The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

This is my particular voyage and continuing mission

Blogging has not been much on the agenda as you may surmise from the roughly three and a half years since my last post.

The good news is that this blog's loss has been my gain, in that much of my free time has been taken up with an ongoing D&D 5e campaign, developing some fan materials for 13th Age Glorantha, and starting to play Fading Suns on a livestream archived on YouTube (first episode here:

Of course, the world is going through a pandemic at the moment, so a blog about games, books and geekery is either the most trivial or the most important thing to come back to at the moment.

One thing that I have gotten back to is catching up on the latest in Star Trek.

When last I left Star Trek, it was a sadly descending in quality movie franchise in the parallel JJ Abrams' Universe.  I enjoyed the first reboot and thought it had promise, and the series progressively spent all the goodwill from that movie on lesser and lesser movies until there appears that there is no more Abramsverse series left (but who knows? Hollywood does strange things).

I still never finished Voyager and never really started Enterprise, so what kind of Trekkie can I claim to be?

But like any good fan, I have opinions.  I think I am probably strongly in the orbit of the folks at Ex Astris Scientia ( which is a beautiful labor of love and love letter to all things Trek.  Like any good fan, I have my own quirks and personal biases, but if we divided into camps, I would likely be in the neighborhood of Ex Astris 95 times out of 100.

So, much like is much better and more thoroughly explored at Ex Astris, I have many criticisms and concerns about Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard.


They don't destroy my childhood or ruin Star Trek for me.  I checked and favorite episodes like "The Doomsday Machine" (TOS), "Yesteryear" (TAS), and "Blood Oath" & "Way of the Warrior" (DS9) are still there.  But they raise many issues for me, and even to the point of spending time awake at night sorting out my feelings and their source.

I was introduced to Star Trek, the original series, by my father.  He took me to a Star Trek convention when I was nine, and we saw Gene Roddenberry give a talk.  I watched the Animated Series as a kid, I watched all the Star Trek movies up through First Contact in the theater.  I played the old FASA Star Trek Role Playing game with my friends.  I was out of the country the first year that TNG was out, but my mother had a friend who had taped (yes, VHS) all the episodes, and when I returned from my college Junior Year Abroad I binged all of them (before binge watching was really a "thing").

Life got complicated and I lost the thread for following Star Trek closely in about season 4 of Voyager (a show I generally enjoyed, but not as much as I had liked DS9) and I completely missed Enterprise.

So, when the new movies came, I thought they might likely be terrible, but I hoped they would be good.

I am a person who still found things to like about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier after all, though I'm not sure I could sit through it again (there are also a lot of terrible things about it and it is in the nature of "bad" Star Trek, like "Spock's Brain").

The new parallel universe movies were a mixed bag, but they did scratch some of my Star Trek itch.

I waited on the sidelines as Discovery came out, and I did not follow it too closely, though I heard the rumblings of some discontent, particularly with the first season.

The intersection of the first season of Star Trek Picard being out and 30 days of free CBS finally drew me in.

I watched Picard first, and then went back and made it through all of season 1 Discovery, and I will probably pay my 10 bucks so I can make it through season 2 over the next 30 days (I have to episodes under my belt).

So, what is my beef?

There are a hundred details and concerns, but I will try to distill them into a few substantial critiques.  Up front I will say that, overall, the casting is quite good and the acting is good.  My criticism is heavily focused on writing, production and vision.

Discovery: The production of this show is ambitious, but its reach FAR exceeds is (sometimes feeble) grasp.  I can tell that it got better in Season 2 (and hey, it is Star Trek and I am going to watch it), but getting better is a low bar from Season 1.

Examples: Design and continuity.  Knowing that they had decided to place a new series squarely in a defined period of Star Trek, between the setting of the original pilot, "The Cage" (2254) and The Original Series (2265), with Discovery beginning in 2256.  This is deliberate placement to take advantage of know characters as an era that has a lot laid out, and yet more too that could be filled in.  So far, I have seen them bring in Sarek, Amanda, Harry Mudd and Christopher Pike, and it seems clear too that they will have Spock and perhaps other greater or lesser characters who appeared in the original source material.

Making the conscious decision to be in an era that has a defined arc, look and beloved characters well known to people who know Star Trek intimately, as well as things that casual viewers have picked up, they decide to chuck continuity, themes and visuals all out the window.

I have seen defense of this as "updating" for a "modern" audience and other such shallow and intellectually bankrupt dodges, but basically, they did not want to be shackled to working within what was established.

So, why in the world lock themselves into a "room" with such constraints?  It certainly wasn't for the challenge of it, because they just burn that room down and do whatever they heck they want.  New uniforms, new ships, new ship sizes for old ships, new important character histories and character actions that MAKE NO SENSE.

I realize, it would be really cool to have a character who was Spock's foster sister.  Totally cool concept.  But it does not really work the way they have done it.  So far, they just make Spock look like a jerk (admittedly, I am not far into Season 2).  Also, while the central character, Michael, always seems to know the answers, she does not present a very Vulcan.  This is again the writers and producers creating a constraint, and then finding it inconvenient and rather than letting ANY constraint force them to creativity, they just ignore it.

Sarek endorses a plan which is certainly a war crime, and described as genocide, though I don't actually think the writers understand the concept.  I am sorry, but in no universe does that make any sense (and don't get me started about Mirror Sarek; how is he a rebel, yet his son serves the empire, which is supposed to be so racist (a relatively new concept introduced into the mirror Terran Empire, but, after all, nowadays, no one is a villain worth his or her salt unless racism is a component) but nonetheless, Spock serves on the IKS Enterprise and eventually has enough influence to overthrow the empire (though only then to be conquered by a coalition of Klingons and Cardassians, but the Klingon homeworld was destroyed by the empire and gee that was a lot of back story to be aware of and we did not really care, we just wanted to plot things the way we wanted to and nobody cares, blah blah, modern audience).

So, beloved characters strangely portrayed through the fun house mirror.  I mean, Harry Mudd?  I say that Rainn Wilson absolutely chews the scenery with what he is given to work with, but when was Harry Mudd such a murderous psychopath?  Yes, a confidence man or little to no morals, but suddenly we needed him to be edgy and distinctly murder-y in order to be "believable" for modern audiences or whatever lie the writer's room was telling itself.

They also have a really interesting seeming bridge crew, where they have created a seemingly more diverse and possibly interesting set of important officers, except that they are essentially forgettable furniture, with few lines, no spotlight, and almost no personality.  It seems they try to repair this in S2, but I fear the ones they can't figure out how to write they will simply kill off, because they were a momentary check box, and when they become inconvenient (like visual, character, or thematic continuity) they will simply throw them away.

They just create uniforms that make no sense.

They create ships that look and feel nonsensical within the era THEY CHOSE to work in.

They seem absurdly pleased with getting their characters to say curse words.  Forget Star Trek IV, where Captain Kirk had to work hard to speak in Colorful Metaphores ("Double dumb ass on you!") because society and protocol was such that they just used language better in the future.  No "modern audience" can accept that.  Besides, this is cable.  We get to have the characters say "fuck."

Also, since this is cable, lets make sure to show, over and over and over, naked Klingon.  Hey, Star Trek has really graduated.  Screw you, however, many decades it's been of suggestion and no pay off.  We have some really great Klingon nude prosthetic that we will show off over and over in "previously on": Klingon tits!

And worst of all, Federation society and Star Fleet just suck.  Sure, the lone abandoned crew of the Discovery stands tall for the ideals of the Federation, but the message is, when push comes to shove, screw your near-Utopia Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana and the rest.  We just don't really believe in it.

Yeah, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) is the slogan, but no organization of intergalactic peace, exploration and tolerance is really believable.  It was all fine for the 1960s, but this is 2020 and we have a more realistic view of things, and we will put them in the mouth of a Starfleet Admiral (and back it up with Sarek having been on board) "We do not have the luxury of principles!" This is command in Starfleet?  Maybe if it had been developed through more episodes to show the desperation and all that could be lost and truly that there were no alternatives, maybe.  But the future that Star Trek showed us for decades was a society that, for all its problems, where it was not quite at Utopia, it was crawling closer, and the founding principles of the Federation were bedrock.  A common and shared set of ideals across cultures that were the baseline.  Surely, there were those who could depart, but just as universal healthcare, education, childcare, etc. is a given in Scandinavian countries, the Federation in its common principles does not depart from its ideals.  That was the vision of hope given to us.

And Discovery (and, see below, Picard too) does its best to tarnish that.  The BEST of the Federation (SAREK OF VULCAN) when pushed, trades away principle for survival.  The Federation and Starfleet are just hollow, with just a few, like the Discovery Crew, really having internalized those principles.  There rest, well we are given to understand, they are no better than us, in the 21st Century.  They just had better propaganda.

All of this adds up to the worst arrogance and provocative self-dealing that really galls me.  It is more convenient and more conceivable for the writers and producers to try to overwrite the original operating system of Star Trek with their cynical views, their flashy costumes, their vision of what Federation and Klingon ships and cultural items look like (OMG, don't get me started on the Klingons. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??!!!).  To the people behind the scenes, making Discovery, working hard and doing something that they love, they just don't love Star Trek.  They have appropriated elements and done something else.  It is shallow and hollowed out and makes me alternately sad and mad.

It gets a bit better in Season 2 so far, but again, its a low bar, and their progress is inconsistent at best.

I will leave with this before a brief discourse on Picard.

In the first episode of S2 of Discovery, "Brother" they introduce a character, Evan Connelly.  From the moment he appears as the Science Officer coming with Captain Christopher Pike, and he is not Spock, it is painfully evident that he will die.  He is a white, cis, het, male, dude bro, and he is killed while mansplaining to our main character.

So, why care.  Dozens of "Red Shirts" have given their lives to advance plot points in Star Trek.  Who Mourns for Evan Connelly?

Well, despite his fantastic (otherwise) introduction, Captain Christopher Pike doesn't.  Lt. Evan Connelly is the SCIENCE OFFICER on the USS ENTERPRISE.  He has stepped up to fill the shoes of the legendary LT SPOCK, the first Vulcan in Star Fleet.  Pike must have hand picked him for the role.  Yet he first is portrayed as sarcastic and unjustifiably arrogant.  It is all a setup to maneuver him to his untimely encounter with the asteroid while he is mansplaining (perhaps that is a point the writers want to make or maybe they thought it was hilarious; don't know, don't care).  But the point is, rather than him having to scrub out of the mission, instead of learning a lesson of humility, or whatever.  They just kill him AND NOBODY CARES.  Christopher Pike, his commanding officer, a person who SHOULD feel his death as if he was that young man's father, is given not one moment to reflect on his death, to show his care for the crew under his command.  Nobody is shown to care, which is the SAME as nobody caring, because if it does not happen on screen, it does not happen.

The writers thought it was more important to introduce Lt. Connelly, paint him as a jerk, and kill him, and then forget him, than to write something . . . good.  Something that showed us important issues about the characters, Starfleet, the Enterprise, Discovery.  Anything.

But no.  Discovery is not yet that kind of show, if it ever will be.

Now Picard.

Patrick Stewart is as close to a do no wrong actor as you get, particularly for Star Trek.  When he is at his best, Star Trek is usually at its best.

But the show is uneven.  Again, it goes to the lack of respect for a vision for the future, because the writers are not creative enough to put together a dramatic conflict without rewriting the DNA of the Federation.

What I think may be one issue is that the Federation and Star Fleet are also characters in Star Trek.  You have to respect them as characters in order to write good Star Trek, and generally, neither for Discovery nor Picard, do the writers particularly respect those characters (or respect established characters in general, other than to serve their plot ends, rather than character ends).

The Federation again is not a near Utopia and Star Fleet isn't Star Fleet, and Picard frankly is not Picard.  The show opens with Picard at the end of a 14 year funk after failing to marshal resources to rescue survivors from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld.  Once he failed there, he just gave up.


Picard who came back from being Locutus of Borg.  Picard who saw his own future and fought it.  Picard who suffered torture under the Cardassians which lasted until he broke, but fate was kind enough to bring him out before that breaking make him give in.  Picard who was the youngest cadet to win the Academy marathon.  That Picard forgets all his friends, packs up his things and goes to die on his family Vinyard?

Well, that is the setup they need.  The Federation and Star Fleet suck.  Society in general sucks (see "Children of Mars" the most horrible, long music video of middle school still sucking in the 24th Century possible, and in 300 years, no better methods of running school exists).

And even elements from some of the best episodes suck.  I mean, Riker and Troi allow their son to die.  There is a simple treatment, but then the ban on androids means that the treatment is unavailable and The Federation sucks so much it lets children die of easily treated diseases because it can't have any little exceptions and Troi and Riker suck so much that they cannot, with their vast experience and connections, find any place in the known Galaxy to get a cure for their child and so he dies.

Because the plot really needs that dead kid.

There is more.  The Romulans have thoroughly compromised Federation Security and Intelligence.  The plot requires it.

The Romulan fanatics who live only to stop artificial life have worked lives, generations, to end the Soong androids, but when opposed by the Federation, they just leave.  The plot requires it.

When Dr. Soong Jr. (not actually Junior) discovers that one of the androids lied in order to motivate the contacting of the artificial life coalition, and possibly unleash death on all biological life in the galaxy and there is a projectable recording of it, he just does nothing with it and fails to stop what is going on.  The plot requires it.

There is more of this, and there are many writing sins, as well as writing and performance (and directing) accomplishments.

I am not trying to trash these series in toto.

But they are deeply flawed, in ways that make me sad and concerned for the immediate future of Star Trek (and don't get me started on the weird IP split, with CBS owning series rights and Paramount movie rights and that being a mess that has real creative impact, like not being able to portray Spock and the Vulcan response to the Romulan crisis).  Will Star Trek continue?  Yes, absolutely.  Will it be any good?  Sure, there will be good bits here and there.

But I feel like the current crop of creatives have lost faith, and having fallen from that, they have lost a vital spark for Star Trek.

They have things that they want to say with Star Trek, but they are just not very Star Trek things.  I fear that they are not going to inspire the next generation of astronauts, space scientists or researchers the way the Trek of the past did.  Star Trek used to be a unifier, and among other things, it feels divisive and broken now.

It makes me sad.  But, it is Star Trek, so I shall ever watch it with hope.

A hope kindled in the breast of a nine year old.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

One-Night D&D-The Haunted Castle (and the lessons therefrom)

Hello internet, my irregular publishing of entries marches on . . . irregularly.

On Saturday, I ran a short scenario of my own devising for a "pick up" game of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The game worked out well enough that I likely may run this scenario for other groups as an intro.  I and the group had fun, and I definitely learned some lessons that I could apply to (hopefully) make it run to be even more fun and exciting.

If you don't want spoilers, you should stop reading.

For anyone else, here is an overview of how things went.

The adventure is not in a determined setting.  The main adventure location was inspired by a real world castle, Caerlaverock in Scotland.

The players, who were a group I was able to get together with a few days notice, picked pre-generated characters from a set I had put together.  The characters were all third level, to allow for everyone to have some significantly cool things to do, and to avoid having to write a scenario about giant rats and other lower level threats, when I wanted to put a bit more risk and reward into the scenario.

We ended up with a pretty well balanced party, including two Wood Elves, a Cleric of Light and a Druid (Circle of the Moon) (Val & Telar, played by Tom and Robert), a Rock Gnome Eldritch Knight (Teflanto, played by Dan), a Forest Gnome Arcane Trickster ("Nick" played by Jamie), and a human Berserker (Arek, played by Darrell).  We did a short little Q&A between me and the players to determine how they knew one another, and then we got them on the rails to the adventure.

They received a summons from a Herald of the Duke to come and meet with an official of the Duchy for an opportunity.  Like any group, the characters were suspicious, wondering if this was legit, or a trap of some kind.  The eventually went to the meeting, and the Duke himself met with them, and charged them with a mission.

Role playing the discussion was pretty fun, and people made some social skill rolls, and it all went well enough.

This was the deal.  They needed to go to a remote castle, Kerag Ynys, near the northern border of the Duchy, where a castle had become haunted and disused.  The Duke had not been much concerned with the castle in recent years because the border had been closed, and the function of the castle (as a customs station for trade and garrison for protecting the trade route) had been superfluous.  Further, hostilities on other borders of the Duchy had kept the Duke from sending units to determine what had happened to the Baron of this castle.  However, in the last six months, peace and general amity had been negotiated, and the trade route was opening back up.  Now the Duke needs the castle.

Choosing a Baron is down on his long list of things to do, but in the meantime, he had decided that he can put the player characters to good use, get them out of his back yard, and test their mettle  to see if they are worth further recruitment and investment as agents.  He offers them positions as temporary Wardens of the castle if they will retake it from whatever monsters inhabit it, and if they will agree to help secure the Barony and assist a ducal steward to run the castle and return the village to habitation.

The characters reluctantly agree, especially after he explains that the typical adventuring group in his duchy, once they have achieved the kind of fame and notoriety that they have, either end up as his "friends" and in his service, or end up with their heads on spikes on his gate.

Further, the Duke had a story for them, accompanied by two clues.  His patrols had recently captured a bandit who had first hand knowledge of the castle in question.  He and companions had observed the castle and saw that its drawbridge came down each night, only to be closed up during the day.  They decided to try to take the castle as their base of operation and entered.  After beginning their search of the castle and finding some trinkets and remains from the former inhabitants they were attacked by "dead men."  Only the one bandit escaped with his life, and part of his reason.  He also had on him a fragment of a letter from the former steward of the castle to the last Baron (Marketh) of Kerag Ynys.  The steward urged his lord to return a "mask" to a place called Tor Mortas, warning it would bring great evil.  An annotation on the letter seemed to be from Baron Marketh, recording that he would never give up this treasure from Tor Mortas.

The Duke gave them the letter fragment, and also provided them with the possible location of a mechanism to open a postern gate and a passage across the moat of Kerag Ynys, so they would not have to enter across the drawbridge at night.

The adventurers journeyed to the north for days, until they reached the outskirts of the area containing the keep.  Since they knew that something was definitely active at night in the keep, they decided to time their arrival to the morning to give them all day to work on entering and dealing with whatever might be in the keep.

After thoroughly scouting the area, they were able to locate the mechanism to trip the Dwarven made device that raised stepping stones across the back of the moat to the postern door.  They made their way into the keep by this hidden path.

Once inside, they began to investigate.  They found the keep largely in tact, though seemingly deserted.  However, in the barn area, they found a pile of dead bodies, in various degrees of decay, and some seemed to have been "gnawed."  They we close to several ladders which could lead them to upper level on the wall, and particularly to the hoardings atop the walls.


Model of curtain wall with hoardings

They also inspected the ground level room formed by the base of one of the castle towers, in which they found a small armory, and a trap door that led to something below.

However, before they could explore more, they began to take arrow fire from the top of the gatehouse.  A quartet of skeletons had detected them and had gone to the attack.  The characters scattered.  Most headed up ladders almost immediately, seeking to get cover, higher ground, and eventually reach the skeletons via the hoardings.

The Cleric, Barbarian and Arcane Trickster all headed up.  They were soon surpassed by the Druid, who turned into a panther and made short work of climbing, even having to use a ladder.  This left the Eldritch Knight still in the line of fire, and he caught an arrow, but was able to look for cover.  However, then a swarm of zombies shambled out of a nearby cellar.  Discretion being the better part of valor, the Eldritch Knight retreated up a ladder, and was assisted by the Arcane Trickster in jamming the trap door first on the ladder he came up, and then on another at a ladder around the corner.

Meanwhile, the Cleric, Barbarian and Druid all made it up to the level of the skeletons and charged in.  Once in range, the Cleric raised her holy symbol and invoked the powers of light, forcing one skeleton to cease his attack and flee to the far side of the gatehouse roof.  The other three, however, continued to draw arrow, until brought to close combat by the Barbarian who went into a rage, whereupon they drew their blades.  After trading indeterminate blows, the Druid shaped back into his human form and cast Moonbeam.  He was disappointed that the skeletons largely made their saving throws, but on the subsequent round, they all failed, and he melted them all like candle wax.

The Barbarian then charged back to get into some kind of view of the zombies, and with a furious throw, actually hit a zombie over sixty feet and two stories away with a thrown hand axe, neatly ending it.  The Cleric followed cautiously behind, looking for some way to attack from above.  The zombies were stymied by the ladders and blocked trap doors from making any attacks on the party.  Then the Druid turned his moonbeam upon them, and within two rounds, all but three were puddles on the ground.  The last three, barely holding together, retreated into the cellar.

The party, triumphant in this first battle then carefully searched the keep.  They found the trap door in the small tower armory merely led to a prisoner hole.  However, searcher the living quarters, they found the day books and ledgers of the Baron, and found his notes on how he journeyed to a place called Tor Mortas and retrieved a gold mask, with which he became obsessed.  On the trip there and back, two men at arms died, his personal priest went mad and fled, and he apparently murdered his body servant as too clever.  After he brought the mask to the keep, the town began to be beset by "things" who took the villagers.  Eventually, the remaining peasants fled the town, and the keep became threatened.  The Baron's wife urged him to return the mask, and then she had an "accident."  The information in these entries pointed to the mask being in the family crypt, built, like all the foundations of Kerag Ynys, by a allied clan of Dwarves centuries ago.

The characters found the way down by taking one of the main spiral staircases that served the keep.

They went far down underground, and then came out in a crypt.  It was evident that there was some "thing" in the crypt, but it, and its cohorts (more undead) did not immediately move to attack.  The characters identified the creature that seemed to be in control as a "barrow wight."  They attempted to treat with it, explaining that they sought the mask to return it to its place of origin, Tor Mortas.

They had a hard time of it, but made several speeches, gave oaths, and called it to recognize their honor.  Finally, the wight stepped aside from the door where it stood and told the party to work their "arts" on the door.  If they took the mask with the intent to return it to Tor Mortas, the wight, and its slaves, a ghoul and a specter, could be free.
The Wight

Up stepped the Arcane Trickster.  He handily unlocked the door, but then thought to look for traps.  The door, like all the entrances to the tombs in the crypt, was trapped with a mechanism which would allow the moat to rapidly pour into the crypt, likely crushing and drowning those who would defile the dead's rest.  He then tried to assess how likely it would be to set off the trap by disarming it.  He determined it would be unlikely.  However, that unlikely event occurred [his player having rolled a 1].

Two things happened at once.  The door opened, revealing the entombed bodies of the Baron and Baroness, the golden mask perched atop the sepulcher, and water began to pour in all around the crypt.

The Arcane Trickster, using his Mage Hand, seized the mask, and then cast expeditious retreat and fled the crypt.  The other party members tried to contribute to each other's survival [defined as a skill challenge].  Things did not go well.

The Barbarian sought to block some of the water coming in from the Baron's burial chamber, but instead ripped the door from its hinges [another roll of 1].  Others had some success in helping one another towards the exit stairs, but just as many tripped each other up or impeded one another.  Finally, the Arcane Trickster, as the chamber filled with water, shot an arrow tied to a rope towards his companions, hoping to pull them to safety, but as they grasped the rope, it pulled them down under and each seemingly lost their last breath.

For a moment, Nick, the trickster, thought about just leaving.

However, he managed to get the rope free, and found that, like a reflex, some of his friends had, in losing consciousness, held onto or been entangled in the rope.  He pulled first the Cleric, Val from the water and got a healing potion into her.  Next, they pulled out Teflanto, the Eldritch Knight, and while one revived him, the other pulled out Telar, the Druid.  Finally [after succeeding three death saves in a row], the Barbarian Arek simply refused to die and dragged himself up out of the now receding waters onto the stairs.

After some rest and healing, the party camped within the keep that evening and managed to prepare themselves for the trip to Tor Mortas.  There they found the ancient and primitive mausoleum from which the Baron had taken the mask.

They returned the mask, and it was sucked back down into the earth, presumably back to its owner.

This did not give the adventurers a good feeling, but they did feel lighter as they exited and then set off to claim their reward as the new wardens of Kerag Ynys.
The Standing Stones of Tor Mortas

Now for a bit of self reflection and criticism [and thanks to Matt Colville (Reddit here and YouTube channel here) for modeling this kind of process for me; definitely check out his stuff]:

In retrospect, I think what I did at the start of the adventure was a mistake, and I would do it differently the next time I run this.  What I realized after running the long introduction that included getting the mission from the Duke was that it had not been that important.  The players have to agree to go to the castle or their is no adventure.  As a "one shot" I should have started them just already on their way.  That way, all the time spent with the Herald and the Duke could instead be spent with some role playing between the characters and then giving more time to explore the castle and fight monsters.

Live and learn.

Having eaten up a lot of action time with not very consequential timing, I forced the players to have to resolve the adventure with talking, since we had about 40 minutes to finish up once they got into the crypt, and a combat would take an hour or two.  I did not want to quite railroad so much at the end, but it was a one night one shot, so it had to do two things.  It had to end with some satisfaction, and it had to be fun as a whole.  This also played into how I resolved the long series of bad rolls that could have resulted in all but one of the characters dying.  However, I thought it was more interesting to play through a series of death defying challenges.  The skill challenge ended poorly and the trap took all but one character down.  However, with one surviving character, it allowed for a heroic rescue and a salvaging of the mission.  That just seemed like more fun for my audience.  So, that's what I did.

When I run this again, I think we will start just a short way from the Keep, with the back story already assuming they are on the mission.  That is the scenario after all.  If I were to use this for an ongoing game, that would be different.  I would let the players move at their own pace and decide to take the mission or not.  There would be other things to do if they turned down Kerag Ynys.  But, for one night D&D, the agreement is generally, the DM has a particular thing to do in mind, and the players agree to give it a try.

On the whole, I had a lot of fun.  I was surprised by some of the things the players did (as always) and I was pleased that I was able to share an evening doing one of my favorite things for a goup of folks who (mostly) had not played for many years.

With luck, we will do it again, perhaps more than once.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Old and New Combined: A Vision for New D&D Adventures (Part 1)

When I wrote the epilog to the Nine Vessels of Magic campaign, it was to conclude the our adventures.  I wrote an end of sorts to everyone’s story.  It was a narrative set some two hundred and seventy-five years after the conclusion of the campaign.  

Caladin remained dead, entombed, perhaps to be called again to service in another age.  Daniel van Rigir, Cheltenham and finally Degius Le Gudrius had succumbed to old age.  The epilog was written about a year after Degius’ death.  Daniel founded the City of Freedom at the edge of a new forest begun by The Druid (a guest star who had been in a few of the adventures).  A hinted at dread foe, the Githyanki pirate Kal Thard, never made another appearance and instead passed into obscurity, leaving Daniel to his life’s work.  Daniel, in the epilog, had died with a happy family around him.  Cheltenham had had a distinguished career as a diplomat and warrior, and had left behind a martial arts school, specializing in the great sword.  Degius had been raised to the nobility of the imperial court and given charge of the imperial library.  He and Krystella had children and grandchildren.

The epilog left hanging the narration of Lady Antani Pendragon (née Luventar), as she remained lost, and her husband, Mordred Pendragon, continued to search for her and the child that he hoped had been born of their union.  He searched even though he seemed to live without hope of ever finding them.  Sir Lars Amoril had retreated from the world, and spent his life in contemplation of his god, Solonor Thelandria in retirement.  Lars, as a High Elf, could expect to live another four or more centuries, contemplating peace and the divine.  Krystella Le Gudrius (née Entuluvan), the narrator of the epilog, was about four hundred and forty years old, young for a Grey Elf, who could expect to live eleven to fifteen more centuries.  At the end of the narrative, it was implied that Krystella contemplated taken her own life to join Degius in the afterlife. 

That was the story that I wrote to conclude the campaign, and that is canon.  We are not going back.

However, in the world of fantasy, that does not have to be the end. 

We have the wonderful question, “what if . . . ?”

To set the stage for this, let me state a few of my thoughts on what inspires me to go forward on the foundations laid by my old campaign.  As pedantic as my quest theme was, there were a lot of good bits, and some connections to the materials of the lore of Dungeons and Dragons, that a few years later opened up into whole new areas of play.  

I had played with planes and parallel worlds, with the gothic tragedy of the Arthurian Myth, and I had taken the player characters into space.  In 1987, none of those things were full blown settings, though the elements were coming together.  New settings, from which the Nine Vessels of Magic campaign did not benefit, included Spelljammer (published 1989), Ravenloft (the original module was 1983, but the full blown setting fully developed as the demiplane of dread came in 1990) and Planescape (published 1994). 

Also, Greyhawk went through some major revisions, and my world had been, if not Greyhawk, a reflection of it.  The Greyhawk Wars (released in 1991) postulated a huge regional conflagration that advanced the timeline in Eastern Oerik (the Flanaess) and then reshaped it into a new set of narrative realities in From the Ashes (published in 1992).  This was further changed, refined, and updated in the new Greyhawk Player’s Guide (published 1998), which again advanced the timeline.  The original timeline setting had begun in Common Year (CY) 576, the Greyhawk Wars beginning in CY 582, From the Ashes (in the aftermath of the wars) was set in CY 586, and the new Greyhawk Player’s Guide was set in CY 591.  Also, there was a whole Living Greyhawk Campaing, and many thousands of players experienced adventuring from CY 591 to CY598.  Materials about the setting abound.

Finally, AD&D, though still played, is an ancient artifact.  Second, Third (and 3.5), and Fourth Editions of the game have come (and many still play each of those editions) and somewhat gone.  However, the newest version of Dungeons & Dragons is Fifth Edition, and it is a very good, solid platform for play which I like quite a lot. 

In re-imagining the foundations for a new set of adventures, I could incorporate the now accumulated lore of almost thirty years into my back story (at least the parts I remembered, or had notes on, or that seemed to fit).  I would build it to play in the modern and evolved rules of the Fifth Edition of the game.

What would that look like?

So, to start with, here is my “what if.”

First, as background, in this new gloss on old things, what if I had just set things in Greyhawk, on the world of Oerth, in the Flaeness region of the continent of Oerik?  What would be the back story, and how would things have played out.  As I am doing this on my own, and first and foremost for myself, this first draft will not take much into account of my players, even those with whom I am somewhat in touch.

The core party is Caladin the Paladin, Degius Le Gudrius (fighter/cleric), Cheltenham (ranger/cleric), Daniel van Rigir (ranger/cleric), Antani Pendragon (née Luventar; cavalier), and Lars Amoril (cavalier; cousin to Antani).  Where were these people from in the Flaeness, where did they begin their adventures, and where else did they go?  That is important, because it allows me to weave the backstory into the greater meta-plot of The World of Greyhawk, and to build story ideas and allow for character elaboration down the line.

To begin this "what if", this is what I imagine.


Caladin was born in the Free State of Onnwal, once part of the Great Kingdom of Aerdy, but long independent.  His family was strong in the worship of Heironeous, the Oeridian god of Jonor, Justice, Daring, War, Valor and Chivalry.  He dedicated himself to the worship of that god and became a Paladin.  His father, a priest of Heironeous, sent him forth to find his own path and gifted him with a magic shield, upon which he commanded Caladin to place his own symbols, once he determined what crest he should gift to his descendants. For some time he served with a company of Dwarves, a notable minority in Onnwal.  Eventually, after adventures and tragedy, he passed across the the Sea of Gearnat and up the Woolly Bay to pass into the lands around the Nyr Dyv, which abounded with adventure and was the home area for the rest of the party.


Degius Le Gudrius, half-elven scion of a minor noble house in the Kingdom of Furyondy, grew up in his father’s castle, close to the Vesve forest (the largest hardwood forest in all of the Flaeness), and guarding the frontier with The Land of Iuz.  Deg’s mother was of the Sylvan elves, and lived with his father for some time, but returned to her forest and her people once Deg chose his path in life.  He was trained as a warrior, befitting the son of a castellan, but also chose the life of a scholar and took orders with the Elven god of longevity and patron of sages, historians, philosophers, and librarians.  Eventually he took to an adventuring life, and travelled out of the Kingdom of Furyondy to meet his future companions.


Cheltenham Half-Elf, was born in the lands of the Duchy of Ulek, ruled over by Elven nobility, though his parents, also both half-elven as was common in those lands, were of humbler origin.  He grew up enamored of the wilds, and called to the worship of the High Elven god, Corellon Larethian.  His studies took him to the center of elven culture in the Flaeness, the Kingdom of Celene.  There, he trained for the priesthood, but also became acquainted with the vast elven woods, eventually joining the Rangers of the Gnarly Forest for a time.  Eventually, with his training and knowledge in divine lore, woodcraft, and the art of war, he set off with a friend to make his fortune.


Daniel van Rigir, grew up in the rough and tumble lands of the Wild Coast, a land of petty nobles, robber barons, guildheld towns, fishing and forest villages.  As the land was prey to freebooters, mercenaries and displaced persons of all sorts, he grew up often in want, and always keenly aware of his need to be free.  He was fostered at a temple of Trithereon, The Summoner, the god of ndividuality, Liberty, Retribution, and Self-Defense.  From the temple, he passed to the company of the Rangers of The Gnarly Forest.  There he met and befriended Cheltenham, and after their time of training with the Rangers completed, they set out together, each looking for fortune and adventure.

Lars & Antani

The origins of Sir Lars Amoril and Lady Antani Luventar (later Pendragon) are closely aligned.  Both were knights of the Elvish Court of Celene.  Each came of noble High Elven family, close to the line of Queen Yolande of Celene.  Sir Lars of the Amoril family came of a line of Elvish Knights on the side of his father, Field Marshall Aldrieth Amoril, and of scholars, priests and wizards on that of his mother, Lady Yden Amoril (née Luventar).  He was the youngest of six siblings, including his two older brothers and three older sisters.  Lady Antani of the Luventar family, was the granddaughter of a Prince of the Court of Celene, Lorlar Luventar, and daughter of the famous archer, Gathiel Luventar, and Court Mage Anastasyn Luventar.  She was the middle child, between an older brother, an Eldritch Knight of the Court, and a younger sister, a devotee of the Elven goddess Hanali Celanil.

Both Antani and Lars were fostered to the Feywild and the Summer Court of the Arch-Fey.  Their training took place in the ancient fortress city of Mithredain, called the Autumn City, a place where time passed strangely, when it seemed to pass at all.  As these high elves worked with the warriors and nobles of the Fey, they gained powerful links to dimensions beyond the Prime Material Plane which held Oerth and their home forests of Celene, which they learned was a mere spot on the map of the Flaeness in the vastness of the multiverse.  Further, they each were knighted within the household of the Entuluvan clan.  While this Eladrin clan was at times a minor part of the Summer Court, it held a special privilege during the conjunction of the Feywild with Oerth.  At that time, the leader of the clan, Thormond Entuluvan, became Emperor of all Elves, so proclaimed by the High Queen Tiandra of the Court of Stars.  While there were paths and ways to the Feywild for Elvenkind to travel at any time, the decade long conjunction would bring together “The Great Elf Empire” through a nexus in the Feywild.  The difficulty was that Thormond foresaw that this conjunction would bring great danger. 

So, Lars and Antani, as wards of the Entuluvan, were particularly cultivated to respond to the danger soon to be.  Their destinies, however, were withheld by the canny Fey.  Knowledge was and is a currency among the faery, and little was shared with the two High Elven Knights from Celene.  Lars and Antani completed their training among the Fey, and returned to Celene.  From there, each in their time, they travelled to Dyvers to begin their errantry as knights.  Soon enough they became friends and companions with the others who would become the instruments of Thormond’s gambit against the dread Lich Kantorek.

To be continued . . .

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Overview and Memories of a 1980s Advanced Dungeon and Dragons Campaign

(Author's note: this is a post based on a combination of recollection and discovery of some scattered notes; I may modify it or correct and enlarge it depending on what else comes to me.  Also, this is probably interesting to no more than seven people on the planet, maybe fewer)

A long time ago, back in the 1980’s, I ran Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for my High School friends.  There was a shifting group of us, but as it finally fell out, after some comings and goings and character changes, there was a group of seven of us.  Six player characters and me, the DM.

I started people out with the basic dungeon crawl.  I quite unoriginally started with B-1, In Search of the Unknown, as the first level of my dungeon.  Other levels, carefully hand drawn, with room contents filled out in a key in a spiral notebook followed.  There was not a lot of logic to it all, but that was early AD&D.  The rooms usually seemed to be set pieces, often unconnected from one another, waiting for the entry of the player characters to trigger them.

They also had some adventures in town, some trouble with the thieves’ guild (the Monkey Guild as I recall), faced an initial incursion of mysterious humanoid feline invaders (Larry Niven’s Kzinti from Dragon 50) and some dealings with a powerful mage named Xanthius.

I was using my own “world” sort of.  I was both too cheap to purchase The World of Greyhawk materials and too proud to think that I needed them, but I was using Greyhawk Deities and was heavily influenced by Gary Gygax’s published campaign.  I never had much coherent world building, and we might as well have been in Greyhawk.

The main party consisted of:

Two High Elven Cavaliers (Antani and Lars) (each started after the write up in of the Cavalier Class in Dragon 72, and then formalized by Unearthed Arcana).

Two Half-Elven Ranger/Clerics (Daniel van Rigir and Cheltenham).

One Half-Elven Fighter/Cleric (Degius Le Gudrius).

And one Human Paladin (Caladin, yes, Caladin the Paladin).

One note on the Paladin.  Caladin came into the game because of a rules quirk.  His player had originally been playing Farl the Barbarian (who always wanted to go East).  We developed Farl after the Barbarian class was published in Dragon 63.  It was a class that got tried out a lot after its initial publication.

However, as written, the original barbarian character and the revised final version published in Unearthed Arcana, was a hater of magic.  As you will see below, that became a problem, and rather than house rule away that issue (especially since it had been a role playing point), we had the player swap Farl for Caladin.  Farl went East.

Eventually, we came to the point of needing more of a focus for the game, and thus was born my quest.  The Nine Vessels of Magic were the focus of the quest (thus the need to jettison Farl the Barbarian given the way the class was written then).  The quest was straight forward and unoriginal.  Long ago, a great Elven Wizard had forged the Nine Vessels of Magic, each one embodying one of the archetypical forms of magic, in order to help protect the Elven Realms.  Also long ago, the Vessels had been lost.
Now, a dreadful Lich, Kantorek, had discovered the lore of the Vessels and was seeking for them.  He was already massing forces for a great war of conquest against the realms of the living.  With the Vessels, he would be (wait for it) INVINCIBLE!

The Elven Emperor, impressed by the deeds of the two Elvish Cavaliers and their companions, charged the group with the retrieval of the Nine and frustration of Kantorek’s plans, if not his outright defeat.  I decided, as I was railroading them into this, that they might also need some magical support, so I contrived to place an NPC with them, creating the youthful daughter of the Emperor as a talented magic user and having her become infatuated with one of the party members, Degius.  The princess’ name was Krystella.

I already admitted this was not the world’s most original story.

It was, however, fun.

Along the way, there were a few guest stars.  A Druid who came in and out of the story as my cousin visited, and a thief (another lack in the party), played by a friend of one of the players, but who eventually decided not to come back (or we decided not to invite him back, that is hazy).
As they sought the Vessels, they battled pirates, they fought armies of goblinoids, they played through my modified version of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and they ended up in a quasi-Spelljammer before there was a Spelljammer setting, as they fought Mutant Orcs on a spaceship (also heavily influenced by Gamma World).  After that ship crashed, they ended up in a quasi-Egyptian setting and gained the help of Isis (I was going through several chapters in Deities & Demigods).

As we wound down the campaign they went through modified versions of the G-Series (Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, Hall of the Fire Giant King).

I ended up throwing one character, Antani (one of the High Elven Cavaliers) ahead, into my twisted version of the Arthurian stories.  The character ended up married to my version of Mordred.  As it turned out, there was Mordred and a “Dark Mordred” (ala Dark Phoenix as far as inspiration).

The rest of the party arrived afterward, and, of course the version of the Holy Grail in this reality was one of the Vessels.  There was a Cathedral to the Grail, guarded day and night by Sir Galahad.  However, he then was murdered, shortly after the formal announcement of the marriage of Antani and Mordred.  Mordred and Antani were arrested in their quarters, a bloody dagger in Antani’s hand.  

The party participated in the trial before the King, and at that event, Mordred, seeming extremely evil, revealed the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and then as Lancelot sought to flee with the Queen, Mordred used magic to cause Lancelot to kill Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth.  The extreme chaos essentially cleared the room, the player characters seemingly forgotten. 

Then, in an even bigger reveal, Mordred split, with his evil-self free and the man the player character loved still in chains.  He swore to destroy Camelot and Arthur and laughed at the thought that his good twin was to die for his crimes.  He then disappeared.

The characters managed to talk their way out of Camelot, take the Grail, take the “good” Mordred.  With the help of the spirit of Merlin, they boarded a mystical ship and set sail towards their final confrontation with Kantorek.  

In that crossing, both Krystella and Mordred were lost and taken prisoner by Kantorek when the ship foundered.  The characters each received a boon on the Isle of White Magic from an Angel of Light.  Somewhere along the way too, Antani found that she was in the early stages of pregnancy.  Then they went into the final confrontation with Kantorek.

There were some individual tests, then a big combat.  In the end, Degius was dead, and Antani ended up cleaving Kantorek in twain.  Unfortunately, he was also able to break his Staff of Power which killed Caladin and caused Antani to be cast into the multiverse, lost and sundered from her friends and her true love.  

Caladin was later entombed (prophesized to return some day), Mordred and Lars set off to find Antani, Daniel and Cheltenham got Degius raised from the dead, and Degius and Krystella finally married in our quick end game discussion.  That final game was in 1987. 

In about 1988, I wrote a long epilog, from the perspective of the long lived Krystella, which narrated the end of most of the company.  That is the official and unchanged end to the campaign which became known as the Nine Vessels of Magic.  There was triumph and sadness and some things that just did not get resolved.

I have had regrets about that campaign.  It was basically the thing I had to do to get a lot of mistakes out of my system, be a bad DM to try to learn to be a good DM, and a way to experience and understand a lot of lessons that others had tried to teach me, but you don’t get until you have tried and experimented with stuff.

I also remember it with extreme fondness, for all its flaws, especially for the time I got to spend with my friends.  It inspired character art and a lot of other creativity in my friends, which was both gratifying and a lot of fun.  

After that campaign ended, we all headed out our different ways, and frictions and fractures that had perhaps always been there surfaced more.  We never got back all together to game again.  That stage of our lives was over.

And if that was all, it would still be enough.  But I am thinking of writing another chapter or two. 

And with the wisdom of hindsight, I should think a have a twist here or there to add.

I'll have more to write soon.