Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting Off The Pot

I've always been hesitant to do a full-blown design of my own version of Castle Greyhawk. Gygax promised such a thing was forthcoming since about 1980, but several more tangible alternatives to my sitting down myself and doing them have presented themselves over the years.

I might, for instance, look back to the TSR/WotC version of the dungeons, published in both Greyhawk Ruins and Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk. Contrary to the belief of some psychopathic zealots on the Greytalk email list, I don't have a pathological hatred of either module, but neither do I find them a suitable replacement for the dungeons as described over the years by Gygax, Kuntz, and their players. Perhaps most damning is the fact that both have a "plot" of sorts (Expedition much moreso than Ruins, but the latter still has it). I feel that's anathema to the spirit of Castle Greyhawk, and Gygax said as much.

This is a reflection of their time, of course. Ruins was published in the wake of Dragonlance, and Expedition was published when "adventure paths" were The Big Thing in game design. (I gather that they still are, but then again I am willfully ignorant of anything going on with 4E right now.) They are certainly worthy dungeons, and their size and detail is impressive. But they seem somehow disconnected from the _real_ Castle Greyhawk to me. No Jeweled Man? No Great Stone Enigma? No Black Reservoir? No thanks.

Castle Greyhawk was, of course, a sick and spiteful joke published in the wake of Gygax's departure from TSR. Although it has been suggested that parts of it might be useful as a mirthful "demi-plane" level a la Dungeonland, it is hardly suitable for use as the actual dungeon.

So that avenue is closed to me. No using the TSR/WotC material, at least in whole.

I was hopeful that Troll Lord Games would finally come through and publish their Castle Zagyg series. That would have fit my bill perfectly, especially as it was designed by Gygax himself. I was very pleased with The Upper Works, which I reviewed here earlier and which seemed to me to be a fine beginning for the series. The Trolls had some production and scheduling issues, but the finished product was, in my opinion, first rate.

Alas, in about five hours from now, TLG's Castle Zagyg series is no more, with no new modules in the series to be forthcoming, and any remaining stock to end up being fed to pigs after going through a wood-chipper. The Widow Gygax has withdrawn the license from the Trolls.

So that avenue, too, is closed to me.

Which leaves us with Gygax Games. We are told, obliquely, that GG will in fact be releasing products in the Castle Zagyg line. Not, as any normal game company would do, by an actual press release or communication from the leadership, but the fact that they have a message board on their website dedicated to Castle Zagyg at least implies that they're planning on doing something with the series. Will they republish Upper Works and the other material TLG had completed? Will they start completely afresh? Will they simply publish Gygax's notes and photocopies of his original maps? And what game system will be used when it does get published? Nobody outside of Gygax Games knows, and Gygax Games ain't sayin', although they've been asked more than once.

So, I could wait it out and see what Gygax Games is doing. I've actually been doing that for the last month or three, hoping against hope that the Widow Gygax would open up and at least let us fans know what the hell she has planned. I have dutifully waited, and I could continue to wait until they start coming out with product.

That avenue is still open to me, but I hereby decline to take it. I've been waiting for nearly 30 years for this dungeon, and I'm finally tired of waiting.

My gaming resolution for 2009 is thus. My big gaming project will be to design my own Castle of the Mad Archmage. And I'm going to publish it here, level by level. I don't pretend that I'm going to get through the whole thing, but I will get the core levels done. Hand-drawn maps, the way the Gods intended, and a simple one or two-line description for most rooms. Set pieces will be more fleshed out, but the idea will be to bring back the idea of Spartan design to incite GM flexibility and creativity, and the use of random tables to fill in some of the blank spots.

That means that I'll be churning out a level a month, to get the core levels out in 2009. And I'll be giving them to you here, free of charge. In a format that will be "Compatible with most Original, Basic, and Advanced RPG systems." Ahem.

Maybe somewhere out there, Zagig Yragerne is laughing at me. But I'm going to give it a go!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Counterspells in AD&D

Chgowiz has a fascinating post up on his blog tonight, dealing with the topic of counter-spells. Turns out that in the hoary mists of the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement, Wizards could attempt to counter the effect of other Wizards on the battlefield. I looked it up, because I didn't remember that particular rule, but sure enough there it was.

Essentially, a more powerful Wizard can spend his turn attempting to counter an enemy Wizard's spells. If he is more powerful than the enemy, he counters the spell on a 7-12 on 2d6. If less powerful, he needs to roll 8, 9, 10 or 11. That works out to around 58.3% and 38.9%, respectively. There's no such thing as equally matched Wizards, apparently; in case of a tie, a die roll determines relative strength.

Obviously, the AD&D rules are more granular when it comes to magic and magic-users, so a tad more expansion is called for if deciding to adapt these rules to AD&D use. I've not playtested this, of course, but I might do something along the following lines.

Counter-Spells

Any magic-user is able to use the magical energy stored in his mind to attempt to counter the effects of another magic-user's spell. A counter-spell has an effective casting time of instantaneous. The countering magic-user informs the Dungeon Master of his intention to attempt to disrupt the casting of another magic-user (magic-users and illusionists can disrupt one anothers' spells in this fashion, but not clerical spells), and chooses a spell from his own list of memorized spells to use, before the nature of the enemy spell is known.

(In this way, the choice of which spell to "burn" becomes a real decision and something of a blind bid; do you waste a fireball spell when the enemy could only be casting magic missile?)

Roll 2d6 and compare the level of the spell burned vs. the level of the spell being countered.

















































Level DifferenceCountered On Role Of...
-9automatic
-7 - -83-12
-5 - -64-12
-3 - -45-12
-1 - -26-12
07-12
1 - 28-12
3 - 49-12
5 - 610-12
7 - 811-12
9*12


* Counting cantrips as 0-level spells, it is possible, however unlikely, that a cantrip could be used to counter a wish spell. Yes, I like cantrips. Wanna make something of it? ;-)

The difference here between this and the system found in Chainmail is not only the granularity of the odds, but also using the level of the spell as opposed to the level of the caster. If you really want to get into it, a modifier for level of caster could also be included, but you'd need to jig it so as to bear the minimum caster level for a given spell level in mind. I would probably give an automatic success if one happened to burn the exact same spell being cast, especially since it's a blind choice.

Playtesting might also indicate that my own table above is too generous; a 7th level spell should be able to squash a cantrip with no chance of failure. I could also see spreading out the energy in the case of multiple spell-casters, attempting to counter several lower-level spells with one high-level spell in a single go. But I'll save that for another day.

This is just a first pass, inspired by that great post. I will drop this into my next AD&D campaign and see how it works.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Ol' Switcheroo

I've been giving some serious thought to running a game or two at a local convention. I'd like to solicit some opinions from the readership. Imagine if you were attending a con and signed up for the following game:

You and your team of hand-picked Special Forces operatives are sent into the jungle to rescue hostages taken by a group of narco-terrorists. Can you get the hostages back to the pick-up point in time?
Or maybe this one:

J. Edgar Hoover has tasked you with taking out the bootleggers in northern Massachusetts. Three other agents have disappeared while trying to infiltrate the smugglers' network. Can you succeed where they failed? Tommy-guns are NOT optional.
Both would be done using Savage Worlds, I'm thinking.

Now, my question is, if you signed up for either of those games (and they are both just examples, not the actual game I'm planning on doing), would you feel somehow cheated or otherwise ticked off if in the course of the game it turned out that you were facing off a "Predator" in the first game? Or a Lovecraftian cult in the second? If you were expecting a "straight" military or law-enforcement game, would you be disappointed if it took a sci-fi twist that was otherwise unexpected?

My theory is that having such a plot-twist would be really cool, and an essential part of the "zing" of such a scenario (Arnold Swartzenegger didn't set out to fight an alien hunter), but I am afraid that I'm missing the fact that folks might find such a bait-and-switch not to their taste.

Thoughts?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Old School Campaign Tent Poles

James over at Grognardia is about to launch his "Dwimmermount" campaign, and I wish him nothing but the best of luck with it. It did get me to thinking about the notion that an old school campaign should properly have a "megadungeon" as its tent-pole adventuring locale. James himself admitted that on reflection Greyhawk and Blackmoore were based on that idea, and it's what led him to conclude that Dwimmermount would be a needed component of his own campaign.

I happen to agree whole-heartedly, but it's important to remember (as James has) that just because a campaign has a central megadungeon as its focus, it is by no means the exclusive province of the campaign. Adventurers are free to delve into its mouldy depths if they choose, but they're just as free to poke around in the local town or city, hie off into the wilderness, or explore smaller dungeons that the DM should properly have waiting for those eager for a change of pace.

But what I think is important is that the tent-pole dungeon is there, for those days when the PCs weary of tracking down clues and following whatever plots they have been pursuing throughout the campaign. The tent-pole should, I think, be a sort of refuge from such things, existing in the world but not of it, a place where the PCs can set aside their plot-induced cares and just go someplace, kill things, and take their stuff. In my own campaign, the dungeon of Quasqueton served that purpose; when they needed to take a break from witches, brigands, and conspiracies the PCs would delve into its depths. It helped to bolster them in terms of x.p. and magic items, too, getting them to a place where they could more equally interact with some of the bad guys.

That doesn't mean that the tent-pole needs to be 100% divorced from the rest of the campaign; surely NPCs encountered therein could be found elsewhere later (as the evil dwarf Obmi was in the original Greyhawk campaign), and actions in the dungeon could lead the stalwart PCs to other locales in the wilderness (the most famous example of this being, of course, the fact that those who made it to the lowest level of Castle Greyhawk were sent to the other side of the world and left to make their way home via an extended wilderness trek). Items needed in the broader campaign might be found in the dungeon (special magical items, for instance, or even a piece of vital intelligence regarding a personage or locale), necessitating a trip into the megadungeon to retrieve it. The megadungeon needn't exist in a vacuum.

It should also be remembered that the campaign tent-pole need not be a conventional mega-dungeon. Certainly that's one of the easiest, and most commonly found, devices, but a little brainstorming can provide some other ideas that serve the same purpose.
  • The ruined city. If you decide to go with the notion that the players should have at least a rough idea of how tough the territory is (as with the megadungeon idea that lower levels = harder monsters), you could have lower level encounters closer to the walls, getting more difficult as the PCs get towards the central palace.
  • The haunted forest. A maze of twisting forest paths through the underbrush, with clearings, large tree-houses, streams and ponds, etc. filling the role of corridors and rooms. If the PCs dare, they could try to hack through the dense underbrush, but at the risk of getting lost and disturbing the really dangerous things that live off the paths and trails.
  • The depths. Rather than a single megadungeon, the PCs forray into the vast underground realms known in some places as the Underdark, Depths of the Oerth, the Wormroad, etc. The essential difference is that miles of caves and tunnels separate encounter areas, some of which could count as dungeons unto themselves, others of which are more modest. The strains upon the PCs are greater, as the logistical challenges of negotiating a miles-long dungeon are necessarily tougher than a megadungeon contained within a fairly compact area. Entrance and egress could be interesting problems as well.
  • The uncharted wilds. A "standard" wilderness should never be discounted as a possible tent-pole adventure locale, as long as it is built up as such. Though it may be spread out over many miles, a specific wilderness could fit the bill nicely. Punctuated with small ruins and dungeons, varying sorts of terrain giving rise to very different encounters, the sort of thing the legendary West Marches campaign was built on. I would only change things inasmuch as there would be adventures to be had in the town, and of a different nature in the more civilized areas, but the call of the wilderness would always be there and available.
  • The Infinite Planes. Here's something I'm not sure I'd ever have the balls to try to pull off, because it would take a LOT of prep-work, but if you did it right it could be the stuff of legends. Give the PCs access to something akin to the Codex of the Infinite Planes. Each adventure is a jaunt to another plane, or demi-plane, or even epoch. One day they find themselves in the far future, the next in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, and the next dodging sleestaks and t-rexes. The trick would be to keep it fresh and interesting every time; you don't want to wing this one. One trip to "the infinite desert of nothing notable", while it might make the end of a spiffy Twilight Zone episode, could spell the end of an RPG campaign.
  • The sewers. Who's to say the PCs even have to leave the walls of the home city? I once did a game where the dungeon was the sewers. In practice it's little different from a standard mega-dungeon, but the key is that there can be a LOT more connection with the PCs supposedly safe home base. Every building has a cellar, and many of those have secret doors leading to sub-basements and hooking up with the sewers. Hidden temples, an entire zone of crypts and tombs, thieves and assassins who use the sewers as a highway and think they know what's going on, but in reality they only know but a smidgen of what's going on beneath the streets... This is a nice way to combine intrigue and the mega-dungeon directly.
Just some thoughts to get the ol' creative juices flowing. There are hundreds of possibilities.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Batman Movie News

And The Sun Is There! (That's their copyrighted image to the left, btw, used without permission and please don't sue me; I thought it was brilliant.)

I've got to say I can think of a lot worse people to play the Riddler in the next Batman film, "Gotham". Actors known for their comedy are often some of the best dramatic actors in the right role-- look at what Jonathan Winters did in the Twilight Zone episode "A Game of Pool". And I like the choice of the Riddler as the next villain as it is in keeping with the stated intent of the new series to be less campy and less fantastic. Sticking with a villain who doesn't have a sci-fi origin (like Mr. Freeze) is a good choice.

What bothers me is the insistence that a single villian can't sustain an entire movie. Jack Nicholson proved that wrong in "Batman", and it pains me that the new series is sticking with the necessity of throwing in Catwoman. And they're introducing Robin! The first two films got away with this gimick by linking the two villains in each, but it's getting old. Riddler or Penguin or Catwoman could carry an entire film by themselves, especially when you include a lot of deep character development of Bruce Wayne and his friends which has been some of the best parts of the new films. I wish the producer would have enough confidence to realize that.

I must say I love the decision not to include the name "Batman" in the title of the sequels. Beautiful move; we don't see "James Bond and the Diamond Laser Weapon". But Shia Labeouf as Robin? I think we could have done a tad better with the casting on that one, guys.

UPDATE: Apparently this is a false rumor floating around teh intarwebs. PHEW! The comments on multiple villains per movie, of course, still stand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Fortean Flanaess

Over at Scott's World of Thool blog, we are reminded that many of the works of Charles Fort are in the public domain and available online. I'm a fan of such things, so I skimmed through one or two of the books over at Mr. X's Fortean Site for inspiration and came up with the following table of weird events that can be used to liven up a campaign. Just roll percentile dice or pick one from the list that strikes your fancy.

They can happen as often or as rarely as you like (I would recommend leaning on the side of rarity) and they can be as significant or red-herringesque as you please. Is that rain of snails a sign of diabolic visitation, or is it just some random weirdness that will never be explained? You decide.

The list can also be used to come up with bizzare events for prophecies and omens, side effects of magical or divine occurrences, etc. There are a few references to the fact that Oerth has two moons (Luna and Celene) but other than that it should be portable. I would also say that most of the effects should be pretty local, even the ones that involve figures and lights on the sun and moons (since that only adds to the mystery to me), but if you want to have a planet-wide grey sun for some reason, knock yourself out. Enjoy!

  1. Purple gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  2. Orange rain

  3. A farm animal with two heads is born. It dies shortly thereafter.

  4. A rain of snails

  5. Green Sun

  6. A meteor shower appears in the night sky. It is not a “regular” event.

  7. Green Sunset

  8. Purple Moon

  9. Black hail

  10. Green snow

  11. In a stone quarry, workers cutting stone find a mysterious inscription inside the rock.

  12. A rain of fish

  13. 1d6 luminous objects are seen in the sky, remaining for 1d10 minutes before disappearing at vast speed.

  14. Blue gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  15. Black snow

  16. A single stone sphere the size of a grapefruit falls from a perfectly clear sky.

  17. A humanoid shape is seen briefly obscuring the face of the sun. 35% chance it has wings.

  18. Hailstorm with stones the size of hens’ eggs

  19. Green gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  20. Orange snow

  21. Pink snow

  22. Hailstorm with normal-sized hail except one the size of an elephant

  23. Purple snow

  24. Clouds over a particular area are seen to form geometric shapes (lasts for 1d6 hours).

  25. A beam of light of unknown origin illuminates a small area (such as a particular farm, a park, an inn, etc.) for 1d4 hours. The light is as bright as daylight, but has no discernable source.

  26. Orange Moon

  27. Beautiful singing and music is heard coming from a cloudless sky. This lasts 1d20 minutes.

  28. A black spot is seen moving swiftly across the face of the sun.

  29. Yellow Moon

  30. A bright spot is seen moving swiftly across the face of Luna.

  31. Green rain

  32. Pink Moon

  33. Yellow rain

  34. Red Sun

  35. A rain of dead birds of various types

  36. Purple Sun

  37. Loud thunderous noise is heard in an otherwise clear sky, lasting 1-100 minutes.

  38. Blue Sunset

  39. Pink rain

  40. A rain of perfectly cubical pieces of ice

  41. Grey Sun

  42. Blue snow

  43. Pink Sunset

  44. A freshwater fish is caught in the ocean with no ill effect.

  45. Purple Sunset

  46. An area is subjected to night-like darkness in the middle of the day, lasting 11-30 (1d20+10) minutes.

  47. Red gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  48. A luminous ring appears around Luna (50%), Celene (25%), or both (25%).

  49. A single smallish stone falls from a perfectly clear sky (5% it has strange writing on it, 5% it is a lodestone).

  50. A hitherto-unseen star shines very brightly in the night sky, brighter than any other object save the moons. This lasts for 1d6 days, and then the star disappears.

  51. Pink hail

  52. A rain of pebbles

  53. Hordes of (ordinary) caterpillars are seen after a snowstorm.

  54. Red rain

  55. Red hail

  56. Blue rain

  57. Snowstorm with flakes the size of saucers

  58. The footprint of a horse (25%), goat (25%), or man (25% bare, 25% shod) appears in a stone floor, step, or street suddenly, overnight, with no witnesses.

  59. A large stone found completely inside a tree (5% it has unknown writing on it).

  60. A human or demi-human baby is born with a tail.

  61. Orange hail

  62. In a stone quarry, workers cutting stone find a human footprint inside the rock.

  63. Yellow hail

  64. Yellow gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  65. Blue Sun

  66. A comet appears in the night sky, visible for 1d12 days.

  67. Red Moon

  68. A rain of small stones

  69. A rain of milk

  70. A single bright light (50%) or group of lights (50%) is seen in the dark area of Luna.

  71. A salt-water fish is caught in a lake or river with no ill effect.

  72. A rain of oil (non-flammable)

  73. Black rain

  74. Pink gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  75. A rain of butter

  76. Lightning strikes from an otherwise-clear sky.

  77. Orange gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  78. A gold ring is found in the egg of a hen or duck.

  79. Red snow

  80. A rain of urine

  81. Blue hail

  82. Green hail

  83. A child is born entirely blue-skinned. The color fades away in a few weeks.

  84. Green Moon

  85. A rain of meat (of unknown type)

  86. Yellow snow

  87. Black gelatinous substance falls from the sky.

  88. A rain of snakes

  89. Purple rain

  90. A brilliant fireball-style meteor is seen in the sky.

  91. Pink Sun

  92. Blue Moon

  93. A rain of frogs (50%) or toads (50%) - they are always only a few months old, never tadpoles or adults

  94. A rain of blood

  95. A tree bleeds when it is cut down.

  96. The shadow of the Oerth on the moons is reversed.

  97. An Aurora Borealis is seen in unusually southern latitudes (re-roll if you are already in a locale where auroras are commonly seen).

  98. Purple hail

  99. Two effects in rapid succession or simultaneous (re-roll, ignoring rolls of 99 or 100)

  100. Three effects in rapid succession or simultaneous (re-roll, ignoring rolls of 99 or 100)


[EDIT: I randomized the list; I think it works better this way.]

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reflections on the Planet of the Apes

I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes series. The movies, the television show, even the cartoon. Growing up, I had all the action figures, the play sets, the Marvel Comics magazine, the record album (they had a live tour show to promote the album, and I went to it three times while it was at the Morris County Mall; "Cornelius" signed my album, as I recall). And of course a crush on Linda Harrison. By the way, there as no 2001 film, as has been widely reported. Never happened. Nope.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Fox Movie Channel played nothing but Apes. All of the original films, multiple times. The movies they made by mashing two of the television episodes together. Tons of mini-documentaries in between. I was in hog heaven. But it also got me thinking about some issues with the Apes time-line, and what do you know? I happen to write a blog that might be a good fit for those thoughts.

As with most things involving time travel (occasioned by when Cornelius, Zira, and Milo go back in time to 1973) there are two timelines in Apes. T1 is the "original" timeline, created before the paradox of the three apes time-travel was introduced. In T1, we know that Taylor et al take off from Earth in the spaceship Icarus in 1972. Brent does too, on his rescue mission. Cornelius tells us (in "Escape") that sometime after that, the dogs and cats of Earth would be wiped out by a plague, and eventually replaced by apes. Eventually those apes would be enslaved, and revolt on an historic day when an ape named Aldo dared to speak up and say "no", sparking the ape revolution, presumably the nuclear war that wiped out human civilization, and leading to a time when humans were mute and their glorious history forgotten. That's the time we see in the original film, in the year 3955.

However, that timeline is thrown into chaos, and a new timeline (T2) created by the time-travel of the three apes as recorded in "Escape". The introduction of the baby Milo (aka Caesar) changes everything. No longer is it Aldo who leads the ape revoltion, but Caesar. The dog and cat plague happens on schedule, in 1981, but the revolution happens in 1991. We get the impression that in T1, the apes were enslaved for much more than ten years; Cornelius seems to imply that it lasts for centuries. But in T2 the whole process is accellerated; Caesar leads the ape revolt after only a decade of servitude (less than that, as it would have taken some time to ramp-up the whole institution of Ape Management).

Aldo is still there in T2, but now he is forced to play second bannana (heh) to Caesar in the post-nuke ape/human society we see in "Battle". Given the glorious role he seemed destined to play in T1, it turns him into a somewhat more sympathetic figure. His thunder was stolen by Caesar, even if he had no way of actually knowing it.

The events at the very beginning and ending of "Battle" show the very different direction that T2 has taken. Rather than being persecuted and descending towards mute savagery, humans and apes seem to be at a rough level of equivalancy. This, I think, is where the television show come into play. Apes are in charge in the year 3085, but humans are at least equal technologically. The change of Caesar for Aldo as leader of the ape revolt has set history on a different course.

More on Grodog's CZ:UW Review

I write this as a sort of response to Grodog's review of Troll Lord Games "Castle Zagyg: Upper Works" product, which I mentioned immediately previously. I was somewhat reticent to make this post, as I did not want to be perceived to take an adversarial tone with his review, but after he and I had some back-and-forth I am convinced to set forth some of my disagreements and we can hash out the details in the comments.

In Grodog's review (which I still wholeheartedly recommend reading), he makes the observation that he "expected to read more newly-revealed Greyhawk lore" within. While he acknowledges that there are many overt and subtle references to long-established Greyhawk campaign canon, "the hints and teasers remain (for the most part) at that level only."

My specific disagreement here is that, given that the Upper Works boxed set only covers a single level of the underground dungeons, I am rather at a loss as to what he would have expected to find here, other than giant centipedes. He acknowledges that there are hints and mentions of other things (such as the Black Reservoir, the Arena, etc.), but laments that there is not more.

But these are elements of the original dungeons which we know are not to be found on the first level of the dungeon. I don't know of anyone who was expecting to find the lair of the black dragons, or the gates to the "horsing around" demi-plane, in this product. It is, by its very nature, an introductory piece, and one which only serves as the entrance-way to the further levels beyond, within which we would find the sort of meaty references to known Greyhawk lore that those of us who have entire websites devoted to the subject would expect to find. Knowing the limited purview of the product, I admit I was not disappointed to find no detail about the black reservoir, as I know it was destined to be included in a future release in the series.*

More specifically, Grodog states that "At the very least, I expected the most-accessible content---such as the example from Joe Fischer’s article that I quoted above---to be reflected in the adventure. It is not." The Fischer article he quotes gives a recitation of several entrances to the dungeons below the castle in unusual places, such as dry cisterns and beneath puts of quicksand. I would point out that it has been reported that Gygax himself has called Fischer's recollections into question about the existence of some of those entrances. I would also mention that Upper Works itself makes clear that it does not pretend to be any particular version of the Castle, but rather an amalgam of the best ideas of the several different versions thereof, presented in a workable form. Given the (apparently) new additions of the Mouths of Madness as means of entrance into the first level of the dungeon, perhaps Gygax felt the other means were superfluous. Finally, it is clear that he realized the dungeon, in its to-be-published form, was fluid. One has no further to look than the "Curse of Fog and Frogs" which I have eariler lamented here, to see that he had recognized the need to limit player access to areas which had not been yet published.

Perhaps he meant to include those other means of entrance in later installments, as it is entirely possible that deeper dungeon levels would have entrances that were outside the boundaries of the grounds of the Upper Works, and Gygax felt it inappropriate to detail such entrances until the levels to which they led were published. Hell, for that matter, he might have had some hand-wave in mind-- a reverse Curse of Fog and Frogs-- by which such entrances would become accessible as more levels were published. But I hardly think an omission of such entrances is necessarily a strike against the product. It certainly was not something I "expected" to see, and was not disappointed to have missed.

But I most take issue with Grodog's assertion that "I can’t shake the comparison because “name-dropping” remains a mostly-accurate description of how Greyhawk appears in CZ:UW---the names are dropped in CZ: UW more eloquently (so to speak) than in WotC’s contextlessly-clueless 3.x efforts, but in kind the two usages of Greyhawk are closer than I would prefer them to be."

I confess this notion baffles me. The inclusion of elements from the World of Greyhawk, either under an obvious name-change or not, in this product seems to me to be hardly name-dropping. I cannot imagine how such elements as the deities, the Scarlet Brotherhood, etc. could have been incorporated to make them "more" Greyhawkian. At least, I cannot distinguish between their use in Upper Works and the apparent "dropping of names" in classic modules such as White Plume Mountain, G1-D3, etc. In fact, the only classic module I can think of in which the Greyhawk elements were absolutely central was T1-4. How are the uses of Greyhawk elements here any more egregious than those used in Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth? A Witch-Queen by any other name would fit into any setting as sweetly...

I daresay that, had the Castle Zagyg series been allowed to continue, the Greyhawk elements would have been more central and less name-droppy. As it is, the fact that we are only seeing the first level of the dungeon I think accounts for the relative scarcity of ingrained Greyhawkiana. We'll never know what it would have been like had Gygax lived another few years and the series been taken to its conclusion (if there was one) but I think the "Greyhawkian" nature of Upper Works is indisputable, and goes deeper than the mere dropping of names.

That having been said, please bear in mind that I think the remainder of Grodog's review is right on the money, and if I can only find a couple of sentences to take issue with out of a 15 page review, that should speak to the fact that he and I are of one mind in finding this a worthwhile product, and one which any Greyhawk aficionado should have on their shelf.

* The fact that the series has, for all intents and purposes, been cancelled in its current form, does not bear on this analysis, as when the product was initially released, at least two more installments were intended.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rest in Peace, Forrie

Forrest J. Ackerman, Grand Old Man of science fiction fandom, has died at the age of 92. As a boy growing up, I remember waiting for the new issue of his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland to hit the local newsstand, with its wonderful write-ups of modern and classic science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, stars, and behind-the-scenes folks, complete with scads of pictures. The advertisements alone were worth the price of the magazine to an eight-to-fifteen year old like me, with their promises of film clips from the Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Murder in the Rue Morgue, latex masks of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Robbie the Robot toys, and Planet of the Apes model kits.

I would credit Famous Monsters, and the late Mr. Ackerman who was its editor for so long, with sparking my life-long love affair with all things "genre" related, and nothing else so neatly encapsulates what that genre really is. Although he and I never crossed paths at conventions, I know the fandom community will feel the loss it has suffered.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grodog's CZ: Upper Works Review

My friend Grodog has finally posted his review of Castle Zagyg: Upper Works. It runs 15 pages(!), and I confess I don't agree with everything he says about it (in particular his comments that the Greyhawk elements are limited to mere "name dropping"), but it's well worth reading. Grodog is a lover of all things Greyhawk from way back. In fact, his excellent site was one of the inspirations for my starting up this blog.

Read the review, read my review again, and go out and buy CZ: Upper Works while you still can.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Water, water, everywhere

I love water hazards in dungeons. Underground rivers flowing through humongous cave systems are a thing of beauty for me, able to conceal all manner of monsters, treasures, etc. Magical fountains can get so ludicrously random it's hard not to grin at the prospect. So here for your edification I present some ideas for water in the dungeon.
  1. Underwater pit traps. Sometimes the only way to get from one place in a dungeon to another is by wading through an underground stream. Rarely, though, do the PCs think to pull out those 10' poles while doing so. This will cure them of that omission. It won't do any real damage, except getting wet anything they might have been holding over their heads to keep dry, as they plunge into a sudden 10' pit. Those wearing heavy-duty armor might be in for a bit of a shock as well. Swim? In that?

  2. Water-only access. There could be entire areas of a dungeon that are accessible only by going underwater. If the PCs demure because of the notion of having to hold their breath, or because they want to hold on to their potions of water breathing, then they lose out on the goodies.

  3. That's not water... Speaking of potions of water breathing, and all the other various and sundry magics that allow for relatively easy action beneath the surface, what if the PCs encounter an area that is filled with, say, oil? Or an underwater pit that is filled with some heavier-than-water substance (so it sinks, filling the pit) that will foil such magics and yet leads to some place of interest?

  4. Oxy-gum. The cheesy 1960's Japanese cartoon Marine Boy had something called oxy-gum. You pop it in your mouth and it turns the seawater into breathable air for a time. If you're looking for a non-magical way to let your PCs delve into the depths, you might give them access to a plant or herb that has the same effect, for a limited time.

  5. On a (Not So) Slow Boat to Adventure. Nobody says the PCs can't travel on subterranean rivers in style. They come upon a fancy paddleboat, crewed by skeletons, or permanent unseen servants, or orange snirfneblin, or what have you. They pay a coin for passage and climb aboard. What could possibly go wrong?

    There's no earthly way of knowing
    Which direction we are going
    There's no knowing where we're rowing
    Or which way the river's flowing
    Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a'blowing?
    Not a speck of light is showing
    So the danger must be growing
    Are the fires of hell a'glowing?
    Is the grisly reaper mowing?
    Yes!
    The danger must be growing
    For the rowers keep on rowing
    And they're certainly not showing
    Any signs that they are slowing!

  6. Three-Way Fountain. The PCs come across a three-sided pillar deep in the dungeon. Each side has a different face, from whose mouth flows a stream of colored water into its own basin, red, blue, and yellow. Alone, they are mildly poisonous or mildly curative (1 h.p. damage), determined randomly with each drink. However, once you start mixing the streams, you are able to create potions with magical effects; two reds and a blue make a potion of speed, two blues and a yellow make a potion of extra healing, etc. Perhaps the PCs find a key to some of the recipes somewhere else in the dungeon. Lest the PCs think they can just plop down here and go into business for themselves, have the potions lose their magical effect after 24 hours. And naturally some combinations will result in explosions, poison gas, etc, just to add some zest.
  7. Scrying pool. The PCs come upon a deep black pool (or well). Drop a gem of not less than 100 g.p. value into the water and the ripples will function as a crystal ball for a round or two. Make sure it's in a place that's somewhat difficult to get to, or the PCs will be dropping gems into the thing like dimes in a gumball machine.

  8. Flooded Level. More than just having a water feature, you can have an entire level (or more) of your dungeon completely flooded. Bring out the water trolls, nixies, giant pike, and so forth. This gives you the opportunity to trot out those underwater adventuring rules from the DMG without having to leave the comfort of your own dungeon. It usually works better if you hand-wave the need to breathe with oxy-gum, giant conch-shell diving helmets, piles of bubbles on the dungeon floor that randomly release large bubbles of breathable air, etc., but of course you can build real tension by putting a time-limit on when the air runs out. Plop a kitchen timer on the table and say; "You've got this long before you drown. What are your characters doing?" Lots of portcullises are a bonus in such a situation.

  9. Hollow Man. If you regret ever letting that certain character find that ring of invisibility, here's your chance to make things right. If in a shallow pool or stream, all the monsters need to do is aim above the two foot-shaped indentations in the water. Or, if under water, aim at the big person-shaped space where the water isn't.

  10. Wave pool. The PCs encounter a rather large cave with jagged rocks lining the shore. A largish underground lake is there. Every few rounds, however, a huge wave crashes onto the shore, tossing anything on it against said jagged (and painful) rocks. Perseverance would allow the PCs to discover the cause of the waves (some sort of large stone piston beneath the water), and enter into a treasure chamber (via a secret door in the piston chamber, only accessible while the piston is resetting to slam down again, and so very dangerous to get to).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More Minifigs Pics

I found a bunch of new pictures of those Minifigs World of Greyhawk figures that I posted about this summer. I put the new pics in the original post for your edification. Some of them are neat, some mundane. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stairing into the Abyss

One of the more overlooked features of any dungeon are the stairs. Most of the time these are little more than purely utilitarian vehicles for getting characters from one level of the dungeon to another. I think this is a bit of a shame, myself, and thought I might offer the following ideas to jazz up the usual dungeon staircase. Some are more mundane than others, naturally.
  1. Drawers under the stairs. Some steps on the staircase conceal drawers. These might be locked, or trapped, or both, and make an ideal hiding place for small treasures, keys (to the door at the top of the stairs?), a wand of lightning to be grabbed by the wizard as he flees an enemy coming after him up the stairs, etc.
  2. The Grand Staircase. In real life, many buildings have a central staircase that wraps around a central empty core. In a dungeon setting, this could be used to give direct access to lower levels of the dungeon (which could in and of itself be a Very Bad Thing). Flying monsters could also avail themselves of the central shaft, presenting a threat to adventurers.
  3. Landings. Many DM's seem to forget that a staircase doesn't have to be a straight shaft boring down at a precise angle to the level below. You can have your stairs make right-angle turns (or, heck, any angle you want). Make a staircase that branches at a landing; one flight goes to one level, another to a sub-level (and don't forget they can go back the way the adventurers are likely to come).
  4. Musical Stairs. The staircase is made up of white and black stairs. As each one is walked on, a note sounds, like a giant piano (think of that scene from "Big" with Tom Hanks and the giant piano). By stepping on the stairs in various orders to play a tune, the staircase will go to different locations via a magical teleportation effect, depending on the tune played (some sort of clue to this effect should be findable by the players, perhaps in riddle form). Playing no tune (i.e., just trudging up the stairs) will lead to the least exciting place in the dungeon. Playing the right tune could lead players to the locale of Heward's Mystical Organ.
  5. The Rainbow Steps. The stairs in this staircase each have a seemingly-random color. If the players use the stairs without regard to which color they step on, they enter an ordinary area. If they are careful to only step on a single color, they are taken to a more special part of the dungeon (red leads to a fire-themed sub-level, green leads to a plant-based one, blue for water, etc.). If they are careful to ascend in perfect rainbow order (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet), they are taken to a really special place (a demi-plane or perhaps one of the Outer Planes; Asgard seems mighty appropriate). Whatever you do, don't step on the plaid step!
  6. Random Escalator. The staircase is moving; that will either double the speed of the players as they go in the same direction, or cut it in half if they are going against it. Naturally, it should be put in a place where time is of the essence; say, when they will likely be pursued by some Big Nasty Thing, or need to escape poison gas, or something. The stair could also randomly stop or start, or reverse direction, just to add to the fun.
  7. Slide. It's a cliché, but I can't remember the last time I actually had a staircase that turned into a slide, dumping the players onto a new level as a one-way trip. Wheee!!
  8. Traps. Dig through your old copies of Grimtooth's Traps. Plenty of nastiness there to give your players a second thought when they encounter a seemingly-ordinary staircase. Blades, spikes, poison gas; the fun never ends. Best used sparingly, though; if every staircase is a trap, the tension loses its effect. You don't trap every door and chest, do you?
  9. Up the Down Staircase. Player: "We head down the staircase." DM: "Okay, you get to the top of the stairs and you see a hallway in front of you." Player: "I thought you said the stairs went down?" DM: "Yeah, they did. Weird, huh?" The players can never quite figure out when walking down the stairs turns into walking up the stairs; its part of the magic.
  10. Mimic stairs. Imagine if a killer mimic turned itself into a staircase, seemingly leading up to a blank piece of ceiling in a room. Or parked itself at the top of a staircase, imitating more stairs heading up. The best part is, the players might think there really was something at the top of the mimic-stairs, and spend time and resources investigating.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nightmare of the Derro

I confess that I've always liked the drow (from a time that pre-dates the appearance of that most unfortunate scimitar-wielding fellow who shall remain nameless), but the derro have always been a bit less than awesome for me. Until, that is, I started doing a little research about the origins of the derro in literature and popular culture. Now I cannot wait to get them into play.

Looking into the "Shaver Mystery" and reading some of the Hollow Earth mythology from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, these little buggers start turning into some of the bestest antagonists ever. Inhabitants of a mysterious subterranean world of ancient abandoned cities which they have inherited from their own mysterious creators, possessors of mysterious mind-bending rays which can be used not only to torment or control the minds of those on the surface, but actually cause disasters and influence events on a local and global scale. Their penchant for taking slaves from the surface for food, toil, and torture would seem a minor foible in comparison.

This mysterious "ray technology" could be magical in nature, or it could be some sort of technologically-based horror. Personally, I favor the "pneumatic chemistry" of the troubled mind of James Tilly Matthews. I imagine derro outposts nearby to and perhaps beneath major cities, each with its own "air loom" chamber, whence the fiendish savants direct their minions to control events on the surface world to their own unintelligible purposes. Most precious would be the source of the "volatile magnetic fluid" which is used to power the air looms, and perhaps the PCs would be called upon (or take it upon themselves) to staunch the flow of this vital substance to stem the power of the derro.

And imagine the nastiness that could be perpetrated upon the PCs themselves, once the derro were convinced that their plots were exposed and the PCs had become a danger. Using their air-looms, they could not only inflict the unspeakable torments of the lobster-cracking (preventing the blood from circulating) and stomach-skinning, but also sending forth illusions and mental torments to make them appear insane, thus ensuring that those officials who were not already under the power of the derro would not believe their strange paranoid ramblings.

And, naturally, my derro would also be able to take to the sky in their glowing cigar-shaped vessels, emerging from their deep caves to travel at unimaginable speed high in the sky on some mission for their savant masters. Perhaps they, too, operate using the volatile magnetic fluid.

I might also have my derro involved in an ancient and world-shattering war with the vril-ya, who use their own "vril" technology to counter the derro's own volatile magnetic fluid. And indeed their own flying disks could be set forth to battle the derro's own flying boats in furtherance of the war effort. But in such a conflict, are the motives of the vril-ya as benign as they may seem at first? Might they not have an ulterior motive of their own?

Can Spring Heeled Jack be far behind, to terrorize the streets of my City of Greyhawk?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Archaeology News: "New" 4,300 year-old Egyptian pyramid discovered

Now, if you're like me, when you first read that headline, you had to ask yourself, how the heck could there be an entire pyramid that was still undiscovered all this time? The answer, according to the article, is that the pyramid, aside from being only a third of its original height due to the passage of millenia, is buried in the sands of Saqqara.

According to the article, the original pyramid was about 50' in height, and included a door to the burial chamber. That would make the base approximately 75' on a side (very approximately; I am just guessing on the angle the pyramid was originally built).

Naturally, when I see this sort of thing, aside from the general coolness that there are still awesome and relatively huge things left to be discovered in Egypt, I think of it in terms of dungeons and encounters with undead. I don't know about you, but I could put a couple of very interesting rooms into a structure 75' on a side at the base, especially with 50' of room to go up (each level smaller than the one beneath it, naturally) as well as the potential for chambers beneath the pyramid itself. I especially like the idea that the pyramid itself is buried in the sand.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for a group of PCs to actually have to undertake a little mundane work to get to the entrance of the thing? It would certainly explain why it and its inhabitants remain undisturbed, its treasures unlooted, and its traps untriggered. Might even encourage them to bring along some hirelings to do the digging (remember all those great Mummy movies?) with all the attendent fun and joy that can bring (how do you feed and water all those men while they work? What if there is a spy in their midst?)

Gadzooks, it might even be enough to actually use the rules in the DMG for digging and construction...

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Riftcrag Mega-Campaign

Before my last campaign ended due to out-of-game issues, I had gotten the party to the city of Riftcrag, perched on the edge of the mighty Rift Canyon. The plan was to get them involved in the exploration of a warren of tunnels and dungeons dug into the sides of, and running beneath the floor of, the canyon itself. The major dungeons were to be connected by tunnels, laced with minor encounter areas a la D1-3. The dungeons were laid out rather linearly in terms of accessing them through the tunnels, but it would be possible, by finding secret passages and so forth, to skip ahead as it were (and also skip some of the potentially dangeous minor encounters).

One of the tricks was that the dungeons could not be easily found from within the Rift Canyon itself, which is riddled with caves so that years of exploration could fail to find their entrances. Once you found the exit, however, getting back in would be easy. Thus, the players would have to start at the beginning, but could make their way back to Riftcrag for rest and recouperation, and then rejoin their explorations of the whole where they left off. The encounter areas were designed so that they could start at level 1 and then work their way up as high as 15 or so; each major encounter area being designed with that power-level in mind (analogous to the idea that deeper dungeon levels have badder monsters; the further away the characters get from the Orc Tombs, the harder things get). Naturally, that makes skipping encounter areas via the secret passages somewhat problematical...

I hesitate to put forth any details, just in case I end up getting to finish designing and then running the series. But I thought the setup was worth jotting down, in case anyone else thought they could make use of the concept in their own game.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Alternative to the Thieves Guild

I'm not a big fan of gangster movies outside of the first two Godfather films. Yet I can't help but think that many D&D locales are suffering from the institution of the Thieves Guild that has become ubiquitous, found in almost every village and town.

The idea of the single, monolithic criminal organization obviously comes from Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, which featured a thriving and politically powerful Guild of thieves in the alleys and palaces of the great city of Lankhmar. The Guild brooked no competition and drew a tithe of its members loot, presumably to buy political protection offered by the Guild for its members.

While this is a wonderfully inventive idea, it just doesn't seem realistic enough to be enshrined as a condition to be found throughout every city and village in every D&D world. I'm no expert on crime and criminals, but it seems to me that thieves and assassins would be more likely to associate in gangs, mobs, and families, akin to what is portrayed in films like Gangs of New York, The Warriors, The Godfather, and The Sting.

Such gangs would be focused on a particular leader. Depending on their size, they may or may not self-perpetuating after that leader is removed (either killed or imprisoned for his illegal activities). They would not be exclusive to thieves, but would include all sorts of character classes, particularly fighters and assassins but not exclusing magic-users and clerics, in much the same way that gangs of the 1930's would have not only "muscle", but accountants and bootleggers as well.

If you use mountebanks, I would personally set them apart from this element of criminal society and place them in their own sub-culture, one that co-exists at varying degrees of tension with the more violent gangs (a la The Sting).

I find this a much more engaging and dynamic situation to encourage urban adventuring based on underworld activities. Rather than the once-in-a-few-decades attempt to usurp the power of the Thieves Guild by some upstart, cities would see a constant hum of gang violence based both on retribution for previous attacks or slights as well as power struggles to add territory or new criminal enterprises (Marcus the Stirge controls all of the prostitution in the River Quarter, but the Red Kobold Gang from the Foreign Quarter is trying to muscle in on the action, etc.). The regular constabulary (or the PCs!) would then find itself in a much more difficult position as they attempt to solve crimes, as they don't simply have the dualistic option of "Guild or rogue thief" to consider.

Certainly, singular cities such as Greyhawk or Stoink may buck the trend and have well-established "conventional" Thieves Guilds, but the very fact that such a state of affairs is highly unusual would be enough to add to the uniqueness of the places.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

For all my American readers...

Just a reminder to all my readers in the United States to cast a vote for President (and all the other races and ballot questions you might have in your locale) today. This is one of the most important Presidential elections in my lifetime. Don't waste your opportunity.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's Official - TLG Loses Castle Zagyg

Over at the Troll Dens, Stephen has revealed that Gygax Games has officially yanked all of TLG's licenses to Gary's intellectual property:
Gygax Games has withdrawn all licenses from Troll Lord Games. This includes Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds, Gord the Rogue, King of England King of France, C&C Adventures as well as Castle Zagyg.
Now, I can't say that I've not seen this coming, despite the efforts of some pollyannas to say that "no news is better than bad news". There is no news as to what, exactly, Gygax Games is planning on doing with all the properties that TLG had spent so many years developing, although it seems pretty obvious that they're going to need to spend quite a bit of time ramping up their own development process just to catch up to where TLG was as of this week.

The implications for Castle Zagyg are clear; if and when the series is released by Gygax Games, it's not going to be as a Castles & Crusades product. The most likely scenario is that they will be releasing it as a 4E product, because the market is much larger for such material. I fully understand that decision, if it actually materializes, even if I do not support it as it is clearly not what Gary Gygax wanted to do with the material. But that is only speculation on my part, and I shall wait to see what comes out of Gygax Games in the coming months in terms of announcements to the gaming community.

What this means to me, specifically, in the context of my own Greyhawk campaign, is that I will be using the published version of Upper Works produced by TLG, as it is an excellent product and conversion to my own system of choice (AD&D) is quite simple. I had originally been waiting for the next boxed set in the series, so I could have a good half-dozen or so levels for my players to explore, but now I will then be producing my own dungeon levels, based on both the announced plans for the TLG product line and the many and varied bits of Greyhawk lore scattered hither and yon on the web. I simply don't want to have to wait for Gygax Games to get its act together, especially when it seems pretty obvious that their product will be released in a game system that is light-years away from being compatible with the game I play. I might retro-fit converted versions of their material into my own at some point, but I'm not going to worry about that until we get some more information from Gygax Games, and close to an actual delivery date.

If you can, buy TLG's Upper Works now, while they have them in stock. They're ceasing sales of UW (and other Gygax products) on December 31, 2008.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Castle Zagyg Original Release Plans

Over on the Troll Lord Games message board, there's a thread about how they had originally intended to roll out their Castle Zagyg line (which is, of course, only the latest incarnation of the long-awaited Castle Greyhawk). Someone was kind enough to post links to the original announcements as are still to be found on the TLG website, but since things on the web can be somewhat ephemeral, I repost them here in the interests of completeness and as a memory aid for my own design work in case TLG gets shut out in the latest Gygax Games IP reshuffling.

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: Yggsburgh
Beneath the shadows of the ancient, dreaded Castle Zagyg stands the fortified town of Yggsburgh. Its stout walls and cobbled ways give ample refuge to those bold and worthy adventurers who come to the Four Tors to plunder the dungeon deeps of the Mad Mage. Beyond the protective covering of the town's walls and the deep waters of the Urt and Nemo Rivers, lie a vast rolling countryside from the Glittering Knobs, the Uplands to the Lonely Valley.

Enter the environs of that most dread of magi, test your mettle and make ready for the heroes forge that is Castle Zagyg!

The book you hold in your hands is the Setting for the famed Castle Zagyg, the monstrous dungeons of which are detailed in the following six volumes of this series.

More than a Campaign Setting!

This book consists of the town of Yggsburgh and its Environs, which include the town of Garham and 60 different geographic locales, each with their own peculiarities and adventures. The map charts over 1500 square miles of adventuring terrain, allowing the inclusion of Yggsburgh and Environs into almost any fantasy campaign setting. Each geographic locale has one or more adventures associated with it, offering hundreds of different plots, themes and escapades, players can take their characters on.

What to Expect:
  • 1 Full Color, fold-out, 24" x 30" Map of the Environs of Yggsburgh
  • 1 Full Color, fold-out, 24" x 30" Map of the Town of Yggsburgh
  • Nine Interior Maps of Points of Interest
  • 600+ Non-Players Characters
  • 30+ Random Encounter and Event Tables
  • 50+ Random Encounters, offering hundreds of adventure venues
  • Orders of Battle for everything from Goblins to Knights
  • New, Monsters, Magic Items & Spells for the Castles & Crusades© Role Playing Game
  • Crime and Punishment for Yggsburgh
  • Over 1000 Adventures and Adventure ideas!
Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: Upper Works

The curse has finally lifted!

The most legendary and fabled castle of them all, Castle Zagyg materializes from a dread fog that has long held it enthralled and thus averting its many seekers.

As your party emerges from the tangled brush, briers, and vines that fence the Old Castle Track, you observe the sprawling ruins of an enormous castle complex built upon a sloping bluff of rock. Crumbling, battlemented walls join towers square, round, and pentagonal. Gatehouses, courtyards, and craft shops lie in varying states of disrepair. High above the ruins, at the culmination of the bluff, rise two impressive towers: one round, the other hexagonal. The great east towers flank an enormous fortress of stone from which carved spires rise, piercing the very sky. This edifice can be none other than Castle Zagyg, the dwelling of the Mad Archmage.

An outer gatehouse presents the most immediate structure before you. A ravine stretches north-south behind it, forming a natural barrier in juxtaposition with the castle bluff. Closer inspection reveals a series of caves, toothy maws, dark and treacherous that riddle the sheer walls of the ravine and castle bluff.

Your quarry looms ahead! Explore the ruins at the foot of Castle Zagyg, plunge within the murky caves that dot the rocky bluff, or make for the castle fortress, seeking ingress to Mad Archmage's many and sundry dungeons below -- your choices are myriad. Adventure and derring-do beckons, seekers, though discerning individuals will no doubt note that a horrible death is as probable as attaining both fame and vast treasure. Are you and your fellow explorers brave enough to undertake the challenge, the mystery, the weird whimsy and lurking horrors that are Castle Zagyg?

Castle Zagyg, Volume II: The Upper Works is a Castles & Crusades mega-adventure for character levels 1-4. It is strongly suggested that adventuring parties contain at least one thief and be prepared to encounter all manner of dangers in the haunted ruin and in its subterranean mazes. With an estimated 272-page count in five books, this boxed set will contain the following adventures:

  • Mouths of Madness: Explore the ancient wilderness surrounding Castle Zagyg, then investigate the many caves that pock the rocky bluff on which the ruins lie. The Mouths of Madness are infested with humanoids such as bugbears, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, orcs, and a sly hill giant. Rumors persist of a prowling werewolf, a deranged owlbear, bizarre fungi, and deadly blobs that drink flesh from bone!
  • Ruins of the Castle Precincts: Broach the ruined walls, courtyards, towers, and outbuildings that comprise the precincts of Castle Zagyg, including an Oriental-style pagoda gatehouse and an Egyptian-style pylon gate. Human bandits and a formidable goblin tribe claim several structures, but some horrors are well beyond their mortal ken.
  • The East Wall Towers: Flanking the castle fortress loom a pair of colossal towers: The Great East Wall Tower and the Hexagonal East Wall Tower. One is inhabited by an enigmatic hermit and his horde of "pets"; the other is controlled by malign cultists of an ambitious sort.
  • Castle Fortress: Legend speaks of Zagyg's Castle lying in a state of ruin, much like the walls and towers below it. But when that eldritch fog parted, the fortress of the Mad Archmage was revealed an intact and most imposing edifice. Now bandits hide out there, but even they live in fear of prowling and ravenous monsters, ghostly hauntings, weird machines, animated statues, and tricks and traps galore.
  • The Storerooms (Level 1): Below the castle fortress lies the first dungeon level of Castle Zagyg, where militant kobolds march and potent goblins congregate. Beware the tricks, the traps, and the whimsy enchantments of the Mad Archmage, for here begins the true zaniness of Zagyg, the Mad Archmage who invites all adventure seekers to engage in a bit of derring-do.
  • Upper Works Map & Illustration Booklet: This resource contains maps, floor plans, and dozens of illustrations that pertain to the adventure.

Castle Zagyg, Volume II: The Upper Works is the first of at least three boxed sets to comprise this unparalleled mega-adventure. Never before told, these adventures are Gary Gygax’s personal creations. For 30 years, whether at Gary's table or on the convention floor, players have dashed themselves against the shoals of Castle Zagyg. So many have tried plundering these deeps of Gary's favorite wizard that the dungeons have become legends throughout the gaming world

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg Volume III: The Dungeons

Beyond the gates and beneath the rooms of the mighty castle lie the upper chambers of the dungeons. Here, Zagyg gathered great store of supplies, built cellars and made room for the host of his minions. Too, he built a great Arena for his evil sport and opened the gate to the dread depths of the Ebon Well.

More than a Campaign Setting!

This third installment of the Castle Zagyg series brings the adventuring party beneath the ruins of the dread castle itself.

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg Volume IV: The Deeps

In the Deeps, the true terror and horror of Zagyg's mind was revealed, for here he built his laboratories. And ever his minions carted creatures great and small, proud and downtrodden to the rooms of the menagerie and these fed the vile experiments of his temper. The remains of tortures peopled his museum which led to the great ramp of the Inclined Way and the Catacombs beyond.

This fourth installment of the Castle Zagyg series brings the adventuring party into the labyrinthine corridors of the midlevels of the castle.

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg Vol V: Chambers of Stone

Zagyg's power burrowed into the deeps of the earth, where only dark things dwell. In these parts of the dungeons even his minions dreaded to go and they called these places the "Lairs" and the "Chambers of Stone". Here were the lesser and greater Crypts, the Warrens and the nightmare of the Endless Rooms.

More than a Campaign Setting!

This fifth installment of the Castle Zagyg series brings the adventuring party into the caves of the underdark.

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg Vol VI: A Lightless Lake
The foundations of Castle Zagyg were built upon the great caverns where sat the foul reek of the Pools of Chaos. Snaking from their deeps were a host of caverns, networks of tunnels that led to countless pits and the deep places of the earth. Here, all manner of evil came to dwell.

More than a Campaign Setting!

This sixth installment of the Castle Zagyg series brings the adventuring party into the magical worlds of Zagyg's making and the heart of his dark realm.

Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg Vol VII: Zagyg's Way

Beyond the confines of the dungeons of Castle Zagyg, in the deeps of the world, stands the Lightless Lake, bound only by the ever burning flames of the Infernos. Zagyg himself tread those halls with caution, and even then, only when girded in his greatest sorceries. For there, if the legends are believed, were the gates to other worlds . . . worlds of dread and death.

More than a Campaign Setting!

This seventh and final installment of the Castle Zagyg series brings the adventuring party to the point of no return.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Geography Humor

One of my favorite comics. Now with geographical humor goodness! If you don't read it regularly... start.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

New Monster: The Worry-Hag

WORRY-HAG (Least daemon)

FREQUENCY: Very Rare
NO. APPEARING: 1
ARMOR CLASS: 9
MOVE: 9”
HIT DICE: 2
% IN LAIR: Nil
TREASURE TYPE: Nil
NO. OF ATTACKS: 1
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-3/1-3
SPECIAL ATTACKS: See below
SPECIAL DEFENSES: See below
MAGIC RESISTANCE: 35% against first-level spells
INTELLIGENCE: Average
ALIGNMENT: Neutral evil
SIZE: S (3’ tall)
PSIONIC ABILITY: Nil
Attack/Defense Modes: Nil

The worry-hag is a denizen of the lower planes, specifically the glooms of Hades, where they act as minor servitors to the various forms of greater hags and daemons that rule those planes. They are also not unknown on the adjoining planes of Gehenna and Tarterus. It pleases the rulers of these planes to sometimes send their minions to the Prime Material Plane to either serve wicked spell-casters as familiars, to act as spies or advance scouts for their masters, or simply to wreak havoc on their own. Worry-hags are created from larvae in a process similar to that by which imps and quasits are created (q.v.). If a special familiar is indicated when casting a find familiar spell, and the caster is of neutral evil alignment, a worry-hag will be the result.

In their natural state, they appear as miniature and very ugly women, with black faces which are at once withered and bulbous. They are fond of dressing in many layers of gloomy clothing, with various shades of black, brown, and grey. Their eyes are deep pits of glossy black. The worry-hag can assume two of the following forms, at will: owl, black faun, hare, or constrictor snake.

When in its natural form, the worry-hag's attack is by its tiny horny fists. In addition, the worry-hag is able to spit forth venomous bile once every 2 rounds. If it hits its target (range 2", save vs. breath weapon or be hit), it will cause blindness (per the spell) for 2d6 turns. They also regenerate 1 h.p. per round. When in their fawn or hare forms, they have no physical attacks.

Regardless of its form, the worry-hag has at its command the following magical powers: ultravision, detect good, detect magic, and invisibility, all at will. Once per day it can cause confusion (as per the 7th level druid spell). They are immune to poison, paralysis, charm, suggestion, and normal weapons. Acid, fire, and cold-based attacks do half damage. For purposes of spell attacks against them, worry-hags are considered 7 hit dice creatures. They can also draw on the awesome intellects of the daemon-lords who create them. The worry-hag's magic resistance functions as does that of all daemons; it is 35% vs. first-level spells, then subtracts 5% per spell level. It is still as if the caster were 11th level.

When in the role of a familiar, the worry-hag gives to its "master" the following benefits and powers: a telepathic link allowing the "master" to share the worry-hag's senses (including ultravision) up to a mile away. Within 1" of its "master", the worry-hag imparts its magic resistance of 35% against first-level spells and allows him or her to regenerate 1 h.p. per round. When within a mile of its "master", the worry-hag adds one level of experience to him or her; when more than a mile away, one level is subtracted. If the familiar is slain, the "master" will lose 4 levels. Lastly, in addition to the normal course of its advice, it is able to open contact to the pits of Hades once per week, in order to help its "master" decide on a course of action. This contact functions as a commune spell, but 6 questions are allowed.

(This article is best viewed with the Tw Cen MT font installed on your PC.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How to start a "Gygaxian" Greyhawk campaign

On a game board that I frequent (Pied Piper, if you are curious), someone asked what sort of things they should use in order to start up a Greyhawk campaign with the "original Gary's vision" feel. Here was my response; I think it illustrates some of my thinking about what a good Greyhawk campaign would use. There are a few edits.

For the basics, the Gold Box is a must-have. It sets the scene, has those wonderful Darlene maps, and gives you everything you need in terms of world-building to get you started in the right direction.

You'll want a huge dungeon-crawl, and I would highly recommend "Castle Zayg: Upper Works" recently published by Troll Lord Games, but with the caveat that you might end up having to do a lot of design work yourself to expand the dungeon, as it is currently unclear as to whether, when, or for what game system the next module in the series will be released. I would definitely include Rob's work offered for sale here, as well; I'll definitely be placing the Living Room and Bottle City somewhere in my Castle Greyhawk when the time comes. I know some people will end up including some of Rob's Maure Castle levels to make up some of the missing levels, and that seems workable, with a little effort. You can also have fun putting in gates to Dungeonland/Beyond the Magic Mirror and the Isle of the Ape.

Adventures outside the dungeons of Greyhawk would be called for as well. You will obviously want to concentrate on the earlier material, given what you say. The original Greyhawk boxed set, definitely. Village of Hommlet/Temple of Elemental Evil. The Giants/Drow series. Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. White Plume Mountain. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Not necessarily in that order... Personally, I would tend to ignore the books that TSR/WotC published on various kingdoms (Iuz, Marklands, Scarlet Brotherhood) and the Living Greyhawk stuff and concentrate on the earlier modules. But then again I've been told that I'm an atavistic jerk, so take it as you will. :-)

Depending on how creative you want to get, you could cobble together a very workable City of Greyhawk with bits and pieces from the TSR boxed set, material from Gary's books (especially City of Hawks and Night Arrant), and the new city of Yggsburgh material from TLG. The boxed set maps are atrocious, but feel free to use the hand-drawn maps I've got up on my blog.

As a question of campaign philosophy, you will need to decide on the timeframe of your campaign. This will be important for the simple reason that it will determine whether or not your PCs are competing with the likes of Robilar and Erac's Cousin, or if they are hitting the ground with those legendary personages already having come before. You could, of course, start off in CY 560 and just not have Melf et al involved at all, but that seems to lose some of the fun, to my mind. My own players really loved their encounters with Melf and crew...

You should also bear in mind that "original Gary's vision" is a somewhat nebulous concept, as his campaign changed in significant ways over the years (not that I ever had the pleasure of playing in it, alas...). It started out as a fantastic version of North America, with Greyhawk equalling Chicago. That turned into something more-or-less approximating the published Flanaess. Castle Greyhawk itself morphed from a dozen or so levels to 30 to 6 and now to whatever the plan for Castle Zagyg ends up being. Suffice to say it seems to me that there's a lot of wiggle-room for you as DM, even if you want to remain true to the spirit of Gary's Greyhawk.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Greyhawk Wars... Kinda

I've got an inkling to do a really huge project. Mostly for my own edification, but naturally I'll publish the results once I get them into something approaching fit-for-public-consumption.

Regular readers will recall that I was an avid wargamer before I was a role-player, and I think that the wars surrounding the Great Kingdom would be excellent fodder for an old-fashioned, SPI-style wargame. Hex maps, cardboard counters, different scenarios... the works. (And, once again, if anyone from WotC is reading, consider this a product pitch!)

Picture this; a large (22" x 34") map depicting the area of South Province, Idee, the Iron Hills, Irongate, parts of Onnwal and Sunndi on a much larger scale than the Darlene maps (maybe 10 miles per hex; I haven't done the math). Lots of colorful counters depicting units of the Iron League and the aforementioned South Province. (Check out the counters here to get an idea of what I'm talking about, oh ye benighted non-wargamers.) Rules would include supply, magic, morale, wizards and heroes, magical artifacts, raising new troops, etc. Scenarios... ah, the scenarios. The Revolt of the Iron League in 455. The attempts of Herzog Chellor to harry the League in 577/8. Scores of attempts to shatter the League in-between. Conflicts between the dwarves of the Iron Hills and both sides. The hordes of Wastri emerge from the Vast Swamp to wreak havock.

Hell, you could even have an alternate combat resolution mechanic that encorporates that Men & Magic update / System 7 Napoleonics fusion I posted about earlier. But that wouldn't be necessary. I think this could really work, and would open up the door for a whole series of games; the wars of Imperial Keoland, Nyrond/Almor vs. the Great Kingdom, humanoids of the Bone March vs. Ratik/North Province... And of course the Shield Lands could warrant an entire game unto themselves.