Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Gygax 75 week 3

TLDR: I build out a temple/tomb for my evolving Uzrak setting.

This account is going to be a little messy, because my process was a little messy and I'm going to retell it as it happened.

False Start?

Coming off of week 2 I was pretty excited. Then someone posted pics of a temple carved from living rock in India, Kailasa. This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for! Since I am using early cultures from the southern Asia as inspiration, and I could find floor plans of the temple, it seemed like a great starting point. To a degree it was, but it made for a messy false start.


I spent a lot of time breaking the floor plan down into something a little more comprehensible using the free version of Dungeonographer. (I don't know if I mentioned it last week, but I used free Hexographer, Mac Preview, and Affinity Photo to make the digital map at the end of the post.) I wanted to preserve the two-story main area columned hall idea of Kailasa, but enclose the ceiling in rock as well. I mapped and re-mapped the temple multiple times until I got what I wanted. Let's say it took 2-3 hours.

But what did I have? I had a floor plan with very little idea of what it "meant" or what to do with it. It had a dozen rooms or so all nestled in a colonnaded hall with four upper story rooms. Two stories without a story behind it. Not even and implied one.

Note, by story I don't mean something I expect the players to follow, I mean the story of the how and why of the dungeon itself. Who built it? What for? How was it used? How is it used now? Something for the players to discover, not something they "have to" discover to "level up."

The Bubble Map

A couple of days later I was on the Discord channel with JJ (of Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, and traveling companion on this Gygax 75 journey). JJ tells me how well things are coming together for him working through the directions I provided. Duh. Follow my own directions! What a novel idea.

So I sat down and generated the number of rooms per level, exits, budgets for the themes and so on. Then I started drawing a bubble map in my journal using the temple as a starting point, but not worrying at all about its actual structure.

I call it a bubble map. You might call it a node map, or a mind map, or a point crawl map. It's all the same thing. You make some bubbles, write things in them, and connect them with lines – which also have things written next to them sometimes. Conceptually, each bubble is a room for me, though that term can be kind of loose. It might actually be a feature or challenge that occupies the room – so instead of writing "The Armory" I might write "Animated Weapons." But more often than not I leave that kind of detail in my head and jot down the main function of the room.

Anyway, here is how it progressed. First a super messy version where I was thinking as I drew and then a cleaner version, with a few labels still missing on level 3. The themes came as, or just before I tackled each level. The features usually came as, or just after I completed a level. Meaning they arose out of mapping and I either realized at the time that they were the singular coolest or most notable thing on the level or figured it out when I took a step back.

The point is I was working back and forth between the bubble map and the list "requirements" from my workbook steps. The back and forth was helpful and pushed me a little as well as letting me know when I had "enough."

Messy, Messy Bubbles 

Revised Bubble Map

More Work

Not sure how else to say it. This week was a bit of a grind! Fun, yes, but lots and lots to do. In fact, I don't feel like I'm finished. Could I run characters through it? Sure, with a bit of on-the-fly creativity. I certainly have enough to go for a week or three. 

The first level now has a simpler and more concrete map than the one I made with the false start, including basic room descriptions, placed monsters, wandering monsters, a puzzle, a few secrets, some treasure, etc. 

Level two is ready to play, since it's kind of simple and involves mostly wandering monsters. Level three has a concept and central feature, as well as connections to the other two levels. In fact, all the levels are connected to each other directly (you can get down to 3 from 1, if you know how). Best of all, the dungeon has a little story that it tells to those who take the time to fully explore it. 

Level 1 & 1a

The Dungeon's Story

In the end, I want to put my work out there as a zine, and I'm compiling it as I go, which makes extra work. So I don't know how much of the story I want to tell. Let me shorthand it, which kills me, because it means leaving some of the coolest stuff out. Level 1 is a long-abandoned, unlit temple where the worshippers of a Lawful (but cruel) god once gathered. Everything faces the central structure and the upper stories have semi-open walls. In the center is the gilded statue of a many-eyed owl and around the perimeter stalks a "guardian." The first level also contains a sort of false tomb, a secret way down to level 3, and a more obvious way down to 2 – an ant tunnel rimmed with softly glowing fungus. The whole second level is the ants' maze, with an underground lake, egg chamber, fungal garden etc. But something is wrong in the colony; rogue, mutated ants with a strangely human eye in the center of their broad heads are behaving erratically and hoarding amber-like stones. Down on level 3 is the "true tomb" where many skulls in niches and more of the amber stones can be found, along with a strange device that ... well ... let's leave it there.

I could easily spend three weeks (1 per level) on this step. But I'm going to move on and backfill as needed.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Lords of Mars play test

TLDR: We play tested the three phases of my mini-game Lords of Mars: character play, air battles, and big land battles in preparation for a full edition.

My Monday night crew play tested Lords of Mars (in a brew pup!) using a scenario designed to hit all three phases of the game: character play, air battles, and big land battles (in that order).

Green Martians by Juan Ochoa

The Scenario 

The player-characters were part of a diplomatic mission (and show of force) to Zodanga. A week ago the Zodangans suddenly requested that Helium send representatives to talk over mineral rights in the lands north of the Iss, after several years of intense conflict in the area. Despite the seeming urgency of the talks and the presence of the force from Helium, the Zodangans have been delaying any progress for days. One day, Hamu, the mouthpiece of the Jeddak of Zodanga, informs the Helium representatives that his master has a severe headache. Another day the excuse is some high festival in over which the Jeddak must preside. The crew of The Pride of Hastor (a battleship) and the marines aboard are getting restless; there have been a few drink-hall scuffles with palace guards and now they are confined to the ship.

In the middle of this mess, a robed figure runs into the ambassador's chambers – stumbling and foaming at the mouth (obviously poisoned). He gasps out "Treachery!! An army of green men approaches Namur while we dawdle in the land of these treacherous swine! Never trust a Zodangan! Aaaaaargh." (Collapses into a lifeless heap.) Guards come rushing down the hall shortly after saying they are hunting a spy.

The Scenes

The first scene is character driven. PCs must negotiate, sneak, fight, or find some other way to get to the ships and lift off. Hamu and the Zodangan guard will try to delay or even detain the PCs, at first with mealy-mouthed rationalizations and warnings that an early departure will endanger the talks. If the PCs escape within the hour they score 1 point. (Mark it with a die but don't explain it much, it will matter in the final scene.) The body of the spy may be at issue – do the PCs hide it or take it with them? The Zodangans won't resort to violence but may stage accidents (like attaching fueling lines to the Hastor's ray tanks and taking a long time to get them detached or having a group of guards chasing someone through the halls "run into" the PCs and "clumsily" entangle them.)

In the second scene, the PCs must run a blockade of Zodangan attack boats. The PCs have a battleship and three scouts vs. two Zodangan attack boats. The battleship carries a unit of elite marines that will be needed in the fight for Namur. (The PCs or the captain of the Pride of Hastor will know that Namur does not have enough troops and no air support for repelling a whole army of green men.) The PCs are extremely unlikely to lose the air battle here, though they may lose a scout. The goal of the Zodangans is, again, to detain or even cripple the battleship, but they are mostly open about it at this point and will fire on The Pride of Hastor if it doesn't turn back. Smart PCs may try to send a scout boat ahead to warn Namur and score 1 point.

In the third part of the scenario, an army of several thousand green men, riders and warriors under the leadership of a savage warlord, are closing in on the small city of Namur. Settled in the wastelands between Zur and Hastor, Namur is an important mining site, as it Helium's main supplier of the 8th ray (used to power airships). A few troops are stationed at Namur because of the site's strategic importance, but they are badly outnumbered until the PCs and their airboats/marines show up.

The Big Battle

Units are set up with a character-general on each side. If the PCs sent a scout boat ahead it is there as well and the encounter distance begins at 18". Otherwise the units start at 12" apart. Initiative is rolled and battle is joined.

Every PC turn they roll a d6. On a 6+ the PCs, the Hastor, and any remaining scout boats show up. If the PCs scored points earlier, they add those to the roll (i.e. +1 or +2). When the Hastor arrives it can enter the battle immediately, but if it ever wants to land the marines it must take a turn off doing anything else to do so.

Obviously the PCs goal is to not let the green men overrun Namur and to save as many red martians as possible. Even better is to capture the enemy warlord and establish a firm link between the Zodangans and the Warhoon tribe.

Playing with temp counters on a brew pup table, about 3' x 4'

How the PCs Fared

The players were very successful. Aonghais made a silver-tongued orator, and JJ a green Thark guard. We established that JJs character was a deep country scout who had, defying all expectations and code, rescued a red man and returned him to Helium. (That seems like a story for another day!) Hence his estrangement from the tribes and his inclusion in a diplomatic mission. Aonghais' character was clearly the diplomat!

In the first scene the PCs combined argumentation and a bit of force to get out and get their scenario point. In the second scene they blew up the Zodangan ships and got a scout off early to warn Namur, gaining a second point. In the final battle then, they got +2 to each roll to see when the characters/airships would show up. They arrived in the second or third round of combat, I forget which. They never landed the marines, instead choosing to use the awesome power of the battleship to blast away at the Warhoon. In the end, they captured the Warhoon chieftain. They lost one scout and about half of the Namur garrison. A small number of green men escaped back into the desert. 


It went well! The land game is solid and only needs one or two minor tweaks. The air battle is good but kinda fuzzy. We talked about it and I think I have the fix, so it was a productive evening. I also tested out a system for "costing" units to balance scenarios. Here are the detailed notes.

Unit Costs

I worked out unit costs on a spreadsheet ahead of time.

Click to embiggen, summary data below

Basically, I wanted the red men of Mars to have an advantage once the whole force was assembled, but to have a disadvantage at the outset. I think I might have given them too many ranged troops to start with. Next time I'd like to try a "cover" rule (see below) and shrink the number of ranged troops.

In any case, the Reds had a total of 20 units for 83 points, but 5 units and a full 40 points of that force, including their air support, starts in Zodanga, many miles (er, I mean Haads) away. The Greens have 15 units worth 74 points. Mainly the greens are tough and fast. The Reds have more range and variety, and ... eventually ... air support.

The balance worked pretty well, actually. I don't think I need to change the formula, especially since we added the necessity to spend a Pip to use ranged weapons (see below).

Tweaks to Air Battles

  • The air battles need a sequence and a range map. The sequence we worked out moved the air game a bit more in the direction of the land game, but still holds on to enough differences to make it feel special. 
  • The range map will show bands numbered 0 to 9. The enemy forces sit on 0 and friendlies start at the range band determined by starting encounter distance (d6+2). The map is an abstraction of 3-dimensional air space.
  • The sequence will be Initiative (once for the battle), Pips, Targeting, Spends. Initiative is a simple dice-off to see who goes first. Pips is a d6 roll, as in the land battle, for action points. It costs a pip to move a ship and a pip to fire with it. (Which necessitates a small change in the land game discussed below.) Once Pips are established but before they are spent, each ship indicates another ship that it is acting "against." This is the targeting phase. I'm guessing I will put little arrows on the airship counters to make this easier. (You would turn the counter to "target" an enemy ship, saying which one if it's unclear.)
  • Spending Pips. In the spend phase Pips are spent to move and/or fire with ships (until the Pips run out). Ships can only chase/flee or fire upon the ship they targeted previously. 
  • Ships that flee roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the fastest ship targeting them (if any). The result is how many range bands they move away from 0. 
  • Ships that chase roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the ship they targeted. If the result is positive, the range is decreased by that many bands. (Friendlies always move, so a chasing enemy "pulls" a friendly in closer, whereas a friendly chasing an enemy moves itself closer.) 
  • If chasing/fleeing ever seems wonky, remember you are working with three-dimensional space. The flat map may not be telling the whole story. Just go with it.
  • Firing is a 2d6 attack roll (+Attacks) vs. the targeting ship 2d6 (+Attacks) with the difference accounted for in hull damage to the loser. Ships that are fleeing roll 2d6 but do NOT add their attack value. Ships may end up firing multiple times if targeted more than once in the same player's turn, but each ship can only fire once via Pip spend. E.g. if it's "my" turn I can spend a Pip to fire ship Arcturus on ship Cadmus. Then I can spend another Pip to fire ship Belan on ship Cadmus. Ship Cadmus "fires back" twice. However, I could NOT spend a second Pip to fire Arcturus again in the same spend phase. 
  • Disabling Roll. This was added for the land battles but I think I like it for the air battles too. If a ship takes hull damage but is not destroyed, roll a d6. On a 1, the ship is disabled and must withdraw for repairs, land, or go down in smoke. (The last option might be if it wants to get one last shot in?) This rule might replace tracking damage to hulls. IOW, no damage tracking just like in land battles. You either get enough damage to take a ship out or your don't. And characters on-board with applicable specials can attempt to repair ships that are forced to withdraw.
  • Other bits. Airships can't stack. I can't remember if I said that in the rules. Characters with an applicable special add +1, per the rules. It may not be worth policing "applicable special" and just say Characters add +1. But there might need to be a max set on that. IOW, what if 5 characters are on the same ship, does it get +5!?  

Tweaks to Land Battles

  • Not a whole lot do do here!
  • Initial range. Land battles need a similar rule to air battles about determining initial range. It probably should be 9 (surprise!), 12, or 18"
  • Terrain events. I want to add the option of a d6 table for interesting terrain events. E.g. maybe on a 6 the ground shakes and all units that move lose 3" of movement on that turn. But this would really be a bit of scenario flavor more than a strict rules add. In fact, I've already modeled this above with the Hastor arrives roll. 
  • Champion battles. If two stacks that are engaged each have a character in them, the champions can fight separately (independently) of the stack. First the units roll against each other (still adding +1 for the characters.) If characters on both sides are still in the action, each side chooses a champion and they fight with a 2d6 + adds roll. I could see this playing out multiple ways. The most obvious would be to add the Tough stat, weapons, armor, and specials. But I could also see one champion fighting (using Tough) while the other tries to talk him into changing his ways or allegiances (using Clever). The GM would have to rule on whether this is an effective tactic and what the stakes are for when one character is defeated.
  • Pips for firing are now required. It costs 1 Pip to fire, in addition to any Pips spent to activate the stack. Activation costs are as written previously. So a stack of 2 tokens with ranged weapons would cost 2 Pips to move and attack in melee or 3 Pips to move and fire or 1 Pip to sit tight and fire. A melee attack is included within the move activation, but you can't fire without spending the additional Pip and if you fire you don't get the "free" melee attack. Hopefully that's not too confusing. I suppose it begs the question, if a unit doesn't move but is engaged in melee, does it cost 1 Pip to do the melee attack or do I have to spend Pips equal to the tokens in the stack? Honestly, I think it's the latter. Melee is a lot more exhausting and takes more time than laying down fire.
  • Air ships in land battles. They hover over the battlefield with line of sight to everything (and vice versa). Air ships cannot fire on troops engaged in battle with other units unless they don't care who they hit! (In which case, randomize which side gets blasted and that side takes all the damage. GM, don't allow any meta-gaming here – an airship wouldn't fire on its own troops, would it?) 
  • Airship movement. Like any other unit, it costs 1 Pip to move an airship and 1 Pip to fire with it. Airships can enter the battlefield at any point. Once on the battlefield they can either move at their speed x3", land, or fly high for the spent Pip. If they fly high they are removed from the battlefield until a Pip is spent to re-enter the battlefield (at any point). A ship can fire and then fly high, or re-enter and fire (2 Pips cost). But a ship can't both fly high and re-enter the battlefield on the same turn. Ships roll 2d6 and add their attack value, but do not count themselves as ground units do. (Or maybe they do, and I need to adjust the attack values to 0-4 instead of 1-5, so that it's 1+AV.)
  • Other bits. Add a ruler on the book cover! (Thanks JJ!) Also I need to spell out a general rule for units - each unit can only move once and attack once per spend phase. Exception, when a unit moves and joins with another unit, it can then move with that unit. Ramming? Probably a ship that does this rolls an attack vs. the target ship or unit and then does double damage if it wins. Either way it explodes.

What's Next?

Well. I'm going to make some counter art to include in the game, and begin redoing the text as a digest-sized zine. The small rulebook is cool, but it's too limiting and hard to read (font size) in dim light. I'll implement the above tweaks too, but after that it may sit a while as I finish the Gygax 75 challenge. (Just two more weeks to go!)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Three dice to rule them all

TLDR: I discuss how to get all the polyhedral rolls from three dice.

For some months I have been a practicing proponent of keeping dice in your pocket. Ever since I read this, in fact. Yes, I have a dice rolling app on my iPhone (Mach Dice), but it's not the same.

Keeping dice in your pocket, however, begs the question: how many dice and which ones?

Before I go any farther, let me recognize that this is a really silly post. I way over-explain why I chose the three dice I did.

Typically I would suggest you keep a d20 and 2d6, but that's primarily because of the kinds of pocket games I like to play. Recently someone asked me which dice I would carry if I needed to replicate all the polyhedrons. There are actually several answers to this question, and you can go as low as two dice, but I settled on three: the d6, the d8, and the d20.

The perfect pocket dice?

Let's build out the basic "dice chain" a step at a time.


You got em. Those are your baseline pocket dice.


You can get a d12 using a simple high-low method. Roll the d6 and d20 together. Read the d6 and add 6 if the d20 is high (11-20). This is more intuitive than it sounds. 


For a d10, just roll the d20. If it rolls high (11-20), subtract 10 or learn to ignore the first digit when you roll. To get a d100 aka a d%, do that twice and the first roll is the "tens column."


To get a d4 you roll the d8 and subtract 4 if the result is a 5 or more (so that 5 to 8 becomes 1 to 4).

Why not d6-d8-d10 or d12-d20?

As I mentioned above, there are other combos you can use to replicate all the dice. I chose the three I did for a couple of reasons: shape and utility.

All three dice have a distinctively different shape, one you can tell at a glance. In fact, I think of them as square (d6), diamond (d8), and circle (d20). If you squint at them, that's what you see. On the other hand, a d12 and d20 often look very similar at a glance. As do a d8 and d10. If you use a set with similar shapes, just differentiate by color. 

I personally dislike the d4; it is hard to pick up, too "pointy" for the pocket, and can be a little awkward to read. That die was never in the running!

I chose the d6 over the d12 and the d20 over the d10 because those seem to be the most common dice used by games. In fact, original D&D only uses those dice. Though the d20 used by most gamers at the time was really a 20-sided d10 (numbered 0-9 twice).

But what about those Dungeon Crawl Classics funky dice? Can I get those too?

d2 roll any die and use low (1) or high (2), or maybe odds (1) or evens (2)

d3 is most commonly rolled with a d6 anyway. You can use the 1-2=1, 3-4=2, or 5-6=3 method if you like, but I like just saying that on a 4+ you subtract 3. My brain works better that way for some reason, as seeing the d6 in two runs of 1-3 like: 1, 2, 3, 4 (1), 5 (2), 6 (3).

d5 roll the d6 and reroll if you get a 6.

d7 roll the d8 and reroll if you get an 8.

d14 this is the most awkward one. I would probably roll a d6 for low-high and a d8, rerolling any 8s. If the 6 is high, add 7 to the d8 result.

d16 roll the d6 for low-high and a d8. Add 8 to the latter if the d6 is high.

d24 roll a d6 and a d8. To the result of the d6, add 6 if the d8 reads 3-4, add 12 if the d8 reads 5-6, and add 18 if the d8 reads 7-8.

d30 roll a d20 as a d10 (ignore the first digit) and a d6. The d6 tells you whether to add 0 (1-2), 10 (3-4), or 20 (5-6).

I think we are all dumber now. Thanks for sticking this one out! :D

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Gygax 75 week 2

TLDR: I go through the process of drawing a hex map.

My pal JJ are still plugging away at the Gygax 75 world building exercise. You can read his blog at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.

Week two went fast. JJ sent me a message about his progress towards the end of the week and I realized I had committed nothing to paper yet. However, I had been thinking about it for some time and, having set the world concept first, it all came out in an orderly flood (which is a total oxymoron, I realize, but it also has resonance in that I'm inspired by the geographical area and era of "the great deluge").

I wrestled with the recommended scale of 1 mile per hex. I knew I wanted to base my map on the fertile crescent cultures and specifically the cities between the Tigris & Euphrates in the bronze age – with the serial numbers filed completely off. So I printed off a map of the area that had a scale marker and identified a 100km/62m square of land to work with.

When in doubt, steal.

I then began sketching in my new and improved workzine (workbook + zine), which you can get at my Patreon). [Edit, this has since moved to] As I filled in terrain I got bored with so much of one type and I became a little more inventive. Simultaneously, the history of the place was growing in my head somewhat, which was a cool experience. Here is my first take on the map.

Sketching in my Gygax 75 Workzine

My use of scale is still an issue in this map (pictured above), but I turned it into a strength. I decided that the map was drawn by people of the time who would, naturally, place greater importance on the cities than on the surrounding wild. So the city hexes are scaled around 0.5 miles per hex. But the wilderness hexes are closer to 6 miles per. I wanted the dungeon (see the little cave openings and "Nazca lines" east of Ruk) to be a hard day's ride away.

What follows are the notes I added to explain places on the map.

Timuria, Land Between the Rivers

The fertile river valleys of Timuria are the initial focus of play. Features appearing on the map are:


  • Ruk. A walled city of 70k inhabitants and likely home for new characters. The city is ruled by Sinaruk, a being descended from both divine and mortal parents. She is 9' tall and terrifyingly beautiful. The Krat river runs through the city and surrounding farmlands in gated canals. Livestock are herded in the grasslands beyond. Borderlands are patrolled by the centaurs – by treaty. Land owners serve as soldiers when called.
  • Garan. "The Old City" is also a dying city. Increased flooding and the encroaching desert has caused many to migrate north to Ruk. Those that are left are highly religious, by inclination or out of fear (or both). Nominally, the city is independent and ruled by a complicated hierarchy of priests, but it pays tribute to Ruk and is protected by her. 
  • Zagash. The hated enemy of Ruk, the Zagash do little herding and less farming, preferring to raid for worked goods, food, and slaves when they can. They prey especially hard on the Centaurs that live in the steppes east of the Godswall.

Notable Terrain

  • The Godswall. A labyrinthine tangle of low, stony mountains. Sources of water are few outside of the rainy season and the peaks are home to feral harpies (and worse).
  • Uskad: The Bloodwash. A largely uninhabitable area due to seasonal flooding that covers the land in red clay and silt. Several old cities (and their relics) lie buried beneath the muck.

Places of Mystery

  • The Tombs. Nestled deep within the dry hills and crags of the southern Godswalls is a large number of tombs. Most have been raided in times past, but occasionally a new one, or a new space within an old one is found and looted. A day’s ride west of the tombs is, Adakk, a sort of semi-permanent camp town where goods looted from the tombs are stored and sold. Even the carved stones of the tombs have value as building materials for Ruk and Garan. 
  • The High Stones. These rocky spires in the Noor: the Desert of Stars, are the eyries of strange, vampiric shapeshifters. (None name them for fear of drawing their attention.) The tops of the spires have been tunneled out into elaborate palaces.  
  • Myr. The only way into this valley is by following one of the many small tributaries of the Uskad. Travellers do not go there. Or, if they do, they do not return. Many say it is the home of strange “mud men.” 
Next Steps

Well. First of all it's on to week 3 of the challenge, in which I'll be detailing several levels of dungeon. (Or perhaps three different tombs, each further into the Godswall.) But as time permits I am going to convert the hand drawn map into a full color job that is part Hexographer and part digital drawing/painting. 

[Update. I did the map – and I did it in vibrant Jack Gaughan colors!]



Strategic Review 103 Autumn 1975


  • An editorial by EGG sniping at Arnold Hendricks over a poor review of D&D
  • TSR News: a distinction between the Games Division and the Hobby Division
  • Announcement about the upcoming Empire of the Petal Throne by M. A. R. Barker
  • New monsters: the Yeti, Shambling Mound, Leprechaun, Shrieker, Ghost, Naga, Wind Walker, Piercer, and Lurker Above
  • A ranking of most popular game genres by 42 members of the Strategists Club 
  • Announcement about Boot Hill
  • A tongue-in-cheek bestiary with "Weregamers," "Umpyres," and "Hippygriffs"
  • The Battle of Ebro River, a scenario for 15mm Napoleonics
  • Wargaming World News
  • An article on The Art of Gunfighting
  • A truly dumb poem about unicorns
  • Mapping the Dungeons: a news column about various GMs and their games
  • The Deserted Cities of Mars, by Jim Ward
  • Appearance of the TSR Hobbies lizard man logo

Items of Interest

The Monsters added in each edition are of great interest to me. They represent player behavior in so far as one can suppose they are a direct dungeon/fantasy ecosystem response created by the DM. Another way to say it is that these monsters seem to be partly driven by general interest and partly driven by the need to challenge (punish?) players who are tearing through dungeons! Of course Yetis are carnivorous and "very fond of human flesh." And have a look at Shambling mounds! They have brains that are hidden behind "thick, fibrous, ... difficult to penetrate" layers that are immune to fire. Shamblers are AC0 (I think this is before any monsters showed up with a negative AC), and when you do hit them your weapon does half damage. Lightning makes a Shambler grow. Cold does one-half or no damage. Crushing doesn't do much either, as a Shambler can flatten itself. Leprechauns exist to play tricks and be a general pain in the ass (polymorph non-living objects, make illusions, etc. at will). Shriekers are the alarm system of the dungeon, calling in Shamblers and Purple Worms when hit by torch or spell light. Piercers and Lurkers Above (Lurker Aboves?) are classic trap monsters – very hard to detect, often attacking with surprise.

The Top Four Genres for wargames as ranked by 42 of the 60+ members of The Strategists Club in 1975 were: Fantasy, Ancients, ACW (American Civil War), and WWI. If you had asked 7 years earlier, I suspect you could replace Fantasy and Ancients with Napoleonic games. Also, I'm a bit surprised by the absence of WWII. Of course there were other genres that appeared in the ranks, SR only reported the top 4. 

The Western Genre Didn't Rank, which seems to have been a disappointment to Gary Gygax and Brian Blume, as they were all Set to Release Boot Hill. So much so that they say: "We would not have gone ahead with BOOT HILL based on survey answers, but sometimes the publishers can know more than their market." What a cocky thing to say! If you don't want to hear other answers, don't ask the questions, right? I think Boot Hill is a cool game and a cool idea, but it has never been as popular as other TSR games/genres. I think what we have here are two guys who grew up on cowboy movies not realizing that the market for "Cowboys & Indians" was shrinking.

The Art of Gunfighting article was released under the heading Gallery of Gunfighters: essentially promising more western articles to come. It was a really interesting read for me. The author (uncredited but I'm guessing Gary) dives fairly deep into styles of holstering (or not) guns and the relative merits of each for speed of draw. The basic theme is to debunk a lot of romantic/Hollywood ideas about gunfighting.

Deserted Cities of Mars is a cool city generator for ERB inspired games. I have yet to try it out but I really dig the idea of it and am always happy to see a table-driven idea machine in these early publications.

I love that we see more diversity of genre in this issue of SR. It includes Western, Fantasy, Napoleonics, and Science Fiction (Science Fantasy actually) as well as D&D. On the other hand, I dislike the amount of silly humor. Humor is often relative to its time and doesn't always date well, and this is a prime example. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Gygax 75 week 1

TLDR: I develop a setting pitch in a few bullet points, using my interpretation of the process Gygax suggested in an old wargaming newsletter.

You should probably read the introduction to the The Gygax 75 Challenge, first..

Also, follow my friend JJ at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus as he takes the challenge.

FYI, our system of choice for this is Delving Deeper.

Enough preamble. How did I get along with my first week? I think it went quite well. I finished in about 4 days of off-and-on thinking and writing. Actually, the thing that took the longest was developing a Pinterest board, which is kind of an ongoing project.

I wanted to assemble my world from images - to use a visual palette. I specifically set a focus for myself, choosing images from the covers of vintage paperbacks, most of which I had not read! This meant drawing heavily on the work of Jack Gaughan and his peers. 

Jack Gaughan art from the cover of Andre Norton's Garan the Eternal

I started with a visual palette; JJ began with a musical one – 1975 albums by Rush. In the end, however, he made a Pinterest board too. (I have yet to make a playlist, but I probably should.) I think the more you can nail down the "feel" of your world the better. Nail it down without constricting it, that is. Maybe "focus" is a better word? It's easier to start focused in fantasy and branch out, adding ideas, than it is to do the opposite.

Here are the setting precepts
  • Gods of Chaos and Law vie over the servitude of mortals, luring them into bondage with immediate gains and promises. Those who draw on the power of the gods slowly lose their humanity. (MUs and Clerics who begin to manifest inhuman traits are looked upon with fear and reverence.) The gods are playing a long game for control of the cosmos.
  • Uzrak is a human-centric world. Though none of the “classic” fantasy nonhuman races (e.g. those from The Lord of the Rings) are found in Uzrak, the dalliance of gods with mortals has given rise to scion species such as the centaurs and harpies. Most humans harbor some level of mistrust and/or fear of the scion races. For this reason, and because scions are prone to feral impulses, they tend to live in the wilds. 
  • The proliferation of humans is met with jealousy and hatred among Uzrak’s strange, older races. Feudal, vampiric shapeshifters rule the deserts to the southwest from spires of stone. Trolkin from the frozen lands raid along the northern borders. Snake people infest the dense jungles to the southeast. And many other forgotten ancient cultures and cults stir in their cold lairs. None worship the gods of humans, nor would those gods have the worship of these failed/failing races.
  • People of consequence make a statement with their attire. Brilliant, ornamental robes and armor are the norm for heroes, magnates, and wise men. Badges of office and affiliation are common, expected, and displayed openly. Majestic beards are all but indispensable among the wise. You will be judged on your appearance!
  • Iron forging is still a new technology. Things made from forged iron are expensive and difficult to acquire. When you buy equipment, bronze is the default. The secrets of forging are jealously guarded and controlled by rulers. Owning steel armor/weapons is a sign of status; but will also make you a target. Those who draw power from the gods find that steel is an anathema to magic; steel that is in intimate contact with a source of magic becomes extremely hot (severely burning anything it touches) and loses its temper.
  • City states each have their own code of law. Best know it before you pass through the gates. Ignorance is no excuse.
  • The Great Game. Raan, is a complicated chess-like board game played on a 10x10 board. It is an obsession among the cultural and intellectual elite. Sometimes Raan is used to determine the outcome of major decisions or events; some even believe that the gods give favored players inspiration or lead the profane into foolish moves.
  • The Mythic Underworld. The deepest places in the earth sometimes open up into the underworld, where things shift from mundane, logical, and concrete to exotic, surreal, and fluid.
  • Uzrak (and specifically Timuria, where the campaign begins) is a hot and humid world. Heavy clothes and armor are oppressive as well as cumbersome; few wear them. Mammals are relative newcomers; various forms of birds and reptiles are the norm. Thus mounts and pets are often some scaled/feathered equivalent to horses, dogs, and cats.
Sources of Inspiration 
  • The works of Jack Gaughan and other 60s and 70s fantasy book cover artists. See the resulting mood board at
  • Fertile Crescent civilizations c. 1200 BCE. 
  • The First Chronicles of Amber, Dark Sun, Dune, Chariots of the Gods, Necroscope III: The Source, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Philotomy’s Musings, Indian Temple Architecture. 
Questions for Characters
Prompts to help drive setting home; ask the characters, not the players!
  • What powers and/or causes do you serve? 
  • MUs & Clerics: what is the source of your powers? What kind of magic is your focus?
  • Describe your outfit; what does it say about you?

These bullet points force a small amount of work on me. Namely to make the scion races and to come up with a mechanic for binding one's self to a patron and drawing on that power. Also to develop a bit of a bestiary for riding lizards and such. All pretty easy stuff in Oe D&D, actually. What worries me a little more is things like naming conventions and developing political factions. Was I supposed to have done all that at the start? Gygax isn't very specific on what all is entailed in this step.

Next week, a hex map!


Monday, October 7, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge

TLDR: Gary Gygax wrote an article in 1975 about how to get a campaign started. It's not bad!

It was a Dragons Never Forget blog post that first drew my attention to an article on beginning a campaign that Gygax penned in the 1975 wargaming newsletter Europa

I was surprised by a number of things in this article. Not the least of which is how clear and organized Gygax's writing was in the article. I was also surprised at how fresh his ideas on building a setting felt. Of course, it's for building a campaign around an old school dungeon crawl, and if you aren't into that, you won't be into this. 

The article breaks down into two halves. The first half contains five steps for generating a minimalistic setting in which players will adventure. The second half is a grab bag of advice in which he details playing other races, including a gold dragon character.

The Five Steps

  • Establish a setting concept. "Step 1 is something you do in your head." Embrace as many sources of inspiration as you like, but keep your sources hidden to preserve the mystery. Setting  some limits on the scope can be very interesting as long as the players' imaginations still have a relatively free-reign.
  • Develop the surrounding area. Gygax suggests a large sheet of paper with a scale of 1 mile/hex. Include some interesting terrain, locations, and places to explore, camp, adventure, and set up a base or even a stronghold.
  • Create 1-3 levels of a dungeon. Choose a distinctive theme and/or key feature for each level. Map it, noting transition points to lower levels. Plan where key monsters and treasures will be found.
  • Detail a sizable, nearby town. "Here your players will find lodging, buy equipment, hire mercenaries, seek magical and clerical aid, drink, gamble, and wench." Add strange towers, a thieve's quarter, temples to horrible deities, etc. for flavor. 
  • Build the larger cosmos (concurrent with play). Gygax says this step will likely come after play begins. "Most referees work on their campaigns continuously:" adding, changing, and expanding. 

I created a PocketMod [Edit: no longer available] to carry around in my journal as I attempted to work through a setting using Gary's espoused method. The PocketMod is designed around one week per step. My friend JJ [Beyond the Gates of Cygnus] and I are currently trying it out, so I'll be posting the results here as we go. Stay tuned.

It's Gary's world. We are all just livin' in it.

Launching the Expedition

This part of the article is two longish paragraphs. The first is about generating characters and basing and outfitting an expedition. The second paragraph is the interesting one. Here he talks about the selection of character types. He gives the advice that characters with average stats might do well to consider one of the non-human types: dwarf, elf, or halfling. (Presumably their extra abilities offset the level cap, which wouldn't matter much to a character with low/average stats anyway. Hmmm.) 

Then he says something really interesting: "What do you do if a player opts to become a Golden Dragon? Agree, of course." He goes on to suggest some of the problems with a gold dragon character: only able to adventure with lawful types and scares off hirelings, for instance. And he suggests a very slow level progression (every four years or several 100k gold pieces add to its hoard).  We've probably all seen the advice in original D&D (1974) about allowing players to play other species, but it's a one-off line and I've never been sure how seriously to take it, until now.

Pretty fascinating stuff. 

The article is only three pages long. It is not paragraphed well and is in tight, slightly fuzzy scanned typewriter. But it's well worth your time if you want to see some very early advice on "how to" do D&D. 

Do yourself a favor and continue reading into the reader responses to the D&D craze. They are interesting as well!