Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Caves of Chaos Restock — Part Zero

Despite its place in the pantheon of early D&D modules, and its almost-platonic structure (home base, wilderness map with keyed and unkeyed sites, leading to a large dungeon), B2: Keep on the Borderlands falls down in the dungeon department. While the map is intriguing, and the immediate branch-point of up to eleven possible directions to explore is a more initially-impressive situation to present to players than you get with most dungeons, the content itself sticks close to the idea of D&D as a tactical wargame, presenting you with a number of areas primarily inhabited by humanoid aliens who are distinguished only by their HD. The fantasy element is rare here — only showing up in certain treasure items, a couple oozes, one irritating magical hazard, and then some evil cultists and undead at the presumed end.

Whether I’m just a jaded millennial bereft of the sense of simple wonder of fighting ‘bugbears’ and ‘gnolls’ that nerds revelled in in 197whatever, or whether it’s just not a great dungeon, I’ve long mulled over doing something ‘in dialogue’ with the Caves of Chaos. The first version of the project appeared here as ‘Chaos on the Old Borderlands,’ material from which I’ve reused for my current Elderwold campaign (sans the Keep dungeon). Recently, inspired by Dyson’s completed redraw of the caves and rereading some old Alexandrian posts, I decided to try restocking the caves into something a little closer to my particular D&D interests.

The first step is refreshing my memory of how the areas are separated, and what their contents (mechanically) are:

A — Kobold lair: 38 HD
B — Orc Lair: 23 HD
C — Orc Lair: 20 HD
D — Goblin Lair: 34 HD
E — Ogre Cave: 4 HD
F — Hobgoblin Lair: 57 HD
G — Shunned Cavern (owlbears and oozes): 14 HD
H — Bugbear Lair: 54 HD
I — Caves of the Minotaur: 24 HD
J — Gnoll Lair: 58 HD
K — Shrine of Evil Chaos: 121 HD

Again, you can see how the majority of these dungeon zones are distinguished thematically by political divisions rather than landmarks, environmental conditions, differing ecosystems, magical effects, aesthetics, etc.

I haven’t done the math here, but just eyeballing the sheer number of rooms with monsters in them is way over the B/X stocking recommendations. I think the first thing I’d do, before changing anything else, is cut down the overall number of encounters (and probably reduce the total HD per zone, unless I were running it for a higher-level party).

 While the idea of factional differences as well as zone themes isn’t one I want to wholly discard, I think its important to tie them together and add in mechanical differentiation, plus the kind of details that makes exploration in D&D an intrinsically enjoyable part of the game (rather than simply a precursor to tactical engagements).

Next time I’ll address the thing B2 completely leaves out — the history of the dungeon — and make some decisions as to new zone themes.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Elderwold - The Preamble

Here's the preamble I read to new players in the face-to-face campaign I'm currently running. This campaign is reusing some of the Chaos on the Old Borderlands material previously posted on this blog, but adapted to an earlier-medieval type of milieu. 

Though the setup is a D&D-style sandbox, we're using a once-'lite' fantasy heartbreaker system that's a little bit BX, a little bit Traveller, a little bit BRP, a little bit WFRP. As it gets playtested, I might start releasing it publicly, though in what format I haven't decided.


You’ve come to the town of Caradoc Howe in the North Marches to seek glory and fortune. It is a small fortified hilltop town within sight of the edge of the vast, foreboding forest called the Elderwold. Hunters, trappers, loggers and fishers brave its dark bowers to bring its bounty back to Caradoc Howe. To the south of the town are a scattering of small farms, made up of doughty freeholders and serfs whose fate it is to risk the predation of goblins, orcs, and elves.

Caradoc Howe is nominally the responsibility of Lord Gerhart, member of the House of Chlodomer and cousin and vassal to the Earl of Harthach, Marcher Lord, but practically Abbot Lonan of the small cloister of Apollo Belenus takes on much of the active duties of town management. The Abbot also takes on the responsibilities of high priest for the settlement, over the objections of Father Adhemar of the small Temple of Juno Augusta.

Nearby settlements are Cenwyn’s Ferry, Castle Harthach, and the hunter's camp and the fisher's camp a day's travel into the Elderwold. The ruins of the old Abbey of Apollo Belenus lie southwest of Caradoc Howe and northwest of the Castle (Abbot Lonan being one of the monks from that accursed Abbey), and the ruined pile of Castle Trowgate looms in the hills to the east lies near the Old Road that leads to the dwarf-halls of the Trowmoors.


The North Marches are the northernmost extent of the Great Kingdom, which, despite its name, is currently ruled by the High Regent. The Regent and the order of warrior-monks who enforce her will — the Templars — seized the Leaden Crown during the tumult of the Princes’ War a generation ago, when competing heirs, orcish invaders and other, darker crises threatened to destroy the realm of Law. Since then, she has ruled with an iron hand.

Most of the Great Kingdom’s population lives in the long-settled and temperate southern half, but land clearances and an organized system of fortified settlements to the north-west have brought forth more food and a power-base of those ennobled by the Regent’s land grants. These settler-nobles are the rough-and-ready nouveau riche of human civilisation, always looking for a leg up on older, established, pre-Regency noble families and new places to expand to.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Encounters, Canadian

In a recent review for the inexplicably Ennie-nominated adventure compilation The Scenario [sic] From Ontario, Anonymous (presumably an anonymous individual, not the organization) left the following comment:

As a Canadian, I feel as though the heavy-handed stereotyping should offend me more.

It’d be like if I wrote an adventure called “Death & Texas”, and the random encounter table was like “1d4 bald eagles, 2d4 rednecks, guy in a coonskin cap, a revolver golem, lynch mob, 1d6 Coca Cola oozes”

Just grab basically every surface level thing you’ve heard about a place and throw it all together, eh?

It’d be like if I wrote an adventure called “Death & Texas”, and the random encounter table was like “1d4 bald eagles, 2d4 rednecks, guy in a coonskin cap, a revolver golem, lynch mob, 1d6 Coca Cola oozes”
Just grab basically every surface level thing you’ve heard about a place and throw it all together, eh?

Putting aside the question of the existence of any Canadianness outside of heavy-handed stereotyping, I thought I would offer a suggestion as to a more nuanced and realistic random encounter selection for adventuring in Canada. Because of the distinctive cultural differences between urban and rural Canada, I have elected to present a table for each environment:

Angel, Stone (1)
2. Labourer (clad in lion-skins) (1d6)
3. Patient, English (1)
4. Manticore, The (1)
5. Solitude, Twin (2)
6. If rolled while in barrens: Lost. Otherwise: Viking Grave, Cursed

 Maritimer, Unemployed (1d3) and 2 in 6 chance of Quebecois, Unemployed (1d2)
2. Film shoot, low-budget SF (2d8 crew, 1d6 actors (recognizable: 2 in 6 chance))
3. Film shoot, local comedy (2d8 crew, 1d3 actors (recognizable: 1 in 6 chance))
4. Fang, Hooded (1)
5. Drome, Video
6. Flesh, New (1d6)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chaos on the Old Borderlands - 20 Questions, Part Four

Continuing the description of the Old Borderlands, here's the next instalment of answers to Jeff Rients's famed 20 Questions.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?

The Rimy Bear was named after the frozen bear corpse found in the building before it was rebuilt into a tavern. The bear’s skull is now the tavern’s sign. It’s barkeep and owner, Boyan, is rumoured to be an ex-adventurer, and most of Constable Ferro’s garrison drinks there when off-duty. A few private rooms upstairs are available, but most travellers sleep in the common room downstairs. Because the Bear cycles through regulars in the Constable’s command, it has a clannish feel, and newly arrived adventurers are required to perform the ritual of ‘swearing on the skull’ before being allowed to drink in peace.

The Weary Mule is the largest inn at the Manor, and is built outside the old manor walls but inside the outer stockade. It has stabling for horses and livestock, but all the accommodations are common rooms. It’s partially owned by the Constable, with former (mostly unsuccessful) adventurers putting up the rest of the cash to get it started. The hobgoblin Hilderica, former barmaid, has become the de facto manager and primary barkeep of the Mule, though she is not the namesake as many patrons assume.

The Humble Vagabond is outside the stockade, but is built out of the stout stone walls of an old outbuilding and has its own defensive enclosure. Its stables are small, but it has cozy private rooms aplenty, and is popular with the more furtive travellers passing through the Fort. The owner, Sobeshka, is a night owl, and is known to answer a knock at the inn’s door late into the night. She is rumoured to be involved with peasant revolutionaries, or banditry, or sorcery, or chaos worship, or something sinister, but that may also just be suspicious cast by the talkative on the reserved.

The Garden and Vine, the largest tavern and inn in Leechford, is built to the specifications of its owner, Lord Fasolimov, and is almost fatally cold in the winter. It’s supposed to resemble a kind of faux-villa for wealthy travellers to lounge around a reflecting pool and trade witty repartee, but the kind of visitors who come to the Old Borderlands aren’t in the market for Fasolimov’s expensive wine, expensive food, and cut-rate attempt at south-coast secular architecture. If it weren’t the best place to gamble in the Borderlands, no one would go there at all. Fasolimov keeps funding the thing, though, so the landlord Audoin and his staff do their jobs. They just do them very slowly when Fasolimov isn’t staying there.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

  • The Dragon of Foul Peak terrorizes the hills and mountains east of the Blackbriar Wood. That no goblin-champion or orcish war-party from further north has slain it and opened up the region to resettlement means the dragon is either is too monstrous for mere mortals to deal with, or its presence serves someone’s interests.
  • The Wanderer of the Grey Hills is usually heard, rather than seen. Soul-chilling howls are the only warning of its approach and strange, giant footprints the only trace of its passing. 
  • Mad Chernyvulk, the self-proclaimed Goblin Emperor of the West Marches, has personally led a number of raids against caravans and outlying settlements that ended with massacres so grotesque that some believe he is a chaos-cultist, or a demon himself. There is a hefty bounty is on his head, but the last party to seek him out never returned from the Blackbriar.
  • Goblin hunters have reported seeing a giant boar the size of a hut in the northern Blackbriar, but a lot of goblin hunters are kind of tiny so how large could it be, really?
  • At least one half-dead adventurer made it back to the Manor ranting about a minotaur in the berzerker hills — something about a bull-head-man? Poison vapours? The details were pretty sketchy.
  • The ragamuffin children who catch fish in the Leechfens have been telling tall tales about “The Beast of the Fens.” Maybe one of them was telling the truth.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

The Old Borderlands is supposedly part of the Realm of the Great Kingdom, and the Realm of the Great Kingdom is currently at war with the High Khaganate over the disposition of some southern border provinces who sought the Khagan’s protection in exchange for Khaganate suzerainty during the Wars of Realmish Succession. Thus, the current conduct could be considered merely an extension of that previous conflict, especially from the perspective of those breakaway provinces whose independence from one or more High King(s) is currently being paid in bloody installments against Realmish armies. For the Realm to call such things ‘wars’ would theoretically legitimize the authority of those hoping to push off the High-Kingly yoke in the eyes of the Elector Princes, leading to all sorts of bad precedents in case an Elector Prince elects to disapprove of their princely peers’ choice of electee, so instead the bloody massacre and driving-out of the swamp-dwellers of the Greatwash and the grinding siege and blockade of the Bryscanie peninsula are merely ‘revolts.’ 

In the lands of the orc-lords to the northeast, alliances great and petty clash over tundra and steppe. Though the orcs—and the humans and goblins who live under their overlordship—are mostly thought to be split between those who follow a eschatologically-inclined variation of the Church of Law and those who sacrifice to the di inferi. 

To the northwest, in the isles of the north, Realmish authority seeks to establish itself up to at least the nominal levels it possessed in the last century there. Expeditions from the Realm encounter breakaway petty kingdoms, enclaves of pagan orcs, and elven holdfasts from ancient ages. 

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

The death-pits of the elven age are perhaps merely legend; stories of northern chaos-sages who perform auguries by by reading the bite marks and gnawed entrails of the starved prisoners may be just stories too. In the Realm, in times of peace, the knightly classes would test their mettle in jousts and grand melees, but as actual wars occupy the aristocracy’s attention they’ve become more recruiting and training events than celebrations. 

In the Borderlands, the closest to a formalized combat is betting on wrestling in the Rimy Bear. That only happens on weeks without fights about who’s cheating at dice, though. 

Woodsmen in the Rimy Bear mention that the goblins of the Blackbriar Wood have some contests of skill — spear-throwing, hitting tiny stones with sticks, things like that — but that’s more about showing off and gaining esteem amongst the goblin-clans than earning prize money. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

PATREON PREVIEW: The Alienist presents: The Aglæca

This is a preview of what my patrons are getting access to this month:
Buried under fields, entombed in roots, or burbling under marshes, lurks the aglæca...
A new creature for your D100- or GUMSHOE-based horror mystery RPGs. The Aglæca is a beast out of the mists of folk-legends and grandam's fireside tales, an eater of children and king of the wastes. This article includes:
  • Stats for the Aglæca for both percentile-based RPGs and the GUMSHOE system. 
  • Variations and echoes on what the Aglæca is and where it comes from, and scenario seeds for placing it in your game.
Get access to this critter and everything else in the future by supporting me at

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Chaos on the Old Borderlands - 20 Questions, Part Three

Continuing the description of the Old Borderlands, here's the next instalment of answers to Jeff Rients's famed 20 Questions.

9. Is there a magic guild my wizard belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
No sorcerer’s guild operates in the Old Borderlands. To some grey-faced and suspicious members of the church of Law, such an organization would be tantamount to a cult of Chaos.
To learn more spells or the like, you’d need to find someone to apprentice you, and that means either taking instruction from Sardo the Younger or tracking down hidden practitioners of the secret arts.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

  • The closest thing to a magic guild is the Alchemist’s Guild, and the closest member of the Alchemist’s Guild is Master Fringuello, whose guild membership seems to lack some supporting documents. He does sell things he calls potions, though, and will pay a supply of certain components.
  • Baron Liutward fancies himself a historian and aesthete, and can at least attempt to spin a provenance for any objects d’art put before him. 
  • While she frequently has other problems to deal with, the Abbess Ferrolinguetta’s aristocratic education included a stint at the Academy of Cittibiana — before the destructon of that august institution in the Wars of Realmish Succession — and may expound on many questions historical, philosophical, or scientific. You’d better catch her in a good mood, though. 

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?
The Manor-fort is teeming with runaways, vagabonds, ruffians, and ne’er-do-wells ready to swing an axe or sword for drink and gold. In addition to the week’s crop of desperate adventurers, there are a few more seasoned parties that can be called upon:

  • The Death-Dealers: Tough-looking guys and gals in tough-looking leather gear (usually dyed black and metal-studded), looking for some jewelled thrones to grind beneath their booted feet. While they will serve as mercenaries, they usually prefer to work independently. Symbol: A horned helmet on a shield.
  • The Bordo Family: Twins and their cousin, plus some other local friends and family when times are tough. Local bumpkins and fortune-seekers; to look at them in a dungeon, you’d think they were in over their heads. They’ll offer their individual services as hirelings sometimes. Symbol: A capital ‘B’ surrounded by ivy and a plethora of animals rampant (one young Bordo is an enthusiastic artist).  
  • Wurster’s Boys: Shitty assholes who’re just there to make some petty cash. Local mutterings pin some recent banditry on them as well. They do seem to enjoy the appearances of being adventurers. Symbol: Two wolf’s heads on a shield, facing away. 

Other parties known in the area include the Owls of Minerva (an elf, a dwarf, and a goblin walk into a bar…), the Hallowed Band (the innocents’ crusade), The Circle of Seven (about 3-4 wizards), the Chalice of Light (more wizards), and the Chain (like the Death-Dealers, but with more metal than leather).

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
Outside the Fort, Leechford, and the scattered, rebuilding villages, the Old Borderlands are functionally lawless. Inside these places, the law is the command of whoever is lord of that place. In Leechford and the Fort, violence and thievery are punished harshly, though few restrictions are in place to prevent either from happening. People are unlikely to trust someone walking around with a deadly weapon, but everyone does it, so people are unlikely to trust anyone.
As (if) the political situation stabilizes, more detailed legal restrictions on the use and wearing of weapons — and the open practice of sorcery — will probably be put in place. Until then, chaos reigns.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Chaos on the Old Borderlands - 20 Questions, Part Two

Continuing the description of the Old Borderlands, here's the first four answers to Jeff Rients's famed 20 Questions.

5. Who's the Greatest Warrior in the Land?
Plenty of local wags would claim that title for themselves, but some other names come up often:
  • Lord Reiner Star-helm: A commander of a knightly order from the west. An experienced soldier, and a grim crusader against the enemies of the Realm, whoever they may be at the time. The shining Star-helm he wears is a relic of his ancestors.
  • Mighty Meg, Hobgoblin Champion: Her ancient, pitted greatsword has cleft many a goblin, orc, and man in twain in the petty wars and raids of Blackbriar Wood. She boasts of having twelve husbands, three wives, and the most fearsome pack of hunting hounds in the Borderlands. 
  • Lord Kromvinger: Tavern rumours among adventurers have it that the lord of the orc-legions to the east of Blackbriar still lives and commands their war-host, despite the grievous wounds suffered at the Battle of Leechford. 
  • Boyan, Barkeep of the Frozen Bear: When Kromvinger’s name is mentioned, the stories usually add that the barkeep of the Frozen Bear tavern was the mercenary responsible for Kromvinger’s wounds at Leechford. Even if that’s true, Boyan fights with a well-aimed mug instead of an axe these days.

6. Who's the Richest Person in the Land?
The legal ownership of much of the Borderlands is in dispute. The last obvious Castellano heir—the legal feudal lord of much of the local land—died during the War of Realmish Succession and subsequent orcish invasions almost sixty years ago. Since the Battle of Leechford pushed back the orcish advance and resettlement began, the claims have been tied up in suits and counter-suits and appeals all the way up to the High King’s Court, and are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. There are numerous theoretical heirs in the Borderlands now, each claiming to be, and who potentially could be, the wealthiest person in the local area.

Until that is resolved, though…
  • Lord Fasolimov: An early resettler of the Old Borderlands after the Battle of Leechford, Fasolimov has no legal claim to the land’s he’s recultivated but pays for the protection of it by hiring local mercenaries (and, politically, by helping out Bishop Tyrogenio). He tends to focus on cash crops like grapes and olives. Rumour is he’s still in a lot of debt, though.
  • Baron Liutward: Second son of an Elector Prince with court connections, plenty of rich friends back west, some hefty loans from his family and friends, and no clear idea of how to manage the land he’s been able to settle people on. He’s sure there’s no way he could fail to shape up these uncultured buffoons and ragged adventurers and reclaim his rightful (though distant) inheritance. 
  • Count Simeon: One of the earliest arrivals of the Castellano-heir claimants, Simeon’s frittered away his head start with gambling and failed sorties south and east to secure more land. He’s sure that the orcs, goblins and berzerkers are just one decisive defeat away from being driven off, if only he could raise the forces and find the trick to doing it.
  • Bishop Tyrogenio: The babyfaced and inexperienced representative of the Ecclesiastical Hierarch of the Eastern Marches has the most secure local legal claims to lands in the Old Borderlands, but is stretching his resources to clear it of bandits and raiders and fill it with settlers. Shipments of gold and supplies from the Hierarch to the Bishop are a common occurrence, and will be until the church’s local lands are self-sufficient. 

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Depending on how recent skirmishes with raiders, bandits, and orcs have gone, and how plague-ridden the peasantry is, scruffy adventurers might be far down the list of who gets healed this week.
  • Abbess Ferrolinguetta: While she bickers with Tyrogenio about planning and tries to keep her temporary cloisters in order, the Abbess raises funds by offering healing prayers to various and sundry. 
  • The Hermit: The peasants swear by an old (or just hard-living?) man not to far from the Old Keep, but they give contradictory directions to his hermitage. 
  • Bishop Tyrogenio: Some Apollonian devotees are present to, at minimum, diagnose your problem, although experienced healers are rare this far east.
  • Master Fringuello: The guy does claim to be a doctor, too. 

8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
See questions 4 and 7, although lycanthropy is the kind of curse of Chaos that people tend to think is best solved by a merciful death.

Caves of Chaos Restock — Part Zero

Despite its place in the pantheon of early D&D modules, and its almost-platonic structure (home base, wilderness map with keyed and un...