Dungeons & Dragons 5e

I got the Player’s Handbook (PHB) for the new Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas. I bought also the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and the Monster Manual (MM). I read them all during the Christmas vacation, and had some thoughts. The last products in the TSR D&D line I have bought have been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition. Its PHB was published in 1989, so there’s 25 years of game development between the versions. I have read D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, and some Fourth Edition D&D material, but I have never played them, so here I’ll also compare the 2E and 5E.

The first impression from the 5E game is good. The production values are obviously good, with color pages, and the layout is at least good in that it doesn’t distract or annoy. The concepts of the game are explained in the PHB, as is usual. The PHB also has all the player stuff – how to create characters, how the game system works and for the D&D paradigm, a long list of spells.

The DMG has a lot of good gamemastering advice, especially for beginning Dungeon Masters. I think this game has potential to be the first roleplaying game for many people – Wizards of the Coast and more imporantly Dungeons & Dragons are still known names even outside the roleplaying community, so I think the advice is good. The DMG also has advice on how to modify the game rules and assumptions to have a different game from the PHB default. This is a good thing in my opinion, and I think the most fun can be had by trying out different things, and not just play “vanilla” D&D.

The Monster Manual has most of the staple monsters, and some surprises, at least to my 2E sensibilities. Darkmantle and Grimlock are not that common in the older AD&D material, and the inclusion of many planar monsters, for example the Gith (the Githzerai and the Githyanki) and the Slaadi, indicate a more  higher power game than for example the basic AD&D 2E, where the planar monsters were in a separate appendix. There are a lot of useful monsters, and each of them has also multiple story hooks written. I think of monster books as a starting point, and this is a good one for that, but if the DM doesn’t have the time to fiddle with the monsters, the monsters are perfectly usable directly from the book.

I haven’t yet played the game, but it looks like a solid product. Compared to the 2E, it’s a more high-power game with more dedication to the characters. The process to generate the characters is more involved and more geared for generating just the character the player wants to play. This is of course in contrast to the original D&D idea of rolling something up and seeing where it goes. The power level is seen in more special powers, which also work out to lessen the “linear fighter, quadratic mage” problem in the 2E and earlier games. The spellcasters still seem to be a powerful force, especially the cleric, the mage and the sorcerer, but now there are things for the fighter to do other than hit things with other things.

The one change I probably would change in my own games is the healing rate: every character heals to full hit points after a “Long Rest”, which is basically a night’s sleep with no interruptions of more than one hour. I think the newer D&D games (3.X E, 4E, Pathfinder) all have some mechanics like this to make healing faster, and the old D&D way of healing one or two hit points per day was too slow. I am not sure how I would change this, but making long rests hard to perfom in wilderness or dungeons might work.

The spells have also changed. The durations of many spells is Concentration, and one spellcaster can’t have more than one Concentration spell active at the same time. This limits the available boost spells quite a bit. The old “fire and forget” spell system where all casters have to prepare all their spells (like “2 magic missiles, one grease, three fireballs”) every morning has been changed: now the main spellcasters prepare a spell list and can cast spells from that list as many times in any combinations as long as they have available spell slots. This makes for a more streamlined optimization and prevents “we really could have used that one spell but I used it earlier today” problem present in the old games.

The power level in general seems to be set for fast advancement and heroic adventures. This is probably a good thing, because there is much fun in playing fantastic super heroes. I still played in one very good AD&D campaign where after a couple of real-time years of playing, some characters got to the second level. There is of course the possibility to play intrigue adventures, and the background you choose for the player feel modern in the way that the characters should even by the book be something else than just a collection of numbers.

One thing I thought I would find in the DMG but I couldn’t was estate management rules. In the AD&D 2E game most characters were assumed to build a castle or a stronghold at some point in their careers and become more involved in running things, and all this was missing. The Mentzer box editions of D&D had even rules and prices for building castles and this was fun for us when we played it, years ago. Now the characters probably should be “adventurers” for their whole lives, that is, to take on bigger threats and go where normal people don’t.

I have also bought a couple of games modeled after the original (rather, the boxed Mentzer editions) D&D, There is a larger movement behind these, the so-called Old School Revolution (OSR), and more games than I have had the time to read. I have two of them, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics. They are in a way a divergent line from the Mentzer D&D – they are the modern reimagination of that game, as much as or even more as the D&D 5E.

The philosophy between who adventures and why seems to be different in the OSR games and 5E. In 5E the adventures are superheroes, capable of feats impossible for the common people. They know it and they are admired for them. They adventure because they can and it’s expected of them. In contrast in OSR games the characters have powers, but they might be ostracized for them, and mostly they adventure because they have to. Also the attachment to first-level characters is very different – a D&D 5E character is the product of a clear vision and has had a lot of choices made, whereas an LotFP character can be generated in five minutes. This of course means that the lethality is (probably) different: it’s not that big a thing to lose a LotFP character, because not that much has been generated for it before the game, but on the other hand losing even a first level D&D 5E character means more time and effort making a new one..

Both these types of games can be fun, and I have enjoyed them both. It’s still fun to see the two different game types. I also think that the D&D 5E could not be, or at least could not be what it now is, without the Old School Revolution. The Pathfinder RPG is also partly responsible for the D&D 5E – after the not very well received Fourth Edition, Wizards of the Coast might have just said that the market is not there. The OSR and Pathfinder both showed that there is a market for this kind of thing, and I think the D&D 5E team took good things from both OSR and Pathfinder for their new game.

All in all, a solid product. It does its basic game well, and the rules seem simple enough to modify if needed to accommodate different stuff. There are of course power differences between the classes and races, but I think they are more of a matter for any particular group – if the people want to minmax and optimize their characters, the possibility is there, but it’s also possible to just pick whatever seems fun and play that.

Kuninkaiden aika – Age of the kings

I finally got to read the Finnish Christian roleplaying game from 1993. It’s called Kuninkaiden aika (Age of the kings), and its setting is during the kings Saul, David and Solomon. It was mocked in Finland roleplaying circles, at least in mine, when it was published and I didn’t like it when I read it soon after it was published. It’s a better game than it was thought of but it’s still not a very good one.

The game is written in Finnish. I don’t know much about the process that went into the game, but the game says that it’s meant to be used in the (Finnish Lutheran) Church clubs.

The game is oddly divided. The background of the setting is told in the book in a condensed version, and some of the peoples are described. The setting and its history is of course from the Books of Samuel and the Book of Kings in the Bible. It is described for probably teenagers, so all the details in the Bible are not in the book. It’s a nice summary and probably easier to read than the Bible itself.

The Old Testament is of course full of war, violence and sex. However, the instructions for the game master advise against combat, and even the profession ‘soldier’ provides the skill ‘observation’ instead of something more martial. The equipment however is a spear and a shield – I think they would get used at some point by most players whose characters are soldiers.

The game’s system is very random. There are two stats, Viisaus (wisdom) and Voima (strength). They are rolled with 2d6 in the beginning of the game. Each character gets four skills, one of which is determined by the profession (which can be selected) and three of which can be selected. The profession also provides some equipment. The skill levels are then determined by 1d6. Age, appearance and other things can be chosen by the player.

The skill system is simple: when using a stat 2d6 is rolled, and when using a skill 1d6. You have to roll lower than the stat or skill to succeed, so with some luck in the character generation you can succeeed in most things you have skill for. On the other hand, you could make a middle-aged stonemason, who is both weak and stupid and on top of that has skill of 1 in his skill, which means that he cannot succeed. There are no rules for fiddling with the numbers in the character generation, but they are easily added.

There are some instructions for game mastering and some adventure seeds in the game. The instructions are aimed at a beginning game master, and it seems to me that the game is meant for the club leaders to make a game for the club children. The rules distinguish between ‘Junamalli’ (train model) and ‘Torimalli’ (market place model) for the adventures. The ‘train model’ is of course the traditional railroad approach: the characters just go from one set encounter to the next one. The ‘market place model’ is a more relaxed approach where the game master needs to adjust the encounters according to the actions of the players.

The strangest thing in the game is that it doesn’t in any way describe any group cohesion. From the one example in the game and the instructions, it seems that the characters are not meant to form a group or even interact in any specified way during the game. The game instructs the game master to just give each player a ‘turn’ to act and when enough actions have been performed, move on to the next one. The adventure model is very straightforward in that there should always be a simple goal for the characters to attain – the session ends when it has been achieved. This is of course simpler for club games, and pretty traditional, but the world could give possibilities for more sophisticated adventures.

The adventure seeds have some instructions to form a group, for example in one  seed the characters are Solomon’s trusted soldiers and have to get back a favorite concubine from the Philistines.

The game has no experience system. It seems to be aimed just for one-shot adventures in a club setting.

All in all, the game is not sure what it wants to be. The source material talks about heroes and large actions, but the player characters seem to be limited to be small players in the world. This is of course the same problem with all licensed games: playing David in an Old Testament setting is very close to playing Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars roleplaying game. Gaming in the setting could be fun, but I’m not sure how my way of doing it would combine with teaching the Bible to children.

Kuninkaiden aika is an interesting read. I don’t recommend it for anybody to play, but I don’t know any other game in just this setting. It’s more of a cultural historical artifact than a really playable game.

The Unearthed Arcana, Advanced Dungeons&Dragons

During the summer I moved from second edition AD&D books to first edition. I think the one I used the least when playing AD&D – the Survival guides got a lot of use, and even the Manual of the Planes was somewhat useful.

This is also one of the two AD&D books for which I clearly remember when I saw them the first time. The other one is Monster Manual II, and I will write something about it later. The first time I saw Unearthed Arcana was at a friend of a friend. We had played a lot of roleplaying games for some years with one group, and one of my friend had this a bit older friend who was also a gamer.

The older guy ran some Top Secret for us – a fun game, though I think he was somewhat annoyed at us younger people not quite getting the tone of the game.

Anyway, he also had a collection of AD&D books. I think he had most AD&D books at that point, but I’m not sure if the second edition was already published. He had also this rare book in his library and he let us take a look at it. I was quite amazed by all the polearms in the book and decided that I would really like this book.

I didn’t get a copy until years later, and then I had gotten over the idea of having a humongous list of weapons, so I never really used the polearm list.

We used the book in one long AD&D campaign. It was a mix of first and second editions so we didn’t really use much of it – the new classes weren’t used and spells were mostly from the second edition.

The book itself is a collection of new, well, for a lack of better word, stuff, for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It has new classes, a new ability (Comeliness), new spells and magic items, new rules, and of course, the polearm list.

The new classes are mostly quite overpowered. I could see a campaign of only barbarians or only cavaliers, but they might not fit very well in a normal campaign as both are quite powerful compared to the “standard” classes. Perhaps this set the idea for later expansion books – usually it seems the things in new roleplaying books are more powerful than the older ones.

Some of the spells got taken into the second edition of AD&D. Some were just forgotten, which is as well – there are quite a lot of spells altogether.

We did use the Comeliness ability in the long AD&D campaign. The rules have charm like effects, but we ditched those and just used common sense. For that the ability was useful, and of course my bard character was quite handsome. Objectively I don’t see much point in the Comeliness, though – Charisma is much of the same thing, and players can define their characters’ looks themselves, too.

One rule we used was the ability score generation so that the most important ability was rolled by best three of eight dice, and then less dice until one was rolled with just three dice. This created quite high abilities, but my bard had strength 4, which is of course quite low, scale being 3-18.

The magic item list has useful stuff, like Hevard’s Handy Haversack, the improved portable hole. Now it seems to me that AD&D has just toomuchmagic items, so I’m not use the list was useful even when playing the first edition.

In conclusion, the book has some legendary value for me – it was a rare book and much talked about, but we didn’t really use it even when we had it. The usefulness of the book for playing even first edition AD&D nowadays is, in my opinion, very limited. It’s a nice artifact of its time, but it’s just not very good as a gaming supplement.

AD&D Second Edition, Dungeon Master’s Guide

I read also the Dungeon Master’s Guide after reading the Player’s handbook. The Second Edition put most of the rules in the PHB, contrary to what the First Edition AD&D did, so this is a thinner book.

In addition to being thinner, the DMG has some duplicate information from the PHB. I have no idea why, as I think every Dungeon Master has also the PHB. I think the largest single section is the duplication of unarmed combat, which is quite strange, because I think nobody really used it.

In addition to special rules for situations, like more combat rules (flying, morale, and things like that), much of the book is dedicated to game mastering advice. There’s talk about alignments, classes, races and of course the dreaded class generation rules. They looked so bad even when I was thirteen that I didn’t really try them out ever. The gamemastering advice (or dungeonmastering advice, more properly) is okay, but not great. The alignments are of course an important thing, but there is one strange thing: the advice says that characters should never be sure of each others’ alignments. All fine, but the PHB has the second level wizard spell “Know Alignment”…

Of course forbidding the spell does much to the game – now I would run a game where alignments are not so obvious. Even then the advice is a bit strange.

There is some advice on how to run a game world, how time is measured and so on. This is also passable – I think I used at least the titles for some rulers and the NPC personality generator many times.

After the advice most of the book is taken by the treasure lists. There really are many different magical items and different kinds of treasure hoard types. Rolling them was fun twenty years ago, but now I’d again probably use some other method for assigning treasure to monsters. Also the Dragon magazine article about the sizes of cooins made me think of the dragon treasures: even ten thousand gold coins isn’t that big a pile.

All in all, not a very good book. It was the first English language roleplaying game I bought, so it had a lot of influence on my early gaming, but looking back now the advice could have been much better. This really isn’t even needed for running an AD&D game – most of the rules are in the PHB anyway, and making up treasures is fun even without a book.

Panda Station – A Stalker introductory adventure

There is a new science fiction roleplaying game called Stalker. It’s a licensed game, and the sources are the book Roadside Picnic and the movie Stalker.

I ran a short game a couple of years ago when the game was first published in Finnish, and I think the players liked it. It seems there are not so many adventures published for Stalker, so I wrote up what I did in the hope that it will give somebody at least some ideas how to run Stalker, if not the whole adventure.

This adventure is obviously a work of fiction. It doesn’t represent my opinions of anything, except on how I have gamemastered a good roleplaying campaign. Burger Games has given me permission to publish this, but this is all my creation, except for the things in the book (which are obviously by the writer of the game and other source material).

The adventure begins before character creation, so this is meant to be the beginning of a campaign. If you want to run this, please read the whole thing through. Also, if you use this somehow in your Stalker game, please comment here – I’d very much like to hear if this was of any use (or even if not). The whole adventure is of course a suggestion, so please modify it as much as you like.

The scenario is not meant to be played as-is. It is more of a suggestion on how to play, and it gets more vague at the middle. This happens mostly because so much depends on the characters – my gamemastering style is such that I try to react to things the players want to do, so I can’t do a lot of preplanning. I hope this scenario is of use to you even while it still needs work.

From here on the content is only for the game master, so if you’re about to play this, please stop now.

The Premise – Panda Station

The player characters belong to a group of Stalkers who work together at least occasionally. The group has been looking for a strange and useful item in the Zone, and has found it. However, after finding it, they mistakenly have turned on a large machine in the Zone. They wake up near the machine, and do not know what it really does, and most likely want to flee the Zone as soon as possible. The game starts when they wake up.

After getting back, they presumably sell the item they were paid to retrieve. Then they do whatever they want – they will have things to arrange and perhaps a new trip. At this point strange things begin to happen: it seems like the player character Stalkers have somehow been inflicted with the Zone and reality outside the Zone seems to be warping.

The player characters probably want to do something about this as it’s getting fatal very soon, if not for the Stalkers themselves, then for their associates or perhaps the whole city. They need to figure out that the strange machine in the Zone is the culprit and find a way to turn it off.

Running the game

This game is meant to be run in three or four sessions. The first session is first half roleplaying and the second half creating the characters. The second session is then introducing the problems of the adventure and then the third and fourth are about how the Stalkers cope with the problems and try to solve them.

As said the idea was to start character creation without the book and rules, by throwing the characters in the middle of things and then playing without using the rules, and then create the characters. Start the adventure without breaking out the book as you won’t need it, but keep the adventure notes handy.

When the characters have been created you can resort to normal Stalker gamemastering.

At the end of the article are the non player characters I used and a list of possible encounters in the Zone.

I ran the Zone pretty much from one encounter to another. The characters had a known route and they will have some idea what’s on the way, but Zone changes and the encounters might be different during different trips. Re-using them in some changed way was fun for me.

The beginning – Panda Station activated

The adventure begins at the Panda Station. The Panda Station is the size of a small one-floored building, dull brown in color, and it looks somewhat like a bunker. It has no doors or windows. There is a large structure on top of the Station. Inactive this looks like an upside down rotary whisk. While active the structure turns like a whisk, glows an unearthly blue and sends small bolts of lightning to the air.

The Station got its name from the stylized image on all its sides, which looks a bit like a panda.

One side of the Station has a hatch, which is normally closed. On the side with the hatch there are some low depressions set in the side of the Station. The depressions are about the size of a palm and might even be somewhat palm-shaped. They are arranged in a horizontal line about one and a half metres from the ground, spread on both sides on the hatch. They are set so far away from each other that it’s not possible for anybody reach more than one depression at a time.

There are as many depressions as there are characters. If all of the depressions are touched, the hatch opens and is kept open as long as they are touched. The insides of the Station are covered in the last part of the adventure.

When the adventure begins, the thing on the top of the Station is on. It’s making a horrible noise, and the light is casting sharp shadows over the landscape.

Start the adventure by describing the horrible noise and the light. All the characters are lying on the ground. They seem to wake up from unconsciousness by the racket all around them. In the air there is a strange smell, it’s a mix of air ionized by the electricity and something… organic. The organic part is probably the thin pink mist which is floating around the characters and is slowly settling down.

There is also one other Stalker nearby. He is obviously dead, having been cut into two at waist, with the lower part nowhere in sight. The probable cause for this is a Meatgrinder anomaly. He has a backpack which seems to contain a large, heavy object. He is called Crow, but the characters don’t remember it at first. See the NPC section below for his description.

When the players start asking about the situation, try to get them to roleplay. The characters don’t remember anything well, probably only that they are Stalkers, and that they are in the Zone. The machine making the noise and light seems to be dangerous and in any case it’s very much like a place where it’s not very smart to be very long. Make the players understand that this seems to be a mission failure and the smart thing would be to get away from the machine and probably from the Zone.

The point is to see what the characters do on the way out of the Zone. Then in the character creation process the actions and interactions with other player characters can be used as the basis for the character creation.

The items of the characters are spread over around the area. Most are broken, but enough can be scratched together that the trip out of the Zone can be tried. Be gentle or hard as you like, but the characters really should survive the journey back. (Even Traveller doesn’t kill player characters before character creation.) The players probably ask what’s there – ask them what they would like to find and then decide if they have it or not.

There is only one weapon: an automatic pistol and a couple of magazines. Food and drink is scarce, they can probably eat and drink for one day but that’s it.

Two things near Crow are special: he carries the backpack with the strange object, and he holds, or nearby is, a map of the Zone, showing the route taken to this place and perhaps identifying some of the problems on the way. The notes are cryptic and the Stalkers don’t have a clear idea what they mean. The map doesn’t show the whole zone but mainly the area from the border to their current location. The map has a couple of optional routes to the border.

Get the characters away from the hell-thing one way or other. Describe that they really think it’s a good idea to get away from the machine, if they don’t decide to do so soon. As they get away from the light, they realize that it’s getting dark. The Zone is not a good place to be during the night, but the trip back is about twenty-five kilometres and it’d be even more certain suicide to travel that by night.

The characters remember that a couple of kilometers from here is a suitable spot for spending the night, so they’ll probably head there.

Spending the night in the Zone and heading back to civilization

The night is uneventful, if restless. The Panda Station can still be heard and seen during the night, but at least it seems to keep the more mobile dangerous things away. The Stalkers probably have only one or two sleeping bags, so the night is not going to be fun nor will they get much sleep.

If the characters don’t take precautions, when they wake in the morning all the items that lied on the ground during the night have white fuzzy covering on their undersides, as if they had been melding with the ground. It takes some effort to rip the items loose.

In the morning they should head back on either route. The distance, as said, is a bit over 20 kilometers and they should be able to cover it during the day if nothing bad happens and they are careful. The distance is long enough that they can’t really stay there however, and their food supplies would be running out if they did stay.

The Stalkers are on the West side of the Zone, so the border crossing should be easy. There isforest and  less guards on this side.

Both the routes go through an urban area. I ran the game so that the characters go from one encounter to another, covering large areas of the Zone in between. I planned first for three or four encounters but time managing I used only one on the way back.

You can use the encounters in the book or use the ones I have listed in this adventure. I used the split house with the large chameleon on the way back, but use whatever you like. As said it shouldn’t be too lethal, and I’d advise against using something that might make the characters fire the gun against it, just to emphasize that shooting is probably not the best option.

The memories should start coming back haltingly during the journey. At least the identity of Crow and that there was one other person during this trip should be remembered during the trip back. The characters also remember that somebody was supposed to pick them up outside the Zone, but they have no idea who that might be. The rendezvous point is marked on their map, however.

Getting over the border

The characters probably want to be careful, even though no guards are seen. If they don’t want to play it quiet, put some trigger-happy guards nearby, but again, let the characters survive to the rendezvous.

The meeting point is on a stretch of a road in the forest. Meeting the characters are Mohammed and Aziza in an old Land Cruiser. The characters probably don’t remember who these people are but have the feeling that they might be trusted. Memories might start coming back at this point.

Basically just get the characters in the back of the Land Rover. The rear seats are two benches facing each other in the back with no seat belts. This makes for a bumpy ride as Aziza drives like mad – she wants to get away from the Zone and guards as soon as possible.

Creating the characters

The game this far should have taken about half of the first session. I used about two hours for the beginning and the trip back, and stopped when Aziza stepped on the pedal on the way back.

The second half of the first session is now spent on creating the characters with the rules in the Stalker book. At this point players should have an idea about what kind of characters they want to play and it should be easier to tie the characters in a group.

In my game the first player who asked where her pistol was made the muscle character, and the other players made also their characters reflect on what happened on the way back and what their first reactions were.

In my game I made it so that the characters were part of a moderately successful Stalker group. The leader of this group is Crow, as this creates more problems for the characters. They have to deal with the disappearance of the known leader and figure out how to do stuff in the future.

The established group is meant to make the people call on each other even after the trip and to trust each other at least a little bit. If you can think of some other way to make the characters be at the same time in the same place, go ahead.

At this point, or even when creating the characters, the characters should now start remembering who Mohammed and Aziza are, and also who the one (late) member of the group was. The missing one is the one who was being sprayed on the characters in the beginning of the adventure – this might or might not be obvious to the characters. My players made characters who didn’t have a healer, so I decided that the missing person was the healer of the group, but you can probably use some other role if it’s missing from the characters.

Making at least some memories back makes it easier to create the characters. You might even do the character creation part of the drive back, so that the characters start wondering who they are and talking to each other. This would serve as the drama part of the character creation.

After the first session you should have the characters ready and in the back of the Land Cruiser on the way to Toulouse.

The second session and continuing

The second session is obviously more open-ended than the first one. There are some encounters which should happen in Toulouse, but the order isn’t that important nor the timescale. Let the characters wind down and try to deal with the death of Crow.

When I ran this scenario, I kept the timescale tight. I think the whole game took only three game-days, but you can stretch it longer if you wish. This might be good for a longer game.

The characters have been created, they still don’t know what’s going on, but at least they do have the item in the backpack taken from Crow. The item is a MacGuffin, and it doesn’t really matter what you make of it. Its purpose is to be something the Stalkers were paid to get from the Zone. My item was a complex cube with healing properties with a buyer. This was meant to be a possible continuation, but the item never entered the game after selling it. You can substitute your own MacGuffin if you have something better in mind. The scenario talks about “the cube”.

The first encounter is a suggestion where to start. It gives the characters immediately something to do after arriving and shows a bit how things are in Toulouse.

Arriving in Toulouse

The first encounter after getting back from the Zone is fencing the cube. Items taken from the Zone are very hot, and the Stalkers want to get rid of the cube as soon as possible. They do have a arranged meeting with the customer and Aziza drives them straight there. As the return time from the trip is not known, Mohammed can call from the car, and be astonished that the buyer wants to meet them right now.

Aziza drives the car to a decrepit apartment block. It’s where she and Mohammed live with their mother. The mother lives in a different apartment than the meeting place, as the houses are pretty empty.

When the car arrives in front of the apartment house, there are some skinhead-looking guys loitering about and eyeing the car suspiciously (or interestedly). They are from a Russian gang, and they have lately started to expand their area of influence. This time they are mostly surveying the area or just hanging about. Most people living have roots in the Northern Africa, so the Russians don’t dare to be too aggressive.

Mohammed gets out of the car when it stops, and goes to talk to the gang members. If nothing happens he talks to them for a couple of minutes and they leave peacefully, if slowly.

The meeting place is an empty apartment on the fourth floor. Mohammed and Aziza lead the characters there. There are some worn-out couches and chairs and a table. Lightning is provided by some naked bulbs. This is the usual place for business with Mohammed and Aziza.

The apartment is small, and business is conducted in the living room. There’s a kitchen and a closed door which leads to a small empty room, which was probably meant to be a bedroom.

The buyer’s people haven’t arrived yet. There is some time to talk about what happened in the Zone, and where Crow and the other missing member of the group are, if this wasn’t discussed in the car already. The characters can ask about the buyers, but Mohammed and Aziza don’t know much.

The buyers arrive soon. They are mister Laforet (see the NPC section), and his bodyguards, two large security professionals. One of the bodyguards stays just behind mister Laforet, the other stays near the doorway to the living room. There are some guys waiting in the parking lot, too, and perhaps somebody in the stairwell.

Mister Laforet speaks for himself and wants to see the Healing Cube immediately. He talks mostly to Mohammed unless the player characters take a more active role.

Mohammed asks the characters to give the Cube for presentation. It is placed on the table and opened. The bodyguard behind mister Laforet produces a white rabbit. He then makes a large cut in the rabbit with a knife, and places the rabbit on the opened Cube. Mechanical pieces catch the panicky rabbit and the Cube folds on it. There are mechanical and squishy sounds from inside the Cube.

In about five minutes the Cube opens again and the rabbit seems to be unharmed and healed. Mister Laforet is happy, but there is the matter of reward. At first he offers 10.000€ to each Stalker for the Cube, but he is willing to go to to 15.000€ after negotiations. Mohammed is included in this deal, and he negotiates as much money as the characters get.

After the deal has been completed, he thanks the Stalkers and leaves.

As said, you can substitute an another item for the Cube, if you have a better idea. I didn’t personally use the Cube and mister Laforet anymore, but they were there for additional things to happen if things would have been more static.

After the deal

From this point on the characters can do pretty much whatever. I’ll describe some encounters which should be used, but the order is not significant.

The main thing that happens is that the Stalkers seem to have brought anomalies from the Zone back with them. Strange things happen too often near them, and they start to be fatal.

The encounters are here in short form. They are meant to be inserted in regular scenes, or happen when appropriate.

The Stalkers will probably ask around. There is one old retired Stalker who they are being referred to if they are persistent enough. His name is Bernard and he can tell the players that the Panda station seems to be responsible for the effects, and they need to shut it down as soon as possible.

The Stalkers still don’t remember all they would like. The main thing they don’t remember or even know was who Raven really was. There are certain parties which come around asking about him and his demise.

At first only other Stalkers will want to know where the two missing people are. They will ask some questions, but as people do die in the Zone, they are not really persistent.

At some point a local police chief, Petrus Lardenoit, arranges a meeting with the Stalkers. This is probably in some unmarked car and the characters (or one character) is just grabbed (gently) from the street to the car to answer some questions. During this interview the police chief drops hints that he was somehow working with Raven and might need continuation for the business. He probably kept track of the Stalker underground through Raven.

The same thing happens with the local organized crime. A high-ranking boss calls one of the chararters and wants to meet. He (or she) wants to discuss the arrangements (s)he and Raven had. Mostly it seems to be about fencing very high value stuff.

The anomalies start to happen. Here are some suggestions, but be creative. At first don’t be (too) fatal, but if the Stalkers ignore the anomalies, up the ante and start hurting people near them.

  • A Stalker opens a tap for some reason (washing hands, drinking water) but there is no water. Instead some Witch’s Jelly comes out of the tap. The character might notice before putting his hands in the stuff.
  • A door transmutes into a rubbery thing which does not open and makes things hard. The transmutation spreads slowly from the door, but stops at some point
  • A Mosquito Mange apperas somewhere nearby. The Stalkers notice it as trees crumble and birds fall.
  • One of the Stalkers notices Silver Web somewhere nearby. Some people are just going to walk to it.

At some point the Stalkers get a visitor. The other companion (not Raven) returns from the Zone as a Replica inorganims. It probably just follows the Stalkers around, doing things in its nature – in my game the dead person was a medic, so the returned Replica healed some small creatures nearby. The replica is scary and doesn’t seem to understand talk, except when talking about going back to the Panda station. It seems to want to go there and leaves soon straight for the station if not prevented.

Mohammed will also ask for them to arrange a new trip. He is in the business of selling items from the Zone and wants the professional Stalkers to go and fetch more.

The conclusion

At some point sooner or later the characters have either deduced themselves or asked from Bernard that the Panda station is the culprit for the anomalies out of the Zone. They probably want to arrange a trip back to the station, because otherwise they either kill themselves (or the people around them) or somebody kills them, or takes them in as test subjects.

They can take the same route back or a different one. Even if the characters take the same route, you can change the encounters as the Zone is different each time. Use as many encounters as you think is wise.

If the characters take some reinforcements with them, all of them should perish on the way except one. If you want to play out more complicated stuff at the Panda station feel free to allow more people to come.

At the Panda station things are not same as when they left. The blue light seems to have scorched nearby surfaces and there are multiple fried mutants nearby. There are also many small dynamic anomalies nearby, but they can be avoided. This is mostly for setting the atmosphere as a scary one.

If the former partner, who returned as a replica, was sent (or let go) to the station, it is on the ground near the station in a fetal position. It can’t be roused. It makes whimpering sounds.

The hatch in the station is closed. It can be opened by touching all the depressions with an open hand at the same time. If only the player characters are there, the hatch stays open, otherwise they need all to be touched at the same time.

As there are no obvious other controls on the station, somebody needs to climb in. Behind the hatch is a tunnel which is large enough to crawl in. It goes on for about twenty meters, and not straight. Smart people might realize it should come out of the station, but it does not. The tunnel is round and its walls are shiny metal. There are odd bumps on the walls.

At the end of the tunnel is a wall. There is a large button on the wall. The button glows blue. When depressed, it turns the station off. At the same time the tunnel contracts and there are small meshes inserted along the way. This is of course the source of the pink mist in the beginning of the adventure.

The poor Stalker turning the thing off is obviously dead. He might return as a replica, but that might not be likely as the station was turned off.

There is a good possibility for roleplaying near the station. Somebody should go inside but deciding just who is a serious matter. Don’t drag this out but don’t cut it short either.

If the characters don’t seem to decide soon enough, increase the dynamic anomalies or let some mutants arrive at the scene.

After the station is turned off, everything seems very quiet and dark. Nearby mutants will come and investigate, and as it is evening (probably) it’s getting dark.

The trip back will be hard, either in the dark or after a night of fighting off the mutants.

After they get back the Stalkers can try to relax somewhat – and mourn a yet another lost comrade.

You can of course add more encounters. I didn’t use that many because I tried to keep the game short. Two encounters on the way out of the Zone and two on the way back were enough for my group.

Non-player characters


Crow was the leader of the Stalker group. He seemed to have a lot of secret dealings and mostly everybody knew him.

His past comes back because the Stalkers get asked about continuing the businesses.

Mohammed and Aziza

They are a brother-sister pair. Their parents came from Somalia, but they seem to have lost hope of getting there. They are respected dealers, Mohammed handling the talking side and Aziza handling the weapons and cars.

Max Laforet

Max Laforet is a twentysomething man. He is rich, and he mostly wants to help his sick sister, by buying the healing device.

Renate Laforet

Max’s sister. She is fatally ill, probably cancer. She is in a private villa in Alba, some 50 kilometers from Toulouse. She gets put into the Cube and spends weeks in it. She realizes the potential of the Cube and uses it to arrange her businesses while she is being healed.

Arlene Depardieau, “Iron Maiden”

She works in the Institute as a project leader. Her project is about items for healing from the Zone. She might get wind of the Cube and wants to get her hands on it. She and the Laforet siblings are here mainly to provide a way to go if the characters decide to work more with the Cube (and if there isn’t enough stuff to do).

Encounters in the Zone

  • A sub-urban house is cut in half. The distance is about three meters, and the best route goes through the upper floor. In the cut there’s a lot of Witch’s Jelly. When the characters are going over the Jelly, a huge chameleon like monster appears.
  • Mutant corpses around. There are a lot of dead mutants, they seem to be either burned or melted. Nothing useful is found, and no reason for the deaths is apparent
  • Small worms on the ground seem to converge on the Stalkers. The worms cause hallucinations, and the cause is probably not immediately obvious.
  • The way is blocked by a large dangerous looking yellow cloud. Scouting discovers a drain which goes under the cloud, but it’s cold, wet and dark.

The Healing Cube – The MacGuffin

The Cube is a metallic cube, about 30 centimeters a side. It’s not solid, but it seems to be a 3d puzzle. The puzzle can be dismantled, but the proper usage is to press the large metal buttons which are on two sides of the cube.

After pressing the buttons the cube opens so that a small animal can be put into it. It can also be unfolded to be a carpet-like structure which can accommodate even a human.

The maximum dimensions of the carpet are one meter by two meters, and then it’s two centimeters thick.

When using the cube the subject is either placed in the cube or on the mattress. For small subjects the cube closes on itself and works its magic, for larger ones (like humans) it just grows tendrils and spikes into the subject. The subject is seemingly sedated and the healing process begins.

The length of the process depends on the wounds and diseases of the subject. Simple wounds are healed in minutes, but curing cancer takes weeks. The best idea is probably to use speed of the plot, that is, the subject is healed when dramatically appropriate.

When the healing process is on the way, the subject is not unconscious. The consciousness of the user is projected like a ghost or an astral body. The astral body is invisible and it can go wherever the user wants it to. It can be used to spy because it can see and hear. The astral body can go through walls and it might even be able to materialize in a visible form, to scare off people.

The information from the Cube comes from some Stalkers who saw it work its magic on some Zone resident, but they couldn’t bring it back. The trip which began this adventure was an arranged trip to pick up the Cube.

AD&D Second Edition, Player’s Handbook

I recently re-read (again) the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook. I did it because I have played the Baldur’s Gate computer game, and also because I have been reading James Maliszewski’s blog Grognardia. The game uses a modified AD&D system, and James talks often about D&D style gaming.

The reading was very nostalgic. The second edition of AD&D is probably the roleplaying game I have played the most, and it was also one of the first English-language games I played. It was also markedly not a very simple game, and I think it’s a good thing we had played Dungeons and Dragons and RuneQuest in Finnish before tackling this monster.

I remember that we waited eagerly for the Player’s Handbook to be published. This was in 1989, I think, and most stores in Finland which carried roleplaying games had only the supplements, and not the basic books. I think that was mainly because the new version was coming out, and the RPG business wasn’t that large even then.

I got some of the supplements, which were obviously for the First Edition AD&D, before the Second Edition was published. The first book I got from the AD&D line was the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and I remember adding some of the stuff to our D&D games, too. We did play AD&D then on and off for years – the last long campaign I played in ended I think in 1996 when most of the players had their compulsory Army service, and I have played a couple of short games even after that.

Now I of course have a somewhat better grasp of the language, and the translations I scribbled make me laugh even now. It still amazes me how accurately we did play the game, even when we learned the language while playing. We did even use some of the optional rules, but the damage-dependent armor classes were tried once, and I don’t remember anybody ever using the unarmed combat rules.

I have long though that AD&D is basically unplayable. The Grognardia blog (and some other old-school publications, like Lamentations of the Flame Princess) has made me re-think that. I now think that AD&D could well be used to run a fun campaign, if one will just learn to play with it.

I also think that it might be better not to define the game world that much before the game. We usually played in the Forgotten Realms world when I GM’d, mainly because I had the box and a lot of region modules. It was an easy choice, and I did add a lot of my own stuff, and used a lot of modules written for different worlds. It was fun, and the world wasn’t that well defined. Many settlements had just a three-line description and no major NPCs defined, so it was mainly exploring an unknown continent.

While reading the book I also remembered that we never really got into the high-level play. The spell lists contain a lot of spells which I remember reading about but which were never used in the game. This means the iconic spells for me are the ones at or below fourth level or so. It was fun playing with these 4-8 level characters. They had power over regular people but even a single dragon was a tough challenge.

One thing I found amusing were the small problems in the book. There are some typos in the book: my copy didn’t have the broadsword listed, and we got it from the DM’s screen.

In the spells there are some strange things, too. Even when we played we noticed that the range of the priest spell Speak with dead had range of just ‘3’, with no units. This didn’t come up in play, though, because I think we just winged it.

I also now read the priest spell Creeping doom more throughly. The spell summons a mass of from 500 to 1000 bugs, and it calls this a “swarm”. The swarm covers a 20 feet square, that is, a six-metre square. The spell never says anything that the bugs are gigantic, and I would assume they are just regular bugs, though they can be large ones.

The fun thing here is that if the spell summons the maximum of a thousand of bugs, the bugs either have to be very large or the swarm isn’t very imposing. The square root of one thousand is a bit over 31, which means that if the bugs are arranged neatly and regularily  in a square, there are 31 by 31 bugs. This means that in the area affected, the distance between bugs is about 20 centimetres, so perhaps eight inches.

If the bugs are “normal-sized”, the “swarm” isn’t very imposing, in my opinion. If the bugs were the largest insects or spiders in the world, it would be more scary, but even then it wouldn’t be a “mass” like the spell says it would be.

I think this is just because the writers didn’t really go through the numbers. I think it would be better if the spell just summoned a large horde of insects six metres a side – it would be like a huge army ant swarm, and very, very scary.

The other priest spell problem I noticed is that the priestly version of Reincarnation really has no use, at least in a regular adventuring party. The priest version of the spell is the one that might reincarnate the target as a woodland animal, and it’s very obviously meant to be the Druidic version of the Resurrection spell. Resurrection is the spell for clerics, and it ‘just’ restores the target to life.

Also, in the first edition of AD&D, Reincarnation is in the druid spell list, and Resurrection is in the cleric spell list, so this is obviously where the second edition thinking comes from. In many ways the Reincarnation is the inferior of the two as it gives no control over what kind of creature the target reincarnates as, and the target needs to be more recently dead than with Resurrection.

This isn’t a problem. Having two different spells for raising dead is fine, and they are both seventh level spells, so they are both very powerful. The problem comes with the priestly spheres introduced in the second edition: both these spells belong just to the Necromantic sphere, very obviously because they bring dead people to life. The spheres are different for clerics (they get a lot of spells) and for the various specialty priests, of which the druid is the example given in the book.

Only the druids don’t get access to the Necromantic sphere. They are not healers, or at least not on the same level as clerics, so it’s obvious they don’t need the Resurrection spell. They just don’t get the Reincarnation, either, and so are a bit screwed, and the poor Reincarnation never gets used as written.

Of course the easy fix is just to change the sphere of Reincarnation to Animal or whatever druids get and clerics don’t. It just shows that there are a lot of small and easily missed errors in the book, and I can imagine that if we had noticed that we would have had arguments about what to do with the spells.

One other thing I’d fix if I’d play AD&D again is the damage of the crossbows. I remember only one instance of a player character using a crossbow in our games, and that was an assassin (we were using a mix of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D rules at that point) using hand crossbows. They didn’t do much good, I think he got off a couple of shots in his first fight and then the carrion crawlers paralyzed and ate the whole party.

Fun times.

It was a nice nostalgia trip reading the book. I remembered the fun games we had, and learning the game and the language at the same time. My vocabulary was (and is) very much influenced by this game, and I can still spell phylactery thanks to Gary Gygax.

I’ll perhaps run an AD&D game at some point, but not in the near future. There are too many games I feel are more fun for the gaming I want to do nowadays, but there is still a soft spot in my heart for AD&D.