Sunday, August 27, 2017

Your RPG is Great: The Black Hack

If you haven't heard of The Black Hack, you're in for a treat. It's an ultra-slim, incredibly simple respinning of the OD&D ruleset, with all the pick-up-and-play aspects you'd expect. It's only twenty pages long, including the very cool cover art and the OGL, making it the perfect way to introduce new players to the hobby without bogging them down with obtuse mechanics and tables upon tables of content.

The Black Hack is part of the new OSR wave of rules-lite games (see Swords and Wizardry Light, Whitehack, Troika, Into the Odd, etc.) that was 1000% funded through Kickstarter way back in 2016. The original goal, a meager £500,  certainly wasn't wasted: the book, while devoid of art, is incredibly clean in its layout, and somehow manages to bring a style all its own to each page. Much like Whitehack, with its typewriter design and tight column, you could show me any page of the document and I would know I was reading The Black Hack.

On to the system. It's roll-under, which as an optional rule dates back to the Moldvay B/X days; basically, any ability check you make requires you to roll a d20 and attempt to score under the associated ability score. Clever readers will notice the inherent simplicity of this: as your ability scores increase, so do your chances of success, without ever introducing unnecessary concepts like "modifiers" and "to-hit" bonuses. I've always been a fan of the roll-under system (for those seeking a little extra "crunch" in their game, TAAC is a full B/X retroclone that completely embraces roll-under).

But don't think that's the only thing that's endearing The Black Hack to the people. While available to purchase at very reasonable prices (£7.50 plus shipping for the whole set in print, including core rules, GM screen, character sheets, and a micro-setting), being OGL pretty much the entire ruleset is online for free. I read through it, and it's all there: everything you'd need to set up and run a game using the system can be had for exactly zero dollars and change. It's never been a better time to be in the OSR.

There are some other interesting quirks of the system: it uses the advantage/disadvantage system from 5e, which I've always thought was an ingenious alternative to giving out arbitrary +2s and +4s to various checks. There's the usage die, which is another very effective way to abstractly track ammunition and resources. In essence, whenever a character uses a consumable item -- be it arrows, rations, or torches -- they roll the associated usage die. On a roll of 1-2, the item is consumed, and the usage die decreases by a size, from d20-d12-d10-d8-d6-d4. If you roll a 1-2 on a d4, the item is expended completely. This saves GMs from having The Ammo Talk:

"You can't fire any more, you shot your last arrow at the orc guard in the entrance hall."
"I thought I was picking them back up as I go! My character wouldn't waste arrows."
"You never mentioned that, plus you missed a few shots. Some of the arrows broke."
"I go back to retrieve my arrows."
"...we're already in initiative."
"I retreat to go get my arrows."

I've always been an abstract-combat kind of guy, so usage dice appeal to my simple, cinematic sensibilities. The archer always has enough arrows, until she doesn't. A strong gust of wind blows out the torches, and the party realizes they don't have any more. Introducing randomness into what was previously bookkeeping keeps the tension high, because you never know if the next ration you eat might be your last.

Armor, too, works differently than in most other games. Instead of decreasing an enemies chance to hit, it reduces damage directly, so a character wearing full plate (8 Armor) can take an extra 8 damage before she's out of the fight. Armor values reset upon a rest, which keeps the game fast and fun and perfect for dungeoncrawls.

The monster section assumes you've owned and run RPG's before (which I'd imagine you have, if you're reading the rules of an indie retroclone of OD&D) and are therefore sparse in their details. Each enemy is given basic stats and a unique fighting style or ability to distance them from each other. Fixing a problem that D&D has had since the first Monster Manual, you won't find page after page of bugbears and goblins and hobgoblins and kobolds and orcs, all tangentially different from each other. All the classics are there, but with enough specialization that fighting each one should feel vastly different. It's a small touch, but a good one regardless.

So there you have it: an ultra-lean, aesthetically pleasing, logically sensible 'hack, practically tailor made for new groups, kids, or Cons. It's free. It's got a cool name. It's perfect for dungeoncrawls and hexes, for bringing 5e groups into the OSR or for rekindling the fire in an old grognards heart. David Black, Your RPG is Great!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bend Bars, Lift Gates: Strength Training for Adventurers

by Raja the Red, retired adventurer

Every so often I ignore my better judgment and mingle with the common folk. I always end up regretting it, especially on the days when I happen to run into Enendir.

Enendir is a young elf who's gotten it into his head that he wants to be an adventurer. I admire his dedication, but the guy's about 5-foot-nothing and weighs less than my last big meal. I've seen rapiers thicker than his arms. I don't mind him too much when he's just tagging along beside me, just because I look so much bigger by comparison, but he's gotten it into his pointy-eared head that I'm his mentor, and has taken to asking me for sword training lessons.

Now, you've got to understand my hesitation at this prospect. There is no one you'd rather meet in a dark alleyway than Enendir. You'd need a calendar to clock his swings, and thats only after you helped him lift the sword off the ground. But I was in an uncharacteristically good mood that day, so I decided to humor the boy.

"So what makes you want to be a swordsman?"

His eyes lit up, and I was reminded why I don't interact with the forestfolk.

"Because it's what I was born to do! Father was a swordsman, the best in the realm! I could join the Elven Infantry and fight against the dark forces of Evil, or carve a path through the wilderness in search of fame and fortune! I could be the next Albel Lionheart! I could even be like you!"

Enendir stopped once he heard me laughing, but can you blame me? This pale-skinned grass whisperer wanted to be like me? As hilarious as that was, I had to admit it tickled my ego.

"Alright, enough. Listen here: I'll give you one free lesson, but it won't be today." I took a step back. "Stand still, let me get you squared off."

Enendir took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and puffed out his chest. "How do I look?" he said proudly.

"Like my first wife." I said. "Only she had bigger shoulders."

His pride collapsed like a dead slime. Sensing my mistake, I added quickly, "but with room for improvement."

Now he was listening.

"Yeah, room for improvement! You're going to help me with that, right?"

I was trapped.

"Sure thing, kid. but you'll need to bulk up a bit before sword training will do you any good." I reached into my backpack for a quill and some ink, but by the time I turned around he was sitting rapt in attention, pen in hand. 

"Okay, here we go. Like I said, we're going to need to put some meat on those bones before you can start hacking goblins in twain. I'll give you a regimen that's guaranteed to make results before the next moon. The next time you find yourself with your back against a portcullis and no way out but by lifting it, you'll thank me.

So this course is going to be focused on the four major muscle groups: your chest, arms, back, and legs. It won't turn you into a Goliath, but it's a start. I want you to train three days a week -- not a day more -- for about an hour, with a day of rest in between. I know you don't sleep, so just meditate or contemplate flowers or something." He looked annoyed. "Er, you know what I mean. Make sure to let your body recover well.

As for the workout, itself, we're only doing five exercises: bent-over rows, deadlifts, squats, benchpress, and behind-the-neck presses. Thats all! Shouldn't take you more than an hour to do, and I'll even let you use my old weights. Yeah, its mostly buckets of sand lashed to old logs, but you don't need to get fancy yet. This is how you're going to do it:

1: Bent-over rows: stand with your hips bent at a 45 degree angle, and grip the log overhanded (palms facing down). Pull in towards your abdomen at the same time you puff your chest out, making sure to breathe deeply with each repetition. 3 sets of 15 should do nicely, then proceed to...

2: Stiff-legged dead lift: just as the name sounds, you want to keep your legs and lower back straight as you do this. Underhand grip (palms facing up) for 1 set of 15 repetitions. If you're doing it right, you should feel the burn in the back of your legs.

3: Squats: you ain't getting out of these. There's no better exercise for building the explosive power you need as an adventurer than squats. Hoist that big bar on your shoulders and dip down to where your thighs are just below parallel to the floor, then push back up with every ounce of strength you've got. Breathe deeply in between sets, filling your lungs with as much air as you can get. 2 sets of 20 should do nicely. Alternate your sets with some low-weight triceps pullovers in sets of 20 to give you that big chest that makes the damsels swoon.

4: Benchpress: my personal favorite. Look at these arms: thicker than a hydra's main neck. Make sure you're arching your back and bouncing that bar off your chest with each rep. 3 sets of 12.

5: Press-behind neck: a classic. don't let that thing settle across your shoulders, you want to bring it down and push back up with every ounce of strength in your body. You won't believe the amount of muscle you'll gain in your shoulders and upper back with this. This time, 2 sets of 12.

Now, because you're doing so few exercises, and because all of them are targeting your major muscle groups, you should be able to add more weight every day. Start off easy and add 5-10 lbs each new workout, and you'll be surprised where you end up in a few months."

Enendir had reached the end of his parchment, so I cracked open my canteen and took a deep swig of mountain dwarf brew. After a few more, I was ready to continue.

"Now like I said, you're going to want to rest as much as possible in between your workout days. As far as your diet goes, I know you treehuggers are all about leaves and berries, but that won't cut it here. You need meat, cheese, and as much milk as you can stomach. No, make it twice as much as you stomach. Baldwin's cows should be shaking in fear when you walk by. Do all this, and by the next moon, you'll be ready to train with me."

At this point my throat was dry again, and the barmaid standing outside the inn was giving me the come-hither look, so I sent the kid off with instructions to meet me in a month. Next time, dear reader, I'll tell you how it went for him.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Souls of Darkness, by Gary Butterfield

It's no big secret that I'm a Dark Souls fan. I've played every game to completion, more times than I can count. I've PVP'd, PVE'd, praised the sun, slayed demons/nightmares, and again at soul level one. I've speedrun naked and killed gods with a spiked bat. I am, in short, fairly knowledgeable about the franchise.

But I was not prepared for this.

Gary Butterfield, along with his good friend Kole Ross, host several game-themed podcasts (perhaps most interesting to readers of this blog is Monster in my Podcast, in which they review each entry in the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual one at a time to hilarious result). Bonfireside Chat, a review/talk show/analysis of every aspect of every Souls game, is what inspired this book. I'll let Gary explain the premise:

"Do you remember the Worlds of Power books? I do. Do you like Dark Souls? I professionally like Dark Souls! When these two interests collide, you get Souls of Darkness. Souls of Darkness is a parody of those Worlds of Power books but it's written as if Dark Souls was a NES game. Yes, I know it's confusing. Here are the important parts: 
- What if Dark Souls was a NES game? How would that work? Whoa! 
- What if a young girl got sucked into the game and got to experience a bunch of hilarious, exciting adventures in her favorite title? 
- What if the book featured amazing art by Nick Daniels? 
- What if the book (and associated Kickstarter side items) told a story open to interpretation, lampooning and emulating the way Dark Souls tells stories? 
- What if it was packed with love for the Dark Souls community? Tons of easter eggs!..."

Undoubtably you get the picture. This is a fan dedication to the highest degree, a sort of published fanfiction by Souls fans, for Souls fans. But is it nothing more than fanfiction?

In short, yes. I'll admit I never read any of the Worlds of Power books. However, I did read a lot of video-game related trash as a child, and I can say with certainty that my choices were above and beyond anything I found here.

The story starts with young Maya Hunter, a precocious girl with a big love for the game Souls of Darkness for the Superstation console. She knows all the tricks, except one (if you're thinking it has something to do with a pendant, you are correct). As our story begins she is busy attempting beyond all reason to solve this puzzle that nobody else has been able to. After a strange internal monologue in which she laments the fact that she eats ribeye steak every night because her mother works at a charnal house (?), and that her long-lost father worked at a popcorn factory (??), she sets the game down to get something to eat. When she returns, it is to find that her baby sister has accidentally fallen through the TV into the game, and it's up to Maya to free her and save the world!

I won't go into much more detail about the story, because it's exactly as you'd imagine a Dark Souls self-insert fanfiction to read (note: I am not implying that Gary Butterfield imagines himself as a 10-year old girl). She becomes friends with Not-Solaire, a skeleton named Lounging Carl (???) and a floating femur that spouts bone facts (????). She heads to the forest and faces Giantdad while Not-Artorias vapes and spouts casual misogyny in her direction (?????). At the end, she saves her sister, returns to her world, and maintains contact with the game world by feeding junk and scraps of food to Not-Seathe the Scaleless. I'm out of question marks.

I can't criticize too harshly the writing in this book for being atrocious -- because I'm not entirely sure it's not intentional, for one -- but it's still a chore to read. The lack of page numbers, which would be an interesting but annoying choice in any other book, is mitigated by the fact that I read the entire thing in an hour while holding a casual conversation with my wife. No, the writing is not what gets me. What I don't understand are the references. As you can see, I'm about as big a fan of the series as there is. But even I was left scratching my head throughout this book, wondering what point they were trying to make or what joke I was missing. I have a great respect for Gary, and he's a tremendously funny man, which makes it all the more baffling that none of his wit and subtlety come through here.

It's a crying shame, because I believe a well-made Souls parody could be really good. The games, while breathtaking in their scope, make a lot of puzzling design choices that fans have come to lovingly hate. Where, in Souls of Darkness, was the Sen's Fortress statue warehouse? The amazing chest ahead? Where in the hell was dino-butt lava valley? Hell, when they summoned a phantom to assist with Not-Quelaag, I half expected them to come in naked with bright blue skin and start cartweeling around brandishing a katana. THAT'S the real Dark Souls Experience.

Ultimately, this book reads less like a tribute to Dark Souls and more like a collection of half-hearted GameFAQs forum posts. Perhaps that was its intent all along.

Buy a Souls of Darkness physical copy for $17 here and as an $8 pdf here.

I do have to say the art is very nice, and definitely nails the "child transported to a magical-yet-friendly land" feel that I remember fondly from my childhood reading CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tomb of the Serpent Kings, v3.0

So there's this great little module that Skerples over at just put out called "Tomb of the Serpent Kings." It's designed around teaching new players the basics of dungeoncrawling by repetition and clear examples. It's got art by the ever-wonderful Scrap Princess. Best of all, its free, so you've got no reason not to check it out.

The reason I'm advertising this here is because, after version 2.0 was released, I read some negative reviews that made a point of criticizing the layout of the document. Now, layout is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. The perfect layout is one that nobody notices, because to do any more is to detract from the information on the page. So I can hardly fault an independent game designer, releasing a passion project solely for the benefit of the community, on something that tabletop RPGs have been doing wrong for decades. But still, I didn't like the idea of a perfectly-usable adventure being pushed to the wayside for something so small, so I decided to lend a helping hand.

I have a particularly nerdy hobby, even among devotees of 40-year old fantasy elf games: I love learning about typography and typesetting. And ever since Kevin Crawford released his Brief Study of TSR Book Design (free!) I've been itching to put some of that information into practice. So I booted up LaTeX, reached for my printed-from-pdf copies of Blood in the Chocolate and Maze of the Blue Medusa (two of the best-laid out adventures I've ever seen), and got to work.

Here's the finished product. For anyone interested in what I actually did, it was fairly simple.

First, I decided to give the entire document a once-over, looking for typos. This is important! For anyone looking to do any sort of layout work in the future, whether for others or simply to save some money on their own published stuff, make no columns and adjust no margins before ensuring your document is error-free. After that, I started separating the text into more manageable chunks. Each room got its own write-up, like any classic module; this allows for the DM to more easily scan text to get to what they need, greatly improving the adventures ease-of-use at the table. I eschewed the use of box text, because I hate being told what to say when I'm DMing and I'm sure you do too.

Next came my favorite part, adjusting the typeface. I went with a classic serif for the body text and sans serif for the section headers. This is a good idea for multiple reasons that are better explained in Kevin Crawford's booklet. I set the margins to a reasonable width, and used two-column text to allow me to place pictures and maps pretty much wherever I wanted. On that topic, maps! I wanted to make sure that everything a DM needed to run a room was on the same page, so I added mini-map cutout pictures that detail the rooms on each page and help illustrate how they all connect to each other. It may not seem like much, but it makes a huge difference when players are running or fleeing from room to room in a short amount of time.

I already had the artwork, so now all I had to do was put it back in. I sent the completed document to Skerples, and the deed was done.

All in all, formatting the entire module probably took about 6 hours of honest effort, but the end result is, in my opinion, a great improvement. Go check it out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Golden Ratio of Encounter Design

Patrick Stuart recently posted something on Google+ that caught my interest. The full conversation is here, and there are a lot of good ideas in there. To summarize, Patrick put forth the idea that enemies can be classified as strong or weak based on quantifiable factors, something he called a "Threat Diversity Quotient."

The Threat Diversity Quotient, to me, simplifies down to "what this creature can do to players, and what players can do to that creature." Imagine a scale with "monster" on one end and "PCs" on the other. For every way one side can hurt the other, you add a block. The idea is that you want as many blocks as possible on both sides, so long as they are both still balanced in the end. I'll give you an example.

Say you've got something like a classic D&D Troll. No, not like rpgnet. A fantasy troll. It's big, strong, dumb, can see in the dark, and regenerates health. Ultimately, a fairly formidable foe, assuming the party attacks it head on with no regard to tactics. We'll give it 3 blocks: Strong (based on damage and size), Tough (based on AC, HD, and the regeneration ability) and versatile (infravision). We want this to be an interesting encounter, so lets give the troll another block by placing him in a pitch-black room where his infravision will work wonders.

Now lets look at the players side of things. So far, it doesn't look good. In a fair fight, this Troll's got them beat. So lets add a few blocks to the players side. Note: done well, the players will never know this was done at all.*

Well, the troll is bog-standard stupid, so that's one block. Clever players should be able to come up with a way to trick it, regardless of the encounter. But we need 3 more. The regeneration ability can be countered by fire or acid, so maybe the Troll is found roasting its dinner over a campfire, or maybe you throw an acid potion into the dungeon's random treasure table. Most likely the party will have torches, but it's always good to have a backup plan. That's two, but we need two more blocks.

Here's where we get creative. The question is: what can we do to weaken this enemy in a way that doesn't take away player agency? Pick two of the following: give the Troll an injury from a previous battle, a burned-out eye socket that interferes with his ability to see on the left side. Make a note that the troll's club is more of a rotten log, and might shatter if struck. Put pillars in the room so the party can pretend to be the Fellowship, avoiding the Giant in the Mines of Moria. Put some crumbling masonry high up a wall -- with trickles of sunlight shining through it -- that can be opened up to blind the creature. None of these changes force the characters to act a certain way: they simply reward clever plots and thinking beyond the character sheet, all excellent qualities to foster in an adventuring party.

So there we go: one perfectly balanced encounter that maintains player agency while still fostering a sense of danger. The scales are balanced. In spending just a few moments customizing this encounter, we've shifted the focus from character-skill to player-skill. Heroes exist to overcome great challenges, go and give them some!

*This assumes the encounter is meant to be balanced. Not every encounter should be; without dragons and giants stalking the land, the heroes become invincible and get bored. Without goblins and gricks, the heroes cease to feel like heroes. Diversity is key.

Maze of the Blue Medusa: Session 2

Our Heroes

Kellen Nancy, child of Anansi. Words are Endurance, Luck, and Passion. Born of the spider gods dream, he has made it his mission to find and help the worlds most hopeless person. He has reason to believe he (or she?) resides within the maze.
Eizen, son of Atlas. Words are Earth, Might, and Sun. A thrill-seeker who has spent a lifetime travelling the world in search of fun and profit. His journey in the maze was sparked by boredom, and a lust for unique sights and experiences not found in our world.
Nemora, son of Apollo and an unnamed Titan. Words are Earth, Endurance, and Sword. Trapped in a cave by his parents at a young age, he befriended Gaia, who eventually freed him. Since then, he has wandered the lands, training in every style and stance. He has entered the maze seeking a sword with the power to kill his parents.
Kali, daughter of Hades and Persephone. Words are Death, Fertility, and Health. Born in Erebus, she knew her mothers touch only four months out of every year. After earning her freedom, she set out on a quest to find a way to give her mother the same. Missing her right leg from the knee down after an incident with the sun room, she has fashioned a makeshift peg out of vines.

A month later, the full moon rises again and the party enters the eerily still room of the former Ashen Chanterelle, now a corpse slumped against the southern wall. She hasn't begun to decompose yet, and the blisters on her arm stumps are fresh. Clearly time works differently within the maze.

Heading north, the party is surprised to find Lady Capilli is nowhere to be found. Traumatized by their last foray west ("the sun room," as they've taken to calling it), they decide to head north. This leads them to a long hallway, paved with stones forming a mural of a large blue serpent who comes to life as they enter. It whispers a cryptic poem insinuating that the fourth to cross the room will die, leaving the party with a choice: who will they leave behind? Kellen decides to sacrifice himself to the snake, but not before having Eizen chop off his arm. Kellen is devoured after the rest of the party crosses.

DM's Note: I love how this played out. Kellen sacrificing himself to allow the rest of the party to proceed is so evocative of classical mythological, and suits the tone of the dungeon perfectly.

The party finds themselves on the same rope bridges they crossed in the last session. Kellen's gambit has paid off, as his body begins to regrow from its largest part, the whole arm in Eizen's possession. This takes time, however, and meanwhile the rest of the party decides to head west and investigate the locked door. A puny non-magical lock turns out to be no match for the strength of Eizen, and soon the party is through.

In this room is a wheezing, tottering old man, and in this old man are three broadswords, run through to the hilt. Colored gas seeps from the wounds in his body and erupts from his lungs with every forced gasp. Nemora takes pity on the forgotten king and begins to remove the swords, but struggles as the gases, all that remains of the kings former knights, take corporeal form and attack the party. The knights are defeated, and the old man manages a meager "thank you" before fading to dust, and to a rest long deserved.

Investigation of the swords reveals that each was designed around a particular motif, and slid effortlessly into the scabbards built into the three thrones they found in an adjacent room. With a soft click, the lock to the door leading north from the king's chamber opened...or it would, had Eizen not crashed through it moments ago. At this point, the party decided to rest and let Kellen's form restore itself.

With the party reunited, they set out south into the sun room, making sure to go one at a time to avoid casting unnecessary shadows. This brings them back to The Gardens. Heading northwest, they enter a chamber completely overtaken by vines, twisting and weaving around a central form in the figure of a sleeping woman. As the party enters, the vines caress and slide over their bodies, leaving a trail of sticky, sweet sap. Nemora, that rakish charmer, embraces the female form which the party has christened "Vine Bae." He's been magically charmed, but doesn't know it yet. One of the other adventurers pulls him away, and with a heavy heart he and the rest proceed deeper into the overgrowth.

The room beyond Vine Bae's chamber is covered floor-to-ceiling with glistening spores that quiver with each movement the party makes. Kali takes point and, summoning her powers of fertility, withers them in seconds. Dessicated leaves crunch underfoot as the party enters the next room, a large octagon dominated in the center by a massive, beating approximation of a heart. It's connected to the ceiling and the floor by large vines, and as the party crosses the threshold three figures scramble over its surface to sit atop it.

The figures begin a verbal assault of the party. The first, a dog-like construct of twisted black thorns, accuses Eizen of leaving Kali to die in the Sun Room. Before Eizen can mount a counter-argument, the second creature chimes in. Sinister insinuations slither past its lips of dried grass; its body is that of a naked scarecrow. Nemora steps forth to defend his companion. The third monster, a dusty tangle of crushed vegetation, comes to the forefront making passive-aggressive jabs at Nemora and his friends. The combined fury of the three wears at Nemora's psyche, and he is forced to admit that, if it came down to it, he would sacrifice one of his friends to save himself.

At this revelation, the three monsters attack. Kali unleashes a plague on their plant forms that slowly strips away their very essence. The scent of burned and withered grass fills the room as Eizen summons a massive stone, swinging it with the fury and precision of an orchestra conductor. Kellen rushes forth to attack the heart, but its skin is toughened and every attack is like chopping at rawhide. Assailed by the thorn-creature, Nemora hardens his skin to an impenetrable degree and begins summoning swords from thin air to strike at the foes.

The naked scarecrow lunges at Kali, claws like razors. A nimble dodge from her is enough to avoid them, but a cloud of dust puffs up from the creature, and her head begins to spin. It seems like she can see the body of a human within the bundles of grass. She continues burning away their outer shells, but this image weighs on her mind. Meanwhile, Kellen's persistence has paid off, and he rips a large hole in the side of the heart. A viscous purple liquid begins to pour out and covers the floor of the room within seconds, rising slowly. Each of the plant monsters scream as the floracide melts them on contact. The vine creature attempts to flee, but a quick bodyslam from Nemora leaves no escape, and no survivors.

The party licks at their wounds as the poison laps around their knees. To open the doors at each cardinal direction would be to unleash a torrent of plant killer, and their past experience has shown that wanton destruction often has disastrous consequences. Eizen decides to erect a permanent thigh-high wall around the room to hold the poison, and the party continues through the door to the west.

The west door leads to a long hallway, overgrown like the rest of the gardens with thick tendrils of ivy. They weave between the cobblestones in intricate geometric patterns whose beauty is not lost on Kali. At the end of the hall are two doors facing each other, one to the north and one to the south. As Veronica's map was getting a bit crowded, the party decides to head north into a room filled with hissing pipes. At the other end is a massive, mangy rat with a twisted crown of iron and a massive pipe wrench. It cackles madly to itself and continually repeats the phrase "water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!" in a childish lilt. The party gets its attention and it lopes over, presenting Kellen with a large sack of severed, shrunken goblin heads. It refuses to answer any questions about itself and seems to disregard the party, preferring to fiddle more with the pipes. Kellen slips a head into his pocket before leaving, intending to present it to Lady Capilli as art.

DM's Note: I changed this area quite a bit. I removed the nursery entirely, as it served no mechanical purpose, and indeed seemed to serve no purpose other than as shock value. I also changed Carnifex from a giant toad to a giant rat, both because I felt it fit more thematically with him as a plumber and also because one of the players has a terrible phobia of frogs. Remember, know your players and practice grown-up judgment.

Before that, however, they return to the hallway and peek through the opposing door. Beyond is a large sunken chamber, its floor nothing more than a bog of waist-high mud. Several rusted pipes lead into this room, but not a drop of water runs from them. In the center of the room is a tendrilled beast rooting around in the swamp. It looks up at the party, then fishes around under the mud before pulling up a perfectly preserved corpse. The beast wraps a tendril lovingly around the corpses' head, and the corpse begins to speak.

The monster introduces itself as No-Face, and speaks congenially to the party, occasionally pausing to scoop up another corpse that may have a better understanding of the current topic. No-Face is mad that the rat demon Carnifex has disrupted the Garden's water supply, and wants it restored. It explains that Carnifex has tremendous power over causality, to the point that it can explicitly forbid a creature within earshot from taking the same action twice; this was used to devious effect on one of a corpses companions, the goblin head that Kellen took, who was forbidden from taking another breath.

The party hatches a plan to distract Carnifex long enough to redistribute the water. Kellen slyly insinuates that there is an even greater source of water in the maze, which piques the demon's interest. His insatiable greed drives him to drop his pipe wrench and demand that Kellen show him the way to the other well. Carnifex grins slyly, and the party internally debates the merit of leaving one of their own alone with a creature of unspeakable power. But Kellen has faith in his plan, and with a wink turns and heads back down the darkened hallway, with the cackling rat not far behind.

Carnifex and Kellen loop back through The Gardens. The Rat King is wary, but his greed leads him on. Kellen strides forth into the Sun Room just as the light is passing in front of him. His shadow isn't big enough to trap the Rat King: he's too large, his body too misshapen. But Kellen's the avatar of luck, and as he moves forward his cloak and pack swing outward just far enough to eclipse the demon. He falls, and the pit closes above him. His last whispered words are unheard amidst his cackling.

Kellen returns to the party, who have successfully managed to reroute the water. No-Face is thrilled, and leads the party to a secret compartment where he has stored a brittle bonsai tree. No-Face claims the tree has magic powers, and with the water flowing freely it can be nourished back to health. The adventurers return to the central corridor of the maze, making certain not to inadvertently cast a shadow over Carnifex's prison, and come face-to-face with Lady crucem Capilli. With nothing to offer but the demon's pipe wrench, the Dragon Queen is less than pleased, but accepts it after the party regales her with the story as to how they acquired it. Lady Capilli then requests another piece of artwork from the east wing, but warns that the area was the site of great tragedy and is overrun with the dead. She hands Eizen a key that will open the locked door at the bottom of the twisted stairwell, and departs.

With that, the company returns to the painting, stepping back through to the real world and beginning their plans for the next foray. They have a month to do more research.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Maze of the Blue Medusa: Session 1

Our Heroes

Kellen Nancy, child of Anansi. Words are Endurance, Luck, and Passion. Born of the spider gods dream, he has made it his mission to find and help the worlds most hopeless person. He has reason to believe he (or she?) resides within the maze.
Eizen, son of Atlas. Words are Earth, Might, and Sun. A thrill-seeker who has spent a lifetime travelling the world in search of fun and profit. His journey in the maze was sparked by boredom, and a lust for unique sights and experiences not found in our world.
Nemora, son of Apollo and an unnamed Titan. Words are Earth, Endurance, and Sword. Trapped in a cave by his parents at a young age, he befriended Gaia, who eventually freed him. Since then, he has wandered the lands, training in every style and stance. He has entered the maze seeking a sword with the power to kill his parents.
Kali, daughter of Hades and Persephone. Words are Death, Fertility, and Health. Born in Erebus, she knew her mothers touch only four months out of every year. After earning her freedom, she set out on a quest to find a way to give her mother the same.

We began our session with the party having recently stolen the infamous painting, The False Chanterelle. The painting -- that of a naked woman chained from the ceiling in an opulent parlor room -- came with strange instructions: to explore the hallowed maze, touch this painting with a moonlit gaze. Under the next full moon, the party hangs the painting on the wall and flings open the shutter; in an instant, the painting comes to life. The woman turns her head and pleads for the party to touch the painting and rescue her. After briefly debating the relative merits of blindly trusting the words of an erotic drawing, the party decides that courage is nothing without a dash of recklessness, and steps forward to touch the canvas.

Inside the painting, the four interrogate the woman a bit more, learning that her name is Ashen Chanterelle and that she is being held here as a prisoner by Psathyrella Medusa, the warden of this place. She tells the party that she can open the locked door to the north, granting them access to the maze. However, Kali is a naturally distrustful person, and attempts to murder the prisoner nearly immediately. The other members manage to stop her from outright killing Ashen, but not before Kali has chopped off her hands. The rest of the party swiftly attempts to cauterize the wounds with a nearby torch, causing the woman to pass out due to shock. However, as the chains recede into small holes in the ceiling, they hear a click, and know that the door to the north is unlocked.

DM's Note: I deliberately changed this encounter from how it is written in the book (in which she is a treacherous backstabber who speaks nothing but lies). I knew my party would be suspicious of Ashen Chanterelle, so I decided to make her speak nothing but truths. In this way, I could foreshadow key aspects of the maze while still feeding into the players paranoia.

Ashen Chanterelle is still catatonic, however, and without the constant presence of Kali's stabilizing aura would perish in moments. Eizen hefts her onto his shoulders, and the whole party progresses through the northern door into a large, shadowy chamber. From deeper within they hear muttering, and upon approach they witness a very tall woman talking about destroying the maze. The lady, who sports midnight blue skin and a set of rams horns on either side of her head, introduces herself as Lady Crucem Capilli of Nyctopolis. After a short conversation in which she half-heartedly admonishes the party for nearly murdering an innocent captive, she requests the party bring her a piece of art from within the maze, alongside a detailed report on where it was found and what purpose it serves. With this, she fades back into the shadows and continues her conversation with herself.

Exploring the room, Eizen finds a trapdoor built into the east wall. He opens it, and immediately notices that something is wrong. The gravity inside this room has suddenly shifted, and Eizen finds himself falling sideways down a set of stairs towards the center of the new room. He swiftly rights himself and got his bearings: he is in a room with three staircases, each reorienting the gravity in the room to allow them to be safely traversed. Eizen attempts to open the door on the eastern side, but finds it locked. He motions for the other adventurers to follow him as he heads up the northern staircase.

The next room is even darker than Lady Capilli's, and the party halts before entering as they hear a light tune being hummed from within. Knowing that discretion is the better part of valor, they allow a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dark and walk forth to discover a strange, hermit crab-like creature cradling a malformed infant the size of a large dog. The shell lifts an arm to its mouth and whispers "shhh" before continuing its song, and the party heeds its warning and continues further north to a set of rope bridges.

Heading north from the bridges, the party enters a brightly-lit room dominated by half of a giant chessboard. The black pieces are all in place, minus both rooks, and on the other end of the room is a large, white, grub-like creature flailing spastically with a blunted toy sword. The party is speechless. After a spell, they attempt to make contact with the creature, but to no avail: the man-grub only babbles like a toddler and continues its forced, jerking movements. Nemora and Kellen get the idea to stand in the rook's position on the chessboard. As they do, they are immediately assailed by a psychic force. Nemora is overwhelmed and, with a forced flail, throws a sword at the grub. It misses by inches, and the spell is broken.

The players realize that something here is controlling the giant worm. Eizen moves closer to investigate and notices a strange bulge in what he assumes is the creature's stomach. With a mighty heave, he forces the grub to spit up its dinner: two stone rooks, slick with saliva. The forced flailings of the creatures limbs cease as the chess pieces are retrieved, and out of pity Eizen fashions a stone teething ring for the foolish child. Confident that this mystery has been solved, the party heads through the northeast arch to face the next challenge.

They step forth into a long room and immediately notice something is off about the floor. It's pitch darkness quivers slightly as they set foot on it, as if it were semi-solid. Several small disks float on its surface in random directions, but as the party enters they flip over to reveal large, dilated eyes and begin accelerating towards our heroes. Kali and Nemora make it across in time, but Eizen is caught in their gaze and is completely unable to move. As he begins to sink below the surface, a thorny vine erupts from Kali's hand, grasping and stretching through the room to wrap around Eizen's outstretched arm. The thorns dig into his skin, but he is pulled forth from the mire and successfully makes it across. As for Kellen, his godlike endurance renders him immune to the stony gaze of this room, and he strides across confidently.

However, all is not yet well. In the next room is a curious sight: a man with a crescent moon for a head, seated and drinking wine at a table alongside a giant hand and a mechanical fox. He sets his glass down and introduces himself as Mr. Torgos Zooth, chief servant of Psathyrella Medusa. He asks the party several questions: what their purpose is in the maze, how they are faring, if they've met anyone else here. As if under a spell, the party finds themselves unable to lie, and in their answers reveal the existence of Lady Capilli. This greatly interests Mr. Zooth, especially after Kellen mentions that Lady Capilli intends to destroy the maze. Torgos excuses himself, and his body fades away as the moon on his shoulders rapidly transitions from waxing to full to waning to gone.

At this point the party decides to head back to Lady Capilli's room and strike due west. The room they enter is a large and blindingly bright. A miniature sun rotates around the upper rim of the walls once a minute, casting long shadows on every object here. Eizen and Kali are the first to move through it, but as soon as Eizen's massive shadow passes over Kali she falls into it as if it were a pit. She sees the opening close above her, and makes an attempt to jump clear, but it's closing too fast. The light catches up to her just as her last leg is emerging from the pit, and it is cleanly removed below the knee.

Kali's screams echo through the silent maze. Eizen rushes back to help her, making certain that at no point do their shadows overlap. He manages to drag her into the next room, but she's losing blood fast. She demands that he cauterize her wounds the same as he did the Ashen Chanterelle's. Reluctantly he agrees, and thrusts a torch against the surgically-precise cleave. The smell of acrid flesh fills the air, and Kali passes out.

Nemora and Kali quickly rush across the room (one at a time, thankfully) to join their companions. Kali's scream has brought attention to the party, and from deeper within the Gardens a birdlike shriek is heard. Immediately, six dark, humanoid creatures emerge from the underbrush. Each wears an expertly carved bird mask, and communicate with each other in short chirps and whistles. They brandish their twisted rapiers and descend upon the party. The three standing party members form a protective wall between the bird men and the downed Kali. Eizen lifts his massive fists and immediately a stone cage erupts from the ground around the foes. Kellen subtly weaves fate to cause the creatures to stab each other in the immediate confusion, and Nemora begins stabbing his swords through the gaps in the cage. However, the bird men have another twist up their sleeve. The one farthest from the party begins to weave a magical cloud of darkness centered on the party, and the rest cast bolts of pure energy that rip through our heroes armor and force them on the defensive. With one member down and Nemora deeply wounded, the party decides that this is a fight that can be fought another day and retreat back through the Sun Room.

However, it becomes immediately apparent that the cloud of darkness surrounding the party functions in the Sun Room just the same as shadows. The entire room is now a pitch-black pit, and it's only through another twist of luck that the party manages to find their way back into Lady Capilli's room. Kali finally wakes from her catatonia, and immediately fashions a new leg out of fresh vines that sprout from the stump. Standing, she notices the sound of conversation from the other end of the room. The party moves to the origin of the racket and discover Torgos Zooth and Lady Capilli in a heated argument. Zooth is demanding that Lady Capilli forsake her purpose and leave the maze, but the daughter of dragons is unintimidated. Fuming, Torgos disappears, but not before warning Lady Capilli and the party that Madame Medusa will learn of their treachery.

After he departs, our heroes crestfallenly reveal that they have not found any artwork fitting the blue woman's high standards. She is disappointed, but not surprised. The party promises to further explore the Gardens in their next excursion, and with that, they leave the maze through The False Chanterelle.

Labrys Lamia

Simon Bull, 2006
The Maze of the Blue Medusa has always been a place for dangerous and unwanted things: in its halls exist malformed children of unholy unions, deadly art and architecture, and worse. Its mysteries beckon adventurers from all over; today, four have answered the call. These children of gods, brought together by chance, each seek their own answers within the maze. Little do they know that while many of its inhabitants were brought here due to the changing tides of culture, some of them are turning out to be quite deserving of their imprisonment...

I've been wanting to run this since it was released in 2016. Maze of the Blue Medusa, written by Patrick Stuart and Zak S., is a megadungeon set inside a massive labyrinth. It's a bit Stonehell, a bit Tomb of Horrors, a bit Painted World of Ariamis, and a whole lot of the weirdness I've come to expect from Patrick and Zak. Suffice it to say, I'm a fan.

The module is system-neutral, which I have decided to take full advantage of by running it in Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine's Godbound system. In it, the characters play demigods, and the sort of world-rending power usually associated with high level play -- resurrection, shaping earth, making oneself immune to damage -- are available from the start. In most other dungeons, this would be a disastrous upheaval of the power dynamic (there's a reason all the Godbound modules I found were sandboxes), but I've found it works incredibly well with the weird, pseudo-godlike nature of most of the creatures within the maze.

That being said, I have had to make some changes to allow for a tighter dungeoncrawl experience. For those familiar with the system, this is what I've done:
  • Fray dice have been removed, as have Influence, Dominion, and the Apotheosis word
  • Each character gains 1 HP from a short rest, taking approximately 10 minutes. Random encounters are rolled during this time as usual.
  • The dungeon resets every night, so here is no sleeping within it. All characters must be outside by the end of the session or die (this is less severe than it sounds, as the dungeon is for the most part laid out on a single level).
During character creation, I asked each player three questions about their prospective demigod: who is their divine parent, how do their character normally interact with mortals, and what does their character seek inside the maze. With that, let us meet our prospective heroes...

Kellen Nancy, child of Anansi. Words are Endurance, Luck, and Passion. Born of the spider gods dream, he has made it his mission to find and help the worlds most hopeless person. He has reason to believe he (she?) resides within the maze.

Eizen, son of Atlas. Words are Earth, Might, and Sun. A thrill-seeker who has spent a lifetime travelling the world in search of fun and profit. His journey in the maze was sparked by boredom, and a lust for unique sights and experiences not found in our world.

Nemora, son of Apollo and an unnamed Titan. Words are Earth, Endurance, and Sword. Trapped in a cave by his parents at a young age, he befriended Gaia, who eventually freed him. Since then, he has wandered the lands, training in every style and stance. He has entered the maze seeking a sword with the power to kill his parents.

Kali, daughter of Hades and Persephone. Words are Death, Fertility, and Health. Born in Erebus, she knew her mothers touch only four months out of every year. After earning her freedom, she set out on a quest to find a way to give her mother the same.

Stay tuned for the next installment, dear reader.

Welcome to Feyfield Academy

from The Widow’s Broom - Chris Van Allsburg, 1992
Chris Van Alsburg
In the deepest forests of the Sylphenland there is a school unlike any other. From every corner of the four continents students come to learn the secrets of witchcraft, alchemy, and enchantments. Built directly upon the largest fairy hill in Lithica, for centuries Feyfield Academy has been the mithril standard in teaching the magical sciences. But dark clouds have settled upon the once-shining palisades of this ancient citadel, and an unease falls over the new student congregation as they enter these ancient halls. What will they discover during their mystic lessons? Who will fall victim to the dangers that lurk in the forest of the fey? Come, dear reader, as we explore the seven year journey of the last students of Feyfield Academy. 

Feyfield Academy is an upcoming Beyond the Wall campaign based in and around a magical school. The player characters start the game as fresh-faced 13-year old students entering their first year, with each session covering the events of a year at Feyfield.

All characters will be mages, or multiclassed with a bit of mage in them. Together, over the course of seven sessions, they will discover the dark secrets of the academy, the fairy hill it sits on, and perhaps even themselves.

Inspiration: Harry Potter, Little Witch Academia, Patrick Rothfuss (I only read the first one), this tumblr post, Faeries of the Faultlines

I imagine a world where the strange and the magical are more than just accepted, they are an integral part of daily life. Outside of the academy, strange creatures -- some good, some decidedly not -- stalk in the woods and gardens, older than time itself. The Fey themselves are alien, terrifying in their power and ability to manipulate others. You should never trust them.

I'll probably post more about the setting in the coming weeks/months while I finish up MotBM.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Your Weapon Choice Says About You

by Raja the Red, retired adventurer

Axe, Battle
You know the value of intimidation and consider sneaking to be a waste of time. The idea of attacking without screaming feels odd to you, like steak without potatoes or wearing a shirt.

Axe, Hand
As above, but sometimes your target is more than 5 feet away.

If you're using a club, thats because you were disarmed and happened to see a log lying nearby. If you actually bought one of these in town, then I can only assume you eat dirt for breakfast and have, at one point in your life, attempted a plunging attack.

I hate crossbows, and I probably hate you. All the annoyance of a cowardly archer with none of the wrist strength. If we ever cross paths, you better hope that first shot kills me, because I'll be looting your corpse by the time you manage to rack another bolt.

You're a magic-user. If you ever have to use this, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Dagger, Silver
You have reason to believe lycanthropes may be afoot. A smart decision, but, like the dagger, if this is your first choice of weaponry, I don't foresee you using it to any major effect.

War Hammer
You, I like you. A pragmatist, someone who says, "could be skeletons, could be slimes. Best to keep my options open." If you chose a warhammer as your weapon of choice, you can stop reading these now. There's nothing more I can teach you, noble soldier.

Another excellent choice, given its portability and ease of use. Problem is, it's a bit of a one-trick-pony: you can't break down a door with a javelin, or cut a rope, and it's not even long enough to function as an impromptu 10-foot pole. That being said, any strong adventurer worth their salt would do well to have a few of these strapped to their back.

You enjoy murdering people from 10' away, on horseback. It fills you with a sense of joy that you never experienced with your father, the landed Baron D'Auvine, whome trainede youe frome childhoode ine thee wayse ofe thee straightsworde, thee rapiere, ande thee salade-forke.

Long Bow
You're an elf, or you might as well be with the amount of time you spend running through trees and hunting rabbits. 

You're a cleric, or a particularly snooty paladin. Because the gods frown on the shedding of blood, but are a bit fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps.

Pole Arm
Now we're getting into the fun stuff. Remember what I said about War Hammers? It's about 300 words up, so if you don't, you probably buy clubs. Anyways, take the war hammer and push that versatility up another notch. You need to stab a guy from across the room? Pole arm's got you covered. Smash his brains in? Yup. Slice his head off? You bet your sweet ass. Need to keep some rough customers at bay to give your friends some breathing room? You picked the right weapon, you lucky ducky. The polearm is basically every weapon you could ever need, strapped to a hefty 6-8' reinforced wooden shaft that's perfect for parrying. And hey! If it turns out you don't actually want to kill the thing thats attacking you (I don't understand it myself, but I'm told it comes up from time to time) just flip your halberd around and beat it senseless with the non-pointy end. The polearm is the weapon of champions, although if you call it a "bec-de-corbin" or a "bill-guisarme" I'll take you outside and beat you with a stick.

I don't trust you. There's only two kinds of people who use staffs: wizards, and monks. Either way, someone's waking up with one hell of a headache tomorrow.

Short Bow
You kill people from horseback, but even using a spear or lance is getting too close for comfort. Alternatively, you're too short to use a real bow, in which case I'd recommend you walk in front of me so I can swing above you.

I hesitate to classify this as a weapon, seeing as how I've never seen anyone over the age of 12 using it. I suppose if you need to break a dragons windows or torment a witches cat, there are worse ways of flinging a pebble. Oh, and I guess it doesn't classify as a "bladed weapon" for the god-bothering type.

Doesn't have all the benefits of a pole arm, but it does allow you to use a shield in the off hand. I'd probably allow you to lead the group while I throw javelins from the back row. 

Similar to the spear, you enjoy stabbing people from behind a large, comfortable piece of reinforced wood or steel. I'd say you're a coward, but odds are you're going to be the honorable sort who drags me unconscious and bleeding from the depths of hell, so I begrudgingly thank you for that.

Short Sword
You stab people for a living. Not goblins or orcs, but fair-hearted, just-trying-to-make-a-living people. And they don't even see you coming. Alternatively, you ride a large animal of some kind and wield one of these in both hands. Like a dwarf's braided beard, your style is very flashy and impressive, but ultimately useless.

Two-Handed Sword
What are you, a maniac? You take one look at a shield, the lifesaving instrument that is often the only thing between you and eating an arrow, and think, "well, it's nice, but then I'll only be able to use a regular-sized sword." Honestly, you frighten me. Not because you've clearly got nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting me, but because being anywhere near you is a recipe for disaster when you start the pain hurricane a-spinnin'. No. Put that back, and get a reasonable weapon.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

At My Table: Conflict Resolution

There's a nice guy I know who recently started a tabletop gaming group. Every time we talk the conversation inevitably turns to his campaign, and I'd be lying if I said his enthusiasm wasn't infectious. He's got more ideas than sense, though, as he demonstrated the last time I asked him how his players were reacting to his carefully-planned sessions.
"Well, it's weird." He said. "The game's going great, but I can't seem to get five minutes into it without an argument breaking out. I don't think my players know how to work with each other."

He went on to tell me about their latest session: things had been going alright until he'd introduced a coven of evil witches who had been abducting children to fuel their wicked rituals. When one of his players displayed serious apprehension at the topic, another reacted by calling them a baby, and the whole thing went south from there. By the time my friend was able to calm everyone down, nobody was in much of a mood to play.

At this point I know what was wrong, and I made sure to tell him as such.

"Buddy, it's not your players that are the problem. It's your campaign. Or at the very least how you run it."

Now, this is a sensitive topic for most DM's, because we're more often than not an outwardly-confident raconteur with a creamy nougat center of self-consciousness. Knowing this, I was sure to choose my words carefully.

"What I mean is, you have to have realized that your coven scene was...dreadful. I've only heard it second hand and I'm gonna have nightmares tonight. How did you expect your players to react?"

"But I wanted them to react that way!" He said. "It was SUPPOSED to be shocking. These are evil monsters, they do evil things. Plus I'm running a pretty dark homebrew world, so it fits right in." He was practically beaming at this last sentiment.

"That's all well and good, but your dark world is going to stay that way if you don't have any players to fix it."

"Well how would you have done it?"

I've always been the altruistic sort, so after convincing myself that one less bad DM in the world was a net positive for mankind, I told him how to fix his game.

"Just from that one session, I see three main problems with your approach. One: you have no eye for where your players boundaries are. Two: your players don't either. Three: when a boundary did come up, you pushed the blame on the player instead of acknowledging the problem.

Now there's nothing saying your campaign can't get dark every now and then. The big trend in gaming right now seems to be to push the boundaries of what people consider tasteful, and it's produced a lot of great content. We're all adults here, and there are real-world happenings scarier than anything you or I could write up. Surely a little blood-and-guts is to be expected from a genre that has been historically based around wandering into dark caves and killing the inhabitants.

This line of thinking assumes several things about your players. Mainly, that they have no aversion to dealing with these themes in a living world, acting as if they were truly there. For some, these ideas hit a bit too close to home. That doesn't make them bad ideas, nor does it make the offended a bad player. What it should make is an example on how to handle conflict.

Case in point: Maze of the Blue Medusa by Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart is one of the finest adventures I've ever had the pleasure of running. Veterans of the indie RPG community will recognize that neither of these creators have made their living off of feel-good hero stories. MotBM is a poignant and vicious story of loss and desire, and nowhere is that more evident than in the section named "The Gardens."

Luckily for DM's and players, the page introducing The Gardens also contains this message: "A major theme in this area is horrible creepy nightmare plants and invasive body horror and abusive relationships and parisitic seduction and gross undead babies and whatnot and it should go without saying that if your have players that are likely to be upset by this, change it. Know your players and practice grown-up judgment."

That is how you deal with tough topics. As a DM, you should already have a good idea of what's going into your game before the fighter rolls for their STR score. Let your players know that you're thinking of introducing some ideas that might be hard to handle. This warning doesn't always have to be at the start of the campaign, because emergent storytelling is a wonderful thing. A few sessions ahead of time is good. I would say that the start of the session where the trouble's bound to show up is the absolute latest you can tell your players and still have it count as a heads-up.

I'm not going to mince words here: if you get a sudden idea to try something novel in the middle of a session and you're not 100% sure your players are going to be okay with it, YOU DO NOT DO THAT THING. At the end of the day, these are games we're playing at, not invasive psychology. Know your players and practice grown-up judgment.

Now that you've got an idea of how to handle boundaries, we can move on to damage control. As I said before, both you and your other player didn't respect the first players' feelings regarding the witches coven. A big thing in human relations is the idea of "impact, not intent." While I don't really believe you meant to offend or disturb that player on a personal level, the matter of the fact is that you did, and that you should apologize. No, none of that "I'm sorry you got offended" nonsense. Own up to your mistake, and let them know you're making an honest effort to make things right again. You're not the first person to inadvertently give offense -- and you're certainly not going to be the last -- but you can be the one to say, "this stops here."

As for your other player, the one who called out the first player for having strong feelings, take them aside and let them know that a seat at your table comes with the expectation of a certain level of respect. I've always been of the opinion that while player characters may argue and fight, the players themselves may not. Do problems come up? Of course. If it can wait, I have the players deal with it at sessions end. If not, I call a quick snack break and pull them aside to work it out, adult-to-adult. Don't let a minor squabble escalate enough to destroy an otherwise-good session."

Saying this, I sat back in my chair and let my friend work his way through it. I could see the wheels behind his eyes running at full-gerbil speed. 

After a pause, he looked back up at me. "That all makes a lot of sense. I've got another session coming up this week. I'll see if I can get my players to give it one more shot." 

"They won't regret it. When it comes down to it, buddy, remember that your players are people too." I paused for dramatic emphasis. "But don't let anyone know I told you that. I've got a reputation to uphold as a killer DM."