Saturday, April 24, 2021

Basalt Dragons

Break the Silence of the Sea; Gerald Fenwick Metcalfe
I watch the snow fall - the evidence of your passing and going: the sign of life, of motion. I feel it as it succumbs to my depths: as the drifts form, their silent sinking coming to rest on my ocean floor. I watch it from my perch; from my hiding place. I am the salt.

I see your ships, your harbors. I see the rock jetties where the sand grows; I see the new harbors, their breakwaters, brick: lifted by your hands - a contrast, as I float above the clouds, stark and angular, un-living: unlike the rolling shores, the barriers, the coral seas. I am the rock.

Wooden ships - they cannot reach me.

Sorcerers and seekers - they look in the wrong places. The shallow places.

I am the deeps - I am the life's bed - where creation was born and where creation has ended. It is my watch to have the world turn, but to turn with it, to move as the world moves, to breathe only as it breathes. As is creation, so am I. Where the surface rises and falls, where the surface ebbs and flows, where even the mountains wash outward - outward to me - here, I will be: as I was.

As is creation, so I will be.

With Scales of Stone and Salt

Basalt Dragons emerge from the deeps - shadows at first, growing rapidly as the sunlight penetrates the haze of fathoms and fathoms of water - until the creature either veers, revealing its length, or explodes from the waves in a storm of spray. Reptile with Spawn Abundant; Gustave Dore Their scales are smooth to the touch - dark gray to gray-blue in color - while hard and cold as stone. When swimming, the move like an iguana - side to side, their wings and appendages held close to maintain their streamlining - on land, or in the air, they take on a regal bearing, standing tall and presenting a wide front to project their dominance.

Basalt Dragons are found in the deep ocean. Rarely - very rarely - they might be found in shallow seas: anywhere with sufficient depth to slake their thirst for peace under the waves and anywhere with sufficient salinity to speak to their connection to the primordial ocean.

Encountering Basalt Dragons

Basalt Dragon
Armor Class:-4
No. Appearing:1
Hit Dice:12Save As:Fighter 11
Move:Std: 90' (30')
Swim: 135' (45')
Fly: 180' (60')
Attacks:Claw / Claw / Bite
Treasure Type:~ (H)
Damage:2d6 / 2d6 / 6d8
Frequency:Very Rare
Chance In Lair:5%*
Chance of Talking: 40%
Chance of Being Asleep: 10%
Spells by Level (1/2/3): 3/3/3

Basalt Dragons are huge - and they know it. They are proud and courageous - a bravery bought by confidence. Their voices - if they speak - are low and resonating, shaking the core of the listener: but they speak little, themselves convinced that they are above the lesser, younger creatures making up the sentient (and thus player) races.

Basalt Dragons are not territorial - tolerating other dragons and other creatures within their range: some - pairs or bonded covens - will have extended conversations with one another, extending for months in draconic discussion. Many consider themselves natural philosophers - their perspectives colored by their lives spent below the waves, often beyond the reach of sunlight.

In the ocean, Basalt Dragons are never surprised - however surprise explorers as normal. While the common tactic of the Basalt Dragon when engaging an unwanted visitor is to hide beneath, swimming in vertical ascent towards a target in ambush, the dice chance represents either the dragon's confidence - I don't need to surprise these creatures, they are no match for me - or its curiosity, in the case of a favorable reaction.

Basalt Dragons are able to breathe with equal facility in salt water and in the air.

Regarding No. Appearing, if the dragon is not asleep and encountered in lair, there is a 1-in-4 chance of a group of the dragons congregating together to contemplate the depths. If such an encounter occurs, the dragons will surprise normally - their minds preoccupied - however they will number between 2 and 6, with preference to fewer. This can be accomplished by rolling 3d3 and summing the result of the lower two in order to determine the number of Basalt Dragons present.

Breath Weapon

  • Template: Line
  • Range*: 120' x 10'

The breath attack of a Basalt Dragon is a stream of elemental deep: a spiraling mass, almost like a helix of several continuous bubbles rotating around a frighteningly cold core of heavy water. Underwater, the breath weapon functions normally: however, if the breath effect leaves the water, its remaining range is halved: that is, a Basalt Dragon, submerged 20 feet beneath the waves, when breathing towards a row of harpooners perched across the bow of a vessel would extend the breath weapon a total of 70' from its point of origin: 20' normally from the submerged dragon to the surface and then 50' further above the water, those 50' counting as 100' above the waves.

Coque d'un navire porté par un dragon, vus de profil, et esquisse du dragon; Pisanello

The damage from a breath attack of a Basalt Dragon is half elemental ice and half bludgeoning. Creatures which resist ice suffer half damage only on a failed save and no damage at all on a successful save; creatures which are immune to ice may re-roll if they fail their save against it on the first attempt.

A target of Ogre size or smaller struck by the breath attack of a Basalt Dragon that does not succeed its Save vs Breath is buffeted backwards, along the path of the stream, a number of feet equal to the damage suffered.

Lair and Treasure

Basalt Dragons lair in the bedrock of the sea - deep into the far reaches of the oceanic twilight zone. They will collect treasure and goods taken from ships of the surface-dwellers, from the coffers of the under-sea peoples, or from sacrifices made by primitives from both. They are partial to organic gemstones - pearls, aragonite, etc. - and metals that do not corrode with the salt.

Resistances and Immunities

Basalt Dragons are immune to Cold and Ice and resist Fire or effects targeting breathing - such as a poison cloud: taking half damage or half effect therefrom.

Basalt Dragons are vulnerable to Lightning, taking double-damage therefrom.

In subduing a Basalt Dragon, they are half as likely as normal to be subdued, in terms of percentiles.

Spoiler Alert!
The Deeper Lore section contains some notes to help a GM (me) to run Basalt Dragons in a way consistent with the archetype they are supposed to fill and some of the inspirations behind their creation. If you play in (or want to play in!) a game GM'ed by me, beyond this point will ruin some of the mystery for you for both Basalt Dragons and for most of the sentient races: having some impact in the game world that isn't immediately available outside of player character discoveries.

Deeper Lore

Basalt Dragons are sustained by rhythm - the tranquil predictability of the thermohaline conveyor, the frigid stillness of the waters beneath the currents and of the sleeping bedrock. The undersea is vast in three-dimensional space - as such, the Basalt Dragon requires fewer hexes of space than might be implied. This is likewise influenced by how active the space is - in cool climates, or deep into the far cracks of the midnight zone, where currents are weaker and the world stands still, the Basalt Dragon's needs are satisfied more readily than in shallower, warmer, or populated waters. Basalt Dragons will sleep naturally for 2 to 8 weeks at a time, waking to survey their world around them for a few days: often times staying in the deeps, far away from Human activities; though they will be woken if their tranquility is broken, either by natural activity (like an earthquake or perhaps powerful storm in a shallower region) or by an increase in the activity of the sentient races, sufficient to disrupt the rhythms of the dragon's territory - thus "starving" them - as normal for a creature sustained by esoteric means.

Flying Monster; Robert Caney
The inspiration for the Basalt Dragon is Lotan, or Leviathan - great monsters in the deep places of the world, associated with creation itself: Lotan being of the sea before the creation - recall, Lotan, or Tiamat the Chaos Serpent: "chaos" to the ancients was in reference to the state of being before the imposition of order, of civilization, and of law at the hands of the Gods - the Basalt Dragon is representative of a state beyond the reach of civilization, beyond the scale and scope of man. They are a vestige of nature - a note to remind mankind that the sea is always larger, always foreign, and always the master in its own domain.

Basalt Dragons are birthed from the bedrock - rather than reproducing in a traditional sense. When a place has been quiet long enough that the quiet has become part of its essence - then might one of these terrifying creatures be formed. The hatching is typically sudden and monumental - an earthquake beneath the waves, believed to be the cause of tsunami style floods along low coasts in the target range. It seems that the noise, the commotion of this process would be out of tune with the nature of the beast - and likewise, it would seem a cause to wake any nearby Basalt Dragons within hearing distance. Scholars say - however - that this may be an attribute of the social nature of these dragons: an adaptation that allow the creatures to commune with one another, passing their culture and their perspective through to generations - an alien form of parenting where the parents did not bear their children.

Public domain artwork retrieved from, Wikimedia Commons, and the National Gallery of Art and adapted for use. Attributions in at text.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Rolling Red Dice

Play-Cast Name: Smoke & Snow
Where I Listened: Red Dice Diaries, YouTube
Where It's Available:,
"The Red Dice Diaries"
    on your preferred
    podcast platform.
System: Old School Essentials

Thoughts and Review

Smoke & Snow is a traditional campaign played in Old School Essentials, with some elements mixed in from Lamentations of the Flame Princess - namely, firearms - following the expansion of civilization into a newly uncovered ancestral continent. The actual play melds elements of traditional fantasy adventure with deep world-building, the exploration thereof by the player group, as well as themes reminiscent to the Age of Discovery, with the players - based out of a pilgrim-esque colony - akin to Lewis and Clark, or perhaps the like of John Cabot or the brothers Corte Real, penetrating into the cold depths of a new land.

    For Further Listening
The Red Dice Diaries YouTube channel - as might be inferred from my "plethora of content" comment - serves as a platform not only for John's actual plays, but also for the content produced for his Red Dice Diaries podcast.

This content is available on YouTube - as well as episodically in your preferred podcast player - but on the YouTube, is organized in playlists by content and subject material. While I am more a fan of auditory media - meaning that I tend to listen to these podcasts rather than watch them - if you enjoy what you're seeing when watching Smoke & Snow, you may like what you're hearing if you head over to the other playlists - or subscribe to the feed - to listen to the DM, John Alan Large, speak to his experience and insight.

Further, Smoke & Snow is a home game of John Alan Large - primary author and content creator for the Red Dice Diaries media network - John publishes a plethora of additional content available on the Red Dice Diaries page, peripheral services documented therein, and published via a handful of social media outlets.

What I Like

Hex maps! At this point in my reviewing career, I can count on one hand the number of actual plays that include player-facing (or audience facing) hex maps - by association, I can count the number of APs in the same manner that are useful to the viewer to learn how to run, or what to expect, when playing a hex crawl. Big kudos to John on this front. One, in his seamless execution: accommodating lower level or smaller party hex crawling; transitioning between different hex scales to account for different areas or different objectives, zooming in and out according to the theme of exposure; the way he uses fog of war to hide and reveal portions of the map as the players uncover it - and two, for the style of play that it fosters. A theme of exploration - and the resulting combats, parlays, alliances, and enemies that arise for the party therefrom - runs consistently through this actual play: something that defines the vision for why hex crawls were created.

Encounters for the characters are mixed between Theater of the Mind and VTT battle-mat. Primarily, if an encounter goes friendly - or if a random encounter is somewhat nondescript: such as fighting off a pack of wolves that happened upon the camp at night - the group uses Theater of the Mind; whereas if an encounter is bigger, a location that the players would do well to remember, or a gang of enemies tied to the objective at hand - a battle mat with tokens and more rigid structure is used. I like this because it shows adaptability for when things come up, first, and second, it highlights that combat can be abstract - that combat doesn't have to be the focus of a game: while it's in the game, it's an element of the game, and a player should expect to run into it: it's only one piece of the puzzle, one tile in the mosaic, that defines the old-school experience.

    For Further Watching
In addition to Smoke & Snow, available on the Red Dice Diaries YouTube are several additional playlists for several other games:

Vampire: The Masquerade (5th)
Blades in the Dark
Scum & Villainy
Index Card RPG

Full disclosure, I have not watched these playlists - and as such, I cannot speak to their content nor quality - and of note, the systems used are not OSR systems: thus, they may not be to your taste, if you are looking for an OSR actual-play. However, if you are curious about any of the above systems, or if you are looking for an entertainment experience rather than an OSR-educational one - you may find more content to your liking by the same creator.

Regarding role-playing and play-acting, the players do on occasion ham it up a bit: however they seem to know what the limit is: they seem to know the level at which role-playing adds to the ambiance, adds to character development, as opposed to the point at which it detracts: the point at which it changes the spirit of the experience from an adventure into an improv. They stay flawlessly within the realm of additive role play: on no occasion did I feel the need to fast forward the videos with the exception of - being a non-live viewer - exploiting my YouTube advantage of skipping mid-session breaks to stay in the action. An example of this balance is especially of value to aspiring old-schoolers who came to the hobby from more "RP-heavy" groups - or, to be more explicit, folks who have come into actual-plays via more popular streams who focus on character soap-opera rather than actually playing the game. It shows how banter can (and should!) happen and that in-character conversation and in-character development can (and should!) occur - that it is part of the experience, but that - like combat - it's a single tile in the mosaic that is the old-school experience.

Lastly - and this might be a cultural thing, a difference from my North American experience compared to John's European, specifically UK, one - I love how polite, reserved, and nominally stoic most of the characters are. It's a very muted counterpoint to the loud, blunt presentation of a great deal of other actual plays I've viewed - a phenomenon of YouTube culture, perhaps? It's refreshing - and it's simultaneously beneficial to the viewer as it seems to focus the stream on the game and not on the players: a key element to understand in an OSR game. The story doesn't star the characters, it stars the party; and the story isn't about the party - it's about blood, gold, and the charting of the unknown - the extension of Humanity's reach at the tip of a sword: one torch's radius at a time.

    For Further Riddling
What has a mouth and never eats,
has a bed and never sleeps,
always runs and never walks,
laughs and rages, never talks?

        Red Dice Diaries RPG Podcast
        Season 2, Episode 20
        The Ultimate Encounter

I know the answer is "a river" - but the description fits one of my toddlers, honestly.

What I Don't Like

Truly, I can't think of anything that I dislike about this stream. The audio is occasionally louder for some players than for the referee - but that's true for virtually all streams and is hardly something to complain about: in this case, it's not intrusive to the experience unless you're using headphones (in which case, I found myself straining a bit to hear on some exchanges, as I couldn't adjust the volume fast enough between speakers) - but also, audio issues... because of the aforementioned prevalence, I've stopped judging actual plays for having technical difficulties. It happens to professional broadcasters, it can happen to us little guys too. 

So congrats - John! I need you to mess up somehow so I can have something to complain about.

In Conclusion

Smoke & Snow is tempting me to go back through other APs I've reviewed and review them with a harsher standard. It is an interesting story - one of discovery, of friends and foes, of loss and victory - and it is a good mechanical exposé of the rules. It is a traditional campaign, where the characters and players grow and develop: a story lies under the surface that's waiting to be told, but in OSR format, the players help to build this story - to forge this narrative - by providing the experience by which the tale is told. An aspiring OSR referee seeking to understand how the game is (or should be) played, I highly recommend watch Smoke & Snow.

Solid Plate rating. Keep rolling those red dice, guys!

Saturday, April 10, 2021

08.02 - Watchtower Compound Standalone PDF!

Leper's Tower near Aosta; Karl Giradet and Rodolphe Topffer
Watchtower on the Indigo River:
The Watchtower Compound

At long last, the PDF version of the Watchtower dungeon promised three times now! Though the announcement post is shorter than the usual post - the PDF linked sure isn't: 143 stocked & keyed rooms, interconnected by a central theme, with several "new" monsters and with special care to try to make the PDF more usable: both in print or at your computer - as part of the larger Indigo River series or stand-alone, as with the Floundered Cog last year.

One step closer to completing a full-formed hex adventure along the cursed shallows of the Indigo River flood plain.

Delve on, readers!

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Yellow Light for the Blue Box

Play-Cast Name: Greyhawk Awakening
Where I Listened: BlueBoxRPG
Channel Playlist

Where It's Available: BlueBoxRPG YouTube,
BlueBoxRPG Twitch
System: "3e"

Thoughts and Review

Grewhawk Awakening is the name of a series of videos, a playlist to be explicit, set in the World of Grewhawk, in and about the village of Hommlet, first made famous in the T-series for AD&D. The campaign runs in a traditional format, following the adventures and development of a mostly stable group of players and their characters. In terms of system, the stream describes itself as using 3e at the core, while "incorporating elements of AD&D and one mechanic from 5e," which is the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic.

    A Companion Review
This review comes on the heels of a previous review, Lord Gosumba. In truth, I found this actual play series first between the two (and wrote this review before writing the review for Lord Gosumba) having learned about DM Jay from his guest appearance in the prologue episode to Greyhawk Awakening, Hallia's Betrayal. So - that's something to note: if the Episode 0 DM seems familiar, it's because he is - but on a second note, if the following, normal episodes feel and run different, it's because they are. While Lord Gosumba is called out routinely as a friend of Blue Box - his game is definitively a different experience than Greyhawk Awakening.

From that perspective, though - and from the understanding that I was consuming those two actual plays essentially side by side, some references are made, comparisons drawn, between the two - the intent is not to draw them into comparison into the reader's mind, as well, but a byproduct of the proximity of my own consumption.

In any case, game on, Jay; and game on, DM Neuromancer!

A Note to Start With

In addition to Greyhawk Awakening, the BlueBox RPG Twitch and YouTube channels produce several avenues of content: a great deal of which is content for 5th Edition. The purview of this blog being to talk Old School Renaissance - and the purpose of this review series being to help new and prospective OSR players and referees to understand what to expect in an OSR game - I did not review (nor do I intend to review) the 5e content offered.

Without doubt, its quality is on par with the Greyhawk content I did watch, without doubt its community engagement is similarly involved; as such, it's not to throw shade on those playlists: but, having not seen it, I can't vouch for it, personally.

What I Like

Like Lord Gosumba - and Swords of Jordoba - the first thing that stands out to me about this channel is its use of physical miniatures. I mention that Swords of Jordoba focuses primarily on the dungeon - with some scenes from town, etc. - and that Lord Gosumba then expands on this field, opening up outdoor spaces and expanding on in-town buildings. On that front, Greyhawk Awakening truly takes physical miniatures to another level. From the beginning to the end - every major event has a set. The characters delve into caves and dungeons; the characters trek through temperate grasslands, rocky spaces, or even snow-draped forest-scapes; the terrain, the miniatures, and the appropriateness of both to the campaign as presented is phenomenal in Greyhawk Awakening.

To continue on the subject of the production quality - the DM makes use of professional grade maps, music, and sound effects. In many APs I've seen, sound effects and music can be distracting - but that is not the case for Greyhawk Awakening. The music is unobtrusive, the sound effects appropriate, and on occasion, the DM uses music or sound effects to queue the players in to something that isn't in the verbal description. In my home game - I've had hit and miss music experiences, but I'd never mastered the art of context clues via ambiance: something that for which this stream deserves credit.

Lastly, to refocus on system - the stream "incorporates elements of AD&D": most notably, though they do use miniatures, the combat is abstracted - the players don't move tokens, but they are there to provide relative positioning to augment theater of the mind. Also group initiative. This, tacked on to 3/3.5 and I suspect either more from 5e than they admit or some elements from other games, a la Pathfinder or a miscellaneous d20 (they consistently refer to "stealth" or "perception" - where my old 3e PHBs call those "move silently" and "spot") - but where the rules come from is immaterial to the direction I want to take this point: the moral of the story, they are playing a Frankenbrew! 

They have a thousand Twitch followers and they are playing a Frankenbrew!

This is beautiful! If there was one thing that would embody, for me, the spirit of the OSR - wherein we seek to recreate the wonder and excitement of our earliest D&D experiences, the game as it was meant to be played - it's this: rulings over rules - homebrew melted over kosher product. Yes - AD&D was built to standardize: but the purpose of that standardization was to empower tournament play and to assist with conformity in supporting product. The message conveyed here - you don't have to run RAW to make a good game; you don't have to pass a purity test to have an engaging campaign. And with houserules coloring and fleshing out every home game I've ever played in, it provides a key lesson and key perspective - that it's OK to tweak the rules to fit your table: this providing an illustration of how those tweaks can (and ineluctably will) change game flow.

The Elephant in the Room

When talking about OSR games - part and parcel for many is TSR compatibility: specifically, compatibility with the Gary epoch. This AP runs a mishmash - but their self-proclaimed core, the engine around which the system they play is built, is D&D 3.5 - WotC. With that in mind - per my point regarding the inclusion of houserules changing how the game flows at the table - the core of WotC D&D brings to bear several central differences between the two generations.

  • There are elements of player skill, but there are converse elements of d20 character skill rolls.
  • There are long, exciting battle sequences! But there isn't really a focus on treasure, nor in carving your name into the bark of the living wild.

Remembering that the OSR began as a reaction against the changes 3e brought, powered by the OGL that 3e introduced - the nature of this AP is different than a game run using TSR compatible product (which you are, as an aspiring OSR player or referee, going to encounter). For that reason, this AP has a limited amount of OSR-specific lessons to impart.

Where those versed in old D&D will recognize mechanics and imports from OSR-friendly editions, watching it will teach those unversed in old D&D how to play new D&D: not old D&D. It teaches 3.5 well, truthfully: there are moments of player clarification where the DM explains the rule, which edition it's from, and how it differs from 5e, which is what the players are use to. And this is the crux of the review's rating. 

Excellent production, great story, wonderful community engagement - but it's not really OSR.

What I Didn't Like

Further - on another point - to the immersive ambiance used in the game, everyone at the table is very in-character. This is normally a good thing, but it's important to note there is a difference between drama and melodrama. While by and large, the game proceeds in a smooth narrative, there occur instances wherein, in building tension or complimenting the spirit of the scene - the table falls victim to over-acting. Be it responses exaggerated to the severity of the situation, be it in-character quips that border on action clips you'd find in video games - I found myself on occasion skipping forward along the stream to get out of the moment and back into the play.

Of Streams and Systems

As with most streaming actual-plays, the table at Greyhawk Awakening interacts with the stream, with the community. A lot. They give away prizes, they talk to and remember subscribers - which is great for building a following: for which they deserve kudos. But why isn't this in the "good things" section, CWR? Well, it's a good thing during the stream - and it's a great way to build community - but you have to skip past it when you're on YouTube. That said - they are very well telegraphed: as are breaks and the startup time, literally employing a countdown timer - it makes it very easy to skip forward; Plate XV - High Frequency Electric Currents in Medicine And Dentistry; Samuel Howard Monell very convenient to get back into the action on the prerecorded line.

As an aside, some of the earlier episodes have issues with user audio: some of the mics echo, some of the players are quieter than others - but after the first handful of episodes, those issues are largely resolved. It's a common thing for actual plays to have better audio and fewer glitches as the episodes proliferate: Greyhawk Awakening is no different - they consistently improve as they consistently work towards a better product. 

In Conclusion

Greyhawk Awakening is a well-produced, fun to watch actual play with some hints of old-school sensibility, with a primary selling point is in its production value, its narrative qualities, and its amazing support and cultivation of a community. It's purpose is not in teaching how to play OSR D&D. For that reason, I wanted to present it as an option for the entertainment-value watcher, or perhaps the errant 3.5 refugee with a yearning for home: I wasn't sure, then, how to rate it - so I settled on Leather.

Interested in learning how to play B/X? This is not the right place.

If you have fond memories of 3e? Does system not matter? This stream is the stream for you!


Delve on, readers!

Public domain image downloaded from The Public Domain Review and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

Thoul Tunnels

Scale: 10 ft. Click HERE for a PDF ve...