Sunday, April 26, 2020

Maidens and the Moon: The Siege Castle

Another in my series of posts about my Zelda-esque campaign. I've been playtesting my heartbreaker using an amalgamation of blogs I like, Instagram artists that inspire me, and some A+ OSR modules. Read the big inspiration post before going on. 

And, again, there's material here that my players have not uncovered yet. If you're in my game, be ye warned that this way lies ruin(ed fun). 

haven't done a ton to clean my notes up for public consumption. Apologies. This is a gritty glimpse into the way I make notes.

have done some work to inject commentary on how the playtest went as the players went through the dungeon. Retrospective-ing is one of the reasons I'm mocking up these play reports.

The Siege Castle

A thousand siege engines, heaped together, held together by a spine of twisted spears. It plods along on armored feet, each made from a thousand iron boots. It's head is a nest of ballistas and trebuchets.  

It was the Moon King's greatest weapon. Now that the peninsula is pacified (and his attentions have turned elsewhere), the Siege Castle is retiring on the battlefield where it legs were first broken.

The Siege Castle wants war. It wants to feel spears clash against its skin. It wants to burn battalions under its lava spigots. It wants to scoop up knights in its jaws and crush them inside their armor until the pulp runs down its chin.

But it can't move. It's rusting apart, dying a slow death. Rain has accomplished what armies could not. It dies like a wolf; Fenris after Ragnarok.

It is still hungry. It is still capable of assimilating metal and weapons into itself. It is still capable of growing. (That's how it got so big--it returned from the war bigger than when it set out.)

It has servants, too, but they are clumsy things, meant to kill, not to repair. The knowledge and the tools needed to mend it are in the city.

At night, you can hear it groaning out on the battlefield. You can see the forge-fires still smoldering behind its ribs. Every once in a while, it makes an attempt to move.  You can hear the anguished metal tearing from a mile away. 

And yet it does move, slowly and painfully. Every month it drags itself a few feet closer to the Moon Castle. Does it still wish to curl up at the feet like a loyal dog? Or does it wish revenge for its abandonment?

Note: Any use of a hearthember inside the Siege Castle will summon a Campfire Sprite (see below).
  1. Resources taxed
  2. Resources taxed
  3. Resources taxed
  4. Resources taxed
  5. Resources taxed
  6. [Serendipity] Shuddering - The castle shudders and moans, like a cow in labor. The metal walls tremor disturbingly like flesh.
  7. [Serendipity] Shuddering - The castle shudders and moans, like a cow in labor. The metal walls tremor disturbingly like flesh.
  8. [Serendipity] Maze Golem - A large, animate statue of stone with a red stone glowing in its chest and a single glowing cyclopean eye is placidly making repairs here. (The maze golem won’t attack unless disturbed from his work.)
  9. [Serendipity] Maze Golem - A large, animate statue of stone with a red stone glowing in its chest and a single glowing cyclopean eye is placidly making repairs here. (The maze golem won’t attack unless disturbed from his work.)
  10. [Serendipity] Steam Trap - A thin razor of steam is escaping from a nearby pipe, invisible except for a high whine. The steam acts like a light saber and slices right through the first person in the marching order unless they succeed on a Test of Cups.
  11. [Serendipity] Steam Trap - A thin razor of steam is escaping from a nearby pipe, invisible except for a high whine. The steam acts like a light saber and slices right through the first person in the marching order unless they succeed on a Test of Cups.
  12. [Encounter] Totally Not Three Goblins in a Trenchcoat - I am a mighty wizard! For your moneys, I shall sell you this powerful magical bomb! It’s a good deal, and I am a mighty wizard.
  13. [Encounter] Totally Not Three Goblins in a Trenchcoat - I am a mighty wizard! For your moneys, I shall sell you this powerful magical bomb! It’s a good deal, and I am a mighty wizard.
  14. [Encounter] Blade Collectors - 3 Blade Collectors skuttle on the ceiling, baffled by the PC’s entrance. They ignore anybody not wearing metal armor, initially.
  15. [Encounter] Nipterror - [PC] number of Nipterrors phase through the wall, grinning eerily at the PCs. They want something to eat. They eat nightmares, and will trade passage for a story about nightmares. Otherwise, they’ll take a BITE out of the PCs.
  16. [Encounter] Nipterror - [PC] number of Nipterrors phase through the wall, grinning eerily at the PCs. They want something to eat. They eat nightmares, and will trade passage for a story about nightmares. Otherwise, they’ll take a BITE out of the PCs.
  17. [Encounter] Torchknights - [PC] number Torchknights are in this room, drinking and gambling. They look for honorable sport with the PCs.
  18. [Encounter] Torchknights - [PC] number Torchknights are in this room, drinking and gambling. They look for honorable sport with the PCs.
  19. [Encounter] Maze Cannon - A Maze Cannon patrols this area, ready to engage with any intruders with extreme prejudice.
  20. [Encounter] Maze Cannon - A Maze Cannon patrols this area, ready to engage with any intruders with extreme prejudice.
  21. Clue or revelation

Playtest Notes: In my "core" game of His Majesty the Worm I found it very useful to have 20 discrete options on my Meatgrinder table. Each zone was pretty large and had several hexes in it--each zone was a dungeon in its right. Characters came and went. Repetition was to be avoided.

The dungeons of "Maidens and the Moon" are much smaller--usually only 8-12 rooms. As such, having a random table of 20 events is a bit overkill. I doubled up here, to good effect.


Blade Collector
A scuttling creature who walks on four, sloth-like claws. It’s head is skull-like, and its arched back is a hardened carapace. Weaponry of all sorts--broken spear shafts, swords, axes, arrows--are embedded in the carapace. It moves cautiously, turning its head left and right.
HD: 4
The blade collector is blind to organic material. Iron and metal is most “real” to it, and it focuses on it the most. It’s unaware that animals or plants exist. Humans wearing metal enrage it.
Special: Immune to weapons - any weapon used against it sinks into its carapace like butter and becomes stuck.
* Defeat the fucker by throwing it off of a cliff, tricking it into a trap, blowing it up with a fireball...whatever.
* If you succeed, you get [draw] mundane items and 1 special masterwork weapon.

Campfire Sprite
Mischievous, reeking havoc on the party as it spreads fire. Will spark off of a hearthfire the PCs light inside of the Siege Castle.
HD 1
Special: Leaps onto something flammable. Flames must be put out or the PC takes 1 Wound at the start of their next turn.

Oh man, these little guys. 
HD: 4, but they don’t die from violence
Special: Shifty Buggers - Can disengage for free. Never suffer an opportunity attack
Bombardiers - Prepare bombs as any action. Throw bombs that blast everyone in a zone for a Wound.

Maze Cannon
Three-legged platform, decorated with ancient glyphs, with a canon projecting from it. A red stone glows on the top of the platform, illuminating the space around it. 
HD: 8
Special: Blast everybody in one direction with a fireball. This makes the cannon skitter backwards several steps. 
* Cannot right itself if “Tripped.” Trapped like a turtle on its back.
* The magic stone is worth 50s if sold.

Maze Golem
A cobblestone giant, ancient glyphs winding his way across his grey body. Its hands and feet end in three-pronged claws. A single, glowing red eye looks out of its head. In the center of its body is a red glowing stone. Moss and bird droppings cover its shoulders. 
HD 12
Special: Immune to magic
Vaporwave - As a last measure, can blast a laser that deals a Critical Wound. 

A huge floating head, surrounded by a halo of swords, with one giant eye and a huge, wicked, smiling mouth. It meanders through the air towards you, clacking its jaws. 
(Note: Can mimic any voice)
Wants: To hear your worst fears
HD 6
Special: Of Two Worlds - Can shift between spectral world (transparent) and physical world by discarding any card. 
Teleport - Can teleport to another zone that it can see

An iron suit of armor clanks towards you. It’s lit from within by a terrible red fire, spilling out of the cracks of the armor. 
Part zeal, part showy ironwork hearth, the blazing torchknights are spirits created
on occasion when a weary fighting man dies asleep in front of a fireplace. These soldiers were sometimes top professionals, but just as often they were the gouty, drunken, or slothful.  
Wants: To drink beer, to gamble
HD: 4
Special: Heat Metal - Everyone in the zone carrying metal items must drop them or take 1 Wound.
Immune to Magic due to its metal content
Weakness - Takes damage from water or being extinguished

Zones of the Siege Castle
One of my lesser good maps

The Red Ring Army (Outside the Castle)
A bunch of goblins and pit-fighters that have befriended the Siege Castle by hosting gladiatorial combats where the Siege Castle can watch. They treat the Siege Castle like a Roman emperor when deciding when to kill an surrendering opponent.

If the Siege Castle nods, they live. If it roars, they die. It doesn't nod very often.

The leader of the Red Ring Army is the Kill Boss.

A goblin in a suit of armor shaped like a pig-man. Beat him and you can approach THE WAR GOD.

The leader of the Red Ring Army that gathers in the trenches of the Siege Castle Wastes. 

A hulking golem. A rusty suit of iron armor wielding a truly huge morning star. He wants to be seen as big and tall, but is actually quite a small goblin under all of that. 

Likes: To boss people around, to be given compliments, to actually have a challenging fight (as long as things go in his favor)

Hates: To be called “small” (especially “shrimpy” — hates shrimp because of it)

Wants: To keep his goblin army satisfied in blood, chaos, and honor, but quickly running out of ideas. He has an existential idea that someday soon they’ll get bored of this juvenile shit, but will never say that out loud. Needs a new paradigm.

What Can He Do?
He can command, like, a hundred deathless goblins to destroy whatever he points his finger towards. 
In a one-on-one combat, he’s super jacked in a very classic way. No gimmicks, just hits HARD and is hard to hurt. 


Here are three sample goblins. They act as yes men for KILL BOSS, so you can interact with them.

Magnus Intractable
A bombardier, and anxious to put his specialty to good use. Bad use? Anyway, he’s a bad little fucker.
Likes: The smell of naphtha in the morning, excitement and exhilaration
Dislikes: Being bored (starting to be bored by the Army)

Noted Groan
Has a beautiful purple mustache and a haughty air. Thinks of himself as a tactical genius.
Likes: Tactics, feeling smart, games of chess (but he cheats)
Dislikes:  Feeling hungry (food is running short)
Wants: Groan will offer you money if you take a letter to the General in Drood Forest for him.

Mark Me Unreasonable
Goofy. Wears a brown hood that totally obscures his face, except for his upturned batty nose. A good pal and moral center of the three goblins. Keeps Noted Groan and Magnus Intractable in line. Doesn’t talk a lot.
Likes: Dogs and rats and stuff. He really likes neat little beasties.
Dislikes: Being lonely (misses the Goblin Market)

Gladiatorial Matches
Things that make you unpopular with goblins:
* using the same tactic twice
* always being cruel
* always being kind

Things that make you popular with the goblins:
Showing off, e.g. saying "I don't need this sword to FUCK YOU UP!" and then throwing your sword into the audience.
Good insults.  (Criterion: did most of the players laugh?)

The Weapontake: PCs are stripped of their weaponry which is put in a general pile. The PCs play rock paper scissors with KILL BOSS to get first call on the weaponry.
Also in the pile are:
* A turnip on a string and shield
* A pike with a pig’s head stuck on it
* A blowgun with darts
* A wavy dagger and horned helmet (+1 armor)

Mother May I: KILL BOSS acts as the arena master for the battle. Every round, he shouts out some new rule. Whoever doesn't follow them gets shot by the goblin enforcers with crossbows.

* No looking!  (Everyone fights with eyes closed.  First person to open them gets shot.)
* Everyone pray!  (Last person to drop to their knees gets shot!)
* Everyone be nice!  Everyone has to stop fighting and hug each other.  Anyone who is mean gets shot.
* Okay now fight some more!  Resume fighting.
* Gimme some money!  Whoever gives the least gets shot.  (NPCs each donate 1d20-10 (min 0)).
* Eat this bread!  Drops a loaf of bread on the ground.  Everyone has to take a bite.  Lasts person to take a bite gets shot.
* The floor is lava!  Last person standing on the floor is shot.  (Climbing on the BOSS is okay.  There's also a couple of chairs around here, but not enough.)

Surprises: There are two surprises during the flow of combat, introduced by KILL BOSS:
* A Troll!: A troll with a long nose, long green hair, and terrible halitosis will be released into the pit by Kill Boss, who announces a “surprise cameo guest star.”
* Just Playing Dead: When the last goblin is against the wall, the other goblins reveal they were just playing dead.

...If more gladiatorial matches are needed:
Troll-Ball - the teams face off in an arena with two large goalposts. Two trolls are released into the arena, painted some garish color and hopped up on goblin drugs that make them regenerate health even faster. The goal is to get a troll to go through your opponents goal. Each team is given a starting torch, but everyone is encouraged to light things on fire in order to herd the trolls. The crowd will boo if you kill a troll, as they’re famous troll-ball athletes, and their mother will be released from her holding cell into the arena.

Save the Princess - A famous goblin reenactment of the Theft of the Short Princess. The PC’s are playing the roles of the Short Princesses’ guards, namely fighting naked and covered in paint. The ‘Short Princess’ is a dress-wearing hog at the top of a classic stone tower. The PC’s have 3 rounds to prepare before waves of goblins are dispatched to steal the Princess. I had various tools spread around the tower, flasks of oil, swamp gas balloons, marbles, a cat in a cage, moldy apples; lots of junk. The first wave of goblins just rushed the tower, the second wave used grappling hooks and catapults, and finally the third wave used a plethora of flying devices to try and snatch the pig off the tower. Any goblins playing dead cheated and got up on the third round.

Rules for Gladiatorial Matches: You can use a Wands action to hype up the crowd and win favor. When you win favor, the crowd tosses in one of the following:
S: A broken bottle or punjee stick or board with a nail in it. Does 2 Wounds on a hit, and breaks.
P: Coin equal to value x 5 (to be collected by winner after match)
C: Takaleshi jelly
W: Roses

Takaleshi jelly lets you make actions as interrupts by spending a Resolve, but makes you jittery (disfavor to fine manipulation).

When you get X favor, you become a crowd favorite. Different crowds have different thresholds for favor. The graveyard boys need about 5 to be impressed. The Siege Castle needs 12+.

Playtest Notes: The players had bumped into the "Tournament" rules before in the City, but I think they worked especially well here.

Sometimes the "Mother May I" rules confused the PCs, but they learned after getting the sharp end of some crossbow bolts. For example, the players were inclined to translate the order to "pray" to say a quick burst of prayer out loud. They, of course, saw the goblins drop to their knees, drop their weapons, and crawl around. I say that they had no reason to be surprised when their piteous piety earned them a crossbow attack.

The players went into the Red Ring Army pretty blind. They weren't trying to get to the Siege Castle, they were just trying to deliver a fragile tea pot from Granny Goblin (in the Goblin Market)  to the goblins stationed here to make them feel nostalgic and go back home. Because one of the players botched their attempt to sweet talk the goblins, they were thrown in the gladiatorial pits and made to go through this whole rigmarole.

The Lucky Pig (Outside the Castle)
Inside the Red Ring Army’s encampment is a lucky pig statue. It costs X+2 silver to activate, where X equals the number of castles you’ve defeated.

Playtest Note: I've talked about the Lucky Pig Statues before. Very successful. Recommend for anybody.

Approaching the Siege Castle
You can just run towards the Siege Castle. It’s not a good idea.

It fires at anyone that it sees approaching. Trebuchets hurl metal slag. It requires a devastating 5 separate Swords tests to make it across the field of wreck and ruin. There are half-dug trenches, destroyed ballistas, and suits of ruined power armor between the Siege Castle and you. Good, non-repetitive ideas give favor on the test. A failure deals a Critical Wound.

If the party gets a nod in a gladiatorial match in the Red Ring Army, they will be allowed to approach the Castle.

Playtest Note: My players were entered unwillingly into the Red Ring's tournaments. When they won and hyped up the crowd, the Siege Castle nodded for them to approach. The goblins encouraged them to go up, saying this was their "last chance." The PCs ran towards the Siege Castle--even though they hadn't planned on it. 

At the same time, the players managed to convince the Red Ring Army to go back to the Goblin Market by way of the gift of Granny Goblin's tea pot and some good "Charisma" tests. As such, they successfully unlocked the goblin race for future PCs. They only have to go to the Goblin Market to get a new character. 

0. The Mouth of the Castle
A face like a malformed metal bulldog lowers itself. It’s eyes are canons. Metal shrieks as the shuddering castle beast opens its mouth. A huge cavern, with teeth made of shields, opens in front of you. Inside it is dark. It smells of oil, soot, and smoke. 

1. The Cooling Chamber
A factory room, barely made for human habitation. The floor is made out of rows of pipes, the ceiling is chugging machinery. 

It is cold. White frost creeps over the walls. You can see your breath.

Set into the back of the wall there are large, foggy glass containers. They are opaque with frost, but about five feet high and three feet wide. 

To the left is a door with a crank in its center (LOCKED) (room 2). To the right is a hallway that hums “thrump….thrump...thrump” (room 6).

* Wipe away the frost on the outside of the giant-sized hermetic jars to find mummified corpses. 
* If broken open, the corpses will arise and try and fight the PCs. They fight mindlessly, like ghouls. 
* However, the fluid inside the jars is always cold to the touch. If harvested, the COLD LIQUID can extinguish a serious fire instantly, and freeze a substantial amount of water it is introduced to. Handy for both fire and water elementals. Harvest it into hermetic bottles for an added benefit later in the dungeon. 

Playtest Note: My players camped, uncomfortably, in the Cooling Room. They were trying to recover from the tournament. This prompted a Campfire Sprite to show up. They carried him around like a little buddy on a torch for a while, but eventually traded him away. 

When the players tried to leave the room, they triggered a steam jet trap towards room 6. They found it by hearing the whine and experimented around until they found the lethal jet.

One of them cast a portable hole spell on the door to 2 and peered inside to find (random encounter) Not Three Goblins in a Trenchcoat. They talked to them a while and convinced the Not Three Goblins to open the door. As such, the players progressed down the left path for a while. 

2. Machinduma
A coiled machine sits alone in a dark room.  It looks like the polished extrusion of some massive crustacean, with gently fluted crests and warped gullies. The front is the tallest part, and you must slip between some flying buttresses to reach the "front" of the machine.

There are two alcoves here, set into the machine like eye sockets.  Above them, words in an ancient script. 

Past the machine, there is a cramped “hallway” of pipes that lead into darkness (Room 3).

* The script is elven. It reads: One is taken. The other improved.
* The Machinduma has stats as four ogres in full plate, fighting in tight square formation.
* If you put two objects into the alcoves, the chambers will slowly recess and then close off.  Out of the two objects, the more valuable one will be taken by the machine.  The less valuable object will be returned in an improved form.
Shitty swords will be made excellent.  A magical sword will be made amazing.  A non-magical item may be made into a magical one, but the enchantment will be a trifling one.
* A living creature that is improved will be given a random beneficial mutation.
* If you do a lot of exchanges with the Machinduma, and if you show a certain ambivalence for human life, it will start offering you fetch quests.  It will extrude soft white disks with writing on them, which dessicate and crumble away from the warm, bloody interior of the machine.

Playtest Notes: My players experimented briefly with the machiduma, but returned to it a few times over the course of the dungeon. They thought that small items were going to be much more powerful than they were ("I put in a ROCK and a DAGGER...what does it do?"), but eventually grokked the deal. Before they left, almost everybody had a fancy, shiny new item based on some combination and recombination. Fun thing. Major thanks to Goblinpunch for the encounter.

3. The War Room
There is a table here, somewhat oblong, on which is a mechanism like a 3D printer consisting of an x axis and a y axis.  The table has faded paint with a map of the world of the Maze on it. 

On the back wall of the room is a large set of double metal doors. The doors are literally red hot--they radiate an incredible heat and glow with a crimson light. 

A ladder affixed to the wall leads up through a trapdoor in the ceiling, into darkness.

The x axis has 11 points and the y axis has 8 and a half. 

* When the mechanism is set, a handprint glyph: CONFIRM? Flashes on the map of the Maze.
* Press your hand to the glyph. The mechanism locks into place and cannot be changed. 
* You feel the whole castle shudder. 
* The coordinate that was locked into is being bombarded by the Siege Castle’s long distance weapons. 
* It can do this once before its munitions are expended. 
* That place is fucking rubble now. 

The double doors cannot be reasonably opened as long as they are hot. They scorch the hands of anybody who actually touches them (which is easily telegraphed). They lead to Room 9.
* Of course, the PCs can come up with some shenanigans. Perhaps employing the COLD LIQUID from the Cooling Chamber.
* These doors cool down if the Boiler Room is sabotaged.

Playtest Notes: My players used a portable hole spell to peep the room and found several Blade Collectors (random encounter). The party had heard a rumor of them from the Lucky Pig so they were pretty scared of them. They double backed and disarmed the steam trap to progress through the right-hand path.

4. The Spires of Smoke
You come into the fresh air, although it is night outside. The distant stars gleam down on you.

A catwalk loops around a large tower of blackened stone and iron--like a colossal chimney coming out of a cathedral’s spire. At the top, smoke belches into the night sky. It smells acrid.

Following the catwalk leads you to a gap between two smokestacks. You see a door set into the other smokestack, with a small metal “porch.” There’s easily 50 yards (400 feet) between the two smokestacks.
* “As you watch, a squat, shirtless man wearing a helmet steps out of the door onto the porch. He lights a goblin thatch (the equivalent of a cigarette). He hasn’t spotted you, yet.”
* This is the Siege King.
* If the Siege King spots the PCs, he will drop his cigarette and go quickly back into his room (Room 5). He’ll summon [PC-1] Maze Cannons into room 3.
* The PCs are left with a conundrum of how to bridge the gap.

Playtest Note: This worked well. Showing the PCs a glimpse of the main bad guy BEFORE they could encounter him was a good way to frame the encounter and hint about what was going to come. If you have the opportunity to show off your baddies before your PCs just punch 'em in the face, I recommend you do it. 

5. The Siege King’s Personal Quarters
A small round room is found in the smoke stack. It is warm and humid here. 

A hay-stuffed sleeping mat is plopped against one wall. It smells bad. 

A chamber pot, unemptied, sits nearby. It smells bad. 

A pile of 1256 silver sits unstacked and uncounted near a rag doll in the shape of the Siege Castle. The rag doll is kind of cute, but smells bad

At the foot of the sleeping mat is a chest. The chest is closed (and locked). 
* The key is on the Siege King.
* Inside the chest is a collection of ancient elven cogs. 
* You can use them to repair the Cloud Factory. 
You can also sell them for 500s to a rare collector of antiquities in the Wicked City. (Nobody else is very interested in elven artifacts.)

A single door opens onto the expanse of the Siege Castle’s back. Dozens of smoke stacks billow smoke below the door’s small porch.

Playtest Note: My players never found this room.

6. The Hall of Fans
A long, cylindrical hall into darkness. Every fifteen feet, large industrial fans slowly turn. The fans push cool air from the cooling chamber down into the bowels of the castle, and seem passable if you’re quick. 
* There are four fans. Test of Pentacles to get past the fans. Failure results in a Wound, but it breaks the fan so that nobody else will get stuck in that one. 
* Obviously, you can also jam the fans using ingenuity.

Playtest Notes: My players did the good OSR thing of investigating the fans, finding the screws, and then slowly unscrewing them. It ran down their torches, but their cleverness let them bypass the obstacle completely. 

7. The Boiler Room
Five large black boilers hiss and clatter, huge piping connected to them like veins to a heart. In the darkness, you feel immense heat radiating from them. Pipes, like columns, dissect the room. Valves as big as ship’s wheels are affixed to the pipes and walls, hot steam leaking from them.

The room is puddled with warm water. 

You hear the clanking of a chain in the darkness. 

In the darkness, you glimpse an opening beyond the boilers--a single door.
* GUN DOG LIVES HERE. It’s chained to a boiler by a rusty chain. The chain is easily broken. 
* Gun Dog - A dog with a cluster of cannons in place of its head.  Fires teeth.  HD 1. 

If players fiddle with the valves, they will find them very hard to move. They can make a Test of Swords to move them, or dislodge them with grease. 
* If successful, a random character in the room will take 1 Wound from steam shooting from the vent.
* If the boiler itself is broken (which will take some skilled sabotage, or 2 damage in one go), it ruptures and bursts. This deals 4 Wounds to everyone in the room after 1 turn. 
* This makes the HOT DOOR in room 3 become cool. This powers down the mechanism of the War Room and the Hall of Fans. 

The door leads into a small room with a lever in it. If you pull the lever, the small room reveals itself to be an elevator. It ascends to Room 8.

Playtest Notes: This room held a random encounter of nipterrors, which sort of tempered the PCs' willingness to interact with the furnaces or the gundog. They traded some nightmares to the nipterrors (by describing them out loud), managed to tame the gundog enough to get close to it, broke its chain, and then high-tailed it out of the room. 

8. The Magnet and the Lava
An immense pit, like that shaft that Luke fell down in Empire, opens before you. Lava slowly churns after a staggering 100’ drop straight down. The red cast from the fiery magma illuminates the cavernous room. The smell of sulfur and the intense heat coming from the lava all but chokes you; it is very difficult to breathe.

There is a thin metal ledge that winds around the west wall of the shaft towards an opening opposite you. There are spikes driven into the wall at ten foot intervals along the ledge. Along the thin ledge, about halfway to the other opening, is a metal plate affixed to the wall. You cannot read what, if anything, is etched on it. In the center of the ceiling is an orb of metal.

* Characters wishing to cross the cavern by way of the ledge must move slowly and carefully. * The stakes driven into the wall may be used for support and may have ropes tied to them.
* The orb of metal in the center of the ceiling is a lodestone mechanism. When the characters enter the cavern, if they are carrying any metal whatsoever, the lodestone senses their presence and begins to activate. It emits a hum and slight electrical charge, which grows stronger with each round.
* Any steel or iron within the cavern is drawn to the lodestone, where it is held for 1 round. 
* If anybody is already holding onto the spikes stuck in the walls, they may make a Test of Swords. Otherwise, it’s too late.
* Afterwards, the lodestone de-activates, dropping the item into the lava below.
* The metal plate has the word "SHUT OFF VALVE" printed on it. Behind it, a series of disconnected pipes. 

Playtest Note: By this time, we've moved online to roll20. I deconstructed one of those online pipe puzzles and recreated it on the map. When the players got to the metal plate, I just gave them a number of minutes based on their characters stats and made them play the game. It went over pretty well. The player did the puzzle with only a few seconds to spare, which I think made them feel fairly triumphant. This was a good puzzle to transpose to the online scope. Before we moved online, I had planned on passing out one of the puzzles from the Mansions of Madness boardgame. 

9. The Central Furnace
In the center of the room is a large hearth. In the center of the hearth is a bright golden-red flame, about man’s height. It has a malicious face: it cackles like an evil jester, smiling broadly. The flame sits on top of a mountain of coals--and in the middle of it all, a pile of golden hair.

A thick-set man is tending the flame. The Siege King is naked to the waist. He has a dad bod--once muscular, but now with a significant pudge. The only armor he wears is a black full helm. You cannot see his face through the iron slits. He wears a blade strapped across his back. He’s carrying a shovel, which he’s using to shovel a pile of coal near the central hearth.

The room is well lit by the fire, circular, and domed. There’s a heat vent over the hearth. The vent leads to four interconnected furnaces set at cardinal points around the room. 

Each of the four furnaces chug and glow brightly with red flame, which it channels towards the Central Flame. 

Can make a number of moves equal to the number of intact furnaces.
Splashing significant amounts of water onto it (like the COLD LIQUID) will deal 3 damage to the flame. 
The Flame does not take damage traditionally. In fact, if you just hit it with your weapon, a blast of hot air from one of the four furnaces will immediately refresh it. The weapon you struck it with will be Notched.
If the furnaces are destroyed, you CAN hit the flame with weapons, but it still Notches your weapon.
Special: The Flame can fling fire balls to anybody it can see. These blasts deal 1 Wound and catch the opposition on fire. If on fire, they take another Wound at the top of their turn unless they spend a Recovery action to get rid of the condition.

Additional Rules:
* PCs may break the four furnaces to deal damage the Flame. 
* Breaking the furnaces requires doing 5 damage, which will then deal 5 damage directly to the Flame.
* The Siege King LOVES the Siege Castle. He treats it like the Rancor tamer treated the Rancor. 
* When the Castle is destroyed, all the fight goes out of the Siege King. He weeps openly. 
* The Siege King will use a miscellaneous card to shovel coal to heal the Castle’s Heart. This heals 1 damage.

Siege King: HD 4
The Siege King carries a normal helm, the goreblade, a pack of dragon’s teeth, and a key.
Treasure of Siege Castle: The Goreblade
Looted from the Siege King’s back (he wears it, but never uses it). 
Every hit just makes, like, blood and guts go everywhere. WAY more guts than a thing has. Breaks the morale of whoever is hit by it, even if it doesn't do a lot of damage. 

Playtest Notes: 
The players burst into the room, kicked the Siege King near to death (before they realized he wasn't really a threat), and then managed to dismantle the piping between the Central Flame and the furnaces--they realized the pipes were easier to destroy than the furnaces themselves. This didn't trigger the blowback damage to the Central Flame, but it did reduce the number of moves he could make each round. 

Ultimately, this encounter's toughness was scaled a bit high for my PCs. A few of them were on death's door at the end of it. Because they had done significant damage to the Siege King as well, they managed to convince him to give up. The Siege King calmed the Central Flame down, in turn, and handed over Princess Sun's hair willingly. They all parted on good terms. One of the players has a crush on the Siege King (and vice versa). 

I really enjoy games where players can negotiate with monsters, make friends out of enemies, and end encounters without just pinging creatures down to their last HP. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Licensed Tolkien Role-playing Games

Whatever you call a Tolkien weeb, I guess that's what I am. I read the books every year. I wrote my thesis about the "magic system" of the trilogy. I'm a big Tolkien nerd. 

As such, I've played every licensed Tolkien RPG. I just started back up with a MERP game, and it's made me reflective of my career playing Tolkien games.

Here's a quasi-review of all of them. 

How many licensed games are there?

There're about 3-ish.
  • Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP): Iron Crown Enterprises came out with MERP in 1984. It used their generic fantasy game, Rolemaster, but a bit stripped down. Rolemaster was a D&D clone that said, "Yes, like this, but with more tables." MERP had the widest license of the Tolkien Enterprises and featured a very mixed stew of everything from the Silmarillion, the Appendices, the Hobbit, and the trilogy.
    • Lord of the Rings Adventure Game: Published in 1991, three years before ICE lost the license, the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game was a stripped down version of MERP (which, in turn, was a stripped down version of Rolemaster) aimed at beginners. The game was published as an "adventure path" that was never completed; only 3 of 5 planned volumes were published.
  • The Lord of the Rings RPG: Released in 2002 by Decipher, this game was essentially a movie tie-in. The "art" in the book is just stills from movies. The game system was essentially "every generic 90s/early aughts game." Loose classes, attributes, skills, no playtesting. 
  • The One Ring RPG: Released in 2011 by Cubicle 7, The One Ring was an honest attempt to marry the license with modern sensibilities. It remains faithful to the tone of the books and uses a (vaguely) custom set of d12 and d6 dice. It contains a series of adventures that are somewhat railroady. Cubicle 7 apparently lost the license just prior to releasing the 2nd edition of this system; the license has been picked up by Free League Publishing.
    • Adventures in Middle-earth: Released in 2016 by Cubicle 7, Adventures in Middle-earth translates the rules of The One Ring to 5E d20. It's fucking garbage. Ptoo ptoo.
Let's think about them one by one. 


MERP 2nd ed cover

MERP has the broadest license of any of these games, and so feels very much like a stew. Do you want to be a Hobbit mage and adventure with a Noldo Elf scout, a Black Numenorean warrior, and an Orcish animist? Well, you can! There are vague sentiments about the GM needing to set limitations, but there are rules for everything from 1st Age Elves to 4th Age Trolls. 

The upside to this is there are, like, a million sourcebooks. Everything Tolkien ever mentioned or hinted at is in here. This can be very good for running a sandbox game. Do the players want to go south from Bree to Dunland? Sure, let me just whip out my Dunland book. Do the players want to go even further south into the deeps of Harad? Sure, I think there are like, three sourcebooks that cover those lands.

Appearance: Rereading MERP has given me a deep appreciation for modern layout and informational design. Each page is double columned small text, with little clip art pictures of wolves smashed into the corners to make sure that everything fits as tightly as possible. 

Some of the art is great--really flavorful stuff--and some is shit. Angus McBride, who did many of the covers, is a personal favorite Tolkien artist of mine. I love the character art for the pre-made characters that are included in the 2nd edition. A lot of the art is given a disservice by being absolutely shoved into the bad formatting. 

Play: As I said in a previous post, in some ways MERP is a forefather to PbtA attitudes of mixed success and "move" mentality. The game seems to imagine you have a very specific set of things you will want to do, and has created buttons that you press to do them. 

The main mechanic is simple: Roll a d100, add your skill modifier, add the difficulty adjustment, and compare it to a table. The table tells the GM what to do. In practice, this requires a lot of minor math equations and page turning.

In combat, this is both slow and somewhat fun. Sometimes, when you hit, you get a critical. This is another roll, but leads to flavorful results. For example, I once saw a dwarf warrior critically miss the troll they were attacking and critically succeed at accidentally hitting their nearest companion. The dwarf collapsed the poor hobbit's lung. He died in 6 sounds. Classic MERP. 

This slow, methodical, chart-oriented play creates a very specific feeling at the table. It's not a "bad" feeling necessarily, but it is not one that I would seek out in normal circumstances given my personal predilections. 

Final Score: Oof. Honestly I love it, but the game gives me a headache. C +

Sidenote: A team of old MERP fans created a modern love letter to this game called Against the Dark Master. I read the sample PDF and was impressed. Cool art too. Worth checking out.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game by ICE

I'm a sucker for a boxed set

Also by ICE, the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game was a stripped down beginner's box set of MERP, which, itself, was a stripped down version of ICE's generic fantasy game Rolemaster. The game is abbreviated "LOR" and I have no idea how they got the acronym. I just looked in the first book and it doesn't give any explanation. It's just called "LOR" a lot. Does that mean...Lord Of (the) Rings? What about the "adventure game" part? Inscrutable. 

This game is a series of three adventure paths with a simple rule system and pregenerated characters. It's aimed at a younger audience that has never roleplayed before. It has a lot of hand holding. But honestly? The examples are super tight. This is a good example of what a good beginner's boxed set should look like.  

Three adventures were published. Two never saw the light of day before ICE lost the license. Sort of a shame, really. In a lot of ways, this was the more successful game.

Appearance: Like MERP, there's double columns of cramped text. Unlike MERP, the layout is somewhat cleaner and the images feel consistent and well set. Not good by modern standards, but less migraine-inducing to read. 

Play: The numbers are shrunk down to be handled by a 2d6 roll against a set difficulty. Bare bones. Simple. The game is tighter than MERP though, and that's a good thing.

The adventure paths are the railroad express choo choo chugga chugga chugga where's your ticket. They say it really explicitly. "If your players try and wander off the path, here are some tips to get them back on track." 

That said, the writing of the adventures and the setting feel really appropriate for Middle-earth. Obviously the author, Jessica Ney, was a passionate fan. The "feeling" of the setting is more apparent in LOR than MERP. 

Final Score: This is MERP's hotter, nicer younger sister. A solid B

The Lord of the Rings RPG  by Decipher

OK so picture this. The year is 2002. I dressed up for the Fellowship movie. I am a senior in high school. I find this book in a Barnes & Noble and go nuts. I immediately buy it and run it for all my high school friends. 

We play it for like a year. The game falls apart in our hands. 

"Wait, if I take the Defensive Action move, I roll 2d6 for my Defence. My Defence is already an 11. I'm probably going to become easier to hit?"

"I'm a magician, and I have the Strong Will feat, so my Fatigue check is made with a...+10. I'll only get Fatigued if I roll snake eyes. No wait, I can reroll snake eyes. OK, I make it. I turn the troll into a frog." 

Have you ever bought a video game based on a major motion picture and been disappointed? Yeah, this is that, but in RPG book form. 

Appearance: The game is a movie tie in, so features stills and images from the movie. There were maybe a few pieces of art but it was pretty pathetic. 

Rules: Do you remember RPGs in the early aughts? It was very formulaic. You had a feats. You had attributes. You added your skills to your base attribute chance. Nothing new, nothing weird, nothing innovative. 

I collect a lot of RPG books just to like, harvest mechanics I like. There's nothing worth stealing here. This is Generic City.

Final Score: Was this thing ever playtested? C -

Caveat: OK I fucking lied. This game had one SUPER sweet module: the Moria boxed set. I still use this anytime anybody wants to go into Moria or a Moria-like dwarf dungeon. The maps were dope. The lore about the seven houses of the dwarves felt super authentic and played within the "space" of the setting very well. To me, this is the definitive Moria role-playing game. A+

The One Ring by Cubicle 7

Handsome book

This is a great game that I don't have any interest in actually playing. 

I'm not trying to be mean. It's just not for me. I think what they did was good. They figured out the feeling of the setting, they iterated inside the bounds intelligently, the game has good modern design, and it's just not my particular cup of tea. 

Here are some things I really, really like about this game:
  • The game has a limited scope in the core book. It ostensibly is about the space that Bilbo traveled in during The Hobbit. You can play Shire Hobbits, Mirkwood Elves, Lonely Mountain Dwarves, Bardings, and Woodmen. That's great. Bounded choices make for interesting conversations. 
  • Scope is slowly increased by optional splat books. If your initial party travels to Rohan, you might make an ally that will join you. Very cool. 
  • The maps are incredible. The travel system is hex based. You travel through different hexes--free, wild, oppressed, under the Shadow, etc. Based on the danger of the hex that you're traveling through, the harder your travel rolls will be and the more likely that travel mishaps (getting lost, losing food, encounters with monsters) will happen. 
  • The game forefronts race as the main "factor" for PCs, not class. In D&D, your class is your main thing and race adds in a few doo-dads: new languages, dark vision, a 1x/spell. The One Ring reverses the paradigm to good effect. After all, the books highlighted that Legolas was an ELF and Gimli was a DWARF, not that they were both "fighters" (ostensibly). 
The game also includes a few adventure paths. They feel very much in the vein of LOR: railroady, but appropriate for the setting. 

Appearance: The books are very pretty. The art is nice, consistent, and appropriate. They're perfectly adequate as RPG books. 

Rules: The rules are sort of where I get tripped up. It's fine, just not my cup of tea. In general, players roll small pools of d6s and a d12 at the same time. The d12 can either produce a number, an eye, or a "G rune." If it's a G rune, it's an automatic success. If it's an eye, an automatic failure--or invites some sort of critical miss. If you're fatigued, you ignore rolls of 1-3 on the d6, which is clever. 

The thing that somewhat rankles me about the rule systems is it feels very gamey and random. I find it hard to get immersed into my character. For example, travel encounters are mostly random and mostly ping your Endurance for failed tests. This basically boils down to luck, not player skill. If you roll poorly while traveling, you'll get penalized and start the "real encounter" at a disadvantage. That means there are certain skills you "have" to dump points into to be "successful" at the game. I get bored figuring these things out. 

Final Score: The crunch isn't my cup of tea but the game feels appropriate in breadth and scope for a game set in Middle-earth. It's very nicely delivered and marries the mechanics to the setting. A -

Adventures in Middle-earth by Cubicle 7

Adventures in Middle Earth Loremaster's Guide: Cubicle 7 ...
I'm begging you to play something besides D&D

Whenever somebody wants to take a unique concept and then "translate" it to d20 it makes me gnash my teeth, rub myself with ashes, rend my clothes, and wear sackcloth. Adventures in Middle-earth did a bad job at doing a bad thing and it sucks. The original TOR was pretty good and this is so deeply disappointing. Just ignore this. 

But Josh, aren't you just being persnickity?

No! RPGs are like recipes. Different recipes produce different tastes. Sometimes when you cram two recipes together it's like chocolate and peanut butter. Other times its like chocolate and sardines. AiME is more like chocolate and sardines.

Any attempt to make a play experience conform to d20 that isn't narrowly about being fantasy Avengers fails hard. Saying, "OK gang, how would you run D&D but--get this--low magic? Only fighters and rogues allowed," is pathetic. Get the fuck out of here and play goddamn Burning Wheel or something. Learn a new game. 

Final Score: F

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Middle-earth Calendar

This Website Compiles Every Single Wall Calendar Dedicated to ...
I love the Brothers Hildebrandt

"You cannot have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept." - Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master's Guide This little bit of wisdom is often bandied around OSR circles. Usually people are misquoting it, thinking that Gygax was talking about torches or something. Not so. He seems to be discussing the problems of dealing with many players, many characters, and big spaces. If Bali the dwarf was in the troll pit on March 3rd, how could he follow Indrazor to his expedition of the Barrier Peaks on March 1-6th? To this end, I've made a calendar which I'll be using to track the time for my West Marches campaign. I've rendered it in the Bree Reckoning, which is more or less the Shire Reckoning but with more archaic names. (Note the full and new moon cycles!) I'm sure a serious Tolkien scholar or Kim Peak will be able to find mistakes, but this is close enough for government work. You can find my template here.

I based the design of this off of the Dolmenwood Calendar. Big thanks to the Design Ninja and his tutorial for reminding me a lot about InDesign that I had forgotten.