December 2009


All poetry is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats.
- Tzara, Travesties by Tom Stoppard

December 29th, 2009


Serpent Amphora 1: Serpent in the Fold

A question I'm asked with surprising regularity is, "Why do you waste money on adventure modules?" It's a question generally voiced with varying degrees of disdain, and the not-so-hidden subtext lying behind it is that published adventure modules are worthless. There are different reasons proffered for why they should be ignored, but they generally boil down to a couple of core variations:

(1) Published adventures are for people too stupid or uncreative to make up their own adventures.

(2) Published adventures are crap.

The former makes about as much sense to me as saying, "Published novels are for people too stupid or uncreative to write their own stories." And the latter seems to be derived entirely from an ignorance of Sturgeon's Law.

On the other hand, I look at my multiple bookcases of gaming material and I know with an absolute certainty that I own more adventure modules than I could ever hope to play in my entire lifetime. (And that's assuming that I never use any of my own material.)

So why do I keep buying more?

There are a lot of answers to that. But a major one lies in the fact that I usually manage to find a lot of value even in the modules that I don't use.

Take, for example, Serpent Amphora 1: Serpent in the Fold. While being far from the worst module I've ever read (having been forced to wade through some true dreck during my days as a freelance reviewer), Serpent in the Fold is a completely dysfunctional product. It's virtually unsalvageable, since any legitimate attempt to run the module would necessitate completely replacing or drastically overhauling at least 90% of the content.



The only thing worse than a railroaded adventure is a railroaded adventure with poorly constructed tracks.

For example, it's virtually a truism that whenever a module says "the PCs are very likely to [do X]" that it's code for "the GM is about to get screwed". (Personally, I can't predict what my PCs are "very likely to do" 9 times out of 10, and I'm sitting at the same table with them every other week. How likely is it that some guy in Georgia is going to puzzle it out?) But Serpent in the Fold keeps repeating this phrase over and over again. And to make matters worse, the co-authors seem to be in a competition with each other to find the most absurd use of the phrase.

(My personal winner would be the assumption that the PCs are likely to see a group of known enemies casting a spell and -- instead of immediately attacking -- they will instead wait for them to finish casting the spell so that they can spy on the results.)

Serpent in the Fold gets bonus points for including an explicit discussion telling the GM to avoid "the use of deus ex machina" because it "limits the PCs"... immediately before presenting a railroaded adventure in which the gods literally appear half a dozen times to interfere with the PCs and create pre-determined outcomes.

The module then raises the stakes by encouraging the DM to engage in punitive railroading: Ergo, when the PCs are instructed by the GM's sock puppet to immediately go to location A it encourages the GM to have the PCs make a Diplomacy check to convince a ship captain to attempt dangerous night sailing in order to get to their destination 12 days faster than if the captain plays it safe. The outcome of the die roll, however, is irrelevant because the PCs will arrive only mere moments after the villains do whether they traveled quickly or not. On the other hand, if the PCs ignore the GM's sock puppet and instead go to location B first for "even a few days" then "they will have failed" the entire module.

So, on the macro-level, the module is structurally unsound. But its failures extend to the specific utility of individual sequences, as well: The authors are apparently intent on padding their word count, so virtually all of the material is bloated and unfocused in a way that would make the module incredibly painful to use during actual play.

The authors are also apparently incapable of reading the rulebooks. For example, they have one of the villains use scrying to open a two-way conversation with one of their minions. (The spell doesn't work like that.)  More troublesome is when the PCs get the MacGuffin of the adventure (a tome of lore) and the module confidently announced that it has been sealed with an arcane lock spell cast by a 20th level caster and, therefore, the PCs won't be able to open it. The only problem is that arcane lock isn't improved by caster level and the spell can be trivially countered by a simple casting of knock.

The all-too-easy-to-open "Unopenable" Tome is also an example of the authors engaging in another pet peeve of mine: Writing the module as if it were a mystery story to be enjoyed by the GM. Even the GM isn't allowed to know what the tome contains, so when the PCs do manage ot open it despite the inept "precautions" of the authors he'll be totally screwed. And the tome isn't the only example of this: The text is filled with "cliffhangers" that only serve to make the GM's job more difficult. The authors actually seem to revel in serial-style "tune in next week to find out the shocking truth!" nonsense.

Maps that don't match the text are another bit of garden-variety incompetence to be found in Serpent in the Fold, but the authors raise it to the next level by choosing to include a dungeon crawl in which only half the dungeon is mapped. The other half consists of semi-random encounters strewn around an unmapped area of wreckage which are too "haphazard" to map and key. Despite this, the encounters all feature very specific topographical detail that the authors are then forced to spend multiple paragraphs describing in minute detail. (Maps, like pictures, really are worth a thousand words.)

As if to balance out this odd negligence, the authors proceed to round out the final "chapter" of the adventure by providing an exhaustive key to a mansion/castle with 50+ rooms... which the GM is than advised to ignore. (And I mean this quite literally: "In order to ["get right to the action"] have them notice the bloodstains in the entry foyer, and thus, likely, find the bodies. Make the trail that leads to the infirmary a bit more obvious [...] it should be easy to keep the PCs moving up the stairs and to the final confrontation with Amra.") In this case, the advice is quite right: The pace of the adventure is better served if the PCs don't go slogging through a bunch of inconsequential rooms. But why is a third of the module dedicated to providing a detailed key that will never be used?

Round out the package with a handful of key continuity errors and elaborate back-stories and side-dramas featuring NPCs that the PCs will never get to learn about (another pet peeve of mine) to complete the picture of abject failure.



I tracked down the Serpent Amphora trilogy of modules in the hope that I would be able to plug them into a potential gap in my Ptolus campaign. Unfortunately, it turned out that the material was conceptually unsuited for my needs and functionally unusable in its execution. So that was a complete waste of my money, right?

Not quite. 

To invent a nomenclature, I generally think of adventure modules in terms of their utility.

Tier One modules are scenarios that I can use completely "out of the box". There aren't many of these, but a few examples would include: Caverns of ThraciaThree Days to KillIn the Belly of the BeastDeath in Freeport, Rappan Athuk, and The Masks of Nyarlathotep. Tier One modules might receive some minor customization to fit them into my personal campaign world or plugged into a larger structure, but their actual content is essentially untouched.

Tier Two modules are scenarios that I use 80-90% of. The core content and over-arcing structure of these scenarios remains completely recognizable, but they also require extreme revision in order to make them workable according to my standards. High quality examples include The Night of Dissolution, Banewarrrens, Tomb of Horrors, The Paxton Gambit, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and Darkness Revealed. (For a more extreme version of a Tier Two module, see my remix notes for Keep on the Shadowfell.)

Serpent in the Fold is a Tier Three module: These are the modules which are either too boring or too flawed for me to use, but in which specific elements can be stripped out and reused.

(Tier Four modules are the ones with interesting concepts rendered inoperable through poor execution. Virtually nothing of worth is to be found here, since you're largely doing the equivalent of taking the back cover text from a book and writing a new novel around the same concept. Tier Five modules are those rare and complete failures in which absolutely nothing of value can be found; the less said of them, the better.)

For example, consider that mansion with high quality maps and a detailed key for 50+ rooms.

That mansion is practically plug-'n-play. Less than 5% of it is adventure specific. That's an incredibly invaluable resource to have for an urban campaign (like the one I'm currently running).

But the usefulness of Serpent in the Fold doesn't end there. I'll be quite systematic in ripping out the useful bits of a Tier Three module (since I have little interest in revisiting the material again). Starting from the beginning of the module, I find:

Inside Cover: A usable map of a simple cave system.

Page 10: Three adventuring companies are detailed. (These are particularly useful to me because Ptolus feature a Delvers' Guild full of wandering heroes responding to the dungeon-esque gold rush of the city. Ergo, there's plenty of opportunities for the PCs to bump into competitors or hear about their exploits. Such groups are useful for stocking the common room of an inn or pub in any campaign.)

Page 25: An interesting mini-system for climbing a mountain. It features a base climbing time and a system for randomly generating the terrain to be climbed (prompting potential Climb checks which can add or subtract from the base climbing time). I'd probably look to modify the system to allow additional Survival or Knowledge (nature) checks to plot the course of ascent (to modify or contribute to the largely random system presented here).

Page 27: A very nice illustration that I can quickly Photoshop and re-purpose as a handout depicting a subterranean ruin.

(As a tangential note: I wish more modules would purpose their illustrations so that they could be used as visual aids at the gaming table. You can make your product visually appealing and useful at the same time, and you're already spending the money to commission the illustration in any case.)

Page 33: Another useful illustration that can be quickly turned into a handout.


Page 54-55: A new monster and the new spell required to create them.

The module also features countless stat blocks, random encounter tables, and similar generic resources that can be quickly ripped out and rapidly re-purposed.

So even in a module that I found largely useless and poorly constructed, I've still found resources that will save me hours of independent work.

When you're dealing with a module like Serpent in the Fold that you have no intention of ever using, these strip-mining techniques can be used to suck out every last drop of useful information without any particular care for the husk of detritus you leave behind. But similar measures can also be employed to harvest useful material from any module, even those you've used before or plan to use in the future.

December 30th, 2009


I've recently been reading The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum and writing a few essays in an effort to dissect some of the irrational examples of scholastic exuberance he highlights in the book. This essay, however, changes the focus to Rosenbaum himself.

The topic: Shylock.

Rosenbaum's position:

It's the most truthful and the most terrible Shylock I've seen. Truthful, in part, because it's a throwback to the original, a throwback to the deeply repellent character Shakespeare created. A throwback that has no truck with contemporary cant of the sort that attempts to exculpate Shakespeare and Shylock, evade or explain away the anti-Semitism. It doesn't fall victim to the intellectual fallacy, the comforting but deluded evasion that has pervaded many recent productions of The Merchant of Venice: the belief that if you make Shylock a nicer guy, play him with more dignity, play up the cruelty of the Christians as well, you can somehow transcend the ineradicable anti-Semitism of the caricature.

The problem with the warm and fuzzy Shylock, the feel-good Shylock you might say, is that it doesn't diminish, it actually exacerbates, deepens the anti-Semitism of the play as a whole. The more "nice" you make the moneylender, the more you end up making the play not about the villainy of one Jew, but the villainy of all Jews, a deep-seated villainy that subsists beneath the surface even in those who appear "nice" on the surface. The more warm and fuzzy you make Shylock, the more you make it a play about the fact that even such a Jew will not hesitate, when it comes down to it, to take a knife and cut the heart out of a Christian.

The central contention of Rosenbaum's argument is that Shylock's final act (when he attempts to commit an act of legalized murder) is a piece of unforgivable villainy that confirms the bigotry of the anti-Semitic. Thus, the nicer you make Shylock, the worse the message becomes: No matter how nice a Jew may seem, the truth is that all Jews are murdering monsters.



But for Rosenbaum's thesis to stick, he has to overcome a rather sizable hurdle. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? This is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending evocations of the basic humanity which transcends all bigotries. And if The Merchant of Venice is, in fact, as viciously anti-Semitic as Rosenbaum claims, then it seems painfully out of place.

In short, the only way to accept an anti-Semitic reading of The Merchant of Venice is if you can explain away what may be the most eloquent skewering of anti-Semitism ever written. Rosenbaum, seeing the problem, writes:

But what about Shylock's famous speech in his defense: "Hath not a Jew eyes? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?" one is inevitably asked. Some might argue that this indicated that Shakespeare had a more advanced consciousness than the medieval anti-Semitism that persisted into his time. Perhaps. But if the speech is read to its bitter end "do we not bleed" bleeds any poignancy dry as it turns out to be a rationale for vengefulness: If we are alike in these respects, "If you wrong us shall we [just as you] not revenge?" as well.

There are two problems with Rosenbaum's argument.

First, he doesn't actually explain why we should ignore the speech. He seems to be relying on an unspoken premise that "revenge is evil". But even if we accept the premise, Rosenbaum's conclusion doesn't follow.

Second, Rosenbaum is setting up a false dichotomy. He's saying "if Shylock is a villain, then the play is anti-Semitic". Then he concludes that Shylock is a villain, ergo the play is anti-Semitic. But in setting up this dichotomy, Rosenbaum may be missing the entire point of the play.



When we first see Shylock and Antonio on the stage together, Shylock says:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my monies and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
(For sufferance is the badge of all our Tribe.)
You call me misbeliever, cut-throated dog,
And spat upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which his mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
"Shylock, we would have monies." You say so;
You that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold. Monies is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say,
"Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur should lend three thousand ducats? Or
shall I bend low, and in a bond-mans key
With bated breath, and whispering humbleness,
Say this: "Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog: and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much monies."

This speech, I think, sets up the core dynamic of the play: Hatred begets hatred.

It's not that Shylock is pretending to be a nice guy while secretly being a Jewish monster. It's that the Christians treating him like a monster is what turns him into a monster.

Elsewhere in his book, Rosenbaum quotes a speech from the "Hand D" of Sir Thomas More that many believe may be written by Shakespeare. In reading it, I was struck by a similar theme. Thomas More is confronting a riotous, anti-immigrant crowd. As Rosenbaum writes, "the sympathy is with the immigrant-bashing nativist poor", but then Hand D takes over. Sir Thomas More stands up before the crowd and says:

Grant them removed and grant them this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England,
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
Plodding to th' ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenc'd by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions cloth'd,
What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quell'd and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self-same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Again, we see this theme of hatred creating hatred; intolerance breeding intolerance.

In the end I think this is not only a more legitimate interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, I think it's also a more interesting one.

Rosenbaum presents his opinion of Shylock within the context of a larger thesis that Shakespeare's villains don't need any explanation or motivation -- they're just evil. I think this is, in general, an overly-simplistic, one-size-fits-all explication of the Bard. And I think it specifically causes Rosenbaum to overlook the complexity of The Merchant of Venice.



But if Ron Rosenbaum were reading this essay, I know what his response would be, because he trots it out a half dozen times or more in The Shakespeare Wars:

Sorry, it's just not a character you can make nice about, or rationalize as some do, by emphasizing the play's critique of the cruel mockery of the money-hungry Christians as well. Christians weren't slaughtered for their religious stereotypes in Europe; Jews were. None of the Christian characters played the ugly and vicious role Shylock did in Nazi propaganda. When one encounters this allegedly sophisticated Shakespeare-made-the-Christians-worse evasion, one has to ask why the Nazis put on fifty productions of Merchant. Because of its critique of the Christians?

Basically, this becomes Rosenbaum's first and last line of defense: If you claim that there's a sympathetic reading of Shylock to be had, then you're a Nazi. (Or, at best, a Nazi-sympathizer.)

One could delve into the problems with Rosenbaum's defense. (For example, just because Shylock can be played as a racist caricature, it doesn't follow that he should be. Or perhaps the fact that the German productions would have been translated, offering plentiful opportunities to strip out Shakespeare's theme and replace it with something uglier.) But it's pointless, because there is no actual substance behind Rosenbaum's repeated insistence that "if the Nazis performed it, it must be evil". If he pulled this online, he would be rightfully called out for Godwinizing the discussion.

(And it was, in fact, this particular bit of intellectual dishonesty that prompted to start writing this response.)



With that being said, I have never performed a deep study of The Merchant of Venice. And even my casual readings and viewings have made it abundantly clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to the text. For example, before offering any other rationale, Shylock says, "I hate him for he is a Christian." And there remains the open question of exactly how the behavior of the Christians in the play would have been interpreted by an Elizabethan audience: We see their behavior as abhorrent and are thus inclined to interpret them as negative portrayals. But if you don't view their behavior as abhorrent, does that remain true? Is the play condemning them or are we condemning them?

But whatever complexities the text may offer, it remains absolutely true that it explicitly says both that, "Shylock does what he does because Antonio did what he did." and "There is no difference between a Jew and a Christian."

Any responsible reading of the text must take those elements of the text into account. It cannot, as Rosenbaum does, simply ignore them.

December 31st, 2009



So against all common sense, you find yourself hankering to write up a railroad for your roleplaying group. You dream of a land where the rails are straight, the wheels are locked, and the players submissive.

Well, you're in luck, because today we're bringing you -- courtesy of the Serpent Amphora trilogy -- an educational primer in the Art of the Railroad with a step-by-step breakdown of the track-laying process.



Remember: Your goal is not to design a robust scenario which will ensure that the adventure remains enjoyable and usable despite the players trying to make decisions for themselves. Your goal is to design a Disneyland ride to carry them past all the Exciting and Interesting Things you've designed for them to see. If the players try to tamper with their teacup, your adventure should throw up its hands in exasperation, take its ball, and go home.

The PCs decide to quickly check out another lead before abandoning it on the say-so of an NPC? They fail the entire mission.

The PCs decide to attack a group of elves preparing to ambush them? They fail the entire mission.

The PCs decide not to hire a guide and trust to their own Survival skill? They die.

You can earn bonus points by issuing Failboat boarding passes on the basis of die rolls that the players have no control over!

They fail a Diplomacy check to convince someone to help them? They fail the entire mission.

They fail an Intelligence check to remember a key piece of information? They fail the entire mission.

No trip by rail is complete unless the train has a casino car where the only game is craps and the penalty for a bad roll is a bullet to the back of the brain.



It costs a lot of money to offer train service to all the major metropolitan areas. On the other hand, if you don't offer that kind of service a lot of people won't ride your trains. Fortunately, the solution is easy enough: You can advertise that your trains will take people to many different places, but the reality is that there's only one train and it only goes to one place.

This is particularly effective if you replace the "WELCOME TO ALBUQUERQUE" sign with a welcoming message from whatever town the PCs thought they were going to.

For example, the PCs fail the skill check to convince the boat captain to sail through the night so that they can get to their destination faster. When they finally get there, they discover that the villains got there just before them! Now they've had time to set ambushes! Oh no! If only they'd made that check or found a faster way!

... what? They made that skill check? Well, it's a good thing they did, because this way the villains only managed toget there just before them! They've had time to set ambushes! Oh no! It's a good thing they made that (meaningless) check!



Remember that both the train and the railroad tracks are invisible. This will occasionally confuse the PCs, who may forget that they're on a train and will try to head off in their own direction. The quickest and easiest solution is to hire sock pupp-- Err... Conductors. Why bother making it possible for the PCs to figure things out for themselves when you can just speak through your "conductors" and tell them what they should be doing?

It's important to remember that "providing meaningful assistance" is not in the conductors' job descriptions. Their job is to make the passengers jump through hoops, not listen to reasonable requests.

To make sure that the PCs understand who's boss, try to make the conductor's failure to supply necessary support completely irrational. For example, when a conductor shows up and tells them that the Gods Themselves(TM) have conjured up a coastal tsunami so that the local river will reverse its flow and speed their boat journey, then by god they are going to turn around, get back on their boat, and head upstream.

If the PCs ask why the 16th-level spellcaster telling them this couldn't just cast a teleport spell and instantly send the entire party to their destination, you might think that the correct answer is, "Shut up! That's why!" You would be wrong. The correct answer is, "Think you I am sitting by idly? I and many others labor even as you do against the machinations of the Serpent Mother, assisting you in ways you cannot see, on battlefields other than this one."

If the PCs point out that casting a teleport is surely easier than summoning hurricanes and reversing the flow of entire rivers, then they clearly haven't learnt their lesson. And since they haven't learned their lesson...



The PCs respond to the encounter you've carefully crafted to show that they're completely outmatched by your NPCs to conclude that they're completely outmatched and go for help (despite the fact they aren't supposed to go for help)? Then you should feel "no guilt" for killing them.

Arrest them, cripple them, or kill them -- doesn't really matter. They've been naughty, naughty children and they deserved to be punished for their willful ways.



Okay, you've done everything right: You've created an overwhelming combat encounter that the PCs can't possibly defeat so that they'll have no chance of stopping the NPCs from stealing the artifact and kidnapping their friend.

But the passengers have thwarted you by either (a) clever planning or (b) lucky rolling, and now the monsters who were supposed to stealing the artifact and/or kidnapping their friend have been killed with their mission unfulfilled.

Don't panic. The solution is simple: Add more monsters.

Should the dragon somehow be stopped from reaching [their friend], don't worry -- the PCs will still have to recover the [artifact]. The results, ultimately, are the same. If it didn't get the [artifact], though, [their friend] should be captured instead, so that the PCs still have reason to go to the Hornsaw. If the dragon can't take him, for some reason, and also didn't get the [artifact], then simply have two more storm hags bear [their friend] away instead.

That didn't work? Don't worry. You can just keep adding monsters until it does!



Everybody knows that the best railroad tracks are built with brick walls, right? Trains never run better than when they run into a wall.

To achieve this all-important effect you can make really poor assumptions about what the PCs are likely to do. For example, if you design an adventure in which they need to make a copy of a powerful magical ritual from the walls of an ancient tomb and then return that magical ritual to their employer, it's probably a safe bet that they won't spend a few extra hours to make a copy for themselves. That way you can assume that the bad guys will be able to steal the "only copy" of the ritual by kidnapping an NPC and "force them" to pursue the bad guys to get back the "only copy".

You can score bonus points by making the assumption ludicrously easy for the PCs to overcome. For example, there's no logical reason for PCs preparing to engage in a long overland journey to buy horses; therefore it's perfectly reasonable to make the timing of events depend on them definitely not buying horses. And since that's not ridiculous enough, you should make sure to plan for encounters (mandatory ones, of course) in which the PCs will fight mounted opponents... and still continue to assume that they won't have any horses to ride.


The important thing is that it doesn't matter what the PCs do. You've got a schedule to meet and a story to write, and no one is going to get in your way.