Down in the Cellar

Mistress Moorvak hurried about the kitchen with the two coils of rope and a pair of lanterns Ted had asked her to provide the band. The kitchen was full of bubbling pots and inviting fragrances. Ollie lifted pot lids as if he expected to find the missing girl in the potato soup.

The plump dwarven woman handed a lantern to Ted. “These are what I can send with you," she said. “Please make haste, Flindia is all alone down there with… whatever was making those awful noises."

Ted looked down at her sympathetically and nodded. “We’ll find her and bring her back. Try not to worry.” He looked over at the wooden trapdoor in the corner of the room. It might be that the girl was waiting to jump out and laugh once they were all in the cellar. Of course, if Moorvak was right, there could be something else waiting to jump out at them. He looked over the rest of the search party. 

Old Marley was wrapped up in layers of filthy cloaks and blankets that the smells of the kitchen almost hid. The beggar’s eyes darted about the room suspiciously, and Ted wondered which utensils might have made their way into the folds of his cloaks. Marley still had the heavy wooden staff he always walked with but had brought no other supplies with him.

Ollie brought no extra equipment either but had one of the coils of rope and a lantern Moorvak provided along with his short bow. The youth cocked his head to one side and curled up his lip in confusion. He was listening to Otho try and explain that he’d always been that height and wasn’t playing a trick on him. The halfling was very patient with the halfwit. He seemed kind-hearted and earnest, and Ted thought he would be someone you could depend on. Sadly, he was barely three feet tall and looked too delicate to be much help in a fight. At least he was prepared, and brought along a small leather bag of supplies and held a small spear braced against his shoulder.

The tall Northman walked over to stand by Ted, slurping noisily from a metal ladle, spilling soup down his braided beard and onto his chainmail shirt. “If there is a fight they will all die," he said and gestured with the spoon, slopping more soup on the floor. Ted was troubled by Aulk's pessimism and hoped the others hadn't heard him. The barbarian let the utensil clatter to the ground and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I will find that girl and drink my fill of ale when I return.” He hefted his heavy round shield and ax as he walked towards the trapdoor.

It seemed like a bad idea to bring this group into the unknown, but there was no turning back now. “Well, let’s get this over with,” Ted thought as he grabbed the heavy iron ring and swung open the door to the cellar.  A steep and narrow set of stairs led down to the storage room below. The big man drew his sword and held the lantern high as he started down creaky wooden steps.

The cellar was a large area under the Inn, with heavy wooden posts rising from the floor to support the timbers above. Beams of light shone down between the cracks in the floorboards, and dust drifted down as people moved around the room above. The space looked well used and orderly with a well-swept cobblestone floor. Stacked wooden crates, barrels, and sacks lined the walls with various supplies for the Drawn & Quartered Inn. 

The band spread out and started looking behind the supplies for the missing girl. Ollie swung his lantern wildly as he ran back and forth around barrels and crates like he was playing a game of hide-and-go-seek. Old Marley seemed more interested in the crates, and Ted didn't think he expected to find the girl inside them. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Ted saw a dark red curtain at the far end of the cellar was moving. Hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and he quietly moved to investigate. Ted took a deep breath, braced himself, and used his sword to quickly move the ragged and moth-eaten fabric. A damp breeze blew past, causing the lantern to flicker as its light revealed a smaller room with a partially collapsed floor. Echoing up from the darkness the burbling of an underground stream could be heard. 

From his side, Ted heard a small voice. “I could investigate the hole. I’m small and less likely to collapse the floor any more than it has.” Botho looked up at Ted with enthusiasm. It was clear he wanted to show he could be helpful. “I can take a rope with me, and if the floor does collapse, you can pull me back up,” the little man continued.

Ted thought that sounded safe enough... unless some voracious fiend leaped out of the hole to grab the halfling, of course. He had to remind himself that while tiny, Otho was no child. Stories he'd heard said the small races lived longer lives than men did. This little adventurer might be even older than him. Despite his size, he was still a man and Ted should honour his choice to take a risk like he would any man. With some reluctance, he nodded. “Ok, we'll follow your plan.” 

Otho tied one of the ropes around his waist and handed the rest to Ted. Slowly the burly fighter let out the line as the little halfling padded across the floor towards the hole in the back corner. His small spear was held at the ready, waiting for some foul creature to lunge out of the darkness. While he moved towards the hole, Marley, Ollie, and Aulk crowded around to watch what would happen, each holding their weapons tightly.

As he reached the precipice of the hole, Otho looked down into the darkness. “I’ll need a lamp,” he said. “I can't see much, but there's a strange smell. Wait a minute, there’s something here on the ground.” He reached down and picked up a small piece of jewelry from the floor. “It’s some sort of cloak pin” he shouted excitedly. “What if the dwarven girl—“

Suddenly a loud rumble of stones cut him off as the floor beneath Otho’s feet gave way as the little man dropped into the darkness. Ollie gasped and started to rush forward, perhaps forgetting the rope that Ted was holding. A moment later a little hand appeared at the broken edge of the floor and Otho pulled himself back up onto the cellar floor.  

After catching his breath the halfling said “I think the rest of the floor is safe enough. There's some kind of cave beneath this corner and it starts where the hole is.”

Marley stepped forward with one of the lanterns as the others slowly made their way into the room. The old beggar stopped, roughly set down the light, and picked up a shiny gold coin. He marveled at the treasure he found and turned to see if there was more. Soon, Ollie and Aulk joined Marley in hunting around the room for more fallen coins scattered about the room. “Is this an adventure?” asked Ollie.

Ted stood at the edge of the abyss shining his lantern down into the darkness. A damp breeze from the hole brought a fetid stink and the sound of running water from somewhere down below. His lantern light reflected off some kind of slime or muck below, but there was no sign of the girl. If she had fallen through the floor when it collapsed, her body wasn't lying in the cave. Their ragtag band of rescuers would need to climb down to continue looking for her. Ted turned to see Otho standing nearby instead of searching for coins. He decided he had been wrong about how helpful the halfling would be.

Three Hearts and Three Lions

I finished reading Three Hearts and Three Lions while recovering from the lurgy this weekend. This 1961 fantasy novel by Poul Anderson, expanded from an earlier 1953 novella, was an influence on later fantasy fiction like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibon√© and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons. It’s because of its inclusion in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading and Basic D&D’s list of Inspirational Source Material that I decided to read it.

In a similar vein to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the story follows a World War II soldier transported to a Fantasy Medieval version of Earth. He finds a knightly horse, arms and armour, then encounters a series of mythological characters, monsters, and femme Fatales. Through the story, he must choose to support the principles of Law over his own lustful instincts and personal goal of returning home to 20th Century Earth, which reprsent Chaos. On the journey our hero is accompanied by steadfast companions -- a warhorse, a dwarf, and a Swanmay. His adversaries include a giant, a dragon, a werewolf, and a troll.

I was hoping to enjoy the book more than I did. While I liked elements of the story, I ultimately found the book disappointing. In particular, the episodic nature made me think the author wasn’t quite sure where he wanted it to go. It seemed that his original plan was to write something much longer. That changed near the end of the book, and the story shifted gears quickly to tie things up with an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. 


I knew that the Troll from D&D drew its inspiration from the Three Hearts and Three Lions, but recognized other game elements borrowed from here as well. While not a book I would recommend, D&D hobbyists will find it worth reading once to get more insight into what they intended to emulate with some of the rules. Some of the elements borrowed from the book that clarify things in D&D include:


1) The Swanmay from AD&D’s Monster Manual II is really a description of Alianora the Swan Maiden from this book, including her magical feathered gown, friendship with sylvan folk, and fighting ability as a swan. Before reading Three Hearts and Three Lions, I thought the line in MM2 that said “Although rangers, swanmays are principally attuned to solitude, nature, and the company of their adopted kind. “ meant swans were her adopted kind. In the novel woodland dwarves and such were the ones who adopted Alianora and what I think the game designers really intended. This should probably be a magic item more than a monster entry, and many of the features are specific to one swan maiden rather than all young women with this magical item.


2) The Dwarven ability to find ’slanting passages’ in Dungeons & Dragons was another thing I didn’t really understand until reading this book. Using water or marbles would find a slanting passageway pretty quickly for anyone. In Three Hearts and Three Lions, when they are in the Troll’s cave there is a question of which tunnel to take. The Dwarf says the one that is sloping down will eventually slope up and lead back to the surface. This ability isn’t about detecting the slant of a hallway in a dungeon — it’s about knowing which way leads back to the surface! This isn’t apparent unless you’ve read this book and recognize the reference. This quirky Dwarven ability now makes more sense and seems more useful in a game. 


3) The Nixie from the AD&D Monster Manual is also directly from Three Hearts and Three Lions. The character in the book is one of the femme fatale characters that want to tempt the protagonist away from the path toward LAWful marriage and towards the CHAOS of hedonistic pleasure. The inclusion of the house of living seaweed, the giant pike fish guards, the water breathing spell on human captives, and even the fear of fire and very bright light that will hold them at bay. This is all directly from the book.


4) Elves being associated with Chaotic alignment in AD&D draws its inspiration from this book as well. I don’t think there’s that connection in the other source material, like Tolkien, with Elves. In Three Hearts and Three Lions they live in a twilight world giving them the ability to see well in darkness.


5) LAW and CHAOS as alignments were first created in this book and later expanded on in Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Law is associated with orderly human society, religious institutions, and marriage. Chaos is associated with hedonism, savagery, cruelty, and magic. Spells and holy words used against Chaos would only work if the people using them were themselves Lawful. By indulging in hedonism, cruelty, or unpious actions caused the wards against Chaos would stop working. I think this is one of the sources of inspiration in AD&D for the admonishment to track PCs alignment. It also may be the source for the description of play in B/X D&D where the Cleric says she will not heal someone who would engage in Unlawful actions.


6) The Troll is the one most people know about from this book, and the Dungeons & Dragons troll is certainly lifted directly from Three Hearts and Three Lions. What I found noteworthy was that despite being so formidable the creature builds a nest in a cave out of branches and sticks. This is turn makes it a lot easier for people to start fires which is the most effective way of killing the monster.


Overall an interesting book, but the ending is really disappointing. I think the characters are not very well developed, but interesting more for its potential and influences on Dungeons & Dragons than for the quality of the fiction itself.


Strange Magic • April 25, 2022

Gathering the Party for White Box Adventure 1

For my next solo adventure I'm playing through Matt Jackson's new White Box Adventure, Issue 1. The adventure said to start with a 1st level character, so I decided to continue using Ted from my last game, but set this a few years later in a new town. I've printed it out, folded it into a pamphlet, and am doing my best to avoid looking ahead and spoiling the adventure as much as possible.

The first task was to roll to see what other adventurers are in the Drawn & Quartered Inn who could accompany my character. Matt suggests using an online generator to quickly create characters. Since I'm using OSE for this game I decided to try the OSE Generators to create these retainers. Their stats were comically bad, which I decided would make the game more entertaining even though I think it puts our adventuring party at significant disadvantage. Part of the fun here was interpreting these low scores. Why were they so bad? Why would this person still want to be an adventurer?

I used some other online generators to create their names, and a basic personality trait. Next I rolled to see what alignment they would have. It seemed appropriate the only effective looking member of my crew would also be Chaotic and thus someone I might not want to bring in the first place!

Here are the stats for the retainers I created. You can read more about them in my adventure journal for the Drawn & Quartered Inn. Next up the band will be heading down to the cellars to look for the missing Dwarf girl. I'll be amazed if we don't have some fatalities amongst this motley band of would-be-adventurers. 

Otho Bophin

  • Halfling — 1st level
  • Strength           8
  • Intelligence    10
  • Wisdom            9
  • Dexterity        10
  • Constitution      9
  • Charisma           9
  • Hit Points          1
  • Alignment         Lawful
  • Armor Class      7 (Leather Jerkin)
  • Weapons            Dagger (d4-1)
  •                            Short Spear (d6-1)
  • Enthusiastic. Will help for only 2gp.

Only 1 hit point, low strength and no other stat above a 10. At least he's enthusiastic! I kind of like that his stats are so low to be honest. To me this feels more like a Halfling than if he were very strong or exceptional in some other way. These are more like the stats I'd expect from the characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Old Marley

  • Thief — 1st level
  • Strength           8
  • Intelligence      9
  • Wisdom          11
  • Dexterity          7
  • Constitution      8
  • Charisma           8
  • Hit Points          2
  • Alignment       Neutral
  • Armor Class    8 (Padded Armor)
  • Weapons          Staff (d6-1)
  • Cynical. Wants an equal share.
A Thief with only 7 Dexterity and low scores in almost everything else. I decided to make him an old beggar which seemed to fit with the staff he carried. 

Ollie the Halfwit

  • Fighter — 1st level
  • Strength           8
  • Intelligence      6
  • Wisdom           9
  • Dexterity         10
  • Constitution    10
  • Charisma        13
  • Hit Points         2
  • Alignment       Lawful
  • Armor Class    7 (Fur Vest)
  • Weapons          Short Bow (d6)
  • Optimistic. Wants an equal share.
A Fighter with only 8 Strength and a very low Intelligence as well. Ollie was inspired by Much the Miller's son from Robin of Sherwood, especially after the generator gave him a bow and no other weapons.

Aulk

  • Fighter — 1st level
  • Strength          13
  • Intelligence     11
  • Wisdom          15
  • Dexterity          9
  • Constitution    11
  • Charisma          6
  • Hit Points         4
  • Alignment       Chaotic
  • Armor Class    4 (Chainmail and Shield)
  • Weapons         Hand Axe (d6+1)
  • Irritable. Will help for only 2gp.
Finally some decent stats, modest hit points, and good equipment! Too bad about that terrible Charisma score and rolling Chaotic for alignment. The Chainmail, Shield and Hand Axe made me decide he should be a Barbaric Northman. I think he's going to let the party down at some point in a big way.

Strange Magic • April 21, 2022

The Drawn & Quartered Inn

The Drawn & Quartered Inn brewed strong dwarven ale, making it popular with local folk and travelers alike. It was owned by Moorvak, a stout woman, barely four feet in height with long braids she kept in a tangled bun on top of her head. The drinks and much of the fare offered at the Inn came from old dwarven family recipes she brought from her homeland in the mountains far to the east. She was a fine innkeeper, always keeping the food hot and mugs full. Like many of her people, she was prone to bouts of melancholy and had a fatalistic sense of humour. Some people thought the name of the Inn was a dwarven joke, while others suspected it was a warning to anyone who might think of trying to sneak off without paying their tab.

A dozen or so patrons sat at low wooden tables in the smokey common room that evening. A warm and cheerful fire crackled in the hearth, chasing back the chill of the growing darkness outside. It was mostly locals tonight, although there were a few unfamiliar faces that stood out in the crowd, with unusual clothes and unfamiliar accents.

Moorvak brought a tankard of ale to a large man warming himself by the fire. “This one’s on the house Ted.” she said, hands fidgeting by her sides.

Ted looked up with a raised eyebrow. “Many thanks, but I’ve not known you to offer free drinks since I took a room here Moorvak. Is it some sort of dwarven holiday?”

Moorvak frowned and let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s Flindia you see — my niece. My sister left her with me, and she’s gone missing. I think the fool girl may have gone down into the cellars.” She paused before continuing. “I went down to look for her and, well, I think I heard something strange down there. Not rats. Something bigger.”

Setting down his drink, Ted got to his feet. He stood more than two feet taller than the dwarf and had a wide, powerful build. “Do you have any kinfolk here in town that could help look for her?”

The innkeeper shook her head. “They’re all with my sister in the hills to the west. They aren’t to return for a fortnight.” The small woman looked around the common room and shouted “Free drinks for the whole tavern if some of you will join Ted in going to the cellar to find Flindia and bring her back!”

The room fell silent for a moment. Giving away drinks was not something Moorvak was known for. Ted looked around the room, hoping for some strong farmhands or perhaps even a caravan guard to join him.  Instead, the patrons shifted uncomfortably on their low dwarven chairs and whispered to each other in hushed tones. He was about to think he was heading to the cellars on his own when he heard a small voice shout from the back of the room “I shall join you, sir!”

The smallest person Ted had ever laid eyes on pushed his way through the crowded room. Barely three feet tall he was a tiny man with fine features and thick curly hair. A few patrons chuckled as Otho the Halfling walked over to stand next to Ted. 

Ted looked down at Otho, who looked to him like a child. The halfling wore a small quilted leather vest over a linen shirt and heavy woolen trousers. At his side was belted a sword, in truth a dagger, but on Otho, it was the size of a sword. The little man squared his jaw with determination. “I know I’m not very big, but I have a sword and can use it well in a fight.”

The big man shook his head in disbelief. He had never met a halfling before, or ‘hobbit’ as he thought he had heard they preferred to be called. How helpful would such a small person be in a fight? Was it foolish to allow him to come along? Would it be another child he had to protect?

“Wait here, Master hobbit.” Ted said as he left the common area to return to the small room he rented from the Innkeeper. Perhaps her niece was simply hiding and playing a trick on Moorvak. Ted had known children to play those sorts of games. Would a dwarven child play that way? He knew their people were expert miners and used to working underground, but they had been driven from their homelands during the Goblin Wars and weren’t known for jokes and tricks.

Ted arrived at his chambers and found his coat of plates under the simple bed where he had left it. He was grateful that not all the furniture in the Inn was dwarven-sized. He buckled his armour in place and strapped his sword belt around his waist. For a moment he thought to leave the rest of his gear but decided it best not to take chances and bring it all. He slung his backpack across his shoulders along with his bow and quiver. Taking chances was something to avoid whenever you can, he thought. Why then, he wondered, was he always taking them?

As he returned to the common room of the Inn, Moorvak met him at the door. Her arms were folded across her chest with concern and she said in a low tone “Otho has found some others to help you. They’re not professional adventurers like yourself, but perhaps they can still help.”

Standing behind the halfling was a young lad, barely 16 years of age, holding a bow at his side. He had a messy mop of hair and the clothes of a farmer under a tattered fur vest. Otho smiled broadly, “This is Ollie. He’s going to come with us!”  Ollie smiled as well, although he perpetually looked confused by everything going on around him. 

A ragged-looking man with a haggard grey beard walked over to stand next to Ollie. He was stooped with age and the weight of the tattered cloak he had wrapped around himself. He supported his weight on a gnarled wooden staff and glanced around the room suspiciously. “Aye, I’ll come with ye as well. And if we find any treasures I’ll be expecting my fair share.”

Ted knew old Marley from around the Inn. Usually not in the inn itself, but around the inn sleeping against the building or begging for coins. You would later find the man spending those coins inside the Inn on mugs of ale. Some said he had been an adventurer once, but Ted thought those days must have been a long time ago indeed.

A coarse chuckle cut through the chatter in the room and a tall bearded man walked over to stand in front of Ted. He was a Northman barbarian, wearing a chainmail shirt with a round shield strapped across his back. He carried a curved ax tucked into his belt and had heavy fur-lined boots. Ted thought that Northmen were as likely to attack an Inn like this as offer to help, and rested his hand on the pommel of his sword.

“My name is Aulk, and if there is free drink I will help find the girl.” the tall red-haired man said. He was taller than Ted, although leaner. "Besides, you need a warrior to go with you." Unlike the other volunteers assembled he did look like he had seen battle before and might be good in a fight. Something about the way he looked at Ted made him worry about which side of the fight he’d choose to be on though.

It had been years since Ted had served in the King’s army, but he remembered the words of his sergeant well: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.”  This certainly wasn’t the army Ted would have wanted.


Strange Magic • April 20, 2022