Sunday, January 17, 2021

Review - The Palace of Unquiet Repose by Merciless Merchants

 Start with the Conclusion

The Palace of Unquiet Repose (POUR) is a top-tier adventure, meeting or exceeding all the promises made on its kickstarter - including projected schedule, something that separates those who can from those who wish.  I'm not sure what the retail price is giong to be, as of this writing the module isn't for sale on DTRPG.  I've paid $20+ for modules that I feel have less value than this module - I plan on shamelessly stealing some aspects of its presentation/formatting that work in ways I've struggled with too much/too little.  If you like intriguing NPCs, well-thought encounters, cool magic, monsters that will leave an impression, and ambitious scope - this module is for you.  If your players can handle danger, risk, and likely some loss, there is a play experience here I'm confident they will remember long after the last session wraps.

There are some hiccups.  To be fair to Merciless Merchants, on their kickstarter update this was acknowledged and patrons were encouraged to submit suggestions for final tweaks until Jan 10.  I treat my email like a red-headed step child, and my funded kickstarters with even a magnitude less investment of time and attention, so I did not see this until after the date had past.  So any or all of the small issues I note could already be corrected.  I'm glad they published rather than endlessly polishing in any case.  And to be clear, none of these hiccups sufficiently detract to ding the adventure even a half-star (if I gave star ratings).  Everything I don't mention specifically is well-done indeed, and as long as the review is, I don't dive into the specifics of most of the content.

A brief analogy before I get into the meat of the review.  As I was reading through the module, the mental comparison popping up over and over was POUR to D&D adventures what Mercyful Fate is to rock music.  You, as the DM running a module someone else wrote, are something like a karaoke singer.  As you belt out "Living on a Prayer" after two stiff long island iced teas, the point of the evening is to be together making merry; in your exhibition the group is for you, not against you, cheering your effort and contribution to the evening.  Very few people, however, ask the DJ to pop on Mercyful Fate before taking the stage -  even if a fan of the band few could hit the notes.  And those who could nail the performance might still have a stunned audience when the music stopped.  

This adventure is loud, fast, intense, unforgiving, and full-flavored; treading the boundary of whether your elfs-and-orcs D&D player might feel exhausted of that flavor by the time they manage to escape and take their leave.  It is not languid.  It has a singular vision.  It is *tight*.  It demands the DM has chops, while still doing more than its share of the heavy lifting in bringing about the play experience the author aims to deliver.  If you normally call up "Old Time Rock n' Roll" by Bob Seger when its your turn at the mic, you might need to detune this module into your range before session 1.  That's neither a slight on the module nor any DM choosing to do so.

On with the review (Warning, numerous minor spoilers ahead)


The first thing a DM should consider is whether they have a city prepared/available similar to Iotha; a vaguely Moroccan-flavored desert trading city, and the module's jumping-off point.  While a DM could paper over the getting going without any real depth, it would miss a chance to ease into the tone when POUR gets rolling.  Good stand-ins candidates for walking-around detail, if a DMs needs quick and ready-made, are Xambaala from AS&SH, or The City of Vultures from Melan's Echoes From Formalhaut #6. (Until, I suspect, Iotha is detailed in a later accessory from Merciless Merchants.) 


Multiple entry hooks each look fun to arrange in play; most of the best set-ups feels like it should be a session in its own right (DM effort required).  The rumors will perk interest, and the roster of hireable NPCs give DMs easy platforms for memorable roleplay, many of whom offer concrete advantages to players making the effort to keep them alive in what is to befall them.  The standard journey-to-the-adventure-location immediately challenges the PCs with one of the new monster types, requiring them to think beyond "I attack" for success.  


Arriving at "X marks the spot", two different means of ingress to the main complex exist.  Each path has some of the few areas of the module that didn't seem to quite stick the landing.  One path - a secret shaft hidden in a sphinx* recently uncovered from the sands - is deadlier, but also more informative and rewarding.  I like how the setup rewards the use of common divination many players neglect.  Note to DMs - make sure you use the text description here instead of relying on the map, as this is one area where the mapping symbols available for use didn't exactly match the descriptions.  The area is protected by trope-appropriate cave-in, burial, and gas traps, and it rewards with hints and some treasures useful for NPCs or further information gathering. The gas trap is another area where the DM needs to chose between the text and the map - although either choice will work, but the situation shown on the map is deadlier than the situation in the text.

The second path forward is a fissure opened up by earthquake leading to a natural cavern which opens out into the next area.  The cavern is a simple lair for a local beast and offers less risk and reward as compared to the other path - but it is easier to find.   As a DM I always appreciate not having to blatantly manufacture PC success in finding a way through a single knothole.

Review suggestions for Section II:

I understand working with a limited symbol selection in making the map - it's always a hassle.  The risk is a fully-loaded DM misdescribing the scene, requiring verbal backtracking.  This might be a case where the fee for a custom symbol is a worthwhile investment, or even a crude amateur sketch (overhead view) ported into the CC3+ mapping style using the menu commands.  There are a few other visually misleading map symbols used later in the adventure which this suggestion could also apply to.

The sand trap takes 20 minutes to fill and I'm not clear as to why the players can't just climb the filling sand up to the top?  There doesn't seem anything in the room keeping them "on the floor" as the sand creeps up around them.  Unless a turn in LL is not 10 minutes?  I'm not super-familiar with LL or B/X, or if there are any differences between an turn and an AD&D turn - presume they're the same, because if a turn is a minute than a trapped PC would only have to hold their breath for a minute to survive.  My provisional "fix" is adding spigots flooding ichor from the tree in the vitrified garden on to the floor before the sand hits; roll surprise or save (will ponder the preferred math) to notice/avoid.

For the fissure entrance, would suggest an X instead of a black shape NW of area 1.  In other maps the black solid is standard for a rock column; it took me a second to realize the NW alcove was the intended entrance point

The statues/doors leading out of the fissure entrance seem off with the rest of the area. Unlike the sphinx area I have no idea why they invested that ritual effort in this otherwise empty natural cave that only opens to the outside world due to natural disaster.  As a player I'd waste time searching for unseen context that isn't there to find.  I will probably fill this area with the traces of an old supply depot, or something.  Or perhaps make the exit to the lake a natural fissure also.


The players exit out into a challenging environment compounded by the first hint of faction play, as the players consider how to cross a toxic lake.  A DM can play up the low visibility environment, switching to describing sounds as the players enter the fog (presuming they don't split the party to leave some outside the fog, who'd then risk being picked off by temptation!).  Thoughtful players can learn more information here, if inclined to divinations, that my produce light bulb moments later on.   

The potential fight or parley with the Sial-Atun is nicely arranged, with sensible tactical advice if players itch for a fight.  Note that as written, the hindrance of the fog is not applied to their view-radius since the text describes spotting PCs examining the barge.  This feels like an oversight; the DM should move the barge or just simply ignore the risk of discovery there (the players almost certainly will explore their way into view anyway).  


"Rising from the lake like some pelagic horror, the necropolis is a replica of Uyu-Yadmogh’s city in life, recast in terracotta and basalt. Doorways are skewed, angles are jagged and rooftops and towers are slanted. Every inch of the city is covered in hieroglyphics and sculpture, layer upon layer upon layer. There is a psychotic beauty to the place, a reflection of the madness of its inhabitants."

This section has a lot of moving parts.  3 different factions run around this area, along with multiple (nasty) guardian monsters; many of whom track and ambush.  A DM will want to avoid "ruined urban area" pitfalls here - primarily overwhelmed players blankly stating they start exploring the nearest (empty) house.  The setup helps the DM in two ways, here: 

1) in two of the three entry points (gates) the first couple of layers of houses are smaller than normal size and it doesn't really make any sense to struggle with them.  It's a batshit crazy detail that makes no sense, but works.  You as DM will want to steer players from wrestling with this as a Meaningful Detail or mystery to solve, however, because it isn't.

2)  Three areas are visible from anywhere - the tower, place, and amphitheater.  Use your narration to emphasize these if players don't the hint.  I'd probably make the tree and statue visible very quickly if players are anywhere near their vicinity.  That leaves one faction's hideout in the ruins, and the otherwise unremarkable building with the secret passage.  The latter really depends on how the players handle the tree, so needs no telegraphing; the former may be more of an issue if the players have (otherwise smartly) eschewed exploring generic areas in detail.  Just be aware you should breadcrumb trail a way over to the faction hideout; the easiest intel drop comes as an outcome of going to the amphitheater.

One area to highlight for tweaks is the tree.  On the chance the players are exploring it as opposed to being led there, the DM will need something resembling the gardens of Versailles. The map is more abstract, and if taken literally shows something akin to the parting of the red sea with a clear path to the tree.  So grab a photo of some aristocratic topiary and make a mini-map prior to use.  Another area I'd consider before play is how to handle the paranoia of the locals juxtaposed with the peace-enforcing atmosphere of the tree.  This is one area where all the details seem to work against each other instead of with.  To make all the narrative parts true, I may substitute the insta-calm of the tree with a thematic save vs maze spell for anyone holding hostility in their black hearts. 

A last topic for the DM to consider a touch of further investment is in the Nine.  You're given more than enough to play them as opponents, but a bit of thought towards the details of why they're teamed up, why the various individuals want the goal sought, and the fracture lines of a likely inevitable infighting, will make the roleplay with this faction smooth.  As an example, one of the Nine is a possible hook/recruiter of the PCs back in Iotha.  If the DM used that, some prep in how to play out a reunion the players wouldn't expect, is effort well-spent.  My initial thought is a different illusionary appearance for her in Iotha, but her distinctive verbal tic a clue the players might use to connect the two after meeting her true self in this damned necropolis.  Pair that with some weakness/phobia revealed in Iotha as part of playing out the hook, which the PCs can remember to use against her here, and the seeds of legitimate player pride in good play are laid.


This is the castle proper, and the meat of the adventure.  It is an exceptionally well-envisioned pit of rebellious depravity.  Your players will have to think.  Pigs are well-fed but hogs are slaughtered. Some highlights and points to be aware of:

The artwork for the main entrance is superb.  Show that to the players and the tension for how this section plays out will, I expect, be palpable.

In area 9, a bit of map tweaking should be considered so that the # of alcoves match the # coming out of them, since the monsters are described as 1 per alcove.  Or just tweak the description to multiple per alcove.  This is in no way a big deal, but as DM you might as well avoid the "wait a minute" conversation with the mapper.  

Just north of the throne room there's a large circular room showing as filled with debris on the map, that isn't otherwise described in the text (that I noticed).  Decide ahead of time if this is impassable or merely a terrain hazard.  Your decision will affect what are the best ambush points and escape routes - monsters in the dungeon are either patient or inexorable, and you need to be prepared to play both situations well.  Examples of good ambush sites are outside the areas of 6-7, 10, 15-17, 18-19, and perhaps 23.

Bonus points for the sentence clause "...,triple that to an anthropophage or affluent ghoul."

The master of ceremonies is a great encounter; in fact, I'd tweak his communication to telepathic/instinctive, so as to avoid the possibility PCs can't understand him.  A memorable combat could erupt here if some patient guardians used this moment for ambush!

The treasure room is everything greedy players hope for, and more.  Follow-up adventure seeds abound, and could springboard your campaign for many sessions to come.  One item mentioned is a map, and DMs should have a map prepared to hand out (could be as simple as grabbing an interesting map from anywhere online before play, if a DM doesn't dig making treasure maps).  

A likely interaction is in #23, with a death mask.  The text seems inconclusive as to whether its a single death mask with 3 sides, or 3 separate death masks.  Either works, but the DM should pick one to use in narration.

Again, prior to making my main constructive criticism it should be emphasized how well this, the cornerstone area of the adventure *works*.  It is a triumph of evocative, sensical, memorable design.  PC exploits here will be discussed over leftover pizza for so long as your group endures.  So it may seem odd that I would suggest to DMs running it to tone the narration down in some instances.  Everything is "vast", "alien", "incomprehensible", "every square inch", etc.   The same adjectives going up to "11" are repeatedly used in the module, and 8 times out of 10, that language is absolutely valid.  But it does run past the line of mental fatigue in places.  If a monstrous statue is vast, and a bed is vast, and a 30'x30' room is also vast...the statue looses some oomph.  The art is fantastic, capturing the applicable scenes in ways beyond my expectations - but even the artists declined to truly grasp the secondary detail in the narrations of most of the scenes presented.  If the narration often outkicks the artist coverage, it will almost certainly outkick the mental imagery spun up by the players in the heat of the moment while they are dividing their capacity between that and how to deal in real time with the complex, well-conceived environment, and become so much water running off a saturated sponge.  The higher you take the players, and the more often, the more necessary it becomes to intersperse some mental parsley so their palette is ready for the next mindfuck.


The piece de la resistance; the big bad; what has defied heaven and hell to its own regrets.  The artist outdid themselves and every DM should absolutely print out this piece to pass around the table.  The combat (if taken) will be a satisfying conclusion.  The repercussions could linger forever.  Well done.



Monday, September 16, 2019

VTT maps for the Lizard Man Lair in Saving Throw — a fundraiser fanzine to help James D. Kramer

Late last night we got word that the fundraiser 'zine Saving Throw had gone live on DTRPG.  It's goal is supporting Jim Kramer and his family in their fight against brain cancer while acknowledging in some small way all of the support he gave the OSR when it was a much tighter circle of content creators.  Everything that sparks into a sustained fire needs a generous helping of "right place/people at the right time", and OSRIC and Knockspell hugely benefited from a pro knowing digital publishing and cheerfully offering his layout services (among other talents) to bring old school gaming back to a wide audience.

The cadre of contributors who answered the call are exceptionally talented, and I'm honored that my homages to Jim were included.  For those of you who haven't had the chance to check out the contents yet - I feel it is no puffery to state this much quality playing content is well-worth $13.  Everyone wanted those supporting the fundraiser to get several nights of great gaming out of the mix, and that bar was, in my opinion, surpassed.

One of my contributions is a "super-lair" of sorts; a tribe of lizard men transforming from tribal primitives to a more advanced society under the shepherding of dark powers.  While it's placed on one portion of a treasure map also included in the 'zine, it serves just as well in any swampy marsh on a DM's world if party choices lead towards encountering a large group of the beasties.  Both DM and player maps are included, but the player maps still contain compass directions and a map title.

As more groups adopt VTTs for their weekly play, I'm providing a no-frills version, and a 10' hex version,  of the player map here with all text and symbols cropped out to ease throwing the lair up on your VTT of choice (and also to more easily reorient the whole towards other cardinal directions if desired).  The lizard men have lured many previous (and overconfident) intruders deep into their village only to grind them up against their makeshift stockade - will your players recognize the envelopment and defeat it?  Or will they become the latest batch of slaves worked until they drop into the meat cauldrons of their own accord?

Happy gaming!

Friday, August 23, 2019

New rules for clerical strongholds

I've been making notes for a few years on a monotheistic campaign world I'm building in my copious (ha!) spare time.  These are some ways I'm expanding the clerical stronghold rules:

When a cleric reaches 8th level, the place of worship described must be built within the civilized realms of <the main continent> at a location consented upon by the church. This may be an area of expanding population, the re-establishment of a church previously abandoned or ruined, or other reason as defined by the DM.  Success in this endeavor gains the character the ecclesiastical title of Bishop.

If the character previously developed a patronage relationship with a noble of the appointed realm, the place of worship must be at minimum 2.5X as large (5000 SF Main Floor) and is expected to be of a greater magnificence as well; ideally, a structure of cultural significance similar to many of the great medieval churches. The patron defrays between 51%-60% of the total cost of the building (overall maximum patron contribution subject to DM discretion). 

A place of worship deemed culturally significant by the DM raises the minimum hit points of those worshipers to a floor of 2 hit points, after having dwelt within its diocese for an uninterrupted period of at least 3 years (if they leave they must start the 3 years anew). Any worshiper attending the location a minimum of once a month for an uninterrupted period of months gains a 2% cumulative "miracle" bonus to their chance per month of a cure of any existing chronic diseases and/or parasitic infestation. A culturally significant church will triple the number of pilgrimages made to the location.

Culturally significant buildings also attract 50% more followers to the cleric than otherwise normal; all followers arriving over a period of 12 months. Should a cleric call for a Holy War (see below) as the prelude to building a religious stronghold at 9th level then 2-8 first level paladins - younger sons of lesser nobility or other worthies as determined by the DM - will join to help lead the forces to Holy War on the presumption of forming the core of the new Archbishop's court. (Note: a cleric may call for Holy War regardless of the type of place of worship built at 8th level, but paladins only assemble if it is culturally significant.) 

A religious stronghold built at 9th level must be in a location not currently under the titular power of another if the cleric wishes the recognized rights of a Sovereign Archbishop. Unlike the place of worship at 8th level, a location of a religious stronghold is chosen solely by a cleric, although if sovereignty isn't desired the stronghold may be built in another noble's realm as per a place of worship, above, but this does require consent (which is usually welcomed). Religious strongholds built in either the Near or Far Wilderness grant the cleric the right to call for Holy War. This involves expending between 500 - 1,000 gp per month (1d6+4) for a year on messengers, advertising, travel assistance, and other costs as determined by the DM. 

Holy War results in the accumulation of the following groups at the previously-built place of worship, or alternate designation advertised by the cleric during the proclamation period: between 100-600 families of farmers and other trades useful in virgin settlements (each family having between 1-6 people); 100-400 untrained men recently gaining their majority; and 100-600 experienced mercenaries seeking long term employment (which do expect pay if retained). Lastly, calling a Holy War means certain availability of at least one prospect (and possibly several) of any specialist hireling type of the cleric's choice that they wish to retain, so long as that type is at least occasionally available generally.  In all cases, those assembling expect the cleric can provide for their needs during the journey and afterwards for one year or until the first harvest comes in, whichever occurs first.

While military failure in a Holy War isn't necessarily disgraceful, an inability to provide for prospective settlers during this initial year is.  Such prospective archbishops may lose all ecclesiastical titles and suffer permanent reaction penalties that double with the lower classes.  If the failure is especially great or neglectful, personal atonement may be required from above. 

While a cleric isn't absolutely required to relinquish their bishop title to the previous place of worship if becoming sovereign elsewhere, most appoint a functional under-bishop and retain the title only ceremonially - perhaps a small stipend taken from the church's revenues.  The consenting noble may insist upon nominating a replacement to this first title otherwise, unless relations remain friendly or the noble is under church censure.  However it is not unknown for such revocations to spur a conflict which can end in a noble's loss of title and rights to the cleric instead; but given the great disparity in resources between the two, and the church's natural desire to intervene in such cases, this outcome is rare. 

The farther away an intended new realm is from the civilized lands, the greater the cleric's likelihood of beatification after death (assuming the stronghold was successfully established, in most cases).

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

My Personal Rules as a Player

1) I do not hoard my wow-bangs. If I die with a sheet full of magical items or spells, then I played in vain. I am not here to advance a character, I am here to make fun memories with people I enjoy spending time with. Regular battles of attrition are slightly more interesting uses of my time than a 3rd grade math pop quiz.

2) Getting somewhere depends on rudimentary time management. Pixel-bitching for 45 minutes on something that isn't going to change the curve is wasting not only your time but everyone else's. I know there are one-way doors in the game, but most of the time you can come back with better information if it seems like you're missing something, rather than OCD on not-immediately obvious Q or A.

3) I surprise the DM - I do not find the margins and color inside of them. I find the weak points not considered and blow up the best-laid plans of my adversaries like the dudes walking away with their backs to the explosion. I am not concerned about dramatic tension; I am looking to dominate, bypass, confound, and neutralize. Moments of sheer panic will happen regardless but my goal is to have none.

4) Help other players have big moments - I know I'm a strong personality who will end up in a caller-like role whether consciously or unconsciously. So if leading a party, be a leader-servant. When other players are all looking at each other unsure of what to do, break the silence. When other players have an idea, help them make it happen. When you see a way for them to shine that they don't - put them in that position and try your damnedest to make everyone the party's X factor from time to time. When you all get together over beers afterwards, no one wants to hear stories about one person's character.

5) Spend your damn money - buy information, rumors, contacts, hidey-holes, strongholds (name-level or not), small armies of mercs, church support, adoration from the masses, and anything and everything else that gives your DM a lever to move your world. Whenever I look at a player's character sheet - presuming they have all of the basic game necessities met (training, maintenance, whatever) - and there's some ridiculous amount of gold scratched on there I feel like I'm sitting with a middle-manager only capable of following someone else's plan. Help them see the possibilities.

6) Have a short, medium, and long term goals that have zero to do with whatever the DM is cooking up - tying in with the above, adventure seeds are great - I'm always hunting for this stuff. But surely you know something you want to do that's intrinsic to yourself. Are you a fighter that wants a magic sword? Don't pine for it, drop out-of-game hints, or anything else. Start hunting for it; make it known within the world what you seek (at least to those who might point you in that direction). If you're a thief - make contacts way before you're thinking of setting up a guild in a few levels. Look for one ripe for takeover. Cleric? Where doth the church need extending its reach? Etc.

7) Contribute to the game world - make custom spells, items, and prayers. If you're a fighter, don't just found a stronghold - find a good natural harbor and start a new city.

8) Pay attention - be ready to roll. Don't be the guy saying "huh" every time. Speak up. Move things along. Write down stuff.

9) Be versatile - every time I see a player whine because they had a specific idea for a character in mind and must have that or their time isn't fun, I get flashbacks to every high-maintenance girl I've ever stupidly dated anyway. The warning signs are always there early, and they always come true.

10) There is no arc - embrace setbacks. This is not a novel. At this point there's nothing more boring than saving the world except a nice steady progress from week to week where my character consistently waxes in power. I don't invest in the bond market, and I'm not looking to play D&D to meter my progress through the level names. You're not really winning at D&D if you never lose. Gamble. Take big risks with the equivalent of monopoly money. If you're a character-driven roleplayer, seek the admiration that comes from a populace that sees your character rise from the ashes to become even better than before the tumble. Laughing off real adversity is the role most D&D characters should be playing, not the guy who always hits their scratch off ticket for $1 more than it cost.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

YAR to "The End of the OSR"

I've been meaning to start writing on this thing again for several months, and like most meanings this too was elusive.

Melan's post discussing the end of the OSR, and Anthony Huso's response, offered a chance to have -if for a small moment shared by only a few people - that sort of chained conversation that kicked the whole mess off and running.

I say "mess" with mixed feelings ranging from fondness to good riddance.

I was a lurker in the first years of the OSR, but it was the OSR that gave me a reason to lurk.  For the first time since the earliest days of rolling dice, suddenly there was more to read than I had time to consume - and being stationed on jobs for long periods of time away from my home, I had a lot of time to consume.  It was beyond heady.

Like all things, the seeds of its destruction were sown in its early period of success.

The OSR confirmed something few believed - that there was a market for old school material.  And boy was there a market.  Determined to support the home team, the earliest days were an avalanche of sales and support regardless of quality.  It didn't matter if what was offered was a fantastic new adventure such as Mythmere's Spires of Iron and Crystal, or an utterly redundant rewriting of the paladin class for Labyrinth Lord - it got cheers.  And sales.  And noise.

In many ways RPGers are a captive audience.  The hobby is time-consuming if pursued to any degree of "seriousness"; and while running an engrossing campaign is harder than it looks, writing material that allows someone else to do so easier than if home-brewing is harder still.  Most DMs simply do not have time to tend their creative garden well.  Life calls with more urgency and frequency.  So they buy, and buy, and buy some more.  DMs read for inspiration; isolated players often read for the daydream of games not found and characters not played.  The hobby pulls so strongly on unmet or unmeetable desires of our subconscious that, even if only vicariously, consumption of its offerings takes precedent as much as our bank accounts allow.

So when the noise of celebration grew loud enough across the internet to be heard above the din of masses disaffected by either 4th edition's rules or the arrogance of its propagators, a relative stampede occurred.  THIS was the spice long missed, the seasoning slowly overwhelmed across years by new ingredients.  A flood of 25 years worth of yellowed notebook pages poured forth in sparkling PDFs and print-on-demand; and the masses said yea, verily, The Man doth suck with a mighty sucking.  Perhaps we never really needed them after all.  The cafeteria that always served meatloaf on Tuesdays suddenly had both an entrance and an exit.

And revenue in any noticeable amount always, always pulls in those seeking it however they can obtain it.  Gamers are not the dungeon delvers they imagine, they are the dungeon treasure; the gold pieces.  Some who buy $500 faux leather-bound deluxe versions of what everyone else buys for $50 are the jewels whose value are bumped up repeatedly beyond the base.  The rumors had reached the tavern, and the writers-for-hire were fresh out of in-print OGL games under which to ply their wares.

These points have been made before as the fruit of sour grapes from those whose offerings didn't catch fire while watching the flames grow.  But this is not that sort of essay.  It is recognition and proper tip of the hat to the semi-professionals who entered the scene at this time and kicked it up a notch in presentation with diligent, sustained raw effort translated into playable page count.  A good content provider is not found befuddled as tastes move and shift.

But here's the thing - no tribe has ever prospered in the long run by relying on mercenaries.  They come for the pay, not because their heart is engaged to the same degree as the volunteers.  The OSR tearing itself apart was as inevitable as gravity pulling down an escaped helium balloon as the molecules eventually pass back through the latex.  When you have no other options, you write what other people want.  When you have clout, you persuade people to buy what you really want to write.

As more people with contrary desires all flew the same flag, the flag meant nothing in comparison to the specific captain flying it.  Everyone still mingled together, but more and more it was as agents for their chosen champions as much as it was members of the same tribe sharing the same interests.  Whenever captains contended with each other, we saw what came first for many people - personal allegiances and interests; i.e., their friends. 

The clock continued to turn, the tent continued to grow, and nearly anything popular writers wanted to include under its roof was enthusiastically accepted as OSR.  Gamers love the idea of community and hate the word "no".  And for a long time, everything could co-exist in this dramatic scene of ever more varied offerings that attracted even more people who only tangentially enjoyed undiluted early styles of play - but were observably creative even so.  Momentum only slightly slows right after people stop pushing in similar directions.  It takes a while for anyone to notice.

5E, and then G+, made this all much more plain.   Semi-professionals were again flying the flag offering the highest pay.  Hasbro had made several homages to the game's roots, often sufficient to entice gamers wanting a seat at any table both full and offering familiar names on the menu.  And most importantly, it was OGL.  More and more people were grumbling that stuff they bought no longer easily dropped into their campaigns, and it didn't feel so much like real old school play, but like an airline who convinces you that the two fewer inches you have in a coach seat this year was never that important, complaints were shouted down.  Again the choice was given - community or what you really want: take your pick.  Just like it had been given before; in 1989 and 2000.

Many new-ish and younger members of the OSR had never given games they didn't quite like the finger and rode on; I don't think they either expected or noticed the grumblers pulling away and taking a teensy bit of that momentum with them when they left, along with a large part of the live-and-let-live mentality for a wide gamut of personal choices that gamers of many decades experience have almost always had by pure necessity, if a full table was any sort of goal.

All that was left was the pure primordial chaos of general creativity born from overwrought personalities who couldn't get along.  There was no single other factor tying everyone together except a social media platform.

Which went poof.

And that was it.  Many had joined something already running, and the choice was: join or not.  This is where the tent is.  Selecting new ground for a tent, and who will be allowed to come in this time, is an entirely different matter.  The captains of course could not agree because most of them had been trying to get one or another kicked out of the tent for years, and their individual followers also didn't care to unify; they had nothing in common with those other people except an acronym no three people could agree on the meaning of, and even the use of that was now subject to feud.

This dynamic has played out thousands of times across thousands of scenes.  Everyone wants to think that people join something you consider yourself part of because they're just. like. you!  Conversely, people joining a scene in progress assume everyone else in it is just. like. them!  Nobody wants to believe that their needs are truly only served best in a small segment, or that in a big tent they're mostly seen by the popular captains as a dollar sign.  Our egos cover our eyes.

So is the OSR dead?  Yes.  If you consider the OSR to be mainly the good memories of possibly hundreds of responses to a conversation started over lunch.  That illusion is dead; and it was always as illusionary as the tip of an iceberg seeming the whole of it.

The simple truth is that our fantasies are deeply personal and only partially compatible.  The more people you try to fantasize jointly with, the greater the tug-of-war over where it goes.  And the less it satisfies all involved.  It will seem most vibrant while its cracking at the seams; the point in time when receiving the most communal energy in unspoken desires to mold its final form.

So is the OSR dead?  No.  I've found the most enjoyable material has come after the mercenaries have left and the volunteers have persevered.  Once again I have more material than I can possibly use, but which drives me to my own creative heights just in the reading.  I continue to have full tables of younger gamers at my convention games who hang on every roll of the dice.  I no longer get daily updates on the latest round of insults between the captains.

Harmony reigns once again and even in the diaspora, the old OSR did a yeoman's work - I don't think anything as jarring as 4E will ever again see the light of day.  Too many people gained a taste for something different, even if applications vary.

So I do not mourn the splitting of the OSR any more than I mourn the setting of the sun at the end of the day.  It is a cycle which will repeat over and over again.

I throw dice still, if temporarily by candlelight.  Which is the warmest light of all.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Magic-Users in Groat's End

Magic-Users in Groat's End

The Lady Cynewise
Human M-U, 12th level

I 18, W 13, C 6, CH 16, AC 6, HP 18, AL LE

middle-aged, foppish appearance, very stable, helpful, inquisitive, extroverted, friendly, sensitive, brilliant, vengeful, greedy, truthful, craven, spendthrift, amoral, saintly (in the context of lawful evilness), interested in: legends, collector of porcelain/china/crystal

Notable equipment: Ring of protection +2, Bracers AC 8, ring of invisibility, wand of paralyzation, staff of command, other magic as determined by the DM

Spells available:

(1st level) charm person, comprehend languages, dancing lights, detect magic, find familiar, hold portal, identify, mending, mount, protection from evil. read magic, shocking grasp, unseen servant

(2nd level) bind, darkness 15’ rad, detect evil, flaming sphere, forget, invisibility, know alignment, leomund’s trap, locate object, magic mouth, mirror image, protection from cantrips, scare, whip

(3rd level) blink, clairvoyance, gust of wind, haste, invisibility 10’ rad, leomund’s tiny hut, monster summoning I, phantasmal force, protection from evil 10’ rad, secret page, slow, suggestion, tongues, water breathing, wind wall

(4th level) charm monster, confusion, dispel illusion, fear, fire trap, leomund’s secure shelter, magic mirror, minor globe of invulnerability, massmorph, otiluke’s resilient sphere, plant growth, remove curse, shout

(5th level) bigby’s interposing hand, cloudkill, contact other plane, distance distortion, fabricate, hold monster, leomund’s lamentable belaborement, monster summoning III, mordenkainen’s faithful hound, passwall, sending, stone shape, transmute rock to mud, wall of force

(6th level) contingency, death spell, ensnarement, glassee, project image, reincarnation, repulsion, stone to flesh

Spells normally memorized: (4/4/4/4/4/1) (1st level) charm person, protection from evil, shocking grasp, unseen servant (2nd level) bind, forget, invisibility, whip (3rd level) blink, clairvoyance, suggestion, slow (4th level) charm monster, confusion, minor globe of invulnerability, otiluke’s resilient sphere (5th level) bigby’s interposing hand, hold monster, leomund’s lamentable belaborement, transmute rock to mud (6th level) project image

Cynwise is eternal in the eyes of your average Groat’s End citizen. Well over 200 years old, she both founded the town and removed herself as its titular ruler outside of living memory. Now she’s more like a force of nature: outside the law, inside the walls, and beyond anyone’s ability to resist.

It’s unknown how she manages to live on, by appearance in the prime of life, beyond all reasonable mortal allotment. While from a distance her alluring facade seems perfect, at arms length its unnatural strain subtly but surely contrasts with her demeanor – presented to the uninitiated as warm matronly concern. Those who fear her shadow falling across them if alone know her more fully: superior, demanding, punishing. The more meager the person, the more likely the suffering. Her presence in the streets of Groat’s End is often announced by scurrying dogs and cats as if woodland creatures fleeing the fire – she hates animals and uses her whip spell whenever one remains in her presence.

She has an imp familiar, though it is rarely seen and less discussed. Outside, she is sometimes accompanied by a zombie servant; always so within her tower. If any new acquaintance expresses outrage at this she raises her eyebrow and lightly mocks their provincialism.

Her saving grace is her indolence and possessiveness; lacking the drive to truly advance the cause of evil, too proud to allow GE to be taken from her by someone more dynamic, and content as a shark in a pond of guppies, Cynwise is left alone to terrorize her isolated rump domain. She usually keeps at least one apprentice for the drudge work, and does turn out capable prestidigitators; although nearly all graduates prize distance, first and most – she inevitably becomes hostile to any caster of power rivaling her. Recently she quietly whipped up a mob against the only other (known) magic-user in town, and his charred remains are still chained in Hangman’s Court.

Adventurers will usually encounter her whenever seeking magical services (the locals will all direct them to her tower) or possibly randomly on the streets. However encountered, Cynwise will recognize an adventuring party for what it is, even if otherwise credibly disguised, and greet them warmly (and discretely, if necessary). She’ll likely agree to consult with them if needed, at rates befitting her ability (or for a service – she often has uses for an adventuring party). There’s something in the dungeon she wants, so she desires the ability to inspect items taken from it. She is obsessed with delicate or porcelain dolls (and researched several defense spells involving them for use in her tower) and will also pay premium coin for other like treasure, such as fine vases, exceptional silverware, etc.

Cynwise tries to avoid putting her brittle body in combat at all costs; she’s likely to flee any violence immediately unless it’s around her tower where she has prepared defenses, and can likely expect the townspeople to rise up in a mob to defend her. Terrified as they are, she is the devil they know (and they know it can be worse), along with a touch of civic duty besides. She makes frequent use of the spells suggestion and forget in combination, to the extent townspeople use the commonly-experienced blackouts as plausible excuse for personal lapses of all sorts.

Simon of Left End.

5th level M-U
I 15, AC 10, HP 11, AL LE

youthful, non-descript, unstable, moody, mischievous, abrasive, proud, intellect: average, unforgiving, very honorable, miserly, interests: history, legends

notable equipment: spellbooks, fake scroll sheets and wands

Spells available:

(cantrips if/as used in campaign as determined by DM)

(1st level) armor, detect magic, friends, grease, melt*, protection from evil, read magic, run*, unseen servant*

(2nd level) irritation, magic mouth, melf’s acid arrow*, preserve*, ray of enfeeblement, scare, shatter, whip*

(3rd level) item, monster summoning I, phantasmal force*, protection from normal missiles, sepia snake sigil*

* spells marked with an asterisk are known, but Simon has no spellbook containing them

Spells memorized: (1st) armor, friends, grease, cantrips (or read magic) (2nd) irritation, ray of enfeeblement (3rd) protection from normal missiles

Simon is a former apprentice of Cynwise living secretly in Groat’s End. Unlike most others, he attempted to stay in the area and inevitably a few years ago their relations grew sour. Exact details remain unknown, but Cynwise slew him, animating his corpse as a zombie which serves her to this day.

Unknown to her, Simon had a contingency placed upon him that reincarnated him upon his death. Finding himself in a new body, he quickly gathered what caches of secreted goods he could and re-established himself in the city as an arriving common day-laborer at the thresher’s guild; working there while making and revising plans to gain his revenge. His blood boils whenever he sees his zombified body following Cynwise around town.

Adventurers looking for standard hirelings have a 50% chance of employing Simon, increasing by 10% per service sought. Simon hopes to gain entry into a group of adventurers this way, to gain allies in an eventual assault on Cynwise. If the group looks capable enough, he’ll present himself as a low-level magic user secretly associated with some group favorable to the PCs and ask to join them, slow-rolling his ability unless in extreme danger (which will be disguised as a “scroll” or similar distraction). By most criteria, he’ll be a reasonably reliable comrade – he wants to curry favor. If the party obtains any contingency and/or reincarnation magic, however, Simon will want it, giving a premium if need be.

There’s one problem though: Simon is dunning-kruger personified. His ability in his field is poor, his suggestions are bad, his tactics are worse, and his surety of their brilliance is boggling. He’s not a keystone cop of a party member, but whatever decisions he gets to make are more likely to hurt than help. And he’ll insist that the party have no dealings with Cynwise if he is a member, although refuse to explain why. While he’ll adventure away from the area as-needed, he won’t agree to relocate from GE while Cynwise lives. When he feels it appropriate (almost certainly before it actually is) he’ll approach the party and propose killing Cynwise.

Simon delights in secretly casting annoying cantrips on people having ill-will against him in his former body.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The clerics in Groat's End

Comonoc the Spry
Cleric of Xan Yae, 11th level

S 4, I 15, W 18, D 3, CH 15, AC 10, HP 39, AL N

Psionic Ability 150 (75 att/75 def)

attack modes: psionic blast, mind thrust
defense modes: mind blank, mental barrier
Disciplines: (minor) domination, ESP, object reading, precognition; (major) energy control

Spells normally memorized: (7/6/5/4/2/1) command, CLWx2, light, remove fear, sanctuary, augury, hold person, messenger, slow poison, withdraw, wyvern watch, cure disease, dispel magic, magical vestment, meld into stone, speak with dead, implore, CSW, divination, PFE 10’ rad, commune (if unable to memorize commune then golem or insect plague instead), true seeing.

old, sane, precise, violent, diplomatic, cheerful, active intellect, hard-hearted, intellectualist, scrupulously honest, interested in husbandry and athletics

Comonoc is an emaciated, legless whisp. He’s well-regarded by the poorer masses because of his frequent assistance to sick or injured children and his financial support of the soup kitchen. Although the town isn’t particularly fervent, Comonoc is influential while working quietly towards his own ends, which are invested in the status quo. He often changes the course of events small and large without anyone being the wiser.

He makes his way outside of the temple either by chair (carried by bearers) or on the body of a rope golem (created via magic). While usually at his temple, he may be in the streets either on market or holidays, or when making a house call. Inside the temple he may additionally be carried by his personal servant.

Despite his own physical condition, Comonoc is intensely interested the hardiness and fitness of his community. Financed from the sale of his spells to adventurers and the rich, he maintains a training ground open to the city’s youth where they can learn the classic arts of boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics; the gifted also can learn some basic weaponry, or subjects such as reason and theology. He often observes on the fields outside his temple the activity and the instruction given by those he’s hired (from as far away as Greyhawk.) He’s also one of the best judges of horseflesh in Groat’s.

Comonoc’s services aren’t entirely altruistic: they place him in direct contact with many and allow liberal use of his precognition; casting about for those with strong potential and/or intent to impact the status quo of Groat’s End. (This rarely includes such transient folk as adventurers.) For those foreseen: the healing doesn’t work; the training results in accidents causing lameness, or rarely, worse.

Comonoc is merciless in combat, dominating opponents to slay themselves or their former allies. If using a rope golem, he may (if safe to do so) direct it to strangle an opponent while he reads it, only letting the noose slip loose if he senses it beneficial to his ends to do so. He’s either AC 10 if immobile, or has the AC of whatever is carrying him (60% of hits to the carrier, 40% to Comonoc.)

If he senses he’s outmatched, a favored tactic is to meld into stone while employing his psionic blast, then exiting to finish what’s left.

Comonoc and Wizardess hate each other, but for entirely personal and petty reasons as opposed to ideological ones. Although Conomoc has frustrated some of Wizardess’ goals in the past, and if she ever found this out the enmity could explode into open conflict.

Spells normally memorized: (7/6/5/4/2/1) command, CLWx2, light, remove fear, sanctuary, augury, hold person, messenger, slow poison, withdraw, wyvern watch, cure disease, dispel magic, magical vestment, meld into stone, speak with dead, implore, CSW, divination, PFE 10’ rad, commune (if unable to memorize commune then golem or insect plague instead), true seeing.


Erik of Blue
half-orc cleric/assassin 3/3

W 15, D 16, AC 5, HP 13, AL LE

Notable Equipment: leather +1, dagger of venom.

Spells (4/2) commandx2, darkness, fear, hold person, silence 15' rad

old, immaculate, barbaric, obsessive, introverted, secretive, easy-going, anti-intellectual, jealous, greedy, energetic, lusty, interested in gambling and athletics.

Erik poses convincingly as a bawdy, loud, and rugged man-at-arms; an old comrade of the red shirts boss who survived long enough to retire and mentor the young red shirts at the guild. In reality, he’s an aging cleric/assassin of Gruumsh who took on the boss as a protege years ago, and now serves in turn as the group’s spiritual adviser. Erik doesn’t assassinate commercially in the city, although if red shirt leadership considers it necessary his services are available to them.

Erik gambles big on animal fights (and everything else). The boss quietly covers any losses every month with Jimmy directly. Erik secreted tools of his trade in a couple stashes at the Spur that Jimmy doesn’t know about, and discretely killed there before. He gets angry if someone goes on a winning streak against him, especially clerics of other gods; but only 50% chance he starts a fistfight over it – otherwise he plots.


Human 1st level cleric of Yox/Magog

S 7, W 14, C 15, AC 10, HP 6, AL CE

Spells (3) fear, portent, endure heat/cold (whichever appropriate to the season)

scant possessions, ancient rough appearance, pessimistic, superstitious, diplomatic, harsh, anti-intellectual, miserly, liar, cowardly, interested in nature and legends.

Maisee will tell you she’s been a cult leader for Yox since before before you were born, and that the cause is doomed because of the weaknesses of the current generation. She’s also brutally honest in her abject pessimism, and yet in her utter worminess finds a way to honey her truth so the listener has someone else to blame for why its necessary to take her advice and not <insert activity here>.

She also insists throwing chicken bones is a valid augury to Yox (it’s not), immediately proclaiming any “bad results” as divine warning to stay put. She throws chicken bones before almost any action. Any attempts to refute her claims or her methods result in her mocking detractors mercilessly. Her violent side manifests if she’s ever presented with weakness and plausible deniability.

She lives as a beggar, but can covertly provide cult members some assistance and a place to stay. Although she won’t divulge where or why she received it, Maisee owns the amulet of Roh-Man-Tapf (detailed below) – the shelter she can provide, and where she keeps her shrine. If not going along, she’ll ask how long of a rest is desired, opening up a gate back at the appointed time. Usually. She’s occasionally forgetful. Also, if a lost party is coming near a door, about a day prior to their exit the amulet starts vibrating angrily and Maisee hides it somewhere secluded. Both combine to make longer than expected stays common.

If Maisee hides her amulet, she reclaims it after a few days; after which she goes to the safe space herself for as long as she can supply. People who can make their way out from being lost are all of: unhappy; usually more powerful than she can resist; and likely needing to get somewhere else quickly. A few days out of sight usually passes any danger to her, although she does sometimes also move to a new hovel afterwards.

She also passes word of town events to any cultist quietly moving through town.

Amulet of Roh-Man-Tapf – this ancient ankh provides a gate to a microplane of 25’x50’ that is akin to, but not of, whatever plane would receive the soul of an attuned owner. The plane is empty and safe, except as described below.

The gate opening into the plane is alignment-trapped; those of alignments other than currently tuned to the amulet lose 1d10 days of time if one step removed, and 1d10 weeks of time if farther removed. Those of attuned alignment will step into an enclosed space appropriate to the plane of affinity – an ominous cave if CE, a meadow ringed by impassable trees if CG, etc. At the owner’s determination the gate reopens and those in the plane may exit.

The owner need not be in the microplane themselves, but only one party at a time may use it. If a new group uses the amulet, anyone in the microplane (excluding those lost on paths) is cast out in the amulet’s current vicinity, or, if one of the new group carries the amulet with them, where it left the prime.

Those of other alignments find themselves in a 10’x10’ passage as described above that only goes forward. (Unless through prior experience) trapped characters have no knowledge of either an exit or how long the path is. While there are no hostile creatures on the path, there are either 1d2 or 1d4 deadly physical obstacles of up to 20’x50’ which must be negotiated (no more than one per day). After traversing the path for the time rolled, those trapped come to a door exiting safely back onto the plane of origin in the amulet’s vicinity.

However they do need to survive the march. Having only the supplies they brought, and unable to regain spells, they must be able to survive the necessary number of days to make it to the door. The passage will contain both spirits and bodies; bodies may retain any equipment the DM wishes to place except for food and water – most die of deprivation, and any rare other is already looted by someone who either made it out or died farther down the line. (One exception to this are bodies in the physical obstacles (50% chance of food/water) although reaching them should be an additional danger.)

The amulet can be realigned to another plane by casting a plane shift spell on it for this specific purpose. If done, all the trapped spirits of the same broad good-evil axis as the new plane depart for their afterlife.


Mathias the Chandler
half-elf, 3rd level cleric of Pholtus

W 16, CH 14, AC 10 (or 5), HP 13, AL LG

Spells memorized: (4/3) CLW, lightx2, protection from evil, augury, hold person , know alignment

scant possessions, mature, dandyish, kindly, studious, egoist, cheerful, soft-hearted, avaricious, brave, energetic, virtuous, interested in exotic animals.

Mathias doesn’t advertise his presence in Groat’s – it wouldn’t be welcomed since slavers come through often spending money – but he does keep a watch out for any newcomers who look like they’re good folk. If he sees a symbol of Pholtus he’ll make contact almost immediately; others get a longer period of observation. Where he can offer his services to a flock, he will, if assurances of secrecy are made. Flattery is a path to his favor; he can't resist it.

He’s known instead for his candles, mostly made from the tallow of the beef trade; fewer know him for the obscure treatises he reads by them. His predilection for having few possessions, but only of the highest quality, is also noted by some. He came to Groat’s as low-level eyes and ears for the church after another agent passed through and recognized Erik for who he was, relaying that info to Mathias’ superiors in Dyvers who sent him here after deciding it was worthwhile observing further. Mathias remains watchful, but hasn’t managed to piece together the larger purpose of Erik and his boss for the red shirts.

Comonoc has discerned the truth of Mathias, but says/does nothing as he (correctly) views Mathias as a potential check on the red shirts’ boss’s ambition.

Mathias keeps a suit of chain mail + shield and a mace but is loathe to break cover except in extremis.