Thursday, December 30, 2010

Living in the Classical World

A preview from the forthcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ Game Masters Toolkit...

Broadly speaking, the “Classical World” refers to the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and those civilizations which were in turn influenced by them, such as Egypt. It spans a period of time from roughly the Bronze Age in 3,000 B.C. through the fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D. Obviously culture and technology will change enormously over such a vast period of time.

The Classical world is an important source of inspiration for the game, and an enterprising game master could set an entire campaign in a locale based on the Classical world. Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, Spartacus, and even Gordianus the Finder can all be seen as archetypes that can be used as the basis of a campaign. The amount of information relating to the Classical world is staggering, and the below is only the most cursory of glances into this vital and fascinating piece of history.

Society and Politics

Ancient Greece began as a collection of rival city-states. Alliances would form and dissolve, rival city-states would war with one another, but throughout the turbulent times the Hellenic civilization reached enormous heights in the realms of art, architecture, and philosophy. The Trojan War became embedded in the popular consciousness as a watershed moment, and the threat posed by the encroaching Persian Empire was enough to maintain a collective Greek identity, even though the Greeks were divided politically.

Some city-states were monarchies, like Corinth and Sparta. Others were democracies, such as Athens (but it should be borne in mind that even the “cradle of democracy” did not know of universal suffrage, and the power to vote was kept in the hands of a few). The Greeks, like all ancient civilizations, practiced slavery.

The Greeks were aggressive colonizers, and Greek colonies could be found around the Mediterranean. The Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy were extremely influential in the development of ancient Rome.

Eventually, the Greeks were conquered (some might say consolidated) by the Macedonians to their immediate north. Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, led the Greeks on a vast war of conquest, bringing Greek civilization to a number of cultures around the Mediterranean.

Ancient Rome began as just another small city-state. By dint of their superior military technology and other factors, they eventually gained a position as the master of most of Italy. The Roman civilization borrowed much from the Greeks, and as their empire steadily grew across the Mediterranean and into western Europe, they brought their civilization, their laws, and their culture with them.

Initially, Rome was a republic, with officials being elected for year-long terms and a complex system of checks and balances on their power. Eventually, though, the Republic gave way to an Empire, and Rome grew to her greatest extent under the reigns of successive emperors. The Romans were, as a rule, quite tolerant of local customs and traditions, and conquered peoples were allowed a fair amount of self-rule.

Rome was eventually overwhelmed by hordes of Germanic tribes, initially brought in as mercenaries and auxiliaries for the Roman legions, and eventually ushering in the Dark Ages by overthrowing their once-masters.


As the name implies, the Bronze Age Greeks lacked access to iron or steel weapons and armor. Armor consisted mostly of shields and bronze and copper helmets and possibly breast-plates. By the 10th century B.C., the Greeks were using iron and eventually steel.

Greek architecture was one of the hallmarks of their civilization. They were also quite advanced in the realms of mathematics (the Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes was a military engineer of the first order, in addition to his more academic activities).

The Greeks had access to scale armor and the cuirass, while leaders would have plated mail (but not plate armor). As hoplites were required to provide their own arms and armor, they often went into battle with no armor but a shield, or sometimes cloth armor (linothorax; AC 7). A variety of different weapons would be available to them, but the spear (doru), and occasionally the short sword (xiphos) would be the rule. Bronze armor is also available, but will have an armor class 1 “worse” than normal steel armor, and will also be less effective against rear attacks, with enemies getting an additional bonus “to hit” of +2.

The Romans were masters of engineering and architecture, and understood the importance of water in building the infrastructure of their Empire. They built great aqueducts to bring water over enormous distances to their cities. They were also fond of large and extravagant entertainments; the Coliseum in Rome was built to accommodate their gladiatorial games and other contests, and hippodromes were built for chariot racing, a very popular pastime throughout the Empire.

Plated mail (lorica segmentata) would be the standard for soldiers and veterans, while gladiators and others would have access to a variety of more exotic, but less protective, gear. Plate mail (but not jousting plate) would be available, but usually restricted to officers (and twice as expensive as the price listed in the Adventures Dark and Deep Players Guide). The long, broad, bastard, and two-handed swords were largely unknown to the Romans themselves, but their neighbors would have them, and thus such things would be possible in the Roman-themed campaign, but not common. The short sword (gladius) and dagger (puglio) would be the standard.

Neither the Romans nor the Greeks had the stirrup, which made fighting from horseback a much more difficult prospect than it was for later peoples. Without that key piece of technology, all rolls “to hit” from on horseback would be made with a -2 penalty (including missile attacks).


The sea was the primary means of moving goods and people around in the Classical world. Especially in the Greek world, roads were iffy things, and travelers would have to rely on the hospitality of strangers overnight, or else be forced to sleep outdoors. Bandits and brigands were not uncommon. Travel overland was done mostly on foot, with animals being used to haul carts, wagons, and chariots.

In ancient Rome, the situation was somewhat different, owing to the emphasis the Romans placed on creating well-designed and well-maintained roads. These roads were one of the primary means of communications, being used both for commerce and military transportation. There was even a postal service that used these roads to deliver letters from one end of the Empire to the other. Travel in the Roman Empire was relatively common; the wealthy would vacation near the sea to escape the heat of the city in the summer, and travel was easy enough to make tourism a viable industry. Major routes between the cities were served by inns where travelers could stay for the night and enjoy a meal. Travel was still primarily by either walking or by cart or wagon.

A Classical Campaign

An Adventures Dark and Deep campaign in a Classical-type setting could be quite exciting. The full assortment of equipment would not be available, naturally; a Bronze Age setting would obviously not have any sort of steel armor (mail or better), and even a late Roman-type setting wouldn’t have jousting plate.

One could imagine a setting with a myriad of city-states united by a single culture and religion, yet divided politically and giving a plethora of opportunities for the player characters to get involved in intrigues and skirmish-level battles. Perhaps neighboring these city-states would be a Romanesque empire in its expansionist phase; aggressive, yet bringing a level of order and civilization with it wherever it goes (although not necessarily universally loved!). The sea would be a prominent feature, and monsters taken from Greek mythology (centaurs, harpies, cyclopses, etc.) would predominate.

Thematically, such a campaign could take a number of directions. For those game masters wishing to evoke the spirit of Homer, the theme could be “men as playthings of the Gods”. Humans struggle against the whims of the Gods, who have a very real and not altogether welcome presence in the physical world, making their wills manifest through acts of nature, supernatural intermediaries, and their own direct involvement. In a campaign set in a later time within the Classical period, the game could be set around the notion of bringing justice and order to the benighted barbarians just beyond the border; accompanying the legions of the Empire on their quest to civilize the world. Other possibilities include exploring the position of slaves, who in historical times had a much better life than most slaves in the antebellum South, for example, and yet they still lacked what we in the modern world would consider fundamental liberties.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


A hastilude is a “martial game,” in which warriors, and especially cavaliers and paladins, engage as both practice and demonstration of their martial ability. Despite the use of the term “game” they can be as deadly as regular combat at times. It is possible for different sorts of hastiludes to be combined at large festivals and gatherings, often for the express purpose of having a tournament with a joust. Such events are also usually accompanied by feasting and possibly religious or other celebrations as well, and are sometimes called “round tables.”

Bear in mind that knighthood is an appointment by some noble or royal personage and is not otherwise dependent on class; fighters and rangers (and, on very rare occasions, other classes) can be knights as well as cavaliers and paladins. All of the special horsemanship and other abilities possessed by the cavalier and paladin classes, however, will still apply to all of the situations described below.


A tournament is a staged combat between two groups of knights and/or their squires and retainers. Knights and their entourages arriving for the tournament are divided into two fairly equal sides, each of which is housed together in a “settlement.” The central element of the tournament is a large pitched battle between the two settlements, which is fought mounted, with regular weapons, and in which the principal activity is to force knights from the enemy settlement to surrender, after which time a ransom can be demanded for their return.

The tournament is not intended to be fought to the death, and knights will surrender when they reach a suitably low number of hit points. However, it is certainly possible that a wounded knight who suffers a strong blow may well be slain. Such is an accepted hazard of the tournament.

Ransoms are, as a rule, 100 g.p. per level of the captured knight, plus 100 g.p. per social rank. Thus, a 6th level cavalier of lower-upper class would be worth a ransom of 900 g.p. Being captured is only a minor shame for a knight in a tournament, especially if one’s opponent is demonstrably superior in quality. Failure to pay one’s ransom, on the other hand, is a grave shame, and knights will sell their armor, horses, etc. before allowing such a blight on their honor.

Some lands (particularly those of lawful good inclination) will conduct tournaments with blunted weapons; while these would be called bohorts in game terms (see below), they may still be referred to as tournaments.


A bohort is conducted much like a tournament, except it is usually fought with blunted or wooden weapons, making it much more difficult to inflict a fatal injury. Cutting weapons will inflict one-quarter damage (round down) and blunt or stabbing weapons will inflict one-half damage (ditto).

Such contests are often (but not exclusively) held among the squires and other retainers, and the participants will wear gambesons or leather cuirasses rather than full plate armor. They are sometimes held in conjunction with tournaments as preliminaries.


A joust is a one-on-one combat between two knights (or, again, their squires and retainers), wherein each gets three blows with a set of agreed-upon weapons. The goal of the joust is to either unseat the opponent, or, failing that, to inflict the most damage without killing him. Typical weapons include the battle axe and sword, and of course the lance (although for a joust the metal tip of the lance is removed, leaving only the blunt wooden tip). As the name indicates, most participants wear jousting plate armor to help defend against the blows.

The blunted jousting lance does only half damage, but bear in mind the joust is conducted as the opponents charge at one another, so the doubling effect of the charge cancels out the halving effect of the blunted lance.

Once a jouster has lost one quarter of his hit points, he must make a STR check to remain in his saddle. He must check again when he has lost half his total hit points, and once more at three-quarters. At this point the joust will usually be called for the jouster who has inflicted the most damage on his opponent or postponed, as the idea is not to inflict fatalities but to demonstrate superior mounted combat skills.

If neither jouster is unseated by the time three passes with each weapon have been completed, the joust is called in favor of the knight who inflicted the most damage.

Pas d’Armes

A pas d’armes is an impromptu challenge set forth by a knight or knights. The challenger will position himself at a spot on a road, at a bridge or ford, city gate, etc. and issue a challenge to all other knights who pass by to single combat. Often, word will circulate of the existence of the pas d’armes, attracting knights and their retinues from the surrounding area to test their mettle. Pas d’armes are not usually done in conjunction tournaments or other hastiludes.

As with the tournament, the idea is to fight until one knight or the other surrenders, at which time the usual ransom can be demanded. However, no special rules regarding blunted weapons are used in the pas d’armes.

Refusal by a knight to participate is regarded as a great shame, and honor demands that any knight so doing surrender his spurs (or other badge of rank) as a sign of his humiliation.


A quintain is a target for the lance, intended to be used while charging on horseback. Taking turns at striking a quintain will often be found as an attachment to a tournament or bohort, but it is not unknown for some villages to set up permanent quintains against which the local youths and/or nobility will try their skill.

Basically, the quintain itself will have an armor class between 9 and 1, depending on its size and composition.

Armor Class      Quintain Construction
     9-7                      Mannequin
     6-3                      Shield or board
     2-1                      Ball or ring

Those which are easiest to hit will generally consist of a life-sized mannequin, followed by those consisting of a shield or board. The hardest to hit will be small balls or rings; the latter must be pierced through with the lance in order to score.

Shield or board type quintains are often the most popular as permanent structures, for they are most often fitted with a weight on a cord or chain, such that if the shield or board is hit, the weight at the end of the cord will swing around and hit the rider on the back of the head as he passes, unless he is quick enough. In game terms, if a hit is scored against the quintain, the attacker must make a successful DEX check. Failure means he is hit by the counter-weight and must take 1d2 h.p. of damage. Cavaliers and paladins may subtract their level from their ability check roll as a bonus, as part of their horsemanship skill.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Battle of Towton

Last week The Economist published a terrific article on the Battle of Towton, one of the critical engagements of the Wars of the Roses, and possibly the largest battle ever fought on English soil. The article focuses on the mass grave that was discovered at the site, and the clues about both the battle itself and life in medieval times that the skeletons reveal.

Because the battle was so large, there are remains of all ages and sizes to be found, giving a broad range of insights, such as:
This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.
There were other fascinating tidbits as well, like traces of one of the first handguns being found on the battlefield, and the process the archaeologists went through to try to match some of the injuries they found on the skeletons with the damage done by actual medieval weaponry. Fascinating stuff!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Glad Yule

To all my Pagan, Wiccan, and Heathen friends (and what the heck-- everyone else, too!), I wish you Glad Yule, Io Saturnalia, and Joyous Solstice!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hexographer Does Classic Greyhawk Maps

Joe over at Inkwell Ideas has come out with a new version of Hexographer, and he's taken it out for a spin by making excellent versions of the classic Darlene World of Greyhawk maps. There's even a tutorial on how to make those wonderful hex-spanning mountains, hills, and forests using the software. Excellent stuff, and I would highly recommend it! (Click over to his site to see a much higher-res version of that map to behold just how cool it is.)

A 2010 Resolution

Hey, I've still got two weeks or so left in 2010, right? More than enough time for a quick resolution before the standard New Years resolutions kick in.

I resolve to spend a day painting miniatures, sometime between now and the end of the year. Maybe turn that one stand of Iron League halberdiers into something more.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Twilight: 2013 Bundle on Sale

I was a big fan of Twilight: 2000 when it first came out, and now it has been redone and republished under the title Twilight: 2013. I don't have the new version, but as I understand it the background information was tweaked to align better with the way history really turned out in the last 20 years or so. Basically, the world has gone to hell due to war and economic collapse, and you are a soldier stranded in a distant land, trying to get home or start a new life among the ruins. Very gritty.

Now you can get the entire line of Twilight: 2013 products in pdf format for only $10, as a special holiday promotion. That is just incredible, as it includes not only the core rules, but all the sourcebooks, modules, adventures, addenda, etc. Wow!

Here's the description from a reviewer on
A complete bundle of nearly everything you would want for the excellent latest version of Twilight 2000. Some parts of the new time line are a little weak because they are too similar to the old cold war time line. The various stages of the rules vary from very easy to lean and start to play to very realistic and robust making them suitable for nearly any gaming group interested in this kind of genre.
If you have fond memories like I do of Twilight: 2000, or have heard good things about the third edition and just held off for whatever reason, there's really no excuse now not to take the plunge. Merry Christmas indeed!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Storyline vs. Sandbox

When role-playing first emerged as a hobby, most games were what are now described as “sandbox style” campaigns. That is, the game master created the campaign milieu as a sandbox in which his players could romp at their heart’s content. The sandbox allows for a maximum of player freedom; they can decide that, today they want to trek to the other side of the planet, and off they go. Megadungeons are often seen as a tentpole feature of such campaigns. Often, the sandbox style of play is seen as allowing the players and game master to explore the world together, according to their fancy.

A plot-driven campaign, on the other hand, is focused on a particular story line. Often, this story is an elaborate affair constructed by the game master, and the players are expected to follow the various clues, visit the detailed locales, and eventually the players experience the triumph of fulfilling the quest (or failing valiantly in the attempt).

This does not mean, as is sometimes erroneously assumed, that the sandbox type of campaign has no plot. In fact, it will often have many plots going on at the same time, running inexorably along their course. What distinguishes a sandbox-style game from a plot-driven game is that in a sandbox the players are free to pick up or ignore the various plots that they uncover as they see fit. In the plot-driven game, there is no game if the players decide to take a course that radically deviates from the plot the game master has devised.

It cannot be stressed enough that neither way of designing a campaign is right or wrong, or better or worse. In such matters of style, it all comes down to personal preference. If the game master and his players simply enjoy the free-wheeling style of a sandbox, or if they love the satisfaction of undertaking a months-long quest with a chance to grab glory at the end, then that style of play is the right one, for them.

Neither style is without its pitfalls, however. The sandbox campaign can, understandably, suffer from a certain lack of connection between the player characters and the campaign setting. Without some sort of meaningful anchor between them, the perils that the players encounter can lack significance unless they are directly aimed at the player characters. And that can get monotonous after a while. Sandbox does not have to equate to rudderless.

The plot-driven game, on the other hand, can fall into the trap of “railroading.” Railroading is a term to describe the phenomenon of the game master forcing the players to follow a certain pre-set course of action through heavy-handed tactics that remove even the illusion of choice on their part. In such cases, the game master turns into a narrator, while the players are simply passive participants. Such heavy-handedness is hardly conducive to a game where the player characters are supposed to be central to the game.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Adventures Dark and Deep Playtest Begins!

Q: What has 507 spells, 221 pages, 16 character classes, and is three weeks early?

A: The Adventures Dark and Deep Players Guide!

This has the real "meat" of the game. There are no magic items or monsters yet, but those are coming. In the meantime, you can use such from your favorite retro-clone with almost no adjustment necessary. The Game Masters Toolkit (with magic items) will be ready come January. The Bestiary (with, um, beasts) will follow soon thereafter.

I would ask that feedback on specific rules themselves be confined to the Adventures Dark and Deep forums, but if you have general questions or commentary, I'll leave the comments on this post open here. Many thanks, and I look forward to getting a lot of feedback!

Click --> HERE <--

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dark Dungeons: The Movie

I think this may very well be the first time a Chick Tract has been turned into a movie! Old-timers will be very familiar with Jack Chick's 1984 attack on Dungeons and Dragons, entitled, "Dark Dungeons", which was later used as the title of a 2E Rules Cyclopedia retro-clone. Well, here it is brought to life (straight, with all the self-parody of the original left intact). Enjoy!

Hat tip to Purple Pawn.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chiron Beta Prime

I'm sure some of my readers may already be familiar with Jonathan Coulton, but I just discovered him this very night. And so in the spirit of the season, I give you...

Monday, December 6, 2010

OSR Publishsers

I've tried to keep a list of OSR publishers over to the left (and down a bit). But it seems a losing battle with all the great new publishers coming out, and the unfortunate demise of some here and there.

Unfortunately, I'm just too lazy busy to keep up with it all. So I ask you, my loyal readers; please look through the list and let me know if there are any I definitely should be including, and if any that I've got listed should be taken out due to inactivity. If you'd be so kind as to include actual links in your comments, that would be most appreciated!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Greyhawk Session #10

When last we left out intrepid heroes, they were in the midst of investigating the secret temple of Wastri the Hopping Prophet, having deduced its existence by a careful examination of the ledgers found in the supposedly innocent warehouse. We left our heroes in situ, having discovered the armory and some of the guards of the place.

Present were Ardo, the human cleric of Pelor; Mongo, the half-orc fighter; Theric, the human paladin of Pholtus; Vellis, the gnome bard; Abo Thistlestrike, the human magic-user; and Ehrandar Dawngreeter, the elf mountebank.

Having determined that the armory held nothing more, the party explored the sole remaining door, through which they figured that the rest of the guards had moved. Beyond was a large chamber, obviously some sort of temple, with pillars leading down the middle of the room, two pools to either side, and atop a large dais a stone altar. And what should they find on said altar but their missing dwarf, Jhocamo, chained to the altar au naturale. And behind him, a figure in a hooded robe, dagger poised above the hapless dwarf, and obviously expecting the party's arrival.

Obviously the party could never hope to close the distance before the hooded figure could slice open the dwarf's throat. And, examining the pools to either side, it was clear that at least a half-dozen figures were within, their eyes just above the surface of the water and the points of their weapons just visible. Not a good situation.

Up stepped the mage, ignoring the figure's orders to stand still, slowly and subtly approached, presenting himself as a would-be convert. It unfolded that the hooded figure was some sort of half-man, half-frog. It was here that we saw a great test of the new ADD rules, as the mountebank used his verbal patter skills to first make the figure doubt his own preconceptions, and then reinforce the notion that the mage was, indeed, betraying the party and turning to the side of Wastri. A first-rate example of what those verbal patter skills are there for. And work they did. The figure was confused enough to allow the mage to close, and then was caught off-guard as the mountebank charged, seemingly to attack the traitorous mage, but instead hurled a barrage of daggers at the frog-priest.

The daggers hit home, and the frog-man retreated behind one of the tapestries lining the wall behind the altar as the guards leaped from the pools and engaged the party. In the ensuing brawl the cleric fell, but had his wounds bound by his fellows, bringing him back to 1 h.p., but unable to do much of anything except recuperate and drink wine.

All but one of the remaining guards were dispatched-- the last plunging back into one of the pools. Mongo, despite his vast strength, was unable to break the chains holding the dwarf, but the still-fallen paladin managed the feat (mightily impressing the half-orc). The dwarf was freed, provided with pants as a mercy to the rest of the group and a mace with which to wreak vengeance. The party then formed a consensus that the altar was to be desecrated in some way, and the mountebank then decided to act, pouring holy water upon it. It reacted in a most satisfying way, hissing and smoking. Unfortunately, he was also stricken by an immediate outbreak of hideous warts, reducing his charisma to 3 and rendering his hands almost incapable of holding any weapon.

The now-stricken mountebank remained behind with the cleric while the rest of the party explored the area beyond the concealed door. Beyond the found a large room with a pool with dozens of giant frogs, which had to be crossed in order to reach a further door. They decided to explore other options, finding a hastily-emptied bed chamber where a chest with many hundreds of gold pieces and a small pouch containing the original golden frog statuette (the very same that began their involvement with the Wastri cult in the first place). They also found a room with a half-dozen robes and various musical instruments of strange design.

However, while they were exploring the further reaches of the temple, the last remaining guard emerged from the pool and attacked the mountebank. The mountebank missed with all his daggers, and was laid low by the frog-man. Just before the guard did in the stricken cleric, the party returned, handling the guard easily and binding the mountebank's wounds, leaving him incapable of much of anything. Unfortunately, the dwarf then attempted to swim across the pool with the giant frogs, and was instantly and irrevocably consumed. The party had suffered yet another loss.

By this time, the party had had enough, and started the process of leaving the temple with their loot, wounded comrades, and some of the dead frog-man bodies to use as proof for the constabulary.

The city watch was duly summoned, and proceeded to take charge of the investigation (!). The party's claims were easily proven, although the unfortunate Salvomar (the paladin's henchman, who had been left behind to guard the rear entrance to the warehouse with oil) had been taken into custody over the course of the evening on suspicion of casing the place for a burglary.

Eventually, the wounded members of the party were let to heal and the half-orc accompanied the paladin to the temple of Pholtus, whither he had been summoned. The half-orc converted to the faith of Pholtus (the paladin's feat of strength in freeing the dwarf being a contributing factor in proving the power of that god), and the priests removed all of the curses besetting the party as means of rewarding them for undoing the evil cult of Wastri.

The evening ended with a certain cavalier entering the Cock and Bottle, and striking up a friendship with the remaining members of the party. Perhaps the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dreamation 2011 is Upon Us!

Dreamation is one of several local conventions that I am lucky enough to have within driving distance. This one is February 24-27 in Morristown, NJ. And right now I have submitted, but not gotten final approval for, a couple of games.

First, are a couple of session of the great board game Red Dragon Inn. This is a really great game that explores what happens after the party returns from the dungeon. It's a light-hearted game where the one who wins is the one who survives an evening of drinking, gambling, and brawling.

Second, I will be running one of the ultimate classic convention modules; S2 White Plume Mountain. Can you rescue one of the three magical weapons from the evil wizard Keraptis?

And the third one I have not actually submitted because I haven't got past the outline stage. I'm not sure I'll actually be submitting it, as I'm not sure it would be ready. If I get a lot done on it in the next month and a half, I will. This is the one whose map is not based on a placemat pattern...