Marvin the Mage fantasy rpg webcomic with absolutely no dungeons and no dragons

Tales from the Backroom


So you think that the zany antics of Marvin and the gang are outrageous and over the top? You should hear what goes on in my own D&D group – and now you can.

TSR alumnus and founding Dragon Magazine editor Tim Kask is our DM, and the name of the game is OD&D (original Dungeons & Dragons, as it was played c.1974). Tim has written a recap of each sessions’ myth-adventures, and illustrations are provided by yours truly.  It’s as old school as it gets…

Oriental Adventures New Year

When last we left our intrepid band, it was nightfall, they were pinned down under a steep bank of the river and were being showered with rocks and spears by gangs of giant carnivorous apes on both banks. One of the PC’s can summon elementals (these are high-level pre-gens we are using to get into the flow before we start a new campaign with scratch PC’s); he decided that if he summoned a water elemental, he could command it to push the raft upstream.

The first time he did it, it worked. They got an entire day’s travel in one afternoon, thereby missing several chances to be attacked by 20+ foot long caimans and/or giant frogs (one of which had already pulled the dwarf into the river earlier setting the stage for a miraculous survival by the dwarf). But they went past a pair of pillars. There are three concentric rings of these pillars around the temple that diminish and dampen magic. When he summoned his water elemental the next day, it was diminished in size and power.

The following day, having passed more pillars, it failed to respond at all. I called him Evinrude. One night, whilst camping on a sandbar in the river, they were beset by clouds of stinging, biting insects. The way I had it written, if they did nothing about the bugs, they only got credit for a half a night of rest. If they lit a smokey fire they would drive the bugs away, but the fire would draw giant frogs; either way, they were not likely to get much rest. (Nor would they fully heal or recover all of their spells.) They came to a final set of pillars on the bank, beyond which there were no more caimans. There were, however, enormous snakes that could eat a caiman.

They were in the territory of the fabled krin, the fey of the rainforest biome, the legendary Snakeriders. Then the droppings hit the oscillating cooling mechanism. As they were booking through the jungle they were attacked by a 20+ foot viper (I did mention that everything is REALLY BIG, here, right?) that they managed to kill with only a little damage to the party.

Then it got weird. Someone suggested that they skin the snake; then someone suggested everybody getting underneath it like the marchers under a Chinese dragon in a parade. Why someone decided this would be a good idea, I do not know, but being the gracious DM that I am, I said sure. They then picked up their pace to a trot and set off down the jungle trail. In so doing, they triggered and enormous ambush I had planned by bunches of krin in the trees showering the party with poison darts. Over two dozen stuck in that damned snakeskin, but not one hit a single PC. Rats!

They made it to the temple, they think. They found a big carved snake head jutting from the side of a stone hill, and protruding from the closed mouth was a big pink tongue with three pavers inset. All they had to do was trigger them in a 3-2-1 sequence, and the mouth/door would open. They tried every simultaneous combination there was, but never tried anything sequential. After they mucked about and ensured that it would not open now, nor for several days, I let them stumble upon the hidden way into the caverns beneath.

They were confronted by two krin with blowguns riding on the heads of gigantic snake-like things with horns. They managed to kill one, and the other fled, for the nonce. I can’t go into any more detail now or I would be in danger of spoilers. We had eight players and one NPC because he could not make it; some were holdovers and about half were new and we had a great time. When one of the store customers asked “What edition are you playing?”, and one of the players responded “OD&D”, he laughed and called us “hippie D&D’ers”, in a nice sort of way. And I answered, OK, I guess we are; I have just never been called that before. But you know what? I like it. From now on, I will categorize myself as “hippie rpg’er”.

The Triumph of the Snakes

When last we left our intrepid band, they had just holed up in a corner of an underground warren of natural caverns. They had just defeated two giant snake-like things ridden by malevolent reptilian elves, and driven off a third.

Before we began the adventure, I offered the groups something I had only offered perhaps three times in all my years of gaming: a partial do-over. The group had just defeated the snakey things when it was time to quit (and close the store), so they hurriedly decided to hole-up until next time.

I offered them two options: they could hole-up, rest, recuperate and refresh spells, or, they could elect to resume the adventure from the driving off of the third snakey thing. I told them to consider carefully as both choices had consequences. After some friendly bickering, the majority opted for the rest period and unknowingly sealed their doom.

The giant snakey things were not snakes at all; they were Dumokka, —–spoiler deleted—–neither alive nor dead by standard measures They had a collective-consciousness thing going ——spoiler deleted——. Soooo, by holing up over night, they were unwittingly giving the remaining —–deleted—- time to gather. It also gave the Krin Beastmasters (something like a stunted, twisted, reptilian-leaning ranger) time to muster two platoons of trained giant carnivorous apes and assemble an enormous swarm of hoverbirds (nasty little blood-drinking hummingbirds the size of finches —–spoiler deleted—–

This was not the best night for two or three of the players to not show up. In a regular campaign there is no problem with using their PCs as NPCs; tonight two or three other voices might have voted to press on and eschew the rest. Well, we’ll never know.

To summarize, in the order that I remember it happening: the paladin got mesmerized by a dumok and fought the party until they snapped him out of it (more about that later); the dwarf got eaten; the paladin got eaten, a couple more died, so the two remaining magic-users decided to go out like a comet in a blaze of glory. One got poly-ed into a young gold dragon, the other mounted up behind his head and out they went into the larger cavern where they eventually succumbed. They did however, fireball a platoon and a half of apes where they stood, flambé several more in dragon-fire, fricassee several dozen hoverbirds, kill a boatload of Krin and a pair of dumokka. They never even got a sniff of the temple. Damn! We had fun and we were all laughing our butts off because we all knew the next session was the first in a new campaign.

One incident stands out as quintessential old school play. The paladin got zapped really hard (I can’t say more without spoilers, and this does come out in final form in 6 weeks) but the solution was novel, and it worked. The paladin had a Quest spell cast upon him with instruction that were very beneficial to the party, perfectly sane and rational from the point of view of a paladin-type, and succeeded in wresting control of his little one-track paladin mind. In the end, it indirectly killed him, but it worked to get them out of one hell of a jam at the time.

So, Snakeriders 1, Adventurers 0. Next time we start a new campaign with new characters. I explained how I chose to do the new PC’s in another post here on FB as well as on my thread on Dragonsfoot.

Has Anyone Seen the Colonel?

The new campaign has lurched off onto its own now. Our merry little band of ten includes the following: A druid that is a were-lion, except he can’t control it yet and tends to “cat-out” under stress. We have a gnome illusionist whose sideline seems to be somewhere between apothecary and alchemist; he is prone to collecting foul stuff in little bottles and getting the party showered with pus. (In RL he is a pharmacist.) Then we have a human ranger and a human cleric of the ”not in my woods you don’t” and “bash-‘em first, convert ‘em later” persuasions, respectively. No party could possibly consider themselves complete without a moralistic paladin running around keeping everyone on the straight and narrow, fulfilling the slot of “party prig”. We have a human wizard with just a bit too much fascination with fire and combustibles to make anyone flammable feel safe. Just to make sure Greenpeace and the Greens are represented we have an elven mage. We have a brooding samurai warrior with a new nickname of “Ginsu”—he slices, he dices and he chops. To round it all off, we have not one, but two halfling thieves. Our merry band of 10.

The band set off through the desert on a side trail they learned of. Along the way they acquired various tidbits of information and disinformation about what they might expect to find. Several times they came across newly-dead or dying travelers, all having evidence of spider bites and scorpion stings. It was while trying to collect some pus and poison that the gnome ruptured a bloated corpse and showered the party with icky stuff.

When they arrived at the newly revealed entrance to the temple ruins, they observed that just about every hour a horde of either scorpions or spiders would come surging out and scuttling off mindlessly; the spiders ranged from normal to shield sized, while the scorpions ranged from normal to four feet long.. They fried a couple of hairy hordes with fireballs on the way. When they finally got the courage to slide down what looked suspiciously like a funnel-spider trap, they found themselves confronted by a great stone face with a huge emerald set in the forehead. When challenged by the stone face, the party gave the wrong response and one of the four eight-foot statues came to life and proceeded to bash the party up a bit before they subdued it. A second was set upon the party and they managed to web and control it. While all this was going on one of the hobbit thieves tried to pry the emerald out of the forehead. It proved to be a very bad move; the thief took damage that put him at -3. I allowed the paladin to immediately lay hands and bring him back to just this side of the brink of death. A short while later, the same thief failed a Fear check and went off shrieking into the next room. While he was wandering about in there, the rest of the party discovered that the only way to appease the stone face was to give him his payment—two live chickens. They dickered with him a bit until he agreed to accept one really big chicken. Someone conjured up the really big chicken needed which promptly ran off into the next room and attacked the fearful thief. In an amazing series of moves and commensurate die-rolls, the halfling was able to subdue the really big chicken and rode it out back into the first room. They then proceeded to try to stuff it, squawking and cackling, down the stone face’s mouth, which they finally accomplished amidst many feathers flying in the air.

As luck would have it (good for PC’s, bad for DM), the first room they found had a secret door that they managed to tumble to rather easily. They then found the magically locked door to the strong-room which was demolished when the samurai with the 18 strength kicked it open on a 1.

The party is hoping that their camel-equivalents will still be there when they return so that they can haul some of the loot out; they found an awful lot of CP and SP. Too bad for them that I do not award XP for GP on anything near a 1:1 basis. But still, they will be pretty wealthy if they make it back. Suppose those camels will still be there?

If There’s a Will, Hope There’s No Way…

This last adventure was a real nail-biter, for me. They have no idea how close they came to oblivion, or how often…bwuuhahahaha!

For obvious reasons, I can’t go into a lot of details because they would be spoilers in an ongoing game. But I can speak in some generalities and relate a few anecdotes of what happened.

All through the part of the first level that they have explored, they have found various carvings on the floors. Surprisingly, no one has stepped on any of them to see what, if anything, might happen. There were a couple that would have been very beneficial, but, alas, no brave souls.

In one room, hidden under a large rug, they found an eight-pointed star cut into the stone, surrounded by a circle filled with arcane runes and sigils. At the point of each star there was a hole in the stone about thumb-sized; a thorough ransacking of the room revealed eight candle-holders with bases that look they fit the holes, while another yielded eight blood-red candles four feet long. The thief wanted to cut some 12 inch pieces of the candles (the gods alone know why) and stick them in his pack. The paladin put an immediate moratorium on candle chopping when it was discovered that the candles were made of human tallow. But he almost had to be smacked to get over the idea.

Delving deeper, they found the way down to the second level, and found the ossuary. Now I don’t know about you, but as for me, if I stumbled into an area that was an immense natural cavern whose sides were riddled with niches filled with sorted bones, I would probably be a little circumspect. If I saw that one portion of the ossuary was occupied by nine very tall pillars with visible arcane energy coursing between them, surrounding a small mausoleum with a great iron door bound in brass, I would want to study it a bit. Then, when I discovered that there was one complete skeleton, except missing its skull, clad in sparkling, beautiful garments free of dust standing before the door, facing said door, I would want to study on it a bit before doing something rash or hasty. Whilst pondering these weighty matters, if someone discovered that amongst the 200 or so skulls on the skull racks one, and only one, skull had silver-lined eye-sockets, I would strongly suggest that they NOT place that skull upon the richly clad intact skeleton to “..see what might happen.”

It all goes to prove, once again, a basic tenet of role-playing that Jim Ward and I have noted, observed and found great amusement in for decades now; higher mammals (and some birds with bird-sized brains) just can’t resist “sparklies”. With Jim’s games aboard The Warden, PC’s cannot stay away from the flashing light panels. Fooling with them hardly ever leads to a good result. In my fantasy games, they just cannot leave the enigma alone, or at least pause for study before acting/reacting. Is every case of this likely to lead to harm for one or more of the party? Heck no, I love red herring. But is it possible that an enigma might be deleterious to the health of the party if meddled with? Heck yeah! Why play if there is no threat?

Right now, my group is on a shakedown cruise of sorts; they spend so much time deciding what to do next that we sometimes waste 20% of our gaming time “discussing”. Hey, I really don’t care. I will be there until the store throws us out, and I really enjoy the drama as it unfolds. They are a good group, make no mistake, They are very adept at playing their roles, and it is a lot of fun watching the hobbit thief running around doing thiefly things while the paladin tries to restrain him, the druid tries to keep from “going lion” and the gnome illusionist who thinks he is also an alchemist/apothecary collects bits and pieces of disgusting stuff in his never-ending supply of little phials and flasks. The M-U’s try to be magisterial and useful and the fighters look for things to chop.

Good grief! I do so LOVE role-playing!

A Surfeit of Spiders

Tonight the group decided that they REALLY DO NOT like spiders. This is tough for a number of reasons, but the first one is enough: they are in a spider-shaped temple built to worship an evil, twisted spider abomination.

No surprise then that on several occasions they were assailed by swarms of really large spiders. The amusing thing about it all, from my point of view, was that they had the means to blast the spiders, but not the understanding of how.

In my campaign, if a player can’t make it to a session, he has the option to let the group, or someone in the group, play his PC as an NPC. If so, the player scores a half-share of any loot or experience snagged on that adventure. If the NPC gets croaked, that’s up to the players to work out. The downside of that is that the NPC might not necessarily have all of the PC’s knowledge. This was what happened to the group last adventure.

One of the PC clerics has an amulet with several indentations on the back. Through trial and error he learned that certain combinations made the bearer proof against several species of arachnids. As they did not have the clerics character sheet with those notes, I ruled that they had to experiment all over again as the cleric “Just wasn’t feeling himself today”. They did not stumble onto any efficacious combinations.

While mucking about on the lower level they came upon two doors across from each other at the end of a passage that were dead-bolted from the outside. Was there ever a better recipe for disaster? Like all good PC’s the multiverse over, they just had to open one to see what was on the other side. God, I love that spirit of reckless adventure.

What they found was horrifying, and nearly took a number of their lives. They stumbled upon an internment  chamber for a previous incarnation of their “Deity on Makanda” (my planet). You see, they never truly die. The twisted spells that created them have to be strong to meld the body of a previously young and innocent young woman, kidnapped by the cult, onto the body and legs of the hugely hideous spider-like creatures they breed. While they are physically joined, they cannot die. Instead, they begin to dessicate and lose energy, all the while hating. Hating what happened to them in the first plasce, hating what they became, hating what they are now, and REALLY hating anything that is alive. They aren’t quite dead, not very alive (they can be Turned, as a vampire) and will literally suck the life out of anything they can catch. Being immured for as long as they have been, they have a lot of energy stored up which makes them both extra fast and dexterous, but only  for two to four hours of violent energy expenditure.

Somehow, the party extricated itself and locked the horror back in. They then booked for the upper level, where they were going to find a place to rest up, do some healing and curing, a little studying and some laying-on of hands.

Fireball First, Questions… Nevermind

When they sorted themselves out, they realized they were not very beaten up, and still did not have a hell of a lot to show for their explorations. Determined to rectify that, they set off once more for below ground, and thoroughly explored the level. They found another level down and decided to chance it.

What they found at first puzzled the hell out of them, and then someone tumbled to the fact that the large natural caves were serving as a larder; they were full of various dried-up, nearly mummified animals. To say that this was a bit disconcerting would be to understate the case. As they delved onward, they found the larder’s owner. What happened next was interesting.

They had entered a very large natural cavern with a very high and uneven ceiling. I detailed the area and made especial note of flecks of something in the walls that seemed to magnify light, causing the whole place to sparkle. Hold that thought.

When they were suddenly assailed by a monstrous web that came glopping down from the ceiling, the paladin was thoroughly enmeshed. Ever on the prowl to do something useful, the fire-happy mage launched a fireball at whatever had thrown the web. Had they been in a normal cavern, throwing at what they thought was a giant spider of some sort, it probably would have worked out a little less messily.

They killed the Weaver Queen right off the bat. Unbeknownst to the party, this was a very special cave she had prepared as her lair. The sparkling flakes in the wall amplified light, giving her the ability to see in the darkness of her lair. Further, the flakes insulated the lair and conserved and held heat. This had the effect of greatly magnifying both the heat and the range of the flaming missile; the reflections of the flakes “bounced” the light and amped up the heat; it also increased the blowback effect. While several were singed, nobody croaked.

Now that she is dead (and this qualifies as Out Of Character knowledge) they won’t learn her tragic story, nor will they learn what happened to the chests full of the coins they thought they left safely behind. The hoard is not where they left it; good thing they snatched all the gems and jewelry. They will not learn where there are some scrolls stashed away. The fireball utterly destroyed the fabulously valuable gorget she was wearing.

Once they round up a couple of precious-metal icons and statues, I imagine they will think about moving on. Now I have to think about what tips and leads to let them discover next. I wonder if anyone has heard of Sweetmeade Abbey?

Another Note: As happens to all campaigns at one time or another, we have had some players have to drop out. One’s Mom is really sick and in hospice: we are keeping his seat warm. One has fallen by the side of the road due to increasing work demands; RL always trumps and he has a standing invite to drop by if he gets a chance. Because of his value to the party (a badass cleric) he very graciously allowed a new member to step into his character who had run it for the group once before when he was absent. I was OK with this as the loss would have had great potential for bad things to happen. The third loss was the most devastating to the party—most of their offensive capability. This guy just zoned out and quit coming and was not able to be reached; he just flaked out. It was sad for the party, too. He was playing an Asian swordsman with a wicked-bad katana and a girdle they had taken off the bandit chief they killed that made him into a human Ginsu, plus he had two really great javelins that returned if they missed or when they were pulled out (if not pulled out they continued to wound). This type of loss is what makes DM’s have to rethink their campaigns and figure out a workaround. Time, and Tim, will tell.

Hooks, Line, and Stinkers: The Temple Booty Looted

Having determined that the Spider Temple had been thoroughly looted (at least those parts not really life-threatening that provided a chance of loot), the group set off for the surface. They were somewhat upset to find that all the gold and silver from the strong-room was gone; the only thing left in the several now-free-of-coins chests were several (10) small leather pouches of unremarkable workmanship that seem to be magicked not unlike a Bag of Holding, but not nearly so capacious. It makes the contents only one-tenth their normal weight and volume. They had been full of coins, but the pilferers failed to notice their special properties and simply poured them out to make off with the specie. Luckily they had all grabbed a modest handful of gems, a couple pieces of jewelry and a little gold earlier or they would have been as broke when they left as they had been when they entered.

When they got to the surface they found that they would not have had animals to pack it on anyway. Their little Jeeves, Kiyah the Urchin, told of the pride of sandcats that happened by and ate or caused to flee in panic all but two of their bhanas; they were the two youngest and smallest. She then related how a very scruffy band of ragged men had showed up on the second day and followed their tracks into the temple. She went on to relate how they soon came out laughing and chortling while dragging some very heavy bags and boxes; they made several trips and only stopped when they had completely loaded their brasts.

The formerly merry band then examined their options. They could not go back the way they came; they were wanted for Vagrancy in Nagreed; in Nagreed if you have no job you have no purpose; if you have no purpose you have no worth. If you have no worth you are a burden upon society and best eradicated, for the good of all.

Their other option was to journey on, on foot, towards the other end of the caravan road, the wide-open, anything-goes bustling settlement of Naizul. First, though, they had one more oasis to reach if they did not wish to perish in the trackless sands. They were able to buy a couple of bhanas and some food from a caravan going the other direction and so made it to the Aurama’s Grove, a veritable green-space in the desert. That night they learned about another semi-sentient species of flora in the Burning Sands, the Markonian Strangler Vine. They lost no party members, and even found a few valuables when they dug up the root-mass and killed it.

Then they hit town like a bunch of sailors hitting port after 30 days at sea.

I am having all the players make up a list of what they seek in town. I figure that there is no reason to create the whole Montgomery Ward’s catalog in advance. This will also cause me to start populating the town with shops and shop owners. I have several in mind; not all of whom will be completely honest. There are ample places to pick up multiple hooks, most of which will be mostly true. There will be NPC’s with yarns and lines to entice eager and gullible adventurers. And of course, in a town like Naizul, there are bound to be a few stinkers. Town is the greatest device I know for draining the PCs’ coin purses and strongboxes. Broke PC’s must adventure on, ever on.

The Bite That Keeps On Biting

*Rod Serling voice *

Imagine, if you will, three magic-users who went out for a dungeon crawl and a show, but who had more than a just a bite. In a world with three moons that light up the evening sky, these three adventurers may have discovered that there’s more to slaying giant jackals than merely looting the bodies afterwards. In fact, they may have collected far more than their fair share of experience in…. The Lycanthrope Zone.

Our intrepid band has reached the abandoned Sweetmeade Abbey, only to encounter packs of aggressive jackals.

Quite frankly, it was not the group’s finest hour, or hours, for that matter. They were attacked by a small pack of jackals while they were exploring the exterior of the front of the Abbey, which is built straight into the side of a rather large hill in the middle of a wilderness. A little bit later, after puzzling over the pinkish stone pillars scattered about, each with a very oddly fashioned crystal atop it that seems to follow the sun.

Somewhere amongst exploring and examining the cheese-making room, the sausage-making room and the goat pens, they were again attacked by an aggressive band of large jackals. It was only after they had killed two and driven off the rest that they noticed a really big dead jackal changing back into a really dead human. Now they are wondering what bit whom; there are three moons so they might not know for a while if they have anything to worry about or not…Cue the music…

The group seems to be having some difficulties grasping the spirit of old school D&D for some reason. I don’t know if they have been poisoned by later editions or what, but we seem to waste an awful lot of time on silly stuff like how the animals will be picketed; I’m waiting for knots to be specified and argued over next. Way, way, way too many assumptions get routinely made and they have not yet grasped one of the linchpins of old school role-playing, that of information gathering. They don’t go look to see where something came from, and then get surprised when they are attacked in the middle of the third watch from a door they did not fully block.

Old school meant playing the monsters as cunning adversaries (within the limits of the posited intelligence or craftiness), not sheep standing in line, each waiting placidly to be slaughtered in its turn.

I sent out an e-mail after the last session outlining a couple of things I was disappointed with: too much talking over each other at the table, too much time arguing over silly crap that should have been clearly understood Standard Operating Procedures by now, not enough information gathering, late arriving and wasting time, etc. Two dropped; one I am sorry to see leave, the other not. It is strict Darwinism at work; it applies to games, gaming and gamers, too, not just strange birds on a distant archipelago.

This group is far too small to produce any meaningful data, nor provide any valid assumptions. Not every DM/player matchup is made in heaven. Maybe the group will shed more players; I have no way of knowing. I am not particularly upset about it all; we lost two of our originals to changing job requirements and terminal illness of a family member. Life goes on, as does the game.

I will keep reporting on whatever we do, provided we do something. The next big hurdle is when they find out that the best thief and the heavy-duty cleric dropped out. I have considered letting them be run as NPC’s, at least temporarily, but am not particularly optimistic about the possible outcomes. As I write this, we are two days from the next session. I’ll let ya know.