Friday, March 25, 2016

One Of Those Posts Where I Talk About "The Future"

I feel like, periodically, every blogger I know posts one of these posts where they talk about how it's time to make some changes and do some things differently. Sometimes they get really excited about these changes and then never follow through. Well, I feel like I see that a lot at least.

Circumstances have encouraged me to rethink how I go about approaching the Dispatches From Kickassistan.

Used to be, this blog was my chief outlet for gaming-related thought. Two years ago, this ceased to be the truth when +Donn Stroud & I started up +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast. Turns out, lots of the same folks who read DFK -- but not everyone -- also listen to DSR, which is pretty cool. Over these past two years, I've become more and more exposed to the gaming podcasting community, the YouTube gaming community and all sorts of other facets of the gaming scene online. Some of it is awesome, much more of it is utter crap.

DSR has been doing more and more stuff through our ( and YouTube (, which has involved a lot of learning, too, and has been a lot of fun. We've got a Patreon campaign ( that takes up some time as well, but that's been pretty easy to get along with.

But you probably know all that, right? Because, if my "research" of what's going on with the interconnectedness between DSR and DFK has taught me anything it's that if you read this blog, you probably listen to the podcast. I appreciate that.

Posts made here on the ol' blog typically are of one of two types. First, there's new content, shit I actually made. The "current" series of posts on "This Old-Module-Ing" B5: Horror on the Hill is an example of this. I like to make stuff. This blog is a great place for that. Second, there's commentary. Times when I talk about my opinions on a thing like my last post (the one where I talk about running Palladium's TMNTOS system). Sometimes these are reviews, but that's rare. In fact, I don't think I ever do reviews, despite the fact that other folks have called some of my commentary a review; rather, I feel like I talk about my experiences with a product (I have intense respect for folks who actually do reviews; what I do cannot measure up since I'm easily derailed by talking about my experiences rather than just giving the facts).

The statement that follows is by no means a commitment and by no means a great pronouncement of the Way Things Shall Be. Understand that. Since all of this is stuff being done by folks with lives and real concerns and things that Actually Matter, everything is subject to change at a moment's notice, right?

Here's the plan: I'd like to keep DFK as a repository for the first type of post (new content) and move the second type of post (commentary) on to DSR's YouTube channel where it could be better served in video format.

Part of the reason that I want to move the commentary to YouTube is that nearly every video I can find on YouTube that pertains to rpg gaming is either about shitty mainstream games (or containing shitty mainstream opinions) or is by Adam Koebel. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I feel like continuing to keep the commentary posts here on DFK is sort of just shouting into an echo chamber; you're probably here because you already agree with me, and that's only getting us so far. Rather, I feel like it makes sense to do with my own commentary what Donn and I are doing with DSR: get these thoughts out where they're like to do something. Not necessarily change anyone's mind (I'm not here to give you an opinion), but at least shake things up a bit. If I look back at the last two years of the DSR podcast, the thing I'm most proud of is the times when we've stirred shit, tackled tough issues and gone against the grain of what popular opinion suggests is the right way forward, which seems to be the same thing I do when I write commentary.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm a controversial figure. Far from it. I'm not a polarizing sort of person (other than the "I like that guy" vs. "I hate that guy" pole).

Rather, I'm the sort of person who spends an awful lot of time gaming outside the mainstream of gaming, cares a lot about what I've found there, and enjoys spreading that fun as far as I can. The YouTube community needs another mainstream vlogger like it needs another stupid cat video (which is to say "not at all, but it's going to get it anyway") and the DFK echo chamber needs my opinion about as much. Why not try to stir shit up on the place where we basically get same old same old taken as read?

There you have it. That's what I'm going to try to do. I think. We'll see.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Thoughts on Running One of the Fiddly-er Old School Systems

This past Sunday, I ran the second session of +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast's "Drink Spin Run Actually Plays" live stream where we played Palladium's 1986 classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness RPG. Continuing problems with our Twitch feed aside (I apparently have no idea how to get sound to our Twitch feed anymore), we had an awesome session that made me realize a few things about (a) how Palladium games actually work and (b) how my DMing has changed in regards to success and failure.

TMNTOS Does Martial Arts Really Well

I used to think of Palladium's hand to hand combat system as being really clunky and fiddly. With strikes, parries and dodges along with maneuvers and stuff they don't actually ever explain in the rules (as far as I can see), I thought of Palladium combat as a bit of a mess. What I wasn't seeing is that, in TMNTOS and Palladium's other games, combat is less "roll to hit AC" and is more of contested "I roll to hit against your roll to dodge." Add to that tracking actions and determining whether someone gets automatic parries that don't use up an action and whether their dodges use up actions and stuff like that and now you're looking at something that seems far too complicated for my "fewer rules, more play time" brain.


Because you knew there would be a "however."

In play on Sunday, as we were rolling to strike and then to parry and to strike and to parry yadda yadda yadda, we started to think about what that flow of combat looked like. Sure, the lowbie mooks with tranq guns did their jobs: they showed up, got off some pot shots then got killed. But the big bad muscle man who killed the Krav Maga Byker Lionz's mentor? He was a fight worthy of an awesome action movie. Punch! Block! Kick! Block! Punch punch block! The guy hit like a truck, and the players were glad for their automatic parries and did everything they could to use up some of the villain's actions on dodges (because while there are automatic dodges in other Palladium games, there aren't in old school TMNTOS).

Though the Krav Maga Byker Lionz left the battle bruised and battered (The Slab was in only slightly worse shape), they walked away with the feeling of being action movie badasses, like a cross between John McClane & Jet Li.

Adam Learns to "Fail Forward"

I've been experimenting with the "fail forward" concept of a lot of story games for awhile now. I don't like the idea that skill use in games should be a simple, binary, "succeed or fail" result. I get that it's simple, I get that it's easy, I get that we're almost hardcoded to understand "yes" and "no" and to look askance at "maybe" or "kinda." But in my experience, we get "maybe" or "kinda" far more often than a cut & dried "yes" or "no" and, if anything "maybe" and "kinda" produce far more interesting result.

Take the following situation: King Louis of the Krav Maga Byker Lionz is driving the van, trying to get away from the police after the shoot-out & fight with the Slab and his minions. "Roll Pilot: Truck!" What happens if he succeeds? "Yes, you successfully drove the van?" Nope, that's dumb. What if he fails? "You cannot drive the van now?" That's even dumber.

I'm pretty sure that most folks reading this will have made the conceptual leap to only roll for a skill when it's reasonable or necessary. You don't roll Pilot: Truck to start the van, or to pull out of a parking space, or even to drive down the street; you roll it when you're in a police chase and you're about to pull off a maneuver.

That makes sense. That's what every DM worth his salt is already working on doing if not doing already. The thing is, I usually just stop there. The player tells me the cool thing he's going to do to get out of the situation, overcome the obstacle, pull off that sweet maneuver, whatever, then we roll dice and he did it or he didn't as the dice tell us.

Failure here is pretty boring. You just don't do the thing. It's far more interesting, however, to have done the thing, but pay a price for it. Maybe you pulled off that tricky driving maneuver, but now you're leaking oil or gas and now you've got to make a hard choice about how hard to push the van before you have to ditch or ruin it. Maybe you blow a tire and are spewing sparks and the cops can find you easier because you're making a spectacle of yourself.

The concept of "failing forward" as most folks presented it didn't make a lot of sense to me because they seemed to place the failure on the character side, rather than the dice side, of the action. Really, the "failure" is a "failure to roll the way you wanted to" which only means that things don't go the way the player wanted them to. The player is stating the "goal state," and the failure on a dice result is merely telling us that the "goal state" hasn't been attained, which can easily mean that the "goal state" has been muddied with all sorts of stuff that wasn't accounted for the first time around. This is the "forward" part of the "failure:" rather than simply indicate that a character doesn't do a thing, it's often a more interesting choice to complicate the waters and introduce new things that weren't there before, to give the players more, new and interesting things to react to.

Palladium Is Old School

I'm really not a fan of folks who say "OSR is this" or "OSR is that." Those rabid 1e fans (for example) who think that OSR is only 1e really irk me and bore me with their interpretation of old school. In order for the OSR to be interesting to me at all, the "old school" part needs to refer to the old school-i-ness" of games and what that means for the way they are played rather than reference any specific rule set, modern or old. Is DCC not OSR because it's not 1e or BX? If so, fuck the OSR, it's stupid. If Marvel Super Heroes is OSR because of the way it approaches the game, then fuck yes, OSR.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Pre-GaryCon Update

Yeah, I know I've sort of let the B5 posts fall off. I really mean to get back to this. I have a post about cavemen half-way finished (yes, yes, I know I can just finish it off but it led to some research that I hope will bear some really interesting fruit), and I still want to talk more about the witches, so there's definitely more coming.

However, it's GaryCon time around these parts.

That means a few things. 

First, it means that I'm rushing to get every order of the Metal Gods zine and Black Sun Deathcrawl that I'm delinquent on out the door in the next few days. We even opened up BSDC to a few more sales (I found 20 "reserve copies" I had on hand and made those available for sale) in anticipation of the 3rd printing (absolutely no difference between the 1st through 3rd printing as far as I know). Once that's all done, I'm going to start implementing a new strategy for keeping better track of orders and how many copies of zines I have on hand to hopefully tighten a few loopholes in my attention span that some things seem to fall through.

But that's not what you came for, is it? You wanted to hear about GaryCon before GaryCon is GaryCon, right? Cool, 'cause that's what I'm here for.

This year, the Muszkiewicz family hope to leave our fair city of Ypsilanti, MI, at the crack of 8a. We'll be accompanied by our friend +Brooke Schuette (who's totally +Kathryn Muszkiewicz's "mini me," even though neither will admit it) to help Katie & I keep an eye on Stan during stuff. Brooke was one of my original Quasquetherion players and even was part of the Iron Coast crew for a time and is really excited to hit up her first gaming convention. 

After stopping in Chicago for lunch (because), we plan on getting to the Grand Geneva in the mid afternoon, giving us time to unpack, unwind and maybe go for a swim before the obligatory "meet up with everyone at the bar" thing that happens every year on Wednesday. If you're going to be there, stop by and say howdy. I'll be the "hulking Pole" with the baby. 

The only event that I have planned -- as in "on the books" -- is the podcasting seminar that takes place some time on Thursday. I should really find out exactly when that is. I'll be repping +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast despite being the more abrasive of the show's hosts. Apparently, there will be a happy hour event after this, too. So, good stuff. Let's hope they have good beer on tap. 

The only "off the books" thing I have planned is co-DMing the Saturday night DCC "DougKon" nonsense with +Doug Kovacs and other folks. I'm sure I'll get roped into running stuff other nights, but this is the only night that running shit is a lock, and here's why: Last year, +Jobe Bittman lamented to me that we just kept playing the same games over and over. We play DCC every night. We might play Metamorphosis Alpha during the day. That's fine and all, but there are so many other goddamn games out there  that get neglected. At a convention, you've got this ready and willing collection of folks who show up to this specific gaming convention precisely because they're amenable to playing disparate games, particularly old school ones. Last year, we managed to get in some Traveller as run by the ever-awesome +Todd Bunn, but other than that, it was pretty much just DCC & MA. 

It's time to get some different shit in.

I talked to Jobe about what he wants to run/play, and compared it to my own list. There's not a lot of overlap, but there is some. Some of the overlap, though, was of a "if you run that, I will play," variety. Jobe plans on running Rolemaster at some point, now, which is pretty cool. +Jason Hobbs (or, if you prefer, "Scott Hubbs") also requested some games, and I liked his requests, so they're on my list of "yeah, I can run that" stuff. 

Without any further ado, here's the stuff that I'll have "on deck" and gtg at a moment's notice:
  • +Pearce Shea's excellent awesome adventure "In The Woods" for his Monsterparts RPG. You're kids at camp and everything gets all Silent Hill/creepy-ass fairytale/horror movie on you. Deal. Survive. Solve mysteries and uncover secrets.
  • Beyond The Wall is quickly becoming my "man, I really want to play X" game. Quick but flavorful set up, rules that make sense and a fast way to turn "maybe it's like this" into an adventure. 
  • Dwimmermount. Hobbs requested that I run this classic. I'm not sure what system (probably Delving Deeper or Whitehack for simplicity), but I ran this as an "off night" game when I was running my Cradle of Sin DCC RPG campaign a year or two ago (two years? Jeez!) and it was a lot of fun and I ended up building myself a little Dwimmermount tool kit that I should probably talk about in a future post.
  • Quasquetherion. My B1 hack that will not die! I ran this at GenCon 2014 and U Con 2015 and it was a hit both times, building on my successes of running this as a home campaign. This session could be either Whitehack of Delving Deeper, but it definitely needs to be an OD&D-ish game. 
Other stuff I want to play or run:
  • +Dan Domme and I were talking about playing some World Wide Wrestling. I'd happily either play or run this. I can do a mean Mean Gene.
  • I would never poo-poo a chance to play a game that no one 'round these parts ever seems to want to play. Stuff like Torchbearer or Dungeon World could be a really fun way to spend an afternoon.
  • Honestly, I'd play anything that folks got really, really excited about. I pick up on excitement easily. If you're planning on running something off the books, hit me up, I might be super into it.
There's no way I plan to play/run all of these things. If I get three or four games in all weekend, honestly, I'll be happy.  I'll try to keep folks in the loop about stuff I'm doing so you can either live vicariously through me or so you can participate, but I don't hold out a lot of hope for it.

Hope to see you at GaryCon 2016!

Friday, February 12, 2016

This Old Moldule-Ing B5: Horror on the Hill, Tres Brujas

First, enjoy this. Second, be aware that [SPOILERS] await below for stuff other than B5.

One of the cooler features of B5: Horror on the Hill are the witch sisters on the Hill. Why aren't there more witches in RPGs? In the context of B5, the witches fill an interesting role: they're not necessarily good nor bad, nor even somewhere in between. They can be allies, they could be enemies, they could be "quest-givers," all depending on how you play them. The significantly less awesome part of the way the witches are presented in B5 is the way they're presented. Instead of being strange wise women that villagers tremble at the thought of, we're treated to, well... we're treated to a pair of friendly grandmas.

Like this:

The description of their abode presents a doily-frilled, tea time chamber of nothing-anywhere-near-like horror. Do you see that rolling pin? Ridiculous. I can't imagine who these witches would engender fear in, except for my middle school-age kids who don't want to have their cheeks pinched and smooched.

This must change.

In DCC # 66.5: Doom of Savage Kings, +Harley Stroh writes one of the coolest witches in any RPG product ever. Ymae, the Mad Widow (is she ever even directly referred to as a witch? If not, well done, Sr. Stroh!). She offers to help the PCs, but at a price, and it's a wonderfully witchy price: marriage to one of the PCs. Doesn't this sound like it belongs in a folk tale? Then, the help she offers requires a further task of the PCs, gathering the hair of seven corpses (these can be pre-existing corpses or the hair of dead PCs) which is again wonderfully folk tale-y. Then, she'll weave the hair into a rope that can be used to bind the demonic Hound of Hirot. Got that? Corpse hair rope that binds a demon, all for the price of marriage to a PC.

This is the model we want our witches to take, not cheek-pinching, tea-and-cakes grandmas.

Three Witches You Shall Meet

For not a few reasons, I like to have witches come in threes. Whether it's because of the Sword song above or because of the symbolic significance of threes, I can't tell. I think it's probably because I just naturally organize things into threes. So, there are three witches. And, because it will make sense out of some stuff later on, the three witches suffer under a curse. And, because of [curse rules], they suffer under a ban preventing them from talking about their curse. Their curse also ensures that PCs will meet only one of the witches at a time.

The witches may be sisters, they may not be. We'll talk about that later. Here are the things we know about the witches for sure:

  • Only one of the witches may be encountered at a time. 
  • The time of day affects which witch is encountered
    • Masza will only be encountered at twilight (give or take)
    • Malwina will only be encountered at midnight (or thereabouts)
    • Marika will only be encountered at dawn (again, you get it)
    • During the hours of full daylight, none of the witches are active
  • The witches know Hanuszka's Secret (see a future post)
  • The witches suffer from a curse that they seek to break
  • The witches know about and can help with The Horror (see another future post) but will only do so at a cost
  • The witches know something that no one else knows (again, future post)
For fear of getting snagged into writing and re-writing this post over and over again, I'm going to stop right here. In near future posts, we'll be exploring the witches some more, you'll learn more about Hanuszka's Secret and The Horror and -- I promise -- we'll actually get to the dungeon sooner rather than later. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

This Old Module-Ing B5: Horror on the Hill, Inspiration & Background

I could start off with the same tired "fuck yeah Appendix N!" line you've heard over and over again (often from me), but I want to talk about some specific influences here, because I think it's important that, at this stage in the renovation process, we understand where we're going. We're not talking about a simple conversion, no. Any old chump can do that. Converting doesn't put any of myself into the process. What we're doing is a real renovation, and nothing is sacred. We're going to take someone else's module and make it mine.

Some of the influences that I find most inspiring for this project.
  • Polish Folklore - You've seen my last name. It's not a surprise that I'm Polish. What surprises me is how little of the Polish medieval experience shows up in gaming culture, despite the number of prominent "Poles of North American birth" there are in that field. [I've had to stop by self from heading off in diatribes no fewer than 3 times at this point.] So, we're going to put stuff there. A great place to start is Polish Folklore. In specific, I'm going to use the tale of Krakus and Smok Wawielski ("the Dragon of Wawel Hill") as the frame that the background of the module is going to hang on. 
  • I'll be ratcheting up the general Polish-ness of the setting as well. A borderland beyond which barbarians and dragons lie? Cool clothes including fur hats? Crazy-awesome names with more Z's than you know what to do with? Yep. We're doing that. 
  • I've spoken before about how, out of the Weird Tales Three, Clark Ashton Smith is my favorite, and I think this is because he walks a strange course between the super-heroicism of RE Howard and the powerlessness in the face of cosmic evil of HP Lovecraft. Smith has a sort of sing-song fairytale logic to his stories, a pervasive poetic nature that, to me, evokes more emotion than the blood and thunder of Howard or the paranoiac cowering of Lovecraft. His heroes are, typically, normal people (no Conans here) in extraordinary situations. This is what I want the PCs to feel like. 
  • How to Write Adventures That Don't Suck - by Goodman Games. There's this outline floating around with text from the 2007 seminar of the same name that Goodman Games gave at GenCon. GG has also held seminars of the same name & topic at several other conventions (GaryCon 2015 for sure, but I'm there were others as well) and much of the advice from the 2007 seminar still rings true today (there are probably some refinements upon it, but the 2007 outline has been written down, so I always refer back to it). While it was emailed to me when I started working on the DCC Cabal's Hypercube of Myt project, since I can find it with a simple Google search, I'll gladly share the link to the document. Here: Lots of good advice here. 
And that's all guiding us forward as we go. 


In the ancient days, a cloister of scholar-monks made their home at the crest of the Hill. We know little of them and their ways, save evidence of crumbling and moldering texts and scrolls are all that's left of their order. From the settling of the first of the Wolczik tribesmen in the shadow of the Hill, the monks' monastery, in ruins now for more than a century, has weighed as an ill omen of darkness to come. And came darkness did.

When the Wolczik tribes came to these lands, a beast issued forth from the cave at the foot of the hill, that cave strewn with impossible bones of creatures no man had seen alive. A dragon vast and scaly, the fiend breathed a noxious flame equal parts pyre and poison. The dragon had slept during the first Wolczik migrations into its lands and was enraged to find the new interlopers decades later when it woke. It set upon the villages of the Wolczu, demanding tribute in a tongue so ancient, the elders say, that the first man had not yet drawn breath when that tongue had died out. Though they knew not the words, the Wolczu knew the meaning, as if those meanings were what had been spoken, not any words at all. The threat was obvious: present the dragon with tribute worth of it, or face its wrath. 

At first, some were defiant -- and defiance was met with rapine and ruin. Whole families met death beneath the fiend's flames, their lands corrupted and despoiled by its poison. To this day, there are blighted spaces in shadow of the Hill where nothing may grow. To this day, there are families who know no heir and are presumed to be extinct to a man, villages no more than char and ash, walls naught but tumbled stone. The only way to survive was to obey the dragon and thus they did, except for one.

A goatherd who had been tending his flock when the dragon had boiled his lands and his family blazed, Bartosz the Elder made the long trek from the foot of the Hill seven days to the court of Gragan Osztjo, the tribal cheiftan who had become king of these lands. Gragan wept with Bartosz, led the shepherd to sup from his table and drink from his goblet in sorrow, and came to call the widow "brother." 

When Gragan called for his bravest tribesmen to take up arms against the beast, it was his own three children who answered the call. First was Gragan the Younger, the middle child, wise and quick-witted with a gilded tongue. Next was Hanuszka, the eldest, fierce and fiery, she was the strongest of the three and wisest in the ways of war, shamed that she had let her brother pledge his spear first. Last was young Dobrogost, a fair-haired youth who had seen only twelve winters, yet was brave enough to stand by his sister and brother. Gragan wept tears of proud despair, for he was bound by Wolczik law to not refuse a spear pledged in vengeance. 

Yet Bartosz, the weary widower, could not bear to see Gragan lose all his children as he had, and begged Dobrogost to withdraw his pledge. Knowing that Trzejnobog, the God of Threes, he who is held most holy of the gods by the Wolczu, would favor three worthies more than two, Bartosz begged Gragan for a spear and a helmet, that he might have his own revenge and stand by the side of those who Wolczik law now considered his nephews. Gragan could not refuse, and soon Bartosz rode a tall courser alongside Hanuszka and Gragan II's destriers toward certain death.

Though the poets disagree on the details of the battle, the outcome is the same no matter the source: at the end of the bloody affair, only Hanuszka crawled out of the cave at the foot of the Hill. It is said that Bartosz and Gragan II's bodies were never recovered and that the cave serves as mausoleum for man and dragon alike. 

The dragon slain, the Wolczu rejoiced and held forth Hanuszka as a triumphant conqueror, and she begged her father to grant her lands around the Hill, that she might make sure the evil never return to Wolcz. Gragan I commanded his tribesmen build a fortress on the opposite bank of the River Zska from the Hill, and bade her guard it -- and Wolcz -- from foes human and monstrous alike. In mourning for the loss of her brother, Hanuszka named the fortress Gragova, and made her coat of arms a man and a dragon dealing death to each other. 

Dobrogost was declared Gragan I's heir and took up his banner upon the father's passing. In time, Dobrogost's son and heir, Gragan III, came to his aunt, the Lady Hanuszka and asked her permission to retrieve his uncle's remains from the cave where they had been left. By Wolczik law, Gragan III was required to ask, and by that same law, Hanuszka could not refuse, though she knew it folly. Thus, last year, did Gragan III  and his Companions stride into the maw of the cavern at the Hill. There has been no sign of him since. 

Hanuszka has declared the Hill anathema, and forbids her people to cross the River Zska within eight miles of it (the distance a horse will walk in two hours).  This last Grandfathers Feast (a semi-annual holiday honoring those past), she outlawed the now-traditional pageant of her victory over the Horror on the Hill.  In her sorrow, Lady Hanuszka allows no mention of the name "Gragan" within the walls of the fortress named after him. The lands at the foot of the Hill have grown wild and fallow, and campfires have been seen dotting her slopes, though she be shunned by the Wolczu. Travelers -- Wolczik and foreign alike -- have disappeared from the roads and rivers of the land, and locals fear to go abroad at night. And on certain nights, when the fog hangs low over the Zska, a miasma,  a poisonous, smoky haze, can be seen rising from the mausoleum-cave where the dragon once dwelt. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

This Old Module-Ing B5: Horror on the Hill, Building Inspector Edition

Since we've talked about the strong foundations (the "good bones") of B5, it's time to take a trip through the less awesome parts of this project, looking for rot and water damage and black mold and all sorts of junk that your building inspector would throw a conniption over, except here we're less worried about rot and water damage and black mold and more worried about tired tropes and bad design and elements not living up to our expectations. 

Slope & Grade: What's the Yard Like

Putting on my building inspector hat, I quickly identify some problems outside the dungeon itself. Here we go:
  • Common Enemies - This module makes use of some really boring monsters as enemies, ones of the sort that I identify as tropes of "Genre D&D." Goblins. Hobgoblins. Ogres. I'm sick of them. Uninteresting.  
    • Proposed Solution: Make up new monsters to take their place. 
  • Unaccessible Egress - Here's something that really, really bugs me: there's a secret entrance/exit from the "boss area" of the dungeon that the players aren't allowed to find. Per the text: "The characters have no chance to discover this cave." Yuck. There's not even anything notable concealing it, just some vegetation that the dragon flies over. WTF?
    • Proposed Solution: Let the players find this. Just make it very, very obvious that herein lies certain death. Rumors that no one returns from this cave, ever (not even the big badass who tried a few years ago) and maybe even demonstrate a better way in (through the monastery) so the PCs can "get the jump" on the Horror (remember, we're going to de-dragonify and Horror-up the module). 
  • Map Grid? - Yuck. I only like gridded maps for dungeons.
  • That's my kind of witch
    • Proposed Solution: Hexify that map! While we're at it, we might want to expand the scale, too, so that it's over a larger area, making provisions and hirelings and other sorts of bookkeeping stuff more interesting/integral. 
  • The Kindly Witches - Maybe I'm spoiled, but these witches are completely boring to me. They feel less like they belong in my D&D and more like they belong in a Disney film. "Fairy god witches" or something. No thanks. I say "maybe I'm spoiled" because I take as inspiration one of the coolest witches in modern gaming, the one from Doom of Savage Kings by +Harley Stroh. The witch in Doom offers to help the PCs, but only if one of them agrees to marry the ancient, decrepit crone. Great stuff! I want my witches to be more like the creepy ones from folklore (like Harley's) and less like the sort that help you to get to the ball on time. 
    • Proposed Solution: Stroh-ify these crones. They'll probably have a post of their own coming their way.

Faulty Wiring: Problems with the Interior

  • Common Enemies Again - I almost didn't write this out again, but it bears repeating: if you're writing a module that you expect people to spend money on, it behooves you to make things up for them. Do not simply provide them with yet another lair of orcs. That is boring and lazy. No orcs. No goblins. Do something different.
  • Boxcar Doors - Once you're on the railroad, you can't get off. Or, in this case, once you fall down the hobgoblin king's trapdoors in Return of the Jedi fashion, the "chute is... impossible to climb back up... even by a thief who successfully rolls to climb sheer surfaces." This, friends, is a shitty example to set for your players and reinforces the "DM as asshole wannabe-deity" bullshit that really runs against the DM's role as a fair and impartial judge or referee. Not cool, Doug Niles.
    • Proposed Solutions: Take out the "no, you can't do that!" Let the players go back up if they want to. 
  • One-Way Feng Shui - Just like a house, a dungeon should have a flow, and the flow should allow multiple paths through (yes, the cooler name for this is Jacquaying). The aforementioned trap door is the only way to get to the dungeon's second level, which really constricts the flow through the dungeon, and the only way from the second to third level is via an underground river which, you guessed it, the PCs can only use to travel down stream. Each dungeon level allows for pretty cool mobility throughout the level itself, but the movement from level to level is restricted to two few pinch points and only work one way. Couple this with the "you can't get in there" cave that the players "have no chance to discover" and we've restricted flow to... a trickle. 
    • Proposed Solution: We need more ways to get up and down, so we'll add them to the map. We might have to get more creative for the level 2 to level 3, but that's cool. 
    • This one sort of feels like a repeat of Boxcar Doors above, but I think the point of Boxcar Doors is the railroadification of the module and the One-Way Feng Shui is a broader sort of design flaw: the restriction of movement throughout the dungeon.
  • Replaceable Parts - Treasure is awesome and it's really the reason that the players are interested in risking life and limb inside a dungeon. Anyone who pretends otherwise is trying to sell you on a boring game. Sure that can be additional reasons, but the chief reason is always going to be filthy fucking lucre, as it should be. Part of that deal is that the treasure that comes out of a dungeon should be interesting and, for the most part, it is in B5, with one exception: there are way too many magic items and most of those are boring ones. Swords +1, armor +something, potions of inscrutability. Boring. 
  • The dragon is nowhere near this cool
    • Proposed Solution: We'll be spicing things up a bit. No weapon will be a simple plus something, and potions will be more interesting. Scrolls should be unique as well. All of that will make the PCs' hauls more interesting and memorable, justifying their greed. 
  • The Disappointing Dragon - So yes, the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but I'll be frank: I prefer my dragons to be a little more metaphorical. You know, in the "here be dragons" sense. But this module has an actual dragon, and one that the PCs are funneled toward (see pretty much all of every points above). Now, B5 is one of two B-series modules I can think of that includes an actual dragon, so I guess some folks look to that as a strength of the module. However, we're talking about, again, Dungeons & Dragons, so the inclusion of a dragon really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, and if the big bad Horror (see the previous post) isn't a surprise, it hardly qualifies as a Horror. Further, the esteemed Mr. Niles made some odd choices for this dragon, such as a fairly wonky spell selection (the dragon would have no need for continual light, for instance, and I don't think I'd ever worry about a dragon casting detect magic) and setting the hit points lower than average (22 hps, which is 10 points below the median of 32 hp for a 7 HD creature) but still giving it a high (low) AC (-1; the logic is that it's harder to hit but goes down after fewer hits, I get it). Now, when we take this as the culmination of the railroad that the dungeon has been so far, not allowing the party to make multiple forays into the dungeon (Boxcar Doors, above), it makes sense to "nerf" the dragon a bit. But if we're fixing the other problems of the dungeon, this dragon might become a little too easy. Further, I WANT A GODDAMN HORROR, DAMNIT! Something more Lamentations of the Flame Princess and less "OMG TEH DRAGONZZZ!" 
    • Proposed Solution: You pretty much got it already. Let's give the players something to seriously fear. 
Well, I'm out of steam. Next time, I want to give you a little background on my influences for where this is going. Because we are actually going someplace. This isn't going to be just me picking nits over a module that is over thirty years old. Before I starting the new construction, I wanted to do a little demolition. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

This Old Module-ing B5: The Horror on the Hill; Foundation Edition

A few weeks ago, on +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast, we played this neat game I called "This Old Module" with +Stan Shinn & +Nathan Panke of Rogue Comet games (here: Not only was this one of the most fun episodes to record (if only +Donn Stroud didn't have this weird hangup about "spoilers" and could contribute), but people seemed to like it, too. I've always liked the idea. I liked it back when I had it the first time in the dawn of this blog (I called it "This Old Module" back then, too), when I talked about how I would update/personalize/improve B2: Keep on the Borderlands and pretty much every time I mention Quasquethierion (my take on B1: In Search of the Unknown's dungeon of Quasqueton).

In the wake of that incredibly fun venture, I've had a lot of folks (most vocally Nathan) say that I need to bring back This Old Module on the blog or do another round on the podcast and "renovate" a single module as a committee. That sounds like fun, sure, but I feel like "redesign by committee" is a bit beyond the scope of the podcast and I'm not sure if it'll be a productive or fun use of the 1-ish hour we have our guest panelists on for.

And so, instead, I'm bringing it back on the blog and talking about module B5: The Horror on the Hill. If you're not familiar with the module, two gents I have immense respect for have already told you pretty much everything you need to know.

I will not be focusing on what they wrote. Those links are for your reference. (I also thought that James Raggi wrote something about this module, but I can't find it. If anyone can point me in that direction, I'll add it to the list.)

I have my reasons for picking B5: The Horror on the Hill, but I'm not going to go into that, either. Instead, I want to treat this like Bob Vila & Norm Abram did on This Old House. 

The Project & Plan

We have a Basic-series adventure module from 1983, written by Douglas Niles. Although its publishing date marks it as a BECMI-era release, since it was released the same year as the Mentzer Red Box (the "B" in BECMI), it was probably designed with Moldvay BX in mind, not that there's really a lot of difference between BX & BECMI (I know, I can catch hell for that remark, but if we're looking at the "BE" in BECMI only, the differences aren't that huge, mostly stylistic). B5 is in many ways an update of B2: Keep on the Borderlands, with many of the additions and "improvements" that TSR -- with this module -- began to introduce across the board. James Maliszewski does a great job calling these out, so I won't waste your time reiterating them. 

For this project, we're looking at accomplishing three things: 
  1. Update the module to D&D 5e while still maintaining the old school feel of the original. It seems to me that double-statting for DCC would be really easy, too, since there are many rules parallels between the two. 
  2. Change the outdated features of what I call "Genre D&D." Things that are readily identifying as "D&D-isms" like standardized monster types (hobgoblins, bugbears, etc.) and swords +1. 
  3. Make the module live up to its title: the HORROR on the HILL. As it stands, the "horror" aspect is a little toothless and, by my estimation at least, fairly uninteresting. We'll be fixing that. 
Many of these changes mean that at times I'll be dispensing with what many (including James) have referred to as "Gygaxian Naturalism" and instead give more of a "fantastic dread" feel. "HORROR on the Hill," remember? 

Why work with B5 at all, though? Why not just start over from scratch? Well, much like Norm & Bob would think about houses, this module has good bones. The foundation that this adventure lays down is very solid and worth building off of and its worth "fixing" the problems that we identify later on in the process. Before we get to punching holes in this thing and tearing down walls, lets look at that foundation and figure out the strengths of this one.

Foundations Are Solid 

Here are the parts that I identify as being the exceptionally solid foundations of the module that we can build up from, working on accomplishing our goals. 
  • Guido's Fort - Bad name, great idea. Guido's Fort gets no detail in the module, which is sort of to its strength. It can be anywhere. Well, anywhere with a huge nearby hill. It's a kind of undefined Keep on the Borderlands, which means you could use that Keep, or you can do what we're going to do: use the B2 Keep as a model and we'll build a Fort that makes sense for the aesthetic that we'll be building later on.
  • The Big-Ass Hill - In order for there to be a thing on which for the titular Horror to be, we have The Hill. The good news is that The Hill is a big cool place with a bunch of monster lairs. Sure, it also has the module's dungeon, but it's nice that there some wilderness to explore on our way to the dungeon.
    • As a side note, we're going to want to play this aspect up. Maybe even to the point of folks at the Fort not knowing that the monastery is the source of the badness going down which, of course, implies badness, another thing to introduce.
  • Hexcrawl Realism - I know that James views this as an extension of the Gygaxian Naturalism that he espouses as a virtue of the module (which, from that point of view, it is), but since I've spent the past 3 years running a hexcrawl game, I tend think of this as a hexcrawl issue. Cutting to chase, it seems like nearly every monster on the wilderness random encounter table has a lair somewhere on the Hill. This tells us an awful lot about the Hill and its environs. 
  • A Nice, Mid-Sized Dungeon - A megadungeon this ain't, but it gives enough space and varied experiences for a really solid bout of exploration. Some of the dungeon features are really cool and somewhat tricky (the looping caverns of level 2, for example), and some are really bad (especially the railroad mechanic of "oh, no! You're suddenly on a lower level and there's no way back!" -- I'm fine with there being a winding path back, but there should be one; this thing needs a proper Jaquaying), but there's variety. We'll be looking at how to build on what's good and fix what's not so awesome. 
Next time, I'll start talking about some of the larger details we're going to change to make the Horror on the Hill a unique and fun modern gaming module.