It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
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.