GM’s Day

I met Gary Gygax once, at a Gen Con in the late 1990s. He was running a D&D game in-or-near the TSR Castle. I don’t know what edition. It doesn’t matter. A crowd of us were watching, Someone died (killed mysteriously in the darkness, having walked away from the campfire without a light). That player had to get up, and Mr. Gygax pointed at me and boomed “You want to play!?”
Of course I did.
A character sheet was slapped in front of me. My turn came soon enough. THINGS were circling our camp. I was a warrior of some type – I think a ranger, but I didn’t last long enough to get acquainted with my character. As my one action, I grabbed a burning log from our campfire and hurled it out at the multiple sets of red eyes stalking us. “Good!” Mr. Gygax shouted approvingly, and had me roll a d20. I have no idea what I rolled.
It wasn’t good enough to hit any of the red-eyed threats, but it was enough to illuminate them. Massive black wolves, snarling and, we realized *talking*.
“Kill that one!” Mr. Gygax said the biggest wolf growled to the pack.
And they did.
I lasted exactly one round.
Mr. Gygax smiled, told me I was dead, and I should let someone else play,
I got up, smiled back, and said “Thank you.”
I like to believe he understood I didn’t mean  “Thank you for this one game, this one time.” I meant “Thank you for ALL the games, forever.”

More Than Two Decades

Twenty-four years ago today, I married Lj Hamilton, who opted to stick my last name onto the end of hers and become Lj Stephens.

Lj was already my best friend. She was also already a bad-ass gamer chick, an artist, a writer in her own right, she had a lot more going on than I did. I knew it was a big step and it scared me, but since we’d been living together for more than a year, and dating on-and-off for a while before that, I thought I knew what being married to her would be like. In many ways I was right. In the crucial ones, I was wrong. Being married is different than living together, in the same way camping is different than sleeping in a tent in your backyard.

I’ve been married to my wife for more than half my life. We have had ups and down, both together and in regards to one another, but I have never regretted getting down on one knee and asking her to be a permanent part of my life. But make no mistake, marriage is work. Having someone be part of your life means they are there for your good and bad, and for their own, and you promised to never leave, which can make you feel stuck. We did the work a marriage takes, and we love each other enough to keep doing the work. The results are worth it.

Everything good I have done in 24 years she suggested, helped with, or encouraged me to do. Every bad habit I have gotten rid of she helped me fight. Every sorrow has been comforted by her, and every victory celebrated. I have no doubt she has helped me be a better man, and that’s just a small part of why I love her.

Twenty-four years ago today, I made the best decision I have ever made. Later this week (Wednesday, at 6pm) she and I invite you all to come join us in celebrating this accomplishment (along with her birthday). The moment deserves commemorating, and our circle of friends and acquaintances is part of the environment that has made our marriage so great for more than two decades.

Then the next day, we’ll wake up to an alarm again, groan and moan as we get up and get to work again, and smile when we hold hands in the car again. That’s what marriage is. A joining, but a joining that has to move forward with real life.

I plan for many more milestones with my wife, and many more celebrations of that one really good decision.

RPG Challenge, Day 16

Favorite Monster (aberration)
Aboleth.

’49

Jenkins kept his M1941a rifle trained on the shivering family—centered on the oldest boy, who he thought more likely than the father to do something stupid—and wished again he’d taken his gloves off before they’d rushed the building. To prevent accidentally hating himself forever his finger was beside the trigger guard, not on the trigger. But the stolen leather gloves he wore were just thick enough he was suddenly afraid that if he did have to shoot one of them, or even try a warning shot, he wouldn’t be able to jam his gloved finger into the trigger guard fast enough to keep control of the situation. He’d kept the gloves on to make sure his finger wasn’t numb from cold, but now…
“Anything, corporal?”
As always, Lt. Morgan’s voice was calm and clear. Jenkins glanced over his shoulder for just a second to see if Corporal Flores would nod, as she sometimes did, rather than answer verbally. He saw her inhale, and immediately locked his gaze back on the two adults, one teen, and three children in nightshirts. The older boy had shifted his weight when Jenkins looked away. He resolved not to give the lanky teen any more room to make life-ending decisions.

Jenkins always expected Flores to sound breathy and demure, and she never did. He supposed it was because the tech was the only woman he saw anymore, and before she got assigned on TF-Day his only regular exposure to femininity for six years had been taxi dancers and radio broadcasts. But Flores’ voice had an edge behind it, and if it wavered at all that was only because she hadn’t slept for three days. She was always light sleeper, as might be expected of a woman bunking in the rough with an 12-man rifle squad. But for days she’d been using a hand-held antenna she’s cobbled together—the men thought of it as Flores’ Curler—to find a radio signal from a short-wave transceiver… or something like that. Once Flores started talking about single sidebands and killer-hurts, Jenkins got lost.

“Yep Lieu, something, but nothing much good.” Jenkins quick glance shown that Flores had one cup of her field-headset over her left ear, with her badly banged up field radio hooked by wires to a bigger set they’d found in the family’s small electronics shop. She’d clearly gotten the whole rig working, another miracle to be noted when she was brought up for sainthood. Jenkins he assumed she waved Lt. Morgan over to listen to the other end of the headset, since the lieutenant crossed the room to stand next to her. For several long moments no one spoke, and Jenkins could hear the hiss of snow outside and the muffled squawk of voices over the radio.
“We not… tysk?”
The trembling voice of the woman in the nightshirt did sound like Jenkin’s theoretical radio-girl, except for the heavy Norwegian accent. He was startled enough he lowered his rifle from center-mass to a sloppy leg shot and spat out “What, sweetheart?”
“We…,” the woman gestured to her whole family, “not tysk. Not soldat.”
Jenkins got over his surprise at her English, broken as it was, on caught on.

“We know.” He tried to keep it simple. Her English was going to be better than his Norwegian. “We will not harm. We go, soon.”
The mother bit her lip. She was pretty, in a slightly matronly way, and Jenkins was annoyed at himself for noticing. She was pale and had no make-up, having been rousted a few hours before dawn, but her eyes were crisp green, and her hair a glowing long blond braid. She was also, he realized, moving to stand between himself and the tallest of her two daughters.

“That! Can you make that stronger?” Clearly the lieu was talking to Flores about something he heard. Or hoped he heard.

“Not with this crap.” It always shocked Jenkins when Flores cussed. “I’m amazed we’re getting as much as we are. Some of it must be bouncing off the snow clouds. We can’t broadcast on any of our channels either, and they just don’t have what I need for a full repair. It wouldn’t be coded anyway, the babel is totally shot, and we’d never decode any reply.”
The oldest boy took a tiny sideways step. Jenkins locked eyes with him, brought the rifle back up to aim at the teen’s chest, and shook his head slowly. The father put one huge hand firmly on the wayward youth’s elbow, and squeezed hard. The gangly teen stopped moving, and looked at the ground. Jenkins prayed that was a sign of acquiescence, and not building determination.

Flores was still talking.

“This is good as that’s going to get, but it sure sounds real, and it sounds close. I can’t say for sure how far my box can pick things up with their big antennae, but it can’t be more than ten miles or so. I’m sure it’s south. Probably pretty close to Sweden.”
Lt. Morgan paused before speaking. “Can the Tumbleweed make it that far?”

“Maybe, just, if we get lucky on terrain. She’s got a bunch of bad fins, and one gyro is totally shot. Our best chance is if it’s just me inside driving, since I’m the lightest.”
Lt. Morgan walked to Jenkins side and turned back to the family so they couldn’t see him softly speak.
“Sergeant, what are the chances we can safely stay here a night or two?”
Jenkins shook his head, but didn’t take his eyes off the family. “None, sir. I don’t think they’re Skaugies, but I don’t think they’re resistance either. What they mostly are is worried and afraid.”
Lt. Morgan removed his glassed and pinched the bridge of his nose, and said nothing. As the silence grew, so did Jenkins’ concern. When the lieu stayed in that position for several seconds, the sergeant cleared his throat.
“Sir, we can’t stay here. It sounds like you didn’t pick up any clear signal from command or any of the units we hoped to link up with?”
Lt. Morgan dropped his hand, and replaced his glasses as he shook his head.
“No, it sounds like everyone had as terrible an arrival as we did, and no one is in position. It’s skirmishes and falling back and calls for support. Not a repeat of ’44, but bad enough. It may take weeks for a firm beachhead to be established, if one ever is, and we don’t have that kind of time. We need to find someplace we can either repair or scuttle the Tumbleweed, and if possible we need to link up with someone. Flores has a signal that sounds like a friendly force, but…”
“Not, I take it, Expeditionary troops, sir?”
“No, sergeant. Night Ogres, if the signal is genuine. At least two, maybe more.”
Jenkins felt himself give a heavy sigh. Any Expeditionary unit could be counted on to be reasonably dependable and professional. Night Ogres were Russian, and he was never clear if they were considered heavy infantry or light walkers. That was better than dealing with Free Corps, but maybe not by a lot. On the other hand, any heavy infantry was likely to have a mechanic and supply officers, or something similar. And Russian forces might stillm have a working supply line, or at least a known rendezvous point. If there was any shot of getting the Tumbleweed back to full fighting rotation, especially if they were going to have to fight their way back to some distant position, it was worth the risk.
Even as Jenkins decided he needed to recommend joining up with the Night Ogres, Lt. Morgan nodded to himself and clasped Jenkins’ shoulder. Jenkins had no idea why that made him feel better, but it always did.
The lieu’s voice held no hint of doubt. “Flores, grab what you can that might help keep us in contact. Get Kovac and Spencer as pack mules if you need them, and tell them to get their gear out of Joe-Louis. They’re walking. Jenkins, keep the locals calm and controlled until I give you the word, then we’ll back out. They may raise a ruckus, but if the father is building crystal sets for a living he’s a smart man. I think we can trust to know if he can see us we can see, and shoot, him. I don’t think they’ll raise an alarm until we’re out of site, and by then the storm will give us cover.”
Jenkins nodded, and let the muzzle of his rifle drop an inch or so. He hoped that made him look like he felt it was less likely he’d have to shoot them. Nazis he was ready to shoot, and Skaugum collaborators were just tall Nazis. Heck, in six years of fighting he’d shot kriegshunds, jotuns, ghuls, kyries, and automats without batting an eye or losing a wink. Set a few on fire too, and blown up an unknown number.

But even to keep his brothers- (and sister-) in-arms safe, he wasn’t sure he could shoot a family in cold blood, just because they’d owned a radio.

RPG challenge, Day 15

Favorite Monster (undead)
Ghouls
I think ghouls are under-utilized. Or, maybe in the era of vampire movies, zombie shows, and mummy games, they just aren’t over-used. But they are generally presented as corporeal, thinking undea who can even sometimes pass for human. Of course ghouls aren’t even always undead. In Lovecraft mythology, they are just cannibalistic underground humanoid dwellers, and can even be allies. Other courses give them vast empires, and sometimes portray them as herding humans as livestock, interbreeding with them, or both. They adapt well to non-fantasy games – it’s not hard to see Firefly’s Reavers as ghouls, or some creatures that show up in zombie games as more ghoulish than shambling, rotting corpse. Sometimes they have a special stench, sometimes they can stun with a touch, sometimes they spread diseases, and sometimes they wear armor and cast spells while dedicating a kill to an elder god.

I think they’re creepy, dangerous, flexible, and ripe for use in nearly any setting.

RPG Challenge, Day 14

Favorite NPC

Larcun the Blue
The very first 3e D&D game I ran was at WotC, with some folks from the company. We started at low levels, and when the PCs had enough money to be interested in buying some magic items, they discovered the most famed artificer in town was Larcun the Blue. They went to his shop and discovered he wasn’t in. But his apprentices were happy to help the PCs with their needs.
The campaign went on for a bit, and moved to a new area with a new city. And there the most famous artificer was… Larcun the Blue. They went to his shop and discovered he wasn’t in. But his (different) apprentices were happy to help the PCs with their needs.
The PCs never managed to meet Larcun the Blue, but they became wildly curious about him. Did he have a franchise of magic item shops? Was he even real? Did the apprentices use his name to deflect efforts at divination on who owned the shop? The character was much, much more interesting because the players never met him.

It’s a trick I’ve used other times as well, or a variant of the trick where an npc is mentioned far more than they are on-screen. Cantor Mazeborn, a minotaur cleric, is one of my most successful recurring villains because he almost never recurred. Player would hear about him messing with allies of theirs in different places, or run into his agents and allies, or just have weirdly bad luck they attributed to him. Unlike Larcun, Cantor *did* actually show up, but only rarely in a situation where combat was a realistic option. My minimizing his actual presence, I was able to both keep him around longer (those PCs were *very* good at killing things), and make him seem more competent and mysterious.

RPG Challenge, Day 13

Favorite Trap/Puzzle
Speak, friend, and enter
Yes, that’s from Lord of the Rings rather than an RPG, but it illustrates my favorite type of puzzle – the self-contained, clever not-quite-riddle. Something that gives the players all the information they need to overcome it, doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of a specific culture or 17-pages of background history, and if a group of players sit around and work on it someone is likely to spout out the answer and (15 minutes later) the group is likely to try it.
It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off as a puzzle, and I’ve failed more often that I have succeeded in creating something like it as a GM. In most cases when I have succeeded, it’s as a bit of mythology or background, when I have the players discover some such puzzle that was completed by a hero in times or yore as a historical note. I think I have pulled this off once as a PC challenge, in the tomb of Nibul for Dungeonaday.com, and I’m pretty proud of myself for that one.
Honorable mention goes to any of Grimtooth’s Traps, which I generally think are like cayenne pepper – not appropriate for everything, best as at best a dash of spice, and not to everyone’s taste.

RPG Challenge, Day 12

Favorite Dungeon Type/ Location

The Lost Necropolis.
It’s a concept that can be applied to nearly any setting. In the realm world, it’s a city of the dead buried in the sands or lost in the mountains… or it’s the underground that was destroyed in an earthquake and the new city built on top of it. In science fiction it’s the derelict starship drifting dead in space… or the ancient civilization that left only empty monuments. In fantasy, it’s often, you know, a Lost Necropolis.
I like it both because it’s flexible (is it full of undead? Do cultists now worship Uhluhtc in its dust tombs? Was it turned into a bandit hideout? ), and iconic. Indiana Jones, Space Marines, and Gandalf have all had their turn in the Lost Necropolis, so it’s easy for players to envision their heroes doing so as well.

It’s also a great chance for worldbuilding. Who built it? What were their burial traditions? Why was it lost? Who found it, and what are their plans for it? You can have a typical dungeon-stomp, but you can also craft a narrative that fills in the dark corners of the campaign setting.

RPG Challenge, Day 11

Favorite Adventure You’ve Run

That’d probably be The War of the World Oak.
Very short form. I ran a heavily-modified 2e D&D game for about a decade. One of the major story threads was that an ancient evil had, generations before, tapped the power of the World Oak, one of the primal sources of life and a prison for a powerful force for death and decay. That ancient evil had created a siphon for the World oak’s power to go to a group of its servants who gained vast nature-controlling powers.
The servants survived the fall of the ancient evil, and went on to become druids: powerful defenders of nature and greenery – who in time forgot that their powers were stolen from the World Oak. And who spread. And grew. And became a religion with no need for gods because they had a separate divine source of power. And eventually (over centuries) were drawing enough power that the World Oak began to die.
If it died, a massive force for death and decay would be released. So the PCs from about 4 different games all played on the same campaign world, with different (but overlapping) players and different levels and even different themes, had to find the World Oak, stop the cult trying to kill it (to release its prisoner), and do so while knowing that success would require them to cut off all of druidkind from the core source of their power.
It was one of about 3 major plot arcs in that world, and at the climax I had a weekend-long game/party with a massive battle that included a built-up 3D set of two roots of the World Oak, where the final battle took place.

RPG 30-Day Challenge, Day Ten

Craziest Thing That Happened That You Saw.

There have been a lot of memorable moments over the years. A Rolemaster player rolling 01-03 on % dice three times in a row that caused a failed spell in a barroom brawl to go from putting a guy to sleep to blowing his head off. The Wild Surge that rolled a “random encounter,” which then rolled “Small Fortress,” which caused a full-armed-and-operational super-agent compound to fall on a group of drow slavers in a 2nd Ed D&D game. The unbelievably bad luck of Jacknife, a HERO system villain who was “on paper” the most dangerous psychopathic killer I had ever thrown at any heroes, but in practice was such an ineffectual sad sack the players actually felt bad for him.
But I think the craziest thing I ever saw actually *wasn’t* the result of fringe die results.
It was a 1st ed D&D game I played 20 or so years ago. It was a pick-up game at a friend-of-a-friend’s house, one of very few such events that I went to. I honestly don’t remember the names of anyone involved. I was playing Buskirk, my high-level Cleric of St. Cuthbert that was my go-to character at the time.
There were about 5 of us. We sat in the sunken living rum of the DM’s parents’ house. The parents themselves either weren’t there, or never interrupted us. We were in our early teens, or just pre-teen. They had a fireplace, and it was on, so it must have been fall or winter. There was kool-aid, and one of the people playing was a girl, the sister of another player. She was playing a multiclass spellcaster based on the main female character from the movie Dragonslayer. Someone else was playing a paladin with a Holy Sword of Sharpness. The sword may have been named Cutter. I don’t remember anything else about the venue or players.
The DM insisted that if someone’s character died, we had to burn the character sheet (which is why I remember they had a fire in the fireplace). This was before easy electronic records. Buskirk was more than two dozen pages of notes and items and spell lists. It was, ultimately, fairly childish, but we were fairly close to children. I felt a thrill of real fear, in any case.
The setup: A castle has suddenly had devils and other dark creatures appear in it, including evil air elementals, and great winds have blown in the doors and shutters. The king is pissed, and we are to go in and find out what is going on, and fix it.

We later discovered that the castle’s sewage system was chutes that lead to a bag of devouring, and someone who didn’t know that had flushed a rival’s bag of holding. A rend to the outer planes had occurred, and was sucking in air, while devils used it to invade the place. The vortex sucking everything into the planar rend got worse as the adventure went on. We had to make some kind of ability checks the DM had created a houserule for. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was roll 3d6 and roll under your ability score for success (easy enough), but each roll against the vortex you took a -1. So the longer we searched, the worse things got.
The details are fuzzy – it’s been a LONG time. It felt epic at the time. There was both a dragon (interested in claiming whatever new magic this was) and a lich (who had hidden his phylactery in the castle and was now concerned for it.

The climax came as the afternoon wore into early evening, and we knew the game would end soon. We found the planar rend, and lowered a spidersilk rope into it. The paladin slid down the rope. The multiclass spellcaster was right behind him on the rope. Most other characters were helping to anchor the rope. Buskirk was one room away, holding a horde of undead at bay with turnings and high-level spells. I wasn’t even involved in the “crazy” final scene.
The paladin and spellcaster saw that the space beyond the planar rend was filled-to-the-brim with devils. A whole army of the things, with polearms that had hooks and blades and points, waiting for the planar rend to get big enough they could flood into the castle, and teleport away from the vortex. The bag of devouring was visible in the center of them, powering the planar rend. Someone could leap down and destroy it (we’d figured out how, and it required you to be close, but I don’t remember the details anymore). But whoever did that would be killed by devils, in hell, their soul trapped there forever. We’d waited too long to find the rend and figure out the problem. Fixing it was now a suicide mission.
The paladin failed a roll against the vortex, and fell. The spellcaster caught him. He told her to let him go. She refused, convinced we could find another way. We just needed to regroup, and reconsider.
Another PC failed a roll, and got sucked toward the vortex, but at the last second grabbed something. The penalties were rising. We were running out of time.

The paladin begged the spellcaster to release him, so he could save all of reality. She refused, not wanting him to sacrifice himself when she was sure we, we band of adventures who had killed a dragon and a lich on the same day, we could find another way. The DM said we were about to have to make rolls against the vortex, at a huge penalty.
So the paladin used his sword of sharpness to cut off his own arm.
We pulled the spellcaster out of the rend. The paladin, bleeding and surrounded, fell onto and destroyed the bag of devouring. As the planar rend closed, we saw him stand, and tell the devils he would accept their surrender if they wished to give it.

The rend closed. The game ended.

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