Monday, 24 May 2010

Hex Mapping the World *mwah hah hah*

I'm sure this is old hat to many of you, but I recently found a thread on boardgamegeek about mapping a sphere with hexes. Post 11 is the real meat of it.

Apparently you use an icosahedron as the base, then divide each triangular face into hexes, dymaxion map style. The points where the three faces meet? They're always going to be pentagons, although that might come in handy if you want particular nodes of power at certain places in the game world.

Of course, no mention of such a project in our circles would be complete without a suitable link to the Tao of D&D (just for the passing few who haven't yet stood stunned at the sight of a man gradually hexmaking an entire fantasy Earth, and then using those maps to model pre-modern systems of trade on a planetary scale).

Related, but less likely to be of interest to anyone other than me. Awww, what a cute little hex map of England. Anyone know how I can blow that up to a useful size without it pixelating horribly?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Cinnabar: Mapping the Infinite City

"Cinnabar? It's no Utopia. There are more options here than you've had before. That's all. There's diversity on an asymptotic curve that never quite touches total breakdown."

Curse you, Tom Fitzgerald! Your mention of extropian science fantasy in the comments to my last post got me thinking about what use one of my favourite New Wave sci-fi novels might be in my game. How could you possibly know that was my Achilles Heel?!

M. John Harrison's Viriconium, China Mieville's Bas-Lag and Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen (one word review: over-rated) seem to get all the love in the esoteric urban fantasy stakes, but Edward Bryant's Cinnabar stories beat them to it by years, and did it with style too. Fine by me, it keeps Cinnabar more of a well-kept secret that I can mine for my own dirty purposes without others calling me on my packrat-ism.

What good then is The City at the Centre of Time for an old school D&D game? Well, in accordance with my recently evolved idea that "the right answer is always the wilder and more audacious of those on offer" (didn't Feynman say something similar?), I think the answer is: plenty.

Cinnabar is a city built around a time vortex and governed by an AI going slowly mad from the strain of synchronising itself across helical time. The burg is described as:
"...a flux of glass towers and metal walls perched atop red cliff crumbling down to a narrow strand of beach..."
and is a post-scarcity dream of genteel urbanism filled with Clarkean sufficiently advanced science (bioengineering, time travel and outright weird sh*t), helical time distortions, and an array of characters bored to the edge of madness by the ennui of their immortal lives.

"And this" said Timnath Obregon "is the device I have invented to edit time."
The quartet of faded and blurred ladies from the Craterside Park Circle of Aesthetes made appreciative noises; the sound of a dry wind riffling the plates of a long-out-of-print art folio.

A few of the more memorable/exploitable elements of the setting:
  • Parlours filled with generations of embalmed ancestors.
  • Giant ravens and revived prehistoric sharks acting as spies and proxies for warring omnidisciplinary scientists (*cough* wizards).
  • Memory scrubbing and personality overwriting.
  • Factional strife between bio-modified heterogynes and Luddite natural birth fanatics (the Neo-Creelists)
  • Intra-city teleportals (known as the Klein Expressway)
  • Living animal statues embedded in concrete to stop them from wandering off.
  • The Network, a combination public infrastructure/entertainment system, which hosts shows by sex star Tourmaline Hayes and action star Jack Burton (famous for doing all his own stunts).
  • Cougar Lou Landis - a deconstruction of the heroic archetype in a city that only looks to heroes to provide some variety in an interminable existence.
  • Catmothers - Nanny/bodyguards for the children of the elites. Genetically modified cats with their maternal instincts refocused on human children.
There's no way I'm not going to rip all this off with the greatest of glee!

Perhaps the oddest thing about the city is that it is described as becoming wilder and ever more expansive the further in toward the centre one travels. Birds are described as travelling in widening gyres to avoid the confusion brought on by time distortions, and characters talk about time compression as one approaches the singularity at the heart of Cinnabar:

"Its the same phenomenon that would make Anita and the others in Craterside Park think we'd have been gone only a short while, regardless of whether we've spent several subjective years at City Centre."

This is the exact opposite of the time dilation which supposedly occurs in a singularity in the real world and, combined with all the other elements involved, makes Cinnabar something of a challenge to map.

Whether you want to use the Cinnabar singularity as written, or make a journey to the centre of the city a one way trip into a timelike infinity (as in the Stephen Baxter short story Pilot, reprinted in the Vacuum Diagrams collection) is up to you. I'm torn between the Narnia/Oz conceit of no time having passed at home, or having ancient and long-forgotten things from the distant past erupt from the inner regions of the city at irregular intervals.

Perhaps the simplest way of doing so would be to treat the wild reaches at the centre of Cinnabar as an inverted wilderness map, with the city as centre point for expansive exploration of its TARDIS-like forgotten areas. Given how big a factor the warped nature of space and time in the city is, this isn't as absurd an idea as it might first sound.

Picture your classic hex map (the one here is from turn-based card PC game Armageddon Empires, chosen purely for prettiness):

The centre hex, rather than representing the city itself, represents the entire world beyond Cinnabar. The wider world receives short shrift in the original book, being described as comprising no more than "The desert. The greenbelt. The city. The sea", and a disused elevated railway to a long-unvisited city known only as Els (I'm sure the striking resemblance between this far-future SoCal and the self-absorbed worldview of La-la-land is no coincidence...). As the city acts as the gateway between the two wildernesses ("beyond Cinnabar" and "within Cinnabar") it really makes no odds.

The robot-groomed greenbelt surrounding the city would be the ring of hexes surrounding this solitary central hex. The greenbelt might need to be modified slightly for the chaotic and hostile conditions of a D&D world; perhaps into the kind of active defence/free fire area the Neo-Victorian enclave of New Chusan had in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. After all, one can't have riff-raff turning up uninvited...

Surrounding the greenbelt hexes on the map, but within them in terms of topography on the ground, would be the commonly visited, inhabited areas of Cinnabar itself in all their ferment and glory:

"The Tancarae Institute, Craterside Park, the Neontolorium, Serene Village - where the irredeemably elderly live, the Klein Expressway, the Balloonworks-"

Take your favourite fantasy city sourcebook (or better still, a sci-fi one) and crank the whimsy, spectacle and self-indulgence knobs up until they break off. Cinnabar should be thrilling, OTT and always full of the next big thing. The inhabitants crave novelty to the point of mania. Don't forget the dark undercurrent of ennui, despair and casual cruelty though. Citizens may be inviolate under city law, but you do know how they discipline Catmothers, right?

Spoiler: Implanted memories of the litters of kittens these hybrids could never have. At any time their masters can have their mind replay the memories as if the death of their litter was happening all over again.

Beyond the ring (outlying in terms of topography, innermost in terms of cartography) comprising the currently active areas of the city would lie the largely unfrequented centre; interior suburbs inhabited by people tired of the bustle of Cinnabar proper or opposed to the omnipresent panopticon of the Network, or left deserted on human life by the changing tides of ideology and fashion:
"The capacity of Cinnabar is so much greater than its actual population. I assume the inhabitants of Cairngorm grew weary of this austerity millennia ago and simply moved on."
Things would gradually becoming more desolate, outlandish and seemingly impossible as one travelled further in. The Klein Expressway connections would become ever patchier, and things out of their rightful place and time would become more commonplace.
"It appears to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They're presumed extinct."
"Obregon peered over the lip of the chasm; he could not see the bottom. He looked to the sides and saw that the abyss had no apparent limit in either direction. Directly ahead, the other side of the chasm was about ten metres distant. "This is impossible" he said "There's go geologic feature like this in Cinnabar."

This is where all the post-apoc ape world, transhumanist dystopia and alternate evolutionary history fanfic stuff you feel ashamed to include in an otherwise fine and upstanding D&D game can hang out. Me? I just consider it another vista to be tainted with my own grimdark gonzo vision. ;)

Ultimately, after as much travel, adventure and confusion in the laws of nature as the DM finds entertaining, travellers would (Terminus* willing) reach the singularity which powers Cinnabar and creates the space-time distortions characteristic of the city. This would be the functional and philosophical area beyond the edge of the map; but not, however, the end of the line:
"What you see is the innermost point of the time vortex over Cinnabar. Yet this is not in itself the destination of the time flow; the anomaly is both hole and tunnel, exiting somewhere and somewhen else."

* A ruling singularity AI called Terminus: did the people who designed the city never hear about the power of names? Did they really expect that to end well? Bloody urban planners and their (apparent) failure to understand the importance of mythic resonance...

So, Cinnabar. That (or a decadent, introverted city state so similar as to be its' near-identical twin) is definitely being included as part of the wider Wilds when (if) I ever get around to mapping them. See it while access is cheap, and while it's still there.

"It's a tall mountain."
"Well that can't be helped" said the double helix "Dream quests are known for their arduousness"

edit: feel the power of the grogblog hivemind! Posted at about the same time as my half-formed brainwurble:

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Memestorms and Ideocults

The folk of the Wilds of Nagoh seem almost uniquely prone to outbursts of religious or socio-cultural hysteria, and to infection with a wide variety of passing fads, quixotic ideals, and other such hobby horses. For every pseudo-medieval castle town or classical city state on the map there will be a dozen or more nomadic tribes, eremitic communities, utopian communes and personality cults, each with its own strange ideology.

Part of this tendency towards apparently insane behaviour can be ascribed to living in a post-apocalyptic world where magic, monsters and interfering godlings are facts of life. In a world gone mad, sometimes madness is the right survival trait. But there are also other, oft-overlooked, founts of strangeness in the Wilds.


Mind-affecting haunts, infectious curses tailored by long-dead geniuses of the biothaumic arts, or a form of free-floating psychic mass hysteria (as ever, the scholars are divided on the exact nature of the phenomenon), memestorms can lie dormant in unknowing host populations for generations before taking effect. Although these infections sometimes cause physical symptoms similar to more mundane diseases, and many also result in gross morphological changes, the primary and characteristic effect is infection with outlandish - but sometimes beneficial - neurochemically-enforced behaviour patterns.

Most memestorms are highly infectious to humans and kindred races, requiring those exposed to carriers of the sickness to make a save vs. poison/death or suffer the effects themselves. Their removal requires the casting of both remove curse (to undo the neurological changes wrought on the sufferer) and cure disease (to kill the infection). Either/or casting will result only in healthy carriers of still active and infectious memestorm strains, or non-infectious sufferers.

16 Sample Memestorms

1. Giving Plague - The sufferer feels driven to divest themself of all worldly goods.

2. Excelsior Fever - Typified by soulful staring at the skies in its initial stages, and later by an unshakable desire to ascend ever higher. Infections generally end tragically in steeple-jacking and mountaineering accidents, or when ramshackle towers and flying machines fail catastrophically.

3. Jabbering Ague - Sufferers become prone to fits during which they they suffer from outbursts of speech in ancient languages. When translated some of these are useless, others are snippets of information about the ancient past, or post-hypnotically encoded secrets, or spell formulae.

4. Builder Frenzy - Infectees labout under an unwavering compulsion to assemble objects into abstract symbolic or representational patterns. Anything that comes to hand will be pressed into service (potato mountain in Close Encounter)

5. Demolishing Mania (aka Iconoclasmiasm) - The antithesis of Builder Frenzy. Sufferers are overcome with the compulsion to tear it all down and flee the wreckage of their former homes in search of who knows what. Highly infectious, entire villages and towns have been known to succumb in a single night of wild-eyed mania.

6. Migratory Compulsion - "Go into the water. Go into the water."

7. Immuring Frenzy - "We have to get under the earth. It's not safe on the surface!" The subject begins compulsively digging, either with their bare hands, or with whatever tool comes to hand. A nuisance to the neighbours if they live on the upper storey, and a disruption to trade if they start in on the market place. Potentially deadly if they succumb while on soft earth.

8. Wainbrurm - The sufferer becomes fixated on low-toned, repetitive rumbling sounds. They will spend all their time obsessively following farm carts, or do themselves lasting serious injury by placing their heads against the wrong parts of mill wheels or trip hammers.

9. Sanguinary Quietism - Sufferers won't initiate violence, and become distressed and sickened by the sight of blood. The infestion is bloodborne, and easily transmitted by the spray of fluids caused by violence. Catastrophic for predators if it enters their food source animals.

10. Slayid - The sufferer becomes fixated on aural stimulation, constantly drummming and hammering. Those sufferers most far gone yowl and screech at unpredictable intervals. Some lucky few are able to lead semi-normal lives, but the worst cases are horrible indeed.

11. Acquired Corporeal Revulsion Syndrome - Some part of the sufferer's body becomes abhorrent to them. They become convinced that they can only survive if it is surgically removed. Quite how heartless or liverless sufferers manage to survive the voluntary renunciation of their vital organs is unknown, but, through some quirk of fate, magical or biological in nature, survive some do.

12. Red Star Fever - Sufferers forcibly share all goods with those around them, giving and taking as they require with no regard for social or legal norms. A viral form of "to each according to his need". Many Goblins suffer this.

13. Communicable Ahistoric Bias - A viral psychosis triggered by the smell of decomposition attendent upon death. Sufferers entirely forget about the deceased, regarding them as fictions rather than real people and their mortal remains as loathsome trash.

14. Asocial Demophobia - A visceral loathing of crowds, and of the urban areas they inhabit. The longer the infection persists, the smaller a group needed to trigger the violent withdrawl from society. Sufferers tend to flee their homes, ending up either as misanthropic trap-setting hermits, or as dinner for the crows.

15. Nam Shub - The sufferer lacks self-will. They will obey the instructions of the last person to speak to them to the best of their ability to understand. In advanced cases even the most self-destructive commands will be mindlessly obeyed.

16. Cleromantic Compulsive Syndrome - The sufferer entirely abdicates personal decision-making responsibility, instead obeying the divinatory properties of dice, coin tosses, or other totemic objects. Sufferers of similar strains will be uncannily in accord over what their divinatory devices tell them. Those infected with different strains will argue viciously and interminably over the correct interpretation of same.


IdeoCults of the Wilds

So what becomes of the disease-ridden lunatics affected by the memestorms? Although many die or are incarnerated for the protection of themselves, their kin and neighbours, others escape into the Wilds, scraping a living among others of their own strange, outcast kind

Gun Eunuchs of Draozz - A large, evangelical group suffering from a particular strains of Acquired Corporeal Repulsion Syndrome (or, as they argue, 'liberated from carnal hunger thereby') the infamous Gun Eunuchs have found meaning as self-emasculated worshippers of a giant gun-spewing stone head. Their raiding and slaving parties are led by Taks Eksile, a sword-wielding, moustachioed warlord whose accent never matches his stated origins.

The Henon - Singlehandedly give the lie to "the wisdom of crowds" and living embodiments of the proverbial madness of same, the Henon are a floating carnival of social levelling and mob rule. A rigidly anarchistic group of transvestite mummers, the Henon chant obscure slogans, commit nonsensical and sometimes dangerous pranks, and assault any percieved authority figure who crosses their path.

The Slayidheads - hammer-wielding louts in bizarre costumes, led by a loud-voiced captain possessed of unnatural charisma. Slayidheads are hopelessly fixated on the repetitious pounding noises of their hammers, often to the detriment of their health. They are sometimes pressed into service as cheap labour when roadbeds or building foundations require flattening.

Circoncellionites - A quasi-religious body, all of whose members are deliberately infected with Sanguinary Quietism during indoctrination. Dedicated to spreading their creed of universal pacifism through the swords of others...

Friday, 21 May 2010

Sunny May Afternoon Link Dump

It's too nice a day to blog, so have some random links instead:

Mikhail Belomlinskiy Hobbit Illos (@ Monster Brains) - lizardiest Gollum I've ever seen.

The Cards of Wu (@ - bizarre woodcut divinatory cards. Yep, these are definitely the major arcana used IMG.

Paper Ashes (@ A Journey Round My Skull) - abstract art by Bette Burgoyne. Really rather cool.

The Witless Warrior (@ Pre-Gebelin Tarot History blog) - Snail fights: srs bzns. Looks like Greg Stafford was onto something with Runequest's Dragonsnails.

"Graaaaaar!" went the snail

The Demon-Haunted World (@ - Matt Jones' 2009 talk on practical city magic. His argument that "people are walking architecture" makes me think immediately of Greg Bear's dystopian Strength of Stones (cities using people as tools: you know it'll happen, once they wake up).

Odd Map Symbols (@ Tom Gauld's website) - inc. icons for Wicker Man, Angry Birds, Sacrificial Altar and Spooky Tree. He also outlines the perfect gamer future.

52 Ways to Die in a Cave (James Tabor @ Srcibd) - forget monsters, traps and the hostility of a mythic underworld! Caving is inherently a kamikaze hobby.

bonus links: Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes (@ Hilobrow) - If that title doesn't make your heart beat a little faster, then you may not be a true geek.

Chomsky and Zinn on The War of the Ring (@McSweeney's Internet Tendency) - Gondor-centrism, Gandalf the drug-addicted gun runner and a war "all about pipe-weed"

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bookcrossing Gaming Materials

(Prompted by a post over at Dungeons and Digressions)

Books can, and often do, outlast life with their original purchasers. The wonderful cultural tradition of the secondhand and antique book trades is proof enough of this. As is the strange pleasure of finding a dedication or an ex libris stamp inscribed by an original owner or gift-giver.

Want to still keep track of old gaming books when they get begged, stolen, borrowed, or sold on?
  1. Click over to 
  2. Tap in the ISBN of your book
  3. Get a bookcrossing number
  4. Stick it on the frontispiece along with a URL
  5. Release into the wild
Hopefully the kind soul who now has custody of your (erstwhile) possession will take a second to brave the swirling hive of dreamcatcher-loving hippy sentiment that is the bookcrossing community, update the location of the book, and let you know where in the world it's ended up.

I understand and Read It Swap It (UK) provide similar facilities.

Who knows, you might make some new gaming contacts along the way. Then again...

“Uh, what’s that you say? You’ve got an old D&D book of mine and you want to know if I want back? No thanks Mr. Maniac, and please don’t call here again!”
-- ze bulette

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Sunday Link Dump

Radium Age Telepaths (@ HiLoBrow) - Author's personal Top Ten (and a wider bibliography) of spooky mind powers in early speculative fiction. They also do podcast readings of pulp classics.

Der Andere Seite (Flickr gallery) - scritchy B+W artwork by Austrian Expressionist Alfred Kubin.

Soul Catcher (@ Fortean Times) - the fringe science "21 Grams" antics of Dr MacDougall.

Jerry Building (4 parts) & Joe Building (8 parts) (@ YouTube MeadesShrine) - Jonathan Meades explores the pomposity, banality and cod-mysticism of totalitarian architecture.

Also: the finest creation myth ever vouchsafed unto man:

(Though, wouldn't you know it, Dennis at What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse beats me to it when it comes to adulation for Journey to the West as gaming source material)

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Gughul

The Gughul is a bloated oracle, neither demon, god or thing of this world, (in)famous for consuming memories in exchange for its gnomic utterances. It can reveal and open pathways to previously unknown (but not sealed) areas of the Vaults; but in doing so has a tendency to send you 'off down the rabbit hole' without warning.

"Describe to you the route to the Chamber of the Sleeping Prince of All Worlds? Of course I can my dear. And I ask only the merest trifle in return; a bagatelle that a person of your broad and varied experience will make up in no time..."

Knowledge consumed by the Gughul will be entirely lost from the mind of the supplicant. They simply and entirely lose the ability to know that thing ever again. Whether there is any way of recovering these memories, and what that cost of so doing will be, is entirely at the DM's option.

The price in knowledge asked of the petitioner by the Gughul will increase with the importance or relative urgency of the question asked. It will almost unerringly know the appropriate quid pro quo, as over the centuries of its existence the the creature has developed ways of gathering dirt on everyone. The Gughul likely already knows all about any character who visits it, even about the life histories of the rootless existential amnesiacs so commonly drawn to the adventurer's trade.

Unique objects (the first/last/only of their kind) will sometimes accepted (or stipulated) as an alternate form of payment. What a being as ageless and alien as the Gughul wants with such things as "the childhood doll of the last princess of (blah, blah, blah)" is an open question. It probably just enjoys watching people jump through the hoops of its various quixotic requirements. Probably...

The Gughul exists in a state of self-described infallibility. It never admits error, never apologises, and never explains.The quickest way to anger it (and have it offer up info for free to one's personal nemesis) is to have the bad manners to call it on the accuracy of its' information. It is positively affected by flattery and flirting, but not to the point of forgetting its own interests.

Served by? A strange cult-collective of Pod People (pale-green vegetable men grown in the Gughul's subterranean servitor farms).

Stats? Powerful enough to make a mid-level party think "parley?" before "stab it!", but not a bullet-proof DMPC.
Voice? A high-pitched falsetto, likely in an upper class English accent.

I'll probably stick this horror somewhere in the lower reaches of the Vaults. Maybe in the Seraglio of Silver Masques.

(Inspired by Ningauble and Sheelba of Lankhmar fame, the weird monk of the god of forgotten things in China Mieville's Iron Council, and by the useless opacity of Google's 'Help' pages.)

Image copyright Miles Tevez

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

How Much is a Dovecote Anyway?

I've recently noticed a certain desire to play house among my D&D players.

No, I don't mean they want to emulate the antics of the infamous misanthropic doctor, or that they want to prod at one another in a NSFW way (at least, no more so than normal). But rather that, in a game predicated on playing out a chaos-fucked version of the gangsta aesthetic (to whit: "cap doodz: gain bling, hoes* and respect."), my players seem really keen on nest building.

* Quite why rappers regard gardening tools with such ardour is beyond me.

It starts small, with hirelings, henchmen and various pets. Then, as comfort level with the game world (such as it is) and available party cash increase, my players tend to start looking to put down roots fast and early. As in 'settling down by 4th level' early.

They're like rivers. Sure, they'll merrily babble through the glens, crash over the rapids, or throw themselves off the precipice if that's what's required by circumstances. But the moment the pressure comes off they slow down, drop their luggage everywhere, and start to think the place would look prettier with a water meadow over here, some alluvium there, a reed bed along the margins, an ox bow lake over yonder...

I don't recall people wanting to play Barbie Dollhouse Adventures D&D (I thought of it first Hasbro!) quite this much in my/our younger days. Maybe it's because we have a number of gurlz (chiz, chiz) in the group; or maybe it's because in our 20s-early 30s we're all slowly turning into fat and happy clichés of self-satisfied bourgeois. Whatever the reason, there's suddenly a desire to have a little pied a terre within the game.


I cite pulp heroic precedent for perpetual (skint) peripatetism, link to Al's S&S Greyhawk posts, sink their barge to keep them lean and hungry, and even wave the carousing tables in their faces. But my piteous, nasal, Cartman-like whinings of "But you can't settle down: it's not genre appropriate." have begun to sound pitiful and strained even to my own ears. Obviously people want to lavish care and attention on their particular little personal corner of our 'shared world'.

It's probably entirely my own fault for making the 'soap opera with ultraviolence' of "Deadwood" such a touchstone of the setting. That brings in - as a less than subtle subtext - the whole Western trope of settlement, civilisation and rising gentility. Which is all well and good, until people become more interested in playing Settlers than D&D.

But I think the single worst thing I ever did was let people read the (adapted to D&D) master price list from the K.A.Pendragon RPG.

Player: What's By-zan-ti-ney garb?
Me: *sighs and hands over History of Costume book*
Player: Oooh, pretty.
Player: Can I buy a castle?
Me: When you're 9th level.
Player: What about a (*squint*) manor house? I have the cash, and an entourage to house, and you said the area was looking for people to settle...
Me: Ok, ok.
Player: Now, these tapestries...

It's like watching Clint Eastwood's laconic Man With No Name morph into home improvement fetishist Steve Thomas before your eyes. I'm thinking of burying the Pendragon Book of the Manor under 6' of concrete for the duration. They haven't noticed it yet, but I fear what will become of our sessions if they ever do. I'm not quite ready to have the game transformed entirely into some social media site farming sim.

Greyhawking the place? (in the "pillage the décor for resale" sense) The nearest we've had to that traditional dungeon crawler modus operandi is a particular form of magpie-ism that I call Beckfording. Unlike the traditional "Get the crowbars. It's all coming with us!" form of tomb robbing, Beckfording is where people seriously plot how to unseat that one particular fresco/mosaic/statue and transport it back home. Not for resale value; but simply because it'll look good in their house.

"Yeah, that Green Devil Face we hauled out of the Tomb of Horrors really ties the room together..."

Seeing my players try to get a favourite fresco (a cycling illusion of a pastoral scene) off a wall in one piece is possibly the hardest I've ever seen them work at any form of tactical/logistical planning! Forget searching for secret doors and treasure, they wanted this magic mural. I actually had a bit of a hint of a smidgeon of a twinge of guilt when I invoked the old "magic fades if removed from the room" rule and left them with only a few crumbling fragments of their prize. Had to throw a silly-dense combination of trap rooms and wandering monsters at them just to make the grizzling stop. :/

(grog hivemind query: What exactly is an appropriate basis for an Art Conservation check in B/X D&D anyway?)

So D&D as Grand Tour with added violence. Anyone else experienced it?

Grumbling and random links aside the K.A.Pendragon RPG is probably good (nay, excellent) fodder for a pre-Name level land-holding game of D&D. Even a fighter of 4th level will be a person of note in his local area, having pumped ~6,000gp into the economy (assuming 3/4 of his XP comes from loot) in the time it took him to rise that far. And all but the most insanely dedicated monster-slaying knight errants settle down eventually...

Re: the Pendragon price list. I just treat 'd' as 'gp'. Weapons aside, the price approximations are generally usable.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Ele*meh*ntals, Amirite?

"Agreed, f**k Heart. Let's just kill all the puny fleshies."

Elemental as written in classic D&D (B/X and A-) are, sad to say, a bit *meh*. They are mechanically pretty dull; their descriptions and artwork have none of the allegorical/mythic resonance of their inspirational material; nor do they convey a sense of the power and fury of nature at its most violent. Even their minis are a bit pedestrian and phoned in. How to make them a little less yawnsome?

Well, there are several options:
  1. first and easiest: change the fluff,
  2. allow for composite elementals, and
  3. change their mechanics a bit (the obvious thing is a random table of some kind).

Changing the Fluff

The default assumption (reinforced by decades of path-of-least-resistance models) is that elementals just look like big humanoid lumps of... stuff. Which is depressingly limited, especially given how many other element-themed monsters share a similar conceptual space.

Fortunately refluffing is quick and easy in classic D&D, where 'canon' is generally synonymous with "whatever the DM decided last week". Lo! Instead of being simply big rocky dudes who are almost indistinguishable from badly eroded stone golems, the latest earth elemental to burst forth instead looks like a (d6):
  1. giant Easter Island stone head that grinds about the place looking down its long nose at people.
  2. stone rhino (“...the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.” - Job 40:17-18)
  3. single massive limb that erupts from the earth and blindly strikes as the summoner directs.
  4. gloomy stone dude who just sits there in the lotus position and hums sonorously.
  5. menhir, elaborately engraved and orbited by jewels.
  6. stone toad squatting in a geode.
You can do this easily enough for all the classic quartet. So I will:

Fire elementals next:

 "Erm, no."

Instead of being yet a-bloody-nother ambulatory bonfire with beady eyes and mediocre artwork, they're (d6):
  1. greasy little axolotls (complete with external gills and that characteristic sh*t-eating grin) that make everything around them burst into flame.
  2. odd multi-armed Hindu-looking divinities juggling flames and dancing about in coronas of fire.
  3. red-and-yellow peacocks/birds of paradise.
  4. burning dwarves, who simply don't understand why you don't want to shake hands (Azer, Dorf Fortress, blah).
  5. iron and brass braziers; self-mobile and happy to throw all you lucky, lucky people the unsolicited gift of a burning coal or two.
  6. amorphous flying clouds of burning embers. No glowing eyes or perceptible face, and especially no big sad eyes or Billy Crystal-sounding voice. Just a cloud of mucky burning stuff.
Undines. Either you can have something that makes Hosukai wonder why he ever bothered in the first place, or you can describe them as (d6):
  1. Fanservicey Renaissance bints in damp gauze surfing around on sea-shells
  2. The dorsal ridge and flukes of some massive shark, whale or similar half-seen leviathan of the deeps
  3. Abyss-style living water that mimics the face of anyone who looks at it
  4. Shoal of fish that form a composite face (Nemo/Matrix fashion).
  5. Elaborate abstract formation of ice crystals, falling water and mist.
  6. ZOMG sea serpents! (and suchlike Freudian imagery)
Slyphs are already in the Monster Manual as the airborne wing of the hypnotic/blinding magical hot chick army (dryads, nymphs, sirenes, etc). And the various minor air elementals (aerial servants, invisible stalkers and wind walkers) have already stolen their invisible, malignant air current shtick. So we'll have to do something other than have them being whirlwinds with eye spots (d6):
  1. Boreal face-in-a-cloud huffing away (complete with puffed cheeks. The puffed cheeks are an essential thematic element)
  2. Thunderbird/storm crow/bluebird of tempests.
  3. Whirling vortex of blue and white sparkles.
  4. Swirly oriental dragony thing looping around mid-air to the accompaniment of discordant cymbals. 
  5. Rapidly spinning triskel which periodically whirrs, sparks and throws off clumps of shredded feathers.
  6. Skinny windblown dude in flowing robes.
Stats for all the above are as normal, just with an FX modification. Hopefully enough to add a little bit of "woah!" back to the primal spirits of the world.

As for elemental politics. Well, the Princes of Elemental Evil (FF) are simply cooler than almost any other quartet of elemental gods you care to name, either in pulp fantasy or gaming fluff. The idea that the earth/air itself is plotting against you is just... right (and we all know that the sea and fire are just biding their time). None of that Princes of Elemental Good nonsense though. The natural world is uncaring and merciless at best.

Composite Elementals

By this I don't mean the wackiness of the various Para- and Quasi-Elemental types (that way lies the madness of reified every-bloody-thing elementals. "Time Elemental, I'm looking at you!"). And no, Ice, Wood, Void, Magnesium and the like aren't /proper/ elements. Those are just...stuff. You'd be laughed out of the Academy for even suggesting they’re fundamental elements of creation.

Nor do I mean mimicking the noxious failure of creative ability that was the 4E elementals. How dead to the cultural heritage of the gaming world do you have to be to think that "Rockfire Dreadnought", "Earthwind Ravager" and "Thunderfire Cyclone" are worthy replacements for the rich trains of association and resonance trailed by names like Slyph, Salamander and Undine? (Not Gnome though, that name has been ruined by association with David and his fuzzy-faced, badger-fondling, bad joke ilk)

Despite what the Product Identity-mentals of 4E, and the various Para-, Quasi-, Pseudo- and Spurio-Elementals of late period TSR D&D did to the idea, combining elements is not necessarily a bad thing. Just allow two of the non-inimical classical quartet to borrow aspects of one another’s flavour and you've suddenly got whole new looks for the previously boring "I'm a self-mobile cloud/puddle/furnace/rockery" quartet.

Earth + fire = magma elementals, and who doesn't like lava?
Air + water = storm elementals.
Air + fire = burning, choking ash cloud elementals.
Earth + water = erm... mud? How about water-eroded rock? Silt? Clay? (jeez, there's always one joker has to ruin it for everyone!)

Again, no mechanical fiddling required.

Changing the Mechanics

A lot of what Classic D&D elementals do is fine. Their collective immunity to non-magical weapons makes sense. Beating on the landscape, or on a jet of fire erupting from a furnace, isn't going to do anything except give you some nasty burns and ruin the temper of your sword. Similarly there are proverbs in many cultural traditions about the futility of fighting the sea or the wind. So, yep. Immunity to mundane stuff is good.

Likewise the "maintain control, or it'll turn on you" thing that's a commonality of elemental summoning in both Basic and Advanced D&D is fun, flavourful and in keeping with pulp precedent. The rule allows the wizard player to don a big battlesuit every once in a while, but also ensures that his mates have to keep an eye on his happily drooling self while he goes kaiju on Team Monster.

The different HD from different summoning sources (stave = 8HD, wand/magic item = 12HD, spell = 16HD) probably has logical Chainmail/OD&D precedent; but from AD&D and B/X onwards it's merely another unexplained mystery of the Gygaxian universe. As for the 80 Hit Die walking disasters of BECMI...

The ‘unique abilities’ of the elementals though, those suck a fat one. The power and majesty of elementals is really undercut when it’s possible to adopt a SOP against their terrifying innate powers.

"He's summoning a [air/earth/fire/water] elemental."
"We're fine so long as we [avoid the whirlwind/cast levitate/cast resist fire/don't get in any boats] then. Oh, and by the way, dispel evil."

Surely creatures of 16 HD (that's more than any non-unique dragon, giant, or demon/devil in classic D&D) should have something a little more impressive than one bog-standard ability available to their entire type? Baz Blatt's non-canonical Tekumel demons (presented for our delectation in Fight On! #3) were pretty hardcore, and they only had 1 HD apiece.

The genies (Djinn, Efreet, etc) and minor elemental beings steal the peculiar quirks that rightfully belongs to the true elementals. So here are a few quick-and-lazy ideas to redress the balance:

Standard Elemental type ability
They get this for free, it's the calling card of their type.

EarthMeld with Earth
FireMake stuff to go *whumpf*
WaterMake water do tricks (run uphill, form arches, dancing fountains antics, etc.)

Then, dump the standard ability of the elemental (this is likely a bit of extra damage in B/X-LL, and the customary Whirl[wind/pool], or some extra damage in AD&D) and instead roll d10 on the table below:

1. Steal Breath - save or die from hilarious blue-faced asphyxiation
2. Whirlwind – as the standard ability
3. Blade Barrier – as cleric spell
4. Cloudkill – as wizard spell
5. Lightning Bolts / Call Lightning – as the spells
6. Thunderous Bellow – as the breath weapon of a Dragonne or Androsphinx
7. Invisibility – innate ability, cannot be dispelled
8. Rapid Transit (as wind walk or the special ability of the Aerial Servant)
9. Buffet (like a giant air cannon) - duplicates one or more of the famous 'hand' spell series
10. Windwall as protection from normal missiles

1. Immobility (self or other) - as hold person spell
2. Fossilising Blow - save vs petrifaction or be a decorative feature
3. Immurement (as imprisonment spell)
4. Gravity Control (slow, reverse gravity, etc)
5. Magnetism - as attraction/repulsion spell
6. Rusting Aura - as rust monster
7. Warp Terrain
8. Earthquake - as spell
9. Rock to Mud - as spell
10. Wall of Stone - as spell

1. Pyrotechnics - self-destruct as a Type 6 demon
2. Wall of Fire / Fireball - as the spells
3. Hypnotic Movement - as fascinate or fire charm
4. Immaterial Form - physical damage? Immune suckers!
5. Prophetic Ability - as foresight, or DM fiat.
6. Destroy Weapon - directed disintegrate, but with fire FX.
7. Fire Shield - as the spell
8. Heat Metal - as the spell
9. Cause Spontaneous Combustion - save or die
10. Move like Wildfire - as blink
11. Firestorm - attraction effect + AoE fire damage

1. Drown - save or die, or water spews from every orifice
2. Erode / Rot - warp wood, disintegrate, etc.
3. Waters of Lethe - memory loss
4. Airy Water - as the spell
5. Dessication - save or petrify, or you're Lot's wife now
6. Freezing Touch (water is a great coolant)
7. Wall of Ice - as spell
8. Maelstrom - as the standard whirlpool ability
9. Part Water - as spell
10. Annoying immunity - the water elemental just sits there, takes it, and goes *bloop* (like the Shao-Lin conditioning exercise where you have to slap water for an hour, to show the essential futility of worldly action)

Your elemental can use this ability once per round in the place of his normal attack.

Hopefully this'll make elementals a little less a bunch of palette swap monsters.

Thoughts? Opinions? Demands that I stop playing with the fundamental building blocks of the physical realm.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Dark Dungeons and Link Dump

This little lot should get the old cerebral juices flowing...

Dark Dungeons retro-clone - A complete BECMI retro-clone (including the 'I' bit)? Attack ranks as standard? A dig at Jack Chick inherent in the title? Written in British English (rather than in that odd U-less dialect the Western Continentalists gabble away in)? Freeware pdf?
Why is this such a well-kept secret?

Canned Unicorn Meat (@ Thinkgeek) - Forget the trashy glamour of the bushmeat of endangered animals! Nothing says true luxury like chowing down on the mythic.

Black Elven (@ Charles Saunders blog) - I may be missing the point here, but Africa apparently has legends of the people in the woods too. Yes. And...?

Monk of Mycology by Ursulav (@ Deviantart) - an instant patron organisation for your dungeon crawl, by the woman who brought us Gearworld and the LOLWUT? Pear.

Cthulhu is Not Cute (@ HiLoBrow) - the deconstruction, domestication and revival of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in pop culture.

This Side Up (@Chris Mostyn's Comics) - a little square box dude gets in over his head really quickly.

Karl's Journey to the Moon (@ A Journey Round My Skull) - Add some Whistling Selenites, and pretty much, yeah.

Good Show Sir - showcasing only the weirdest and wildest in pulp fantasy/sciffy cover art. Anything that makes design students cry this hard is ok by me.

Unintentional Absurdism tag (@ Ptak Science Books blog) - fox tossing; tuberculosis ward zeppelins; the centre of levity; street folk of the 16th century; cosmic panspermia; armoured semi-subterranean buildings (seemingly modelled after Tibet's Potala Palace); and various (extra-terrestrial, subterranean, nuke-proof domed, etc.) visions of NYC. Perfect for MF, EC, or gonzo D&D.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Mandelbulb - One for Telecanter

I'm sure some of you are already familiar with this, but just on the off-chance it slipped by:

These are 3D digital renderings of the Mandelbrot set (and not anything to do with hideous pustular fruiting bodies erupting on the eminence gris of the British Labour Party).

Some cool and evocative stuff going on here, very sculptural.

"Mandelbulb Spine"

"Ice-Cream from Neptune"

Yep. That little lot's going somewhere deep and obscure in the Vaults.

Arthurian Cinematic Orthodoxy, a Dissenting View

(hat-tip to Brian, landlord of The Frothy Friar)

A certain section of the blogoweb consider John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur to be the quintessence of Arthurian cinema. People who misguidedly subscribe to this school of thought have obviously never seen the Richard Thorpe's 1953 epic Knights of the Round Table (starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, and Stanley Baker (Lt. Chard from "Zulu") as Mordred).

Richard Thorpe's showcasing of Technicolour tabbards and classically trained actors > Boorman's love letter to chrome and Vaselined lenses.

And that's all I have to say on the matter... other than:

(second-best Arthur film ever)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Wiffling About Initiative

Further to Doug Easterly's post on initiative at Savage Sword of Athanor I'm gnawing over the old bone of who goes first yet again. It seems there are as many ways of determining who goes first as there are retro-clones...

Retro-Clones (incomplete list*)
  • OD&D (via Swords and Wizardry): Declare Spells > Initiative > Winners' Actions (spells, missiles, etc.) > Losers' actions > Held Actions.
  • OD&D (Judges Guild Ready Ref. Sheets): Individual initiative determined by action/weapon, modified by Dexterity and movement speed.
  • BD&D (via Labyrinth Lord): Initiative > winning side Move, Shoot, Spells, Melee > losing side Move, Shoot, Spells, Melee.
  • AD&D (via OSRIC): some wild-eyed, complexity-fetishist individual initiative madness about tracking segments (or, as they're known in English, "seconds") within each combat round.
* Yes, I know I've completely overlooked Basic Fantasy, Swords & Spells, [insert game of your choice here].

Further OD&D Variations
  • OED: Initiative > Move, Shoot, Melee, Spells
  • SSA: Initiative > Missiles, Move, Melee, Magic
Other Systems of Interest
  • D20 System: Actions taken in individual initiative order.
  • GURPS Goblins: first to say "I whack 'im!" strikes soonest.
  • GW Mordheim: Initiative > Alternate turns (Move, Fire, Melee, Recovery).
  • Legend of the Five Rings 1E: Initiative > Actions declared in reverse order (lowest first) > Actions taken in order (highest first) > Blood all up the walls.
Much as I'm taken by the sheer simplicity (and the rigorous emphasis on player skill) inherent in the initiative system of GURPS Goblins, I'm currently leaning away from the 'all or nothing' BD&D/LL initiative system towards something a bit more OD&D-ish.

Stuff I like right now:
  • Team initiative (No Grandstanding!)
  • The idea of both sides acting in the same phase (winner does A, loser does A, winner does B, loser does B, etc), 
  • The idea of people being pelted by arrows before they close to melee.
So which system to nick?

PS: 'initiative' is a bitch of a word to type...

Allegories, Orcs and the Wyrdhawk Factor

(this post has been percolating for a while, but it took Trey's interesting take on the psychology of the Orc to push me into posting it)

I, with Tolkers, cordially hate allegory. For what it's worth I think allegory as a literary device is the last resort of the tub-thumping hack. With the honourable exception of the creations of Jonathan Swift (identifying quote: "Fuuuuuuuuu-!"); Christian of Pilgrim's Progress, Talking Lion Jesus, John Galt, and their two-dimensional, placeholding ilk can all take a hike across a minefield.

The one thing I do like about allegory - at least as presented in that old fantasy standby of the medieval bestiary - is the sheer stonebonking mentalism of the associations made. Why exactly the horns of the Yale swivel independently in their sockets (and what the allegorical connotations thereof are) escapes me, but I like it. I also like the idea of talking, proverbially sharp-eyed lynxes with precious kidney stones; the scatalogical whimsy of the bonnacon, which covered the nearest seven acres in flaming excrement as a defence mechanism; and the audacity of using pelicans - in reality little more than particularly stupid and gluttonous seagulls - as symbolic placeholders for The Passion (and/or self-sacrificing love in general). Those are the kind of associations and twisted leaps of logic audacious enough to cause the absurdity of allegory to undergo phase-change into brilliance.

Similarly in medieval iconography, the various ogres, fairies and so forth all had allegorical connotations. When shorn of their whimsical and/or hagiographic elements the goblins, trolls, etc. all represented the unchristianised Other; weird magical people upon whom it was safe to project all faults, vices and chaotic willfulness that good people weren't supposed to have.

(Usually these stories started out as pagan holdover tales, with a side order of half-remembered historical genocide. No, really. The old British folktale entitled "The Last Pict" is quite overt about it, but any western folkloric story about the 'people under the hill' or 'the fair folk' or 'sea brides' or 'changeling children' probably has roots in tribal petty genocide, and the accompanying theft and acculturation of the surviving young.)

Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto in Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years talked about The Wildman, or Woodwose, being the quintessential enemy of the chivalrous knight, even more so than that other allegorical favourite, the dragon. The dragon represented the devil, but the woodwose (ancient relations of the Woosies illustrated by Tom Fitzgerald and so characterfully described by JOESKY) represented the more immediate and personal threat of human-inflicted chaos. The 'wild man' in all his guises was really no more than the heathen of the forest: untamed, unshaven, unshriven.

"Woodwose LOEV heraldry!"

What's the nearest equivalent of the unrelievedly black hat "behave or the bogeyman will eat you!" wildman in classic D&D? Yep. The Orc.

Orcs. Is there anything that can be said about the 1HD wonders that hasn't already? Probably not, but I'm going to work over that particular well-worn chew toy one more time, just to see if there's any squeak left in it.

Still ploughing the folklore furrow, E.G.Palmer of Old Guard Gaming Accoutrements blog has talked about something he calls Wyrd Greyhawk; basically a fantasy setting where that all the crazy folklore, Forteana and old wives tales (spontaneous generation, foetal impressionability, "If you do that too much your face will stay that way!") are true. This is an idea that I find compelling in that it allows characterful, if odd, echoes of real world superstitions to add verisimilitude to the game world, while leaving me enough wiggle room to pick and choose exactly/which myths are true.

So, allegory, wildmen, folk genetics and pig snouts. Let's throw this lot on the poor unsuspecting Orc and see what sticks...

My current take on Orcs is largely as an extension of my (previously looted) take on the Orcish Atavism. IMG Orcs aren't rowdy, dim WFRP hooligans, nor are they WowCraft's proud warrior race guys, nor are they the tragic ruins resulting from a Tolkienian evil overlord's twisting of kidnapped Elves into a slave race. Instead they're the direct result of appetite run rampant. Orcs are the degenerated remains of what bandits and mercenaries become if they revel too much in the rape and slaughter of the sack. These creatures, once human, have been intimately and indelibly marked by the Chaos they themselves have inflicted on the world.

I'm not saying anyone who kills, or overindulges in his favourite vice, is going to turn into an Orc. What would be the good of adventuring, or having carousing rules, if that were the case? But that one guy who keeps finding excuses to commit [insert atrocity here], he'll slowly degenerate into an Orc, his physiognomy gradually twisting, physique slowly bloating, and behaviour coarsening to reflect his inner degradation.

Why do Orcs raid, sack and (*ahem*) sire half-orcs on their unwilling captives? Because:
  1. that's what made them Orcs in the first place, and
  2. they enjoy it entirely too much to quit.
Peaceful, honourable Orcs? Impossible by definition: they're simply not made that way.

All this may make Orcs a little too "evil <==> ugly" for some tastes. But evil, inbred pig-faced hillbillies (and their degenerated pets/livestock/sexual playthings) who positively *thrive* on being vile and "...needed killing, yer honour" work for me.

Disclaimer: None of my conception of Orcs is a new idea. Tolkers suggested the idea of Orcs as corrupted Elves, and Orwell famously wrote in Animal Farm that:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
My musings on Orcs as avatars of wrath, lust and gluttony run amok are intended as a nod to such things, and to the visceral - if unjust - loathing of pigs expressed in such authors as William H. Hodgson (in his Carnacki story The Hog) and Clive Barker (the Lord of the Flies meets Scum horror of Pig Blood Blues). The further similarity to the rape-frenzied Broo of RuneQuest, or to the Beastmen of WFRP, is - in retrospect - no coincidence.

Gone are Orcs as overfamiliar, pig-faced punchbags from Central Casting. In their place we have the wages of sin and the real monsters that emerge therefrom.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Link Dump, My Polyhedral Spirit Guide and Exquisite Corpses

  • Jack Kirby Unpublished Archive ( @ Comics Alliance) - quite deranged, quite brilliant.
  • Lone Wolf Gamebooks (@ Project Aon) - Various pdfs and html collections. Apparently legal, so fill yer boots!
  • Behold! the Alot (@ Hyperbole and a Half) - a mysterious creature native to the intarwubz. I should stat it and use it to kill PCs. Mmmmm, yes....
  • Odd Victorian taxidermy (@ Morbid Anatomy) - Victorians (and their vast amounts of drugs) beat Photoshoppers to it by decades.
  • Modern Russia, a phototour (@ "sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy") - You had me at "...a demented power to its kitsch, the ornamentation is frequently weird and original, the mish-mash has a delirium and terrible ambition to it." I sometimes wonder if totalitarian regimes consciously build for ruin value, or if that's just a byproduct of architectural egotism. See also: Jonathon Meades' Joe Building.
  • Chimaera contest 7 (@ Worth1000) - photoshooped counterparts to Exquisite Corpses
  • Lessons of the Dead (@ The Lefsetz Letter) - the parallels between the ethos of hippy band Grateful Dead and that of hobbyist gaming confuse and enrage my tiny mind. "Punkk not hippy!"

Also, a bandwagon:

I am a d10

You are a d10
You are analytical, rational, and logical. You see the world around you as a succession of problems that can only be navigated via insightful and elegant solutions. You insist on precision are often forced to waste valuable time correcting others. Your attention to detail is extraordinary, and will sometimes focus all your attention on details that others consider unimportant. You are not so interested in doing the right thing, as you are in finding the best way to do it. In other words, you're a complete nerd.



I have reason to believe your test may be horribly b0rked..."

edit: In other news I arrived home yesterday evening to find a shiny new copy of Exquisite Corpses lurking on my doormat and pleasuring itself with my junk mail. Quick insta-review follows:

"Whee! This is fun. I didn't realise until now how lacking my game was in Robo-Fungoid Skiapod races. I gotta have one of those, (*flip*) and a gang of Icthyoid Yithian Man-Bats, (*flip*) and a cabal of Fire-Breathing Leech Pigs. Ooh, random tables ... and some psionics rules ... Where's my notebook...?"

So, yeah. Money well spent. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes old games and random stuff.

My one minor niggle: the disparate size of the sections into which you cut the book. This is probably an artefact of the layout and printing process, but it would be nice if the torso section of the book was a little wider, and the legs/page no. section a little narrower. This is just so that the pages divided into thirds rather than the current quarter-quarter-half format.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Thiefless D&D

(being some musings on simple universal skills for a D&D world devoid of the Thief class)

There's a school of thought within the OSR that holds that all D&D characters are rogues, and that the introduction of the Thief class was the beginning of the slippery slope to class 'role protection', and ultimately to the detriment of the game. OK, then. Why not gank the thief archetype and divvy up his stuff (notably thiefly skills) up among the remaining classes?

Here are my half-formed thoughts on the matter:

Standard Dungeoneering Skills (retained as is)
Hear Noise1 in 6
Find Traps1(+Int) in 6
Find Secret Doors1(+Int) in 6
Open Doors2(+Str) in 6
Surprise2 in 6

New Universal Skills

Pick Pockets0 in 6
Move Silently0 in 6
Hide in Shadows0 in 6
Pick Locks0 in 6
Remove Traps0 in 6

All characters add +1 in 6 chance to any two of these skills at each level gained.

Above 5 in 6 you have the "5+1, 5+2..." house rule (note: I'm afraid the originator of this escapes me, but the rule basically allowed a 2nd roll at "+n in 6" if the first die came up a 6). Possible skill level maxes out at 5+5 (~97% success rate). There are no sure things in the dungeon...

They keep their special racial rules.
DorfsDetect Slopes/New Construction/etc2 in 6
RatlingsHide in Woodlands5 in 6
ElvesHear and Sniff Secret Door+1 in 6

Why have I bothered with this? Well, it lets your Fafhrd or Grey Mouser types mcgyver things, root through other peoples' pockets and lurk in the shadows all noir-like without the players and DM having to resort to games of "mother may I". Conan and Kull get to sneak up on the villain, rather than blundering about like heavy-footed fools. Gord? He's a fighter type in Elvish Chain who uses Akrasia's weapon schools house rule. ;)

Backstab? Thanks to your newfound ghost-footed 1337 ninja sneaking skills you probably have surprise. Make the first hit count!

Thoughts? Objections? Contempt for my mechanics fetishism in a player-skill game?

(picture credit: Jollyjack)

Sunday, 18 April 2010

What I'm Geeking Over

Proof positive that the British book-buying public are philistines with no taste. Found reduced to clear in a remaindered bookstore in Newcastle:

Here's a random, flip-the-pages-poke-a-quotation sampling from Tolker's retelling of the Elder Edda:
Dread shapes arose
from the dim spaces
over sheer mountains
by the Shoreless Sea,
friends of darkness,
foes immortal,
old, unbegotten,
out of ancient void.
-- Upphaf, Stz. 3
Tell me that is not pure game fodder?! No? Ok, here's another:
Dark hung the doors
on deep timbers;
gold piled on gold
there glittered wanly.
The hoard was plundered,
helm was lifted,
and Grani greyfell
grevious burdened.
-- VII Gudrun, Stz. 17
This book is so rich with evocative imagery and wordplay, you could probably use the flip-and-poke method as a random plot generator or alternative to "Say yes, or roll" for your game.

Erm. Did I just go a bit Everway/Forgey there for a second? Oh dear. I'd better commit some sort of Old Schooliban penance... (*has teh shames*)

Gygaxian Damage Reduction

One of Gary Gygax' OD&D house rules (spotted at Cyclopaetron):
When taking damage allow -1 HP per character level
There's a case to be made that this is just Gary's "Characters are only unconscious at 0 HPs. For each level a character may have a minus HP total equal to the level, so a 1st level PC is dead at -2, a 2nd level at -3, etc." house rule restated in another form.

But how about taking it as read?

Characters deduct 1hp/level from all damage sustained. This rule would effectively give all characters 3E-style damage reduction, allowing them to laugh off nicks and scratches as they grow in level.

OK, it might harm verisimilitude that the Orcs of the Lowly Beatstick tribe can no longer mob and gang pound Lord Slashstab when he reaches a certain level, but it appears to be in keeping with the source material for D&D. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric, Kane, [your preferred S&S hero here] are hardly ever in any real danger from single unnamed lowbies getting in a lucky blow; it takes memorable and major threats to concentrate the minds of such bad-asses.

I might have to give this a try IMG...

Shoving and Shield Walls

Further to Trollsmyth's interesting post on using simple mechanics to create emergent gameplay effects, here are some quick-and-dirty shield wall rules I'll probably be instituting in the Vaults game.

0:35 to 0:58 - in D&D there's no point in doing this.

"Shield Wall!"
Shield-armed footmen may form a shield wall/phalanx/flying wedge formation on a chosen linchpin combatant during the movement phase of the combat round. Any shield-armed warrior in this formation receives a +1 bonus to AC, over and above that normally awarded by his shield (i.e.: +2 for a small shield, +3 for large).
Shield walls may entirely block narrow passes, corridors or gateways until broken and driven back. Assume ~3' of frontage per warrior.

Maintaining formation
A successful Morale check (see LL p47, or monster description), modified by the Cha Reaction Adjustment of the linchpin character, the allows the shield wall to retain formation and AC bonus when advancing into melee or making a fighting withdrawal.

Breaking the shield wall
Any of the following break a shield wall and negate its bonus until it reforms:
  • Sacrificing one's shield to negate a blow (see Shields Shall be Splintered!),
  • Killing or rendering hors de combat the linchpin of the shield wall,
  • Charging into/withdrawing from melee without a successful Morale check,
  • Individually withdrawing from combat,
  • Retreating from combat ("Leggit lads!").

These rules are unplaytested at time of writing. Comments, criticism and questions sought and welcomed.

(edit: Please excuse the alternate title that may have appeared in your RSS feed or blog sidebar. This was an error on my part, and an object lesson in the hazards of editing several posts at once.)

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Five Worlds - Cosmowaffle and Stock Table Abuse

Riffing a little on Netherworks fascinating thought on planes as chakras (I grossly simplify the conception, probably doing it a great injustice) and Michael Moorcock's idea of more accessible 'local clusters' within wider multiverses (5+10 planes in the Corum stories, 6 in "Phoenix in the Sword", etc.), I've decided to hash together a brief overview of the Five Worlds of Nagoh, and the inter-planar connective tissue that binds them together.

Although seemingly at odds with my willful insistence on canon doubt and uncertainty in the Nagoh setting everything here is subject to revision and replacement at any time; it's simply what works for the purposes of the game at the moment.

This is what D&D canon fiends would call a 'non standard cosmology', but what the OSR would call "so-and-so's nutty take on things".

The Five Worlds

The five worlds - Nagoh and its four sibling realms - move into conjunction and opposition with one another over the ages. These celestial pavanes affect the worlds in a manner that sages and astrologers will happily blather on about until your eyes glaze and you lose the will to live. But what it boils down to is that over the centuries each world causes shift in local zeitgeist as they move in and out of proximity/association/accord to their neighbours. Successive conjunctions and oppositions may help bring about golden age of inquiry, age of horrors, an epoch of retrogressive chaos, a heroic age, and so forth on a neighbour world. These epochal shifts in alignment also cause bizarre tidal effects in the Void Between (how a void can have tides, or anything analogous to them, is another matter entirely...).

NameSettingIlluminationPop Culture Referrent
Nagohdark age/medievalheliocentricErm... D&D
Ghoanfar futuredark worldNightlands - W.H.Hodgson
Hgonaprimitivetidal lockedHothouse - Brian Aldiss
AghonbaroquelunarAgone RPG
OnaghclassicalcometaryImajica - Clive Barker

Nagoh: "[B]etween the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of…". Nagoh is pretty much your standard fantasy setting, albeit one with only the haziest claim to any coherent cosmology. 'Home' to the PCs, and in its explored regions not dissimilar to the world of Green Lantern: Mosaic (hat tip: The Burnt Selena Project).

(note: Everything mapped and explored so far is in the central brown bit of the map linked above. I wouldn't want to be the one to beard an Any Median Ian of Wars in its lair. ;) )

Ghoan: A desolate wasteland illuminated only by the faint light of ancient, dying stars. The strange peoples of Ghoan scratch a living from the wrack of their former greatness and fight a losing rearguard action against the twin menaces of planetary heat death and nihilistic heritor races of the darkness.

Hgona: A vibrant tidally-locked Eden. The perpetual Mother of Storms whirls at the noontide zenith of the world, forever calving wild typhoons and monsoon rains to plague the verdant jungles of the Sunlit Lands. The great ring of the cool, long-shadowed Twilit Realms girdles the waist of the world. Nightside is a place of eternal cold and darkness, inhabited by strange and baleful creatures of the outer dark.

Aghon: This perpetually moonlit world of silver foliage and crystalline palaces is ruled by a complex network of mutually emulous fairy courts. Elaborate etiquette and complex, seemingly nonsensical geases rule all social interactions here.

Onagh: A comet-lit world of blazing dawns, bright days, and long, lingering twilights. Onagh is home to a number of sophisticated societies, vast and ancient cities in the full flower of their glory, and to innumerable ideological, political and social quarrels.

There is constant fringe philosophical speculation about the existence of a Sixth World, but no verifiable proof of such, positive or negative.

The Ethereal Margins

The shallows of the Void Between (q.v.). This is the out-of-phase state you slip into when you dimension door, blink, teleport, have floaty out-of-body experiences, and suchlike. It's also where the intangible bulk of the mountains whose peaks make up all those trendy floating islands lurk. The souls of the dead persist for a while (allowing speak with dead and haunting antics), but gradually fade away to... Well, who knows where. Anyone who does isn't telling.

The Void Between

The metaphysical deep ocean between the Five Worlds, and the surest route between them. Inhabited by weird things that - in the words of the Blessed Pratchett - want to break through and enter the material world, with much the effect of an ocean trying to warm itself round a candle. This is where swords-and-sorcery elder demons lurk, whispering madness and blasphemies. Only lunatics travel through this realm of their own free will.

Travel in the Void Between is fraught with peril. It's tantamount to swimming through shark-infested waters wearing a swimsuit made of bloody meat. Various abjuring incantation can protect against the residents attracted by the delicious psychic scent of material life, but these are not infallible. Entropy is greatly accelerated in the void. Things corrode, rot and weaken rapidly if unprotected; flesh exposed to the Void Between dessicates and dry freezes almost instantly. It's generally considered wise to have some form of life-sustaining protection (either powerful magic, or a big, tough voidship) when travelling.

Navigating the Void Between is as fraught an experience as surviving it, similar to trying to fix one's position without instruments in the midst of a ferocious storm. A journey through the Void Between, even with a suitably experienced navigator and bound native guide, requires a number of transitions (think the plane-shifting in Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber here) between relatively fixed locations (standing vortices and eddies, cold matter clumps, nexus crystals, etc.).

A typical voyage between worlds requires d6 checks on the table below:

1. Monster*/Hazard**
2. Monster + Treasure***
3-5. Empty
6. Apparently Empty, 50% chance vortex to Pocket Universe****:
-- 1. Empty
-- 2. Trapped, Empty
-- 3-4. Treasure
-- 5-6. Trap and Treasure

* Use monster generator of choice (Carcosa, Random Esoteric Creature Generator, etc.) or create your own horrors. I'm leaning towards a typical encounter in the Void Beyond being about 4d8 HD divided equally between 1d6 creatures, each with 1d4 special abilities replicating spells of level 1d6+3.
** Select nautical hazard of your choice. Multiply it by the risks of sailing through a demon-infested realm with limited visibility, which is slowly eroding your material form.
*** As Sham's OD&D Treasure Tables, or per your preferred retro-clone. Suggested dungeon level 1d8+4. Content should tend away from gold and bling, and towards weird stuff. These caches should be squirreled away in nexus crystals, cold matter agglomerations, sarrgasoed galleons/submarines/saucers/etc.
**** Pocket Universe traps should generally be Star Trek: TNG-style puzzle worlds. You have to engage with the world and solve it to escape; brute-forcing the situation shouldn't be a viable option. The BECMI module Talons of Night might be considered good source material here.

(note: Yes, the above was a shameless rip-off of the OD&D dungeon stocking table. I'm just seeing if there's a way to extend the utility of that little beauty further...)

The Astral Realm

The astral spell (and similar invocations) remove the caster from the physical realm of the Five Worlds and move him into the rarefied Astral Realm, the domain of dreams, ideas and ideals. Circular time, subjective gravity, thought as motive force, and mind over matter are the norm here. Inhabitants of the Astral Realm are often strangely abstract or allegorical in nature, and long-term visitors may find themselves slowly losing their individuality (keepsakes, memories, quirks of character, etc.) and becoming ever more notional versions of themselves over time. Simpleminded humans tend to go completely mad if they think too hard about how profoundly different the Astral Realm is to the concrete world they know. Those more used to altered states of consciousness, or to thinking in multiple dimensions, tend to cope better.

You can meet the gods in the Astral Realm, but gods in this place are little more than self-perpetuating, vastly powerful archetypal patterns. For most mortals (those below 10th level, and who haven't made some unholy pact for power) this transcendent experience would be akin to trying to establish contact with an incredibly narcissistic natural disaster. Abnormally powerful mortals - who tend to have dedicated themselves to the single-minded pursuit of a particular ideal or philosophy - actually take on something of this 'divine monomania' while in the Astral Realm.

(note: I (barely) resisted the urge to go the whole Dreamtime hog and create a wacky pastiche realm of Astralia, complete with slouch hat-wearing Githyanki larrikins and marsupial kaiju, instead going for a RuneQuest-ish 'realm of ideals'-meets-Godland take on things.)

Elemental Planes

There are no elemental planes in this cosmology. Almost by definition elementals are creatures of the material world, so that's where they come from (and generally stay). Elementals can be summoned in any of the Five Worlds, but not in the Ethereal Margins, nor in the Void Between, the Pocket Universes, or the Astral Realm. There simply isn't enough material matter in these places for elementals to arise.

This gives me a little more structure than the "yeah, why not?" omnivorousness of the Ferris Wheel of Doom, but still lets me play fast and loose with plane-hopping stuff, alternate worlds, hostile outer darknesses, ghostly hippy space, and the like.

(art credit: Maelstrom section 19 by Ian Miller)

Monday, 12 April 2010

Mouldering in the Darkness

Everything rots. Everything gradually breaks down into uselessness. This is simply a law of nature. In the context of dungeoncrawling this is super-important, in that all that stuff you're after (precious metals, scrolls, clues to buried treasure hidden in ancient frescoes, etc.) is likely to have been down there a loooooooong time.

With that consideration I present the following (derived from an original in the Dragon Kings high-level play sourcebook for the only true Dark Sun setting):

Time ElapsedPaperWoodMetalSoft St.*Hard Stone**
30 daysFaded

1 yearFragile

2 yearsBrittleFadedPaint

5 yearsCrumbledFragile

10 yearsDustBrittleEtching
20 years
50 years


100 years
200 years

500 years

1,000 years

2,000 years

5,000 years

10,000 years

20,000 years


* Limestone, sandstone, marble, tufa, etc.
** Granite, flint, mica schist, nephrite jade, gritstone, etc.

The table shows the average effects of time and the elements on various materials. This will vary be prevailing climate (hot, wet and windy will accelerate erosion, cold, dry and windless retard it). Items protected from the elements will take longer to erode. Multiply erosion time by ~10 if in a sheltered location, and by more if items have either been properly curated, or sealed in a preservative anaerobic environment).

Paper and wooden objects fade over time, making it difficult, but not impossible to read or identify surface features. Fragile objects must survive an item saving throw versus fall every time they are used; brittle items must survive versus a crushing blow. Crumbled items are unusable but still identifiable as papyrus or wood; dust is completely unidentifiable and unusable.

Metal and stone items wear away over time, their shapes smoothing out until the item is completely worn away. Paint indicates that artificial coloration is gone or unrecognisable; etching means carved letters or pictures are worn away; relief indicates that deeply carved letters or images are severely eroded; form indicates that time has eroded away all but the basic form of the original stone or metal.

Why am I bothering with this? Well, there's an ongoing subplot involving Hobgoblins (think a timelost version of Japanese holdout soldiers + some Tekumel flavouring) and a particular time-locked sub-level of the Vaults...

Related links:
Thoughts? Opinions? Requests for breakdown times of other materials?
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