Sunday, 31 August 2008


One big problem I experience again and again with GMing is managing to genuinely surprise the players. How can you throw them into a real state of confusion and fright, as opposed to just fake, in-character shock? In other words, how do you get around the fact that the players will have read most or all of the supplements for a given game, and are highly unlikely not to have heard of that special trick you have up your sleeve?

To illustrate: a friend once told me a story about a D&D game he was involved in. He and the other players were walking along a road in a forest and came across an old woman apparently caught in a snare, who begged them to help her. They immediately assumed the worst, threw a sack over her head, and beat her to death. And sure enough, it turned out that she had been a wolfwere. The look on the DM's face must have been priceless.

A funny story, but annoying and unrealistic in the extreme, and one that sums up the problem perfectly: the players are suspicious not due to any in-game reason; they are acting and reacting based purely on the supposition that the DM must always be up to something. Verisimilitude goes out of the window. I call it The Verisimilitudinous Wolfwere Problem Brought About By Too Much Player Knowledge, or TVWPBABTMPK, for short.

One way to get around it The Wolfwere Problem to cheat, put on your best poker face, and bluff that no, actually, the wolfwere wasn't a wolfwere at all, and oh look, you guys just killed the local almighty archmage's dear old grandmother... But there's something deeply unsatisfactory about gamey tricks like that - it feels like reloading a save in a PC game - and besides, my poker face has never been good enough to pull it off anyway.

The better solution is to get creative, by playing around with the 'standards' and well and truly messing with your players' expectations. I'll be putting some ideas up tomorrow on how to do this - put your own in the comments, why don't you?

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Whoops I did it again...

....I read a 4e thread on and ended up in a pointless internet debate. I was doing so well at sticking my head in the sand, but it looks like I've fallen off the wagon. Now there's a mixed metaphor for you if ever there was one.

I just don't get it. I feel like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes. Are these people seeing the same thing that I'm seeing? How could it be that our perceptions are so different?

The argument in question is to do with the Rust Monster. I like Rust Monsters; they're one of the very few D&D creatures who can actually generate genuine fear and excitement in players - the others usually being level-draining undead. But there is no Rust Monster anymore: it was decided that destroying armour and weapons wasn't fun and should therefore be cut from the game. (Apparently genuine fear and excitement aren't enjoyable in the brave new world - crazy times.) It constitutes 'screwing players over', you see, because DMs can't be trusted to use Rust Monsters fairly or sensibly, and little Johnny the player will cry because the nasty Rust Monster took away his ickle Vorpal Sword, and he'll run off home and tell mumsy, and that won't be fun, and it will ruin D&D as we know it, or something. That's broadly the argument, as far as I can tell. I'm a little rough on the details - I'm not sure there actually are details. Mike Mearls was ranting about it a while back.

I think what it boils down to is good and bad experiences. I used to game, and have only ever gamed (outside of PBEMs), with genuine friends. Friends do mean and spiteful things to each other sometimes, because it's fun. They also laugh at each other when things go wrong - like if you roll a dice and get a 1, and it means the treasured magic item that you've earned over six months of play has just been destroyed. And you laugh along with them, because it's only a game, and you're enjoying yourself, and you're possibly a little drunk. In our games, 'screwing over the players' was the purpose of the DM - provided of course that he was always fair with it (anyone with any experience of the game can tell immediately, I feel, whether a DM is or isn't being fair). His role was to create the adversity that the players had to overcome - by power, guile, or luck. He had to walk a fine line between too much and too little adversity, but that was the challenge of good DMing.

So that's my perspective - Rust Monsters and other 'screw the players over' monsters add to the fun you can have with your friends. They make the game actually scary, and they have endless potential for point-and-snigger moments. Everyone's a winner.

The only way I can reconcile the anti-Rust Monster view with my very conception of reality, is by reasoning that the people who make it must have had bad experiences in their formative gaming years. Maybe they didn't have friends to game with and had to go to some unfriendly local gaming club, run by capricious bullies who would use every opportunity to make them feel small. Maybe they don't really understand the social rules by which the majority of the human race lives (God knows there are a lot of people like that in D&D-playing circles) and therefore misinterpret good-natured ribbing as genuine nastiness. Maybe they prefer "story games" ("Narrativist play" as I believe the kids are calling it) and think randomly dangerous Rust Monsters mess with the pre-arranged plot too much. Maybe they once had a character who they were really attached to killed by an unlucky dice roll, and they are of the kind of sensitive disposition that takes such things to heart. Maybe they are deeply insecure, and can't stand to lose. Maybe they've only ever played with truly wretched DMs. Maybe they're just wretched players. I have to come up with these summations, because the alternative is just too weird to contemplate: we are actually percieving different things - the Rust Monster and, more broadly, the D&D and the role playing that I see, is not the same, in some strange and fundamental way, to that which they do.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Hey, I think it's GREAT they got rid of Rust Monsters" then please don't interpret my ranting as a personal attack. Some of the 'Maybes' I cited above are perfectly good reasons for not liking such creatures. All I'm saying is: from my standpoint, I don't get it one teeny little bit.

Beautiful, ain't he?

The Fighting Fantasy Cover Monster Bestiary (I)

An occasional series which stats-out and re-imagines the creatures found on Fighting Fantasy book covers.

Number 1: Geck the Warden

Eternally patrolling Wracklaw, the evil arch mage Denistier's keep, is Geck the Warden. An ancient and debauched lizardman, he likes little better than to discover intruders so he can set his panther on them.

The only thing Geck likes better than setting his panther on people, in fact, is eating them. Preferably while they're still alive. He does that with particular relish, crunching bones with his powerful jaws and sucking out the marrow. He's rather stupid and doesn't much like to think. But he makes up for that with sheer meanness: he's like a reptilian tiger shark who Denistier can point at his enemies and then simply let loose. He wears a strange, delicate-looking helmet at all times; in fact it is a Helm of Brilliance, which was given to him as a reward by his evil master.

Geck's panther is called Mouth. Geck lacks the imagination to come up with much better in the way of names, and as Mouth's mouth is the best thing about him, that's what he plumped for.

Geck the Warden

Intelligence: Low (6)
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
AC: 3 (1)
Movement: 12 sw 15
HD: 8
THAC0: 13
No. of Attacks: 1
Damage per attack: 5-20
Special Attacks: Mighty Blow (Geck does not use a trident like other lizard kings; instead he uses a machete-like scimitar. If his attack roll is 5 greater than the number required to hit, the attack does double damage.)
Special Defences: None
Magical Items: Geck wears a Helm of Brilliance.
Morale: 16
XP: 975

Mouth the Panther

Intelligence: Semi (4)
Alignment: Neutral
AC: 6
Hit Dice: 4+1
THAC0: 16
No. of Attacks: 3
Damage per Attack: 1-3/1-3/1-8
Special Attacks: Mouth can leap up to 20', gaining two extra attacks from his rear claws (1d4+1)
Special Defences: None
Morale: 14
XP: 420

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

My Game - Let Me Show You It

Perhaps this is too masturbatory for words, but my PBB (Play by Blog) game is underway. Don't worry - I won't now commence to act like a catpiss guy, blustering you into a corner and not letting you go until you've heard all about his favourite character. I just want to let you know, in as polite a way as possible, that you're welcome to lurk.

Later on I'll inflict a new series of posts on you: the Mighty Fighting Fantasy Cover Monster Bestiary!! (tm).

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Gateway Drug

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might have influenced me a lot as a kid, but it was the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were my real introduction to the wonderful world of sci-fi/fantasy and role playing games in general - the marijauna to 2nd edition AD&D's heroin, as it were. I loved those books, and read them like a true addict - if my local library hadn't had the complete collection for me to borrow from religiously (at a rate of four books every Saturday) there's no doubt I would have been lead to theft and murder in pursuit of the habit. That led me onto the range of (surprisingly quite good) novels, then to the Advanced Fighting Fantasy role playing products, and then my fate was sealed.

The Fighting Fantasy ouevre was pulp at its finest - mad, honest-to-goodness theft and graverobbing of every known trope of fantasy, horror and science-fiction, hacked up and sewn together and then reanimated, Frankenstein-like, into horrible monsters. Their beauty is that you know exactly what you're going to get with them; if you've never read/played any, take a look over this short list of title examples and it'll tell you all you need to know:

  • Creature of Havoc
  • Deathtrap Dungeon
  • Crypt of the Sorcerer
  • House of Hell
  • Armies of Death
  • Island of the Lizard King
  • The Keep of the Lich Lord
  • Fangs of Fury
  • Appointment with F.E.A.R.

See what I mean? I bet you can not only imagine perfectly the tone and broad content of each of those volumes, but can take a pretty good stab at how the stories begin and end - all from the title. There was a real genius to those titles.

I think my favourite one of all was The Forest of Doom, in which...well, I don't need to explain the story, do I? Because you can already guess, I'm sure. It involved a forest full of monsters, mostly - and, needless to say, a healthy dose of DOOM. The best thing about it was the artwork, though. I've searched everywhere for some examples on the internet but couldn't get hold of any - the interior artist's name was apparently Malcolm Barter, but that's as far as I've got. He only did one of the FF books and seems lost to history - one can only hope that, El Greco-like, he will come to be appreciated centuries after he is gone, although somehow I doubt it. I did find the cover, though (done by somebody else):

All good things come to an end and most FF books are now out of print, although another company called Wizards Books has relaunched the series by publishing a few of the old books and some new ones, which needless to say I don't like the look of. (You have to wonder if there wasn't some kind of ethereal synergy going on between that company and Wizards of the Coast: can it really be the case that the wreckers of two of my favourite adolescent pastimes had such similar names purely out of coincidence?)

Anyway, pick up some of the old FF books if you can find them. I'm not sure how popular they were outside of the UK, but they're still worth a read.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Small Minds

Was it childish of me to have named by Dwarven Warlord character on the new D&D facebook application Wankface McCockEnd?

My fingers made me do it.

Pandemonium Cigarettes

Pandemonium is a plane of few pleasures. Something in the very air of the place sews misery, mistrust, madness and sorrow. But the inhabitants of its endless tunnels make do with what small amusements they can come up with. One of those is the Pandemonium Cigarette - which can also be found in some specialist shops in the Lady Ward of Sigil, where the rich wives of the cage's highups are always looking for some new, exotic titilation.

What's special about a Pandemonium Cigarette is that you never know what you're going to get before you light it up. The evil Chaotic Neutral nature of their plane of origin seeps into them somehow. They all look the same - a rather grey, drab bundle of herbs bound in a tight filter. But the results of smoking one are usually different.

Pandemonium Cigarette

Cost: In Pandemonium, 1sp for a dozen. In Sigil, 2gp for six.

Effects: When a character smokes a Pandemonium Cigarette, the DM should roll a d20 and consult the following table. The effects last as long as the cigarette - d4 minutes.

1 - The smoke tastes of strawberries. No additional effect.
2 - The cigarette billows huge amounts of smoke uncontrollably. An area two yards in diameter from the smoker is immediately filled with a thick, cloying gas.
3 - The cigarette burns extremely quickly. The smoker must make a save against dexterity with a +3 modifer to throw away the item before the flame reaches his or her lips. Failure results in loss of a hit point.
4-7 - The cigarette makes a soft, crackling sound in which can be heard the distant sound of chuckling laughter.
8-11 - The cigarette makes a soft, crackling sound in which can be heard the distant moans of a terrified child.
12-15 - The cigarette makes a soft, crackling sound in which can be heard the distant screams of a madman.
16 - The cigarette emits a green glow, which illuminates an area three yards in radius from the smoker.
17 - The cigarette's smoke has a peculiar effect on surrounding members of the opposite sex, whose reaction adjustment to the character is improved by +2.
18 - The cigarette's smoke has a peculiar effect on surrounding members of the opposite sex, whose reaction adjustment to the character is reduced by -2.
19 - The cigarette contains a mild narcotic which reduces the character's attack rolls by -1 for d4 hours, but gives them d3 bonus hit points for the same period.
20 - The cigarette tastes like dung. The smoker must make a saving throw vs. poison or spend two rounds uncontrollably vomiting.
With thanks to Matt for the idea.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

I am a fanboi

It can't be said often enough just how wonderful and evocative the artwork for Planescape was. It's a recurring theme in this blog, I know, but what can I say? When you love something this much you just have to talk about it, and anyway, poring over my Planescape collection is sort of homework for my pbp game, right? So I have an excuse, right?

This is my all time favourite. I just want to step through the page and walk into that scene:

You know what I mean?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Not Missing It

Right back when I first started this blog, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't buy or play 4e D&D. The straw that broke the camel's back, as I put it then, was the fiddling with alignments. But there were a whole host of other reasons too depressing to go into.

A few months on since the game's release and I've kept to my promise. What's surprising, to me, is that it hasn't been at all difficult to keep. I find that I don't give the tiniest, ant-sized shit about the new edition, no longer even bother engage in discussions about its pros and cons, no longer read the threads about it on, and generally don't think about it at all. Wizards of the Coast and I have parted ways (though we were never exactly on speaking terms anyway), and it looks like it's for good.

Today out of curiosity I clicked on one of the aforementioned threads, for what must be the first time since June, and I was suddenly very glad that I don't have a clue what any of it means. You know how you sometimes overhear, I dunno, Koi carp enthusiasts or tobboganists or stamp collectors discussing their hobby? And the conversation is filled with all this arcane jargon that you don't understand, weird in-jokes that you don't get and don't sound as if they'd be funny even if you did, and obscure references to things that you've never heard of but the participants seem to know implicitly? And you can't imagine what on earth might possess somebody to be interested in that topic enough to develop that level of detailed knowledge about it, and nothing about it is at all attractive to you? And how you're actually happy you don't understand any of it, because if you did, it would mean that you were a strange fanboi of something very odd, and that would be too horrible and awful to contemplate? Well, that's how I feel when reading threads about D&D 4e.

Not that there's anything wrong with Koi carp, you understand. Like D&D 4e, I suppose lots of people get a lot of enjoyment out of them. My uncle, for one. Just please, for the love of God, don't sit me down with five Koi carp or D&D 4e enthusiasts at a table at a wedding reception.

Monday, 18 August 2008

A Big Plug

Apologies if this is a non-topic, non-quality blog entry. But Scott managed to pull this off - and anything he can do, I can do too, dammit!

I'm going to run a PBEM Planescape campaign. It'll be done via yahoogroups, which I've been using to run another PBEM game for about three years now, and which has generally been satisfactory. (Also, I'm not good at setting up forums and the like, because of my strong technophobic streak, and having game turns emailed to me is much easier to keep track of than visiting a forum every couple hours.)

And I'm open for applications. Email me if you want in, at jean.delumeau THAT SWIGGLY MARK THING

The Crunch Bit

2nd edition AD&D, as God meant the game to be played, although seeing how little difference there is between 1st and 2nd edition AD&D I might be willing to accept 1st edition classes, magic, and so on with a few tweaks. I'm not big on playing the rules exactly as written, anyway.

I have essentially all the brown complete handbook series, plus various other sourcebooks, so feel free to go hog wild on kits and the like. However, this is going to be a game for Primes - we're going for a Strangers in a Strange Land theme here - so no planar stuff is allowed. (A corollary of this is that people who don't know their Planescape arses from their elbows are more than welcome to join.)

Mechanics-wise, we're going for old school starting-at-level-one 3d6-for-stats. I'll have you make those rolls, and other very important ones, via an online dice roller. Generally in-game rolling will be done by me, though. As Planescape is a tough setting for 1st level characters, I won't enforce stat class restrictions. I will enforce level limits, though, and although I'll be as fair as possible, I won't pull punches regarding character death.

Game wise, I'm big on combat, exploration, swashbuckling action, and weirdness. Angst and emo, not so much. I like character development and I like a good stories but I don't like those things to be predetermined. Ideally, they'll arise during the course of play.

There's no metaplot here or big story arc - the planes are infinite, you've just arrived, and the multiverse is your oyster. Let's see where you end up!

I'd like a party of 6, so get in quickly. I'll choose people mostly on a first come first served basis, although obviously if I know you (via the blogosphere or wherever) it'll be a help. For the time being, just send me an email saying "I want to play!" or words to that effect, and we'll go from there.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Defiance in D&D

When it came to Planescape, it often seemed that everybody's favourite faction was the Society of Sensation - a group whose philosophy was loosely based on Epicureanism, and whose factol was not incidentally a hot, nubile young woman. It thus appealed directly to the two main urges of teenage boys: sex, and, er, sex. (I think that after the Society of Sensation the most popular were the Doomguard, whose factol was also, not incidentally, a hot nubile young woman.)

My favourites, though, were always the Athar.

The Athar, for those who aren't familiar with the Planescape setting, are a faction who effectively reject the gods (who they call 'powers') as the holders of truth, justice, and power in the multiverse. They aren't Atheists, note. Many of them believe that true gods may exist, or believe that true gods do exist but are unknowable. They just reject the current set of powers as objects of worship, and look on them as essentially just big uber-powerful bullies.

What I like best about that philosophy is that it spits in the face of the current order, and does so in spite of the fact that the 'powers' could quite easily squish the Athar like so many house flies if they wanted to. It takes a special kind of bloody mindedness to refuse to believe in somebody who, god or not, is certainly as powerful as a god - and moreover, certainly exists. It seems like a particularly perverse way of living your life, and much more appealing than the boring old hedonism of the Sensates.

Friday, 15 August 2008

On Gemstones and Treasure (plus Goblins 2.0, part IV)

One thing I always wish I knew more about was medieval economics. That way, I feel like the campaign worlds I create for my games would have that much more of a veneer of realism and a greater sense of depth. Of course, players rarely if ever never care about these things: "Yeah yeah, blah blah, how many gold pieces was the orc carrying?" But damn it, I care, or would like to, and even if I don't inflict my knowledge on my players in the form of half-hourly lectures, it's still important for my sense of DMing pride to know that what's going on behind the scenes actually makes sense in some way.

Actually, scratch that. It is good for the players to know that they're in a world in which there is something going on beyond them. Even if they don't understand the economics, how much more interesting is it to hear that the orc was carrying "silver coins which seem to have been minted by King Ulmer of Ulmerland, judging by the inscription - I wonder how it got hold of those, not being from those parts?" than "five silver pieces"? I remember a beautiful essay in the 2nd edition AD&D DM's handbook which said pretty much the same thing, describing the treasure chest of a minor nobleman in medieval Europe, and how it might consist of everything from old Roman Sestertii to Byzantine Solidii to Scandinavian hack silver. Treasure is a part of the game generally taken for granted by DMs and players (except when it comes to magical items) but to do so is to miss out on a big piece of the verisimilitude puzzle.

I was just idly clicking wikipedia links earlier today (is there a verb for this? wikisurfing? wikitimewasting?) when I came across the entry for Lapis Lazuli, the famous semi-precious stone. I hadn't known much about it before, but thanks to the wikipedia entry I know have a wafer-thin sheet of superficial expertise in the area (I'm a wikiexpert?) that I thought I might put to good use on another - probably final - goblin entry.

In our world, Lapis Lazuli has been mined since pre-history in the province of Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, where it is still found today in quantity and quality unrivaled. It was possibly the ancient world's most popular gemstone (although it is actually a rock), because not only is it beautiful and easy to work, it also had a lot of important applications - everything from royal seals to aphrodisiacs to blue paint (for a long time it was one of the only sources of blue paint available to artists). Due to the desire for the stone, Badakhshan became the centre of a web of Lapis Lazuli trade which stretched all the way from Western Africa to the borders of China. The Silk Road ran through its high mountain passes, spreading the prestige of the Tajik miners living there.

Nowadays, of course, Lapis Lazuli isn't as important as it once was and Badakhshan is a small backwater province in one of the poorest countries in the world. (Although apparently even during the Soviet era, Tajik Mujahideen were selling the rock to fund their insurrection.) But not in my fantasy world!

The Goblins of Nurkalah

For millennia a race of goblins has been mining the mountains of Nurkalah for Lapis Lazuli. The rocks they produce are unparalleled in quality, and can be found as far East as the dwarven Shogunate of Hiraizumi and as far West as the halls of the Fir Bolg king. The lapis passes through many hands, and over great distances, to get to its final destination - on the backs of camels, mules, yaks and griffins, across mountains and deserts and forests and rivers - and many of its users know nothing of its origins. The young wife of the Count of Ross would be shocked to discover that the beautiful, vibrant green brooch she wears to pin her shawl found its birth under the pick of a small, fiery-eyed goblin five thousand miles away.

The goblins of Nurkalah have been mining Lapis Lazuli so long that their behaviour and physique have adapted to the work. Smaller even than normal goblins, they are so used to hunching over in narrow tunnels and scrabbling around in piles of rubble that they have developed an almost simian appearance, equally at home on all fours as on two feet. Their lungs are perfectly suited to the high altitudes in which they have to perform their back-breaking work. And their strength and endurance are vastly greater than that of ordinary goblins.

Lapis Lazuli, as all know, is an aphrodisiac, and the goblins of Nurkalah are not immune to its effects. And as they breathe in its dust constantly, they exist in a permanent state of heat. They breed explosively, so much so that their numbers are constantly threatening to overwhelm their geographical resources. The creatures solve this problem as only goblins know how - mass suicide. When their population is too great to be sustainable, vast numbers of the goblins mass together on high cliff tops and together hurl themselves, lemming-like, to their doom. The days and weeks before such events are wild affairs in Nurkulah, as the goblins rush about trying to fulfill every last urge - to breed, eat, drink, kill - before their life is over.

Nurkulah Goblin

A Nurkulah Goblin is similar to an ordinary goblin, but gains a +1 bonus to damage rolls due to its great strength. It has an effective dexterity of 18, and can climb rock faces almost as quickly as it can walk.

If a tribe of Nurkulah Goblins is encountered, there is a 5% chance that it is preparing for a mass suicide event. During this period the goblins will be utterly disregarding of their own safety, which means that in a battle their morale moves up to 20 and they gain a further +1 bonus to damage rolls - although their armour class drops by 2 to represent the wild abandon with which they fight.

Nurkulah's mountains are very high - the peaks can reach 6000 metres. At such altitudes humans and demihumans become very weak. This results in an effective reduction in strength and constitution by 2 points, and a gradual tiring in combat which causes a -1 modifier to hit and damage after three rounds and a -2 modifer after five. The goblins do not feel these effects.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Computer Games and Crusading Birthright Kings

I don't play computer games all that much, other than those which allow you to vicariously murder your friends in interesting ways over beer and snacks. I do dabble in solo games, but my tastes in that particular hobby generally run to the obscure, arcane, and old. My main areas of interest are interactive fiction (particularly Inform 7) and roguelikes, which is pretty much the fringe of the fringe, I think, when it comes to the gaming industry. Europa Universalis II and the occasional nostalgic blast at Civilization II or III is as close as I get to the computer gaming mainstream.

Very occasionally, though, I hear about a game from somebody or other, get my hands on it, and it takes over my life for a few weeks. I'm in the middle of one of those periods right now: I only got three hours sleep last night because I was up until 4am at my computer desk, and it's all Crusader Kings' fault.

Crusader Kings comes from my favourite game company, a gang of Swedish megalomaniacs known as Paradox Entertainment. In common with all their games, its scope is incredible - real time strategy which models every single day between 1066 and 1453, in which the player takes on the role of a noble family in Europe (literally any noble family - be it William the Conqueror's, the Duke of Gwynedd's, the chief of the Lithuanians', or the Count of tiny Caithness') and tries to guide that family and its descendants to glory.

What I like about it are its role playing aspects. The thousands upon thousands of individuals generated at the start of play are all unique and many of them - the countless courtiers who attend on the noble families - are random each game. All the characters have sets of statistics and defining characteristics like 'tough soldier', 'naive puppetmaster', 'club-footed', 'leper', 'modest' or 'generous'. They have friends, rivals and bitter enemies. They are related to each other - spouses, parents and children, cousins, nieces, nephews, courtiers and lieges. They seem real.

Stop me if you've heard this before, because the game really plays and feels like I always thought the D&D campaign setting Birthright should have done. Computer roleplaying games are almost always terrible, in my opinion - linear and repetitive and in actual fact the very antithesis of what an rpg is. But Crusader Kings is the game I've found which has come closest to bucking this trend and which can be termed an actual electronic, solo role playing game - completely non-linear (because of the literally hundreds of options you have when choosing your starting noble, and the lack of scripted events) and without the shackles that, for example, those godawful Final Fantasy games have. (Your character will fall in love with that character. Your character will fight this big bad guy.) To illustrate: in my current game as Bohumund, Count of Chester (who has since died - I'm now continuing as his 14 year old son) I married off my 16 year old son to the 43 year old daughter of the Count of Shrewsbury in order to cement our relationship, and the next month tried to have the old swine assassinated so I could press a claim for inheritance. That failed and I had my ass handed to me (I believe this is the term the kids are using these days) by our mutual liege, the Duke of Norfolk, and his vassals. I've never encountered that sort of freedom in a computer game before.

It really makes me want to play Birthright. The problem with Birthright, though, was that you could never have enough people involved. Four players meant four domains, which is all very well - but what I always wanted was exactly what Crusader Kings provides - thousands of other players with which to interact. The problem with Crusader Kings, of course, is that you're dealing with an AI, which will always eventually succumb to human creativity and be beaten. What's needed really is a kind of gargantuan Birthright PBP game involving every single player under the sun. I doubt it could be done, although I suppose might be the place to start.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Fair Folk (Goblins 2.0, Part IV)

In the range of hills which the dwarves call Annwn there is a goblin polity known (sarcastically) as the Tylwyth Teg - the 'fair folk'. Their king is called Gwyn ap Nudd (Gwyn son of Nudd) and he has reigned over the fair folk for a century or more. He is extremely old by goblin standards - no member of the race typically lives longer than 30 years - and the dwarves say that he has proved the old adage that 'unless you kill a goblin, he'll go on causing mischief forever'.

The truth of the matter is that Gwyn is not a full goblin. He is actually half elven. His father, Nudd, abducted many slaves from the nearby elven tribes, and had quite a harem by the time he was in his middle age. One of those unfortunate women bore him Gwyn, and the boy was from then on Nudd's favourite, and chosen heir.

Nowadays you would not know Gwyn had elven blood just to look at him. He could be mistaken for a hobgoblin or orog. But his unusually handsome appearance - a straight aquiline nose and firm jawline - and a certain sparkle in his eyes might betray his heritage. The best clue, though, is his supreme skill with the bow. He can fire an arrow at a target 100 yards away and loose another one while the first is still in the air, to have them both hit the centre. His favourite game is what the fair folk call making sport: allowing a handful of slaves their freedom - with the catch being that to get it they have to cross two hundred yards of open ground without being shot down by arrows from behind. When the king plays the game, the slaves very rarely make it.

Under Gwyn the goblins of Annwn have expanded their territory by half, and pacified the elven tribes into embarrassing concessional agreements. This is partly due to Gwyn's exceptional skill as a military leader but also because, when he rides to war, he is accompanied by powerful ghosts - ethereal black hounds called the Cwn Mamau (the 'Dogs of the Mothers'). Where they come from nobody knows (some dark pact with those who live in the underworld, perhaps) but they appear bound to the goblin king by something more than just a common agreement. Typically they are eight in number, although sometimes there are as many as sixteen or as few as four.

On rare occasions another figure is seen striding alongside him, keeping pace with his riding warg - a tall, willowy female spirit, draped in grey. Nobody knows who she is save Gwyn himself, and he calls her Mallt-y-Nos - 'Matilda of the Night'. Rumour amongst the goblins and their neighbours is that she is none other than the ghost of Gwyn's elven mother, come from the land of the dead to accompany her son to war.

Gwyn ap Nudd

HD - 7
THAC0 - 13
AC - 3 (chain, shield, dexterity bonus)
Movement - 12
Intelligence - 14
Morale - Fearless (19)
Attacks - 2
Damage per attack - By weapon +2
Special attacks - Gwyn gains +2 to hit when firing with a bow, and +1 to hit when using a long sword.
Special defences - None, although he has the standard elven resistances.
Alignment - Lawful Evil

Cwn Mamau

HD - 6+6
THAC0 - 14
AC - 3
Movement - 16
Intelligence - 1 (animal)
Morale - Fearless (20)
Attacks - 3
Damage per attack - d6/d4/d4
Special attacks - The Cwn Mamau's attacks are ethereal and ignore armour. Once per combat they can howl with the effects of a fear spell.
Special defences - The hounds are ethereal and can only be hit by magical weapons of +1 or better.
Alignment - Lawful Evil


HD - 8
THAC0 - 12
AC - 0
Movement - 12
Intelligence - 16
Morale - Fearless (20)
Attacks - 2
Damage per attack - d4/d4
Special attacks - Mallt-y-Nos is ethereal and her attacks ignore armour. She is a ghost, and the sight of her walking into battle causes aging and fear in the same way as a ghost does. This does not affect Gwyn and his warriors. She can also perform magic jar attacks in the manner of other ghosts, and her attacks drain life (d10x4 years per hit).
Special defences - She can be hit only by silver or magical weapons of +1 or better enchantment when in a semi-materialised state. She can be turned by a cleric of 7th level or higher, and can be damaged by holy water.

Gwyn is usually accompanied by bodyguards - the toughest and biggest warriors of the kingdom, who have the stats of hobgoblins. When going to battle he leads his forces from the back of a warg, with the best of his cavalry.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Death From Above (Goblins 2.0, Part III)

Goblins have lived in the high Southern Alps for about as long as any other people has walked the earth. They call themselves the Ninchiti in their own language, which roughly means "those who soar".

And soar is what they do. Life in an extreme environment brings about extreme solutions, and though nobody can nowadays remember the enterprising Ninchit who dreamt up the Soaring Frame, what's for sure is that he (or she) came up with the most extreme solution to the most extreme problem of all - how to get around when you spend most of your life in caves burrowed into sheer cliff faces, often 5000 metres or more above sea level.

The Soaring Frame is an elegantly simple design - a plain crossbar of hollowed-out yak bone, across which is stretched a thin strong material, usually yak skin but sometimes that of dead Ninchiti (being asked to provide a skin for your ancestors is considered a great honour) or their enemies. This creates a kind of loose, flexible square parachute, from the four corners of which pieces of flex (often sinew) hang down. A skilled Ninchit can manipulate the frame with astonishing subtlety and dexterity, by pulling on these pieces of flex and guiding his or her flight.

Nevertheless, the Soaring Frame is a highly dangerous vehicle. Flights result in death or injury fairly frequently. Usually this is in take-off and landing - which involve sprinting down a cave tunnel and leaping out into the abyss, and then trying to guide yourself into a tiny cave mouth without hitting the cliff face on either side. Nevertheless, the alternative - climbing out from a cave down a sheer wall of rock for hundreds of metres, then traveling by foot across a wild valley bottom, before climbing up another cliff face to enter the other cave - is no comparison in terms of ease, speed and safety.

The only problem with the Soaring Frame is that pretty generally it can only glide downwards - because it has no form of propulsion other than gravity. This means that often it can only be used to travel from a higher cave to a lower one on the opposite side of a ravine or valley - although the existence of vortices and upward air flows can make it possible to lift altitude temporarily. It is also vulnerable to the wind, so on blustery days the Ninchiti use their Soaring Frames like parachutes to glide down to the valley bottoms - much safer than attempting cave-cave flight.

Soaring Frames are Class D flyers. Goblins cannot perform attacks while piloting one - its use is as a form of transportation alone. A tactic often used when the Ninchit spot travelers moving through mountain passes is to swoop down from caves in the cliffs above, landing close by and taking their victims by surprise.

The Ninchiti's commonest foes are the Aarakocra, as they often come into conflict over cave systems - which are after all finite in number. They also sometimes tangle with the Dwarven clans who inhabit the foothills of the Southern Alps.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Mad Macnaghtens (Goblins 2.0, Part II)

In an abandoned holdfast up on Innismoor live three brothers. Known as the Mad Macnaghtens, they terrorise the local populace and prey upon travelers on the road, especially in spring and summer when traffic is relatively frequent. No ordinary highway robbers, they are Redcaps, and their interest is not in gold or silver but blood and blood alone. For if ever the blood they use to colour their woolen hats should run dry, they would quickly die.

Rab, Jeb and Morgan are their names, and they call themselves the Lairds of Innismoor. They long ago bullied the local people of Clan Maclachlan into submission; the Redcaps allow the clan to live in peace so long as they do not warn away travelers passing through the moor. The Maclachlans know better than to break this agreement, lest the Macnaghtens find out and seek retribution.

The brothers keep a constant watch on the road from their tower. Once they have spotted a potential victim they descend from the tower and hide in a low copse of fir trees, from where they can launch their ambushes. Captives are dragged to the cellar of the holdfast for the Macnaghtens to do with as they please.

Goblin (Redcap)

A Redcap is a particularly large, fierce and sadistic form of Goblin. Almost as big as a man and much stronger, their only purpose in life is violence and bloodshed. For them murder is a sport and a kind of art form, and in a fight they spur each other on to ever more grotesque and brutal deeds. If possible, they prefer to disable an opponent so they can dispatch him or her at will.

In appearance, a Redcap is a stocky, tautly muscled figure, with pasty white features and sunken eyes which glow a faint red at night. Its fang-like teeth are black and its long pink tongue frequently hangs out like a hungry dog's, oozing drool.

They typically inhabit abandoned castles and other ruins, where they style themselves 'Lairds' of the surrounding areas. Their equipment is often pilfered from their victims, with preference for great, two-handed claymores.

Redcaps gain special succor from their woolen hats. So long as the hat is wet with blood, they can regenerate at a rate of 1hp per round in the manner of a troll. If their hat ever runs dry or is lost, they lose this ability and become stricken as if by a weakness spell.


Frequency: Rare
Habitat: Ruined castles on Highland moors and heaths
Intelligence: Average (8-10)
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
AC: 4 (chain mail)
Movement: 12
HD: 5+5
THAC0: 15
No. of attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: By weapon +2
Special Attacks: None
Special Defenses: Regeneration (1 hp / round)
Morale: Elite (13-14)
Size: Medium (5' tall)
Other: Characters who know about the Redcap's weakness can attempt to remove the hat and destroy it. They can do this through a natural 19 or 20 on a called shot, or through overbearing the creature.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Fat Tail Venom (Goblins 2.0, part I)

In the low wild mountains of the southern reaches of the Ural Mountains, a group of Goblins known as the Oren live. They are the remnants of a great family of Goblin tribes who once stretched from the Aral Sea to the Hungarian plain; their relatives have now long gone, however, crushed or chased away by more powerful and successful peoples. Now only the Oren remain, hidden in their mountain fastnesses. Into their thick forests and deep ravines no other race can enter.

The Oren enjoy a fearsome reputation in a fight. This is almost entirely due to their discovery of a species of scorpion, which lives in the sprawling cave systems in the roots of the mountains. Known as the Fat Tail by the Goblins, the scorpion has a potent venom which is more than strong enough to kill a human. On the hardier Goblins, though, it has a stimulatory effect.

Before a fight, Oren warriors take Fat Tail scorpions from a communal pot and deliberately sting themselves, usually on the tongue. This stuns the Goblins for up to a minute, and causes their ordinarily green faces to turn a deep purple in colour. Their eyes then become yellowed and blood begins to ooze from their tear ducts. By this time the creatures have regained consciousness and find their strength, endurance and pain-resistance increased hugely.

The purple face and bleeding tear ducts last as long as the poison remains in the Goblin's system; the effect of this grotesque appearance on enemy morale is often as important a weapon as the physical effects of the toxin itself.

Fat Tail Venom

When used on a human or other humanoid race, Fat Tail Venom results in severe pain and possible death. Those injected must immediately make a saving throw vs. death: failure means the victim dies over the course of d10 rounds. A successful save results in incapacitation from intense pain for d20 rounds, plus permanent Dexterity loss of 1d3 points.

On Goblins, however, the poison acts as a powerful drug, which enhances their physical abilities. When injected with Fat Tail Venom, a Goblin is stunned for 1 round, but in following rounds it enters the Fat Tail Frenzy. A goblin in this state gains a +1 bonus to hit and +2 bonus to damage. Their morale is boosted to Elite (13-14), and they gain a temporary hit point bonus of +d6. This Fat Tail Frenzy lasts for d3 hours.

Once the poison has worn off, the Goblin suddenly reverts to its normal state. This can result in death, but more often simply results in violent illness for a day or two. If the loss of the temporary hit point bonus results in the Goblin's hit points falling below 0, it dies; otherwise, the creature is sick (as if affected by a stinking cloud spell) for 1d6 rounds and then generally unable to do anything other than sleep and vomit for 1d3 days.

Fat Tail Venom has some use as a poison on humans and other humanoid races. For the poison to be most effective, it must be injected by the scorpion itself (whether the creature is dead or alive). The Oren are sometimes known to use the venom to coat their weapons, but this is considerably less potent - those affected must make a successful saving throw vs. death or be stunned for d10 rounds and suffer temporary Dexterity loss of 1d3 points. Ingested poison (for example, that put into a drink or food) merely results in severe illness - vomiting and diarrhea for 1d3 days. A single Fat Tail scorpion can fetch 50 gold pieces when dead, or 250 gold pieces when alive, when sold to a potential assassin. A dead scorpion contains one 'dose'; a living one can use its sting once per week.

It is unknown whether Fat Tail Venom affects Hobgoblins or Bugbears.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Dying Hard Drives and Goblins 2.0

My computer died three days ago. It's finished. Bought the farm. Gave up the ghost. Kicked the bucket. Gone to that great IKEA computer desk in the sky.

I booted it up on Sunday, whereupon after showing the usual Windows XP loading screen it made some horrible clunky noises, muttered something about dumping data, then cut off. Next time I booted it up all I got was a blank screen saying "Error: Cannot load operating system." Now, I might not be much of a computer nut, but even I know that ain't good. I think somebody Power Word: Killed my laptop.

With it went pretty much everything I've written, created, and downloaded for four years. This includes two papers I was just about ready to submit to some legal journals, umpteen files for the various PBEM games I run, my PhD thesis outline, dozens of papers and documents for my PhD research, loads of photos and mp3s, and just about everything I've written for OzCthulu. Yes, I'm wallowing in self-pity. I normally hate reading other bloggers whinge about problems in their personal lives, and look, here I am doing exactly the same thing. So sue me: I WANT MY DATA BACK!!!!

But, enough of the self-indulgence! Let's talk about Goblins.

D&D Goblins pretty generally bore me. They're overdone. They appear in too many games, and their ubiquity has ruined them - they're like vanilla ice cream, corn flakes, Manchester United; they are the storm troopers and the Klingons of D&D. They badly need an image overhaul in my games.

I can see two ways of doing this:

1. Turn them into malignant fairies, like Bogles or Redcaps. Wild Scottish spirits of murder and mischief, who curdle the milk, poison the pig feed, knock slates off the roof and rattle the windows in the night. Who kidnap babies, torture lonely travelers with ventriloquism and legerdemain, eat captives alive, and murder people with clubs. I particularly like the idea of the Redcaps, who according to legend could never let the blood staining their hats dry out, lest they themselves die... Mad Celtic monsters in blood soaked tartan, squatting in dark ruined castles waiting for fresh meat.

2. Turn them into Night Goblins. The Warhammer designers had a kind of genius for making all their races interesting - even their Elves, Dwarves and Halflings seemed approximately ten times larger than life when stood next to their D&D equivalents. The Goblins were no exception - a race of suicidal lunatics who catapult themselves at their enemies, drink poisonous fungal brews to drive themselves berserk, ride squigs into battle like giant Space Hoppers, eat troll meat to give themselves regenerative powers, and capture giant spiders to do their fighting for them.

The best thing about Warhammer Goblins is the fact that the entire race seems aware of its own worthlessness. And rather than accept that fate, they choose to throw away their own lives in pursuit of success. This is why they're so happy to drink their Mad Cap Mushroom brew, and why they don't mind turning themselves into living catapults: if they have a fun death which kills lots of enemies, who cares if they die? The gonzo weirdness that permeated the Warhammer universe reached a kind of apogee in the Night Goblins.

Anyway, it's been a while since I last posted anything in the way of rules or much of practical value on this blog. So I think, in the spirit of the series of elf variants I put up a while back, over the next few days I'll bash out some Stuff To Spice Up Your Older D&D Goblins. I doubt any of it will match up to Ripper X's excellent post on Goblins early last month, but I'll see what I can come up with. You never know; I might even do an Aboriginal Australian one...

Friday, 1 August 2008

Messing With Cultures

Sometimes a strange mood comes over me - a kind of mental fugue state - in which I start to want to base the standard fantasy races on real world cultures. This is a morally, mechanically, and culturally dubious exercise. But heaven help me, when the craziness takes hold of me I just can't help it!

What's got me thinking about this again is this post - one of those strokes of genius that come along from time to time. It's an idea for making the sentient races in D&D 4e animal-based, so that dwarves are anthropomorphised badgers, goblins are rats, orcs are boars and kobolds are newts. (That sort of thing really appeals to me: I've already blogged before about animal fantasy. I hasten to add that I'm not even remotely a 'furry' - I just read a lot of Redwall books in my youth and lapped them up.) It's sparked off the urge to get creative with the races again. Here's what I came up with when I should have been working:

  • First up, what I really want is Zulu dwarves. The idea of an impi of spear-wielding dwarves marching in perfect unison and discipline to certain death is one that should by rights be an icon of the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, at the moment it only exists in my head.
  • Slavic Elves. For some reason Russian culture has a very hard and cold image in the Western imagination, but in my experience it's a reputation unjustly earned. In terms of artistic creativity there are very few nations that can match Russia, and the folklore of that culture shows a love of nature rare in the rest of Europe. It seems like a great match for Elves, and should serve to make them a bit more interesting than the old cliches, too.
  • Spanish hobgoblins. Spain was for centuries the most warlike and the most litigious country in Europe, perhaps the world. This seems like a perfect match for hobgoblins. There's also something I like about the aesthetic of hobgoblin conquistadors riding through the semi-desert of Extremadura on the way to fight a reconquista against Grenadan Ogre Magi...
  • English orcs. If there ever was an orcish race, it's the English - a violent, boozy, gluttonous and ignorant nation of hooligans. (I can say this because I grew up there.) The only difference is that the English are a nation of imperialists, whereas orcs can only destroy.
  • Portuguese halflings. I picture these as a small, nimble race of sailors for whom the vast oceans hold no terror - only possibilities. Like their real world inspiration, they have the vision and purpose to try to discover what exists beyond the horizon.
  • Persian Illithids. The idea of mind-flayer padishahs lounging in divans smoking hookahs while gith slaves fan them with palm fronds is one I have to incorporate into a game some time.
  • Centaur Scythians. A race of bloodthirsty nomads sweeping out of the vast East to trample civilisation beneath their hooves.
  • Assyrian Gnolls, making piles of the skulls of their enemies outside cities laid waste...

The main problem with this is that I don't like the idea of monocultural races. It's always been a pet hate of mine. Luckily there are far more human societies than fantasy races, necessitating a lot of doubling up. Orcs could be an Anglo-Saxon-Frisian alternative, with different breeds in England, Germany and the Low Countries. Hobgoblin nations could exist in a swathe across Spain, France, Italy and Romania. Different nations of Elves could populate the vast territories of Eastern Europe.

The only other question is: which cultures should be represented by humans? Part of me wants to say that Africa should be dominated by us - it is after all where we originated and where the vast sweep of our genetic variations can be found. On the other hand I like the idea of humans existing across South and East Asia, which is where the majority of the world's population currently lives. But I think in the end I'd like to plump for the Pacific Island peoples, whose story of exploration and colonisation of the vast ocean seems so uniquely human.