Fresh Paint - Still Drying

I was getting a bit tired of the look of things around here, so I decided to update Blog-Sothoth's template. I was using a very modified version of Sand Dollar, but have now changed to a three-column Minima Dark. I really like the functionality of having three columns at my disposal. I also plan to create a new header in time, but I will need to find the proper graphics that adhere to the Creative Commons license. The paint is still a bit wet, but things will be back to normal soon.

Thanks for stopping in!


Spelling Out Horror and Sanity In Fantasy Roleplaying

A couple of months back James Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess discussed his opinion on how to handle the effects of horror within the framework of fantasy roleplaying. This post immediately grabbed my attention, as it did several others who responded with a long string of comments that varied wildly in opinion. Long story short, Jim stated that adding any additional rules that essentially worked as a way to measure horror and its effect on the player characters was a big waste of time. This would include any kind of fear check system that tested morale, sanity check system that tested the mental health of a character, and also the addition of a sanity point pool that would resemble a kind of mental hit points. Jim did share his advice on how he felt horror should be handled by the game master and how it should effect the characters (players) in the game, and that was to "just scare them."

Now, in all fairness I have to point out that I have been guilty of introducing new rules into my Dungeons & Dragons / Castles & Crusades game to handle sanity and fear. I am also a huge fan of Call of Cthulhu, which is famous for introducing its sanity point system to the gaming world, and I think that system works well for the context of that game. Having said this I have to admit that Jim got me thinking with his post.

I gave "just scare them" quite a bit of thought, but I wasn't sold. Let's face it, when is the last time a game master actually scared a player at the game table? Even an expert storyteller would be hard pressed to actually draw out an emotional response of fear from a player, no matter how macabre or frightening the tale. I am not saying it isn't possible, but chances are that the players at your table are too jaded to allow themselves to buy in to the horror of the game so much that they would allow themselves to actually be scared.

I do believe however a good game master can build an atmosphere that promotes an eerie vibe during the game. This is where H.P. Lovecraft shined as a master-builder of atmosphere within his stories. He carefully chose specific words that naturally drew the reader's mind to where he needed it to go, and meticulously crafted them through the methodical building of description of people, places and events. Though not always frightening, his storytelling was always atmospheric and accomplished establishing the weird effect he was after. I feel every game master should adhere to this same approach, especially when trying to run a horror game. The trick is to know when to pull back, and not reveal too much to the players.

As stated before, the "just scare them" statement did not impress me much at first, but I did not dismiss it all together. Now, Jim's sentiment about staying away from adding additional rules and headaches to the game struck home. If there is one thing gamers and game designers are guilty of is over-thinking the game. Myself included. No matter what roleplaying game you look at it seems that over time the game system gets more intricate, sometimes unnecessarily complicated and bogged down with new rules. So what is the solution then?

It occurred to me that the mechanics for handling horror and sanity were already there staring me in the face. When you look at the actual words horror and sanity, and think about what they mean and how they affect people, what are some of the buzzwords that come to mind? Scared, fear, confusion, repulsion, insanity, emotion, feeble-mindedness all readily present themselves. These words also are all represented as spells in most (if not all) fantasy roleplaying games, and this is where "just scare them" began to click, but in a little different way than Jim had suggested.

By using spells that already existed in the game a game master can emulate the effects of horror and sanity loss without having to reinvent the wheel. By attaching spell effects to creatures, situations, items and locations in the game a game master can also send a message of fear to the players by having their characters be physically and mentally affected in actual game terms. If there is one thing I have seen during my years of gaming it is the dread that washes over a player when they realize their character has the potential to be negatively affected in the game. But not just that, the spell effects are a perfect representation of how fear, insanity and the supernatural play havoc on the adventurers within the story, and everything needed for gameplay is laid out within the spell's description.

Here are a few quick examples of how this can be implemented:
  • Fear / Confusion - a party of adventurers stumble upon an ancient temple, and encounter an eldritch creature of the Outer Dark. The game master establishes that the party will suffer the effects of the spells Fear and/or Confusion if they do not make a successful saving throw. Potential outcomes include: fleeing the area, attacking the wrong opponent, dazed and standing frozen in one spot for a period of time, etc.
  • Feeblemind - a blasphemous tome is discovered by the player character. Over the course of the game the character takes the needed time to study the writings in the tome. What is found within the covers is too much for most mortal men to handle emotionally, spiritually or mentally. The game master establishes that anyone who studies this tome must make a successful saving throw or suffer the effects of the spell Feeblemind, or literally loose their mind.
  • Enfeeblement - upon entering an ancient forest the characters begin to realize there is something "off" about the place. In actuality the forest is haunted by the souls of long dead soldiers who died here many hundreds of years before. These poor souls still walk the earth in search of the loved ones they were never able to see again in life. The player characters are suddenly gripped with an overwhelming sadness, and a malaise begins to set in. The game master emulates this by attaching the spell Ray of Enfeeblement to the area and situation. If the characters fail their saving throw they will suffer the effects of the spell, and will be weakened in the process.
How potent the spell-like effects are in game terms can easily be adjusted through the use of penalties or bonuses to saving throws. Assigning a spell-like effect a casting level will dictate other things, like duration and area of effect. Leafing through several rulebooks I see so many spells that can be used to help create a horrific atmosphere in the game. Illusionary spells seem to lend themselves to this process very well.

So, in closing, attaching spell-like effects to items, places, situations and of course creatures to emulate the effects of horror opens up a whole new level of creativity for the game master, and it elegantly does so without introducing any new rules in the process.


Clark Ashton Smith - "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"

I have long felt that Clark Ashton Smith is by far the most overlooked of the famous "big three" Weird Tales writers. He has never gotten the fame or recognition that H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard have gotten. It's hard to say why this is. CAS was a brilliant writer of poetry and prose. His command of words is staggering. I think it is safe to say that he was a writer's writer, and both Lovecraft and Howard admired him greatly.

Tonight I finished rereading "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" for the first time in a very long time. This story is one of my favorites by Smith, and I feel it captures the essence of this blog perfectly. It is the perfect culmination of sword & sorcery literature and cosmic horror.

Though it lacks the flashing blade element of most sword & sorcery stories I feel "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" is s&s nonetheless. The story opens with a pair of fool hearty rogues (Satampra Zeiros and Tirouv Ompallios) who have had well documented adventures together, but are now down on their luck and out of coin, so they set off on a perilous adventure to alleviate their boredom and hopefully get rich while they are at it. Sadly for them they decide to make a long abandoned city their destination, despite the promise that doom will meet anyone who comes to visit.

Smith delivers a tale that is dripping in atmosphere. His description of the ancient jungle brings the reader deep into the story, and makes you feel you are there hacking away at the overgrowth. He also allows the reader to feel the fun and excitement that the adventurers are having along their journey... that is until the doom and dread sets in when they realize what a mess they have gotten themselves into!

As inspiration for gamers, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" can also be read as a great example of the exploits of a textbook Dungeons & Dragons thief. Thieving skills like hide in shadows and move silently are present in the story. Citizens of Satampra's hometown have had to beef up security and purchase "new and perplexing" locks due to the exploits of he and his companion Tirouv. Satampra describes how he had to use a particular type of acid to silently open a box, as so not to be detected by nearby guards. The no-guts-no-glory attitude a thief must possess is present in every decision and move the duo makes in the story. I love it!

Labyrinth Lord Society AEC Special Preview Received

This morning I woke up, checked my email and found a copy of the Labyrinth Lord Society Advanced Edition Companion Special Preview sitting in my inbox. Lucky me! Receiving this is one of the perks for those that joined the Labyrinth Lord Society, and allows the society members to get an exclusive early look at the new Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion (AEC).

As I opened the PDF the first thing that struck me was the page count (160 pages). I guess when I saw the word "companion" I expected it to be like any other companion for any other game . You know, additional rules and game options with a low, but modest page count. The AEC looks to be a complete rulebook to me, and I did not expect it to be. I could be wrong, but the rules presented look complete. I am guessing this book is all a player will need to run an advanced LL game.

I can't wait to buy this book. I am very impressed with what Dan Proctor has accomplished here. Nice clean layout. Precise language that makes reading the rules a joy. I love the cover art, and am excited to get my hands on a dead-tree copy, so I can see the interior art in all its old school glory.

As expected, there are new rules for playing all the races and classes found in 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Also, there are optional rules for allowing "advanced" hit dice, secondary skills, multi-classing and also new combat options. There is also a complete spellbook (cleric, druid, magic-user and illusionist) and monster manual.

I think the AEC is going to put LL over the top, and help it become the go to game for many players out there. I grew up playing 1st edition AD&D, and for me the AEC perfectly captures the nostalgia I have for that venerable game, but with a simpler/cleaner approach.