Orxit and its impact on the Borderlands

Resemblances to events on Earth or the famous TSR basic module are purely unintended coincidences from the random sentence generator.

On Darkmoon, twenty-third day of the month of Baghtru, Breaker of Bones, the Orcish tribes held their moot and voted to leave the Evil Union, throwing the Caves of Chaos into political and financial turmoil. As the humanoid factions erupt into tense political negotiations and tribal infighting, the long term consequences of Orxit, or ‘Orcish Exit’, for the orcs, the Caves of Chaos, and the wider Borderlands region remain unclear. We sent a team of bold adventurers to the Caves of Chaos to report on the situation.

The Union of Evil Humanoids, known for commonly as the Evil Union or EU, was born in the bloody aftermath of the War of a Thousand Spears, a conflict so devastating that even the traditionally bellicose and chaotic humanoid tribes agreed for the need for a unifying organisation that would so closely tie the various factions of the Caves together politically and economically as to ensure the survival and co-operation of all tribes in the future. Although represented by all the humanoid tribes (Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls and Bugbears), an important council of largely human Evil High Priests collect tribute into a common pool for all the tribes and set the agenda for the Union, issuing directives aimed at maintaining a common standard throughout the formerly warring clans. These directives, including regulations on weapons and armour manufacturing, allocation of slaves, distribution of loot and educational reforms encouraging proficiency in the Chaotic alignment tongue, have all improved the prosperity and security of the Caves of Chaos. But the orcs, a greatly diminished people but once the most powerful and far-ranging humanoid nation in terms of territory and slaves, have often chafed at the demands of what they see as a faceless bureaucracy of elites in service to a globalist pantheon of the Dark Gods of Suffering and Mayhem, including, crucially, the right of different humanoids to join different tribes and live and dwell throughout the caverns, including those traditionally held exclusively by orcs.

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok the Pig-Sticker, cocky chieftain of the Evil Eye tribe, had ruled the orcs through cruelty and intimidation for many years, and was no stranger to scapegoating the EU and blaming an influx of weaker humanoids into orcish territory to distract from his failings as a despot. Although not noted for his wisdom, Namerok was endowed with that low cunning and instinct for self-preservation endemic to the orcish ruling classes, and he knew that if the orcs had to fight alongside the other humanoids if they were to have any chance of maintaining their standing in the Borderlands. tired of repeating anti-HU grumblings from the elite warriors of his clan, promised his people a referendum on EU membership in order to head off a potential  rebellion from certain ambitious sub-chiefs. Namerok warned his people of the disaster that awaited them if their raids would not be supported by the bugbears and ogres, but his speeches fell on deaf ears as 52% of his warriors voted to leave the EU. But when the time came for him make the journey to the depths of the Evil Temple and deliver the verdict of his tribes to the priests, the previously arrogant chief instead announced his abdication of the skull throne, saying that he was going to retire from tribal leadership to spend more time with his favourite war-boar.

This decision has angered the Chaotic priesthood, who demand that the Black Rites of Secession be implemented by an orcish leader as soon as possible to avoid any confusion. The cabal, in unison with the other tribal chieftains, have made it clear that the orcs will be punished harshly for their insolence, so as to discourage other secession movements in the other clans. ‘It is of the utmost importance that the warlord of the orcs descends into the temple, takes the up the Jagged Shard of U’Zhul, and spills his blood over the purple-veined altar to Tharizdun to begin the long and torturous ritual of depature,’ said Yunkarr, Canon of the Crawling Chaos. During a passionate public address in the lower caves, flanked by his legion of undead servitors, the spokesperson of the EU lowered his death-mask for the first time in years to reveal his piercing, violet-tinged eyes, sunken into sallow skin, ‘The dark power that binds us in unity and prosperity does not brook shirkers or apostates. Our Unholy Union will grow ever stronger once the weak are purged from our ranks.’

The referendum itself exposed a deeply divided orcish society, with tendencies to vote leave or remain according to status, treasure type, age, alignment, hit die, and %In Lair. Dressed in fashionable scale armour and sipping artesanal goblin fungus brew from a gnome skull, the young orc warrior Ghorak the Iron Claw stands in for the typical cosmopolitan Remain voter. His long black hair is tied in a topknot and his arms ritually scarred with chaotic pictograms. As he speaks he fidgets with an arm-ring, gifted to him by the Hobgoblin chief after his term of service as a bodyguard in an inter-tribal exchange program, ‘This is shocking, I just can’t believe it. I speak Orcish, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Ogre, Common and Gnoll, and I’m learning Bugbear. I’ve stood side to side with gnoll archers and bugbear ambushers against our pink-skinned enemies and seen them flee before our combined might. We are stronger together. Some of my best friends are half-ogres or half-human. Some of them are even multi-classed. I feel more giant-class humanoid than orcish. It’s the older generation, stuck in the delusions of the orcish empire, that don’t understand the modern world’. Ghorak settled in the hobgoblin caverns and took a priestess of chaos for his mate. He worries that the increasing hostility between the orcs and the EU will leave him unwelcome in his adopted home and deny his half-orc son access to his heritage when he matures in 12 years.

The orcs are also split among inter-tribal lines, with the Vile Rune tribe, vassals of Namerok’s Evil Eye, overwhelming voting to remain in the EU. N’kholah, head shaman of the Vile Rune, has threatened to declare independence from the horde and is rumoured to be in negotiation with the chaos priests and other humanoid clans to secure their future in the EU. The warriors of the Vile Rune, noted for their raucous lifestyle, tartan kilts and claymore swords, are feared troops and an asset to the armies of the Caves of Chaos, but their efforts to become independent and remain in the EU have met with opposition from Yojar the Goblin King, who fears that his own vassal tribes would be inspired to break away from his rule.

Urgok the Beard-Burner is of the older generation, a retired blacksmith, bemoans what he sees as the excessive regulation of the EU cabal, ‘Used ter be nuffink wrong good old fashioned orky choppas. Made em the same way my grandad did when we conquered the humie hill tribes and looted the lizardmen. Now the EU says every axe got’s ter haf a hooky beard on t’end, and scimitar gotter haf da curve on’t just so. Nah we gots ter life with da gobbos and bugbears in our caves? In t’good old days, gobbo in an orc cave was a slave or snack. You knew where you stood! Nah dey warboys, miners, smiths? Dey work for half da gold bits and a bowl of pigswill, da sneaky gits’.

The racial animosity of Urgok and those like him found a voice in Nerghaal Tharaj, elite warrior and leader of the Orcish Independence sub-faction. Tharaj argued against the EU on the grounds of orcish supremacy despite his particularly vile visage betraying his own trollish ancestry. But despite the referendum result, all has not gone smoothly for this sub-chief. Once his side had won, a detect lie spell from an inquisitive shaman revealed that the Leave faction had no intention of honouring one of their main promises, that the 350,000 gold tribute that the orcs handed over to the chaos priests would be used instead to buy healing potions for orcish foot soldiers. Instead, those orcs on his side with the highest HD and armor class intended to pocket it for themselves. Likewise, the claim that they could eject humanoid migrants from the orc caves and still retain access to the minotaur and skeleton troops has been firmly dismissed by Murkhaal, Matriarch of the Bugbear Clans. Likewise, their claim that they would make greater alliances with more distant factions, such as the norkers and lizard men, have been met with caution and ambivalence. The reptilian humanoids prefer to deal with the greater treasure and access to magic that the EU possesses, and have not seen an orcish chieftain emerge with sufficient charisma to inspire their trust.

Tharaj, like Namerok, has chosen this moment of confusion to back down from authority and flee to the shadows, claiming no desire to sit on the Namerok’s throne of skulls. Likewise, the loudest and strongest sub-chiefs that backed Leave have slunk away. Chaos and bloodshed reign in the orcish caves as the sub-factions fight amongst themselves and lash out against the weaker humanoids in their ranks. Backstabbings occur with such frequency that the Grandfather of Assassins has had to issue a statement from his hidden fastness, clarifying that his organisation has had no involvement in the dispute. To date, no leader has emerged with the courage to descend into the Lower Temple and sacrifice his life to secure the secession of the orcs from their dark pact, nor have the Remainers a champion with the strength of will to restore order to the warring tribes and affirm their pledge to Chaos and the cause of humanoids everywhere.

Upon their return to the Keep, our adventurers report that there has never been a safer time for humans, elves and dwarves to raid the orc caverns and take advantage of their weakness, but warned future parties that their treasure is few, and that their warriors are worth less experience than the pre-orxit times.

 

MOOOOORTAL KOMBAT!

I hope everyone had a nice time over the holiday season. I for one certainly did, and although 2016 has been a bit of a shaky start for yours truly, I had a good time with my parents and siblings on Xmas. A personal holiday tradition in my family house are games of Mortal Kombat with my younger brother, and I’m pleased to say that despite only playing once a year, my muscle memory remains solid enough to reliably kick his arse. It helps that the series remains pretty consistent in gameplay. As a callow youth I was a poster boy for the satanic panic, and naturally Mortal Kombat was my fighting game of choice. I played the hell out of MK2, 3, and Trilogy and later MK: Deception on my console and after leaving the nest I got to play some of the latter instalments with my younger sibling. Although I haven’t owned a console for years now, I still look forward to my annual tournament but sadly 2015 brought no joy on that front, the family had sold the old console and its complement of games. Still, ’twas the season and I had MK on the mind, and it occurred to me that there’s more than one way to get that fix.

Mortal Kombat’s rather convoluted backstory seems to have a lot of D&D DNA in it. There are humanoids, elementals, planes of Order and Chaos, sorcerers, clerics, undead, fantastic worlds, dungeons and so on. Throw in some Big Trouble in Little China-style cod-Orientalist mythology and you have Mortal Kombat. There are a whole of  D&D-able elements from the series, for the purposes of this post I’m going to tackle my favourite monsters from the games.

I for one, can see a lot of potential in replacing the standard goblinoid army guys with these badasses:

The Tarkatans, represented in-game by playable character Baraka, are the shock troops of the Shao Kahn’s, the setting’s Evil Overlord. Distinguishing them from hosts of pointy-eared-fanged-ugly humanoid type are the retractable blades of bone that grow from their forearms. More alien and savage than the halberd-hefting hobgoblin, they would make for nasty beserker-type mooks. I can see them being fast, handy, and good at parrying and blocking with their bony growths on their arms that surround the main blades. Under a sophisticated leader, I can see them being trained in the use of crossbows or javelins before closing to melee.

Tarkartan –  HD:2, AC:6, 2 attacks/round, d8 damage.

Elites/leaders –  HD:4, AC:4, 2 attacks/round, d10 damage.

I could even see them as player characters for mercenary/fighter types. I’d model them with the same ability adjustments and level limits as half-orc fighters, but with the ability to deploy their blades as ‘natural’ longsword attacks. To counter this advantage, they would not be able to develop proficiency or specialisation in any artificial weapons, putting them behind human warriors once magical weapons are more desirable.

I’m also down with assassin class human/tarkartan hybrids a la Mileena, to serve as infiltrators and leaders. No bone swords but better class options and full weapon proficiencies.

milly

The games don’t exactly give much in the way of background depth from the tarkartans, except that they apparently have their origins as human/demon hybrids. In one cutscene a character hurls a bottle of tarkartan scent on her nemesis, whose tarkartan bodyguards proceed to turn on and eviscerate, believing her to be a ‘rival male’. I can imagine tarkartans being fiercely bestial, aggressive and competitive in their natural element, sharpening their bone swords and keeping one eye on their uppity underlings and the other watching their boss for signs of weakness.

Goro and his ilk, the hulking, four-armed shokan race, are also a good candidate for higher HD, ogre-type antagonists.

goro

Just to really emphasise their gimmick and distinguish them from ogres, I’ve give them 4 attacks per round, d6 fist damage from each. Their multiple limbs would give them a huge grappling advantage and allow for some weird combat manoevres, and even in D&D’s abstract system, I’d give them something similar to the bear-hug attacks, where if all four attacks hit, a man-size or smaller opponent is grappled and lifted by one pair of arms and suffers an automatic 2d6 damage pounding per round from the other pair of arms unless they can successfully escape with a bend bars check or are freed by outside assistance. Shokan rarely use weapons, but some employ scythe-like daggers or grippable claw blades, known as ‘dragon fangs’. These add +1 to hit and damage but disable their grapple attacks. Ceremonial guards may carry great halberds, with which they are limited to a single attack per round but with a +4 damage bonus due to strength. Shokan nobility have scaly growths upon their backs and claim descent from dragons. These fearsome warriors have a limited ability to throw fire from their hands, as well as +4 on saves versus fire-based attacks. Other, lower-class shokan warriors have been sighted with a tiger-striped, feline aspect to them. Female shokan are typically smaller in stature than their male counterparts, of equal fighting ability but less brute strength (d4 damage dice for unarmed attacks, d6 for champions)

sheevathrone

Shokan  –  HD:4+4, AC:5, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple.

Elite  –  HD:6+6, AC:4, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 6th lvl spell-like ability.

Champion  –  HD:8+8, AC:3, 4 attacks/round, d8 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 8th lvl spell-like ability.

Shokan appear to have a more sophisticated culture than the tarkartans and are at least as intelligent as humans, although I think their natural abilities make them too overpowered to be PC candidates.

Also, this picture is good enough reason for me to mount them on tyrannosaurs for added awesome.

MK3 introduced Motaro the centaurian, in my memory the most difficult boss in the entire series. I lost game after game to this guy, stuck on the penultimate rung of the ladder before big boss Shao Kahn, getting my ass-kicked over and over again by this demonic centaur on steroids.

I like centaur-monsters, but standard centaurs are not very scary as an antagonists. MK didn’t give the centaurians much attention, but Motaro’s plethora of powers and great strength makes his people good candidates for D&D monsters. Their skin has a special magic resistance that deflects magic bolts, rays and energy blasts (magic missile, cone of cold, lightning bolts, fireballs etc), with a 30% chance of reflecting back towards the caster. Centaurians also can use the following spell like abilities once per round: dimension door, magic missile (a single missile, fired from the tip of the tail).

Centaurian – HD:6+6 AC:4, 1 frontal attack for d10 damage or standard weapon damage +4, rear kick for 2d8 damage, tail whip for d6 damage if missle not fired. Special abilities spell deflection, spell-like abilities.

I can see centaurians as being threats to even high-level parties due to their great mobility, special abilities. They’re difficult to deal with at range and their dimension door ability, high speed, and ability to attack from the front and rear make them very hard to out-manoeuvre.

As fun as it might be to set a campaign in MK’s Outworld, I think that I would use these races on a lesser scale. Maybe feature them in a dungeon on an island, under the command of a soul-stealing, shape-shifting sorcerer. Or have them appear as the result of a monster summoning spell, bound to serve as warriors in the campaign world through ancient pacts, similar to Elric of Melibone’s kelmain or vulture lions. Perhaps a cursed artefact opens a portal to Outworld that allows for the invasion of Shao Kahn and his shock troops. A mixed group of these three types, with their multiple attacks and unconventional special abilities, would be a force to be reckoned with. I might not have the hardware to run any of the newer Mortal Kombat games, but it won’t be long before I see a shokan battle at the table.

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and my first campaign.

Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first roleplaying game. My introduction to RPG actually came from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first of the Fighting Fantasy books, a choose-your own-adventure-style series. This book, discovered lumped in with random titles on a year 5 classroom shelf, had many elements of old school D&D play. Underground exploration, funhouse-style assortment of monsters, mazes, magic items, sudden death, grim humour, etc. all featured. I was hooked and hunted around libraries and second hand shops for more titles and ended up with an impressive, but no means incomplete collection. The series are mostly fantasy-based, with you playing an adventuring fighter in the ‘campaign world’ of Titan, but there were plenty of titles with different kinds of protagonist (wizard, thief, spy, assassin, samurai, assassin, superhero) different settings, including sci-fi, post-apocalypse and alternative fantasy world. As much fun as I had with these, their potential exploded when I got my hands on two books gathering dust on a shelf in a used furniture shop. These were The Riddling Reaver, an RPG adventure module to be played with a GM running the scenarios for a group of players, and Out of the Pit, a ‘monster manual’ compendium of many of the creatures found in the books and quite a few more powerful ones clearly intended for group play. The latter included maps of two of Titan’s continents.

These two books together spring-boarded my first fantasy RPG campaign. Initially, it was very simple. FF uses a d6 based system with just three stats. Skill (used in combat and feats of strength or dexterity), Stamina (hit points) and Luck (effectively used in situations that would warrant a saving throw in D&D). This simplicity gave me an unparalleled ability to spin adventures on the fly that I miss sometimes when playing more complex games. At the same time the limitations of the system became clear in the lack of character variety and progression. Many of the monsters were woefully weak, the 2d6 range used for combat and skill tests meant that any adjustment of more than 2 was either crippling or overpowered.

Shortly after I started running this game I was inducted as a player into AD&D and began to introduce greater complexity into my FF campaign, both borrowed from D&D and from the various single player books that contained rules variants or special characters, monsters and equipment. My friends’ gang of leather-armoured sword swingers expanded to include wizards, samurai, rangers, paladins, clerics, thieves, assassins, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, death knights, barbarians, vampires, chaos warriors etc. I built a feat system, made spells, new rules from armour and weapon variants, all bolted on to the FF chassis. Once I managed to get my hands on some 1e AD&D books from ebay, I left this homebrew system behind but I still regard it as invaluable experience in DMing, and because of it I still see a lot of merit in rules-light, easily moddable game systems. And a lot of appreciation for the Brit-fantasy weirdness and atmosphere of the Titan game world. The early campaign also taught me that, even in a system with relatively little to distinguish characters mechanically, imaginative players will find a way to make them unique, to the point where I still remember them this day.

Fighting Fantasy also featured plenty of Russ Nicholson illustrations, which also happen to be one of the redeeming features of AD&Ds Fiend Folio

I’d still recommend the FF series for old school D&D players looking to mine some inspiration for their locales, monsters, and items. Here are some of my favourites from early in the series, plus some D&D-able content I converted from them for use in more grown-up elfgames.

 

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The daddy and probably the most generic of the lot. Classic dungeon crawl with an interesting amoral hero who invades the titular warlock’s lair with the intention of claiming his treasure, and can end with the hero claiming the magical power of the warlock as his own and ruling the dungeon as his successor. Combat is on the easy side (there’s an easy to find powerful magic sword and even the dragon can go down in 6 hits) but the location is good funhouse fare with varied monsters and traps.

D&D-able: Firetop Mountain is a good setting to adapt to a wizard lair a la White Plume Mountain. Here’s an encounter/item I like to use in my games.

The Eye of the Cyclops

A fist-size ruby that pulses with an eerie red light, this powerful gem is fixed in the face of the Iron Cyclops, a unique Iron Golem. The Iron Cyclops has no gas atteck, but instead projects a 30 foot range, 90 degree wide arc cone of anti-magic from its eye. This will prevent spellcasting and negate the properties of magic items in the area of effect, including weapons and armour. If the golem is defeated, the gem may be taken and used by other creatures. As a magic item, The Eye of the Cyclops may be used to detect magic 15′ at will. Its anti-magic cone may be activated at will for 5 rounds, once per day.

dat ass tho

Citadel of Chaos: This and Riddling Reaver contain a complete magic system if you want to play group FF with a wizard class. Riddling Reaver balances the wizard with other classes by penalising the spellcaster’s SKILL and STAMINA.

D&D-able: Not much in the spell-list is useful for D&D, though some of the weirder monsters might appeal to some. My main take from this was the name of the villain, Balthus Dire, which I stole for use as my go-to moniker for my magic user characters. If you really want to freak out your players with silly/dangerous monsters, I recommend the Wheelies.

Wheelie

No Appearing: 2-5, AC: 6, MV: 16″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Special: spin and throw 2 daggers per round at +2 to hit, Average Intelligence, Medium Size, Chaotic Evil. Each carries a brace of 6 throwing daggers with a spare for melee. These can come from any bizarro plane, but something about their aspect suggests corrupted Modron to me.

 

 

The Forest of Doom: Forest-crawl (duh) and one of the more non-linear of the books. Overall not one of the best but has a singularly inspiring way to fail the game by being transformed into the demon overlord of a fungus farm.

 

D&D-able:

The Crown of the Taskmaster

A cave leads to an small network of underground caves where large mushrooms are cultivated by mute humanoid clones. The mushroom growers quickly fall in combat, but they are guarded by patrols of fighting clones (as zombies). In the last cave is a throne where dwells a fire demon (basically a Balor, down to flaming whip and sword etc) which wears a golden crown. Once the demon is defeated, should the crown be donned by any mortal, he or she will be transformed into a fire demon/Balor and gain telepathic command of the clone walkers and warriors. The crown wearer is effectively removed from play, as it will desire only to maintain it’s mushroom farm on the prime material, the produce of which is considered a delicacy by a notable Demon Lord. The new demon will fight its former comrades to drive them from the farm, but is bound to its duty and will not pursue them outside the cave complex.

meet the new boss, same as the old boss

City of Thieves: Easily one of the best. Port Blacksand as a location is one of the gems of the series, and this adventure is chock full of interesting urban encounters in this chaotic and corrupt wretched hive of scum and villainy.

D&D-able: Totally. This one really deserves to be read through and mined for city adventure ideas. Confidence tricks, corruption, danger and just plain strangeness lurk round every corner. Hassle your players with corrupt guards, some of which are sarcastic trolls. Practise home invasion and encounter depressed Ogres, a wrecked house with squabbling hags dressed as little girls. Get some embarrassingly tasteless but magically protective tattoos. Present your players with a glass ball filled with swirling gas. Gas in D&D is generally feared as poisonous, but smash this thing on the ground and find that it dissipates harmlessly to reveal a useful magic item.

The Serpent Queen

In a sumptuous house, concealed behind silk curtains, dwells the Serpent Queen, a beautiful young woman with the head of a snake. The overlord of the city keeps her maintained in luxury and often sends her lavish gifts. It is said that he will reward handsomely anyone who can find a way to restore her to fully human form. If disturbed, she will defend herself with a deadly poison bite. I would make her a rogue Yuan-Ti abomination who never held true human form, but nonetheless holds onto hope that she can achieve one.

nice lashes

 

Deathtrap Dungeon: Baron Sukumvit of Fang creates this megadungeon as a sadistic contest to promote his dinky town, where the winner who beats the dungeon by collecting a series of gems and stepping out alive wins a fantastic cash prize. Straight-up dungeon crawl with some interesting encounters, especially from the Baron’s agents, who can cripple or empower your character depending on choices you make. One of the more gruesome and brutal entries in the series.

D&D-able. The dungeon and encounters a ok but what I would take from this is the setting. Want a contrived funhouse megadungeon? Set up the Baron’s contest in your campaign world. You can make it for competing teams if player co-operation is a concern or keep it for one winner for a brutal one-off adventure that would see the players team up for survival while awaiting the best opportunity to dispose of their rivals. I would actually say that the silliest thing about the dungeon is how it is treated as some kind of gladistorial entertainment when the crowd in the arena at the end has no way to see what’s going on. Fix some kind of giant scrying device or spell for the poor punters so that they can have some fun watching the carnage and derring-do.

the contenders

Island of the Lizard King: Combat-heavy jungle adventure with some really tough (but cool) antagonists and a compelling story. The island works well as a D&D setting, possibly fusing its elements with TSR module I2 for ultimate Royal Lizardy goodness.

D&D-able: The whole adventure would work well for a D&D party, but something more unique to be taken from the module is the Gonchong, a strange spider-like head parasite that both dominates and bestows great power on its host, in this case the titular Lizard King. I also take cues from this book when fleshing out Lizard Men tribes in D&D, boosting them with mutants, two-headed types, Styracosaurus riders.

Gongchong

AC: 5, MV: 6″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Small Size, Genius Intelligence, Lawful Evil, Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, 25% magic resistance, Special attacks: +2 to hit as it leaps onto a humanoid’s head. Upon a successful hit against an opponent, the Gonchong will implant itself onto the creatures head and make it its host. If the opponent wears a helm or protective headgear, the Gongchong must make another successful attack the next round to dislodge the headgear and implant itself. The host of a Gongchong loses his or her free will but gains the following benefits: strength 18.00, immunity to non-magical weapons, bonus hit points equal to the parasite’s hit points, 25% magic resistance, immunity to disease. Psionic or mind affecting attacks affect the parasite rather than the host. The Gongchong is cruel, domineering and paranoid, and will use its host to gather guards and slaves and establish a power base.

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

There are some other monsters/items/encounters that have made it from these books to my D&D campaigns, but that’s to be continued in a future post.

Module Mash-Up

Most of my early experience playing D&D featured a lot playing through TSR adventure modules. In my first post, I mention a few of them. In addition to these, we also went though some higher level modules like A Star Falls, Baltron’s Beacon and Scourge of the Slave Lords. I remember that our DM always intended, one way or another to get us into the G-series, but the campaign always fizzled out before we could manage to. I had a great time with these modules, and since I want to pass some of that enjoyment on to players I have some modules I like to use in my campaigns. But as a DM with a lot of ideas of his own, I have an ambivalent relationship with published modules. To run modules as written seems lazy, almost cheating, and takes some of the fun away from being a DM in the first place. But on the other hand, they can be great time savers and templates. I’ve got a lot of published adventurers and I feel that most of them just aren’t up to scratch to run at the table, but on occasion I reach into them and pluck out an encounter, treasure list or NPC on the fly. Then there are a few that, with a bit of tinkering and development, can make a worthwhile addition to a campaign.

Of these my favourite and most oft-used is T1: The Village of Hommlet, even though I never played through it myself. But every time I’ve run it it’s been a blast. I like it so much because, when you need a quick adventure for first time players to see if they like D&D, this module has a perfect storm of ingredients for the low-level D&D experience. Village with a cheesy tavern. Detailed NPCs, treacherous hirelings, higher level NPCs building a stronghold, a religious centre, details of peasant treasure for the more antisocial PCs. My ‘Hommlets’, whatever I end up calling them, keep all those elements flesh out the NPCs, sometimes changing personalities or class, and play up the importance of the Church, usually having it as a popular place of pilgrimage and holder of a holy relic. On the dungeon side, you’ve got giant animals, cunning bandits, secret doors, traps, prisoners, humanoids, an ogre, undead and an evil priest. It’s tough going, especially once the priest and bodyguards are roused, but a well-played party can make it, and the rewards are rich.

some good art, too

some good art, too

But I’ve run T1 a few times and even with a tweak here and there, I’m getting a little bored with it. So I dug around for alternatives but failed to come up with an option that served up the kind of all round experience I was looking for. But one other low level module did hold my attention, and that was B3: The Palace of the Silver Princess. I’d played through that at the beginning of my first ever D&D game, and figured I’d make a go of it. But the copy I had obtained jarred with my memories of play. See, I’d picked up a pdf version of the original orange cover version of the scenario, whereas clearly, I had played though the revised green version. The reasons for the almost immediate recall of the original are detailed on wikipedia. This site elaborates and highlights differences between the original module and the later revision by Tom Moldvay.  Once I had a chance to compare the two I realised that there was a lot I liked about the original over the version I actually played though. There was also a lot of weirdness which I couldn’t quite appreciate for its own sake.

The good:

Location based adventure with a fabulous ruby as the hook. Ruby isn’t magical or anything, just legendarily beautiful. A good lure for relatively impoverished low-level types. Noble heroes may be more motivated to discover its history or to retrieve the gem to its rightful inheritors (of which there may be few rival claims to) or make a connection between it and the evil that haunts the ruins.

500-year-old backstory regarding the princess, dragon rider and the fall of her kingdom with multiple, contradictory accounts surviving to the modern age, tantalising clues here and there but no definitive answers in the text. I enjoy ruin-type locations and the intriguing history should give the players a good impression of picking through the leavings of a bygone age, even if they are uninterested in getting to the bottom of the story.

Detailed wilderness area with overview of local politics and other potential areas of adventure. Though I prefer to use my own stuff for this, it’s inclusion in a beginner module as inspiration for further worldbuilding is appreciated.

Dungeon Factions. Various bands of intelligent creatures with different allegiances can be encountered wandering or picking through the ruins. These include evil priests, barbarians/berserkers, humanoids, bandits and mysterious soldiers bearing a wolf insignia. Plenty of opportunities to confuse players who might expect a single ‘big boss’ to control the monsters, for negotiation, divide and rule and even acquiring henchmen or hirelings.

Some dungeon rooms are empty so they can be populated by the DM, and the book comes with random tables for creatures, treasure and traps. I’ve mentioned before how I like to have some extra randomness in dungeons and I use these rooms as places where the party can stumble upon the agents of other factions, also in the process of looting the area, clearing out invaders or expanding their power base. Since some of these bands don’t have their base in the dungeon, it keeps the threat fresh and will hopefully motivate the players into looting as much as they can before another gang gets their hands on the goods.

Catharandamus and his retinue. A slimy, cunning, charismatic evil cleric who’s managed to bring some unlikely allies under his sway. Aleigha the werebear, 2 dwarves and a host of goblinoids and cultists. Moldvay made this great NPC more boring and standard by changing his followers to a few orcs and a standard werewolf and forcing immediate hostilities with the PCs. Boo. In the original module, he also collected various holy symbols from different religions and placed them around his HQ. This could be an indicator of some interesting research into comparative religion, an obscure ritual or just some serious commitment issues.

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

The bad:

The map doesn’t make much sense if you think of it as a working palace, with functional rooms and noble quarters being placed apparently at random. A little rearrangement and repositioning of entrances fixes this though. Moldvay’s revised maps are better in this regard.

The original featured some seriously silly monsters (evil bubbles, 6 legged duck-billed rats, 3 headed hermaphrodite tribe of humanoids). Silly monsters are a fine part of D&D, but I don’t find most of these very inspiring and I want to tone down the weird a little in the more inconsequential encounters, to make it count in smaller doses.

There’s a ‘safe’ area watched over by sparkly lawful spirit beings called ‘Protectors’. Ugh. I don’t like this coddling of the PCs. Competent players can set watches, use barricades etc to secure a good resting spot, and I think supernatural aid from benevolent spirits should be rare, and then hard won and subtle.

The weird:

The nearby misandrist barony of Gulluvia. Where men are 2nd class citizens and have to have legal guardians of a woman of at least 15 years. It’s odd that a module written by a woman and features this kind of Drow-esque trope where ‘strong women’ follows into ‘evil matriarchy’. Problematic as it is I can see some potential for adventure in this, but it would need some development and fleshing out to stop it being a one-note caricature.

Reading this module with the author in mind (during a time when it was very rare for a published adventure to have a female author) with an eye for gender turns up some food for thought. Plenty of strong female characters and their relationships with men affect the plot and encounters. The Silver Princess and her mysterious suitor, for example. Plenty of rumours blame her lover for her kingdom’s downfall, but clues in the ruins suggest that they had a good relationship, though do not exactly settle whether there was a more sinister aspect to the dragon-riding knight. The little insights that players can get into their life and relationship are welcome nuggets of flavour. Aleigha, the good werebear is another example. She is venerated by the beserkers and commands their loyalty, but she is under the influence of the handsome and charismatic but slimy evil priest (who will maintain his control through ‘negging’, gaslighting and his own charm). Then there’s the Decapus, a monster which lures players into it’s tentacles with an illusion suggesting sexual violence (a bound and helpless woman surround by a gang of hostile thugs). I actually did my first play through of the mash-up with a mainly female group of players, and they really got stuck into roleplaying and getting to know the NPC relationships, though without much comment on the tales of the Gulluvian regime.

Speaking of gender, there are the Ubues, odd 3-headed humanoids with both male and female heads and bodies all mixed up. I can actually see the Ubue tribe as being quite fun in the right circumstances, in a kind of ‘wild magic blew up our castle and merged the population into jumbled up beings then need to share bodies now’ scenario, but they’re not really story-important and not what I want in an introductory adventure. The Ubues were drawn by Erol Otus as caricatures of TSR staff, and apparently this was the main reason for the product recall. Check out the male head ogling the breasts on its own female body.

uubs

So what to do? I jazzed up my old favourite T1 by blending it with B3 into a delicious module smoothie. Here’s my personal recipe:

T1 village Hommlet/Thorvald/whatever remains the base of operations, more or less unchanged. Agents of evil hidden in the village will be allied to a dungeon faction, likely the necromancer or ‘wolf soldiers’. ‘Elmo’ helper toned down somewhat, as he has an annoying tendency to upstage PCs.

B3’s palace and T1’s moathouse smashed together into specially calibrated Large Module Collider. Result: 3 level area with ground floor, upper works and dungeon.

Dungeon as in T1, reaching via secret staircase in the ground floor of the palace, controlled by Lareth. Lareth is now a female necromancer-priest of Orcus (the name seems to fit a woman more in my mind, plus it makes her a better foil to Catharandamus). She has noted a powerful well of necromantic energy in the area and seeks the gem as a means to control the ghosts and other undead. Her fighter bodyguard is her half-orc paramour and ‘cultists’ are now orcs. She commands the loyalty of the humanoid troops in her level, as well as some on the ground floor, and all non-intelligent undead encountered.

Ground floor of the palace is ‘no mans land’ disputed by various factions and freelance adventurers and looters. The sillier monsters from B3 area are removed and replaced by encounters based on the ground floor moathouse area of T1. Small parties of independent orcs and bandits occasionally raid the area, bringing loot to their lairs outside. The ‘wolf soldiers’ are scouts from a foreign power looking to secure the ruby as part of a territorial claim. The PCs can discover this ambition through interrogation or negotiation. Goblins, hobgoblins and acolytes serving Catharandamus battle skeletons, ghouls and orcs serving Lareth. Duchess and Candella are independent adventurers and likely PC allies.

Top level is Catharandamus’s power base. This charming villain is interesting in using the ruins as a power base for a new cult. He has yet to commit to a patron but courts the favour of multiple demon lords. He and Lareth were initially allies and had joined forces to banish the ghosts and take over the area but after their falling out wish nothing but death upon their counterpart and are individually too weak to risk taking on the powerful undead by themselves. Catharandamus is a womaniser who had hoped to control Lareth but now has settled for having the more naive Aleigha under his thumb. He is well read, curious, courteous and friendly to PCs encountered, hoping to use them to break the stalemate with his rival. Aleigha the werebear follows Catharandamus partly out of attraction but also because he has promised her a cure for her lycanthropy. The beserkers believe she is blessed and implore her to pass the bear-strength onto them, but she sees it as a curse, and stalls, unwilling to anger them with outright refusal, she tells them that they must first prove themselves worthy through their deeds in the dungeon. In time she has come to value her followers but cannot bring herself to tell them how she really feels, nor can she embrace their bloodthirsty ways.

The Ubues have been transformed into a tribe of Bugbears lead by a petty ‘king’. King Krule is too proud and haughty to serve under either evil faction or to admit their fear of the ghosts. Krule pretends authority over the whole palace, but in reality is paranoid and cautious, keeping to his territory. The PCs can spur this faction into action on one side or the other with some careful diplomacy.

The Decapus, Killer Plants and Princess/Dragon Rider story stay, rule of cool. The story of the Silver Princess’ true fate will likely still elude players, but there’s plenty going on in the present day to keep their minds busy.

sptres

Mm…yummy. Multi-level, open ended first level adventure location with plenty of interacting factions, a mysterious backstory, varied monsters and opportunities to roleplay. My new favourite 1st-level adventure setting.