Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I hope you are having a wonderful holiday, no matter where you are. Here's hoping you got that MANMELTER 3600ZX Sub-Atomic Disintegrator Pistol (or whatever else it was) that you were wanting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Interesting Places: Mysterious Island

There's been some discussion of sailing craft in the blogosphere of late. The discussion has mainly been focused on ships, and that's cool, but what I am really interested in is where you are going. If you don't know, then might I suggest Mysterious Island? It's a wonderful place, chock full to the brim with horrible monsters, nasty vermin, and perhaps a band of Cthulhu-worshiping pirates. It is a fine place for a vacation, I daresay.

Mysterious Island marks the first in an occasional series of posts about interesting places to send your player characters. Periodically, I will post a map along with a few comments. As is my custom, I will refrain from keying these maps, or providing too much in the way of detail, preferring that you do that yourself. I don't promise that these posts will follow any sort of regular schedule, or be about any particular type of locale, but I do expect that they will at least be on par with what you see here.

Nobody ever likes The Fine Print, but it is a necessary evil. As such, let's get it out of the way forthwith. Like other maps that I post here from time to time, I am sharing this under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you follow that link you will be able to read about the conditions that apply to this work. In a nutshell: (a) you can't use it commercially, (b) you must attribute it to me, and (c) you must share any derivative works that you create. With that out of the way, I present Mysterious Island...

Mysterious Island is a small island, just over 1½ miles wide. It exists wherever you want it to, so long as it can rest in a deep, blue body of water. Stick it in an ocean, on a lake, or even on its own demiplane. Although small, it has a variety of terrain types and should prove a fun, if brief, romp for player characters.

There is a small, rocky beach to the north and a larger, sandy beach at the top of the island's only navigable lagoon. The remainder of the coast is either scrub, low-lying salt marsh, or steep, treacherous cliff. At high tide the ocean rushes forth to fill the island's lowest land. This creates a huge tide pool, dividing the island in twain.

To the east of the tide pool is a salt marsh. The soggy land is almost uniformly covered with a variety of cordgrasses. To the south, the land rises to a promontory. The terrain is grassy, rocky, and occasionally choked with scub. The headland is separated from the remainder of the island by a steep gorge filled with crashing sea water. On the far side of this gorge squats a hideous tower, brooding on the cliffside.

To the north lies a thick, virgin woodland followed by steep hills. Although dense, the wood quickly turns into shrub land as one ascends the hills. The lands immediately before the cliffs are covered with grass, punctuated by large rocks. Many of the rocks have been stained white by the presence of innumerable birds.

Who or what lives on this island is, of course, up to you. If your players are a-sailing, then perhaps they will bump into this place. Otherwise, might they receive a nudge via an old map or a well-placed rumor? Who can tell! But if you need a map of a mysterious island with a dark secret, then this might just be the ticket. Some DM assembly required.

I'd like to give a big, special thanks to Creative Coquette for selecting the colors and drawing the sea monster. Everything needs a sea monster.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Mind's Ear of Yezmyr

If there was a single song that expressed how I feel when I think of the World of Yezmyr, it would surely be Leng Tch'e by Naked City. Luckily, there's a whole bunch of other songs that collectively paint a picture of Yezmyr in my mind's ear. To that end, I've put together a soundtrack for the next gaming session. It's atmospheric, otherworldly, and more than a little creepy. I'm putting it out there because I suspect other people find these sorts of things interesting. I know I certainly do.
  1. Catacombs, Heretic (Naked City, 1992)
  2. Une Correspondance, Absinthe (Naked City, 1993)
  3. Back Through the Looking Glass, Heretic (Naked City, 1992)
  4. Three Preludes Op. 74 — Tres Lent, Contemplaif, Grand Guignol (Naked City, 1992)
  5. Fleurs du Mal, Absinthe (Naked City, 1993)
  6. Leng Tch'e, Black Box (Naked City, 1990)
  7. Grand Guignol, Grand Guignol (Naked City, 1992)
  8. Notre Dame de L'Oubli (For Olivier Messiaen), Absinthe (Naked City, 1993)
  9. White and Lazy (Homecoming), Filmworks 1986-1990 (John Zorn, 1997)
  10. The Golden Boat (Turntable Mix), Filmworks 1986-1990 (John Zorn, 1997)
  11. Yoga Dollar, Nani Nani (John Zorn, 1995)
  12. The Golden Boat (Theme), Filmworks 1986-1990 (John Zorn, 1997)
  13. New Jersey Scum Swamp, Black Box (Naked City, 1990)
  14. The Toll, Buried Secrets (Painkiller, 1991)
  15. Gob of Spit, Black Box (Naked City, 1990)
Finding all of these songs might prove troublesome—my musical tastes are more than a little esoteric. Luckily, you can get most of them from Tzadik, John Zorn's record label. (Confirmed: I just checked the Tzadik catalog. While not all of the releases are still available individually, all of the songs can be obtained from the various available collections.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The RJK Level

Not all that long ago I was on the phone with RJK. He was telling me the events surrounding EGG's running of Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery. Following that, Rob moved into a descriptive history of Burmania, accounts of the fabled Supplement V: Kalibruhn, the orcs of the Greyhawk Castle dungeons, and so much more. I can't begin to recount what was said, but I can share the map that I drew while Rob was conveying some of the earliest histories of D&D to me.

The map started out as a doodle. I had the thought that it would be cool to draw a dungeon while listening to the history of D&D as told by someone who had really seen it from the inside out. I didn't tell Rob what I was doing. I just sketched freely as he talked. By the time the call was over I had a rough level mapped out. In the following days I fleshed it out in my customary style. I didn't plan this out. It just sort of happened—and I ran with it. Overall, I'm really pleased with the results. I hope you like it, too.

If you need a map, take it and use it. I'm sharing it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you follow that link you will be able to read about the conditions that apply to this work. In a nutshell: (a) you can't use it commercially, (b) you must attribute it to me, and (c) you must share any derivative works that you create. Now that that's out of the way, I'll divulge a little about the design of this level.

Typically, I use all available space when transliterating my brain waves into dungeon maps. In this case, for whatever reason, I left some space at the bottom of the page. The RJK Level runs 310 feet from east to west and 320 feet from north to south. This makes it slightly larger than the well-known one-page dungeon format that is popular with some. This is accidental, but will no doubt please certain intrepid DMs. In any case, as RJK continued weaving tales, I decided that I would use the free space for the map's legend.

At another point during the conversation, Rob told me of one level he drew in which he used a wide ranging corridor to whip adventurers from one side of the map to the other. That technique resonated with me, so I decided to give it a try on this map. I also made a conscious effort to incorporate other elements which I sometimes neglect, like shifting blocks, underfloor passages, etc.

So there you have it: a new, unkeyed map. I want you to take it, print it out, key it up, run it, and share it! I have purposefully avoided discussing areas of the map that have meaning to me. What I really want is for you to take this map and make it your own. When you do, drop me a line. I'd love to hear how you use it.

If you like this map then you really ought to check out Pied Piper Publishing's DUNGEON SETS™ product line. Each set contains six full-sized dungeon levels, interconnected and unkeyed, just like the one above. (Full disclosure: those maps come from the same pen as the one above.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Brief Introduction to the World of Yezmyr

Copyright © 2009, Ramsey Dow. All Rights Reserved.

Yezmyr was a dying world. The civilization of the Precursors laid smoking in ruins, their fate sealed by the Great Cataclysm. Oceans boiled and evaporated even as the atmosphere thinned dangerously, sucked out into space. Continents buckled as tectonic plates clashed. Souls fled with unerring trajectory into the stratosphere and the Planes Beyond as everyone died. The world transformed into swirling chaos. When the chaos finally subsided, all that remained was a planetary sea of silicate sand. Eons passed.

Without precedent, the twin primordial beings, Islou and Onettetian, arose from the sands of chaos. They created the Lands Above, gigantic pillars of stone capped with earth. Not quite continents, the Lands Above are gigantic mesas. Colloquially known as the Pillars, they alone break the monotony of the boundless wastes that cover the remainder of the world. Although varying in shape and area, the smallest could easily best the size of Texas. There are ten such Pillars, clustered together like islands. They are known as the Spires of Yezmyr. It is there that the Twins chose to rekindle life, ushering Yezmyr into a strange, new era.

The tops of the Pillars are swathed in mountains, twisted forests, steppes, and deserts. Water, although present, is rare. Large bodies, where they exist, are typically salty, with spring-fed streams being the most common source of fresh water. Rivers are unheard of. Five of the Pillars are desolate, demon haunted places. They remain unexplored and enigmatic, although tales of fabulous, lost wealth abound. The remaining Pillars comprise the Five Kingdoms, where the disparate, warring tribes of man make their home. Travel between the Pillars, while possible, is uncommon, requiring aerial steeds or magic.

Endless sky lies above and to all sides of the Pillars. For all its beauty, the sky is a desert. The atmosphere of Yezmyr is unnaturally thin and dangerous to breathe for long periods. The Twins, in their beneficence, created Atmosphere Plants, which produce prodigious amounts of oxygen locally. These plants are liberally scattered throughout the realms of man. Breathable air abounds wherever these plants flourish. The further one travels from the civilized realms the less likely one is to find this plant. Traveling in areas not populated by Atmosphere Plants is dangerous and ill advised unless appropriate precautions have been taken.

Traditional air-breathing creatures are found all across the surface of the Pillars. In other regions, particularly where the atmosphere thins and turns foul, the creatures become stranger yet. Thousands of feet below the edges of the Pillars stretch a thick, seemingly endless expanse of clouds. This cloud cover, known as The Between, separates the Lands Above from the Chaos Below. This place is haunted by all manner of terrifying creatures, the most common being huge, man-eating birds.

Several miles below The Between lies the wasted surface of Yezmyr. Known as the Unending Chaos, it is all that remains of the former world. Corrupted, decayed, and disintegrated, it is a perpetual wasteland of deep and suffocating silicate sand. The cloud cover of The Between is thick, expansive, and permanent, rendering the wasted surface overcast and eternally hot. Sands swirl wildly in the hot winds that constantly sweep the planet's surface. Primordial horrors haunt the wastes and travel there is thought impossible. Journeying to the Unending Chaos is considered suicidal.

This is the World of Yezmyr, a non-traditional setting of high fantasy, lowly sword swinging, and wild, violent sorcery. This is not an age of romance, but an age of peril. The sentient races fight tooth and nail for their survival, while the low creatures menacingly stalk prey in an endless cycle of life and death.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pied Piper Publishing announces DUNGEON SETS™

Well, it's official. The first batch of maps I was commissioned to draw for Rob Kuntz go on sale at Pied Piper Publishing tomorrow. DUNGEON SETS #1 (Levels 1-6) and DUNGEON SETS #2 (Levels 7-12) will become available at 12:00 noon CST. I'm pretty excited about these maps, because I got to design them as well as draw them. I've seen enough uninspired maps in recent years to have a vested interest in getting some real maps out there into the RPG marketplace. Here's a sample section from Level 8 showing a part of "The Cistern":

What's great about these maps is that they are fully drawn, but un-keyed. Virtually nothing is documented about them (other than a cross section and map legend, of course). What this means is that you, the referee, get to create everything about this place! One person's Level 1 will be wholly different than someone else's. I can't wait to see what people do with these levels. (I should note that there is nothing preventing you from using any game system you want—D&D, GAMMA WORLD, Empire of the Petal Throne, GURPS, etc.—with these levels.)

You can read more about DUNGEON SETS here, here, and here.

I am already hard at work mapping out DUNGEON SETS #3 (Levels 13-18) and DUNGEON SETS #4 (Levels 19-24), which will become available in the new year. There will also be some special DUNGEON SETS releases in the future, so keep your eyes peeled.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are You Gonna Go My Way?

I love role-playing games, but I hardly ever play them. Don't get me wrong, I run games as often as I can, but I'm always refereeing. I love being the DM. It's the act of creation that serves as the draw for me. When it comes to role-playing, I love nothing more than creating deadly circumstances and watching how the players work their way out of it. Sometimes this goes according to my plan; other times, not so much.

I'm going to share two instances of this from my current D&D campaign, The World of Yezmyr. The first anecdote is about a time when things went my way, and the second—surprise, surprise—is about a time when they didn't. Now, I'm not the most sadistic DM out there, but I do tend to have fun at my players' expense. My dungeons are weird places. I wouldn't say that they're fun houses or anything, but they definitely have a malevolent edge.

Not too long ago the party was working their way through one of the levels beneath a particularly nasty ancient ruin. One of their number, Trebor the fighting-man, played by R, had recently died, having fallen into a deep and narrow pit. The other party members managed to haul his broken body out of the pit. They carried it for a while, but the burden became too great. The player characters unceremoniously dumped Trebor's body into an otherwise empty room. "We'll come back later and get the body," they said. Right.

Fast forward a half an hour or so. The party found a secret door that opened up a slew of heretofore undiscovered rooms. The players' excitement level increased as they began to explore afresh. In time they came across a large, pillared hall. "What do you want to do," I asked. "We enter the hall," they said. I threw some dice and informed them that Yazmine, Z's elven magic-user, had been encircled by a bright, penetrating, white light. A number of magic mouths then appeared on the hall's various walls and pillars. Before anyone could react, the magic mouths intoned, "O GREAT ADVENTURER, WHAT BE THY WISH?"

There were exhortations from the other players to "Wish for gold," to "Wish for health for all," and to "Wish for health and gold for everyone." I had to be very careful while all this was going on. My players know me well and they constantly analyze me, looking for telltale signs that they can use to their benefit. I didn't want to give anything away, so I did my damnedest to remain aloof. You see, there was a trick at play here. There was indeed a wish in effect, but the reverse of what was asked for would happen. I had no idea what the players would wish for when I keyed this room, but that didn't matter. Playing through this encounter would be fun, regardless. So here they were, caught up within its effect. In time, Z wished for "Trebor to be brought back to life." In unison, the magic mouths intoned, "OS TI LLAHS EB."

If Z had just followed the urgings of the other players then everyone would have taken damage and been slapped with the medieval equivalent of mountains of credit card debt. I suppose that's what I half expected to happen. As it turned out, I still got what I wanted. Z's request for Trebor to be brought back to life got translated by the warped enchantment of the place into a mandate for permanent death for Trebor.

To satisfy the reverse wish—and ensure that the body would be useless if presented to high level clerics back in town—I had it consumed by a carrion crawler. There was a nest of the foul creatures located not far from where the the party had dumped Trebor's body. Up until that point I had been rolling dice periodically to determine whether a carrion crawler in the vicinity had sniffed out a tasty treat. However, given the current situation, it was clear that a carrion crawler not only found Trebor's corpse, but was consuming it—from the head down!

I wish I had a picture of the players' collective faces when they finally managed to make it back to the room where they had left Trebor's body. It was slack jaws and wide eyes all the way around the table as I described the horrid scene. The carrion crawler had managed to work its way from the head down to the gut. It was clear that there would be no resurrection for this corpse. In the end, the player characters wasted the carrion crawler, Trebor's player, R, rolled up a new character, and the game continued. Best of all, there's still an occasional mention of Trebor's glorious corpse.

The second anecdote is about a time when things didn't really go my way. It's not nearly as lengthy a story, so I will be brief. The player characters had managed to fight their way down to an evil temple deep beneath the sunlit surface. They had hacked their way through what seemed like an endless horde of undead temple guardians, and made it to the final hall, a sunken affair with an obsidian floor. Surely the EHP and his minions would be found at the end of this accursed place. "Forward to death," I encouraged everyone with a smile.

The players noted the unsual floor with trepidation and refused to set foot on it, much to my chagrin. I had at least expected a tentative foot so that I could roll the dice for damage: the floor was magicked to shock those who were not of chaotic alignment. Perhaps a cliche ploy, but seemed valid since this was a chaos temple. My players, however, were not biting. Instead of running across the floor, which I surmised would have removed a reasonable number of hit points from them, they instead threw zombie carcasses out onto the floor. In this manner they formed a path as they went, ultimately traversing the obsidian obstacle without taking a single point of damage. I was admittedly nonplussed. I shouldn't have been—my players are quite smart; I shouldn't have expected anything less from them. In this particular case Z noticed that I was aggro and called me on it. Touche! In the end, the player characters slew the EHP and his minions and escaped from the dungeons with their lives intact. Oh yeah, they got some treasure, too.

Sometimes the action goes the way I want it to and sometimes it doesn't. I can try and influence the direction that play takes, but in the end it's the players who are the ones driving. Regardless of where we all end up, we always manage to have a good time. My players tell me that the game is fun, and they keep coming back, so that's all that really matters.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Look Complete

I'd like to give a special thanks to Kevin Mayle for the fantastic new artwork gracing the top of the blog. Kevin has managed to capture the evocative mood that I was going after. That's a bona fide TPK happening right there. Just look at those foolish adventurers gasping in shock as they meet their doom at the hand of the Nameless EHP of the Vault. I especially love the unearthly pallor cast across the cave by the death ray.

I would be remiss for not thanking my fiancée, Creative Coquette, for her excellent color choices. Without her assistance in color selection, this blog would not look nearly so cool and collected.

Thank you!


Welcome to my new blog. It is all about role-playing games, specifically my lifetime love of Dungeons & Dragons. The name is inspired from the Finger of Death, one of those wonderful spells that evil high priests use to slay unwary adventurers. I have always envisioned such rays as being sickly in hue, much like the cover of The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Doesn't that color make you feel ill? Hell yes it does.

I am a long time gamer. I started with Holmes Basic back in '78. I quickly graduated to AD&D and stayed there until 2006, when I gave OD&D a try. I stayed with OD&D until I scratched the itch and rolled my own Holmes expansion.

I'm mainly going to discuss aspects from my current campaign here: things that interest me, amusing player experiences, information about the campaign world, etc. Alas, life is hectic at the moment and lots of projects are vying for my attention. As such, I expect things to be somewhat sparse around here for the next month or so. Things will pick up in December when the next game is scheduled. In the meantime I'll post some small maps and other tidbits in the coming days and weeks to keep things going.