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?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Link Dump + a Pessimistic(?) Thought on Cheapness

Ten classics Gustave Dore should have illustrated, but didn't (@ Garden of Unearthly Delights) - I have nerdboners for Dore.

Human powered cranes (@ Low Tech Magazine) - ancient man lifts 632 times the normal human limit, sneers at puny moderns and their 'machines'.

Treadwheel Fans (@ Low Tech Magazine) - Victorians use Wheel of Pain to make prisoners "grind the wind", vast quantities of drugs implicated.

Comic Book Cartography blog - includes Principles of Kirbytech, Kamandi's continent and secret base cutaways.

and, from the depths of the yesterweb: Cone swarms ( @ - traffic cones + simple AI = lulz.

Unrelated to the above:

I was nosing through the games section of one of our local FLGSes during my lunch hour today, having been initially attracted by the big boxy beauty of the Warhammer: Invasion card game (yeah, I have a dysfunctional love/hate relationship with GW licensed properties).

Awful to say, but none of the high gloss, high production value (and appropriately high priced) books or boxes on offer appealed to me. Nor did any of the other gamer juju presented for my delectation:
  • Map tiles/layouts? Cool! - But I have about half an acre of those already...
  • Premium dice? Cool! - But I already have more dice than brain cells...
  • Cthulhu minis? Cooool! - But I know where I can get bits cheap to kitbash my own...
  • C[-ataan, -arcassone] Eurogames? Cooooool! - But who wants to learn a whole new game when we've got so many old ones to replay...
Maybe I'm too price conscious a consumer, but everything that initially leapt into my hand under the impetus of the "Oooh, pretty!" factor I ended up looking at twice and rejecting.

"Why do I want this block of shelf beautifier at £stupid*, when I can legally download [other stuff I could name] for free, print it for pennies, and know it'll get used to death in actual, real world play?"

* Thanks to exchange rates and an egregious tax regime (import duties, VAT, and other such 'tax on tax' taxes) we in the UK end up paying in Sterling for our games roughly what Americans pay in dollars. It has ever been thus, and ever has it sucked.

Maybe the sheer profusion of good, cheap-to-free gaming material available on the internet has spoiled me (in accordance with the unalterable principle that "you can't beat free"), or maybe I'm just a tight-fisted auld fart, but sorry FLGS: no sale. My gaming gelt is instead reserved for forthcoming OSR releases. Freeware, print-on-demand, or small press game material may not have the 'pretty pretty princess' production values of the marque rulesets, but they have a combination of utility, flexibility and availability that big name games using traditional distribution channels can't match.

I'm sure there's something big and important about the state of the industry and hobby represented in that little personal anacdote, but I'm no pundit. I'm just a guy who walked into a store wanting to spend some money on something he could use in his game, but who walked out disappointed.

Oh well. At least I've managed to nab the one KEW "Kane" book I was missing. (at last!) And, unexpected bonus, my newly arrived, dirt cheap from the interweb tat bazaars (I paid less for it than the 95p cover price from 1980!) copy of "Death Angel's Shadow" was signed and dated by the man himself.

PS: Yes, recent content-free waffleposts nonwithstanding, there is actual gameable content coming down the pipe.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

I Never Got Dungeons

(Being an extended gripe about cargo cultism, having to craft one's own tools, and related shortcomings of the Pyrites Age of gaming when compared to the present day.)

As a larval gamer I never 'got' dungeons.

It's not that the claustrophobia of dark places, the dread of wicked eyes shining from the darkness, and the glitter of trapped treasure in hidden vaults below the earth, held no allure for me. More likely it's because dungeons as dungeons were rather out of fashion by the late 80s.

Visual Media?

The only pop-culture referent we had for trap-filled, monster-infested tombs which made a lasting impression on me were Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven^H^H^H^H^H Mysterious Cities of Gold cartoon, and the kids TV cheese of Knightmare. The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon? Not so much.

Fantasy films? We had some good stuff: Krull, Dragonslayer, Conan, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth ("Come inside, meet the missus"), Beastmaster and Willow ("Throw the baby in the volcano, not-Frodo!"). Yes, they were fun, but they were also the kind of film that could afford microdungeons of four or five rooms at best. The dark lordling with a half-a-dozen minions in his Shed of Doom typical of 80s fantasy films was mercilessly ripped on by Sir Terry in "Last Hero", and the backyard pyramid of Beastmaster is still a laughing stock in our circles. Arguably the best dungeoncrawl/dimension-hopping caper on offer: the Fortress of Ultimate Evil section of Time Bandits and its terrifying Flying Cow Skulls (once again Terry Gilliam wins a game he's not even playing).

Erm. How about games thicky?

Even things you'd expect to make for good dungeon fodder (like the gamer gateway Choose Your Own Adventure books) were of little utility. By their very nature these consisted of rigidly defined railroad choices regardless of whether your character was ostensibly travelling overland, visiting a city, travelling astralspace, or dungeoneering. That's a limitation of the medium though; there's only so much that can be achieved in less-than-400 entries. That said, Livingstone and Jackson's Fighting Fantasy, J.H.Brennan's Dragonquest and Jo Dever's Lone Wolf series pushed the envelope of what was possible within the inherent constraints of the medium. Fighting Fantasy even spun off the super-simple, super-fun Fighting Fantasy RPG series (AFF, Out of the Pit, Titan, Dungeoneer, Blacksand, Allansia), and J.H.Brennan wrote the comedic storygame ("You play you") known as Monster Horrorshow. Fantasy role-playing, yes. But sprawling, dynamic dungeons? Only kinda a good light ...if you're being generous.

Unfortunately the famous, market-leading American game - you know, the one with Dungeon right there in the title - was of equally limited use in my initiation into dungeoneering. Mentzer Basic was over-specific in some regards; too vague in others. Yes, the dozens and dozens of monster descriptions were (and are) nice, but where was the other half of the equation, the blatantly missing 'how to' guide for dungeons? How’s a newby gamer actually supposed to build an interesting version of the Mines of Moria, or even a one shot funnel dungeon worth the crawling? Simply shipping Keep on the Borderlands with the Basic Box, in the same way that Isle of Dread was shipped with the Expert Box as an introduction to wilderness exploration, would have made things so much clearer.

The AD&D core books were likewise opaque on the all-important subject of dungeoncrafting. Yes, the One True DMG gave you rules for random dungeon generation, but only the very driest and most semi-complete of worked examples (pp94-97). Elsewhere a cornucopia of evocative prompting, when it came to the defining core of the game (dungeon crawling), the DMG proffered little practical advice beyond Uncle Gary's faux-magisterial "create and fill at least three levels". Little sense of the dungeon as a dynamic setting escaped the singularity of High Gygaxian pomposity and relentless brand building wickedly parodied by Kenzerco's Hackmaster.

Doug Niles' Dungeoneers' Survival Guide was likewise a chocolate teapot. Despite the name the book had almost nothing to do with dungeons. In truth it was the AD&D spelunking, mine management and subterranean ecology sourcebook: useful in a Silver Age fantastic realism way, but grossly misnamed. Miles of tunnels, caverns by the acre, but hardly a bleedin' 10'x10' corridor or pit trap in sight.

So where was all the good stuff? The common cultural referents and 'how to' guides? It took me several years to find, but it turns out to have been squirreled away in the (now-classic) mid/high level modules of course. Now, for all their merits, mid- to high-level tournament modules not being the most intuitively obvious place for the neophyte dungeon designer in search of inspiration to look.


Thank the dice gods for MB's Advanced Heroquest. It may have been a board-and-minis game created around the time that GW shifted from being 'us' to being 'them', but it had about the best section on combining set piece and random dungeon elements that I'd read to that point. And it was in distro in my particular (infested with inbred Marshwiggles) backwater of the UK . At last, tombs worth exploring! Barrows worth the digging! Evil cult temples worth the sack! Dungeons worth a damn! There’s a good reason AHQ commands absurd prices on the second-hand market to this day.

So yeah. I learned about proper dungeons from the kiddies version of WFRP, not from D&D. From the black comedy setting that wants you to die only after you've suffered for our amusement, rather than from the famous pulp-influenced, rags-to-riches game. For me it was Bogenhafen; not Greyhawk. The Undercity of Middenheim; not Castle Maure or Undermountain. Karak Eight Peaks; not D1-3. HWOBHM; not 70s psychedelic rock.

Appendix N and the Rich British Traditions of Folklore and Fantasy

I'd done my homework as a larval gamer/history geek. Anything with swords, castles, folklore, myths or legends was devoured with an omnivorous disregard for source, quality or coherence. Kevin Crossley-Holland, Roger Lacelyn Green and W.H.White had (and retain) honoured places on my book shelves.

The expected fantasy books weren't much help to me when distilling the essence of dungeoncrawl from the vapour of genre nuance. Games Workshop's fantasy novels and shorts collections were stark and witty, but kinda dungeon-lite. The TSR D&D novels ranged from *meh* to execrable. Most of EGG's Appendix N existed strictly as aspirations to be snapped up on the rare occasions they appeared in libraries or thrift shops. Lovecraft was known, but was deemed old and a bit weird. Fritz Leiber, Two Gun Bob, Karl Wagner and the like were relative exotica. C.L.Moore, Klarkash-Ton and Leigh Brackett were well-kept secrets entirely beyond my ken. Yep. Like I said earlier, f-ing parochial Marshwiggles was we.

The two titans of British fantasy in my formative years were arguably J.R.R.Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. Leastways, they were the most-cited common currency in the geek circles I moved in. I know the Eternal Champion tales have temple/tomb raids, godling-monster shankings, and quests for portentous shineys aplenty, but these things all played a distant second fiddle to the ennui-soaked philosophising. Elric is too busy being Sartre-with-a-sword to check for pit traps. For all Moorcock's prodigious breadth of invention it's not traps, hazards, and monsters that first spring to mind when thinking of Duke Hawkmoon's quest for the Runestaff, or Corum Jhaelen Irsei's one man crusade against the house cards of Swords.

Similarly the Blessed Tolkers, for all his virtues as a mythmaker, writer of dying speeches, and chronicler of overland travel really handwaved his crawls.
  • The Barrow Downs? An evocative, frightening episode instantly turned to crap by the advent of a witless, yellow-booted avatar of cozy folkiness.
  • Moria? Three day journey through a ruined subterranean city, three chambers described, two fights.
  • Paths of the Dead? One glossed-over talk encounter and some Legolas expo-speak.
  • Cirith Ungol? One spider and a bunch of morale 5 Orcs running from a gardener.
  • Beren and Luthien stealing their way into Angband? Glossed.
Bad show J.R.R! Failing to anticipate the future progression of a subculture which arose after you departed this vale of tears, one which I imagine you would have had little enough in common had you encountered it in your day. I thought you were supposed to be a clever boffin type. What good are your wonderful books to a poor confused proto-DM? (apart from the obvious) ;)

Help Unsought, plus Evocative Quotables

My formative literary dungeoncrawl? Not really a dungeoncrawl at all (certainly not a Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Waylander iron-thewed competent hero one), but rather a couple of chapters from Tadd Williams' Tolkien-a-like fantasy doorstopper trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (aka: what G.R.R.Martin's SOI&F is trying to be). To whit, chapters 13, "Between Worlds" and chapter 14, "The Hill Fire" of The Dragonbone Chair. I've included a few passages below:

"He sank down onto the gritty tunnel floor, weeping with helpless, strengthless anger, a barely beating heart in a universe of black stone. The blackness was a choking thing that pressed on him, squeezing out his breath."
-- p225

"The passageway squirmed into the stone heart of the Hayholt, a smothering, winding, cob-webbed track lit only by the glean of Morgenes' crystal sphere. Broken spiderwebs performed a slow, ghostly dance in the wake of his passage; when he turned to look back the strands seemed to wave at him, like the clutching, boneless fingers of the drowned."
-- p227

"The heat was oppressive, and the air was thick with itching smoke. [...] The tunnel flattened, turning now neither left nor right, leading down a long, eroded gallery to an arched doorway that danced with a flickering orange radiance."
-- p230

"But still, there were angles in the dimness that did not seem natural: right-angled creases on the moss-girdled walls, ruined pillars among the stalagmites too orderly to be accidental. [...] From the corner of his eye he saw one of the shattered columns of the gallery suddenly standing straight, a shining white thing carved with trains of graceful flowers. When he turned to stare, it was only a clump of broken stone once more, half-shrouded in moss and encroaching earth."
-- pp238-239

"The silent lake, a vast pool of shadow below him, lay at the bottom of a great circular hall, bigger by far than the foundry. The ceiling stretched immesurably upwards [...] At the centre of it all, the dark figure lifted a long slender object and the beautiful chamber shuddered, shimmering like a shattered reflection, then fell away..."
-- p241

If you have the time and inclination, I'd heartily recommend reading the whole as an example of scene-setting. Loneliness. Disorientation. Hunger. Mystery. Confusion. Hallucination. Terror. Despair. Now that's a dungeon crawl!

It might have been a case of right place, right time, right mind; but that section of that one unexceptional brick of extruded book-like fantasy product was, for me, the difference between seeing a lightning bug and being hit by lightning (pace Twain). Now that I knew what I was looking for - crushing weight, claustrophobic immurement, and a sense that surface dwellers are naught but ignorant interlopers - I actively sought out similar material.

Combine elements of The Dragonbone Chair with the ponderous quality (Anthony Burgess' phrase, not mine) and austerity-era gothic subfusc (that's mine) of Meryvn Peake's Titus Groan & Gormenghast, from which selected artwork and passages follow:

Gormenghast cover art by Mark Robertson

Don't you just want to know what's around the corners and up the stairs?
I still do, 18 years after first seeing it.

"The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'. [...] Through the character of their trade, their arms became unusually powerful, and when they let their huge hands hang loosely at their sides, there was more than an echo of the simian. [...] Through daily proximity to the great slabs of stone, the faces of the Grey Scrubbers had become like slabs themselves."
-- Titus Groan, pp27-28

"...feeling that here at any rate was his one chance of escaping these endless corridors, followed as best he could in the hope that Mr Flay would eventually turn into some cool quadrangle or open space where get-away could be effected. [...] as his erratic shape approached the next guttering aura he would begin by degrees to become a silhouette [...] a mantis of pitch-black cardboard worked with strings."
-- Titus Groan, p42

or with the overheated Faery Queen fever dream of Moorcock's Gloriana,

"...its outbuildings, its lodges, its guest houses, the mansions of its lords and ladies in waiting, have been linked by covered ways, and those covered ways roofed, in turn, so that here and there we find corridors within corridors, like conduits in a tunnel, houses within rooms, those rooms within castles, those castles within artificial caverns, the whole roofed again with tiles of gold and platinum and silver, marble and mother-of-pearl [...] And in those forgotten spaces between the walls live the human scavengers, the dwellers in the gloom"
-- p9

"A short flight of stairs took her up into barbaric, blazing torchlight, into a hall of asymmetrical splendour, whose ceilings rose and fell and whose walls were studded with huge gems, whose tapestries and murals showed crowded, obscure scenes of antique revels. [...] she had passed them by, pushing open doors into another, darker cavern, filled with the odour of heated flesh, of blood, of salty juices, for this was where her flagellants convened..."
-- pp72-73

Montfallcon and Ingleborough [...] continued their journey [...] through wider, vaster halls, full of decaying pageantry - banners, armour, weapons - dull and dusty, into the echoing gloom of that cathedral of tyranny [...] where rats now ruled, and spiders danced their precise, oft-repeated steps, and shadows moved, scuttled and were gone. [...] Their human figures were dwrfed by obsidian statues of grotesque and anthropoidal aspect - broodind statues, perhaps still dreaming of the heated, morbid and fantastical past..."
-- pp 124-125

"...the tunnel turned, dropped, climbed, leading them away from Dignity and Charity and Grace and all the other sober demands of office, until they entered a high gallery, all intricate, barbaric carving, with ancient beams supporting a ceiling of panelled wood, and the lanterns casting shadows, displayed inhuman faces and peculiar representations of animal forms [...] They investigated little rooms which still contained narrow beds and benches, lengths of chains and manacles [...] They descended pitted stone and heard water but never saw it. They found wax, so fresh-seeming it might have fallen from a candle an hour or so since. [...] They heard voices, laughter, cries, the rattle of implements, footfalls - fragments of sound [...] as if space itself possessed different qualities within the walls."
-- p171

"More tunnels, another gallery and then, leading from this landing, a stairway into a wide, dark, deserted hall that might, two or three centuries earlier, have led to an outer door. [...] The stairwell zigzagged up, storey upon storey, and through the rococo railings faces peered, as prisoners from bars, regarding her with frank but neutral curiousity. The faces were oddly distorted, not by the filigree of the banisters, but in keeping with their bodies."
-- pp234-235

or the weird and wonderful, gas-lit underworld of C.S.Lewis' The Silver Chair, which epitomised the life of the dungeoncrawler in one haunting refrain:
"Many fall down, but few return to the sunlit lands."

and you've got a particular sensibility going on which is, IMO, pure essence of dungeoncrawl.

So, it ultimately took a cheesy Anglia TV kids show, a Warhammer spin-off board game, and a Tolkien knock-off fantasy series to explain the point of dungeons to me.

Thank goodness those old days are gone.
Thank goodness for the thrumming brainhive of the internet (never again need gaming newbs labour in isolation and ignorance).
And thank goodness for the OSR.

Thoughts? Opinions? Heckling cries of "Did you never watch X...?"

edit, and semi-related: having only recently slighted Talislanta as a Tekumel wannabe setting, I am currently in the midst of an orgy of humble pie consumption on the matter. Why? Because Stephan Michael Sechi has made an array of Talisalanta setting pdfs freely available (fill yer boots here!) to the nebulous ghost people of the interwebs. Truly, he is big; I am small.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Swirly Brain-proddling Fun

This here be a simple link dump post. I'm sure some of these are re-posts...

The Brainstormer - good for shifting mental blocks. Combine with The Forge and your preferred random tables for great braincustard justice.

Writers and their Accoutrements
(@ A Journey Round My Skull) - quite apart from the Inspiratron, the Muse-o-matic, and the skull-shaped All Weather Field Scriptorium, there's got to be gaming fodder in the image of Kerouac writing "On the Road" in scroll form...

Suffocating at the Villa des Charmes ( @ A Journey Round My Skull, again) - smoky, dreamlike art by Alexander Alexeieff. Performs the minor miracle of making me actually appreciate impressionistic imagery.

Yokai Illustrations
( @ Monster Brains) - ghost whales, king-sized Kappa and Umi-bōzu ("To survive an umi-bōzu encounter at sea, one should remain quiet and look in the opposite direction. Speaking or looking at the creature may send it into a rage — and that usually ends in tragedy.").
How exactly does one pron. "ō" anyway?

Monster Manual Comix: Owlbear (by Lore of Bad Gods) - features insanowiz and Christolump Rabismall.

Almost-Skyscrapers of Britain ( @ "sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy") - What we could have had on our skylines, if only we'd kept the insane Victorian levels of drugs in our national diet. Good-to-excellent in the ruin fodder stakes.

The Ants NEVER STOP. They form a long red line anchoring nightmares to the core of the Earth. - Yep. That's going in the Vaults.

Geometric Sculptures by George W. Hart - an accompaniment to Telecanter's post on Chinese puzzle balls.

Dungeon inhabitant should be pack-rats (@ - Before you *hork* at it, even the musings of plutolatrous nutters can be useful gaming fodder.

More on packrat-ism ( @ No Tech Magazine) - includes a link to:

Floating Citadels ( @ No Tech Magazine) - in which Johnny Frog tries to invade Britain with a (wind/tread)mill-powered monster warbarge.

The whacky victoriana of J.J.Grandville (hat tip: Monster Brains, IIRC)

Oldest temple EVAR
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