Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 4: Final Loot

Summary:
It was great to be at my first physical convention in 20 months. Interaction is a lot better face-to-face than online. I met old friends and made new friends. Loot was less than previous conventions, but (re)meeting vendors in Dealer Hall was something I welcomed.

The Last Day.
This morning involved a short visit to the lobby where a Castles & Crusades game was being run by one of the new friends I made at Gamehole 2021 (he ran a Swords & Wizardry game a few days before that was my most enjoyable game of this convention). I couldn’t stick around for his game since I had to drive back to Minnesota, complete some tasks at home, and then wind down, but I wanted to touch base one more time and see another C&C game in action.

I then made one more visit to the Dealer Hall and went straight to Black Oak Workshop booth. Craig Zipse (who owns Black Oak Workshop) is a great guy, makes some unique dice, and my last purchase of the convention before I headed back to my car to drive home was one of his fun Advent-ure Calendars and a dice set. The Advent-ure calandars began as holiday themed boxes where each day of the month you open a little box and a wonderful die lies waiting to be revealed. I have purchased previous Christmas themed calendars for December and I love my daily dice present! I felt this was a great way to end the convention – setting myself up for a daily Christmas present for the month of December.

I have had some serious set back in recent months. I fractured my humerus in a fall back in June and I had to have surgery for a titanium rod to be put in to correct it. I also don’t have medical insurance. Thus, as I slowly gain the ability to lift things again, regain some flexibility, and worry about how I am supposed to deal with medical bills in the 10s of thousands of dollars, I am physically and financially restricted for the foreseeable future (Gamehole was my first major outing, not only since the pandemic began, but just as importantly, since I was handicapped from my injury in June and restricted in what I could do). It is the small things in life – like knowing I will get a nice die each day of the month during December – that brighten my day.

Black Oak Workshop products as I prepare for my Christmas presents!

Overall loot was down from previous conventions. One reason is that I own pretty much all that I want or need. Secondly, is that I need to conserve money as I still don’t know how the hospital bills will be dealt with. I really needed this holiday and getaway. It is no longer the quantity of the loot I acquire, but the quality.

Total loot from Gamehole 2021. Black Oak Workshop. Fate of the Norns, and Frog God Games, dominate.

During this convention I welcomed talking with old friends and making some new ones. There are now new GMs that I will be seeking out at future conventions.

What about future conventions?

Con of the North (just a few minutes from my house) is in February (18-20). Gary Con would normally be what I visit in March, but I couldn’t get the hotels I want that connect with Gary Con or offer shuttle service to the convention, so I have decided not to go. I know that the people who run it want it to remain in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but I honestly don’t care about that. I’d rather they put the convention in a city that can actually house the attendees. But that seems unlikely, so I might be cutting Gary Con out of my convention rotation if it continues to be a hassle. Honestly, Con of the North at the beginning of the year and Gamehole at the end might be enough for me. Some folk have told me I need to attend North Texas RPG Con, but I want to attend conventions I can drive to in a reasonable amount of time. Texas is too far away.

So, now I get to wind down from the last five days traveling and convention attendance.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 3

Summary:
My last full day of gaming.
1. Played in the first game of the convention (S&W) that I didn’t enjoy that much, and I am reminded of some of the things in OSR games I don’t care for.
2. Munchkin, my last game of the convention was great fun.
3. Why are there nearly plague levels of flies in Madison, WI?

Swords & Wizardry game
My first game of the day was a S&W game. But this game experience was a bit of a let down for me.

First, I was expecting more traditional fantasy and this game ended up with us flying rockets in space. I wasn’t interested in that and if I knew that was what we were going to do I would not have signed up for the game. Thus, this was a game that right away I realized I was not interested in.

Second, in some ways a lot happened in the session and in some ways very little happened. There is an attitude in OSR games that unlike Pathfinder and D&D 5E where you look at your character sheet to see what you can do, in OSR games you rely on player creativity. In this game there was so much player creativity and player problem solving, no one had to roll a die for the first two hours of the four hour game! Our race and class were for the most part irrelevant – we almost didn’t need a character sheet! I didn’t make my first die roll until hour three, and it was only in the last 20 minutes of the game when I did anything of any importance or significance. I was not expecting to just solve puzzles for four hours using my own thinking – I created a character for a reason!

It’s funny how just a few days ago I was in a Savage Worlds game where the GM said we would determine the narrative, but more often than not as soon as a player described what they wanted to do, he had us roll a die and if we rolled badly then all that roleplaying was discarded. So, a lot of player narrative was simply a waste of time in that game if it was ignored when the die was rolled. In this game we hardly rolled the dice at all, it was the opposite problem from the Savage Worlds game.

Third, since this was an old school game OD&D-type game, everything was considered potentially an instant death scenario, or hugely debilitating. As such, people were extremely cautious and talked through things endlessly (what you might call “paralysis by analysis”). We didn’t travel that far in four hours of gaming, exploring perhaps a half a dozen rooms. It would’ve been nice for some people to simply roll a check once in a while to see if anything could be discovered and then move on. Because of this I was bored for extended periods of time.

If one of the problems with modern D&D 5E-style gaming is that combat can last forever as every player is focused on their character sheet trying to find all the different things they might be able to do in their combat action, move action, bonus action, reaction, etc. (I was once part of an adventuring party where it took 3 hours to fight 12 orcs in the woods!), then the place where OSR games can get bogged down is when players won’t do anything since any action could mean instant death, or limb loss, or insanity, etc. I don’t like 5E situations where there is no danger or consequences to actions, and I also don’t like the other extreme where every action could mean instant death. Neither is fun for me. I lean toward old school, obviously, but I want some balance.

Fourth, about half the players had been in this GMs games for many years and several had moleskine notebooks filled with notes, hand-drawn maps, sketches, etc. I had only played with this GM once before several years ago and the same “insider” feeling existed then as well. Don’t get me wrong, these folk were extremely friendly and helpful, but when you add in the factors I mentioned above, I mostly just sat back and watched as a passive viewer this tight gang of players who knew each other, the GM, and the on-going campaign so intimately simply continue the adventures they had been doing for years.

Fifth, we were in a small room by ourselves, and with noise coming from the lobby, at one point someone closed the doors, half the people had their masks off (the reason was for eating and drinking), and I was sitting next to one older man who coughed a lot and whenever he coughed he would take off his mask and try to cough into his hand?! The room was also poorly ventilated. I was not comfortable being in a poorly ventilated room with people I don’t know eating, drinking, coughing, and laughing spewing forth…”stuff.” I am a bit of a germaphobe under normal conditions, but under the pandemic situation we are currently in, I was not comfortable.

For all the above reasons this was overall not a very enjoyable experience for me.

Munchkin game
After a few hour break I came back in the evening for my final game to “learn how to play Munchkin.” I had played it once in 2008 when I was in graduate school in Scotland, but it had been a long time and I wanted a new experience. The person who instructed us was really good. She gave us some free cards, a play mat to hold the cards, player aid handout sheets, and a wooden token to keep track of level-ups. This introductory session was really well organized, presented, and taught. We got an overview of the game, did a practice session, and then began a full-on session until our time ran out.

I am not really a card game sort of guy (I don’t enjoy any card games to be honest, whether Magic: The Gathering, or Poker), the last time I enjoyed a card game was probably UNO back when I was 10 years old. But this Munchkin game was fun, so with the gaming society she is a part of – and which usually get a large room to themselves during Gamehole – I will consider making a Munchkin game a part of future visits to Gamehole.

Cool free Munchkin goodies from my “Learn to Play Munchkin” session.

Flies
From the moment I arrived in Madison on Wednesday, I was taken aback by the huge quantity of flies that are to be found EVERYWHERE. You can’t escape them. On Wednesday evening I had dinner at Liberty Station and there were dozens upon dozens of flies on the windows, tables, food, drinks, etc. At the Alliant Energy Center where this convention took place there were flies outside and inside. I can’t believe it. I have seen more flies since Wednesday than I have seen all year in Minnesota. Now, being from Minnesota I could easily make some reference as to why such disgusting insects flourish so freely in Wisconsin, but I shall refrain and let you all come to your own conclusions why beautiful Minnesota is so fly free compared to Wisconsin.

Preparing for the final day tomorrow
Tomorrow is the last day of Gamehole Con. I was going to try and sneak in a Castles & Crusades game in the morning, but it is four hours long and I have things to do once I get back to Minnesota and that will be a five hour drive, plus, even though the Munchkin game was fun, the S&W game deflated me in a lot of ways and I am ready to go home. In my first Gamehole 2021 blog post on Wednesday I expressed my growing disappointment with some aspects of the OSR, then over Thursday and Friday my energy and hope was renewed for old-school gaming, and then today some of that disappointment returned. I will visit the Dealer Hall one last time in the morning and then I will head out for the drive home.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 2

Summary:
I expand my Frog God Game (FGG) selection of excellent products as well as some marvelous new dice that allow me to create things spontaneously on the fly in my C&C games. I had an incredible time in an Old School Essentials (OSE) game (Palace of the Silver Princess) in the morning and a Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game (Baron’s Gambit) in the afternoon.

New Products.
First, my loot for the day. The “Tome of Horrors 2020” expands my monster selection. There are some true bastards in this book ready to be unleashed on my players (with some truly stellar artwork!). The new demonic creatures and fey will be great additions to my games. The new “Torchlight” zine made for S&W (but easily useable for any OSR game) provides some nice options for torchbearers, alternate thief abilities, and a way to do “social combat.” “The Tome of Blighted Horrors” introduces more horrific monster additions to a game. I got a Lost Lands world map. And finally, I got some specialty dice so that I can create a random dungeon in real time simply based on die rolls, add traps on the fly with a die rolls, and several dice that allow me to randomly roll up an NPCs race and class. The race and class dice are made for 5E, but I can just swap out the 5E race/classes for something C&C specific. I love dice that allow me to improv on the spot and these now add more options to my repertoire.

OSE game
As for my gaming today, in the morning I played OSE for the first time. I own all the books and love these neatly organized and richly illustrated tomes based on B/X D&D created by Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome. This morning I finally got to play the game. It was also fun to experience it through the classic D&D adventure “Palace of the Silver Princess.” The adventure is your typical adventure from the early 80s with a castle layout that doesn’t make much logical sense, and we all had our characters laugh and roll their eyes at whoever the madman was who had been hired to lay out and create the palace and dungeon. I had an elf, and both me and another elf in the party tag-teamed listening at doors, and there were A Lot Of Doors! We were also reminded of one of the most important OSR rules – if you can avoid combat, it means you stay alive longer. I lost track of how many times we opened a door, saw what we would have to fight, realized that we preferred to live a little bit longer, and closed the door again (sealing it with a couple of hammered-in iron spikes)!

S&W game
I visited Dealer Hall in the afternoon and chatted with more vendors and game designers as well as pick up a few more items.

Then for the late afternoon it was time for my S&W game of the day. I once again had a great bunch of players to adventure with. I have been truly fortunate to have been with such great players so far, and this game took it even further. Puns and play-on-words were non-stop, our GM was also a great on-the-fly referee who lived in the moment and improved things on the spot. This is my GMing style and I love to be able to see other successful improv GMs practice their trade. Being with good GMs and players not only makes the adventure fun, but it can inspire you as both a GM and player. After spending so much time during this pandemic gaming either online, or in small groups in my home, I have welcomed the opportunity to game in person again and embrace the face-to-face gaming experience which simply can’t be beat.

As for the adventure, “Baron’s Gambit” is a straightforward enough and fun adventure that is a great way to introduce players to the S&W game, and do to our great success with two monks, a thief, an assassin, and a dwarf fighter, we intelligently went through all the challenges and the game ended early. But we had such a great time that several of us hung out and had a great chat and drink afterward. The referee is also running a Castles & Crusades game on Sunday and even though it is currently full, I will most likely be able to sit in on his C&C game. So, I look forward to this new game which is firmly in my area of expertise!

From this S&W game I once saw how the flexibility of an OSR game shines through. S&W doesn’t have a formal skill system, so if you want to attempt something, you present your idea to the referee and they either let you do it after you’ve described how you hope to accomplish it, or they come up with a die roll to resolve the situation. The spontaneity of it keeps the game fresh and always new. I really enjoy playing old school games at conventions where you rely on your imagination and not on what you are forced to adhere to on your character. Although the C&C games I run allow the use of a general attribute check if one is needed for a task (it is a nice mid-point between high crunch games like 3E/Pathfinder and no formal skill system games like S&W), at conventions I lean more toward gaming with the least amount of rules that slow you down and prevent you from gaming.

Tomorrow I game in Matt Finch’s always great Mythrus Tower S&W game and then play some Munchkin in the early evening!

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 1

Summary:
1. I play in a Swords & Wizardry and a Savage Worlds game.
2. Spend hours speaking with vendors and game designers in Dealer Hall, lightly expand my art and game collection and review Alayna Danner art and Fate of the Norns books (and discuss my love of back-to-basics folk-lore inspired RPGs).

Swords & Wizardry game.
I arrive in Madison, WI, yesterday and registered. Today was my first day of gaming. In the morning I had a S&W game. It was a short 2 hour game called Turf War where we were recruited to look into a gang that was looking to rough up some people in a rival establishment. Lethal combat was not necessary (nonlethal combat would be sufficient). We had some great players who enjoyed trying things out, since this game could emphasize roleplaying over combat, we could focus on where we wanted to be for observation and were all pretty spread out over a neighborhood map. But I had a dwarf fighter with single digit intelligence and wisdom, so after a leader of a rival group came in to the establishment to have his ruffians push people around, Bork, the dwarf, just went up and stabbed the guy with his longsword (instead of using his brass knuckles like the ruffians). And that pretty much determined the flow of the remainder of the adventure as things became serious very quickly. Town guard were called in by one character. Another charmed a gang member and led a group of them on a wild goose chase all over the place, and another threw in smoke bombs to obscure things. My dwarf died in combat (the only casualty of the group), but it was great fun with some great players!

Dealer Hall.
After that game ended before noon, I had seven hours before my next game, so it was time for a quick lunch and then dedicate a few hours to catching up with old acquaintances in the gaming hall and meeting some new people.

I could go on for a long time on this, but I will just hit the highlights. I got to catch up with the folks at dozens of booths, including Frog God Games, Kobold Press, Pacesetter Games, Black Oak Workshop, Alayna Danner (illustrator), and Fate of the Norns. I spent four hours chatting with these fine folk.

Alayna Danner.
At previous Gary Cons and GameHole Cons I had acquired art from Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, and Darlene (the artists that defined what D&D was for me when I first began gaming in 1983). However, I didn’t want to neglect the great artists of today! Alayna Danner has done past work for Troll Lord Games, but now is an important Wizards of the Coast illustrator for D&D 5E and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve enjoyed her art a lot and after struggling with what piece of art I wanted to purchase, picked up a print that was made for MtG. I must admit I know nothing about MtG or the cityscape of Ravnica, but I look forward to taking that piece of art and letting it lead me to my own imaginary place (I am currently viewing the piece – shown below – as an elven city). Ravnica fans will get one perspective from it, I am going to get another. That’s the joy of art, we can all interpret it differently!

Fate of the Norns.
There is an RPG called Fate of the Norns. If you buy the game itself, it is a dice less game that promotes a lot of freedom of choice in what you do. I had always browsed through their unique books, but they can be expensive and I would want to play the system at a Con before I made a commitment to buy their system. But they have continued to expand what they offer and now have system neutral products like the Celtic Cyclopedia, fresh translations of the Eddas (which have impressed some Norse scholars), and there are also new 5E offerings, including a book of Fairy Tales and Myths. With 5E game stats I now have something which I can use for my Castles & Crusades games, so with system neutral and 5E products, I have more I can work with. But what makes this material stand out is the approach it takes with folk lore and mythology, and the art style.

When I left 5E I initially went old school, thus, there was a shift from, for example, full reptile kobolds to the older dog-like kobolds. But in European folklore, kobolds are neither reptile nor dog-like. I had enjoyed the initial shift back to B/X or 1E kobolds, but what I really want is to go back to the folk tale source material and then go in a new direction. Another example is the D&D duergar. They do not resemble the creatures that inspired them. The only game products that I am aware of that have attempted to seriously present respectful folk-lore inspired versions are the Codex Nordica, Germania, Slavorum, etc. from Troll Lord Games. But Fate of the Norns has now done an amazing job going to the source material and giving us a completely new look at creatures like kobolds and duergar. More than that, the art is neither modern D&D art, nor old school art, it has its own look that stands out on its own. I really appreciate the attempt to go to the source and then do something new and original. I will enjoy working my way through these books to pull forth new insights to move beyond what I am presented with in 5E and the OSR.

GameHoleCon, Day 1

Savage Worlds game.
In the evening I returned to gaming using the Savage Worlds system. I had heard a lot about it before and looked forward to a game emphasizing narrative, storytelling, and “exploding” dice. It was a five hour game with only about two combats, so it was mostly roleplaying and investigation, as a result it required more attention than some other games. But by this point in the evening (18:00-23:00) I was pretty knackered from gaming and hours of socializing, so my batteries were a bit low, thus my roleplaying was not what it normally could have been.

Still, in spite of being tired, I did enjoy the game. I liked the experience of rolling dice and if you roll the max on that die you roll again (thus, if I rolled a d6 and I rolled 6, I would roll another d6, and if I rolled a 6 again, I would roll and add yet another d6, etc., each time adding these numbers together), as a result things can escalate quickly!

This is also a game where the character sheet does not tell you all that you can do, if you want to try something, bring it up and state what you think you should roll to get that task done. This is nice, however, Savage Worlds does fall into an issue I see in D&D, in that someone may come up with a brilliant idea and then roleplay out a scenario we all laugh and enjoy, and then the GM asks the person to roll a die and if they roll badly then that great idea and the accompanying roleplaying amounted to nothing. In C&C there have been times where a player has told me they wanted to try something and if they idea is really great I either give it to them as a success, or I have them roll and I make the challenge level really low so that the possibility of failure is very small. I realize that I don’t do this often enough, but that is what I strive for – for it is a role playing game! In the case of this Savage World game, some players had some amazing ideas, but then horrific die rolls caused all their creativity to come crashing to the ground. Sometimes it can be fun to come up with an idea for a character action, fail miserably at it due to a bad die roll and then have to improv how their idea managed to fail so badly, so I don’t deny that this can be fun as well, but I still haven’t found the right way to balance between a player coming up with a great idea to explore, investigate, or roleplay, and rolling dice.

This game was fun and I will probably try Savage Worlds again, but will attempt to plan it earlier in the day when I am more alert.

For Day 2 I will be playing in an Old School Essentials game and another Swords & Wizardry game.

Gamehole 2021 Diary: Arrival

Summary:
1. I arrive in Madison, Wisconsin, and check-in for Gamehole.
2. I ponder what I might buy in the Dealer Hall in the coming days.
3. I reflect on a growing dissatisfaction I am having with a segment of the OSR.

I enjoyed a most relaxing 5 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin from Minnesota. The weather was cool with a brief encounter with rain, and the leaves were an array of yellows, oranges, and red. After checking in at my hotel I headed over to the Alliant Energy Center to check in. Checking in was quick and easy and I enjoyed a wee wander about to refamiliarize myself with where things will be over the next four days.

One thing that did catch my eye was the massive beholder in the Dealer Hall! Luckily, I survived the encounter and will be returning tomorrow to provided merchants with my hard earned coin in exchange for their finely crafted products!

What do I plan to buy at Gamehole this year? Well, Troll Lord Games (TLG), Frog God Games (FGG), Goodman Games, and Nord Games are companies where I previously purchased the most merchandise and I now, frankly, have most of what they offer. However, TLG, Goodman, and Nord are not here this year, so I couldn’t buy anything from them even if I wanted.

Since I will be unable to chat with most of the folks from these companies, I am going to take advantage of their absence to meet other vendors and perhaps forge new relationships that can take me in new directions. Along with the companies I mentioned above, I quite enjoy the creative output of Kobold Press. They, like Nord games, make 5E material, but I like the twist they give things.

I am also beginning to feel a distance growing between myself and the OSR.

Let me explain. There are at least two types of OSR folk I encounter:

i. Those gamers that never stopped playing their favorite old school game (e.g. AD&D 1E, B/X, OD&D, etc.).

ii. Those that continued gaming through most editions, then left the hobby for a while, and then returned later.

All the people I gamed with in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s are in category (ii). We played BECMI, AD&D 1E, 2E, and moved to D&D 3E. It was in 3E, however, where we grew disillusioned and all left RPG gaming at roughly the same time (c.2007). 4E held no interest for us when it appeared, and Pathfinder was just more 3E.

What brought us back to tabletop RPG gaming?

D&D 5E.

Compared to 3E/4E/Pathfinder, 5E was a throwback to old school (something that was talked about a lot in 2014-2015 but is now strangely forgotten by many). I ran and played 5E pretty heavily until 2018, when I then grew disillusioned with it and made the shift to the OSR. It should be noted, though, that all my 80s, 90s, and early 00s friends continue to play – and love – 5E and have no interest in going back to the games of their youth. When I made the shift to the OSR I had to find completely new players for my games. Funny enough, the most energetic players I have in my Castles & Crusades games are players in their teens and 20s! So on a weekly basis I am surrounded by the youthful excitement of the 5E/Pathfinder generation.

This obviously has effected my view of gaming. For example, I haven’t met a single 5E/Pathfinder player that has anything bad to say about old school gaming or gamers, I have, however, heard substantial amounts of moaning from some old school gamers about the 5E generation of players, WotC, etc. And since I do know 5E somewhat well from the half decade I ran and played it, those that complain the most about 5E are usually the most uninformed about what they talk about. These OSR folk may be a minority, but I think they are a growing voice in the OSR community. Some seem to get enjoyment out of denigrating the new RPG players out there and I am just getting weary of it all (and you don’t have to bring up the whole “cancel culture” response, I have heard all of that before).

I still love old school game play. I own enough material just from TLG and FGG to run weekly games for the next one to two decades! But I am now broadening my perspective on what gaming material I will be drawing upon.

WotC is, for the most part, not producing products that interest me, but third-party 5E publishers are coming up with some exciting material I can use. When I wandered past the Kobold Press booth this afternoon as they were setting up, I realized that I will be giving them several visits over the next few days and may be further building up my library of Kobold Press goodies.

Also, with a substantial academic background in various areas of philosophy and history, I am now mostly doing my own research and game creation, so that is making it easier for me to do my own thing and distance myself from the community with which I feel I am losing a connection.

I seem to find myself in a strange place. I don’t want to go back to 5E. I have no interest in Pathfinder. And the OSR is becoming alienating. Is there a mid-point between 5E and the OSR? I get the feeling that if there is I am now moving onto that path, I just don’t know where it will take me.

With that being said, I am playing a half-dozen old school Swords & Wizardry and Old School Essentials games this week, so maybe I will encounter good OSR folk that will rebuild my faith in the OSR community of GMs and players.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 81

Summary:
1. The Army of the Light defeats barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar (vampire) along with his two wives (wights), but in the process, Arthur loses two levels from energy drain!
2. The response to energy drain has caused me to rethink and alter its use in my games. I explore alternatives and variations.

PC’s:
Gimli Hearthfire, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Wright Dawnbreaker, Human Paladin 3 of St. Luther
Edward, Human Bard 4 of St. Cecilia
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus
Elfgiva, Archer 2/Cleric 2/Wizard 2 of Sehanine Moonbow
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Rosaline, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 6 of St. Agathos

Remi, Rogue 6/Illusionist 5 of Hermes
Rolando, Rogue 4/Pacer 3 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Kyra, Cleric 7 of Sehanine Moonbow
Orgren, Fighter 3 of Sif

NPC:
Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
This adventure began moments after the group defeated a legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex in some strange realm. They had barely gotten some healing done when they became dizzy, collapsed, and reawakened in a chamber with the crypt of the barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar awaiting them.

artist unknown

The group entered and noticed that Thar’s sarcophagus had been pulled from the wall where is legendary spear was hanging. He sat up in his black burial shroud and smiled – and the group saw vicious fangs with wisps of negative energy drifting from them like breath in a cold environment. To their immediate left they saw Thar’s two wives – now wights – with their white flesh pulled tight over their bones.

Arthur surged forward and attacked with his mighty weapon and dealt 36 points of damage (that is a large amount for a blow in an old school game)! From that first blow Thar was surprised and staggered back. Then Llewelyn stepped forward and blasted the wives with a lightning bolt, which, due to the configuration of the room and their placement, meant that they were hit with it twice as it bounced off a wall and he completely destroyed them! The villains were off to a bad start!

But Thar stepped forward to strike Arthur – and hit. Arthur failed his save and this meant that many of his recent memories and experiences were drained from him as Thar empowered himself. Arthur had gone from 7th level to the mid-point of 5th level. Still, Arthur had dealt a powerful blow and even with a boost of un-life from his attack, the other members stepped in and could focus all their attacks on the vampire. They battered him to his knees and he turned to mist to seek escape. At this point Gorgat grabbed the spear off the wall and immediately it spoke to him giving him instructions. He twirled the spear above his head and all around him sunlight burst out from it. The sun enveloped the vampiric mist of Thar and he sizzled away into oblivion, unable to find shelter and regenerate. He had been destroyed.

The Spear Predestined (as it was called), once the weapon of the barbarian lord, had become unusable by him when the Barrowmaze chaos magic seeped into him and turned him chaotic evil. But now the spear found a new worthy barbarian – Gorgat! It immediately turned him lawful good (Gorgat had originally been neutral, then the Pit of Chaos long ago turned him chaotic neutral, and now his alignment changed again!). Gorgat discovered he now had the power to slay chaotic beings, cause double damage against undead, and create sunlight in an ever growing radius. Gorgat’s power had now increased substantially!

Two players at this point had to leave (they had joined our face-to-face game via discord) and we began another adventure with some new characters rotated in with the time that remained. But I will save that for the next game diary.

What I want to finish with here is the problems with energy/level drain. When I left 5E and went to playing old school games, I was happy to bring level-drain into the game again. My thought was that some of these dangerous undead had lost their punch or their bite (so to speak; pun intended), and I was glad to bring back monsters where fighting them had consequences, and there was an actual reason to fear them again. In my view it had become far to easy to defeat monsters in 5E, for if you had been injured, the 5E approach is usually that you can just “sleep it off” with an 8 hour long rest and its as if nothing happened.

But going from the 5E “sleep it off” approach to energy draining two levels from a vampire is not really a solution, but really just a polar opposite extreme. Wanting to put challenge back into the games I run doesn’t meant that players could now lose weeks or months of adventuring effort in a single hit and missed saving throw. But there can be a middle ground (browsing through gaming forums going back 15+ years have shown that even a lot of old school gamers haven’t liked level draining, so it is not just a recent annoyance).

So, going forward in my games undead that normally level drain will have impactful but less extreme results (since my C&C games draw on material from C&C, AD&D/1E/2E, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, etc., the way energy draining undead operate can vary depending on the adventure I am using, it also adds some nice variety and regional variants to the foes they fight). Examples of how energy draining undead will work going forward:
– Hit point loss that returns at a rate of 1 hit point per day (this may be dependent on passing a Con save). So, if a character is struck for 8 damage by a wight, it may take them 8 days to get it back (if they pass their saves). Lesser restoration can restore the hit points if the clerical caster can make a spellcaster check vs. the monsters hit dice as the challenge level (the priests are trying to defeat the negative undead power with the strength of their faith). With this example, the results of the undead battle linger with the character, but they do recover. This works with some of the lesser energy draining undead.
– Constitution drain. Each point of constitution is regained at the rate of 1 point per week of rest. Think back to books or films where a hero spends weeks recovering their vitality, stamina, and health after a vampire bite. The character won’t forget this encounter and it will take time to recover, but you don’t have to re-do weeks or months of game time. Lesser restoration could again work, but the cleric would have to make a spellcaster check to overcome the undead force within the victim and only at a rate of 1 attribute point per casting. You can recover, but it requires effort.
– Levels do get drained, but they are restored at a rate of 1 level per month. These would be for the legendary undead that level drain (the character could get a Greater Restoration to correct this, but it is a 7th level spell, so out of reach for most characters). This form of level drain will impact the character, but it doesn’t end it for them. Imagine the player brought back to their home after the adventure, lying restlessly in bed soaked in sweat slowly regaining their memories and experiences from the previous weeks and months. They may have haunting dreams at night of what they think is a fictitious dream persona only to realize that these are their own memories coming back to them across the gulf from their realm and the negative energy realm. There can be some great drama here (it is also worth mentioning that in my games when players gain levels they sometimes take time off and spend time to train to learn new languages, new professions, or gain an advantage – i.e. feat – so characters are always taking time off in my games. Thus, having a player take a couple of months off will be noticeable, but it fits in with what everyone does normally in my games).

So, those are some of the ideas I plan to test out with undead in the future. I am trying to find the balance to the “nice” 5E approach vs. the oldschool approach of needlessly tearing away weeks and months of campaign development for the sake of trying to appear “tough.” Middle ground. That is the area I plan to explore. What are your thoughts on level drain?

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 80

Summary:
The Army of the Light is pulled from the crypts of the Barbarian Lord Uthuk Amon Thar into an alternate prehistoric reality where they battle a legendary Hydra followed by a legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex that nearly kills a PC in a single bite!

PC’s:
Gimli Hearthfire, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Wright Dawnbreaker, Human Paladin 3 of St. Luther
Edward, Human Bard 4 of St. Cecilia
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus
Elfgiva, Archer 2/Cleric 2/Wizard 2 of Sehanine Moonbow
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Rosaline, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 6 of St. Agathos

NPC:
Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
Last session the Army of the Light entered the crypt of Uthuk Amon Thar, a barbarian lord that died long before the Barrowmaze was built. Entering the tomb they fought former servants of his that had become undead and the session ended with them completing the first Trial of the Hunt by fighting and defeating cave bears and carnivorous apes.

This session began with them entering a second room where a voice boomed “Let the Second Trial of the Hunt begin!” From the walls leapt owl bears and hell hounds. Gimli summoned Odin’s Fury and this berserker ability made him immune to the hell hound’s fire. Dhekeon was able to walk on the ceiling (he has a death mask that allows spider climbing) and attacked the owl bears from above. Upon destroying these beasts a door opened and they entered a third room where they saw a 12 headed hydra on one wall and a tyrannosaurus rex on another. A voice then boomed “Let the Final Trial of the Hunt begin!” The legendary beasts shimmered, the group felt light-headed, fell to the ground, and then awoke in a warm, steamy jungle-like swamp in the middle of the night. Above them in the sky the stars seemed to rotate and eerie lights shimmered and shifted about. The elves that had twilight vision and those that had darkvision could tell there were massive, prehistoric plants all around them. The sounds of jungle and swamp assaulted their ears. Where were they?

The sky came alive in my game room to pull the players into the adventure.

I love to immerse my players in a game when I can, and when they were brought to this strange place I activated a nebula/star projector I have and turned on ambient music from my computer. I usually keep the lighting low in my games around the table, so the projections of rotating stars and nebulae showed up well on the ceiling!

The players immediately went on the hunt. While seeking out evidence of where the hydra might be, a pack of 12 velociraptors picked up their scent and charged in a pack, Edward used a special bard ability and a cacophony of sound burst around them and injuring them enough for the others to destroy them.

They next managed to track down the hydra after several hours. The battle would’ve been quite rough, but Llewelyn has a mirror of opposition and when he held it up the 12 headed legendary hydra appeared in front of the PCs throwing them all to the side. The true hydra hated this imposter and it spend most of the first two rounds attacking and destroying the heads of the mirrored hydra. That gave the PCs time to attack the legendary hydras body. But with the body dead there were still 12 heads. The only way they could reach the heads properly with non-reach melee weapons was to climb the body of the hydra, so those melee combatants climbed its body. Gimli went to the back and summoned his Blood of Tyr berserker ability and began to burn the beast, while ranged combatants fire their arrows and bolts from afar. This took it down, but the group was grateful for the duplicate that was summoned, for this legendary hydra had 12 attacks a round and could have done some lethal damage!

Looking for the T-Rex they instead found two megalosaurus. It took a while for the group to whittle down these powerful beasts and the group was worried for what might happen when they found the T-Rex!

As the group took a chance in this strange, surreal, realm to find a place to rest and sleep the third watch was caught by surprised, for in the soft, marshy, ground the legendary T-Rex was able to sneak up on the members on watch. With one swift bite it emerged from the darkness and took a mighty bite of Elfgiva. The damage from the bite clearly killed her, but the group had a card from the Deck of Dirty Tricks that allowed one attack to only do half damage. A quick vote around the table meant that the card could be used on Elfgiva. With half damage she was only at -1 hit point and thus just unconscious. The group was clearly frightened, for in the first surprise round one character escaped death by the skin of the teeth.

Initiative was rolled. I rolled low. Everyone was awake, but 2/3 didn’t have their armor on since they had been sleeping (and anyone who tries to sleep in metal armor in my game – especially in prehistoric humid swamp weather – will take heavy combat penalties) they had to fight with low armor class. Spells were cast at it, but the T-Rex passed all its saves. The players were able to estimate that this beast was in the range of 20 hit dice, so even secondary saves were probably going to succeed against them. So they swarmed in for physical attacks for all they could. They rolled well, with many attacks doing 9-14 points of damage per hit. As the combat round came to an end I managed to get another bite in with the powerful beast but I rolled low damage and that character had more hit points. The next initiative round was rolled and again the players got what they needed to mostly go before me and the powerful blows finally took the king of beasts down. The legendary T-Rex with just over 100 hit points (which is a lot for an old school monster!) was defeated!

Immediately everything around the players shimmered, and after regaining their footing and blinking a few times they found themselves back in the chamber which had the image of the hydra and T-Rex. Only now a brand new door was open. Surely now that they have completed the Trials of the Hunt the group could enter the tomb of Uthuk Amon Thar! Well, the session was at an end, so the group will find out next week!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, Session 31

This game diary is going to focus almost exclusively on how I got things wrong in this game session. I will discuss: 1. Providing too many details. 2. Revealing too much. 3. Overuse of hirelings. 4. Railroading.

PC’s:
Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk 2/Cleric 1 (class and a half) of Horus 
Magnus, Gnome Druid 3 of Belenus 
Malcolm, Human Wizard 3/Bard 1 of Arcanus
Homonoea, Dragonslayer 2 of Athena
Ser Sanwyche, Human Paladin 3 of St. Agathos
Gwar, Half-Orc Barbarian 3 of Crom
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter 3 of Crom
Anne, Elf Rogue 3/Cleric 2 of Laeroth Mestarine

NPC:
Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor

Hirelings:
Three “Axe for Hire” Dwarves of Dumathoin
Three “Wayfinder” Dwarves of Dumathoin

Game Session Diary:
In the adventure the players descended more than 200 feet down a nearly vertical shaft with the help of dwarven hirelings that made use of stalls as platforms to assist the PCs get to the bottom. They then had to pass through a large chamber where the lower portion was filled with deadly methane gas. They then entered an audience chamber where grimlocks were listening to their leader speak. Under the protection of a silence spell, characters moved in silently and destroyed the 3 leaders and their 30 followers with relative ease. Since grimlocks are blind and use sound and smell to navigate, the silence spell rendered them deaf and “blind” and an otherwise challenging battle was resolved quickly. So, what went wrong? I will reflect upon that below.

An opening in a cave with stalls. Screenshot from Abandoned and Forgotten Places.

GM Reflection on Errors Made
As today’s session came to an end and I was going to ask my players (as I always do) what they thought of it. I expected some minor issues to be brought up. I was aware that I had done too much talking, that I had spent too much time describing things in order to try and provide rich detail to immerse the players in the environment, and that some parts were a bit to railroad-y. What I didn’t realize was that all those were indeed issues, but several players thought they were a lot more worse than I thought. Let us go through what I got wrong and try and discover why (I hope that I can learn from this, and if this has happened to you as a GM, perhaps it can be a reminder to try and avoid these things).

1. Providing too many details and over using hirelings
I have been watching a lot of mining exploration videos on YouTube (a link to a great channel called Abandoned and Forgotten Places is provided in the caption above). I have been using screenshots from some of these videos to provide visual examples of what the players see while they explore. At the very beginning of the session I was discussing stalls and how they were used in caves at a point when the players had to descend a 200 foot near vertical drop. Here were a couple of thoughts expressed regarding that (I am paraphrasing):

a. “It is nice that you love mine exploration, and some of the details were interesting to learn about, but you went into far too much detail that I just didn’t care about. We should know what is necessary to engage in the adventure.” It seems that my current obsession with mine exploration has gone a little too far, and my explanations were too detailed and long-winded. I need to curb my enthusiasm on some subjects and keep it confined to the essentials.

b. Over use of hirelings. In my Barrowmaze group all my players use two characters, in this group only about half the players do, and a few of them expressed the opinion that we could make use of hirelings to expand the resources and capabilities for the group. I love the use of hirelings and since I have not really used them much since my AD&D 1E days, I happily supplied six dwarven miners to help the group out. It now seems clear that six was too many. The challenge I presented of having the players descend a vertical shaft with ropes became relatively easy when I had dwarven miners at each stall assisting the PCs in their descent. Although players did fail some of their climb checks, because there were so many safety measures in place most characters just got scratches of 1-4 hit points in damage per fall to the next stall. I made things too easy. Since the group doesn’t have any dwarves or characters with mining backgrounds in the group, without the hirelings the challenge level to climb down would’ve jumped substantially, and instead of only needing to cast one cure light wounds spell on one player after the descent, there would probably have been a lot more injured characters. But it was stated that “without the dwarven miner hirelings, I think we would’ve found a solution to climb down on our own even if we were a bit more roughed up.”

2. Revealing too much.
Earlier this week in my Barrowmaze campaign, I described one point in the adventure where the players spent 20 minutes trying to solve a puzzle. I almost intervened to assist them several times, but just as I was about to do so a player would nearly come up with the solution, so I would back off, only for them to veer in a different direction. After the game the players expressed real annoyance at that room and the setup (they blamed the game designer for making such a “dumb” way to design a room, but I suspect some of that was meant for me but they were too polite to say so).

Since that game session was still so fresh in my mind, I chose in this session to try and make up for that by being a more helpful GM. The problem is that I now moved too far in the opposite direction and used the dwarven hirelings to pretty much tell the players everything they needed to know. The players didn’t really need to solve much at all. I was just handing them information in chunks. One comment to me was that I should only give reasons or explanation when it is asked for and not just freely give it out. That is a fair point. I have gone from one extreme of patiently waiting for my players to solve a problem to giving them a steady flow of easy answers so as to make the challenges nearly trivial. I need to work to find that middle-ground point again.

3. Railroading.
Finally, we have railroading. In several places I gave the players a false sense of choice. This held true most strongly in the large chamber with the low-lying methane gas. They were all prepped to extinguish their fire sources, hold their breath, and have the dwarven miners and half orc party members lead them through the dark, when abruptly there was the “option” to climb up a 15-20 foot area above the methane. So, a lot of prep for avoiding the methane became an unnecessary waste of time and effectively a non-problem.

So, as you can see, there were a lot of issues tonight. A conversation with one player lasted a good half an hour after the end of the game session as they laid out their issues and problems (with support from another player).

It wasn’t all doom and disappointment with my GMing, though, for I had a conversation with another player on Discord (this campaign is an online Discord game) for the next three hours discussing the challenges and triumphs of developing our individual campaign worlds (there is some overlap with what we are trying to do with our worlds, so we face similar challenges). I love discussing world-building!

Still, since I just spent almost this entire blog post examining mistakes I made, I haven’t forgotten the issues that need to be addressed. I’ve been DMing for decades (since AD&D 1E) and yet no matter how long you run games, you are going to have bad spells and stumble sometimes. I only hope I can find that middle-ground between extremes for my next Barrowmaze game in a few days!

Chromatic Dungeons Review

In this post I review Chromatic Dungeons, an OSR game that pays homage to the roots of D&D while freshening things up. In the OSR community, if we are to continue, we need to try some new things. Chromatic Dungeons is a game that respects the past, but takes steps toward what the OSR could do to remain relevant now.

I love old school gaming. It is a significant guiding force in all the games that I run. Yet, I sometimes feel like the OSR is stagnating by just reproducing yet another woodgrain/white box “collector” set. I am 47 years old and I was born the year OD&D came out! Continuing to market to people in the 50-70 age range is not a long term path to growth and prosperity in our movement! We can’t keep looking back, we need to look forward to see what new ideas or twists we can use and apply them to excite the youth into trying out the OSR style of play, for it is great fun! Put another way, time didn’t stop in 1974 (or 1984), there have been improvements and innovations to the game throughout the 90’s, 00’s, 10’s, and as we enter the 20’s.

Chromatic Dungeons is an OSR game that is firmly rooted in the past, but also happily brings in new ideas and gives them an OSR spin. As the author Roderic Waibel states in the preface: “I am trying to capture the feel of gaming in the 70s/80s without necessarily copying the mechanics of that era, whereas most clones are almost near copies of both presentation and rules. Some rules are important to capture the feel, sure, but only when necessary. We have decades of lessons learned since then, and the FEEL of the game is more important than any sacred cow.”

I am glad Waibel is taking some chances to explore new areas in the OSR. Let us look at what he keeps from the 70s/80s and what new ideas he has introduced below (my review will begin with the 330 page hardcover that serves as the core book. I will discuss the two softcover Basic Rules books afterward).

Classic and Modern Features Compared and Discussed:
Broadly speaking, Waibel tries to make use of the simplicity of 1981 B/X Basic D&D, with some 2E improvements, and the aesthetic of 1E. It is a combination of 70s and 80s D&D. This has been done before with games like Basic Fantasy, but when bringing a variety of old systems together you have options in how you do it. Here are some examples of what Chromatic Dungeons does:
Alignment: Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful. A throwback to B/X Basic. Some monsters have an alignment listed (dragons and giants are frequently chaotic), but many other monsters have N/A listed (humanoids such as orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc., are listed as N/A, although the author makes clear – like any OSR gamer knows – if you want chaotic (evil) orcs, then by all means do so, it is your game).
Race, Ancestry, and Heritage. The term Race has been replaced by Ancestry. I remember asking in the 90s why the term ‘race’ was used in D&D as it didn’t seem to make sense to me even then. It took a few decades, but gaming is finally making some changes in this area (think Pathfinder, or recent 5E third-party creations), and although I don’t always agree with some of the changes that have been made, I always look forward to seeing what the latest attempt looks like since I am slowly transitioning away from race and into ancestry in my games. The innovation that Chromatic Dungeons takes is to divide things into ancestry and heritage and move attribute bonuses into something a character gets based on the class they choose.

So, for example, a dwarf’s ancestry would include their size and weight, movement rate, infravision, and their ‘solid build’ which reduces the damage they receive. You then chose your dwarf’s heritage (the background, culture and region where they were raised). Was the dwarf raised in the desert? Then they would get immunity to heat exposure and half damage from fire. Were they raised as a hunter? Then they get +2 to stealth checks and +1 to attack rolls with bows. Were they raised in mountains? Then they would get cold resistance and half damage from cold attacks. I like the versatility here. The whole race/subrace categorization that has existed for so long can be a bit boring – why do ALL high elves ALWAYS have the same abilities? Surely the background and region where they live would play a role. You get that here. There are ancestry tables listed for a variety of non-traditional creatures as well, such as bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, etc., when you then pick a heritage for them, you have some great varieties available to freshen up and broaden out your characters and monsters. Finally, demihumans and humanoids have some variety. I like it.
Classes and Class Categories. Classes are placed in groupings like we found in 2E (i.e. Warriors encompass Fighter, Berserker, Ranger, and Paladin). Moreover, it is your class that determines your attribute bonus. Are you a fighter? You can choose to give yourself a +1 to your Str, Dex, or Con (depending on what type of fighter you want to be). Paladins get a +1 to Charisma. Rangers can choose either +1 to Wisdom or Dexterity. I like this and want to give this a closer look. As I mentioned above, your ancestry provides your height, weight, and movement rate, your heritage or region provides specific resistances, and your class training provides the attributes you have focused on. This make sense to me. I think it is intuitive. I am surprised this hasn’t been done before (at least I can’t think of previous examples of this as I type this).
Experience Points. Experience points follow a single table that represents the path for all classes (like we’ve seen for post-3E D&D). I have to admit I am not a fan of character classes all advancing at the same rate. It is easier on book keeping to be sure, but I want an occasional dose of realism in my games, and there isn’t any way that a fighter that trains and learns things in barracks and on the battlefield learns and advances in an identical way to the wizard that spends their time in libraries and academies engaged in abstract metaphysical speculations, along with the rogue that spends their time in back alleys and guild halls learning secrets. These are distinctly different pursuits with very different skills sets. But of course, with so many OSR options out there, you could always just grab something like the AD&D or Castles & Crusades advancement for individual classes if you wanted (assuming you agree with my reasoning above, if not, then you have nothing to worry about!).
Ability Checks. Most skill resolutions are accomplished by an ability check. This keeps things broader than nit-picking with an overly detailed skill systems. But, being old school, you succeed on an ability check by rolling under your attribute.

Chromatic Dungeons Basic Rules
I’ve very briefly touched on the 330 page hardcover book. But what if you want something even simpler and in softcover? Well, there are also Basic Rules available (in an 86 page Player’s Book and a 58 page Monsters & Treasure Book). Everything here has been stripped down. The classes you can choose from are simply Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards. Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Humans are all summarized on roughly one page. It is simple and to-the-point. If the hardcover is a creative mixture of B/X, 1E, and 2E with a few modern innovations, then these softcover booklets simplify things to a genuine Basic level. I like when OSR games do this. BlueHolme, Labyrinth Lord, and Old School Essentials all have simpler and more elaborate – or ‘Advanced’ versions – and it is nice that Chromatic Dungeons does the same.

Finally, when I supported this Kickstarter I had the opportunity to get some small (25-30 page) zines called The Gnoll Sage that cover specific topics in each issue such as an Animist class, a Psionicist class, or the Ecology of the Orcs. Looking through these I am very happy I got them. The Animist class is very simple and playable and I may incorporate it into my Castles & Crusades game. The Psionicist class is also very well done in its simplicity. I am still leaning towards importing the Amazing Adventures Mentalist class into my C&C game, but this Psionicist class is now sitting in second place. The Ecology of the Orcs has, wait for it, pig-faced orcs! I can’t tell you how weary I am of seeing yet another World of Warcraft-style orc, or something clearly copied from the Lord of the Rings films. The Gnoll Sage has some nice old school pig orc art! So, even though Chromatic Dungeons brings up the idea that orcs do not have to be chaotic and/or evil, if it is something you want, you can get it here, for there is one heritage trait where one orc clan eats the flesh and drinks the blood of the defeated and gain hit points from it. Flexibility. That is what the OSR constantly prides itself on, and in Chromatic Dungeons you get it. Want blood thirsty orcs? You can get them. Want orcs with diverse alignments/moral outlooks? That is available here as well.

Final Thoughts.
The cover of Chromatic Dungeons is an homage to an art piece by David Trampier in the 1E PHB. The interior layout is normal paper and black and white art with charts that resemble AD&D. I love this. I wish more gaming books stepped away from full color art on glossy pages (I am almost at the point that if a book has glossy pages I won’t buy it, they are just too difficult to read and you can’t write notes on glossy pages). This book looks and is filled with a lot of classic old school content.

But this game is not stuck in the past. It mixes and matches old school systems – and importantly – provides space to move away from old, tired tropes that have had their day and open itself up to modernity. It is traditional, yet fresh. It embraces so many features of the past, and yet realizes that you can’t continue living in the past, for eventually you will be left behind and will have nobody to game with since you will be out of touch and have made no effort to reach out to the newer generation of gamers. Chromatic Dungeons allows you to soak up the nostalgia of late 20th century gaming, and yet shifts into the present and assists you in finding ways to share your love of OSR game play with modern gamers of the 21st century.

Preparing A New Castles & Crusades Campaign, Part 1: Aufstrag!

I am outlining a new Castles & Crusades campaign for 2022: The Dungeons of Aufstrag by Troll Lord Games (TLG) but modified and placed within my own homebrew world.

TLG’s Dungeons of Aufstrag box sets.

I need to begin preparing a new C&C campaign. My fortnightly Dragonclaw Barony campaign just completed session 30 and I think it has a good year or two left. However, my weekly Barrowmaze campaign just finished session 78 and it has between 6-9 months left (this all depends on how players proceed through what remains). As a result, I need to begin laying the groundwork for what will follow. The current two campaigns have relied a lot on designing things on the fly, but for the new campaign I aim to have a firm foundation created and a fully written and laid out gazetteer for my players to read and reference prior to character creation in Session 0. But what will the campaign be built around?

When presented with what I was interested in running, the players in my Barrowmaze campaign expressed clearly their desire for The Dungeons of Aufstrag by TLG. Although I have made Castles & Crusades the game system to run my campaigns since 2018, I have not yet run an official TLG C&C game. My Saturday game is currently using Basic Fantasy adventures and will transition to AD&D 2nd edition for the classic TSR adventure Dragon Mountain. My Tuesday game is using Barrowmaze which is made for Labyrinth Lord. So Aufstrag will be my first campaign to actually make use of the C&C game system!

Still, I will be making some substantial changes to Aufstrag to fit within my own homebrew world:

Altering Aufstrag:

  • Aufstrag takes place in the World of Aihrde (by TLG), but I use my own game world. So although I will be using some of the immediate areas around Aufstrag – and some Aihrde monsters, they will be firmly placed in my own game world with my own pantheons of gods and my own kingdoms. They need to fit within my own storyline and metaphysics.
  • Aufstrag was involved in 1,000 year “Winter’s Dark” when a demon ruled the region. I will be using the Winter’s Dark as an important and pivotal feature of a region in my world (my world is based around the idea of corruption), and a demon will be involved, but why it happened, what happened during that time, and the name of the demon involved will be altered to suit my campaign needs.

Why change the material, why not use the campaign world?

There are two answers. First, we have a more negative reason. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from having run the Forgotten Realms for 26 years. I am still tired of having players come to my games and reference things they read in a novel, game product, or website and say “I want to do that,” completely ignoring the work I had done on my world moulding it to something unique over a quarter century.

Secondly, there is a more positive reason. The overall themes and ideas found in Aufstrag overlap in several key areas with my world. So, I think it makes great sense to draw upon what Steve Chenault has created and give it a unique twist and (hopefully) a fresh knew take for my world. All the players who will be in this Aufstrag campaign aren’t familiar with the world of Aihrde (which should work in my favor, since they are not bringing any previous baggage with them on “how it should look or be done”). But for those who are familiar with Aufstrag, they might enjoy hearing about the new ways I have interpreted it.

Other Areas of Campaign Focus (these will be discussed in future campaign design posts)

  • Historical Realism. I want this campaign to be heavily grounded in medieval history. I am academically a philosopher and historian and I want to bring true historical grit to the game. I am reading academic texts on rural and urban medieval life and building up my notes on the time period I am focusing on (roughly the High Middle Ages, c.1000-1250 CE). This will be the foundation from which Aufstrag will be build upon.
  • Central City or Village. I want the players to have a central location to visit between the Aufstrag adventures when they are resting or leveling up and acquiring new abilities.
  • Guilds. I plan to create a series of guilds located in the central city, village, or barony. These will be tied to the PC’s family backgrounds and professions (e.g. soldier, farmer, miller, sage)
  • Cults. I need to create some cults and secret organizations, some relevant to my conception of Aufstrag, but others that tie in to my game world and the region in general.
  • Crafting System. I want to create a crafting system that allows PCs to create the things they need over time with a noticeable progression in ability based on the effort they put into it. It has to meet the needs of historical realism within a fantasy RPG.
  • Mystical Companions. A lot of players want cool animal, pet, or mystical familiars. The Mystical Companions book by TLG I think is the best of its kind out there. But there are problems with it, and I need to sit down and simplify and correct them for easier use.
  • Race/Ancestry as Class. I have thus far stuck with humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, hobbits, and half-orcs/half-elves in my C&C campaigns. For Aufstrag I will be adding Elder Elves and Dwarves, and High Gnomes and Hobbits. These will be similar to race-as-class (or ancestry-as-class) inspired from Basic D&D.
  • New Ancestries and Subraces/Alternate Ancestries and Heritage. I am also going to introduce some new playable races: centaurs, changelings, and a type of giant race (and perhaps more). I am having a lot of fun reading old European folklore tales and creative gaming sources for inspiration.