Tuesday 28 June 2011

An Adventure for Every Monster - Brownie


MOVE: 12"
HIT DICE: 1/2,
% IN LAIR: 20%
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Save as 9th level cleric
ALIGNMENT: Lawful good
SIZE: S (l ½ feet tall)
Attack/Defence Modes: Nil
THAC0 20
XP value 65 +1/hp

Brownies are distant relatives of halflings, (perhaps half halfling, half pixie) but they are smaller and far less common. They are basically friendly to humans and their ilk (dwarves, elves, and halflings), but because they are shy, they are seldom seen and favour quiet, pastoral areas in which to dwell. If encountered on friendly terms, brownies can often (50%) be convinced to help lawful good characters. They are able to make or repair items of wood, leather, metal, etc. with ease. They are also good guides. Brownies can use the following spells once per day:

 protection from evil,
 ventriloquism,
 dancing lights,
 continual light,
 mirror image (3 images),
 confusion
 dimension door.

Brownies do not usually carry weapons other than short swords. They have exceptional senses in general, are never surprised and have 18 dexterity. Brownies are capable of blending into the landscape very quickly, in effect using natural cover and speed to become invisible (and escape if desired).
Besides their own language and the alignment tongue, brownies speak elvish, pixie and the language of sprites and halflings.

This adventure starts in a forest environment and moves on to a city.

The party is travelling through an area of woodlands when they are approached by a tiny figure who seeks to reassure them that he means them no harm and in fact needs their help.

He explains that he is a member of a brownie tribe and they have a problem. One of their number has recently disappeared without trace and the tribe has gone to great lengths to locate their missing relative. Some of the bolder brownies have followed the trail of a pair of roguish individuals who were seen in the area at the same time as the missing brownie vanished. The pair, posing as tinkers, complete with brightly painted handcart and trinkets, were tracked to a nearby city where they were seen entering a formidable looking building. The brownie trackers were unable to effect an entry, despite their magical powers and returned to the tribe to convey the bad news.

A good-aligned party (and especially one with a druid or ranger) may well decide to help the brownies without any more coercion being required but a more neutral party may need a little persuading – the DM might consider having the brownies kidnap a member of the party and hold them as surety to guarantee party co-operation. This might not necessarily be seen as a lawful good act but the brownies are desperate to rescue their colleague and consider it as an act designed to achieve the greater good.

The building is owned by a high-level magic user and collector of rare monsters and creatures of magical nature. The two rogues are his collecting agents, medium to high level thieves, who – armed with a substantial arsenal of traps and arcane devices – capture the monsters that he wants to add to his collection. Inside the building, there are a great many cells and cages, all protected by anti-magic and similar precautions (such as randomly spaced pillars and blocks of stone to prevent dimension door) and the outside walls are similarly protected against magical attack.

The captured brownie has already been added to the magical menagerie. The magic-user in question is a collector pure and simple and does not wish to harm his specimens. Nevertheless, he has installed several precautionary devices, including one which, in the event of the escape of any of the dangerous specimens, will seal the doors and flood the area with a potent poison to neutralise the threat to the population of the city. This contingency is initiated from the control centre and can be prevented by eliminating or incapacitating the security personnel.

Should the system controlling the specimen containment be overridden, it will probably cause every cell to open. This automatically causes the main doors to seal but no poison is released as a consequence. The party must then face the prospect of being sealed inside a building with dozens of dangerous magical animals on the loose.

If the party manages to find the brownie, release him, avoid the guards, keep the other specimens in their cells long enough to escape and avoid the wrath of the vengeful magic-user (phew!) they will be rewarded by the brownie tribe with as much wealth as they can muster, although this is not all that much, going by the treasure types. Better to have the brownies offer information to the party as to the presence in the forest of some ruins that promise a rich reward to those brave enough to enter. A handful of brownies may accompany the party if they do decide to investigate this report.

As a possible hook to further adventures, the DM may have the party uncover details and paperwork in the building’s control centre that give details of other members of a magical monster trafficking network. Depending on the alignment of the party, they may wish to track the individuals down and either stop them or offer their services as collectors.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Team Adventure - Orc Attack!

The party clearly thought they’d had enough of ogres because in the next session, they decided to try another direction in the dungeon. They reasoned that the ogres had probably prepared for another attack. So at the t-junction after the bridge with the iron bars at the windows, they turned north instead and headed up the passageway. There was an encounter with a band of wandering kobolds who were given the sword treatment and the survivors fled. The party encountered a door in the side of the passage and, having opened it gingerly, discovered a flight of steps leading downwards. At the bottom was another door through which they gained access to the wide passageway that they had seen from the iron-barred windows.

They chose to go south and for a good few hundred feet, followed the very wide passage, under the barred-window bridge. Ahead were some stairs that descended into the darkness. As the party approached, they were fired on with arrows. Ferros the cleric slumped to the ground, an arrow sticking out of him. The party returned fire and battle was joined. The arrow stocks were dwindling but eventually three of the four attackers were killed and the fourth one fled. The party entered the room from which the attacks had taken place and found the dead bodies of their assailants, riddled with arrows.

At that point, I revealed their assailants to be orcs, which they had not encountered before, which is why I was being cagey about naming them before or during the combat itself.

Across the far side of the room was an archway that was inscribed with a language that nobody recognised. Elysia cast Comprehend Languages (nice to see that particular spell getting an outing) and revealed that the writing read as follows

Beyond the Yellow Tongues
You find the way but wary
As you go; the tongues cannot
Be stilled in any order so
The way to quench them needs
To be done aright or dead you’ll be

The party peered through the archway and saw, down another flight of stairs, a wide square pit in the floor of a room, along the edges of which were pillared cloisters. At the far side of the room were a band of orcs, ten strong, standing there and waiting for the party to make its move. Nobody wanted to commit to more combat; eventually, they party moved in and battle was joined. Elysia cast Sleep and managed to take out five orcs, whilst the party’s fighters, thief and clerics set about reducing the odds against them. Just as they thought that they were gaining the upper hand, more orcs armed with bows stepped out of the shadows of the cloisters and started firing. It was a tense and risky combat and only by skill and good luck were the party finally able to overcome their foes and emerge victorious. Several characters were down and the clerics had their work cut out to bring them back up to fighting fitness. More importantly, the question of what to do with the slept orcs who were now bound and disarmed was preying on everyone’s mind.

We took a session break here; in a development that really made me happy, the mother of one of the players had turned up to take him home and he pleaded with her to be allowed to stay until the end of the combat. She agreed and stayed to watch the game play out. Quite what she thought of it, I'm not sure, but the player keeps coming back, so I'm doing something right.

Friday 24 June 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem – Part Twelve

Celebrities! You really can’t escape them. Of course, you might have thought you could by playing a role-playing game set in the 1920s but such thoughts are foolish whimsy because they had celebrities back then as well. The big difference between celebrities of the 1920s and today’s rather shallow assortment is that the 1920s type were famous for a reason and, if we can allow ourselves a further leap of reasoning, the fact that we can remember them means they were really famous, not just the wishy washy sort of fame we know today.

Where am I going with this? Simply this; there is a great temptation with historical RPGs (and let’s be honest, that’s what CoC is if you set it in the classic HPL era) to introduce historical figures into the adventure, to have the investigators rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the roaring twenties. However, this is never a good idea. Remember the Young Indiana Jones series? He was always bumping into famous people and it started to stretch credibility after a while. It also gives any adventure the air of a history lesson, which is not what we’re aiming for (unless you find history lessons a source of cosmic horror)

The Keeper should therefore avoid ‘famous people syndrome’. The likelihood of a party meeting someone famous by chance on the street or even at a hotel or such like is remote and unless you have something very specific in mind for that famous person, keep them out of it. A case in point is the use of people like Houdini in scenarios. It’s understandable – he’s a fascinating guy and continues to entertain us, eighty-five years after his death. But is his inclusion in an adventure really necessary? Could the narrative requirement be filled by someone else? Do you know Houdini well enough to make it convincing? What if one of the other players knows more about Houdini or is a bit more Google-savvy than you? What if Houdini gets killed during the scenario?

And on a more practical note, not having celebrities in your adventure means that it’s one more job lifted from your shoulders. In a game where you’ll be doing a lot of work, both research and administration, not to mention writing, that’s to be welcomed.

A related cliché is the “Before they were famous” syndrome. Picture the scene – it’s 1920 and the party is in Germany on the trail of cultists. They meet a strange artist with a little moustache struggling to make ends meet with his paintings. Lo and behold, they find out his name is Adolf. If the players are feeling malicious, they might contrive to ensure that something nasty happens to poor old Adolf and voila, historical paradox!

"Hey! This guy says if we buy his painting, he'll tell us where the Temple of Azathoth is"

Of course, famous people by their very nature were part of life back in the 1920s and so mentions of famous people can be made; this adds flavour. It’s like writing a book set in the 1960s and not once mentioning a certain four-man band from Liverpool.

Having said all this, I’m now going to contradict myself – well, slightly Fleeting encounters with famous people can be slotted in; they should, however, remain peripheral (either across the far side of a crowd or appearing for only a few moments and playing no further part in the story) and it helps maintain credibility if the famous person in question is only a minor celebrity and there’s a good reason for that person to make an appearance. Take the Grace la Rue encounter in the Majestic adventure – before I started to run the scenario, I’d never heard of her and she only spends about ten minutes in the game, if that. However, it adds a sense of realism and doesn’t break the above rules.

Next time, I’ll be looking at when to say no – and when to say yes.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Team Adventure - Against the Ogres

Our gallant party returned to the dungeon and headed straight for the hobgoblin chambers, aiming to see what lay beyond them. I had decided not to restock that particular set of rooms at this time, but kept the option open if the situation arose that the party left the dungeon for a substantial length of time.

A flight of steps led down to a long, wide passageway, running north to south. Unwilling, or perhaps uninterested in what lay at either end of that passage, the party spotted another tall and wide doorway on the far side of the passageway. Its design matched that of the door through which they had just come, namely large carven heads which, as the party stood in the middle of the passageway, animated and began to speak, telling of things such as ‘the sea of doom’, ‘the golden book’, ‘the cathedral’ and such like. Elysia hurriedly transcribed these phrases for later pondering. I was basically using these features for what I term “sandbox bombing”, tossing evocative phrases and ideas into the mix to tempt and intrigue the party and see which way they went. I could then flesh out new features and adventures from the phrase that they had chosen to explore.

The decision was taken to investigate what lay beyond the second Talking Arch. Galzor headed through the arch, down the stairs and into the room beyond without checking first. His reward was to be attacked by not one but two ogres! The rest of the party piled in with the exception of Elysia and Ferros, who was kept out of the combat to ensure that there would be an intact healer available if anyone needed assistance. As it turned out, this was exactly what happened, since with the party committed to action, two more ogres came up from a passage deeper into the section.

It was hard pounding for all concerned and all the more so when two ogres managed to break through the melee and up the stairs into the wide passageway. This break-out manoeuvre could have led to real trouble for the party but it was at that point that Mummy Grognard’s MU, Elysia used one of her spells to cast Magic Missile and chose to use the d30. This was an overwhelming success and the ogre crashed to the ground, dead. A second use of the d30 by another of the party took out a second ogre. The awesomeness of the d30 helps to reinforce the rule in the minds of the players and ensures that they wont’ forget to the big purple one in future games.

A third ogre had been killed in the room and a fourth fled down the passageway up which it had come. Judging that the time was ripe for a tactical withdrawal, the party healed its wounded, picked itself up and left the ogres to brood on what had just happened. It was probably just as well; with healing and spells depleted, although some were held in reserve in case of wandering monsters, the party would not have been well-placed to take on any more of the big beasties.

The party had got lucky on that particular encounter. D30 rolls, just like healing and magic are expendable resources and while their judicious use can tilt the balance in a big way, once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

An Adventure for Every Monster - Boar, Wild

Boar, Wild

Frequency Common
No appearing 1-12
AC 7
HD 3+3
% in lair Nil
Treasure type Nil
No of attacks 1
Damage per attack 3-12
Special attacks Nil
Special defences Nil
Magic resistance Standard
Intelligence Semi-
Alignment Neutral
Size Medium (3’ at the shoulder)
THAC0 16
XP value 85+4/hp

This adventure takes place in thick, sylvan forest, off the beaten track but in the same area as a scattering of ruined buildings and caves.

The basis of the adventure is the conflict between two druids. Wafar has been the druid of this area of the forest for a long time, and to be frank, he enjoys it. In fact, he enjoys it so much that he is in danger of becoming hubristic in his druidism and deriving power rather than balance from it.

Were Wafar the only druid in the area, all would be (more or less) well but unfortunately, a young druidess named Preha has taken up residence in the forest and is establishing her reputation as a talented charm-maker and potion-brewer, more in touch with nature than Wafar and slowly becoming more popular as well.

Wafar is incensed by this newcomer and has tried several times to persuade her to move on. The place that she is living in now is her third home; the first two were destroyed by freak weather or attacks by large woodland creatures.

Realising that Preha’s popularity protects her to a certain extent, Wafar has resorted to a new and more subtle scheme. Using his cunning, he lured a party of adventurers and their henchmen into the forest and employed the Staff of the Forest to turn them, one by one, into wild boars. Then he started a campaign of insinuation to blacken the reputation of Preha and make out that she was responsible. Two search parties sent to track down the missing adventurers were lulled into a false sense of security and either killed or polymorphed by Wafar in the same fashion.

Wafar’s efforts to blacken the reputation of Preha are succeeding to an extent and rumours picked up by the party if they scout around before entering the forest will give her a sinister and witch-like image. Other people will defend her and say that the goings-on are nothing to do with her.

The polymorphed boars have settled into the life of the forest, some joining existing herds or sounders (there are three others in the area, separated by at least seven to ten miles. Sounders are predominantly matriarchal in the real world but for the purposes of this adventure, I’m giving them a rather more egalitarian feel). There are also solitary boars who were forceful or aggressive adventurers before they were polymorphed. Young males who have not yet mated tend to gather in groups. As well as the polymorphed boars, natural boars are common and there has been a good deal of interbreeding between the two groups.

Wafar, level 5 druid

S 11
I 13
W 18
D 13
C 13
Ch 16

He is a powerful druid but his pride in his own abilities is proving to be his undoing and if anything, he is moving towards a more evil iteration of neutrality (but not NE – not yet, anyway).

He has acquired a Staff of the Forest, which has aided him in his ambitions and his rise to his current status but it is now running out of charges (it has 13 charges left) and he needs to use it carefully if it is not to become useless.

The Staff of the Forest can perform the following functions:

Faerie Fire (1 charge)
Plant Growth (3 charges)
Polymorph (but only into a creature of the woods) (4 charges)
Control Winds (5 charges)
Charm Mammal (2 charges)
Call Lightning (3 charges)
Hallucinatory Forest (4 charges)
Wall of Thorns (6 charges)
Plant Polymorph (victim is turned into a harmless woodland plant or tree) (4 charges)

Each ability is cast as that of a 12th level druid for the purposes of damage, saving throws etc.

Each power is activated by pressing a different rune carved into the wood of the staff and inlaid with silver.

The Staff, if fully charged, will be worth 8,000XP and sell for somewhere around 27.5Kgp.

His weakness is that he has come to rely on the staff more and more and so neglects his spells. His darkness is also reflected in the nature of the animals that he can summon – those that come to him now are the more savage, wild and unpredictable ones, the predators and scavengers.

Once he is aware of the party’s presence in the forests, he will attempt to approach them in a manner that will gain their trust and proceed to poison their minds still further against Preha. Should the party prove troublesome, he will use his Staff against them but he would rather not, since it will use up valuable charges.


S 7
I 11
W 17
D 9
C 7
Ch 18

She is less reliant on physical strength and more on her wisdom, intuition and her force of personality. She is attractive but in a natural, unconscious way. Just as Wafar is moving from N to NE thanks to his ambition and greed, Preha would drift into NG were it not for her current situation.

She brews potions from the woods and uses charms and runes to enchant seemingly mundane woodland items, giving them powers that might not at first be suspected. Typically, she may brew healing potions, potions that give unnaturally accurate insight, limited prophecy through trance, ones that bestow a particular animal power and ones that give immunity to certain woodland poisons and parasites.

Her charms may bestow the following effects

1. Pass through vegetation even if a hostile spell is cast upon it
2. Grasping the charm will allow the wearer to pass themselves off as an animal to observers, provided a save vs. Rods/Staff/Wands is made every two rounds that this effect is being used.
3. Immunity to the effects of fire – the charm is not protected and must make its saving throw or it will be destroyed (although its effects endure whilst the fire does)
4. Immunity to the poisons of woodland creatures
5. Renders the wearer invisible to Detection and Scrying or means they will be seen as a normal animal
6. The wearer can cause a full fruit tree or bush to grow from a seed or stone in 1d12 rounds
7. The wearer can breathe underwater for 2d12 rounds. If caught underwater when the effect wears off, the wearer is transformed into a fish or other water-dwelling animal for 1d12 weeks.
8. The wearer can walk across the surface of any single body of water once.
9. Causes the wearer to draw his/her food from the sun as does a plant
10. Immunity to charm spells
11. Enables the wearer to read the mind of any woodland animal
12. Immunity to falls – the wearer will hover in mid-air until pulled to the ground

The charms are made of simple materials and will only last for 1-3 uses.

She has made her home in the space beneath the roots of a huge fallen tree and has several established natural traps (snares, pits, trip wires etc) arranged on the perimeter of her home to warn her of the approach of strangers.

The transformed boars often visit her home - she knows what has become of them but cannot do anything to help. She sings and talks to them in the hope that their minds will still be able to understand the words.

She is aware of something in the forests that is disturbing the balance of nature but is not aware of what it is. She suspects that it has something to do with one of the old ruins in the area but cannot say more.

ANNOUNCEMENT – next time, I will be skipping past Brain Mole. It does practically nothing except attack psionically and since I’ve never used psionics and their overall interest is low, I can’t think up an adventure based on a monster that has one hit point and no physical attack. So we’ll move on to Brownie.

Friday 10 June 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem – Part Eleven

Call of Cthulhu, the monsters notwithstanding, is not a splatterpunk bloodfest of tentacles and slime. It is not hack and slash, nor is it shoot and slash. It’s all in the atmosphere and it’s up to the Keeper to build and maintain that atmosphere. You might think that it’s difficult to do that through the medium of e-mail – after all, unlike their character, the player is in a well-lit room, well-fed and rested, safe and sound. Why on earth should they feel scared when they read an e-mail? And how can the Keeper ensure that they do?

This is where background reading comes in handy. I’m assuming that the potential Keeper has an interest in horror literature, otherwise he’d be playing D&D or Traveller or any non-horror RPG.

By reading, I don’t necessarily mean HPL (although he is, with suitable caveats, an excellent starting point). What the Keeper needs to do is to immerse him or herself in horror literature, and specifically the more psychological variety. I’m including in this film and TV sources as well. A good place to start is the HPL essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and seek out the texts listed therein. I’m grateful to this essay because it steered me to such works as Machen’s “The Three Impostors”, which is a splendid read and the works of Algernon Blackwood. M.R James I had already discovered and HPL’s description of his work as “gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life”. This description should be ingrained on the DNA of every Keeper because that, in a nutshell, is what they must do.

One of the key words in that description is “steps”. An adventure where the party meets the monster within the first few turns is going to be a very predictable story indeed because the plot has reached its conclusion and once the monster makes its appearance, there are very few places for the story to go – die or run are the two options that come to mind.

The good Keeper can eke out the fear by ensuring that the horror increases in small but significant increments. Matsch’s Law and the German proverb "Lieber ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende" (better a horrible ending than horrors without end) are the antithesis of this philosophy. The players should never be in the position that they are certain that they have reached the end. The greater the tension, the bigger the shock when things finally snap.

In the Majestic adventure, the tension builds because the party don’t meet anything specific for a good while but they encounter aspects of the uncanny almost from the word go. There are also stretches of prose that evoke bleakness, isolation and an unspecified menace that cannot be defended against because its location and therefore its threat are unknown.

Another source of inspiration for generating an atmosphere of mounting horror and menace is to look within. The keeper needs to ask “What really scares me?”

Because, at the level of the amygdala, we all share deep-seated fears; evolutionary pressures have hard-wired into our psycho-biological make-up reactions and instincts that we don’t even think about and yet we are fully aware of the effects of those reactions.

A good grounding in those reactions and the ways in which emotional responses are generated can give insight into the way that fear works. Once the Keeper knows how fear happens, he can devise methods to play on those mechanics and increase tension.

Returning to the HPL quote on MR James, the use of aspects of ‘prosaic daily life’ can reap dividends when it comes to making the players edgy or nervous. We all have a psychological comfort zone within which we feel safe and secure. That zone is often filled with the everyday, the normal; things we trust and know are harmless.

But are they? A good trick to pull when invading the players’ comfort zone is the “are they what they seem?” one, where seemingly normal people, places and things are twisted that little bit to suggest there’s something more to them. The players’ minds will do the rest – and this tendency of the mind to fill in the gaps can do the Keeper’s work for him in numerous other instances as well. Research the way that the mind works – hypnagogic hallucinations, paraeidolia, apophenia, sensed presence; it’s a fascinating subject in itself.

We referred, in an earlier instalment, to the need for the Keeper to stay two steps ahead of the party. Now we can see another benefit of this tactic – the party’s reactions can be picked up and used by the Keeper to rack up the tension. Something works particularly well? Use it. Something didn’t quite have the required effect? Ditch it. By a process of evolution, the ability of the Keeper to get under the skin of his players will be honed and a better, scarier, more vivid and immediate experience will be had.

It’s all in the description when it comes to pbem. You may not be HPL, but by reading around, you’ll be absorbing the techniques, prose and ideas that made great horror writers memorable. Look at the stories that really unnerve you (and CoC is about unease and unsettling rather than outright terror) and try to work out what it was that caused this effect. Analyse the techniques the writers used to evoke that experience. Do the same for adventures that you have played in the past and see how the tension was racked up.

Until next time, pleasant dreams!

Friday 3 June 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part Ten

Do you like rules lawyers? Of course you don’t. Well, Call of Cthulhu is the game for you. It’s rules-light and atmosphere-heavy and that’s a good thing.

Firstly because, as you can imagine, the fewer rules there are, the less anyone has to nit-pick about. If I flick through my CoC rulebook, what do I see? Character creation runs from page 11 to 16 – that’s it. Five pages. And one of those is an example character sheet. Page 17 to Page 28 is the Game System and Skills. Twelve pages. Up to page 23 is the Weapons and Damage rules, 24 to 28 is the description of the skills and even they are subject to interpretation.

The very basic nature of the rules system for CoC means that players and Keeper can get on with what matters – the adventure. Establishing a protocol for the game before you start can ensure that the players are left in no doubt as to who has the final call on the interpretation of the rules, such as they are. If a dispute situation does arise, the general feeling (at least amongst our group) is that the current Keeper has the last call. It should also be remembered that rules that apply to PCs also apply to the baddies – or at least they should be - so the PCs are not being disadvantaged. If this fact is pointed out the players at the appropriate point, they should be satisfied or at the very least, mollified.

There is a slight downside to the brevity and simplicity of the rules and that is that it places a burden on the Keeper because maintenance of the atmosphere is down to them. If inspiration fails, there are few mechanics that the Keeper can fall back on for support.

However, overall, the CoC game structure and system means that it is easily learnable and indeed can be played without having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the intricacies of the game system. Would that all RPGs were like that. Indeed, a player can start to play immediately after rolling up a character and probably have just as good a time as someone who’s been playing for years, because the fun of the game, the experience of being an Investigator comes from the way that the players and Keeper interact in developing the feel and atmosphere of the game. And it’s the way in which atmosphere can be created that I’ll be dealing with next time.