A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Carcosa, 704 Yards at a Time

Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer is the adventure that is included within Carcosa. The adventure presents a detailed look at Hex 2005, outlining several places within the hex that could be a source of adventure. If you wanted to make something like this yourself, but weren’t sure where to start, Doyle Tavener has you covered. Many years ago he started writing a guide for randomly generating these sorts of detailed hex maps. I thought it was a shame his work was languishing on a long dead thread on ODD74, and decided to republish it with some nicer formatting. This version has been updated by Doyle, based on running a campaign set in Carcosa recently.

Generation of Detailed Carcosa Hex Maps by Doyle Tavener


Le Chaudron Chromatique

Cedric P’s blog Le Chaudron Chromatique is full of amazing art. There is so much great stuff i’m not even sure what to point out. Their most recent post was a lovely illustration of the Marsh Enchantress. An earlier favourite of mine was this posse of fungus monsters. There’s also the occasional post full of DIY D&D nerdism. Most recently Cedric reimagined Gnolls as Hammer Goats. This blog is great: check it out.


Review: Thulian Echoes

Zak from D&D with Pornstars suggested another way to use [The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time] that would work quite well: “Like Tomb of Horrors, it could be considered a ‘go in, get killed, make a new PC, act with metagame knowledge, do it right this time’ situation.” To take this idea a little further, you could have characters killed during the course of the adventure simply wake up again somewhere in the valley. This would keep with the spirit of the module and makes a lot of the screw-you traps seem less harsh. — A footnote to my review of The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time

Thulian Echoes is the latest adventure Lamentations of the Flame Princess, written by Canada’s own Zzarchov Kowolski. The adventure takes place on an island, its central feature a crazy death-trap dungeon. In an attempt to make the death-trap dungeon less of a screw job, Thulian Echoes is meant to be played through twice by the same set of players. The second play through will hopefully be more successful than the first, as players will know the lay of the land.

Why would players run through the same adventure twice? The central conceit of the module is that the characters find a journal outlining the travels of a band of adventures who all (probably) died horrible deaths within the island’s dungeon thousands of years ago. Assuming players decide to investigate this mysterious dungeon they are given pre-generated characters and play through the events of the journal. It’s the D&D equivalent of a flashback in a movie, I suppose.

The dungeon itself is a weird small complex created by a wizard—of course. There are lots of moving parts and puzzles for the characters to mess around with. There are plenty of ways for player characters to die. A giant machine is central to the whole dungeon, and will likely be a source of fun, confusion, or death for the players. A passage from the main dungeon leads to an underground wilderness that the players may choose to explore as well. This portion of the dungeon is run completely abstractly: there are no maps. There is a destination the players can reach if they venture ‘downwards’, their route to this place will lead them to have several random encounters. This is a pretty simple way to do an exploration of a vast cave system. It could probably be fleshed out more if your players were into fighting Devolved Elder Things. Another passage leads to the wizard’s laboratory and sanctum, where the players may encounter the wizard himself.

Another layer of twists make the second play through hopefully as fun as the first. The present day setting will change based on what the players do during their flashback adventure. I was reminded of Chrononauts a little bit: if this happens and that happens then in the future the world is run by dinosaurs. (Well not quite, but that’s the general idea.) The adventure presents each named location as it exists in the past. This is then often followed by a section for Consequences, which lists what the things the players might trigger in the past, and Present Era, which lists what the location may look like in the present day. I’m curious how tricky all of this stuff is to keep track of during a game session. I suspect a DM would want to split up the past and present run-throughs with a short break at the very least. This is probably an adventure that works best printed out and marked up as the game progresses.

Art is by Kelvin Green, who has illustrated several LotFP modules (including his own). He has a cartoony style that is often at odds with the images being depicted. This module isn’t particularly “gross” as LotFP modules go. I enjoyed all the artwork. The cartography is by Jason Thompson, notable for doing all those cute map walkthroughs of famous D&D modules. (I actually would have loved if the official map for the module was such a walkthrough, but I suspect that wouldn’t work printed in an A5 book. Those drawings are massive.)

Thulian Echoes is good. I am a fan of the stuff Zzarchov Kowolski puts out. He’s a creative fellow, and this adventure is a good example of that. It’s available as a PDF and is well worth checking out. (If you wanted it in print you missed the boat: it was a bonus during the LotFP referee book kickstarter.) His last module for LotFP, Scenic Dunnsmouth is also excellent.


D&D Player's Handbook: Races and Classes

The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook takes the Basic D&D rule book Wizards of the Coast has made available online for free and expands upon it in both breadth and depth. The core rules for the game as presented in the free PDF are unchanged. What you are paying for is more of everything else: more races, more classes, more spells, more backgrounds, and options like feats and multiclassing. People who find the Basic game a bit lacking may enjoy all the additions to the game found in the Player’s Handbook.

Basic D&D includes the 4 races found in Original Dungeons and Dragons: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. The Player’s Handbook adds 4 more races, and a few sub races. Dragonborn are the first new race. When I played 4th Edition everyone wanted to be a Dragonborn: our group included two, and without fail there was always a little kid playing a Dragonborn at D&D Encounters. In the old-school D&D scene they seem to be viewed as the Jar-Jar Binks of playable races. I’m not sure how they are presented here will change that sentiment. The other new races are Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves and Tieflings. The Drow are included as a new sub-race for Elves, presumably so everyone can play Drizzt Do’Urden. With the exception of Half-Elves, which feel like more of the same, the other races are distinct enough to be interesting additions to the game. They are similar enough to how they have been presented in earlier editions of the game to be instantly recognizable to old players. Whether you want to use them all depends on how Mos Eisley you like your D&D.

There are 12 classes in the Player’s Handbook, 8 more than presented in the core rules. The new classes are the Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and Warlock. Unlike 4th Edition, the classes do for the most part feel quite different from one another. They all generally have some weird quirk or feature unique to them. Many of the classes overlap in their additional features. The Paladin, Fighter, or Cleric can all be used to model similar character archetypes, so the choice of which to use will probably come down to what features of those classes you are most interested in exploring: each would play quite differently.

The classes in 5th Edition all begin for the most part with a handful of things a new player needs to worry about. Each time a new level is gained there may be another new feature that the player can now use. Each class generally has at least two paths one can take when they reach 3rd level that further specialize the class along some theme. These specializations are also used in a few cases to split classes up into an easy mode and a hard mode. For example, in Basic D&D Fighters only have the option of choosing the Champion martial archetype when they reach 3rd level. The Champion has very straight forward features and don’t really make the class more complex as you gain levels. In the Player’s Handbook there are two more choices: the Battle Master and the Eldritch Knight. The Battle Master learns maneuvers as the character levels up, and has a pool of dice that can be spent to execute those maneuvers.1 This would probably be a good choice for someone who likes playing fighters, but also wants to play a character with a lot of moving parts. The Eldritch Knight is a Fighter crossed with a Wizard. This would be a better choice for someone who is interested in creating the sort of magic wielding fighter they might have read about it in a book.

There are three different spell casting classes: Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerers, and each has a different vibe, and slightly different mechanics around spell casting. Wizards have spell slots, and can learn an unlimited number of spells. Sorcerers have a finite number of spells they can learn, but have spell points they can spend to augment the traditional casting system of 5e. Warlocks also learn a finite number of spells, but then have Warlock invocation and features related to the diabolic pact that grants them their powers.

Paladins, Rangers, Bards and Druids can all cast spells as part of their core class features. As mentioned above, Fighters can become Eldritch Knights which grants them access to magic. Similarly, Rogues can become Arcane Tricksters. So, with the exception of Monks every single class can cast magic spells without even needing to resort to multi-classing. I’m not sure i’m a fan of that: it seems like there is way too much magic all over the place. I assume this is to allow for a wider variety of characters without requiring the plethora of classes found in 4th Edition.

I enjoy playing OD&D where there are only a handful of classes, and if you want to be a Ranger you just make a fighter and give him a bow. That’s going to feel lacking for many people.2 With 5th Edition, characters are far more complex than they were in earlier editions of the game, but are much more straight forward than those found in later iterations. I think Wizards of the Coast has done a good job here. The complexity of the character classes increases over time, slowly, for most classes, and there are several classes that are clearly meant to be played by new players—like those presented in the basic rules

In the old-school scene you often find people sharing their home brew character classes. I think 5th Edition has enough breadth you can probably cover all sorts of character types simply by using the Player’s Handbook by the book. Where I suspect we will see creative efforts directed is making new races and sub races, and making new backgrounds—which probably deserve their own post.

  1. This is actually similar to how the Fighter was presented in one of the earlier play test packets. The most notable change (and improvement) is that the manoeuvres as written now aren’t so reliant on the use of a grid in combat.

  2. Based on how OD&D grew with each new booklet, playing just four classes got boring for players at the time as well.


The Art of the Player's Handbook

The Warrior

Basic D&D is more or less all I wanted in terms of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s nice and simple. Still, I wanted to give Mike Mearls and his team a high five for all the work they have done so I picked up a copy of the new Players Handbook yesterday. One aspect of the book really jumped out at me right away: damn there is a lot of art in this thing.

The team behind 5th Edition must have blown a sizable portion of their budget on art. This thing is overflowing with artwork. It’s rare to go more than a handful of pages before hitting a painting. Everything is in full colour. There is a bit too much of that “single character posing” artwork that seems to be most common in new RPG books, but on the whole I like this book’s art. I wish they had credited which artists painted which pictures. Maybe that’ll be something that ends up online, one day.

One nice change of pace compared to RPGs books of yore: women seem to be represented in the art more or less equally. In fact, there might be more girls than boys in this book. There’s also much more variety in terms of how people are represented in general. Suck it, White dudes in armour: we’re coming for you!

How was this feat achieved?

Hire lots of women. And hire gay dudes. And hire every kind of person because they make a talented version of every kind of person. They exist.

That is the sole and only answer that is fair and that will get us good work while sacrificing neither of the real priorities here.

Hire women (50%!) and let them do whatever they want. Don’t hire men and tell them to make work that does not appeal to them. Don’t hire a writer and ask him to write a world he will not want to play in. Hire a woman and ask her to do whatever.

Zak Smith has a great blog post about this (obvious?) idea from a couple years ago that’s worth re-reading. Unless i’m bad at guessing gender, it looks like 4 out of the 6 art directors for this book were women. I can’t imagine any other route to get to this book and its art that doesn’t involve women being directly involved in its production.

This is good.


Magic Arrows

Magic Arrows have a +1 chance of hitting their target and do additional damage. Thus, a Magic Arrow normally does from 2-7 points of damage when it hits. — Original Dungeons and Dragons: Monsters and Treasure,

If your D&D game is full of boring magical arrows this is easy to remedy. Magical arrows are a much more prominent feature of the Hindu epics than they seem to be in Western fantasy literature. Most of the battles in the Mahabharata are fought on chariots, the heroes shooting arrows they summon from the heavens at one another. You don’t need to read these epic poems looking for examples to pull out for your game: the good people at Wikipedia have done some of that work for you. For example:

[The Narayanastra] would create showers of arrows and discs. The astra’s power would increase with the resistance offered to it. This weapon had to be obtained from Vishnu directly, and could be used only once. If the user were to attempt invoking it a second time, it would rebound on him, and possibly, his troops.

That’s a little bit more interesting, no?

The greatest weapon in the Mahabharata is the Vasavi Shakti / Naikartana, gifted to Karna by the god Indra, which could kill any one foe. He is goaded into using it against the half-demon Ghatotkacha who is terrorizing the Kaurava army. This prevents him from using it against his biggest foe, Arjuna.

Inflamed with rage like a wrathful lion and unable to brook the assaults of the Rakshasa, Karna took up that foremost of victory-giving and invincible darts, desirous of compassing the destruction of Ghatotkacha. Indeed, that dart, O king, which he had kept and adored for years for (achieving) the slaughter of Pandu’s son in battle, that foremost of darts which Sakra himself had given to the Suta’s son in exchange for the latter’s ear-rings, that blazing and terrible missile twined with strings and which seemed to thirst for blood, that fierce weapon which looked like the very tongue of the Destroyer or the sister of Death himself, that terrible and effulgent dart, Naikartana, was now hurled at the Rakshasa. — The Mahabharata: Ghatotkacha-badha Parva

That’s a mother fucking magical arrow.


Review: Deep Carbon Observatory

Deep Carbon Observatory is an adventure by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. I bought it the day it was announced because it’s an adventure by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. I’ve been reading it on and off while also reading the adventure found in the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set. The contrast between the two adventures is so stark.

Gus has written a thorough review of the nuts and bolts of the module. My opinions more or less mirror his so I’m not sure it’s worth repeating them in too much detail. Instead I will say this one thing: Deep Carbon Observatory is wonderfully written.

The sight is without sound and stinks like an airless tomb burning in the light of an unwanted sun. But, in the silence, movement worms. The whole place has the feel of a terrible revealing. Like a black sheet pulled back from a naked corpse.

Deep Carbon Observatory is thoroughly unrelenting its bleakness. There is a sadness that permeates the whole work. The players march towards the observatory passing all sorts of horror on their way.

The Roc’s bowed wings make a beautiful but alien bridge across the churning water. The body of the bird twitches slightly, devoured by whatever lies beneath. Looking down, you see leeches, sized like men, feeding on the bird. Not yet fully dead its head lolls half sunken and gasps. The ‘bridge’ will be consumed in d4 hours. It may be possible to save the Roc. It will not be grateful if you do.

So much of the adventure makes me feel uncomfortable: there is this dread that builds and builds as you move from page to page in the book. These little vignettes all do a great job of showing the players the terrible aftermath of the flood, hopefully filling them with that same sort of dread as they play. The adventure feels like it would be at home in a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign.

Things don’t get better when you make it to the Underdark.

Hidden under the dirt of the far wall are slave survival spells in a simple tongue, decipherable by any mage. All the spells count as level one, are not very powerful and can be cast without being noticed: Reduce Scars. Lessen Pain. Minimise Thirst. Hide Sorrow. Avoid Notice. Ease Grief.

Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.

I own no other adventure like this one: I liked it a lot.


D&D 5th Edition

I took a particularly long lunch today to go and pick up the new D&D Starter Set.1 I have been looking forward to grabbing it for quite some time now. It’s hard to believe that they announced 5th Edition over two years ago now. The boxed set contains the core rules you need to play the game, and an adventure that helps set the tone for the new edition and hopefully helps teach people how to DM a game. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, so I’m thinking i’ll try and run this one.2

Today also saw the release of the first version of the Basic rules for 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast decided to publish a subset of the players handbook for free, online as a PDF. What was particularly amazing is that the PDF isn’t behind some weird login form or any other nonsense. It’s just there for anyone who wants it. What’s not to love about that?

As I’ve mention before, I am pretty hyped about 5th Edition. They are off to a good start.

  1. It’s my birthday, so that seems fair. How many birthdays am I going to enjoy where there is some crazy D&D mega-event going on?

  2. Derek from Dungeons’ Master has a much better review of the starter set. (Of course he does.)


Review: 4th Edition D&D

My friends and I played in a 4th Edition campaign that ran for 3 years, give or take. Once it came to a close I continued playing 4th Edition D&D at the Encounters public-play events organized by Wizards of the Coast. I thought I should write up my thoughts on 4th Edition as it quietly makes room for the 5th Edition of D&D.

When my friends and I started our 4th Edition game we had six players: two were brand new to role playing games, while four including myself had played previous versions of D&D. I don’t think any of us had played 3rd edition—I certainly hadn’t. Even those of us who were experienced gamers hadn’t played a game since high school—that was a long time ago.

When we first started playing 4th Edition I felt like the game had been greatly simplified. Pretty much any situation is decided by trying to roll as high as you can on a 20-sided dice. Situations are assigned difficulty classes (DCs), a number that needs to be beat on the roll of a d20, that indicates how tricky a task is to accomplish. Combat also works this way too. Armour is essentially a difficulty class as well. To hit someone in plate mail you need to beat their AC of 18 when you roll a d20 and add your bonuses. That’s right, no more negative AC! At first blush this made explaining the rules of the game simple: if you want to do anything contentious you just roll a d20. Still, initial gaming sessions were fairly slow going. Eventually it became clear that while some rule changes simplified the game, others added levels of complexity that didn’t exist before.

Character creation is a slow going process in 4th Edition. There are powers and feats to worry about, and lots of bonuses to track. I don’t know if I really noticed how much slower it was the first time I made my character: it was fun and exciting to be playing D&D again. After having to make characters several times for D&D Encounters that charm quickly wore off. I find making a 4th Edition character a giant pain in the ass without the 4th Edition character builder. Even with that tool making a new character takes way longer than I want it to. There is something refreshing about making a character for one of the older editions of the game. My generator spits one out in seconds, but doing it by hand is still quick. (The only real place for analysis paralysis is buying equipment.)

Combat, which felt a lot more open ended and free form in earlier rule books, had become a fair bit more structured in the new rule books. The use of miniatures is assumed, making the game feel a bit like Warhammer. There is a strong tactical combat element to D&D 4e. In my mind this is the biggest plus and minus of the edition. If you are not into the whole ‘combat as chess’ thing you’re going to find playing 4th Edition frustrating. Most gaming sessions with my friends would be spent slogging through combat. We might get through a couple fights in between some exploration on a given gaming night. Combat in 4th Edition is slow going at early levels, and only gets slower as characters level up. In my mind having such clear cut powers also discourages creative play. These explicit “moves” feel stifling. For each situation in combat there is often an optimal choice when it comes to doing damage or providing support. It’s rarely the case that going off script is that optimal choice.

Teaching someone how to play D&D using the 4th Edition rules is trickier than it needs to be because the rules for combat are so complex and nuanced. People need to think about combat advantage and flanking and all sorts of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to think about when they signed up to play pretend. That’s not to say this sort of thing doesn’t exist in older editions of the game, it’s just managed in a simpler loosey-goosey way. Combat comes up often enough in most games of D&D that this is problematic.

Eventually the warts in the game are all you see. I liked playing 4e with my friends, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just playing 2nd Edition, which we had grown up with. Of course, we’d probably not have started playing D&D again out of the blue if not for the new edition. For that reason alone I will always have a soft spot for 4th Edition: it’s what got me back into D&D.

Public-play games transitioned to play testing D&D Next, and on my own time I shifted to playing Original D&D. Both variations of the game felt like an improvement over 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks to have addressed my big complaints with 4th Edition: combat is much simpler and faster, and character creation is much simpler. 5th Edition takes the d20 rules from 4th Edition and simplifies them further. Depending on what bits and pieces from the play test they turn into 5th Edition, it may turn out to be the easiest version of D&D to teach and learn. I’m really looking forward to 5th Edition.


The Spirit of the Rules

People discuss playing OD&D ‘by the book’ online, though I’m not completely sure what that means. There are so many holes in the rule books that any attempt to avoid “making stuff up” is doomed to fail. Original Dungeons and Dragons is more of a framework to build your own fantasy RPG than an RPG, as we might understand one today, in its own right. This laissez-faire attitude towards spelling everything out can be seen in the earlier source material for OD&D, Chainmail:

These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you can form a game that suits you. It is a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter. — Chainmail, pg 8.

Making the game your own seems to have been a core tenant of early versions of role playing games that starts to get lost with AD&D. Gygax seems to have an about face when it comes to playing D&D the official way. It’s possible this comes out of a need for consistent rules for tournament games, or annoyance at people making up dumb rules and telling him about them in the letters sent to Dragon magazine.

One of the biggest differences between what one might call old-school and new-school gaming probably hinges on how you feel about house rules and a poorly spelled out ruleset. 3rd and 4th Edition are notable in just how verbose and exacting they are: very little of the core elements of the game are left up to the DMs discretion. Some people appreciate that with 3rd and 4th Edition their gaming experience will likely be consistent, at least with respect to the rules.

I’ve come to really enjoy the variety that comes out of playing old-school D&D. Everyone has their own rules for this and that. I enjoy all the subtle differences.