Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Giant Vinegarroons of Lamarakh

In the jungles and swamps of Lamarakh live vinegarroons - voracious scorpion-like hunters. Most are smaller than a man's hand, and eat small insects. But others grow to the size of bears, and attack anything greater than 2' in size. They are eight legged and armed with strong pincers and long whip-like tails.

Vinegarroons take their name from the acetic acid they produce, which has a pungent, not unpleasant vinegarish smell. This odour is a tell-tale sign of danger, which those growing up in Lamarakh are well aware of. Travellers, however, may find the scent attractive - and this is usually their downfall.

Giant vinegarroons lair in caves and tree-hollows, but they like to lie in ambush, either buried under a layer of soil or hiding in a tree. They are astonishingly agile for their size and fast climbers. Whether up in the branches or under the soil, they surprise their opponents on a roll of 1-4, rather than the usual 1-2, and are only themselves surprised on a roll of 1. They have very poor eyesight, and rely on their two very long feelers - usually up to three times the length of their body - to sense prey. If they are waiting in a tree the feelers will be disguised as hanging creepers; if they are lurking underground the feelers will be hidden beneath leaf litter. As soon as something comes close, the vinegarroon strikes, jumping out of hiding and attacking with pincers and tail. If both pincer attacks hit, the tail attack is at +2 to hit.

Vinegarroons use their acid for defence. If seriously threatened they can spray a burst of the substance out from the abdomen. This blast covers a wide area and burns metal and skin, causing 1d8 damage to anything within a 5 yard radius and permanently damaging armour by d2 points.

Giant Vinegarroon

Armour Class: 2
Hit Dice: 4 (L)*
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks: 2 claws/1 tail, or Acid Spray
Damage: 1d10/1d10/1d6, or 1d8 (special)
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F3
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: V
Intelligence: 0
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 125

Monday, 30 March 2009

Spring is sprung, De grass is riz, I wonder where dem birdies is?

So spring is here, the cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom, everybody is out drinking in the parks; this is the only three-week period of the year in which Tokyo could be described as beautiful.

It's got me thinking about the passage of seasons. Calendars, you see, are generally one of those things that I despise in an rpg setting. Too much opportunity for piddly annoying book keeping and confusion. ("In my setting, there are 10 months, six of which have 46 days, three have 30 days, and one has 15! They're called Janubacky, Februbacky, Mar..z.z..z...zzzz...") And when are they ever really used? "The Baron of Snoozeville expects you to be back on the fifth doy of Octobacky, and not a waak later."

But what if each season brought with it something unusual? For example, here in Japan the seasons have rather distinct flavours - snow in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, sweat in summer, and red leaves and cedar pollen in autumn. (I used to think of this as an annoying Japanese cliche, because it's not as if Japan is the only country in the world with four seasons, but what's certainly true is that the seasons here have very distinct beginnings and ends, as if somebody up in the sky is flipping switches on and off.) It isn't a great stretch to imagine some sort of extreme climatic change bringing with it game-affecting side-effects. For example:
  • In spring, a certain tree begins giving off a pungent pollen which causes dwarves to become sexually active.
  • In autumn, the dragons are out in force looking for food to build up fat reserves for their winter hibernation.
  • In winter, colder temperatures in the valleys allow frost giants to raid further into civilised areas.
  • In summer, swarms of cockroaches scour the land of food, causing localised famine. Some varieties even eat flesh, and strip the weak and old down to the bone.
And so on. What's clearly needed is a table of random seasonal effects, isn't it?

Saturday, 28 March 2009

[Yoon-suin] NPCs in The Yellow City

The Yellow City sits at the mouth of the God River. It gets its name from the curious sandstone from which it is built, which seems to glow an amberish shade in the sunlight. It has a mixed population of humans, slug people and crabmen, who form three discrete castes, with slug people at the top and crabmen at the bottom. It is known as a city of assassins, poisoners, alchemists and priests.

Here are a few Yellow City NPCs.

Abhijit the Victorious is a retired club-fighter who, as the name suggests, was undefeated in his ten years in the pit. Now grown fat and rendered half-mad by poppy narcosis and old head injuries, he survives on the good will of his old fans.

Nabendu, whose mouth is black is an alchemist, who has the unfortunate tendency of trying to taste all of the potions he creates. This long ago rendered his lips, teeth and tongue black. But his prices are reasonable, and as long as he is still alive his customers can trust that the potion he is selling is not deadly.

Old Luulaalaali is a fortune teller in the largest of the Yellow City's bazaars. She* uses the traditional slug people method of fortune telling, which involves trailing mucus on the ground and having the customer try to describe the shapes it makes.

Vardhan, Worm Breeder is a breeder of velvet worms, particularly the small, colourful varieties used as pets. Secretly he also breeds assassin worms for a select clientele. He is soft spoken and makes barely a sound when he moves; it is often noted that over the years his character has come to somewhat resemble that of his 'children'.

Dimdaalo Jen is an importer of poppy seeds from the Hundred Kingdoms, and runs a large opium den above a tea-shop. As a slug person one* does not partake in the smoking oneself, but usually sits quietly in a corner, watching the debauchery. One is accompanied everywhere by two human eunuch slaves from Lamarakh, fat and muscular, armed with machetes.

Dipika the Sly is an ex-whore who now plies her trade as an assassin. Exquisitely ugly and lacking one eye, she is in high demand because of her expert knowledge of blow pipes and darts.

The Fat Crab has the unusual distinction of having earned a nickname from the humans and slug people living in the Yellow City. Crabmen are usually ignored, but the Fat Crab displays an unusual intelligence and malevolence, and has gained a certain infamy. He runs one of the crabmen ghettoes which run down from the city to the shore, and organises his people to kill any foreigner who enters. There are rumours that his followers occasionally kidnap humans from the areas nearby their ghetto, to be dismembered alive for sport.

*Slug people are hermaphroditic. By convention some choose to be known as 'he' and some as 'she'; others prefer to be referred to as 'one' or 'it'.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Circle of Life

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote two posts on random events at weddings and funerals. Here's one for births. It can be used at any time an NPC (or PC!) has a baby and the DM is casting about for an adventure hook. On the day of labour, roll a d20 and consult the following table.

1 - The baby has red eyes and clammy skin, and does not smile. There's really something not quite right about it...
2-5 - The baby is terribly weak. The midwife believes it will only survive if it can be given a regular supply of a certain herb, which is only found high up in the nearby mountains.
6-10 - The baby disappears from its cot the following night, despite being in the same room as its parents.
11-13 - Judging by its appearance, the baby is quite clearly not the "father"'s. He's the only one who apparently hasn't realised this.
14-16 - The mother becomes convinced over the following few days that her baby has been replaced by a changeling (this can be true or false: DM's choice).
17-18 - Whenever the baby is in the room, small objects seem to move of their own accord.
19 - Sometimes, when the baby is asleep, a dark and ethereal figure can be seen lurking in a corner. It disappears almost as soon as it is noticed.
20 - The baby has a pair of wings.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

How to Describe a Campaign Setting in Twenty Five Words or Less

Max recently put up a post asking for homebrew campaign setting descriptions of 25 words or less. My effort, in the comments, wasn't very good. It occurred to me that using full sentences was a waste of words, because you have to use inconvenient prepositions and articles. So here's my 25 word Yoon-suin sentenceless breakdown:

Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.

How's that?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Velvet Worms of the Sandurban Mangroves

As there are no mammals in the southern parts of Yoon-suin, the people living there have been forced to rely on domesticated giant invertebrates. Many of the most common are varieties of the velvet worm. Three are described below.

Giant Brown Velvet Worm, also known as the Spit Worm, the Hound Worm and the Fanged Worm.

This stealthy hunter is eight to ten feet in length and a voracious hunter. Wild, it prowls the mangroves and jungle at night, searching for prey. Domesticated, it is used as a guard and war-beast. Like all velvet worms it is single-minded and brutish; it will attempt to kill and eat more or less anything it comes across. Spit worm handlers therefore raise the creatures from birth to associate certain pheremones with poison, and protect themselves from attack from their own worms by smearing those pheremones on their skin.

Like all types of velvet worm, spit worms are silent and fast, but also practically deaf and almost blind. They sense entirely by scent and touch. As they prowl, their long feelers (known as 'lips' to their handlers) move this way and that, attempting to detect prey. As soon as a potential victim is detected, the spit worm immediately raises its head and sprays two coils of a noxious glue-like substance from nozzles beneath its mouth. This glue immediately binds the prey, paralyses it, and partially digests it, and the spit worm begins to eat it alive.

Spit worms are nocturnal, and sleep during the day. They are impossible to detect at night - opponents are always surprised.

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 6*
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks: 1 bite or 1 glue spray
Damage: 2d6 or paralysis (save vs. poison)
No. Appearing: 1
Save as: F6
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 500

Blue Velvet Worm, also known as the Assassin Worm.

This tiny creature, only two inches long at most, is used by the assassins and murderers of the Yellow City to dispose of their enemies. Wild, the assassin worm hides in dark places waiting to ambush prey. As the tool of an assassin it is usually deposited inside a shoe, pocket or bed, so that it can bite an unsuspecting hand or foot. Its toxin is among the deadliest known, and there is no antidote. Victims are doomed to an hour of excruciating itching pain before death.

Armour Class: 8
Hit Dice: 1 hp
Move: 60' (20')
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: Fatal, no save.
No. Appearing: 1
Save as: F1
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 6

Giant Leopard Worm, sometimes known as the Riding Worm.

This is the largest domesticable velvet worm in the Sandurbans. The fact that it often grows larger than 12 feet in length, and the ease with which it can be manipulated by pheremones, means that it can be used as a steed in battle (though it is unsuitable for long journeys). This takes considerable skill, as leopard worms have none of the intrinsic empathy of a horse. About all a rider can hope for is to point his steed in the direction of an enemy, and then cling on.

The leopard worm does not spit, but relies on its speed and ferocity to capture prey. It therefore relies less on stealth, unlike its relatives, and is diurnal. It has rudimentary eyes which can sense movement.

Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 9
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 2d8
No. Appearing: 1
Save as: F9
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 900

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Gaming Advice #1: Don't Be A Dick Head

Because for my work and research I spend most of the day on the internet, I do rather a lot of trawling through rpg-related forums and blogs. (This is about the only perk of spending day after day in front of a computer.) And because people who post on forums and blogs about rpgs are an ornery lot, this boils down to reading lots of amusingly vitriolic flamewars. (rpg.net is the indisputed king of these, though the rpgsite has its moments.) A waste of time, perhaps, but no more so than watching Japanese TV, and occasionally more educational and edifying.

A common theme running through these flamewars is that an awful lot of problems get blamed on rpg systems, when really the fault is with the players. I call this the Forgetting That One Shouldn't Behave Like A Dick Head phenomenon.

Some examples might help to illustrate:

1. Older versions of D&D are bad, because they rely on individual DMs' judgement, and this means that players who "get on with the DM" or can "convince him to rule in their favour" have an unfair advantage. Often presented by fans of 3e and 4e, which supposedly leave less to each individual DM's judgement and are thus "fairer". This is a not actually a problem with older versions of D&D. It is a problem of DMs and players behaving like dick heads and being biased and easily swayed or excessively manipulative, respectively.

2. D&D 4e is bad, because it forces everybody to do things a certain way - if you are a Warlord you have to do this or that in combat, and if you don't, other players will accuse you of failing to properly fulfill your role and not being a team player. Again, not in fact a problem with 4e, but a problem of players behaving like dick heads and being inflexible and mandarin.

3. Cyberpunk 2020 is bad, because you can manipulate character generation and equipment a certain way and create characters who are virtually indestructible killing machines. Not in fact a problem with Cyberpunk 2020, but a problem of players behaving like dick heads and trying to create munchkin characters to ruin everybody else's enjoyment rather than just participate in a fun game.

4. The Rust Monster is bad, because DMs use it to spoil players' fun by destroying all their hard-earned magic items. Not in fact a problem with the Rust Monster, but a problem of DMs behaving like dick heads by deliberately trying to piss off their players, and also of players behaving like dick heads and being cry babies and forgetting that it's just a game.

You get my drift, anyway. As a rule I tend not to read much 'GMing advice' on blogs, because I think it all boils down to something rather simple: play with cool people who are your friends, not dick heads, and don't be a dick head yourself. Mostly it all works out fine from that initial foundation.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Fighting Fantasy Cover Monster Bestiary (V)

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

Number 5: Gwillick and The Eater

Gwillick is a diminutive, scrawny being, probably human, who roams the wilderness and ruins of the Eastern Wastes, alone save for a companion who he calls 'The Eater'. This is a dinosaur, who Gwillick apparently managed to tame some years ago. Armoured like a stegosaur and with a similarly powerful tail, it is carnivorous, with a mouth full of shark-like teeth.

Gwillick is a cannibalistic, sociophathic murderer, who has never been able to fit into society and has long given up trying. The Eater is probably the only living being he has ever met whose mentality is anywhere close to his own: vicious, mean, unsubtle and voracious. Together they hunt for human prey, who they devour together.

Gwillick will generally try to kill and eat anybody travelling the Wastes who he believes is weaker than himself (and The Eater), and will avoid or try to bargain with those who are stronger. He has a practiced eye and is reasonably good at judging his own capabilities, and the DM should take this into account.

Gwillick carries a magical sword, which is an ego weapon (+2) with an Intelligence of 8, and the ability to detect magic and find secret doors. Gwillick stole it years ago, before his self-imposed exile from human society. The sword was the family heirloom of a Baron who Gwillick was employed by as a dog handler. The Baron died (apparently of consumption, though poison was suspected) and Gwillick was never seen in the region again; nor was the sword.

Gwillick the Cannibal

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 6*
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 2
Damage: By weapon (Sword +2)
No. Appearing: 1
Save as: F6
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: V
Intelligence: 10
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 500

The Eater
(Medium Armoured Land Dinosaur)

Armour Class: 1
Hit Dice: 9*
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1 bite/1 tail
Damage: 1d6/2d4
Trample Damage: 2d8
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F5
Morale: 6
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 1,600

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Would You Like To Be Interviewed?

Stephen Fry once remarked that a newspaper columnist should be allowed, just once in his career, to write a column about not having anything to write a column about. In similar vein, this is the only time I'm going to write an entry in this blog about writing other blog entries.

That is, I'm thinking about doing some interviews in the spirit of (read: shameless rip-off of) Norman Geras' famous Friday morning normblog profiles - short profiles of other bloggers and regular commenters, though naturally to do with role playing games. Much more in-depth, inspiring and interesting than "What games do you like?" and "Do you like being a GM or a player?"

I have two corollary questions:

1 - As a reader, would this be something you'd like to see once a week or so (maybe every Friday or something), or would you rather just have the usual patented Daily Esoteric Nonsense Tangentially Related to Role Playing Games from the mind of yours truly?

2 - Would you like to be interviewed? I'm not interested in doing this with just the 'famous' bloggers; so long as you feel that you are interesting and have interesting things to say about games, and that other people might want to hear those things, please drop me a line. The address is jean.delumeau AT gmail DOT com.

Addendum: this does not mean that I'm running out of things to say and in need of filler, so never fear. As I'm sure you are aware by now, I can write reams of this tripe indefinitely.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Power is a disease one has no desire to be cured of

As a rule, I'm not a fan of vampires. The whole idea never captured my imagination even as a child, and ever since Anne Rice and Vampire: The Masquerade the things have had this awful veneer of supposed 'coolness' and a geek cache that I loathe so much I can't adequately put it into words. Skinny bisexual spoiled rich kids are not cool - they're ANNOYING.

But I like the idea of politican-as-vampire, and I think that White Wolf missed a trick in going down the teenagers-and-ennui route. (Financially they didn't miss a trick, but in noisms' Ranking of Good Games they certainly did, and we all know which of those is the more important.) I really think there's great potential for a game about vampires in the Corridors of Power, whether in Westminster, Capitol Hill, the Diet, or whatever country you prefer. I say this mainly because vampires and politicians are practically indistinguishable from one another, but also because I just saw the film Il Divo, the story of Giulio Andreotti, three-time Italian Prime Minister, who happened to bear a striking resemblance to Count Orlok of Nosferatu fame - both in looks and personality. This then reminded me of Michael Howard, one time Home Secretary in one of Margeret Thatcher's cabinets, who famously resembles a vampire, not least in having Romanian ancestry. (Anne Widdecombe once offhandedly remarked that "there is something of the night about him" - one of the most notorious comments a British politician has ever made about another.)

I think some political systems would be more amenable to this sort of game. The Japanese Diet, and the Italian Parliament, with their well known ties to organised crime, would be the easiest to envisage being populated by vampires. The more open British and American systems, with their intense media scrutiny, perhaps not so much. (Although trying to maintain a blood habit while avoiding the prying noses of journalists could be a great game in and of itself.) Play could revolve around all kinds of corruption and derring-do - from assassination of rivals to bribery to tabloid indiscretion. I think I'd be more inclined to use a diceless system to run it, though - maybe Amber (if I ever get around to properly reading it) or Nobilis.

Or perhaps Risus...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Those Death Gates and Their Cycles

I've written before about the utter preposterousness of Dragonlance, and how ashamed I am to like it, though today I'm having trouble locating where. (I wish I had made a better archive of this blog.) However, although Weis and Hickman are by no means Great Talents or Towering Geniuses of Our Age, it's impossible to dispute that they have written some very entertaining books over the years. A comment in yesterday's post reminded me of one of their post-TSR series - The Death Gate Cycle - which was in its own way just as preposterous as Dragonlance, but a lot of fun in spite of (because of?) it.

The basic setting of the series is a far future earth, which a magical war has split into four separate worlds, each based on a certain element (earth, fire etc.); outside of this is a labyrinth, where the defeated faction (the Patryn) are kept eternally prisoner. There's also a swirly vortex thing in the middle which allows communication between the worlds. (I warned you it was preposterous.) The plot follows people from the various 'earths', who are united by an escaped Patryn who is attempting to re-start said magical war. Of particular note is an attempt to explain away the existence of elves and dwarves in the far future (they disappeared during the Renaissance, but emerged later) and a pseudo-scholastic style to the writing which sees extensive use of footnotes and glossaries, as if we're reading a kind of popular history book of something that really happened.

The books also have a (reasonably) unique take on magic, which is cast by tracing runic shapes in the air with ones forefinger, a little like a kid with a sparkler. These shapes can also be tattood onto ones body for extra strength or toughness, and etched or drawn on objects to imbue them with magical properties. That strikes me as a very radical and interesting idea for a new D&D class - somebody who tattoos himself every time he wants to cast a spell; you only have a finite amount of flesh, and what do you do when you run out?

Anyway, that's by the by. If you're a fan of the sub-genre of fantasy which I call 'daft fiction' (Weis & Hickman, Piers Anthony, Michael Stackpole) you'll appreciate it. Take a look at the Pseuds Corner-esque quotes about the series from the authors, too. Amongst other things, Hickman has claimed that the inspiration for the novels were the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and that he and Weis "always tried to take fantasy literature in new directions". As if! My particular favourite, though, is the idea that the books had "a wonderful and sensible pair of magic systems that made sense because they were modeled on quantum and chaos theories". Now that's a great idea, but the Death Gate Cycle isn't it. Who is he trying to kid?

Thursday, 19 March 2009


I have quite a lot of gaming material sitting in a box in my dad's loft. (Whenever I visit I usually spend an afternoon finagling this box out from underneath all the accumulated crap, just so I can leaf through the goodness it contains. Every year it seems the pages of the various volumes grow a little more faded; occasionally one of the items will have mysteriously disappeared, never to be recovered. My rpgs are a dying breed.) Some people - cold hearted, unsentimental types, no doubt - would probably put them up for auction on eBay. Not me. I'm hoarding them (by proxy, seeing as they aren't at my house) on the off chance that I might one day get the chance to use them again, and also because I just can't bear to give them up. Too many happy memories.

The box contains, at last count:

AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide, first printing. Acquired at a shop in Tel Aviv around, I think, the spring of 1993. Still with the original Hebrew stickers, though the contents are English. For a long time this was the only AD&D book my friends and I had; we used the Red Box Basic rules and our own imagination for character gen and monsters.

Blacksand and Allansia, the
two latter volumes in the three part Advanced Fighting Fantasy series. I used to have the first volume too, but it seems to have gone away to the great DM's screen in the sky. Of great sentimental value because I can still remember borrowing them from the local library time after time before I eventually managed to save the money to buy them for real; is there any feeling sweeter than being 12 years old and finally getting to buy something you've been wanting for ages? They still seem to me to be the ultimate in ergonomics when it comes to role playing game rulebooks - they're paperback and ever so slightly larger than an ordinary novel: just the right size to hold and flick through.

The Amber Diceless Role Playing Game, which in my memory my sister's friend's older brother gave me (along with a huge box full of Star Wars figures) when I was about 7. This memory can't be true, however, because Amber wasn't published until 1991, when I was 10, and by that time I think I was probably too old for Star Wars figures. Strange. Anyway, it's in the box. I've never played it and for a long time wasn't aware I had it, but one day I swear I will use it.

A whole host of very old Epic 2nd edition rules stuff for Warhammer 40,000.

My large collection of Planescape material, which I thankfully also have on .pdf on my computer these days. I would go so far as to say that even if you hate role playing games you can appreciate the sheer beauty of that line and the care and creativity that went into its design. It's worth keeping for that reason alone.

Changeling: The Dreaming and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I went through a World of Darkness phase, like I suppose most gamers of my generation did, but nowadays look on that stuff chiefly as juvenelia. Changeling is the one that has best stood the test of time, I think. It's beautifully written and has a great atmosphere about it. Too bad that what was most important - how you play the damned thing - was so difficult to get to grips with.

Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, and MERP, all of which threatened to displace D&D as my 'favourite game' at one stage or another. All told I wouldn't be surprised to learn that my Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun rulebooks have seen more actual game-time than my D&D books have; between the ages of 14 and 17 I honestly don't think I did much else with my free time than play those games (and Warhammer, and, okay, cricket and football) with my group of fellow social outcasts. Nowadays Shadowrun in particular makes me want to cringe - it's such a ridiculous game, really - but I would never let want to let those crumbling rulebooks go. The character sheets for two of my friend's favourite ever characters - Yosemite Sam the dwarf street samurai, and his troll sidekick Bizkit - are still folded inside the cover.

What gaming materials from your youth do you still cling onto?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Sorcery! Art, or Griminess Beats Awesomeness

When it comes to fantasy art I'm a fan of the delicate, the weird, and especially the grimy. Recent fantasy art, with its 'dungeonpunk' themes, beautiful people, and constant obsession with awesomeness and bad-assness, rather bores me. Each to their own, these things are completely subjective and blah blah, but paging through my Sorcery! books after yesterday's post got me thinking about how much I love the work of people like John Blanche, whose slightly creepy, waif-like, ugly creations are one of the best things about the series. His pictures strike just the right note of gloominess and exoticism, with nary a hint of kewlness in sight, and they build up an atmosphere of foreboding strangeness that suits the story perfectly. A few favourites:

Who is this guy, what is all that crap on the shelves behind him and where does it all come from? I love how this picture hints at a world beyond the game itself: you're not important, just another adventurer, really; he buys and sells men like you every day before breakfast, and to be frank he'd rather you leave him alone to smoke his pipe in peace.

Cultists in the desert, doing...something. What are they up to? Obviously a nefarious activity of some kind, but are you brave enough to try to find out what? Again, hints at a world of activity going on outside of the 'plot'; all you are is a passer-by, barely worth registering, and everybody else is getting on with their own lives, regardless of the success or otherwise of your little 'quest'.

Take a look at this guy. He's just sitting in his hole, trying to stay out of the sun, charming his snakes. So why does he seem so oddly menacing?

Flying Fish in the Old World have teeth, and smile joyously as they contemplate sinking them into your flesh...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus and Alakazam

The Sorcery! line of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks is one of the great overlooked masterpieces of pulp fantasy. Yes, I'm serious. If you've never read them, or have some sort of misguided prejudice against gamebooks, I'd say you need to do some serious thinking about your life and the way it's going.

Anyway, one of my favourite aspects of Sorcery! is that in order to cast spells, the player is forced to memorise certain code words. As with most aspects of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, this is achieved through a strict honour system which naturally nobody ever follows; if you play by the rules you're not allowed to look up the code word when trying to cast a spell, and instead have to guess or recall from memory. The code words are simple (zed, mib, hig, that sort of thing) so it isn't a particularly onerous task, but when you guess wrong and cast a completely inappropriate spell it injects a dose of light-hearted weirdness that I used to really appreciate. (Of course, I would usually then go back to the previous entry and guess again until I got the right phrase.)

I've sometimes thought about introducing some sort of system of magic words for D&D spells, so that instead of Vanican spellcasting a wizard can cast any spell according to his experience level - provided the player can get the word right without looking. Of course, for every new magic user character you'd have to randomly generate new words, in order to prevent it from being too easy. And you would only allow the player about a minute to try to memorize all the different code words. There would also have to be a system of random effects if a mistake were made. People being turned into frogs and the like.

I can't quite decide whether this would be inspired genius, amusing distraction, or idiotic annoyance and mood spoiler. Probably the latter.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Setting Fetishism and the Kofun-era

An interesting post by edsan yesterday about setting fetishism and the social contract of explaining what the terms of a game are going to be before it begins. I'm the kind of person who traditionally leans towards the setting-fetishist point of the scale - you've probably worked this out already if you've been reading my blog for any length of time - but I recognise that essentially it's all a matter of horses-for-courses. I'm a player in edsan's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, but I have basically no knowledge or experience of Tekumel. If you're going to run an EPT campaign with utter rubes like me, then setting fetishism just ain't going to work. You have to play fast and loose. Setting fetishism is a great thing if the players have both the knowledge and the willingness to invest heavily in the game world; if they lack either of those things you'll have a disappointing and rather crap game. (Similarly, playing fast and loose with a setting when players have the knowledge and willingness to invest is a recipe for unfulfilment and general wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

edsan points out that a good thing about Mike D's Ruins & Ronin project is that it doesn't allow itself to get hung up on details about feudal Japan. It's a fantastical vision of feudal Japan in the same way that D&D is a fantastical vision of feudal Europe. In the same way that D&D didn't worry itself unduly with accurately representing the life of a peasant in 11th-Century Avignon, so there's no reason for a 'Japanese' fantasy game to accurately represent life in 15th-Century Kanazawa.

I both agree and disagree with this. D&D might not be very realistic in its depiction of medieval society, but Harn is. (And during the 2e era, TSR made several forays into historical realism which I found particularly enjoyable.) Similarly, Ruins & Ronin might throw out socio-cultural detail in the name of pulpy fun, but The Blossoms Are Falling proved that basing an entire game on socio-cultural detail can be just as entertaining. It's a matter of those horses and their courses, again. Self-evidently, so long as players are clear as to the aim of the game, it shouldn't matter. As with the social-contract expectation that players should know whether they're turning up to play Tekumel canon or EPT-for-dummies, potential buyers/downloaders of a game should know what it is they're getting into. (This was always my problem with Legend of the Five Rings. If it was supposed to accurately represent Japanese society it was an embarrassing failure, but if it was supposed to be a fantasy game which just happened to take some of its influences from Japan, then I could forgive it. But which it was was never made clear.)

Anyway, in the comments to edsan's post, vraymond (who also happens to have written about this sort of thing recently) mentions running a game set in Kofun era Japan. I've thought about this too. (I wrote about it briefly here.) During that period, roughly between 250 and 538 AD, Japan was a disunited region of chiefdoms and tribes who built huge mound-like tombs (rather like iron age Britain).
However, not much else is known. The societies present in the archipelago were all pre-literate, so almost all of our scant knowledge comes from sources in China and Korea, who were more technologically advanced, and who began to make regular journeys to Japan during the period.

My idea for a Kofun-era game was that it would take place in a sort of quasi-historical version of East Asia where mythological beings, magic and so forth are real. The players would be Chinese or Korean diplomats, missionaries, traders and/or adventurers, who make the journey across the Yellow Sea and find a strange, mist-shrouded, forested set of islands full of barbarians, ghosts, dragons and ogres. These strangers in a strange land would then have to make of it what they could. (Rather like how in traditional EPT games, the players are always foreign newcomers trying to survive in Tsolyanu.) I think the advantage to this sort of game is that it allows a DM to come up with essentially whatever he wants - he can throw in any bastard mixture of Japanese mythological tropes - without having snobs (like me) complaining that "it wouldn't have been like that". And yet at the same time, if he's the setting fetishist type, he can spend weeks or months of his life developing an intricately detailed game world, and it won't matter that they players don't know much about it because, by definition, they're foreigners. There's no potential for conflict between players who "know about" Kofun-era Japan and those who don't, because everybody including the DM is in the same position of more-or-less complete ignorance. And at the same time there's plenty of scope for Japan-inspired fantastical weirdness.

I'm working on my mollusc-world/Yoon-suin setting at the moment, but maybe after that I'll think about making a Kofun-era based something-or-other.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Cool Cultures

I often wonder what it is about some cultures that makes them 'cooler' in the eye of gamer nerd-dom than others. These days Japanese culture is all the rage overseas (which is odd, given the fact that the country is on its knees in almost every sense, utterly lacking in self-confidence, and faced with a hopeless and near-apocalyptic future of population crash and economic catastrophe). Other cultural 'cool spots' include I suppose France, ancient Greece, perhaps the UK depending on who you talk to, and maybe Thailand and Cambodia. Though none can currently challenge the overarching might of Japaneseness in the nation of Geekia.

For example, one of the biggest and most popular Swords & Wizardry projects is Project Samurai - Mike D's laudable attempt at creating a sort of pulp/fantasy Japan version of the game. It's good stuff. But it makes me wonder - why has nobody started up similar projects about, say, a pulp/fantasy Korea? Or Tonga? Or Madagascar? Or Turkey?

One reason I suppose would be familiarity. Japanese comics are readily available in the West, and popular, and this means people know about the tropes. But that is really begging the question. Japanese comics are readily available in the West because there is a market for them, and there is a market for them because people think Japanese culture is cool (as opposed to Polish culture, or whatever). It doesn't explain the root cause of it.

I've lived in Japan now for five years off and on, and have to admit that I just don't get it. I like it here, otherwise I wouldn't have stayed, but it seems very ordinary to me now and certainly no more or less appealing as a setting for role playing games than ancient Akkadia, Timbuktu, Fiji or Arabia. I'm obviously in the minority.

Friday, 13 March 2009

More Extracts from My Game Idea Grimoire

A while ago I posted list of ideas for games I'll never get the chance to run. Here's some more entries from noisms' Gargantuan Tome of Unfulfilled Gaming Desires:

Catalogue 16a, book XVII, chapter 9, subsection IV, no. 163: A time-travelling game, probably using GURPS, in which a future civilisation creates time travel, goes back in time and contacts people from ancient Sumer, but is then destroyed by nuclear war. The player characters are ancient Sumerians who subsequently come across the gate that leads them to the future, which they travel through and discover a world without humans but all kinds of futuristic technology. And aliens. And radiation.

Catalogue 34j, book X, chapter 83, subsection I, no. 18: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e - Characters from the Old World travel off on a voyage of exploration and end up being shipwrecked and washed up in Cathay.

Catalogue 29a, book II, chapter 11, subsection X, no. 4: D&D Animal Fantasy a la Redwall, but rather than mice and otters and badgers and the like, the major races are all based on varieties of insects and spiders. Locust Bard, anybody? Tarantula Fighter? Wasp Mage? No takers?

Catalogue 2k, book LXV, chapter 1, subsection XX, no. 38: A forge-style, indie, story-games.com, you-only-play-about-three-times-before-it-gets-samey-and-boring style game set in the Stalinist USSR. Basically a variant on wink-murder or the Prisoner's Dilemma, the characters pass notes to the DM every five minutes saying which other player they want to denounce to the KGB and have sent to the Gulag. But the denounced players can save themselves by correctly guessing which other player dobbed them in. Works better if you also have to drink a shot of vodka every time you get sent to the Gulag.

Catalogue 6w, book C, chapter 91, subsection V, no. 20: The PCs are Russian adventurer/explorers in the vein of Yermak Timofeyevich, participating in the conquest of Siberia. A bit like the Wild West (so I'd use the Deadlands rules), except with Tatar raids, crumbling remnants of the Mongol Empire, lots of snow, and China, rather than California, waiting on the other side.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Never Turn Your Back on a Drug

Poppies are smoked, drunk, chewed, snorted and otherwise imbibed throughout the Hundred Kingdoms, and each city has its own signature variety. Here is a means of randomly generating a poppy breed through determining the colour, type, means of injestion, effects, addictiveness, and cost. 


Roll a d8 to determine the poppy's colour: 

1 - Blue
2 - Red
3 - Purple
4 - Yellow
5 - Brown
6 - Green
7 - Black
8 - White


Roll a d4 to determine the type of drug which the poppy can be used to produce:

1 - The poppy is a Depressant, i.e. one which diminishes sensation.
2 - The poppy is a Stimulant, i.e. one which increases alertness or awareness.
3 - The poppy is a Hallucinagen, i.e. one which causes hallucinations.
4 - The poppy is a Nootropic, i.e. one which enhances the functioning of the brain.

Means of Ingestion

Roll a d6 to determine the primary means of ingestion:

1 - The poppy is crushed and then made into tea.
2 - The poppy is crushed and then smoked in a pipe.
3 - The poppy is crumbled, wrapped in paper, and smoked like a cigarette.
4 - The poppy is crushed and snorted.
5 - The poppy is crushed, mixed with the blood of an animal, made into tablets, and swallowed.
6 - The poppy is crushed, mixed with the blood of an animal, then taken into the bloodsteam by smearing it on the sting of a Giant Bee and jabbing the sting into a vein.


Roll a d4 to determine the specific effects:

For Depressants:

1 - The poppy deadens fear. The character gains immunity to all forms of fear, spook and similar for 1d12 hours.
2 - The poppy deadens pain. The character may keep fighting even when reduced to 0 hit points or lower, to a maximum of -9, whereupon he or she dies instantly. The effects last for 1d12 hours.
3 - The poppy deadens the mind, and prevents the effects of illusions and other mind-affecting magic for 1d12 hours.
4 -  The poppy lowers the blood flow and slows the spread of poison. Equivalent to a slow poison spell. Lasts for 1d12 hours.

For Stimulants:

1 - The poppy prevents sleep. The character can stay awake for one night and the next day without suffering ill-effects, but must save vs. poison the following night or collapse from exhaustion for 12 hours.
2 - The poppy stimulates the senses. The character can hear noise and detect traps as per the relevant thief skills at 40% for d12 hours. Thieves gain a +20% bonus to those skills for the same period.
3 - The poppy boosts energy. The character gains +1 to hit rolls and +1 to damage rolls for d6 hours.
4 - The poppy boosts the body's natural healing. Hit points are gained at twice the normal rate for the following 2 days.

For Hallucinagens:

Roll on the hallucinagen subtable found here; effects last for 1d12 hours.

For Nootropics:

1 - The poppy boosts memory. One additional Level 1 spell may be memorised by spellcasters for one day. 
2 - The poppy boosts human perception. The character has a 25% of automatically knowing alignment of everybody he meets for d6 hours.
3 - The poppy boosts judgement. The character has a 25% of automatically detecting lies for d6 hours.
4 - The poppy improves concentration. Missile attacks and spells requiring a 'to hit' roll are at +1 to hit for the next d12 hours.


Addictiveness is a function of potency. Roll a d20 to determine potency. There is a flat 20% of addiction on first taking a dose of a poppy, + potency score. (Thus, there is a 34% chance of becoming addicted to a poppy with a potency of 14.) On a successful save vs. poison, this is halved. The second time a dose of the poppy is taken 10% is added to the chance of addiction, and for every additional dose thereafter. 

An addicted character must have a dose of the poppy every day from that point on, or suffer -2 to all stats that day, and -2 cumulatively for each day thereafter. If any stat reaches 0, the character dies. After 2d6 days, if the character is still alive, the addiction breaks.


Cost per dosage is generally 1 silver piece per point of potency.

Disclaimer: Don't do drugs, kids. They'll rob you of your ambition. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Random Innkeeper Generator

Your players have been travelling through the wilderness for days, braving the vagaries of wild animals, natural disaster and hunger. Finally, they come across civilisation, and naturally enough the first place they want to go is the pub. Standing behind the bar is...

1 - A deaf, mute and illiterate innkeeper. He can only be communicated with by gesture, and generally interprets every order as "Ale".
2 - A monstrous inkeeper. Roll a d8 to determine type: 1 - Troll; 2 - Orc; 3 - Mongrelman; 4 - Hobgoblin; 5 - Kobold; 6 - Ogre; 7 - Kenku; 8 - Gnoll.
3 - A pair of conjoined twin innkeepers.
4 - An irresistibly beautiful/handsome innkeeper.
5 - An innkeeper without a: 1 - Nose; 2 - Tongue; 3 - Left Arm; 4 - Right Arm; 5 - Left Leg; 6 - Right Leg.
6 - An 7' tall innkeeper.
7 - A 4' tall innkeeper.
8 - An innkeeper with a pet, which he is constantly throwing scraps and which is patently not properly tamed: 1 - Wolf; 2 - Hawk; 3 - Lynx; 4 - Bear; 5 - Cougar; 6 - Viper; 7 - Boar: 8 - Monkey.
9 - An elven innkeeper.
10 - An innkeeper who insists on taking a sip from every drink he serves in the interests of 'quality control'.
11 - An innkeeper who insists that customers have to beat him in an arm-wrestle in order to be served; even if they lose he usually serves them anyway.
12 - An innkeeper who occasionally murders travellers while they are sleeping and serves their body parts to his customers, masquerading as 'pork chops'.
13 - An innkeeper who is 85 years old.
14 - An innkeeper who lets the local farmyard animals - cows, horses, chickens, pigs - come and go through his establishment, which reeks of manure.
15 - A dwarven innkeeper.
16 - An innkeeper who drools uncontrollably; his spittle has a 5% chance of dripping into each drink he serves.
17 - An innkeeper who is secretly a werewolf. Roll a d30; on a roll of 30 it's the full moon that night and he's about to go on the rampage.
18 - An innkeeper who is secretly a polymorphed dragon, observing humanity 'up close and personal'.
19 - An innkeeper with a beard so long it touches the floor.
20 - An innkeeper with three eyes.

Playing in Somebody Else's Back Yard

Green Ronin's Song of Ice & Fire role playing game gets released today, I believe. As a reader of the series of novels I suppose I ought to be excited, but actually I'm utterly apathetic. George R. R. Martin's success with the saga has all been about two things - characterisation and plot - and those have absolutely nothing to do with setting. In fact, you couldn't get more bog-standard fantasy than Westeros; A Song of Ice and Fire has no innovations whatsoever to offer in terms of world-building. It's England during the Wars of the Roses with a bit of magic and a few ghosts and dragons thrown in. So I can't see much point in buying a game 'set' there; if I really want to play a game in Westeros I might as well just take a map from the inside cover of one of the novels and use the rules from D&D. (Probably Rolemaster would work better, actually.) If everything that's good about the series of novels is down to the writing, what will a new game based on it offer me? "You get the chance to be Sandor Clegane!" Okay, how's about I just roll up a D&D fighter and call him 'Sandor Clegane' then?

In actual fact, I really can't see the point in buying bog-standard fantasy settings for role playing games, full stop. Forgotten Realms? Krynn? They're very much like fantasy heartbreakers, really: absurdly similar carbon copies with different names, a slightly different jumble of geographical features, and usually a unique (but actually utterly banal) hook - "In Krynn, there are no orcs!"; "In Forgotten Realms, there's a whole world underground!"; "In Saxinfraxin World, elves live in the mountains and dwarves live in the forest!". Zzzz..... I mean, if bog-standard fantasy is what you want, then great, but if that's the case, make it up yourself - you could probably do just as good a job as Ed Greenwood or Tracy Hickman, and at least it would be yours and not everybody else's. And it would be both free, and fun to create. Or, even easier, don't create any world at all. Start off with a village and a dungeon and make the whole thing up as you go along. Free, and even more fun to create.

It doesn't have to be this way. I've never spent a single penny of my hard-earned cash on a Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance product, but I have large collections of Planescape, Spelljammer and Dark Sun (and Warhammer) material, because those are settings which I believe tried to do something genuinely different and interesting - something that wasn't just Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off. More importantly, I never would have come up with them by myself, whereas I feel like I could have made up Krynn during the time it takes me to sing 'What a Fool Believes' every morning while I'm in the shower. Why can't all published campaign settings be so creative?

I understand that there are sentimental reasons for sticking with certain settings - Greyhawk in particular - so please don't interpret this as a diatribe against them. There's nothing bad about Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms; it's just...why pay somebody else to do your imagining for you? Paying somebody to do the imagining that you can't do, fair enough: that's why I have so much Planescape stuff.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Gygax, Meet the Legal Theorists; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the "Antithesis of Weal"

People talk about Gygaxian prose being abstruse and difficult to understand. I just can't see it. Listen, I work in a field in which people can write sentences which go "Yet despite its veiled presence in various facets of legal pluralism, both at the theoretical level and in praxis, political power has been ill-defined, and, more challengingly, rather ill-conceptualized; although studies in legal pluralism have referred to issues concerning what State law and law generally are, the concept of what power is and where it lies in de-centred or poly-centred legal settings has been underdeveloped," and they're not even joking.

Compared to some of these idiots who call themselves 'academics', Gygax was a veritable Oscar Wilde.

The Hallucinagenic Poppies of Runggara Ban

Throughout the Hundred Kingdoms there grow a variety of poppies, most of which are used in some way by the human population - smoked, eaten, or mashed up and drank. In the city of Runggara Ban they are dried out, then crushed and left in fermenting elephant blood for several months. The resultant paste is again dried out until it forms a kind of powder, which is then smoked using a hookah or pipe.

Both the powder, and the practice of smoking it, is known as Gulgutta. Gulgutta is a popular practice among the fakirs of Runggara Ban, though it is smoked only rarely by the general populace, for it is well known that too much can drive a person mad. However, it has powerful side effects for those who are willing to risk their sanity.

When a character smokes a Gulgutta pipe, the DM should roll a d100 and consult the following table to determine the effects on the smoker. Generally the effects last 2d6 hours.

01 - 10 - The smoker's conciousness leaves his body and he gains the ability to communicate with the Elephant God. He may ask three questions of the deity, which it is said will tell the truth five times out of ten, tell a lie four times out of ten, and refuse to answer once. Once all three questions have been asked the smoker enters a fugue state for the remaining duration.
11 - 20 - The smoker's conciousness leaves his body, and his spirit may travel through the spirit world to spy on goings-on elsewhere. Equivalent to the wizard spell clairvoyance.
21 - 90 - The smoker is affected by powerful hallucinations. Roll 1d12 and consult the following sub-table to determine the nature of the hallucination. The DM should feel free to impose penalties on 'to hit' rolls, saving throws and so forth according to the results:

1 - The smoker sees little purple men clambering over his skin like a swarm of fleas.
2 - The smoker believes a cloud of locusts is approaching.
3 - The smoker thinks something is eating him from the inside out.
4 - The smoker is blinded by swirling colours which utterly obscure his vision.
5 - The smoker believes all members of the opposite sex are irresistibly attracted to him/her.
6 - The smoker believes he or she has changed sex.
7 - The smoker feels an uncontrollable itching and can do little except scratch.
8 - The smoker suspects his comrades of being cannibals.
9 - The smoker hears incoherent moans and shrieks which he thinks are the voices of the dead.
10 - The smoker thinks his eyes are bleeding uncontrollably.
11 - The smoker sees demons cavorting in the periphery of his vision.
12 - The smoker believes he is a child again.

91 - 93 - The smoker's conciousness leaves his body and he meets an evil spirit, who will bind him with a geas spell to complete a certain task decided by the DM (such as assassinate one of the spirit's enemies or steal a magic item).
94 - 96 - The smoker enters a fugue state for 2d6 days.
97 - 98 - The DM should roll again on the hallucination sub-table; this time the hallucinations are permanent and can only be cured by a wish spell.
99 - The smoker loses all of his memories.
00 - The smoker's sanity is blasted and he acts as if under the effects of a confusion spell, permanently. He can only be cured by a wish spell.

There are rumours that some of the baser tribes from the jungles around Runggara Ban use Gulgutta on the tips of their blow pipe darts. If a character is hit by such a dart, the DM should roll on the above table; the effects are longer lasting (3d6 hours) but otherwise similar.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Fighting Between Two Stools

For some reason my posts weren't displaying yesterday or today; bloody computers. Anyway, this is the last of my Warhammer/D&D related posts. Back to regular esoteric stuff from tomorrow.

I think there are basically two schools of thought on combat in role playing games. There is the realist school (whose foremost proponents are GURPS, Cyberpunk 2020 and Rolemaster) where all elements of combat are played out in a detailed manner - from parries and dodges to appreciably nasty wounds. And then there is the abstract school (exemplified by the likes of Dogs in the Vineyard, Tunnels and Trolls, and the old World of Darkness games), where generally pools of dice are rolled and the results are interpreted in a vaguer and broader way.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is very much in the realist school. A combat round takes 10 seconds, and players not only roll 'to hit' but can also parry blows, lauch 'swift attacks', feint, and perform various other maneuvers. Generally speaking injuries are as severe as you would expect in real life, and it isn't unusual to see characters being killed with one hit. No matter how experienced a character is, they remain vulnerable to physical attacks: an unarmoured character of the highest level could still be killed by a few goblins firing arrows.

D&D was traditionally much more abstract. A combat round was a minute long, and the 'to hit' roll was really a shorthand term for determining whether, over the course of one minute, one character would be able to land a telling blow on another. Characters lose hit points, but these should be seen not as 'wound leves' but as a combination of physical health, morale, energy and other factors keeping a character in the fight. As characters gain in experience they become almost impervious to physical attacks; there is no chance that a level 20 character will be killed by a few goblins firing arrows, because an arrow hit will only take off a tiny percentage from their huge pile of hit points.

I like both methods of combat. Warhammer allows for a more tactical and realistic game. One thing I love about the Warhammer combat system is that it accurately reflects the level of protection that armour offered: a knight in plate mail is almost impossible to injure unless he is disabled somehow or falls over. Combat frightens the players because their character could easily die or suffer permanent injury, and this makes them cautious and clever. On the other hand, traditional D&D combat is fast and furious and allows for improvisation on the part of the DM and the players, because the rules are so loose.

Trying to mix the two schools is often a mistake, and I think that is where a lot of my dislike for D&D 3rd edition stems from. It sacrificed the almost freeform nature of D&D combat in previous editions for a greater level of tactical detail (attacks of opportunity, combat grids), and yet it retained the abstractions of hit points, armour class and the like - resulting in a bizarre mixture of both irrealism and restrictiveness. Not only did the 3rd edition combat system fail to match Warhammer for realism and danger, it also failed to match traditional D&D for ease of use and improvisational fun. It fell just in the middle of two stools, and (for me) was not at all as enjoyable as it should have been.

I haven't played D&D 4th edition, so I can't speak for it directly, but the designers seem to have made an effort to make a better hybrid of tactical detail and abstraction. Did they succeed or not? I can't say, but I think I generally prefer the either/or of realism and detail vs. freeform and abstraction.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Risus Asterix

Apropos of nothing.


Indomitable Gaul: 4
Master of Timing: 3
Bottomless Belly: 2
Charismatic Leader: 1


Indomitable Gaul: 4
Big Boned: 3
Good at Latin: 2
Menhir-smith: 1


Wisest Druid in the Forest of Carnutes: 4
Brewer of Potions: 3
Phlegmatic Old Fart: 2
Indomitable Gaul: 1


Indomitable Gaul: 4
Not Afraid of Anything Except the Sky Falling On His Head: 3
Skilled Browbeater: 2
Shield-riding: 1

Julius Caesar

Eternal Optimist: 4
Schemer of Schemes: 3
Quipper in Latin: 2
Impossibly Straight Teeth: 1

Saturday, 7 March 2009


There's been a heck of a lot of talk about dungeons around the blogosphere in recent months. Now, I like a dungeon as much as the next man, but I have to confess that I don't love them in the same way that others seem to. They're always part of my campaigns, but I tend to use them as small liars or underground areas scattered over a wide region: locations that can be explored and plundered relatively quickly. Megadungeons sound nice in theory, but I find it hard to imagine setting an entire campaign around one. Perhaps it's all the time I've spent playing roguelikes, and I'm all dungeon-ed out?

The type of campaigns that really get my pulse racing are wilderness adventures. Deep, thick, primeval forests where owlbears and manticores prowl and hidden kingdoms of myconids lurk. Massive mountain ranges, from whose peaks and glaciers dragons study from afar the affairs of men. Vast deserts dotted with hidden tombs. Mighty oceans swarming with kraken and tako. Mangrove swamps where invertebrate things slither through the mud. Volcanos and jungles and chasms and lakes, these are a few of my favourite things...

It is for this reason that I've long wanted to run a purely outdoorsman's kind of a game. A group of rangers and druids and the like protecting a huge wilderness from encroaching evildoers. A gang of egg-thieves raiding the nests of giant eagles and owlbears and selling their young at market. Intrepid bandeirantes setting off into impenetrable jungle to make their fortunes or die in the attempt. Or maybe a band of outlaws or exiles fleeing into the great empty, never to return...

Friday, 6 March 2009

What Tolstoy Had to Say About Player Characters

At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously remarked that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I think that is one of the most profound statements about human nature that I've ever read. But we're not here to talk about human nature; we're here to talk about role playing games. Luckily, Tolstoy also indirectly summed up, with this pithy statement, how I feel about my player characters. Powerful characters are all alike; every crappy character is crappy in his own way.

And that is why I like crappy (i.e. Intelligence of 3, 1 Hit Point at first level, or whatever) characters. They're just more flavourful that way.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

[PBem Ad] Something is Rotten in the Principality of Auerbach...

So I'm joining edsan's Tekumel PBP game, and also kick-starting my own Planescape PBeM campaign, and it's given me the bug for starting off something new. I've just finished off a big project and have some time on my hands, and I've been talking a whole lot about Warhammer, so what better moment to dust off the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rulebooks and see if anybody wants to get involved in a PBeM campaign?

The Particulars

The game will use the 2nd edition WHFRP core rules (I actually prefer 1st edition, but don't have the rulebooks) and will be set in the Border Princes. This is a lawless area where colonists from the Empire, Bretonnia, Kislev, Estalia and Tilea mingle with greenskins, dwarves and chaos cultists amidst ancient haunted ruins. The politics are in a constant state of flux, with bandit chiefs, minor princelings and robber barons rising and falling from power with the changes of seasons, and monsters and opportunities for adventure are everywhere. In short, it's like the Wild West of the Old World, and the perfect place for a bunch of adventure-seekers to pitch in and make a name for themselves - and maybe become Prince of their own little domain.

It'll be a sandbox type campaign, in which the players will be free to do what they want to do without railroading, so it'll need people who are happy to take the initiative. But I'll provide plenty of adventure seeds and locations for exploration to get you going. If you want to do old-fashioned dungeoncrawling with hirelings, you'll be able to, but you'll also be able to get mixed up in grander concerns if that's your thing.

Newcomers to WHFRP are more than welcome. The game is simple, and as I've already mentioned, character generation is more or less random, so no in-depth knowledge of the mechanics are required. (I'll do all of the in-game dice-rolling myself beyond character generation anyway.) It's a lethal game, though, and I won't pull punches or fudge rolls, so expect character deaths in roughly equal numbers to those you'd get in OD&D. If you need to know more about the Warhammer setting, take a look at these wikipedia pages. (Although because the campaign will take place in the Border Princes, you don't need to know most of the details of what's going on in the rest of the world.)

If you'd like to get involved, send me an email at jean.delumeau AT gmail.com for further details. I'd like a group of between 4 and 6 players who can commit to mailing something at least once a day on weekdays; any more people than that and things could get unwieldy, though if I'm swamped by dozens of applicants I may consider running with two different groups of four.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

WHFRP and the Beauty of Random Character Generation

I'm a big fan of random character generation. For one thing, I just love randomness. Modern gaming often seems to be a huge exercise in reducing its effects, and I find this trend boring. I want to be surprised by what the dice throw up, the more surprises the better. (This is probably why point-based systems like GURPS, or diceless games like Nobilis, have never been by thing.) And why should the character I'll be playing be any different?

D&D character generation in its 'purest' forms is nicely random, but only up to a point. Once you have your stats, the rest is up to you. Weirdly, D&D characters also arrive more or less fully formed into the universe; you start off with a blank piece of paper, roll 3d6 six times, and hey presto! a 50-year old elven druid appears from the ether. This is a strength of the system, because it's quick and easy, but it's also less fun than, say, Cyberpunk 2020 and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, random character generation extends far beyond generating stats. Not only can you roll on a 'starting career' table containing dozens of entries (from Pit Fighter to Zealot to Rat Catcher), you also randomly determine pretty much everything else, including eye colour, star sign, distinguishing features (like 'pox marks'), birthplace, family background and and finally even your name (plus names and careers for your family too, if you're so inclined). I love this process and can spend a considerable amount of time merrily churning out characters. It almost always throws up interesting plot hooks for the game, too: who was this pit fighter born in a hovel in Talabecland, why does he have a missing eyebrow, and what are his 5 sisters, one of whom is an outlaw, doing? Boom: loads of ideas for the GM to use in the game.

It wouldn't be hard to incorporate something like this into a D&D campaign, and in fact it's something I might try. In particular, I think such random tables are fantastic if you're going to be running a game in a non-standard (i.e. not high fantasy) setting: we all know how hard it is to get players to invest in a game set in ancient Akkadia or whatever and how likely they are to come up with stuff that just doesn't fit. How much easier is the process made if you can randomly generate a character using tables that are tailor-made to produce results that fit in with the setting? At a stroke some of the key difficulties running campaigns in Tekumel, Athas or your bizarre homebrew setting are removed.

Of course, the best random character generator of all was Cyberpunk 2020's, with its silly life path and life history tables which never failed to turn up weird and wonderful results. ("I'm playing a Fijian netrunner who likes wearing fingerless gloves but otherwise goes around completely nude, whose favourite possession is a childhood toy, and who has five sworn enemies, seven ex-lovers and grew up in a pirate gang? Cool.")

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

[Yoon-suin] Flavour Art

More on Warhammer tomorrow, but for now, some flavour pics for Yoon-suin.

The Oligarchy of Silaish Vo just after the dawn:

Mahmoud's Shrine at Syr Darya, built at the place where the ogre magi first summoned The Shikk:

Fakirs by the roadside near Runggara Ban:

A Temple to the Elephant Demon, who devours the souls of the dead:

Monday, 2 March 2009

Gunpowder, Technology, War Machines

For those of us who don't necessarily want to play high fantasy and/or sword & sorcery games all the time, D&D's general lack of black powder weapons can be frustrating and jarring. Many of the weapons which AD&D adventurers can use (the guisarme, the lucerne hammer, the bardiche) came into being at around the same time that black powder arms were becoming more common on the battlefields of Europe; it seems odd that esoteric polearms should be given such preference over the humble hand cannon. Admittedly a hand cannon isn't the perfect weapon when you're doing what D&D adventurers usually get up to, but it seems a heck of a lot more useful in those circumstances than field plate, an awl-pike, or a fauchard. I suppose the D&D creators (and most players) just don't or didn't think that guns 'fit' with the tone they were aiming for. (I know that 2nd edition lists arquebuses in its equipment pages, but that's all there is.)

The Warhammer creators had no such compunctions, and Warhammer fantasy battle is full of weird and wonderful black powder devices, from ordinary arquebuses to cannons, rocket launchers, and flame-throwers. I like this. Although Warhammer is a fantasy setting you get the feeling that technology develops in at least some sort of haphazard way - unlike in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, where it seemed to reach a certain level and just stopped. For thousands of years.

Of course, this feeds into the old classicist/romanticist, or banalifying systematiser/mysterious dreamer debate. It's perfectly fine for there not to be cannons in The Lord of the Rings or the Corum stories, because those aren't meant to be in any way an accurate reflection of reality. But if you like a heavier dose of realism in your fantasy pie, their absence smacks of grandfathering rather than anything else.

One of the reasons I love D&D is that I think it can be all things to all people. Some people will tell you that games should be narrowly focused towards certain 'goals', but I've never subscribed to that view. What makes a game good is a good DM and good players doing what they want to do with whatever system they've chosen (though some systems are undoubtedly worse than others). The D&D designers always seemed to have this philosophy, at least up to and including 3rd edition. So to me it seems a little odd for the core rules to implicitly dictate that black powder weapons don't really fit with the D&D vision of what fantasy should be. I sometimes want to play a bloke with a massive matchlock gun which takes ages to load but which can knock an ogre's head off at twenty paces. It would be nice if D&D allowed me to do that without having to come up with my own rules.

The corollary of this is: what kind of guns, cannons and other war machines would kobolds, mind flayers, derro or the other creatures of D&D come up with? The various races of Warhammer have eccentric devices which suit their 'national' character: Chaos Dwarfs have huge cannons which cause the very earth to quake; the empire has steam-driven tank-like contraptions with mini-cannons; the armies of Chaos have fire-belching machines inhabited by the souls of the damned, who are always likely to be driven insane and start attacking their comrades. Once you start thinking about the introduction of firearms into D&D a whole new world opens up. Githzerai arqubusiers, thri-kreen pistoliers, ogres carting around battered hand cannons - the possibilities are fascinating.