Monday, September 19, 2016

Dragons of Renewal: DL1 Dragons of Despair

Image by Clyde Caldwell

It's been a while since my last update. Nearly a year, in fact. A variety of factors came into play, for a while I was running the original Dragonlance Chronicles adapted for the 13th Age ruleset. As of last Saturday (September 17th), my players ended the campaign and saved Krynn from evil. It last a good 7 to 8 months, all with players I consider good friends, and plenty of DMing notes to spare for adaption into blog posts. Now would be a perfect time to delve back into things, and what better way than looking at the adventure that started it all?


Dragons of Despair opens up with the PCs venturing to the quiet burg of Solace to reunite at the Inn of the Last Home. While there they get hints of dark tidings, from the Seeker movement on the search for a Blue Crystal Staff to goblins being hired to search for it. The crux of the module is that the cleric/prophet PC begins play with this treasured artifact, which she obtained from the ruins of Xak Tsaroth before Dragonarmy forces moved in and forced her to flee. The PCs can gain information sources from various places on the goings-on in the land of Abanasinia lately, from Inn patrons to visiting the Lordcity of Haven. But all in all, the crux of the adventure is to get to Xak Tsaroth and find the Discs of Mishakal and help bring knowledge of the True Gods to Krynn. While in the dungeon, the PCs descend a multi-level flooded ruins and fight a black dragon guarding the Discs and a bunch of other treasure?

Things to Change/Look Out For

The module suggests the PCs coming back to Solace in separate groups, each with their own encounters along the way to tell the rest of the party that things are not alright. This may or may not be a good idea depending on your party makeup and how your players feel about sitting around doing nothing while their fellows participate in several pieces of combat.

Fewmaster Toede is a Dragonarmy flunky and recurring villain who ends up promoted several times simply due to his superiors kicking the bucket. He's an overweight, cowardly, and arrogant fool with little redeeming qualities who the PCs will meet several times during the Dragonlance Chronicles. One of the possible first encounters with him has him ordering hobgoblin lackeys to attack the party. Depending on how your players feel about recurring villains, it's entirely possible that Toede will get killed in this encounter, even if on a horse (ranged attacks and spells can be a game-changer). If the GM wants to keep Toede around, perhaps have his presence be near the edges: seeing him as a boisterous bully in Solace demanding families tell him of the Blue Crystal Staff, or if escaping from a Seeker patrol amidst the linked trees of Solace seeing Toede off in the distance barking orders.

The Initial Hook: It's assumed that the Cleric/Prophet PC with the Blue Crystal Staff was already at Xak Tsaroth. That PC could be a great way to get the rest of the party into going to the dungeon. However, the main hook provided is having a mysterious old man in the Inn of the Last Home tell them to take the artifact there as part of a great destiny. This may be a bit cliche and overt for many groups. Another way is to have rumors that evil's afoot off to the east, that a strange army of monsters now inhabits a set of old Istaran ruins in the swamps to the east.

Pax Tharkas Rumors: The Dragonarmies do not have an overt presence in Abanasinia yet, instead having draconian minions go about in concealing robes and acting through intermediaries such as Toede. Even so, they're transporting slaves and prisoners of war to a fortress to the south. A refugee first tells the PCs in overland encounter 38 (AD&D version), telling him the specifics. Do not do this; although he tells the PCs to not head south and go to Xak Tsaroth first, it's likely that the PCs are heroic in nature as Dragonlance doesn't work well with evil-aligned protagonists. Hearing of this may cause them to go south as a first priority, bypassing the Discs of Mishakal.

Instead keep the hints of slavery as a background element; a friend of a friend claiming that their cousin went missing one day in Haven, or that a certain nomadic Plains tribe wasn't seen in their usual location route in the autumn months.

Xak Tsaroth Dungeon Crawl: There are many rooms with low numbers of baaz draconians. Fighting them one after another can get tedious after a while due to low enemy variety. This is going to be a common theme in Dragons of Renewal, but cutting out extraneous encounters (especially ones where the enemies are little better than easily-defeated mooks) can help speed things up and allow for focus on the more interesting encounters.

Interesting encounters in Xak Tsaroth include: a Huge Spider in a cellar in the Upper Levels (51a in AD&D, UXT21 in 3.5), swarm of poisonous snakes in Dance on the Wall (59b or UXT39), exposition talks among some draconians in Assembly and Mess Hall (64d and 64h/LXT8 and LXT 12), bozak draconian's high priest office (has spellcasting ability, 70h/LXT41), and of course the black dragon Khisanth/Onyx in the bottom room, the Court of Balance!

Overall, there isn't as much things to change in this adventure plotwise, at least in comparison to the following adventure Dragons of Flame. The PCs have quite a bit of places to explore, both in Xak Tsaroth and overland.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why the Mediterranean is a great place to draw inspiration from for fantasy games

Two of my most-viewed articles are advice columns for deriving inspiration from Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire as fantasy counterpart cultures. For a long time I've been looking past Western Europe-style settings and folklore for new and interesting material, and found Byzantium's legacy neat enough to base an entire campaign around.

But beyond these two civilizations, the wider Mediterranean has plenty of material. This post is a snapshot of bits and pieces of things I've found in my amateur research.

The Cradle of Empires, A Melting Pot

Ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, Egyptian dynasties, Babylonia, Persia...countless renowned civilizations touched its waters, their legacies still standing in the forms of pyramids and architectural wonders. And perhaps more familiar to gamers, southern France and Spain touched its borders as well, and even the non-native Mongol Empire reached its eastern extremities as they sacked the Middle East.

Related to the previous entry, the diversity of civilizations in the Mediterranean provide a prime opportunity for taking fantasy counterpart cultures while retaining an authentic atmosphere. Arabian Nights-style fantasy, glorious pseudo-Roman metropolises, pyramids housing undead lords, feuding merchant houses in Vencian city-states, Slavic-style Balkan villages, and all the monsters and folklore of such cultures would make for a populous and interesting world for fantasy gaming.

Additionally, the sea as a central location would allow for the GM to let the PCs traverse uneventfully from one realm to another instead of worrying about buffer states and or glossing over the intervening lands ("no no, in order to get to the Sultanate of Kremdora you'll need to traverse the Dragonlands first, and that's if you manage to make it out of the Dire Desert, and then we can have adventures there").

Mobile War Altars

The Carrocio, or war altar, was an iconic possession of medieval Italian cities. Its use was to boost morale, displaying the city's coat of arms as priests gave sermons and trumpeters encouraged soldiers to battle. Each Carrocio was the pride and joy of its people, and for the enemy to seize it was considered a major defeat no matter the eventual outcome.

How can this be adopted for fantasy gaming? Perhaps the Carrocio has magic powers, capable of boosting bardic music and divine spells as long as the person standing upon it gives a good performance or sermon. Extending the range of such abilities to many soldiers would make this a coveted prize for any army, thus explaining their high priority.

Armor-breaking Swords and Damascus Steel

The flyssa is a sword which was popular in use among the Berber (Amazigh) tribes of North Africa. The blade was specifically designed to break open chainmail armor, a common means of defense in that region of the world.

Additionally, the city of Damascus in what is now modern-day Syria was known for its namesake Damascus Steel. This material was used in the creation of distinctive swords notable for aesthetic patterns similar in design to flowing water. The secrets of their creation died with the artisans, and to this day modern engineers can only theorize as to the techniques used. All the same, its high quality gave rise to many legends, such as the ability to cleanly cut through a rifle barrel and finely split a strand of hair.

In fantasy gaming, flyssa swords might provide a bonus for the purposes of sundering armor, a technique normally reserved for maces and other blunt weapons. A secret society of artisans using Damascus-style Steel might be able to create unique magical swords.

A Turkish Subterranean City

Derinkuyu was a multi-level underground city in the ancient world capable of holding as many as 20,000 people within its confines. Not only could the front gates be closed off via stone doors, each level was capable of cutting itself off from the above levels in a similar manner. Schools, stables, cellars, chapels, and other urban accommodations were believed to be present. The city was used for protecting the populace from invaders several times during the Byzantine reign.

I might expand further on the region, including specific entries for fantasy counterpart cultures such as Egypt, Mongol armies, the Balkan Mountains, and others once I do enough research. All the same, I hope I wet your whistle in the potential the Mediterranean has for fantasy RPGs!