Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Thinking Aloud: Sages in the Underdark/Wildlife Photographers on Mars

One of the reasons I don't begrudge paying the TV license fee is BBC wildlife documentaries. (Do foreigners know that if you have a TV in Britain you have to pay a tax of £150 or so which goes to fund shite like Dr Who? Well...you do.) Blimey but we, as a nation, make bloody good wildlife documentaries. I have serious reservations about the way things have gone in recent years - there is way too much slo-mo and musical grandstanding in the recent big budget hits like Planet Earth II and Africa - but we are still streets ahead of the competition, and the excellent Springwatch is a great counterbalance to the OTT Attenborough flagships.

Ever since I was doing my old Monstrous Manual thread on rpg.net (see links to the right of this page), I have always had it in mind to do a game about the "sages" who appear in almost every entry speculating about monster origins, habits and behaviour. A campaign in which the PCs are a band of scholars heading out into the wilderness or underworld in search not of treasure but of knowledge about its denizens. Making records ("Ah, so the death mold uses sverfneblin tears as an aphrodisiac!") and getting XP for it.

You could do something similar about wildlife photographers - on MARS! or other alien environment of your choice. (Another variation would be idle aristocrats exploring the Lovecraftian Dreamlands or similar, taking Daguerrotype photographs with incredibly long exposure times and trying to stay alive long enough to get good shots.) PCs going out with the aim of documenting rather than looting - at most collecting samples.

The problem I invariably stumble against is how to measure success in such a game. So let's muse aloud. Getting XP for documenting facts about monsters can be calculable on a rarity basis (50 XP for uncommon, 250 XP for rare, and so on) but from there things would get complicated. You could divide or multiply the number of XP based on the clarity or accuracy of the information. You could also do it with the significance of the facts learned (appearance alone being a low XP reward; information about abilities being higher, and so on). And you could increase the ratio for the obscurity of the fact - it is harder to learn some abilities than others. If photographs were being used, the XP reward could be clarified by quality of the shot.

The problem is that you would end up spending a lot of time, I think, caught up in calculating XP, and consulting lists of XP for different monsters and/or categories of fact (how much XP is it worth to learn about a vampire's restriction on entering a home uninvited?, etc.). This would be a lot of work for DM and players alike. Are there any alternatives? Answers on a postcode or - at a push - a comment.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Bounded Serendipity and the Virtues of Flicking

I've got a thing for popular reference books. I can control it, though. I never let it get out of hand - only three or four books a night, and never enough to get more than a little bit educated.

The ultimate reference resource is wikipedia, of course, and I love getting lost on that website clicking from link to link, but its ubiquity had made the good old-fashioned coffee table reference book seem outmoded. This is a great shame, because physical reference books allow something no website can emulate - the flick-through. You can go to a random page on wikipedia if you want. But what you can't do is flick through all its entries rapidly and stop when something catches your eye. You can have serendipity, in other words, but not bounded serendipity.

Bounded serendipity is the function of a physical flick-through-able book. You pick it up. You flick through. You see something that intrigues you. You stop to make use of it. You repeat the exercise. It isn't random but nor is it structured. It provides value through being semi-random while making use of your own eye as final arbiter.

Bounded serendipity is one of the main reasons why physical bestiaries are important. Flicking through a bestiary will not give you purely random monsters like a generator could, but it will result in certain entries leaping out at you as you flick - influenced not by a dice roll but by subconscious creative forces. You need a monster for stocking a hex lair and as you page through your Monster Manual the Peryton stands out to you as somehow appropriate. It does not stand out through fluke alone but due to a mixture of fluke and deep creative tides churning somewhere in the ocean behind your eyes. It's a heady mixture of luck and unconscious choice.

The bounded serendipity of the flick-through also works well with spell lists and treasure tables for similar reasons, although a special mention has to be made of books of maps - whether fantasy maps or the road atlas variety.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Hyena Who Ate the Colour from the Sky

She comes in the day and turns it into endless grey: a hyena with infinite greed who can fit all the colour of the sky inside her belly and still have room to swallow a thousand men whole. She stands twelve feet tall and drools foamy saliva all around her as she walks, and her cackling cry echoes through the landscape for miles around her.

HD 10, AC 2, #ATT 3 DMG Special/1d6+3/1d6+3 Move 180 ML 7
*The hyena's bite attack does 1d6 damage as she hoists her victim off the ground; in the next round she swallows him or her whole. Victims can be cut from her belly if she is killed but they will die within 3 rounds of swallowing.
*The hyena can suck the colour out of the sky, turning it permanently grey and rendering the sun a mere plain white orb for a radius of one mile. She can do this once a day. In colourless zones the plants gradually die and nothing will grow. If she is killed the colours of the sky can be removed from her belly and used by an elven weaver to create material for a dozen robes or other garments worth 1,000 gp each.
*She trails saliva everywhere and can be tracked without requiring any sort of dice roll.
*She is accompanied everywhere by a dozen slave males (2 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6, Move 180, ML 7).

Friday, 20 October 2017

The Back of the Garuda: Or, Yet Another High Concept Campaign Setting

The last thing I need to do is come with another high concept campaign setting (I already have the dreams of a sleeping crocodile to finish off, and then the megadungeon inside a giant tree...), but what the heck, why not jot this down while it's fresh on my mind?

Have a read of the wikipedia entry for Garuda, the mythical gigantic bird-gods of Asian legend. Check out this paragraph:

Garudas are the great golden-winged Peng birds. They also have the ability to grow large or small, and to appear and disappear at will. Their wingspan is 330 yojanas (one yojana being 8 miles long). With one flap of its wings, a Peng bird dries up the waters of the sea so that it can gobble up all the exposed dragons. With another flap of its wings, it can level the mountains by moving them into the ocean.

A bird with a wingspan of 2640 miles. I can only speculate on how big that would make a feather, but think about what kind of societies might exist buried down beneath the plumage in what would presumably be near-darkness. Underdark creatures burrowing through the skin. Cities built into the hollow spaces within the feathers (living on the brink of potential apocalypse when a feather comes loose or the bird gets too vigorous with its preening). Blood farmed (mined?) for food or other purposes. Constant efforts to overcome radical shifts in the direction of gravity as the bird alternates between flying and perching upright. Legends of the great open space above, which can only be seen by climbing far, far upwards beyond anybody's wildest imagining...

Maybe I ought to stop reading wikipedia entries.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

There is also some sort of primitive fear - the fear of a Savannah-dwelling early human/primate - of those dark, closed-off, cool spaces. To stand in an open space looking at a wood is like standing at the threshold of another, different world. A world where you don't belong. A wild place.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowheres. And they are alive.

But there are difficulties running games in forests realistically, by which I mean, without just being yet another bunch of adventure locales except featuring treants, dryads and wood elves rather than derro and drow and whatnot. Taking advantage of, and emphasising, the uniqueness of the forest as an environment. I think there are chiefly three sets of problems.

1) First, as Bryson also puts it, when describing the experience of actually walking through a forest for day after day:

There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

You can add excitement, danger and adventure with random encounters, of course, or hex locations, or even pre-planned encounters, for that matter, but at some stage it seems to me that if you're doing that too much you're not really being faithful to the nature of being in a forest as opposed to other sorts of environment. Emptiness and featurelessness is part of what journeying through a forest is.

2) When you are walking through a forest, you get surprised by things all the time. It's not an environment for humans (unless perhaps you are born into a tribe in the Amazon, and even Amazonian tribespeople manipulate their "forest" environment a lot). Your senses don't function well there: your main strength is sight, which is rendered defunct by the lack of visibility, and in comparison to just about any animal you could name, you have pathetically rudimentary senses of smell and hearing. The long and short of it is: whatever is round the corner knows you are there before you know about its existence. You are forever flushing grouse, being scared out of your skin by sudden bird alarm calls, and trying to identify the sources of mysterious movements in the undergrowth. You could be hunted and stalked with embarrassing ease by any serious predator.

This would make for good natural world as survival horror gaming (there is death lurking everywhere and it will get you) but not, I think, a long-term campaign.

3) Forests are in a sense featureless, but if at any given moment you stop while walking through one, you will be confronted by a radically different geography than you would have five minutes earlier. There are inclines, crevasses, streams, clearings, fallen trees, boulders, pools, a whole array of different features swallowed up by the trees and undergrowth and suddenly revealed to you as you pass by. More than in any other environment, the surroundings really matter - there is stuff everywhere.

So a realistic encounter in a forest has to take account of that. Want to fire an arrow? Deal with the fact that it's more difficult for your target not to be in cover. Want to creep up on an enemy? Deal with twigs and dried leaves everywhere. It's not so much that there's plenty of scenery to interact with, it's that you are overwhelmed by scenery; you have scenery up to the eyeballs, more scenery than you know what to do with.

This, among other things, makes forest adventuring - doing justice to what makes a forest a forest - one of the true last great frontiers of gaming.