In which I finally discover Warhammer

I’ve had some Warhammer RPG (1st edition) stuff for a long time, and never really bothered to read it. It was one of those things I bought when I had more money (before children!) and loads of time. I bought it largely because I liked the art. Well, I finally started reading through it, and I like it more than I thought I would. Not so much for the system yet; that looks much like AD&D with the same races, alignments, and most of the stats. Instead of CHA, they have Leadership, Cool, and Fellowship. They use a skill matrix like Basic Role-playing, but one rolls for their skills and skills are more like traits than BRP’s skills. Warhammer also has a variety of character types that are like the classes in Talisman.

I do love their section on Old World buildings, which are quite charming and start on p. 328. I’ve seen that artist’s work before in White Dwarf and elsewhere, so it is great to see more of it.

What I really love about Warhammer is that it has some great writing in their examples of play, and in their modules, and that makes them eminently suited for adaption to my own campaign. Campaigns like Enemy Within and the Doomstones seem well-crafted and usable for thoughtful gamers. I look forward to reading more!

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The Mound of Dead Bards

While writing my preceding post, I came across this image, which I just had to share. If you haven’t watch The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (2008), do yourself a favor and rent it or find it on YouTube.

Hide behind the mount of dead bards

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No Kill I: Character Deaths and TPKs

I run long campaigns, and players develop deep connections to their characters. That means that dying can have a large impact on the player and the team, so I try to avoid killing characters in a random, meaningless way. No more Tasha Yars! I want deep character development and back stories, so I try to avoid character deaths as much as possible. Killing characters discourages character development. Think of all those war movies where the battle-hardened soldier tells the new recruit, “I don’t want to get to know you, I’ve lost too many friends already.” I’m also becoming more interested in story development than I once was. In part, that has come from the MERP campaigns we are playing, where the world and the rules are solid, and the improvement of the game has to stem from the stories being told. I spent a lot of years designing my system and the world, and allowing play to be very sandbox in nature. Now my system is quite complete and the world is quite well fleshed-out, so now storytelling is rising in importance for me.

So, my guidelines for killing player characters are as follows:

  1. Character deaths should be rare: Sarah Lynne Bowman’s article on Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities demonstrates that there can be significant emotional damage to players from tragedies experienced in a game, especially when the character involved is loved by the player. And it is not just the player who suffers, but the whole group, including the referee. Death in the game is not real, but it still hurts, so we should work to keep it rare.
  1. Death should be meaningful: Character death should the consequence of the character’s actions, not a pointless death. The death should add interest and drama to the story, or achieve some character or party goal. If a character dies, the player must roll an entirely new character. He can’t just take the old character sheet and say, “I’m playing my brother.” Hiding behind the pile of dead bards as in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (2008) doesn’t happen. If the death seems unavoidable for the story, you might make the death an honorable sacrifice, and the character might choose it gladly. You might also ask for dying words, which can also ease the sting.
  1. Death should be avoidable: There should be plenty of warning for the character and ways for the player to avoid his death. Always be on your players’ side.

One solution might be to use a “countdown to death.” Set the countdown at five or six or whatever you like. Each time the characters create difficulties or fail a mission, you countdown one point, and take a preset action associated with that level of danger. At five, there might just be increased rumors of the foe in town, at three there might be attacks by underlings of the foe, and at 1 the boss fight might begin.

Fortunae (“Bennies”) can be used to change player roles but not those by a foe, but three Fortunae can reduce a blow from a fatal attack to a survivable one.

A player can earn his character’s death by ignoring the various warning signs given by the referee, either through blissful ignorance (he’ll learn) or through stubbornness (it is his character after all), but it should move the story forward, or be memorable and heroic. No more deaths like Tasha Yar’s!

Here are three situations where a meaningless death might occur, and ideas about how to deal with the situation:

  • The character activates a trap that is lethal and should die instantly. The Tomb of Horrors is famous for this. If this is expected for that game, it is ok, and I’ve played that way before. I loved some of Grimtooth’s Traps. The problem was that my players got very cautious and play slowed to a crawl while they checked out every possible danger. It got in the way of the story, and that wasn’t good. The lethality of your traps is something to talk to the players about. Do they want Raiders of the Lost Ark (move forward and avoid them by instinct), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (move forward and figure it out as you go), Home Alone (move forward & take damage, no chance to figure it out) or simply move into the horror genre (instant death).
  • The character runs into a random overpowered monster. Usually I roll for the foe’s efficacy (1d6), which I describe as the Referee’s Safety Switch.
  • The character is playing well and acting intelligently, but just happens to go the wrong way at the wrong time. You might talk with the player and strategize how the encounter and the character might interact.
  • An NPC takes the hit instead, either by leaping in front of the player, or by having the trap activate in a different spot than you planned. I remember a scout trying to deactivate a very deadly trap and failing, only to have the ten ton weight drop ten feet behind him, crushing an NPC. He was relieved and the entire party got a lot more cautious.
  1. “Death” need not be fatal: Instead of simply killing the character, the referee could rule that the character had a serious wound or setback. Some examples include:
  • The character awakes to find himself alive, against all expectations. Over the next few days, he begins to hear disturbing noises and voices that the others cannot hear. These increase in volume, and he finds he has new abilities but less control over himself. He has become the receptacle of a power spirit that daily takes control of him. He must quest for a cure.
  • His foe spares his life, but only if he and his friends serve him. Use this one only if the foe’s goals are somewhat in alignment with the party’s own.
  • The player is told his character is not only dead, but has been replaced by a monster who has taken his place unbeknownst to this comrades. In reality, he is not dead but instead is held a prisoner close by. The player is told to play the monster, preferably to undermine the party and hopefully kill the rest. Ensure that enough clues are dropped to the other players that they can figure this out, slay the monster and either save the character or be surprised when he runs into camp screaming that a monster took his place.
  • The character is not dead, but received a crippling wound. The wound has left lasting damage. Damage to the head might result in a raspy voice, a badly scarred face, hearing damage, etc.
  • The character is dead, but if the player feels strongly that he died with a goal not completed, he might come back as undead (ghost or vampire) or be reincarnated as a Faerie creature (if the party is in Faerie at the time).
  1. TPKs should be avoided above all else: If the death of one player is devastating to a campaign, imagine the death of them all. A TPK stops all action, ends the mission, and depresses everyone playing. When it looks like the party is about to make a decision that could prove fatal to most or all of them, I tell them, “This would be a very dangerous move.” That is my signal that they might want to reconsider. If the combat only looks like it might kill one or two people, I don’t use the safe phrase. If they are surrounded with no hope of escape or survival, I give them a means of escape: a hidden tunnel, a route up a cliff face, etc. I try to avoid Tolkien’s method of giant eagles coming to fly them away.
  1. TPKs need not be fatal: As with single character deaths, a TPK can be replaced by a substantial change. Some possibilities are:
  • The players were not killed, merely defeated. The foe pulled his punches and gave minor stunning wounds. His overwhelming power is now obvious and he demands an explanation and apology for the attack. The players must offer convincing apologies and sincere regrets. The least convincing player will be killed.
  • The players were not killed. Instead, their foe lays a geas upon them to complete a quest for him in exchange for their lives. If they complete it, they will be rewarded. If not, he will slay them if he sees them again.
  • The players were not killed. Instead, they were defeated and sold into slavery, preferably to an evil organization that the players can then struggle against. It is three years before they have a chance to escape, and all they have is the rags on their backs. The escape might turn into an entire campaign, or perhaps it is the beginning of one where revenge or recovery of items is the aim. The AD&D module In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981) is an example of a possible adventure like this.
  • The players were killed and now are in the afterlife (heaven, hell, faerie, etc.) and must somehow struggle back to the mortal plane.

There are also some rules that should be used by the party to reduce death’s sting.

  1. Show Respect for the Dead, but Remember It is Just a Game. This avoids causing other players pain but also emphasizes to the player whose character just died that it is just a game and should not affect them once the game is over for the day.
  1. No Stealing from the Corpse. Either the belongings of the dead character go to the character’s family or they go to his successor in the party, who needs to power up if he is going to stay alive. He’s just a newb, after all. If there is stealing from the corpse, it will be by a character who is probably not going to be getting any Fortunae from his comrades, and therefore may die sooner than he expects.

I hope these ideas help make your game more enjoyable, and your players’ lives more pleasant.

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Fortunae (Bennies)

The foundation of my games are my Gamemastering Guidelines, which I put together in 2012. These were:

  1. Have Fun
  2. Roleplaying is not wargaming
  3. The player characters are heroes
  4. All the players are heroes
  5. The play is the thing
  6. Move the play forward
  7. The world should feel real
  8. The rules keep you honest
  9. Ignore the dice if you need to
  10. Learn from every session

Five years later, these still hold true, and in fact my belief in #8 is even stronger. I’ve also noticed that players have a deeper emotional response when they see all the rolls in front of them, which means I don’t hide them behind a DM (“Dice Modifier”) screen. Of course, that also means that I can’t fudge rolls that cause character deaths. For a time I used Luck points to allow players to reroll fails, since playing in a Savage Worlds Greyhawk campaign with Bennies, I now use those instead. I called them Fortunae rather than Bennies, but that’s about the only difference. Using Fortunae means that even when players roll disastrously, they can spend a Fortuna to reroll and hopefully save their character. If they keep rolling fails, then it is easier to accept that perhaps the gods have spoken and that character is fated to fail in this instance.

1930s pocket piece, or good luck token1930s pocket piece or good luck piece reverse

You can get Fortunae from the Referee by roleplaying well, solving a difficult puzzle, or adding to the game in some other way (such as coming in costume, bringing food for the group, or whatever else the referee wants to reward).

Other players can give you Fortunae from their stack as a reward for good play, for helping them, or for speaking well.

When you need to use Fortunae, other players can help you out, if they want. That’s also a good reason to be nice to the other players.

 

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Mertwig’s Maze (1988)

Tom Wham illustration from D&D of a wizard in a dungeonTom Wham did a bunch of games back in the day, but my favorite was Mertwig’s Maze, which had players choose characters, form parties, and enter various dungeons to win royal and other treasures. I added a dungeon (the Last Tower) and a bunch of new cards. I also changed the rules so the game wasn’t about the royal treasures, but just a competition to see who could get the most treasure by the time we ran out of cards. Some of the modifications were:

Players can design their own characters: Each person gets 20 points to design their character, plus 35 gp. to start. Offense & Defense cost 1 point per point. Spells cost 4 character points each. Any left over points can be converted to extra cash (1 point = 15 gold).

Movement & Doors: Each character moves 1d6. When a door is reached, the character pauses movement and rolls 1d6. On a 1-2, the door is locked and the character must stop and try to unlock the door next round, unless he has a key, in which case he can return the key to the equipment discard pile and continue his full movement. He must roll 1-3 on 1d6 each round he tries to pick the lock, and do no other movement. If he picks the lock, he can move again next turn. To find a secret door, the character must stop his turn and roll 1d6. On a 1-3 on a 1d6, he finds the secret door. He can continue to search once per turn to find the door. Once found, he then must proceed as if it was a normal door (i.e. check to see if it is locked).

Dew Drop Inn:  If it is reached you recover all spells and all lives, and can sell treasure or buy equipment. Turn over 1 ally card, 1 equipment card, and 1 magic item card. You can only turn over the next one after someone hires or buys the card that is showing.

Rooms (R): If entered, draw a monster for each character entering. Characters can join their movements to enter together. Once the monster is defeated, the room is cleared and should be marked by a glass bead or penny.

Chambers (C): aka. Chokepoints. After the monster here is defeated, roll for what is here when first entered. The effect stays in the chamber until the end of the game. Chamber effects were very much in the style of Gary Gygax’s dungeons:

  1. Teleport pad to another chokepoint. Roll randomly if used. There will be a monster waiting.
  2. Fountain of Life. Regain 1 life each turn.
  3. Mages Library. Gain 1 magic item each time you enter.
  4. Water of Changing. Take new lead character instead of the one you are using. The new character must be the opposite gender of your current one.
  5. Born Lever Puller. Turn into toad and lose 1d3 turns. Characters entering your space during that time can pick up all your stuff without battle.
  6. Teleport to Dew Drop Inn (one-way only).
  7. Teleported by force to opposite end of dungeon. Encounter player will place you.
  8. The other half of the teleport pad.
  9. Gate to hell. 2 monsters appear each round.
  10. Poppies. You sleep for 1d3 turns.
  11. Mr. Livingstone, I presume. Teleport the party of any other player into the room.
  12. Everything went fuzzy for a minute there. Everyone move one seat to the left, and leave your part for the new person to play.

The spells we used were:

Name Area of Effect Multiplier Effect
Charm 1 enemy target x2 Target joins opposing side
Fireball all enemies x2 One wound
Heal 1 target x3 Heals one wound
Lightning 1 target x4 One wound
Steal 1 item of 1 target x3 Steals item for caster
Sleep all enemies x2 Fall asleep for duration of battle
Invisibility self x3 Enemies cannot target caster
Turn Undead all undead enemies x3 Undead flee
Fear all enemies x2 Enemies run away
Sanctuary all allies & self x2 +3 Defense
Charge all allies & self x2 +3 Offense

Board Game Geek is a great place to check for more pictures, rules, and maps.

Tom Wham has his own site, with a lot of great stuff.

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MERP: Drogo the Impaler

We began the day buying plate mail for Grafarlig and then interviewing new crew members. We hired the five Mendocian Siblings for 140 s. (40 s. for Galen, 25 s. each for the others). Dyra, the daughter of Viln, joined as cook. She was an old hobbit friend from Shardroot, and a good fighter, but a lousy cook. Marty, son of Marty, joined for 20 s. Wuldar Shargonen joined for 30 s. and became Second Mate. He is a fierce plainsman who hates Easterlings. Venn from Shrel-kain joined for 37 s., and became First Mate, having travelled around the Sea of Rhun seventeen times.

Captain Barlen didn’t show up, so Drogo took the captaincy. We then took stock of the cargo. There was:

  • 500 bottles of fine Dorwinian Wine
  • 5 crates of silks
  • 3 crates of spices and teas

There was also a +10 magic Blackthorn staff, which Drogo was allowed to use. We then set up a two section dogged watch.

First watch:

  1. Wuldar, Second Mate
  2. Galen
  3. Oren
  4. Elias
  5. Marty
  6. Grafarlig

Second watch:

  1. Venn, First Mate
  2. Elena
  3. Feldenaith
  4. Delcaran
  5. Del
  6. Chel

Drogo and Dyra do not follow the watch system. Drogo is on duty all the time, but sleeps when he is not plotting a course. Likewise, Dyra cooks for both watches.

In the Captain’s Quarters, we found some papers jammed between the wall and the desk. The scribblings read, “where is it?”, “it must be there”, “the red wine”, and “Mayzri.” Undoubtedly the notes referred to the location of the lost palantir, so Drogo memorized them and then burned them, telling the others that he had stored them in his scroll case.

That evening, two sea crocodiles crawled up the hull and onto the deck. Galen nearly had his entire face torn off. Elias shot the one at the aft through the forearm, while Drogo levitated it slowly into the air. Drogo eventually impaled the aft crocodile on the mast, and then dropped it into the sea, where it would later be retrieved for the hide, teeth, and meat.

At the bow, Decarnan and the rest stunned the creature with lightning and axe. Grafarlig sliced open its throat, stunning it further, and everyone then stabbed at it and opened its abdomen. Delcarnan tried another lighting bolt, but instead electrocuted himself. Still, the crocodile was killed.

Dyra attempted to cook meat but ended up with a chewy if edible concoction tht pleased no one, although Drogo insisted he liked his crocodile chewy.

When we arrived at Lest, we sold some of our cargo, and made 1343 s. and 12 coppers each for Delcarnan, Drogo, Grafarlig, Elias, and Feldenaith.

Delcarnan and Drogo met Oldar, a ranger, who told them that Captain Barlen was dead. He had been drained of blood and sent to the bottom with a pair of concrete overshoes. Oldar asked them about their boat and what treasure it hid. Delcarnan remained suspicious throughout, but neither Delcarnan nor Drogo revealed mention of a palantir.

Meanwhile the Cult of the Long Night was attacking the ship, very ineffectively. Elias shot several, and Grafarlig ws a killing machine. She chopped in the leg and kicked him off the ship, then chopped off the top of another’s skull. Wuldar chopped off one’s arm and then Oldar followed by the mages came to the ship, attracted by the sounds of battle.

Delcarnan electrocutes one, Grafarlig kills another, and Drogo teleports two of them 100 feet over the dock. After the battle, Oldar knocks one unconscious with a punch to the fact, and Drogo surreptiously teleports that one out to sea. Blup!

Lomeilinde escaped Del and Chel, singing a beautiful song that charmed Chel. Oldar claims that she is a Siren, a young elf. He suspects a dangerous artifact is at the bottom of all of this activity, as the Syndicate, the Siren, and the Cultists are all interested in it. He also mentions that the party should talk to Logoth of Mistrand, who is a scholar who knows of such things.

In a happy and rather bizarre circumstance, it turns out that both Drogo and Oldar can talk to birds, so they set up a communication system using a thrush. Delcarnan remains convinced that Oldare set them up, but Drogo doesn’t believe. Grafarlig does not let Drogo put up four metal spears on the aft deck, as she wants no more impalings on the ship.

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Navah: Lorathiel Sector Terrain

For the players, here’s what the terrain of the region looks like. It is mountainous and civilization is down in the valleys. There are several passes:

Highhold Pass: A mountain road between Highhold and Restwell.

The Pass: Two long tunnels through the Darkrealms that briefly emerge at the village of Amidst. Once the most important pass in the region, it has fallen into disuse since the Trog Wars. It is still so dangerous that few caravans will try it, and fewer will succeed.

The Goat’s Walk: The high mountain trail between Kukgul and Shelrast.

Lorathiel sector map showing the mountainous terrain

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