OGL created much of the RPG landscape we currently inhabit.  Pathfinder, Swords & Wizards, and Labyrinth Lord would have never come to be without it.  At least, not as openly distributed.  Arguably, 4th edition of D&D would have been very different had not the previous edition gone open source.  The OGL has allowed yours truly to publish a few games.  See those pretty pictures on the right-hand side of my blog?  If you click on them, it will take you to RPGNow where you can buy a copy or two.  Go ahead.  Buy one.  I'll wait for you before continuing on to...
P is for "player skill", which is more important that character skill.  It's a small sentence with a lot of implications.  Think about it.
Q is for "quick character creation".  Most OSR characters are drawn up in a the same time it takes me to eat one of those small bags of Doritos.  Roll attributes, pick class/race, roll hit points, saving throws, and money.  Spend money and recalculate AC.  Done!  This doesn't mean the game, itself, is simple.  Nor does it deny complexity of character.  That comes later, through play and player skill (see P above for a refresher).
R is for "retroclone".  Labyrinth Lord, for example, is a great game released under the OGL that, not only provides a rule system similar to our favorite one from the mid 80s, but also provides a publishing umbrella under which we may share adventures and other self-published supplements.  It's a critical part of the OSR.

S is for "sandbox".  I'm not talking about Tenkar's cat's litterbox, though some may say my games resemble such.  By "sandbox" I refer to the inverse of a scripted railroad style of gameplay.  Sandbox vs. Railroad is a classic OSR topic and kind of like the difference between free will and determinism in philosophy.  Sandbox style usually means more improvisation than preparation and more character-driven story than GM-imposed narrative.

T is for "TPK", which stands for "Total Party Kill".  Yeah.  It means just what it says.  All.  Characters.  Killed.  In the OSR, this is an acceptable possible outcome.  Older editions of our favorite fantasy game had a far steeper learning curve than typical games of the current generation.  It was more of a learning wall, actually.  A horrific wall of death against which you repeatedly hurled your henchmen and characters until you either figured out a way through, lucked into a critical hit, or simply gave up.  Maybe I could have illustrated a similar "T" concept with Tomb of Horrors.  Oh well, too late. Hang with me, I'm nearly done.

U is for "unbalanced."  First level elves are too powerful?  High-level wizards are impossible to destroy?  Oh well.  Deal with it.  We in the OSR prefer it.  Or, at the very least, are less concerned with gameplay balance or issues of mathematical fairness in probability.

V is for "Vancian spellcasting".  Gary Gygax may have drawn inspiration from the fantasy author Jack Vance when he and his Lake Geneva friends ruled that a spell, once cast, was gone until recharged/memorized again.  Regardless of later editions and other games altering this basic tenet, most OSR games hold firmly to this rule.

W is for "warrior", which is the reason we started playing in the first place.  It doesn't matter if your ideal race is Dwarf, Elf, or Orc.  I don't care if you disdain the barbarian class and think all Paladins are, as the Gencon t-shirt claims, douchebags (besides, the jury is still deliberating that one).  We all fight against obliteration, nihilism, and the nothingness that is to come after our last breath.  We all battle bad habits and corrupt bureaucracies.  We daily engage in a world in which we dream of unsheathing our sword or withdrawing our wands from the folds of our cloaks and severing the Gordian Knot of life's conundrums... whoa, what just happened?  What was I talking about and why am I suddenly wading through manure?  Oh, that's right, I wanted to talk to you about the letter...

X is for "XP".  As in "experience points".  As in one of the two, if not the, main reward systems built into the game.  Sure, we delve deep into dark dungeons, facing dangers and dastardly devils for the intrinsic fun of it, but we also do it for the loot and the XP.  This allows us to develop our characters and measure progress.  In some perspectives XP and coinage are one in the same.

Y is for "you".  The first person.  The most important person.  For many games and books, the fourth wall is as impenetrable as a Barrier spell cast by a 15th level wizard.  In the OSR, however, the fourth wall is paper thin and tears on a breeze.  I regularly choose it over Charmin in my house.  It's too bad that "Y" isn't the last letter of the alphabet because you are the most important part of the game.  You are the reader.  You are the warrior.  You are the sum of all creative forces focused into a single individual.  It doesn't get much headier than that, does it, Constant Reader?

Z is for "Zeb Cook".  He was the lead designer for 2nd edition; the first edition not written directly by Gygax.  Yes, yes, other authors had created official, canonical publications, but Zeb's work marks a continuation (some may even be so bold as to suggest "evolution") of the rule system with a new breed of designers, if not new generation altogether.  Zeb worked on Dragon magazine and wrote many influential early modules before picking up the lead design job.  Whether or not you include 2e in the OSR cannon, it is an undoubtedly important milestone in its history and wholly worthy of inclusion here.

Now you know your ABCs.  It's been a fun and sometimes bumpy ride.  I hope you find that the path was as much fun as the destination.  I'm sure you've got all kinds of ideas about alternate nouns for letters and missed opportunities.  If so, feel free to share them here.  Better yet, write your own ABCs and be sure to send me a link.  I'd love to read 'em.  But for now, I'm going to go upstairs and wake my daughter.  My wife isn't feeling well, so I thought I'd take my little girl on a daddy/daughter trip today and get out of the house for a while.  I'm thinking about going to my local Half Price Books store and checking out the roleplaying section.  You never know what you'll find there.  I'll probably buy my daughter some books and a stuffed animal.  Maybe even a DVD, but mostly books.  I like books.

Feb 26, 2014

New Product!

I'm excited to announce the release of my next fantasy supplement!  It's called The Big Book of Spiders.  Including the cover and copyright information, it's 32 pages in length.  The Big Book of Spiders is written for Labyrinth Lord rules, but is easily a resource for any edition of your favorite fantasy role playing game.  Here's what you get:
  • More than 30 original illustrations!
  • 24 fully-detailed spiders for your game!
  • Ready-to-play adventure full of spiders and spider gear!
  • 5 spider-based spells and equipment!
  • A fully-detailed new playable character race!
  • A spider-building spell that can create over 12,000 unique spiders!
  • RPG and spider trivia!
  • Interwoven fiction narrative!
  • More than 10 Non Player Characters!
The Big Book of Spiders is available in PDF format from RPGNow for $3.99 and in booklet print format for $4.99 (this price includes shipping to anywhere in North America, Europe, or Australia).  Below is a video flip-through that provides a complete overview of the product.  Even if you don't buy a copy, would you please consider posting a link or helping me get the word out?  Any money I collect is immediately reinvested into the OSR community.

Purchase a print copy of The Big Book of Spiders through Paypal by clicking the "Buy Now" button below: