Monday, 31 August 2015

Revisiting the Forge

It's been a long time since I played around with The Forge. Let's create some beasties.

Bramble Medusa. A woman with a thick head of thorny brambles where her hair should be. Her body is that of a nubile young woman; but her face is withered and her skin, rough. Meeting her gaze transforms the looker into a tree sapling in a process taking 6 turns; nothing can stop the hideous process of legs becoming roots and arms, branches. AC 4, HD 4+2, Move 120, #ATT 2, DMG d6/d6. Spell-like abilities: Pass Without Trace 3/day, Plant Growth 1/day, Summon Insects 1/day, Shillelagh 1/day.

Brittle Ant. Hand-sized autonomous glass ants created by a forgotten sorcerer for reasons lost in time. They are extremely fragile and now only seven remain in the world; each is worth 20,000 gold pieces. Any impact will crack and break them. AC 9, HD 1hp, Move 90, #ATT None.

Prayer Creature. A sentient being created at the moment a prayer is offered. Their character is formed from the emotion of the supplicant: a prayer offered in fear creates something terrified of its own shadow; a prayer offered in hope creates something optimistic and earnest. Roll to determine the emotion of the supplicant at the time of prayer: 1 - Fear, 2 - Hope, 3- Greed, 4 - Love, 5 - Hate, 6 - Lust, 7 - Envy, 8 - Pleading. The prayer creature is a humanish embodiment of its character. AC 6, HD 1+1, Move 120, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon, Spell-like abilities: d3 randomly determined level 1 spells, each available 1/day.

Spring Invention. Beings made up from light, dew and morning mist, which exist for mere hours on spring mornings before dissipating. Their lives can be prolonged through a Permanency spell; if this is done, they will serve their rescuer faithfully. AC n/a (unharmed by weapons), HD 2, Move 120 (fly), #ATT 1, DMG d8 (energy pulse). Spell-like abilities: Create Water 3/day, Locate Plants 1/day, Plant Growth 1/day, Call Woodland Beings 1/week, Purify Food and Drink 1/day, Summon Insects 1/week.

Slave Locust. A locust swarm bent to the will of a magic-user through the Enslave Locust Swarm 4th level magic-user spell. The swarm is d100x20 cubic feet in size and acting in concert can lift objects; if directed to attack it surrounds the target and hits automatically, doing 1 hp damage per turn. It can be disbursed only by a sizeable fire.

Quartz Wraith. A dead soul who has become trapped within a seam of quartz on his or her descent to hell and has been inhabiting the crystals for centuries or millennia. Immobile and unable to leave, it waits for passers-by in the caves and tunnels beneath the earth so it can drain their memories and experiences - or even their souls - to salve its mad boredom. AC 0 (unharmed by non-bludgeoning weapons), HD 10, Move 0, #ATT 1, DMG Special (beam of energy-drain; drains 2 levels per hit). Spell-like abilities: Trap the Soul, 1/day. A Transmute Rock to Mud spell releases the spirit, for which it will grant a Limited Wish.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Adopt a Blog Entry

Monsters & Manuals is very close to its 1000th published post. Believe it or not there are also 181 draft posts lurking backstage who never had their chance at the limelight. They're a crowd of ragamuffins, ne'er-do-wells, and outcasts: a shiftless lot who would gleefully stick a knife in your lungs from behind as soon as your back was turned. But maybe somebody reading this will have a use for them; so I hereby let it be known that if you would like to adopt one (or several) you are welcome to do so.

Some of them barley exist at all, being just titles:

  • An Incomplete History of Message (18/01/2015) 
  • Everything is Rabbits (16/04/2014) 
  • You Are the Hero (08/10/2013)
  • Sandbox DMing Best Practices (17/08/2013)
  • Dogs in the Grimdark Future (05/08/2012)
  • Two Druids (17/06/2012)
  • [Forgotten Monsters] The Locathah (01/09/2011)
  • Spotlight = Fun? (09/04/2013)
  • Stuff that Makes You Seem like a Dick (01/02/2011)

Others are intriguingly vague, consisting only of the barest fragments of openings and nothing else:

  • On Fecundity (18/05/2012) - "Wilderness travel is uneventful, flat, a little dull? Consider this."
  • The Humble Arrow (06/08/2012) - "Kent's comments on this post really got me thinking." 
  • Immigrant Song (30/08/2010) - "I like the idea of the immigrant as adventurer."
  • Dragonlance, Appendix N, and Fantasy for Grown-Ups (31/10/2013) - "So, Dragonlance. Much-maligned. Not particularly well-written, not particularly interesting. Responsible for much that is bad and wrong."
  • Commando Comics (12/08/2012) - "One day, I'd like to make a game based on Commando Comics, the peculiar"
  • Just the Random Generator Results, Ma'am (09/09/2013) - "I enjoy using random tables to generate content. Nonetheless, it is time consuming. Anybody who has stocked a dungeon level knows this. Moreover,"

There are some others, though, who you almost feel could grow up to be proper entries one day if they pull their socks up and eat their greens:

Rules for Insect Swarms (17/02/2014)
1. Choose swarm type: ground insects (ants, termites) or flying insects (locusts, beetles, butterflies).
2. Calculate swarm size. Roll a d1000 and multiply by 1000 for the number of individual insects. Then divide by 100 for the number of square or cubic feet occupied, respectively.  
3 Ghosts (22/11/2012)
I've just finished reading Ramsey Campbell's Dark Companions, a collection of 21 of his short stories that I recommend very highly: it's serious horror fiction with genuinely disturbing and unremittingly bleak content, which never goes for cheap gore or gross-out. And, rarely for Campbell, it's available on kindle. (Campbell is also a bit of a minor local hero of mine; he's lived for a long time in Wallasey, the town where I grew up, and I went to school with his son. As a claim to fame goes it isn't much, but it's something.)
So, in honour of Dark Companions, three ghosts inspired by its contents:

Near Future Dystopian Noir (11/09/2013)
If I were to make a Cyberpunk 2020 retroclone based on Swords & Wizardry I would call it "Near Future Dystopian Noir". 
20 Ways to Make an NPC Party Interesting (05/07/2009)
The players stumble across another NPC Party in the dungeon. What is their story?
1. They are starving and attempting to make their way to the surface.
2. They are searching for the daughter of a randomly determined member.
3. They are

Have at it. I would like them to find good homes, although I can't guarantee they'll be well-behaved.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Instantiations From Other Worlds

As is widely known, it is possible through an act of will or some arcane process for beings from other worlds to appear - briefly - in our own. These instantiations are of varying degrees of corporeality and power, and some have speculated that their ever-varying physical appearances are as a result of refractions in the space between worlds, which cause their manifestation in our reality to warp and shift away from their true nature.

When an instantiation or instantiations appear, perform the following steps:

1. Determine Corporeality

Roll a d4:

1. Entirely incorporeal. Can neither physically affect the world, nor be affected by it, except through magic spells. Appears like a gossamer-thin approximation of its form.
2. Mostly incorporeal. Can pass through walls and is unharmed by non-magical weapons. Appearance is noticeably faded and transparent.
3. Semi-corporeal. Can pass through walls and takes half damage from non-magical weapons. Appearance is translucent.
4. Fully corporeal. Acts as though it is fully present in our reality.

2. Determine Time Span

Roll a d6 to determine the number of turns for which the instantiation appears.

3. Determine Power.

Roll a d6+1 to determine Hit Dice. For every Hit Dice, the instantiation has a spell-like ability which it can cast once.

4. Determine Spell-Like Abilities.

Fire Shield
Hold Person
Call Lightning
Polymorph Other
Dispel Magic
Stinking Cloud
Dimension Door
Wall of Fog
Wizard Lock
Darkness 15’ Radius
Ice Storm
Magic Missile
Shadow Monsters
Hallucinatory Terrain
Phantasmal Force
Hold Portal

5. Determine Basic Torso

Roll to discover the basic body shape of the instantiation. 

Basic Form
Horizontal disc
Vertical disc
Blubbery mass
Ring or circle
Humanoid torso

6. Determine Arms/Hands

Human arms
Grasping claws on the end of long worm-like arms
Hooks on the end of whip-like arms
Weak, pawing hands
Gulping mouths on the end of sinewy arms
Curious, searching feelers
Sharp spikes for arms
Hands with long, alien, suckered fingers

7. Determine Locomotion

Locomotion Method
Too many legs
Insectoid, chitinous legs
Membranous wings
Sliding along the ground
Thick, lumbering legs
Thin, gracile legs
Absurdly long striding limbs
Pair of humanoid legs

8. Determine Substance

Perfectly smooth
Liquid contained in an invisible membrane

9. Determine Attack Method

Roll a d4 to determine. 

1. Psychic blast. Attack ignores AC.
2. Physical attack. Uses arms/hands.
3. Beam. A line of force or burning light.

An instantiation has one attack doing d6+1 DMG for every 2 HD it has.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Importance of Cyberpunk

I'm not exactly in touch with what's going on in the fantasy and science fiction genres these days, so I may have missed such a phenomenon, but it strikes me that if somebody wanted to write socially important SF literature they could do a lot worse than resurrect cyberpunk or something like it.

In his famous introduction to Burning Chrome Bruce Sterling made much of the fact that Gibson wasn't interested in the people who benefited from technological advances, but those who lost out - his focus was "the victims of the new". This pretty much defines what cyberpunk was about: it's a genre which is preoccupied with how technological advances disenfranchise and alienate those who aren't lucky enough to see the upside. It was very much a product of the late 70s in that regard - whether miners in County Durham or automobile workers in Detroit, that was the era in which the world began to change forever for manual workers in Western world, as technological change and globalisation swept away the old order.

But this also makes cyberpunk, or at least cyberpunk's themes, appropriate for the modern day too. The world is undergoing another technological shift in the computer age: artificial intelligence, smart software and mobile technology are changing fields which were immune to the seismic shifts of the 70s and 80s - education (MOOCs), the service industry (Air BnB), taxis (Uber), transportation (driverless cars), etc. - and another wave of social chance could be in the offing. I don't believe in making predictions, but I think it's safe to say that there will be further disruption of established industries in the near future, if it isn't happening already.

People much more intelligent and knowledgeable than me are already thinking about this. I don't pretend to have anything particularly insightful to say about it. But I do think that there will be further "victims of the new" who can be the concern of a resurgent cyberpunk-esque literature. Who are the new "victims of the new"?

First, badly educated men in rich countries. Nowadays, as the author of the linked The Economist report puts it, the real money in the modern day is in brain work, and brain work is something men disproportionately struggle at. Everywhere in the developed world, boys are being outstripped by girls in almost any measure of educational achievement going. You don't have to be a crazy men's rights activist (CrMRA) to be concerned about the life prospects nowadays and in the future for men who couldn't concentrate or focus in school.

Second, people lacking self-discipline who will spend more and more time doing nothing much at all online. There are great opportunities in the modern world for people with initiative and gumption: consider that there are now people (admittedly a small number) who can make a living making and selling their own board games or role playing games - not to mention simply playing games online in front of an audience. But for people without the requisite character (or simply the requisite luck) the opposite is true: the plug-hole of the internet can drain away all your time and life chances before you've even realised what's happened.

And third, the young. Unemployed or one of the 58.8% of graduates in a non-graduate role, heavily indebted, no prospect for home ownership, let down by the de facto distributional coalition of middle-aged and elderly voters who have carved up society's wealth for themselves...if you are under 30 and reading this blog, it may sound familiar. I got out by leaving the country at the age of 21. Others make it by having rich parents, working like stink, or luck. There are opportunities out there - they just aren't very evenly distributed.

I don't mean to suggest that people should be writing novels about bored young men sitting on their arses playing whatever has superseded Second Life. But they could certainly be writing novels about bored young men trying to make something out of the bad luck they've been given. Not in the interests of making political or sociological statements, but in the interests of thinking about what it means to be alive and in the world in the years 2015 and onward.

On a Bloody-Minded Pursuit

Alchemy may be the most fascinating phenomenon in the history of science: centuries of laborious effort in pursuit of goals which to the modern mind seem self-evidently crazy. I can think of no better illustration than Psuedo-Geber's description of the way to "silver" copper and iron. First, follow these instructions:

[T]ake as much as you wish of the stone mixed with its mixture and grind it with some water, mixed with copperas and sal ammoniac until it becomes black. Then put it very near a very slight heat until it smells like semen [sic]. When it has that smell take it away and wash it slowly with some clear water, and then roast it gently until you notice a visible vapour. In this way its water will be driven off, and the stone itself will become light, without losing its essence. Take it off and dip it again into water, powdering it under water, and roast it as before. Its blackness begins to diminish. Take off the stone when it is dry and its water absorbed. Grind it well in some clear water and roast it again. It begins to be green, and then this blackness will disappear. When you see the stone beginning to turn green, be sure you are in the right path. Move it then when it becomes quite green and has the appearance of verdigris. This will show that the process is right, and the stone has lost its sal ammoniac which would have corrupted it. After powdering it in some water, put it into a vessel well luted with plaster, place it on a gentle fire, and distil off all its water. Be patient and do not be in a hurry to increase the fire which will corrupt it; for you will repent, and your repentance will never be of avail. When you distil off all its water, take it off, and powder it in the same distilled water. Then return it to the vessel, and renew the distillation.

Now, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was the end of the process, but actually it's just the beginning:

I recommend you to distil it 700 times [emphasis added] like the rods of myrtle, and Indian cane. I have not explained this hint in any one of my books, but in this only. I have told you the opinion of philosophers without diminishing or increase, and have not concealed anything from you. When the stone becomes green we call it myrtle, and when it returns to yellow, we give it the name of Indian cane. You must know that it becomes gradually black from the first to the last. It remains quite black from five to ten roastings; then it slowly becomes green, and has the colour completely in 50 or 70 roastings. This is the end. If the stone acquires these qualities, there will be no doubt of its goodness. Its yellow colour begins bye-and-bye to disappear and the stone will completely lose its clearness in 70 roastings. Then the stone will have the same degree as the sun, and similar coloured rays. It will burn, and become ashes. They are the same ashes mentioned in the books of philosophers. If you continue the same process, the ashes will become quite white. This is the fourth sign, which is the sign of perfection. Therefore you must continue to proceed as before without diminishing or increase. Then it is necessary to augment the fire just a little, and do not fear the corruption. If you continue to distil it you must return the distilled water on it, and in every distillation the water diminishes; therefore it is necessary, every ten distillations, to add some clear water to the distilled water with which you pulverize it. If the stone begins to turn white, you must continue the same process until it turns very white. This will be from 500 distillations. If the fire diminish, and the operator be clever, knowing well the quantity of fire, from 450 distillations (the total is 900 distillations [emphasis added]), the stone, you may be sure, will have a complete and real whiteness. In this state you may operate for giving copper and iron a coating of silver. You can also operate on melted crystal, and pearls, and many other minerals, etc., etc.

Who was the first person to do this? What forgotten lunatic had the time, patience and fortitude to go to so much trouble for so little reward? Who would be so bloody-minded as to devote so much energy to such an odd pursuit?

And yet at the same time as I ask myself these questions, I find myself thinking of it as sort of wonderful. Alchemy is like a metaphor for human creativity. Haphazardly and yet remorselessly grasping for something which may, just possibly, be at least vaguely approaching good. Not to sound too pompous but sometimes when I am writing RPG materials I feel a little bit like Psuedo-Geber, waiting to see if the stone will begin to turn green. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Sons and Daughters of Muspel

Muspel is home to an infinite variety of malevolent spirits. Here are some.

Eldjotnar, The fire giants of legend, rulers of Muspel in summer. Their flesh is black like coal, their hair red, and their temperament violent. They exude heat, and their aim is to create a fire so large in the bowels of the world that it will wreak its final destruction. HD 15, AC 0, #ATT 1, DMG 2d10+10, Move 180. Spell-like abilities: Eldjotnar never suffer any damage from fire or heat-based attacks. They cause 1d6 damage per round through their body heat to anybody within a 10' radius.

Hrimthursar. The frost giants who wrest control of Muspel from the Eldjotnar in winter. Their flesh is white, their hair pale blue, and their temperament as cold as their nature suggests. They exude cold, and their aim is to bring glacial ice rolling up from beneath the surface of the world to cover all creation. HD 15, AC 0, #ATT 1, DMG 210+10, Move 180. Hrimthursar never suffer any damage from ice or cold-based attacks. They cause 1d6 damage per round through the cold they exude to anybody within a 10' radius.

Niflungar. Diminutive humanoid creatures who dwell in the misty places of the underworld and are at their strongest during autumn and winter. They hoard treasures in the darkness and are avaricious and grasping. HD 1 (1+1 in autumn; 2 in winter), AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG d6, Move 120. Spell like abilities: Pass without Trace 3/day, Wall of Fog 3/day (treat the size of the fog as 4 yards cubed; niflungar can cooperate to create fog of exponentially increasing size, i.e. 8 yards cubed by two niflungar, 16 yards cubed by 3 niflungar, etc.).

Rjufendr. Clawed creatures who exist to tear flesh asunder. One swipe of a forearm can slice a man open from nape to chops. HD 1 (1+1 in spring; 2 in summer) AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 150. When a rjufendr successfully 'hits' in combat, it does d6 damage; if the score is 5 or 6, the target must roll to save vs. death. Failure means instant death; success means a limb is lost (roll a d4 to determine) and the target is automatically reduced to 0 hit points and unconsciousness.

Fenrir's Brood. The lupine spawn of the god of wolves. Black, snarling, canine brutes with grasping human fingers and warped hunched spines. HD 1+1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6 (bite) or as weapon, Move 150. Spell like abilities: Can go Berserk 1/day, gaining an extra attack for the next 3 rounds but falling unconscious straight after.

Landvaettir. The spirits of the wicked or feckless dead; pathetic cloaked ethereal figures who are bent to the will of whichever powers of Muspel may desire to control them. HD 1, AC 8, #ATT 1, DMG as weapon, Move 120. Spell like abilities: Can touch to Bestow Curse 1/day. Harmed only by silver or magical weapons.

Gullinbursti's Brood. Golden-maned descendants of a boar demigod who was forged from fire. They appear as large tusked boar-headed men or women who glow with radiant yellow. HD 3+1, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG as weapon +2, Move 120. Spell like abilities: Constantly case Continual Light and can channel their light into an attack akin to a Colour Spray 1/day,

Marmennill and Margygur. Loathsome half-fish people who live in the pitch-dark lakes of the underworld and have lost their sight accordingly. They can foresee the future (as an augury spell with no time restrictions) and will use this power in return for: 1 - A certain item on that level of Muspel; 2 - Sacrifice of a treasure worth 200 gp or more; 3 - Sacrifice of a life. HD 1+1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG as weapon (usually spear), Move (Sw) 150. Spell like abilities: Augury 3/day, Detect Invisibility at will, Fish Summoning I 1/week.

Lindworm. Wingless, bipedal, serpentine dragons which live in the depths of the underworld and serve whichever giants are its rulers - shifting their allegiance as swiftly and easily as the wind changes direction. Their bites and breath are the vilest poison, and they love trickery. HD 6+6, AC 3, #ATT 1, DMG 1d8+2/poison, Move 150. Spell like abilities: Stinking Cloud 1/day, Suggestion 1/day, Fools Gold 1/week, Ventriloquism 3/day, Audible Glamer 1/day, Putrefy Food and Drink at will. Their bite kills automatically on a failed save vs. death; success limits the effect to that of a Ray of Enfeeblement.

Audumbla's Drool. Beings created from the spoor of the cattle demigod. Horned, twisted, semisolid yearners for souls of their own. HD 1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6, Move 120. Suffer no damage from bludgeoning weapons, and only 1 hp damage from piercing weapons. Can steal the soul from a body if it remains in physical contact for 6 rounds; the body becomes a lifeless husk and the soul becomes the drool-being's possession.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Look at the Manatee

Look at it. Look closer. Look at it move. Doesn't it seem like there could be a person inside? A melancholic, slow, lonely person who can barely remember he is a person at all. Waiting to be released from his grey, algae-covered tomb. Waving his arms slowly back and forth inside those ungainly flippers. Using his stiff, atrophied legs, stuck inside the tail, to propel himself through warm, clear water which dulls his senses and soothes his sorrow. Grazing on sea grass because that is all that the mouth on his fleshy sarcophagus can take inside.

He has been gone for many years, but his family - or descendants - still search for him. They think that a sorcerer or enchantress cursed him. They will do anything to have him found and rescued. They need a group of adventurers to do it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

New Troy: The Nature of Muspel

Work on New Troy also continues. For a while I've been thinking about how best to conceptualise Muspel. You'll recall that the basic geography of New Troy (i.e., the "real world") is replicated in the mythic otherworld (Faerie) and the mythic underworld (Muspel). But while Faerie is a kind of looking-glass wilderness area reflecting New Troy (see posts here and here), Muspel is - as you would expect - the "dungeon". It will therefore mirror New Troy in a more abstract sense: the similarities may not be immediately striking but there will be ways of comprehending the geography of Muspel by considering where things are located in New Troy itself.

What is the nature of Muspel itself? Here, I steal from, and bastardise, Norse mythology. Sometimes when you descend to Muspel it is a realm of fire, ruled by fire giants (eldjötnar), their fire drake servants, and "sons of Muspel". And sometimes when you descend to Muspel it is really Nifl, a realm of ice, ruled by frost giants and their niflungar slaves. This is because there is a constant struggle between the two sides, with neither side ever gaining a complete advantage, but coming to dominance depending on the seasons. While the tunnels and caverns remain the same, everything else is in flux. The only thing that remains the same is that the nature of the creatures living there is malevolent and depraved.

The other factor to take into consideration when entering Muspel is that time there moves slowly; each hour spent there is 1d100 hours in the "real world". This means that seasons last for only the briefest of periods down there in the darkness; life is a constant struggle of rebellion, warfare, dominance, and then rebellion again. Whenever the PCs venture into the underworld, they find themselves in the centre of conflict.

Christian Kessler, who is going to be doing the graphic design/layout, has come up with some nice ideas for the way things work in Muspel, which I won't go into too much detail on yet. I will post some examples of sons of Muspel and niflungar from the bestiary in the coming days, though.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Watching Wesley Crusher DM a Game: Is this my first ever review?

I have nothing much to do with Will Wheaton's post Star Trek endeavours - I have never watched or listened to anything he's done - but out of morbid fascination I sat down earlier today and watched Chapter One of his "celebrity"-let's-play-an-RPG-on-TV affair, Something Vaguely Fantasy Sounding: Something Else Vaguely Fantasy Sounding. I tried my best not to be mean-spirited about it (it's fair to say that both in philosophy and system it's diametrically opposed to what I'm looking for) but here are my observations in bullet point order.

  • Christ, Will Wheaton has apparently spent the last 20 years developing a really annoying supercilious manner that is a massive pain in the arse initially (I know, I know, I promised not to be unduly negative; he grew on me after a bit - and I can never truly hate anybody who was in Next Gen).
  • The idea that you have to watch a big introductory "Episode 0" so you understand the setting of Valkana and the special snowflake characters and their backstories could go one of two ways. I personally find it unnecessary and likely to be counter-productive (does any good film or novel require you to read supplementary material first in order to understand the plot?) but on the other hand, I appreciate that they want to start the series proper in media res and this sort of thing would be explained in a normal game during character gen or whatever. The backstory of Valkana itself is pretty bog-standard stuff, but that's to be expected.
  • The game proper begins with a quest being delivered to the PCs in the standard manner. They have something to do, and they're going to do it. Take magic item to place, ask sage about it. I don't have a problem necessarily with games which have a predetermined plot arc such as this, but there are ways of going about it. Personally I would have stopped the introductory narrative at "You have found this strange sphere; what are you going to do?" This would allow the players to get started straight away examining the item and then asking around town to see if anybody had any information. This could then have led to the discovery that in the next town over there is a sage who might know about these things. This would get the players invested in things from the beginning - meeting NPCs, getting a chance to ask questions both of the DM and other characters - and reward them using their initiative. But ho hum, in the interests of time, fine.
  • Okay, okay, I get it. We all like beer. 
  • I think a pattern is emerging already: the players ride the DM railroad for a short period, and then get a section of down-time to pursue autonomy in a limited fashion (interacting at the bar) before likely getting on the DM railroad again later. It resembles video-game RPGs quite closely, and also the "Silver Age" method of gaming which I remember from my teenage years so well. It's interesting to know this kind of thing still goes on; maybe I've been in the OSR echochamber too long. 
  • I like the idea of a "Battle of the Boasts" as a way of getting the players to have a chance to be creative and tell some amusing stories and develop their PCs' personalities a bit. Sort of like how Pendragon games traditionally start off with a race or something similar to get everybody into the swing of things.
  • Oh, but hang on.... No, there's a chance for Will Wheaton to do some acting first. It's 20 minutes in and the players have done almost nothing so far.
  • Oh, but hang on.... No, after the first PC's story (couldn't tell if this was rehearsed beforehand), something pre-scripted happens - the PCs have to come to the rescue of stolen beer. Okay, okay, I get it. We all like beer. It's a side-quest, clearly, to give the PCs something to do on the way to the main mission. Again, no criticism of the play style necessarily, but this could have been presented better so as to give the players a sense of agency: I'd like them to have heard in the bar that some beer had been stolen, but left them to act on their own initiative as to how to rediscover it rather than simply fast forward to them riding to the rescue. They may, for instance, have wanted to track the stolen goods to the bandits' lair and attack them in their sleep. They may have wanted to simply try to steal it back. And so on.
  • A fight! Lots of excited shouting. One of the girls keeps shrieking "Whoo!" and "Doubles!" I recognise these aren't bad people, but I do find them quite profoundly irritating. The two men on the couch are complete nonentities - they may as well be literally anybody - but the girl on the right at least has a personality and both women appeal in a mild way to the superficial male, which of course I am. 
  • The fight is sorted out mercifully quickly; there was no way the PCs were ever going to lose it. All a manner of taste of course, but watching the fight scene I sort of feel like how I used to feel when as a kid my parents would drag me round a shopping centre or art gallery where I didn't want to be. I'd get this mounting sense of frustration - almost a tension in my chest like an incipient heart attack - and feel gradually more and more like I needed to blurt out some kind of awful primal scream of annoyance and revulsion. Just please can we go somewhere else. That's the sensation I get from watching the fight. Just what's the point? The PCs are going to win, so please just get on with the game
  • It's all over, tune in next week, etc.

An unusual experience. Perversely, despite the negative flavour of my observations, I didn't mind Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana all that much. I think this may have been coloured by me reading the comments on the video afterwards, which are so universally nice ("This was awesome! You guys are amazing! I haven't played an RPG in 25 years but I am desperate to start!") that I feel like a horrendous cock-end and a churl for saying anything remotely bad about it. I don't object to people having fun, I really don't. Is it at all satisfactory to end this excuse for a review by saying that I would probably rather be flogged than be involved in that session, and yet at the same time I can't summon up the necessary bile enough to say I disliked watching it? 

Verdict: I didn't dislike watching it. 2 1/2 becs des corbins

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Actual Play: There is Therefore a Strange Land, Episode I

Tonight I managed to get together some "OSR luminaries" for a few pints and a game of There is Therefore a Strange Land in a pub. Not sure if it was a one-shot or not; it may continue on G+.

Players present:

  • N, featuring as the dilettante Hamilton
  • C, featuring as the fighting man Severin
  • P, featuring as the alchemist Prof. Jacobs

Play started, as always in There is Therefore a Strange Land, with the inheritance of the estate of a deceased relative of one of the players (this turned out to be Prof. Jacobs) circa 1830. This was a London town house of some size, containing a study, as such houses tend to have. The study was full of odd objects - hunks of rock, feathers, a small hand-operated printing press - and also a small wooden door. Pinned to this door was the following poem:

Beyond the door lies a vestibule
Formed from mind and memory
Expanding into many pathways
Beyond the door lies a vestibule 
Beyond the pathways lie further doors
Found in dreams of opium
I was led there by the enemy
Beyond the pathways lie further doors 
Beyond the doors lie stranger lands
Not a part of God's creation
Soils of a nature alien
Beyond the doors lie stranger lands

And the following words:

Feldspar, granite, prism, earth and water, composing stick, bag of sand

After searching the room, Hamilton discovered a lever behind a book in the book case ("A Voyage Across Forty Islands") that seemed to unlock the door. They ventured through and discovered a small room, decorated much like the study, with wooden floors and wall panels and a door opposite. Passing through this they discovered another similar room containing other doors and a large portrait of a tall, thin, well-dressed old man who Jacobs identified as his deceased relative - his uncle, Andrew. 

They surmised that this was architecturally unusual and searched the study, managing to find most of the objects, including feldspar, a prism, and a composing stick in various nooks and crannies. They immediately began wondering what these objects could combine into, but decided to investigate further. Going beyond the portrait room, they discovered more passages - all decorated in a similar fashion - and encountered a group of strange beings in a dark room. These beings, seemingly composed entirely of shadows, seemed to hate and fear light, and using lanterns the PCs were able to browbeat some information out of them. The beings insisted they had "always been there" and that these corridors and rooms had "always been here"; finally, they insisted that, rather than Prof Jacobs, the place was owned by some entity known as The Satanist.

Noticing that in the corner of the room was another doorway, the PCs asked what was behind it. The beings, who called themselves the Dwellers in Darkness, insisted that they oughtn't investigate, which Severin correctly indicated was a trap which the Dwellers were cunningly trying to tempt them into. He nonetheless opened the door only to be set upon by more Dwellers, plus the six in the room. Completely outnumbered and easily likely to be overpowered, the PCs managed to repel the creatures with lanterns and other lights, but not before Hamilton was rendered unconscious in an attack.

Beating a hasty retreat, the PCs returned to the study, closing the doors behind them, and waited for Hamilton to recuperate. During that period they conducted some investigations. First, they asked the house keeper, Old Mrs Burton, what she knew about Uncle Andrew and his comings and goings. She told them he was very secretive and never allowed anybody in the study, and that he was often gone on long trips. When he did so he would presumably leave the house very early, before anyone was awake, because he was never seen coming or going. She also said that once a month at least he would meet with a big, burly, very tall blind man in his study. 

Dilettantes in There is Therefore a Strange Land are weak, but have lots of contacts. Hamilton knew of a tinker, called Harry the Duke, and went to ask him about big tall blind men. Harry informed him that this could only mean Blind Ned, a jeweler, whose appraisals were "all in the nose". The PCs trooped off to see Blind Ned and after some conversation discovered that Uncle Andrew was given to going on mysterious journeys and would come back with things "you couldn't find in London" that Blind Ned would sell on to various patrons. It was heavily implied that Blind Ned knew about what was beyond the study, but he didn't wish to know too much. He would help the PCs sell on anything they came back with from the passages beyond the study.

Fully healed, the PCs went back to the study and through the doorway. Steering clear of the Dwellers in Darkness, they came across another set of rooms - plush, gentleman's club-style - with similar creatures calling themselves Dwellers in Light. These, somewhat more amiable than the Dwellers in Darkness, provided more information, saying that Uncle Andrew was known to them on his comings-and-goings, but that they hadn't seen him in a long time and that the PCs would be wise to avoid the one called The Satanist if possible. They said that they thought The Satanist had created the place, and certainly agreed with the Dwellers in Darkness that he owned it. They thought that in some sense The Satanist was a kind of reflection of Uncle Andrew, "in a manner of speaking", and that there were mirrors in the corridors that one could look through to find reflections of oneself.

Pressing on, the PCs discovered a drawing room where they found an oddly-garbed man, who called himself Ben. Apparently having wandered these corridors until driven mad, he said that he had been born in 1716 in Oxford and had been sent by the "Baroness Helen de Bourgh" on an errand, although he couldn't remember where or why. It had been so long that he had been wandering that his memories had become vague and attenuated. He had been in some desert land, or thought he had, and believed he had been given his clothes by some beautiful princess. But he couldn't remember much more. 

Deciding it was their duty to rescue this man, who was after all an Englishman, the PCs took him back to the study and found him some clothes and food and allowed him to stay in a spare bedroom. They then investigated the named Baroness de Bourgh. Again, Hamilton the Dilettante knew of an aristocrat, Lord Eamon Bennett, who was sociable and well connected. Sure enough, there had been a Helen de Bourgh but she had died long ago, and her great-grand children were now the holders of the de Bourgh estate. Apparently, they were great patrons of the arts and a certain museum in Oxford. Ben's story seemed to have some truth to it. The PCs also had a look round the study some more, particularly the books, and found that Uncle Andrew seemed to have been particularly interested in geology, and also tales of exploration from desert lands.

Back to the study, and a great effort to find The Satanist. The Dwellers in Light agreed to show the PCs the way to go, as long as they promised to close their eyes and not look about them as they went. Surprisingly (to me) the PCs agreed to this and eventually found their way to a large, black, varnished door with a brass plaque, containing the words "Prof. Andrew Jacobs", and a door knocker shaped like an apple. Knocking, they were met by a butler who showed them through dining rooms and libraries to a study - identical to Uncle Andrew's in the London townhouse, except for the addition of two rugs; one a bear skin, the other a tiger skin. Sitting in an armchair was a man identical in appearance to Uncle Andrew, except for a single nose ring. This was The Satanist.

The Satanist informed the PCs that Uncle Andrew had "both created and discovered" this "vestibule" and certain portals it contained. These portals led to strange lands - other planes - to which Uncle Andrew would come and go. The Satanist had subsequently discovered the vestibule and had come to an arrangement with Andrew which had originally been amicable but had at some point soured. He also said that he knew all about Ben and had been enjoying watching him roam the corridors. The PCs asked various questions about The Satanist's origins but he demurred on all of them; eventually he offered them a bargain - they could come and go as they pleased, but anything they brought back from the strange lands they would have to show him. If he wanted anything they brought, then he could have it. If they refused, they would not leave this place alive.

The PCs reluctantly agreed and went, as directed, through more corridors and carpeted chambers to the portals, as directed. There, they discovered a circular chamber containing a hexagonal structure with a doorway in each side. And behind each of these, using the feldspar, granite, prism etc., as keys, they discovered strange lands.... But on that point, the session ended. 

A good first session and I enjoyed listening to the players trying to figure out who The Satanist was, whether he and Uncle Andrew were the same person, how "the Dwellers" had been created, how the different items were connected, what the meaning of the "reflections" was, and so forth. We may find out in the fullness of time.