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One of my favorite villains is fantasy roleplaying is Medusa. In Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D”), that’s a species of creature. In Greek mythology, that’s the name of one of three of her kind, known as Gorgons. Most of you know this, but for those that don’t, here’s one of many videos on them. While I respect the work game designers do, I’m always going to prefer mythological creatures to those game designers invent. Mythology got me into D&D, not the other way around.
I love the way D&D has treated medusae generally. I vaguely remember an article in Dragon Magazine during the 3.5 EditionD&D (“3.5e”) days with a writeup on their ecology, which included their male counterparts, the maedar. I never got to use that article because it came towards the end of 3.5e, and I was so caught up in running Living Forgotten Realms and other canned adventures that I didn’t write much of my own material. I always wanted to write a medusa as a BBEG.
4th Edition D&D
In 4th Edition D&D (“4e”), I loved how 4e’s game mechanic was applied to the medusa’s petrifying gaze attack. In 4e, save or die was jettisoned and replaced by what you could call “save thrice in a row or die.” That is, you got three saves over three turns before you were killed, dominated, or whatever. If you saved successfully once during that run, you shook off the effects (though relatively rarely, you still might be subject to an aftereffect on a successful save). This worked really well with the medusa because each failed save during that three-round process resulted in increasingly bad effects. That is, on the first failed save, you were slowed (i.e., speed cut in half). On the second, you were immobilized (i.e., speed of 0). On the third failed save, you were petrified. This gives the player a means to immerse oneself in the action, as the cascade of worsening effects can give you the feeling of slowly turning to stone. (FYI, medusae weren’t the only creature to use this cascade.)
1st Edition D&D
I’m running 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) for the first time in 40 years, so I had forgotten quite a bit. There are a couple of things about medusae that I relearned. First, their gaze attack targets a single creature, whereas in later editions it attacks multiple targets. Second, the gaze is active, not passive. That is, a character merely gazing upon a medusa doesn’t harm the character; the medusa has to intend to petrify the opponent. (See Monster Manual II, page 55 for more information.) While these represent a break from mythology, as you’ll see, they worked to my advantage. One other thing to note is that I house ruled petrification to use the 4e system of slow progression to being petrified.
B2: The Keep on the Borderlands
Going into last session, my group and I knew that we had reached the end of the adventure. So, I told them that I’d be railroading them a little bit to make sure we wrapped things up and that a particular encounter occurred. That encounter was with spoiler alert! a medusa – I named her Xisper – who was captured by inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos and chained to a wall. She used her gaze attack against one PC, but he saved successfully. Some of the PCs held true to their good alignment and refused to allow anyone to kill her but indicated that they’d leave her to her fate, so Xisper immediately went into negotiation mode. Long story short, that negotiation led to them freeing her to clear out the gnoll infestation (the one area the PCs never addressed) and gave me the perfect recurring NPC to bring back at a later date. She’s undoubtably evil, but alignment in my game world is always more complicated than the books present, so she could still be of use to them, and them to her. This is even better than a BBEG.
A few weeks ago, I hosted another 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons (“1e”) game at my home. The group spent over an hour at the start of the session just reminiscing about the good old days when most of us first met. This was during the era of 4th Edition. Inevitably, the subject of synDCon came up. synDCon was the gaming convention financed primarily by Vic and me. The two of us did almost all the work of running the convention once it began. It was large enough that we had everything represented (see below), yet still maintained the coziness of conventions like Winter Fantasy.
synDCon Was Awesome
I need to put my modesty aside for a bit and say that we pulled off something magical (pun absolutely intended). In our first year, we took advantage of a holiday and put on a four-day convention. We provided tons of organized play: Living Forgotten Realms (4e), Pathfinder Society, and Heroes of Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings). We also had individual games from less popular RPGs being run here and there, tons of card games (including, of course, Magic the Gathering), tons of board games, and we were the official DC-area convention for Munchkin. We had special events, a LARP, dungeon delves I wrote based on classic 1e adventures, and live music on Saturday night for one of the cons. Our slots were staggered so that slots didn’t start every four hours but rather every two hours. If you wanted to sleep in a bit, you could. You’d just start playing at 11 am instead of 9 am, but there were enough 2-hour slots of other things to do that you could still get three slots of gaming in.
It wasn’t run in a convention center, nor in the basement of a mediocre hotel, but rather in a really nice “hotel and executive meeting center” right across the street from a Metro (subway) stop in Rockville, Maryland. As the county seat for Montgomery County, there were tons of restaurants, et al. in the area, including a gaming store down the street. Of course, we had a gaming store as our in-convention vendor both years, and we generated about 200 attendees both years. Our attendees represented everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi (e.g., Florida, Georgia, and Ohio), but we gave an award to a guy named Matt for having come the farthest for the con (Alaska).
We had tremendous support from volunteers that helped organize the detail while Vic and I focused on the big picture, and we’re forever indebted to those friends, but I’ll be damned if my feet weren’t atrociously sore by the end of both cons.
Seriously, it was stupendous, and everyone that attended and commented on it said so.
A Slight Diversion Before My Point
I’ve been thinking of doing something other than a Vegas blackjack trip for my fall vacation – I say this every year, so we’ll see if I follow through – and was considering an RPG gaming convention instead. Because I wanted to play 1e, I was initially thinking about GaryCon, but a friend pushed me towards GameholeCon. It was an easy sell because the timing would be better. GaryCon would interfere with Winter Fantasy, but GameholeCon would slide right into the Vegas slot (again, pun absolutely intended). The trouble is that Winter Fantasy and synDCon have spoiled me. I have no intention of going to a convention and paying between $100 and $200 per night for my hotel room if I’m staying at least 2 miles from the convention. That’s ridiculous. It’s like GenCon on a smaller scale. The city is obviously not big enough to handle the convention. So, I decided to look into other options.
There Aren’t Any
Sadly, I went through all my options I could find online, and nothing quite matches the magic of Winter Fantasy or synDCon as far as I can tell. The lists were not complete – Winter Fantasy wasn’t even mentioned (?!) – so maybe there are some other cons out there, but I can’t find them. The cons are at least one of the following: in an inconvenient or excessively crowded location, lack inexpensive parking, or focused on only a few things (usually the shiny new things of the day). Some are also not “cozy,” which I define as between 200 and 350 people. It’s large enough that there can be plenty to do, and you can meet new people, but small enough that you’ll always be able to find your friends and hang out with them. Winter Fantasy doesn’t even satisfy all of these characteristics perfectly – I tried to run 1e but only one ticket for only one slot of three was sold – but it’s as close to perfect as I think practical for a cozy con. It’s also in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I’m fine going out there, and I will every year they’ll have me, but I find it odd that an area with as big a gaming community as DC doesn’t have something like this.
And this is my point. DC needs a convention like synDCon or Winter Fantasy. Such a con isn’t going to hit the radar scope of the big players (i.e., Wizards of the Coast and Paizo), but it’ll appeal to plenty of players. The DC area is filled with them. Our Gamers’ Syndicate gaming club had over 200 people that identified as members, and we ran game days every single weekend in as many as five gaming stores at a time. While organizing synDCon, I learned of several other groups just as large that had never even heard of us. They were organizing at other stores. This area has an abundance of gamers, and I suspect there are even more here over 10 years later.
Will There Be a synDCon III?
That’s the magic question. I’m happy to organize it, but as we discussed at the game session, my demands are high. First off, I want to do it right or not do it at all. I’m not willing to put together a con in “the basement of the Best Western.” No offense to the chain in general, but that happens to be a hotel we visited that would be the site of a con not worth having. It was downright gross but not unlike venues of cons I’ve attended in the early 2000s. No thanks. Second, having learned from my experiences with the first two, the only way I’d do it is if I had a number of additional owners willing to slap down cashier’s checks for at least $2,000 each (or more depending on how many people commit) and having signed an operating agreement that prevents them from every cashing out that initial investment. That is, I need a sizeable stable of people willing to commit whole-heartedly so that I know I’ll have both the funds and the work ethic necessary to make this doable. Trust me when I say that it’s not enough that someone throw money at me. I need to know that they’re committed to doing the work necessary to pull off a great con. Because it’s been over 10 years, I don’t know what the minimum acceptable number of owners would be, especially without knowing exactly how much each would be willing to contribute up front, but I do know $2,000 is enough to motivate most gamers to stay the course and do what they could not to throw that money away. Any of them willing to drop $2,000 are likely to take it seriously.
Another thing I remember is that no one wanted to be the guy, the “convention coordinator” or CEO who had to make the calls when weird situations arose. While I’m happy to be that guy, I’m not willing to be the one that puts out the feelers (beyond this post, I guess) and see if there’s interest. If I thought my odds were better than 50% of finding such interest, I would, but I don’t think there are enough people willing to make this kind of commitment, so why bother trying? I did my part for king and country, and wound up with a small, overworked group. If this is meant to be, then someone else will have to get the ball rolling. So, while I’m not the one destined to put this together, I strongly suspect there’s a market for it, and my recent thoughts and conversations on the matter sure leave me wishing someone would.
If that’s you, drop me an email when you think you’ve got something real.
Henry, Sr. shouldn’t have slapped Indy. He should have used a baseball bat.
As you know (if you’ve ever read my blog), I’m running 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in 40 years, and I’m in talks with Luddite Vic about organizing a 4th Edition game. Moreover, in the back of my mind, I’m contemplating a FASA Star Trek RPG game. That one may never happen because I’d absolutely have to run that online to find any players, but it’s certainly something I’d like to do in theory.
The point is that all of that material has been sitting on my shelf for years (if not decades) collecting dust, but it’s still as good as it ever was. The potential is always there, and you never know how your circumstances will change. Hell, I even have 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragonsmaterial on my shelves, and I can’t stand that edition. I’ve played it a couple of times in the past ten years just so I could hang out with some friends, and I’ve written not one, not two, but three posts on unfinished business I have with the edition, so even that has potential value (assuming the DM gets rid of confirmation of critical hits). Two editions of the Gamma World RPG, Star Wars Saga Edition RPG, Dragon Age RPG, Margaret Weiss’s Marvel Superheroes RPG, several board games (Demons!), and some games still in shrink wrap all litter my “man cave,” but I wouldn’t consider my collection huge. If yours is huge, that in my opinion you’re doing things better than I am. You never know what you might need to pull out for company. Hell, I’m even ready to host a night of blackjack or poker.
Where’s a roided-out Barry Bonds when you need him?
With this post, I’ve posted every day for an entire year. That’s right. The last day that I didn’t post was May 1, 2021. Before that, I was last discussing Key Lime Kit Kat bars.
This blows away my current record streak.
But wait a second. Is this even real? Can the post announcing that I’ve posted every day for a year be the anniversary post itself?
I say yes, and if you disagree, just keep in mind that I posted a bonus post on April 9, April 13, April 19, and April 25, so there have already been over 365 posts in this time without this one. There may have even been a couple more bonus posts, but I’m too lazy to look.
On another note, today is the first day of May. May is hockey playoffs, college lacrosse playoffs, preparations for the summer, and — most importantly — the month when all the cool people are born. Plus, I was born in May.
So, in 11 days, the streak will die. I want to focus on other things, and consistency hasn’t led to a large number of non-spam followers. Rarely does anyone retweet the tweets linking to these posts (likes merely gauge your footprint, not increase it), and almost all comments occur on other social media platforms, so my streak hasn’t done anything to improve my online footprint (except for a brief moment). Besides, many of my recent posts have been rather lame. If I didn’t have something to say, I’d write anyway, and it shows. I have a few more posts scheduled for this week, some others in my head that will come soon, and a handful scheduled to publish as far out as December. However, going forward, if I don’t have something to say, I won’t say anything. I’ll never feel rushed, and anything goofy will have to be funny enough to be worth sharing.
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, it’s (loosely) using science to imagine a D&D creature. I did that with the Ixitxachitl and now do it with the pufferfish. Behold the pufferfish lich!
I don’t care what spells it casts. I’m not afraid.
I’ve done a lot of lists on this blog. A lot of people have done lists of the greatest D&D mods*** ever. So, I’m going to do a list of my favorite D&D mods. One comes from 3rdEdition D&D (“3e”), but the rest come from 1st Edition D&D (“1e”). However, unlike most people, I’m not going to attempt to give you an objective analysis as to why these are the best mods. This is a purely subjective topic, and I’m not one to deny my lizard brain nature. I fully admit that the reason a mod is going to appear on this list is emotional in nature. Still, you should consider running them in whatever system you’re using. If for no other reason, you’ll witness the inspiration for your favorite adventures. In terms of the 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) mods on this list, these were the pioneers.
*** I once used the word, “mod,” for what others call adventure or module and received an odd amount of pushback. One person even accused me of lying that it’s what I called them growing up, as if there could possibly be a motivation for something like that. I grew up in Montgomery County, MD, and every single person I gamed with called it mod. We also occasionally used the terms adventure and module, but the point is that “mod” was the standard term. Your regional dialect, or even your specific gaming group, may have a different experience. I don’t care. I shouldn’t have had to write this aside, but if I didn’t, I might receive the same pushback over something that shouldn’t matter at all.
I left RPGs in 1982 due to the Satanic Panic. I returned in 2005 during the days of 3e. The first homebrew campaign I ran started with an adaptation of this mod. For what it’s worth, several of the players told me they enjoyed it quite a bit. It was nothing groundbreaking, so my sentimental attachment can get it only so high on this list, but it was very good, and it was written by one of the best DMs in the business.
Starts with a puzzle, which we got right, and I’ve had to change ever since. Then you’re given three paths to take, each of which leads you to one of three magic weapons you’re tasked to retrieve. These three weapons have maintained their iconic status in every edition of D&D since. There are more puzzles, both direct and logical (easily modified for repeat players), and some iconic monsters. The mod was the first one I played or ran that made great use of hindering terrain. Acknowledging that aspect of the writing, I was particularly proud of my conversion of the kelpie encounter to 4th Edition D&D.
D&D didn’t get me into mythology. Mythology got me into D&D. I wasn’t terribly familiar with Central American mythology, and even less familiar with other aspects of the culture. According to Jeff (who I spoke with through Facebook), Harold was the one that did research on the cultural aspects of the mod. He did a decent job, sprinkling in appropriate imagery and language. I used his work as a springboard to provide even more immersion. As I mentioned previously, I acquired sound files of Nahuatl phrases, both common and specifically used in the mod. I love this mod so much, I own two physical copies, one of each version. I’m always prepared to run it.
I loved Star Trek. I loved D&D. If it weren’t for the next entry on my list, this would be my favorite adventure ever. It was hard for me to run as a kid because there are a lot of rooms to prepare, and it was essentially a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl, but what a “dungeon” it was. Malfunctioning androids and robots, strange natural creatures from other worlds, but also an intellect devourer, a mind flayer (with what effectively amounted to a phaser), and a bulette to keep it grounded in fantasy. Love it.
This is my favorite mod ever, in no small part because of the artwork of Jeff Dee, which always makes mods more memorable to me. However, the mod’s content stands on its own. As a competition mod, it was designed to kill off everyone to assure that there was a clear winner at the end of the adventure. Sure, there were hack-and-slash encounters amounting to nothing more than resource drains, but there were also puzzles, which I love. The tower itself had a clever theme, with each level (before the last) representing a different element: air, earth, fire, and water. The water level has a nice twist to it as well, and the earth level has one of my favorite monsters from mythology.
By the way, this arrived today.
It’s not in the best of shape, but you should expect that from something so old. Note, though that it was reasonably priced, and I haven’t found any coffee stains yet. Will this make it into the top 5? Probably not, but I hear it’s really good, and it’s next on my scheduled mods to run after Keep on the Borderlands.
There are a bunch of other mods I love, but I’m not going to make a top 50 list.
This is a tough one, and I don’t want to admit the answer, but I will. Like everyone, I want my cake and to eat it too. I want my friends to share my play style, but I have tangible data suggesting that’s never going to happen (at least not long- or even mid-term). So, my answer is this: I’d rather play with strangers that share my play style.
Consider the following: I can’t stand3rd Edition D&D (“3e“). When I returned to the game after 23 years away from it, I was so happy to be back that I ignored how frustrating the system was. Besides, ignorance is bliss, and for all practical purposes I had nothing to which to compare it. I hadn’t played any RPGs for decades. Nevertheless, within the past couple of years, I’ve played a little bit of 3e. I played a few sessions of Greyhawk Reborn, which is the revival of the Living Greyhawk living campaign. Why? Because some of my friends never moved on from it, and that meant I never saw them. It was a chance to reconnect, which is important to me, but it didn’t take long for 3e to drive me away again.
On the other hand, I like 5th Edition D&D, and even more of my friends play it. Nevertheless, differing play styles grated on me. My style appears to be very firmly in the minority, so I find the game more tedious than it should be, but certainly more tedious than anything designed to entertain should be.
While I’m planning to return to D&D after deciding not to play anymore, I’m doing so on my own terms, or at least I’m trying to. I’m going to run some 1st Edition D&D sessions because I suspect that system will nudge players towards the way I want to play. Even if that’s true, it may not be to their liking, so this could be a short-lived experiment. In any event, the only hope for me playing regularly would be if the style shifted to my liking. You can’t force that on people, but if some strangers came along and had a similar approach, I wouldn’t have to.
Of course, if there were personality clashes with the strangers, then I’d leave the game again, but I fear that my best chance for a long-term return to D&D is through strangers, not my existing friends. This isn’t the end of the world. I’m at least in contact with my friends via social media, we’ll probably resume seeing movies and doing trivia night when the pandemic passes, and there’s always Winter Fantasy. Also, there’s no reason to assume there’d be personality clashes with strangers. Meeting strangers should be seen as an opportunity to make even more friends. We should all try that out from time to time anyway. That may be difficult without giving in to the online gaming fad.
So, I’d have to say that I’d rather play the game I want to play with strangers than to play the one I don’t with existing friends, but only because my friends aren’t going away.
I left D&D in 1982 due to the Satanic Panic and didn’t return until 2005, so my recollection of 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) isn’t precise. When I returned during the days of 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”), rolling for wandering monsters wasn’t a common mechanic (though I occasionally saw it in published mods). Without appreciating why it was used in 1e, I simply thought that the use of wandering monsters was stupid. If you have a cool monster on hand, use it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of a perfectly good encounter. On the other hand, if your wandering monster is the same creature that the PCs are facing from time to time in the planned encounters, then they add nothing to the game, so don’t waste time on them. That could make the game tedious. Now that I’ve reacquainted myself with 1e, I realize their point: They’re designed to discourage dawdling.
Searching for secret doors, examining magic items, counting your loot, and sleeping are time-consuming activities. DMs are expected to keep track of time so that, when a given interval of time has passed, they know to roll for wandering monsters. These random encounters often didn’t result in any treasure and drained valuable resources from the party, so they weren’t something that the PCs wanted. However, they didn’t make the game tedious because 1e combats were quick. So, the concern I mentioned above that they may not add anything to the game isn’t a serious one. Their primary effect was to drain resources, which, as I’ll discuss in the next section, serves a couple of connected purposes.
This isn’t something that goes over well with modern gamers. Modern gamers (and legacy gamers that have moved on) tend to explore every single room and grab every single piece of treasure they can. Anything less than complete is seen as a failure. I’ll give you a specific example. When discussing playing experiences with Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure from the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), players that failed to obtain the Staff of Defense would always be frustrated when others discussed it. Several of them that I knew would play the mod again with a character specifically designed to make use of that staff. Players would also take note in that adventure (and others) of forks in the road (so to speak), always promising to double back so that they covered the entire complex. Because of this mentality (I’ve been guilty of it myself), the D&D Adventurers League living campaign changed its rules such that every player could take a magic item found in the game even if there was only one. Everyone wants everything, so that’s what’s given despite how little sense it makes.
But Why Shouldn’t You Dawdle?
If this is what makes you happy, that’s fine, but my problem with this approach to the game is that it discourages immersion in the game world and can’t possibly work unless the risk of character death drops so low as to be negligible. As to the first point (which is a tangent from my main thesis), the logic of the game world becomes inconsistent. I can suspend my disbelief and accept a dragon that breathes a cone of cold, but I can’t accept the notion of a Rod of Cancellation spontaneously generating multiple copies of itself because multiple characters want it. The latter just doesn’t make sense, and no attempt is made to make sense of it. There’s no drain of resources to make it happen. There’s no need to visit the local archmage to make copies of it. It just happens.
As to the second point (now we’re back on track), a game where I know the DM will never kill me bores me. A game where I’ll get killed if I don’t think things through logically is far more fun. Sure enough, I’ve rarely seen character death in 5e. In fact, I saw far more character death in 4th Edition D&D (“4e“), and 1st-level 4e characters are intentionally durable. The more gamers become unwilling to suffer even the smallest of setbacks, the less we see them, which is why I stopped playing. There’s none of that in 1e. Can your characters survive? Sure, especially if you send the henchmen and hirelings in first. As I’ve been told, PCs can survive an entire campaign even despite the save or die mechanic (which I still don’t like). However, if you truly immerse yourself in the game, you’ll see that some actions are downright stupid and should get your characters killed. Game mechanics like wandering monsters discourage such stupidity, and as a consequence reward true immersion in the game world.
Your mission is to save the noble, not to grab an extra 5 copper pieces. Once you’ve got the noble, get the hell out of there. If this were a scenario in the real world, and you went for the coppers, your friends at your funeral would be discussing whether to submit your story to the Darwin Awards committee.
I’m waaaaay ahead on my blog writing, so this post, written on 2/18/2022, relates to a tweet from 2/11/2022, and is being published (assuming I don’t move my schedule around) on 3/3/2022.
The FASA Star Trek RPG (“STRPG“) is one of my two favorite RPG systems, so of course I had that one on the brain. STRPG was a d100, skill-based system, where players collected skill points based on their Star Fleet Academy (or other) training, and placed them into various skills. Their ability scores were also based on d100, so ability and skill checks were treated the same way.
The ability scores in STRPG had a one-to-one relationship with those of D&D, but STRPG added two extra skills: PSI (psionics) and LUC (luck). As you know, D&D has had different ways of dealing with psionics, none of which involved a separate ability score. In 1st Edition, a minimum Intelligence of X gave you a 1% chance of having psionic talents, opening up a new system of mechanics. I never played 2nd Edition, but from 3rd Edition forward, psionics became a class feature. If you took a psionic class, you had psionics. Otherwise, you didn’t (though some magic did psychic damage). Ergo, I didn’t respond with PSI. D&D couldn’t really use it.
LUC is a different story. There’s room for it in D&D. In a reasonably balanced system, LUC was a way of giving the PCs an advantage over the NPCs. There are other ways to do that (e.g., 3rd Edition action points, inherent mechanics), but a LUC score wasn’t a bad choice. If all roleplaying and dice rolls failed the PC, they could request one more shot at success with a LUC roll. If they rolled less than their LUC score, they succeeded despite those failures. Of course, it was up to the gamemaster to define what that success was, which could be partial rather than total. Considering how focused modern gamers are on player agency, I suspect that a LUC ability score should appeal to many of them.
BTW, if you’ve never read my blog before this post, I’ve probably left you in suspense.
For the record, my other favorite RPG system is 4th Edition D&D.
If I fail my LUC check, my love of 4th Edition could start a nuclear war.
Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?) Shadowrun and Pathfinder are also trademarks, but I have no reason to believe their lawyers are jackasses.