I never understood the THAC0 debate.

   Everybody rolls a d20 when their character is attempting to hit an opponent – that won’t change. How you determine the difficulty of the roll is a technical aspect of the game that DMs should tackle while prepping their session. I never look at Armor Classes during a game: everything I need is on my cue cards. I fill one such card for each and every monster or NPC the player characters might possibly encounter during a game. Prepping is when I look at all the AC and To Hit matrixes. I check every possible combination.

   For example, gargoyles. Four / five Hit Dice monster. Gargoyles hit the Dwarf (AC -1) on a roll of 16; they hit the bard or the ranger (both AC 0) on a 15; hit the cleric (AC 2) on a 13; hit the thief (AC 3) on a 12; hit the magic-user (AC 7) on a 8. The PCs hit those AC 5 gargoyles on a roll of 13 for the level 4 fighters (Dwarf, bard, ranger), 13 also for the level 5 cleric, 14 for the level 5 thief, and 16 for the level 4 magic-user. All that info goes right on the cue card.

   Then you do that again for the grells and again for the wights and the carrion crawlers and the clay golem and the boss, whatever he / she is. When you run the actual game, you no longer need to bother with any Armor Class.

   THAC0 or no THAC0, it’s all the same. Each character rolls a d20. Each monster rolls a d20. It’s been like that since 1974. If you do the prep work and do it well, then there is no difference between First Edition and Fifth Edition. There was never a real debate. It’s just how you tell your players what number they need to hit.

   You’re welcome.

   If anyone wants to hit me, they need 15.


Citadel AD&D Beholder

   Let’s write a short post about the great 1985 Citadel Beholder, for no reason other than there’s not much stuff out there about it.

   This baby was sculpted by Nick Bibby, and looks exactly like the original beholder in the Monster Manual – not those newer, meaner beholders-on-steroids we see these days. The transparent base is long gone – I wasn’t quite careful in the late eighties and nineties – but I might give it a fire bat or black dragon base and get that beholder flying again.

    One of the ten eyestalks has broken off, and I honestly don’t remember if it broke while in storage, or if the clumsy 14-year-old me tried to bend one eyestalk and snapped it. But the missing eye is still cool. It gives this beholder a sort of “battle scar” feel, and when I eventually fling it on the table in my current First Edition AD&D game, the players will automatically wonder out loud, “Which of the deadly powers is gone? Please let it be the death ray! Please let it be the death ray!

   I have no intention of twisting or bending the 9 remaining stalks, because in my humble opinion, beholders look way cooler when they “stretch” all of their eyestalks, like in this awesome picture from the CM3 adventure Sabre River (see the archives for a full post about this killer module: 04/05/2015).

    Reminds me of a cobra’s neck hood, or the Australian frilled dragon with that collar around its head. Mean.

    From the same short-lived Citadel AD&D line, I’m also lucky enough to have kept the amazing troll and the gorgeous owlbear. To think that these little guys are now over 30 years old!


Fourscore Phantasmagores

   If you are running a game of Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Numenera, or basically any other fantasy role-playing game, you probably have to deal with at least one savvy player who knows the monster stats by heart.

   “Five Hit Dice, guys! That’s 40 HP max! We got this!

   The phones and tablets are yet another nuisance, these days. Players whip ‘em out immediately to check your monster’s Special Attacks or Magic Resistance. Annoying, right?

   Surprise them with new monsters!

   Rupert Bottenberg’s book, Fourscore Phantasmagores, offers eighty (that’s right, 80) new creatures for your campaign. Each of these monsters have its own explanatory text and gorgeous illustration, but no stat-block – so it can be “adapted” in virtually any game system you want, including your 100% homebrew campaign world.

   See the look on your players’ adorable little faces when you show them this picture, for example:

   “What the hell is that?” says the savvy player.

   “It is called a Blightseer,” you reply.

   Three of them whip out various devices and immediately google “Blightseer”. They come up with what we might call a big fat zip. O joy!

   Even if they find the link to Fourscore Phantasmagores and ChiZine Publications, that won’t provide them with any in-game advantage, since the creatures’ stats are your own.

   My take on the Blightseer, in classic First Edition AD&D format:

FREQUENCY: Very rare
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Ray of Enfeeblement
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Cannot be Surprised

   Note that I didn’t write the text that’s supposed to follow the stat-block here – because it’s written already, and very well written indeed. You open the book, choose a creature, read the text, and then come up with the appropriate stats, depending on which system you’re currently using. Recommended for experienced DMs and gamemasters.

   Here’s another monster adapted (again, by me) for Call of Cthulhu.

STR                        3d6
CON                       2d6 +6
SIZ                         1d6 +10
INT                        3d6
POW                      4d6 +20
DEX                       2d6 +3
Hit Points:             32
Move:                    8

Weapon                 Attk%    Damage
Touch                    40%        1d6 +1d4
Rending Light      60%        5d6

Armor: None, but normal weapons can not harm a Prismite.
Prismites also regenerate 2 points of damage per round until destroyed.

   Here’s the link – your players will hate you so much!


Let's Go To Hell

   In my game world, the spell fireball doesn’t exist anymore. It was banned two hundred years ago by a powerful college of magic-users and gold dragons called The Circle. Very few copies of the forbidden spell have been stored in six remote locations for future, wiser generations to retrieve. One of these six locations is a ruined city where a large Gate to Avernus opens every 25 years, and only remains open for 50 minutes. A copy of the spell is stored over there – in Hell.

   A group of rogue magic-users have decided to defy The Circle and their ban; they plan to go through the Gate, and bring back that infamous, banned spell.

   Pun or no pun, they are literally “going to hell”.

    At the beginning of the session, every player gets to choose if he’s gonna send his real character on that perilous expedition, or if he would rather play one of the fifth level NPCs provided. The risks of dying are high, but the rewards are huge: a big chunk of XP, in addition of the spell fireball for the magic-users!

   The decision to play “real characters” or NPCs doesn’t have to be a group decision: that’s the real beauty of it. The gate only allows for 10 people to go in and then come out 50 minutes later. The 10 NPCs – three magic-users, one cleric, one thief, and five fighters – are all set to go through that Gate when it opens. Players characters can choose to bump one NPC out of the lineup, and take its place. If the “real” thief or the “real” cleric decide not to go, they can play a barbarian and a druid – and not risk the lives of their characters. But the ranger, bard, and magic-users decide to send their actual characters, and there you have it: an unexpected combo of “real” characters and NPCs-turned-PCs-for-a-day.

   Basically, it would have been like a game of Frostgrave, with 7 players controlling 10 characters and aiming for one precise objective.

   But then, 6 of my 7 players decided to send their “real” characters to Hell. I was quite surprised, given that they were all too afraid to open any of the doors in one puny first-level dungeon, three years ago. Kudos, guys! Being crackbrained bold fuckers can go a long way – or you can remain trapped in Hell, or die.

   The party had many tricks up their sleeve: a Figurine of Wondrous Power, a Potion of Fire Control, a Potion of Heroism, plus several one-shot magic items – two “mass cure wounds” items, a holy sword, a rending wave (4d6 damage on 4 different targets), a Compelled Duel, and a talisman allowing its wearer to cast one Bigby’s crushing hand.

   In the very first room beyond the Gate, they squared off against two lemurs, two Legion Devils, and three fire bats. The magic-user cast his one and only lightning bolt there.

    The second room proved to be much more challenging: three Legion Devils and one Horned Devil – and that Horned Devil later gated in three additional Legion Devils – and some reinforcements came in from the previous room (two more devils, one of them wielding a frightening “lemur blade”). So, eight Legion Devils, plus one gargoyle guarding the fire tower where the forbidden spell is stored.

   The magic-user monster summoned three goblins, and one of those teeny-weeny goblins held its ground and lasted five whole rounds against a mighty Horned Devil and one Legion Devil. That nameless goblin became my favorite NPC of the game.

   The other NPCs went down one by one, having shielded the PCs from 150 HP of cumulative damage.

    The two “mass cure” had to be used in that room, along with the “rending wave” and the Figurine of Wondrous Power (a stone golem). The magic-user cast jump to get to the fire tower, climbed the ugly thing, and copied the priceless fireball spell. Then, the party scrambled to get out of there. Their golem carved up a few more pesty lemurs while carrying an unconscious barbarian NPC.

   They all headed back towards the volcano crater where the Gate is located, but monsters kept coming “like bats out of hell” (the expression is literal this time – and they are fire bats).

    The only exit was now blocked by a salamander boss, three magma elementals, and one more Legion Devil – number Eleven, for those of you who are keeping track. At one point, the fight turned into an intifada, with both magic-user and cleric picking up rocks to throw at the devil and elementals, since they were out of spells AND missile weapons.

   The magic-user drank his Potion of Fire Control in order to ward off the fire bats: an inventive and clever use for that potion. They also used Bigby’s crushing hand on the first elemental. They were fresh out of cure light wounds and all running pretty low on Hit Points.

    Hope was dwindling, so the Dwarf decided to drink up his Potion of Heroism despite being down to 4 HP. The potion made him gain 4 levels of experience and 44 HP. He was now an eighth level fighter with 48 HP and 3 attacks per 2 rounds! He used the Compelled Duel on the salamander – unblocking the Gate for his friends to get out as fast as they could. But the salamander still managed to cast heat metal twice, first on the ranger’s splintered mail, and then on the cleric’s magic armor...

   Ranger and cleric both successfully threw one unconscious NPC into the Gate, thus gaining the reputation of “stand-up guys”. The magic-user cast one last lightning bolt from his precious scroll; then he yelled “aligato, sayonara” and jumped into the Gate. The ranger fired his last two arrows +2 and also threw himself into the Gate. The thief tried to throw the last remaining unconscious NPC into the Gate but missed his roll and that NPC fell into lava. Six fire bats then swarmed the thief, and he dropped to -2 HP. And sadly, there was nobody left to rescue him.

   Despite the Potion of Heroism, Gorik the Dwarf died battling the salamander, and the last man standing (the cleric) had to jump into the Gate right away – abandoning Kalarion the thief, because Kalarion was on the opposite side of the crater, and had fallen right on the one evil rune that prevented his friend to reach him. (Plus, that salamander was now making its way back towards the cleric...)

   Nevertheless, that killer mission is a success. They now possess the spell fireball and its dreaded “ouch” factor. But it cost the party their awesome fifth level thief and their valiant fourth (almost fifth) level fighter. Yes, we will have two new first level characters in the mix, next time.

   Hell, that was some grandiose / Homeric D&D, wasn’t it?


In Search of the Perfect Dungeon

   Your seven players are now fourth or fifth level. Wandering monsters won’t cut it anymore: they’re a waste of time, since they don’t stand a chance in hell. One carrion crawler in a corridor is just a nuisance. Avoid it. I have seen my players generate 320 points of damage in one fight scene.

   When you sit down to design the next big adventure, it’s a balancing act: on one hand, the intricacies of role-play and worldbuilding; on the other hand, the simple, straightforward mayhem of big combat scenes with lots of miniatures. To this end, I have identified 6 key elements I think will help build (almost) perfect dungeons. You need to look at

 • PC Motivation
 • Visual Aid
 • Time Limit
 • Declustering
 • Chokepoints
 • Branch Off Options

PC Motivation

   “Ten volunteer NPC heroes are already set to embark on that dangerous mission. Your party has acquired quite a bit of local renown by now – so you guys can choose to bump some of the NPCs out of this adventure lineup and take their place. But you don’t have to. These volunteer heroes are ready, and they’re gonna get all the juicy XP...

   There, PC motivation solved.

   Let them know that there is always someone else in line for any given adventure. This is a D&D world, after all. There’s always a young druid and two wandering paladins around the corner.

Visual Aid

   When you provide the players with a map of the dungeon – even an outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete map – it gives them a general idea of how much terrain they’ve yet to cover. They can see the remaining corridors and rooms. Very efficient, especially for one-off adventures.

Time Limit

   “This Gate opens once every 25 years, only stays open for 50 minutes, and can only allow 10 people to get in – or out.

   The in-game time limit prevents too much retreat and recharge; spellcasters may be able to huddle down in some corner and replenish ONE first level spell, but that’s it. Use up your scrolls, guys, and use up the charges in your magic items. (That’s the reason your DM gives them to you in the first place.)


   Back in the early eighties, players were reckless. Most of them, anyway. Nowadays it’s all groupthink and elaborate min-maxed strategies – a blatant legacy of the video games and various MMORPGs. Players move in tight knots with the spellcasters in the center, and the thieves unable to do their thing (finding traps, listening to doors, hearing noises, etc).

    Narrow walkways and teleport traps are the two best tricks to deconstruct that solid clump of miniatures on the table. Monsters appearing from above (or through the walls) are also an excellent method – lava children, blink dogs, wraiths, xorns, or a good old lurker above.


   Scenes are of the utmost importance. Arcs, not that much (especially if you don’t play often). I now focus all my energy on scenes – i.e. amazing rooms or locales in which messy / complicated clashes occur. Dungeon Chokepoints, if you will. That is the fundamental part, and that’s what players will remember.

    This room is a fitting example: a cul-de-sac teleport fronted with a pit, three concealed doors high up on the right wall, and two separate landings on the opposite side. The PCs teleport in and find themselves bottled up. There are three ways out of there. One, through the concealed doors. Two, across the pit, right side. Three, across the pit, left side – but there’s a gnoll archer waiting over there, and of course he starts firing arrows immediately.

   Those concealed doors slide open, and kobolds begin throwing spears down onto the party. As for the pit itself, it is covered with huge iron bars upon which it is possible for a character to walk. A giant scorpion dwell inside that pit. Too large to slip through the bars, but its pincers and stinger can still strike at any PC attempting to cross over to the other side...

   There’s no shortage of potential action in there. The party cannot fall back: that teleport only works one way. They also have to decide on a course of action quickly, because they don’t have any cover while the damn gnoll is firing away – and he’s got cover, plus a large supply of arrows. So it’s either climb that wall under raining spears, or walk across those iron bars and risk being stung / shot with an arrow.

   Thieves or bards may decide to climb, and tackle those kobolds. Magic-users will fire magic missiles at the gnoll and maybe spider climb on the ceiling, bypassing the pit. Fighters and clerics will have no choice but to cross the pit on foot, weapons drawn.

   The only way out is through. Party needs a little push? So push. Trust me – it’s for their own good. Players don’t know better, even if some of them are also DMs who run their own games. When you sit down and put on that Player hat, you forget things.

   If you give them a retreat option, they’ll use it.

    The question is: are you willing to let them chop your combat scene into three smaller combat scenes? If not, then why bother with the monsters chasing the party throughout an entire dungeon level – how many different dungeon floors will you have to whip out then? Just go one step further and keep the PCs trapped in the one room. They will thank you later: memorable combats don’t have two or three time-outs. Unless what you want is precisely that: a full-tilt, arduous running battle like the Chain of Dogs, but within a dungeon environment.

Branch Off Options

   Be up front about the stuff you’ve prepared. Your players are grown-ups, right? Just tell them, “This is what I have with me today. It’s a portal to Avernus, and a lemur-infested volcano fortress. I made all the props, sculpted them, and painted them, plus the necessary miniatures. You don’t want to go? Alright. I can improvise a game in the city or out in the forest, but we’ll have no props and almost no minis. There are no lemurs and Legion Devils in the forest.”

   Nobody wants an absolute railroad. Keep some lateral options open. Sub-levels. Opposite corridors. Even if you provided the party with an accurate map of what the previous expedition saw twenty-five years ago in that very same dungeon, I’m sure there are corridors they haven’t explored – or maybe some new dungeon developments were added sometime during the course of the past 25 years? Allow them to go off-script if they really want to.


   The perfect dungeon is a mix of what’s fun for the players (optimizing / gaining powers) and what’s fun for the DM (utter, absolute mayhem). Give your players some room to optimize, especially if they’re a bunch of project managers / web architects / university teachers – but not too much room. The best role-playing memory is never a perfectly optimized adventure, but rather, a time when everything went to hell as your cleric didn’t save against Polymorph and was turned into a swarm of bees and the fighter drank his Potion of Heroism and then rolled three consecutive 20s but died 7 rounds later because he had lost way more than his regular HP and also the thief tried to backstab an otyugh and the magic-user simply fled the scene and the others called him a damn wimp for months!

   Twenty-five years, and I still remember that.



The Governor vs Negan

   I “walked away” from The Walking Dead a long time ago, at the end of season 3, because the Governor was a complete, utter fail. He didn’t look like some death metal bassist and was not at all the atrocious monster / torturer he is in the books (the dude hacks off Rick’s right arm, for God’s sake). The producers of the show decided to tone it down, and the Gov simply became boring and fickle.

   Four seasons later now, they seem to have learned something from that trainwreck, because they’ve decided to do Negan exactly like he is in the books – I saw a 10-minute clip on Twitter: the infamous scene where he kills Glenn with Lucille. That’s exactly how it happens in the books. So, The Walking Dead is getting better over time, is that it? Truer to the source material? Maybe I should start watching again!

   Jason Sansbury of Nerds on Earth walked away because he didn’t like the storytelling anymore. Well, Jason, that is Robert Kirkman’s storytelling right there. Season 1 was not Kirkman’s story – what with that ludicrous sentient building and all that crap. And season 3 isn’t Kirkman, either – it is loosely based on his story, but that’s all. If you liked the show before and can’t stand it now, good for you... but isn’t that like saying you love The Force Awakens but despise A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back?

   SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want them.

   In the books, Carl is now fifteen, but when he was 8 or 9 he almost got raped on the highway by two rednecks reminiscent of the ones in Deliverance. You wouldn’t see that on TV, no sir. And what about Michonne torturing the Governor for six solid pages, nailing his dick to the floor, taking a power drill to his shoulder joint, and ripping out all ten fingernails with a pair of pliers? You want to adapt Kirkman, go ahead and adapt Kirkman. If you prefer C.S. Lewis, stick to Narnia.

   Some people have told me that the comic book narrative isn’t at all like the TV show narrative, and that “screenwriters should know better”. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Is there a stupid rulebook somewhere? Where do all the little “rules” come from? It’s killing entertainment, plain and simple. If you want to make an adaptation, you ought to play by the source material’s own set of rules. If you don’t want to play by any book’s rules, do not adapt – invent something, man. Like Lucas did. Like Roddenberry. Like Jarmusch, even. You can do it.

   I know you can.


Player vs Client

   Dungeons & Dragons gave us the first amazing encyclopedia of fantasy creatures: strong monsters, weak monsters, average monsters, unique individuals, with funky illustrations, stat-blocks, treasure types, etc. That was good ol’ 1977.

   Forty years later, you can “collect” a thousand different dragons in Dragon Mania Legends, or catch hundreds of Pokémons with your phone. What hyperconsumerism did with the original idea of a “monster compendium” is appalling.

   My nephew turned nine last April, and he’s obsessed with Nexo Knights and Pokémon and Dragon Mania. Often he begs my brother to buy him more gems – or whatever in-game stuff – because he absolutely wants to face off against this or that powerful monster. That’s okay. We did the exact same thing, back in the day. I remember being obsessed with Orcus: I wanted my fighter / magic-user to take him on, just to see how many rounds I’d last. My friend told me, “No problem. Grab your lucky dice. You’re duelling with Orcus in a dream. You won’t lose your character... Roll init!”

   I lasted two rounds, and blew every Save. But at least I didn’t have to use my credit card and buy a goddamned pack of 200 virtual gems. Oh, and I didn’t have a credit card.

   Video games spoiled almost everyone. Dying is another excellent example. My nephew has never lost a character, ever. The iPad or Xbox games are difficult, sure, but on the other hand, you won’t die, you’ll “respawn”. Because dying is such a huge bummer, game companies had to render their “clients” immortal in order to keep them happy. Keep paying, and you’ll keep living.

   And that’s the problem right there – fewer and fewer “players”, more and more “clients”. Clients won’t ever be killed by a game. In the event of their character’s death, they would simply walk away; after all, they’ve invested time and money into this, and now it’s gone. So that company loses a client.

   Bad business model.

   Then again, the respawn principle existed in First Edition D&D already, since player characters could be resurrected up to 18 times. The TPK was one of the only ways PCs could die permanently (i.e. nobody left standing to bring any and all unconscious comrades to the nearest temple and cough up some gold).

   The RPG death is something recent, in a sense that people didn’t experience anything like it before, let’s say, 1976. Do you ever put three, four, or five years in one single game of chess, dodgeball, or poker? Do you ever put three years of invested time and passion on the line in any other kind of entertainment? So yes, in a way, I can understand this respawn school of thought. Vampire: The Masquerade came up with a clever in-game respawn device – it’s demanding indeed to permanently destroy a vampire!

   Still, the true RPG death is something that should be treasured.

   “But back then, the finality of it all seemed dramatic, and with someone who was willing to not just end the game there but play out the result of a death or failure in the continuing context of an adventure? It was exciting and new.

– David Goldfarb       

   Not so long ago there was this whole debate on Twitter about “playing D&D for free”. That’s another fitting example of the Player vs Client rift, and what I call the role-playing generation gap. My friends and I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer for free since 1986 with the same books and character sheets and dice. This is how people used to play before Wizards of the Coast and Dwarven Forge. What else do you really need?

   I said it before. I’ll say it again. In the very beginning, Gygax himself was staunchly opposed to the idea of published adventures. He wanted to put out those three core books, and let both players and Dungeon Masters come up with the rest.

   We basically went from Gary “this is the source for creating imaginative situations” Gygax to Mike “what additional product can we give you” Mearls. From DIY to consumerism. But the same thing happened everywhere, anyway. World War II was very “DIY”, in a way; our grandmothers worked part-time in weapons factories. Nowadays, forget the grandmas: war has become big business. Same thing with role-playing games. Even Sly Flourish says he’s “leaving the design to the professionals”. But who are these professionals, and where do they come from? They were once grandmas working part-time in weapons factories, right? Hell, I’m still a grandma working part-time in a weapons factory – and proud of it! Because that Gygax blurb clearly indicates that there wasn’t any “professionals” around, back in ’85.

   Role-playing games didn’t need professionals to become a huge hit – players were enough.

   Players, not clients.


The Dark Pillar

   New system. The game session begins with a big set-piece encounter. I had already set the stage for this during two previous (and smaller) sessions, and now everything comes to a head in a complex / deadly three-tiered chamber.

   Also, the party is not at full HP, and certainly not at full spell capability.

   At the end of our last big game (see The Great Halloween Dungeon Dive in the archives: November 2016), the party was sucked into an untethered Shadow Door and split in two small groups of four and three. The Shadow Door then “spewed out” both groups in a new, unexplored level of the same dungeon, but in different spots.

   I ran those two smaller games last winter, but didn’t post about them. Group “A” had to battle a whole lot of very special skeletons, and escape a succession of “living” murals à la Tegel Manor, while group “B” fought a female ghost and squared off several times against an entire subterranean village of Duergars – the widely reviled “Gray Dwarves”.

   This megadungeon is increasingly confusing for the PCs, since so many contrastive powers seem to be at play. Each level appears to have a boss, sure – but then there’s this uncanny Shadow Door that’s literally all over the place, and there is a Crypt Thing who once before helped the party, and a Kloistergeist that keeps warning them about the biggest threats. First time they saw it, the Kloistergeist said, “Beware the Crypt Thing”. Second time they saw it – in the labyrinth of the Duergars – it said, “Beware the Dark Pillar”.

   I knew it was going to be a “close shave”, but it wasn’t level inappropriate: 3 grells and 5 gargoyles against 7 fourth or fifth level PCs. Plus, they got two very useful items up their sleeve: a Potion of Heroism, and a Figurine of Wondrous Power.

   Group “A” (bard, thief, Dwarf) arrive via that wide staircase visible on the picture above. They begin on the second tier: a vast brownstone floor with a huge square pit in its center – and the most humongous pile of gold pieces any of them has ever seen! Looking ahead, they see a transparent wall with an unpropitious row of five gargoyles on top of it, and crooked stone stairs to the left. Oh, and the giant pile of gold seems to be moving just a little bit...

   Group “B” (cleric, ranger, 2 magic-users) came tumbling down a long dark slide. They begin on the bottom tier: a rectangular floor with heavy pavestones, a rough brownstone wall with two holes and two levers, and a fascinating transparent ceiling. They lit their last torch. Through the glassy section of the wall they could make out their friends on the second tier. If they looked all the way up, they could also see the third tier – gargoyles, wooden winch with rust-pitted chain, old granite throne, and perfect round trapdoor in the ceiling!

   The ranger immediately puts the Rope of Climbing to good use and climbs. Then, down the slide comes a blazing flow of molten iron – a parting gift from angry Duergars. The cleric decides to pull one of the levers, thinking that if water comes pouring in from those holes in the wall, it’ll quickly cool the pool of molten metal, and the party might be able to resume its climb, because that’s the only exit, really.

   He pulls down a lever. First, nothing but a funny gurgling sound. Then, two grells are expelled from a hole. Roll initiative everyone!

   Meanwhile on the second tier, Dwarf and thief came too close to that pit full of gold, and a xorn appears out of the floor – just the arms, eyes, and mouth (for now). “Leave my food supply alone, ugly trespassers,” says the xorn in his own language, but of course nobody can understand. Roll initiative everyone!

   All the characters went down at one point or another in this big encounter. All seven of them. One magic-user went down first, followed by the cleric who had a grell tied neatly round his neck. Luckily, the cleric was immediately brought back up to 1 HP by that mysterious Shadow Door – but where did he end up? He wasn’t in the same room anymore, and didn’t see nor hear his friends who were (most certainly) still battling those grells...

   This is where the cleric met with a very polite spectre who introduced himself as Prince Lamah Khan – and eagerly asked several arcane questions. But he didn’t threaten or attack in any way. Prince Lamah Khan exclaimed, “I know what’s happening! I figured it out!” The cleric is groggy, barely managing to stand on his feet at 1 HP. What is it you think you have figured out, mild-mannered spirit? he seems to think. And then, the spectre says, “If you ever need to come back in through my own level, I can hold back the revenants and even my undead dragon, granting you safe passage all the way to the Gate – but you and your friends are gonna have to bring me something in exchange.”

   The poor cleric doesn’t like the next thing he hears.

   Then, the spectre says his good-bye and leaves through a wall, as spectres are wont to do. The cleric is left alone in a very long corridor, with empty cells lining the right wall as far as the eye can see.

   Back in the glass chamber, the fight continues. Dwarf and bard are still impeded by slow shadows – shapeless, dark parasites attached to their clothes and skin, slowing them down to half their normal movement. The thief also has these all over him, but his DEX 18 still provides him with somewhat decent speed. The Dwarf painstakingly made his way up the crooked stairs, destroying gargoyle #1 in the process. He finally reached the topmost floor – or glass ceiling to the lower room, if you prefer. The thief climbed the transparent wall, and also gained that top floor. The bard removed his cape, stepped into the huge pile of gold pieces, and filled the cape with as much gold as he could carry. His timing was impeccable: the xorn didn’t see a thing, being down into the lower half of the room, where one grell still lingered.

   The ranger hauls the two unconscious magic-users towards the Rope of Climbing and ties them both together, lifting them out of there three rounds later. After the last grell is destroyed – and seeing how three gargoyles haven’t yet moved at all, the party takes a short break (less than half an hour). During that time, the cleric returns, having walked a long prison corridor, and seen only two live prisoners – a lizardman, and a monk.

   Reunited with his fellow adventurers, the cleric manages to cure one light wound, but the group is hit with a second wave of monsters: a gravewailer is discharged from the second hole in the wall, and an albino grell – my favorite monster of the game – enters through the third tier.

   The albino grell is a mean fucker, because he has been bullied all his life by the other grells... There was one young female grell who thought the albino grell was kinda cute, but then she was brutally murdered by a group of Human paladins and clerics. This is why the albino grell wants to kill all Humans, and especially clerics and everything that resembles a paladin!

   Having experienced eldritch visions while sitting in the old throne, the thief regains full consciousness just in time to see that the albino grell is upon him. Eleven attacks – ouch! From across the room, the ranger fires his last arrows, but the poor thief is down and out by the end of round two.

   Trying to hit the climbing gravewailer, the Dwarf falls down the round trapdoor and takes 3 points of damage. The gravewailer diligently spits acid phlegm on both ranger and Dwarf. The two tanks go down in rounds 4 and 5. Both magic-users were already at -1 and -3 HP. So, yeah, it’s up to the bookworms: the bard and the cleric!

   Bard fends off that acid-spewing abomination for three more rounds, and then falls. Cleric runs back into the “prison corridor”. With 1 HP left, and his 6 comrades all under zero HP, he’s not risking anything. He finds those cells in which a Human monk and a lizardman warrior still await his return, and successfully frees the monk with his Wand of Opening. First time he’s used it in three games!

They’re all down except the cleric.

   The good monk Dalmas – currently with 17 HP out of his 30 – agreed to help, and swiftly got the cleric’s unconscious buddies out of that room, and then out of the dungeon altogether. He moved silently and only had to tackle two gargoyles. Talk about divine (or at least monastic) intervention!

   They’ll be back in there, for sure. This dungeon is rather large, and they still haven’t seen any “Dark Pillar” anywhere. Plus, they’ve got a map, now.


The Malazan Empire of the Petal Throne

   Numerous role-playing games influenced Steven Erikson as he wrote The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Assassins, bards and paladins (“Shield Anvils” in Erikson’s stories) came directly from Dungeons & Dragons. Rat catchers, obviously, were taken right out of Warhammer. But the most influential game, in my opinion, was Empire of the Petal Throne. Here’s why.

  Non-Caucasians make up half of the entire Malazan world, which is unheard of in any sword-and-sorcery fiction except for Professor Barker’s own books. Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms are rather white. Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon is mostly white. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is overwhelmingly white (see Where is Middle-Earth in the archives below for an in-depth Lily White explanation). Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is the most “ethnic” setting, ex aequo with the Malazan world – but nothing comes close to Tekumel where there are simply no white people.

   The Malazan world has two Caucasian continents, namely Genabackis and Lether, and two Non-Caucasian continents. Quon Tali has Black people (the Dal Honese) as well as “Native American” people (the Wickans). The Seven Cities continent has Semitic people, but no Hindus, alas. Emperor Kellanved himself is actually a Dal Honese magic-user, and his greatest champion, the First Sword of Empire, is also Dal Honese. And the legendary Fist / General Coltaine (who ascends to quasi-godhood) is a Wickan warleader of the Crow clan.

   Many heroes and heroines of The Malazan Book of the Fallen are non-whites, including the most badass assassin you’ve ever seen, and the boldest / craziest magic-user. So that’s cool.

  Vast Underworlds can be found beneath cities and mountain ranges, none of these more extensive than the multi-layered ruined city complex underneath Y’Ghatan. The concept of Ditlána is there all right; Y’Ghatan has been levelled and then rebuilt several times, and all the different iterations of that city lay buried / compacted under the current city, just like it is with most major Tsolyani cities.

   Erikson even does the Underworld one better. Case in point: if a city is really torn down and levelled and reconstructed several times over, those subterranean layers ought to be flattened and compacted like piles of old cars in a junkyard, and you shouldn’t be able to ever find a hallway in which you can stand upright. That’s exactly how Erikson depicted the Y’Ghatan Underworld: it’s a literal dungeon crawl. Sometimes, all one guy can see is the naked soles of the feet of the guy crawling in front of him. If the first guy comes face-to-face with a giant spider, the guy behind can’t provide any assistance – if he happens to be a cleric, maybe he can touch the sole of a foot and cast cure light wounds...

  Remnants of Technology are scattered all across the planet, and they appear to be especially easy to find on the continent of Lether. These mysterious artefacts are quite similar to the long-lost technology of Tekumel before the béthorm.

   Erikson’s “Indifferent God” is rather similar to the Tsolyani goddess Dra the Uncaring. The names of Karsa and Hársan are almost identical. The Malazan Warrens mirror Tekumel’s Nexus Points – they look absolutely identical when they’re opened by a mage, and the various ways they can be used are pretty much the same.

   Erikson’s K’Chain Che’Malle are not an “allied race” at first, but seem to be a mix between Shén and Hlüss. The K’Chain Che’Malle have “Matrons” while the Hlüss have “great mothers”. Both Shén and K’Chain Che’Malle K’ell Hunters are powerful warriors. Say it out loud: Shén and K’Chain – the pronunciation is identical.

   Later in the Malazan cycle, those K’Chain Che’Malle do finally become some sort of an allied race, like the Shén:

   “It is the new way our mother foresaw. The path of our rebirth.
   “Humans, welcome us. The K’Chain Che’Malle have returned to the world.”

   Even the narrative techniques in the books (the Tekumel novels) appear to be the same. In one book you are with the Tsolyani Twenty-First Imperial Medium Infantry (or with Onearm’s Host), and then comes the next chapter: you’re with the enemy now – the people of Yan Kor (or Darujhistan). You keep going back and forth between the two... and of course you grow attached to both sides of the conflict!

   Aridani women are present throughout the Tekumel novels and The Malazan Book of the Fallen alike: strong, independent females who choose to be “liberated” from their traditional “clan duties”. Back in 1984, this was almost unheard of in fantasy / sci-fi literature – the Professor was a trailblazer, and certainly scored major points.

   Here are a few other stunning symmetries between Barker’s and Erikson’s worlds:

The “First Palace”
The “First Throne” / “First Empire”
Dharu (a city)
Daru (a people)
Jakalla (a city)
Jakatakan (Malaz Island)
Horusel (a soldier / Tirrikamu)
Hurlochel (a soldier / outrider)

   Griggatsétsa is a “Mad King”, while Rhulad, the Mad Emperor of the Tiste Edur, is quite literally a Man of Gold – a resurrected corpse covered in hundreds of gold coins...

   And Steven Erikson isn’t the only one, by the way. Looking at the early years of TSR is quite fascinating in that regard: it is a huge whirlpool of creativity. Take the “Eyes”, for example. Each of them has one effect – slowing down enemies, petrifying foes, raising infernal barriers, or disintegrating. Those awesome “Eyes” first appeared in the original Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). But then you have the equally awesome beholder, first introduced in the Greyhawk supplement of 1975. And what’s a beholder exactly, if not a living, floating collection of eleven “eyes”, each one with its unique power – slow, flesh to stone, disintegrate, etc? So, which of those two awesome things inspired the other? They both appeared at the same time and in the same nascent company; there must be a link.

   The four-legged, four-armed ahoggyá was also featured in 1975’s Empire of the Petal Throne, while the xorn (three-legged and three-armed) first came out in 1977’s Monster Manual. This one is much easier to call.

   You also have a dlaqó / carrion crawler symmetry; you have the biridlú / lurker above; you have the teqeqmu / grell... and the list could probably go on. Professor Barker, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson borrowed freely from each other: that’s how this hobby was born and became such a huge phenomenon. A few more lawyers, and nothing at all would have ever happened. Imagine that.

   Today’s Sci-fi and Fantasy authors belong to that generation: like Erikson, they began playing D&D or EPT as teenagers, round ’75 or ’76. It figures.


Star Trek: Into Crappiness

   When I wrote about the first of these J.J. Abrams movies, I never thought I would be watching the second one – but there it was on TV, during the Oscars, and I kept going back and forth between the two channels. I was absolutely dumbstruck.

   Earth looks just like Coruscant. Kronos looks just like Zion in the Matrix trilogy. The gunfight on Kronos looks like a game of Lasertag. The evil Admiral who wants to start a war with the Klingons – that’s rather old. The secret prototype starship with cutting-edge technology – been there, done that.

   It all made me realize something major. We’re not going to have movies anymore; from now on, we’re only going to have copy-pasted rehashes of the classics we know and love. Yes. A hundred years from now there’s gonna be so many versions of Star Trek, so many Batman origin stories, so many Darth Vaders, so many Aragorns and James Bonds... Just like it is with the Arthurian mythos. Really, why do you think we got so many confusing iterations of that thing? Simply because those characters were “popular” back then, and various authors kept retelling the same story over and over again, with slight differences every time.

   The book of Saint Kentigern stipulates that Merlin died in the Tweed river, pierced by a spike. But Thomas Mallory says Merlin was forever entombed in a magic cave. Which is it?

   Cicero wrote that the goddess Aphrodite was a daughter of Uranus and Hemera. But Hesiod has said that Aphrodite appeared when Cronus cut off his father’s testicles and threw them into the sea. Again, which is it?

   Matthew wrote that Jesus on the cross said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But Luke wrote that Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What did he really say, boys?

   Tim Burton introduced a Joker who’d become what he is after an accident at a chemical plant. But the Gotham TV show now gives us a street performer / orphan Joker who died and was resurrected in Arkham...

   With Roddenberry, Spock dies after replacing the warp core by hand. With Abrams, Kirk dies after having kicked that damn warp core back on...

   Redux and remake – with no clear end in sight. Beloved characters don’t have a choice anymore: they’ll live forever, and they are doomed to transform endlessly.


Gaming vs Eating

   My friends are foodies. I mean, really. You should see the table sometimes: 55% foodstuffs, 45% gaming materials. So, what’s the real star of the evening – the game itself or the grilled cheeses and pastries and goddamned Oysters Rockefeller?

   I realized that the games I run are the only time we all get together. Just a few years ago we still had regular parties, summer barbecues, Halloween bashes, New Year’s gatherings, or just plain old TV night – three or four guys with beer and chips. But that was three years ago now.

   One guy moves out of the city. Two other guys have children. Another has to work three jobs. A few have minor health issues. And then, all of a sudden, the TV nights and barbecues and big dinner parties are just gone. Three players told me that my game is the only social event left in their lives where they get to “see the others”. An awesome thing, right?

   But also a problem.

   Because now Game Day isn’t just Game Day anymore – it’s Party Day, Booze Day, Talk Day, Pot Smoking Day and Food Day altogether. Of course, the game suffers. It’s not sharp, not focused. Towards the end of the session, it’s a big mess – not on the game table but around it. Honestly, I don’t know exactly how to deal with it.

   If a DM puts in sixty hours of prep work and spends two hundred dollars on miniatures, paint, foam boards, wood, plastic wood, clay, silicone sealant, epoxy and other stuff – well, that final result should be the focal point, come Game Day. If it’s still just some silly excuse to get together and smoke weed / drink / eat / chat...

   I didn’t expect to suddenly become Keeper of the Social Cohesion or something, and I didn’t ask for such a job. All I wanted was to run a First Edition AD&D campaign and do it just like we used to do it in the early eighties: exhilarated, focused, silly and fun. The silly and the fun ought to be in-game, though, and on the table. Half an hour spent talking about some silly / fun episode of Family Guy doesn’t count as fun-and-silly tabletop gaming, sorry.

   If I ever run games at cons or over with Adventurers League, it’ll be a sharp contrast indeed: keen players, not stoned, not half-drunk, with their livers not acting up from too much olives or prosciutto. I’ll be out of my depth for sure. After two hours these players will be done with everything I’d prepped, and we’ll still have two more hours to go – and me, I’ll be like, “Ugh, I’ve got nothing, guys. Usually that’s enough to fill six hours at the table! Are you really sure you don’t want to discuss Breaking Bad or Mister Robot for a while?”

   I’m starting to think of these games as “luncheons with a side dish of gaming”. Eating is something the guys do enthusiastically – but then sometimes it’s a hassle just to get them to pick up a die and roll new init. I don’t really mind, because it is only twice a year. But man, it’s insane. Think six-inches Subway sandwiches, but instead of sweet teriyaki beef or turkey breast you put a giant Wiener in there with lots of mustard and slaw. Some of my friends gobble TWO of these monsters plus a homemade cheeseburger, and then wash the whole thing down with a beer or two... and it’s only 3:15 PM. This is not dinner yet, right?

Please note that these are just the LEFTOVERS.

   D&D has changed a lot since I was fifteen. I was part of a D&D “club” back then, and so we had access to a nifty little classroom with a chalkboard and six tables and lots of chairs, plus one teacher’s desk. We could use that room every day between 12:15 and 1:00 PM, and then again from 3:45 to 4:45 every day except Fridays – and we sure used every motherfucking minute of that allotted time. Sure, when the bell rang at 11:45 we went downstairs to the cafeteria, but only because we had half an hour to kill and mister what-was-his-name wouldn’t open our D&D room for us before 12:15. We ate whatever disgusting food the cafeteria had to offer and already debated about our party’s next move. By 12:10 we were back upstairs, waiting by mister what-was-his-name’s tiny office, and at 12:15 sharp we gently knocked on his door. He came out and unlocked our room. By 12:16 the rulebooks were already open; we played a solid 44 minutes until the 1:00 PM bell. We just played. Books, pencils, graph paper, dice. No cheeseburgers. No spaghetti. No meatloaf. No giant Wieners with pickles and mayonnaise. No Pepsi. No beer. No wine. No coffee. No Southern Comfort or cognac or anything. We were hungry for power and glory – not goddamned steak tartare.

   Even in the early nineties with Cthulhu, Warhammer and Stormbringer – we gamed a lot, and didn’t eat much. Nowadays we eat a lot, and don’t game as much as we used to.

   Food has officially become some sort of a gaming nuisance. But what can you do about it? We’re not teenagers anymore: we need our eight burgers a day, right?


History 2E

   Over the past six to eight months I have heard of several weird “politicized” gaming incidents in Yan Kor, the Forgotten Realms, and my beloved Miskatonic University, and it got me thinking about political correctness in this wonderful hobby of ours. Historical reenactments, to be more precise, is the first thing that came to mind. Like, are we now expected to tweak history in order to make any and all role-playing politically correct?

   If I run a Hundred Years’ War campaign and run it accurately (no magic swords, no fireballs, et cetera), you better not choose to rock the boat – because people who rocked the boat ever so slightly usually died, back in those dark days. Just ask Joan of Arc: a celibate woman refusing to wear robes and donning heavy armor instead!

   So if you choose to play in THAT campaign, and your character is an openly gay French knight who also happens to blithely deny the existence of God, and goes on to marry an Ottoman sculptor in Granada... you’re going to be burned at the stake. Sorry. It’s nothing personal.

   If you don’t want to be burned at the stake, don’t play this character, or just play it in a different campaign, like Numenera. History is a huge mess, I agree – but never expect me to rewrite it for your sole enjoyment. I am no revisionist, and if you don’t appreciate accurate historical reenactments, that’s totally fine; we have lots of stupefying fantasy worlds to choose from...

   This weekend, we’ve got that new movie starring Matt Damon, The Great Wall. It is pure unadulterated fantasy – not a shred of historical fact in there whatsoever. In today’s climate of political correctness, a big-budget film about Chinese soldiers killing Mongol tribesmen would have been very toxic. Mongolia would have made a big fuss. And then Tibet would have jumped in too, because they are still being oppressed by China as we speak. And then, Taipei would have hopped on the bandwagon. And then various Human Rights organizations––

   What I’m trying to say is, you cannot kill human beings in movies anymore. You’re still allowed to kill individual human villains: a Latino drug dealer, a White crime boss, an Asian serial murderer, a Navajo necromancer, or even a Muslim Sith Lord if you want – but they have to remain unique individuals. You cannot make any distinct group of people the enemy; if you do, the group in question will call you out and organize a huge worldwide boycott of your movie or book.

   Even if you choose groups of people that don’t exist anymore – like classical Assyrians and Babylonians – I know their remote descendants will stir something up. Let’s say your movie is all about undeterred Assyrian troops conquering the “corrupt” and “decadent” Babylonian Empire, vanquishing village after village, burning, razing everything, until they get to the big city itself and exterminate Babylonians like it’s 1236 B.C. – because it is.

   Well, I’m pretty sure some contemporary Iraqi folks will find a way to disagree. “Babylon was in Southern Iraq, and Assyria was in Northern Iraq – thus the Assyrians are evil Sunni aggressors, and the Babylonians are good cultured peaceful Shia people!” Something along those lines. You can’t escape it.

   Ten years down that road, you won’t see any “living” antagonists in movies; it’s gonna be robots, zombies, and ghosts, all the time. That’s extreme. And you certainly can’t kill animals, unless they are very ugly insects or reptiles, but no mammals please, because, after all, we are mammals!

   The Great Wall replaced the Manchu and Mongol warriors with scary computer-generated crawling beasts of chaos. No Human Rights / Animal Rights group will ever defend the liberties of the crawling beasts of chaos (although it would be hilariously cool). So, you can kill as many of these monstrosities as you want: they’re not furry, neither cat-like nor dog-like – it’s perfectly okay!

Manchu and Mongol warriors north of the Great Wall
have all been polymorphed into Hunting Drakes!

   Obviously there is no Zombie Rights or Robot Rights organizations anywhere. This is why zombies and robots are fair game. But it’ll get old pretty fast. Trust me.

   “Real people” fighting “real people” always result in the most splendid and heart-wrenching stories. Always. Gangs of New York is a good example. Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s good. They just want and believe different things. They’re all unhinged, all afraid of what’s coming, but that desperate, portentous, sorrowful struggle will make you cringe and recoil and cry. You wouldn’t experience any of it with those damn zombies or robots.

   The highly civilized and highly patriotic Chinese thought Manchuria and Mongolia were barbaric, and a beleaguered wasteland. That’s why they had slaves build and rebuild that wall over and over again. Manchu slaves and Mongol slaves, most probably...

   History of the world is cruel / depressing / mind-boggling / terrifying – but it is our history, and we have to own it. Burying our heads in computer-generated sand won’t help us a bit.