Tuesday, 29 December 2009

I am not an Adventurer by Choice but by Fate

I'll continue with the Duchy of Liverpool stuff tomorrow, but wanted to jot down some thoughts arising from comments by Kelvin Green here:

I think there's a tendency nowadays to think that being able to play any kind of character you like is an innate good, and anything less is self-evidently wrong. Such a viewpoint tends to ignore the very useful focus you get from "restricted" games like Pendragon; when you sit down at the table, you know what kind of thing you'll be playing. There's no humming and hawing, and party conflict becomes something more interesting than alignment clashes. All on the same page, as you say.

Regarding the lack of interest in a generic Pendragon, I've noticed that the game as a whole is rather overlooked. We're playing it in my current group, and only myself and the GM have any prior experience of the game. Some of the group had never heard of it before. For such a very good, and old, game, it isn't particularly well known. I'd imagine the lack of interest in a generic ruleset stems from the same anonymity. Bear in mind that the game itself is currently out of print, and that the most recent two editions/printings bounced around a number of publishers. It's just not considered a big name game, much as it should be.

To which I replied:

Perhaps the two things are not unrelated. Restricted focus makes for better gaming but doesn't win you many friends in "the marketplace of ideas" or whatever you want to call it.

I learned this in the D&D 3.5 era. A large majority of people really want the billions of class, feat and skill options offered by all the splatbooks, even though it's probably detrimental to actual play.

When I got back into D&D in my early 20s the group I joined were like this. They were obsessed with character generation and the many dozens of different options available at every step. (The DM in particular seemed to have an entire shelf of splatbooks that he would refer to when offering friendly advice to us players - all of them stuffed to the gills with new prestige classes and superduper feats. The flipside to this was the advice you would get not to take this or that feat at character generation. "Don't take toughness. It's useless." Sage nods from the others around the table.) It was great to have all those choices and it would be churlish to criticise something that offered them so much pleasure, but it sometimes felt as if the WotC people, in allowing this horrendous unbridled growth of options, had turned character generation into a monster. Arguments would break out over what was or wasn't the best starting feat for this or that race and class combination; newbies (like me) were left confused and disillusioned when told for the third time that they shouldn't have gone for this or that skill... and it all seemed to get in the way of playing the actual game.

I see the benefit of the Pendragon approach more and more, for the exact same reasons that Kelvin gives. And yet this advantage it offers is its Achilles Heel, because I'm sure that "restrictiveness" is something that most players (most people, actually) are intrinsically prejudiced against.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Duchy of Liverpool (I)


Following on from last night's post, I present the Duchy of Liverpool, a campaign location for Pendragon/Changeling. Today is the overview. Tomorrow I'll write up adventure locations, and the day after I'll produce a list of seeds of conflict.

The map above details the lands of Donnchad mac Briain, Duke of Liverpool and Earl of Lime Street, and those who owe him (and the hose of mac Briain) fealty - the Barons of Waterloo & Litherland, West Derby, Knotty Ash, Wavertree and Mossley Hill, and the Earls of Docklands and Bootle.

Also on this map is shown the independent County of Knowsley, and the Cantref of North Wirral, which is ruled by Lord Llywelyn ap Owain, mac Briain's great rival and oft-warred against foe.

Most of the nobility and knights and ladies in the area are of course Sidhe. Those in Liverpool trace their heritage to Irish Sidhe, while those on the Wirral side are of Brythonic origin. The exception is the Earl of Docklands, Ezekiel Blythe, a troll who was knighted and later granted the Docklands title by the King of Dublin.

All of the kiths are represented in the area, though nockers and eshu are particularly common thanks to the maritime flavour of the city. Redcaps and satyrs are everywhere in the streets around Concert Square, and in the sewers and old railway tunnels lurk Sluagh and much, much worse.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

We are Loathsome in the Eyes of Those Who do not Worship Us


Today I will mostly be talking about Pendragon and Changeling: The Dreaming.

Much as I loathe the rpg.net obsession with "doing" unspeakable and transgressive things with games which have no earthly business "doing" it (e.g. using Dark Heresy to "do" a Western) it does strike me that the Pendragon rules are rather narrowly defined given how good they are. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to change the game one bit, but I do think that Mr. Stafford's opus has the potential for a far greater scope of application than just knights in Arthurian Britain. There's this Japanese variant, for one thing, which appears to "do" The Blossoms Are Falling better than The Blossoms Are Falling, and neo-feudalism in space a la Dune for another.

My latest idea is to use it to "do" what Changeling: The Dreaming always should have been about but lacked the wherewithal to focus on - namely fae, living among us in the real world, with a feudal system all of their own. C:tD had the trappings (Sidhe nobles, courts, aristocratic houses, kingdoms, knightly oaths, etc. etc.) suggesting this, but its execution was so incoherent and so burdened by that White Wolf need to dress everything up as a "story" that it never came out and said it outright. Instead, the overwhelming sense reading through its rulebook is that the atmosphere is great but it isn't at all clear what you're supposed to do with it. What the game was crying out for was the sort of robust character generation system and graceful mechanics for things like Traits and Passions and winter phases that Pendragon possesses.

What C:tD also needed was the kind of focus that Pendragon offers in its core rules: as a player character you are taking on the role of a young knight from a minor family and that is it. My C:tD's scope would essentially be the same thing - newly knighted fae of whatever kith, trying to make their way in the world, slaying Chimerae and beating up redcaps. Exercising ghosts. Fighting dragons. Travelling to other realities. Questing for ancient and powerful magical swords.

And I would set it in Liverpool, natch.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Give Me Your Art

Hope you all had a good Christmas and Boxing Day (do people in the barbaric wastes of North America know what that is?) finds you well.

Doug Easterly, of Savage Swords of Athanor fame, has put his setting materials into pdf format and offered them for sale on Lulu. If that isn't a kick up the backside for the likes of me I don't know what is. I've been fiddling around with Yoon-Suin stuff for what feels like forever, without any genuine progress. That's about to change.

Anyway, you all know how regrettable and criminally poor my artwork is. So I thought I'd throw out a plea for contributions. If you are in some way artistically talented, would like to see your work in a two-bit pdf cobbled together by an incompetent hack, don't mind working for free (the pdf release of Yoon-Suin will be free, maybe with a paypal donation button if I'm feeling particularly whorish), and if the idea of slug people riding around on giant house centipedes turns you on, then send me an email and we'll talk. I'm envisaging a scenario in which I send you bits and pieces of inspirational text and you send me something vaguely appropriate which ends up in the final product. (I want to maintain at least some standards, so let's introduce the proviso "if it's better than what I can do and there's space".) My email address is jean DOT delumeau AT that gmail thing.

All the Yoon-Suin related posts can be found by clicking here.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn

Lord save us from Christmas music. You can't even escape it in Japan.

Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn (Level 2)
(Enchantment/Charm)

Range: 120 yards
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1
Saving Throw: Neg.

When a wizard casts Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn, he causes a hideous uncontrollable urge to sing to come over his victim. Once taken by this urge the creature affected can do nothing else other than bellow a cacophonous dirge; he cannot fight, eat, sleep, or walk, though he does remain standing. The spell affects 2d4 hit dice of monsters; monsters with 4 or more hit dice are unaffected, and targets must be within 30 feet of each other. Creatures with an intelligence of 16 or more are permitted a saving throw.

Singing creatures can be attacked as if prone. They continue singing until they are wounded, or shaken and slapped repeatedly - they will eventually starve or die of exhaustion unless this occurs. Material components are a sprig of holly and a small silver bell.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Wherein Swedish LARPers Get All Political

Perhaps I should be all morally outraged about the game which is the subject of this thread, but I must be mellowing in my old age, because now I mostly find it amusing. I mean, this stuff is so close to a parody it's practically indistinguishable from one: "a short, game masterless jeepform game centred around the idea of using fiat as a means for oppression", "the game mechanics were conceived for the purpose of playing gang rape, but are equally useful for any form of oppression, like for example bullying/mobbing" (woohoo, not only gang rape, which is my favourite form of oppression to explore, but I get bullying and mobbing too? But wait, no, now I'm disappointed - there doesn't seem to be any racist lynching involved), and, best of all, "don't play this game unless you're in a good place mentally, and really think you are up to it. It is not meant to be fun to play."

Ah, Swedish LARPers, where would we be without you?

Anyway, I've written before on the futility of this sort of thing (let's all get together and explore flavour-of-the-month-political-issue-[x] via the medium of role playing games), but this example strikes me as even more redundant than most. I mean, is there anyone out there, and I mean anyone at all, with the possible exception of genetically predetermined sociopaths, who needs to be reminded that gang rape isn't very nice? Least of all who needs to be reminded of it through a LARP? If you do know such a person, it's nothing a sound slap to the chops and a trip to a psychiatrist won't fix.

Now, to play devil's advocate, it appears the game creator isn't only trying to remind us that gang rape is bad, he's also making a political comment - "One thing that has been severely bugging me the last couple of years is that (at least in Sweden), it seems nearly impossible today to get convicted for rape or gang rape." (Well, I'm sure like me you try to get convicted for rape and gang rape in Sweden all the time, so you don't have to tell us twice!) Zounds, the razor-sharp political insight, eh? I mean, whatever next - "One thing that has really been annoying me recently is climate change - what are we going to do about all those nasty emissions?"; "Recently I've been getting really pissed off about all the murder and stuff going on in those African places, colonialism was such a bad thing, I'm really cheesed off about it"; "These days the big issue that really gets my goat is whaling, man, those sea cows are like the most beautiful and intelligent thing that has ever lived, they even discuss the general theory of relativity in those sea songs and the evil Japanese are just committing genocide against them and stuff".

For the record, I don't need game designers telling me what is or isn't bad. I don't need to LARP away my inner demons. I have a moral compass, thanksverymuch. Now let's get back to rolling dice and killing orcs. And kids, remember: don't do gang rape, mobbing, bullying, racist lynching or use fiat as a form of oppression of any kind. (Other uses of fiat are probably okay, but check with your local branch of the Jeepform LARP Society all the same.)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Atomic Rockets

I'm going all hard science fiction crazy at the moment with this blog, I know. Bear with me. I just wanted to link to the excellent site Atomic Rockets, an attempt to create a lay person's guide to rocketry and the science behind hard science fiction. (Aside from its contents, one thing you have to love about the site is its eccentric layout. As with all internet sites created by amateurs and which have been around for a long time, it truly feels as if it harks from a bygone era. I wonder if one day there will be an Antiques Roadshow of old websites?)

Anyway, browse through it and enjoy. Some particular favourite passages of mine, from the "common misconceptions" section:

Rockets Got Wings

If your rocket has a multi-megawatt power plant, an absurdly high thrust thermal rocket propulsion system, or directed energy weapons it will need huge heat radiators to purge all the waste heat. Otherwise the rocket will melt or even vaporize. Radiators look like large wings or arrays of panels. The necessity of radiators a real problem for warships since radiators are pathetically vulnerable to hostile weapons fire.

...

Rockets Don't Got Windows

Spacecraft have no need of windows or portholes, for much the same reason as a submarine. (No, the Seaview doesn't count. Strictly science fiction. There are no panoramic picture windows on a Trident submarine). Windows represent structural weakness, and there really isn't much to see in any event. Unless the spacecraft is orbiting a planet or docking with another ship, the only thing visible is the depths of space and the eye-searing sun. And unlike submarines, windows on a spacecraft also let in deadly radiation.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica to the contrary, space battles will NOT be fought at a range of a few feet. Directed energy weapons will force ranges such that the enemy ships will only be visible through a telescope. Watching a space battle through a port hole, you will either see nothing because the enemy ships are too far away, or you will see nothing because a reflected laser beam or nuclear explosion has permanently robbed you of your eyesight.

The navigation room might have an astrodome for emergency navigation. But for the most part windows will be omitted in favor of radar, telescopic TV cameras, and similar sensors.


...
Fuel Is Not Propellant

In a rocket, there is a difference between "fuel" and "reaction mass." Rockets use Newton's third law of Action and Reaction in order to move. Mass is violently thrown away in the form of the rocket's exhaust and the reaction accelerates the rocket forward. This mass is of course the "reaction mass." It is sometimes also called "remass" or "propellant."

The "fuel" is what is burned or whatever to generated the energy to expel the reaction mass. For example, in a classic atomic rocket, the fuel is the uranium-235 rods in the nuclear reactor, the reaction mass is the hydrogen gas heated in the reactor and expelled from the exhaust nozzle.

There are only a few confusing cases where the fuel and the reaction mass are the same thing. This is the case with chemical rockets such as the Space Shuttle and the Saturn 5, which is how the misconception started in the first place.

Automobiles, airplanes, and boats are sizable vehicles with relatively small fuel tanks. Not so rockets. An incredibly powerful rocket might approach having half its mass composed of reaction mass and the other half structure, hull plates, crew members, and everything else. But it is more likely that 75% of the mass will be reaction mass. Or worse. Most rockets are huge propellant tanks with a rocket engine stuck on the tail and a tiny crew habitat stuck on the top.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Romanticism and Classicism Revisited

A while ago, in fact, Christ, it was more than a year ago, I wrote a post about Romanticist and Classicist approaches to fantasy. It seems unusual that at the time, and since then up until this point, it never occurred to me that a similar dynamic applies to science fiction too. Just as you have the romantic fantasy authors (M. John Harrison, Lord Dunsany, Michael Moorcock) and the classicist fantasy authors (George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Phillip Pullman) there exist romantic and classicist science fiction writers too. And just as in fantasy, the distinction comes in the approach taken to mystery.

Broadly, romanticist fantasy writers celebrate mystery (think of The Wizard Knight or Time and the Gods) while classicist fantasy writers attempt to nullify its effects (a key aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is that its characters do not see the world as being somehow beyond their ken). In science fiction the dynamic is slightly different. The romanticist science fiction writers do not celebrate mystery so much as they rely on it - the reason why Star Trek technologies like transporters and warp drives can exist is that both we as the watchers and they as the writers accept that by necessity the way these technologies work has to remain a mystery. Classicist science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson) on the other hand are all about smashing mystery, about casting off its shroud and creating a knowable and understandable vision of the universe which stands up at least in theory to scientific rigour.

As with my thoughts on romanticist and classicist fantasy, I'm pretty conflicted about science fiction too. The handwavium of Star Trek is what allows it to do what it does. But there is something to be said for the sheer technical skill and intelligence it requires to create a classicist vision of the future.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Hard SF

Following on from yesterday's post I've been doing some thinking about hard SF. In principle I like the idea, you see. It's just that it's all so bloody difficult if you're a non-scientist like me. (My three GCSE Grade B's in Physics, Biology and Chemistry don't exactly stand me in good stead. What I really need to do is take a degree in Astronomy or something.)

There's also that old chestnut, the Player Investment Problem, or as I sometime think of it, the "a-realistic-game-set-in-ancient-Babylon-would-be-really-cool, but-only-1%-of-gamers-would-invest-anything-like-the-necessary-time-to-make-such-a-game-a-success problem." Which is to say, Pendragon and Harn are tough enough sells to most players. Don't even talk about a game in which you have to deal with lagrangian points and parsecs.

Transhuman Space looks interesting, were it not for the fact that I find the idea of transhumanism kind of laughable and revolting at the same time. It may be worth investigating to see if I can excise that part of it completely. Then again, that really probably just boils down to a very hard SF version of GURPS.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Solar System

[Had a busy couple of weeks socially, academically and business-ily. (Can't think of an appropriate adverb to do with business for that sentence.) Will be back to daily updates from now on.]

From Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Now, the first thing you are likely to realise is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it - the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets and other miscellaneos drifting detritus - fills less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realise that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system was drawn remotely to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighbourly intervals - the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations - but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same bit of paper. Neptune in reality isn't just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it's way beyond Jupiter - five times further than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 per cent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be about two and a half kilometres distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be 16,000 kilometres away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was no bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over 10 metres away.

In light of that, and the fact that the solar system contains 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets, 335 moons and millions of asteroids, minor planets, comets, trojans, centaurs and the like, you really have to wonder why science fiction has obsessed for so long about interstellar and intergalactic empires. Isn't the solar system big enough?

One day I'd like to see a science fiction setting in which humans have colonised the solar system, but nowhere outside it - perhaps because travelling at the speed of light, or faster, simply hasn't been invented. This would be a fractured, multiethnic star system, where travel between planetary bodies takes weeks, months or years and communication is carried out by radio, and where military conflict is a projection of warfare on planet earth. In other words, a little like the era of European colonial expansion around the mid-18th century, except probably more likely dominated by countries such as China, India and Brazil.

Perhaps this setting already exists, and I just don't know about it. If so, its creators just haven't done a good enough job of getting it out there, dammit.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Military Game

The good thing about all-night drinking on a Friday night is that it means you can legitimately spend all day on Saturday being hungover and doing self-indulgent things. Yesterday I spent much of the day playing Steel Panthers: World at War!, a freeware remake of an old PC WWII tactical wargame, and probably the most realistic and accurate of them all. Like all wargame junkies I have graduated from the marijuana of fighting the AI to the pure heroin of PBEM against human opponents; I've found that this game is just about the best online experience you can get, offering just the right level of playability and challenge - you can take your World of Warcraft and shove it.

It's got me thinking about role playing in a wartime setting. I've not played in many modern-era military-set games (I suppose Twilight 2000 is the only really noted example of the genre); I'm reasonably sure that their relative paucity in the hobby is that people assume that the Chain of Command takes away from player freedom.

This needn't necessarily the case and I would argue that many of the major wars of the last two centuries (especially the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war, the Russian civil war, the Chinese civil war, World War II) offer plenty of opportunity for adventure, primarily if the group of PCs are set up as either deserters, brigands or guerillas. For example:
  • The Kelly's Heroes campaign (or Three Kings campaign, if you will), in which the PCs go AWOL from an armed force to find fame, fortune, or something else.
  • The The Ants campaign, where a group of soldiers (the PCs) are left behind deep in enemy territory after an armistice.
  • The Russian-or-Chinese-civil-war campaign, in which the PCs are a band of mercenaries in a gargantuan country splintered into different political entities.
  • The Sharpe campaign, in which the PCs are ostensibly members of an army and have to follow orders, but seem to spend most of their lives somehow contriving to go off on special missions and generally buckle their swashes.
I like the idea of the Kelly's Heroes and Sharpe campaigns best, myself.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Tag Lines

I just grabbed myself a box of about thirty pulp SF books from the special archive at my university; not bad for £10. Lots of Pohl, Zelazny and Farmer, plus one or two Heinleins.

What I love about pulp fiction are the tag lines. These are very much a dying art; nowadays books tend to be festooned with comments from gibbering reviewers, which I always think are designed to tell you more about the reviewer than the book itself. It was more interesting when the publisher made more of an effort to get you excited about the contents.

Some choice examples:

From Tongues of the Moon by Philip Jose Farmer: "The explosive epic of a conspiracy that could free mankind - or destroy the stars!"

From My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny: "He could be anyone he chose to be...wherever and whenever he wanted. Not a bad cover for a confidential agent on assignment!"

From Coils by Zelazny and Saberhagen: "Can a man unite his mind with the soul of a machine - and survive?"

My particular favourite, though, is from an obsure Farmer title, Lord of the Trees: "Was he man, beast, or a puppet of the world's oldest conspiracy?"

I don't know, but I can't wait to find out.

You've got to love those 1970s SF covers, too. Take a look at this one, for instance:


Tell me you don't want to know what in Christ's name that is all about.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Milestone of Sorts

Wait! Stop the presses, batten down the hatches, and roll out the barrel! Monsters & Manuals has 100 blogger followers; the d20s are on me!

Thank you everybody for following this ludicrous blog. Long may it continue: ad-free, opinionated, inconsistent and downright silly.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Introduction to the Yellow City Trade Tongue

It's raining and miserable outside; typical North of England November day. So I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a nice cup of tea working on an old idea - the Yellow City Trade Tongue. Here's an introductory primer.

The Trade Tongue arose out of the need for a common language which could be spoken by both humans and slug people. Slug people, lacking teeth and having only a rudimentary palate, cannot form many sounds which humans find easy to produce. Humans, on the other hand, cannot produce the pheromones which slug people use to augment their spoken language. This created a need for a simple language accessible to both races, and over centuries the Trade Tongue has evolved as a means to fulfill that need.

Consonants

There are ten consonants in the Trade Tongue, corresponding to the sounds p, b, q, g, ɸ, ʝ, χ, ɰ, l, and h. In the roman alphabet these can be reproduced as, approximately, p, b, k, g, f, y, x, w, l and h. x is never produced as in 'xylophone' or 'extra', but always like the French r, the Spanish j, or the Portuguese rr. f is extremely light and is pronounced only with the use of the lips, not the teeth.

Vowels

There are fuve vowels - a, i, u, e, and o, almost identical to the Spanish equivalents. These can be elongated, commonly represented as á, í, ú, é, and ó, but also sometimes transcribed aa, ii, uu, ee or oo. When elongated, vowel sounds never mutate - thus e as in 'exit',
é as in 'air', but never as in 'feed'.

Sound Structure

The Trade Tongue has a highly regimented consonant-verb-consonant-verb pattern. Two consonants are never found together. It also has a strict kind of vowel harmony which means that vowels are either regular or elongated in one word, but never both. Thus aa, ii, uu, ee and oo can be found in the same word together but are never found in the same word as a, i, u, e or o, and vice-versa.

Grammar

The Trade Tongue is an agglutinative, SOV language. All the verbs are regular, and distinguished by having three past tenses (last night, yesterday, general past) and three future tenses (tonight, tomorrow, general future). Nouns and verbs are not gendered and do not inflect according to gender.

[Next step is to begin constructing the vocabulary.]

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Bakak's Skinning Knife

This long, curved knife has a blade of bronze and a large pommel of pure black onyx. It is razor sharp and very thin, designed for cutting skin from flesh.

In combat it functions as an ordinary dagger +2. It is only when it is used to skin a humanoid being that its special power comes into effect.

A skin cut by Bakak's knife can be worn by any humanoid of approximately similar size to the owner (for instance, a human can wear a human or elf skin, but not a dwarf's). Once a skin is worn it becomes a disguise so perfect that it is impossible to discern; the wearer looks exactly the same as the original possessor of the skin down to eye colour, height and weight. It cannot be discovered by a detect magic spell or similar. The only way the disguise can be noticed is by a small mark in the nape of the neck of the wearer, which looks like a tattoo in the shape of the knife itself.

A skin can be worn indefinitely, and removed at will. However, if it is worn for more than 24 hours at a stretch the wearer will find himself beginning to resemble the original possessor in more than appearance. After 24 hours, and for every subsequent 24 hour period thereafter, the wearer must taking a saving throw vs. magic. If he fails, his alignment permanently shifts to that of the original possessor of the skin.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Moth Ghosts of Muroran


Inhabiting large, spherical nests of silk which float through the crepscular space of Muroran, are a race of undead giant moths. The bulbous bodies of these creatures are twice the size of a man and their broad, heavy wings are yards across; they flap through the murky air searching for living prey, from which they suck the very soul.

The tongue of a Moth Ghost is several yards long and it is tightly coiled beneath its head. Once prey is found the tongue uncoils and hangs down beneath the body; the Moth Ghost then aims to hover above its victim and touch it with its tongue. As soon as this is accomplished the Moth Ghost can devour the life force of the unfortunate.

Moth Ghosts have no society or culture and pursue sustenance with mindless resolution. They appear to be able to sense body heat, and warm blooded travellers in the depths of Muroran will sometimes be pursued by dozens of the things, as sharks will flock to a source of blood.

Moth Ghost of Muroran

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4+4**
Move: Flying 240' (80')
Attacks: 1 touch / 1 wing buffet
Damage: None (energy drain of 1 level) / 1d8
No. App: 1-30
Save As: F4
Morale : 8
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value : 275

Special: Moth Ghosts are immune to sleep, charm and hold spells; they can only be hurt by silver or magical weapons.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

I Got My Philosophy

One thing I rather like about traditional, sandboxy D&D is that it firmly believes in self-empowerment. Once you've rolled up a character his or her fate is essentially in your hands; it's up to you to make things happen. You're the master of your own destiny - unless of course the bad luck of the dice declare otherwise. In this sense it provides valuable life lessons to youngsters (especially the geeky and bookish youngsters who the game attracts) - take risks, have adventures, make something of your life; even if you fail, which is a distinct possibility because the universe is a random and uncaring place, that's more interesting than staying in your comfort zone. Whether or not people learn those lessons is debatable, but I think they are there.

Another interesting aspect of early D&D is that it throws into sharp focus what I believe to be the crux of the human condition, namely: Are we bound by our genes or can we transcend them? Of course, the PHB doesn't use words like "genes". What I'm referring to is the way the character generation process, performed the way God intended it (3d6 in order for stats), etches the character's strengths and weaknesses in stone; they are his or her DNA as surely as your individual genome determines how tall you are and what colour eyes you have. On the one hand, this is restrictive: a character with an INT of 6 can't become a mage, just like a person as bad at maths as me can't become a quantum physicist. But on the other hand, stats can never restrict player freedom once the game has begun: it is never possible for a DM to say to a player "You can't attempt task x because your y stat is too low." You can try anything. This is somewhat contradictory, but it is also very human, at a basic level; it is the paradox that faces all of us. Your nature moulds you, but your consciousness fights to transcend that mould.

These are the thoughts once has after a few beers down at the pub watching England get beaten by Brazil in a meaningless international friendly.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Test Post

For some reason I'm not getting new posts from my blog on my RSS reader, so this is a quick test to make sure everything is working.

[Iburi System, Part VII] Tomakomai, the Flame in the Night


Tomakomai is the furthest planet from Iburi and it dwells in the coldest and darkest regions of wildspace. But it is not the place of ice and endless night that one might expect. It is a flat disc of lava and fire, so hot that it is almost a rival to Iburi itself, and it produces a constant red and orange light.

Elementals from the planes of fire, smoke and magma inhabit Tomakomai, leading some to believe that there are portals to those planes somewhere on its surface. If there are, no outsider has ever found one; the planet is so hostile an environment that it defies exploration. Most of the knowledge about it comes from the reports of an occasional mage who is able to protect himself from fire with spells and avoid being destroyed by the inhabitants. The elementals carve magical citadels for themselves out of obsidian and brass, and these sites pock the planet's surface.

There are four moons surrounding Tomakomai. They do not orbit it but are fixed, spinning, in place: one directly above the centre, one directly below, and two on a horizontal plane with the disc nominally at "east" and "west". They are traditionally called the Father, the Mother, the Sister, and the Brother respectively; a great civilisation or civilisations was once based on these moons, judging by their many ruined cities, towers, temples and monuments, but now they are only inhabited by pirates, outlaws and smugglers. Legend has it that the founders of this civilisation were a race of Mind Flayers who were exterminated by Githyanki long ago.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

[Iburi System, Part VI] Muroran, the Haunted Night


Muroran is many millions of miles beyond Utashinai, separated by a stretch of space known as the Wilderness. It is so far from Iburi that light from the Primary, by the time it arrives, is dim and faint, attenuated by distance; the brightest illumination Muroran ever experiences is a crepuscular noon akin to a twilight. Because it is made entirely from elemental air, this gives Muroran the character of a ghost - dark, ethereal, near-invisible - and indeed it is often called The Haunted Night by the wayfarers who know of it. Its vast airy wastes are swept by storms and shrouded by cloud and fog.

There are many legends about Muroran; it is so poorly known that myths and rumours seem to rise up from its murky depths as if under their own volition. Many of these surround its supposed inhabitants (giant winged spiders, flying kraken, intelligent moths), but the most persistent speak of small islands of rock which float through the night and which could be mined for gold and silver if only they could be discovered.

Muroran has a single, small rocky moon in its orbit. This is known as Nopporo's Moon after its solitary inhabitant, the archmage Nopporo. So powerful that he has discovered the secret of eternal life, Nopporo lives in a tall tower at the moon's north pole, served by many varieties of magical automata which he created long ago. He has lived for thousands of years in this manner and is quite mad, as likely to be compassionate as cruel. His automata are sentient but their behaviour seems to naturally fluctuate with Nopporo's moods.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Twit Off

I've deleted my twitter account. I know quite a few people who read this blog follow me there. I tried it for six months and have decided I actively detest pretty much everything about it. (No reflection on the people I follow on there; just the interface, mindset and philosophy of the thing.) This is by way of explanation for those who might miss my rare and boring tweets.

More Spelljammer later.

[Iburi System Part V] Utashinai, the Verdant


Utashinai is almost equal to Rumoi in size and grandeur, though in most other resepcts it could not be more different. It is a world of jungles, swamps, deserts and lush grasslands, of crocodile people, Yuan-ti and fire giants, and of dinosaurs - above all dinosaurs, who throng its sultry surface.

Utashinai is dominated by thick bands of mountains which are the result of the constant restlessness of its tectonics. Volcanoes abound; the air is rich with oxygen and the soil packed with fertility, making it the most verdant and populous of Iburi's planets. There are countless different kingdoms, empires, sultanates, oligarchies, kritocracies, chiefdoms, and many other varities of polity patchworking its surface.

All the intelligent races of Utashinai domesticate dinosaurs and use them as beasts of burden, war and transport.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

[Iburi System Part IV] Rumoi and the Thirteen Bodies


Rumoi is the third planet of the Iburi system, and its biggest in both size and population. Its surface is composed of one single great ocean, a vast savannah of blue, grey and black waves which is only broken by ice caps at the north and south poles.

However, the planet is not made up entirely of water - it has a rocky core and in places coral reefs and underwater mountain ranges come within a dozen or so yards of the surface. The majority of its inhabitants make their homes in such places.

Rumoi's population is incredibly diverse, as befits a vast ocean; from tritons to kraken to locathah, dozens of intelligent sea-dwelling races are present in its great depths. Its species are entirely disunited except in one respect - a propensity for the creation of cargo cults. Many wayfarers from space descend to the surface to trade, and religious movements which claim to be able to summon these outsiders proliferate. Often these cults envisage an elaborate cosmology in which the thirteen bodies which orbit Rumoi are Gods, who provide the wayfarers from the heavens with the technological gifts they possess.

The Thirteen Bodies are actual bodies, though nobody knows of what. They drift in an aimless orbit around Rumoi and appear as asteroids at a cursory glance. Close inspection however reveals vaguely humanoid, mammalian or insectoid shapes, as if each was once a living thing, long petrified into stone. All thirteen are inhabited and each is independent; they jostle with each other incessantly for dominance (sometimes in outright war). Their trade links extend throughout the system and even beyond its crystal sphere - they are the nerve centre of Iburi and its cultural and intellectual capital.

The Thirteen Bodies are named for what they most closely resemble (for example The Bear, The Man, The Child, The Locust) except for one, which is known as The Sleeper and which has the shape of some unknown beaked grotesque. Legend has it that one day The Sleeper will awaken, shed off its layers of stone, and devour the others.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

[Iburi System Part III] Shiribeshi, the Warmthless


Shiribeshi is a giant curved U, spinning on an upright axis, locked in a permanent ice age. Its surface is a sea of glaciers, occasionally punctured by islands of mountains, and it is constantly swept by gale force winds, blizzards and ice storms. Very few outsiders can tolerate its frigid temperatures, but its groundling population is vast - ice trolls, quaggoths, remorhaz, derro, white dragons, giants, and many other varities of cold-loving beings.

Because of Shiribeshi's unusual shape it has certain unique characteristics. On the inside of the U days are short and separated by a few hours of "half night" around noon as the opposite side of the curve passes before the light of Iburi. Meanwhile, on the tips of the U and at its base there is never night - for the whole year light approaches from an oblique angle, providing the extremities of the planet with constant weak illumination.

Derro are the dominant intelligent race in large swathes of Shiribeshi and they make their homes in citadels in the mountains, where they burrow deep down underneath the planet's surface, mining for minerals. These are traded with visitors from other worlds, mainly for human slaves who the derro can torture, eat, and put to work. Ruinous wars are fought between different derro polities over the best lodes.

Friday, 30 October 2009

[Iburi System Part II] Abashiri, the Old

Abashiri is a small, flat disc of rock barely 10 miles in diameter, orbiting very close to the fiery ring of Iburi. Its geography is simple: a ridge of mountains runs directly through its centre, with a small area of hills and flatland on either side. Abashiri rotates slowly and in perfect synchronisation with its orbit so that the same side of the mountanis always faces Iburi; this means that one side is constantly bathed in the light and heat of the Primary, while the other is in the permanent shadow of the mountains. From the highest peaks the edges of the disc and the stars beyond can be clearly seen.

Only two intelligent races inhabit Abashiri in any numbers, and their settlement areas are sharply divided by the mountains. On the Iburi side (sometimes called "The Face") live two tribes of primitive Thri-Kreen who thrive on the warmth and constant sunlight they enjoy. On the outward side (called "The Tail") are a handful of wild clans of Grimlocks dwelling in unending near-darkness and frigid temperatures. There are no cities or towns and the only permanent settlements are Grimlock caves and tunnels; the Thri-Kreen are nomadic. It probably has fewer than 100 inhabitants.

Abashiri produces little of value and is rarely visited by travellers from other bodies, though pirates and outlaws occasionally hide there. It is often called "Abashiri, the Old" by those who know of its existence; this arises from the ancient legend that the bodies orbiting Iburi were once living beings, lost in the phlogiston, who came to the Primary one by one. In this mythology Abashiri was believed to be the first to arrive and the last to die, and is hence the most aged.

[Iburi System Part I] Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space


By God I love a good random generator, and Spelljammer's Universe Builder is the ultimate in both scope and elegance. I'm going to create myself a little planetary system, just for the hell of it. Today I'll do the basics; tomorrow we'll see about fleshing things out.

1. System Type - Is our system your ordinary orbital one, or is it 'special' (a void, nested spheres, etc.)? The answer: standard. That's fine, this is our first effort after all.

2. Primary Type - Do we have a central sun/star, or do our planets orbit something weird and wonderful like a portal to the Negative Material Plane? Earth Body. The centre of this system is not a sun or star, but a body of elemental earth. Less weird than it could have been, but stranger than average. It's a massive cluster of asteriods surrounded by a huge, saturn-like ring of magma and fire which provides light and warmth for the entire system, and it is called Iburi.

3. Number of Planets - 6. Perfect - not too many, not too few.

4. Planet Types. Let's find out what's orbiting Iburi.
  • First up is an Earth type, which we'll call Abashiri. It's a tiny flatworld - a disc floating in space a safe but slightly uncomfortable distance from Iburi.
  • Second is Shiribeshi, another Earth type, considerably bigger than Abashiri, with an irregular shape; it takes the form of a gigantic U, with its inhabitants living on the outside edge. It is locked into a permanent ice age.
  • Next is a Water planet, Rumoi. It is gargantuan, a monstrous oceanic sphere floating through space. It has a cluster of 13 asteroids in orbit around it, believed by its inhabitants to be the corpses of 13 dead gods.
  • Fourth we have Utashinai, another Earth type and another giant to rival Rumoi in size. It is uncommonly hot, with a geography characterized by steaming jungles, parched deserts and vast sultry swamps. This is caused by massive levels of volcanic activity on its surface.
  • Fifth is an Air planet, Muroran, another mighty body, composed entirely of swirling wind, clouds, and pure oxygen. It is vastly distant from the other four planets, but is known to have one, solitary moon.
  • Finally, furthest from Iburi but itself a great source of light and heat, is Tomakomai, a great flat disc of flame. It is dominated by one great civilisation (perhaps beings of elemental fire?), and has 4 scorched moons orbiting it.
Starting tomorrow we'll think these worlds out in a little more detail. Feel free to make suggestions as to what kind of inhabitants they might have and what their geographies are like.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

I talk to planets baby

I've been on a real Spelljammer kick recently ever since reading this entry. Spelljammer is one of those things that you tend to forget about for long stretches of your life, but comes back with a vengeance when you least expect it. Like a girl you went out with in school and who you always bump into when you go back to your home town. You don't often mention her and you can go for years without even thinking about her. Then there she is on the dance floor, bam. And you want to play with her.

Ahem. Anyway, yeah, Spelljammer.

There are three things that I find interesting about Spelljammer.

The Grand List of Things That Are Interesting about Spelljammer
  1. It taps into that very compelling subgenre of fantasy that is sometimes called "Sword and Planet" ("Science fantasy" is both boring and inaccurate), and which swirls, vortex-like, around a certain Michael Moorcock. We all know about the connections between Hawkwind (the ur space rockers) and that author, but it goes much deeper than that - just about every Eternal Champion incarnation has some sort of space-going element to it. And since the Eternal Champion is just about the most interesting fantasy series ever written (if not the best, always the most interesting) that makes Spelljammer interesting too - brilliance through association. That's not even to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  2. Don't even get me started on the picaresque. The thesis that D&D is a picaresque seems compelling to me and you don't get a better setting for that than riding through the phlogiston on a star sailing ship, landing on random planets and meeting space orcs. You just don't.
  3. There are not one, not two, but three subgenres of Spelljammer game which you can explore. (There are more than that actually, but let's look at the main three.
  • Horror Spelljammer. In space no one can hear you scream. In the phlogiston, people might hear you scream as the pack of githyanki pirates begin to eviscerate you with astral cleavers, but seeing as those people are likely to be illithids and neogi, you can forget being home in time for dinner. Spelljammer has a potential like no other setting (except Planescape, natch) for existential terror: in the big bad prime material plane there is only murder and pain.
  • Traveller Spelljammer. Roll up a sector of crystal spheres on a hex map and go off a-trading with the Zhodani scro in a combination of (arguably) the two greatest role playing games of all time. Just be careful of those space elves waiting in that asteroid belt.
  • Trad Spelljammer. The background music is Hawkwind, The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd, Monster Magnet, Klaatu, Ziggy Stardust, and weird Daft-Punk-esque French synth pop; the flavour art is stills from Ulysses 31 and Thundercats, the illithids are dressed like Marc Bolan. It's so naff that it has gone beyond naff into cool again. It's Spelljammer how God intended it, and it is really, really great.

When people talk about imaginative 2nd edition era settings they tend to bring up Dark Sun and Planescape the most, but if you ask me Spelljammer gives them both a serious run for their money. Buy it, play it, love it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

War Crayfish

When the people of the Mountains of the Moon go to war, they employ phalanxes of specially bred giant crayfish - their equivalent of heavy cavalry. These crayfish are usually armoured with additional special barding and sharpened claws.

There are many problems associated with the use of war crayfish. They are stupid, belligerent and usually half-starved to make them more aggressive, so they are as likely to attack their own side as the other if they are not properly controlled. Though they have been bred for many generations to live out of the water, they still have to return to fresh water once a day. And they are totally incapable of following any but the most basic commands - essentially: face left, face right, face straight ahead, attack, halt. But timed correctly a crayfish charge can destroy entire formations of foot troops.

War crayfish are controlled with the aid of special magical items - Helms of Crustacean Control - which are operated by a religious cult of mercenary eunuchs. These eunuchs travel the oligarchies of the Mountains of the Moon, offering their services to the highest bidder; they are paid only in platinum and slave boys, who they train as apprentices. They have their own religion, which is based on a the worship of a pantheon of crayfish gods, and call themselves the Kep kep.

As well as being used in military formations, individual war crayfish are sometimes kept as pets or bodyguards, or found in gladiatorial arenas.

War Crayfish

Armour Class: 0 (with bronze scale barding)
Hit Dice: 4+4*
Move: 120' (60')
Attacks: 2 claws
Damage: 2d6+4/2d6+4 (with sharpened claws)
No. App: Special (up to 30 in one formation)
Save As: F3
Morale : Special
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value : 125

Special: One eunuch controller can command up to 30 war crayfish. If he is killed, his charges will attack the nearest warm-blooded creature - or, failing that, move in a random direction in search of fresh water.

War crayfish cause fear when they charge at non-elite troops and horses. Horses will flee in terror from a war crayfish charge for d6 turns; non-elite troops are permitted a saving throw vs. magic.

Helm of Crustacean Control

This helmet takes the form of a large copper crab, which grasps the wearer's skull with its legs. It allows the wearer to command up to 30 crustaceans who are within one mile. It also allows the wearer to sense telepathically any crustacean life within that distance.

Only a eunuch can operate a Helm of Crustacean Control. If a non-eunuch puts such a helm on his head its legs will press inwards and slowly crush his skull, killing him over the course of five turns. Once this process has begun it can only be stopped by a wish spell.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Come not between the dragon and his wrath


I read today something which surprised me from several different directions:
In previous editions, metallic dragons were good aligned, meaning that a DM would have to either create reasons that that the dragons were violently opposed to the PCs, or just ignore the “Always Lawful Good” and similar alignments. As we already knew from Monster Manual 2, this default assumption has changed a bit, tossing many of the metallic dragons squarely into the Unaligned category, giving some wiggle room to those playing it by the book. Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons takes it even further...
Critical hits previewing Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons, how doth thee surprise me, let me count the ways:
  1. The trivial one: You're telling me metallic dragons weren't in the first 4e Monster Manual? I suppose that makes sense from a business point of view (don't blow your load of iconics on the first book, because nobody will be interested in the second) but still.
  2. More serious: It's amazing how combat-oriented this quote reveals 4e to be. The fanboys on rpg.net will say otherwise, but how else are we to interpret this radical rethink of "good" dragons, other than that it is geared to making them a more convenient enemy to fight? I'm particularly interested in this idea that in previous editions, DMs would either have to dream up reasons for metallic dragons being "violently opposed" to the PCs, or else just ignore the default alignment. It seems to imply that the only reason why you would want a monster to appear in a game is to have the PCs fight it. What happened to, you know, PCs just interacting with creatures, as opposed to fighting them?
  3. The third surprise: Where usually I read stuff about 4e and it makes me want to poke myself in the eye with a fork, I find myself conflicted about whether I think this is a bad development or a good one.

On the one hand, there is something in me that is repelled by the wimpiness of D&D dragons, and especially the good ones. The blame more or less lies with the Dragonlance books, which started off by building up dragons into terrifying demigods but wound up painting them as little more than big and talkative flying pets. Dragons should be in my opinion the most powerful and frightening D&D monsters; from The Bible to the legends of Tiamat to the works of William Blake to The Lord of the Rings, their most compelling portrayals have always been huge and mighty embodiments of malice, antagonism and cruelty. So doing away with good dragons is something I can get behind.

But on the other hand, I do think there is a place in the game for what you might call Old Testament Good - by which I mean the portrayal of God in those volumes as so Good he is to be feared. The stern, just, righteous kind of Good that sees wrongdoers turned into pillars of salt and smites the wicked. Good dragons play into that - as holy guardians and powerful fighters against evil everywhere. A bit like Batman, maybe.

So I view this development with mixed feelings. On the one hand, making Good dragons Neutral so that it's okay to fight them represents a kind of depressing banalism - yet more fodder for the Awesome Things Hitting Each Other routine that the 4e designers seem to want people to play. And yet on the other hand it represents a more-than-welcome step away from the odious Weis-and-Hicksian vision of Dragon-as-My-Little-Pony. A tough call, but I give the move a C+.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Kójó Cigarettes

As is the case everywhere in Yoon-Suin, the people of Lamarakh are keen smokers. Because they are river nomads who do not plant crops, they instead use the leaves of various trees found lining their waterways, particularly those of the kójó. The kójó is an ordinary jungle tree with rather mundane looking, but tasty, red fruits. Its large leaves are dried and then crushed, then wrapped in a whole one and smoked.

Something about the nature of kójó leaves allows them to be easily imbued with minor spells and cantrips, and a cottage industry has grown up in Lamarakh selling such magical cigarettes to traders from the Hundred Kingdoms, the Yellow City, Sughd and elsewhere. Some varieties are listed below:

Love Cigarette (50 gold pieces)

The smoke from this cigarette acts like a temporary charm person spell if it is blown directly into the face. The victim is permitted a saving throw vs. magic to resist the effects. The spell wears off after 12 hours.

Red Eye Cigarette (20 gold pieces)

This cigarette endows the smoker with infravision of 60' for 12 hours.

Ghost Eye Cigarette (10 gold pieces)

Invisible beings can be seen by looking through the smoke of this cigarette, as if it is a lens. This only lasts as long as the cigarette itself is lit.

Cigarette of Judgement (10 gold pieces)

The smoke from this cigarette functions as a know alignment spell; gazing through it at somebody reveals their nature to the smoker.

Cigarette of Choking (20 gold pieces)

This cigarette's smoke is equivalent to a stinking cloud spell which only affects one person. Inhaled directly it is safe, but when it is exhaled into the face of another it induces vomiting and weakness.

All cigarettes last for three minutes.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Yiyik's Hookah

[Inspired by something Alexis put in the comments to yesterday's post.]

Yiyik's Hookah

Yiyik, an archmage from Sughd, was fond of two things above all others: smoking and cruelty. He created a giant hookah with which to combine them.

The hookah itself has a large basin some four feet in height and eight in diameter; unlike other hookahs it is rather squat in shape, with its large charcoal burner plate being four feet in diameter but extending upwards only one foot. The basin is made from blue amber; the plate and burner are burnished bronze. There are four gold figurines at compass points at the top of the basin; one a tiger, another a dragon, a third a yak and a fourth an ape. From the mouth of each extends a hose with which to inhale.

Yiyik's Hookah can be smoked with ordinary tobacco and water. But if a living thing is sealed within the bowl, it causes magical effects; the creature begins to slowly dissolve in the smoke filtering downwards [losing one hit point per inhalation], and its very essence is sucked out through the hoses and into the lungs of the smokers.

This has three effects. First, it allows those inhaling the smoke to have access to all the captured being's memories and experiences. All secrets are rendered knowable to those smoking its essence. Second, it allows the smokers to steal the captive's magical knowledge. Any spells that the captive has memorised at the point of dissolution are then memorised by the smoker, who can cast them as usual that day in addition to his or her daily allotment of spells. (They are forgotten at the stroke of midnight.) Even non-mages have access to this effect.

Thirdly, the hookah slowly kills the unfortunate victim, who gradually withers and fades into liquid and smoke.

The hookah can only be opened from the outside.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Magical Cigarettes, Pipes, and Other Smoking Paraphernalia


I'm only an occasional smoker (and I used to smoke a lot more than I do now) but it seems unfortunate even to me that the depths of tobacco-related products are so unplumbed by D&D designers. After all, just look at how cool Gandalf, the chain-smoking wizard, is. The reason for the deliberate oversight is obvious - the designers didn't want to encourage kids to smoke, or at least didn't want to be accused of doing so. But hang on, isn't this a game in which the characters routinely engage in murder, theft, whoring and torture?

There are six categories of magical tobacco and tobacco related paraphernalia:
  1. Tobacco or other smoked material that causes its effects on the body via direct inhalation, i.e. which affects the physiology of the smoker;
  2. Tobacco or other smoked material that causes its effects on the body via indirect inhalation, i.e. which affects the physiology of those who the smoke is blown at or who inhale it second hand;
  3. Tobacco or other smoked material with effects that come about through the act of exhalation, i.e. with smoke which is itself intrinsically magical;
  4. Smoking-related equipment which conveys miscellaneous magical proporties to ordinary smoke;
  5. Smoking-related equipment which conveys miscellaneous magical properties to the smoker;
  6. Smoking-related equipment with miscellaneous magical properties which come about through the act of smoking but do not directly affect the smoke or smoker.
Of these, I would argue that the third is perhaps the most interesting, as it allows for the possibility of pipes, cigarettes etc. which summon beings from the Elemental Plane of Smoke. Hence:

Pipe of The Mephits

This is a very long and thin smoking pipe, with a stem made from amber and a graphite bowl. Both the bit and the bowl are decorate with whorled etched patterns inlaid with brass. The entire pipe is apparently impervious to harm and never shows signs of wear.

When the pipe is filled and puffed it takes one round for sufficient smoke to build in the immediate area. After another round the smoke begins to coalesce into vaguely humanoid, winged shapes. Finally, after the third round, 2d3 smoke mephits will have taken shape around the smoker.

These mephits always obey the smoker, though they are not mindless automata: their nature is capricious and wicked and they will take every opportunity available to twist, ignore or pervert the commands given to them. Their summoning from the Paraelemental Plane of Smoke is generally permanent, however, and they will be bound to the smoker until destroyed or released (by the smoker's death or command). The only exception to this is if they can immerse themselves in the smoke released by zinc burning in air; this allows them to break their bonds.

The Pipe of the Mephits functions as an ordinary pipe once it has been used to summon mephits in this way; it cannot summon more until the first group have been destroyed or released.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Amiga Power, Kangaroo Court, and RPGs

I'm not much of a magazine reader - if I'm going to have to leaf through a hundred pages of advertisements to read fifty pages of actual content they can pay me for the privilege, not the other way round - and the quality is generally better on the internet these days anyway. I'll make exceptions for Private Eye, The Economist and New Scientist, but that's about it.

When I was younger the ratio of shite to quality was much lower, and I had quite a few monthly subscriptions. Foremost among this elite group was the Commodore Amiga magazine Amiga Power, which I read religiously between 1991 and 1996 and still think of fondly. Written with a certain wit and intelligence which other games magazines don't have (writers were hired on the basis of writing skill rather than games knowledge, on the basis that it's easier to learn about games than to learn how to write), it's the kind of magazine that you could enjoy even if you didn't have any interest in the subject matter. The kind of games magazine that would write reviews of joysticks in-character as the Four Cyclists of the Apocalypse, make up 'Stupendous Tales' features exploring the sinister cult of spectators who can be seen in the background of fighting games like Streetfighter II (known as the "Behind Men"), and publish game write-ups so cuttingly disdainful that game companies would regularly try to sue. (AP's 'unique' sense of humour can be sampled on the myriad tribute pages, written by original mag contributors, here.) Some of this was down to the nature of Amiga owners, who in the early part of the 1990s were already a rather eccentric breed and who by the middle part of the decade could only be described as perverse - what with the SNES, Playstations and PCs readily available. As Cam Wistanley remarks:

"We never had to make up any letters because we could always get enough proper good ones. You never voted with your money by not buying us simply because we talked bollocks, never went on sale on time or produced slightly biffy cover disks. We succeeded because the Amiga owner was from that breed of slightly odd ZX Spectrum owner and therefore appreciated entertainment over information.

PC owners seem to be the other way round, which is why a PC POWER would never have worked - too many people would have written in to say 'Why must you waste space on features about the links between JFK and the Rwandan massacres? Couldn't you devote that space more sensibly to a roundup of modems?'

And then we'd have had to kill them."


One of AP's best features was Kangaroo Court, a monthly column in which game design "crimes" were detailed, a case for the prosecution made in a witty and entertaining manner, and a sentence (e.g. "execution by underwater spear-gun firing squad") prescribed. It only ran for 10 issues; the list of "crimes" covered will be well familiar to anybody who used to play computer games in the 1990s, and included:
  • "Loading...please wait" messages;
  • The Invisible Killer ("Having areas in your game where the player is killed without warning by something they couldn't see before it hit them, and then are expected to complete the game by finding all these areas (by dying, obviously) and then remembering where they are.");
  • Slip Slidin' Away ("Including in your game a so-called 'slippy-slidey ice world,' where normal inertia is greatly exaggerated to provide a more 'realistic' simulation of a character walking on an icy or snow-covered surface."); and
  • The Cheese Plant, then, maybe? ("Attempting to improve a game's presentation by replacing its menu screens with confusing, badly-drawn illustrations, areas of which you must click on to activate the various options.")
Which is of course a concept that can be applied to many different hobbies, including, for example, role playing games.

What would be Kangaroo Court candidates for me? I can think of a few:
  • It is an orc, but it is not an orc: Creatures in fantasy games that are to all intents and purposes orcs (or goblins, or elves, or dragons) except with another name, as if that's enough to make them original. Example: Eladrin in D&D 4e, who let's face it, are just elves, but not elves.
  • This is kewl and awesome: When it's obvious that the game designers are practically orgasming in their pants over the sheer brilliance of their own creation. Example: almost anything ever written about the drow.
  • If only real life could be like this: Wankfest utopian fantasy settings which are essentially thinly veiled political whinges. Example: Blue Rose.
  • This is what real imagination looks like: Excessive weirdness for the sheer sake of appearing creative. Examples: the setting for Reign; the Duck people from Glorantha.
  • This is an indie game, so it uses dice pools: Self explanatory, really.

There would have to be suitable sentences meted out by the RPG Kangaroo Court, of course. Underwater spear gun execution for the more minor offences.

Friday, 16 October 2009

She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean, she was the best damn woman that I ever seen

Zak Smith, artist, porn star, player of Blixa the thief in my Warhammer FRP game, and general all round renaissance man, has started a new blog. It's called Playing D&D with Porn Stars and it can be found here. It is much recommended - Zak is if nothing else a very inventive guy in-game and is a top commenter on Monsters & Manuals entries. Yes, the premise of the blog sounds too good to be true, but I can personally confirm that Strippers Like Gaming; a stripper ex-girlfriend of mine was among other things a huge D&D fan. (Unfortunately, she only ever used to play 3.5. She was also a lunatic. A tautology perhaps?)

Anyway. Enjoy. I'm back in England for a bit on business and before that was mostly being a newlywed and drinking. Regular posting schedule should start up again tomorrow. For sure this time! Highlights will include:
  • Nostaligia for a particular Commodore Amiga related magazine;
  • Thoughts on anthropomorphic insectoid Basic D&D;
  • A Yoon-Suin map;
  • Session playlists for ones iPod; and
  • Many varieties of magical cigarettes
Wait in bated breath.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Spare me the 'insights'

Sometimes google reader throws up these little blog recommendations. Often they are crushingly dull and of no interest whatsoever to me. ("English skill isn't built in a day", a blog about trying to learn English, for example. Not only do I know how to speak English, I also spent some years of my life despising myself for teaching it, so why on earth I would want to read such a blog is beyond me.) But sometimes you get some vaguely interesting titbits.

It was through such a recommendation that I came across the (now defunct) blog Enter the Octopus, what seems to have been a general grab bag of geek miscellania. This entry caught my interest; in particular this quote, which seems to have been cited with approval:

"Populated with cross-bred elves and dwarves, fantasy realms make people feel not quite so freakish, releasing them from their cages of identity. Playing half- or non-human characters can be an exploration of their freak side, a new door into themselves..."

pp. 56-57, Chapter Four, "Into the Dungeon Again"

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms
, by Ethan Gilsdorf.

Mainly because it seems like cod arm-chair psychology of the most banal kind. (You'll notice it's also self-contradictory - either fantasy realms make people feel less freakish or they help people explore their freakish side; which is it?)

I never think of fantasy gaming in that vein, and know very few people who do. Gaming is fun for a lot of reasons, but for me it has never ever been about making me feel "not so freakish", releasing me from my "cage of identity" or allowing me to explore my "freak side". I can do all that with beer. Maybe absinthe if I really want to explore my freak side.

Gaming for me is about two things: playing a game, socialising and stretching your imagination. All fun and worthy endeavours, especially when mixed. And there's nothing much more complicated to it than that.

Friday, 9 October 2009

God River Dolphins


Many species of river dolphin inhabit the myriad waterways of the God River. Most are harmless to anything other than fish, but a few species are also big and powerful enough to hunt human prey. Some are even known to attack canoes and other small river craft, knocking their crew into the water to be devoured. They are intelligent, fast, and can deafen and disorient prey with their sonar blasts.

Large River Dolphin

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4*(M)
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 2d6
No. App: 3d6
Save As: F3
Morale: 7
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 6
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 125

Special Attacks: River dolphins can target concentrated blasts of sonar at their prey. These blasts hit automatically and have a range of 20'. Victims must save vs. breath attack or be stunned (-2 to hit rolls, no spells, movement rate halved) for d3 rounds.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Nikolaus Storzenbecher, the Triton-Touched

The tritons of Bothnia do not tolerate intruders. Sailors who enter their territory, whether deliberately or otherwise, are attacked and captured. Their boats are then sunk and they find themselves stripped of all their belongings and left out at sea at night, miles from shore, to face "the judgement of the waves". Those who are pure of purpose are washed to shore unharmed by morning, while those who are not, drown.

It is said that only one man who was not pure of purpose has survived the judgement of the waves. His name is Nikolaus Storzenbecher, and he is chief of the pirate gang known as the Vitalienbrüder. According to the story, Storzenbecher was among the perpetrators of the sacking of Bergen in the spring of 1342. Fleeing capture he sailed due east, to the far kelp forests, and headed north to triton waters, knowing that none would be brave enough to follow. He presumably hoped to hide there long enough to avoid pursuit. But within hours of entering the triton domain his ship was capsized by a great wave and most of his crew were drowned; he and five companions were the only ones to survive long enough to be captured by the tritons.

Storzenbecher and his five companions were left out in the cold grey sea that very night, naked and helpless, to face the judgement of the waves. Only Storzenbecher made it back to shore alive. So much is known, or has been told by Storzenbecher himself.

But how he survived is a mystery. He was not pure of purpose, and in spring Bothnian waters are still cold enough to kill a man within minutes. Some say that Storzenbecher was aided by a beautiful sea spirit, who brought him back to shore in exchange for his seed, and that somewhere out in the gulf lives the product of that union - a boy even crueller and prouder than his father. Others say that the pirate somehow struck a bargain with the tritons, the content of which can only be guessed at. Still more believe that Storzenbecher was somehow helped by whales or dolphins. One of the more outlandish rumours is that a mighty kraken spared the man, recognising in him a soul even more evil than its own. What is for sure is that Storzenbecher either will not, or cannot, say.

Sometimes skeptical souls challenge that the tale contains any truth at all; they accuse Storzenbecher of making up the story so as to enhance his own prestige, and believe that he probably never went to triton waters at all. This may indeed be true. Pirates are not famous for their honesty. The only evidence that anything unusual happened to Storzenbecher that spring night is that previously his eyes were brown, and now they are a cold grey-blue.

NIkolaus Storzenbecher, the Triton-Touched

Level 8 Human Fighter
Chaotic Evil

STR 17
INT 13
WIS 16
CON 17
DEX 12
CHR 17

HP: 50
AC: 4

Equipment: Broadsword, handaxe, spear, studded leather armour.

Magic Items: Storzenbecher wears a plain copper ring of protection +3, and carries a flask each of Oil of Fiery Burning, Potion of Human Control and Potion of Giant Strength.

DM's Note: Once per day, Storzenbecher can summon aquatic monsters to his aid. These appear within 1d6 rounds. He can summon 2d3 scrags, 1d10 merrow, 5d4 lacedons or 5d6 sharks (3-5 HD). This power is a closely guarded secret which even his crew know nothing about; Storzenbecher willl only use it if his life is in great danger.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Back in the Swing

Looks like I'm finally getting back in business again. It also looks as if I managed a grand total of 0 posts during my wedding preparations. I thought I might have time for at least a couple, but clearly not!

So what's new in the world of noisms? Not a huge amount, is the answer. I was astounded to discover a branch of Yellow Submarine, Japan's answer to Forbidden Planet, in a rather anonymous Kawasaki suburb yesterday. The wife and I were wandering around a department store when suddenly there it was, bold as brass, a geek paradise par excellence somehow sprouting up between all the Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton boutiques, like some hideous banana-coloured alien. Naturally I forced the missus to spend an incredibly boring half hour in there while I paged through the Japanese edition of D&D 4e. I can confirm it is as unappealing to me in that form as it is in the original English. (And bloody expensive too: over 6000 yen for the PHB, which is about 45 quid in today's money or something approaching US$65.)

Otherwise, I've been working on some bits and pieces of flavour art for Yoon-Suin, as well as a map, which I'll post at some point - namely when it doesn't look like the pathetic scrawlings of an utter non-talent.

Good to be back. Regular posting will start later today or tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Hiatus?

The question mark is there because I'm not sure how much of a hiatus it is. Basically, I'm getting married next week (for the third time, but to the same woman; long story). And with all the concomitant skylarking and derring-do that's involved in planning and carrying out a wedding, I just don't know how much time I'll have for blogging.

I might get some entries done but I might not. This is just by way of explanation should any of you think "that noisms fellow is getting fucking lazy and/or running out of ideas". (In any case, as you should know, I've always been lazy, and I have too many ideas for my own good.) Things should pick up again come October.

I know there's likely to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the prospect of this blog being quiet for a few weeks. Try to get along without me. I know it will be very, very hard.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Grasshoppermen of Lower Druk Yul


Druk Yul is known as a realm of huge mountains, some of them 10,000 or more metres high. But the land is divided into two geographically distinct areas: Upper Druk Yul, where the bulk of the mountains are concentrated, and Lower Druk Yul, which is a vast semi-tropical area of hilly grassland. It is a wild borderland without any form of centralised authority; the crystal dragons of Upper Druk Yul care little for conquest and the traders of Lamarakh are ill at ease away from the riverland. Otherwise it is sometimes crossed by merchants and messengers moving between the mountains and the lowlands, but that is all.

A race of humanoid grasshoppers inhabit the area. They have so little contact with other peoples that they are barely known outside of Druk Yul; in the languages of Lamarakh and the lowlands they are called only by names meaning "Grasshoppermen". They live a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle, feeding mainly off giant cicadas and locusts, roaming about in bands consisting of around 20 adults and 30 juveniles. They are aggressive and territorial, and tend to attack any intelligent being which enters what they deem to be their land. But they can sometimes be bartered with or placated with gifts, if a method can be devised for communication.

Grasshoppermen are powerful fighters, usually attacking by leaping on a foe and wrestling them to the ground to be devoured. Though they do not wear armour or use weapons, they have tough exoskeletons and massive jaws which can crunch through steel. They grow to be 8 or 9 feet tall and can fly for short distances. They are most commonly encountered in scouting or hunting parties of up to a dozen or so adult males.

Grasshoppermen of Lower Druk Yul

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4+2*
Move: 120'(40')
Flying: 150'(50')
Attacks: 1 bite / 2 claws / special (see below)
Damage: 1d8/1d4/1d4
No. Appearing: 2d6
Save As: F5
Morale: 8
Treasure Type:
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 200

Special Attacks / Defenses: Grasshoppermen can sacrifice all their attacks in one turn to make a leap of up to 150' in any direction during the movement phase.

If both a Grasshopperman's claws hit in one round, he can wrestle his opponent to the ground. The victim cannot move or attack when wrestled, and the Grasshopperman's bite attacks automatically hit him each round until he can escape. Grasshoppermen are much stronger than other humanoid peoples and the only way to free a wrestled victim is for his comrades to reduce the attacker to 50% of his remaining hit points (calculated from the moment of the wrestling attack).

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Brazilian-Japanese Gaming

Attending the Brazilian-Japanese Festival 2009 in Yoyogi yesterday = noisms has a crushing hangover today. (I do at least retain some memories of the "Miss Brazilian-Japanese 2009" competition, thankfully.)

The link between Brazil and Japan is one of those odd footnotes of world history; you don't get two countries that are as different as the one is from the other, and yet they have a close relationship stemming back 100 years. The biggest population of Japanese people (1.4 million) outside of Japan can be found in Brazil, and there are perhaps 300,000 Brazilians of Japanese descent living in Japan. The mingling of Japanese and Portuguese ethnicities has created a unique lusaphone culture all of its own.

Here are some Brazilian-Japanese games I'd like to run:
  • Call of Cthulu. The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908, where they found work on coffee plantations around Sao Paulo. This game would involve a group of these immigrants and their encounters with sinister and mysterious Entities in the Brazilian countryside.
  • GURPS. Many Nazis fled to South America after WWII, and it wouldn't surprise me if there were Japanese war criminals who did the same. This game would involve a group of investigators trying to track down such people in 1950s Sao Paulo. A little bit of Munich, a little bit of The Boys from Brazil, and a touch of The Dark Ocean Society.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard, set in a kind of fantasy Southern Brazil, where the players are religious elders in the Japanese community, enforcing the will of the Gods.

I'll never run those games because let's face it, I don't have the time. But a man can dream.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Ghost Children of Kevelish Vo

Kevelish Vo was infamous even when it was at its zenith - a saying in the foothills at the time had it that "There is blood on the knives of Kevelish Vo from the moment they are forged." Nowadays its streets lie empty and in ruins, haunted by bandits, murderers, cannibals and ghosts. No knives are forged there these days, though blood is still plentiful.

The nadir of the civilisation that the men of Kevelish Vo founded was the Autumn Plague, when sickness descended on the foothills and emptied them of human life. The city's masters ordered the slaughter of all of the female children under the age of 9 to appease their gods (whose names are now forgotten); it did not save them, and all the people of the city died.

The ghosts of those girls remain in the ruined city, however, driven insane by the manner of their deaths and the eons that have passed. On certain nights they run through the city streets like packs of wild dogs, venting their incoherent rage on whoever or whatever they come across.


The Ghost Children of Kevelish Vo

These female ghosts roam the streets only on one night every month (randomly determined - roll a d30 on the first day of each month). Appearing as naked human females from the ages of 2 to 9, they generally seek to kill any living thing they come across. Clerics, however, can sometimes communicate with them for a time; though their blasted minds summon little in the way of meaning, they know all of Kevelish Vo's geography intimately. Of course, they always require payment - usually a living sacrifice.

Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 3**
Move: 120' (40')
Attackss: 1 bite / 2 fists
Damage: 1d3 /1d3/1d3 + special
No. Appearing: 3d6
Save As: F3
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 65

The attacks of a Ghost Child cause paralysis. They are immune to normal weapons.

Ghost Children can be turned, as wights.