Thursday 3 December 2009

Auctions, or "What you want for it?" "What you got?"

I've been watching “Deadwood” and reading up on the South African diamond rush recently. People in boomtowns were often cash rich, but they blew through this windfall wealth at an accelerated rate, living the high life and paying wildly inflated prices for the simplest of necessities. The applicability of these violent boomtown settings to traditional D&D is so obvious as to need no further context.

I'm not suggesting adding a sliding scale price system to LL (although a simple one would show why all those poor, put upon merchants on the RETs actually bother carting stuff hither and yon...), or even - Gygax forbid! - exhaustive price-adjusted trade tables (pace Alexius of Tao of D&D), I'm mainly interested in this for the purposes of varying the value of objects looted from the dungeon.

It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine that one-of-a-kind dungeon goods are given a flat value of "blah many gp". Sure, it KISSes things, but it hardly reflects the chaotic "easy come, easy go" life of an adventurer. So, stealing a little from GW’s “Mordheim” (a game I love for being grimy, mercenary, and oh-so-D&D) I propose Random Value objets d'art.

Instead of listing a golden chalice as being worth 500gp, said item might have a random value of 2d8x50gp, with the specific price only being determined when the chalice is actually sold on. (note: using a 2dX bell curve keeps the probable resale value near the centre of the range, but allows for occasional wacky variation to reflect the vagaries of the market)

In the Dungeon
Just pop the description, weight and random value on a card and toss it to the players. How can they be expected to know the random value? Well, the Dwarf or *cough* Scout character does a thumbnail appraisal on the spot, of course. Yon guesstimate will do until it comes time to sell the gaudy trinket on.

At the Auction House
The kind of ancient and exotic curios recovered from dungeons have a specialised and limited market. Although many people desire them, only a select few have the ready cash on hand to purchase adventurers' loot. And a small, specialist market is glutted fast. At auction (what, did you think these things were hocked to the local blacksmith or something?) you'll get full price for the initial lot offered, then -20% for each successive lot sold. When a multiplier of x0gp (-100%) is reached the local antiquities market is saturated and no further goods can be sold for a worthwhile price.

E.g.: each lot of goods on offer has 2d6x50gp resale value. Lot 1 sells for full price. Lot 2 for 2d6x40, lot 3 for 2d6x30, etc…

Note: the DM only rolls for the item’s ~actual~ value when the lot is finally auctioned. Up until then only a rough idea of the resale value (the possible range of values) is possible.

Going back to the dungeon and gathering more loot resets the local auction price. While the PCs are off exploring, killing and stealing local buyers are busy replenishing their purses by selling on their new acquisitions, extending lines of credit, writing excitable letters to their business partners, and squabbling with the new sharks entering the bidding pool. All sales are final (barring the old standby of stealing goods back from the buyer).

Bright Lights, Big City
Market value of objet d’art is more stable in larger settlements. More money is chasing the same goods (less bid depreciation), but some of this larger pool of potential buyers will have their eyes only on specific lots (offsetting potential bid inflation). My KISS rule of thumb is that these factors cancel one another out.

Towns & Cities, and their impermanent counterparts Caravans and Trade Fairs, lose resale value more slowly than do boomtown adventureburgs. They lose only -15% and -10% value for each successive lot. This gives adventurers a reason to travel to the big city (you can't offload that big score in Hicksville), and to treat merchant caravans as something other than wandering piggy banks.

Town or
Merchant Caravan
City or
Trade Fair

2nd x80%x85%x90%
7th - x10%x40%
8th - x0%x30%
etc... - - etc...

(Optional Rules)
  • Paying for an appraiser (price?) allows a re-roll of the lowest die when determining auction value. The re-roll stands in all cases.
  • Pawnbrokers, fences, kopje wallopers and other shady bottom feeders will buy up excess objet d'art in a glutted market, but will offer only 1d6x5% of the rolled value (rolled per lot). It’s better than nothing, but not by much...
Value by Weight
Sometimes, particularly when the market is already glutted by an embarrassment of riches, it'll be worth breaking objet d'art down for their bullion value. As seen in that masterful study of historically accurate high medieval chivalry "Knight's Tale", you simply knock a chunk off the item and sell it on as gold, silver or whatever, losing the value added of the workmanship. The DM will probably be able to pull a price out of his butt for this, but don’t expect to get more than 10+1d10% of the objet d’arts full auction value as a bullion price.

The Wider World
Normal farming and fishing villages, or logging or mining camps, have no interest in dungeon-derived objet d'arts. Quite apart from the fact that the entire village is probably worth about the same as the goods on offer, what good will these fancy toys do a bunch of turnip farmers over a hard winter? If anything they're just going to attract the cupidity of bandits, monsters or other adventurers.

Adventureburgs are atypical of settlements of their size in that they are single industry boomtowns, that industry being the re-supply, entertainment and general mulcting of the walking goldmine that is a party of successful dungeon crawlers.

edit: little bit of editing and tidying

Friday 14 August 2009

FFG Revive HeroQuest! ... Sort of

I see Fantasy Flight Games have decided to cash in on the nostalgia and are re-releasing Advanced Heroquest with new artwork, packaging and art design based on the trade dress of the successful Warhammer Online morepig.

FFG do seem a little confused though. Apparently they intend to call this new product WFRP 3E and sell it in a big box for ~$100. They's funny, coz WFRP has been playable from a single book and with dice no sillier than are used for most RPGs for the last two decades and more.

I fail to see who this new release is aimed at either:

  • New gamers? That $100 gets them around 6-8 months of MMRPG subscription, two new release console/PC games, or a D&D4E start-up set.
  • Existing Eurogamers? Can you honestly see them kicking "* of Catan" or whatever into touch for this?
  • Old fans of WFRP/AHQ/WHQ? We got those games the first time around, thanks.
  • Existing WFB/WH40K players? They already have an expensive addiction to feed...
This seems to be a product in search of a market beyond the obvious Xmas trade. Colour me sceptical.

(hat-tip: Graham MacNeill for the initial tip-off)

Thursday 6 August 2009

AD&D 2e: Virtues of the Ginger Stepchild

Although I came into D&D just before it was released (heck! the first few Dragon magazines I ever bought had full page ads for the shiny newness pictured to the right) I've never been a great fan of AD&D2E as a rule set.

Even when our avowedly neophile neophyte gaming group made the move from the classic orange spine 1E books to the newer (and thus - to our teenage minds - self-evidently better) black spine 2e books we were really always playing the same old cargo cult mash-up of BD&D/1E during the 2E era that we had been before. We couldn't have given you page references for anything other than the most obvious stuff, and we certainly couldn't have discoursed learnedly on the differences between editions 1 and 2.

Sure, a lot of the organisational issues and odder rules holdovers of the AD&D 1E rulebooks were 'rationalised' by the 2E books, and the Monstrous Manual - when finally released - was probably the definitive D&D monster book of all time. But we still always had the sense that 2E was just a revision and reprint, rather than an entirely new game system. Even as teens we could tell that 2E was really no more than "AD&D, revised and reprinted". It certainly wasn't the mental revolution that later edition shifts were.

In my opinion the greatest virtue of AD&D 2E wasn't the clarification of the core rules, and it certainly wasn't the interminable stream of largely interchangeable "Complete" splatbooks that regularly dropped steaming from the cloaca of the TSR release engine. The true jewel in the crown of 2E was its settings.

Yes, yes. Purge the heretic! Burn the unclean! Bury him in his own sandbox that his evil might not warp the minds of others. :p

All edition snobbery aside, the numerous campaign settings released during the 2E era (1989-1999) were some of the most imaginative, thought-provoking settings ever released for D&D. For the purposes of this argument please disregard the splatbook bloat that ultimately afflicted the various settings and helped to destroy TSR as a force in the gaming industry, and just look at the initial boxed sets for Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun, Birthright, Al-Qadim, etc. in isolation. Each of these boxes offered you the chance to extend your D&D game in ways that the core rulebooks only ever hinted it:

  • Did you love Expedition to the Barrier Peaks? Here's a whole setting full of space-borne wackiness we like to call Spelljammer. Go nuts!
  • Did you always look forward to the playing house / fantasy battles elements of the D&D endgame? Here stands Birthright, ready to serve.
  • Hankering for a bit of Arabian Nights / Sinbad magic in yer D&D? Al-Qadim is here to service all your orientalist cliche needs effendi.
  • Want more sword-and-planet pulp adventure and Dune elements in your game? Dark Sun! I choose you!
I will concede that mixed in with the life-enhancing, game-changing, mind-stretching stuff there was also some real 'thrown together to meet a deadline' drivel. Jakandor, Maztica, and the wholesale sack-and-pillage of the D&D Known World setting spring to mind as being among the more egregious crimes-against-gaming of the late TSR era; and the less said about the eminently forgettable Council of Wyrms the better IMO. But I can honestly say I believe that if Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, Spelljammer, or even woefully metaplot-afflicted and mechanically kludged Birthright had sported a Judges Guild imprint on the box instead of a TSR brand then they'd be appreciated for their true potential by grogbloggers today.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I feel a plundering spree coming on. Time to get the old boxed sets out of storage.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Jack Vance Offers a Little Salt with my Words

Reading Jack Vance's Emphyrio at the moment. I have to say that, against my own expectations regarding my previous experiences of Mr Vance, I'm really enjoying it. It's probably something to do with the weird future culture he's created. But then I love the kind of 'lots of inferences' baroque sci-fi typified by Frank Herbert's Eye collection, Zelazny's Lord of Light (read right before I started in on Emphyrio) or Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality stories.

Unlike the Dying Earth stories I really get a sense of depth and scale in the back story of Emphyrio. I think it was Bruce Sterling who - after Arthur C. Clarke - called this kind of thing the 'unwritten book' of the author's research and world building. You never actually see the stuff in the unwritten book (by definition), but you can certainly infer its existence from the content and style of the written book.

So, yeah. Vance. I'll be cooking me some humble pie then...

In other news:
  • Batting about some ideas about polearms and Babylonia recently. Hopefully the grogosphere hivemind won't pip me at the post on these.
  • Giant centipedes don't get enough love. They need a random table of their own they do. I shall see that this injustice against our shoe-bankrupted insectile friends is rectified!
  • Currently looting the One Page Dungeon competition pdfs for all they're worth. There's more delicious braincustard in there than you can waggle a serving spoon at.
  • Percentile thief skills make no sense in a game where almost nothing else uses %ages. Dyson Logos has given me much food for thought...
  • The Octopus class by Amityville Mike (he's quite mad you know) is now canon for the Vaults game

Thursday 30 July 2009

All Dwarves Ain't The Same

(Later than promised, I know. The Sons of the Mountain will not be rushed
"Blogger stops work. Interrupted by carp.")

The dwarf. The bearded cube. Scottish-accented, berserkerganging Cousin Itt. Was there ever a fantasy race that was so thoughtlessly and thoroughly stereotyped? Heck, even the lowly Orc gets more love! That unholy timesink and record of the geek hivemind tv even has a page devoted to the cliché that if you've seen one dwarf you've seen 'em all.

It's a shame that the big three geek touchstones (D&D, LOTR, WoWcraft) all seem to default to being part of small reference pool (more fitting would be "shallow reference pool", or possibly "reference paddling pool". But I digress) as even a cursory look at folklore, fantasy fiction and the like will throw up hundreds of more varied and potentially interesting ideas about dwarves.

  • Norse myth gave us the idea of dwarves being spawned from the flesh of the primal giant Ymir
  • German folklore and Richard Wagner gave us dwarves as scheming gold-crazed madmen
  • African folklore offers us dwarves that are black-skinned, obsidian-toothed nightstalkers that drink blood and steal children
  • Tad Williams' Memory, Thorn and Sorrow made dwarves into reclusive, big-eyed Morlocks hiding under the mountains of ersatz Wales from the ancient cat-elf masters who enslaved them
  • Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World trilogy (now a sextet) played with the "Middle Earth was an interglacial period" idea by making the Neanderthals the heavy-browed, strong-thewed wielders of Dwarf cliché power
  • Sir Terry Pratchett inadvertently popularised the 'Dwarves = Jews' meme (both being stereotypically thrifty, hardworking, insular, misunderstood, respectful of age and knowledge, torn between the old and new ways, peaceable until pushed), and played with the idea of bride-price in a way both alien and touching. He also gave us the inverted dwarf archetype: Casanunda ("The World's Second-greatest Lover. Stepladders repaired.")
  • Richard Sharpe Shaver gave us the Dero (mad super-science dwarves of the underworld with rayguns and flying saucers)
  • The comically bad "Van Helsing" movie gave us the Dvergi - sharp-toothed, chittering subcontractors to the resident mad scientist and maintainers of his Rube Goldberg lightning engines
  • Warhammer gave us one dwarven culture based on a quasi-fascist command economy and the institutionalised holding of grudges (this culture also had sub-cultures of nihilistic punk dwarves, aka Trollslayers, and the earliest instance of which I'm aware of Dwarves as steampunk engineers). It also created a whole other culture of Chaos Dwarves, a pack of Assyrian-themed, magic-slinging gunpowder fiends with slave armies and bull centaurs
  • AD&D Monster Manual 2 presented the Azer, elemental craftsman who can be summed up as angry kilt-wearing dwarves...on fire!
  • AD&D Birthright gave us dwarves as honest-to-goodness living stones with hearts made from a ruby the size of your fist (supposedly)
  • AD&D Dark Sun gave us bald(!) dwarven monomaniacs doomed to haunt the site of their final failure
  • the Dwarf Fortress roguelike CRPG gave us tragi-comic drunken obsessives who fear carp and do not understand the concept of being on fire
Ok, so that's a few pop culture examples of Dwarves not all being alike. But precisely what use is all that iconoclasm for a game? Look at how little is actually written about the dwarf in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook. About 2 paras in the class description, and another para in the monster description. Plenty of solid facts; minimal 'fluff'. That gives you as DM or player the freedom to add whatever details you like without running face first into a barrage of canon.

So here - inspired by Rach's meditations on Elves - are ten alternate ideas forDwarven cultures or race in Labyrinth Lord (or other OSR game of choice).

~ A Secret Culture ~

Dwarves are Mad Max

Hardy, strongly resistant to disease and magic, living in vast underground tunnel networks, the dwarves are little more than scattered survivors of a legendary cataclysm. To them the world, over-run with marauding orcs, rampaging dragons and dirty spindly-limbed humans and elves is a post-apocalyptic waste; a hellish mess better forgotten and ignored. Some dwarves have been specially engineered to survive in the world gone mad; others flee the surface for the relative comfort of the subterranean depths. Now one dwarf must venture forth from his ancestral clanhold in search of a decanter of endless water.
(Yes, the Fallout references are intentional)

Dwarves are Master Sailors
Traditionally it is bad luck for a sailor to know how to swim (I think the logic is that you are both betting against yourself and tempting fate), and who will want to stay out of the water more than a short, stocky race with a natural negative bouyancy? The dwarves are the master mariners of the seas. Copper-bottomed, iron-ribbed dwarven trimarans ply the seas. Dwarven master mariners eye the sea and sky warily, listening to the ticking of dwarf-built chronometers and grumbling prayers that the gods of seas and wind will deliver them safe to Terra Firma once again.

Dwarves are Communists
The Sons of the Mountain care not for wealth! Let no dwarf achieve riches at the expense his fellow dwarf. The greatest shame is in prospering while your clan brother starves. Glory to the Dwarven Peoples' Supreme Council of Elders! Their wisdom and foresight ensure that all have their needs provided for...if they are but patient and submit the requisition forms without error. Prisoners are shackled in chains of gold so heavy they can barely walk, and dwarven children play games with jewels worth a king's ransom in the surface world while the enlightened dwarrowletariat enjoy the cultural attainments of their workers' paradise.
(Yes, More's Utopia. Well spotted)

Eldritch Dwarves of the Catacombs
The mythic underworld leaves its mark on all who venture therein. How much more on those who choose the unending dark over the sunlit lands? The underlands are never silent, and the whispering in the darkness has given the dwarven people dark and powerful wisdom unknown to the loremasters of the realms above. The pale-skinned dwarves bury their honoured dead with all the pomp they can muster, decorate their choicest goods with bones and other memento mori of their beloved forebears, and whisper in hushed awe of the unfailing wisdom of the ancestor gods.

Dwarves are Librarians
"An interesting idea, but doomed to failure. It was tried during the Reign of King Snorri the Litigant nearly 2,000 years ago, and the assembled Assayers of Worth ruled that such a motion was inadmissible in these circumstances."

Surrounded by the words of their ancestors, immured among the recorded judgements of older and wiser heads, the dwarves consider that all good (and bad) ideas have precedent. Before any action of significance is undertaken the chronicles must be consulted, the terms defined, and the ancient rites of the Rechtsstreitkampf (lit. lawcasefight) enacted. No serious-minded dwarf will undertake any matter of importance without the reassurance of a precedent graven on black stone from the law mines. No dwarf ever wants to earn the damning epithet of 'innovator'.

~ A Race Apart ~

Dwarves are Maggots
Dwarves thrive in the darkness, gorging themselves on nothing but meat (the higher and more stinking the better). Maybe new dwarves are naturally produced by the giant carcasses left to rot by passing adventurers, maybe they grow from carefully prepared sides of rotting beef. Do the maggotborn (a killing insult) labour under a divine curse, or were the first dwarves truly spawned from the flesh of the Ur-giant. Imagine are outlandish and bizarre the belief system of such a race would be. No wonder the dwarves are tight-lipped about their culture and touchy of slurs to their ancestors.

Dwarves are Fungus
Tough fleshed, insensitive to pain and stubborn, the dwarves are physically adapted to thrive in ecosystems where the sun is never seen. Their luxuriant flowing beards are root systems which can draw water from moist air or sustenance enough to survive from even the stoniest soil. Their secret sporing ceremonies are hidden from outsiders.

Dwarf are Hive Creatures
Dwarves are communal subterranean creatures who guard their (few) females well and defend their tunnelled holds ferociously. Their strength and endurance are legendary, and their capacity for work inhuman. The stony uplands of their mountain homes cannot support their burgeoning population and the lucrative trade of dwarven metals for human crops and lumber (most of which becomes mulch for the vast dwarven fungus field) can no longer ensure the security of the hive...I mean hold.
(Hellstrom's Hive was a major influence here)

Dwarves are Rocks
This is an ancient idea, going back arguably as far as Norse myth. It's been played with lots of ways since then, with everything from Birthright's 'dwarves are living rocks' idea to James M's revelation that the dwarves of dwimmermount use their carefully harboured wealth to craft their offspring. What could be more fitting than the Sons of the Mountain being carved directly from the earth? Be it in the form of statues animated with reincarnated dwarven souls (why do you think dwarven tombs always have an exquisitely detailed statue of the deceased) or the discovery of unique jewels which will grow or hatch into dwarves when cared for correctly. The Arkenstone of Thror: the dwarven equivalent of a phoenix egg?

All Dwarves Really are the Same
Why not subvert the subvesion of all dwarves being the same. Dwarves are clones, or pod people, or subject to a form of genetic conformity similar to the Jibarru (?) of Dan Simmon's Hyperion. Dwarven society works so harmoniously (when was the last time you heard of a dwarven coup de etat?) because all the inhabitants think alike and share identical aims. With only scars, and affectations of garb and beard braiding to differentiate them, no wonder outsiders can't tell dwarves apart.

So what does this mean for the Vaults game? Well, ultimately only as much (or as little) as the players want. I'll be throwing some odd dwarf analogue creatures at the PCs, just to keep them from assuming that subterranean miner = dwarf = "Hi ho". Hopefully between this blog post and the power of British irony no-one will resort to the John Rhys Davies 'Urist McBeard of the Clan McBeard' cliché.

(image tirelessly mined from nuklear power's 8-Bit Theatre)

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Old School: Not for the Likes of ~You~

A few weeks back there was some scuttlebutt bouncing around the echo chamber about how to get the younger generation into old-school/neoclassical (hat-tip: Trollsmyth) gaming. I think the best way to go about this is to play to the inherent wilfulness of youth.

Stop trying to convert people. Tell them that they're not welcome, and that this game is not for them.

Sounds perverse and counter-intuitive, I know. But kids, as a rule, are fascinated by and drawn to what - at least by adult lights - they can't or shouldn't have. We can all think of instances where prohibition and dire threats of calamitous consequences about foo, bar or skub actually pique interest in a way that sober explanation and parental indifference never would. It should be easy enough to make difficulty, obscurity and exclusivity a selling point to a price- and status-conscious group habituated to playing zero-sum 'pecking order' games by their everyday lives.

To paraphrase something I read on Grognardia a while back: think back and remember when you were playing Basic D&D back in the day. Fun, wasn't it? Right up until you heard about AD&D, the more complex, advanced game with "For adults 12 & upwards" right there on the front page. That cleverly worded caution was a siren call to many a young geek, just like the 18A (UK) or R-18 (US) rating on a movie became a lodestar for seekers of illicit televisual extremes. One look at those big hardback books and suddenly you didn't want the kiddy's stuff that came in a box any more: you wanted the big, difficult grown-up game. The fake sense of exclusivity was enough.

Moreso even that with TSR's own advertising, D&D was never so popular as when it was "the satanic game" which drew the wrath of lunatic pamphleteer and porn imagery appropriator Jack Chick, and gave the delightfully deranged Pat Pulling and her absurd MADD pressure group conniptions and sleepless nights. This odour of brimstone gave our tame little paper-and-dice pastime a faux-rebellious air of danger that the best Madison Avenue campaigns could only ever dream of. Heavy metal imagery and Anton Lavey's Satanic Bible became inextricably linked with the DMG and polyhedral dice in the minds of entire generations of imaginative teenagers with money clutched in their hot little hands.

A similar controversy = profit! outbreak occurred in the 1990s when the release of the first iteration of Vampire: the Cash-Cow lifted White Wolf to the top of the RPG market on the strength of its darker-and-edgier, bad boy imagery and subject matter. Of course, this was helped greatly by the fact that TSR had by that point lost any sense of what the paying customer actually wanted from their game. As WOTC later discovered with the interesting but less-than-stellar selling Everway, New Age simply don't shift product the way the adolescent rage and angst of SLA Industries did. (Just imagine if they'd bundled a Tarot deck in the Everway box though...)

How do you recapture that sense of edginess and danger? Well, assuming that trapping that particular lightning in a bottle twice is even possible, I offer you three words: Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa. By confronting and openly talking about subjects in his old-school release that the generally PG-13 mainstream games industry (honourable exception: Call of Cthulhu, and I bet this has a lot to do with its longevity and near-universal popularity) usually shies away from or tries to prettify Geoffrey McKinney made a name for his product. Love it or hate it: you've heard of Carcosa, and probably have an opinion of it.

I'm not suggesting that the OSR needs a darker and edgier Dork Age, or that many of the excellent writers out there should strive to be crass and outrageous for the sake of it (that way FATAL lies...), or so desperate for edgy topicality that they mimic Holistic Design's rather tasteless 'ripped from the headlines' Real Life Role-Playing war porn series. But there is a provable market advantage to not being entirely wholesome, clean cut, and the kind of thing your Sunday School teacher would approve of. Games Workshop made millions from their brand of war fetishism with a gothic flavour, and I understand Metal Hurlant and 2000AD have been selling well for decades on the back of their definitely non-Comics Code content. Outrage and controversy, if done right, get noticed.

Another few words for you: Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Some people consider James Raggi a loudmouth with a fine line in toe-stomping hyperbole. These are usually the same people who conveniently ignore the fact that the man has actually put his money where his mouth is when it comes to his (strongly held) opinions on gaming. I'm not saying Jim should be the model and/or mascot for a putative OSR youth outreach program. In fact, I'm pretty sure he'd run screaming from the idea. But who better than someone dramatic, loud and opinionated to proselytise young gamers desperate to find something worth investing their time, energy and effort in? There's a good reason that pompous, over-loud, overblown, outrageous rock music appeals to the 'young, unsubtle and all nerve endings' age-group after all. ;)

When the endless fekin' grind of WoWcraft becomes a chore, and the empty gaming calories of XboX achievements leave a sickly taste of ennui, there should be someone older and wiser standing by there to say: "Try this. It's the good stuff. First hit's free. We won't judge you, you just want some fun." (Hmm, I wonder what the current things you're not allowed to say taboos are...)

Stop letting lazy media hacks treat us as cheap punchlines and instead present old-school D&D as the kind of shady, slightly edgy and 'not for the likes of you' thing that outrages parents (quite regardless of the fact your Dad did it back in the day. The young have little, if any, sense of historical context). Watch the new players flood in.

note: I'm claiming no definite knowledge on this and am definitely not looking to start a new Mishlergate. I'm just another geek with an opinion. But I know what got me into old-school again. The sense (true or spurious) of it being a well-kept secret shared by a few like-minded souls.

Head back behind the parapet. Time to get back to game content for me.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Death Frost Doom - Losing is Fun!

"You will die, but first, you will suffer."

Bleak, stark, unforgiving - this module is very, very much the product of a particular personal vision of what old school adventure is about. Death Frost Doom has some lighter moments, but it maintains an air of 'damned-if-you-do; damned-if-you-don't' pessimism that borders on the nihilistic.

DFD is absolutely and unapologetically not a 4E module: James E. Raggi's world is not a place in which 'status effects' disappear on a successful save or at the end of the encounter. This is a module where anything your players do will have consequences. Many of these consequences will be permanent, most of them will be negative. Remember, this was produced by the man who brought us the Green Devil Face collections: anything you touch can kill you... and your buddies... and everyone else in the area... DFD is old school as horror; it's D&D as Fantasy Feckin' Vietnam.

That caveat given, I have to say that this is one of the most immersive, thematically unified modules I've read in a long time. Many of the descriptions are richly evocative of the sort of creeping, 'in over our heads' horror that is rarely seen in D&D. The descriptions of the crypts had me almost smelling the musty scent of earth and corruption which would break lose as the PCs looted the sepulchres. The situations and some of the trappings would be right at home in a "Call of Cthulhu scenario".

Certain tropes of classic fantasy adventure make an appearence, either used straight (bottomless pit? check!) or with a particular twist (purple lotus powder random effects table), but the absence of other expected cliché elements can be used to disorient players and put them on their guard. JER helpfully makes a point of explicitly calling these aspects of the scenario out in what is almost a mini-masterclass in horror.

What? The loot? Yeah, there's loot. Some of it has strings attached, other parts are just uncanny in a cool way. Although, in a module with at least two ways of catastrophically reformating your campaign, and a number of other lesser (but still substantial) horrors on offer, I honestly think that even the most profit-motive driven players will be less interested in Greyhawking the place than they will be in just getting out alive.

The impressionistic monochrome artwork by artist Laura Jalo meshes well with the bleakness of the module. The cartography is clear and workmanlike. The writing clear and entertaining throughout. Heck, there's even an Elder Futhark easter egg for you to play with!

My one petty quibble is that some details - like the activity cycle of weird hermit Zeke - are overstated. Perhaps a simple table would have laid the information out more clearly than a couple of paragraphs of prose?

All-in-all, money well spent. Howls of anguish and curses will rain down on the name of James E. Raggi IV, and his laughter will echo about the icy northern wastes.

But wait! There's more!

DFD includes, as bonus feature and further evidence of the unrelenting blackness of JER's cold and twisted heart, the very Green Devil Face-ish trick/trap/locale The Tower (previously seen in Fight On! #4). This is a masterful deconstruction in three pages of the Arthurian/Disneyesque rescue the sleeping princess trope. It may not be to all tastes, having more in common with the bleaker Metal Hurlant strips than a traditional fairy tale, but it is an interesting exercise in 'give them enough rope' DMing.

So, Death Frost Doom. You get to support a hobbyist creator. Your players will whine and bitch. You will remember why you love this game all over again. Totally worth the money.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Post-Vancian Haze

Oh wow. Thanks to Monster Brains for the pointer to the Spanish language Quique Alcatena art blog. As well as retrospectives on Golden Age Dr Strange and - I think - John Carter of Mars comics, there's some seriously excellent black-and-white monster goodness. Ctrl+S frenzy commences in 3... 2... 1

In other news:

  • Death Frost Doom! arrived this morning from the icy Finnish temple-fortress of the Flame Princess. Review to follow when I stop gawping at the art, hugging the module to me and chortling evilly
  • Cheap fantasy/scifi novels from the tat-bazaars of the webotubes continue to rain down upon my doormat like chunky, papery hail. Latest arrivals: The Seven Altars of Dusarra by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Hellstrom's Hive by Frank Herbert, and Desolation Road by Ian McDonald. Hmmm, now how does one set up that funky little "what I'm reading/watching/auditing" sidebar widget?
  • This weekend we will be looking at Dwarves, why they're not all the same, and why anyone who thinks they are suffers from a perilously narrow reference pool.

Friday 24 July 2009

Heresy on the Dying Earth

Warning: heresy, wrongbadthink and crimes against nerd orthodoxy ahead.

Jack Vance is over-rated. There, I've said it, and I'm prepared to stick by it however much nerdrage comes my way. Now don't think I say this lightly. For one, I am nothing if not a herd animal, and iconoclasm makes me uncomforable. For two, you don't diss lightly any man who can use the word "nuncupatory" in cold blood and with malice aforethought. But despite that the fact remains that - for me at least - Jack Vance is little more than an 'ok' writer.

I've been re-reading Tales of The Dying Earth recently, soaking up the old school pulpiness of it and hoping that it will grow on me in a way that the grindingly tedious wallbanger Lyonnesse never did (100 pages in and nothing worth caring about has happened? WTF?! Even War and Peace moved faster than that!), and it slowly dawned on me that not only am I not really getting into this book; I'm actually finding it a bit of a slog.

Sure, the language is pretty; yer man Vance can sling words like few others, even if his dialogue is as stilted and mannered as that of a particularly poncy Versailles courtier. But the language in Tolkien, or in Dunsany, or in Clark Ashton Smith, or even in Eric Rücker Eddison's "more verbally baroque than thou" The Worm Ouroborus is equally poetic. And those are stories where, by-and-large, something interesting actually happens.

That's one of my main gripes with the Dying Earth stories: the rigidly linear plotting. Yes, there is spectacle and wit, but there's little sense of suspense or of drama in any of the stories.

That one character in the first book (his name escapes me; great sign of a memorable character that!) who memorises 4 spells, which happen to be exactly the abilities the plot requires. It does make me wonder if there wasn't an element of self-aware parody going on there (plot-significant items, etc). I've seen it said (either over at The Gaming Den, or in a comment on Vance at Grognardia) that the Vancian casting system was a knowing mockery of S&S magic tropes - magic as sufficiently advanced technology; mysterious but reliable, and ultimately a little dull.

The phrase 'mysterious, reliable and ultimately a little dull' could be a damning indictment of the entire Dying Earth idiom. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. The characters make witty comments and carry on with their lives. Then some more stuff happens. The end. There is little sense of building dramatic tension, little indication that the plot is actually moving towards a denouement. The stolid acceptance of the protagonists goes beyond cool-headedness into the kind of absurd, intentionally witless stoicism that the Carry On team or Harry Enfield used to parody.

"The sun is dying and all the world will be reduced to darkness. Ancient evils stalk the land and vicious rogues plot ceaselessly against one another."
"Heigh-ho, rum do what? Pass the port."

An air of apathetic ennui and casual callousness pervades the books, which is even stated by one character as people just passing time until the world ends.

Maybe the problem is that I came back to reading the Dying Earth after overdosing on Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Karl Edward Wagner and David Gemmell. I'm trying to be diplomatic here, but Cugel the Clever - for all the cleverness with which his dialogue is written - is no Grey Mouser, and Rhialto the Marvellous and his largely interchangeable ilk haven't a tithe of the grandiose dark glamour of Red Kane. Cugel, poster boy of the Dying Earth saga and designated protagonist of Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga Cugel, is at best little more than a mediocre picarro who only seems sympathetic by comparison with the uniformly conniving scum with whom he comes into contact. For ingenuity and audacity the character simply can't hold a candle to the casually magnificent bastardry of Saki's Clovis or Woodhouse's Psmith. Cugel just an unsympathetic schlub to whom things happen in a series of episodic, disconnected vignettes. He draws no conclusions and gains no wisdom from his circumstances, and walks heedlessly into situations which a supposedly cunning roguish character would deftly avoid. Heck, even Elric seems foresighted by comparison!

I will say that Vance can string a pretty sentence together, and that he can worldbuild with the best of them (although his supposedly ancient dying earth has little of the sense of layered history found in Leigh Brackett's or C.L.Moore's evocations of Mars, or in M. John Harrison's better Viriconium stories. As for the kind of sheer outre bizarreness of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time: fuggedaboutit), but that simply isn't enough to justify his place in the pantheon IMO. The Dying Earth books are interesting to gamers because they formed part of Uncle Gary's inspiration. As stories in their own right they are of limited merit.

Next week on the Nerd Orthodoxy Outrage Blog (the nOOb): why G.R.R.Martin is a hack writer who can't pace worth a damn, or "food, clothing, gorn and goatboy's taste for young girls do not make for a satisfying fantasy epic".

PS: don't waste keypresses ranting at me anonymong style. Your outrage only increases my arousal!

(image yoinked from Tom Kidd's artblog)

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Desert Island RPGs

Bryant started this meme, and I am pathologically incapable of resisting a bandwagon. He originally specified you could take any ten RPGS (and all the supplements) to the proverbial desert island. I laugh at his puny, weaky ten game decimal fetishism, and instead elect to play under the true scientific realism of the Plomley Memorial Hard Mode rules (8 games. Core book only):

- Moldvay Basic D&D/Labyrinth Lord
- TNMT & Other Strangeness
- WFRP (either edition)
- LUGDune
- Pendragon
- Fading Suns
- Savage Worlds
- One BRP system (I'm torn between Runequest, CoC and Elric/Stormbringer. Don't make me choose!)

Honourable mentions: Ars Magica, Feng Shui, Mutants and Masterminds, Risus

Let's have a look then. No indie cred at all. A good few retro-stupid games. Also a surprising(?) amount of pretentious...

Nightmare mode (only one system): That's a toughie... WFRP for hilarity; LL for ease of use; Pendragon for theme and tone; Fading Suns for gonzo kitchen sinkery.

Tune in next week for Mornington Crescent: the Great Wheel Cosmology edition.

Bestiary of the Vaults: Mrotas

Mrotas (aka, Gibbering Cave Imps)
No. Enc.: 1-10 (5-40)
Alignment: N
Movement: 30', fly 180'
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 1/2
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 1-2
Save: T1
Morale: 5
Hoard Class: XI (in lair)

Mischevious, bulbous-headed imps of the underworld less than a foot tall, Mrotas are ugly little bug-winged humonculi that flit about the Vaults carrying messages and scavenging enough to feed their voracious metabolisms. If unable to find food anywhere else they will act in the office of crocodile birds or cleaning wrasse to the larger and more sedentary inhabitants of the Vaults.

Although of limited analytical intelligence Mrotas have a facility for mimicry, a knack for languages, and a wicked sense of black humour. Their high-pitched cackles and whoops of approval echo around the halls whenever some poor fool falls to one of the numerous traps of the Vaults. If their latest playmare proves boringly cautious Mrotas will helpfully bait swarms of bats, stirges, centipedes, or other larger creatures into his path to enliven his day.

Mrotas live communally in paper hives which look like oversized wasps nests. These are usually suspended from the arches of the Vaults and have rusty nails, faeces-stained barbs, broken glass and the like embedded into the outer surface to discourage predators. Mrotas rarely actively gather treasure, preferring to take their payment either in food, or in shiny things.

note: If using FrDave's weapon vs. armour type mod Mrotas are AC I, with a +5 DB from their excellent dexterity and tiny size. They're sneaky little devils, but they squish real good when you hit 'em.

Saturday 18 July 2009

More on Gadget Madness

Mishlergate, Trollsmyth, Squaremans, Noisms, now Warren Ellis:

...she was thinking, "yeah, it plays music, but what else does it do?" She didn’t ask, but, knowing her, I wonder if that was going through her head. Whether that’s what goes through the heads of her Western generation, the third (?) internet generation. Where’s the controller? What else does it do?

This is what pen-and-paper gaming has to contend with.

The rising generation of the late noughties aren't any more ignorant then we were in our youth, nor do they suffer from a lack of imagination. They do, however, expect far more interactivity from their hobby materials than we ever did.

They are accustomed to instant feedback and intuitive operating systems, not the enigmatic blink of a command line cursor or obscure esoterica hived away in half-a-dozen different places. They want to poke it and see a response. They want to see what else it does.

Who says their way is wrong?

Just some brain fodder.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Gadget Madness - it is coming

(a 7E player, some years hence)

OK, so first Rob of Bat in the Attic tweaks my Luddite nerve with his wild-eyed prophecies of Kindle gaming. And now Matt Colville of Squaremans is seriously talking about people using the next generation of iGadgets as the medium for enhanced reality RPGs.

That does it! I'm mining the lawn. Has the technophobic wisdom of Hollywood taught us nothing? Ain't no Skynet running my games for me!

*Dons tinfoil hat. Stocks tinned food, ammunition and lead minis*

"An intriguing game. The only way to win is not to play."
-- WOPR, Wargames

edit: And now James Mishler (who knows of what he speaks) predicts the inevitable doom of RPGs in terms more commonly heard from Dmitri Orlov, Jim Kunstler or the guys over at Coming Anarchy than from fun-loving game designers. Like Cold War armageddon docu-dramas Mr Mishler's thoughts are scary, but definitely worth your time.

link to James Mishler's prophecies of doom added 15/07/2009

Thursday 9 July 2009

The Rake's Progress (gamer edit)

Nick Bielik, the lord of Castle Dragonscar commands that we reveal our gaming histories. Squishy-minded and prone to drone-like following as I am ("Will minion for food. Can provide own cult robe"), who am I to argue?

~ = magazine/comic
* = board/table top game
# = books
-- = related event

Primary School
Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harryhausen movies and fantasy films
# Greek and Norse myth, Arthuriana
# The Hobbit

Secondary School/Sixth Form
# Lord of the Rings
~ 2000AD comic (UK)
Fighting Fantasy
Lone Wolf
# Michael Moorcock
* Heroquest
* Space Hulk
Mentzer Basic D&D
~ White Dwarf (UK)
Dragon Warriors
AD&D1-2E (any setting; we weren't picky)
~ Dragon magazine
* GW Warhammer (FB/40K/Epic) + Dark Future
TNMT/Heroes Unlimited
~ Game Master magazine (UK)
Elric, Runequest
WH40K Rogue Trader roleplay homebrew
~ Arcane magazine (UK)

Amazing Engine (TSR generic system - Bughunters, Once and Future King, etc.)
-- discover internet --
Call of Cthulhu
* GW Necromunda

World of Work
-- LARPing --
Ars Magica
* GW Mordheim/Warmaster
Fading Suns (longest campaign)
D&D 3.5
WFRP 2E (like tonsil hockey with an old flame: familiar, but still exciting)
D&D 3.5 + Tome Series
-- discover grogblogs --
Castles & Crusades (briefly)
Labyrinth Lord

I am such an archetypal British gamer it's not even worth joking about it. I came up during the 80s NWOBCF (New Wave of British Cynical Fantasy), and it's marked me indelibly.

Friday 26 June 2009

Jakandor: the Last Sandbox

[non-Vaults material. ckutalik at the Hill Cantons blog suggested I should talk a little about Jakandor in terms of exploring city ruins. I wish I'd never leapt with alacrity to oblige his whim; it reminded me how badly rose-tinted glasses can actually affect your memory of something]

The three-book Odyssey series setting could have been one of the last great TSR settings. Published in 1998, when the creditors were already circling and while veritable drifts of unsold Dragon Dice were piled high in the TSR warehouses, the Jakandor setting should - in theory - have been a great success. A self-contained lost world setting where superstitious tribesmen and atheistic necromancers fend off mysterious monsters and fight over the ruins of lost civilisations: this could have been a rethink that revolutionised and revitalised AD&D, as had Planescape or Dark Sun a few years earlier. Just a glance at the Isle of Destiny cover above shows you the potential the setting had. (Are those tiger-headed zombies the Thoth-Amon looking dude is setting on that cowering tribesman?)

Unforunately, Jakandor as released was cataclysmic fail: a textbook example of how not to do it. I can only hope the name Mike Botula is an Allen Smithee pseudonym, because this is some of the laziest hackwork ever committed to paper and spewed onto the market to meet a release deadline.

Isle of Destiny
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

The volume exploring the Charonti necromancers native to Jakandor, is ok, but no more. Only ok? How do you even manage that?! You have an institutionally atheist magocratic culture who live in the haunted ruins of ancient cities using their own ancestors as advisers, warriors and labourers. How can you possibly make a culture like that boring?

Unfortunately they managed it. The writers appear to have bottled it by actively fleeing from every interesting idea the material might suggest. The Charonti have a caste system; only not really. They are hidebound by tradition, ritual and cultural manifest destiny; except when being wholly rational and pragmatic. They're a culture of atheist necromancers; except all the ones who aren't (i.e.: the vast majority). Priests and Outcasts are reviled and hunted; except the ones who decide to fit in. The Charonti are a dying race fighting for survival in the ruins of their former greatness; but what they're besieged by is never made clear. Ultimately the Charonti culture comes across as little more than a lazy Tekumel pastiche for people who found the original "just soooo tl;dr."

This cultural coping out is entirely supported by the mechanics on offer. The fearsome thaumaturgical plague that destroyed Charonti civilisation is anything but fearsome and can, in fact, be cured by a cheap alchemical mixture. The mighty and terrible necromantic servitors are just bog-standard 1HD skeletons and zombie with silly names. Even the unique magical constructs are yawnsome. Zeppelins made of whale bones, mummified ancestor head libraries, or giant necromantic digging machines made boring? An achievement in itself. And the class kits (you remember these, front-loaded modifications to the existing AD&D classes...) are dull beyond the dreams of accountants. There's a scribe kit for Gygax' sake! Kits take up more than a score of pages in the book, and they could have been dispatched in two.

The DM's Guide, a short 32 page coverless volume containing information on the Knorr, the lost ruins of Jakandor, and a short adventure with a suitably Lovecraftian grue is denser with plot hook and ideas than the 96 page main volume. Lost cities under the sea? Menageries frozen in time? Gates to other worlds? Intelligent undead and their agendas? Rebel priests of the sleeping god? Why was all this goodness not explored before?! Oh? Is that my 32 pages up?

Isle of War
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

This book introduces the Knorr barbarians (yep, insert your own soup joke). If you just read their brief blurb in the Isle of Destiny DM's guide these guys initially seem pretty cool. Proud Warrior Race dudes with magical mecha totems, spirit brother animals and shamanic magic. Fear arcane magic and the undead. Circle of Life/Earth Mother religion. Despise missile weapons. Loot tombs for sacrificial goods and bragging rights? Yeah, they could be fun.

Unfortunately when you crack open Isle of War you'll see that that's *all* there is to the Knorr. Their culture is no more than a generic Celto-Maori-Amerindian viking animist cliché storm. They're so cliché they actually wear buckskin chaps, count coup on one another, and decorate their weapons with feathers. In 1998! This wouldn't be so bad if TSR hadn't already explored similar cultures in a much more interesting fashion (the Vikings and Celts historical sourcebooks, and Birthright's "Rjurik Highlands" are a couple that spring to mind). The Knorr's motivation to adventure isn't even explained in their book. You learn a lot about them as tribesmen, but their reasons for leaving the tribe and rummaging around in taboo ruins are only to be found in throwaway passages about Knorr tomb-robbers in the Charonti book.

As with the Charonti, the Knorr cultural cop-out is entirely supported by page after page of guff about kits (a dozen animal lodge warrior kits? One would be fine thanks. Three types of semi-ok picarro rogues, and three or four variations on the theme of shaman? Spread those ideas thinner!). The Runequest-style minor magic rituals which anyone - caster class or no - can supposedly utilise cost more than they're worth (4 proficiency slots for a luck re-roll in a setting that tops out at ~10th level? *pfffft*). The rules for totem guardians (30' high remote-controlled wickermen and statues) are fun, but will probably only see use once in a campaign. Full page maps of Knorr longhouses, villages and farms? Waste of paper.

The Isle of War DM's Guide is weaker than the Isle of Destiny version. Larger typeface means less content, and what there is... let's just say it could be better. The included 'adventure' (and I really do use the words advisedly) is certainly no B4: The Lost City, or Hidden Caverns of Tsojcanth. In fact it's more "everyday life in tribal times" than rip-roaring tale of 'barbarian heroes vs. ancient buried evil'. Again, so much promise; failed so badly.

The Isle of Dread points and laughs. Lost cities and dungeons scattered all over a generic island wilderness full of unintelligent creatures (is the isle temperate, sub-tropical or tropical btw? We're never told as far as I recall). The only intelligent creatures on the island: the two (inimical) cultures, and some random roving undead. Monsters and animals only. Final Destination.

Pretty, decorative, but lazy in that the landforms are obviously based on continental America (forested tribal lands to the east; big river valley down the middle; semi-arid and mountainous lands to the west) even though Jakandor is only about the size of Britain. The only good thing about it - apart from the pretty colours - is the deliberate omission of information. Charonti lands are little more than blank terra incognita landforms on the Isle of War map, Knorr tribelands on the Isle of Destiny are based on what horribly out-dated Charonti maps say.

General Conclusion
There are some (few) good ideas in the Jakandor setting, and a lot of things that act as a creative spur by the degree by which they fail of their promise (the "I can write better than this!" factor). The intent was doubtless there. But oh! the execution. Three books to cover a mini-setting with only two cultures and no major new rules content. With an editor who knew his job, and freelancers who weren't being paid by the word, the content could have been cut into one - potentially really good - 96 page book:

  • one chapter on characters
  • one on the two cultures (and ramp the weirdness up)
  • one on lost cities
  • one on the perils of the wilderness
  • one on monster stats
  • one on lost artefacts (magic and otherwise).
Pop the Isle of Legend image on the cover. Add some evocative interior art and colour page backdrops (the Jakandor books have unrelieved monochrone pictures and plain backgrounds - bear in mind that this series was created after the proverbially pretty Planescape and Birthright lines). Job done.

Sad to say, but if this was typical of their late-period stuff then TSR deserved to go to the wall.

note: I haven't included the third Jakandor book "Land of Legend" in this review as I don't believe in throwing good money after bad.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Ashagrals

Ashagrals (aka The Twisted)
No. Enc.: 1d6 (4d6)
Alignment: N
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 5 (special)
Hit Dice: 3 + 1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: By weapon +1
Save: D3
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XXI

Ashagrals appear at first glance to be malignant dwarves with twisted limbs, grossly oversized heads and wildly unkempt hair. They are invariably chained up in a macabre collection of black iron shackles and branks of which any torturemaster would be proud. On closer inspection it can be seen that if freed from their bonds Ashagrals would likely stand taller and broader than men. Their voices are loud, their tempers short, and their sense of their own dignity touchy beyond that of the haughiest aristocrat. They speak Dwarven, Common, and the trade language of Vaults (largely derived from Goblin) in harsh, unmusical accents

Ashagrals are usually found in the entourages of the mysterious Rook Seers of the Vaults, for whom they act as heralds and honour guards. Lengths of chain extend back from the head harnesses of the twisted to the palanquin of their master. Although they are just as insolent and curt to their Rook Seer master as to anyone else they generally serve with commendable dedication and courage.

Ashagrals prefer to wield jagged-edged glaives (treat as pole-arm in all respects) with a deftness that belies their warped bodies. The eldritch runes carved in their shackles mean that each enjoys the benefits of an ongoing protection from normal missiles effect.

Ashagrals replace Bugbears (or similar 3HD humanoids) on encounter tables

(image forced into service from Tina Manthorpe's flickr stream)

Monday 22 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Ghistet

"Some say their wailing is the sound of the void between the worlds, and that they can suck out your soul. All we know is...they're called Ghistet."

No. Enc.: 1d4 (2d4)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 180' (60')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 5+1
Attacks: 2 (2 claws) + 1 (tongue)
Damage: 1-8/1-8 + special
Save: T6
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: VI (X)

Ghistets are pasty-skinned quasi-humanoid predators of the depths. The hairless skin of a ghistet is almost rubbery in texture and exudes a reek like burning wire. Their elongated heads are dominated by a single lidless glistening black eye, and by a needle-toothed maw from which lolls the ghistet's freakishly long, barbed tongue. This warped parody of a face is flanked by a pair of large, back-to-front fan ears.

For all their unusual features ghistets have uncannily acute senses, being able to see in darkness (infravision 90') and hear even the slightest sound (never suprised). The constant keening and jabbering they make ensures that they themselves only surprise on a 1in6. This eldritch babbling causes confusion (as the spell) in all who fail their save vs. spells. Blocking the ears or deafness will lessen the effect, but does not obviate it entirely.

Ghistets have a squatting posture at rest, and use their powerful, double-kneed legs to move in great bounding leaps of uncanny precision and dexterity. Their twin toes are abnormally strong, able to bear the suspended weight of the creature at rest. This malignant race subsist on a diet of raw meat (preferably rotting), but happily supplement their necrotic feasts with the fluids and life energy leached from still-living prey. A ghistet which successfully lands both attacks with their paw-like, wickedly clawed hands on a single target gains an extra tongue attack at +2 to hit. This causes 2-12 points of damage, and the loss of one character level. Ghistets which have recently fed (50% chance) display uncanny abilities of gravity control. They are able to use levitate, slow, and hold person, each 3/day.

Each ghistet suffers under the effect of a personal taboo which they are entirely incapable of transgressing. This taboo is unique to each creature:

1 Fears the sound of ringing bells
2 Cannot climb or descend stairs
3 Is hypnotised by religious symbols
4 Is allergic to Halflings
5 Is compelled to break machinery
6 Cannot move in a particular cardinal direction

Whence the ghistet originate, and what hideous forces warped them so, is thankfully a mystery.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Gronphs

Gronphs (aka Grey Tumblers)
No. Enc.: 1d4 (4d6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 12
Attacks: 1 trample
Damage: 4d8
Save: F7
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: none

Gronphs are large grey blobs of flesh and muscle 10-12' in diameter and weighing several tons. They have two small, heavily-lidded eyes, one set on either side of their bulk at what form their axle points when rolling, and wide toothless mouth that are used to suck up their fluid diet. They are omnivorous, with the fluids of their diet being either the soft tissues of those they crush, or the output of nutrient fountains in the Gearworks of the Vaults.

Thanks to their thick hide and pliant flesh (typified as "putty wrapped in elephant skin") Gronphs suffer only half damage from blunt force or crushing. When in close combat, enraged Gronphs invariably attempt to slam into their opponent, squashing them into nutritious paste. Thanks to their immense bulk these creatures have a +4 to their attack roll when attempting to trample an opponent that is human-sized or smaller.

Gronphs are of low intelligence - being about on a par with a particularly gormless dog - and are generally placid and inoffensive unless threatened or startled. When not being used as beasts of burden or as the motive force for treadmills, they tend to roll aimlessly around the Gearworks, eating, mating, lowing their mournful songs, and engaging in shoving contests. Gronphs have a tendency to hibernate in corridors (leaving only minimal clearance around them).

note: Gronphs are intended as part of the weird dungeon ecology of the Vaults. They were inspired by big grey rolling ball of crushing death from "Raiders" (to ask "Which Raiders?" at this juncture is to fail geekdom forever!), and by the Rollits from the Frank Herbert short story "A Matter of Traces". Their functional niche is to fulfil my requirement that there be big living roadblocks snoring and farting in the hallways of the mythic underworld (this is entirely necessary to the integrity of my overall creative vision :p ).

Monday 8 June 2009

Minor Cleric Spell List Tinkerage

Looking at the LL spell list there's a big gap in healing vs. damage-dealing ability. Currently the schema goes:

1. CLW (1d6+1)
4. CMW (2d6+2)
5. CCW (3d8+3)
6. Heal (all but 1-4 hp)

Now, for all it plays into the "avoid fights; find money" ethos of Labyrinth Lord I do wonder if this spread of spells doesn't make the cleric's life a little more difficult than it should be. I mean, by 6-7th level the poor guy will be loaded up on CLW in 1st level slots, to the probable exclusion of all else (any no double-dipping house rule aside, of course).

I'd suggest just swapping Cure Disease into the 4th level list (look, there it is with its good buddy Neutralise Poison!), and reducing CMW to a 3rd level spell. It looks a little more elegant on the tables, and means the cleric isn't just spamming CLW up into the mid-levels of the game.

Thoughts? Objections? Reasons why I am a fool who will bring it all crashing down around us?

Friday 29 May 2009

Talent Borrows; Genius Steals

Aaron of Like Being Read to From Dictionaries brainstorms an 80s fantasy cartoon setting for his OD&D/S+W game:

"I want you to imagine Snarf, a Robear-Berbil, and Deputy Fuzz, out of their gourds on spin, arguing about who gets to keep the Lavender Death Laser they found behind the bureau of the evil sorceress queen."

My inner geek roars in exultation. I would play in that game in an instant! :)

Also, Fight On! #5 is here to drink all the booze, goose your Mom, and wreck your house. If you're here you already know...

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Dodging the Old Skub Bandwagon

And thus it came to pass that the latest skubstorm of old schoolyness broke. The blognards were tossed hither-and-yon by the raging torrents of their own verbiage, thesis-nailing, vermiphagy and protestations that "I can do no other." Fortunately, Amityville Mike brought sanity to proceedings by the wisdom of reference to the original sources. In this instance the Dragon Dude's HandGuide Old School Game Determination Table. An exhausted peace settled upon the land.

For the record: 170% old school (this week), no position on skub, and I've spent the weekend keying another section of the Vaults.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Arty-fartyness and Historical Oddments

No directly Vaults-related content, just lashings of (laudanum-laced and phantasmagoric) braincustard:

Aeron at the Monster Brains blog (a top notch source for archaic-looking pics and inspirational braincustard) comes through with some nostalgia-inducing images from the AD&D Colouring Book. It's woodcut-tastic!

A Journey Round My Skull (your one-stop-shop for Poets Ranked by Beard Weight and Serbian Sesame Street) offers us some painterly faerie tale illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe.

Kuksi sneers and says That's not baroque: this is baroque.

The Athenaeum presents 436 pics by German artist Albrecht Dürer (who cannot be praised highly enough, IMO).

Cabinet of Wonders (top stuff!) on the nexus of evil, deformity, disease and moral decay in western art, and how they often blend together.

The always-interesting Curious Expeditions spoils us rotten with the Victorian Art of Mourning, the macabre Cathedral of Antlers, and a heady draught of picturesque Ottoman depravity: eunuch executioners and slave armies, death by testicular compression, the infamous sultanate of women, and Sultan Ibrahim "I like big butts, and I cannot lie" Osman the Mad's wacky ways with the ladies...

Yep. That'll shift the old writer's block.

Friday 22 May 2009

Star Trek capsule review - "NERD!!!!!"

I have no idea what was going on in this film. There was entirely too much lens flare, jerky camera work, visual effects maelstrom, and extreme close-up idiocy going on for me to make out anything of what was supposed to be happening. You'd think a big budget film like this could have afforded a steadycam and a couple of long lenses...

All bitching about the absurdly bad cinematography aside, I have to say I wasn't greatly impressed by yer man Abram's "Star Trek" reboot. The casting was good-to-excellent (exception: Simon Pegg in full-bore "Did anyone order a large ham?" mode). The acting was...workmanlike. The FX was up to the usual high standard of the Hollywood eye-candy machine. The cameos and in-jokes were acceptable, but uninspired.

However (and this is a but worthy of a place in Monument Valley): the fridge logic of the plot was the worst since "X-Men 3". Hey, wait a second Mr angry vengeful Romulan dude (who I'm sure we already saw in "ST:Nemesis"). You know there's a supernova destined to destroy your homeworld centuries hence; why not use the phlebotium bomb in your ship to become a pre-emptive hero by beating Spock to it - by centuries? No? Ok. I'll leave my brain at the door for this one, shall I?

"Star Trek" works best when it is about the mystery, grandeur and wonder of space travel. This film was a workmanlike rehash of "Wrath of Khan" and little else.

rating: 2 phasers (out of 5)

The Ferris Wheel of Doom - WIP

My personal homage of the infamous Hellevator of Castle Greyhawk is the so-called Ferris Wheel of Doom which connects the first 6 levels of the Vaults. Why anyone would choose to use a giant observation wheel as a major internal transfer system in an underground complex is an open question.

The Wheel Chambers
When initially encountered it is unlikely that the player will realise that the Ferris Wheel is in fact a wheel. The majority of the workings are hidden behind stone walls, with only the doorways and switches that allow access to the transport capsule visible. The doors, of which there are one on each of levels 1-6 of the Vaults are made of heavy bronze, elaborately-decorated and surrounded by a baroque profusion of pilasters, architraves, and friezes. A single "call capsule" button (each of unique appearance and operation) is generally to be found in the same room as the door.

Random Call Capsule Buttons

1a statue of a succubus holding a bowl. The bowl must be filled with 1d6x1d6 hp worth of intelligent humanoid blood to call the capsule.
2a gong. Possible secondary effects as per Amityville Mike's fine article on gongs and the bonging thereof
3 small silver butler's bell on a podium. When tinkled the bell unleashes a full 8 bell carillon which attracts monsters as a Shrieker.
4an open-mouthed idol. 1d10x1d10gp, a gem, or a magic item must be fed into the mouth.
5a 3-foot long railway signal locking lever. Expect catastrophic consequences if pulled by a dorf.
6a chased and enamelled hunting horn chained to the podium. Can only be blown by someone of Con 13 or above.
7a chased and enamelled drinking horn containing 2 pints of:
1 - a light ale - heals 1d6 damage (as Grognardia Jim's liquid courage rule)
2 - a heady mead - gives a +2 bonus to Int, Wis or Cha checks (choose, or determine randomly) for next 1d3 turns
3 - a burning winter ale - heals 1d10 damage, character is -2 to all checks for 1d3 turns
4 - a smoky arval ale - grants +4 bonus to the next save the character makes
The horn must be drained in a single draught (unmodified Con check) by a single drinker to call the capsule.
8a wire and nail puzzle (plonk one in front of the players if you have it handy)
9an elemental focus. Must be dealt a particular amount of elemental damage to call capsule.
1 - fire/heat
2 - water/cold
3 - air
4 - earth/stone
5 - quintessence (weird sh*t of the DM's choice - wood, void, heart, molybdenum, etc.)
6 - two of the above (roll twice)
10a speaking tube. The requirements to call the capsule (singing, speaking a particular phrase or language, having the players recite some verse, etc.) are at the DM's warped discretion

There is a 1 in 6 chance that the capsule is absent when the button is pressed. Absent capsules will return in 1d6 turns.

The Capsules
There is a 1 in 6 that a capsule is occupied when the door open. The DM should create a random encounter from a randomly determined level to which the Ferris Wheel has access. There are no limits on creature types or number due to size, intelligence, etc. (Yes, vermin and dragons both love to ride the Ferris Wheel)

The Ferris Wheel chambers are 10' x 20' rooms of mutable appearance and decoration. Sometimes there are seats, sometimes not. Sometimes there are windows onto strange vistas, at other times the walls are panelled with inlaid maquetry of exquisite design, or with diamond pattern sheet steel, or with marble. Sometimes the light comes from torches in wall sconces, at other times it radiates from ceiling panels, wall-mounted globes, or even the floor. The one commonality is the control panel, which is mounted at human eye level to the right of the door (when facing it).

The Control Panel
The control panel (however it chooses to appear today) has 12 buttons/settings/plugs. These are numbered 1-10 (in a random alphabet), with the last two buttons being invariably marked with a hold door button, and with an infinity symbol.

Numerals 1-6 - roll 1d6, add number pressed, count in base 6. The capsule ends up on that level of the Vaults. How often the sequence changes, or if it is entirely random, is at DM discretion.
Numerals 7-0 - By themselves these numbers do nothing. But, when used in combination with others, they can be used to reach particular areas outside the Vaults (see Combos section, below)
Hold Door button - can be used to hold doors open or closed.
Infinity symbol - When pressed a demonic, gape mouthed green face appear, laughs maniacally, and then vanishes. The capsule jerks violently. Roll 1d30 on the table below...

1 Adamantinarx-on-the-Acheron (Wayne Barlowe's "God's Demon")
2 Altdorf (Warhammer World)
3 Atlantosh - the cheap theme park version of Atlantis
4 Erelhei-Cinlu or Menzoberranzen (50/50)
5 Lankhmar or Viriconium (50/50)
6 London (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Ruined London (Diamond Dogs/Steel Tsar)
-- 2 Londres (Hawkmoon)
-- 3 Steampunk London 1855 ("The Difference Engine")
-- 4 5,000AD - After London (Forgotten Futures 5)
-- 5 Puritan London ("The Adventures of Luther Arkwright")
-- 6 Elizabethan Londinium (Moorcock's "Gloriana")
-- 7 New Crobuzon or Armada (50/50)
-- 8 Sigil or Earth 2009 (50/50)
7 Ancient Rome, Athens or Alexandria (1in3)
8 MegaCity 1 or Mos Eisley (50/50)
9 Metropolis (50/50 - DC Comics or the 1926 movie version)
10 Taashban (Narnia) or Kublai Khan's Xanadu (50/50)

11 Doomed City (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Atlantis - the day before
-- 2 Numenor - the day before
-- 3 Pompeii - the day before
-- 4 London - the day before the Great Fire
-- 5 Lisbon - the day before the 1755 earthquake
-- 6 Port Royal - the day before the 1692 earthquake
-- 7 Tokyo - the day before (roll 1d6)
-- -- 1 - 2 the great Kanto earthquake
-- -- 3 - 4 the Tokyo firestorm
-- -- 5 - 6 "Gojirah!"
-- 8 San Fransisco - the day before the 1905 earthquake
12 The Lost World
13 Skull Island (50/50 - Treasure Island/King Kong)
14 Mythic Lands (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Khemri (Egypt)
-- 2 Achaeia (Greece)
-- 3 Midgard (Norse)
-- 4 The Four Worlds (India)
-- 5 Chung Kuo (China)
-- 6 Sinbad's Araby
-- 7 Mandevillean Asia
-- 8 The Seven Cities of Gold
15 Swiftian Lands (roll 1d6)
-- 1 Lilliput
-- 2 Brodingnad
-- 3 Laputa
-- 4 Luggnagg
-- 5 Balnibarbi
-- 6 Glubbdubdrib

16 Tekumel
17 Arrakis (Dune) - "Spice must flow" (25% chance Didcot 3 (Urn) - "Tea must flow")
18 The Dying Earth
19 The Mighty Land of Vanth
20 Middle Earth (roll d3 for Age of the World)
21 Gamma World/Mutant Future
22 The Hyborian Age of Thuria (Conanistan)
23 Pavane Europe (steam-Catholicism)
24 Naziworld (The Man in the High Castle)

The Depths of Space
25 The Moon (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Wellsian Selenites
-- 2 Baron Munchausen/de Bergeracian allegorical oddness
-- 3 ...made of Green Cheese
-- 4 Lunar jungle (Aldiss' Hothouse)
-- 5 ...dominion of the Feral Clangers
-- 6 The Tibetan Afterlife
-- 7 ...of the Lovecraftian Dreamlands
-- 8 You gatecrash the Apollo 11 landing
26 Venus (roll 1d4)
-- 1 Saurian-infested jungles
-- 2 Weird Tales/Northwest of Earth-style
-- 3 The Treen Empire
-- 4 Militaristic Teutonic craftsmen (Mutant Chronicles)
27 Mars (roll 1d4)
-- 1 Burroughsian
-- 2 Wellsian - "Uuuuuuh-lah!"
-- 3 Mad Gods and Moravecs (Dan Simmons "Ilium")
-- 4 Canals and Colonies (Space:1889)
28 Mongo ("Flash! (Aah-ah)")
29 Skaro (Dalekworld)
30 Deep Space (roll 1d6)
-- 1 Wildspace (Spelljammer)
-- 2 Hippyspace (spacewhales, nebulae, etc.)
-- 3 The Ulyssesverse
-- 4 Starship Warden
-- 5 Moonbase Alpha
-- 6 Chiron Beta Prime or The Dark City (50/50)

Where exactly in this new world the door opens, whether the PCs are forcibly ejected, and how long the door remains open are entirely at the DM's option.

Poking at mysterious, inexplicable objects in the underworld is rarely a wise choice. The Ferris Wheel of Doom is no exception. Random button-mashing may have no result, may cause dangerous environmental effects, or may take experimenters to particular locations.

22 - Glorantha
34 - You really don't want to know.
42 - Earth, Galgofrincham or Ursa Minor Beta
69 - San Dimas ("Excellent!")
410 - The Library of Babel
666 - Hell (Barlowean, Dantean, cartoony...)
9001 - DBZ world
1010001 - the machine realm (Mechanus)
5550690 - a dark-skied world where self-willed automata farm human beings
0112358132134 - Leonardo Fibonacci's study in 13th century Florence

(bronze door image plundered from

Friday 15 May 2009

Beyond the Gothic

Some interesting (if under-explored) observations on the semiotic representation of evil in architecture. Particularly timely given all the delicious dungeony goodness in Knockspell #2.

Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds

(hat tip: Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing)

"Conan. What Is Best In Life?" "Loincloths, Oil, und Muscles"

Although it is the quintessential sword-and-sorcery simulator there is one fantasy archetype that old-edition D&D does not model well. That glaring exception is the hulking barbarian clad in naught but posing pouch, furry boots and horned helm (see example to right).

With rare and honourable exceptions - such as Iron Heroes - it has long been the case that wandering around D&D-land dressed like a Chippendale will get you fatally shanked by dungeon denizens even faster than would mouthing off at the daddy of A Wing.

Some people are quite content with this status quo, but I for one feel it is nothing less than a betrayal of everything Robert E. Howard stood for!

Fortunately for those of us devoted to True Historical Accuracy (tm) in our gaming, extensive scholarly research has been done in the field of alternate armour types by Professors Atlas, Vallejo, Bell, Frazetta and Schwarzenegger of the Correspondence College of Physical Development, Venice Beach, California. It is thanks to their obsessive dedication to the study of glistening biceps, bluging pecs, taut thighs and ...Sorry, what was the question?

Alternate Armour Schema for Old School Gaming Simulacra
(cheesy Conan pose high-fantasy mod.)

Jaguar pattern bikini or posing pouch + magic Frazetta oil = AC7 (12)
Chainmail bikini or fuzzy wifebeater + MFO = AC5 (14)
Brass pan lids or posing pouch & single pauldron + MFO = AC3 (16)

Frazetta Oil is an alchemical item available to the following classes:

Fighters, Thieves, female Elves - Yes
Clerics, Wizards, male Elves - No
Dwarves, Obbits - Oh, hell no!

Frazetta oil, and the specialist garments required to utilise it safely, cost the same to purchase and maintain as the standard armours of equivalent AC value. Excessive muscle development and clinging legwenches/boy-toys attracted by the pungent musk of the oil cause encumbrance equal to standard armour types.

edit: As written this (tongue-in-cheek) mod gives thieves the option of wearing an armour equivalent to plate mail in protective effect. Given the existing strictures on the use of their special class abilities when armoured this should not present too great a problem.

(image shamelessly pillaged from Greywulf. Thrud © Carl Critchlow)
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