Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor

I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library. Being young and...

Howling Tower: Placing Traps to Serve a Larger Purpose

The trap is a D&D icon. Classic dungeons such as Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are famous for their mechanical ambushes. Traps are so central to the concept of dungeons that an entire class—the thief—was developed to deal with them (along with locked doors). In real life, of course, archaeologists have never had to deal with this abundance of traps in ancient tombs and ruins. No trap of any kind has been found in an...

Howling Tower: Plight of the Demon

Demons and devils occupy an odd position in the pantheons of most fantasy RPGs. For the most part, those terms are just two more names in a long list of monster classifications, not much different from fairies or talking animals. They’ve been stripped of their terrifying spiritual implications. That’s a shame, because their unholy aspects are what make demons and devils so fascinating in our collective, churning imagination. Reducing them...

Howling Tower: Old-School Renaissance

Old-School Renaissance A movement is happening in the shadows of the big fantasy RPGs. It calls itself the old-school renaissance, or OSR for short. You might have seen its logo popping up around the web. Like most grassroots movements, there’s no specific date when this got started. It’s tough even to say whether what we’re seeing is a true renaissance or just greater visibility thanks to the web. Old-school blogs are easy to...

Howling Tower: Gangsters Have Much to Teach Us

The best roleplaying sessions I ever played were a GangBusters campaign run by the game’s designer, Mark Acres. This campaign was legendary around TSR. Everyone wanted in, so Mark routinely wound up handling twelve or more players at a time. Understand that GangBusters is a tabletop version of simple, straightforward cops and robbers set in the 1920s. There are no urban arcana-style Elf Capone bootleggers backed by thuggish ogre...

Howling Tower: Social Studies

Cities and towns crop up frequently in most RPG campaigns, assuming you’re not spending all your time in a megadungeon. Given their importance in establishing a setting in general and in immediate game events, I’ve never been very happy with the way most RPGs deal with them. Published town descriptions all too often focus on material aspects that provide interesting color but seldom are factors in actual play. If there’s a...

Howling Tower: Baiting the Hook

Adventure hooks are those little clues that DMs drop here and there to attract characters to particular adventure areas, usually the ones the DM has invested considerable time and energy into detailing. They can take many forms (more on that below), but what’s important is that they tantalize the players enough to whet their appetites for more. Adventure hooks are the carrots that get players to pull the cart of the campaign along a path...

Howling Tower: Off-the-Cuff Adventures

My first efforts as a DM were with published D&D adventures: D1–3, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and Vault of the Drow. We bombed through the series in two marathon sessions. Those adventures produced great moments and great memories. I still shudder, however, when I think about some of my rookie DM mistakes. Most of my errors came from a lack of preparation. I made the mistake of believing that because I had...

Howling Tower: Marching Down to War

I just returned from an event that’s always one of the highlights of the year for me—Enfilade, the annual convention run by NHMGS (Northwest Historical Miniatures Gaming Society). Not only is it a solid weekend of playing with toy soldiers, it’s also one of the best-run conventions I’ve had the pleasure to attend. As usual, wargaming gets me thinking about fantasy warfare and why we don’t see more of it in RPG...

Howling Tower: When Heroes Meet Horror

When swords & sorcery heroes come up against cosmic horror, there is a chance that the characters themselves will catch a whiff of the universe beyond, whether or not they want to. Most horror games deal with that corrupting influence through some type of psychic decay or sanity countdown. Such mechanisms aren’t well suited to heroic fantasy. Heroes are resilient. Besides, no one really wants to see Fafhrd reduced to a drooling,...

Howling Tower: Cosmic Horror/Cosmic Hero

I just returned from the annual H. P. Lovecraft film festival in Portland, one of my favorite events of the year. As always, that event got me thinking (more than usual) about how the “Cthulhu mythos” can be incorporated into a fantasy RPG campaign. The elder gods run into trouble when they collide with heroic fantasy. Mighty warriors and wizards battle supernatural horror all day, every day. What makes Tsathoqqua and Shub-Niggurath...

Howling Tower: Lucern Hammer Beats Banded Mail

Science fiction and science fantasy RPGs tend to focus a lot of energy on defining societies by the level of technology that they’ve achieved. They have the word “science” in the name of their genre, and science = technology, right? We don’t see much similar discussion of technology in fantasy games. Leaving aside the question of magic for now, the role of technology—chiefly military tech—in FRPGs such as D&D and Pathfinder might deserve a...

Howling Tower: Here Be Dragons

Is there a roleplayer or a DM who doesn’t love maps? My dad once told me a story about a man who was investigated by the FBI during WW2, on suspicion of being a spy. Neighbors grew suspicious because he had boxes filled with maps in his house. It turned that he was a longtime subscriber to National Geographic, and he kept all the maps from the magazines in one place. I’m a map collector, too. Mine are stuffed into file drawers. Many of them are...

Howling Tower: Black Powder—Friend or Foe?

In this golden age when we have dozens of well-designed, polished FRPGs to choose from, gamer arguments tend to be about whether game A is “better” in some indefinable fashion than games B through Z. There was a time long ago when only a handful of FRPGs existed, and most roleplayers had tried all of them to one extent or another. Then, arguments tended to be about what you did or didn’t allow in your campaign. One of the most...


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