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Monthly Archives: April 2011

[DSA] Executive Meddling: Das Schwarze Auge

Logo of the first edition

Image via Wikipedia

Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). and I mean the whole title of the game is one big case of executive meddling. A rather beneficial one at that. The problem came later when the publisher decided that it was so successful in this case, it would be successful in any other case as well. A bit like the way America continued to go into foreign countries as liberators just because the Germans were so damn glad to see them in ’45 (as the alternative were either keeping the Nazis or getting the Soviets it was kind of understandable). I guess we set the expectations a bit high there.

When Schmidt Spiele bought the game the author had named it Aventurien (from middle-high german: aventurie –  knightly adventure).

This did not strike the fancy of the executives. Because what the fuck did it even mean? So the Dark eyes were created, or maybe just picked out from the magic item section, and hapharzardly shoehorned in. It might actually be that they were created because of the item in the next entry of this series.

The probel remained: What the f uck DID this mean? But now it sounded mysterious and kewl. And it sold better than the old title would have ever sold.

But from the time I first opened a DSA product to the time when I roughly grasped what a dark eye actually was it took me about 3 years. They are that much of a fringe object in the gameworld.

What they are? Oh, some sort of immobile palantir copy. The most interesting part about the always was that they were made off meteoric metal that had to be crafted into a dark eye at the place it fell. It could actually not be moved afterwards: A wonderful setup for strange temples and magic towers in the middle of frigging nowhere. Because not moved meant not moved. It was supposed to be absolutely static.

[DSA] Mapping Aventuria

A character for every game is hosting the RPG Blog carnival for April. And the topic is Cartography. Which fits well because I had wanted to take a short look on the maps for The Dark Eye anyway. They were one of these things that drew a lot of people into the game, so much even that at one point the producers just started selling them in separate map packs, so people could put them together and create a giant map of the continent Aventuria. The only problem THEN was, where to put a 3 meter high, wonderfully detailed map of a fantasy continent. One way you might find here.

The whole things started a bit smaller though: the first map of the continent was standard hex map business, a smallish map with completely ridiculous measurements that have stayed with the game for the last 25 years.

Technically Aventuria is only 3000 miles long, and one mile is supposed to be 1 kilometre. Which makes the continent… very, very small… And grates on the suspension of disbelief many people have about it. How can a viking style culture keep being in a tech level from the early middle ages when at the same time, 300 km away a Italian/French-inspired culture is slowly moving into the Renaissance.

No, it does not make that much sense. It doesn’t have to either, it is a fantasy world after all, but sometimes the official canon just seems a bit odd. On the other hand the one time when both aforementioned cultures clashed the Viking culture got their asses handed. In the beginning I guess nobody expected this game to last for so damn long with such popularity. The first few modules created for the game were standard fantasy stuff with their plot taking place in a sorta medieval land without too many geographic references. The Black Boar had exactly four: the cities of Havena where the heroes came from, the city of Angbar where they travelled to, Gratenfels where they were, and an aside about the neighbouring barony of Wengenholm. All of these names were reasonable names for places, but there was no map for them. Then the extension set came out, bringing new monsters and traps, and for the first time a short description of the setting.

The easy way around the settings weird proportions is of course to just assume that 1 mile on the map indeed means a mile, which one might define as anything from 1 to 2 km in length, but some people don’t like that solution either as it conflicts with other parts of the world, namely the time armies in the setting are supposed to have marched to reach their destination.

Uhm, did I mention this game is a German game? I guess the obsession about minor details becomes a bit more understandable if you keep this in mind.

Interestingly enough the hexmap never was that popular with German players. For some reason they always preferred real maps instead of something hexed. I don’t think I ever even saw a piece of hexpaper anywhere in Germany, besides in Battletech supplements that is.

The part where cartography really becomes interesting are the maps that were drawn by Ina Kramer for the whole continent, those look a. awesome and b. professional and c. insanely detailed. At least c. is not really true as they are still giving a lot of space in between that just has been left off the map, nevertheless they do create the illusion of Aventurien as a real place.

And of course these maps are completely outgame, because no person in Aventuria could have a map as detailed as this. The continent is described largely unexplored, even in the newest supplements. (The joke of course is that thanks to thousands of avid players by now some parts of the setting have been described down to single milestones on the road. I mentioned the obsesession with detail?).

And yes, that map above shows the area Realms of Arkania II – Star Trail was set in, it was originally a DSA computer game.

Ah, by the way, for further exploration of the continent Aventuria Google Maps might be a good starting point. Yes, it works like Google Maps, just with a fantasy continent.

[DSA] Session I: Black Boar Inn

So, we played. And it worked rather well, I guess. We had one completely green player (my girlfriend) and two which had more experience with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Just as DSA is THE standard for roleplaying in Germany, so is WFRP in Poland, to the extent that some people will claim that D&D is not a roleplaying game because it’s not WFRP. But both of them did  well even with this oh so unfamiliar game. That it was even more basic than OD&D might have helped a bit with that.

And we had fun. The party consisted of a Valkyrie from the north (a Thorwalian), a rather antisocial mage with a fetish for petrifying people, and a small-time crook with aspirations to become a full-blown scoundrel. They all met in a wayside inn just a few miles from the town of Gratenfels, and quickly got imprisoned and sentenced to death for  espionage and backtalking with evil intent, by the paranoid madman running the Duchy.

This actually was the worst part of my performance: the adventure module has an awful case of railroading in this point, which is especially grating as my players actually could have found much more interesting ways of freeing themselves from that situation. I tried to avoid most of it, but in any case the characters need to be railroaded  because there is no other way to get to the dungeon. In hindsight I think I should have had them start in the inn’s cellar, waiting for execution, and discover the secret exit to the duke’s secret silver mine by chance alone.

The rest went a lot better: we skipped the part where the characters had to find their way through the darkness and find the torches by feel and touch alone (which technically is an awesome part of this adventure), as we had a mage in the group and he knew a light spell.

Problem-solving was done accroding to the plan in the module though, but I soon came across another problem: the players all in all did not really like the idea of dungeons in itself. Which might not be such a bad thing in a larger campaign, but the adventure was supposed to be mostly about finding your way through a secret silver mine and discovering all the weird stuff in it.

To make things short: they found the way outside and left much earlier than I would have anticipated, not even touching the more juicy parts of the conterfeit operation, but getting the basic gist of the other plot point: the Duke is mad (hard not to notice that) and he’s not heeding the warnings of his dwarven slaves to not actually dig here, because there are warning signs plastered all over the place. Instead he believes the dwarves want to weasel out of digging here because there might be a dwarven treasure down there somewhere (dwarven runes = lots of treasure, obviously). Which he needs because he built city walls so fucking huge that he won’t be able to pay off the debt in a hundred years.

We managed to all in all get into one single fight: Two orc guards were surprised gambling and quickly slaughtered (as quickly as you can with the DSA-combat system, in other words: both orcs and adventurers hit a lot of air). Of course only afterwards they thought about maybe questioning one of them so he could lead them out of there. Which they did when they found the next one, who was easily convinced by them that they were the Duke’s inspectors. He also lead them to the dwarves. they tried to instigate a rebellion under the dwarves, but 1. most of them were completely broken after months of hard labour, and 2. even if they weren’t the could not leave because there was something lurking in the walls, and they had to stall the discovery of whatever it was, because, well, if the highest authorities of the dwarves and the humans leave warning signs all over the place and nobody wants to remember what this place actually IS, it might be pretty bad (spoiler: yes, it is).

In between they managed to talk their way out of a bad situation with some bugbears (or Höhlenschrate, as they are called in the system) and managed to get a hint for a shortcut out of the system. This one they actually found, bypassing most of the later dungeon and some of the more nasty monsters. The way they found was rather inventive but ended in the Thorwalian warrior getting bitten by angry bats and then bumbling down a rocky hillside. All in all she got the most damage in the adventure and she wasn’t even fighting that much.

So the characters now have a hook for the next session: get a message from the imprisoned dwarves to the mountainking and tell her what is happening in that mine (yes, her, I’m going for the untranslatable-term-in-dwarvish here). Now I will have to think about where to take the story after they get to the dwarven king.

Things I need to remember if I ever play this module again:

Don’t railroad the beginning that much. The hamminess of the Duke and the roleplay with the people in the inn might be nice, but there is no way that a group of young hotshots will just let themselves be thrown into the cellar. This actually was solved in the module itself, the problem was that the “solution” was three pages of text to be read to the players, with no actual playing allowed in between.

All in all: not too bad as a dungeon adventure, once one gets past the introduction, with a bit of logic even the different inhabitants of the dungeon can provide some nice interactions and memorable moments.

[RPG Music] Dungeon Ambient

Бородатая змея

Dragons like to listen to it too. Either that or Manowar. Yeah, dragons are weird.

I was not aware of Dark Ambient as a music style until I started to look for proper music for roleplaying. And thinking about it a bit better the style really is rather… odd. I know I might sound a bit biased, I just realized that this style seems to have a big following in the goth community, even my girlfriend just told me that yes, she knew that style, she heard it often when she still went to goth clubs.

And it is a highly sophisticated style, with deep philosophical underpinnings, yes. But the only other style of music I can compare it to is, well,  elevator music.

It’s rather effective though, nevertheless, with the interesting ability to evoke quite a range of different moods (well, mostly fear and desperation) while not doing much of anything. And frankly I think this music can make awesome background music for dark and brooding scenes. I know that some GMs prefer not to have any music at all in their scenes because emotions actually might be more intense if there is no disturbing background noise at all, but whenever do we have something like that in real life?

I was actually using Herbst9 as a background in my session yesterday, and it did create a feeling of anxiety and mystery while staying neatly in the background. It would have been a bit more effective though, had our neighbour not started to play Disco Polo while the characters were not even in the dungeon.

The style won’t be the best choice for a busy town or tavern scene, but it certainly sets the mood for a good dungeon crawl,  or some straight horror adventure.

Some examples of usable music in this style:

  • Shinjuku Thief especially the Witch Hammer Trilogy
  • Lustmørd especially Heresy and Purifying Fire
  • Herbst9, so called ritual ambient, a more oriental/temple style
  • Arcana
  • Dark Ages, actually claim to be inspired by medieval history
  • Za Frûmi seem to try to be closer to the fantasy genre, with orc-themed albums and stuff

Yeah, so far only fantasy music. I’ll think about Science Fiction ambience when I run out of Ozric Tentacles CDs 🙂

[DSA] Black Boar Inn

I have to admit I was wrong. I thought Elfenblut was the reason why there were Neanderthalers in DSA, but that turned out to be false.

Only after I got my hands on module B1: Das Wirtshaus Zum Schwarzen Keiler (Inn of the Black Boar), the very first regular adventure published for The Dark Eye (if one does not count the strange Silvana’s Rettung (The Rescue of Silvana) from the basic game) I realized that: hey, there are Neanderthalers in there.

And even though this blog lately is getting a lot of prehistorical content I have to admit: I don’t have a clue what they are doing there and they make no sense at all; and that in a module that is not really an epitome of inherent logic in any case.

This of course only comes up  because I plan to run this module  this evening, otherwise I would have read over it and maybe not even noticed that much. Contrary to what this blog might show you I am not really so fond of cavemen. But when faced with the tast of preparing the module for a game I  noticed it and it annoyed me. The module is comparatively good actually, contrary to what other people might say.

The biggest problem it has is of course the strong influence D&D modules of that time, and by Kiesow’s artistic aspirations. Which means loads of monsters of different kinds in the dungeon and silver-plated railroad tracks to get there. The adventure did not really age well, but for the time it was published I can’t say it was really bad. People were still learning how to GM and how to play. Nobody had a clue how this stuff worked, so having nice long introduction texts  might have helped. Only today they seem a bit jarring.

For the first few pages the players get told who they are, where they come from, where they go, what they do in the inn, and what they experience. And then the Duke comes in, and they get sentenced to be executed for some flimsy reasons they can’t even defend themselves against.

On the other hand: it is a pretty good beginning for beginners, it gives the setting and the antagonist in easy steps. It needs to be played out with all the hamminess of bad B-movie villains though. And afterwards there needs to be a reason why they should just leave the Duke alone isntead of ending his rule of terror (or what seems to be rule of terror).

In between we get treated with a decent single-level  dungeon that gets even better with the retcons of later years. Maybe I’ll get into that after the game. The only thing that bothers me from the position of a modern Aventuria is the bizarre variety of races in this dungeon. Orks and Goblins, okay, maybe even the Troll… but the lizardmen already strain my belief.  Of course back then nobody knew anyhting about the surrounding world, not even the authors. All that came later, and all that might have invalidated what came before, but hindsight always is 20/20.

But then we meet the neanderthals. They don’t fir in there. Not from the perspective of the mid 80s, and not from any other. It makes no sense why they are there, why they are watching over a Tatzelwurm, and how exactly they actually got the name Neanderthal in a setting without a river Neander.

Years later this actually got an explanation in the supplement for the far north, and as usual for DSA it was a bad, old joke (which makes it oddly charming though): When the first explorer met the apemen she asked where they lived, and the apemen answered with a vague description of a valley. So she described all the valleys in the are she knew, but the apemen always said “Ne, ander tal.” (Naw, udder glen) until the explorer gave up and just called them after what they had repeated to her dozens of times before.

But lets get back to the Inn, so what exactly does a dungeon do right under an Inn? There are a few explanations to that. One is the one from the module: it’s slave labour camp and counterfeit operation instigated by the Duke. The orcs and goblins have been hired so nobody who matters can talk about it, and the place has been chosen because there seems to be silver in the walls.

Another explanation came a bit later in a short story: The  Duke went absolutely bonkers by a miracle of the god of law and the sun and decided to build walls and fortifications that could fend off the evil that would come  from the east. Of course he was completely mad, as was apparent to anyone who talked to him more than two minutes. He also was completely right, but who could have known that?

And the third one came later, in a return-t-the-roots module a few years later: the Duke had the dwarves dig there because there were dwarven runes in some of the cave chambers that he thought might lead him to a treasure if he just had them dig long enough. And while there certainly was something hidden under there it only was found out later what: It was a containment facility created by the legendary white mage Rohal, containing a number of powerful and very, very dangerous demons.

I guess I can make something out of this story, if my players let me. The normal ending of the adventure is rather abrupt: the heroes fight their way out of the dungeon either by the entry of the Duke’s guards or they find a natural exit. End.

Not very exciting, is it? What about the fact that they were injustly imprisoned? The duke might have the power to do that, but no bad blood because of this at all? What about the dwarves that just decide to stay there and toil away until they die? Slavework is canonically forbidden in that part of “modern” Aventuria. And with a bit more canon: what about the fact that an outspoken adherent of the god of law decides to make counterfeit money, declare random travellers traitors and string them up just because they don’t know the proper code? And what about the fact that the heroes disappeared from the inn’s cellar, just after the waitress brought them their last supper? What will happen to the innkeeper and his family?

Let’s see.

[Labyrinth Lord] The Erudite Cat

Cat, Erudite
Requirements: DEX 12 STR: max 9
Prime Requisite: CHA
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: 10
Advance: As Thief
Attack: As Thief
Saves: As Thief

If there is one creature absolutely convinced it is superior to everyone else, it is the common cat. Most of them never see the need to learn another language than their own (or possess the ability to) but sometimes a Cat might be gifted with extraordinary talent and/or uncommon interest in the affairs of the big folks (other cats call these cats crazy).

Often a cat like this is adopted as a familiar by a magic user or other scholar. The cat of course will contest this view. In their eyes the human/sentient is graced by the cat’s willingness to live with them. And looking at the odd charms they bring with them it is hard to argue about that. In most cases, no matter how this actually is going, the life of humanoids and cats together is beneficial for both of them. The cat is provided shelter, social environment to lord over, and food, the humanoids are provided with an effective scourge of all those pests that would spoil their food. Also, at least when able to talk to humanoid beings, they can provide a very detached view of human society that might help spellcasters greatly in the understandiung of the world.
Cats do have their own magic, and while they never teach it to outsiders, one might even argue that they cannot teach it as it mostly is innate ability, they can provide interesting insights into the astral world at large.

They are of human intelligence and are sneaky and watchful creatures, having a highly organized society based on military service in wars with cats from other worlds such as Saturn and Uranus. They also wage war on the rat-like Zoogs of the Enchanted Woods near Ulthar, and others who would harm cats.

Cats can speak Cat, Common, and a few other languages the cat might have picked up somewhere
Cats Attributes are rolled the same way as a normal character, but they can only have a maximum Str score of 6 due to their small build.

Cats cannot wear armor or use any weapon except their natural teeth and claws (not that they ever would get the idea to do that anyway). They can attack three times per round, two claws and one bite, for 1d2 dmg + Str bonus per attack.

Cats are stealthy little creatures. They can use the Thief abilites Move Silently , Climb Walls , Hide in Shadows , and Hear Noise as a Thief of three levels higher than the Cat. (A second level Cat makes his rolls as if a fifth level Thief.)
The naturally stealthy cat also surprise foes 1-4 on a 1d6.

Because they are so small, cats have a lower armor class (-2) when attacked by creatures of human sized and larger.

And my series of whimsical creatures and classes for LL continues…

Miscellanae II

  • free photoshop brushes for mapping anyone? Can be used for GIMP as well of course
  • …and ze bullette has a few more converted specifically to GIMP
  • free multi-platform, virtual board solution for roleplaying anyone?  It’s called Rolisteam, is being developed in France and has only French menus so far, but they are working on it; and I absolutely love some of the features: map tool, easy sending of pictures, an ambient music player… and it runs on Linux without any problems, which of course is the biggest draw for me

Roleplaying in Germany: Das Schwarze Auge

Back in the early days of the hobby (the early 80s) there were not that many RPGs around in Germany. There had been a rather unsuccessful try to translate Tunnels and Trolls (Schwerter und Dämonen) that had sold badly, and before that there had been tries to create a German roleplaying game called Midgard (or rather Empires of Magira… it’s complicated), inspired by different games that had slowly seeped over the pond.

But at one point around 1983 people started to notice this trend coming over from US and UK. Even more: Executives in different big game companies started to notice that money could be made. And of course they tried to have it the easy way and get the license for Dungeons & Dragons as the first and most prolific RPG.

A young art teacher and roleplaying/fantasy affeccionado called Ulrich Kiesow translated the game, after already having done so with Tunnnels and Trolls, for Schmidt Spiele, back then one of the biggest game companies in Germany. Basically he was the biggest roleplaying nerd in Germany at this point, at one point I found an article about the state of fantasy in Germany in the Jahrbuch der Fantasy und Science Fiction 1983 (Science Fiction and Fantasy Annual 1983) in which he bemoaned that there STILL was no German version of D&D available. That article must have been written in 1981/2, before they even published Midgard in a halfway professional form.

Accounts differ to what exactly happened with the deal, but it seems like TSR was a bit too greedy/demanding and the executives of Schmidt Spiele a bit too cautious about this whole new game thingy, with no board and game pieces. So a competitor snatched away the license and went on to publish Kiesow’s translation, and, incidentally, bankrupt itself with it…

Schmidt Spiele, seeing the Spiel (the biggest European toy and game fair) coming up, had nothing. So they asked Kiesow for an alternative, and he sold them one: the house system that he had cobbled together for his own gaming group. A system he called “Aventurien”, after the place where it was set.

Schmidt Spiele took it, changed the name to something marketable (and economic, but I’ll explain that in another post), got together with a publishing house (Droemer-Knaur) and put it into most toy- and department stores of Germany. And it sold. Pretty decently even.

Something they never got rid of though was their bad feeling about selling a product that basically consisted of books with a few dice and no tangible elements at all. But I guess I’ll do that in another post.

[Labyrinth Lord] Bearfolk

Gummi Bears from left to right: Cubbi, Sunni, ...

What bearfolk might look like

No. Enc.: 2d6 (6d6)
Alignment: Lawful
Movement: 60’ (20’)
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: weapon
Save: D1
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: XX

This shy race lives mostly hidden away in the woods or in remote places in the mountains. For most other people in the land (maybe with the exception of the Elves) these folks are the stuff of legend. Nevertheless until very recently they ruled over large areas of the land, but went away when the big and honorless human people became too much to bear. Bearfolk resemble, and are related to, bears, albeit smaller than their wild relatives: a large member of the bearfolk might barely reach the shoulders of an average human. Bearfolk are inventive people, easily juggling both mechanics and magic and in some cases even mixing these both areas of study to create technological/magical miracles.

Yes, indeed. It’s Gummi Bears I’m talking about. Gummi Bears for Labyrinth Lord. In my opinion that series is way too underappreciated among fantasy fans. Because, seriously, it was one of the most fantastic fantasy series ever. It had magic, magic potions, ogres, dungeons, and a whole bunch of other stuff. And the animation is still pretty decent in comparison to a lot that came afterwards.

[Traveller] Alien Invasion!

Snark missile launch

Take that alien scum!

There is a small lost world with human inhabitants. It is interdicted and uncontacted, it is xenophobic, and heavily balkanized (sounds familiar?). Also it is so far advanced it can front up a few nuclear warheads for any threat that comes it’s way (which is why it is interdicted). Normally not many threats do come it’s way, a regular Navy-patrol is making sure of that, for the sake of both visitors and inhabitants of the planet. There where a few incidents in the past when merchants and scouts were killed by the inhabitants of this world. For the inhabitants these occasions seemed to be harbingers of alien invasions that were barely averted.
But the world also has the sector’s most highly priced

1) Whiskey (that special kind of moonshine from the Fragxan Mountains)
2) Foie Gras
3) Snark (a kind of lizard that tastes like chicken)
4) Vomitsnails (completely disgusting, but a highly priced fad on some worlds)

and the patron will pay a lot to get it from there. Normally the only contact possible is through a small merchant company working together with a few agents planetside. They bribed the Navy to look away at the right moment and land at some place in the back of the woods where nobody will notice them. But nowthe patron wants to undercut their prices and get all the goods for far less money. Why not send a few freelancers there to get the stuff? It can’t be that hard, can it?
Naturally this will not be that easy. For example the characters might not get told about the xenophobic, non-contacted part of this planet…

Directions to take this:
1. The characters are seen when entering the atmosphere and cause a major alarm. Fears of alien invasions, fueled by sightings of earlier spacecraft and some cold war paranoia make the characters an easy target on the bomb screens…
2. The characters are actually welcomed by one of the nations. Unfortunately this nation hopes for better weapon technology from them. Characters without the willingness to part from that will have to face all the force of that nation.
3. as 2. but some other nation actually notices that something is afoot and threatens to turn the planet into ashes if the characters should give a few too many (read:any) secrets to nation A
4. The characters are not noticed when entering the planet, but getting the local goods nevertheless proves difficult: cold war paranoia makes it nearly impossible to buy the goods
5. As 4. but the local secret service is after them because they believe them to be alien invaders
6. as 5. but another agency from another country is also after them, to get on their side for the coming invasion.
I was thinking of running this like a reverse 50s scifi movie, with all the trappings of the Atomic Age and Cold War paranoia on the other side. The idea of course was that in all those movies, for some reason nobody quite seemed to ever grasp (except budget restrictions) aliens were suspisciously humanlike.