Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
Erik Jensen launched his Lumberlands 'zine Kickstarter just shy of two weeks ago. In case you've never heard of it, here's the elevator pitch in Jensen's own words.
"A micro-setting featuring lumberjacks vs sasquatches, for classic and light tabletop RPGs."
And if for some reason you needed any more selling than "big, bearded lumberjacks swinging their axes at bloodthirsty skunk-apes," there's also a hidden city of intelligent squirrels.
The Lumberlands is a part of Jensen's larger Wampus Country setting, which he blogs about here. Jensen describes it as D&D seen through the lens of North American folklore, a blending of of Tall Tales, fairy tales, and old tales of the wilderness from the 1700s to the early 1900s.
When he calls it a different flavor of adventure, I'm inclined to agree. There's nothing else like Jensen's Wampus Country out there, folks. This is exactly the kind of creativity that the indie OSR excels at.
The project is fully funded as of this writing, but there's still plenty of time to make a pledge and secure a copy. $5 or more gets you the PDF. $10 or more gets you the physical copy and the PDF together.
You can click on the image above to go to the Kickstarter page. I've already got mine.
Now excuse me while I go and blast Jackyl while impatiently waiting for the delivery date.
One of my old martial arts instructors—a man specializing in knife fighting—used to have what he called the "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
It's a useful thought experiment, but one that needs a little explaining.
Basically, the instructor took an imaginary student. The imaginary student had no prior knowledge of martial arts, no fighting experience, and a minimal amount of athletic ability. In this scenario, the student approaches the instructor in a panic, saying he has to be in a knife fight in 5 minutes. He can't avoid it.
What does the instructor teach him? What tool does he give the student in 5 minutes that gives him the best chance to succeed?
He settled on a simple defensive move, one that forced the enemy to come to the student. He showed the student how to stand, how to hold the knife, and how to retreat. "Just cut anything that comes in reach, and keep cutting."
That instructor's thought experiment is something I've circled back to more than once over the years. It's an incredibly useful way to identify crucial parts of a complex system, and put them at the forefront in a practical way.
Not to say that the entire system needs to be thrown out. You can—and often should—still practice the larger and more complex system. Especially when it comes to something as deadly serious as martial arts. But it does give you a good idea of which principles are most important, and which things you should be focusing on as you hone and perfect the larger system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit, and I still want to tie this point to the subject of today's post:
A discussion thread popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday. In it, the self-styled "Evil High Priestess" of the OSR cavegirl talked about how Alignment-as-written is is poorly fleshed out, usually leads to bad experiences, and most DMs cut it entirely.
You can read her entire thread by following this link. You can also just read the following screen caps of my buddy Cirsova's posts. They copy cavegirl's posts word-for-word, but they add photos of oiled-up bodybuilders and vintage Charles Atlas ads to the bottom of each one:
Admittedly, the Cirsova posts are a bit of a piss-take. Mostly because our mutual buddy Meffrius—who was unfairly dog-piled not too long ago over his "#EliteLevel powergaming" schitck—said the same thing about Alignments as cosmic factions months ago.
Incidentally, you should follow Meffridus on Twitter. You should also buy Cirsova.
But I digress.
Cavegirl is right, of course. Alignment should be a form of cosmic faction play. In fact, with Gary Gygax's inclusion of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books on Appendix N, it's difficult to see how it was ever intended otherwise.
Anderson, in particular, gives a fantastic "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Alignment-as-cosmic faction play. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 3 of Three Hearts Three Lions.
But the fact is, not many of the responses below cavegirl's post indicate people are familiar with the reading material. As John McGlynn, co-host of Geek Gab points out, the concept of Alignment-as-personality-test is at least as old as Moldovay, making the Appendix N interpretation the exception rather than the rule.
Which honestly has me thinking. Not too many people have read Appendix N as deeply as Jeffro Johnson or Joseph Goodman. I'm a dabbler compared to those two, and there are plenty in the OSR scene who have read much deeper than me.
But I'd assumed more—if not most—people in the OSR were at least passingly familiar with the more famous works on Appendix N. At least the ones responsible for the quirkiest bits of D&D's ruleset.
For a long while, I'd been thinking about what I'd put on an "Abridged Appendix N," the three or four books I'd hand someone who wanted to give their D&D game an entirely different feel than the standard "D&D brand" setting and flavor. I'm still mulling that one over, because I think it will skew heavily to science fantasy.
But I think after reading cavegirl's post, I have what I'd call my "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Appendix N: pre-supposing a brand new player—one who has no prior knowledge or experience of D&D, fantasy, or roleplaying games—what three books would I give him to teach him about D&D's underlying concepts to help him understand and run a game quickly?
Again, this is by no means exhaustive. I'd still urge people who are interested in D&D to read the other authors on Appendix N, or the other works by these authors. Lovecraft and Howard spring readily to mind, as to Burroughs and Brackett. Plus there's the rest of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, the rest of Vance's work, and the rest of Anderson's.
Any or all of them would be worth reading on their own merits, and any of them would undoubtedly enrich and inspire your game. So would countless other fantasy writers.
But in terms of my old instructor's "5 Minute Knife Fight" concept, those three titles are probably the three most crucial books on Appendix N. Those books are the "standing, holding the knife, and retreating," of the world implied by D&D's basic ruleset.
Read those three books, and you have a basic grasp on Vancian Magic, Alignment, Thieves' Guilds, how humans and Demi-humans do (or don't) get along, magic items and artifacts, certain monsters, how to run a series of connected adventures (via Anderson and Leiber's examples), the politics of a big city, wilderness and sea travel, and some example ruins/NPCs you can liberally steal from.
As an added bonus, most modern fantasy fans haven't read them, so they'll think you're being original.
It's also important to note that each of these books clocks in at around a hundred fifty pages or so. All together, they equal approximately one Harry Potter book. I'm a naturally slow reader. But I'd guess most people can probably read all three in about a week and a half of their spare time.
Add to that the time needed to figure out the chosen ruleset—not long, if you picked a 0e or B/X retro clone—and you're probably looking at about two weeks from complete novice to Dungeon Master.
So, there you have it. D&D's very own "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
Take it, build a foundation, and keep the crucial parts in mind as you hone and perfect your game.
Apologies for the lack of updates, folks. I had a lot going on over the last two months, mostly between VA appointments, paperwork, and associated crap. The silver lining is that things are finally starting to look a bit untangled, for the first time in years.
That said, lack of blogging about my Fantasy Effing Vietnam project doesn't mean I haven't been working on it. Fact is, I've been trying to donate every spare scrap of time to it that I can.
In my last post on the subject, I mentioned I'd been re-thinking the skills and resolution system. Specifically, I was planning to give every PC some limited access to the thieves' skills. It was partly for flavor reasons, and partly out of a desire for a unified skill mechanic. Specifically, I wanted the exact same resolution roll to apply to everyone sneaking through the bush.
But after a few play tests—and some fascinating OSR readings over the holidays—I think I'm going to walk that back a bit.
I'll get into the reasons below. But first, I want to introduce the newest addition to the game: Sapper Dwarves.
THE TUNNEL RATS
You wake up screaming again. It's a good ten seconds before you recognize the cool, vaulted brick ceiling, the soft candle glow, and the pungent smell of burning herbs.
You're in the keep's infirmary. Just where you've been for almost two weeks.
You only have vague memories of how you survived the goblin ambush. You just remember running through the woods, your arm and your thigh burning. You remember both Bregan and Kruppa, laying in the kill zone like sacks of meat.
They say an Elf patrol picked you up. According to the report, you were half-delirious form the poison in your veins, wandering alone through the forest, babbling like a madman.
They never found any trace of Bregan or Kruppa.
You're still groggy when a troop of hard-eyed dwarves bursts into the infirmary. None of them pay any attention to the Sisters of Mercy trying to block their way. They shove through the nuns as roughly as if they're pushing through a shield wall.
"There he is," one of them says, pointing at you.
The dwarves make a bee line, quickly surrounding your bed, all eyes boring into you. The leader produces a rough-sketched piece of parchment covered in long, intersecting lines. You don't read Dwarven rune-script—not even a little—so it's a moment before you recognize some of the terrain features.
It's a map. One tracing a system of tunnels and warrens that would put an ant-hill to shame. Gods... is this the goblin tunnel network? How could anyone hope to fight and clear such a thing?
The Dwarven leader jabs a finger at the parchment. "That goblin ambush. Where was it?"
You trace a rough circle around the area. "It was somewhere around here, between—"
The Dwarf cuts you off. "We already know the area. Where was it exactly?"
Exactly? You concentrate hard. You try to remember the configuration of the land, looking at the map for a corresponding pattern.
"Here," you say at last. "Right here between these hillocks."
The Dwarf smiles. It's an evil looking sight. He turns to his companions. There's some excited chatter among them.
"It's near Ogre's Fist. We could insert there, turn north, and start pouring oil down the the side passages."
"Whole area under those hillocks is unstable. Might be able to bring the entire thing down on 'em if we undermine the right junctions."
"What if we borrowed one of the Magic Users? Fill the whole thing with that flaming gas spell they've got. Burn the hill and the stinking tunnels."
It's then that you see the tattoo on the Dwarf leader's wrist. Bregan had one like it. Could they be kinsmen?
"We move by night," the leader says. "Hit the tunnel during the day when these green bastards are sleeping. Then we go in quiet, and we do it by hand." As he says it, his hand drifts to the brace of knives hanging across his chest.
The Dwarves leave without another word spoken. The Sisters of Mercy mutter prayers. You lay back, thinking.
The Dwarves have adapted to this new way of war, perhaps better than any other race on the side of Law. They move more silently than the Elves. They deliver knife thrusts in the dark, and they slip away before the alarm is raised. They have an uncanny knack for spotting the goblin traps, and dismantling them with surgical precision.
That's not the surprising part. The surprising part is to a man, they seem unnaturally pleased by this. Almost as if they'd been born to this way of fighting, and their millennia of using shield walls, spears, and axes was nothing but a small diversion.
You relax into your pillow, strangely at ease. There will be blood beneath the earth come morning. And for once, you don't think it will be from the side of Law.
One thing I've been considering more heavily since last update is role protection: how do the various classes distinguish themselves from one another, and how do I ensure that each class has a defined niche in the game?
This is something old-school D&D unquestionably did better than new editions. The Fighter was the fighter, and anyone else who tried to step in and fill the heavy combat role would get a mud-hole stomped in their guts. Likewise with Magic-Users, Thieves, and Clerics.
Early D&D handled role protection more-or-less organically, with each class being tied to a basic archetype. Characters were either the Strong Guy, the Sneaky Guy, the Magic Guy, or the Holy Guy. The Elf was the only real exception, being something of an "in-between" character in both B/X and OD&D.
That said, there were still some hiccups in earlier editions' handling of role protection. In B/X and its clones, the Dwarf and the Halfling were basically short Fighters with infravision and a handful of special abilities. Their good saving throws made them better at surviving, but neither one really filled a true "in-between" role, like the Elf.
In any event, later editions didn't pay much attention to the idea of role protection at all. Giving players shiny new options meant including multi-class rules, or creating more "cross-archetype" classes like the Ranger and the Eldritch Knight. The more of them that popped up, the less specialized the basic classes felt.
That gradual drift away from the basic, archetype-based classes is one of the things that ended up changing the overall feel of the game. So much so that I'm honestly starting to think of role protection as a "silent feature" of the OSR.
But is it more important than simple, unified mechanics?
As I mentioned in my last update, I'd been toying with giving each of the classes limited access to certain Thieves' skills. I did give it a shot, running about half a dozen sessions with three separate groups in Keep on the Borderlands. And two things became readily apparent:
Admittedly, number two was something I should have seen coming. With Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Find Traps all being things the DM rolls in secret and adjudicates the result of, most of the players never even saw their abilities in action. All they ever saw was the results of a missed roll turning into an ambush, or a successful one turning into a chance to get the drop on a sentry.
In other words, all I really did was create more bookkeeping for myself behind the screen, with absolutely none of the flavor results finding their way to the PCs.
So while I did gain a unified mechanic in terms of skill rolls, the trade-off wasn't really worth it. Bottom line, "Thieves skills for everybody" is a feature I'm axing.
Which, unfortunately, brings me right back to the problem described in that last post: how do I adjudicate Thieves and non-Thieves attempting the same action, like sneaking up on a guard?
I eventually found a pretty good answer in Philotomy's Musings, a collection of OD&D interpretations, thoughts, house-rules, compiled by Jason Cone. It's a justifiably famous document in OSR circles, if only for the "dungeon as mythic underworld" section. But the entire thing is very much worth a read.
Cone's take on the Thief's Move Silently ability is that it represents a skill far above and beyond normal stealth. A successful roll means the Thief truly moves without making a sound, moving with an almost supernatural silence. A fighter wanting sneak up on a sentry, on the other hand, is just using "normal" stealth. In the latter case, the DM rolls a 1d6. On a 1 or a 2, the attempt is successful, as in the standard surprise rules.
As for how Cone squares this with the Thief's Move Silently ability, his solution is simple and elegant: if the Thief fails his percentile roll to Move Silently, the DM rolls a "normal" stealth roll on a 1d6. In other words, the Thief gets two chances to sneak up: one with his class ability, and one with the same mechanic everyone else is using.
I like this solution. For one thing, it doesn't break the game by asking me to resolve the same action two different ways. Everyone gets the same mechanic. The Thief just gets an extra attempt with his different one. But much more importantly, it protects the Thief's unique role in the party.
So where does that leave the others?
ROLE PROTECTION REDUX: BALANCING THE GAME
As I mentioned back in my "MASH Clerics and the Walking Wounded" post, I've removed Clerics and healing magic as player options. Instead every PC starts with the large pool of HP. While this is a necessary change for the "progressive exhaustion and battle fatigue" theme I'm going for, it does have the unintended consequence of taking away one of the Fighter's main advantages: HP.
Yes, it is still possible for a Fighter to start with more HP than most other classes. But that's not enough to make the Fighter feel like a clearly defined role. At least not at lower levels.
One way I'm going "give back" to the Fighter is by implementing class-based damage. A Fighter with a dagger should be more deadly than a wizard with a staff. Another thing I'm adopting is the old rule about how strength bonuses for melee combat only apply to Fighters.
Add those to the Fighter's ability to hit weaker enemies once per level each combat round, his ability to use any weapons or armor, and an improved THAC0 table, and the Fighter suddenly starts to differentiate himself again.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the spell casters. Since I already removed the Cleric, what I have left is the Magic User and the new, Illusionist-inspired Fae class. Since there isn't much of a way to differentiate them with abilities, I decided the best way to do it would be with their spells.
I took great pains to ensure each class had a completely unique spell list, with no crossover between them. In addition to all the "classic" illusions, the Fae gets exclusive access to the "mind-f*ckery" spells, like Charm Person and Invisibility. The Magic-User, on the other hand, still gets the damage and mobility spells, like Fireball, Magic Missile, and Levitate.
In purely military terms, if the Magic User fills an artillery and logistics role, the Fae is psyops and counterintelligence.
Which brings us to the Thief and the Dwarf. Getting back to my other design principle of "rules imply setting," I decided to do away with the human Thief altogether, and re-conceptualize the Dwarf to keep the Fighter's role unique.
I decided the best thing to do was make the Dwarf class adhere to the Thief-archetype, imagining them as the war effort's Tunnel Rats, Combat Engineers, and Sappers. To that end, I'm probably going to do away with some of the standard Thief skills, like Pick Pockets and Pick Locks. I'm probably going to replace them with something like "Underground Navigation," and "Jury-Rig," to reflect their focus on warfare over theft.
For the Elf class, I decided to keep the principle of an "in-between" character. I kept the Fighting and spell-casting abilities mostly intact, but decided to stop the Elf's access to spells stronger than 3rd Level. The Magic User, on the other hand, has access to 4th and 5th Level spells.
I also decided to grant the Elf—and only the Elf—some limited access to the Thieves' stealth skills, like Move Silently and Hide in Shadows. But where the Dwarf will continually get better at them, the Elf only gets his base score, with no chance of improvement. This puts the Elf squarely in the center of the three archetypes I have left: he's part Strong Guy, part Magic Guy, and part Sneaky Guy.
As for Halflings, I struck them from the game entirely, replacing them with the above-mentioned Fae.
The end result is a list of character classes slightly smaller than in B/X, but with more overall attention paid to how their roles complement and play off of one another.
This, I'd argue, is real game balance, and something the earlier editions did amazingly well. It's not about making sure each class has equal access to powers and abilities. It's about making sure each class—and by extension, each player—has a niche to fill that none of the others can.
Anyway, that's all I've got for now. Next post, I plan to talk about the last two big changes I've made to the game: The Critical Hit chart, and the re-vamped Magic System.
Until then, stay quiet out there. And keep low. The goblins are getting better with those damned crossbows.
As I mentioned a few months back, I've been running an OSR-hacked Curse of Strahd game with my regular D&D group. And this past weekend, I realized I'm probably DMing the most creative bunch of murderhobos to ever set torch and pitchfork to the gods-forsaken land of Barovia.
I also realized they just might be the villains.
For those of you unfamiliar with the adventure and its basic set-up, Curse of Strahd is a 5e remake of the classic AD&D module, I6: Ravenloft. The adventure finds the PCs trapped in the mist-shrouded valley of Barovia, which is ruled by the vampire count Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd will only allow the PCs to escape if they surrender his intended bride, an innocent peasant girl named Tatyana.
Unless the PCs find a way to defeat Strahd, while simultaneously keeping Tatyana from falling into his clutches, they'll be trapped in Barovia forever.
This set-up was pretty railroad-y by 1e standards, but the mix of Gothic horror tropes with high adventure struck a chord with players. Ravenloft was one of the most popular D&D adventures of its era, and has seen some form of remake or reinvention for every subsequent edition of the game, including a full campaign setting in 2e.
Anyway, the details are a bit convoluted to go into here, but the bottom line is that in this run-through, Strahd's intended bride Tatyana ended up dead.
Normally, this is bad news for the PC's.
But rather than just try to conceal this fact as long as possible, and launch a surprise assault on the castle—which is what I expected—my merry band of murderhobos decided they now had a unique weapon in their hands. So they proceeded to hatch the most twisted "get Strahd" plan I've seen in all my years of DMing the Ravenloft setting:
The next evening, they loaded the Zombie Tatyana up into a carriage and rode for the castle. When they arrived in the courtyard, Strahd came out to greet them. He was dressed in finery himself, and flanked by skeleton warriors in polished dress armor. The PCs dismounted, and gave a speech humbly apologizing for being so unreasonable before. The also expressed their hopes that Strahd would honor his earlier promise to help them escape the valley, in exchange for Tatyana.
Strahd replied that he is an honorable man, and would keep his agreements. He also invited the PCs to stay for the wedding: "I always prepare an excellent feast."
With that, the PC's opened the carriage. The Zombie Tatyana walked towards Strahd. As soon as she got within range, the Magic Mouth spell went off, causing her to whisper her line. Strahd gathered her in his arms.
Then the PCs sprung one of the most beautiful and sadistic traps I've ever seen.
It's important to note that the PCs were 100% aware that this wouldn't kill Strahd. In fact, they knew damned well that he'd be strong enough to break out of this. The entire goal was psychological warfare. They wanted to horrify him with the sight his beloved's corpse erupting with vines, vomiting holy water, and then exploding in a bloody mess.
Like I said. These guys might just be the villains, all things considered...
Anyway, the PCs pressed the momentary advantage they got from exploding the innocent village girl's corpse all over the vampire. As the skeleton warriors moved to attack, the spell casters immobilized them. The Cleric used the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind to completely immobilize Strahd, so the warriors could move in and begin pummeling the bejeezus out of him.
The "battle" was so one-sided it wasn't even funny. They finished him off by forcing a Bag of Holding full of Holy Water down his throat. I didn't even bother to roll for damage. I described the vampire's body beginning to bubble, boil, and burn...
Honestly, watching them plan and execute such a crazy curb-stomp of a battle was so damn satisfying, I almost felt bad that I was about to pull the rug out from under them.
That said, I also started running Ravenloft games back in the 90's. And I know damned well that the one thing that makes Strahd a memorable villain is that he's not an idiot.
As the PC's were watching the vampire's face melt, I had one of them notice the illusion spell fail, revealing that the "Strahd" they'd just killed was a decoy: a lesser vampire spawn he put in place so he could quietly observe them from a distance.
From above, the PC's heard an amplified voice boom over the courtyard: "I was going to be honorable. But you allowed my bride to die. Worse, you desecrated her. For that crime, you will all pay."
A fireball then dropped into the center of the PCs formation. It delivered massive damage all around, thanks to a bunch of blown saving throws. Behind them, the gates of the castle slammed shut. And above them, the amplified voice issued a final, cold proclamation: "None of you will leave this place alive."
We ended the session right there, with the PC's trapped and without any ideas where to go from here.
This is D&D storytelling in a nutshell, folks. These crazy, unplanned moments that the players—and the DM—will still be discussing years from now. This is where the real magic of the game has always been: in watching the players come up with some crazy, over-the-top scheme, and try their damndest to execute it.
Real D&D storytelling has nothing to do with the DM, his campaign notes or (Gygax help us) "plot arcs." It can only happen organically. It's also entirely player driven. The DM can't force it, and the more he tries, the more he gets in the way.
If you truly want to create great stories in your D&D games, the only thing you need to do as a DM is put great obstacles in the players' way. Let them use their own ingenuity. Because when they come up with a plan, you get to do the best part.
You get to sit back and watch.
The DM isn't the story's architect in a D&D game. If anything, he's the set designer. But if he does a good enough job, he also gets to be the front row audience.
That's worth its weight in gold, folks.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.