Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Temple of Sea and Sky

Also known as the Konung’s [King’s] Chapel, as it is patronised by royalty and other notables and is the seat of the Chief Godi of the cults of the brother-gods Hydana, Pangara, and Sukh. The temple is cut into a niche at the foot of the plateau upon which Vynheim is built. At high tide, the sea flows into the temple, covering the floor to between ankle and waist deep. This fills tidal pools into which worshippers make offerings to Hydana – anything from simple prayers, to treasures and up to blood sacrifice – which are carried to the deep on the next tide. The main area of worship is open to the sky, and the many tunnels and boreholes cut into the sides of the nice channel the wind. This produces a reassuring sussuration on a day of modest winds, Pangara whispering confidence to sailors, but on stormy days the temple howls with the rage of Sukh. Raiders going a-viking will often spend a night singing the battle song of Sukh before setting to sea.

There other temples, and innumerable shrines, to the Brothers of Sea and Sky, whether as a triumvirate or as individual gods, but the Konung’s Chapel is the seat of religious activity for the Northmen of Vynheim.

[Now I am settling in to my move back to my home village, my brother keeps asking me to run a game. So I will, beginning this weekend, the first of 2016. I will be setting it in Frostholm, the north-east corner of Allansia, a continent on Titan, the Fighting Fantasy world. Trouble is there is little canon to draw on for this part of Titan. Opportunity is that this allows me to cherry pick bits from Mythic Iceland for BRP, Vikings for MRQII, stuff from the TV series Vikings and The Last Kingdom, probably a bit of the Northern Reaches for D&D and the Savage North for OpenQuest, all while adding in the high-but-grotty adventuresome fantasy of Titan. So this is the Frostholm Project, which will cover the area from Sardath in the east to Bjorngrim's Sea in the west, from the Freezeblood Mountains in the north to the Sea of Pearls in the south. And anywhere else the PCs' longships take them.]

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Consequences over Process

The Last Kingdom starts tonight on BBC2. I'm pretty excited, being mid-way through the books and having just finished watching series 3 of Vikings.

Bernard Cornwell writes fantastic battle scenes. I loved his 'King Arthur' trilogy and its brutal descriptions of warfare in the Dark Ages. But whenever I think about Cornwell's books I am reminded that my mother loves his books too, and she pretty much skims, if not skips, the fight scenes. She also enjoys Joe Abercrombie, another writer of wonderfully brutal combat, and again... Again, what my mother wants to know is who has won, and what were the consequences of that victory (or defeat).

So while Cornwell's books make me think that I want to play an RPG with a crunchy, 'realistic' combat system (RuneQuest 6 with Mythic Britain* comes to mind) my mother's tastes remind me of what I actually enjoy at the table, with the players I game with. A while back I wrote 'Thoughts on boring systems...', arguing that simple (combat) systems maximise player choices with minimal demand for system mastery. Sure, if I'm playing 'Saxon Britain: the RPG', I will want a combat system that produces brutal, visceral results - the consequences of player choices regarding engaging in combat - but I don't need a system that has a process that simulates the brutal, visceral nature of combat. Not only do those systems tend to require system mastery, which is rarely attained by my players, but simple systems tend to produce rapid resolutions, allowing players to move and make more consequential choices in a session. Which is pretty important when you're squeezing gaming into the gap between kids' bedtimes and heavy-lidded brainlessness. 

So, by all means, I love games that have combat that has the PCs risk bloody wounds and hacked limbs, but for my players, which sometimes includes my mother, I need to skip to those consequences.

*RQ6 is a beautiful system that, despite the above, I would love to properly play sometime. I have Mythic Britain on order, but it might get cannibalized as the setting for a more rules-lite game, depending on which players I can bring to the table. I

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Wage Rates and Treasure Hoards

On my other blog, I wrote about the route to a quick fortune in the Old World of WFRP1e - busking. Not too long ago, I wrote about my preferences for systems that accommodate the PCs employing NPC hirelings. Both of these posts touch on another concern of mine - levels of reward.

I have no need for the extensive price lists found in many games. I couldn't give a flying feather about the price of a chicken. I couldn't give a snort over the cost of salted ham. But that is because those kind of 'realistic' price lists are focused on the wrong kind of thing for my game. I don't need to know the minutia. But I do want to know, at a glance, what it will cost a PC to live. And I do want this broken down, not into a series of line items, but into consequential differences - into a series of bands from 'poverty' to 'princely'. I don't care about the difference in price between a cup of mead and a jug of ale. But I want to know what a carousing session costs, perhaps broken down by quality of neighborhood. Cost of a cloak? Pah! Cost of 'dressing in finery' vs 'dressing in rags', yeah, I can use that.  And so on.

As an aside, this is why I also can't be bothered with platinum and electrum coins. Gold, silver, and copper are enough - in fact, in practical play, two types of coins often provides a perfectly workable system, with simplified accountancy.

Thing is, I do like keeping track of the cash available to the PCs. I do like having the PCs grub around for the gold to cover their living expenses. This can lead to trouble, and trouble leads to adventure. But I don't want to play a game in which the players discuss whether they can do without cloaks, or whether they will wear boots or shoes, and so on. I don't find that fun.

What's this got to do with levels of reward? Well, a good, game-able pricelist allows a GM to calibrate rewards based on wealth. And more importantly, it allows players to understand the level of their PCs' wealth with regard to the game world. They are being paid 500GP to recover the Icon of St. Cuthbert? Is that the same as the yearly income for someone of their class? Is is 10 years' income? Is it the revenue a minor baron would collect? How many months of 'upper class' living would this reward grant the low-born PCs? And so on.

Of course, the much maligned (outside the OSR, at least) random treasure tables provide an additional mode of reward calibration, this time by risk. More or less. So is this a deadly adventure, akin to taking on a Dragon? Or it is like knocking over a couple of Goblins? Either way, and anywhere in between, D&D (and its clones) has you covered.   

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Endogenous Inspiration

The AD&D DMG has an ‘Appendix N’, filled with inspirational (and educational) reading, fiction and non-fiction. The D&D5e PHB and DMG are peppered with quotes from fantasy fiction, but the fiction being quoted was D&D fiction, produced to fit – for better or worse – the conceits of the game. Of course, to be fair, there is also a section on ‘inspirational reading’ in 5e too – which includes D&D fiction but isn’t dominated by it – but it occurred to me that as games/game worlds develop they begin to feed on themselves, to the point of generating ‘endogenous inspiration’.

I don’t think that I do that well with games that draw on themselves for inspiration. This occurred to me when I was thinking of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, and was trying to work out what was at the heart of my preference for 1st edition over 2nd edition. I don’t know enough about 3rd to have an opinion other than, “but I’ve got two small kids, and that’s a lot of fiddly bits to lose”. There’s a few mechanical things that I prefer in 1e, and I prefer some of the aesthetics – from incidental artwork to book design - but I realised that while WFRP1e is heavily shaped by influences – from history, fiction and art – from outside Warhammer, WFRP2e is very much more built on ‘other things Warhammer’.

It seems to me that the more games draw on ‘endogenous inspiration’, the harder they can be to ‘get’. Not only is there a larger body of canon material, but canon material references/is based on earlier canon material, rather than real history, legend, or external fiction or art. Games built on endogenous inspiration appear to be wonderfully immersive places, full of consistent(?), well developed ideas, but their fan communities are intimidating, and a desire to run a game ‘right’ can inhibit a GM. I find that a game which wears its external influences more baldly can offer a GM licence to draw on other inspirational material to add to the patchwork and make the game their own.   

And that reminded of Coop’s excellent post on WFRP – Not Syphilitic,Not Knee-Deep in Shit. Aside from agreeing with Coop’s argument that the WFRP1e rulebook offers a generic ‘grim and perilous’ fantasy system capable of doing higher-fantasy gaming that some of the classic WFRP scenarios would imply – I’ve long wanted to run WFRP in Fighting Fantasy’s Titan, for example – a comment from Graeme Davis highlights the stage of ‘coherence’ that the Warhammer setting had reached: “…at this stage [1986], WFRP didn't really know what it was going to be. The Warhammer mythos as a whole was still at the red box second edition stage, with odd and sometimes contradictory snippets of background scattered across the Citadel Compendium and Journal, miniatures ads, and the backs of mini boxes.”

As a final note, this highlights why I am always wary of trying to run games in the ‘real world’. The canon is enormous and all the inspirational material is ‘endogenous’!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

When nothing is on the table, everything is

One of the problems of not playing for any length of time, as has happened as a result of our house move, is that my normal Gamer ADD, constrained by actual play, is unleashed. With no campaign on the table, any campaign is on the table. In any genre, in any setting, using any system.

But I think that I have narrowed the next game down to a 'space game'. But which one?!

Despite owning quite a few different 'space games', I have boiled it down to the classic choice; Traveller or Stars Without Number. Other systems that I own have been set aside as these two, in my opinion, support a 'traditional' sandbox campaign without the kind of heavy crunch that, when GM-facing, inhibits the facilitation of PC freedom of action, and when player-facing, intimidates the non-'gamer' players with whom I play.

Stars Without Number is a thing of beauty. Truly. The GM advice is worth the price of the book alone - though the book is free - and the sector generation tools knock those of Traveller (any version) into a cocked hat when it comes to producing 'adventuresome' situations. SWN has a lovely simple faction system that allows the players to impact on the 'big politics' of the setting, the rules for AI and mechs are straightforward, and the supplements are... yadda yadda yadda. SWN is cool, and will only get cooler when Starvation Cheap, a supplement for military campaigns, is released.

So Traveller would seem undone, as far as my preferences go. But Traveller has one big advantage, when it comes to an open-ended sandbox campaign, and that it the way the PCs are built. No, I don't mean the minigame - which I love, and Kevin Crawford as 'sorta-kinda' replicated that for SWN in Sandbox #2. I mean the fact that PCs roll out of the gate fully formed, at least as far as skills and so on goes. They don't 'level up'. And this means two things.

1 - With 'fully formed' PCs, the 'adventures' out there don't need to be scaled for 'level'. If a danger or hazard out there is too much for the PCs, it is because they haven't accumulated enough in-game-setting resources to tackle it, not because they haven't spent long enough accumulating in-game-system points.

2 - With 'fully formed' PCs, PC death and new or intermittent players can be incorporated much more easily. Starting PCs are as competent as they are going to get (more or less). Though the 'party' might grow in strength, this is often due to the accumulation of (nominally) shared resources; wealth, hardware, contacts, etc. 

So I've got my Traveller Book, my Mongoose Traveller, and my Stars Without Number, and really, as in all cases of Gamer ADD, I just need to get playing, and if that doesn't solve it, get playing more. Analysis paralysis is resolved, by necessity, at the table.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands

I've not been blogging much, or gaming much. I'm in the middle of a protracted house move, from Cardiff to Yorkshire, and am engaged in a weekly commute. Et cetera, et cetera.

But that doesn't mean that I'm not reading about games - only that my recent gaming (of any sort) has been limited to Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Carcassonne, and the like. Unless you count Candy Crush as gaming... We did play some very good games of Chaos in the Old World before the complications of life, and my brother and I unpacked the Horus Heresy game by Fantasy Flight Games, but we put it away as it just looked far too complex. 

Complexity. Maybe the repeated concussions from playing rugby have eaten away at my capacity. Maybe becoming a father has done so. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Because I have little tolerance for complexity in my games these days. This might also be related to the fact that I'm the only one who will read the rules when we play RPGs, and so the rules - and stat blocks for both PCs and NPCs - need to be easy to absorb.

What on Titan has this got to do with Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands? 

Well, a while back I came across an interesting post on 'Billy Goes to Mordor', about expeditions in colonial East Africa, and it reminded me that I like games in which the PCs might employ NPCs, and that one of the first things that I check when I pick up a new system is the degree to which the rules support this. I am often disappointed. Systems are often either too complex (with an expectation that NPCs are statted out like PCs in order to interact with the game world) or absent, with perhaps only a list of wage rates reducing hirelings to equipment.  

Now, this disappointment keeps my head bouncing (I do have to be careful about these head knocks!) back to Classic D&D (B/X, BECM, and their OSR descendants) as there are simple but effective rules for Morale, Reactions, a distinction between personal followers and employees, a good list of wage rates, and so on. As well as - and this is very important - simple stat blocks. Indeed, stat blocks can be so simple, in fact, that for the average 0-level NPC non-combatant hireling you don't need to write down any stats at all, without undermining your ability as a Referee to determine the mechanical aspects of NPC interaction with the world. Maybe you need a Morale score... And the less than one line stat block you might need for a combatant NPC allows these 'extras' to get involved in a fight without unreasonable complication, even if we don't use a skirmish or mass combat system. 

And that's the thing - the simple mechanics of those D&D games allow me to incorporate henchmen and hirelings into a game and campaign in a manner that is dependent neither on Referee fiat or an overly complex system (either at the table of in terms of book-keeping).

But what other systems do this well? What other systems support the idea that the PCs might assemble a team of porters and assorted help when exploring the wilderness? Or to protect their manors? Or further their criminal ambitions? Or help start a new religion? Or... whatever the PCs goals might be? It seems to me that henchmen and hirelings are an important part of the tools of an extended 'sandbox' campaign, and I wonder if I've missed systems that do this well, and do this simply.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Old School vs Old School Revival?

Moving house (which has turned into a very drawn out process) has knocked my gaming temporarily, but has prompted me to think about the value I place on different aspects of my collection. What do I value? What would I hate to lose?

Sitting in my brother's house, a half-way house, I only have a couple of boxes of books with me; a box of AD&D books -

- and my relatively recent Lulu/DriveThru books -

And I realise that I prefer the OSR to the OS, despite my sentimental connection with the originals. And this lot doesn't in include my copies of Kevin Crawford's stuff, or my Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures, etc. I realised that I could imagine selling my collection of TSR-era D&D materials - yes, even my Gazetteer collections - and play only using the vibrant, forward-looking products of the OSR without my gaming skipping a beat. My heart might ache to lose the material that reminds me of the time when I first found D&D, but some of those books in that box are in danger of turning into memorabilia rather than resources.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Rise and Fall of a Hero

I've been reading more Tom Holland history - Persian Fire. Tom Holland's books are always great gaming inspiration, and I ended up on Google Plus I was asking about Bronze Age-inspired (or at least Antiquity-inspired) OSR games/supplements. By way of a few recommendations, that led on to me asking for opinions on Barbarians of Lemuria (which has a mythic Greece supplement, Heroes of Hellas), which prompted Alex Schroeder to say:

“Ah, the magic system was another thing I didn't like too much. It's too freeform for my taste. I like well defined spells because these are part of the ever changing nature of a long campaign. We know that eventually we'll fly, be invisible, walk the planes, speak with the dead, and all that. We don't do that right away, and it doesn't depend on referee fiat. It's a "promise" that is made by the rules themselves. Free form games just don't offer that.”

Alex has written about this before on his blog. He has a point. It is important for long term campaigns – for my tastes anyway – that the game itself offers the mechanics for different sorts of gameplay. Which was why one of my questions was does Barbarians of Lemuria handle Conan the King as well as Conan the Adventurer...


But changing gameplay over time is almost always imagined as ever increasing power. What about the decline of the hero? The decline of the hero is a venerable feature of fantasy and legend – the once unsurpassed hero is challenged by upcoming warriors, or must face one last quest with fading capabilities. And then there is the other trope – the once proud champion grown fat, lazy, or drunk.

Cohen the Barbarian

D&D is bad at representing this. A 9th level Fighter is still a 9th level Fighter, even if you use aging rules to knock a few points off her Strength. I presume it is even worse in later D&Ds, in which Strength etc. increase as PCs level up. A BRP-based game should do better, as with things such as Damage Bonus and Hit Points being directly derived from a PC’s Attributes, these will dwindle even as her Skill percentages remain high. WFRP, in which Skills are binary (you have them or you don’t) with success governed by Attributes should do even better, though I’ve never seen any ageing rules for 1e or 2e, even if a collection of old wounds might do the trick for most PCs.

So my question is this; which game is best able to handle the decline of a PC as well as they do the rise?

Monday, 17 August 2015

America and D&D

I've been busy. I've been away this summer in the USA. The first trip was to Phoenix, the second to South Florida. And I can honestly say that I now 'get' D&D just a little more. 

I was amused by the old Games Workshop/Citadel ads in Dragon, which used to tell the Americans that they ought to buy their games from people with 'real' history. It chimed with my own prejudices. I still chuckle with a sense of wrongheaded superiority at the fact that the terraced house that I lived in (until this summer, a housemove has also put a dent on my blogging) was about 130 years old. Which isn't that old for a house in the UK, and certainly every other house in the area was about that old, yet in parts of the USA it'd probably have a plaque from the local historical society. And my taste in game worlds does tend to be very European. Very British, even. Legend, the Warhammer World, (even Titan to some degree), all seem to capture a greater sense of historical 'place' than the Forgotten Realms, say.

But it doesn't matter. Unless we're playing a pseudo-historical game, in which of course, it does. But D&D isn't always pseudo-historical, and is (I think) at its best when it is not, despite the pretensions of the AD&D1e DMG. It is an American game.  

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the 'borderlands' theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the 'civilizing' mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn't fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA - and the Americas in general - has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don't just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn't need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker 'city' - the richest per capita in the USA at one point - precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

And I've never seen the Great Plains, the Rockies, the forested, often frozen north, the Great Lakes, etc. 

Something twigged in my brain on these trips, as this wasn't a medieval England of innumerable villages, each a day's walk from the other, a landscape tamed and human-ized, however ancient. This is a landscape of awe-inspiring scale, and to a European, strangeness. A landscape of isolated settlements, both those of Native Americans and European Pioneers. A land of radical heterogeneity - of religion and ethnicity, as well as environment and economy -  with adventurers building quasi-states in the borderlands. I imagined the amount of planning and calculated risk taking required to explore this new world. Wilderness expeditions, full of strange landscapes, a hostile environment, and encounters with peoples and animals that could roll either way, depending on their Reaction.

Yeah, I've only been playing D&D for about 30 years. I spend about three weeks in the Americas and now I get it a bit more.   

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

1e Big News!

Well, I have to say that I didn't expect that. An e-mail arrived literally minutes ago announcing that the AD&D1e Players Handbook is now available at DriveThru RPG. I thought there was some (incomprehensible) corporate strategy going on with regard to the unavailability of the AD&D rulebooks, but I have to say I have been impressed by WotC/Hasbro's commitment to making TSR D&D/s available.

We are living in a Golden Age!

Friday, 26 June 2015

AFF2e: The Virtues of Asymmetry

I haven't written about Advanced Fighting Fantasy, or even the world of Titan, for quite some time.

A long time ago I had planned to write a post about embracing the 'asymmetry' of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e. About when I was writing posts rationalising the meaning of SKILL in AFF, I spotted that Jonathan Becker (JB of B/X Blackrazor) has written this:

"a monster's profile is just plain different from a player characters (this is not the case with 3E/Pathfinder where monsters have ability scores, feats, skills,etc.). If monsters exist as challenges to be overcome (however one chooses todo that) then why the hell do they need to be all statted up? A ridiculous excess, in my opinion."

And then I did nothing with it. But it gets to the workable, easy solution to the seeming problem that in AFF2e SKILL is inextricably linked with combat, but for PCs non-combat tasks are resolved by a system involving SKILL and Special Skill ratings. This gets people trapped in the question of how they should represent NPCs with significant non-combat expertise. And the answer: remember, these are not PCs, and do not need a PC stat line.

For a PC, SKILL is something best conceptualized as equivalent to Level, with 7-8 being Adventurer, 9-10 being Hero, 11-12 being Legend, or something along those lines. So as PCs increase in SKILL, they increase in everything in which they are 'skilled'. For an NPC, however, SKILL is just a measure of that NPC's combat challenge. They do not have 'Special Skills' - NPCs simply do not need to exist in that level of granularity. 

How do you 'build' the NPC master merchant who couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag? Do you give him SKILL 4 and Bargain 6? That still 'only' gives him an effective SKILL of 10, hardly enough to be the best negotiator in Allansia. Give him SKILL 6 and Bargain 6 and introduce special modifiers to represent his lack of combat ability? Why the complication? What would SKILL mean then anyway? 

AFF is the inheritor of this little gem, not GURPS after all!

No, AFF is meant to be a simple game. The master merchant should have SKILL 4 STAMINA 5, which adequately represents him as a combatant, and on the same index card you scrawl 'PCs attempting to bargain with Marco Columbo suffer a -4 penalty to their effective SKILL'. Instead of opposed tests - which require NPCs to be statted out as if they were PCs - non-combat 'contests' are then conducted as unopposed tests based only on the PC's SKILL and Special Skills, plus or minus modifiers, with the capability of the NPC to frustrate the aims of the PC being expressed as a simple modifier. The NPCs are treated just like any other feature of the world of Titan that might affect the PC's chances of achieving their goals. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

More on the Reaction Roll

I've been clear that the Reaction Roll is one of most valuable bits of Classic D&D. I'm not that fussed about how you resolve combat, tasks, character advancement etc., but I do think that having a simple means of freeing the DM from determining NPC reactions is something that every game could benefit from.

While browsing the other day I found this post, from late last year, by Alex Chalk of To Distant Lands, in which he breaks down the procedure for determining reactions into the Reaction Roll, a consideration of Interests, and modifiers for Disposition.

I need to get myself my own header. Well, in fact, my blogs need a total design overhaul.

Rather than repeat his work, you should check it out HERE. It is very likely to make it onto my GM summary sheets.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

My Reaction to Petty Gods

I rolled a 6 and a... 5. A overwhelmingly positive reaction. Depending on whether you are playing Basic D&D or Labyrinth Lord, which inverts the table.

+2 to Reaction Rolls based on the pretty sweet 'AD&D' cover...

I liked the 'original' release of Petty Gods that Greg Gorgonmilk put together. And the new one, which is Revised and Expanded (given the extra input of Richard LeBlanc of New Big Dragon Games) is simply fantastic. But my favourite part of the book - the bit that makes it immediately and inspiringly gameable - is the use of and commentary on the use of Reaction Tables. The Reaction Roll (and its 2d6 cousin, the Morale Roll) is an underused mechanic in D&D - most RPGs either take it further (too far?) and comprehensively mechanise social interactions, or leave everything to the GM. Since returning to old school D&D gaming I have used Reaction Rolls in order to generate NPC attitudes in a variety of situations, with the range not - as per the book - from 'Immediately Friendly' to 'Immediately Attack' but from 'As Hostile as Possible (Given the Circumstances)' to 'As Positive as Possible (Given the Circumstances)'. So, is that trader going to try to cheat the PCs, or will he be impressed by their bearing and be especially helpful? Roll 2d6 (apply modifiers) and consult the bones, just as you would when the party bumble into a raiding party of Goblins. The dice roll is the same, it is the interpretation of the results that is different.

As you might remember, I tried to incorporate the Reaction Roll mechanics into my Goblin Encounters, as one of my bugbears with early D&D (and later D&D, of course) is the fact that adventure writers seemingly ignored the existence of the Reaction Roll and scripted monster and NPC reactions.

If only early D&D products had incorporated advice to the (novice?) DM on using the Reaction Roll, rather than scripting encounter reactions. If this had been the case I think that the idea that D&D was only a crude a 'kick in the door and kill everything' game would have been dispelled. As would avoiding pre-scripting the in-combat behaviour of opponents (or leaving it to the DM, who would often have monsters fight to the death, unless it serves the 'story' - or helps avoids a looming TPK - to have them flee) and allowing the Morale Roll to do its job (and more). The subtlety of D&D's simple mechanics would have been more widely seen. But that's another story.

Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded not only has Reaction Roll tables for each God[ling], whic transforms a stat block into an encounter, but also includes an article on different kinds of Reaction Roll tables - one each for Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic. The Hippocratic Humours are as good a system as any of producing differentiated Reaction Roll tables - for one they could easily fit on a GM screen (or reference sheet, if you don't like erecting barriers). Reading this impresses in your imagination the way that D&D's simple mechanics can produce a dynamic game experience for both the players, and, importantly, the DM.

Plus, you have to love Courtney Campbell's Petty God, the Quantum Ogre. (Note: Campbell's take on the use of Reaction Rolls has been influential on the way I've used the mechanic in games. His On the Non-Player Character really got me thinking about the way that D&D-ist games can do what games with more 'modern' takes on social interactions purport to do, and to arguably do it better. Simpler, for certain, which is a major virtue in an RPG.)

Extra: Talysman has been writing about using the Reaction Roll in a variety of circumstances, for example to to allow unclassed NPCs to call on divine intervention.

Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded is also available in print at Lulu.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Freedom in an Owned World

For some unknown reason I decided to start a new blog - Freedom in an Owned World. This new blog will focus on Warhammer gaming, primarily WFRP1e/2e, but also, perhaps, the W40K RPGs, hopefully some Oldhammering too. There might be some Blood Bowl, and almost certainly some Warhammer boardgames.

This blog will continue, mind... just as intermittently as before.

Monday, 1 June 2015

More Slaves (Awkward Treasure #4, part two)

Or not strictly slaves, but captives. If there is one thing that RuneQuest taught us (and it taught us lots of things) it is that an enemy defeated and held for ransom is worth more than a dead one. And having someone willing to stand for you PC's ransom might just well save their lives.

Obviously, the PCs might seize a ransom-able captive in the course of their usual adventuring. Indeed, if your PCs are of the murder-hobo variety they may make a healthy business out of kidnapping. Such is mundane human traffic, which warrants little more discussion, for now, than to simply say, 'give your players a choice'. Choices are the material of the roleplaying game, and presenting the players with an opportunity to spare an enemy's life in exchange for GP, or ending their enmity once and for all (Raise Dead notwithstanding) is an interesting in game choice. 

No, here we are talking being given the opportunity for the PCs to seize a high ransom individual who is *already* a captive. In a world in which people of status are ransomed on a regular basis, it would surely not be that unusual a circumstance for the PCs to raid a stronghold, fort, or lair and find that valuable prisoners make up part of their enemies wealth. What would a band of PC knights do, for instance, if they stormed Durnstein Castle and ended up with Richard the Lionheart in their hands? Sure, they could win his favour by releasing him, but they could also raise 80,000 marks of silver if they were of a mind to hold him prisoner. But would they offend the Pope, holding such a noble Crusader? What would happen when they next encountered English knights in the Holy Land? &c.

King Richard held captive

So, Awkward Treasure #4.3 is Noble Captive.

The PCs complete clearing out the [adventure site]. As the last of their enemies gurgles bloodily on the floor, the PCs find a trapdoor that opens into a oubliette. Inside is the bedraggled, but recognizable [opposing noble/potentate/bishop/whathaveyou]. He is not the PCs outright enemy, but has frustrated their plans in the past/supported their rivals/is the agent of a polity currently in a tense state of peace with that the PCs represent. What to do? The captive is effusive in his thanks - he believes he has been rescued. But any PC with a passing knowledge of local culture will know that the captive carries a ransom of 20,000GP*[1], if only it can be realised. But to demand such a ransom will come with unknown political (and personal) consequences. How will the PCs own people react to such a hostile act? What will their status in the captives territory be? What will they do with all that money - if the players are canny, this could be a way to feed an excitingly destabalising amount of wealth into a low level campaign, which will turn into a cross between A Simple Plan, Raising Arizona, and Brewsters' Millions if I know D&D players. But simply freeing the captive has consequences too.

And at least one player will, more than likely, want to simply kill the bastard and throw the whole place into turmoil.

[1] 20,000GP will buy you a fair sized sea-going ship in most OSR D&D-alikes.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Thieves are not mere thieves: on class and level

A few days ago, on Google+, Dominic Crouzet posted on what he felt was missing from Fantastic Heroes & Witchery - and explanation of what Thief skills actually are:

I think that this is very important. Obviously, it acts as a corrective to the 'underpowered and incompetent' interpretation of the Thief class without changing anything but the perspective of players and referees - those laughably low chances of success are in fact the chances of the Thief doing something remarkable. This is because classed and levelled characters are exceptional people. Not all thieves are Thieves. The proliferation of classed and levelled NPCs in D&D material was one of the big wrong turns, looking back at published D&D material. Even in the marvellous Night's Dark Terror, Threshold is home to an unnamed 7th Level Thief who, improbably, seems to make his or her living picking pockets. By understanding success at Thief skills as the achievement of something remarkable, the petty pickpockets can be 0-level humans performing mundane, rather than exceptional, acts, Any PC should have a crack at performing mundane acts, depending on circumstance. But only classed characters get to use class abilities in order to achieve the exceptional. And by considering Thief skills in this way, we effectively grant high-level Thieves the kind of superhuman abilities gained by the other classes at high level - there is no need to detail new abilities as promised by Cook and Marsh.

But, of course, not all thieves are Thieves, not all 'fighting men' are Fighters, not all priests are Clerics, and... not all students of magic are Magic Users? Yes, possibly even the last case should be true. There should be 0 level scholars, cunning men and wise women who can work some petty magical effects, at great expense, effort or sacrifice, but only classed and levelled Magic Users can work magic with true power. And once the players and referee start thinking about classed and levelled characters as exceptional within the game world, playing at low levels takes on a different flavour. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Coffle of Slaves (Awkward Treasure #4, part one)

Now, you don’t get much more awkward than this. Not just physically and logistically awkward, but politically and morally awkward – in and out of game! Most game worlds feature at least some societies that allow the ownership of human beings (and/or sentient beings), so the idea of thinking, speaking beings (and people) as wealth is unavoidable. So what do the PCs do when a whole heap of potential GP (and XP) falls into their lap?  

Now, slaves need feeding, guarding, and care to get them to a suitable market in saleable condition. But things might be more complicated than that...

1d6 Slaves - Part One of Three

1. Humanoids. So the Goblins the PCs are fighting fail their morale check and surrender? What are the PCs to do? Let them go? Gygax would say not - he was a 'kill 'em all, the Gods have aleady sorted them out' kinda guy. Ransom them back to the Goblin Overboss? What, deal with that duplicitous bastard? Or tie them together and march them to the slave market of Xamptang? They won't fetch a great price, but they can make good latrine cleaners, chimney sweeps, provide replaceable muscle for the city engines, laboratory subjects, and arena 'amusement'. If the PCs are to engage in any kind of slave trading, this is the one that is morally and politically the least awkward - not only have the Players happily had their PCs butcher Goblins and the like, but in the game world it is likely that Goblins and their kin are afforded few rights or protections by human societies. The 'treasure' is still awkward in the sense that the Goblins will need feeding and guarding, and because their tribe might mount a rescue mission, but there are no special ethical problems for Players and PCs happy to see and treat Goblins as mere 'Monsters'. 

[A slightly more ethically... erm... interesting 'treasure' would be humans from another, enemy, culture. If your game doesn't make things easy for players by making their PCs' bidepal enemies bestial Chaotic beings, you might find humans filling this role in your game. Depending on the setting, it may be entirely right and proper that a victor in battle makes slaves of his enemies. To run against this would be wrong - to be acting badly - in terms of the setting. And PCs behaving badly is the source of great adventure, no?] 

2. Children. Who would want children as slaves? The Faerie King, of course! He wants children to amuse and placate his barren, melancholy wife. What, you thought it'd be about transporting captive children to help populate a hardscrabble colony? Maybe. But right now, let's remember this is a fantasy game. The children the PCs 'sell' to the Faerie King will live lives of beauty and plenty, but will be ejected from the Queen's garden - re-entering the mundane world - when they reach puberty. As time passes differently in Faerie, this will be 1d8 years after they enter the Hidden Kingdom. Depending on how these young adults view the loss of their normal childhood, and then the pain of being ejected from 'paradise', in just a few years the PCs might find themselves with a number of young enemies, each blessed in some way by their time in Faerie. 

The Faerie King won't pay in gold - though he may offer greedy PCs an improbably amount of money, but that will only be an illusion. This will dissipate as soon as the PCs try to spend the treasure, leaving just a pile of smooth pebbles. But not, if all the PCs do is keep the 'treasure' in a vault it will retain its glamour. No, rather than money, the Faerie King pays in magical favours, and he takes his debts very seriously. The PCs will be given some token, most likely a hunting horn, but perhaps a bell without a clapper, or a hawthorn wood 'torch' that burns invisibly when lit. The token is used to call in the debt, requesting assistance from the Hidden Kingdom. The aid may come in the form of some form of animated plantlife (tangling grass, a walking tree, etc.), a 'gift' provided by the little people (magical food and drink), a guide, anything up to even the appearance of the Wild Hunt itself. What is most likely is that the PCs will be seeking a specific favour from the Faerie King. There may be many ways to win his favour, and the PCs should have a choice, but this option will be tempting as what could be as easy as stealing a few children? 

Of course, if the PCs haven't been invited, they will face the problem of finding a way into Faerie, through which they can safely transport their captives. And if (when) news of the PCs alignment with the Old Folk reaches the common people they can be sure that there will be very awkward moments indeed.  

To be continued...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Yay! Bryce is Back!

I've been busy, and my next 'Awkward Treasure' is turning into its own d6 table with two extra bonus entries. But I couldn't let a month go by without an 'I'm not dead' post. But those posts are boring. Much better is a 'Bryce Lynch is not dead post'. Bryce is one of the reviewers that I love to read, and I know that, more often than not, he is spot on when it comes to the quality, and more, gameability of OSR RPG products. I thought that Bryce had packed it last summer in after coming in for some undue stick from D&D fanboys after posting a negative review of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Actually, he's been back since late April, which explains why I didn't notice, and since his return has reviewed, amongst other things, a whole slew of DCC RPG adventures.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Epic of the Ur-Men (Awkward Treasure #3)

My PCs are always coming across hieroglyphs, runes or frescos when they explore ruins. As a GM, I use these to reveal a bit of that epic backstory that I have written (or am making up on the spot), to help the Players (and PCs) to make sense of the ruins and its place in the game world, and to foreshadow the dangers (and rewards) that might be found.

But these are also ancient (and valuable) works of art. When real-life looters stripped ancient sites (and, later, museums) of their treasures, it wasn’t just the gold they plundered. On occasion, it was aspects of the very structures that were taken as loot; statues, columns, masonry of artistry and significance. There is no reason why the PCs in a fantasy RPG should not take the same approach.

These marbles are powerful and valuable objects, even though Hermes and Dionysos (the seated figures with their backs to each other) are not real. In a fantasy RPG these depictions of Gods, myth and legend can not only be true, they can be imbued with the magic of these Gods, myths and legends. 

Carved into a wall, the PCs come across the Epic of the Ur-Men, a history of the First Age of Man ‘written’ in a confusing mix of carven images, metaphorical pictographs, and letter-like runes. It is stunningly beautiful – its aesthetic value alone would bring an expedition profit – and scholars would sell their souls for the opportunity to study and interpret the images, but it is also of great political significance. The lord or city who possess this artefact can assert a link back to the dawn of human existence, to the mythical heroes who challenged and threw down the very Gods.

The only problem is getting the Epic back to civilization. Intact. Removing the required section of the wall will require the skill of at least 2 master masons and a 3d4 journeymen. Loading and transporting the wall will require 4d4 labourers and teamsters and 4 carts. Removing the Epic at the site will take 4d6 hours of labour, with 8 hours work per day being the most that can be relied upon without there being consequences. The GM should allow a good plan, or a larger workforce, to modify this roll, but simply driving the men harder will come at a cost of loyalty and fatigue, both of which may prove costly on the return journey.

This is an expedition, and an expedition is visible. The PCs will need to operate in secret, to draw on trusted contacts, or to mislead (or outright press-gang) their workmen, or else they will find themselves in a race against time. The Epic is worth killing for, and rivals will mount their own expeditions once word of the PCs plans reaches their ears. The PCs will have a head start, but can they keep this as they journey into the wilderness, and can they remove the Epic before any rivals arrive at the site? Regardless of the PCs discretion and speed, the work camp will need to be defended from wandering monsters – if a marauding Owlbear eats their master masons, the PCs might end up bringing only ancient rubble back to civilisation.   

This ‘treasure’ could be used at a range of levels of play – it could found at a bona fide ‘adventure site’ such as deep within a dungeon (which presents additional problems) or a ruined city, but it could be a lucky find in the wilderness, a mere remnant of some long forgotten structure, with distance from civilisation the main obstacle. Low-level PCs could be recruited to join such an expedition, leading scouting parties, patrols and so on. The PCs might have discovered the Epic in a previous adventure, its location might have been provided to them in the form of rumours, advice from a sage, etc., or it might be presented to them as a straightforward ‘mission’. Or low-level PCs might lead such an expedition, though they would probably need to win the backing of an ‘investor’. Mid-level PCs might seek out the Epic in order to cement the allegiance of a Lordly patron, while high-level PCs might keep the Epic for themselves, to adorn their stronghold and legitimate their own political ambitions. Of course, the content of the Epic could also be useful in other ways. For example, it would make sense if possession of the Epic counted as a contribution to a magical library or laboratory, and it stands to reason that careful study of its narrative might reveal the locations of potential further adventures – perhaps even the last refuge of the Gods! 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Inhumanity of Law (Awkward Treasure #2)

The PCs come into possession of a fantastic painting, titled the Inhumanity of Law. 5ft tall and 9ft wide, the painting depicts three scenes from the rise of Laziano as the capital of the Second Empire of Man. The first scene depicts the assassination of Julen, a successful general who named himself Tyrant. Julen drew on popular support from ordinary soldiers and other commoners, but his reforms alienated the oligarchs and denied them their legal rights. The oligarchy included his own family, and he was stabbed to death in public by his mother, his brother, and his sister. The second scene is depicts the increasingly gruesome and imaginative ways in which the oligarchy attempted to eliminate the Julenian factions and cow the people of Laziano. The final scene is truly nightmarish, with the dead walking the streets of Laziano as servants of the oligarchs. From this ordered necropolis the Second Empire of Man expanded across the known world.

The painting is worth a fortune, painted by Hybok the Cynic over two hundred years after the barbarians sacked Laziono and killed the Octatus Octatus, the Demon of Law who had assumed the role of Emperor. It is such an evocative painting that is exerts a malign influence on all those within 30ft of the painting. Even if it cannot be seen, its message can be felt. And its message is: Law is inhuman. Rules, explicit or tacit, cannot be trusted. Even the social contract between you and your neighbour is to be doubted. The PCs will feel this message, and their assessment of NPCs will be coloured by the presence of the painting.

In game terms, the presence of the painting triggers a Loyalty or Reaction Roll in all NPCs, and modifies all 2d6 Reaction Rolls be -2. The (2-12) range of possible NPC reactions will not get worse in the presence of the painting – i.e., if the Referee has determined that a Reaction Roll of a 2 would ordinarily result in a particular merchant attempting to cheat the PCs, when in the presence of the painting he won’t do anything more hostile than that on a roll of 2-4. Of course, as the merchant is more likely to cheat the PCs, the Players are more likely to react, and so begins a downward spiral.

And, of course, low Reaction Rolls will often prompt more hostile action than a bit of harmless swindling, and the players will have to negotiate with the buyer of the painting as the minds of everyone present thrum with the message: Do not trust this deal or the oaths sworn.   

[In a way, this ‘treasure’ was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, as every time I see it I am horrified that we have seemingly normalised aerial bombardment as a clean, humane form of warfare. But arguments about that aren’t for here.]    

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Cheap at twice the price!

I recently got a big order from Lulu. Taking advantage of their 30% off coupon, I got the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, White Box and Core Swords and Wizardry, a collection of Backswords & Bucklers books, four books by Richard LeBlanc (including his D30 books), and that dizzying expression of what a D&D campaign can be - Yoon-Suin.

All of these combined I got for less than the price of some of the big, commercial RPG books. I have to keep reminding myself of that when I am suffering a bout of buyer's remorse. Which isn't that often, as these are exactly the kind of books that will get used at the table.

(I did feel a bit guilty showing them off as 'rpg porn' on Google+. I half felt a bit like I'd just pasted a picture of my wang and invited everyone to admire, and half like I was one of the spoilt Super Sweet Sixteen 'princesses' presenting conspicuous consumption as some kind of virtue.)

BUT my Lulu haul wasn't the real bargain. No. The real bargain was James Raggi making the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) 'Grindhouse Edition' Referee Book available as a free pdf. The full art version, no less, so be careful where you read this on your tablet, or where you print this out. No-one reading this needs telling that LotFP is a very elegant B/X derivative, which by a couple of small changes produces a very different feeling game. Niche protection for Fighters, Turn Undead as a spell for Clerics, no flashy 'boom' spells of the Magic-Users, and a Thief (erm, Specialist) that really works. Good race-as-class Elves, Dwarfs, and Halflings, a lovely encumbrance system and a nice clean set of rules for exploration and adventure. None of it radically different to B/X, just different enough that a game run using LotFP will have a different flavour. As well as Raggi's Early Modern 'Real' Earth 'setting' (which would, of course, also make LotFP a good match for a Warhammerish game), I've long thought that this particular set of rules would make for a good OSR Swords & Sorcery game, a fine competitor for Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyberborea. Lower magic than 'traditional' OSR games, a Fighter who really fights, Clerics that can't simply blast their way through the undead, etc. If only the books weren't full of fantastic, if not-safe-for-work, art that reinforces the idea that this is a game for the Early Modern period.   Sounds good, eh? Well, you get none of that in the Referee's Book.

[Insert body-horror image that stretches the bounds of decency here!]
Whatever image you have imagined, it is probably also a graphic representation of your deepest sexual nightmare. 

No, what you get in the Referee's Book is James Raggi's advice on how to run LotFP. Well, no, it is James Raggi's advice on running any OSR game (applicable, most likely, to any traditional RPG) with a 'weird', indeed horrific, tone. It has advice on designing adventures, running campaigns, and on designing NPCs, Monsters and Magic Items. You really can't lose, because James is a good writer with keen insights on RPGs, and so even if you disagree with him, reading the Referee's Book will help crystalise your own ideas on what is important in an RPG.

If you do want those elegant rules that I briefly sketched then you need the Rules and Magic Book, which is available as free-no-art or pay-full-art versions. Say, couldn't I paste my own Swords & Sorcery pictures into the free-no-art version...?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

D6 Awkward Treasures #1

Perhaps it is the Warhammer GM in me, but some of the best fun I’ve had at the table has not been watching the players’ travails in search of treasure, but in watching the players plot and scheme once they have obtained said ‘treasure’. How do they get the treasure back to civilisation? How do they elude or defeat rival claimants? How do they convert the treasure into wealth or influence? In standard D&D-esque games, the adventure precedes the PCs getting the treasure. But if the treasure is, let’s say, awkward, the obstacles to reaching the treasure can be surprisingly, disarmingly easily overcome. Getting the treasure is a prelude to adventure, a pre-credits sequence so to speak. The real adventure begins once the PCs have the treasure, perhaps only tenuously, in their possession.

With this in mind, I will present six ‘awkward’ treasures, with some notes on turning possession of the adventure into an adventure in itself. Naturally, most of these have the tone of a low-fantasy 'caper', though some have a more magical character. I haven’t given these treasures a GP value, not only because most of these things are priceless, but because if you actually want to use any of these in your game you’ll have to fit them into the economy of your campaign. Obviously the reward must have the potential to compensate for the inconvenience of transforming these ‘treasures’ into wealth, but if the players are making real risk/reward decisions, there must be the potential for them to make a loss - though this need not be financial.

#1 The Ornamental Birds
Rainbow Fantails are beautiful, bad tempered, high-maintenance pets, about the size of a peacock, only both more spectacular and much more vicious. If you didn’t know that these were dumb, pea-brained birds, you might get it into your head that Rainbow Fantails were haughty, snobbish aristocrats, such is the attitude they present. Their highly territorial nature means that they are most often kept in large gardens, where they shelter in miniature mansions and are served on by their own staff. As most Rainbow Fantails that are found in the city states of the Ebon Sea were imported as eggs from Bactaraya, a breeding pair is extremely valuable. And that is what the PCs have in their possession.

The PCs might come into the possession of these birds in a relatively mundane manner, as the loot from an urban heist or a caravan raid. More adventurously, they might find a lost, abandoned garden as they explore a ruined villa and its grounds. They may spot the birds in the wild and, softly, softly, catchee birdy. Or they might be gifted the birds by a grateful, if mischievous, Raja.   

Turning a pair of Rainbow Fantails into wealth or power is complicated. Obviously, the birds could well be highly distinctive stolen goods with only a small, specialist market of buyers. But it is transport will be the key issue – if the birds are subject to stress their plumage fades extremely rapidly, turning a dull brown and coming to resemble to entirely unremarkable Dun Hen.

Transporting a Rainbow Fantail is best done at night, in a sealed wagon, when the birds are sleeping. During the day, they must be allowed to roam, but being stupid, domesticated animals, they must be vigilantly protected from predators. They demand luxury, and time and skill must be spent preparing their food each day, and their wagon must be appointed with silks and shiny baubles. Naturally, they ruin their quarters in short order, clawing the fabrics and swallowing the baubles.

[Each day, count up the number of sub-optimal conditions - food, accommodation, freedom, threat, noise, weather - 'suffered' by the birds and roll 1d12. If the roll equals of exceeds the number of sub-optimal conditions, the bird is content. If the roll is less than the number of sub-optimal conditions, the stress might have triggered the fading of the bird's plumage. Toss a coin - tails and the bird loses it's beautiful tail. Terrible conditions might count double, and if the bird is exposed to extreme stress - if it for example, attacked - skip straight to the coin toss. On the other hand, if the roll is a 12 for two consecutive days the female has laid an egg!] 

If the PCs bore of this, the birds can be killed and their plumage sold for a fraction of the birds’ value, so long as their death is quick, painless, and unsuspected.   

In game terms, handing the PCs a pair of Rainbow Fantails can be used to produce an overland journey during which the players must make a number of risk/reward decisions, deciding which route is best for travel at night, which terrain is safest for the birds to roam during the day, which settlements to make their waypoints for resupply, perhaps with a mind ensuring the information does not reach any potential pursuers. Such a route might well lead the PCs into more adventure, and both the acquisition and 'disposal' of the birds ought give the PCs enemies/contacts/friends among the local elite.

Of course, you could add a bit more magic to this treasure, but this suits my low-magic world. It was inspired by the real world trade instolen pedigree dogs and the international smuggling of endangered creatures

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Grittier Domain Game

I am a big Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine fanboy. I wish he’d been given the job of writing D&D5e using his Stars Without Number engine (crudely: Basic D&D with a Traveller-esque skill system), not for the simple, effective system itself, but for the sandbox tools he could build into the game – whether that is giving the GM the machinery to generating adventures, alien ruins, the actions of factions and domain, or the dark plots of those devoted to Elder Things. 

Now, it might seem strange, given that Other Dust is a post-apocalyptic game set in the far future, but the more that I have considered the ‘Groups and Enclaves’ rules in Other Dust, the more I think that they would be ideal – far more so than the higher level ‘domain game’ of An Echo Resounding – for the kind of fantasy gaming that I understand as being an aspect of distinctive RuneQuest play. That said, to my shame, I’ve always run RQ as more or less percentile D&D. The sort of play that I am talking about is that in which the Player Characters are members of a community (or communities, what with cults, tribes, clans, kingdoms, etc.) and their adventuring is often conducted for the benefit of those communities, not only for the personal gain of the PCs. In other words, Other Dust provides the tools to add some mechanical heft to a grittier kind of OSR domain game.

In Other Dust, Kevin Crawford proposes that the engine (and verisimilitude) of the sandbox can be maintained by running a ‘faction game’, determining and resolving the actions of the various Groups and Enclaves of the campaign region between ‘traditional’ adventure sessions. There are different kinds of Groups – Creeds, Raiders, Polities, Families, and Cabals – and it is easy to see how these could be translated into RQ-esque (or other Bronze to Iron Age inspired) fantasy equivalents. Creeds become (what else) ‘Cults’, Raiders could be renamed ‘Warbands’, Polities are ‘Nations’ or ‘Tribes’, Families stay as they are, or are perhaps are renamed ‘Clans’, and, well, Cabals cover just about everything from secret societies to merchant combines. These Groups have Tiers – ranging from 1 to 3 – which represents the level of their influence over the campaign region.

Groups have resources; Food, Tech, Morale, Influence, and Security, and by exceeding certain thresholds – which depend on Group type and Tier – Groups can earn ‘Progress’, which helps them perform actions, but groups also have a certain level of Ruin, which can impede actions (and might lead to the end of the Group entirely, if not checked). Of course, the best – as in, most fun – way to get rid of Ruin is to solve the problems that generate Ruin points by way of adventure.

Most Dark Ages inspired gaming (and most D&D, in fact) is post-apocalyptic – even in heavily fictionalised settings there is a fallen (Roman) empire, barbarian invasions and ethnic conflict, the spread of an millenarian religion (Christianity), and a place for the wandering ‘hero’ and his warband. I have been looking for *my* Dark Ages game for some time now, and I might have to do it myself by reskinning Other Dust. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Fear of Disruption - Guilty!

I was reading through The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children, and in the introduction Raggi writes:

"This year we’ve got a dungeon that’ll work as a totally mental one-shot just as well as a completely disruptive part of an ongoing campaign. And if you’re not wanting disruptive, then what’s the point? “Oh let’s have an adventure that doesn’t look like it’ll rock the boat, I’m sure that’ll have a better chance of getting the players excited and of being something we all remember later on with fondness.” Pffft. You want carefully considered, scientifically tested, carefully balanced adventures that are constructed to have beginnings, middles, and ends, all of which can be slotted into your pre-plotted campaign without changing it? I call those types of adventures ‘fillers’ and once a regular progression of events becomes evident, once the outcomes of an adventure are discovered and known, that adventure becomes boring, and I’d never publish what I’d come to think of as boring."

I'm guilty. All GMs probably are, and a great many adventure designers are too - but that can be seen as necessity, they are writing material for campaigns unknown. But I hope I remember this passage more often than I forget it, and make sure that, as a GM, I'm not afraid of an adventure being 'disruptive' - and that I keep clear in my mind that if the campaign is more or less unchanged after the PCs have had an adventure then yes, Raggi is right; what's the point?

You don't prefer the Status Quo, do you?

Friday, 27 March 2015

Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax - Skeleton Encounter #6

I finally get round to getting a sixth 'interesting' Skeleton encounter finished - something other than "Tomb, Skeletons (6), 200GP". This goes with:

#6 Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax

At the edge of the Scholars’ District, where rents are cheap and adventurous students slum it, mixing with artists (piss-, con-, and avant garde), poets, musicians, and other social and political dissidents, there is Madame Desadalie’s House of Wax. A salon, favoured by intellectuals with a taste for luxury, the lounge is opulently furnished. Oppressively so. The walls are lined with extravagantly patterned fabrics, lush potted plants imported from southern jungles loom over the couches on which guests recline, and elaborate, slowly turning, cut-glass lamps create a disorientating flicker of light. And then there are the waxworks.     

Arrayed around the room are six, life-size wax figures. These are sculpted into a likeness of the great and good of Byzantia, particularly those despised as oppressive or vulgar. Prince Geffri, a gambler with bad debts as well as a womaniser and sadist. Guildmaster Hoffenhaus, reputed embezzler. Countess Katterine, rumoured to have unnatural… appetites. Bjorn the Black, public executioner. Chancellor Illantine, whose taxmen are feared even more than the secret police. And the Sage Vorinus, whose pithy, but on reflection empty, aphorisms are treated as the height of leaning by the ‘common’ people. These waxworks are uncanny likenesses of their subjects – uncanny being the word. Their eyes sockets are empty hollows, and their faces are locked in inane grins. They crouch, on all fours, serving as tables for the guests. Hidden within these dummies are animated SKELETONS under the control of Madame Desadalie.

SKELETONS (6) = AC: Special, HD: 1, HP: 6, MV: 60’/20’, ATT: 1 short sword, DAM: 1d6, SV: F1, MR: 12, AL: C, XP 13

These Skeletons are a more difficult proposition in a fight than usual; their wax ‘shell’ protects them from damage. The force of bludgeoning weapons is absorbed, and slashing weapons cut through layers of wax before biting bone. In the first round of combat, these Skeletons have an AC of 0. On each round of combat their AC worsens by 1 as the wax cracks and begins to fall away from their bones, until, on the eighth round of combat their AC reaches 7. If the Skeletons are attacked with fire, or similar, double or even triple the rate at which AC worsens.

Why would the PCs encounter these Skeletons? Madame Desadalie, an attractive, if overly made-up middle-aged woman (who, it must be said, can resembles a waxwork herself) is widely suspected of harbouring agitators and even outright rebels. This is true, and the PCs might be sent on a mission to capture a fugitive or steal incriminating documents. Or they might be interested in a bit of freelance burglary – the party could recover 10d100GPs of bulky objets d’art on a successful raid. Of course, PCs are a rebellious bunch themselves, and may find themselves more directly involved in the ‘occult’ politics of Byzantia. Who supplies Madame Desadalie, no necromancer herself, with her wax bodyguards?

Okay, this one doesn't fit on a 4"x6" index card - and even at this length it doesn't include any real details about Madame Desadalie, her connections, etc. It is about 100 words too long. The index card conceit is a good discipline all the same - and very useful at the table - and I'll try to keep to it as much as possible.