Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Of HD, Levels and NPCs, Cabbages and Kings

As a general rule, for human NPCs in games I tend to assume a default of being 0-level, with a single 1d6 HD. This includes anybody of any profession or background who isn't likely to have 'levels' in the strict sense - whether a serf or a king - because he's probably never gained the necessary experience. Magic-users, clerics and high-level warriors will have actual levels, just like PCs. Non-human NPCs simply have monster HD.

Why? I'm really not sure. It was simply ever thus, and I've never rationalised it. Nor have I ever really rationalised levels at all. Why not have everybody, PC, NPC, and monster, use HD, varying the dice used for PCs according to their class? Is it just because it feels better to say "I'm 3rd level" than "I've got 3 HD"?

Or is it because PCs are special in some sense - different from the rest? In a G+ post I mused that perhaps there are two categories of person in the world. There are the vast mass of humanity, who do not have levels and indeed cannot - although they might improve their skills slightly and/or come to possess fortunes and great power - or be born as royalty for that matter. And then there are the special ones, maybe minor demigods, plane-touched, faerie-blessed, dipped-in-the-River-Styx, annointed by storm giants, etc., who have this innate capacity to be something more than human (which a high level D&D PC undoubtedly is) even if they don't realise it.

I don't like the idea particularly, because a) the idea that D&D PCs are nobodies like anybody else but make it by applying themselves is innately appealing; and b) it sounds a bit like the plot of a bad YA novel. As a matter of fact I think it's a cabbage of an idea, and no, that's not even a remotely pathetic attempt at tying together an Alice Through the Looking Glass gag.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Art of Describing a Monster

As we all know, one of the great delights of any fantasy, horror, or SF story is the descriptions of the monsters. There are a number of ways to approach this, but I've always enjoyed those of Lovecraft and his imitators, who tend to adopt what you might call the Nasty Adjective-Heavy Approach. Here, a distasteful adjective is used in such a way that it lets you know that something is horrible or being done in a horrible way, but letting you make up the details in your own mind. Take Clark Ashton Smith's description of Quachil Uttaus as one of the paradigm examples:

"It was a figure no larger than a young child, but sere and shriveled as some millenial mummy. Its hairless head, its unfeatured face, borne on a neck of skeleton thinness, were lined with a thousand reticulated wrinkles. The body was like that of some monstrous, withered abortion that had never drawn breath. The pipy arms, ending in bony claws, were outhrust as if ankylosed in posture of an eternal dreadful groping."

Get that nasty adjective? Quachil Uttaus doesn't just grope. Its groping is dreadful. You have to imagine what that looks like for yourself.

Lovecraft used this technique to strong effect - sometimes in a way that strays dangerously close to self-parody, as in the description of Azathoth:

"That last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity -- the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes."

I'm not sure what a "vile" drum sounds like as opposed to a normal drum, or an "accursed" flute as distinct from a flute, but it certainly sounds worse.

What Lovecraft and Smith are doing here is providing a spur to your imagination. What's "dreadful" groping? Better to let the reader imagine just what that might be like, rather than try to explain. While these monster descriptions are florid, they operate on the age-old principle that often letting the reader's imagination do the work is the most effective way to scare them.

Over-exploit this technique, though, and you're in trouble. Think of Lovecraft's description of the Byakhee:

"Here flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things... not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall."

What does that look like? Fucked if I know. It's not so much a spur to imagination as a bucket of water thrown all over it. There are too few dots, and they are too spread out, to really join up.

Similarly, this technique can go too far. Lovecraft's later imitators often fell into the trap of simply telling you something was scary or horrible without really detailing why. From Derleth, describing Zhar, the Twin Obscenity: 

"The thing that crouched in the weird green dusk was a living mass of shuddering horror, a ghastly mountain of sensate, quivering flesh, whose tentacles, far-flung in the dim reaches of the subterranean cavern, emitted a strange humming sound, while from the depths of the creature's body came a weird and horrific undulation."

Yeah, okay, we get it, it's a mass of shuddering horror, it makes weird and horrific undulations. We know because you're telling us. It's weak writing.

MR James wasn't averse to using a nasty adjective here and there, but he was at the opposite end of the spectrum - the Minimalist Description Approach. In MR James stories, you never properly see the ghost. It's always in the dark, or glanced at, or described by somebody who fainted and only dimly remembers. Often this method works best of all; James knew how to give the absolute minimum description necessary to get your mind racing to fill in the details. From 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'

"My dear Gregory, I am telling you the exact truth. I believe I am now acquainted with the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind. I can only just manage to tell you now the bare outline of the experience. I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several - I don't know how many - legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body. I screamed out, Brown says, like a beast, and fell away backward from the step on which I stood, and the creature slipped downwards, I suppose, on to that same step."

A cold face pressed against yours, with arms or tentacles or something clinging to your body - in a sentence or two he out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft and he does it with almost effortless ease.

A third approach is the bare-bones Just the Facts, Dammit! Approach, of which Zelazny was a great exponent. Zelazny's heroes are usually hard-bitten tough-guys (not like MR James' namby-pamby professors of theology from Cambridge) and they describe monsters without fear or emotion:

"There was something unusual about their appearance... For one thing, all had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the condition seemed normal. For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of their hands. All of them had prominent jaws (and) forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny. There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort." (Fiona's shadow creatures)
"It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were as thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. Its arms were longer than its entire body. It was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked."(The Borshin)
"It was well over six feet in height, with great branches of antlers growing out of its forehead. Nude, its flesh was a uniform ash-gray in color. It appeared to be sexless, and it had gray, leathery wings extending far out behind it." (Strygalldwir)

Finally, there is the Poetic Approach, which is the one Tolkien favoured. For Tolkien, evil means darkness, hunger, hatred, and above all self-destruction, and he tries to make this clear in his monster descriptions. Here's Ungoliant:

"[S]he had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness; and she fled to the south, escaping the assaults of the Valar and the hunters of Oromë, for their vigilance had ever been to the north, and the south was long unheeded. Thence she had crept towards the light of the Blessed Realm; for she hungered for light and hated it...In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished."

This occasionally gets Tolkien into difficulties, because he liked metaphors and nerds don't always understand metaphor, which is the root of of all those problems about balrogs and their non-existent wings. This hints at a deep problem with the Poetic Approach, which may explain why fantasy bestiaries in particular never use it.

[This post was largely inspired by one of Brendan's G+ posts.]

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

There is no other relic of the disciplines of geography

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Borges's On Exactitude in Science has always been something that struck me as eminently game-able. (To be fair to Lewis Carroll, I've recently learned that the idea is more properly attributed to him.) A map with a scale of a mile to a mile which was cast aside as useless, but of which large fragments can still be found here and there - maybe themselves miles across. These map fragments are obviously not tied to their corresponding locations (the wind having swept them elsewhere) and over time have become refuges for exiles, hermits and outcasts - a sort of parallel world where things vaguely resemble what they purport to represent, but in a twisted and unusual way. A little like what I was playing around with in New Troy, but with a magic realist spin.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

And For My Next Trick: Queen Country

Imagine a vague fantasy simulacrum of medieval China, seen through a lens of Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", Marco Polo's accounts of his expeditions, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the legend of Prester John. Basically, picture what people in Europe of the middle-ages thought China was like, then layer on top a big slathering of romanticism, add a hefty dose of orientalism, together with a sprinkling of complete ignorance, and bake in an oven of Umberto Eco.

Then imagine that to the East there is a strange mountainous island which is permanently shrouded in mist and populated by militaristic, violent natives; innumerable ghosts and weird spirits; nature-based demigods; and dragons with underwater palaces in its seas. It is called the "Queen Country", but nobody knows why. Legend has it that in the North there resides a great Black Turtle, in the South the Vermilion Bird, in the West a White Tiger, and in the East an Azure Dragon. It's the Japan of the Nara period, but seen from the eyes of what people in our real-world China of 750 AD might have thought of it.

Now imagine what would have happened if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had this in mind, rather than Greyhawk, when they'd designed D&D. It's called Queen Country and it's what I'm going to publish after Yoon-Suin.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Categorising Lovecraft

I've finally finished reading HP Lovecraft's entire bibliography (as a solo author). I'd read many of his stories over the years but in 2012 I took it upon myself to read all of his fiction, in chronological order - thinking it would be good for my long commutes. It turns out there's only so much Lovecraft you can read back to back before it all begins to blend together and you get an incipient migraine, so in the end it's taken over 2 years - but I've finally done it. I may write something vaguely useful about this at a future date, but for now, here is provisional categorisation of all his fiction into five categories:

Terrible and also make you feel dirty
The Street
The Horror at Red Hook

Merely terrible
Old Bugs
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Statement of Randolph Carter
The Tree
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermlyn and His Family (may belong in the "Terrible and also make you feel dirty" category - can't remember and can't be bothered reading the stupid thing again to find out)
The Moon Bog
Herbert West - Reanimator
The Thing on the Doorstep

Mediocre (from insipid to alright-ish)
The Tomb
A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson
The Doom that Came to Sarnath
From Beyond
The Quest of Iranon
The Other Gods
Sweet Ermengarde (assuming it is meant to be funny)
The Hound
The Lurking Fear
The Shunned House
He (I can't remember this one at all - it's a complete blank to me, although I know I read it)
The Strange High House in the Mist
The Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Descendant
The Very Old Folk
The Dreams in the Witch House

Worth reading
The White Ship
The Cats of Ulthar
The Terrible Old Man
The Temple
The Picture in the House
The Nameless City
Ex Oblivione
The Outsider
What the Moon Brings
The Rats in the Walls
The Unnamable (I can't quite make up my mind whether this is good or merely terrible)
In the Vault
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
Pickman's Model 
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Very good
The Music of Erich Zann
The Festival
The Colour Out of Space
The Dunwich Horror
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Hob-bite Size View


I haven't watched either the second Hobbit film or the third - let me say that from the beginning. I find it hard putting into words how much I disliked the first of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, and how much I cringe when I see anything to do with the other episodes, without coming across like an arsey killjoy, so I won't bother. Suffice to say the first film was stupid, loud, obnoxious, annoying, boring, and rang completely false against the source material, and nothing in the trailers or advertisements or reviews for the others suggested they would be worth watching to somebody who had that view of part one.

The best thing about the book of The Hobbit is the treatment of Bilbo. Tolkien doesn't often get credit for being an intelligent writer, but he was one: he thought carefully about what he was doing. He was writing a children's book and also a book that was very unusual for its time. He well understood that making the story all about Gandalf or Thorin or Smaug would be a mistake. There needed to be a human lens through which to view events in this strange world - somebody for children to empathise with. And that human lens came in the non-human form of Bilbo Baggins and his development from clown into hero. Indeed I don't think it's a mistake that the main character of the book is child-like in size. He's a small person in a grown-up world, and children can identify with that in a very deep and strong way.

Adults, though, who were children once too, also get that. I don't think reading The Hobbit would be quite as fulfilling for a 40 year old as it is for a 9 year old, but the effect is still there. If you've never experienced fantasy fiction before, the book functions as the perfect introduction because Bilbo's journey is a little bit like it: a person plucked from mundane reality and cast into something much stranger. 

RPGs work best, I think, when they adopt a similar approach. I don't think it's an accident that when you look at the most popular and iconic games - D&D, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, etc. - you notice that the expectation is that the PCs start off as close to children as possible: weak, small, lacking in power and knowledge.

The reason for this is largely mechanical or pragmatic - if players start off knowing everything and being all-powerful there doesn't seem much to do, and rewards for success are harder to come by. But the effect is that campaigns in those games have something of The Hobbit about them: D&D PCs, if they survive, very much tend to follow a Bilbo-like career trajectory. This, in turn, makes them easy to empathise with, and hooks the players into the game and setting just as the reader is hooked into Middle Earth. The child becomes an adult, the hobbit becomes a hero, the 1st level character becomes a 20th level one.

Game designers overlook this at their peril. Starting off powerful may seem AWESOME on the face of it, but it's not the right approach for lasting enjoyment and immersion.

Monday, 8 December 2014

310 Pages of Possibly Incomprehensible Gibberish?

Let me tell you a story.

Long ago (in 2009) a young British man living in Kawasaki began doodling some pictures of slug-men in an idle moment. This dovetailed with a D&D campaign world he'd been running off and on in various forms for a few years, called provisionally The Mountains of the Moon, whose concept was in essence "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks".

The result eventually grew into something weird and terrible called Yoon-Suin. Over the following five years the British man made various rash and rather pathetic promises to release it as a campaign setting - each promise being less convincing and trustworthy than the last. During this time the idea morphed from a hexcrawl into something else entirely: a kind of toolkit of random tables, hex locations, bestiaries and rumours that, in the right hands, may come to resemble a living, breathing Frankenstein's Monster of a campaign setting - a Frankenstein's Monster with yak horns, leaving a trail of slime wherever it goes.

Looking at the final product (because yes, it does exist, and yes, it'll be available very shortly) the British man feels at turns proud and concerned. Proud because a heck of a lot of effort, willpower, creativity and yes, let's use a dirty four-letter word, love went into its production. Concern because the British man suspects that the neutral reader - i.e. everybody else - may very well view the thing as 310 pages of useless, blithering nonsense spewed from a rather unhinged mind. (And not in the good, creative way; unhinged in the sense of being mad enough to think anybody would be able to make sense of this crap.) The prevailing view may be, rather than "Wow!" or even "Hmm!", something closer to "Huh?" or even "Jesus wept".

But in any event, it's done now, and despite all the broken promises, the fundamental promise (that one day there would be this thing called 'Yoon-Suin' that people could get their hands on) has been honoured. That, the British man feels, is probably the main thing.

Suffice to say, Yoon-Suin is finished. I'm letting a few friends/comrades take a glance at it first, to see if they can salvage something understandable from it. But yes, in any case, finished. If you've ever thought to yourself "I want to be a slug-man with a crab-man slave", then don't worry: soon it will happen. Perhaps sooner than you think.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Historical Change

Barbara Tuchman is one of the all-time greats, and I was planning to re-read The Guns of August this year - for obvious reasons - but then realised my treasured copy, like many of my treasured things, is somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. So I have made do with another of her books. It's A Distant Mirror, which I have mentioned before, and which I picked up this summer at Barter Books, one of the world's finest second hand book shops.

The book is billed as being a history of the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War, but it's really a kind of extended treatise on human misery and tragedy (self-inflicted and through the vagaries of nature). It's a great book. Not quite The Guns of August - though what is? - but a riveting read.

A Distant Mirror must surely have influenced George R R Martin in writing A Song of Ice and Fire. I'd be genuinely surprised to learn he hasn't read it. It's not so much to do with period detail but to do with two things: the effect of war on a medieval society, and the sense that history is dynamic.

Take this passage, from two-thirds of the way through. Tuchman is keen to stress that the picture was complex, with some areas of France remaining prosperous even in the latter part of the 14th Century, but even so:

"The marks of a century of woe - lowered population, dwindling commerce, deserted villages, ruined abbeys - were everywhere in France, and cause enough for the climate of pessimism. Certain communes in Normandy were reduced to two or three hearths; in the diocese of Bayeux several towns had been abandoned since 1370, likewise several parishes of Brittany. The commerce of Chalons on the Marne was reduced from 30,000 pieces of cloth a year to 800. In the region of Paris, according to an ordinance of 1388, "many notable and ancient highways, bridges, lanes and roads" had been left to decay - gutted by streams, overgrown by hedges, brambles, and trees, and some, having become impassable, abandoned altogether....

"The schism had caused physical as well as spiritual damage, as when a Benedictine abbey, already twice burned by the companies, was cut off from the revenue of its estates in Flanders and spent so much money on lawyers in various disputes that the Pope was obliged to reduce its tax from 100 livres to 40 for a period of 25 years. Other abbeys, robbed by the companies or depopulated by the plague, fell into indiscipline and disorder, and in some cases into disuse, their lands reverting to waste. Decreased revenue and rising costs impoverished many landowners, causing them to exact new fees and invent new kinds of taxes to impose on their tenants. When this hastened flight from the land, the nobles tried to prevent it by confiscating goods and by other penalties that increased the peasants' hostility..."

The picture is one of a society in sustained crisis and near-collapse, where peasants are in constant revolt, landowners are constantly searching for taxes, the knights pay only lip-service to chivalry but spend most of the time robbing and raping in all senses of the word, religion has abandoned any kind of moral authority and the church is at war with itself, and the country is ravaged by roving bands of former soldiers, "the free companies", who sometimes act as mercenaries but, when not doing so, act simply as wandering brigands and thugs. But at the same time, French society hadn't always been this way: it's a culmination, the result of a "century of woe" - one damned thing after another and their combined effects.

In real life things aren't static. It's rather a mundane observation, in a sense, but also one that is worth making. Most bad high fantasy settings are bad partly because there is no real idea that there is a lived history going on: that things were different before, that situations change with the course of events, and things will be different again in the future. Instead, there is a sense that things have always been a certain way and will continue to be so (even if there is nominally a timeline or chronology of previous events). Great high fantasy settings, on the other hand, often give a sense of historical dynamism: that what you are reading, or playing, comes off the back of thousands of years of events. Tolkien's work has this, of course, but so does A Song of Ice and Fire (it's one of the best things about the series, in my view).

That's not to say that it's a requirement, of course: Vance's Cugel's stories aren't supposed to be about detailed setting creation - that isn't the point. It's to say, rather, that a detailed setting, a setting which attempts to somehow convey a sense of realism and depth, has to do a good job of presenting itself as being subject to perennial and constant historical change.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Three Ideas

It's been a while.

I've not been lazy, I promise. Yoon-Suin is done and dusted and waiting to be sent off to kindly fresh eyes. I got promoted at work. It's been intense.

Let's think about what comes next. I have three ideas.

1. A while ago on an AGPAN episode I mused about a game I'd like to run: a megadungeon carved into a huge glacial ice sheet. An ancient network of caves and tunnels burrowed into the ice by long-gone aliens. The deeper you go, the colder and darker it gets. And the more likely you are to freeze to death. I call it Cold Depths, using the Hobbit approach to naming.

Cold Depths is an experiment in adding an additional layer of hostility and time pressures to dungeon exploration. The dungeon is not just deep, dark and full of hideous foul beings. It's deep, dark, full of hideous foul beings, and the cold can kill you.

2. By the Aral Sea is a city called Mo'ynoq. It used to be a port. It isn't anymore, because during the Soviet era the Aral Sea was basically destroyed. Mo'ynoq is now many miles from what remains of the sea. Rusting ships lie buried in bone-dry sand. Poisonous dust clouds sweep in, stinging with salts and other minerals left over from the evaporating sea. The population has mostly fled. It's a lasting tribute to the power of central planners to fuck everything up.

Imagine what might be living underneath what was once a sea bed, now revealed by the blistering sun...

3. The oil rig archipelago. 'Nuff said.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Fu Ying and Lee Ba

This pair of magicians travel the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, offering their services in return for magical items and precious gems. Fu Ying appears as a humanoid rat and Lee Ba as a humanoid pig; if this is as a result of a curse neither behaves as such - indeed, they seem to find each other irresistibly attractive and constantly paw at one another, even during conversation with a third party. Their grotesque lasciviousness makes their company less than enjoyable, but the pair have their uses.

Fu Ying
Level 5 magician
Spellbook consists of a dozen strings of quipu, each containing one spell. These are as follows:
Colour Spray, Dancing Lights, Light, Levitate, Rope Trick, Hypnotism, Charm Person, Forget, Hypnotic Pattern, Web, Item, and Hold Person.
She is equipped with the Kukri of Peeling. This magical blade (+2) slices so deeply it causes skin to necrify and peel away from the body, causing 1 hp damage per day per wound; this can only be healed by a cure disease and cure serious wounds spell cast simultaneously.
She wears Fu Ying's Hat, which provides resistance to fire, acid, and electricity and creates a screen which wards away missiles, providing AC 4 against such attacks.

Lee Ba
Level 5 magician
Spellbook is a hat made of fine bone china, which is decorated on the inside with tiny lettering. It contains the following spells:
Magic Missile, Sleep, Armour, Grease, Taunt, Jump, Shocking grasp, Glitterdust, Web, Wraithform and Ray of Enfeeblement.
He has the Claws of the Rajah of Saliput, two Bang Nakh +3 which allow the owner to climb perfectly and which can be activated to provide perfect camouflage once per day. These items can only be used in conjunction with each other and function as ordinary bang nakh if not used as a pair.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Describing Hit Point States

Observation 1: Hit points are an abstraction which represent morale, fatigue, fitness, and so forth as much as health. (The classic statement of this being the fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne - erroneously identified in places as the Sheriff of Nottingham - from the classic Errol Flynn film; see this ENWorld post. The fight goes on for some time and the two figures don't wound each other until the killing blow, but Gygax seems to have imagined them losing hit points during the course of the combat nonetheless.) A lot has been written on this point, not least by me. But I don't think I'm saying anything controversial, either, if I suggest that the great majority of DMs tend to describe combat in a manner which suggests hit points are more concrete representations of health. What DMs tend to do (and I include myself in this), is that they describe the attack roll as being like the swing of a sword, and if it's a miss it's described as "you slash at the orc but don't connect" (or whatever), if it's a hit that does 1 hp of damage it's described as "you slash the orc across the shoulder" (or whatever), and if it's a killing hit it's described as "you stab the orc through the heart" (or whatever). This doesn't really square with this notion that hit points are an abstraction.

Observation 2: Hit points are actually fairly good at modelling what happens in a fight, in that wounds and injuries recieved, especially to the torso, tend not to affect combatants all that much until a genuine killing or knockout blow is recieved. A couple of times in my sporting life I've bruised or fractured ribs, or had a nosebleed or broken toe, and been able to finish whatever I was doing without much inconvenience. You don't notice the pain, often, until later in the day or the next morning when you can't get out of bed. This is due to the wondrous effects of adrenaline, obviously, and it's actually reflected quite well in D&D hit points, whose loss does not at all affect a combatant's ability to fight, but which do require healing afterwards. See also this short section from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror:

In one combat Don Pero Nino was struck by an arrow that "knit together his gorget and his neck," but he fought on against the enemy... "Several lance stumps were still in his shield and it was that which hindered him most." A bolt from a crossbow "pierced his nostrils most painfully whereat he was dazed, but his daze lasted but a little time." He pressed forward, recieving many sword blows on head and shoulders which "sometimes hit the bolt embedded in his nose making him suffer great pain." When weariness on both sides brought the battle to an end, Pero Nino's shield was "tattered and all in pieces; his sword blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood...his armour was broken in several places by lance-heads of which some had entered the flesh and drawn blood, although the coat was of great strength." 

I've been considering these observations lately; and in particular I'm considering whether anybody actually needs the weird genuflection of hit points representing intangibles like morale and fatigue. I used to find Gygax's reasoning fairly convincing, to a point, but now I'm not sure. Combatants get injured during a fight by hits from enemy attacks. They don't really notice it during the fight unless it's very serious - because of the adrenaline and their own toughness. There's no great inconsistency there between the model and reality. The only tweak I might add to my games in future is something like this:

If a combatant loses 50% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she takes a -1 penalty to all dice rolls until healed.
If a combatant loses 75% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she is at half movement rate in addition to the above penalty, until healed. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Out with the Old

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.
- TH White, The Goshawk

I am a lover of old things. Not all old things, and of course the principle only stretches so far, but I think in general I prefer the tried and tested to the new. I prefer Bach to Jay-Z, test cricket to t20, Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, old-fashioned real ale to fancy ciders and "fursty ferret" style ironically fashionable old-fashioned ale (I write this blog entry drinking a can of Courage Director's), classic cocktails to passion fruit fucking mojitos, classic rock to whatever it is kids listen to nowadays, analogue to digital, karate to MMA, hand-carved wood furniture to stark modernist stuff, gothic architecture to brutalist concrete, etc., etc. It isn't a hard-and-fast tendency by any means - and I have basically no tolerance for fakeness (I don't know about in the US but pseudo-Victoriana is the fashion of choice these days amongst hipster knobheads in Britain) - but it's a certain leaning.

Is my leaning towards old things the reason I like old RPGs? Undoubtedly yes. I like them because they are old. Not necessarily because there is an intrinsic value in oldness (though I do believe that there often is), but simply because I like things that have been around for a long time. I like having a connection with the past and with older ways of doing things. The new, the glossy, the shiny, the sparkly, is not usually all that attractive to me. I find it off-putting and ephemeral. I tend to view it with suspicion and often find its success to be attributable, as TH White did, to simply being more bad, and stronger. Much of the modern RPG industry, if its possible to speak of such a thing at all, strikes me as being that: more bad, and stronger, than what was being played in decades past.

Our preferences tend not to be rational, and I think we kid ourselves if we pretend otherwise, but I also think a rational argument can be made as to why one should prefer old things - which is simply that, if something has been around for a long time, there is probably a reason for it. The onus ought to be on new things to prove their worth: we can take Shakespeare as great simply by dint of him still being considered so important 400 years after his death, whereas modern authors have the burden of proof to demonstrate they aren't passing fads. The world of rock is the same: the latest NME flavour of the month may be a great band but let's wait 30 years or so and see if people are still listening. Of course, nothing of this is set in stone - there are plenty of things that have been around for a long time which are criminally awful (e.g. Bono) and sometimes unutterably terrible things become grandfathered into greatness for no good reason (e.g. Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars). And this is contingent on survival: the preference is not for old things at all costs, but for old things which have proved themselves by surviving. But I think there are strong reasons for the following rule of thumb:

Faced with a choice between purchasing or using two cultural artefacts (e.g. books) where one is significantly older than the other, the significantly older one should usually be preferred.

This is why, for instance, I'll rely on BECMI rather than buy D&D 5th edition, and why I'll try to track down the Top Secret RPG before looking for other, newer games. It's not that I'm sure the old things are better, it's that faced with a choice and with limited time, I'll go for the tried and tested. I'll trust that rule of thumb.

(There are other, less prosaic arguments too, of course. I'm thinking here of Burke's metaphor of the flies of the summer, whose lives are meaningless because they are self-contained, without past or future, neither inheriting nor bequeathing but simply living. I'm thinking also of MacIntyre and his 'goods internal to practices'. But I'll leave those for a future entry.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making as well as Doing

I'm currently reading TH White's book about falconry, The Goshawk. It's a great book. A beautiful, sad, meaningful book. A book that every one of you should read. One of those books which you come across from time to time and think, "How come I've never even heard of this before? Why have I never heard anyone raving about this?"

Anyway, it's full of grist for the RPG mill, but I loved this line, which I think sums up what is fun about this hobby.

"Regarding these arrangements after many hours of scrubbing with a file, one could say to oneself warmly: I have created. Indeed, one of the great beauties of falconry was that one was allowed to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play at Red Indians with them, whatever one's age."

Setting aside the old fashioned phrasing, if you replace the word 'falconry' in that sentence with 'role playing games' I don't think the paragraph would lose anything. The hobby allows you to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play with them, whatever one's age. It's not just the gaming, it's the way you can say to yourself warmly after drawing a map, drawing up a table, statting out an NPC, "I have created". Like all the best hobbies, it's as much about the process of making as it is of doing. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Arch-Mage Tower Generator and Yoon-Suin Update

Enough with the politics. Here's a table from the Yoon-Suin Gazetteer. This is what's consumed much of my summer: formatting tables like this. About 250 pages of them. I am to all intents and purposes finished, but I need to put the art into its various placeholders. I don't anticipate this will take very long, but I've learned a dark secret during the course of this project, and it's as follows: everything to do with layout is a massive faff, and while that is something you expect, you can never expect the level of faffing around that will be required in practice. So I expect a whole host of unexpected problems to suddenly unearth themselves in the course of this final furlong.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sorry about the politics, but it's time to talk about Scotland

I think it's bad form to post about politics in a non-political blog, but Patrick did it and anyway, this is a once-every-three-centuries event, so I feel it deserves special comment. If you don't want to read a political rant don't read any further, and rest assured you have until the year 2321 to wait for another.

On Thursday, people living in Scotland are going to vote on whether they want Scotland to be an independent country. I have no idea how this is seen around the world, but I expect that it is largely based on misunderstandings about what Britain is; my perception, from talking to non-British people, is that everyone seems to think that the Scots are some sort of historically-oppressed minority group who were conquered by the English centuries ago and have been chafing under the yoke of London ever since. This is what led a Japanese person to message me earlier to ask why British people are opposed to Scottish independence, when Scotland would be so much better off having "freedom".

As I patiently explained: a) if Scotland has ever been conquered by the English it's through the very roundabout way of the dastardly, perfidious English somehow conniving for their queen to die heirless so a Scottish relative could take the crown; and b) you're surely thinking of the Welsh.

I blame Braveheart.

Scotland and England are essentially equal partners in Britain. Not in terms of population, because England's population is so much bigger, but constitutionally: they are two separate nations with separate crowns which are united in one monarch. They have separate legal systems, separate powers to print currency, and, since 1998, sort-of separate parliaments (Scotland has its own parliament, and there is also parliament in London which is for the whole UK; there is no English parliament of its own). What this means is that the Scottish independence referendum resembles, more than anything else, a divorce. It's two nations which have been bound together for 300 years breaking apart.

Like any good divorce, then, England is going to have to accept the result. You can't force somebody to stay married to you if they don't want to any more. That's not a recipe for happiness. You have to dust yourself down, pick yourself up, and start again. And England will do that. But it's an emotional blow that is going to take a long time to recover from.

I wasn't expecting to feel as emotional about this issue as I do. But as the date draws closer, I get increasingly distraught about it. You see, I'm half-Scottish. My dad is from Glasgow. I've never, ever defined myself as being English. Like a lot of people in this sceptered isle, I would always say that my national identity is British. I consider myself to be a product of the union between the different peoples who call the British Isles home - my English mother's father is of Irish heritage, and my dad's mother was Welsh. My mongrel background is represented in the mongrel nature of the country which I'm from: a muddled but largely successful amalgamation of ethnicities - a family, even. A group of nations who ended up having to share this cold, rainy little island and have learned to do so after many generations. A hard-won and delicately assembled arrangement which has taken centuries to evolve through blood and war.

But if people living in Scotland vote 'yes' on Thursday, what then? A dividing line comes down. From that point on you can no longer be British. You'll have to be Scottish or from "the other bit". I'll have to be Scottish or from the "other bit". My identity is going to have to change. Forget the economic arguments; this is something deeper. The Scottish nationalists are foisting an atavistic, prehistoric decision on me: I'm not going to be allowed to have the positive, forward-looking, civic association of Britishness any more, but only the backwards-looking, crude nationalism of Englishness or Scottishness. Why is this very significant thing so absent from the public debate? Why aren't Alex Salmond and the rest of his cronies being identified as what they are: enemies of progress and utter arseholes to boot?

The beauty of Britishness has always been that it isn't an ethnicity. It's an identity that anyone can have if they live here. That doesn't always work perfectly but it's as close as you get to New World, American- or Australian-style integration in Europe. We don't have the baggage of non-existent ethnic purity. Our union itself embraces diversity because it brings different ethnicities together and makes none of them synonymous with the State, and has done this since its inception. A 'yes' vote on Thursday is going to trash that.

Make no mistake about it. Nationalism is always and forever dark, restrictive, introspective, and mean-spirited. Its nature is division. And Scotland is waltzing into a future of nationalism without even apparently being aware of it - or the fact that it condemns not just itself but the rest of us British people alongside it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

On Bad DMing

Let's think about bad DMing decisions (while recognising that everybody makes mistakes). Three examples from my own gaming past:

1) I can't remember many of the details about the session, but it was a TSR-published adventure Planescape module and we, the players, had gone through some gate or other into the Grey Waste. The DM described our surroundings as being an endless and featureless plain, but with a couple of demonic winged gargoyle-like beings somewhere in the middle distance. We spent a long time debating what to do. We couldn't return through the gate we'd come to. The plain was featureless. The gargoyle-type beings seemed dangerous. Eventually we decided that since we'd be noticed sooner or later we might as well try to parlay with them. On approaching them, however, they mercilessly attacked us. It then became apparent that they were immune to non-magical weapons - they were abishai of some sort or other. We all died in short order. A bit flabbergasted, one of us asked the DM, "Exactly what were we supposed to do in that situation?" He told us we should have tried to sneak around them. It combined pixel-bitching with rank incoherence - how do you sneak around something in a featureless plain?

2) A d20 Modern game set in a kind of Mad Max world. A firefight broke out with some motorcycle gang in an abandoned town. My character was caught out in the open facing an enemy with a large SMG. It was clear that he was going to die. I was already resigned to the fact and thinking up what my next character would be. The DM rolled 'to hit' behind his screen...and promptly did a very poor impression of disappointment and announced the attacked had fumbled and dropped his weapon. My character had survived. The fudge was childishly obvious. I glanced around the other faces at the table and they glanced at me. None of us mentioned anything, but we all knew: in this campaign, death was going to be impossible. 

3) A cyberpunk-type game, which was short-lived and I think run using some form of GURPS. The PCs had gathered together for a mission in some forest somewhere, raiding a secret radar station or somesuch installation for secret information. There was also a GMPC involved. It turned out that the GMPC was really good at breaking and entry and the rest of us were lacking in necessary skills, so it was agreed that the GMPC would go on the raid and the rest of us would wait. Cue half an hour of waiting around while the GM went through the rigmarole of playing out the entire raid, in his own mind, rolling dice behind his screen and apparently going through the entire event as if an actual PC was doing it, before finally announcing, "He comes back with the information". I think we were all fine with the GMPC doing the mission. But why on earth the GM couldn't have decided the outcome in 10 seconds or with one dice roll, I have no idea.

Good games are all alike; every bad game is bad in its own way. What do these three anecdotes have in common? What unifies them? I have a hard time thinking of a common thread. The first is simply bad communication, or maybe just fuzzy thinking: perhaps the guy concerned really thought he had made it clear it would be somehow possible to sneak round the abishai (he did smoke a lot of weed). The second is clearly a surfeit of niceness: the DM is an incredibly good and honourable person who was certainly trying not to hurt my feelings, but ended up, like most people with good intentions, causing a certain degree of harm. The third I think can be attributed to an overzealous concern with realism or system that you might say is common to players of games like GURPS. The GM wanted to be absolutely sure that the "correct" outcome was reached even though it unreasonably slowed everything down. 

Good DMing is fairly easy to identify. Good communication with the players, enthusiasm, reasonable levels of prep, non-arbitrary decision-making, reasonableness, willingness to listen, imagination. Except insofar as you can simply provide a list of antonyms of characteristics of good DMing, is there an underlying, root cause of the bad? Is there a single thing that we can point to as the ultimate source of malpractice?   

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems

I've recently heard about a Japanese RPG that had its translation into English launched as a kickstarter. It's called Ryuutama and the unique elements are explained here, but the person who seems to have summarised it most effectively is the OP in this therpgsite post:

In a nutshell, Ryuutama is a Japanese game about traveling that uses old school-ish mechanics. You play common folk (a Farmer, a Herbalist, a Hunter, etc) who at a point in their life feels the necessity to undertake a journey to see the wonders of the world, so its focus is more what you do to survive along the way than fighting monsters (for what I've heard, the combat system is pretty lethal). 
Probably the most interesting and unique aspect is that the GM has his own character with its own special rules. The Ryuujin (Dragon) the GM chooses to play changes the focus of the campaign and how certain rules work (for example, a Black Dragon is about tragedy and betrayal, while a Red Dragon is all about exploring dungeons and fighting monsters). The Ryuujin follows the group from afar, recording their adventures, and may even be able to help the characters from time to time.

Now, there are many elements of the whole endeavour that I find bothersome (the saccharine cutesy pseudo-European Japanese art; the fact that some RPG nerds are doing the translation and I have been doing translation professionally for a long time and I am an awful snob about it; the fact that a lot of it seems aimed at 11-year-olds; the fact that the combat system is based on the Final Fantasy one) but at its core, this seems to be a game focusing on wilderness travel and adventure with interesting twists, which is something I have been wanting, or wanting to make, for a long time. And who am I kidding? I might be a grumpy old skeptic but I may as well own up to thinking that Miyazaki Hayao's Oregon Trail sounds actually rather nice. (And I am fairly sure the rules can be used for scenarios that are altogether different...like Lewis and Clark in Pandemonium or The Rough Guide to the Elemental Plane of Ooze or Let's Explore the Leviathan's Intestinal Tract or A Beginner's Guide to Caving in the Underdark or The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, pt. II.)

However, a genuine problem, I have to confess, is that I think I am just getting too old for learning new systems. I don't have the time, energy, or willpower to even read RPG rulebooks nowadays, let alone actually take the time to learn the system properly. I have about a dozen rulebooks on my bookshelf of which I've read about one page each, because even flicking through them I begin to feel the onset of brain stem death. Which says nothing about the quality of the writing or the way the rules are presented, and everything about the fact that I've reached a stage in my life where I simply can't summon up the effort or concentration to bother figuring out the way a new system works.

It says a lot about Ryuutama that it can seem both incredibly annoying and intrinsically tiresome because it's a new system and I'm lazy, and yet at the same time manage to appeal to me quite strongly. That in itself seems to warrant a purchase, don't you think?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Dionysian Apocalypse

We tend to think of 'the apocalypse' as a destructive, catastrophic event - a plague, a meteor strike, a nuclear war. Greek myth gives me an idea for a different model: apocalypse via deranged demigod.

"It was on Mount Nysa that Dionysus invented wine, for which he is chiefly celebrated. When he grew to manhood Hera recognized him as Zeus’s son, despite the effeminacy to which his education had reduced him, and drove him mad also. He went wandering all over the world, accompanied by his tutor Silenus and a wild army of Satyrs and Maenads, whose weapons were the ivy-twined staff tipped with a pine-cone, called the thyrsus, and swords and serpents and fear-imposing bullroarers. He sailed to Egypt, bringing the vine with him; and at Pharos King Proteus received him hospitably. Among the Libyans of the Nile Delta, opposite Pharos, were certain Amazon queens whom Dionysus invited to march with him against the Titans and restore King Ammon to the kingdom from which he had been expelled. Dionysus’s defeat of the Titans and restoration of King Ammon was the earliest of his many military successes. 
"He then turned east and made for India. Coming to the Euphrates, he was opposed by the King of Damascus, whom he flayed alive, but built a bridge across the river with ivy and vine; after which a tiger, sent by his father Zeus, helped him across the river Tigris. He reached India, having met with much opposition by the way, and conquered the whole country, which he taught the art of viniculture, also giving it laws and founding great cities. 
"On his return he was opposed by the Amazons, a horde of whom he chased as far as Ephesus. A few took sanctuary in the Temple of Artemis, where their descendants are still living; others fled to Samos, and Dionysus followed them in boats, killing so many that the battlefield is called Panhaema. Near Phloecus some of the elephants which he had brought from India died, and their bones are still pointed out. 
"Next, Dionysus returned to Europe by way of Phrygia, where his grandmother Rhea purified him of the many murders he had committed during his madness, and initiated him into her Mysteries. He then invaded Thrace; but no sooner had his people landed at the mouth of the river Strymon than Lycurgus, King of the Edonians, opposed them savagely with an ox-goad, and captured the entire army, except Dionysus himself, who plunged into the sea and took refuge in Thetis’s grotto. Rhea, vexed by this reverse, helped the prisoners to escape, and drove Lycurgus mad: he struck his own son Dryas dead with an axe, in the belief that he was cutting down a vine. Before recovering his senses he had begun to prune the corpse of its nose and ears, fingers and toes; and the whole land of Thrace grew barren in horror of his crime. When Dionysus, returning from the sea, announced that this barrenness would continue unless Lycurgus were put to death, the Edonians led him to Mount Pangaeum, where wild horses pulled his body apart. 
"Dionysus met with no further opposition in Thrace, but travelled on to his well-beloved Boeotia, where he visited Thebes, and invited the women to join his revels on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus, King of Thebes, disliking Dionysus’s dissolute appearance, arrested him, together with all his Maenads, but went mad and, instead of shackling Dionysus, shackled a bull. The Maenads escaped again, and went raging out upon the mountain, where they tore calves in pieces. Pentheus attempted to stop them; but, inflamed by wine and religious ecstasy, they rent him limb from limb. His mother Agave led the riot, and it was she who wrenched off his head. 
"At Orchomenus the three daughters of Minyas, by name Alcithoë, Leucippe, and Arsippe, or Aristippe, or Arsinoë, refused to join in the revels, though Dionysus himself invited them, appearing in the form of a girl. He then changed his shape, becoming successively a lion, a bull, and a panther, and drove them insane. Leucippe offered her own son Hippasus as a sacrifice—he had been chosen by lot—and the three sisters, having torn him to pieces and devoured him, skimmed the mountains in a frenzy until at last Hermes changed them into birds, though some say that Dionysus changed them into bats. The murder of Hippasus is annually atoned at Orchomenus, in a feast called Agrionia (‘provocation to savagery’), when the women devotees pretend to seek Dionysus and then, having agreed that he must be away with the Muses, sit in a circle and ask riddles, until the priest of Dionysus rushes from his temple, with a sword, and kills the one whom he catches. 
"When all Boeotia had acknowledged Dionysus’s divinity, he made a tour of the Aegean Islands, spreading joy and terror wherever he went. Arriving at Icaria, he found that his ship was unseaworthy and hired another from certain Tyrrhenian sailors who claimed to be bound for Naxos. But they proved to be pirates and, unaware of godhead, steered for Asia, intending to sell him there as a slave. Dionysus made a vine grow from the deck and enfold the mast, he also turned the oars into serpents, and became a lion himself, filling the vessel with phantom beasts and filling it with sound of flutes, so that the terrified pirates leaped overboard and became dolphins. 
"It was at Naxos that Dionysus met the lovely Ariadne whom Theseus had deserted, and married her without delay. She bore him Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Latromis, Euanthes, and Tauropolus. Later, he placed her bridal chaplet among the stars. 
"From Naxos he came to Argos and punished Perseus, who at fought opposed him and killed many of his followers, by inflicting a madness on the Argive women: they began devouring their own infants; until Perseus hastily admitted his error, and appeased Dionysus by building a temple in his honour. 
"Finally, having established his worship throughout the world Dionysus ascended to Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of Zeus as one of the Twelve Great Ones."
- From "Dionysus's Nature and Deeds", The Greek Myths, Robert Graves 

The Greeks gave themselves a get-out by imagining Dionysus finally ascending to Heaven and leaving them alone. What if he never did? What if he and his cronies spent the rest of eternity roaming from place to place, driving everybody mad, turning them into animals, forcing them to kill and eat their own family members, and only giving them a modicum of relief if they devoted themselves to his worship?

It's not an apocalypse of blasted, barren wasteland, of mutants and zombies, or of Mad-Max style violent nomads racing across permanent deserts. It's an apocalypse of insanity and transmogrification, where you're never sure when Dionysus is going to show up with his satyrs and force you to eat your own grandma or turn you into a dolphin, and where civilization has turned cosmically deranged at the behest of a mad deity and his gang.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Yoon-Suin Sample

I thought I'd post a few pages from Yoon-Suin to show what kind of thing I'm playing around with regarding layout. The first page is a chapter heading; the second is a section of the bestiary; the third is a table from the Yellow City chapter. The picture of the slug-man is by an Australian illustrator called Matthew Adams.

Things may not look exactly centred. That's because I'm formatting it to be used for a POD version so the margins are slightly longer on either the left or right side depending on the page. As you'll see, it's going to be landscape. I prefer it that way.

I selected three pages from the full Word document and simply copied them into a second document to make into picture files, which is why the second and third pages are numbered '2' and '3'. These pages obviously don't come directly after each other. Anyway, hopefully it gives an insight into what the final product is shaping up to look like, and proves that the whole thing isn't a mere figment of my imagination.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Blue East, Black North, White West, Red South

The ancient Chinese had their own system of organising the stars, which revolved around, amongst other things, grouping 28 phases of the moon into 4 sets of 7 according to the compass points. Each set had a symbol - the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Tortoise of the North, the White Tiger of the West, and the Vermilion Bird of the South.

I don't know much about this, or about ancient Chinese history or culture, but I do think having the points of the compass associated with symbolic beings really fucking cool.

It gets me thinking about a recent conversation on G+ on how dice can communicate four different things - position, number, number of sides, and colour. Roll a fistful of different dice and you get four different variables, or five even if you include how a d8 can 'point' in a direction. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a set of dice of four different colours, each symbolising, say, one of the elements - or, respectively, the blue dragon of the East, the black tortoise of the North, the white tiger of the West, and the red bird of the South?

The way I envisage this working is, there are literally four gargantuan beings in the world, each at an extreme point of the compass. (The world being a big flat disc - duh.) And they each influence the world in different ways. Let's say, for the sake of argument, the blue dragon of the east represents warfare and conflict, the black tortoise of the north represents protection and survival, the white tiger of the west represents trickery and cunning, and the red bird of the south represents beauty and passion.

Any time any player needs to roll a dice, they can pick a colour and explain why it is relevant. Most obviously, if you were rolling to-hit in combat, you'd probably want a blue dice - but you might want a white one if you were backstabbing or ambushing. If you were trying to charm a princess you'd use red - unless you were impressing her with a display of toughness, when you might use black.

Then, if you succeed on the roll, you get a bonus of some kind from the influence of the mighty being. Because as any fool knows, the mighty beings govern everything within the purview that happens here on earth. And they will directly intervene if invoked. But their interventions are capricious; if you fail on the roll, you fail badly.

So, in combat, you roll a blue dice to-hit...and if you hit you do extra damage because the blue dragon of the East guides your blow. But if you miss, you slip or drop your sword because the blue dragon of the East spurns you. If you manage to charm the princess using the red dice you are extremely charming, because the red bird gives you its blessing...but if you fail she not only isn't impressed; she wants you destroyed, because the red bird takes against your hubris. Etc.

If the player in question doesn't want to invoke one of the compass point mighty beings, he just picks a neutral dice. Green or yellow or whatever. And the result stands as it stands.

A half-formed and exhausted thought for a Thursday. What were you expecting - something useful?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Random Tables as Tools to Compress and Communicate Information.

Let's think about random generators. What makes a good one? On A Gaming Podcast About Nothing a few episodes back I made the rather banal observation that while the contents of a table are important, what you really want is interaction between columns. This is obvious to anyone with half a brain.

But let's demonstrate anyway. As said, what follows is probably obvious, but it is also interesting.

The first table gives a bog-standard result. A random encounter with one of 6 possible monsters. The second table is more interesting, because it gives a combination of results through the interaction between columns: 36 possibilities. It's richer. And the third table is richer still: 216 possibilities.

Now, at the most superficial level that provides more variety, which is probably a good thing, all else being equal. Variety is nice. It avoids repetition. But let's drill down a little.

  • The second table communicates information vastly more efficiently than the first, and the third vastly more efficiently than the second. There is simply more stuff concentrated in the table as columns increase. Writing out all 216 possibilities for the third table (orcs near a crevasse in a thick blizzard, orcs near a crevasse in a hail storm, orcs near a crevasse in high wing, orcs near a crevasse in a fog...) would take a long time but also a lot of space. A random table with a number of columns is like a mechanism for compressing data ready to be unpacked through the use of the dice - there is no better tool available to the writer of an RPG product for doing this. 
  • The second and third tables require much less thought on the part of the DM in order to make them interesting. "Orc" requires spur-of the moment creativity. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village" is easier to deal with. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village, in high wind" practically runs itself. The third table lifts the burden of having to come up with interesting things on the spur of the moment. 
  • Paradoxically, while requiring less thought on the part of the DM than the first table, the third also cannot help but make him more creative. "Snow nymph, abandoned yak herder village, third party involvement" can't help but make him come up with a creative solution - why is the snow nymph there and what's the third party? "Frost giant, frozen lake, fog". What's going on there? A frost giant engaging in impromptu ice fishing, invisible to the players because of the mist - with the added danger of possibly falling through the ice. So the table both requires less creative thought, and focuses it. 
Random tables, then, are little packages of concentrated usefulness. They hold compressed information and creative power and release it with great efficiency when called upon to do so by the rolling of dice. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Night at the Museum

Patrick S ordered me to make this blog's archive available and navigable. It is now, in the sidebar to the right, because I am weak-willed and just do whatever people tell me.

I have been writing this blog since May 2008. This is a long time - over 6 years (in case you never studied any maths, ever). There are hundreds and hundreds of entries - not quite 1000, but approaching it. I shudder to think at all the words of utter bollocks I've written on this thing. But it's nice to read through some of the old entries, even if they're often embarrassing now. Oddly, I think the first month has many of my strongest entries. I started promisingly and lapsed into absurdly pretentious navel-gazing within a matter of weeks.

Browse through it if you like - particularly if you're a fan of absurdly pretentious navel-gazing. There's a chance after Yoon-Suin I'll do a False Machine type volume compiling the best entries as a POD book or something.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Jack the Giant Slayer and the Specialist Fighter

I recently took up karate classes. (As an aside, I recommend doing a martial art wholeheartedly. And I don't mean boxercise. As a gym rat who goes four times a week I thought I was pretty fit and in shape and in touch with my body. Doing karate twice a week has taught me there is not just a whole other level of physical fitness, but a whole other universe. I've never ached like I've been aching the last couple of weeks. But in a really good way.) When I was younger I did quite a bit of tae kwon doe, but that is getting on for 15 years ago now and although I have a bit of muscle memory, I'm effectively approaching the whole thing as a beginner.

Today we were practising a simple routine, blocking a slap to the head and then delivering a punch to the sternum. At one point the teacher stopped me and my partner to demonstrate. He told us that we may just have been blocking a "slap", but then he showed us how there are different levels of slaps - he used the base of his open hand to just lightly tap my jaw and said, "A proper slap will break this." And I could feel that small movement make my entire jaw bone shift from side to side.

It reminded me of my old Tae Kwon Doe teacher showing us a pattern in which one of the moves was a specific punch delivered at a certain angle and a certain point so as to make the target void his bladder. That's how specific martial arts get. Traditions stretching back thousands of years, perfecting the art of killing people.

Now, in the West we have lost those traditions, although WMA and and HEMA people are doing their level best to reinvigorate them, but there's no reason why in a fantasy world that would have happened. Those martial traditions would be unbroken and ancient. Doesn't it seem likely that in such worlds, martial arts schools would have developed teaching to teach people how to kill not just other people, but also orcs, trolls, ogres, giants, dragons, etc.? Here's how you jab a spear just so that it ruptures a hill giant's spleen. Here's where an orc's jugular vein is - different to humans, slightly to the left. Here's the spot to hit if you want to make a dragon shit itself...

In view of, this, I give you the experimental Jack the Giant Slayer Rule.

At character creation, the player of a fighter can specify that his PC has received training in how to fight a certain type of monster or humanoid. From that point, once per combat, the player can elect to do double damage against that creature type, but he must declare this before rolling to hit. 
A fighter may undergo specific training for killing other types of monsters and humanoids every other level. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Wahey We're The Insects

My friend Patrick wrote an excellent recent blog post which set my mind whirring with different post ideas. Expect me to pontificate at great length about Tall Tales of the Wee Folk in the near future, but in the mean time I thought I'd resurrect an old idea which is germane

Anthropomorphic insects is an idea I've had in my mind for a while but it never quite gained any traction. Recently it has as I've been watching our back lawn get increasingly overgrown - we're in the process of moving house and, to be frank, I can't be fucked mowing it if we're going to be moving anyway. I'll probably get around to it next weekend.

Anyway, when a garden gets overgrown, even in a benign environment like the outskirts of a British city, all sorts of things start to happen. The grass gets long and sprouts these high, almost waist-high, tendrils full of seeds. Miscellaneous flowers - buttercups, dandelions, daisies - appear from nowhere. Big patches of clover spread inexorably across huge patches of hither-to pristine lawn. Bumblebees of different varieties hover from place to place, expertly dodging grass fronds which must, to them, be like trees are to us. Flies and midges float about in intricate, private dances. Butterflies appear for a moment and then flit onwards to the next garden. Strong thistle-like weeds thrust up through cracks in flagstones. At night hedgehogs appear, snuffling round in a manner which is cute to us but genocidal, baleful, inexorable terror to worms and beetles. 

It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

So why dress up an anthropomorphic insect RPG into anything more than somebody's overgrown back garden? To a beetle, my lawn is the size of a city. And my lawn is not particularly large. Most sizeable gardens are to them as large as a county or a minor. And there is another one right next door. Moreover, this is a three dimensional, complex environment. Ant burrows and cracks in the earth lead to tunnel networks akin to dungeons. Shrubs and bushes are like gargantuan jungle trees bigger than anything a human can comprehend the scale of - like sky scrapers, in fact, rather than trees. What's in that watering can? A cold, stagnant lake full of hunting larvae lurking in its depths. What's under that flagstone? A tribe of armoured woodlice muttering to each other in the damp darkness. What's in the corner of the shed? An undead spider lich and the dusty, dead cobwebs it uses for its spells.

And think of the possibilities for playing with alien mindsets, alien values, alien needs. The praying mantis class: obsessed with waiting; for it patience is pleasure, and it can only use its full powers when the foe is unawares. The ladybird class: voracious, uncaring, protected by its shell; it simply attacks and eats anything small with instinctive ferocity that cannot be overridden. The cockroach class: not so much a survival expert as a paragon of longevity - it does nothing well except continue to live. The aphid class: not one individual but a dozen clones who each know exactly what the others will do because they have more in common than the closest twin.

In this environment the enemies would be spiders, intelligent hunting sorcerers who play with the bodies of their victims; robot-like ants who simply swarm and devour with mindless purpose; dragon-like birds with sharp eyes which will swoop and attack the instant you cross open ground; and many other threats from above, below, or under the nearest stone. Treasure would be the different nectars produced by flowers, or the bonanza of a dead rat or fledgling. Quests would be to rescue kidnapped comrades from the lair of the termites, to assassinate an ant queen just beginning to set up a new nest, or to raid a neighbouring garden for the toxic ingredients to repel a blackfly invasion.

Or perhaps the goal is simple survival. The PCs as a group of insects with a certain sentience who live under the constant threat of death - death from hunting, death from starvation, death from the weather, death from poison, death from sheer twist of fate - and who, for some reason, have the rudiments of cooperation necessary to rise above the nasty, brutish, short lives of their peers and achieve something approaching rest, peace, security, calm. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass

I'd like to take this opportunity, really apropos of nothing, to discuss what I have come to think of as a distinct phenomenon - Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. This is my term for a certain stylistic choice made by writers of RPG rulebooks to, for want of a better way of putting it, take a sassy, slightly hectoring, almost tough guy tone in their writing and the way in which they present the information. It's a question of taste of course, but I don't like it.

It's hard to explain in the abstract, but it's something that I am certain you will recognise if you have read the kind of modern, indie games in which it is most used - particularly, for some reason, introductory sections on what role playing represents.

Take Mythender, for example, which is to my mind probably the paradigm case. This is more or less from the first substantive page:

Or you’ll tell the stories of how you ignore all that humanity business and go pedal to the fucking metal, diving headfirst into the heart of Myth and leaving piles of corpses in your wake. You’ll gain power by making mortals to worship you as a god. Eventually, your comrades will be forced to murder your Mythic ass. 
Spoiler alert: they totally fucking will. [...] 
Mythender is about kicking ass and erasing names to a heavy metal sound track, about dancing on the knife’s edge between having the power to slaughter abominations and becoming an abomination yourself. Go do that already

See what I mean? "Go do that already." Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass, turned to 11.

Sometimes it manifests itself in a slightly smarmier fashion. See, for instance, this section from Houses of the Blooded:

If you’ve ever played a roleplaying game before, you may have noticed that characters seldom age—locked in a perpetual state of twenty-five years old—and they always seem to “get better.” As they move through their lives, experience points always add to the character’s abilities. Regardless of how old they look, all RPG characters seem to be an eternal and everlasting twenty-five years old. 
Not so here.

Leaving aside the sniping at D&D, it's that final coda - "Not so here" - which turns this into Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. Picture the author wagging his finger at you with a slight smirk playing across his lips. "Not so here." There's that slightly patronising subtext which is the mark of true sass.

The patronising subtext can become the supertext when the Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass becomes overt. Here's a section from the introduction to Apocalypse World:

You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine. 
All these rules do is mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after. Makes sense, right?

Makes you feel like a 9 year-old, right?

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood - I like Mythender and Apocalypse World, and Houses of the Blooded is interesting if not exactly my cup of tea. Please think of this post less as a critique or a snipe, and more of a plea to the future game-designers out there. Keep the sass to a minimum and just write nice, simple, plain, non-sassy and non-patronising, yet evocative, English like this:

Before television, there was radio. Audiences earlier in this century sat in front of their radios
and thrilled to the exploits of bigger-than-life radio heroes. Since it was radio, they couldn't see
what was going on, but they didn't need to—all the action was described by dialogue, narration, and sound effects, and was translated by the imaginations of the listeners into scenes they could see, experience, and remember. 
Role-playing games are much like radio adventures, except for one important detail: they're interactive. One player provides the narrative and some of the dialogue, but the other players, instead of just sitting and envisioning what's going on, actually participate. Each player controls the actions of a character in the story, decides on his actions, supplies his character's dialogue, and makes decisions based on the character's personality and his current game options.

Go do that already.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Yoon-Suin Location

10 thin, long black rocks sticking up through the forest floor arranged into two roughly semicircular groups of 5; close inspection may reveal that one of the rocks in each group is slightly shorter than the others. They are the fingers of a demigod imprisoned in a subterranean tomb. Over the eons he has stretched his hands up towards the surface in a vain attempt at escape; they now poke up through the loamy soil. If anybody stands in the middle of one of the ‘hands’ it causes the fingers to close, grabbing the victim and crushing him or her to death instantly on a failed DEX check. The demigod then leaches the victim’s soul to empower his eventual escape. Careful examination of the topsoil in the area will reveal old bones and treasures equivalent to TT Sx3, Tx3, and Ux3 around the fingers – the remains of previous travellers the demigod has killed.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

In Loving Memory of a Name

The Hobbit is, I think, the most widely liked of Tolkien's books. This is partly because it's a kid's book, and although fantasy is becoming sort-of trendy these days, it's still easier for an adult to admit they like kid's fantasy books (The Hobbit, the Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials, etc.) than grown-up ones. 

That said, I think Tolkien had a way of hitting on deep profundities in his work - this is why his books have such great appeal decades after his death - and a very simple example of this comes in The Hobbit in its genius for names. 

Think about the places where the action happens in The Hobbit. The Misty Mountains. Mirkwood. The Lonely Mountain. Lake-town. The Long Lake. River Running. Notice anything? The names actually mean something. Tolkien, of course, had other words for these places, the names in his own invented languages. But he refrained from using them. This may have been simply to avoid putting off young readers, but it gives the places a concrete, real feeling: The Lonely Mountain is an incredibly evocative name because the name itself gives you a visualisation - a mountain, all on its own, in the middle of a wilderness. Likewise Mirkwood; it hardly needs a description once you've read the name. It's a dark forest. A murky wood. Lake-town: it's a town on a lake (literally). 

I prefer this approach to fantasy naming. Compare The Lonely Mountain to Hespereth Strait. Lake-town to Sargava. Mirkwood to the Mwangi Jungle. I may be being slightly unfair picking on some deeply unevocative names I stumbled across in the Pathfinder wiki. But you get my drift.

Strangeness is at its most effective when there is something anchoring the person experiencing it, and sometimes the best way of doing this is simply through the use of language. Tolkien seems to have understood this well, if only implicitly: the concreteness and simplicity of the place names in The Hobbit give the reader something to hold on to - you don't have to struggle with imagining the Hespereth Strait and fumbling over the pronunciation of 'Mwangi' in your mind, and can devote your full attention to the story against the images which the words 'The Lonely Mountain' naturally bring up in your mind. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

I'm Starting With the Man in the Mirror, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Internet Pharisee-ism

I've been making an effort recently to bring my signal-to-noise ratio within healthy limits. This means generally avoiding watching the news, visiting news websites and forums, and steering clear of the internet in general as much as possible. (Sport news and my The Economist subscription being the major exceptions.) My basis for doing this is the idea, advanced by Nassim Taleb and others, that the really valuable information will find its way to me eventually, and I can cut out distractions and false/irrelevant news.

It seems to have been working, in that most of the things that find their ways to my ears seem worth knowing, and I don't appear to be missing out on anything by not learning what all the fevered egos on Twitter or rpg.net think about issue X or Y.

I have today learned about all the drama that G+ has been afflicted with recently regarding the release of D&D 5th Edition and how it seems to be bad that Wizards of the Coast have employed Zak Smith as a consultant because, er, jazz hands. (The reason appears to be that Zak has been involved in making porn and for a certain breed of politically correct nerd that must implicate him in something awful, for no defined reason other than that it simply must.) So that must qualify it as signal. And that makes it worthy of a blog post - at least indirectly.

For some reason, for a sizeable portion of the population of Western societies, being offended has become something to luxuriate in: self-righteousness is addictive and provides our brains with a kick that is more powerful than any drug known to man. You see it in religious fundamentalists, you see it in liberals, you see it in conservatives, you see it everywhere. People get off on anger because it makes them feel good about themselves - it reassures them that they are good and that awful person over there is bad and they can rank themselves in the hierarchy of goodness accordingly.

This is nothing new. Jesus spent considerable energies fighting Pharisee-ism but not even the Son of God could sort it out: the people who are today trawling the internet searching for things to be offended by in the name of their liberal/conservative sensibilities are the exact same people who were watching Jesus curing lepers on the sabbath and muttering "Tut, tut" into their beards because he was working on the holy day. Times change but human impulses are as old and immutable as solid granite.

The thing about Pharisees is that they are insecure; they hated and feared Jesus because of what he represented and what he was delivering - freedom, love, etc. He was showing them up. And internet Pharisees are no different: what they hate most of all is other people creating things, doing things, enjoying themselves, having fun. Because their own inflated sense of self-importance is threatened by it - they are so sure of their own brilliance and access to universal truth that they feel that more successful and happy people are showing them up. They should be the ones everybody looks to, but they're not. It frustrates them and they rage against it.

If you feel you are an internet Pharisee, here is a three step plan to easy cure:

1. Start creating a game or game-related product
2. Put it on your blog
3. Play it any enjoy it

The drug of being offended by what other people say and do is distracting you and robbing you of your creativity and passion. Put it to one side and your life and games will be so much better for it.

Friday, 6 June 2014

An Example of the Yoon-Suin Gazetteer in Action

I thought it would be nice to show what my Yoon-Suin supplement (provisionally entitled the "Yoon-Suin Gazetteer") allows a DM to do. This is an example of how a campaign centred in the Yellow City could be brainstormed. There is no fluff or interpretation at all, here. I simply spent about half an hour following the process, rolling dice and noting down the results. Some of it will not make sense without the book in front of you; it's just a sample of what can be done in a very short space of time.

There is still leg-work for the individual DM to do after such a process, as will be apparent: joining up the dots and fleshing things out is something that takes a little extra time. What the book doesn't do is tell you what to do with the data that's generated. That's for you to use your imagination. 

So, the first thing to do is to draw up a social circle for the PCs. This involves generating a handful of social groups which the PCs know of and are known to, and a handful of NPCs they likewise know of and are known to. Not all of the information regarding them is known to the PCs, of course. And this is just a tiny fraction of what is out there in the Yellow City; this is a huge city, teeming with life. 

First, the social groups: 

A Noble House, called the Purple Family. [A Noble House is a mercantile, trading family, somewhere between a mafia clan and a legitimate commercial interest. They control all the trade in and out of the city together with the other Noble Houses, and are the only form of government, such as it is. All the members are slug-men.]  
There is a conflict within the Purple Family: the spouse of the matriarch and the teacher of the matriarch's children are in an adulterous relationship.
There is a rumour that somebody tried to poison one of the high-ups in the family, but accidentally killed a taster instead. The family want to know the culprit.
A Shrine, to a hawk-aspected demigod with food, males, and death as her spheres of influence. She demands sacrifices of invertebrates, and her holy colour is green.
The head sacrificer at the shrine has an incurable addiction to a certain type of opium.
There is a rumour that an important holy artefact has gone missing.
Another Shrine, to a crane-aspected demigod with famine as her sphere of influence. She demands sacrifices of mammals, and her holy colour is black.
A mad visionary has stolen something from the shrine.
There is a rumour that under the shrine there is a network of catacombs the members believe to be haunted.
A Philosophical Society, who practice sophistry.
One of the members, an important scion of a Noble House, has been driven mad by his ruminations.
There is a rumour that the society wants a former member, who has renounced its beliefs, assassinated. There is a further rumour that the society wants hallucinogens to further expand its theoretical insights.
An Exploring Guild, called the Society of Many Journeys. 
A magician patron is betraying them by passing secrets to a rival.
There is a rumour that the group have recently brought a strange, puissant artefact back from a journey - and powers in the city want it. 

Next, some individual NPCs contacts of the PCs. 
(The humans)
A cockroach butcher, over-friendly, called Pallab. He desires adventure.
An embezzler, called Rusheek, who is always accompanied by a small child. He has a rival.
A jeweller, with a haunted, desperate air, called Raakhi. She has a rival.
An assassin, with white pupils, called Mahek. She is jealous of the possession of another.

A scholar of automata, called Po Le, who is always accompanied by two slaves. He desires more knowledge.
A teacher, called Polaha Vo, who is especially slimy. He needs to pay off crippling debts.
A magician, called Malaba, who is a lover of the arts. He hates an enemy. 

As you will see, there are plenty of opportunities for adventures, missions, jobs, plots, and schemes there already.

Once the social circle has been established, the next stage is to develop further hooks. These are jobs or adventures that can be found out by the PCs simply by asking around the nearest opium den or tea house.

First, there are random connections.

A holy man, a small person called Edhas, needs to transport something to an assassin.
A cockroach clan chief, a grossly fat man called Mahantha, wants a dwarf refugee kidnapped.
A philosopher, Giriraj, who always walks on tip-toe, wants something stolen from Puli, an over-friendly beggar.

Then, there are simple random rumours. I'll just roll up 3. 

Russet mould has taken over a ghetto and is turning everyone in it into mould men.
A vampiric mist has made its home in a park in the grounds of a palace.
Golden wormlings have burrowed from somewhere into the basement of an archive and have been eating all the books and scrolls. 

This creates the raw material for a city-based campaign; as I said, it took roughly 30 minutes to generate it. It's now the job of the DM to start fleshing this out as appropriate. Clearly, there is no need to flesh out everything here. But as I hope you'll see, you can start off with the Yellow City chapter, roll some dice for less than an hour, and hey presto! there should be at least a dozen different hooks there for you to create into fully-fledged "rumours" to begin a Yellow City-based sandbox.

And it only scratches the surface of the different possibilities available.

Next, we turn to the surroundings of the Yellow City.

The map looks like arse; it will look better in the final version. The red city icons are the Yellow City proper; the black ruined icons are the Old Town - parts of the city which have been abandoned over the course of the aeons and gradually returned to the forest; they are home now to ghosts, exiles, outcasts, and mysterious magical features. The sea hexes are dotted with small islands - the Topaz Isles - which contain many small communities, monster lairs, etc.

There are three steps here. The first is to generate, and place on the map, some small communities which are found on the Topaz Isles. I generated four:

A Mine, which mines turqouise. It has 13 guards, a 2 HD leader, and 75 slaves, with 16 units of turqouise ore. The ferry, which is the only line of communication with the city, has sunk, leaving the mine isolated. Three significant NPCs were rolled up: the ferry captain; a disloyal, influential slave; and a brutal foreman. 
Another Mine, which mines tourmaline. It has 12 guards, a 2 HD leader, and 60 slaves, with 19 units of tourmaline ore. A gang of slaves are sneaking resources out to local smugglers. Three significant NPCs were rolled up: a brutal foreman, another brutal foreman, and the chief engineer. 
A Smugglers' Den. The smugglers are being actively sought after for retribution by a Noble House. It is a medium-sized network, with 60 members. In the den they have Treasure Type E, 14 units of opium, 15 units of tea, and 6 slaves.  
An Observatory. Important equipment has recently gone missing. There are 10 clay golems, 10 slaves, 10 guards, 11 astronomers, and 1 2 HD head guard, and Treasure Types K, L, N and O. 

Next some lairs. Again, I generated four.

Makara. [Stone statues resembling a humanoid crocodilian with a peacock's tail; they are found here and there in the Topaz Isles, sometimes submerged in the shallow seas, sometimes on land.] They are 8 in number. The makara are waiting for the return of an ancient artefact; one of them, obviously marked out as a leader, seems to be holding its hands out in waiting. Once the artefact is returned, the makara will serve the returner for one lunar month. Treasure: Lx5.
-The ancient artefact is a disc, 18 inches in diameter, of complexity 10. It is made of shell. It emits a shimmering sword of sheer force which can be wielded as per the Mordenkainen’s Sword spell, activatable once per day for d6 turns. 
Locathah. 150 in number, with a 5 HD leader, 12 3 HD guards. Treasure Type: A. The locathah are experts at capturing squid-men and have d3 of them captive on any given day.  
Sea naga. It lairs in a deep cave in a cliff face which curves back on itself in a spiral; the naga's home is in the middle. It has Treasure Type G. It is worshipped by a group of tamasic men (gibbon men, 16 in number, with Treasure Type B). 
Tamasic Men. 19 in number, axlotl men. They have uncovered an ancient artefact during their miserable attempts at mining.
-The ancient artefact is a star, of complexity 2. It is made of stone. It can be activated for prismatic spray 1/week.

These lairs and small communities are then placed on sea hexes as desired. In addition to the random generator tables which create these adventure locales, there are also 20 pre-made adventure locales of my own design which can also be placed here and there on the map.

Ancient Artefacts are generated randomly and have a system a little like that found in Gamma World 2nd edition; the greater the complexity, the harder the artefact is to operate and the more likely that something will go wrong when the PCs are trying to figure it out. 

Tamasic Men are men who have been re-incarnated in animal form due to their indolence and complacency in previous lives. 

Finally, I decide to generate a few ruins in the Old Town. Whenever PCs want to explore the Old Town they can do this and there is a system for randomly generating their discoveries as they go. But Old Town locations can also be pre-determined if the DM desires it. I thought I'd roll a couple up as additional adventure locales which the PCs can hear about.

Ruin 1 – A park. Old, overgrown, with crumbling walls. The main inhabitant is a ghost - a seductive baital [a type of demonic spirit which inhabits corpses]. There are also gloomwings lurking in the trees. 
Ruin 2 – A ziggurat, ancient and reclaimed by forest. The main inhabitants are cultists. It is a small cult – a 1st level holy man, 3 1st level holy man assistants, and 14 1 HD members. Treasure Type: C. The cult is despised and persecuted by a religious sect in the city proper. They are millenarian and cruel. 
Ruin 3 – A plaza. Old, overgrown, and crumbling. The main inhabitants are exiled revolutionaries. They are race warriors advocating genocide of slug-men. But they only pay lip-service to their beliefs. They actually have abandoned themselves to wanton hedonism. They are a small band of 11, with one 2 HD leader and Treasure Type: C. 
A Special Site - A high column. It is covered in spiders' webs; the spiders are poisonous (save versus death; success is 20 hp damage). The column is hollow and a secret door leads inside to a narrow chamber. Within is a trove of Treasure Type: I. It is guarded by two chinthe [guardian lion/dog spirits] who have been trapped there for aeons. 

As stated, some of this will not make total sense without the book in front of you; also, bear in mind this is one substantive chapter out of seven; there are five other geographical zones which have similar random-generation systems for campaign set-up brainstorming. Each is approximately 60 pages. There is also a bestiary with 50+ entries, rules on character generation, and Appendices A-Q, ranging from a random poison generator to fortune telling rules, to rules on magical tattoos. 

And it should be ready....soon