Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ode to a Portable Hole

I remember the day I finally got my hands on the AD&D, DM’s book like it was yesterday. A guy I knew had snagged a copy when he had been in the UK, so I asked if I could borrow it, and miracle of miracles, he said, yes. He gave it to me before first period so I had no time to look at it, but as the RPG gods decreed, and as luck would have it, the fourth period teacher was off sick, so I had about 45 minutes to see what this was all about.

Man, there are certain light bulb moments in your life, and this was one of them; when things just click, and go BOOM. The cover, the weight of the thing, the thickness, even the smell, were just brilliant. At that stage, we had been playing the Mentzer rules only, and I was sort of acclimatised to how I thought D&D woud look. But that all went out the window when I saw what Gygax had created back in ’79 when I was still a nipper.

It was the iconic cover, the one we all know and love by David C. Sutherland III. It just set the tone from the get-go.  I opened it and flicked through the 232 pages in amazement. This looked as if it had been written by Professors! Finally something I could show my parents and make them understand that D&D was a serious game, not just some pew-pew facsimile we played every other weekend. (It didn’t work. Still hasn’t actually.)

The scope of what I was seeing was just unbelievable and I could feel my creative juices firing up, but then I saw it… and let me tell you, it was love at first sight.

My eyes stopped on page 152, about halfway down the page, nestled comfortably between ‘Pipes of the Sewers’ and ‘Quaal’s Feather Token’, a magical item that made me sit up and really take notice…it was the Portable Hole. I don’t know why, it just lit my imagination to no end. I was used to most magical items in D&D, but as cool as they were, they were no match for something as left field as this beauty was.

Portable Hole: A portable hole is a circle of magical cloth spun from the webs of a phase spider interwoven with strands of ether and beams of Astral Plane luminaries. When opened fully, a portable hole is 6' in diameter, but it can be folded as small as a pocket handkerchief. When spread upon any surface, it causes an extra-dimensional hole 10' deep to come into being. This hole can be "picked up" from inside or out by simply taking hold of the edges of the magical cloth and folding it up. Either way, the entrance disappears, but anything inside the "hole" remains. The only oxygen in the "hole" is that allowed by creation of the space, so creatures requiring the gas cannot remain inside for more than a turn or so without opening the space again by means of the magical cloth. The cloth does not accumulate weight even if its hole is filled with gold, for example. Each portable hole opens on its own particular non-dimensional space. If a bag of holding is placed within a portable hole, a rift to the Astral Plane is torn in the space, and the bag and the cloth are sucked into the void and forever lost. If a portable hole is placed within a bag of holding, it opens a gate to another plane, and the 'hole, bag' and any creatures within a 10' radius are drawn to the plane, the portable hole and bag of holding being destroyed in the process.

That was my touchstone moment and introduction into AD&D. Having a book like that, that contained such creative magical items made want to be a better DM. It still does actually.
It was a few weeks later and I was at the local library. It was a slow day and all the good stuff was gone so I picked up a copy of E.T. I presumed it was written after the movie came out. I hadn’t seen it at that stage, so I figured, what the hell, let me give it a bash. And lo and behold, there in Chapter Two was my dear friend, the portable hole.
They were playing D&D around the table, I can’t find what was in the book, but I did manage to get a copy of the screenplay and it had:

Okay then, so I run out of the
forest and I think I’ll shoot
just my arrows at the goblins
to make them chase me. I
keep running and shooting and
running and shooting and just
when they’re really mad and
about to get me… I throw down
my portable hole and climb in
and pull the lid closed.
Presto. Vanished.

Then later on the DM, Steve says:
You can only use a portable hole
once, you know?

And finally:
Okay, I can only let you stay in the
hole for ten millirounds, Elliott.

Not sure if it made it into the movie though, but fairly interesting none the less. So yeah, loved the book, loved the magic item, and still loving AD&D!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Descent into the Depths of the Earth (In more ways than one)

 The year is 1992 and I had moved to Johannesburg. Hillbrow to be precise. Apparently, this used to be a somewhat bohemian neighbourhood when it first came into existence. Perfect little coffee shops in which to have an existential crisis or two over backgammon and cappuccinos. It was down the road from Wits University, and so, it became a hotbed for political dissent and railing against the oppressive regime of the time. It was a place for people of all colour to hang out and just do whatever it is that people do. I experienced a little bit of it in its heyday, and let me tell you, it was great. But sadly, when I was living there, it was fast becoming a cesspit littered with crime, drugs, and whatever else makes a neighbourhood go bad. But hey, the rent was cheap, so what you gonna do?

I had just finished my spell in the Army. It was compulsory. National Service and all of that. The Border War had finally ground to a halt, and all members of the SADF (South African Defence Force) had withdrawn from the fighting in Angola, and what would later be called Namibia, or South West Africa as it was still called. The ANC had been unbanned the year before, and Nelson Mandela was now a free man. There was a promise of better things on the way.

It was now of course that the National Party began its Third Force activity. Get all your enemies to fight one another and they will have no time to fight the power. It’s an old tactic, but it works. The ANC were locked in a deadly tit-for-tat battle against the IFP, and the AWB were threatening civil war. It was a bloody time. A terrible time. People were being ‘Necklaced’ daily. If you want to know what that is, Google it. But I must warn you, it’s fucking horrific. Yet despite all this mindless bloodshed, things were happening. Good things. Positive things. Yes we were a country tearing itself apart, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. These could be considered birthing pangs. Contractions if you will.
I lived in a huge block of flats just off the main road that cuts through Hillbrow and Braamfontien. We would sit on the roof sometimes at night looking at the Joburg skyline. It’s not London, or Paris, or NYC, but it does the job. Sometimes there would be these insane marches coming up the road. People stretched out for miles, dancing, singing, waving placards. There would be police choppers buzzing over the city like angry hornets, and squads of spotters and snipers perched on all the tall buildings in the area. It was mayhem. Plumes of tear gas and smoke from burning cars blotting out the sun. Shootings, stabbings, the whole gamut of what man can do to man when angry and riled up.
It wasn’t always like that. If you weren’t a complete dickhead Hillbrow could be pretty cool. They had the legendary Hillbrow record store about three blocks from where I stayed. Wall to wall vinyl. I loved it there, between the stacks and the bins looking for music. Then one day, on my way home from buying some milk, I spied a door…

It was at the bottom of a set of stairs leading under a building. Curioser and curioser, I must explore and see what it is. I shot down the stairs and opened the door and was immediately hit by the smell of lavender incense. It was a tiny underground shopping mall of sorts. Carpeted floors, tiny passages, low ceilings, spotty lighting, and eye wateringingly fogged with burning incense. It was fucking great.

It was like the kind of place your parents worn you about when you are a teenager. A den of inequity. There was a Head Shop, selling bongs, T-Shirts, Rizla, and the usual drug paraphernalia. Then there was a tattoo parlour adjacent to a small record bar that seemed to specialise in Metal, Goth, and anything else we in SA would call, alternative… There were clothing shops that flogged knock off Slayer and Sepultura shirts, 8-hole Doc Martens, the works. Having spent most of my life in a small town, having access to this sort of stuff was near impossible, but now having it a stone’s throw from where I lived was just brilliant. And then I saw it, the sort of shop I had been searching for all my life… Gargoyles & Goblins, and they sold nothing but role-playing games.

Shelves filled with I.C.E, D&D, Warhammer Fantasy, you name it, and they had it. They also had a second hand section brimming with modules and rulebooks. I chatted with the owner, a bearded long haired dude, who spoke with just the right amount of contempt for his patrons to remind of ‘Comic Book’ guy from The Simpsons. I didn’t care, I wasn’t here for him, I was here for his loot!
I rifled through the merchandise and found two modules that I had only ever heard whispers about, D1-D2 and the D3 set. Descent into the Depths of the Earth in all its Gygaxian glory. I had to have them, that’s all that mattered. They were twenty Rand a pop. Now that might not sound like a lot, but up until them I had only been earning 130 Rand a month having reached the lofty heights of a two- liner in the Artillery (that’s being called a Bombardier for those in the know) and money was tight. So, what do you do in times like this? I bought them both.

I scurried home, broke, and fearing someone was going to jump out of the shadows and liberate them from me. I made it to the flat in one piece, threw open the door and assembled the horde. I spent the next hour or so going over the first module while the rest of the players rolled up characters and got themselves ready. We were in for the long-haul. No one was leaving these four walls until we had finished them. Luckily, it was Friday afternoon.

I was in my room boning up on the game, and you could see from the very first encounter that E.G.G wasn’t messing around when he wrote this, it was going to be carefully orchestrated carnage if the players weren’t sharp enough. After I felt I had a handle on how the game should go, I dimmed the lights, put some Tubular Bells on the Hi-Fi, and had at it. It was epic. Characters came and went, Drow were slain, treasure was acquired, and magical items were found, then stolen, then found again. Characters levelled up, got killed, were raised from the dead, got killed again, while their players fought exhaustion and emotions, trying to stay alive.

It was Sunday evening when we finally put our dice down. I was fucked. Tiny amounts of sleep was the only reprieve I had had away from the table. And even those catnaps were being intruded on by giant slugs, shriekers, and the underworld itself. I looked around the room. It was grey with smoke and cluttered with bits of paper, beer bottles, pizza boxes and exhausted adventurers. But we had a blast, an absolute blast. We headed up to the roof to clear our heads and watch the sun go down.
Hillbrow is still there, but it has changed. I wouldn’t dare set foot in it now. The record store is gone, so too is the underground mall I discovered, and that means Gargoyles & Goblins is gone as well, along with ‘Comic Book’ guy. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. It’s the universal law. But I still have the memories of a great weekend, and I still have those modules too, and if you look at the top right-hand corner of the creased cover, it still says twenty Rand.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K : Not your usual mob of angry villagers.

I 'aint afraid of no, P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K!
Sacked by a horde of marauding outriders as early as 153AL, the tiny sea-side town of Strathburl lay abandoned and neglected for centuries, until a small group of exiles made it their home.  It grew, albeit slowly, into a haven for refugees; those who had no chance of ever returning from where they were driven. It was a beacon of hope in an otherwise darkened land.  A place where people could try and put their lives back together. They became known as the Free Folk, and the town a haven for those who had ever suffered at the callous hands of others.
Out of this sense of civic wellbeing grew the will to turn the tables on the oppressors, and so rose P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K, a loose collection of individuals united in their quest to overthrow the yoke of tyranny everywhere. No madman, vampire, despotic overlord, mad scientist, or evil conjurer would ever feel safe again…

The Founding Members of P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K

He was seven when the war finally came to his village. Piter only survived by hiding in the barn under a huge pile of hay while feral dog-soldiers searched the village for believers. He was lucky. His family, and the rest of the farming community were marched off to the castle and imprisoned until either death, or the rats took them.
He never saw them again.
 Piter was saved by an iterant ranger who had been dogging the steps of the war band looking for survivors. After three hundred miles, seventeen hamlets, and one large village, Piter was the only one he came across. They escaped on foot heading north, travelling only at night and hiding during the day. They arrived eventually at their destination, the village of Strathburl on the coast of the Ageless Sea; and it was here that Piter was trained in the art of combat by a retired Fighting Man called, Sir Bellush the Angry. Because of his agrarian background and skill with farming implements, he chose a rather unconventional piece of kit as his weapon… a pitchfork. Piter modified it heavily of course, adding several fiendish innovations to its simple form. Tipped in purest silver with a haft of ash wood, it could pierce a steel breastplate as if it were the shell on a soft boiled crab. He smeared the prongs with the fermented residue of the hunter bush, guaranteed to cause paralysis in even the largest of opponents. Piter grew up to become the leader of this motley bunch of do-gooders, and is exceptionally zealous when championing the underdog.

Sold into slavery at the tender age of six, she spent her formative years in the vile clutches of the Bishop of Barton Hollow, a corpulent, slothful, pederast, whom she dispatched one evening with a dagger ‘borrowed’ from one of his bodyguards. She sliced open his more than ample gut and strangled him with his own quivering intestines.
 No one was sad to see the bastard go, not even his guards.
 They packed young Isla off with a bag of coin, a weapon, and a map on how to get to Strathburl. Despite their supposed ‘kindness’, she returned later that evening and did for them as well. It was retribution for years of sitting idly by while she and a host of others suffered the pawing’s of the lecherous cleric.
 When she had wiped the blood from her blade she set fire to the church and razed it to the ground. She danced wildly as the carven effigies of fallen gods exploded in a shower of sparks and hypocrisy.
Isla loathes the clergy. Hates them. She wields the fallen Bishop’s mace and wears boiled leather armour, daubed in the blood of her fallen enemies. Isla wears the heads of her enemies around her belt, and on the bridle of her horse. She enjoys the noise they make when she is in full gallop. Isla makes it her mission to steal from churches, and she uses the purloined loot to fund their enterprise against the unjust. Her war cry is ‘Fides Amplius’ which means, Faith No More, in the common tongue.

Chained to a rowing bench since he was old enough to hold an oar, Tanner found his freedom when his galley was sunk in the Ageless Sea. He survived by clinging to a piece of broken hull. For three weeks he was at sea, living on rainwater and whatever fish he could catch with his bare hands. Eventually, when he was just about to give up and let the water roll over his head, he spied a light to the west. Tanner gathered whatever resolve he had left and struck out toward it. He made landfall four hours later and staggered into the firelight of the local tavern, collapsing at the tavern keeper’s feet. When he was better he began his training under the firm hand of Sir Bellush. Years of constant rowing have left Tanner exceptionally strong. He prefers the feel of wood in his hands so he has chosen the staff as his weapon of retribution. His years at sea have given him a keen understanding of the weather and its ever-shifting patterns. Tanner can predict rainfall almost to the second. Oh, and he hates boats. Vehemently.

A living blood-bank for a half-vampire, half-thrall, Coleen spent her youth in the rat infested cellar of a châteaux, halfway between the Free City of Cologne and the Port o’ Fears. Every third day she was brought up from her hole in the ground, to give sustenance to him-who-shies- from- the-sun. She filled his lifeless veins with her scarlet nectar, rolling back the years on that terrifying face, until he was but a youngish man in his early twenties with his whole life ahead of him. He looked almost human too, where it not for the ivory fangs that danced in his bloody maw. But Coleen saw him for the beast he was when she managed to slip her iron fetters and rammed a foot of hard wood through the creature’s heart. Oh, how she laughed as her tormentor writhed and flopped on the once plush carpet like a fish out of water. When his body had finally succumb to all the years he had stolen, she scooped his once powerful teeth into her pinafore and left the house forever. She found her way to Strathburl, just as all the others did. On her travels she had sewn the teeth into a necklace that she wore proudly around her ravaged throat. She had a look in her eye that made you forget any questions you might have about her wounds.  Because of her constant bloodletting, and infection from vampire spittle, she is now able to smell a vampire’s lair from at least five or six miles away, depending on how the wind is blowing. She can see in the dark, as well as hear at least ten times better than any rogue could ever wish for. She is also immune to any gaze/charm attacks a vampire may be hiding up his foppish, velvet sleeve. She hunts with hammer, stake, garlic, holy water, and wears a brace of crossbows on her belt.

Once a Bard with a melodic voice, young Hengest ran afoul of Lord Ghasthorne for a supposed dalliance with his wife. The lovesick Lord had Hengest’s tongue ripped out for his imaginary sins. Robbed of his livelihood, he fell in with a group of teenage runaways heading to Strathburl. Hengest no longer plays any instruments and abhors the sound of music or singing. Clad in a black cloak with the cowl always covering his bald pate, this silent and stealthy boy tends to do his work in the shadows, forever fearing the lights of the stage. He is skilled in the art of the quiet kill, preferring the garrotte and the dagger to do his work for him. He has yet to pay Lord Ghasthorne a visit and settle the score.  But he will…soon.

Sold by his father for lotus resin, young Farouk grew up in the desert. The environment was hard and merciless, much like his master. He was apprenticed to a sadistic Djinn weaver who beat and berated the boy daily, until one day, he could stand the punishment no more. Applying everything he had ever overheard from his master’s lotus stained lips, he summoned a Dust Devil that promptly ate his master and shat out his bones. Farouk escaped that evening, running as fast as his young legs would carry him. He has no recollection on how far he journeyed or where, all he knows is that he fell in with some kindly merchants, and after many months of travel found himself alone in the Inner Kingdoms on the outskirts of Strathburl. He has taken to studying the arcane art of summoning and creation, and the Dust Devil that slew his master is now a constant companion in their struggle to right the world’s wrongs. He calls it Faheem, the eater of black souls.

Once a hallowed Temple virgin, Ostra was defiled by drunken priests in a supposed ‘religious’ ceremony. Bloodied, bruised, she killed them while they snored and spluttered in a drunken heap. Fleeing the temple she happened across an angelic embassy of her god asking why she has killed the High Priests of the Temple. She laughed, then laughed some more, then spat in his face and plunged her curved blade in his eye. They wrestled, and bit, and kicked, and fought for hours until eventually she won, forcing the angel to lick her bloody feet before going back to his mistress.  She turned her back on her old life, and when she found the village she fell wholeheartedly into P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K.
 It was possibly after their fifth or sixth mission together, that she crossed swords with her angel again. But this time, after she bested him, he too turned his back on his old life and bent his head in service to her. He is known to the group as Oculus the Fallen.

An honorary title given to the newest member of the party in honour of Revel the Harlequin, who fell in bloody battle against the Shadow Sorcerer, Bethomet. Whoever fills Revel’s place wears his colourful armour and mask of bells in remembrance of this once famed circus performer.


A certified genius, Kincaid fled the inhuman practices of Victor the Flesh-Joiner before he was to be cut limb from limb, and reconfigured… Kincaid brews potions, poisons, heals broken bodies, and assists wherever he can. He seeks out his nemesis’ creation, a monster built from the body parts of Victor’s family, and galvanised into living by massive amounts of lightning. The monster is neither living nor dead, it merely, is.  It terrorises lonely pockets of humanity before slinking back into the shadows. But Kincaid has received word that it’s been spotted mere miles away in the hamlet of Macsen’s Delve, and so, it is to this destination that the members of P.I.T.C.H.F.O.R.K are riding post haste, to see how they may assist. Fides Amplius!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

d20. What's under the bed?

“For the love of wee gods and tiny fishes! I just wanted to get some kip, that’s all. Forty winks before the dungeon crawl in the morning. Is that too much to ask for? But no, not possible. There’s something under my bed. Gnawing. Wailing, making a terrible bloody racket. Here, have a gander at this. Now, what do you suppose that is?”

1. A small wooden chest with the lid snapping open and closed. A pale yellow light emanates from within.

2. A low fog, swirling, making a slithering noise. It begins to spill out from under the bed and fill up the room

3. A rat caught in a trap with a handwritten note attached to its body. The note reads,’ Escape. Now. While you still can.”

4. A hole between the worlds, with two hairy arms protruding, feeling their way around, as if they were searching for something.

5. A bag of orc jaws, gnashing and biting.

6. A tiny dust sprite, dancing, spinning like a dervish, singing off-key, high pitched, and growing bigger with every dizzying revolution.

7. A book. Completely black from cover to cover, and page to page. Thin, scrawny, silvery handwriting is barely legible on the cover and within.

8. A coin, made from a strange blue metallic substance that makes all the hairs on your body stand up straight.

9. A black oozing substance slowly taking shape with four baleful glowing eyes, and a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, sliding toward your unprotected face.

10. A gold bar stamped with the crest of the local Lord. Suddenly, there’s a banging on the door…

11. A severed hand, fingers moving, Rap-tap-tapping on the wooden floor. Then it stops and begins to beckon you closer.

12. A stringed musical instrument, made from wood, ivory, and a large tortoise shell.

13. A fake beard, moustache, and a blonde wig.

14. A bolted trapdoor, with something on the other side banging furiously to be let out. Normally it wouldn’t bother you, but the woods starting to splinter…

15. A music box, that when opened plays a melancholy tune by the famous Bardic troupe, ‘Joy Division’.

16. A small mirror that’s not reflecting what it should. It’s definitely not showing you the room you’re in, neither is that tentacled monstrosity your reflection. It emits a cold, cold breeze, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the faintest of screams, echoing, through the starless void.

17. A book of daily omens, with tomorrow’s page torn out, and the remainder are all blank.

18. A diary of someone who appears to be trapped in a tower somewhere in the city. There are vague directions to where the person maybe being held.

19. A wanted sign with your face on it. Big cash reward offered, but only if you’re dead. Alive apparently, doesn’t really matter.

20. A piece of parchment confessing a terrible secret about the local Abbot, and what one may find in his basement.

The Monster under the Bed
In the cupboard
Or in the darkened corner of the room

Shadowy, sinewy, tall and thin. Creepy. Fanged. Moves quickly, and if you’re lucky, you might just catch it out of the corner of your eye. Long arms, stretchy, unnatural. Claws, teeth and a hunger that knows no bounds. Spun as playthings by witches on the wheels and looms of hate, they are let loose to sup on the fears of those who inhabit the mortal realm. Especially children, and adventurers.

Hit Dice: 4+1
Armour Class: 7 [12]
Attacks: 2 Claws (1d8) and kiss (1d12)
Saving Throw: Fighter 6
Special: Hugs and kisses. Can only be hit by silver or magical weapons
Move: Twice a mortals speed
Alignment: Eeeeevil
XP: 450

If a the Monster under the Bed hits with both claws, it hugs, then closes in for a kiss for an additional 1d12 hit points of damage. A kiss drains 1d4 points of strength that can be restored by one point per day. A player may make a save to negate kiss damage, but not claw damage.