Archive for March, 2012

"All that wood felled by a single golden axe."

With the sudden destruction of Fresh Rope the dwarves of the Land of Wonder knew it was time to build a fortress using all they had learned to ensure its successful continued existence. And so the Ringmartyrs were chosen, and they laid out a plan for a fortress that was guaranteed to succeed no matter the location or circumstance.

(The Fresh Rope game ended due to a bug – it kept crashing, a real problem the longer a fortress survives, especially when a new release is going through its growing pains. Version 34.05 had been released and I was still using version 34.02, so I figured it was a good time to pull the Rope.)

They envisioned starting small and poor, and staying that way for as long as possible while the outer defenses were built up. The Fortress of the Ringmartyrs was founded on a forested plateau in a warm climate with year-round rain, and lots of small lakes. Unlike most fortresses, there was no mining the first year, in fact, the dwarves lived without any stone at all for over a year while they set up their site plan.

While the carpenters chopped the massive amounts of logs needed for the all-wood above ground fort and stockade, the miners put their picks to work digging trenches to connect the nearby lakes into a wide, murky moat. Within this ring, the carpenters built up a huge wooden fortress, housing the Trade Depot, carpenter’s shack, and a craftworks station, along with all the necessities for the food industry – kitchen, still, farmer’s workshop, butcher and tanner. This large building also housed a few beds tucked in corners and some tables and chairs, and eventually the entire compound was roofed, at the cost of thousands of trees. It is amazing how much wood putting on a roof can use. (I solved this spectacularly in my current glorious fortress, Shootflukes, which should get a write up eventually.)

After two years of enforced poverty the central fort was walled and roofed, and a stockade wall circled the inner circumference of the moat. The miners finally breached the ground and began digging out the level just beneath the fortress. Hemmed in by the moat, this level became a series of large store rooms. Then the miners delved deep and began digging out a massive centrally open grand hall, about 10 levels below ground. Around this central hall, corridors led off into a new unique layout of workshops, small stockpiles, and housing. Yet the workshops sat idle, as all hands were put to work hauling, chopping, or digging, rather than building and increasing the fortress’ wealth. The second year, no migrants arrived at all, due to the lack of the finer things dwarves have come to expect in their fortresses. For the seven – now 16 – original Ringmartyrs, simple meals, beer in great quantities, and an above ground dormitory were all they needed.

That is, until one of the dwarves entered a strange mood. He demanded metal bars, and I did not want him to go mad, so I set up a wood furnace, smelter and forge for the express purpose of melting down the few nuggets of ore so far uncovered, one of which happened to be solid gold. The dwarf took the gold, and made the coolest golden battle axe of all time, with a picture of a cacao tree on its blade. This axe, worth over a hundred thousand dwarf bucks, increased fortress wealth one thousand percent, and suddenly the Ringmartyrs gained celebratory status. 25 new migrants immediately arrived, nearly tripling the population. And they were not all…

I worried that the sudden, vast increase in wealth would cause an unsavory element to look toward the Ringmartyr’s fortress with envy, so I needed to prepare. The walls, moat, drawbridge, and cage traps would thwart any invasion, so no military had been set up due to the high cost of weapons and armour, but the golden axe had ended the Ringmartyr’s subsistence living with a single whack. So the newly built forge was put to work outfitting a single squad, as usual with silver war hammers. This was done in the nick of time, not for an invasion, but because of a single stranger who came trundling towards the Ringmartyrs from the east.

He was a were-tortoise, and the moat did not stop him; he paddled across with leisurely ease. Nor did the cage traps thwart him, when he transformed into normal looking dwarf. The were-tortoise ran amok through the fortress, before being chased out and all over the map by the squad. They chased him for weeks, all over the place before eventually the golden axe managed to hew through the shell and destroy the forgotten beast. As the exhausted and wounded (bitten) dwarves trudged back to the fortress, night fell, and a full moon came out. No less than half the squad then transformed into were-tortoises and commenced slaughtering the populace.

Weeks passed as the dwarves and tortoises fought through the darkened halls. The population dropped from a high of over forty dwarves down to nine survivors by the time the lycanthropy had run its course. The were-beasts had decimated the fortress, but somehow, due to the golden axe, no doubt, dwarves still sought out a new life in the fortress the Ringmartyr’s built, and so the population began to rise again. Blood scrubbers, undertakers, and coffin makers were in great demand.

After the decimation, things started to turn around. A chamber was set aside for the victims of the were-tortoise, and it held over 60 coffins, many of which were for children and babies, the most fragile of dwarves. (Babies and children are not counted as population, so while the population was listed at 43 at the time of the lycanthrope infestation, the total population including kids, must have added another twenty, judging by the high number of short caskets.

The rain quickly washed away signs of the struggle, and after the mausoleum was completed and stocked with the dead, the fortress began to pick itself up. Forges rang out day and night outfitting the dwarves in iron, while the craftworkers worked overtime to have a big selection for that year’s trade caravan. When a small goblin band of ambushers arrived, the dwarves went about their business with little fear of attack. They were secure by moat, walls, and cage traps, which would easily hold the goblins at bay.

Being safe from invasion, however, id not prevent the conniving little brutes from causing trouble. They continuously ran about trying to catch any dwarf who ventured across the moat – for wood, fishing, to collect a dead dwarf from the garbage heap for burial, or just out for a walk, and so I determined to lure the goblins to their demise. The reborn fortress needed freedom to rebuild!

It would be a simple matter to let down the drawbridge, and allow the goblins to cross and trap themselves in the cunningly concealed falling cage traps installed just inside the main entrance. To be sure nothing went awry, I stationed the squad of dwarves on the other side of the bank of cage traps, so they could deal with any goblins who made it through the gauntlet. It would be a turkey shoot.

The bridge dropped, the dwarves moved into position. The goblins noticed the way was open and streamed towards the bridge. There were more than I thought, and there weren’t enough cages for them all, so it was a good thing the dwarven squad was waiting for them.

The goblins hit the bridge. The dwarves saw them coming, and ran past the waiting traps to meet them on the bridge. NO! A furious battle took place, and all 10 members of the squad were slain, and the few remaining goblins made it into the fortress from a small sortie door wedged open by the corpse of the captain of the guard, golden axe locked in his stiff dead fingers.

Soon all that remained of Ringmartyrs were the ghosts. It was a great experiment gone terribly awry. That damned golden axe cursed them all.

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Mount Fresh Rope with its Wagon Wood Wall Memorial

Seven dwarves set out from Mountainhome to forge a new civilization in the wild mountains far from home. They travelled in their wagon for many weeks before they found the natural wonder that would become the centerpiece of their new fortress. Three peaks came together where a mountain river flowed down one tall mountain into a great crack through its center that led to an underground lake by way of a thousand foot waterfall. Two rivers led out of the mountain from the underground lake, encircling it in a defensive embrace. Rich in all the necessities a burgeoning fortress would require, it was the perfect place for a fortress, and the picks were unsheathed at last. They named their new home Fresh Rope.

Early 2012 saw a new release of Dwarf Fortress in over a year. Besides numerous tweaks, bug fixes, and minor updates, the new release also introduced new undead and monsters. Necromancers, vampires and lycanthropes add a new dimension to the game. By dimension, I mean a new way to lose and fail. The new features, coupled with the fact that taking any kind of break from the game invariably results in having to re-learn the basics, interface, and commands, is sure to result in FUN (=losing.)

The new fortress began in an auspicious way, with a dwarf sacrifice. The dwarves decided to park their wagon on the extreme edge of the thousand foot cliff, and the first dwarf to leap out, leapt to his instant death far far below in the cold dark water. Within seconds of arriving, one dwarf was dead, and the remaining six were preparing to go the same route! I instantly gave the command to start chopping and gathering wood in the OPPOSITE direction of the waterfall’s cliff face. This seemed to work, but to make sure, I dismantled the wagon right away (to keep the dwarves from hanging out by it, and by extension, near the cliff edge. Then I had them use the first wood they gathered to build a wall along the nearest, most deadly cliff edge. A second dwarf was lost to the cliff during the erection of the wall, and with only five dwarves left, a month of spring gone, and no fortress, the dwarves knew they were in for a rough summer of hard work, and a long winter of sacrifice. And so it came to pass.

The dwarves, fond of labor, began the construction of a small wooden tower at the top of the mountain. Within its protective walls they set their trade depot and dug out a small cellar beneath, for storage of food and supplies. While the tower was being constructed above, the lone surviving miner descended to the base of the mountain and put his pick to work. He sought the base of the waterfall, to the bones of his brother, and dug a fine, straight corridor into the heart of the mountain, only stopping when he saw the light of day scintillating through water and mist.

At the base of the waterfall, just above the surface of the lake, he dug out a “misting chamber” that became the nexus and pride of the fortress. Not only were dwarves contented every time they walked past and through the waterfall, but they and anything they were carrying was cleaned of filth! The chamber was set off so that all dwarves had to walk through the chamber to get to the workshops, housing, or the grand dining hall. In time, they set up green glass grates so they could walk right under the falls, which became very popular. It also proved helpful when we were attacked by our first mega-beast, composed of filth and grime, beware its filthy spittle.

Behold The Grand Halls of Fresh Rope

Five years passed, and the dwarves dug deeper and prospered. Trading with humans, elves, and their own Mountainhome, they became rich, and known for their fine cuisine, such as their savory Great White Shark Eye Roast. With access to copper, silver, and iron (but sadly without the flux stone needed for steel) the dwarves soon had a sprawling metallurgy plant powered by coal and charcoal.

During this period, a murderer was discovered among the populace, having snuck in with a group of migrants. With many eye witnesses, Daton the Silver Hammerer made quick work of the criminal. About this time a feral child was discovered living on the top of the mountain, preying on dwarves who went out alone into the wilds. The feral child was apparently a changeling, and was never caught, though eventually his depredations ceased, about the same time as the first goblin invasion.

Also during this period, the deep dwarven miners passed through a cavern deep beneath the earth, and came to a second, deeper cavern, whence two oozing magma pools oozed up through an underground sea. The metallurgy plant was dismantled and massive new magma forges became slowly operational down below, with a shadow city rising around them. The search for better metal went on, fruitless.

Right as the sixth year dwarven caravan showed up, the Fresh Rope had its first goblin invasion. The wretched villains were easily dispatched, and a great battle took place on the silver drawbridge in front of Fresh Rope, for all of the dwarves to witness. Many Axe and Hammer lords rose to glory in that battle, and the caravan was so impressed, they accepted the loot from the failed invasion as a gift and took back stories of wonder to Mountainhome. With them went a letter from the mayor, inviting the king to come.

Come the king did. In year 7 he showed up with his entourage just as another goblin invasion launched. With four times as many enemies, Fresh Rope was caught off guard, and the invaders found a weak point – a rarely used side tunnel that led across an underground river by way of a copper bridge, and into an adjacent mountain. The copper bridge should have been raised, but wasn’t, and the goblins made a bee-line into the main fortress, being held off at great cost of life. The goblins fought to within one chamber of the famous Misting chamber, even as the king was making his triumphant march through the same room.

The Grand Halls and Waterfalls of Fresh Rope

The goblins were pushed back, the hotel, overlooking the underground lake with a row of green glass windows, was soon full of the dying and injured. All in all, over forty dwarves lost their lives. The King, however was impressed with the fortress as well as the dwarven tenacity to see it survive, and he announced plans to stay! In fact, Fresh Rope was named the new Mountainhome, capital city of the Dwarven clan who called themselves the Sacks of Leaves.

The glory was short-lived. Another goblin invasion came on the heels of the last, three times as big and featuring a squad of ogres as well as cave crocodile riding goblin marksmen. They descended upon Fresh Rope from all sides. The goblins up top slew an incoming elven trade caravan, littering the summit with debased dead elves and despoiled elvish goods before pouring down the mountainside like a flash flood of blood. The squad of ogres pounded towards the front gate and the silver drawbridge, while the crocodile riders found the side tunnel with the copper bridge. The dwarves had a plan though, until tragedy struck. The copper and silver drawbridge were hooked up to a new imechanical contraption called a lever. When it was pulled, the bridges would draw up, leaving the invading army with nowhere to invade.

Bloody, bloody business

However, no one ever pulled the lever, and the invaders poured into the fortress from two directions, the main entrance and the side tunnel. The king was caught between the armies, and with no armor or weapons, he ran back and forth between the two invading forces, trying to keep one step ahead. It was this action that inevitably saved the fortress.

As an added precaution, copper cages were installed above all major doors and important hallways. These would drop onto invaders, but they could only stop one invader per cage, and the numbers were on the goblins side. As the goblins tore through the weakened and injured army, reducing the population further from its height of 203 dwarves down to 125, they burst through into the main hall. At one end was the grand entrance – milling with ogres. At the other end, cut off by goblins on crocodiles, was the misting chamber and all the unarmed dwarven wives and children neyond. The king ran towards one army, and when they started to chase him, he led them into the copper cages, trapping a few. He would then run towards the other army and trap a few of them in nearby copper cages, trapping them one by one, until miraculously, the goblins called off the siege and began retreating. The king suffered no more than a cut on his cheek.

Fresh Rope was saved! However, the destruction was so great, with almost half its population brutally killed, it would take them over a year to scrub the blood from the walls, and the despair of so many lost loved ones might still prove too great a burden to the life of the fortress. Time will tell if the Sacks of Leaves will be able to pick themselves up from this latest tragedy, but the king is alive, long live the king of dwarves. He saved Fresh Rope.

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This is a sadface post describing the end of my gaming group and after 30 years, the end of my active participation (for the nonce) in that weird and nerdy subbakulcha known as “dnd”. If you like lame tragedy then read on, otherwise you may want to get out of this blog and head over to my new blog “Love Random Death” where I re-post poetry written in my youth. (I bet you think I’m joking.) Anyhow, it started like this…

(And for those in the bloggosphere, no I am not deleting the blog. I appreciate all the site visits I get, and though I can no longer contribute, my previous works stand on their own merit. There is some great stuff here.)

I was born a storyteller, and was drawn to DMing about the same time I was drawn to one of the first computer games, Zork. Both offered seemingly limitless potential, but only one of them has been a part of my life for thirty continuous years. I used to write stories about toyshops that came to life when the lights went out. (I must have been inspired by the many movies and books that have such themes, but they were my first stories) I also wrote very un-funny Garfeild comics, with the main character being Heathfield or Garcliff or something.

When I discovered dnd, I continued to tell stories, but now I had an audience! My first games were more like plays, or play-acting than games, where I dictated what and where the action was, and the players performed their parts – this often involved monkey-bars during sixth grade recess.

When the recess era ended, we moved our game inside, and the stories were told sitting around tables. More dice and books became involved, until at some point you could say we were actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. We were no longer looting and destroying gods, and devils with wild abandon, wishing for all the wealth in the world, fireballing entire cities. The games we played matched the books, stories, and movies we knew and loved. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Dragonlance. Elfquest. Superman.

The stories were about heroic champions who rose from nothing to challenge the inequities of their lives. There was no question about where the story was going, what the final goals were – it was the eradication of injustice and the upholding of goodness by the defeat of evil. Sure some characters were more like Han Solo than Gandalf, but they all knew they had to help or that all would be lost.

Later on, as we became even older and wiser, I realized the wonder and amazement of randomness. No longer did I cheat like thief on every die roll to conform to the way I wanted my story to go. I let go of the reins one day, and watched the true wonder of randomness take over the game. The game changed for the better, and the official term is “emergent gameplay” whereby the stories are generated at the table randomly, by a mixture of die rolling and improvisational interpretation of the results.

Shared story-telling became more important, and sometimes, when everything was working together, my story, the randomocity of dice, and the player’s active participation created truly compelling adventure and fun, fun times for us around the table. Victory was uncertain, important choices had to be made, and a single critical hit or miss could change it all in an instant.

Enter the murder-hobo

The internet has a definition for everything, and the murder-hobo seems to be the type of character or party in RPG’s that go around causing general mayhem to no purpose, other than possibly to gain loot,though even that drive is sometimes questionable. The outward appearance is an insatiable lust for wanton violence against any and all who cross their paths.

When forming my latest game group, four or five years ago after a lack of tabletop playing of considerable length, there was a change in the air. Gone was the foregone conclusion that the player-characters would fight the great evil of the campaign, at least not with out mighty good reason, or rewards. Nonetheless we had a great third edition campaign which I Called “The Undead War” which was a fight between Orcus and Demogorgon for the prime material, each having gained a foothold by the prayers of their separate drow worshippers. Good times, and the campaign ended when one of the PC’s agreed to marry the Vampire Lord Strahd to secure peace fore the city of Shalazar. She slew him on their wedding night, but not before gaining undeath, immortality, and a daughter. She became the White Queen of Shalazar and has ruled the city ever since. She is beautiful and cruel and adored by her fearful folk.

To me, the story ended well, because the concurrance of my campaign (the Undead War) the randomness of the dice (they simply could not find a way, or the will, to defeat Strahd in the traditional manner) and the player’s actions came together to tell a complete story.

During our next campaign, set 100 years in the future of the same campaign world D Erte, from the beginning the characters were more cut-throat and uncaring than ever before, but the system worked in such a manner as to practically reward greedy, tactic-less play, in that it was hard to die under normal circumstances. I compensated for their lack of honor, nobility, goodness, heroism, or scruples by keeping them on the run. This seemed to harden the characters into hard-boiled soul-less bastards that has stuck ever since.

The campaign ended with them defeating the big bad, and I wanted something different, something… better. Choosing my personal favorite adventure of all time, the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, we decided to use the Pathfinder Beginner Box (which everyone loved when we played the intro adventure) as the rules system. What a great idea, I thought. TOEE is a grand rollicking dungeon crawl where the heroes defeat all sorts of monsters as they tear down the temple one element at a time. Unfortunately, it requires that the players have some sense of heroism or goodness about them. A group of murderous greedy thugs is more likely to work for the temple than against it.

The party from day one in Homlett lied, cheated, stole, and murdered almost at random, and no, not based on the randomocity of dice-rolling, but more from a complete lack of caring on the players part for any sort of story beyond “I swing my sword, hit or miss?” I’m sure some people right now reading this are going, yeah, sounds like a great game! Well, maybe it is, and maybe I am a fool, however, i have no love of describing the murder of innocents or the best way to trick and cheat honest people. I know it’s just a game, but it is distasteful to me in the same way as seeing picture of actual dead people would begin to turn my stomach. The “just a game” aspect loses its flavor at some point. I can lovingly describe a shifter pouncing onto a zombie and clawing its way into its guts until it uncovers the spine, which it chomps through with a satisfying crunch. But I don’t want to describe the murder of children, innocents, or the rape of women or anything like that. In that way, one’s morality plays a part in the type of game one plays. Too many thieving, lying, cheating, murdering encounters, and I have thrown my hands up in disgust and said “Enough, I’m done.”

I liken this to the debate between two characters in the TV Show “The Walking Dead.” In it, Rick, the quintessential gun-toting sheriff, argues that the only way to survive the zombie apocalypse is to hold on to the values of community and brotherhood that separate us from them. By doing that we might just survive to rebuild, and should we lose it, then everything is doomed. Shane, on the other hand, admits that he shot an innocent man so that he could escape and survive another day. I find that position reprehensible, because without brotherhood, without society, without love, without trust and hope, we are no better than them, and what more right do you have to survive than me? It is all or nothing.

Imagine the show without Rick, the guiding soul that believes in justice and goodness, and you have some idea of how the players of my game played. It was just not interesting enough, or worth the effort to constantly bribe and steer them grudgingly towards some goal that they neither cared about nor probably even remembered hearing about. Dice rolling alone is not enough, killing stuff is not enough, especially if it is a group of innocent shaking guards who have done no more wrong than to be standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. Slit open and dumped in the river for the shiny gold piece in their pockets.

No thanks, not my style.

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