Friday, 26 May 2017

An Introduction to the Ancient City on the Water

[This is the introductory section to a volume of Behind Gently Smiling Jaws.]


In the crocodile's youth, before it moved upriver and ensconsed itself in the lake in which it now dwells, it travelled the oceans - and saw a city on the coast, a kind of ancient Venice from the time before Venice was even a muddy village of barbarians who might one day become the Veneti. A place of rose-coloured stone, quaysides, domed towers and canals, which is nowadays not even the dust of a ruin or the merest rumour of human construction. That ancient coastal city still looms large in the crocodile’s imagination: a nest of bipedal creatures which have become attenuated by time and incomprehension to be something in its memory now like birds - their colourful clothes, which the crocodile did not understand, it interpreted as akin to feathers; the shouts and calls of the sailors blended in its mind with the cries of the gulls; their fishermen reminded it of seabirds stealing fish from beneath the waves. That is how those ancient human inhabitants are now constructed in its mind.

The buildings were a mystery to it and what it comprehends of architecture, it thinks of as a sort of endless jumble of hive-like mounds endlessly repeating, a fractal structure that a human would recognise as a never-ending repetition of canals, domes, quaysides, towers, minarets, walkways, apartments...a city with no end, but a city with no rhyme or reason. A chaotic mess crawling with half-birds burrowing in and out of its labyrinthine and meaningless doorways, windows, hallways and alleys. A bewildering pseudo-settlement, an Escherian nightmare, which looks as though it has all the things a city has and has none of them... yet also oddly and almost hideously beautiful, because if a crocodile is capable of feeling awe, it felt it studying that ancient city from afar.

The Coming of the Naacals

The Naacals who were attracted to the Ancient City on the Water came there for that hideous beauty. The impossibility of it – the sheer, galling size and scale of the incomprehensible catastrophe of architecture before them – enlivened their senses and intellects like nothing else. Some came to study its illogical forms as a new category of logic. Others came to attempt to catalogue its contents. More came because living in it elevated their creative, mathematical or metaphysical capacities to new levels of nihilistic ecstasy. Many came simply to bathe in the delicious confusion of its construction. Finally, some came to dance and fight and make music in architectural surroundings which they had not only never thought possible, but never had the capacity to imagine.

These groups inhabit the city still, in places. Over time they have become stranger – more and more focused on the task which they came to achieve (as though the only way to preserve their sanity in their unusual surroundings was to sacrifice all extraneous interests until that became an insanity in itself); or, alternatively, so well adapted to the confusion around them that their minds have become so akin to the city itself that the structures and architecture of their thoughts are no longer remotely human.

The Coming of Jorge de Menezez

Jorge de Menezez is a Portingale conquistador who sailed to the Spice Islands and brought fire, steel and blood with him. When he had finished his theft and murder in the Moluccas he sailed to Paradijs Kolonie in search of more. He was struck by the savage beauty of this new land and together with his brigandish crew struck out into the interior; his comrades each died one by one, and in de Menezez’s solitary jungle wanderings he became half-starved and more than half-mad. Leafing through his Bible brought him to the book of Daniel; he now believes himself to be the potentate of the Fifth Empire, fated to unify the entire world under one spiritual whole to usher in the second coming of Christ.

In his wanderings in the jungles of Paradijs de Menezez eventually came to the Lady of the Lake and she granted him passage to the crocodile’s mind after he insisted that no gate or harbour could ever refuse him entry. Discovering the Remembered Ocean he sailed across it in search of a new home in which to gather about himself an army to lead back to Europe in order to make Christendom his own.

Jorge de Menezez now makes his home in a great citadel where the Ancient City on the Water meets the Remembered Ocean. The half-birds living in his fortress prepare endlessly for the coming Reconquista of the real world - forging weapons and training in conflict; constructing newer and higher walls, battlements and quays; and building boats to sail the canals and shallow seas around the citadel. They wield cannons, black powder firearms, and other such creations of his memory, and work with a military zeal to further his ends.

But as with all of the Seven, Jorge’s manic puissant energy distorts the memory-stuff of the crocodile’s mind, warping what already existed there and creating new mythago-things from its substance. His crew – all eight-dozen-and-one of them – now inhabit the Ancient City on the Water too, with rival citadels of their own - like 97 shattered fragments of a mirror reflecting Jorge de Menezez’s megalomania back at him. Before he can return to Christendom at the head of his vast horde of half-birds, de Menezez must defeat all of his enemies in the Ancient City and bring it entirely beneath his sway, so that no possibility remains of his being undermined while his task is not yet complete. Throughout the labyrinth of canals the drums of war are beating, and the sky here and there is already darkened with the aftermath of cannonade…

DMing in The Ancient City on the Water

The Ancient City on the Water has at least three modes of adventure. As wandering vagabonds, the PCs might simply risk their lives in search of Naacal treasures to sell back in Paradijs Kolonie – probably using de Menezez’s citadel as a base. This will typically lead them to entanglements with the strange remnant Naacal populations of the city. Braver or more foolhardy, they might become involved somehow in de Menezez’s efforts to conquer the Ancient City – whether in support of it or otherwise. Finally, they may decide that they wish to take on the challenge of burgling the citadels of some of his 97 crew, or indeed the mighty citadel of de Menezez himself, for the treasures which surely lie therein.

In this chapter, you will find everything you need to construct material for gaming sessions set in the Ancient City on the Water – adventure locations, encounters, treasures and more.

Monday, 22 May 2017

BECMI: Goldilocks D&D

BECMI is my favourite version of D&D. Even when I'm playing other versions, I tend to think of things in Classic D&D terms and resort to its surprise rules, combat order, reaction dice, etc. 

What is it about those sets? The easy answer is that they are "just right". Not too simple but not too complicated; not too serious but not too frivolous; not too disorganised but not soul-less or lacking in character; being "all things to all men" while not being too bland. 

But that may be over-thinking it. Ultimately, it's not for any discernible rational reason that I prefer it. It's just that of all the versions of D&D I've played, it by far and away results in the most enjoyable sessions and campaigns. Something in the tone of the ruleset and the way it is presented bleeds into the game itself, so that it's impossible not to feel its breezy, unpretentious qualities resulting in a breezy, unpretentious play experience.

It's not what you want all the time, but sometimes a nice warm bowl of porridge (with honey, natch) and a good long nap is all you need. On those occasions, it's Classic D&D all the way.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The New Penny Dreadfuls

I bought these for 1p each (not including P&P). The new era of the 'Penny Dreadful' - the 'Penny Splendid'?

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Gonna Break My Rusty Cage

Recently I was listening to a podcast episode about the history of Magic: The Gathering. I am not a Magic player (I'm not sure I've ever even held a Magic card in my hands) but I was struck by something the interviewee said about his experience being a teenager in New Zealand in the early 90s. Back then, there was probably no cooler place in the world than Seattle. It was the epicentre of pop culture for a brief period of time. So for a kid growing up in the arse-end of nowhere in the antipodes, Magic had a kind of instant cache in being from the same place as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, etc. There was a kind of place-based mystique about Wizards of the Coast which undoubtedly had some influence in making Magic catch on.

My friends and I weren't into Magic at all back then (we were spending money we could ill-afford on Games Workshop stuff instead) but I know what the interviewee means. In the suburban north of England in, say, 1993-1998, Seattle had this strange quality to it. It wasn't just grunge; it was Frasier (which I will still watch gleefully despite having seen every episode over and over again); it was, a few years later, The Real World: Seattle. Seattle wasn't New York or LA or Miami, places with which we were familiar. It was somewhere exotic, distant (physically and psychically) that produced great music but also managed to pump out "alternative" cultural products like Magic: The Gathering and, in due course, D&D.

I went to Seattle for the first time almost exactly two years ago for a big work conference and loved it. My colleagues and I had a fucking great time for a week and barely did a lick of what we were supposed to be doing. The weather was surprisingly glorious. The city seemed to have its best face on. All my favourite people from work were there and we abused our expense accounts atrociously. We ate and drank like kings. The place didn't disappoint. I remember thinking how odd it was that such a charming and laid-back city should be the source of depressing heroin chic and nerd games that mostly get played indoors, but then again we only experienced it when it wasn't raining.

Anyway, this is all a rather rambling and roundabout way of saying that poor old Chris Cornell was a bit part of the mythos of Seattle when I was a teenager, and him and his music and, more than that, I guess, his era will be forever bound up in the tabletop gaming hobby for me. Soundgarden was the soundtrack to many, many games of D&D, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun and Runequest in my formative years, and I think in a strange way there was a kind of psychic continuum during those years in the early-mid 90s between RPGs, grunge music, and the city of Seattle. Chris, you were part of that psychic continuum, mate, so here's to you.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Wrecked Junk of Penglai

29.22 - Wrecked Junk of Penglai

A vessel which sailed across the Remembered Ocean from the shores of Penglai in the Wide and Peaceful Sea. It was crewed by servants of Xu Fu, sent to spy on developments in the area and bring back useful items or information, but it foundered in pack ice and was dashed on the rocky beach. The crew of Hairy People have gone, but the captain and her aides remain, lurking in baleful isolation.

The Captain: the spirit of a minor female dragon, 6 feet in length, whose sinuous slithering form coils up in the bowels of the wrecked hull like a snake. She is a symbol of Xu Fu and, although far from him, still carries some of his power. 
HD 5, AC 4, ATT Bite 1d6+3, 5th level magic user (Spells: Dancing Lights, Charm Person, Hold Portal, Shield, Sleep, Enlarge, Darkness 15' Radius, ESP, Invisibility, Levitate, Scare, Stinking Cloud, Blink, Haste, Hold Person, FlyLightning Bolt, Suggestion
Aides: three large monkeys, one with scarlet fur, one with azure blue, and one with golden yellow. They constantly criticise the Captain's orders and bicker with each other, but carry out their alloted tasks nonetheless. Currently this consists primarily of efforts to construct a raft.
HD 2, AC 4, ATT Bite 1d3+1 
The scarlet monkey is aggressive and the Captain will enlarge him to engage in combat, so that he becomes the size of a gorilla. He then has 5 HD and Bites for 2d6 damage.  
The azure monkey moves quicker than lightning, faster than can be seen, and always acts first in combat.  
The yellow monkey can at any time suck in magical spells. When a spell is cast targeting her or something within 10' of her, she can forego taking any other action that round and simply breath in the spell like air. It is then nullified and she gains 1 HD. 

In the bowels of the wrecked junk is a treasure chest containing 100 silver bars, each worth 100 silver tokens; scrolls of commune, true seeing and word of recall; and a Short Sword of Penglai (does double damage against undead). A patina of gold leaf remains on sections of the hull and can be removed, resulting in 100 gold tokens' worth of gold for every 4 hours of individual human labour, up to 400 gold tokens.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Forever in Blue Jeans, or: How much is too much?

How much is $10 in real money? £7 or something?

DIY D&D is a small niche market inside what is itself a small niche market inside what is itself a small niche market. So you get prices which tend to fluctuate quite a bit, as you do in all small and relatively unstable markets (check out the exchange rates of the infrequently-traded currencies of African countries to get a sense of this). There is some great stuff put out for free. And some not-very-great stuff put out for quite considerable prices. And everything in between.

However, I feel like going out on a limb and saying: this stuff, considering what it is and what you get, is by and large cracking good value. To go to watch a film at my local independent cinema costs you a tenner to get in the door and easily £20 a head when you add in snacks and beer. For 2 hours of typically mediocre entertainment (blasted out at excruciating volume) preceded by half an hour of shit adverts. I pay something like £80 a month for the privilege of watching Sky Sports, which I reckon over the course of that month is probably less than 10 hours' worth of entertainment. A night out at the pub easily costs you £40. So how is $10/£7 for an interesting, creative and totally playable DIY D&D module anything other than brilliantly good value?

(One of the only things I can think of that you can buy and which is better value is printed books - I just got Mason & Dixon for 1p plus P&P off Amazon.)

The next time you see somebody complaining about the cost of a DIY D&D product, punch them in the face for being wrong.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot

"Spoken of in hushed tones in the city states of Yu Quan; remembered in the epic poetry of the nomads of Waisimadun; sung of in the hymns of the priests of the Red Lilac in Old Koesy; written in the skin-bound volumes of the High Chroniclers of the sorcerer-kingdoms of Ebbw - is the name of the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot, that grand and ancient realm which, encircled in mist and storms, appears on summer nights or winter mornings like a ghost and remains for a week, a lunar month, or a year and a day, before disappearing from whence it came. Its date palms bear fruit that succors like no bread can match. Its sherbets and wines make the tongue sing. Its people are beautiful as though created from the stuff of genies. Its halls contain knowledge, arts and magicks which can be found nowhere else on this world. Its air is as pure as honey; its winds as refreshing as the touch of river water on a summer's day.

"And when it has vanished the people who saw or visited it do not forget it even to the ninth generation, nor even the ninety-ninth. And hence it is spoken of in hushed tones in the city states of Yu Quan; remembered in the epic poetry of the nomads of Waisimadun; sung of in the hymns of the priests of the Red Lilac in Old Koesy; written in the skin-bound volumes of the High Chroniclers of the sorcerer-kingdoms of Ebbw - that mysterious and legendary name of the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot."

-From the Journeys of Rev. Ezekiel Violet (Hobshapper & Mill, 1737), Chapter XI.

(See previous post:

Monday, 8 May 2017

A Proof of Concept - Stage 1

This is the first of a very irregular series of posts in which I air "proof of concept" developments for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. The whole thing, you may recall, is 7 huge linked hex-crawls; it may or may not be published in the form of 8 volumes in a slip-case. I am apparently incapable of reining myself in.

This is the Dreams of Ice. The crocodile's memories of an ice age, which have been warped by the introduction of the interloper Sese-Mahuru-Bau, a New Guinean hunter of singular passion whose puissant energies have resulted in hot jungle 'mythago' mountains appearing liked islands in the midst of glacial ice.

The Naacals of the Unremembered City have started to colonise the area too. This is a draft map (the final release will have a proper one obviously) and here is the entry for the Naacal colony, called The Gift to Wepwawet [circled on the map]. None of it may make sense to you, but it does to me and that's the main thing at this stage. This is designed to show something of the tone and also demonstrate the basic pattern of how things shake out.

32.19 - The Gift to Wepwawet

The Naacals have established a colony here where the Remembered Ocean meets the Dreams of Ice. It sits on a black rocky shore huddled against the sea as though somehow believing it offers warmth. Canoes and skiffs are tugged up onto the beach where they lie like dead seals or porpoises. Columns of smoke constantly rise into the air from hearth fires and braziers. There is an atmosphere of hardness. The people of the Unremembered City do not relish the cold. Only the tough, ambitious or embittered come here - for glory and to test themselves, or because they are no longer enamoured with the world they knew.

Like all Naacal colonies there is a central plaza. At the head of it stands a pyramid to Wepwawet, a wolf god associated with the hunt, pathfinding, and preparing for war. The people of the colony look to him above other gods, because it is he who bestows blessings on those who triumph over nature in the glory of hunting. The pyramid is carved from ice, which never becomes warm enough to melt.

Factions and Major NPCs

Kaaper, the Voice of Wepwawet. Kaaper serves the wolf god Wepwawet and he looks more jackal than man: rangy, lithe, small, and always seeming as though he is about to bite. He leads worship of his god in the Gift with the fervency of one who lacks the imagination to consider there may be alternatives.

Stats: 0-level. 7 HP, AC 8. He carries a ceremonial mace and bow, made of bronze, which when locked together to form a rough "X" shape can be used to perform Wepwawet's ancient function of parting ways. The device can thus part the clouds above and thickly overgrown areas of vegetation and bodies of water up to 300 yards across, for ten minutes once per day. It can also be used to open doors as a knock spell once per day.

Resources: He leads worship of Wepwawet and can call upon the members of his congregation for aid (6d6 0-level priests, neophytes, apprentices and so on). In the pyramid, the worshipers of Wepwawet have TT: A.

Hooks: Percieves Neferhotep (see below) as a rival he would like destroyed. Claims that the wolf god has become real and manifested himself somewhere "out there" in the crocodile's memories of ice.

Penebui, the Lost Child. A middle-aged woman who gained her name because as a child she went missing from her parents for 31 days. Nobody knows what happened to her then, and all that she can remember from that time is darkness, and strange tastes and scents that seemed to her to come from other worlds not her own. Nowadays a gourmand, she has come to the Dreams of Ice to discover new foods and drinks in its mythago jungles, and perhaps find some of those tastes and scents that exist only in the memory of her disappearance.

Stats: 0-level. 4 HP, AC 9.

Resources: Penebui has an eatery where she serves her cuisine [see Locations below]. She is aided by two servitors. She has hidden somewhere TT: Lx2 - heirlooms from her ancestors.

Hooks: Penebui always wants to sample new foods and drinks and will pay for them. She believes that in her childhood experience she briefly melded purely and entirely with the crocodile's mind and tasted and smelled just as the beast itself does.

Rekhmire of Quiet Solitude. A man who came to transcend his mortal nature by performing feats of hunting that would be remembered across the ages in the city of his home. He eschews companionship and, unless he must, does not speak. What could another person offer him except distraction from becoming ever more self-reliant and hence more deserving of glory?

Stats: 6th level adventurer. 36 HP, AC 4.

Resources: Only himself and his tools. He uses javelins, a bow and arrow, a killing club, and a knife, all of which are fashioned by his own hand from materials from the ice or jungle.

Hooks: He must surely have a secret cache of trophies and treasures somewhere. At least, this is what is believed.

Roma-Roi with Yellow Eyes. A sorcerer who since his youth has dreamed of endless ice and believes that the discovery of this region of the crocodile's memory was foreshadowed by these visions. Ruling it must surely be his destiny, whereupon he will restore it to pristine and infinite cold.

Stats: 7th level sorcerer. 17 HP, AC 9. He wears a set of ancestral silver rings, one on each finger of his left hand. Gesturing in a certain way when wearing these rings causes a huge magical hand to appear between Roma-Roi and anybody attempting to get close to him. It is impenetrable but can be destroyed with physical attacks (34 HP, AC 5). It lasts until destroyed or Roma-Roi dispels it. It can be used once a week.

Resources: Spell quipu made from strips of dried squid leather. Contains sleep, unseen servant, shocking grasp, enlarge, magic missile, ESP, locate object, push, wizard lock, web, mirror image, hold person, blink, slow, water breathing, ice storm, polymorph other, wall of ice, confusion, cone of cold. He has TT: L hidden in a sack buried under his home; this is guarded by three minor salt spirits (treat as salt mephits).

Hooks: His eyes are yellow because he has conconted a special substance which wards off the cold; the side effect of eating it is yellow irises. Alternatively, they are yellow because he can see events from the past taking place as though in the present. Alternatively, they are yellow because he knows secret magicks, the discovery of which has etched itself into his eyes.

Seneb, who is Blessed. A small man, barely three feet high. Like many markers of difference among the Naacals, who love anything out of the ordinary, this is treated as a blessing. Seneb has been used to being treated as special since birth, then, and is consequently rather spoiled. He has four servitors gifted to him by a patron long ago; they do everything for him, including carrying him around. Nobody know what he is doing in The Gift to Wepwawet.

Stats: 0-level. 3 HP, AC 9. He wears an ivory amulet which can summon ethereal magenta jaguars at a whisper. 2d6 are summoned; they have 4 HD, AC 4, and attack for 1d3/1d3/1d6.

Resources: Four servitors. He always has with him a pouch containing 40 electrum pieces which he uses to buy what he might need.

Hooks: Rumours abound as to what Seneb is doing here. Is he merely going on a grand tour of the new colonies? Is he looking for a lost lover or family member? Does he know of some very wonderful and expensive mythago or memory he wants to bring back to the Unremembered City? Is he plotting to take over these lands? Nobody knows.

He must also surely have money cached somewhere.

Peksater the Dreaming Indigo. A young woman and a dreamer, disillusioned with the meaningless frivolity of Naacal existence, who wishes to connect more fully to the dream world and subsume herself within it. The bleak beauty of the Dreams of Ice appeals to her, and she likes to stare at it wistfully in early mornings. Her hair is indigo and is so long that she wraps it around her torso like a cloak.

3rd level dreamer. 13 HP, AC 7, padded armour, sling and knife. She can untie her indigo hair so that it forms a shroad of deep purple strands around her. These befuddle and confuse attackers - all melee and ranged attacks are -4 to hit.

Resources: None.

Hooks: She believes that out there somewhere in the icy wilderness there is a place where one can merge with the crocodile's dreams and become one with them. This is her fervent desire.

Naked Iset of the Light Feet. A dancer who seeks to perfect her physical prowess by performing on floes of ice. She frequently does so naked, in the belief that the harshness of the temperature hones her performance. Her dancing, for the connoisseur, has a primal physicality which is reminiscent of the primitivist school. Her body is like a coiled spring and so is her personality.

Stats: 4th level dancer. 24 HP, AC 4, padded armour (AC 6 if naked). She carries a steel boomerang which requires STR 14 and DEX 17 to use; it always does maximum damage (8) on a hit and returns to her hand when called.

Resources: None.

Hooks: She sometimes sees strange vessels when out at sea on the pack ice, which nobody else can. She was well-regarded as a dancer in her plaza in the Unremembered City, but fled in mysterious circumstances - those who well-regarded her want her returned, killed, or similar.

Hesy-Ra the Physician. An old sage with faded tattoos and hair thin like whisps of smoke. Before dying he wished to see what lay beyond the Remembered Ocean, and thus left the city. There is a part of him that wonders whether it may even be possible to leave the crocodile's dream world and journey to the land of the truly living. His expertise is in the healing arts.

Stats: 0-level. 3 HP, AC 9.

Resources: Two servitors. He always has a wide range of potions: 2d6 random 1st level cleric spells; 1d6 random 2nd level cleric spells; 1d3 random 3rd level cleric spells. He also always has several thousand gold tokens.

Hooks: He always has a use - and a need - for new and wondrous things of memory or mythago with which to brew his potions and medicines.

Neferhotep of the Single Arrow. A mighty and powerful hunter, believed to be an avatar of Wepwawet himself due to his great prowess. He looks as though he has recently stepped out from a bas-relief of an ancient scene of battle on a decorative wall - angular and hard. Some men bear plaudits given to them with humility and self-restraint. Neferhotep boasts of being able to kill any beast with a single arrow - and most believe him.

Stats: 7th level adventurer. 49 HP, AC 5 (hide armour). His boast of being able to kill any beast with a single arrow is rooted in truth, because he uses a magical bow whose arrows always do double maximum damage when they hit (e.g. 12 hp for a 1d6 damage arrow).

Resources: TT: Vx3.

Hooks: He percieves all male warrors and adventurers as rivals and will seek to out-compete them either openly or implicitly. His aim is to prove his power is beyond even that of the ruler of the Dreams of Ice, Sese-Mahuru-Bau himself.

The Golden Hand of Aat - A group of decadents under the sway of their charismatic leader, Aat. Their hedonism manifests itself in an almost masochistic obsession with living in extreme danger and discomfort, and the Dreams of Ice are the perfect place to carry out their "philosophy" - whether it be by bathing in ice water, journeying across ice deserts, or facing gruesome death away from well-trodden paths in the jungle highlands.

Size: 15 x 1st or 2nd level decadents, the leader Aat, and his longstanding lover, Pedubast.

Resources: TT: C.

Key NPCs: Aat, a 3rd level decadent with a hand he daubs in gold leaf paint. He believes that through exposing onself to the potential of suffering and death one comes to experience life more deeply. His lover is Pedubast, a 3rd level dreamer who endeavours to prove his love with ever more frenzied risk-taking behaviour.

Hooks: If there is a place where one can experience danger or discomfort within 10 miles of the Gift to Wepwawet, the Golden Hand of Aat know of it and about it.

The Men of the Caracal. Five blood brothers, believers in Pakhet, the caracal goddess of hunting, a rival to Wepwawet. They aim to prove the superiority of the lithe, stealthy, solitary caracal over the savage pack-hunting wolf, and thus they only hunt alone - though always sharing their spoils and prestige together.

Size: 5 x 4th level adventurers.

Resources: TT: Vx2 each.

Key NPCs: Huya, Ineni, Nebamun, Nebet, and Senedj. Each specialises in a different manifestation of the caracal's grace:

  • Huya, the teeth - 23 HP, AC 5 (hide armour). Carries two short stabbing spears which always find weak points, ignoring armour - opponents are always effectively at AC 9 with any relevant DEX bonus. 
  • Ineni, the leap - 22 HP, AC 6 (hard leather armour). Carries a killing club. He can spring forward 10 feet as a free action in any combat round. 
  • Nebamun, the nose - 24 HP, AC 5 (hide armour). Carries a blow-gun and axe. He can track any prey once he has its scent. 
  • Nebet, the ears - 22 HP, AC 5 (hide armour). Carries javelins. He is never surprised.
  • Senedj, the stealth - 21 HP, AC 7 (padded armour). Carries a knife and killing club. He always surprises opponents.

Hooks: The Men of the Caracal are rivals of the Seal Hunters and the Seekers of Lost Orchids. They are also hated and feared as witch doctors by the local mythago villagers in the jungles.

The Seal Hunters. A cabal of youths who have come to the Gift to prove their worth and believe they can do so hunting the memory-seals which make their homes amidst the pack ice out at sea. Their naivite is outweighed only by their brashness. They dress themselves in skins and bristle with harpoons, spears and knives.

Size: 12 x 1st level adventurers, and two leaders (see Key NPCs).

Resources: TT: Vx2 between them, and one servitor.

Key NPCs: Si-Tayit and Sitkamose, a brother and sister, who instigated the move across the Remembered Ocean. They are charismatic, clever, cheerful and cajoling. Both are 2nd level adventurers.

Hooks: They are rivals of the Men of the Caracal and the Seekers of Lost Orchids. They believe that there is a way to journey across the pack ice directly to other memory realms. They also believe that through immersing onself in the icy sea one can learn how to swim in it like one of the memory-seals they hunt.

The Seekers of Lost Orchids. A group of hunters, followers of Wepwawet, who search specifically and single-mindedly for new and exotic flowers in the mythago jungles. They believe that new colours and scents will be discovered deep in the lush green places, and that these will delight the population in the Unremembered City and bring their finders renown.

Size: 9 x 2nd level adventurers, 1 x 3rd level adventurer, and 1 x 3rd level dreamer (see Key NPCs).

Resources: TT: Vx3 between them.

Key NPCs: Satiah is their leader. She claims to be able to see smells, and to smell colours, and this is what has lead her to form her band of hunters and explore the mythago jungles in the Dreams of Ice. Meryamun, the dreamer, is her unrequited lover; he is a visionary who is said to have been at times able to communicate with and control mythago and memory plant life. He follows Satiah everywhere like a dog, and she treats him as such; he appears to relish this.

Hooks: Satiah has seen, drifting on the breeze in distant ice-deserts, or wafting down from the winds around jungle mountains, the faintest traces of new scents which are so weak as to be undetectable by the nose. She believes that these are the scents of undiscovered forms of magic.

Those Who Dance in the Mist. A troupe of dancers who believe that they will be able to transcend to new levels of ability by dancing in unison merely through listening to each other's movements - footfalls, breaths, movements in the air - without seeing. The early morning and evening fogs in the coast of the Dreams of Ice are the perfect environment, they believe, in which to hone that skill.

Size: 10 x 1st level dancers.

Resources: TT: Vx3 between them.

Key NPCs: Nedjeftet is the group's nominal leader, although there is no strict hierarchy. She is a dancer of unusual grace who cartwheels and gyrates most skilfully amongst all her comrades in the icy haze.

Hooks: A member of the troupe is in league with agents of Jorge de Menezez, and is using his/her place in the Gift as a front to spy on or usurp the Naacals. When dancing at dawn members of the troupe have recently heard war drums from the mythago jungles to the W.


The Beach - A stretch of dark volcanic sand and rock with chunks of pack ice washed ashore. Canoes, big and small, and rafts are beached on it. This is the colony's point of contact with the Unremembered City across the vast ocean. A vista of broken ice sheet and bergs fills the sea to the horizon.

Minor NPCs/Groups: Whalers, spear-fishermen or seal-hunters preparing to go out to sea or returning from a hunt. Followers of the water god, Wadj-Wer, the Pregnant Man, dancing in his worship. Burning funeral pyres with mourners.

Rumours: Igloos have been spotted being built to the south [29.25]. The seal hunters have noticed ship wrecks on the coasts SE and SW of the Gift [29.22 and 38.26].

Penebui's Eatery - An ice-hut filled with blue light, laughter and boasting. This is where the people of the Gift congregate for food and drink and where Penebui serves her wares: produce of the memory beasts hunted on the ice, or of the mythago jungles.

Minor NPCs/Groups: Hunters, dancers, decadents and dreamers sharing tales of glory and shame, boasting and bragging and begging for attention. Funeral feasts for lost comrades. Newcomers staring about themselves trying to cloak their nervous anticipation.

Rumours: Penebui wants new tastes and delights from the jungles. The Seekers of Lost Orchids use the villagers of Petats as guides and helpers [36.16]. Caves in the mythago jungle mountains to the north lead below a glacier; nobody knows what lies beneath [33.13].

The Ball Court - Wherever there are Naacals, there are ball courts, and here in the Gift the Game takes on a new, dangerous element as it is played on smooth ice. A mere fall can mean broken bones and death.

Minor NPCs/Groups: Players of the Game. Gamblers and goaders. Challengers waiting.

Rumours: Neferhotep of the Single Arrow cannot resist a challenge. True hunters will test themselves on the ice deserts to the NW of the Gift. True warriors will test themselves against the hunting tribes in the mythago jungles to the W of the Gift.

The Pyramid to Wepwawet - A pyramid of ice steps which is maintained by seven servitors with meticulous care. From its top one can see out across the ice-filled bay to the south and then, in all other directions, icy wastes - punctuated here and there by mountain-islands which emerge from the cloud and mist as though floating. On clear days one can smell the fresh lush jungle on the cold wind.

Minor NPCs/Groups: The priests of Wepwawet, burning incense, chanting and forging weapons for the hunt. Hunters come in search of blessings; dreamers come in search of signs.

Rumours: Kaaper wants proof the wolf god has manifest himself in the Dreams of Ice. Kaaper wants the Men of the Caracal tamed. A priest of Wepwawet, a favourite lover of Kaaper, has gone missing - he went hunting to the SW some days ago.

The Hill - On the western rim of the Gift stands the Hill, a mound of lichen-covered stone where ice and snow gather in cracks and clefts but are swept away before they can truly settle. This is where those given to rumination, dreaming and melancholy come to stare out at the great black cold in the evening.

Minor NPCs/Groups: Dreamers or dancers glorying in the vast emptiness of the wild at evening or at dawn. Poets and mystics communing with the mystifying infinity of the crocodile's dream world. Sad, sorrowful souls.

Rumours: Beyond the mythago jungle to the E is a network of chasms, deep within which are routes of entry into the crocodile's inner psyche [40.16]. In the mythago jungles to the N are magical totems, sorcerers, and special natural features. Once, somebody saw Sese-Mahuru-Bau himself and his hunters, on the ice, in the distance, at dawn.


There are always potential adventuring associates to be hired at the Gift for a share of wealth and glory gained. These ambitious and fame-seeking youths are typically hot-headed and obsessively eager to prove their worth. In combat or during any other situation offering an opportunity for daring, test morale for each associate. On failure, they attempt something hugely risky.

There are 2d6 potential associates available each month.

1 - Adventurer (no armour, hand axe)
2 - Adventurer (padded armour, spear)
3 - Adventurer (padded armour, javelins and darts)
4 - Adventurer (no armour, sling)
5 - Decadent (no armour, hand axe)
6 - Decadent (no armour, killing club)
7 - Warrior (hide armour, net, lasso, knife)
8 - Warrior (hide armour, bolas, stave, knife)
9 - Dancer (no armour, two knives or sling)
10 - Dreamer/Sorcerer (roll 1d2) (no armour, knife)

Secrets/Behind the Scenes

Kaaper's claims that the wolf god has become "real" are not fantasy. The collective imaginings of the worshipers of Wepwawet in this part of the crocodile's memory world have caused a mythago of him to come into existence. Nobody yet suspects or realises this except for Kaaper.

Agents or spies of Xu Fu, Jorge de Menezez and Anak Wungsu may all be active in and around the Gift, seeking to undermine or overthrow the Naacal colony.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A Child Is Born

As Margaret Thatcher might say if she was a man, "We have become a father."

That's right. I have successfully reproduced. It happened last Sunday. Mother and baby girl are doing fine. Father is surviving and even managed to write a few hex key entries today. Nonetheless, blogging may be a wee bit slow round here for a bit. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Hot Young Note Pad Action

There is nothing in life quite like a fresh new note pad, especially when it is well designed. Check out this beauty.

Cue line about wanting to fill that full of.... ahem, where was I?

While I'm on the subject of note pad pornography, here are some soft core teasers from my favourite line, Croquis. They are for fashion designers, but don't let that put you off: the paper is just lovely to write on, and they flip incredibly nicely (they just fall open, as if they simply can't wait for you to get your hands all over them.... ahem, where was I?).

Check out those spirals. Phwoar. 

The best thing about a note pad is it being empty, I think. The promise of all those unspoiled pages and what you could do with them. I think I might use my latest one to plot out a megadungeon. I mean 240 squared pages - it would be rude not to. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

On Friendly Algorithms and The Southern Shore of Bubghismur

A new discovery: a fantasy map generator which has become my obsession:

The best thing about it? It also comes with a built in language/name generator. The stuff it comes out with is amazing:

The Outer dom Doshshom Wilds

The Kingdom of nal Korphu

Outer Mamuwi

The Southern u Moostia Wastes

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot. This stuff is GOLD.

Check out the twitter feed, which spits out a new map every hour:

There is quite a lot of public discourse about how AI and algorithms are going to fundamentally rob us of employment, agency, and meaning. I am to some degree persuaded that is true, but at the same time there is also a lot of public discourse about how disruption associated with major technological change also brings new opportunities and tends to simply enhance what human beings already do rather than replace it. (People who makes this argument tend to forget that industrial revolutions also tend to come along with major international armed conflict and/or major social rebellion and civil war, but still.)

But anyway. This deployment of an algorithm is a case in point for the latter argument: a new technological development that does not replace human creativity but enhances it. These maps don't do away with the need for human imagination - they spur it on. What is the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot? What is Eskinoot and why is it lost? Who is the Sultan? etc., etc. The questions flow out instantly and overwhelmingly. Suddenly you've got an entire campaign setting.

To illustrate, here's one I created earlier - The Southern Shore of Bubghismur. I might key it all out properly in a future post, but this took me maybe 20-30 minutes earlier on:

Red-orange is arid desert. Yellow is semi-arid desert. Green is flood plain/wetland/vegetation (the spot around Yumdutchuch is an oasis). Grey is rocky hills and scree/cliffs. Now all I need to do is actually key it out properly.

Do one yourself!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Literary Dungeon Making for Fun and Profit

A long time ago Talysman posted this interesting idea about creating a dungeon short hand. As somebody for whom drawing up dungeons is probably the hardest of all DMing tasks, I am always on the lookout for stuff like this.

The core of the idea is simple: "a way to represent a dungeon as text and a way to take arbitrary text and turn it into a dungeon". What interests me the most about it is the idea that one could take a piece of text (fiction, poetry, etc.) that you enjoy or  think is interesting and transform it into a dungeon.

Because I have been reading Wallace Stevens poems to my unborn daughter so she grows up to be all pretentious like me, I've got a book of his poetry handy. Let's experiment. The first two stanzas of the poem "Invective Against Swans" are as follows:

The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind. 
A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures

Now let's turn it into a basic dungeon framework based on Talysman's dungeon short hand. I am going to be much, much looser with the rules here - the length of words will be approximate, and the West - East flow not so regimented. (I am dashing it off to demonstrate a wider point.) In real life you would in fact want to be even freer I think to make the flow more interesting. You would also of course add in corridors, staircases, doors and so forth - whether in the manner Talysman suggests or just as to taste. But for illustration's sake:

The question now arises, then - what's the "value added" to this beyond just being a way to arrange rooms and connections when feeling uninspired?

Well, it allows you to also incorporate literary flavour. Think of the stanzas of the poem I cited as the basis not just for the rooms and layout but also the contents. Again, being rough and ready, this results in:

So now you have a guide to fill in contents. Where it says "soul" it would suggest something undead. "Ganders" I may not choose geese exactly, but maybe some giant bird or bird-man. "Parks" suggests a garden zone. "Discord" an area with a magical trap which causes conflict between friends? "The sun, descending" could be an area where there is an open roof with a sun dial. "Bronze rain" could be - well, there are all sorts of ideas which might spring to mind from that if you want to get creative. "Endures" could be some incredibly old magician who never dies, or a galeb duhr or something. But you get my point.

Thinking about it, this approach may be more productive as a way to plot out entire zones in a dungeon rather than rooms. Pick a favourite novel or book of poetry and flick to a random paragraph or poem, and use its structure and contents as a way to map the basic structure of a layer of dungeon. The specific content and detail comes later.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Useful and Non-Useful Maps: Three General Principles

You see a lot of maps being shared in various online groups and forums. Many of them are excellent. Not all of them are, though. This post is offered in the way of constructive critique for all those kind souls who share their work with others.

Three General Principles of Usefulness in Maps

Maps must be for things that are difficult to envisage in your head, difficult to explain verbally, and difficult to sketch in 30 seconds on a scrap of paper. You sometimes see maps that look a bit like this:

It ought to go without saying really, but in such a scenario a map is not really necessary. Everyone can imagine a fallen tree and 6 goblins on one side and 4 on the other attacking, and the DM can readily explain it to the players. If it becomes necessary to work out who is positioned where, it is trivially easy and fast to sketch it all out on a scrap of paper.

Make Use of White Space. White spaces on maps, whether inside chambers or outside, are useful for communicating information. Numbers to look stuff up on a key involve faffing around and are best avoided if possible. See below:

The number 6 directing the reader to a key is more of a hassle than the others. Communicate info even by shorthand in the actual spaces on the map to aid comprehension at the table.

Maps of Towns Are Frequently Not All That Useful. If it's important because it may be the likely site of a battle or chase, or it contains lairs or dungeons the PCs will have to escape from or navigate their way to, then a map of a town can be handy. Otherwise you simply don't need detailed town maps at the table. If the PCs want to go to a certain inn, library, whatever, then they can just say they're going there and go there. If a random encounter takes place, you can sketch a few streets around it.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

"People are taking the piss out of you every day"

I detest advertising in all of its forms, except when I'm doing it. I don't do it often so I hope I'm forgiven with this post, which is to advertise


Yes, I have finally done it. Only two years after I released the first Noisms Games product and about a year after I released the second one. The website is here:

Go there if you like. I dare you.

Since we're on the subject of my schemes to take over the universe, here is a list of what I'm currently working on in what I think is the likely order they'll get released:

  • The Devil in the Land of the Rushes, which is for an un-named and top-secret (although not that secret because I'm alluding to its existence right here) ROGUE PROJECT with MYSTERIOUS COLLABORATORS. This is well on its way to completion and is quite short.
  • Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, which is about a campaign world that exists inside a crocodile's memory.
  • Something Yoon-Suin related which I am not really allowed to talk about yet but also involves MYSTERIOUS COLLABORATORS. 
  • The as-yet-unnamed adventure module [Project X], whose working subtitle is "Giant Crow Ghosts Eating Samurai in the Forest".
  • Probably another issue of The Peridot.
  • A proper book-length treatment of the Fixed World (, which I hope will be my ode to what I think of as "traditional D&D".  

Friday, 14 April 2017

Points of Dark

The Dark Ages loom large in the historical imaginary of Western societies, bolstered also (I think) by the regular bouts of social collapse which seem to have happened with such regularity throughout European history (the Black Death, the religious wars, the Thirty Years War, etc., etc.).

I believe this is why the whole "Points of Light" idea is so compelling - it taps into a faint but deep-rooted collective vision of little beacons of civilization huddled behind walls while chaos and evil reign outside. That motif was first given the moniker "Points of Light" by the D&D 4th edition team, but it can be traced via Tolkien all the way back to Bede.

(This may also be the reason why cowboy films and sengoku era Japanese stories find such fertile ground.)

What is the opposite? Naturally, "Points of Dark". A civilized world where there are spots of evil and lawlessness existing here and there like a cancer, but a prevailing stable society overall. I'm no expert on this at all, but I have a broad sense that this may be more in keeping with a Chinese historical imaginary - a society kept broadly in harmony by law, Confucian principles of governance and a well-educated bureaucracy, though threatened perhaps by corruption or moral degeneracy. The Points of Dark setting is not one in which evil lies openly around every corner. It's one in which it has to be rooted out, or searched for, or revealed. Or, alternatively, one in which there are simply very deep, focused concentrations of disorder and malice dotted around the landscape - like, I dunno, entrances to the mythic underworld?

Adventurers in the "Points of Dark" setting would not, I think, be desperate vagabonds, cut-throats or madmen. They would be more likely to be something akin to knights errant, or, to use a different and more interesting analogy, adventuring civil servants - officials of the bureaucracy sent to investigate, diminish, subdue or co-opt the black places on the map, wielding their wax-sealed papers and regulation staves. Their aims would be less "bring back treasure for XP"; more "report back to the local court judge/imperial representative; bring back treasure for tax purposes if possible". Their activities would be just as risky and just as interesting, but their status would be official. Not so much murderhobos as murdercrats. 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A Theory of Psychic Geography

I was reading an article in a magazine earlier today while waiting to see the doctor. It was about a particular village in Northumberland and spending a weekend there on holiday. Not massively edifying on its face, but it fascinated me because the author unwittingly postulated a theory of psychic geography that I really enjoyed thinking about. 

The basic observation is this: if you are in a certain place (e.g. a village in Northumberland) you get a view of the world which is filtered through the location and its inhabitants. Spend some time there and you end up seeing the world from the perspective of that village. This does not mean you adopt the political and social attitudes and/or prejudices of the people living there. Rather, it means you begin to understand geography, time, space, and so forth, in the way they understand it. The city begins to feel far away. The weather begins to take on epic importance. The nearby forest begins to spook you. And so forth. 

This, I think, is the source of the psychic wrench that you get whenever you come back home from a holiday. You got used to viewing things from a different perspective while you were wherever you were staying. Now you have to shift it back to the one of your home. 

It only takes a little bit of imagination to construct a world dominated by principles of psychic geography.

Think about this: even in a fairly homogeneous part of the world like the Northumberland countryside and its villages, there is in fact quite a lot of variation. There are the chocolate-box villages full of holiday cottages and gastropubs for the tourists. There are the actual real lived-in villages, which mix slices of society in strange ways (lawyers, accountants, actuaries living in the bigger and older houses, from which they commute to their city-based workplaces every day; agricultural workers and handymen living in the newer and typically pokier developments). There are the really off-the-beaten-track places (often just a single street, full of inbred types who squint at newcomers). There are the no-frills farming villages which haven't been at all gentrified because they are a bit far to commute to the nearest city. There are the newbuild ticky-tacky villages (a bunch of new houses plonked somewhere vaguely nearby a bigger town where "first time buyers" are supposed to live). And there are the barrack villages where the families of RAF officers are domiciled. Somebody could come up with a more detailed taxonomy than this, but you get my point.

All of these different village-types have different atmospheres and attitudes, and it isn't hard to imagine that if you spent a few days living in an RAF officer village you would come to adjust your perception of the world in a certain way that would be somewhat different from how you would adjust your perception of the world after a few days living in a no-frills farming village. This is because geography, time and space mean different things in those different contexts.

Imagine, then, a world in which after you spent a few days in a place you actually slipped into a different plane - imagine that psychic geography was actually real. Imagine if moving from village to village, town to town, city to city and so on meant moving between psychic filters which changed the way reality is perceived and hence the stuff of reality itself. In village A, the nearby forest is haunted, and the nearby city is 100 miles away because the people in the village almost never go there. But in village B, on the other side of the forest, the nearby city is only 10 miles away because the people trade with it quite a bit. And in village C, which is inside the forest, the forest is completely benign but the outside world of open fields and skies is full of foreboding. 

As the PCs move between these locations, psychic geography does not shift immediately, but, let's say, after d3+1 days; if they spend d3+1 days in village A the forest, when they travel through it, will be a place of danger, thronged with ghosts. But if they make it to village B and stay there a couple of day,s the nature of the forest itself will change and their journey out will be pleasant. When they get to village C they rest another few days and suddenly the city, which seemed once so far, is now close at hand. As the PCs build up local knowledge about their surrounding psychic geography, they can of course use it tactically. (Need to see a sage in the city very quickly? Go to village B and hang out there for a weekend. Suddenly the city is altogether closer than it was!)

Friday, 7 April 2017

Human Creativity on Rocket Boosters

From the most recent Against The Wicked City post:

Lore accumulates. It accumulates fast. A dungeon grows into a wilderness which grows into a campaign world. When I was 14, and I had just started a new AD&D campaign, I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and said to the players: 'This is an inland sea. The dwarves live to the north-east and the elves live to the south-east and the humans live everywhere else.' By the time I was 18 I had written hundreds of pages of information on the geography and history and races and religions of the enormous fantasy world which now sprawled out in every direction from that original circle-on-a-map.

From Stephen King's On Writing:

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.

From Tolkien's Tree and Leaf:

The Lord of the Rings was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labor and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. . . . I had then no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out.  

From Galileo's The System of the World in Four Dialogues:

If I behold a statue of some excellent master, I say with my self: "When wilt thou know how to chizzle away the refuse of a piece of Marble, and discover so lovely a figure as lyeth hid therein? 

From an interview with George RR Martin on the origins of A Song of Ice and Fire:

I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive.

There are whole books waiting to be written on the history of the metaphor of discovery used as a way of explaining the human creative process. (Who knows? Maybe these books already exist and I'm simply ignorant.) It is exceptionally common to either use the word "discovery" directly or allude to it. The person starts off with an initial seed or idea and starts from there, becoming more and more detailed and extensive in unpredictable ways. Gradually, the creator uncovers more and more of his subject - like gradually pulling a sheet away from some hidden monolith of unknown contours. The whole thing may never be truly revealed in its entirety.

I think this is why the procedural generation of things is so exciting and interesting. Whether you are rolling dice on tables to "discover" what you are going to put on the campaign map, simply filling in the blanks as the PCs interact with the setting, or rolling on random encounter tables during play and extrapolating more of the campaign world based on the results, it is like super-charging the creative discovery process. Something which is painstakingly slow and difficult in normal circumstances gets rocket boosters.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Core Commonalities of D&D

For a while now I have been meaning to write a blog entry about that profoundly odd artifact, the Wilderness Survival Guide. But it has defeated me. There is too much in there to read and take in, let alone write about.

But it did spur me to think about the practice of D&D. One of the interesting thing about hobbies (they share this with religious groups, in a sense) is the way they mix conformity and diversity. No judo, chess, book or archery club does things in exactly the same way as another. They share certain core commonalities (the rules of judo or chess or whatever) but there is a nebulous space of difference around those core commonalities for each group. One judo club does their warm-up one way and other does it another way. One chess club rotates opponents every 30 minutes, while one just pairs people up for the evening, etc. Different hobbies have slightly more core commonalities than others (you get much more uniformity, I guess, between hobby groups based around sports with agreed rules).

When groups collide you can get a certain amount of friction over what the core commonalities are. Maybe the simplest and best example of this is the "Free Parking" rule in Monopoly. Some people think the "Free Parking" rule is harmless fun which adds a bit of enjoyable randomness to the game. Some people think that it undermines player skill. Usually the friction ends up getting resolved pretty quickly because, really, nobody cares about it that much. But things can get heated when other areas of friction appear; there was once nearly a serious falling out in a game of Monopoly I was involved in at university because of a disagreement over the use of "outside payments" for properties. (Somebody, if I recall, offered to sell Old Kent Road to somebody else, who they happened to live with in the "real world", so they could complete the "Browns" - in return for washing all the dishes for a week. This did not go over well with other participants. But I digress.)

Reading the Wilderness Survival Guide got me thinking about the core commonalities of D&D. There is no way that all of the rules in that book could ever have been intended to become standard. It has to be understood simply as an additional supplementary toolkit - if you happen to need rules for fighting while climbing, or the availability of medicinal plants, you might refer to it. But equally, you might not. Some groups will not refer to it at all because of the simple reason they haven't got it. Others may just incorporate some of the rules they use often or which they find most useful. A few might rely on it extensively. But you couldn't describe any of it part of the common core.

What are the core commonalities of D&D, then? What rules exist for more or less every group and are applied more or less universally irrespective of the edition?

Hit points and the six stats. Levels. Separate 'to hit' and 'damage' rolls. Those seem as though they exist everywhere. You can't really have AC, because it means different things depending on the edition. What else is there? What is the distilled essence of the game beyond hit points, stats, levels, and to hit and damage rolls?

Subsidiary question: could you make a version of D&D in which the rules just consisted of hit points, stats, levels and to hit and damage rolls?

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Labourers Under the Volcano

Here in the humid shade of an active volcano which billows smoke across the sky, labourers work on a grand project. Their proximate aim: to divert the water from a fresh nearby spring into a dead parched river bed on the other side of a chasm, and hence to replenish a dying lake. Their ultimate goal: the restoration of natural order. These are creations of al-Sijistani's imagination, making his vision real.

Regular earthquakes and semi-regular eruptions from the volcano make the going almost Sisyphean. A channel has been dug from the spring down to the chasm, where it is intended the water will flow across an aqueduct which will lead to the dead river. The instability of the ground, the clouds of dust and ash, and the frequent raining of pebbles and debris, often call work to a halt; occasionally a serious quake or pyroclastic flow restores the status quo ante.

Roll a 1d10 when the PCs first arrive. If the result is 1-6 the labourers are currently working on the aqueduct. On a roll of 7-9 work has been halted and the labourers are struggling with conditions – repairing work after a recent tremor; hiding from falling rocks; or waiting glumly for a period of low visibility to pass. On a roll of 10 work has been completely destroyed in a sudden disaster and the labourers are contemplating starting all over again.

The labourers are early mammals from the crocodile's memories. Large quadrupeds, with thick muscular limbs and small unintelligent eyes, who tug rocks and tree trunks, and shovel dirt. They are goaded, ordered around, and sometimes aided by smaller, dextrous genet-like creatures which the crocodile remembers as faster and more skilful than they really were. They manipulate objects with great agility and move with lightning speed.

Big labourer: HD 5+2, AB +4, AC 14, ATT 1d6 rear-up front leg kicks/2d4+2 trample (on charge), Move 120

Small labourer: HD 1-1 AB +2, AC 16, ATT 1d3 bite, Move 150
*Can blink 1/day

There are 18 big labourers each with a team of 3 small labourers.

The labourers are guarded by 8 bipedal avian dinosaur hunters, roughly man-sized. They are covered in red feathers and have long stiff yellow tails.

Guards: HD 2+1, AB +4, AC 16, ATT 1d4 bite/1d3x2 claws, Move 180

The whole project is overseen by three mythago servants of al-Sijistani: the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’. These three men, known mainly to al-Sijistani only for attempting to reconcile the religion of the book with the thought of Plato, were at the periphery of his imagination: he had heard that one is a man of action, one an orator, and one a thinker. That is how he has created them.

The Cappadocian Fathers

Each of the Cappadocian Fathers appears as a bald man in robes with a long beard, as al-Sijistani imagines all saints of the religion of the book.

The Man of Action
The Man of Action always acts first in combat and does not need to roll for initiative. He can also act again at the end of every round, after all others have acted – he can either move or carry out an attack, activate a magic item, etc. He is a 5th level fighter and carries a holy staff which he can use to call lightning once per day.

The Orator
The Orator’s voice possesses powerful magic. He can use it to charm person three times per day, cause fear three times per day, and issue a command three times per day. He is a 0-level human and carries a book of prayers which acts as a continual sanctuary spell if the Orator is reading aloud from it.

The Thinker

The Thinker ruminates on the nature of the universe and has gained such insights that he is able to expand the power of his mind beyond his own brain. He can deploy clairvoyance, clairaudience, and ESP three times per day, and can also cause images and sounces to appear in the minds of others (improved phantasmal force and audible glamer) three times per day. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

20,000 Nerds Under the G (Plus)

If you read this blog regularly the chances are you have already seen this post. It is an effort to "Map the OSR", as the title suggests.

A subsidiary question, and one which interests me, is the size of it. A figure of 10,000-20,000 is given as a guess, but there is of course no way of knowing if that is at all accurate or not. Apart from anything else it all depends on the definition you want to use; does being "into OSR stuff" mean you have bought a product? That you read 3+ blogs that are about "OSR stuff"? Impossible to say and depends on arbitrary decisions of the person making the calculation. So in a sense it is a pointless question to ask.

But late modernity is characterised by nothing more than misleading and foolish attempts at quantifying phenomena that can't really be quantified, so let's not let that stop us.

I am going to define "into OSR stuff" as "having played LotFP, DCC, Swords & Wizardry or LL more than three times, and/or having played a TSR D&D variant in the last year more than three times, having abandoned it for a period of more than 5 years".

How many people are actively "into OSR stuff" on the internet, first of all?

The big OSR luminaries (Zak S, James Raggi, Kevin Crawford, Patrick S, etc.) tend to have in the region of 1,000-4,000 followers on G+. The OSR community has 4,966 members at the most recent count. Swords & Wizardry 1,572. Labyrinth Lord 1,439. There is likely to be huge overlaps between these groups, (although of course not everybody is going to be in one) so I would put an upper limit of around 5-6,000 people active on G+ who are into OSR stuff.

G+ is not the be-all and end-all, of course. It is used disproportionately highly by gamers in comparison to other demographics (who barely ever even think of it at all), and it is hugely influential amongst OSR types because it seems to have a way of sucking them in like the proverbial flies to shit honey. But it is probably still only used by a large minority rather than a majority.

What about forums? Dragonsfoot, probably the biggest, has 10,372 members as of this date. There can be expected to be some overlap with G+, though my general sense is not a huge amount - they seem like pretty different crowds. And many of those people are not going to be active. Throw in a few more thousand potentials from odd74 and K&KA put together - again, some of whom will also use Dragonsfoot and/or G+ - and we can suck a finger and stick it in the air and say that this increases the scope to around 14,000 people on the internet who are into OSR stuff. That is, around 5-6,000 on G+, and around 8,000 more on grognardish forums once you take into account overlaps with G+ usage.

You can then throw in 1,127 members of the LotFP forum (again, big overlaps with G+, Dragonsfoot, etc.), and other dribs and drabs here and there (around 100-ish members on the S&W forum, for instance). Then it gets yet more nebulous when it comes to blog readership. It feels rather like pulling my pants down in the middle of the street to give you a glimpse behind the curtain in this way, but my readership generally plateaus at around 1,500-2,000 per post. I would never suggest that my blog is big - middling really when compared to some others - so I suspect there are some out there that get 5,000, 10,000 even. But again, there will be a lot of overlap with G+ and forum usage. Sucking a different finger and sticking it into the air, let's say the scope increases to something like 17,000 if you include people who exclusively read the blogs and don't go on G+ or forums.

You can then add in people who are into RPG stuff online exclusively through the use of reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but I think this group must be tiny - most of people who actively use other social media to discuss OSR games will be included in the above groupings.

The number of people who are into OSR stuff on the internet is not going to reflect the true total, though, because as we all know it is usually only DMs who go online and discuss games, buy game products, and so on, and DMs are always going to be a minority of gamers. Maybe a ratio of 1 DM to 3 players? Making the scope of people who are "into OSR stuff" by my definition about 68,000?


- It's all bollocks because it's based on semi-informed guesswork, but we know that anyway.
- It's English-language specific. There will be loads of other-language forums and blogs where people are into OSR stuff.
- The information is basically valueless, because it doesn't affect anything.
- You will have your own definition of "being into OSR stuff".

Still, 68,000 worldwide in the English language is my rough guess, so there.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Hubristic, Misty and False Review

Three products I have read recently (ish) and very much enjoyed, reviewed for your edification. BE EDIFIED.

I think of Hubris as being the quintessence of a modern OSR product. It is hackable and customisable. It is weird and owes much (much) more to Lovecraft and Warhammer than it does to Tolkien. It has the kind of production values that once could only have been dreamed of for a DIY product. Above all, it is a book in which the author's voice and vision are completely undiluted. This is very clearly Mike Evans' creation. It's what he wanted, and it's what he's written. This is a lot of what makes it so enjoyable and endearing (perhaps an odd adjective to use in a game supplement containing a character class called 'Murder Machine') - the enthusiasm and energy the author brings to the table.

What do you get out of Hubris? A big, fat, plentiful and generous-spirited book that has everything in it from new classes to random spell-book generators to lists of gods ("The Stillborn Unwanted Child" is a particular favourite and also pretty much encapsulates the turned-to-11 nature of the setting) to huge swatches of useful tables (covering diseases, "A Vial of...?", "What are these strange and ominous ruins?" and much more besides). There is barely a page that does not have a random table on it - this is a book which takes the virtues of customisability and hackability to entirely new levels. 

It is also a testament to the importance of tone and personality. In a sense Hubris is a kitchen sink setting. There is a frozen waste with frost giants. There is an island called "Fetid Corpse Island". There is a vampire realm built inside the burrow of a giant worm. You can play as an alchemist or bird-man illusionist. You can worship The Corpulent One, and you can also worship Set. You can get weird mutations. There is almost no restraint in terms of what has gone into the book. But it is very tonally unified book because while it is stuffed to the gills with different concepts, nothing is out of place - Mike's personality stitches it all together. 

Somewhere - on G+ I think - I called Misty Isles of the Eld the best realised OSR product I've read. I don't want to appear as though I am over-egging it, but I would now go further than that; I actually have a hard time thinking of a better D&D adventure module, released at any time. At least, across all the measures that really matter - playability, readability, coherence, ease of use, I-would-never-have-thought-of-this-myself-ness. (I am coining that as a descriptive noun.) 

Aesthetics are important here, of course. How can one describe the visual style of this book? It's unique in an RPG product, at least in recent years, but it has a strange kind of familiarity to it nonetheless - like a discovered artifact from 1969 if only RPGs had been invented in the 30s. Like a mixture of the Yellow Submarine, Star Trek TOS, Buck Rogers and Dan Dare. The visuals fit seamlessly with the content, which is like distilled 60/70s pulp - Moorcock and Vance's weird vat-bred dream-child.

There is little else to say except that what is most impressive about the book is how playable it is. Reading it, you not only immediately want to run it, but you very quickly also know how to run it. It is seriously impressive stuff.

False Readings is a book which couldn't have existed prior to about 2010. It is a book of fiction, much of it half-finished and experimental, which was written by an RPG nerd and published by another RPG nerd who met him online, and printed on demand. Fiction can actually be produced that way now. It shows how much book publishing has changed and is changing.

How to describe the fiction in it? Well, if you know Patrick you would say it is very Patrick, but that probably doesn't help a great deal. Let's give it a go:
  • It is speculative fiction, in the broadest possible sense. Speculative fiction is usually a way of saying "fantasy and SF" without having to say the hideous unclean words "fantasy and SF". Here it means fiction that is really, truly speculative - as in "Here's an idea nobody has ever though of - I'm going to write it."
  • By the same token, it is wonderfully ambitious. The first story is written in duelling second-person narratives, one in prose and the other poetry. It is like something written by Gertrude Stein, but actually readable. It has a play in it which is also kind of a game, and which I don't really understand. Many of the stories are great ideas which were tried out but couldn't quite get finished - including, at the end, the beginning of something which looks like it could rival A Song of Ice and Fire if it got past the first chapter. Reading through it, you are confronted at every turn by the author shooting as absolutely high as he can possibly go. This makes it very inspiring.
  • It is...odd. You've heard of people talking about weird fiction. I want to coin a phrase to describe the genre of this book, and I want to call it odd fiction. It has a story in it about knights who ride snails. It has choose-your-own-adventure poetry.
  • Surprising. I recently read Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man - a collection of his short stories. It is a little hit-and-miss, but I derived a great amount of pleasure from reading it and, with each story, wondering what on earth Ray had dreamed up. Some writers - Lovecraft, let's say, as a classic example - are very predictable. You know broadly what is going to happen in every story. Ray Bradbury is the opposite; you have no idea what the next story will be like. False Readings is like this. 
It is a really interesting and strange experience to read, and what more can you ask for, really? (Except for Patrick to finish "Thieves in the Empire of Glass" and "The Death of the King of Ants".)